A celebrity has died, apparently by his own hand. Amidst expressions of grief and condolences to the bereaved are a profusion of obviously incorrect, deeply ideological pronouncements on the nature of suicide.
In particular, a number of commenters from the realm of mental health have intervened to make the following points: that suicide is not ‘selfish’; that it should be free of stigma; and that it is the by-product of ‘illness’, a desperate option in the face of unbearable pain. I have not directly cited these commenters here – to do so would go against dignity and discretion – but they are not hard to find on social media.
Let us briefly consider these positions.
The main objection to denouncing suicides as ‘selfish’ is not that suicide is somehow magically beyond ethical judgement (‘selfish’ or otherwise), as contended by the illness-mongerers, but that it is hyena-like to moralise over the graves of the recently-deceased.
Stigma attaches itself to different conduct for a number of reasons, not all of them reasonable or acceptable, but before abolishing stigma in a pique of evangelical zeal, we might ask something about why the said stigma existed in the first place. There is, after all, something more than a little paradoxical in mental health “advocates” seeking to make the act of suicide ever more socially acceptable. We need not agree with the various religions of the world, which place suicide in the category of sin, to situate self-killing as an act with ethical, political and spiritual dimensions. These dimensions are effaced entirely when one treats those who suicide (or those who attempt suicide) as the hapless playthings of a ‘disease’, the latter being construed as an ahistorical force.
In all of this lingers the ideology of a certain tepid liberal individualism – a pseudo-“respect” for suicide as a private choice. Yet it is difficult to imagine any circumstance in which suicide could ever strictly be a purely private affair. Anybody grieving a suicide can tell you that it isn’t precisely the same as a death by cancer, ‘old age’, or a motor vehicle accident. Suicide negates and entails a loss, yes; but it also repudiates something positive. This repudiation is, for the most part, absent in ordinary cases of death. And in any case, true ‘respect’ is always conditional, is it not?
One of the great ironies to which the illness-peddlars and anti-stigmatisers are so oblivious is that, by reducing suicide to a ‘private choice’, a desperate attempt at pain relief from ‘illness’, they construct precisely as ‘selfish’. By definition, the ethics-free, ahistorical and narcissistic construction of suicide is concerned only with the ‘self’, a self radically isolated from history and society.
Of course, psychiatric ‘illness’ is but one element in suicide, and moreover, one of relatively recent salience . There are numerous motives for suicide, and always have been: voluntary euthanasia, revenge, reclamation of honour in the face of shame (a variation of which is seppuku), refusal to fall into enemy hands, passage à l’acte, and so on. The reduction of suicide to disease is so obviously false, that one has to wonder why anybody would attempt it. Of course, construing those who attempt suicide as victims of disease, devoid of agency or desire, is a manoeuvre which performs an important ideological function, since, in principle, it provides grounds to believe in omnipresent risk to the ‘diseased’, and therefore unlimited scope for coercion.
None of this rules out a conceptualisation of suicide along psychoanalytic lines, for instance. One can and should try to understand why a suicide attempt occurs, the first step of which is to historicise it for a particular subject. One understands absolutely nothing with bland generalisations about ‘disease’, as if illness was a template that could be applied to any person whatsoever in predictable ways. Even if one accepted the dubious disease model of psychiatry, this could never tell us anything about why somebody opted for suicide at one moment, and not another, or why one ‘diseased’ subject pursued death whilst another did not.
In short, if you want to learn something about suicide, you can do so by consulting the likes of Tolstoy, Camus, the psychoanalysts, or somebody else who has spent some time meditating on it in dimensions other than the pseudo-scientific. From the modern mental health industry you will not gather much, other than confused platitudes and the correlational statistics of scienticians.