‘How to Endure’: An Interview with Simon Critchley

by Marc Farrant

In an increasingly violent world, Simon Critchley’s study of suicide underlines the difficulty of attempting to inhabit the mental space of those who choose to take their own lives, where ‘reason runs headlong into one last, long tunnel with no exit.’ ‘Whether it is dreams of martyrdom, delusions of paradise or fantasies of honour and revenge, there is a perverse rationality to depressive suicide where all reasons lead to the same fatal and seemingly inescapable decision.’ To confront head-on this perverse rationality, ‘to meet darkness in the darkness,’ in the winter of 2014 Critchley took up residence in a hotel room with a sea-view in Aldeburgh, on the North Sea coast of Suffolk, England, and wrote.

The resulting book, Notes on Suicide, is both an exercise in philosophical exposition and a movingly intimate engagement with an intractably personal issue. It communicates a disquiet and disaffection with our current frames and modes of discussing suicide. In this interview we discussed a range of issues related to suicide, including the religious and psychiatric discourses around it and its consequent framing in our moral imagination.

I wanted to ask about writing. At the beginning you talk about writing as a stepping outside of life, which enables one to look at it both more distantly but also more closely. The book itself exhibits this combination, as traditional treatise or essay but also as a personal engagement. As you say, it’s hard to feel wholly academic about the question of suicide. I wondered if you could elaborate on this question of writing as both distancing and approximating?

Well, the idea of writing as taking leave, as stepping outside. In a strange sense, or important sense, to write is to imagine yourself already dead; to imagine yourself having taken leave of life and to look at it from outside. To write is also to try and stop the torrent of the self that is inside all of our heads, the flood of thoughts and words and associations, to take a step away from that, to look at things from outside, to occupy this dead or neutral zone. There’s a phrase that Ann Carson uses, where she says 'there’s too much self in my writing,' and when you’re trained academically, as it were, you’re trained to try and keep your subjectivity out of your writing, to keep it scholarly, objective and rigorous, but of course it’s always impossible to do that, and the self comes flooding back in. It’s always a negotiation between what Ann Carson calls 'the space that’s strewn with one’s facticity,' with the fact of who one is, on the one hand, and then some kind of clearing that enables you to look from the outside, from that dead zone. Writing is that back and forth between, as it were, a living self and some other cleared, dead space that we never fully occupy either. The suicide book at one level is odd because by definition it’s the most personal thing you can talk about, but on the other hand it’s important to step outside of one’s person to address the topic – not to be objective or scientific, but to occupy a different kind of space.

Later I want to discuss what you talk about in the book as the specific kind of writing or writing genre that is the suicide note itself, but for now I’d like to extrapolate the primary stakes of the debate concerning the historical grounding of the prohibition of suicide, particularly in Christian-theological doctrine. The problem would appear to be one of sovereignty. To quote from the book: 'Rather than being seen as a free sovereign act, suicide is seen as a usurpation of sovereignty.' That would be the sovereignty of God, State or King. Can you expand on that?

The thought in this book goes back to my earlier work, The Book of Dead Philosophers (2008), and a discovery I made doing the research for that book, which was a text by this obscure Italian thinker, Count Alberto Radicati di Passerano. In his A Philosophical Dissertation upon Death (1732) Radicati begins with the idea that we don’t fear death; this Spinozist idea that we have no natural fear of death. So where does this fear come from? From the three impostors, named as Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. Following the Spinozist spirit of the times, Radicati identifies the source of the prohibition against suicide in this theological lineage. It is precisely a question of sovereignty. Who is the sovereign. The prohibition of suicide is theological, it’s developed in medieval Christianity, the idea that we are given life by God and that life is a gift, but a gift over which we do not have dominion. By exercising sovereignty or dominion over our life by killing ourselves then we are engaged in an act of hubris or sin against God. To the theological framing of suicide, we can say that’s all very nice but what’s the importance of it.

Well its twofold, on the one hand, there’s no prohibition against suicide in the Hebrew bible, there’s an interpretation of the prohibition of murder by the extension of that prohibition to self-murder, but that’s not articulated in the bible, and then secondly, Christ in the new testament says nothing about suicide. There’s no early Church position. It’s something that is formulated in medieval theology, and the reason I think that’s important is because it’s that theological frame that frames the law and structures our moral reactions to suicide right down to this day. I track in the book a little bit, but I did a lot more research that I didn’t use, looking at the way in which the law around the prohibition of suicide really turns on this question of sovereignty, that you’re not sovereign over your body and if you commit suicide then your goods and belongings are forfeited, and suicides were dragged through the streets etc.

That can seem like a historical nicety, but that’s still the moral frame – although suicide was decriminalised in the West, in the UK for example around 1961-62 – our reaction to suicide that moral prohibition is still intact, and it’s that that I want to break down. What happened in the nineteenth and twentieth century’s is that the theological prohibition switched over to a psychiatric discourse, if someone was exhibiting suicidal symptoms then they were no longer sovereign over themselves, and had to be institutionalised, treated or put into therapy. So the whole discourse around suicide, which is still the one in which we move, is one in which issues of sovereignty – of freely choosing one’s death – are ruled out of court. I want us to be able to ponder the thought that suicide is a free act, and a free act that we have to face up to.

This brings us to Camus, and the question of whether to live or die, and that the question of suicide is the fundamental philosophical question, and everything else follows from that. It’s in that space of thinking of suicide as the possibility of a free act that I was trying to locate myself in the book.

The book sets out a clear agenda to move beyond the parameters of theological and psychiatric discourses around suicide, and the question of sovereignty appears just as relevant to the latter. So the psychiatric discourse appears to exonerate the perpetrator of the crime of self-homicide by attributing the act to underlying psychological or neurobiological causes or imbalances. However, in another sense, the Freudian inheritance does arm against the libertarian sense of sovereign agency after the death of god. Psychoanalysis challenges the sense of a wholly autonomous self. Can you discuss a little the pitfalls inherent to the idea of a libertarian right to suicide?

In the first part of the book I track the theological and legal sources for the moral prohibition against suicide, which turns on the question of sovereignty, but I’m also not defending the libertarian position that we have a right to suicide. That presupposes that we possess a kind of autonomy or sovereignty to make the decision rationally to end our lives or not, and I don’t think we do. So I also try and unpick that position in the book as well, which takes me to psychoanalysis in the suicide note section.

Clearly the book is engaging with the tradition of existential philosophy…

Yep, I’m a existentialist. It’s taken me a long time to say that in public, but it’s true. I’m an existential phenomenologist, the idea of which we get from early Heidegger, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty and various other figures, and that’s really where I plugged into philosophy. Some decades later I realised that yes, that’s what is at stake. To engage in existential analysis I still think is hugely important. I’m outing myself as an existentialist!

Well then perhaps we can discuss Camus further, and I’d also like to introduce Dostoevsky and the sense in his work of a vacuum opening up after the death of God. The intractable question arises for both: why should we go on and persist in a world without hope?

Well I take Dostoevsky’s wager very seriously, in The Devils the character Kirillov says that basically, given the death of god, given the moral indifferentism that this leads to, we should engage in what he calls logical suicide. That position is of course not Dostoevsky’s position, which is instead that once we give up the belief in the immortality of the soul then we are no better than cattle, which he says in the diaries. I don’t agree with Dostoevsky, and I don’t agree with Kirillov, but it’s a fascinating wager: if there’s no metaphysical ground for life, then why continue. Unless one is prepared to think that through then one is not really thinking, it seems to me.

I want to follow through with some of the logical-refutation type arguments you explore in the book, such as the sense of suicide being an autonomous decision to end autonomy, or a desire for death which is also paradoxically a desire to end desire. This makes suicide logically problematic, but is this why we feel so violated by suicide as a mass phenomenon, that it persists despite reason?

So in the first half of the book, I don’t say this, but what I’m trying to do is to clear away the debris in a much more analytic way than I tend to argue. The debate on suicide is usually conducted around questions of rights and duties; whether I have a right to suicide or not, or whether suicide is prohibited because I have a duty to others, to the community or the people I love. I try and unpick those arguments in the first part of the book, and they’re not that hard to unpick, and then that leaves you with the question: so what do we do now? That takes me on to suicide notes and more into a literary or existential analysis in the last part of the book, including Camus, Édouard Levé, Jean Améry and Virginia Woolf. And that’s what I’m recommending. If we want to think about the question of suicide properly, we have to give up the standard discussion of rights and duties. The two words I borrow from Jean Améry: introspection and empathy. Those are both categories that require an existential analysis, and are categories deployed most powerfully in fiction and literature.

Just before you get to the end, you discuss the problem of thinking of suicide as chosen for its own sake, free from attributable external causes (psychiatric or otherwise). This sense of suicide indeed does appear devastating for our reason-making discourses, so how are we to cope with this philosophically?

Precisely. Tomorrow [13 November 2015] I’m doing an event around the question of suicide with Andrew Solomon (author of The Noonday Demon: At Atlas of Depression) and Kay Redfield Jamison (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide), both clinical psychologists. They’re brilliant, they’re brilliant people and their books are really fascinating. But, for both of them, the unquestioned philosophical axiom – moral axiom – they work from, is that suicide is a problem which needs to be prevented, and I think that’s not enough, philosophically, we have to be able to face the question that there can be – there are – instances of people who are perfectly healthy, perfectly lucid, but who might choose to end it, and we can’t just put them on lithium or send them to a priest, we have to engage with that in a different way. That’s where I think the figures at the end of my book become important.

The suicide note material was also the most interesting part of the research, and people are fascinated by suicide notes, they find them grimly compelling and I think in a kind of pornographic way. We don’t analyse them as a literary genre, which is what they are, so I try and do that in the third part of the book with Freud. The Freudian word would be ambivalence, which marks a movement between exhibitionism, on the one hand, and depression on the other. It’s not just that depressed people are depressed, and they stay in their room and weep and wail, but they’re usually very voluble about it, the paradigm of that would be Hamlet, who tells us endlessly how miserable he is. That mixture of depression and exhibitionism is found in the suicide note in terms of the fact that they are public acts; an act of publicity, of publishing, conveying a sense of complete disconnection. They are attempts to communicate where all communication has broken down. I think I only scratch the surface in the book, there’s a lot more interesting work to be done.

Certainly the suicide note in the way that you figure it seems to embody two interesting poles simultaneously, firstly as you argue, it captures this Freudian process of objectification which is diagnosed as central to melancholy, whereas on the other hand, and following Camus, the note becomes our survival, our means of going on despite our death through an act of absurd creation. Can you speak further to this dichotomy?

The most extreme form of the dichotomy in suicide notes is that between love and hate. What I’m thinking of in particular, at the end of the essay of Freud translated as ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes’ (or ‘Drives and the Destiny of Drives’ is a better translation) he focuses on this phenomena of ambivalence, in particular between love and hate, and the way love flips over into hate and back and forth. He says that 'hate is older than love,' which is the famous remark. What we find in the suicide note is the most profound and direct communication of that ambivalence. There is one suicide note I quote in the book that goes: 'Dear Betty, I hate you, Love George.' That’s it, the question of hate undersigned with love. I go through various examples, but the Kurt Cobain note is particularly moving; there’s a self hatred, a hatred of the world, a hatred of other people and then he ends at the bottom of the page in capital letters: 'I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU.' So, what you find with the suicide note is this constant expression of ambivalence between love and hate, and that’s fascinating and really disturbing.

You move towards the end to the Romanian thinker and philosopher Emil Cioran, and I found myself similarly drawn to his perverted case for life, which is in a way a version of the logical refutation argument. Cioran argues that suicide is too optimistic, it presents itself as all too effective as a solution, so death therefore becomes an escape or reprieve and becomes possible to equate with a sense of plenitude, almost like a state of immortality. The Cioran position is that if life is meaningless why would death be otherwise. It reminded me of Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, when he says: 'the assumption [of the immortality of the soul] completely fails to accomplish the purpose for which is has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life?' Similarly, one might argue, is not this final belief in death just a little too convenient, what does death solve exactly, why not live?

The quote from Wittgenstein is very apropos. I turn to Cioran at the end because it’s such fun, he’s such dark, bleak fun. The idea is that suicide is optimistic because you think you can save something, and that’s the delusion, you save nothing through your death, neither yourself nor others. So why not calm down, why not and enjoy the melancholy spectacle of the world that spreads out so elegantly in front of us. I rather like that line of thought: that there is something cowardly about suicide. The more difficult question in Cioran, which you also find in Nietzsche, is how one endures. Given that there’s no god, no immortality of the soul, no meaning, purpose or aim to life, or indeed to the universe, why carry on? And Nietzsche’s thought, to put it in a Nietzschean register, which I don’t talk about in the book, would be that that’s what the eternal return is; the eternal return is the idea that if you can accept the universe is without meaning, purpose or aim, and you can will that to return again and again, then you can endure. It’s that capacity, that courage for endurance, that Nietzsche is asking of us, and I think it’s also there in Cioran as well. That’s finally what I’m recommending: endure. Endure and it might not be so bad, the world is a chaotic, noisy mess, but also its full of distractions so why not stick around for a while! Nothing is saved by your death.

One final question, about Beckett, who you’ve written eloquently on before, and who is a writer who has a central and ongoing theme of dying and death and its narrative correlate, this sense of ending, of finishing, of being done. Why do Beckett’s characters so consistently fail to commit suicide, why do they endure being flayed alive by memory, is this a Nietzschean endurance?

Yes, I think it’s a comic variant of it. Nietzsche was capable of comedy but Beckett is a much better comic writer. What you see in Beckett’s characters is a capacity to endure, to go on, to nohow on, and what you find in Beckett (a thought I’m borrowing from Blanchot) is death, over which one can imagine oneself sovereign (and suicide would be the assertion of my sovereignty with regard to my death), as opposed to what Blanchot called dying. What you find in Beckett is characters who are dying, like in Malone Dies. We don’t actually see Malone die as the novel is written from the 1st person perspective, we see him slowly expiring and writing in his exercise book with his little Venus pencil. I think it’s that finally that is to be recommended, to continue, to go on, but without any kind of assurance at all, and that also that this is a profoundly comical position. This is the human comedy. Take Waiting for Godot, there are two acts where the same thing happens, but there could’ve been 5, 7, 20 acts, where exactly the same loop carries on, at one level that seems grim, but at another level I think it’s a kind of bracing realism. Even cheerful really.

Simon Critchley's Notes on Suicide is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.