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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 martyr dies to bear witness to what he believes (it can be Christian or Marxist) to be saving truth, to be shared with all men, not reserved as an esoteric secret for a few.

The Church from the beginning had always condemned the Stoic attitude toward suicide, but, during the persecutions, she discovered that there was an ethical-psychological problem which no one had foreseen, namely, that a man might insist upon getting himself martyred, not in order to bear witness to the truth on earth, but in order to win for himself immortal glory in Heaven. In other words, his real motive could be the pride of the epic hero. The Church found herself having to preach caution and discourage her converts from insisting upon martyrdom when it could possibly be avoided. Only when the choice lay between martyrdom and apostasy was martyrdom to be chosen. The paradigm was the story of the Passion. Far from rushing joyfully upon death, Christ, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prays in agony that the cup shall pass from Him.

The suicide proper dies by his own hand. This may be, as was the case with most of the famous Roman suicides, because he knows that if he does not kill himself he will be killed, and self-killing seems less degrading. But I would define a suicide in society as we know it as someone who for one reason or another finds his life subjectively intolerable. I stress the word subjectively because in circumstances that would seem to an outsider objectively intolerable, as in concentration camps or for sufferers from gross physical deformities, suicide appears to be rare. Mr. Alvarez quotes a very moving passage by the wife of Osip Mandelstam.

Whenever I talked of suicide, M used to say: “Why hurry? The end is the same everywhere, and here they may even hasten it for you.”… In war, in the camps and during periods of terror, people think much less about death (let alone suicide) than when they are living normal lives. Whenever at some point on earth mortal terror and the pressure of utterly insoluble problems are present in a particularly intense form, general questions about the nature of being recede into the background…. Who knows what happiness is? Perhaps it is better to talk in more concrete terms of the fullness or intensity of existence, and in this sense there may have been something more deeply satisfying in our desperate clinging to life than in what people generally strive for.

Money is an objective fact and when they lose it, some people, as during the Wall Street crash, kill themselves, but in such cases I suspect that money has become a private symbol for their personal worth. To those, like Chatterton, who have always been poor, this cannot happen. I think Mr. Alvarez is wrong when he says: “Suicide was a solution to a practical problem.”

What we all ask from others is mutual understanding. In the case of physical pain, this presents no difficulty: we can all sympathize, that is, feel with someone else’s toothache. We can also all share in another’s happiness, for we are all happy in the same way. It is otherwise when we are mentally unhappy, for each of us is unhappy in his own unique way, so that we can never imagine exactly what another is suffering. Even two persons, both with suicidal feelings, cannot, I think, completely understand each other. Mr. Alvarez’s definition of suicide as The Closed World applies to all mental unhappiness.

In consequence, no theory, sociological or psychological, of why people commit suicide is satisfactory. For instance, in the case histories of many suicides it is found that they lost a loved one in childhood, but so have many people who do not kill themselves. Again, if, as Freud believed, there is a death instinct, which I rather doubt, it must be active in all men, yet the majority do not cut short their lives. Climate has been invoked as a factor, but though their climate is the same, the suicide rate is high in Sweden but low in Norway. Protestantism, it has been alleged, is more conducive to suicide than Catholicism, but Austria, a Catholic country, has the third highest suicide rate in the world. A pessimistic philosophy of life certainly has no influence. Schopenhauer and Thomas Hardy lived to a ripe old age.

If suicide has become commoner in this century than in previous ones, I do not think this can be attributed to our particular social and political problems, for social-political life has been very grim throughout history. What does seem to play a role in suicide as in art is fashion. (Think of the effect on the young at the time of Werther.) The late Middle Ages were grim enough, no anesthetics or plumbing, lepers, the Inquisition, plundering mercenaries, yet the poetry of the period, the writings of Chaucer, Langland, Douglas, Dunbar are happy. Today happy art is regarded by many as rather vulgar.

Mr. Alvarez’s first chapter is an account of the last few years in the life of his friend, the poet Sylvia Plath. I understand that her husband, Ted Hughes, thinks it inaccurate, and I am in no position to judge. It does seem clear from the facts that she intended her successful attempt to fail, as her two previous attempts had. Mr. Alvarez says, and I agree with him:

…for the artist himself art is not necessarily therapeutic: he is not automatically relieved of his fantasies by expressing them. Instead, by some perverse logic of creation, the act of formal expression may simply make the dredged-up material more readily available to him. The result of handling it in his work may well be that he finds himself living it out…when an artist holds up a mirror to nature he finds out who and what he is: but the knowledge may change him irredeemably so that he becomes that image.

The moral, surely, is that one should be very cautious in what one chooses to write about.

In our aesthetic judgments I think Mr. Alvarez and I would usually agree—one would not call good poetry what the other would call bad. But in our personal tastes, i.e., the writers we really take to our hearts, it is clear that we differ.

Reading those he calls the Extremist Poets, Plath, Hughes, Berryman, I greatly admire their craftsmanship, but I cannot sympathize fully with what they are doing. The poetry which is really my cup of tea, that, for example, to name two modern Americans, of Frost and Marianne Moore, whether tragic, comic, or satiric, is always firmly rooted in staid common sense. Mr. Alvarez’s taste, whether in modern poetry or in the poetry of the past, seems to be for the extreme. For example, he obviously loves John Donne whom, great as he is, I find an insufferable prima donna; give me George Herbert every time.

Mr. Alvarez’s concluding chapter is devoted to his own unsuccessful attempt at suicide. It is most moving to read but rather puzzling. For instance, he tells us that, as a child, he kept repeating endlessly to himself Iwishiweredead, but he cannot tell us just why this was so. The statistics, he tells us, show that:

The incidence of successful suicide rises with age and reaches its peak between the ages of fifty-five and sixty-five. In comparison, the young are great attempters: their peak is between twenty-five and forty-four.

Mr. Alvarez was thirty-one and already established in the literary world before he swallowed forty-four sleeping pills, but at home, so that he was found by his wife just in time to save him. To the outsider an attempted suicide has about it the aura of a sick joke. (Cowper’s account, quoted in this book, of his desperate and always thwarted efforts to kill himself is pure black farce.) Mr. Alvarez’s reactions to his failure are fascinating and cheer my heart.

The truth is, in some way I had died. The overintensity, the tiresome excess of sensitivity and self-consciousness, of arrogance and idealism, which came in adolescence and stayed on beyond their due time, like some visiting bore, had not survived the coma…I was disappointed. Somehow, I felt, death had let me down; I had expected more of it. I had looked for something overwhelming, an experience which would clarify all my confusions. But it turned out to be simply a denial of experience…. Months later I began to understand that I had had my answer after all…. Once I had accepted that there weren’t ever going to be any answers, even in death, I found to my surprise that I didn’t much care whether I was happy or unhappy; “problems” and “the problem of problems” no longer existed. And that in itself is already the beginning of happiness.

I congratulate him. That is what I mean by common sense.

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