Try a monastery instead

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen

  • Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide by Marzio Barbagli, translated by Lucinda Byatt
    Polity, 407 pp, £19.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 7456 6245 9

Around forty years ago, a friend of mine took his own life in the middle of a party he was throwing in his apartment. A neighbour who happened to look outside saw him climb onto the window ledge, hesitate briefly and then jump to his death from the fifth floor. His guests were stunned when the police rang at the door.

Why did he do it? We grasp at reasons, motives, causes, triggers. Sometimes people oblige us by leaving a note behind to explain their action. It was, the note says, because of a severe illness, or unbearable pain, bankruptcy, despondency, loss of a loved one, betrayal, a slight, boredom. (My friend didn’t leave a note.) Sometimes people kill themselves just in order to leave such a note. Others were crying for help, but nobody heard them. There is a laundry list of possible reasons, but do any of them answer our question? Suicide is an anomaly: what causes some people to kill themselves when most of us live on?

There is no shortage of theories. For more than a thousand years in the West, suicide was ascribed to Satan. In the first systematic treatise devoted to the topic, published in 1637, John Sym, a Puritan, was still able to attribute suicide to ‘the strong impulse, powerfull motions, and command of the Devill’. But natural causes were increasingly being blamed: melancholy, a dysfunction of the hypochondriac organs, folly, a foul climate, the ‘English malady’. Predictably, psychiatrists staked their claim to suicide as soon as their discipline got off the ground. ‘I believe that I have demonstrated that a man does not attempt to end his days except in delirium,’ Jean-Etienne Esquirol wrote in the early 19th century, ‘and that suicides are insane.’ Others, like the phrenologically inclined physician François-Joseph-Victor Broussais, believed that suicide was caused by a defect in the still to be located organ presiding over our ‘propensity for staying alive’.

Then came Durkheim. By his own account, his 1897 study, Suicide, is a deterministic, ‘aetiological’ theory. It is a fascinating attempt to find the sole cause of suicide, the one that would render unnecessary all the other causes adduced in popular wisdom and by rival sociologists. ‘The motives that are … attributed to suicides are not their true causes,’ Durkheim insisted. If people killed themselves, it was not because of neurasthenia, race, heredity, the climate, or Gabriel Tarde’s silly notion of ‘imitation’, that suicide was the result of a psychological contagion. Durkheim argued instead that society was to blame. Poring over suicide statistics, he noted that annual suicide rates tended to remain stable in a given society over a given period. This, he argued, ‘can only be due to the permanent action of some impersonal cause that hovers over all the particular cases’. And this cause was society, a collective being ‘as real as cosmic forces’, which exacts an unvarying suicide toll from the group. In a draft rebuttal, Tarde was quick to call this society a ‘mythological entity’: Durkheim, he wrote, had hypostatised a statistical constant, making it into a ‘divine person, infinitely superior to individuals and commanding them’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in