They were less depressed in the Middle Ages

John Bossy

  • Marx on Suicide edited by Eric Plaut and Kevin Anderson, translated by Gabrielle Edgcomb
    Northwestern, 152 pp, £11.20, May 1999, ISBN 0 8101 1632 4
  • Suicide in the Middle Ages, Vol I: The Violent Against Themselves by Alexander Murray
    Oxford, 510 pp, £30.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 19 820539 2
  • A History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture by Georges Minois, translated by Lydia Cochrane
    Johns Hopkins, 420 pp, £30.00, December 1998, ISBN 0 8018 5919 0

In 1846 Karl Marx published a version of a chapter about suicide which had recently appeared in a book by one Jacques Peuchet entitled Mémoires tirées des archives de la police. Peuchet had been an encyclopedist and statistician of some distinction, and is said to have invented the term ‘bureaucracy’. He had survived the Revolution, and under the restored Bourbons had become archivist of the police records of Paris and hence a benefactor of Richard Cobb and readers of his Death in Paris (1978). The records of suicide caught Peuchet’s eye, and he had a line on it. The line was to defend suicides against the customary condemnation by claiming, like Thomas Hood in ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, that their despair was the effect of a general lack of Christian charity in the field of social relationships. He illustrated this by invoking the oppressive use of parental or paternal authority, particularly against girls, which had perhaps been encouraged by the Code Napoléon. They were victims, not of Society with a capital S but of a shortage of society, or sociability.

Marx left out the charity motif, and put a spin on Peuchet’s notion of parental hardness, making it out to be a simple consequence of the oppressive structure of bourgeois society (which should have a capital S). The two thousand or so suicides documented by Peuchet were, so Marx alleged, victims of their Society, and only when that Society had been radically transformed, and the original self-determination of the human species restored to all its members, would such symptoms of social disease be eradicated.

Emile Durkheim took account of neither Peuchet nor Marx in his celebrated Suicide of 1897, a chilly work which claimed to document ‘social facts’ without needing to recount the feelings of the individuals concerned. He broke suicides down into ‘egotistic’ and ‘altruistic’, into those who suffered from too weak or too strong (as in suttee) bonds of society, along with the famous suicide by reason of anomie, a product of the absence of rules governing behaviour. One of Durkheim’s social facts, derived from the published statistics which were his main source, was that Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than Catholics.

His general idea was not so different from Peuchet’s or Hood’s, though his rebarbative language tended to conceal the point: he had a capitalised or thing-like idea of Society, and was not much attuned to thinking of it as a sum of human relations. It is true that he had room for other kinds of society than the familiar Thing: he spoke of ‘religious society’, ‘domestic society’, ‘political society’ as constituting social groups, the degree of whose ‘integration’ governed, inversely, the suicide rate for Catholics and Protestants, the married and single, countries at war and countries at peace. The rate is always higher in the second member of these three pairs than in the first. But talk about integration is surely a thin substitute for talking about society with a small ‘s’.

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