Saturday, November 20, 2010

Background to Richard Cory

Mr. Cory looked like the picture postcard of success and sobriety. Why he put a bullet through his head is still a mystery. Based on a careful scrutiny of his diary, however, I’ve gained a couple of insights into this sad, inexplicable event. My personal acquaintance with Richard did not give me a frame of reference to understand all of this. He was rather cryptic in what he told me about himself and always tried to steer our conversations toward the work at hand. I came to understand Richard’s interior life only through his written words.

I should state the obvious from the outset, even if I’ll risk boring you with platitudes. Things are not always what they seem. People, to be specific, often operate on two levels, one being a public persona and the other a hidden internal world made unavailable for public consumption. Richard’s outward appearance, from his tailored suits to his well-trimmed moustache, spoke loudly of confidence and a worldly disposition always ready to take on any challenge; but deep inside him whispered the voice of despair. He seemed to lead a colorful life, but the interior walls of his dilapidating house were grey and auburn. He designed this carefully crafted role for himself and probably believed in it.

In one entry of his diary, which he penned about three weeks before his untimely demise, Richard goes on about how he was a disappointment to his father, who wanted him to take over the family business upon his death and groomed him for this prescribed role. But Richard, for all his desire to please those around him, would not have any of that. “I had to be my own man,” he writes in his laconic style. “Plus, I wanted an education, a different life for myself.” I had first thought that this deeply-felt disappointment to his father was the source of Richard’s depression, or at least a piece in the puzzle. I don’t anymore. True, these kinds of regrets in life might have added to his deeper sorrows, and thus pushed him over the edge, giving him the resolve to “take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” (This quotation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet actually appears in Richard’s diary). Further reading make it clear that other issues had led him down a destructive path.

Who would ever guess that Richard fell deeply in love? The “woman of my dreams” came from his hometown; like him, and unlike others from his hometown, she yearned for something different. They were two peas in a pod, or so it seemed to Richard. Some of his acquaintances and business partners—he didn’t seem to have friends—recall an attractive young woman sitting with him in a restaurant on more than one occasion. They couldn’t recall her name, for knowing all too well that Richard was shy about his personal life and never brought it to work with him, they didn't bother to walk over and force Richard to introduce his girlfriend and engage in some friendly chitchat. The diary is unequivocally clear on the name, however. The only proper name that appears in his diary is Cassandra, and from page 31 onward it appears in virtually every other sentence. What exactly happened to end the relationship is anyone’s guess.

Richard does not give any specifics on the cause of the breakup, but he pours his heart into dealing with the consequences of it on his emotional state. Judging from the smeared ink in certain passages, I’d say he poured some of his tears as well. “I feel such sorrow and despair,” he laments, “but somehow I’ll learn to live with resignation.” We know the story. As it turned out, he couldn’t resign himself to the adverse circumstances in his life.

I don’t want to chalk everything up to a love lost. To be sure, the breaking off of a romantic relationship is cause enough for fragile hearts to commit suicide. Richard, though, had spiritual and intellectual questions that plagued him seemingly all his life, and the unexpected end to his relationship with Cassandra—whatever the reasons—only contributed, albeit significantly, to a house already on the verge of collapsing. Although Richard did insurance for a living and put in the hours to become quite successful, his diary reveals him to have an ethereal side and spiritual dimension. On page 16 he writes: “Naked I came, naked I go. Crying from the heart. On a hill at night. Alone, solitary, full of doubt. Turning inside. Always turning inside. No warmth, the light dim. An empty street but for me and the darkness.” I don’t mean disrespect, but having a degree in literature—which wasn’t exactly the best preparation for the world of insurance—I’d say these words on their own amount to doggerel poetry at best. Yet when read in context of the rest of the diary, the words seem more poignant.

His occasional quotes from Hamlet give insight into Richard’s own tragedy. The Danish prince contemplated suicide because he felt guilt for not avenging his father’s death; but this circumstance led Hamlet to question whether suffering in general had any meaning and whether life was worth living.  Similarly, the big questions about life coupled with the emotional devastation of a relationship gone wrong conspired against poor Richard. He felt alone, bereft of purpose and love.  If you think about it, what does anyone of us want in life?  To love and be loved?  To find a transcendent love or ultimate purpose to one's life?  Unfortunately, these joys eluded Mr. Cory.