Death wishes

Georges Minois' exhaustive study traces the long, strange history of suicide.

By Daren Fonda
Published February 5, 1999 10:53AM (EST)

It is Christmas Eve, 1773. France's ancien régime is nearly bankrupt. Social tensions are simmering. Voltaire has issued a battle cry against moral absolutism; Rousseau is demanding government that reflects the people's will. Against this backdrop two young soldiers take a room at a St. Denis inn. They order supper and retire early for the evening. The next morning they stroll about town and return to their room for lunch, dining on a brioche and some wine. Afterward, seated at their table, they perform a final act: They point their pistols into their mouths and shoot themselves.

As Georges Minois tells the story in his new book, "History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture," the deaths of Bourdeaux, 20, and Humain, 24, created an enormous buzz in Paris society. Their suicide note, released by the police, prompted reactions ranging from sympathy to stupor. "The curtain has been lowered for us," wrote Bourdeaux, the mastermind of the pact. "We have tried all pleasures, even those of obliging our fellows. Disgust with life is our only reason for quitting it."

What possessed these young soldiers to kill themselves? Undoubtedly, they were overwhelmed by the pressures of hiding their homosexuality. Had they been outed, they could have been executed for sodomy. But more significant to their final decision was that they accepted a logic of suicide: Because they could no longer endure a life that wasn't worth living, it made more sense to kill themselves. To the French authorities, such reasoned behavior was a radical assault against the fraying social contract between subject and ruler. The soldiers' bodies were punished accordingly: Their cadavers were dragged through the streets, pierced with stakes, hanged and burned. The state hoped such grisly spectacles (which, incidentally, were not unusual for suicides deemed of sound mind) would dissuade others considering taking their own lives. Bourdeaux and Humain, who had planned their deaths with methodical precision, had no chance of getting a Christian burial.Their ashes were scattered on a trash heap.

The history of suicide, as one might expect, isn't pretty. But if you set aside the sad but essentially a historical fact of men and women taking their own lives -- usually because of unbearable misery -- this thread of history yields a surfeit of bizarre funeral rites, church- and state- sanctioned condemnation and a running soap opera of moral outrage. After reading the deranged details that Minois so carefully documents, it's tempting to see our own customs as enlightened compared to those of our ancestors. But if we consider some recent public spectacles of suicide-as-entertainment -- a police chase ending in a suspect's suicide caught by nightly news crews, "60 Minutes'" broadcast of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's helping a terminally ill patient into his good night, breathless newspaper reports of "suicide by cop," in which desperate men goad police into shooting them -- Minois' historical view reminds us that suicide is not simply an act of private will but an ever-evolving problem of social meaning.

Among Minois' most compelling ideas is that power will try to stop suicide in any context. "Whatever its nature," he writes, "power seeks to prevent and conceal suicide. The subject must dedicate his life to the king; the citizen must conserve his life for the homeland. Desertion is out of the question. The social contract requires everyone's participation in maintaining the state, which, in exchange, watches over everyone's well-being." It's an idea alive today through crisis-intervention centers, suicide hot lines and the analyst'scouch. But its roots, as Minois shows, go back to medieval Judeo-Christian ethics and European folklore. At least as far back as the Middle Ages, those who tried suicide and failed could expect prison terms or death sentences. Those who succeeded faced eternal damnation. The Christian church revived ancient traditions -- like the Greek rite of cutting off the cadaver's right hand so the ghost couldn't commit a crime. In England, the corpse would be banished from the community and buried at a crossroads, so the ghost couldn't find its way home. The family might pay a fine to cover the cost of an inquest. As far as the church was concerned, suicide was the devil's work, the deadliest of sins for which a miserable afterlife was guaranteed. Dante's Inferno described the consequences: Suicides were banished to the seventh circle of hell, below the burning heretics and murderers; transformed into trees, their punishment was to stand immobile while Harpies tormented them by picking at their leaves.

Minois traces the church's harsh position to St. Augustine, who condemned suicide in the fifth century to stop the thousands of zealous Christians who sought martyrdom by killing themselves. Borrowing arguments from Plato, Pythagoras and Aristotle, Augustine blasted suicide as a violation of the Sixth Commandment, declaring that self-murderers usurped God, "natural law" and the state. The Council of Orlean enforced his doctrine in 533, denying funeral rites to suicides awaiting trial for a crime. In 693, the Council of Toledo ordained excommunication for anyone attempting it. The crown got in on the act too, penalizing suicides with a host of civil penalties including confiscation of their estates. Theoretically, only a coroner's verdict of "not guilty by reason of insanity" could spare a suicide victim's family from forfeiture. In practice, a double standard was often at work: Aristocratic suicides tended to be judged insane and awarded a Christian burial; peasants, serfs and merchants provided steady income for the king's treasury.

Of course none of these penalties prevented ordinary folk from killing themselves for familiar grievances: financial ruin, terminal disease, unrequited love. Causality is tricky with suicide; each case carries somedegree of mystery. A clearer portrait emerges, Minois suggests, from studying statistics that show that suicide claimed victims regardless ofclass, nationality or religious affiliation. Moreover, such historicalanalysis often disproves the prevailing myths. For example, the notion that suicide was an "English malady" caused by too much rich food and lousy weather was bunk, according to Minois, and had more to do with the factthat English newspapers reported the details of suicides more frequently than those on the Continent.

A century after Shakespeare broke open the medieval taboo on even discussing it (there are some 52 instances of "self-slaughter" in hisplays), suicide began to achieve a renaissance throughout Western Europe.The church's declining hold on moral authority, coupled with modernism's eviltwins -- secularism and free-market capitalism -- produced a climate for itto flourish.

One of the first signs of a growing acceptance of suicide appeared in 1770, when a young Lyons fencing master named Faldoni was informed by his doctor that he was about to die. His lover Therese swore not to live without him; so they holed up in a chapel, bound their left arms with a cord attached to their pistols' triggers, and waited for the slightest movement to set off the guns. The press wrote about them affectionately and the episode inspired Rousseau to characterize the growing ambivalence about suicide -- a kind of guilty infatuation -- seeping into English and French society. "Simple piety sees nothing but a crime in it," he remarked, "sentiment admires, and reason keeps silent."

Like the two young soldiers of Paris, Faldoni and Therese struck a nerve. They were seen as tragic figures in the heaviest Romantic sense. People were outraged at the financial penalties levied against their families, and their lives inspired a novel and a play. What apparently captured the public's fancy was the idea that their suicide was somehow acceptable, a reasoned response to an impossible situation. Afterward, Minois reports, suicide fantasies increasingly began filtering from literature into reality. Within a decade, Goethe's Young Werther would kill himself out of unrequited love for a married woman, spawning a slew of imitators and setting a new standard for Gothic despair. It was an age, Minois tells us, when destitute poet Thomas Chatterton would swallow arsenic at 17 in a squalid London rooming house -- instantly acquiring mythic status to the young and depressed. Soon after, Shelley, Keats and Byron would mythologize melancholia in poetry, forging an unbroken link between the artist's lifeand work.

Minois concludes, somewhat prematurely, with the French Revolution. An epilogue attempts to encapsulate trends in theory and social climate that would characterize 19th and 20th century developments. But it's a bit of a cop out. Minois might broaden his inquiry here to address someof the existential questions post-Nietzsche: If God is dead can we still condemn suicide on religious grounds? Are there circumstances, terminaldisease for instance, under which it is morally permissible? But Minoischooses to avoid these sticky issues and closes the debate with a few dismissive sentences. "The fact remains that how and why people decide to kill themselves remains a mystery," he writes. Earlier, in a chapter on the Renaissance, he writes: "Suicide falls outside usual norms. The entire and powerless arsenal of laws and anathem as has no hold on reality; it is like a machine turning in the void, a sword striking a blow in water, a cannonade aimed at a ghost."

Minois' book isn't the first to break down in this respect. The inability of theory to adequately explain individual cases dogged Durkheim's 1897 study "Le Suicide," and it continues to undermine much of the literature a century later. In his enthralling personal meditation on suicide "The Savage God," poet A. Alvarez wrestles with the intellect's limitations in understanding the desire to forfeit life. Why, he asks, did survivors of the camps (Tadeusz Borowski, Primo Levi) wait until they got out? Why do some terminally ill patients choose to die while others fight to their last breath? Alvarez implies that each suicide leaves behind questions that can never be answered, even if the act's proximate causes are known. Science may never ace suicide for the same reason that other areas of human behavior, falling in love for example, defy rational analysis. In the case of suicide, the finality of death blocks absolute knowledge. For those who don't succeed, there's always a question of whether they really wanted to die at all and for those who do, there's no way to contact them. Even philosophers who have tackled the problem manage only a twisted equation. Camus is the classic case, proposing that to reject suicide one must "embrace the absurd." If life makes no sense, he implies, get over it and try to live to the fullest extent possible. His metaphor for the modern condition -- Sisyphus eternally pushing his rock up the mountain -- suggests a resignation to be damned. Small comfort at the prospect of the void.

Where can a reader go to explore the elusive and persistent problem of suicide? The most insightful writing on suicide often comes from poets -- Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath -- precisely because they examine suicide through fiction, privileged with authorial control over character, setting and motivation. But for Minois, the plodding historian, his task of chronicling the untidy, contradictory details of real-life misery, seen through the lens of intellectual history, is bound to leave readers unsatisfied. Yet, if his conclusion -- that each self-murderer can speak only for himself -- is unsettling, at least it keeps the door open for further study. Maybe one day he'll write a sequel. One more suicide book, after all, never hurt anyone.

Daren Fonda

Daren Fonda works at Life magazine.

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