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To discuss about suicide in liberty

by Francis Benoît Cousté

Death is undoubtedly the only last great taboo in our society. And, at the very heart of this taboo, suicide – an object of repulsion and, at the same time, of fascination … A fascinating subject, moreover, which concerns us all – and not only sociologists, psychologists or other ethnologists … Action of “the” man against himself ”… Act of despair, cowardice or heroism – whereby a man, at any given moment, prefers chosen death to death suffered.

But, paradoxically, this subject which so scares our society – French in particular (to the point that it is systematically banned from any conversation of good company) – has been continuously studied, in our country, by a multitude of specialists: more than 10,000 titles listed, to date …

The nightmare (1790-1791) Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741-1825)
Huile sur toile 77cm?64cm. Goethehaus (Francfort)

Who commits suicide today in our society?

Although no age group is spared, it is predominantly older people and young people (13 to 25 years old) …

Since suicidal behavior presupposes access to consciousness, it is now established that animals do not commit suicide. The touching examples that we are sometimes given never stand up to scrutiny: thus, after the death of its master, a pet refuses to feed only when it has been conditioned – Pavlovian reflex – not to receive food only from the hand of it.

Likewise, very young children do not commit suicide: the youngest suicide, known and recognized, was 7 years old – and still he was exceptionally mature of mind (Hopital Necker-Enfants malades. Paris). Suicides are very rare between the ages of 7 and 12 – the average age of puberty today … Each year, on the other hand, just over 40,000 French teenagers try to take action. A little over 1,000 succeed, but 63% reoffend… Currently, suicide is the leading cause of death among young people aged 13 to 17. Then, from 17 to 25 years old, it is the second cause – after road accidents (among which there is, no doubt, a high rate of unaccounted for suicides) …

In young people, the most common reason for suicide is a lack of dialogue. A period of all the anxieties and all the frailties, adolescence requires, on the part of parents, a great capacity for listening and attention. In teens, a suicide attempt is most often a cry for help. If you don’t hear it, it’s a recurrence …

Head of a skeleton with a burning cigarette
 Vincent Van Gogh. (1885-1888).
Peinture à l’huile, 32cm/24,5cm. Musée Van Gogh. Amsterdam

In Western countries, the suicide rate is three to four times higher in men than in women: ¾ of men succeed in their suicide (15 out of 20 men) compared to less than ¼ in women (4 out of 20 women ). Note, however, that in China, these proportions are opposite … Note also that the suicide rate is four times higher in Switzerland than in Haiti: the more comfortable we live, the more we become – it seems – cozy and fragile … This is why it is necessary, it is healthy to talk about suicide, and especially to the most vulnerable: it is never the speech that encourages the passage to the act, it is silence! So I will dedicate my remarks to those who dread hearing it.

Certainly the means of self-destruction are varied! It is also surprising that these are not always the most painless or speedy procedures that suicides retain. So this forty-something who locked himself in a freezer … Need a certain atonement or thanatoscopic willingness to “live” his own agony? “I want to die alive,” said the philosopher Paul Ricoeur … The choice of one’s own death is never, in any case, neutral or insignificant. Whether by Fire, Air, Water or Earth …

by fire immolation (such as Jan Palach, history student, on January 16, 1969, in Prague, to denounce the Soviet occupation or, in November 2019, in Lyons, this student who immolated himself to denounce economic problems), firearm or electrocution (such, in 1998, the musicologist Philippe Autexier

by water : drowning

by air : suffocation, asphyxiant gas or hanging (such as Evaëlle, an 11-year-old girl subject to harassment from her comrades, who was found hanging from her bed, on June 21, 2019, in Herblay), …

by land : leaving the road, crushing, defenestration…

But also by ingestion of lethal products: poisons, pesticides, even – in high doses – euphoric products: barbiturates, drugs, alcohols – or even food… No one is unaware, in fact, that when eating , we are no longer alone! And thus digging his grave with his teeth… Until the borderline case illustrated by the film by Marco Ferreri La Grande Bouffe (1973), a truly horrific spectacle, on which our consumer society has today cast a modest veil… Suicide by ingestion, but also by evacuation: hara-kiri 腹切り, disembowelment, opening of the veins, throat cut, etc. As well as by non-ingestion: anorexia nervosa (among teen-agers in particular): thus the case of Solenn Poivre d´Arvor who, in Neuilly, threw himself under a metro train. Hence the creation of “La Maison de Solenn“, an annex to Cochin Hospital in Paris, dedicated to young anorexics … But this list is not intended, alas! not exhaustive …

From the point of view that is ours here (which, once again, cannot be confused with that of the sociologist, moralist, theologian or therapist), is it possible to envisage a classification, a nosology of suicidal behavior? ? Which would make it possible to distinguish:

• motivations “because …” (retrospective)

• motivations “with a view to …” (prospective)

There are, in my opinion, 4 types of suicide:

Suicide-flight, flight from a situation judged – rightly or wrongly – intolerable and hopeless. It is “escapist” suicide: the subject breaks free from a dead end

• the Suicide-interpellation, which can sometimes be “aggressive”. It has a finality, it wishes to reach someone with shame. This suicide screams « Revenge !” “

Suicide-giving of oneself, which I will call “oblative”, which aims to satisfy the desires of others before their own

• the Suicide-game, or “playful” suicide.

Arthur Koestler. 1978.
© estate of Fay Godwin / British Library / National Portrait Gallery, London

For the Suicide escapist, there are sometimes real (objective), sometimes imaginary (subjective) motivations. Among the real motivations, there is, of course, the incurable suffering and illness, old age and its infirmities: the Stoic lucidity and serenity of a Henry de Montherlant (1895-1972), who had become blind and totally dependent, or even of a Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) and his wife Cynthia, freely deciding to end their life (leukemic, Arthur Koestler also suffered from Parkinson’s).

In ancient times, did the Stoics not consider incurable suffering, dismemberment or disease, even military defeat, as reasonable grounds for suicide? Believing that killing oneself can, at times, become a duty … Thus Cato of Utica refusing to “survive freedom”.

Borderline case: “Why not kill yourself, as long as the present happiness is not diminished and would not increase if it lasted longer?” Comment evoking the case of these two young people, rich and perfectly happy, taking their own life so as not to experience the inevitable degradation of their happiness in the future … [In truth, “happiness in itself” is not it not to work – taking this word in the broadest sense?]

But moral suffering can also be a reason for suicide: observation of a tragic disparity between “real self” and “dreamed self” [the ego and the superego]. Let us quote Kierkegaard : “The desperate is nailed to his ego; he is forced to be the me he does not want to be “. Thus, suicide is, therefore, the expression of an ideal or of a ridiculed pride, the refusal of a situation or an unworthy reality …

Let us remember here the proud sentence of this man of the Enlightenment Charles de Montesquieu : “Honor is less what we owe to others than what we owe to ourselves“.

Carré blanc sur fond blanc (1918). Kasimir Malevitch
Museum of Modern Art. New-York

About euthanasia

But back to physical suffering! This is where the problem of euthanasia naturally comes in. Should we help someone kill themselves?

More than 85% of French people are in favor of recognizing the right of any patient struck by a serious, degrading or incurable illness to be helped to commit suicide – the right to a dignified death, the right to “die standing”!

So the cyanide capsule included in the package for cosmonauts and submariners, or even palliative care clinics. Thus, in the Benelux, where the assistance of health professionals can be requested to end this; as is the case in Switzerland, where this aid is considered good, as long as his motive is not selfish (more than 1,300 suicides are assisted there each year). In the Preamble to the Swiss Constitution, is it not written: “The strength of the community is measured by the well-being of the weakest of its members“?

In 2020, active euthanasia is legal in Germany, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Colombia and ten American states: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Washington DC.

Even practicing Catholics are now participating in the movement: 45% of them say they are in favor of the principle of active euthanasia. The Church now admits (art. 1185 of “Canon Law of 1983”) that suicides are granted to ecclesiastical funerals – whereas it was formerly decreed that “whoever committed suicide deserves the death penalty”: thus a drowned man was fished out to hang him, hands cut off, by the feet … [Although, from the 5th century, one deplored in the monasteries an upsurge of “acedia“, a spiritual revulsion at the origin of many suicides. But that is not the point …

Gloomy horizons

Subjective dead ends can also lead to suicide: a false lack of hope, when the subject gives an absolute character to what is only relative, an infinite character to what is finite. And this, by narrowing the field of consciousness, due to anxieties of all kinds and the inability to take into account the totality of existence – neurotic repression …

Inability, eg to imagine the world in the absence of the loved one: love-passions of Isolde for Tristan , of Othello for Desdemona , of Brünnhilde for Siegfried, of Aïda or Radamès, of Juliette for Romeo… Theme certainly operatic!

Suicide, eg in 1942, of Stephan Zweig and his wife, desperate by the rise of Nazism – while, refugees in Brazil, they had nothing for themselves. fear… Thus, one of our greatest thinkers was touched by this narrowing of consciousness which made him judge irresistible what (the continuation proved it…) was perfectly resistible, to consider temporary difficulties as irremediable.

Examples of small or large bosses who cannot stand the eclipse, sometimes quite relative, of their business …

Exaggeratedly whole, absolute character of a Pierre Bérégovoy (1925-1993), (ex-French Prime minister) a man of the people who did not acquire that sense of the relativity of public affairs conferred by passing through the seraglio of the Grandes écoles or of the great bodies of the State. The same fragility, in the face of public opinion, of Roger Salengro (1890-1936), while an Captain Dreyfus, just as innocent, does not crack – in conditions, however, otherwise difficult …

Le suicidé. Vers 1877. Édouard Manet. Huile sur toile, 38cm/46cm
Fondation et Collection Emil G. Bührle

So if there is a common element in suicides by love-passion, monomania or manic-depressive illness, it is the loss of a crucial element of the life plan or of the personality.

But there is another form of escapist suicide, that which aims at self-punishment. There is therefore, in this case, an original fault (a motive) that must be expiated (a finality). Thus of Judas Iscariot who, taken with remorse for having delivered Jesus, hanged himself [although, from a strictly Christian point of view, not having faith in divine mercy, Judas aggravated there his case]. Did not the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) write: “Sin is despair before God“?

If I have dwelled on Suicide-Leak, it is by far the most common!

Suicide-injunction (or unprovoked assault of Others) can take various forms

Suicide-crime, when one threatens one’s own life by dragging others into death;

Suicide-revenge, when we want to make others responsible for this act;

Suicide-blackmail (or call for help) which is, most often, that of women and teenagers. But who, alas! don’t always miss …

An edifying example of Suicide-Injunction is that of this Venetian shoemaker who – after being crucified in his room – had himself thrown out of the window (by means of a clever system of pulleys) overlooking the Grand Canal! Ditto, live suicide (I dare not say “live »), of this Texan entrepreneur in front of the television cameras! Ditto, self-hanging live, on Facebook, of a 12-year-old American …

The oblate- Suicide-Oblatif (or Selflessness) is also classified in the category of suicides “with a view to …”. By the sacrifice of life, it aims for access to a higher self, to an ideal! It is the expression of a super-me …

All “martyrologies” abound in examples of people giving their lives (along with that of other people …) to reach a state considered infinitely more delectable. Thus jihadists no longer wishing to make the 72 virgins that the Koran promises them languish … Thus the Preacher Jim Jones leading to death, in Guyana, some 900 followers of his sect “The Peoples Temple

Japan. Suicide by sepppuku 切腹 (Hara-kiri 腹切り)

Suicides “for the honor” of defeated generals ( Saul, Hannibal, Rommel …), of captains choosing to sink with their ship, of samurais (such as the writer Yukio Mishima making himself “ seppuku 切腹 , according to the Bushidô Code), suicide bombers giving their lives for the Fatherland.
Didn’t our own fathers sing in the past: “Mourir pour la Patrie est le sort le plus beau, le plus digne d’envie (To die for the Fatherland is the most beautiful fate, the most deserving of envy)”?
Let us specify, however, that, for a Japanese, our personalism is meaningless: each individual being comparable to a tree leaf, no matter how it falls! 花見 / はなみ. Only the tree counts …

Subjects giving their lives to save the lives of others – whether a spouse, a child, a father, a friend …

Example of Prague, Jan Palach (1948-1969) setting himself on fire, Wenceslas Square, to protest against the Soviet occupation …

Writers wishing to magnify their image for posterity [what Céline named “making a speech to the maggots”: image of a modern Stoic for Henry de Montherlant, of a samurai for Yukio Mishima

Léon Spilliaert(1881-1946)
Autoportrait au miroir, 1908

Stranger, however, is the case of these two young people – at the height of their bliss – taking their own lives so that “their love remains intact forever.” Radical aestheticism?

Let us recognize that it can sometimes be difficult – in the case of oblative suicides – to distinguish between idealism and masochism …

Last major type of suicide:The Suicide-Game (or ludic suicide). I will distinguish here the Ordeal and the Game itself.

The ordeal or “Judgment of God” was, in the Middle Ages, a test by which the Lord was put to the wall – forcing him, in a way, to pronounce on the innocence or the guilt of an accused. Happy times!… Failing to seek God’s judgment, ordeal is, for modern man, the fact of risking his life to prove something to himself… Who can deny this ordeal character in a Gérard d’Aboville (° 1945), paddling the South Pacific, or at a Maud Fontenoy (° 1977) crossing the North Atlantic still paddling! While waiting for the one who will try the adventure with a snorkel and fins … The same goes for those who support mountaineering, aerobatics, car racing or stunts …

The real player, on the other hand, has nothing to prove – neither to himself nor to others! He loves danger for the excitement it provides. Whether this danger arises from competition, chance, simulacrum or vertigo …

• The game-competition derives from the taste for war, always present in humans. This is called agonistic (from the Greek agôn ἀγών, game-fight). Is there any more exciting action than risking everything – and your life?

• The game of chance or random game, the paroxysmal form of which is Russian roulette. Although those who survive it, like a Graham Greene, readily plead, not the attraction of death, but simply boredom …

• The simulacrum game or mimetic game naturally includes theater games that allow everyone to become an illusory character. They range from role playing games to happening (invented by composer John Cage ), which sometimes gave rise to such excesses, in the area of ​​sexuality, violence or death, that the US government had to ban it – at least in its hard form. Suicidal mimesis also occurs within the family: reproduction in particular of the suicide of a parent …

Le pendu. Georges Rouault. 1871-1958 . Huile sur papier, marouflée sur toile (1944)
64,7cm/46cm. Centre Pompidou. MNAM. ADAGP. Paris

Epidemics of mimetic suicides (suicide clusters): such as the “Werther effect“, following the publication of Goethe ‘s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”; or even the “Copycat Effect” (named after an American thriller), after the suicide of a personality invested with a strong emotional charge …

Another borderline case: there are secret societies in London, Paris, Berlin and New York, called “Suicide clubs“, where – at the end of certain games – the “winner” must commit suicide (or be committed suicide). Such is the rule of these clubs, my God! very elitist …

Aristocratic and warlike societies [they were originally the same] have they not always established their scales of value according to the dangerousness of the pleasures or the games they play? Pleasure – and especially dangerous pleasure – has it not always been, for the aristocracy, the transcendent value par excellence? However, the value of efficiency was, for its part, left to the scoundrel – to accountants, economists, merchants – who usually despise heroic or playful values ​​… Let us remember, in this regard, the formula of Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969): “The idol of the vulgar is utility. The idol of the aristocracy is pleasure “[in Journal, 1957-1960].

Wolke-Nuage. Gerhardt Richter
1976. 200 cm x 300 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 413. Huile sur toile

[A little semantic parenthesis: the English people are lucky enough to have two words to translate the word “game”: “Game” for the meaning that interests us today (Dangerous Games) and “Play” for purely fun activities for children – even adults: Playboy / Playgirl.]

I will distinguish a last type of game with a more or less suicidal tendency:

The vertigo game which is an attempt to access trance, spasm, voluptuous panic, dizziness, loss of consciousness, thanks to the fall, slide, rapid rotation, acceleration – all actions likely to make you dizzy, even death.

In certain very specific cases, suicide can be considered as the act of freedom by excellence, supreme, absolute – the man thus remaining, until the end, conscious and master of his trajectory, of his destiny: “Only a flower that falls is a total flower, ”says a Japanese proverb.

Grandeur – and sometimes heroism – of the man who, like Pierre Brossolette, member of the French resistance, freely chose to take leave to save the men of his network… No less heroic was Jean Moulin (French civil servant who served as the first President of the National Council of the Resistance) who died under the torture of the Nazis without having spoken… There can be, in fact, as much courage in throwing up one’s cross as in refusing to throw it down!

In reaction against the moron anathemas of fundamentalists of all stripes, various intellectuals have been able to plead (sometimes exaggeratedly) in favor of suicide. Let us quote, of course, Emil Cioran (1911-1995) – such a braggadocio: “Die for a comma” he went so far as to utter. But rest assured: Cioran died quietly in his bed.

Let us quote another great author, the Czech novellist Ivan Klíma (° 1931): “The man who respects himself leaves his life when he wants. The good people are all waiting, as in the bistro, for them to be kicked out. ” That’s very well said! But, there too, rest assured: the excellent Klíma is (as far as I know …) still leaning on the bar!

Also [knowing how rare are suicides resulting from a serene and lucid analysis, from a genuinely free decision] I would say, by way of conclusion, the impossibility that there is to pass an unequivocal judgment on suicide – as certain fundamentalists persist in doing, Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, for whom it is always (fors cases of madness) a crime.

Suicide is no more to advocate than to condemn! This act deserves, in any case, consideration and reflection, for it is undoubtedly the most terrible, the most serious and the most absolute that a man can ever accomplish …

And forgive me for repeating myself: it is necessary and healthy (s-a-i-n = healthy) to talk about it,

It’s not the word that incites suicide, it’s silence!

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