Title:The Savage God: A Study in Suicide.
Author: A. Alvarez.
Genre: Non-fiction, suicide, biography, psychology, literary criticism, psychiatry, philosophy, books, writing, poetry.
Publication Date: 1971.
Summary: Using the untimely death of the poet and friend, Sylvia Plath, as a point of departure, Alvarez confronts the controversial and often taboo area of human behaviour: suicide. The book explores the cultural attitudes, theories, truths and fallacies surrounding suicide, and refracts them through the windows of philosophy, and art and literature: following the black thread leading from Dante, through Donne, Chatterton and the Romantic Agony, to Dada and Pavese. Entwined within this sensitive study is the author's deeply personal account of his own unsuccessful suicide attempt, and together they form a meditation on the Savage God at the heart of human existence.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ I offer no solutions. I don't, inf act, believe that solutions exist, since suicide means different things for different people in different times. For Petronius Arbiter it was a final stylish grace-note to a life devoted to high style. For Thomas Chatterton it was the alternative to a slow death by starvation. For Sylvia Plath it was an attempt to get herself out of a desperate corner her own poetry had boxed her into. For Cesare Pavese it was as inevitable as the next sunrise, an event which all the praise and success in the world could not put off. The only conceivable solution the suicide can hope for is help of one kind or another: sympathetic understanding of what he is going through from the Samaritans or the priest or from those few doctors who have the time and inclination to listen, trained help from the psycho-analyst or from what Professor Stengel hopefully calls a "therapeutic community": specifically organized to cope with these emergencies. But then, he may not want help.
Instead of offering answers, I have simply tried to counterbalance two prejudices: the first is that high religiose tone – though now it is most often used by people who belong to no church they would care to mention – which dismisses suicide in horror as a moral crime or sickness beyond discussion. The second is the current scientific fashion which, in the very process of treating suicide as a topic for serious research, manages to deny it all serious meaning by reducing despair to the boniest statistics.
♥ So in the end it seemed gay enough in a fragile, skin-deep way: just the place for the first baby, the first book, the first real unhappiness. By the time we left eighteen months later, there were gaping cracks in the outer wall where the new windows had been cut. But by that time there were gaping cracks in our lives, too, so it all seemed to fit.
♥ In life, as in the poem, there was neither hysteria in [Sylvia Plath's] voice, nor any appeal for sympathy. She talked about suicide in much the same tone as she talked about any other risky, testing activity: urgently, even fiercely, but altogether without self-pity. She seemed to view death as a physical challenge she had, once again, overcome. It was an experience of much the same quality as riding Ariel or mastering a bolting horse – which she had done as a Cambridge undergraduate – or careering down a dangerous snow slope without properly knowing how to ski – an incident, also from life, which is one of the best things in The Bell Jar. Suicide, in short, was not a swoon into death, an attempt "to cease upon the midnight with no pain"; it was something to be felt in the nerve-ends and fight against, an initiation rite qualifying her for a life of her own.
♥ So [Sylvia Plath] spoke of suicide with a wry detachment, and without any mention of the suffering or drama of the act. It was obviously a matter of self-respect that her first attempt had been serious and nearly successful, instead of a mere hysterical gesture. That seemed to entitle her to speak of suicide as a subject, not as an obsession. It was an act she felt she had a right to as a grown woman and a free agent, in the same way as she felt it to be necessary to her development, given her queer conception of the adult as a survivor, an imaginary Jew from the concentration camps of the mind. Because of this there was never any question of motives: you do it because you do it, just as an artist always knows what he knows.
♥ So [Sylvia Plath] got up very early each morning and worked until the children woke. "These new poems of mine have one thing in common," she wrote in a note for a reading she prepared, but never broadcast, for the BBC, "they were all written at about four in the morning – that still blue, almost eternal hour before the baby's cry, before the glassy music of the milkman, settling his bottles." In those dead hours between night and day, she was able to gather herself into herself in silence and isolation, almost as though she were reclaiming some past innocence and freedom before life got a grip on her. Then she could write.
♥ There was, indeed, no stopping it. [Sylvia Plath's] poetry acted as a strange, powerful lens through which her ordinary life was filtered and refigured with extraordinary intensity. Perhaps the elation that comes of writing well and often helped her to preserve that bright American façade she unfailingly presented to the world. In common with her other friends of that period, I chose to believe in this cheerfulness against all the evidence of the poems. Or rather, I believed in it and I didn't believe. But what could one do? I felt sorry for her, but she clearly didn't want that. Her jauntiness forestalled all sympathy and, if only by her blank refusal to discuss them otherwise, she insisted that her poems were purely poems, autonomous. If attempted suicide is, as some psychiatrists believe, a cry for help, then Sylvia at this time was not suicidal. What she wanted was not help but confirmation: she needed someone to acknowledge that she was coping exceptionally well with her difficult routine life of children, nappies, shopping and writing. She needed, even more, to know that the poems worked and were good, for although she had gone through a gate Lowell had opened, she was now far along a peculiarly solitary road on which not many would risk following her. So it was important for her to know that her messages were coming back clear and strong. Yet not even her determinedly bright self-reliance could disguise the loneliness that came from her almost palpably, like a heat haze. She asked for neither sympathy nor help but, like a bereaved widow at a wake, she simply wanted company in her mourning. I suppose it provided confirmation that, despite the odds and the internal evidence, she still existed.
♥ In varying degrees, both [Sylvia Plath] and her husband seemed to believe in the occult. As artists, I suppose, they had to, since both were intent on finding voices for their unquiet, buried selves. But there was, I think, something more to their belief than that. Ted has written that "her psychic gifts, at almost any time, were strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them." That could simply have been her poet's knack of sensing the unspoken content of every situation and, later, her easy, instinctive access to her own unconscious.
♥ But, as I have written elsewhere, for the artist himself, art is not necessarily therapeutic; he is not automatically relieved of his fantasies by expressing them. Instead, by some perverse logic of creation, the act of formal expression may simply make the dredged-up material more readily available to him. The result of handling it in his work may well be that he finds himself living it out. For the artist, in short, nature often imitates art. Or, to change the cliché, when an artist holds a mirror up to nature he finds out who and what he is; but the knowledge may change him irredeemably so that he becomes that image.
♥ And this is precisely what the poems did: they bodied forth the death within her. But they also did so in an intensely living and creative way. The more she wrote about death, the stronger and more fertile her imaginative world became. And this gave her everything to live for.
I suspect that in the end she wanted to have done with the theme once and for all. But the only way she could find was "to act out the awful little allegory once over". She had always been a bit of a gambler, used to taking risks. The authority of her poetry was in part due to her brave persistence in following the thread of her inspiration right down to the Minotaur's lair. And this psychic courage had its parallel in her physical arrogance and carelessness. Risks didn't frighten her; on the contrary, she found them stimulating. Freud has written, "Life loses in interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked." Finally, Sylvia took that risk. She gambled for the last timer, having worked out that the odds were in her favour, but perhaps, in her depression, not much caring whether she won or lost. Her calculations went wrong and she lost.
It was a mistake, then, and out of it a whole myth has grown. I don't think she would have found it much to her taste, since it is a myth of the poet as a sacrificial victim, offering herself up for the sake of her art, having been dragged by the Muses to that final altar through every kind of distress. In these terms, her suicide becomes the whole point of the story, the act which validates her poems, gives them their interest and proves her seriousness. So people are drawn to her work in much the same spirit as Time featured her at length: not for the poetry but for the gossipy, extra-literary "human interest". Yet just as the suicide adds nothing at all to the poetry, so the myth of Sylvia as a passive victim is a total perversion of the woman she was. It misses altogether her liveliness, her intellectual appetite and harsh wit, her great imaginative resourcefulness and vehemence of feeling, her control. Above all, it misses the courage with which she was able to turn disaster into art. The pity is not that there is a myth of Sylvia Plath but that the myth is not simply that of an enormously gifted poet whose death came carelessly, by mistake, and too soon.
♥ The history of suicide in Christian Europe is the history of official outrage and unofficial despair.
♥ Since the savagery of any punishment is proportional to the fear of the act, why should a gesture so essentially private inspire such primitive terror and superstition? Fedden produces evidence to suggest that Christian revenges repeat, with suitable modifications, the taboos and purification rituals of the most primitive tribes. The learned jurists who decreed that a suicide should be buried at a crossroads had at least that prejudice in common with the witch-doctors of Baganda. They were almost harking back to a pre-Christian Europe where victims were sacrificed on altars at these same cross-roads. Like the stake and the stone, the site had been chosen in the hope that the constant traffic above would prevent the restless spirit from rising; should that fail the number of roads would, hopefully, confuse the ghost and so hinder his return home. After the introduction of Christianity, the cross formed by the roads became a symbol which would disperse the evil energy concentrated in the dead body. It was a question, in short, of an archaic fear of blood wrongly spilt crying out for revenge. That is, it was a question of that peculiarly baffled terror which is produced by guilt. Freud's early theory that suicide is transposed murder, an act of hostility turned away from the object back on to the self, seems to be borne out by Christian superstition and law.
♥ The second victim, a nineteen-year-old student from Lille, left a message saying he was "against war, violence, and the destructive folly of men. ... If I die, do not weep. I have done it because I could not adapt myself to this world. I did it as a protest against violence and to draw the attention of the world of which a very small part is dealt with here. Death is a form of protest on condition that it is desired by a human being for himself. One can very well refuse it." Behind these horrors, and behind the boy's confusion of altruism and egoism, is a certain residue of primitive magic: it is as though the suicide believes, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that he will finally have his posthumous way, provided his death is sufficiently terrible.
These seems to me to be nothing to justify such optimism.
♥ They also reflect the difficulty the Church had in rationalizing its ban on suicide, since neither the Old nor New Testament directly prohibits it. There are four suicides recorded in the Old Testament – Samson, Saul, Abimelech and Achitophel – and none of them earns adverse comment. In fact, they are scarcely commented on at all. In the New Testament, the suicide of even the greatest criminal, Judas Iscariot, is recorded as blankly; instead of being added to his crimes, it seems a measure of his repentance. Only much later did the theologians reverse the implicit judgement of St Matthew and suggest that Judas was more damned by his suicide than by his betrayal of Christ. In the first years of the Church, suicide was such a neutral subject that even the death of Jesus was regarded by Tertullian, one of the most fiery of the Early Fathers, as a kind of suicide. He points out, and Origen agreed, that He voluntarily gave up the ghost, since it was unthinkable that the Godhead should be at the mercy of the flesh.
..The idea of suicide as a crime comes late in Christian doctrine and as an afterthought. It was not until the sixth century AD that the Church finally legislated against it, and then the only biblical authority was a special interpretation of the sixth commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." The bishops were egged into action by St Augustine; but he, as Rousseau remarked, took his arguments from Plato's Phaedo, not from the Bible. Augustine's arguments were sharpened by the suicide-mania which was, above all, the distinguishing mark of the early Christians. ..But ultimately his reasons were impeccably moral. Christianity was founded on the belief that each human body is the vehicle of an immortal soul..
..So with suicide: when the bishops decided it was a crime, they were in some way emphasizing the moral distance travelled from pagan Rome, where the act was habitual and even honoured. Yet what began as moral tenderness and enlightenment finished as the legalized and sanctified atrocities by which the body of the suicide was degraded, his memory defamed, his family persecuted.
♥ We should beware of projecting our own anxieties on to other periods. The idea of death as an unmentionable, almost unnatural, subject is a peculiarly twentieth-century invention. What was once public, simple and commonplace has now become private, abstract and shocking, a fact almost as furtive and secret as sex once was to the Victorians. Yet we are constantly told that the violence of our societies is preternatural and is augmented by the violence served up, continually and inescapably, to entertain our leisure on film, on television, in pulp fiction, even on the news. Perhaps. But I wonder if all this is not now remote and antiseptic compared with habits not long passed. A Roman holiday involved the slaughter of, literally, thousands in gladiatorial shows. After Spartacus' uprising, the crucified bodies of six thousand slaves lined the road from Rome to Capua like lamp-posts. In Christian Europe executions replaced the Roman circuses. Criminals were beheaded publicly, they were hanged, cut down while still alive, their intestines drawn out and their bodies quartered; they were guillotined and elaborately tortured in front of festive crowds; their severed heads were exposed on pikes, their bodies hung in chains from gibbets. The public was amused, excited, more delighted than shocked. An execution was like a funfair, and for the more spectacular occasions even apprentices got the day off. This casual bloodthirstiness continued long after the last suicide had been buried at the crossroads. Executions were public in England until 1868. In Paris the Morgue was a tourist attraction where the corpses were displayed like the waxworks at Madame Tussaud's; it was even rebuilt to improve the facilities in 1865 and was not closed to the public until late 1920s. In wars, hand-to-hand fighting with swords, daggers, axes and primitive guns left battlefields looking like butchers' shops. Our own massacres may be infinitely greater but they often take place by remote control and at a distance; in comparison with the great pitched battles of the past, they seem almost abstract. Of course, there is a difference. Unlike our ancestors who, at best, read about them later, we actually see the results. But in the eye of television, as in the eye of God, all things are equal; a real atrocity on the screen in our own home seems neither more nor less genuine than some fantasy acted out in a studio for our amusement. In these circumstances, death is a kind of pornography, at once exciting and unreal: "Death is something that we fear/But it titillates the ear."
♥ They all had one quality in common: a certain nobility of motive. So far as the records go, the ancient Greeks took their own lives only for the best possible reasons: grief, high patriotic principle or to avoid dishonour.
..Suicide was not to be tolerated if it seemed like an act of wanton disrespect to the gods. For this reason, the Pythagoreans rejected suicide out of hand since, for them as for the later Christians, life itself was the discipline of the gods. In the Phaedo, Plato made Socrates repeat this Orphic doctrine approvingly before he drank the hemlock. He used the simile – often to be repeated later – of the soldier on guard duty who must not desert his post, and also that of man as the property of the gods, who are as angry at our suicide as we would be if our chattels destroyed themselves. Aristotle used much the same argument, though in a more austere way: suicide was "an offence against the State" because, on religious grounds, it polluted the city and, economically, weakened it by destroying a useful citizen. It was an act, that is, of social irresponsibility. Logically, this is no doubt impeccable. But it also seems curiously irrelevant to the act of suicide. It is not, I mean, a style of argument likely to impinge on the state of mind of a man about to take his own life. The fact that it was considered to be so cogent – Aristotle's huge authority apart – implies a curiously cool and detached attitude to the problem of suicide.
♥ Plato also allowed for moderation in the other sense. He suggested that if life itself became immoderate, the suicide became a rational, justifiable act. Painful disease or intolerable constraint were sufficient reasons to depart. And this, when the religious superstitions faded, was philosophical justification enough. Within a hundred years of Socrates' death, the Stoics had made suicide into the most reasonable and desirable of all ways out.
♥ Classical Greek suicide, then, was dictated by a calm, though slightly excessive, reasonableness. In Athens, as in the Greek colonies of Marseilles and Ceos, where hemlock was developed and whose customs inspired Montaigne to his eloquent defence of noble suicide, the magistrates kept a supply of poison for those who wished to die. All that was required was that they should first plead their cause before the senate and obtain official permission. The precepts were clear:
Whoever no longer wishes to live shall state his reasons to the Senate, and after having received permission shall abandon life. If your existence is hateful to you, die; if you are overwhelmed by fate, drink the hemlock. If you are bowed with grief, abandon life. Let the unhappy man recount his misfortune, let the magistrate supply him with the remedy, and his wretchedness will come to an end.
♥ The evidence is, then, that the Romans looked on suicide neither with fear nor revulsion, but as a carefully considered and chosen validation of the way they had lived and the principles they had lived by. ..To live nobly also meant to die nobly and at the right moment. Everything depended on the dominant will and a rational choice.
This attitude was reinforced by Roman law. There were no revenges, no degradation, no evidence of fear or horror. Instead, the law was the law – practical. According to Justinian's Digest, suicide of a private citizen was not punishable if it was caused by "impatience of pain or sickness, or by another cause", or by "weariness of life... lunacy, or fear of dishonour". Since this covered every rational cause, all that was left was the utterly irrational suicide "without cause", and that was punishable on the grounds that "whoever does not spare himself would much less spare another". In other words, it was punished because it was irrational, not because it was a crime. There were other exceptions but they were even more strictly practical: it was a crime for a slave to kill himself for the simple reason that he represented to his master a certain capital investment. Like a car, a slave was guaranteed against faults: hidden physical blemishes, a suicidal or criminal nature. If he killed himself, or attempted to, within six months of his purchase he could be returned – alive or dead – to his old master and the deal was declared invalid. In the same way, a soldier was considered to be the property of the State and his suicide was tantamount to desertion. Roman law, that is, took literally the two similes – the soldier and the chattel – which Socrates had used so eloquently. Finally, it was also an offence for a criminal to take his own life in order to avoid trial for a crime for which the punishment would be forfeiture of his estate. In this case, a suicide was declared to be without legal heirs. The relatives, however, were allowed to defend the accused as though he were still alive; if he were found innocent, they then retained their inheritance; if not, it went to the State. In short, in Roman law the crime of suicide was strictly economic. It was an offence neither against morality nor religion, only against the capital investments of the slave-owning class or the treasury of the State.
♥ The persecution of the early Christians was less religious and political than a perversion of their own seeking. For the sophisticated Roman magistrates Christian obstinacy was mostly an embarrassment: as when the Christians refused to make the token gestures towards established religion which would save their lives or, failing that, refused to avail themselves of the convenient pause between judgement and execution in which to escape. Embarrassment moved into irritation when the would-be martyrs, student revolutionary tacticians before their day, responded to clemency with provocation. And it finished with boredom: an African proconsul surrounded by a mob of Christians baying for martyrdom shouted to them: "Goe hang and drown your selves and ease the Magistrate." Others, no less bored, were less forbearing. The glorious company of martyrs came to number thousands of men, women and children who were beheaded, burned alive, flung from cliffs, roasted on gridirons and hacked to pieces – all more or less gratuitously, of their own free will, as so many deliberate acts of provocation. Martyrdom was a Christian creation as much as a Roman persecution.
♥ Augustine's large authority and the excesses of the presumptive martyrs finally swung opinion against suicide. In AD 533 the Council of Orleans denied funeral rites to anyone who killed himself while accused of a crime. And in doing so, they were not merely following Roman law which had been formulated to safeguard the State's rights to the suicide's inheritance. Instead, they were condemning suicide both as a crime in itself and also a crime more serious than others, since ordinary criminals were still allowed a properly Christian burial. Thirty years later this seriousness was recognized without qualification by Canon Law. In 562 at the Council of Braga funeral rites were refused to all suicides regardless of social position, reason or method. The final step was taken in 693 by the Council of Toledo, which ordained that even the attempted suicide should be excommunicated.
♥ As for the sin against charity, Aquinas means that instinctive charity each man bears towards himself – that is, the instinct of self-preservation which man has in common with the lower animals; to go against that is a mortal sin since it is to go against nature.*
* It isn't. Glanville Williams quotes a learned source to show that dogs sometimes commit suicides, "usually by drowning or by refusing good, for a number of reasons – generally when the animal is cast out from the household, but also from regret or remorse or even from sheer ennui. Animal suicide of these kinds is capable of being regarded as a manifestation of intelligence.
♥ ..to love one's neighbour as oneself makes no sense if to kill oneself is also permitted. Yet the fact remained that suicide, thinly disguised as martyrdom, was the rock on which the Church had first been founded. So perhaps the absoluteness with which the sin was condemned and the horrors of the vengeance visited on the dead bodies of the suicides were directly proportional to the power the act exerted on the Christian imagination, and to the lingering temptation to escape the snares of the flesh by the shortest, most certain way. Thus when the Albigensians, in the early thirteenth century, followed the example of the early saints and suicidally sought martyrdom, they were thought only to have compounded the damnation their other heresies had already earned them. In doing so, they justified the terrible savagery with which they were butchered.
♥ The shift is from the individual to society, from morals to problems. Socially, the gains were enormous: the legal penalties gradually dropped away; the families of successful suicides no longer found themselves disinherited and tainted with the suspicion of inherited insanity; they could bury their dead and grieve for them in much the same way as any other bereaved. As for the unsuccessful suicide, he faced neither the gallows nor prison but, at worst, a period of observation in a psychiatric ward; more often, he faced nothing more piercing than his own continuing depression.
Existentially, however, there were also losses. The Church's condemnation of self-murder, however brutal, was based at least on concern for the suicide's soul. In contrast, a great deal of modern scientific tolerance appears to be founded on human indifference. The act is removed from the realm of damnation only at the price of being transformed into an interesting but purely intellectual problem, beyond obloquy but also beyond tragedy and morality. There seems to me remarkably little gap between the idea of death as fascination, slightly erotic happening on a television screen and that of suicide as an abstract sociological problem. Despite all the talk of prevention, it may be that the suicide is rejected by the social scientist as utterly as he was by the most dogmatic Christian theologians. Thus even the author of the entry on suicide in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics writes, with unconcealed relief: "Perhaps the greatest contribution of modern times to the rational treatment of the matter is the consideration... that many suicides are non-moral and entirely the affair of the specialist in mental diseases." The implication is clear: modern suicide has been removed from the vulnerable, volatile world of human beings and hidden safely away in the isolation wards of science.
♥ It used to be thought, for example, that suicide was inextricably mixed with young love. The paradigm was Romeo and Juliet – youthful, idealistic and passionate. Yet statistically, the chances of Romeo and Juliet succeeding in taking their own lives are far smaller than those of King Lear, who died of natural causes, or of Gloucester, who only attempted the act. The incidence of successful suicide rises with age and reaches its peak between the ages of fifty-five and sixty-five. In comparison, the young are great attempters; their peak is between twenty-five and forty-four. It may be that the old succeed because they are more knowing and more careful, whereas the young act impetuously, on the wave of emotion. But I suspect that something more radical is involved: if, as Professor Erwin Stengel believes, attempted suicide is a cry for help, then the young, even in their self-destruction, remain optimistic. Although they may be more vulnerable than their elders, they still believe, like Mr Micawber, that something or someone will turn up. In plot, Romeo and Juliet is a misfired comedy, just as The Winter's Tale is a misfired and redeemed tragedy. The old who, like Lear, are often without friends or family or employment, and may be suffering from an incurable disease, are under no such illusion. In short, the real fallacy, which science is unlikely to disprove, is that of the serenity of old age.
Romeo and Juliet also embody another popular misconception: that of the suicidal great passion. It seems that those who die for love usually do so by mistake and ill-luck. It is said that the London police can always distinguish, among the corpses fished out of the Thames, between those who have drowned themselves because of unhappy love affairs and those drowned for debt. The fingers of the lovers are almost invariably lacerated by their attempts to save themselves by clinging to the piers of the bridges. In contrast, the debtors apparently go down like slabs of concrete, without struggle and without afterthought.
♥ The belief that suicide is somehow connected with winter is, presumably, a remnant of our superstitious fear of the act as a deed of darkness, and also of a vague, childish omnipotence which says that the weather of the soul is reflected in the skies. In fact, in the gloomy month of November the suicide-rate is approaching its annual low. The cycle of self-destruction follows precisely that of nature: it declines in autumn, reaches its low in mid-winter and then begins to rise slowly with the sap; its climax is in early summer, May and June; in July it gradually begins once more to drop. Even Professor Stengel, a most humane and sensitive authority, is puzzled by this phenomenon. He suggests that it may be linked with "the rhythmical biological changes which play an important part in animal life although they are much less conspicuous in man". It seems to me more likely that the opposite is true: the impulse to take one's life increases in the spring not because of any mysterious biological changes but because of the lack of them. Instead of change, there is stasis:
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
A suicidal depression is a kind of spiritual winter, frozen, sterile, unmoving. The richer, softer and more delectable nature becomes, the deeper that internal winter seems, and the wider and more intolerable the abyss which separates the inner world from the outer. Thus suicide becomes a natural reaction to an unnatural condition. Perhaps this is why, for the depressed, Christmas is so hard to bear. In theory it is an oasis of warmth and light in an unforgiving season, like a lighted window in a storm. For those who have to stay outside, it accentuates, like spring, the distinction between public warmth and festivity, and cold, private despair.
♥ A country credited with suicide as a kind of national reflex action is automatically made ridiculous. In the eighteenth century, Europe's clownish spiritual scapegoats were the British, perched on the edge of continental civilization in an impossible climate, cutting their own throats, shooting and hanging themselves on the least provocation. As Lawrence Sterne noted ironically, "They order this matter better in France."
In our own cerntyury, the blame has been shiftred oin to the Swedes, whom Presiden Eisenhower singled out as a terrible warning of what too much social welfatre can do. He seems to have been more than usually badly briefed. The present suicide-rate in Sweden is about the same as it was in 1910, before the social welfare schemes began. ..The Swedes, perhaps because their steady neutrality has kept them out of the insane wars in which the rest of the world has so long been embroiled, have inherited an international prejudice which was once bestowed on the English. Like their weather, they are thought to be gloomy, frigid and unpredictable. Yet it turns out that these characteristics do little to encourage the suicide-rate. The Norwegians, who have much the same weather as the Swedes, have a particularly low rate, while the Finns – whom everyone, except the Russians, admires, and whom even the Swedes think of as an imaginative, outgoing lot – have the second highest suicide-rate in the world. The real storm-centre seems to have shifted to the relatively temperate and culturally sophisticated countries of Central Europe: Hungary has the highest national rate; Austria and Czechoslovakia are third and fourth. Maybe some culture-hating spokesman of the silent majority will yet make political capital out of that phenomenon.
♥ Only one generalization is wholly certain and generally agreed: that the official statistics reflect at best only a fraction of the real figures, which various authorities reckon to be anything between a quarter and half as large again. Religious and bureaucratic prejudices, family sensitivity, the vagaries and differences in the proceedings of coroners' courts and post-mortem examinations, the shadowy distinctions between suicides and accidents – in short, personal, official and traditional unwillingness to recognize the act for what it is – all help to pervert and diminish our knowledge of the extent to which suicide pervades society.
..For suicide to be recognized for what it is, there must be an unequivocal note or a setting so unambiguous as to leave the survivors no alternatives: all the windows sealed and a cushion under the dead head in front of the unlit gas-fire. Without these signs the corpse is always given the benefit of the doubt, probably for the first time, almost certainly for the first time he would not have wanted it. For suicide is, after all, the result of a choice. However impulsive the action and confused the motives, at the moment when a man finally decides to take his own life he achieves a certain temporary clarity. Suicide may be a declaration of bankruptcy which passes judgement on a life as one long history of failures. But it is a history which also amounts at least to this one decision which, by its very finality, is not wholly a failure. Some kind of minimal freedom – the freedom to die in one's own way and in one's own time – has been salvaged from the wreck of all those unwanted necessities. Perhaps this is why totalitarian states feel cheated when their victims take their own lives. "Is it conceivable," asked Pavese, "to murder someone in order to count for something in his life? Then it is conceivable to kill oneself so as to count for something in one's own life. Here's the difficulty about suicide: it is an act of ambition that can be committed only when one has passed beyond ambition. To have that last, partial and lop-sided triumph turned, for reasons of decency and bureaucracy, into a malicious accident is to compound failures with final failure.
♥ The Cold-Bath-Laxative-and-Prayer School is with us still in the shape of the two most sturdy fallacies: that those who threaten to kill themselves never do; that those who have attempted once never try again. Both beliefs are false. Stengel estimates that seventy-five per cent of successful and would-be suicides give clear warning of their intentions beforehand, and are often driven to the act because their warnings are ignored or brushed aside or, like Mayakovsky's, treated as mere bravado. At a certain point of despair a man will kill himself in order to show he is serious. It is also estimated that a person who has once been to the brink is perhaps three times more likely to go there again than someone who has not. Suicide is like diving off a high board: the first time is the worst.
♥ In the end, the suicide is rejected because he is so completely rejecting. All the traditional fallacies are ways of denying his sour Pyrrhic victory and robbing it of meaning. Thus suicide is said to be the prerogative of the young, who don't know any better and are, anyway, drunk with their own feelings; or it is the product of bad weather and national quirks – both circumstances, as they say, beyond our control; or those who really do it are never those who talk, and therefore think, about it – which implies that it comes out of nowhere like an act of God, a thunderbolt striking down its unwitting victim suddenly and without warning, "white the balance of mind was disturbed". And like thunder, where it has struck once it never strikes again. Each fallacy is a strategy for devaluing an act that cannot be denied or reversed.
♥ In his battle to pierce the fences of moral indignation which surrounded suicide, making it irrational and undiscussable, [Emile Durkheim] insisted that every suicide could be classified scientifically as one of three general types – egoistic, altruistic, anomic – and that each type was the product of a specific social situation. Thus egoistic suicide occurs when the individual is not properly integrated into society but is, instead, thrown on to his own resources.
..The exact opposite of all this is "altruistic suicide". It occurs when an individual is so completely absorbed in the group that its goals and its identity become his. The tribe or religion or group has such "massive cohesion" that each member is willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of his beliefs..
..Both egoistic and altruistic suicide are related to the degree to which the individual is integrated into his society, too little or too much. Anomic suicide, on the other hand, is the result of a change in a man's social position so sudden that he is unable to cope with his new situation. Great, unexpected wealth or great, unexpected poverty – a big win on the pools or a stock market crash – a searing divorce or even a death in the family can thrust a man into a world where his old habits are no longer adequate, his old needs no longer satisfied. Instead of his society being too slackly or harshly structured, it seems no longer structured at all. He kills himself because, for better or worse, his accustomed world has been destroyed and he is lost.
..The broad effect of Durkheim's masterpiece was to insist that suicide was not an irredeemable moral crime but a fact of society, like the birth-rate or the rate of productivity; it had social causes which were subject to discernible laws and could be discussed and analysed rationally. At the pessimistic worst, it was a social disease, like unemployment, which could be cured by social means. Granted, Durkheim wrote before Freud. Granted, too, his range and interests were large enough and subtle enough to have ensured that he would have used the insights of psycho-analysis had they been available to him at the time. Yet his influence on the lesser men who have followed him has been curiously deadening. Perhaps because his authority was so massive, they seem to have accepted the latter of his law, rather than its spirit. As a result, the more that has been written, the narrower the field has become.
♥ No doubt the fault does partly lie with a society which takes as little notice as it decently can of the elderly, the sick, the unstable, the foreign and the drifting. Yet it is also true that the suicide creates his own society: to shut yourself off from other people in some dingy, rented box and stare, like Melville's Bartleby, day in and day out at the dead wall outside your window is in itself a rejection of the world which is said to be rejecting you. It is a way of saying, like Bartleby, "I prefer not to": to every offer and every possibility, which is a condition no amount of social engineering will cure. The best the sociologist can hope for is that his findings and recommendations will lengthen the odds against the private final solution.
♥ Poor Fanny. Maybe the final insult was to write off her long history of degradation with such a pat and trivial explanation. The facts so baldly stated by Dr von Andics make her sound like a character from Zola. She is no longer young and is presumably unattractive – had she been otherwise the men on the site would surely have treated her more gently despite union principles. She is so poor that she not only works as a manual labourer, she also accepts less than the already derisory wages (derisory since the period is the Great Depression). She can't even afford fuel to heat her room at night. It is a question, in short, of a poverty so grinding that it erodes her identity: being a woman didn't save her from labouring like a man; it didn't save her from being despised by the men she laboured with and getting less pay; it didn't finally save her from being beaten up as though she really were a man. When she seemed to have touched bottom, the punch forced her down still further. After that, there was nothing left and nowhere to go except death. Whatever else, it adds up to something more than "injured self-esteem" and "mortification".
Or maybe it adds up to less. The social meanings which even a psychiatrist like Dr von Andics extrapolates from the suicidal act may explain something of its local and immediate causes; but they say nothing at all of the long, slow, hidden processes that lead up to it. "An act like this," said Camus, "is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art."
♥ Like divorce, suicide is a confession of failure. And like divorce, it is shrouded in excuses and rationalizations soundlessly to disguise the simple fact that all one's energy, passion, appetite and ambition have been aborted. Those who survive suicide, like those who make a new marriage, survive into a changed life, with different standards and motives and satisfactions.
♥ It goes without saying that external misery has relatively little to do with suicide. The figures are higher in the wealthy industrialized countries than in the underdeveloped, higher among the comfortable professional middle classes than among the poor; they were extraordinarily low in the Nazi concentration camps. Indeed, deprivation can be a stimulus.
..In short, given a certain temperament, adversity sharpens the spirit and reinforces the urge to survive, as though out of a kind of bloody-mindedness.*
* The most extreme example of this is described by a psychiatrist, who observed that many people with neurotic or psychotic complaints fared remarkably well in the concentration camps: "As regards patients suffering from anxiety, one might think that anxiety has become canalized through the actual causes of terror, which of course were abundant. Realistic anxiety in these cases took the place of neurotic anxiety. The improvement of patients with depressive symptoms might be explained by the fact that their need for punishment had been gratified through the frightful circumstances, just as a depressive state may often improve when an organic disease develops." He also has an explanation for the low suicide-rate in the Nazi camps: "I observed only four suicide attempts, three of the victims of which were saved only with great effort. This seems a low number in a group of approximately 3, 000 persons living under such terrifying circumstances. However, in my opinion this can be explained by the fact that if, under these conditions, somebody had no desire to continue life, no active deed of self-murder was necessary; the only thing one had to do was... to give up the grim struggle for life; i.e. the struggle to do everything possible to obtain food and keep up one's spirits. If one did give this up, then death came by itself.
♥ In other words, a suicide's excuses are mostly by the way. At best they assuage the guilt of the survivors, soothe the tidy-minded and encourage the sociologists in their endless search for convincing categories and theories. They are like a trivial border incident which triggers off a major war. The real motives which impel a man to take his own life are elsewhere; they belong to the internal world, devious, contradictory, labyrinthine, and mostly out of sight.
♥ The Freudian analyst, Karl Menninger, has said that there are three components of suicide: the wish to kill, the wish to be killed, the wish to die. Kleinian theory would suggest that each of these processes is highly complex, ambiguous and rarely separate from the others. For instance, a man may wish to kill only some aspect of himself under the illusion that its death will free some other part to live. In part he wishes to kill, in part to be killed. But in part death itself is by the way; what is at issue is not self-murder but an extreme act of placation which will restore some injured part of himself to health and enable it to flourish: "If thy eye offend thee, pluck it out." But for the suicide, overwhelmed by his obscure and obscuring sense of inner chaos and worthlessness, the "eye", the part, is his life itself as he is leading it. He casts away his life in order properly to live.
This psychic double-take occurs when in what seem to be the crudest cases of aggression. The angry child who says to his parents, "I'll die and then you'll be sorry", is not merely seeking revenge. He is also projecting the guilt and anger that possesses him on to those who control his life. In other words, he is defending himself from his own hostility by the mechanism of projective identification; he becomes the victim, they are persecutors. Similarly, but in a more sophisticated level, a man may take his own life because he feels the destructive elements inside him are no longer to be borne; so he sheds them at the expense of the guilt and confusion of his survivors. But what is left, he hopes, is a purified, idealized image of himself which lives on like the memory of all those noble Romans who fell on their own swords with equanimity for the sake of their principles, their reputations and their proper name in history. Without those high Roman ideals, suicide is simply the most extreme and brutal way of making sure that you will not readily be forgotten.
♥ But what of the survivors? On the evidence of fifty attempted suicides, two New York psychiatrists made an interesting discovery: in ninety-five per cent of all their cases there had been "the death or loss under dramatic and often tragic circumstances of individuals closely related to the patient, generally parents, siblings, and mates. In 75 per cent of our cases, the deaths had taken place before the patient had complected adolescence. They call this pattern "the death trend".
..But this has always been the recognized syndrome in those strange, periodic epidemics of suicide which break out from time to time: for example, the maidens of Miletos who, according to Plutarch, rushed to hang themselves until one of the city elders suggested shaming their bodies by carrying them through the marketplace – whereupon vanity, if not sanity, prevailed; or the fifteen wounded soldiers in Les Invalides Hospital in Paris who hanged themselves from the same hook in 1772 – the epidemic stopped when the hook was removed; or the thousands of Russian peasants who burned themselves to death in the seventeenth century in the belief that the Antichrist was coming; or the hundreds of Japanese who threw themselves into the crater of Mihara-Yama from 1933 until access to the mountain was closed in 1935; or all those Chicagoans who jumped off "Suicides' Bridge" until the authorities, in despair, finally tore the thing down. In each case, one dramatic example was enough to spark off a crazy chain reaction.
But the idea of "the death trend" seems also to imply something subtler and less quirky. The process of mourning, Freud thought, was completed when whatever had been lost, for whatever reason, was somehow restored to life within the ego of the mourner. But when the loss occurs at a particularly vulnerable age, the slow process of introjection becomes not only more difficult but also more hazardous. Every child who loses a parent, or someone loved equally passionately and helplessly, must cope as best he can with a confusion of guilt and anger and his outraged sense of abandonment; since in his innocence he does not understand this, his natural grief is made doubly painful. In order to relieve himself of this apparently gratuitous and inappropriate hostility, he splits it off from himself and projects it on to the lost figure. As a result, it is possible that when the fantasied identification finally takes place it is invested with all sorts of unmanageable horror. Thereafter, hidden away in some locked cupboard of the mind, he carries the murderous dead thing within him, an unappeased Doppelgänger, not to be placated, crying out to be heard, and ready to emerge at every crisis.
Perhaps, then, "the death trend" appears later in life as that curious impregnability of so many suicides, their imperviousness to solace. Luke sleep-walkers or those who were once thought to be possessed by devils, their life is elsewhere, their movements are controlled from some dark and unrecognized centre. It is as though their one real purpose were to find a proper excuse to take their own lives. SO, however convincing the immediate causes, imaginary rewards and blind provocations of their final suicide, the act, successful or not, is fundamentally an attempt at exorcism.
♥ What matters is the implications for the tone of Freud's whole conception of the human personality. He outlined his theory of the death instinct in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which he began in 1919 and finished in 1920. The dates are important. Behind all the clinical examples and the now disproved biological theories was evidence of a larger and more undeniable kind: the vast and senseless destruction of the First World War to which Freud, who later called himself a pacifist, reacted with horror and despair. So perhaps the death instinct was not just a question of "primary aggression"; it entailed also the primary pessimism of a supremely civilized man who had watched appalled while the whole civilization he so passionately believed in began to fall to pieces.
♥ Since then, the theory of a death instinct working constantly away to disrupt and destroy has fathered considerable power as a kind of historical metaphor. Sixty odd years of genocide and intermittent war between super-powers which, like Freud's diseased super-ego, have become progressively harsher, more repressive and totalitarian, have made the modified ego-gratifications of civilization seem peculiarly fragile. The response of the arts has been to reduce the pleasure principle to its most archaic forms – manic, naked, beyond culture. The new strategy of aesthetic sophistication is primitivism: tribal rhythms on every radio, fertility rites on the stage, real or televized Gold Coast customs in the living-room, concrete poets grunting and oinking beyond language and beyond expression, avant-garde musicians exploring the possibilities of random noise, painters immortalizing industrial waste, radical politicians modelling their behaviour on the clowns of a Roman saturnalia, and a youth culture devoted to the gradual, chronic suicide of drug addiction. As the pleasure principle becomes less pleasurable and more manic, so the death instinct seems more powerful and ubiquitous: every perspective closes with the possibility of international suicide by nuclear warfare. It is as though the discontents of civilization itself had now reached that point of extreme suicidal melancholia which Freud so eloquently described: "What is now holding sway in the super-ego is, as it were, a pure culture of the death instinct and in fact it often enough succeeds in driving the ego into death, if the latter does not fend off its tyrant in time by the change round into mania." Shakespeare, too, described the same process, though in a less technical way:
So every scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue,
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die.
In both languages, the outlook is bleak. "Of the world as it exists," wrote Theodor Adorno, "one cannot be enough afraid
♥ The psycho-analytic theories of suicide, prove, perhaps, only that was already obvious: that the processes which lead a man to take his own life are at least as complex and difficult as those by which he continues to live. The theories help untangle the intricacy of motive and define the deep ambiguity of the wish to die but they say little about what it means to be suicidal, and how it feels.
♥ The world of the suicide is superstitious, full of omens. Freud saw suicide as a great passion, like being in love: "In the two opposed situations of being most intensely in love and of suicide the ego is overwhelmed by the object, though in totally different ways." As in love, things which seem trivial to the outsider, tiresome or amusing, assume enormous importance to those in the grip of the monster, while the sanest arguments against it seem to him simply absurd.
♥ Although the speaker is well into a successful middle age, the injured and rejected child she had once been still lives powerfully on. Perhaps it is this element which makes the closed world of suicide so inescapable: the wounds of the past, like those of the Fisher King, will not heal over – the ego, the analysts would say, is too fragile – instead, they continually push themselves to the surface to obliterate the modified pleasures and acceptances of the present. The life of the suicide is, to an extraordinary degree, unforgiving. Nothing he achieves by his own efforts, or luck bestows, reconciles him to his injurious past.
♥ This is summed up in an eerie note found in an empty house in Hampstead: "Why suicide? Why not?"
Why not? The pleasures of living – the hedonistic pleasures of the five senses, the more complex and demanding pleasures of concentration and doing, even the unanswerable commitments of love – seem often no greater and mostly less frequent than the frustrations – the continual sense of unfinished and unfinishable business, jangled, anxious, ragged, overborne. If secularized man were lot going only by the pleasure principle, the human race would already be extinct.
♥ Mandelstam was, in fact, rearrested and died in a forced-labour camp somewhere in Siberia. Yet right up to the end he refused his wife's alternative: "Whenever I talked of suicide, M. used to say: "Why hurry? The end is the same everywhere, and here they even hasten it for you." Death was so much more real, and so much simpler than life, that we all involuntarily tried to prolong our earthly existence, even if only for a few brief moments – just in case the next day brought some relief! In war, in the camps and during periods of terror, people think much less about death (let alone about suicide) than when they are living normal lives. Whenever at some point on earth mortal terror and the pressure of utterly insoluble problems are present in a particularly intense form, general questions about the nature of being recede into the background. How could we stand in awe before the forces of nature and the eternal laws of existence if terror of a mundane kind was felt so tangibly in everyday life? In a strange way, despite the horror of it, this also gave a certain richness to our lives. Who knows what happiness is? Perhaps it is better to talk in more concrete terms of the fullness of intensity of existence, and in this sense there may have been something more deeply satisfying in our desperate clinging to life than in what people generally strive for."
♥ A shift of focus in one's life, a sudden loss or separation, a single irreversible act can suffice to make the whole process intolerable. Perhaps this is what is implied by the phrase "suicide when the balance of mind was disturbed". It is, of course, a legal formula evolved to protect the dead man from the law and to spare the feelings and insurance benefits of his family. But it also has a certain existential truth: without the checks of belief, the balance between life and death can be perilously delicate.
♥ But there is also another, perhaps more numerous, class of suicides to whom the idea of taking their own lives is utterly repugnant. These are the people who will do everything to destroy themselves, except admit that that is what they are after; they will, that is, do everything except take the final responsibility for their actions. Hence all those cases of what Karl Menninger calls "chronic suicide", the alcoholics and drug addicts who kill themselves slowly and piecemeal, all the while protesting that they are merely making the necessary stops to make an intolerable life tolerable. Hence, too, those thousands of inexplicable fatal accidents – the good drivers who die in car crashes, the careful pedestrians who get themselves run over – which never make the suicide statistics. The image recurs of then same climber in the same unforgiving situation. In the grip of some depression he may not even recognize, he could die almost without knowing it.
♥ Yet, in fact, the girl was genuinely inconnue. All that is known of her is that she was fished out of the Seine and exposed on a block of ice in the Paris Morgue, along with a couple of hundred other corpses waiting identification. She was never claimed but someone was sufficiently impressed by her peaceful smile to take a death-mask. On the evidence of her hair-style, Sacheverell Sitwell believes this happened not later than the early 1880s.
It is also possible that it never happened at all. In another version of the story a researcher, unable to obtain information at the Paris Morgue, followed her trail to the German source of the plaster-casts. At the factory he met the Inconnue herself, alive and well and living in Hamburg, the daughter of the now prosperous manufacturer of her image.
There is, however, no doubt at all about her cult. It seemed to attract young people between the two world wars in much the same way as drugs call them now: to opt out before they start, to give up a struggle that frightens them in a world they find distasteful, and to slide away into a deep inner dream. Death by drowning and blowing your mind with dope, amount, in fantasy, to the same thing: the sweetness, shadow and easy release of a successful regression. So the cult of the Inconnue flourished in the absence of all facts, perhaps it even flourished because there were no facts. Like a Rorschach blot, her dead face was the receptacle for any feelings the onlookers wanted to project into it. And like the Sphinx and the Mona Lisa, the power of the Inconnue was in her smile – subtle, oblivious, promising peace. Not only was she out of it all, beyond troubles, beyond responsibilities, she had also remained beautiful; she had retained the quality the young most fear to lose – their youth. Although Sitwell credits to her influence an epidemic of suicide among the young people of Evreux. I suspect she may have saved more lives than she destroyed: to know that it can be done, that the option really exists and is even becoming, is usually enough to relieve a mildly suicidal anxiety. In the end, the function of the Romantic suicide cult is to be a focus for wandering melancholy; almost nobody actually dies.
The expression on the face of the Inconnue implies that her death was both easy and painless. These, I think, are the twin qualities, almost ideals, which distinguish modern suicide from that of the past.
♥ Ever since hemlock, for whatever obscure reason, went out of general use, the act has always entailed great physical violence. The Romans fell on their swords or, at best, cut their wrists in hot baths; even the fastidious Cleopatra allowed herself to be bitten by a snake. In the eighteenth century the kind of violence you used depended on the class you came from: gentlemen usually took their lives with pistols, the lower classes hanged themselves. Later it became fashionable to drown yourself or endure the convulsions and agonies of cheap poisons like arsenic and strychnine. Perhaps the ancient, superstitious horror of suicide persisted so long because the violence made it impossible to disguise the nature of the act. Peace and oblivion were not in question; suicide was as unequivocally a violation of life as murder.
Modern drugs and domestic gas have changed all that. They have not only made suicide more or less painless, they have also made it seem magical. A man who takes a knife and slices deliberately across his throat is murdering himself. But when someone lies down in front of an unlit gas-fire or swallows sleeping pills, he seems not so much to be dying as merely seeking oblivion for a while. Dostoievsky's Kirilov said that there are only two reasons why we do not all kill ourselves: pain and the fear of the next world. We seem, more or less, to have got rid of both. In suicide, as in most other areas of activity, there has been a technological breakthrough which has made a cheap and relatively painless death democratically available to everyone. Perhaps this is why the subject now seems so central and so demanding, why even governments spend a little money on finding its causes and possible means of prevention. We already have suicidology; all we mercifully lack, for the moment, is a thorough-going philosophical rationale of the act itself. No doubt it will come. But perhaps that is only as it should be in a period in which global suicide by nuclear warfare is permanent possibility.