Thoughts on Suicide
by REGIS MARTIN
Hamlet. O that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Hamlet, Act I, Scene II
In his groundbreaking study of suicide written in 1897, Emile Durkheim, the French philosopher who is credited as one of the principal founders of sociology, identified anomie as the condition of those who, finding themselves untethered from any relationship with others, become the most likely candidates for self-slaughter. Thus he found fewer suicides among Catholics, owing to their cohesiveness, than among Protestants, who tend to stand in nakedness before God. In addition, of course, there will generally be fewer couples committing suicide than among the unattached singles for whom the temptation to solipsism tends to be greater.
Had Durkheim only been around forty years later when the Golden Gate Bridge opened, he’d no doubt have been able to document his discoveries by observing the first of the more than sixteen hundred people leaping to their deaths hundreds of feet below.
It takes only four seconds to reach the water, the experts tell us, hitting it at a speed of about 75 mph. Death is usually instantaneous, although a few have survived the trauma, some of them even returning to get it right the second time. And while the death toll is impressive, what really catches the eye is the fact that, almost without exception, they are all pointing West, hurling themselves into the black expanse of the night. Which is not at all surprising, assuming Durkheim has got it right, since the whole point about anomie is that there is no point, no norm or standard to which the self-tormenting self will turn. Uprooted from every real or recognizable connection, whether family or friends—or God—why wouldn’t they fling themselves out into the emptiness?
“On Margate Sands,” where he had gone to recover his nerves following a breakdown, T.S. Eliot reflects: “I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” It is the perfect description of the deracinated soul, unable to escape the pain of remaining rootless in a world where to be necessarily means to be in relation. After all, if it is not well for God to be alone, as Chesterton famously tells us, why on earth would creatures made in his image and likeness wish to do so? Even figures of purest fiction like Robinson Crusoe, who becomes a castaway on an imaginary island in the sea, even he could not cope in the absence of his friend Friday, whose arrival helps to ensure his own happiness. “It thus becomes clear,” writes Joseph Ratzinger, “that man is a being that can only ‘be’ by virtue of others. Or to put it in the words of the great Tubingen theologian, Mohler: ‘Man, as a being set entirely in a context of relationship, cannot come to himself through himself, although he cannot do it without himself either.’”
So what happens when that spool of thread finally unwinds, leaving the soul bereft at the last? One doesn’t need a degree from Harvard to predict the outcome of that particular scenario. When the self having lost all sense of an identity anchored to any other self, when all the connections come crashing through the ceiling, suicide then becomes an option for which the anomic self can see no alternative. If there’s no meaning to my misery, why not end it?
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” writes Albert Camus, “and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Of life, too, never mind the musings of philosophers. And citing the stern advice of Nietzsche, who insists that to earn the respect of their readers the philosopher is obliged to preach by example, Camus adds that we “appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act.”