“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Modern way to commit Suicide

“In 1718, at Chateau-Gontier, a young pregnant girl having poisoned herself, the cadaver, from the time of the beginning of the trial, was exhumed and imprisoned in a jail”. Then it was dragged, head down, through the streets of the village, hung by its feet, and at last “placed on a bonfire and reduced to ashes.” I don’t know of another case where the penalty of burning was applied. The sentence of Chateau-Gontier specified that the ashes would be thrown to the wind and the child would be, before this, extracted from the cadaver to be buried with the stillborns.

The is even examples of condemnation in cases of suicide attempts. In 1777, the Journal of Paris told the story of a man who, having tried to hang himself, was condemned to the galleys for life and was only acquitted on appeal. Voltaire, in the Philosophical Dictionary, speaks of a man who, having “made several light cuts on himself with a knife, like the charlatans, in order to obtain some recompense”, was condemned to be hung by a decree of Parliament.”
Bayet, Le Suicide et le morale, 632.

LI has been reading Georges Minois’ History of Suicide with mixed feelings. Minois is very good at gathering together sources. But his comments are very flatheaded. I’m using it mostly to poke around in the references. But the information in the Minois book does pose some puzzles if you are interested in suicide as the manifestation of something deeper going on in a culture. For instance, Minois uses the work of Guy Barreau on suicides in Brittany during the 18th century. Barreau maintains that the records show that women account for five times more suicides than men. That is truly unusual – men almost always outnumber women as suicides, usually by a considerable amount. Another striking statistical fact comes via a survey of suicides in England between 1541 and 1799. Children under 14 account for the highest percentage of suicides, an amazing 30 percent. Minois’ notion is that, at least in the eighteenth century, this might reflect the truly horrendous conditions of apprentices and working children. Even in the list of Breton suicides, many of them are young, and are described like this:


29 November 1769. A young girl of fifteen, Francoise Royer, drowned herself at Fougeres. She had for some tie been abused by her mother, who sent her out to beg, gave her hardly enough to eat, threw her out into the street in the middle of the night calling her a whore, and beat her with a stick. The mother showed no sorrow at her daughter’s death: It’s the devil who broke her neck, but she’s over seven, she isn’t under my care anymore… There she is, the great she-devil, she was looking for trouble and she found it… She’s a wretch, she told me so. It’s the evil spirit that whipped her.”


Blake’s Little Black boy among the snow/crying weep weep in notes of woe came from the very heart of the people.

It is suicide and love that unweave the net woven by reason and sympathy. The net in which we are caught.



Look at how Durkheim sorts his suicides. One sees, in the categories, glimmers of Tocqueville, particularly the analysis of American society. This is the egoist suicide:

“The more the groups to which he belongs are enfeebled, the less he depends on them, the more, in consequence, he stands on his own two feet in order not to recognize other rules of behavior than those which are founded on his own private interest. If, thus, one agrees to call egoism this state where the individual I affirms itself with excess in the face of the social I and at the expense of the latter, we can give the name egoi8st to the particular type of suicide that results from unlimited individuation.” Book ii, 69

Contrasted to Altruistic suicide:

“Thus, in all these cases [of warriors and widows sacrificing themselves], if a man kills himself it is not because he has seized that right for himself, but, which is very different, because he has a duty to do it. If he fails this obligation, he is punished by dishonor, and also, most often, by religious chastisements.” [77]

In Durkheim’s quadrivium of suicides (anomy, egoism, altruism, fatalism), it is obvious that the modern suicides fall under the anomy and egoism side, and the pre-moderns under the altruism and fatalism side. Yet, his statistics irritatingly refuse to give us a neat pattern, in which the modern simply succeeds the premodern. Instead, it lurks within the modern structures. Its dread name is woman – for women, in Durkheim’s statistics, stubbornly refuse to commit suicide for reasons of anomy and egotism, and commit suicide, after being all too integrated into the social, for reasons of altruism and fatalism. To explain this, Durkheim even has to allude to biology – not a very Durkheimian gesture. Women must have more primitive brains then men. That must be it.

However, Durkheim did not have good stats on suicide attempts. I wonder what he would have made of them? Esquirol was one of the first to distinguish suicides from suicide attempters, and estimated the suicide attempters as forty percent of the suicide total. In actuality, or at least in contemporary actuality, there are about three times as many attempters as successful suicides, and the majority of attempters are women.

Durkheim’s quadrivium of suicides is suggestive in another way, too – it ties into the imperial perspective. For the altruistic/fatalistic suicides are primitive, and when we find them, we can be sure the society is unhealthily laggard. From the suttee to the kamikaze pilot to the suicide bomber, this perspective still holds. The other/enemy still horrifies by being so imprisoned in the chains of feudalism, from which we have long ago liberated ourselves. Meanwhile, in the shadows cast by this structure, the altruistic/fatalistic type lurks. Every SAC bomber crew in the Cold War was expected, if the call came, to attack even knowing that the chance of survival was minimal – close to what the truck bomber might expect. Yet we never called this our suicide squadron. In fact, during the Cold War, it was often recognized, as a metaphor, that the missile policies of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were thinly disguised suicide threats. It was, in fact, writ large, the cutter’s fantasy, the bulemic’s fantasy.


One other note. According to Minois, the suicide letter was a mainly eighteenth century invention. Of course, this is partly due to the spread of literacy. But, Minois thinks, it is also due to the spread of secularization – more and more, the afterlife was not thought of in terms of heaven and hell. It was a vaguely pleasant place where one met one’s loved ones again (the idea that there was no giving or taking of wives and husband in the Kingdom of God – that radically anti-family idea from the radically anti-family Jesus – had long bit the dust), but just in case, one wanted to get in a word or two posthumously.

No comments: