On Suicide

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the
Snow – First – Chill – then Stupor –
then the letting go –

—Emily Dickinson

One can study this notion for a lifetime, and many have, without ever coming to a conclusion other than a personal one. Yet, I’ve often thought of that, too. After two thousand years of Christian civilization in which suicide was both condemned and outlawed, and now for two hundred years where the secular authorities no longer outlaw it but have condemned it to the couch of psychoanalysts everywhere as a mental disorder one realizes that we’re still under the shadow of ancient codes of theological bullshit.

I dream of an age of forgetfulness, an age when once again one can celebrate the going out of existence as much as we celebrate its birth in children arising out of the womb. The ancient Celts used to hold joyous celebrations and wakes in the memory of the departed, recounting their lives and deeds with family, friends, and acquaintances in a joyful send off rather than some dark and foreboding affair of tears.

Even as a pessimist who sees birth and death as equally aspects of something that should not be, I still find the notion of celebration rather than some false sense of Christian or Secular tearfest to be both more beneficial and given over to the act of deliberate freedom and uncreation. Having suicide become just as much a part of the social mix of celebration seems only fitting in a world that for too long has both condemned and outlawed this one act of defiance and freedom against the laws of God and Man.

How many here would rather such a fitting end—celebrating one’s life, while realizing that the body’s suffering and torment should finally be spared and divested; all the while preparing for such a departure not in horror and tears, but in laughter and shared joy? I’ll bet that most people even if they were raised secular would still see this as a bit strange. But why? Why wouldn’t the celebration of freedom as an act of self-divestiture of suffering and pain be condemned rather than celebrated? Why is our culture so blatantly shame based that to look on death and suicide as an act either against some false theological order, or as some kind of disease of the mind in a secular order be any better.

Will we ever create a third order, a new world view in which birth and death are both celebrated as festivals of mutation, transformation, and metamorphosis? Or will be we be condemned to this dark religion or secular shame forever?

The Study of Annihilation: On Suicide

To be, or not to be, that is the question : Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them ? To die, to sleep, No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep; To sleep! perchance to dream : ay, there’s the rub.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet, III, 1.

And often through fear of death men come to hate life and the sight of the sun so bitterly  that in a burst of grief they kill themselves, forgetting it was this fear that caused their cares, troubled their conscience, broke their bonds of friendship, and overturned all sense of decency.

Death, then, is nothing, concerns us not one bit, since the soul has proved to be a mortal thing.

—Lucretius, On the Nature of Things 

The Greek and Roman world thought of suicide as an heroic act, while for the most part Western Christendom saw it as a form of taboo punishable by eternal damnation etc.. Our modern secular age beginning with Durkheim has turned a critical eye onto this self-annihilation as a sociological phenomenon to be studied, while after Freud it became a part of the science of suicidology. There are so many theories as to why people take their own lives. Our strange and emotional religious or even rationalist heritages have reams of information surrounding this most intimate form of death. My father once he discovered he had cancer and less than three months to live came home one day and grabbed his shotgun out of the closet, sat down and drank most of a fifth of scotch, then proceeded to take his own life. I want go further… many literary poets, writers, artists, thinkers in recent decades have done the same. For we who survive such traumas of loved ones the question is always: Why? Why would they do such a thing? Isn’t life worth living to the bitter end? Or is suicide against the pain and suffering of a slow inevitable death the better course? I want even go into the belief systems of war and terrorist bombers, etc. I began gathering a list of books on such morbidity:

Emile Durkheim’s classic: On Suicide
Philippe Aries: The Hour of Our Death
Georges Minois: History of Suicide
Edwin Schniedman: An Autopsy of a Suicide
Ron Brown: The Art of Suicide
Marzio Barbagli: Farewell to the World
Susan Stefan: Rational Suicide, Irrational Laws
Sarah Perry: Every Cradle is a Grave
James R. Lewis: Sacred Suicide
Gary Lachman: Literary Suicides

Of course there are tons of other works, and one could discover in the philosophical history of suicide from Socrates enforced use of Hemlock to the recent death of Mark Fisher… questions, questions, questions… there’s even a whole literature devoted to publishing suicide notes. I think of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, John Berryman or James Wright… one could write a never-ending litany to suicide in our time… In the histories we discover that after the fact cultures have either promoted it or anathematized and criminalized it. Our secular age has tried to psychologize it into its own scientized discourses as a disease of the mind, etc. I doubt the one’s who actually go down that path have an answer beyond the need to escape a certain hellish existence that has become too unbearable whether mentally or physically. Most of the literature on it is for survivors, not the perpetrators of the act.

In my own mind as I grow older and the gravitas of existence wears my body into dust I begin to think through such options… to be, or not to be: that truly is the question; and, one I will sooner or later have to face in extremis. Of course we can as well work through the positive and negative literature, weigh all the options as if one were meting out gold on the scales of Maat (the Egyptian goddess of life/death), else leave the option on the table of indefinable solutions – a sort of one-off Dadaist movement of imaginary solutions to indefinable problems. Comic or tragic, a choice of styles in mental hygiene; or, pragmatic resolution to the disruption of existence itself. There probably is no justification either way, and like all criminal acts it is done in solitude against the social milieu or its habituated judgments. Each of us faces death alone and in solitude, whether we have others surrounding us or not. For millennia we as cultural creatures built up grand narratives and traditions to stage this movement and transition out of existence. In the secular age the myth turned to annihilation, or a blank pit of nothingness; the meaningless end of a meaningless life in a universe of self-destructive energy turned bitter cold in the zero wastes of utter darkness. Who can say which is better? The religious comfort of hopeful illusions of paradisial realms of eternal life, or the extreme annihilation offered by the secular priests of atheism where death is a dreamless sleep of eternity. No one has returned to offer an opinion one way or the other…