Doing Oneself In

Though I have been fascinated by this book, I am not sure that I am the proper person to review it. As a Christian, I am required to believe that suicide, except when it is an act of insanity, is a mortal sin, but who am I to judge, since at no time in my life have I felt the slightest temptation to commit it, any more than I can imagine myself going off my head or indulging in sadistic or masochistic acts? Of course, like everybody else, I have my “good” and “bad” days, but I have always felt that to be walking this earth is a miracle I must do my best to deserve. It would be most ungracious of me if I did not, seeing what an extraordinarily lucky life I have had. I was the favorite child of my parents; I have enjoyed excellent health; I am a worker not a laborer, i.e., I have been paid by society to do what I enjoy doing; I have been reasonably successful; and I have a number of wonderful friends whom I love dearly. This does not mean that I want to live forever: at present I feel that I would like le bon Dieu to take me at the canonical age of seventy, though I fear He will not.

I can imagine two situations in which suicide would be a rational act. If someone contracts a painful and incurable disease and knows, moreover, that the cost of medical treatment is going seriously to deplenish the estate he has to leave his heir, to put an end to his life would certainly be rational: whether it would also be moral, I can’t decide. Then I think of the case of a French Resistance fighter who is arrested by the Gestapo and is afraid that, under torture, he may give away the names of his colleagues: in this case suicide would be not only rational but his moral duty.

Mr. Alvarez’s opening and closing chapters describe personal experiences, one the death of his friend, the poet Sylvia Plath, the other his own, fortunately unsuccessful, attempt at suicide. I will discuss these later. The rest of his book is concerned with the history of attitudes toward suicide and the theories put forward to account for it.

In associating with the suicide the epic hero and the martyr, Mr. Alvarez seems to me to be stretching his net too wide. Though it is usually the fate of the epic hero to fall in battle, that is not his goal: his goal is to slay the enemies of his people, and by his valiant deeds to win immortal glory on earth. The martyr does not sacrifice his life for the sake of any particular social group, but for all mankind. He does not, incidentally, die by his own hand, but by the hands of others. In the special case of Christ, the God-Man, he dies to redeem sinful mankind: the ordinary…

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