Is new and neat and adequately tall;
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours — on the wall —
Are drawing a long breath to shout “Hurray!”
The strangest whim has seized me. … After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.
— G. K. Chesterton, A Ballade of Suicide
STANDING ON THE platform, staring expectantly into the dark, awaiting that sudden gasp, that suck of air that signals the approach of the underground train, I cannot help but ask myself: “Why not jump? What is to stop me?” The answer, terrifying as it is simple, is: Nothing at all. There is nothing that can keep me from taking the fatal leap, from rushing headlong into my own unmaking. Nothing but me and my decision not to. Or, perhaps something less than a decision, only a whim.
This problem of human freedom and how far it extends has been known since the ancients. Plato understood that laws are necessary to curtail certain human actions. The discovery of the destructive impulse was not, as Freud would have us believe, the result of the psychoanalytic method. We have always been aware that our fate lies in our hands, even when we have been too troubled to say so out loud. Why else would Plato find it necessary to introduce one of the earliest and longest-standing arguments against self-slaughter? We are, his Socrates tells us, the possessions of the gods and to die by suicide is to exercise a power over one’s life reserved only for the divine. And yet that is not Socrates’s final word on the subject. In the next breath, he dies laughing; having willingly drunk from the poisoned cup, he asks his friend Crito to offer sacrifice to Asclepius, god of good health. Suicide, the master of irony suggests, is double faced: both an offense to the gods and a blessing bestowed by the gods on those who pray for a cure to life.
It wasn’t until recently that I understood the import of philosophy’s gallows humor. I was asked by a colleague to act as a respondent to Simon Critchley, who was giving a talk on his beautiful book-length essay Notes on Suicide, just reissued by Fitzcarraldo Editions. A few weeks before the talk, I awoke in the middle of the night with a squeezing, wrenching tightness in my chest, a suffocating breathlessness, and an unshakable fear that I was about to die. My heart was racing; the muscles contracted in my shoulders and neck; I felt that I could neither stand nor lie nor sit. I was having a panic attack. I’ve had them for years and have learned to live with them (mostly by waking my poor, tired wife and making her talk to me until the episode subsides). My anxiety wasn’t brought on by the thought of my upcoming conversation with a thinker I deeply admire. Nor were there any specific life events I could pin it on. It seemed to come from nowhere, rack my psyche, and leave me physically and mentally exhausted.
As I read through Critchley’s book, however, I began to notice a connection between the underlying conditions of anxiety and suicide. Both are fundamentally connected with the problem of meaning, each revealing a different aspect of that problem. To say this is to disregard Critchley’s expressed desire to leave meaning behind. “The question of the meaning of life,” he writes, “is the wrong question and I humbly suggest that we stop asking it.” It is perhaps a bit impolite for a respondent to take as his starting point the very subject the speaker has asked his audience to forget. But good manners have little to do with understanding, and honest reflection is rarely polite. In any event, as I considered the wide range of behaviors we classify as “suicide” — Critchley mentions self-slaughter as the consequence of a terminal diagnosis, the loss of love, the feeling of isolation and alienation from society, the commitment to a religious or political ideology, and many more — I asked myself: “What, if anything, ties such disparate acts together? What do these various reasons for taking one’s life have in common?”
It was then that I remembered a footnote from the early pages of Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. “I have heard,” Camus tells us, “of […] a post-war writer who, after having finished his first book, committed suicide to attract attention to his work. Attention was in fact attracted, but the book was judged no good.” I’ve always thought that a sense of the comic is essential for philosophy — and when the comic can be successfully wedded to the tragic, all the better — but revisiting this anecdote in light of Critchley’s essay opened it up for me. What stood out now was that the postwar writer’s first book was also his last. Once he had finished writing it, he had nothing left to do. He had to kill himself. As a writer, I could sympathize. Many of the writers I know finish a work and become horribly depressed. The worst thing is to complete a project one has been working on for years. As long as the task lies ahead — indefinite, unfinished, waiting in the indeterminacy of the future — there is hope, possibility, life. But a task accomplished is a dead thing; and when one has tied all of one’s meaning to that task, it is hard to go on living.
I am not trying to say that everyone who struggles with suicidal ideation does so because he has achieved his life’s goal. I am suggesting that thoughts of suicide creep in when one feels that one’s life has been defined, that it has a set meaning, and that nothing unexpected or new can break in upon it and alter its direction. Consider the much-commented-upon rise in self-destructive tendencies among older white, middle-class Americans. By one reading, this could be attributed to the fact that a lot of people feel that they are not living particularly meaningful lives. By another, it might be said that these person’s lives are too meaningful — monolithically meaningful, confined to a single meaning (say, that of an officer worker) — and that there is nothing ahead of them, no possibility of change.
Or consider the examples Critchley raises above. The recipient of a terminal diagnosis sees no future. His fate is final. The woman who has been abandoned by her lover knows that love can be no more. She has found her purpose, and no other can replace it. The lonely and isolated are trapped in their solitude with no possibility of escape. The religious or political fanatic has discovered the meaning of life and so sacrifices himself (and often others) to it. All these people have found meaning and, to quote Camus once more, “what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying.”
“Suicide,” Critchley writes, “abolishes the future.” To this I would add that the person who dies by suicide does so because his future has already been abolished, negated by the meaning of the present, a meaning accomplished and yet not over, which cannot be done away with. Critchley identifies this predicament — hence his insistence that the search for meaning “should simply be given up” — and, in response, admonishes us to open ourselves to the meaninglessness of existence, stop trying to define it, give up the futile attempt to nail the damned thing down. The worst thing we could do, his essay suggests, is get what we want and find that there is nothing left to be done, no future to pursue, no more possibilities on the horizon. “The question of life’s meaning,” he writes, “is an error. […] The great revelation will never come.” Thus instead of wandering aimlessly in search of it or killing ourselves when we think we’ve found it, Critchley encourages us to seek out moments of ecstasy in the everyday, glimpses of the sublime in the commonplace. He ends with a beautiful meditation on what it means to open ourselves to the gentle indifference of the world and to do so tenderly, with love. He concludes — echoing Mrs. Ramsay’s exaltation of dappled things in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse — “It is enough.”
I want that to be true. And yet, living with panic attacks makes me wary. For when caught in the clutches of anxiety, it is precisely the indifference and indeterminacy of the world that fills one with dread. The meaninglessness of everything, the fact that there are too many possibilities and that any of them or none of them might come to fruition, leaves one breathless. Kierkegaard defines anxiety as “freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.” What he means is that anxiety is my awareness of my freedom, my recognition of the fact that I live as a free being with an infinite number of possibilities before me. Given this experience, given the unbearable weight of indeterminacy, one would choose any meaning, even an awful one (even, perhaps, death) over meaninglessness, possibility, freedom.
Dostoyevsky tells us that “never was there anything more unbearable to the human race than personal freedom.” In moments of intense anxiety, I cannot help but agree. That is why, I suspect, that when caught in the grips of a panic attack, one’s thoughts go immediately to death — the final possibility and the end of all possibilities. The very death that one dreads is one’s only hope, consolation to get one through the dreadful night. Yet as Critchley’s essay reveals, if we hang on a while longer, if we find a way to endure it, life does go on. In the tension between anxiety and suicide — infinite, stifling possibility and finite meaning that closes off possibility forever — life does go on.
It is learning to live with the tension that is the trick. Learning to shoulder the weight, to bear the burden, to hang on the cross of human existence and not try to get down makes life worth living. Difficult as that may seem, it can be done. It is done every day. Each of us is already doing it.
Matthew Clemente is a lecturer in the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College.