“If you really wanted to commit suicide you’d do it properly and drink some Jeyes Fluid,” counselled dad, scathingly.
Back in September 1972, aged fifteen, and in a state of mind which could scarcely be described as rational, the word which commanded my attention was properly. The drinking of Jeyes Fluid is the proper way to commit suicide.
There’s an unfortunate side-effect of a certain kind of depression (or anxiety, or dysmorphobia, or whatever the hell it’s called). It concerns your relationship with language. You’re unable to interpret the spoken word in any other way than literally.
From your distorted perspective, words exist in their own right, regardless of the speaker. Words automatically possess their natural meaning and authority, even if those same words could easily be dismissed as nonsense when heard by someone more mentally integrated.
Dad’s extraordinary advice, converted into sound waves by his larynx, propagated from molecule to molecule through the air, underwent a transformation during its brief journey across the hall. It arrived in my brain as an unambiguous fact. An important fact. A useful fact.
An epiphany (in fact!). He had prescribed certainty, the holy grail of self-annihilation. He had provided a solution to the equation which had been dominating my thoughts for months:
Determine the value of X where Ingestion(X) = Oblivion
Let X = Jeyes fluid (spake dad) and the equation is satisfied.
Two precariously unbalanced minds had just unwittingly conspired to give momentum to an absurd, twisted proposal.
What on earth had possessed him to say something like that? What was his motive for saying something so spectacularly ill-judged?
I mean … it’s too coherent to be summarily disregarded. It’s a well-formed sentence. It’s semantically and grammatically sound. It must have been created by an orderly confluence of thoughts and ideas. A statement like that doesn’t just arrive out of nowhere.
Look at it again, after stripping out the ornamentation, and inserting the logical connective “THEN”:
IF (you want to commit suicide) THEN (drink Jeyes Fluid).
It’s the simplest possible example of The Propositional Calculus (dad was fond of using this kind of construction). A premise followed by a conclusion. If the first expression, the premise, is true, then the second expression must also be true.
And the first expression was true, I did want to commit suicide. Therefore I should drink Jeyes Fluid. Perhaps it was the sublime simplicity of the logic which drew me in. Maybe that’s why it embedded itself in my psyche.
And then there’s the word properly! The most persuasive adjective that could have possibly occupied this position in the sentence.
Of course, properly can also be used to mean correctly. He might have been advocating a manner of suicide that was socially acceptable. He might even have been referring to an item from Debrett’s Etiquette.
The proper way for a gentleman to commit suicide is to imbibe, from a champagne flute or similar, a discreet quantity of Jeyes Fluid
Ridiculous? Well it’s no more ridiculous than anything else in this episode.
And why Jeyes Fluid? He can’t have known about my obsession with poison. I’d never talked about it to anyone. Why not alight on one of any number of popular, much-favoured methods? How about ‘and hang yourself’ or ‘and slash your wrists’ or ‘and jump in front of an express train’? Any one of these would have been a perfectly respectable choice, and would have sprung more readily to mind.
It doesn’t make sense to me. He said those words almost fifty years ago, and I still can’t figure out why.
Maybe, when you get down to it, it’s simply that language can sometimes be a lamentably unreliable medium for communicating an internal thought.