Margot Tenenbaum, played by Gwyneth Paltrow in what I would argue is her best film role thus far, soaks in a gleaming white porcelain tub. A telenova soap projects from the small television perched at her feet, and her mother Etheline, the incomparable Anjelica Huston, worries about Margot, locked in the bathroom, soaking for six hours a day: “Well, I don’t think that’s very healthy, do you? Nor do I think it’s very intelligent to keep an electrical gadget on the edge of the bathtub.” Margot looks to her mother from beneath raccoon-ed eyeliner and points to the television: “I tie it to the radiator.” The Royal Tenenbaums is a film about a family of high-functioning misfits — whose children do things like tie televisions to radiators above bathtubs — and often I daydream of living in their nonsensical and palatial New York brownstone, borrowing Margot’s mink coat and sitting on the stoop listening to Paul Simon or The Ramones on a Walkman, or catching falcons on the rooftop.
But I am lying in my own gleaming white porcelain tub. Well, I say my own tub, but this is true only insofar that it is not the same porcelain tub Margot soaks in, but it is also not the tub at my apartment, the one in which I never soak because that bathtub is a dingy, white plastic from which I cannot scrub off the black and green stains, the collective dead skin of myself and those past renters of this Columbia Heights apartment. No, I am soaking in a gleaming white porcelain tub on the other side of northwest DC, in room 226 of the Georgetown Westin. The narrator of The Royal Tenebaums explains about Margot, “She was known for her extreme secrecy.” And though I have never considered myself a secretive person, it is in this bathtub, watching this scene on a laptop perched at my feet atop a fluffy, white towel, that recalls to me my secret.
The thing is, I do this sometimes: rent rooms at hotels in the same city where I live because if I am going to kill myself, it cannot be at home. I don’t want my roommate to find me and be forced to clean up the mess, or arrange for someone else to clean it up. For my part, I want the clean-up left to someone paid whose job already entails the bleaching of tub and toilet and sink, the folding of towels, the tucking of sheets. But I don’t plan to bleed out, but to ingest too many pills. Or rat poison mixed into a dark & stormy, if it is warm outside, or a Sazerac, if it is not. I will make the mess minimal.
Or, in reality, I will not make the mess. This is why I watch The Royal Tenebaums, why I suspect many of us turn to texts — poems, novels, plays, albums, films — as some way of analyzing, or of understanding, or even of caring for, ourselves. Many scholars will belittle this very desire, so central to the likes of Freud and Lacan, but as Leo Bersani contends, “The greatness of psychoanalysis is its attempt to account for our inability to love ourselves and others.” I enter melancholy and look to the text, both to dwell within my own melancholy and to look for a way out.
Our conjoined melancholy, Margot Tenenbaum’s and mine — perhaps indicative of the relationship white gay men often share with white women — surely emanates from a position of privilege pressed against angst. That I sit in a bougie hotel marking time and seeking out a reflection of myself in a Wes Anderson film made largely by, for, and about white people struggling with depression, undoubtedly speaks to this privilege. But specters of mental illness also unsettle whiteness, as Hamilton Carroll argues that a primary “project of white dominance is to achieve stability.” By their very nature, thoughts or acts of suicide circumvent the very idea of white stability. Likewise, Drew Daniel explains how, “The interpretation of melancholy turns upon a basic human question whose pressure persists within the present: What happens when we encounter the emotion of another?” This emotive encounter with others provides a radical potential for thinking how we might coalesce with bodies more deeply entrenched in public violence vis-à-vis the state and its various cultural apparatuses. This encounter may also account for why we read, to begin with, or later, why we study and critique and write.
When asking to speak to a therapist at the University Counseling Center’s walk-in clinic, you are handed an iPad. A questionnaire of no less than fifty questions begins by asking: On a scale of one to five, one being not at all likely, five being very likely, what is the likelihood you will attempt to kill yourself today? I laugh. I laugh and tap a bubble next to the number two, reasoning that if I were actually going to kill myself today, I would not be at the University Counseling Center, but also that I woke up thinking about it again, so the act is not completely outside the realm of possibility. A hypothesis: People like Margot Tenenbaum and I will not kill themselves. The cultural mythos of the suicidal writer is strong — from Edgar Allan Poe to Virginia Woolf to Sylvia Plath to David Foster Wallace, to name just a few disparate examples — but given the number of writers who haven’t committed suicide, the ones who have off’ed themselves are the exception, not the rule. Those like Margot Tenenbaum and I may saunter through long bouts of melancholy or depression, but we are too vain to actually kill ourselves, as Joan Wickersham, in her memoir The Suicide Index, explains: “when you kill yourself, you kill every memory.” My brother Marty killed himself nearly two decades ago, and as I recently stood in the frozen foods aisle at Trader Joe’s eyeing cartons of pistachio ice cream, Marty’s favorite, it struck me that I could not remember his face. This will not do. Vanity arguably killed Narcissus, but there are times it keeps me here among the living.
Onscreen Margot comes across as the most suicidal of the Tenebaums, quite a feat given that within the film’s narrative, her brother Richie, played by Luke Wilson, attempts to kill himself in the bathroom as Elliot Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” scores the soundtrack. But Margot, like me, like many writer-scholars, is vain. She never appears without her bobbed hair perfectly straightened or freshly polished nails. Rarely without the luscious, full-length mink coat, a signature jacket that rivals any look the real-life living Gwyneth Paltrow might wear. Absolutely the best dialogue from The Royal Tenebaums comes in a scene where Margot is standing on the street donning this coat, a suitcase in hand. Her husband, Raleigh Sinclair (Bill Murray) asks, “Do you not love me anymore?” And Margot answers, “I do, kind of.” During the saddest parts of my life, this is a motto for daily living, for the “dolor of pad and paper weight,” Theodore Roethke might say, or “the blue TVs flashing,” as Ted Kooser might put it. “I do, kind of,” is the anthem of every person-who-entertains-the-thought-of-suicide-but-will-never-actually-do-it. “I do, kind of,” is, queerly perhaps, too, the anthem of many critics when asked why we “love” (or devote so much of our time to) the texts that consume our work.
Marty left a suicide note, and for years I dreamed of what it might say. (Our parents forbid us to read it, and at a certain point demanding, “hey, let me read your oldest son’s suicide note,” becomes gauche.) Eventually, these dreams stopped. My brother was a high school dropout, and I once read a reconciliatory letter he wrote our mother from prison. The letter was riddled with comma splices, and when I took a class titled Modern English Grammar & Poetics in college, I thought of that letter, likened his splices to the caesura of a poem, the complete pause in a metrical line. Pause: When I thought of my brother’s suicide note, I dwelled in the House of Grammatical Sanctimony. We, the persons-who-entertain-thoughts-of-suicide-but-will-never-actually-do-it, are, in our melancholic drifts, some of the biggest assholes you will ever meet. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Richie (a sexy, drug-riddled Owen Wilson) is a childhood neighbor of the family, a surrogate brother of sorts who admits to Margot’s father, “I always wanted to be a Tenebaum.” Richie is a novelist — pulp westerns, mostly — and on the phone with Margot, he asks, “Why would a review make the point of saying someone’s ‘not’ a genius? You think I’m especially ‘not’ a genius?” Richie is not satisfied with Margot’s answer, or refusal to answer, and when he questions her gumption, she answers flatly: “Well, I just don’t use that word lightly.” We are assholes.
On the banks of the Wabash River in southern Indiana, the poet Marianne Boruch and I sat under a canopy of wilting clematis. She held a poem of mine — which one, I do not remember — tapping her right index finger about halfway down the page. “Huh,” she said quietly, “you always do pretty well until the end. Don’t lock it up so tight. Leave some room for your reader.” In life, an unfortunate pun, suicide is like those endings. Here in Room 226 now, in Washington, DC, not Indiana, near the Potomac, not the Wabash, I’m lying in an all-white bed, watching clips of Margot on YouTube, who sits in a hospital waiting room smoking a cigarette. “How long have you been a smoker?” Ethlene asks her daughter. “Twenty-two years,” Margot answers, revealing this one secret, which she has kept since age twelve. She offers no explanation. She withholds an ending. Like the poem should, or like the decision to not kill oneself, or like this essay. Or like the text, which welcomes you in, but doesn’t tell you where to go.
Lunch is a home for those of us mapping out where the text takes us, and why we love it, or hate it, or teach it, or think about it.
Bersani, Leo and Adam Phillips. Intimacies. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2010. Print.
Carroll, Hamilton. Affirmative Reaction: New Formations of White Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011. Print.
Daniel, Drew. The Melancholy Assemblage: Affect and Epistemology in the English Renaissance. New York: Fordham UP, 2013. Print.
The Royal Tenenbaums. Dir. West Anderson. Buena Vista, 1991. DVD.
Wickersham, Joan. The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order. New York: Harcourt, 2008. Print.