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Notes On Suicide

Two years after Jean Améry’s On Suicide was published in 1976, the author took an overdose of sleeping pills. He was 65. In 1960, some eighteen years after Albert Camus had raised and – so he thought – resolved the question of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus, he was killed in a car accident. He is alleged to have said that dying in a car crash is the most absurd of all deaths. The absurdity of his death is compounded by the fact he had an unused train ticket in his pocket. He was 46. 

Let me say at the outset, at the risk of disappointing the reader, that I have no plans to kill myself… just yet. Nor do I wish to join the chorus of those who proclaim loudly against suicide and claim that the act of taking one’s own life is irresponsible and selfish, even shameful and cowardly, that people must stay alive whatever the cost. Suicide, in my view, is neither a legal nor moral offence, and should not be seen as such. My intention here is to simply try to understand the phenomenon, the act itself, what precedes it and what follows. I’d like to consider suicide from the point of view of those who have made the leap, or have come close to it – we might even find that the capacity to take that leap is what picks us out as humans. I want to look at suicide closely, carefully, and perhaps a little coldly, without immediately leaping to judgements or asserting moral principles like the right to life or death. We have to look suicide in the face, long and hard, and see what features, what profile, what inherited character traits and wrinkles emerge. Perhaps what we see when we look closely is our own distorted reflection staring back at us. 

Of course, regardless of his answer, Albert Camus’ question in The Myth of Sisyphus is the right one. Judging whether life is worth living or not amounts to answering the fundamental philosophical question: should I live or die? To be or not to be? As we will soon see, the legal and moral framework that still shapes our thinking and judgement about suicide is hostage to a Christian metaphysics that declares that life is a gift of God. Therefore to take your own life is wrong, although Scripture nowhere explicitly forbids suicide (and, of course, Christ’s crucifixion could be interpreted as a quasi-suicidal act). In killing oneself, it is claimed by Christian theologians, one is assuming a power over one’s existence that only God should possess. Therefore, suicide is a sin.

From the nineteenth century onwards, this theological discourse was displaced by the rise of psychiatry, where suicide was not declared a sin but seen as a mental disorder requiring treatment of various kinds. This is still largely how we approach suicide: we speak readily (and not wrongly) of suicidal depression as an illness best approached through a combination of drugs – Lithium, say – and psychotherapy. But the implicit moral judgement on suicide that comes down to us from Christian theology remains intact and in force. Even when society or the state has taken the place of God, even when suicide is decriminalized, as it has been in the West for the past half century, it is still regarded as a kind of failing that invites an embarrassed response. We think that suicide is sad or wrong, often without knowing why. And we don’t know what to say, other than mouth a few empty platitudes. 

We lack a language for speaking honestly about suicide because we find the topic so hard to think about, at once both deeply unpleasant and gruesomely compelling. When someone ends their life, whether a friend, a family member or even a celebrity whom we identify with – think about the confused reactions to the deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman in recent times (although I suspect we could identify stories exerting a similar effect in any year) – one of two reactions habitually follow. We either quietly think that they were being foolish, selfish and irresponsible, or we decide that their actions were caused by factors outside of their control (severe depression, chronic addiction, and so on). That is, if they acted freely in killing themselves, we implicitly condemn them; but if we declare that their actions were constrained by uncontrollable behavioural factors like depression, we remove their freedom. 

Against this tendency, I want to open up a space forthinking about suicide as a free act that should not be morally reproached or quietly condemned. Suicide needsto be understood and we desperately need a more grown-up, forgiving and reflective discussion of the topic. Too often, the entire debate about suicide is dominated by rage. The surviving spouses, families and friends of someone who committed suicide meet any attempt to discuss suicide with an understandable anger. But we have to dare. We have to speak.

Alongside the rage of the survivors, there is what appears to be a contradiction in our reaction to suicide. On the one hand, its horror silences us and we seem to find ourselves dumbfounded when a friend kills themselves. We might mutter, to no one in particular: ‘How could he have done it?’ ‘What must his wife be going through? She just went out shopping, right?’ ‘Weren’t the kids in the house at the time?’ ‘How exactly did he hang himself in his office?’ But it is unclear, even as we run through these questions in our heads, why we are doing it. Are we looking for some explanation, some excuse, or perhaps some kind of relief that allows us to differentiate ourselves from the person who killed himself? Does it make us feel better? And if it does, should it? 

Think about the following scenario, which happened to me not long ago in Paris. After dinner and some wine, an old friend of mine was telling me about the suicide of his close, childhood friend, whom I didn’t know at all. I sat there and watched my friend tell the story of the suicide at length, and relate it to the suicides of other friends of his over the past several years. I could feel his rising emotion and it alarmed me. I knew that he had recently been suffering with depression. He was becoming visibly upset. I listened intently, not wanting to appear disrespectful or flippant. I really wanted to help, but found myself either asking dumb questions or uttering banalities, ‘Well, at least he is at peace now.’ It is as if our very proximity to suicide, the fact that our fate literally lies in our hands, is almost too much to bear, and words fail us. Our simultaneous nearness and distance from suicide silences us. Or we change the topic of conversation, ‘So, what is Paul doing these days?’

On the other hand, the theme of suicide makes us singularly voluble. I am often asked socially, usually because people can think of nothing else to say, what I am working on, what I am writing. If I say, ‘The relation between the sophist Gorgias and Euripidean tragedy’ or ‘The spatial technologies of memory’ or ‘Heidegger’s conception of the completion of metaphysics and its overcoming’, I am usually met with a polite ‘Oh really? How interesting.’ This is usually followed by an awkward pause. But if I say I am writing a little treatise on suicide then, after an initial hesitation, the floodgates open and a tide of fascinating stories, opinions and arguments flow forth. People begin to gush and recount stories of lives lost that could have been avoided. They speak of their friends’ descent into the cold hell of depression, and maybe their own. They declaim happily about heroic and good deaths and – even more happily – about the inverse: the comically risible demise which invites a low, hollow laughter. They talk, often indirectly, of their own fear of death and the ways in which they have contemplated their end or perhaps even attempted to bring it about. 

Suicide, then, finds us both strangely reticent and unusually loquacious: lost for words and full of them. But any contradiction is only apparent, not substantial. What we are facing here is an inhibition, a massive social, psychical and existential blockage that hems us in and stops us thinking. We are either desperately curious about the nasty, intimate, dirty details of the last seconds of a suicide and seek out salacious stories whenever we can. Or we can’t look at all because the prospect is too frightening. Instead, we peek through the slits between our fingers with our hands on our face, as if we were watching a horror movie. Either way, we are hiding something, blocking something, concealing something through our silence or endless chatter or, indeed, rage. 

People don’t throw their lives away lightly or willy-nilly. As David Hume said in his brilliant, short, posthumously published essay on suicide, ‘I believe that no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping.’ The clause that gives us pause is ‘while it was worth keeping’. In what conditions is or is not life worth keeping? Hume’s point is that when life has become a burden that cannot be borne, one is justified in taking it. The question is one of the limits of forbearance, which are limits that should be understood reflectively and with compassion using those two simple tools of empathy and introspection, which I borrow from Jean Améry.

At the risk of saying too much – and contradicting myself – there is something more than introspection at stake. For me, the question of suicide is not really or even remotely an academic issue. For reasons that we don’t need to go into, my life has dissolved over the past year or so, like sugar in hot tea. For the first time in my life, I have found myself genuinely struggling with thoughts of suicide, ‘suicidal ideation’ as it is unhelpfully named. These thoughts take different forms, multiple fantasies of self-destruction, usually motivated by self-pity, self-loathing and revenge. I won’t catalogue them. They are familiar, unsurprising and will emerge here and there obliquely as we proceed. Of course, to say this is to confess that the first sentence of this book is perhaps not to be trusted. But don’t please be alarmed. As the character of Rust Cohle says in the HBO series True Detective, ‘I lack the constitution for suicide.’ Or again, in the words of the wonderful and much-missed English band, Black Box Recorder, ‘Life is unfair: kill yourself or get over it.’ This essay is an attempt to get over it.

After deciding to try and think through the question of suicide in the only way I know – in writing – I began to think about where to do it. I seemed to need some anchor, some mooring held tight and taut to the gravitational pull of the past, which would stop any drift and allow the words to come in a way that was unpressed, unfussed and unrushed. So, I have come here, to a pleasant and modestly sized coastal town in East Anglia: a place I visited on many occasions, not so far from where I lived until I moved to New York eleven years ago. I have rented a room in a hotel and have come to stare at the North Sea. Endless grey-green-brown waves are beating audibly against the beach as I write. The strand is pebbly underfoot and steeply banked. The wind is incessant and the rain unrelenting. Large gulls drift to and fro. Their calls disappear into gusts of air. A caravan of cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds endlessly tracks from west to east on their way to the Dutch coast, somewhere near Vlissingen, nominal source of New York’s Flushing. The winter solstice approaches and the sun is a battered panache. The light flushes out of the year. I’ve come to meet the darkness in the darkness, at the end of the land, facing the sea: the vast, the unlimited. 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 to see things more clearly. In writing, one steps back and steps outside life in order to view it more dispassionately, both more distantly and more proximately. With a steadier eye. One can lay things to rest in writing: ghosts, hauntings, regrets. 


The following text is an extarct from Simon Critchley’s new book Notes on Suicide. Please click on the link to buy the book


Simon Critchley is the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. He is a founding member of Naked Punch Collective.

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