substitutes and suicide

Durkheim’s book on suicide has generated a long history of controversy regarding its statistics, Durkheim’s attack on Tarde’s imitation model of suicide, his interpretation of the data according to sex, etc. Using Bertillion’s statistics, Durkheim was able to overthrow some myths – that, for instance, the English were prone to the English malady – it turned out that they had less of a rate of suicide than the Germans – or that married men were more prone to suicide than bachelors. The latter was a very deft statistical routine, since the misconception – statistically – rested on including, in the set of bachelors, boys below the marriageable age. When adjusted for men over eighteen, it turned out that married men were significantly less likely to kill themselves than bachelors, although the ratio was closer for married men in their twenties. As for women, well, women are less likely to kill themselves period – a fact born out since Durkheim. What Durkheim did not have the statistics on then is suicide attempts – and that, it turns out, is startling, since women are much more likely to attempt suicide.

Durkheim’s famous quadrangle of suicide categories, which he discerned beneath the statistics, classified suicides by two binaries: egoist vs. altruist, and anomie vs. fatalism. These divisions in turn rested on Durkheim’s perception of one large social fact – the degree of social integration.

There are a number of attacks on Durkheim’s thesis as vague, or Durkheim’s numbers as wrong. Jack Douglas, an early symbolic interactionist, for instance, disputed the numbers since, in Douglas’ view, suicide is undercounted, and disputed the anomie thesis, since in his view Durkheim was not giving enough weight to the social situation of the suicide case. He was mashing them all together. Other’s have attempted to revive Tarde’s notion of the imitation suicide – and indeed, there are indications that this happens. However, nobody really thinks that imitation is at the center of suicide, at least as Tarde conceived it.

The statistics on suicide and suicide attempts points to a rather fascinating social phenomenon, presaged in folk beliefs about suicide. According to Irina Pappano’s Suicide as a Cultural Institution in Dostoevsky’s Russia, there was a Slavic folk belief in the wandering dead, the zalozhnye pokoiniki,, who “are not fully dead: disembodied, they continue to serve the terms of their earthly existence. Anthropologists connect such beliefs, which are common to many cultures, to the mythological view of death as a transition between two worlds. Suicides are forever suspended in the liminal realm, belonging neither to the world of the dead nor to the world of the living.” (54) This belief may be more modern, more contemporary, than we are willing to admit. The “to be or not to be’ is defied by the attempted suicide. That it seems to be a category of its own, apart from suicide, is indicated by the fact that some 85 percent of attempters don’t, in fact, succeed in killing themselves – they die of other ‘natural’ causes. Thus, “not to be” is made a more ambiguous thing, a suspended thing, a metaphor. Death is drawn into the order of life to play many roles: intensifier, cleanser, transcender, etc. I am not certain what to make of this, given Durkheim’s categories.

I want to apply some of Durkheim’s theory of suicide to The Sorrows of the Young Werther – in particular, to the part played by the circles I have drawn your attention to in the last post. That is, the way Werther’s falling in love seems to be mediated by three circles, having two elements: the distribution of something – bread, dancers, numbers/slaps – and the substitution relation. Now, I have long been nosing around the idea of substitution without fully explaining it, and some may have smelt the Marxist mouse in the house. My concern with substitution and love is a timid attempt to forge a link with one of the great social inventions of the proto-capitalist era, abstract labor – to wit, the notion that laborers in the industrial system are infinitely substitutable. The blacksmith becomes a car mechanic who becomes a worker on a computer assembly line, all under the benign gaze of the economist who sees in this the triumph of the freed up labor system. It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters that you make money. Dissolving the traditional slavery of the apprentice, the artificial barriers erected by the guild, we free up the laborer to be, in essence, an adventurer in the realm of substitution. The jack of all trades, the Casanova of skills, or, less prettily, the reserve army of the unemployed – it all results from and confirms a certain view of the tie between subject and his or her routines.

It isn’t that I want to push for a perfect similarity of substitution as it functions in the economic and erotic domain. However, that substitution in both is both a liberation and a threat seems indisputable. More disputeable, but a thesis I’m going to support anyway, is that the precarious balance between liberation and threat was felt throughout the social body in the 18th century, constituting the vibe of the dying order. And thus it is that I am interested in the substitutions in The sorrows of young Werther and Cosi fan Tutti.

But before I can go further, I need to go back to the very important conversation between Werther and Albert on August 12 – a day that changes the entire tone of the novel.