A “Quiet Moral Authority”: A Review of Simon Critchley’s “Notes on Suicide”


Common sense tells us not to expect too much in the way of overarching thesis from any work entitled ‘Notes on’ this or that. When the subject at hand is suicide, so much the better: the very last thing the world needs is yet more didacticism on this question. The major religions have those bases covered, for better or worse. Notes on Suicide, the latest work by the philosopher Simon Critchley, is a duly open-minded meander across some well-trodden terrain, peering along the way at suicide notes, clerical edicts and philosophical tracts.

The author draws our attention to a curious duality observable in many suicide notes: expressions of euphoric, overflowing love – for partners, relatives or friends left behind – sit alongside viscerally masochistic declarations of self-hate. There is, he suggests, a certain grim functional necessity to the latter. Freud believed that for self-killing to happen it must be imagined, in the mind of the suicide, as the murder of someone else. Critchley summarises it thus: ’I cannot kill myself. What I kill is that hated object that I have become.’

In certain instances this hatred is turned outwards, and self-loathing gives way to dangerous egomania: a gushing narcissism is the signature trait of the murder-suicide. Recalling the case of Elliott Rodger, the American university student who carried out a campus massacre in Isla Vista, California in May 2014 in a fit of sexual rejection pique, Critchley invites the reader to revisit the killer’s YouTube testament-cum-suicide note. Rodger’s surreal diatribe exemplifies the hubristic delusions of victimhood common to many a perpetrator of murder-suicide: a grossly inflated sense of grievance enables him to shift moral responsibility to his victims, as surrogates of the big bad world that forced him to do it. Critchley wonders whether we now find ourselves at the dawn of a new era, in which the suicidal impulse increasingly plays out as homicidal rampage. Two of the most high-profile examples of such outrages in recent times were perpetrated by Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who steered his airliner into a mountainside, killing himself and everyone on board, and the Virginia gunman Bryce Williams, who shot dead a news reporter and her cameraman live on air before killing himself.

Though it would be remiss to mistake spectacular violence for statistical frequency, such atrocities have undoubtedly become a grimly familiar feature of the technicolour horror-show that is 21st-century news. If they are indeed on the increase, we ought to try and figure out why. Some have pointed the finger at the macho competitiveness of capitalist culture, with its zero-sum, winners-and-losers rhetoric. In his recently published polemic against contemporary society’s fetishisation of mental positivity, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being (Verso, 2015), the sociologist William Davies argues that the competitive free-for-all of advanced capitalism is exacting an exponentially destructive toll in the form of mental illness; people are cracking up under the oppressive weight of this Hobbesian struggle. It is axiomatic and inevitable, says Davies, that ‘a culture which values only optimism will produce pathologies of pessimism.’

That such pathologies are disproportionately prominent among men is inescapable, and there is more than a hint of the Elliot Murphy about the gendered rhetoric and reactionary impulse of certain apparently burgeoning contemporary subcultures: we can discern the same persecution complex, the same specious appeals to fairness, and the same entirely false reading of structural power relations, in the self-pitying biliousness of so-called men’s rights activism and the proliferation of online communities dedicated to the trolling and sexual harassment of women. One might aver, paraphrasing August Bebel’s famous remark about anti-Semitism being the socialism of fools, that misogynistic hate appears increasingly to be the vernacular of grievance under neoliberalism.

There is an interesting question here – Critchley chooses not to explore it, presumably for fear that the digression would be too cumbersome – as to whether the appeal of Islamic militancy might be helpfully understood in these terms. The depressed and mentally ill are, on any analysis, over-represented in jihadist circles. Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, the two British nationals and Islamic State fighters killed in an RAF air-strike against in Syria last month, appeared in a 2013 IS recruitment video which advocated jihad as ‘the cure for depression.’ A curious rallying-cry, perhaps, but actually rather a powerful one: is not religious ‘martyrdom’ the ultimate suicidal revenge fantasy? (The biographical back-story of Mohamed Emwazi, the British national and alleged IS executioner known in the global media as ‘Jihadi John’, would seem to fit this profile: the awkward loner; sensitive kid turned bad; etc etc.) To completely depoliticise terrorism would, of course, be both complacent and dangerous; but understanding its pathological dimension is crucial to any successful long-term counterterrorism strategy. Why is it so hard to swallow the notion that a suicide bomber is a suicidally depressed person?

Of the various themes adumbrated in this thoughtful meditation, these are perhaps the most noteworthy from a contemporary news perspective, though it is of course important to bear in mind that mental illness still does most of its silent killing in the old-fashioned way. Its victims die solitary, unspectacular deaths. Aside from the grisly vignette on killing sprees, the bulk of Notes on Suicide engages with the broader questions around the morality of suicide, debates that have rumbled on for centuries. The author’s reflections on the history of suicide’s stigmatisation provide illuminating historical perspective. He approvingly cites the Italian 18th-century freethinker, Alberto Radicati, who contended that what he called ‘the three impostors’ – Jesus, Moses and Mohamed – had inculcated not only the abhorrence of suicide, but the very fear of death itself, as a means of social control. Suicide is a question, ultimately, of freedom – vis-a-vis the state, the market, and the cosmos. That said, Critchley holds back from the ultra-libertarian, dogmatically anticlerical position, observing that the idea of the idea of a total, individuated self-ownership is a fallacy. ‘Sovereignty,’ he maintains, ‘is something shared and divided in the complex networks of dependency that constitute a human life.’ It is this willingness to accommodate ambiguity that gives Notes on Suicide its quiet moral authority; Critchley is generous without being platitudinous, rigorous but not overbearing. Remarkably for a disquisition on self-killing, one comes away from it feeling curiously chipper.


Notes on Suicide
by Simon Critchley

Fitzcarraldo Editions; 104 p.


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