Introduction: Silver Bullet Suicides
This is the conclusion of an essay that began with Examining Allusions In & Provenance Of “Silver Bullet Suicides” In Leonard Cohen’s Field Commander Cohen focusing on the three word sequence, silver bullet suicides, in the first verse of Field Commander Cohen:
Come back to nothing special,
Such as waiting rooms and ticket lines,
Silver bullet suicides,
And messianic ocean tides,
And racial roller-coaster rides
And other forms of boredom advertised as poetry.
While the previous post dealt with references tied to “silver bullet,” today’s entry concentrates on (1) the embedded tradition of taking one’s own life with a silver bullet and (2) Leonard Cohen’s inspiration for the phrase.
Death Before Dishonor: The Silver Bullet As Means Of Noble Suicide
This description of a special category of suicide using silver bullets is derived from notes by Jugurtha Harchaoui.
In the 15th century European aristocrats (east of France; Germany; Austria; Hungary; etc.) devised a methodology for committing suicide with a bullet made of silver as a means of dying with dignity should they fail in combat.
Early Christians believed (and many still believe) that suicide is a sin. Because the nobility, however, often had influence over local clergy, an aristocrat, arguing the exceptional circumstances (e.g., going to war; the enemy’s proximity; the non-Christian character of the enemy; etc.), would direct a clergyman to bless a special bullet crafted from silver. He would then carry that silver bullet, blessed by the Church, to use to take his life, should the need arise, thus circumventing the Church’s condemnation of suicide and allowing him to enter heaven.
In addition, I found two specific instances that could fall into the category of noble silver bullet suicides:
Jan Potocki, (1815), Polish aristocrat, traveler, writer: “Believing he was becoming a werewolf, Potocki committed suicide by fatally shooting himself with a silver bullet that he had blessed by his village priest in December 1815, at the age of 54.”1
Henry Christophe, King of Haiti (1820): “King Henry committed suicide by shooting himself with a silver bullet rather than risk a coup and assassination.” ((Wikipedia)) This episode inspired Eugene O’Neil’s 1920 play, Emperor Jones, in which Brutus Jones commits suicide as the natives in revolt close in on him using the silver bullet which he had worn around his neck as a good-luck charm
Significance: This allusion invokes the tension between religion and the individual and an extreme version of noblesse oblige. It also conjures up a sense of exoticism and romanticism.
Provenance Of Silver Bullet Suicides: The Leonard Cohen-Mayakovsky Hypothesis
This discussion of Leonard Cohen’s inspiration for this phrase begins with the page from Leonard’s notebook containing the phrase silver bullet suicides. (The image of the page shown below is from the Field Commander Cohen site.)