“The suicide note — and I’m being deadly earnest — is moving, strange, harrowing and peculiar literature,” said Simon Critchley, an author and philosophy professor at the New School. “People’s interest in them is almost pornographic.”
Mr. Critchley was teaching a class billed as a “Suicide Note Writing Workshop,” part of a monthlong series of performances, installations and lectures called the School of Death and sponsored by Cabinet Magazine and the Family Business exhibition space on West 21st Street. The glass doors to his storefront classroom were flung open to the chilly rain falling outside, inviting passers-by to stop, listen, and sometimes contribute to the discussion.
The pop-up school came about as a smart-alecky reaction to a program in London called the School of Life, which Mr. Critchley described as “a particularly nauseating philosophy of self-help.”
“It’s also a way of mocking creative-writing workshops,” Mr. Critchley, 53, said. “We’re not mocking suicide. We’re doing this as a way to understand it. And why not be a little insensitive? People are terrified in talking about death.”
With Mr. Critchley kneeling before a blackboard on Saturday and his 15 attendees gathered tightly around, class began with a discussion of the shifting ethics of suicide, from antiquity to modern-day Christianity to right-to-die debates in the news media.
The suicide note, which he identified as a literary genre with a unique form, is a fairly recent invention coinciding with the rise of literacy and the press, he told the class.
“In antiquity, there was no need to leave a note,” he said. “It would have been obvious why you killed yourself.”
A student raised her hand to share a note she brought, a personal favorite found in an anthology.
“Dear Betty, I hate you. Love, George,” she read. The class laughed but quickly began talking about the dichotomies in the letter — love and hate, humor and anger — and then moved on to the larger question of the purpose of a suicide note.
“To not die alone,” said Sara Clugage, 33, an artist from Brooklyn. “To address someone.”
“They’re filled with pathos,” another student interjected. “They ultimately aren’t that interesting.”
“They are a last, desperate attempt at communication,” Mr. Critchley said. “They are failed communication, in a sense.”
Students then were given 15 minutes to imagine their own suicide letters, which they composed on 4-by-6 note cards and shared aloud with the class.
A mother with glowing features and a gentle British accent elected to go first. She had addressed the letter to her children.
“When you inevitably discover those things I kept secret, let these not diminish the reality nor the magnitude of my love for you,” she read.
The products of the exercise ranged from spiteful to existential to humorous.
“I am sorry, mostly to my dog. Love, Lauren. P.S. Please don’t bury me in Los Angeles,” one student read.
Nadja Argyropoulou, curator at Family Business, shared one of the afternoon’s more stark compositions.
“I am so filled with love it is still all too much to bear,” her note read. “I cannot find my way. The world is all wrong and although I withstood the worst of it, I lost out.”
Andrew Riddles, 44, a Web developer visiting from Canada, wrote, “Offstage is always best.” He found tenderness in the experience. “It’s very embracing of life, the opposite of what you’d expect,” he said.
The second half of the afternoon format focused on epitaph writing, led by Jeff Dolven, an English professor at Princeton University, who called the epitaph a “very different genre” from the suicide note. The students wrote their own epitaphs. Some were stoic, some self-aggrandizing, some humorous.
“An imprint light,/Or deeply pressed/She moved among us/Then she left,” wrote Karen Houppert, a journalist.
“He was kind to all animals, except his family,” Mr. Riddles wrote.
As evening approached Mr. Dolven dismissed class and left the students with a final epitaph from W.B. Yeats.
“Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./Horseman, pass by,” he read, and a chilly quiet permeated the room.
“I’ll leave you with that enigmatic epitaph,” Professor Dolven said. “Reconcilable, though not perfectly reconcilable.”