'No Words Came'

Simon Critchley, Notes on Suicide

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 104pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781910695067

reviewed by Pascal Porcheron

At the tail-end of spring nine years ago, my uncle, who I hated and barely knew, boarded a train from London to Hastings. At the station in Hastings, he walked to the beach. At the beach, he slashed his wrists and walked into the sea. At some point he stopped walking and, we can only surmise, the water gradually lifted his feet from the sea bed and carried his body further from the shore. Perhaps the tide beat him back towards the land, and he was forced to swim out to his fate. Perhaps the shock from the icy water caused his heart to give way, and he was spared the slow sensation of drowning. Perhaps, after all, he fainted from the loss of blood and experienced nothing of those final moments. All we have is speculation.

When his body was finally recovered, some weeks later, the coroner found that he had in his pocket a return train ticket to London. That train ticket has always fascinated me. Did it prove foul play, or merely that his decision to take his life had come late in the day? The ticket was the only note he left, and while my family and I were estranged from him, I can’t stop wondering what he might have said, had he written a note. That he didn’t means we will never know, ultimately, what brought him there, and whether or not our estrangement played a part.

Uncle Philip wasn’t the first person to walk into the sea. It is a preferred literary death, perfectly suited to Phil, the unsuccessful poet, who ended his life in penury and isolation. Our literature is strewn with the bodies of the drowned, from Aegeus who could not bear the loss of his son, to Virginia Woolf, who had written all she could. Ophelia, John Berryman, Paul Celan, are all among the drowned. In Waterland (1983) by Graham Swift, the protagonist’s black sheep brother dives into the murky estuary near King’s Lynn and swims out into the North Sea. Evelyn Waugh got as far as the middle of the lake before deciding to swim back.

At school at the time of Philip’s death, we were studying the French Revolution. A nobleman said, ‘it can feel pleasing to fall, providing you believe you will rise again.’ Testing the water, feeling the salt touch your lips, entering your nostrils, your chest falling into your stomach, the sky gradually receding, and then kicking, and the action swinging your body vertical, the salt water streaming from your eyes and your lungs clutching at the air.

This is what Simon Critchley’s book does, too. On the face of it a treatise on suicide, with an ‘afterword’ by David Hume, it is framed by a conscious literary setting, and a dramatic unity of time. Critchley does not only ‘debate’ suicide, he enacts the journey of the suicidal man, from beach to water, to the final moment – do you kick or not?

The notes are split into four short lectures, each of which dramatises this journey, at the same time as they represent logical steps in a more abstract disquisition on the topic. In the first, Critchley tells us that he recently considered killing himself, for the first time in his life. Which is why he has come ‘here, to a pleasant and modestly sized coastal town in East Anglia… to stare at the North Sea.’ Unlike many others, rather than kill himself, he has come ‘here’, to write about it. In this way the form and content of Critchley’s notes diverge. Critchley is aware of this, and plays with it, imagining himself taking those final steps into oblivion (‘I’ve come to meet the darkness in the darkness, at the end of the land, into the sea’) only to reconfigure this act in writing (‘Perhaps the closest we come to dying is through writing’). So ends the first lecture, with Critchley poised to commit pen to paper, rather than anything more worrisome. In the next lecture, in the guise of writing about the moral opposition to suicide, Critchley mimics the struggle of the suicidal man who considers how his gesture will be received. ‘Why is suicide seen as illegal, immoral or irreligious?’ he asks, which is the silent retort to Hamlet’s complaint, ‘Oh that the almighty had not fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.’ Why must it be so? In some sense what matters is that it is. To argue to the contrary is consolation only for the suicide.

The case against suicide, Critchley explains, does not hold up to scrutiny, being based on a Christian theological worldview which contradicts its own terms. Life is a gift from God, we are told, but something is only a gift if it can be refused – otherwise it is an imposition. An imposition is hardly worth cherishing. And indeed life is an imposition. Quoting the 18th-century philosopher, Alberto Radicati, he argues that the real reason we cannot kill ourselves is because another man, not God, owns us. As Hamlet’s cry makes clear, it is God and the State (whose laws are represented by the legal ‘canon’) that forbid suicide.

I had an argument with a friend about assisted suicide. She said: ‘Well, suicide isn’t illegal so why should assisted suicide be?’ I would question the belief that suicide is legal beyond what an individualistic society makes practical. It certainly doesn’t feel legal, because we do everything in our legal power to stop people from doing it. And when they do, we show very little pity for them and very much for those close to them that ‘survive.’ When it happened to my family, the overriding emotion was anger at the person whose suffering felt so great that they no longer wished to breathe, not pity, or celebration of their lives. Suicide is seen as a cruel and selfish act. It is only legal in the sense that we no longer believe in the importance of burial and the afterlife, otherwise I am sure we would still refuse to have the casket within the church walls, and might even deny the dead body its last rites. Yes, we do not punish the family of the suicide, as Critchley points out we used to do. This is only because we believe in individual responsibility. Human beings are free to act, but they are not free to ‘not act.’ It is a contradiction borne out of theological dogma: our lives are ‘but lent to us,’ as God tells Everyman.

Do we rather forbid suicide because we have duty to a community? As Critchley says, ‘what kind of a “community” is it that forces its members to stay alive when they don’t want to?’ Clearly a community that obligates its members to stay alive at all costs is not one to which we should feel obliged. And what about the community’s obligation to the individual? The community, my family’s, duty to Philip. That is at least half the anger of the suicide’s ‘dependants.’ It is self-reproach projected outwards. Looked at another way, suicide is an implicit criticism of this community, and perhaps cannot be tolerated for that reason.

Critchley is looking at it from one perspective, I from the opposing one. He sees the suicide freed from his obligation to others. I see that, denied the love of the community, the suicide walks into the sea. Perhaps the one view is merely the inverse of the other. In the end, each view of suicide, from the supportive to the critical, is discussed and deconstructed until all rational argument is spent. After all, how can one view suicide rationally when in order to do so one would have to assess the benefits of a state which we can never know? All arguments defeated, Critchley poses the ultimate question: but will it hurt?

The posing of this question moves the drama to the next stage, the penultimate one before the act itself; the suicide note. In this third lecture Critchley considers precedents. Tells us of a class he taught where he asked the participants to write their own notes. Come the reckoning, what would they consider worthy of this final proposition. Some notes are bitter, some conciliatory, others loving. One or two funny. A friend tells Critchley of the simplest one of all: ‘DARK. Light. DARK.’ Critchley was unable to write one of his own: ‘I tried repeatedly, but no words came.’ Through its constant literary and geographical allusions, the book pitches the author in the role of the actor, about to commit – we are paused between thought and action, like Hamlet. In a state of anxiety, no words come.

If only actual suicides were this orderly, this pedantically orchestrated and respectfully articulated. This is of course Critchley’s point, or at least the reason he has written these notes on suicide and yet cannot write a suicide note. There are two comforts in the book, the pathetic fallacy of the dingy cold North sea, and the reassurance of narrative, be that the carefully staged progression of the argument, or the literary framing. Philosophising, rather than discussing messy personal experience, that is comforting. That is after all why I am writing this book review. Critchley’s skill is to do this silently. It gives us a feeling of the sublime. To appreciate the drama of the feeling through the prism of the intellect.

But I wanted him to break free from this prison and answer the question posed by the suicide note, ‘why do I want to commit suicide?’ I demand an answer, an explanation. But none is forthcoming. We only know that he walked into the sea. Six years after Phil’s death I found myself on the Norfolk shoreline, at Hunstanton, a town in genteel decay. A town not unlike Critchley’s Aldeburgh. The sea and sky were rust brown, and the tide in and slapping the stone pier. It was February, late afternoon. The arcades were closed and the caravan site at the southern end of the pier lay empty. Everything had an air of having been vacated long ago. I was broke, felt utterly alone, in a deep well surrounded by anxiety. It wasn’t so long after reading Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1941). The novel begins with George Harvey Bone walking along the cliff in Hunstanton, in a ‘dead mood’, which is to say a morose depression, as if in a ‘silent film without music’. Somehow coming here, in late February, seemed like the right thing to do. It offered me comfort to be in a landscape I could understand; somewhere devoid of colour. As Critchley says, surveying the North sea from a similar town, one ‘ineluctably thinks of the Smiths.’

I realise this is childish, is what Freud warned about when he spoke of the neurotic, unable to accept a world beyond his control. But there is something more. The sea has a power all its own. It is hard to write ‘the sea’ and not adorn it in some way, give it some sort of epithet. The sea is never just itself, perhaps because it can be all things – giver of life, passage to a new land, an infinitely mysterious, quixotic, murderer. Iris Murdoch, another East Anglian, sums it all up in ‘The Sea, The Sea’. The repetition of this simple iamb is enough to convey the sense of longing and mystery associated with the sea. I take the subject of Murdoch’s book to be the relinquishing of all desire, the opposite of the neurotic’s fantasy. The sea is a nebulous force out of which strange monsters of the protagonist’s devising emerge. The sea is the canvas onto which his fantasies are projected, but it is also the water that dissolves all feeling, as in the end he undergoes a sort of baptism, and learns to relinquish earthly attachment of all sorts.

Many people have been drawn to the sea in this way, and some choose to continue walking, while others turn back. What we are never told is why Critchley has come here. He says, ‘For reasons that we don’t need to go into, my life has dissolved like sugar in hot tea’. This book is his attempt to think past this unnamed catastrophe, ‘to lay things to rest in writing’, indeed to ‘take leave’ from life in the act of committing pen to paper. Writing is, for Critchley, a ‘temporary abandonment of the world’. Writing, perhaps, is like dissolution in the sea, an abnegation of the self. Lawrence Durrell calls it ‘the acid bath of words’, in one of the most verbose novels ever written, ‘The Alexandria Quartet’. Maybe it is about accepting that dissolution.

Suicide, as Critchley says, ‘finds us both strangely reticent and unusually loquacious’. We say a lot but we don’t say what we mean, we are ‘hiding something, blocking something… through our endless chatter, or indeed, rage.’ I tested this out on a friend by asking him if he had ever considered ending his life. After a reflective pause he talked, at length, about the suicide of a close friend. Then, he asked me if I had ever considered suicide. Like him, I changed the subject. It’s as if the whole conversation on suicide has to take place metaphorically.

In the fourth and final part, Critchley returns to the moment with which the book began, the death of French novelist Edouard Levé who, ten days after completing his novel about a young man who commits suicide without explaining why, committed suicide. In the novel the protagonist is addressed with these words:

‘Are there good reasons for committing suicide? Those who survived you asked themselves these questions; they will not find answers.’

The disturbing question Critchley poses is, what if there are no reasons for committing suicide, but one still has the urge to do it? Reason and feeling are in conflict throughout the book. There is no reason without feeling, and reason itself is largely a means for comfort in the face of one’s desires. In fact two sensations matter at the final reckoning and are counterposed: the earthly sensation of suicide and the other-wordly, heavenly sensation accompanying blissful living. Critchley quotes Maurice Blanchot:

‘Just as the man who is hanging himself, after kicking away the stool on which he stood, heading for the final shore, rather than feeling the leap which he is making into the void feels only the rope which holds him … bound as he has never been before to the existence he would like to leave.’

Why commit suicide if it will only make you feel more keenly your own existence? If to commit suicide, you must ‘show that (you) are up to the presumptions of life’, as Amery is quoted as saying? Does that invert the famous dictum of the suicide bomber, ‘we love death as you love life’? For it is death and facing death that allows us to fully understand the contours of a life, to see it clearly as it were from the other side.
Those who love death, Critchley seems to say, should learn to appreciate the many moments of dissipation and dissolution that greet us, like light catching a bird’s wing, when we give up on trying to kill ourselves. When we give up trying to find a reason for living, we can enjoy life for what it is:

‘When life stands still here and we face the endless shifting indifferent grey-brown sea, when we hold ourselves open out into that indifference tenderly, without pining, self-pitying, complaining or expecting some reward or glittering prize… …This moment, one out of a million, out of a million millions, towards 4.30pm on a Thursday afternoon in late November on this East Anglian beach, grey cloud, gulls, gusts of wind, vast darkness descending. Here is delight. Here one can help oneself out of one’s solitude, shift that wedge-shaped core of darkness that is the self, and reach out and up towards another… in love.

Ecstasy bursts into our eyes. It is enough.’

This is the hopeful message of the final passage. I read it and I thought of all the people that have come to the same spot as him, and how many had turned back towards their hotel room at last and caught glimpse of a gull drifting out to sea, or the spit from the tide smacking the jetty, or a purple clam shell among the grey stones, and decided that was enough.

On my last visit to Hunstanton I saw a pigeon with a broken wing careening around the rocks on the seafront, one wing raised vertically as if asking for assistance. Its other wing looked to be damaged, and it tried unsuccessfully to leave the ground. Towards it a gull, menacingly, hopped. After several attempts it crawled to the water’s edge and sat, until the coming tide lifted it into this other element, and it sat still, but the tide drew it ineluctably from the shore. It no longer attempted flight. As its silhouette disappeared on the horizon, it seemed to me that it had accepted its fate.
Pascal Porcheron reads little and writes less.