First, read these quotes. There will be a question afterwards.
“I have had in my mouth the cold of a revolver barrel and I have heard the click of the hammer crashing down on the cartridge…”
“Suicide and all the corruptions find their origin in ennui.”
“Suicide must be a vocation”
“You are all poets and I’m on the side of death.”
“Dilemma. One of two things: to not speak, to not be silent. Suicide.”
Now, if you were to guess how the writer of these words died, would you say:
a) peacefully in his sleep at a grand old age
b) in a waterskiing accident
c) by shooting himself
Well done if you guessed c. Eighty years ago today (more or less*), Jacques Rigaut, French Dadaist poet, did indeed put a bullet through his heart. He was only 30 years old but the decision to end his life, as those posthumously published fragments suggest, did not exactly come out of left field. According to André Breton, Rigaut “sentenced himself to death at about the age of twenty and waited impatiently for ten years, ticking off the hours, for exactly the right moment to put an end to his existence.” And when the moment came, Rigaut prepared the scene meticulously, tidying his room, arranging his papers and laying a rubber sheet on the bed.
There are fascinating parallels here between Rigaut and the American poet Harry Crosby. Both were born in 1898, both saw active duty in World War I, both saw close friends killed in battle and returned from war traumatised. Neither women nor their various addictions could compete with their nihilistic urge to extinction, and they both shot themselves, a month apart.
Rigaut mocked writing as “the courage of the weak”, but in his slim body of work was compelled to return again and again to the theme of annihilation, aphorising about death like Zsa Zsa Gabor quipped about husbands. “God is becoming bitter, he envies man his mortality,” he declared once; on another occasion “life is not worth the trouble of departing from it.”
The Dadaists’ cult of negation led some of them to view suicide as the ultimate work of art. Contemporary critic Edmond Jaloux called Rigaut’s act an “abdication”, and judged it a “sign of his purity”. Rigaut himself was fascinated by the apparent suicide of Arthur Cravan in 1918, and pestered his widow Mina Loy for information about the poet-boxer.
Rigaut was no ragged Montparnasse Bohemian, and even at his death he was fastidiously dressed in suit and tie, as if meeting an important client. Photographer Man Ray called him the best dressed and most handsome of the Dadaists, and as well as the photo at the top of this post, he captured Rigaut in a 1926 short film called Emak Bakia. Here it is:
* various sources date his death to the 5th, 6th or 9th November