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Notes on Suicide by Simon Critchley

First up, I should give a kind of trigger warning that the post below by necessity (and fairly obviously, from the title of this book) covers the subject of suicide (and by extension, suicide-by-murder, which I’ll mention later).

And it might not be the kind of book you’d expect to see on the Ramblings, although I have been reading quite a bit of non-fiction/essays and the like recently, particularly in lovely volumes from Fitzcarraldo Editions. This was a title that caught my eye when the publisher had a flash sale a little while back, and I was intrigued. It’s a slim but very powerful meditation on why a human being might consider ending their life, and although I read it in pretty much one sitting it’s definitely a book that lingers in the mind.

Let me say at the outset, at the risk of disappointing the reader, that I have no plans to kill myself… just yet.

Simon Critchley’s book “Notes on Suicide” opens with the bald statement “This book is not a suicide note” and goes on to present a sweeping and fascinating overview of a subject which has vexed many and is often considered taboo. Critchley considers specific cases of people (mostly artistic people of one kind or another) who’ve taken their lives; the laws and moral judgements passed on suicides; the writing and purpose of suicide notes; and whether the whole *point* of contemplating suicide comes down to making a decision as to whether life is really worth living. There is a sense that, as Critchley makes his way through historical attitudes to suicide from the ancients to the moderns (via Hume and Kant and Dorothy Parker), the religious and moral aspects, and the whole phenomenon of suicide notes, he is also using this process to work through his own issues. He situates the writing of the piece in a time and a specific location – on the East Anglian coast, looking at the bleak North Sea – and there is an underlying impression that in seeking to understand the reasons which impel human beings towards self-destruction, he is in fact seeking to understand himself.

Critchley also considers the mystique that often attaches to the act of suicide, the fascination we have with the doomed youth or the troubled genius who cuts off their life early. This false glamour perhaps hides the real torment people feel and also gets in the way of rational consideration of the subject. However, the book *does* wander into particularly knotty territory when it touches briefly on the subject of what Critchley terms ‘suicide by murder’. We’re all aware nowadays of the tendency of certain fanatics to either kill randomly and then take their own life, or use their suicide by bomb or whatever to take others with them. To be honest, I think that’s a whole other line of discussion that should perhaps be considered separately as I think manic killing in the name of some cause or other is very different from making the choice to take your own life.

Perhaps the closest we come to dying is through writing, in the sense that writing is a leave – taking from life, a temporary abandonment of the world and one’s petty preoccupations in order to try and see things more clearly. In writing, one steps back and steps outside life in order to view it more dispassionately, more distantly and more proximately. With a steadier eye. One can lay things to rest in writing: ghosts, hauntings, regrets, and the memories that flay us alive.

Suicide is an emotive subject, and indeed an emotive word; and depending on your moral standing or your religion, for example, you may have very strong feelings about it.  I should say here that I have had depressive episodes in my life, and one serious suicide attempt in my teens (which were a difficult time for me, mainly because of the death of my grandmother). Nowadays, I think I’m on a fairly even keel but I tend to think that a person’s life is a person’s life; it’s their own business and at the end of the day if they choose to end it because staying alive is unbearable then I can kind of understand it. It *isn’t* great for those left behind (and I can remember an incident decades ago when a colleague of Mr. Kaggsy took his life, and his partner found continuing unbearable and followed him later). It was a tragedy, but how can we judge the depths of other people’s feelings?

To be human is to have the capacity, at each and every moment, of killing oneself. Incarceration, humiliation, disappointment, disease-the world can do all of this to us, but it cannot remove the possibility of suicide. For as long as we keep this power in our hands, then we are, in some minimal but real sense, free.

It became clear to me as I was reading that there is something of a subtext to the book. All the arguments, religious and moral, about the act of self-destruction are underpinned by the idea of whether a human being has the freedom to take control of their destiny and take their life. Do we have that freedom, or have the religious and moral authorities taken it away? And oddly, if I’m honest, I have to say that there are times in my life when I’ve managed to carry on when I was feeling rotten in the knowledge that there was always the backup position of ending it all…

In many ways this has been a difficult post to write as so many people have strong views on this topic, and the last thing I would want to do is upset or offend anyone. However, I feel that what Critchley brings to his essay on the subject is a calm and rational look at why we might choose to end our lives, a kind of history of the subject, as well as a personal viewpoint of how the subject affects him. His philosophical training gives him the necessary expertise to discuss suicide as a concept and I feel his book is definitely adds much to our understanding of the human condition. Perhaps not to be read if you’ve been affected by the subject – or perhaps it should? Critchley ends his book on a positive note, having reached some kind of calm point himself and actually having decided that life is indeed worth carrying on with; and it may be that his work is what a reader might find helpful if they were in a point of transition themselves. Another thoughtful, and thought-provoking, work from Fitzcarraldo Editions.

*****

As an afterword, suicide as a topic is one that’s vexed all manner of thinkers over the years, including the great Scottish philosopher David Hume. Critchley’s book has as a coda a piece entitled “Of Suicide”, which includes broadly the same text as this little Penguin Great Ideas book. I’ve dipped into the Hume and tend to agree (mostly) with both men’s understanding that no human is going to take their life gratuitously; there is always going to be a reason, although that reason may be a good or a bad one…

Pacing myself….

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Of late (or pretty much since I started blogging) I have been a single-book-at-a-time reader. I wasn’t like this back in the pre-blogging days, often having several books on the go simultaneously. However, I was starting to feel that that wasn’t working for me, and often books would end up unfinished and abandoned. Immersing myself in one title has been working recently, and I pretty much always finish what I started (except for the rare occasions I actually hate a book). However, with the amount of Big Books on the must-read pile, I’m thinking I might have to make some changes…

These are the aforementioned Big Books – and they *are* rather huge, aren’t they?? (Although very lovely!) All are review copies, two for the blog and two for Shiny New Books and tbh the prospect is perhaps a little daunting. I’ve been dithering away about which one to read first, whether to plunge into one and try to finish it, whether to read a bit of each and switch between them or what.

So far, I’ve read all the introductions, plus a reasonable chunk of the Chateaubriand and the Saltykov-Shchedrin (both of which are marvellous) and it could well be that I end up reading one of these first (even though the other two are calling to me strongly). I can’t help feeling that it might be worth taking a week’s sicky from work to get through some of them… Or alternatively, if I get *too* bogged down, I can always go for something short and pithy!!!!

I’ve been keen to read Hume and I have quite a few of the Penguin Great Ideas lurking in the house. So maybe alternating a slim-but-pithy with a big-and-absorbing is the way ahead…. 🙂

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