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Death In Situ: Sifting Through Gabriele Tinti’s Last Words

By E.G. Cunningham.

Last Words

Gabriele Tinti (ed.), Last Words (Skira, 2016)

“If you listen to the ‘times,’ you will learn that they tell you in a low voice not to speak their name, but to be silent in their name.”
—Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster

Gabriele Tinti’s curation of found suicide notes, Last Words, challenges its reader to witness. Indeed, I struggled against the urge to put the book down rather than to see the text through to its conclusion. The fact that Last Words elicits such an instinctual turn against witnessing speaks to the constellation of relational frustrations its authors so desperately confront.

Last Words is a horrifying book, in the sense that the text both demands viewership and refuses entry. Suicide is the subject of Last Words, but it is an unknowable, aporetic subject, unable to either answer or speak for itself. Thus the reader must occupy this role of witness—a role, in the case of Last Words, doomed to failure from the outset, for the observance is a retroactive reflection prior to the act of suicide itself. At every instance of attempting to confront trauma one is faced with the paradox of representation and limitation. Blanchot writes of the relational discourse of self-writing in The Writing of the Disaster:

To write one’s autobiography, in order either to confess or to engage in self-analysis, or in order to expose oneself, like a work of art, to the gaze of all, is perhaps to seek to survive, but through a perpetual suicide—a death which is total inasmuch as fragmentary. To write of oneself is to cease to be, in order to confide in a guest—the other, the reader—entrusting yourself to him who will henceforth have as an obligation, and indeed as a life, nothing but your inexistence.

The connection of self-authorship and suicide illuminates the tragic irony at the heart of these notes, whereby the penultimate act of writing is one of simultaneous invitation and rejection.

Andres Serrano 1
Photograph by Andres Serrano

As curator, Tinti maintains an objective distance to the texts. Of the seventy suicide notes presented here, roughly two-thirds are relational in address and/or context. “Please do something,” one author writes. Another note reads simply “forgive me.” Both authors, even in their last moments, reach out through language to an other, while the majority of notes address social, familial, and romantic isolation directly: “Soak in your reality shows”; “I am homeless, jobless, and penniless”; “It’s so lonely here”; “I felt so alone even while with you”; “No one listened”. Thematic recurrences begin to emerge: shock of romantic or sexual betrayal; economic insolvency; isolation that morphed into unbearable loneliness; existential futility and the inability to find sufficient meaning; failed utilitarianism; illness and physical decline; gratitude and pre-refractory atonement; and pre-emptive attempts to distance through irony and humour.

The intimate spectacle of Last Words constitutes the very challenge of empathy—the decision to enter another’s subjectivity—yet the absence of the sufferer reflects onto the reader the negation and the fragility of human consciousness. Empathy here asks the reader to walk through her own negation, to undergo a rift or trauma. Trauma therefore refers not to a place of return that offers the hope of eventual access, but a non-place of continual return with the possibility of limited access. Tinti’s arrangement requires endless confrontation—not the excess or hypergraphia of the attempt at mastery, but the willingness to return in order to absorb. A series of photographs from Andres Serrano’s realist series The morgue provides a visual caesura halfway through Last Words. The photographs document post mortem anatomy, close-range, of those who died by suicide. Serrano’s images operate via suggestion—“Suicide by Hanging,” for example, offers a close up of the individual’s hand—and further complicates the intentionality of Last Words by offering no verifiable or easy alignment among the notes’ authors and the images’ subjects.

Andres Serrano 2
Photograph by Andres Serrano

What about editing? The question of Tinti’s methodology remains: what degree of treatment did these notes undergo? How much or how little of the original text does Tinti isolate? What decisions influenced the author’s selections, and how did he come to obtain these sources? The absence of these answers problematises the representative function of Last Words. It’s impossible to discern on reading whether any note has been altered, though presumably many once bore identifying material, such as names of the deceased and of the addressees, location, or time of day. Each note confronts the reader in displaced anonymity, maintaining its author’s privacy, yet also revealing nothing with regard to selection. In the book’s preface, Tinti writes:

In Last Words I wander around the cemetery  of those who did not make it all the way … Men who end up thinking of suicide in the most diverse ways for the most diverse reasons … That which emerges is a representation of the experience of death that all these people had while communicating it. An experience that is something other than physical dying.

As representative portraiture, however, precisely what remains unknown is the experience itself—rather, the notes tend to point toward that which is everything but the act in question. Research shows that 12-15% of those who commit suicide leave notes; Last Words offers a superficial glimpse of the phenomenon of suicide in light of the silent majority who did not leave notes. Yet the notes seem to be predicated on the belief of the ability of language to bear witness, and in this regard Last Words may be vitally instructive. The notes reflect communication regarding circumstance, relationship, emotional and cognitive states, and demographics, and impart prodigious expressions of isolation, exhaustion, pain and confusion.

What Gabriele Tinti and Last Words invites depends very much upon the willingness of the reader to move past voyeurism or morbid curiosity. Rather, the sanctity of Last Words dwells in the painful and silent role of witness. The text is a reminder of the vitality and significance of the speech act itself. Speech remains here an act of volition, invitation, and, finally, of negation. We would do well to recognise in those notes the language of the living so that we may respond.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S. & Canada): 1 (800) 273-8255
Lifeline (AU): 13 11 14
HopeLine (UK): 0800 068 4141


E.G. Cunningham

E.G. Cunningham is the author of Apologetics (Finishing Line Press 2016) and Ex Domestica (C&R Press 2017). Her poetry and prose have appeared in or are forthcoming from The Nation, Poetry London, RHINO, Hobart, The Poetry Review and other journals. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia in Athens.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 7th, 2016.