Autopsia psihologică. Patru ipostaze ale unor dadaişti sinucigaşi

 The psychological autopsy. Four hypostases referring to a suicidal Dada artist

First published: 30 noiembrie 2022

Editorial Group: MEDICHUB MEDIA

DOI: 10.26416/Psih.71.4.2022.7325


Drawn first in conceptual and historical terms, the psychological autopsy is further presented in four hypostases, each of them referring to a suicidal Dada artist.

psychological autopsy, psychopathology, suicide, Dada


Schiţată întâi în termeni conceptuali şi istorici, autopsia psihologică este apoi prezentată în patru ipostaze, referitoare la cinci artişti Dada cu comportament autolitic.


By no means an uncommon approach lately, the psychological autopsy, whose objective is to collect data on the circumstances of death and also on the psychological traits of the persons who committed suicide, in order to better understand their motivation and thus identify the strategies to have prevented the fatal accident, meets with several methodological deadlocks, such as the uncertainty of the suicidal nature of death in cases when the behavior in question is likely to have been unexpected, without any prior warning; mention should also be made to the moral issues involved, including the psychological impact of the inquiry on the family of the deceased.

By common consent, the psychological autopsy was ushered in by Elie Robins (one of the prominent co-editors of DSM-III and DSM-IV) whose 1959 investigation in St. Louis (focusing on the communication of suicidal ideas in 134 consecutive cases of completed suicide) claimed absolute novelty for at least three reasons: his questionnaires and structured interviews involved the general population rather than some restricted psychiatric sample (physicians, nurses, and also family, in-laws, friends, job associates, clergymen, landladies, bartenders, attorneys, policemen); most of the persons were indeed addressed within a few weeks to a few months after the suicides, but the remaining few were addressed approximately one year later; the interviews covered the medical domain (medical antecedents, psychiatric history, details of the autolytic act), and also family and social circumstances (family history, personal history, significant events in the life of the deceased) – all of these providing information regarding the expression of the suicidal intent(1).

One year later, in 1960, Dorpat and Ripley came up with a sample of 114 consecutive suicides in the Seattle area, their lengthy questionnaire basically addressing relatives of the deceased person and including social background, drinking history, medical and psychiatric history, and questions on the circumstances of the suicidal act itself(2).

Fourteen years later, in 1974, Barraclough and co-workers put forward highly-accomplished psychiatric histories of 100 suicides obtained retrospectively from their relatives and various witnesses, also from their doctors and medical records – their 252 categorized and coded questionary meaning to find the proportion of the mentally ill, their diagnoses, treatments and warnings; the diagnostic groups (the depressives, the alcoholics and the mentally healthy with no more than 7% deaths by suicide, the autolytic act being the one and only signal of psychological suffering) showed that suicide was significantly associated with mental disorder (93% of the deceased), depression and chronic alcoholism being the most frequent pathologies; the depressives were further associated with hopelessness and guilt; the chronically depressed patients had a heavy load of negative events, consequent upon the social effects of intoxication and dependence (family conflicts, law infringements, professional degradation, financial loss), the alcoholics also presenting several somatic effects (hepatic cirrhosis, chronic pancreatitis, upper gastrointestinal bleeding)(3).

The aforementioned three studies(1-3) revealed that the suicides used to “cry for help”: 73% in Robins’ study, 87% in Dorpat and Ripley’s study, 100% in Barraclough’s study, who further found out that 40% saw a doctor in their last week, and 19% saw a doctor in their last month, such data revealing the importance of diagnosing depression, and urgently hospitalizing the patients at issue, even though the suicide risk seems to be minor.

Some more recent studies(4,5) revealed the importance of the risk factors as well: stress, social integration problems, everyday life conditions (especially solitude), several somatic illnesses (mainly connected with pain), some personality disorders (schizoid, borderline).

Mention must finally be made to the methodological deadlocks of the psychological autopsy: uncertainty about the etiology and nature of suicide, inconclusiveness about the autolytic method (correct prescriptions previously), a long period (perhaps decades) from the communication of the intent to the suicide in fact etc.; this is why we often describe such suicides as “equivocal”(5,6).


Four psychological autopsies (Arthur Cravan, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Jacques Rigaut and Jacques Vaché) are provided in the following, if possible and information permitting, along all of the lines stipulated in the Introduction: mental disorder, family suicide, suicide circumstances. We have been able to access the necessary data from semi-autobiographical writings and a few reliable monographs.

Case study: Arthur Cravan (1887-1918)

He could be included in the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, with a lot of criminal offence.

Expulsion from Lausanne boarding school for reportedly spanking a teacher(7), and vagabondage through Europe. A “French citizen” originally, a “Swiss subject” in 1914, a Barcelona “Russian count” in 1916, after a long roundabout trip through Central Europe – if only we mention the war years!(8); all these while having “twenty countries in [his] memory” and dragging “the colors of a hundred cities” in [his] blood”(9).

Imposture ship and forgery – selling hoax apocryphal manuscripts by Oscar Wilde while introducing himself, in 1921 and 1922, as “Monsieur André Gide” or “Dorian Hope”, thus conning several Wilde experts, including Christopher S. Millard(7).

Patent lies all through, perhaps “to safeguard his inner truth” and, why not, to give full vent to his “pantomimic atrocities on the spectator’s habitual expectations”(7).

He was subject of at least two incarcerations. One for his review of L’exposition des Indépendences in Paris in 1914(7), and also for his notorious 1917 lecture at the New York Independents Exhibition, when for a start he drew his dirty laundry at his audience and, while obviously drunk and shouting obscenities, began to undo his belt and suspenders before being “handcuffed and dragged out”(8).

He had a risk-taking behavior all along, living in extreme conditions while “dancing, fucking, walking, running, eating, swimming”(7) and frequently boxing, among others with world heavy-weight champion Jack Johnson; in the meantime revering the “taste and smell” of the body’s first issues – “urine, shit, spit, sweat”(7) – and regarding these “fundamental utterances”(7) as prototexts: “Je mangerais ma merde!”

He had a mostly performative and often offensive art, “situated more in the guts than in the brain”, and aggressively promoted in provocative lectures usually degenerating into drunken brawls – or in “Conférences des Hautes Sociétés Savantes”, to introduce him “dressed in tights, waving a pistol and firing shots into the air”, praising “athletes, homosexuals, prostitutes, thieves and madmen”, while “balancing first on one foot and then on the other, sometimes throwing his briefcase and other projectiles into the air along with the verbal arrows he aimed at the audience”(7), and claiming that “glory is a scandal”(7), while art is meant “to infuriate colleagues”, so as to get the artist “talked about” and celebrated, transformed into a success “with women and in business”(9).

He could be considered having also the differential identity disorder, with a “ménage-à-trois passport”: a missing poet, an itinerant boxer and an elusive forger – to be followed by several invented personae, double identities, exquisite disguises, and “a long string of other pedigrees” (hotel thief and snake charmer, grandson of the Queen’s Chancellor, nephew of Oscar Wilde, the poet with the shortest haircut in the world)(7).

But he manifested a penchant for suicide-as-act: once drawing a full house to the Noctambules in Paris by advertising his “sincere intention to end his life before a paying public”, thereby replacing the “traditional carafe of water” with a bottle of absinthe and, “for the benefit of the ladies”, wearing “only a jockstrap” while delivering his “pre-suicide récit” with “his balls draped on the table”(7) – the idea in all this show off, both “transgressive and charismatic”, being that “suicide is a means of, not an end to, performance”(7), while death is no more than a social event.

Case study: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927)

Antisocial personality disorder, with disregard for social norms.

Parading the streets “wearing only a Mexican blanket”, to be arrested for “public nudity”; getting “increasingly wrapped up in the turmoil of wartime activity”, to be arrested “as a spy” and incarcerated for three weeks in Connecticut, only to be released because she was “mentally deranged”; shoplifting in department stores like Woolworth’s, to be “routinely incarcerated” in the Lower Manhattan “Tombs”(10).

Deceitfulness – stealing letters out of their mailbox in order to “pocket the subscription checks”; “politely” blackmailing the Freytag-Loringhoven family to support her as Baron Leopold’s widow; extorting money from lovers and would-be lovers so as not to publicize their affairs(11).

Compulsive risk-taking – actually, in line with the Dada movement, adverse to making any compromise with the audience, although whatever reward might be withdrawn, and the due price should involve “forced exile”, solitude or the “nervous breakdown” that required hospitalization in 1908, the “particularly strange attitude” that placed her in the Bodelschwingh Home from 21 February to 23 April 1925, the “schizophrenic symptoms” that asked for a brief stay at the Landesirrenanstalt Psychiatric Asylum in Eberswalde – Frau Dr. Simsa probably considering her high levels of excitement, her delusional thinking, her play with language and her feelings of paranoia(12).

Downright pathological pleasure-seeking – driven by her formidable sex drive, distributing her in roles like: “young ingenue, female flâneur, erotic artworker, priapic traveler, chorus girl-cum-prostitute, actress, cross-dresser, lesbian and syphilitic patient”(13), masturbator, fetishist, dominatrix and sexual predator – all open to androgyny, sadomasochism, cross dressing, costuming, animal- and vegetable-use.

Marijuana abuse, “an ounce or more in a big china German pipe”(14) – to resound in a rhizomic (nonlinear) art, whose “every point connects to any other point”(15), thus dissolving genre distinctions, like in “Mineself – minesoul – and – mine – cast-iron lover”: “His hair is molten gold and a red pelt/ His hair is glorious!/ Yea – mine soul – and he brushes it and combeth it – he maketh it shining and glistening around his head – and he is vain about it – but alas – mine soul – his hair is without sense – his hair does not live – it is no revelation, no symbol! He is not gold – not animal – not GOLDEN animal – he is GILDED animal only – mine soul! His vanity is without sense – it is the vanity of one who has little and who weareth a treasure meaningless! O – mine soul – THAT soulless beauty maketh me sad!”(16).

Hallucinatory hypersensibilization of the speaking voice – all open to senses and perceptions, like in “Appalling heart”: “City stir – wind on eardrum –/ dancewind: herbstained –/ flowerstained – silken – rustling –/ tripping – swishing – frolicking –/ courtesing – careening – brushing –/ flowing – lying down – bending –/ teasing – kissing: treearms – grass –/ limbs – lips./ City stir on eardrum –./ In night lonely/ peers –:/ moon – riding!/ pale – with beauty aghast –/ too exalted to share!/ in space blue – rides she away from mine chest –/ illumined strangely –/ appalling sister!”(17).

Delusional dynamics – punctuated by scatologies and blasphemies whose “business” is to debunk the heavenly, like in “Holy skirts”: “Beneath immovable – carved skirt of forbidding sexlessness – over pavement shoving – gliding – nuns have wheels./ Undisputedly! Since – beneath skirts – they are not human! Kept carefully empty cars – running over religious track – local – express – according to velocity of holiness through pious steam – up to heaven!/ What for –/ what do they unload there –/ why do they run?”(18).

Semantics populated by legions of grotesque and “neurasthenic” personae – whose “irrational” hybridity is free from the “associative machine” behind whatever dialogue, parody and collage, putting together ready-mades, slogans and advertisements, so as to dissociate the reader/spectator/addressee from any automatic perceptions and inborn biases(19,20) talking of the sacred essence of the woman’s body, actually an earthly object with vegetables and artifacts on the outside, with “body sweats” on the inside.

Suicide history. Her maternal grandfather shooted himself “for melancholia”, her mother attempted to drown herself in the East Sea in 1891, her second husband feigned suicide to get rid of taxes, her third husband shooted himself in the head; the Baroness herself having suicide ideas, like in “Cosmic sense suicide”: “There is no lack of sense in natural law/ No death – existence – deed – undeed – ever is/ ‘Untimely – unnatural.’/ All action/ Within law – or it were not./ All/ Carries own weight (‘judgement’) within”(21).

Case study: Jacques Rigaut (1898-1929)

Narcissistic personality disorder could be one of his diagnostics, with egotistical self-love, himself ­being a dandy by all means, and occasionally a gigolo, while so scrupulous about his demeanor and attire(22) .

Manipulative, non-empathic, yet vulnerable, grandiosity – his “alter” [Lord Patchogue] having a “distinguished appearance, nobility of features, self-control of expression” and a certain out-of-place “weakness” – and, as if “afraid that a new outfit would change him”, having “his clothes always alike, though not the same”, the same cut, the same color; the same “alter” being preoccupied with pronouncements, namely that “any story should begin with mirrors”; that “the room with its four walls is unbearable”; that “there is no difference between winning and losing”; that “the greater the disinterest, the more authentic the interest”; that “one should not even want to want”; that “nothing happens, or at least nothing ever happened”(23).

A neat, calculated quality about his final exit, at Châtenay-Malabry Clinic – “calmly” shooting himself through the heart, “after paying minute attention to his toilette, and carrying out all the necessary external adjustments demanded of such a departure” – having used “a ruler in order to be sure he would not miss his heart”, and “a pillow in order to muffle the sound of the report”, even having taken care to put “a rubber sheet under his body so as to avoid staining the bed”(22).

Dystimia, with comorbid ever-increasing bouts of alcohol intoxication – going through several detoxifications in Paris.

Heroin addiction – feeling one’s days to be “numbered,” why not taste all the “nourritures terrestres”, why not find “an alibi in the paradis artificiels”?(24)

Anhedonic contempt for life – the only means granted to us being to accept it, simply because it is “not worth the trouble of departing from it”: “despair, indifference, betrayals, faithfulness, solitude, family, liberty, weariness, money, poverty, love, the absence of love, syphilis, health, sleep, insomnia, desire, impotence, banality, art, honesty, mediocrity, intelligence” – all of these things, taken together, being of no consequence at all(22).

Cynical world weariness – to be seen in his foundation of the General Suicide Agency so as “to be of interest to those who have previously been deterred from committing suicide for fear of making a mess of it”; at last to provide “a reputable method of passing away” – death being “the least excusable of moral failing”, and suicide being “a vocation”(25).

All time-consuming preoccupation with death – “sentencing himself to death at about the age of twenty, waiting impatiently for ten years, ticking off the hours for exactly the right moment to put an end to his existence”(22).

Case study: Jacques Vaché (1895-1919)

Schizoid personality disorder, with the singular Ubuesque pleasure of parading exotic costumes – strolling the Nantes streets “dressed in different uniforms, as a Hussard lieutenant, an aviator or as a doctor” and, if walking by, “ignoring you completely and continuing on his way without so much as a backward glance”(26).

A peculiar behavior, much like the autistic routine – spending “a good hour every morning” to arrange “one or two photographs, a few mugs and a couple of vases of violets on a small lace-covered table within arm’s reach” – while being treated at the Rue du Bocage Hospital for a shrapnel calf-wound, in 1916(27).

No confidents other than his mother – writing to her, “out of self-interest”, “every two or three months”(27).

Little interest in sex – so much so, that André Gide wondered whether he was a “virgin”(27).

Emotional coldness – rejecting the idea of patriotism(26).

Flattened affectivity – having his “mistress” Louise “sit still in a corner for hours without making a sound”, making tea at 5:00, never having sex with her; saving a sixteen- or seventeen-old woman “who was being brutalized by two men” in the vicinity of the Gare du Lyon, taking her “under his wings” at a hotel around the Bastille and leaving shortly, “without looking back anymore than usual”(27).

Seeing “reality itself as a game” and regarding it all as “a question of style”(28) – “fantasizing about major deceptions while indulging in such pranks as introdu­cing himself and others under false names, wearing a variety of disguises, bragging about invented past”(26) or even getting into the Maubel Conservatory “carrying a loaded revolver and threatening to shoot into the audience”, because Apollinaire’s “surrealist drama” was “too literary” and too much of a “costumed farce”(27).

Comorbid opium abuse – a forty-gram overdose actually putting him to death(29).


This above might be styled “suicide cradle” or it might just as well be called “suicide cluster”, with special reference to Dada, an artistic movement first revolving around Cabaret Voltaire with its main protagonists Tristan Tzara (from Moineşti, Neamţ) and Marcel Iancu (from Piatra Neamţ), with the cradles/clusters themselves allegedly connected to the so-called “epistemological breaks”(29) in terms of art, to be found at that particular point where normal and abnormal/pathological collide.

The standard procedure in Court stipulates that “you’ve got no criminal case unless there’s a corpse”. Along the same line of thought then, “you’ve got no suicide case unless there’s a corpse” – which casts a shadow of reasonable doubt over at least two suicides in our sample (Arthur Cravan and Julien Torma vanishing into thin air, at sea and in the mountains, respectively), perhaps over Freitag-Loringhoven’s as well, if we consider the ambiguous, Dada-like character of the events on that fatal night of 14 December 1927, the Baroness going to bed, her little dog Pinky by her side, the gas jets on, the deadly fumes seeping out…


Novelty-seeking (with exploratory excitability, impulsiveness, extravagance and disorderliness)(30) was undoubtedly the core trait of Dada artists, with Icarus-like aspirations, with comorbid risk-taking – these factors making them “to live dangerously” in psychiatric terms. The suicide percentage was consequently rocketing sky-high, 10% if there were fifty Dada artists, but they were no more than thirty or thereabouts, which means that the percentage is in the area of 20%.


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  2. Dorpat TL, Ripley HS. A study of suicide in the Seattle area. Comprehensive Psychiatry. 1960;1(6):349-359.

  3. Barraclough B, Bunch J, Nelson B, Sainsbury P. A hundred cases of suicide: Clinical aspects. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 1974;125:355-373.

  4. Kim SY, Kim MH, Kawachi I, Cho Y. Comparative epidemiology of suicide in South Korea and Japan: Effects of age, gender and suicide methods. Crisis. 2011;32(1):5-14.

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  7. Conover RL. Arthur Cravan. In: Hale T, Conover RL, Lenti P. (Eds.) 4 Dada Suicides. London: Atlas Press. 1995; p.15-32.

  8. Buffet-Picabia G. Arthur Cravan and American Dada. In: Hale T, Conover RL, Lenti P. (Eds.) 4 Dada Suicides. London: Atlas Press. 1995; p.81-88.

  9. Cravan A. Notes. In: Hale T, Conover RL, Lenti P. (Eds.) 4 Dada Suicides. London: Atlas Press. 1995; p.68-80.

  10. Gammel I. Baroness Elsa. Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2003; p.198, 213.

  11. Gammel I. Baroness Elsa. Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2003; p.305.

  12. Gammel I. Baroness Elsa. Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2003; p.353-355.

  13. Gammel I. Baroness Elsa. Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2003; p.57.

  14. Palmer C, Horowitz M. (Eds.) Sisters of the Extreme. Women Writing on the Drug Experience. Rochester, Vermont: Parkstreet Press. 2000; p.94.

  15. Guattari F. The Machinic Unconscious. Essays in Schizoanalysis. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e). 2011; p.171.

  16. Freytag-Loringhoven E. Body Sweats. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2011; p. 277-286.

  17. Freytag-Loringhoven E. Body Sweats. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2011; p. 103-104.

  18. Freytag-Loringhoven E. Body Sweats. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2011; p. 18.

  19. Sandqvist T. DadaEast. The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2006; p.289-338.

  20. Jones A. Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2004; p.2-34.

  21. Freytag-Loringhoven E. Body Sweats. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2011; p. 223.

  22. Hale T. Jacques Rigaut. In: Hale T, Conover RL, Lenti P. (Eds.) 4 Dada Suicides. London: Atlas Press. 1995; p. 89-96.

  23. Rigaut J. Lord Patchogue. In: Hale T, Conover RL, Lenti P. (Eds.) 4 Dada Suicides. London: Atlas Press. 1995; p. 99-113.

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  29. Althusser L. Essays in Self-Criticism. London: NLB. 1976; p.105-161.

  30. Cloninger CR, Svrakic DM, Przybeck TR. A psychobiological model of temperament and character. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1993;50(12):975-990. 

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