On Suicide

No one commits suicide due to a moment’s transitory suffering. Suicide is by definition a last resort, which means that one turns to it only when other “resorts” have proved unsuccessful, i.e., when one feels that time and circumstance have provided no other solution to one’s suffering. The suicidal person, then, is responding to the accumulated despair of past suffering, or the accumulated dread of anticipated suffering. This means he is essentially trying to escape from pains with which he is stricken only in memory and imagination, since past and future do not exist, except in the mind. As a result, we may conclude that, with rare exceptions, the act of suicide is fundamentally a man’s flight from his own mind, i.e., from himself.

The suicide, then, though he is unlikely to understand the matter this way in his moment of desperation, is seeking escape not from a painful reality — the alleged reality driving him to suicide does not at present exist — but from a painful state of the soul. On this standard, we must regard his chosen method of escape as an abject failure. He should have chosen philosophy, which, we might say, is the enlightened melancholic’s alternative to suicide; or rather, to speak more directly, philosophy is the way one may achieve precisely the goal that suicide necessarily fails to achieve.

Robert Musil describes Kafka’s writing style as exhibiting the friendly gentleness of a suicide in the hours between decision and deed. This is a keen observation, as it implies that the suicide has achieved a certain calmness and resignation, even purification, from his decision, because that decision has, as it were, already killed him; he has nothing left to worry about, no strains of human existence to endure any longer, and may therefore leave the gentlest touch on those around him, like a spirit borne past us in the breeze on its way to the Beyond. In effect, the man committed to suicide is no longer in active despair because he has already escaped all his past and future suffering psychologically, by determining resolutely to let go of his troubled mind, i.e., of his temporal self, which, remember, is where the painful past and future reside.

Musil’s description is most apt, because while in fact Kafka did not commit suicide, he certainly contemplated it many times, and seems to have derived much of the dreamlike detachment of his best thought from that quasi-resolution. This is why, as Milan Kundera points out, Kafka’s style is gravely misunderstood by those who read hysteria or nightmarish panic into the dream logic of his literary world; on the contrary, Kafka’s world is notable for its shocking lack of hysteria or panic, and for its utmost analytical calm and matter-of-factness, as though all his characters’ inexorable loss of self-determination were issuing from the mind of an author whom nothing could perturb any longer. This supervening imperviousness to all perturbation was perhaps, as we may infer from his diaries, precisely the mood Kafka had to talk himself into in order to write.

Similarly, Nietzsche observes that the contemplation of suicide has helped men through many terrible nights. This is only an apparent paradox; or rather, the paradox lies in the identification of this state of relief or emotional succor with the idea of suicide itself, as though any mere physical act could alleviate spiritual suffering. If a physical act could alleviate spiritual suffering, this would vindicate not only suicide, but also hedonism. But it cannot, and hence hedonism is either self-destruction (as in its modern, amoral form) or self-delusion (as in its ancient, philosophical form). In either case, hedonism brings no true satisfaction of any genuine human needs, but is rather only a means of avoiding the pain associated with those needs, as though all pain-avoidance were inherently good. But if all pain-avoidance were inherently good, this would make growth, learning, and love inherently evil; in other words, if pain-avoidance is inherently good, then life itself is inherently to be avoided. A man pays a heavy price for acting on such an implicit principle, whether he pays it now or later.

Likewise, the act of suicide cannot alleviate psychological suffering, anymore than anti-depressant medication can “cure” melancholy. Suicide, like psychological medication, merely puts an end to the mechanisms and struggles of the soul in pain — the mechanisms and struggles without which no recovery is possible — which means it leaves the sufferer in a condition of unresolved suffering. The suicide thus dies in the very state of despair or dread that compelled him to end his life in the first place, just as the drug-dependent melancholic remains trapped in perpetual disarray, with the added problem of having artificially stifled the emotional resources with which he might have battled to overcome it.

But if not from the physical act of suicide itself, whence then comes the “gentleness of the suicide in the hours between decision and deed,” or the survival benefits of the late-night temptation of that deed, as per Nietzsche’s aphorism?

I think a clue may be found in the fact that neither of the two examples I have just cited, Kafka and Nietzsche, actually committed suicide. They may, in their weakness (and they were both, in similar ways, weak men), have found their path to peace and intellectual productivity through the contemplation of suicide, but this may merely have been the product of underdeveloped self-understanding, which is to say it was the only path weak spirits could find toward the psychological freedom healthier men might reach by other paths.

That is to say, the gentleness of the suicide in the hours between decision and deed, understood more broadly, is nothing but the sense of detachment that results from the radical overcoming of the emotional burdens of practical life.

Suicide, as noted earlier, is an attempt to escape from a painful past or a painful future (or both), which is to say from that which does not exist except in the memory and imagination of the escapee. By determining to do it, one may temporarily ease the psychological pains that caused one to make that determination in the first place. That is, past and future are of little consequence in the mind of one determined to end his time on Earth in a few hours, or at least (as per Nietzsche’s idea) soothing himself with the thought that he could end it if he wished.

But the determined suicide’s ease of mind will last, of necessity, only as long as he has not in fact carried out the deed. That is to say, it is not the dying that alleviates his suffering and invokes the accompanying “gentleness” of soul; rather, it is the awareness that past and future are of no further consequence, that they have no further hold on him, and therefore that the pain “located” in his memory and imagination has, due to his decision, evaporated. The decision or sincere contemplation of suicide — the will to suicide — is the source of his temporary spiritual escape.

In other words, it is not the physical act of dying, but the psychological act of preparing oneself for death, or resigning oneself to it, that induces the calm and gentle spirit of the suicide, thereby, paradoxically, obviating the need to die. If one could extend this soothing of the pain of the non-existent, i.e., of past and future, beyond the suicide’s hour of final quiet — which is bound to end either in a return to his anxious condition or in the forlornness of his death agony; if one could in fact extend it over the course of a life, then the anguish and anxiety would evaporate permanently. In this condition, the gentleness of the man resigned to death would lose its aura of sadness, and become instead a state of constant spiritual repose, and an indestructible bulwark against the darker temptations of memory and imagination, those temptations that Hamlet, another melancholic imbued with the gentleness of the suicide in the hours between decision and deed, invokes as “the whips and scorns of time.” 

Time — past and future — is precisely the problem. The suicide, or rather the contemplative suicide who has not actually committed the deed, briefly escapes its whips and scorns, though, as brief, his escape is inherently an illusory one. But it is the philosopher, the man “practicing for death,” as Socrates describes it in his own final hours, who knows the only true and reliable path to this spiritual ease and freedom.

Finding this true path is the first difficulty, as its entrance is hidden within a thicket of practical distractions. Staying on the path, and ignoring the many diversions along the way that might cause one to become lost again in the forest of deepest temporality with its incumbent perplexities and vain false hopes — the source of the anguish and dread that can overwhelm memory and imagination — is the mission of a lifetime. Specifically, it is the mission of one with the courage to seek a lifetime of “death” in living, rather than in the superficial and ultimately disappointing folly of mere pain-avoidance, which is the escape of the non-living, on either the hedonistic or suicidal sides of that coin.

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