Talking to a Philosopher About Why We Don't Have the Words to Discuss Suicide
"Death and suicide are still things surrounded in silence, or just a kind of fake seriousness. It's a profound social problem."
In 2014, the day after Robin Williams committed suicide in his home, the number of calls to a suicide hotline in the US doubled from 3,500 to 7,400. Earlier this year, a study found that more middle-aged white people in the US are committing suicide than ever before. In the UK, a study by the charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) shows that 12 men are ending their own lives everyday and that suicide remains the single biggest cause of death in men under the age of 45 in Britain.
It's in this light that the philosopher Simon Critchley has written his book Notes on Suicide, in which he deconstructs the stigma, the clichés, and the romance around ending your own life. Critchley has experience in this area; he was responsible for a (tongue in cheek) "Suicide Note Creative Writing" class as part of his month-long School of Death (a prod at Alain de Botton's School of Life), in which he analyzed the suicide note as a literary genre and got people writing their own. He talked to VICE about the high-profile suicides of recent times, what it is to write a suicide note, and whether even just talking about suicide can act as a catalyst to the act.
VICE: Why do we have a problem talking about suicide?
Simon Critchley: We don't know what to say. When you hear that someone killed themselves, you find yourself resorting to banalities, clichés, or you find yourself changing the subject. You try to help on some level, but what comes out is nothing particularly interesting. We don't have a language for suicide. What's peculiar about taboos and inhibitions is that they silence us. We used to have a taboo about sexuality, now we talk about sex endlessly. That's not necessarily altogether a wonderful thing, but it's better than not talking about it. Death and suicide are still things surrounded in silence, or just a kind of fake seriousness. It's a profound social problem.
How do you think we handle very public suicides, those of celebrities or people known in the media?
Badly. On the one hand there is this regret: "We'll miss him," and so on. On the other hand, there's a desire to find out the nasty details: How did he do it? Who was in the house? How did he hang himself in his office? But we're too ashamed to ask it. There's a kind of pornographic dimension to suicide. We find it more or less impossible to think about suicide as a free act. We want an explanation, like, "They were clinically depressed," as if we know what that means—as opposed to just a little bit depressed?—or they were addicted, as if we know what addiction means. We've closed down the free space for the consideration of suicide. If anyone is even thinking these thoughts, then we have to intervene, right? And that makes us unusual creatures. Every human being alive has that free capacity to end their lives, and that's maybe what is distinctive about us. We have to at least ponder these questions.
READ ON MOTHERBOARD: GCHQ Is Targeting London's Tech Hipsters With Graffiti Recruitment Ads
In your book, Notes on Suicide, you say that suicide is the last act of an optimist. Can you explain that a little?
The idea is adapted from the bleakest writer, Emil Cioran, a Romanian aphorist. He deals with the pessimist's reputation for suicide, in that something is going to be solved by your death, or something will be saved or changed. And that's one of the delusions that's often driving a suicidal act—that your death matters. Cioran very coolly notes that nothing will be saved by your death. You know, who do you think you are? Why not calm down and observe the elegance of the melancholy spectacle of the world, which lays out so deliciously in front of us, and linger a while?
How have suicide notes changed over time?
They seem to appear in the modern form in the 18th century in England and elsewhere, and they were usually sent to press to be published. The suicide note was an act of publication. Not just an act of publicity, but an act of publication. The idea that we have now, that the suicide note is shrouded in secrecy, I think is something we need to think again about. The suicide note is a fascinating literary genre. Here's someone in their last moments, trying to communicate but failing to communicate, because they've decided to end it.
Are there any defining characteristics to suicide notes?
The one thing I found was this ambivalence of love and hate. Suicide notes are usually expressions of profound hatred, usually hatred towards oneself, often hatred towards another person—the suicide is an act of revenge against that person. But through this kind of final expression of self-hatred, one is finally able to articulate love in the strongest sense. One suicide note I read was:
I hate you.
That's the essence of the suicide note, the flipping around of love and hate.
Do you think the fact that suicide is guaranteed an audience in some way encourages the act?
Yeah, no doubt. That's always been the case. The flourishing of the suicide note led to more suicides and more suicide notes. There's always a pattern in suicide. When someone kills themselves in a certain place and that is publicized, it's very likely that someone else will kill themselves in that place. The Golden Gate Bridge, for example—people go and commit suicide in the same place. But what's also particularly interesting about that one is that they always kill themselves on the side facing the city, rather than the side facing the ocean. It's a kind of public act, an act of publicity, of making a statement.
What do you think about the gender paradox of suicides? The fact that women are more likely to attempt suicide than men but less likely to complete the act?
It's very hard to pin down. There are places where that's not the case, for example in China, where the people who commit suicide appear to be women in positions of rural poverty, and it's often done with pesticide. So there's not such a gender rule. I know a lot of women who attempted suicide when they were younger and are trying to come to terms with that, but, yeah, it is the case that a significant number of younger women attempt suicide and then that drops away later in life. The reasons for that are very hard to explain.
What are your thoughts on the rise in male suicides? Some people have talked about it being down to a "crisis in masculinity"—do you think that's the case?
I think we should make the link to any "crisis in masculinity" with caution, as the more likely causes are relative poverty and the relatively easy availability of prescription drugs that can be easily assembled into lethal cocktails.
What about calls for suicide among men to be considered a public health issue, along the lines of smoking?
I sometimes think that the way in which people immediately say "this is a public health issue" conceals the ugly fact that we would simply rather not take responsibility for such phenomena. It must be someone else's responsibility. When it comes to suicide, each of us has the power in our own hands. What we choose to do with that, how we think it through, these are the issues we have to face up to.
You ask this in your book, but do you think we're entering a time when a new, extreme form of suicide-as-homicide has emerged?
Yes, and I think it's out of a strange combination of depression and exhibitionism. You find in a lot of cases that someone is suicidally depressed and they want to go out in a blaze of glory, particularly in the US, but also elsewhere. Like the Sandy Hook shootings. What no one was talking about there was the mother. Adam Lanza's mother worked as an assistant with kids at Sandy Hook Elementary school, so the first person he kills is his mother and then he kills these kids, then himself. Now we have a possible motivation: that he killed these kids because here was somewhere she went and seemed to love these kids, perhaps, more than him. And that's a more interesting discussion than saying he was playing Call of Duty a lot, so we should ban video games.
Kurt Cobain says in his suicide note, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Is this a theme that regularly appears in suicide notes, the fear of fading away?
Yes, although in my view it would be better the other way round! The thing about this is it's from a Neil Young song; it's indirect, it's delusion—and there's lots of references like that in his lyrics. The other side of this is that with artists, or pop-stars, they know on some level that they'd be better off dead. In the sense that they know there would be more money if they died.
That's very cynical.
There's a great Smiths song about that, which basically says the best pop-star is a dead pop-star. Cobain, on some level, knew that. He knew that, at 27, you end it and then you become immortal and your music is remembered. And we have a kind of sick obsession with that, that we need to own up to. Think about how many Cobain documentaries have come out, and how we salivate over the details of his last moments.
You think we romanticize these things?
I think the more words we have, the less romantic suicide becomes. The more detail, the dirtier, the messier, the more complex it becomes, the more interesting it becomes, and the less romantic it is. The romantic idea of suicide is based largely on ignorance. Read a lot of suicide notes and that will de-romanticize the whole thing.
If you are feeling suicidal, there are people you can talk to. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:1 (800) 273-8255
Follow Henry on Twitter.