Simon Critchley is one of the most well-known and well-respected philosophers alive. Here he is the latest interviewed in the new HKRB series of conversations with authors of new texts in critical theory. Interview by Alfie Bown.
Simon Critchley, Notes on Suicide (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015), pp. 104.
Simon Critchley’s latest text has been read as fiction, as a personal memoir and as a philosophical essay. In truth, Notes on Suicide is all and none of these things. It tells personal stories (his own and those of others) and engages the reader individually, but it retains the philosophical and theoretical rigor of the rest of his life’s work. The text is an exploration of Critchley’s own relationship to suicide, a discussion of the role of suicide in popular and celebrity culture and a philosophical investigation into the problematic discourses surrounding suicide in contemporary society.
The book is often all of these things at one and the same moment. For example, a central claim that Critchley makes is that ‘we lack a language for speaking honestly about suicide because we find the topic so hard to think about, at once both deeply unpleasant and gruesomely compelling.’ With this in mind, suicide notes (to which a chapter is dedicated), are ‘failed attempts in the sense that the writer is communicating a failure to communicate, expressing the desire to give up in one last attempt at expression.’ This argument, whilst making perfect sense on the level of lived experience, also opens out onto a broader philosophical discussion about the limits of language, the proximity of writing to death and the condition of subjectivity as predicated on a fundamental inability to communicate. This move is indicative of the book’s unique success in walking a balance between the personal on the one hand and the political and philosophical on the other. Ultimately the book shows that, when it comes to the most important thing, our own lives, the personal and the philosophical are never as separate as it seems.
Here I was able to ask Critchley some questions about his new book.
Alfie Bown: I’ve found it very interesting how different readers have responded to your book. Some have seen it as personal memoir or even as fiction (possibly because with Memory Theatre, which was out just before, you are writing what can be more clearly defined as fiction), whereas others have not considered that way of thinking about the book at all, reading it as the latest of your philosophical texts. How do you see the book, as fiction, personal memoir or philosophy?
Simon Critchley: I think it’s a combination, but its core is personal and bound up with a difficult situation I’ve been going through in the last couple of years. I decided to respond to the question of suicide in the only way I can, not directly in a confession, but indirectly in writing. In writing we step outside ourselves and in many enter a space of death. That’s not very cheerful is it?
AB: One of the things you discuss is the long history of associating suicide with sin and part of your project in this book is to combat this, would that be fair? What should we do about this?
SC: The first thing we can do is to remove the crazy idea that suicide is a sin. It is not. Neither should suicide be against the law. Assisted suicide should be legalized immediately and the church and the state should just get out of the way. Suicide can sometimes be a failure to the person who kills themselves, but sometimes it is not. My book is an attempt to give us a vocabulary for beginning to talk about suicide like adults and have a proper discussion about the topic. At present, suicide is experienced as a kind of inhibition and we don’t know what to say, apart from the usual banalities.
AB: Right, so this leads to your argument that we ought to have the right to decide how to live and how to die in a social context that always penalized suicide. We live in a society that both legally and discursively makes suicide into a criminal and sinful act, a breaking of social laws. Suicide is absolutely something that society prohibits. Do you think it should be more of a personal than social issue, something that should be our own personal choice?
SC: It’s a personal issue. It is THE most personal issue we can face, whether to live or die. And we have that power in our hands, literally. We can choose to end our lives. But we can also choose to continue to live, which is what I would recommend in the strongest possible terms. The point is that it has to be a choice: to be or not to be. The problem is that that choice is take out of our hands by law, the state and the church and I think that’s wrong and an abomination. The first part of my book is attempt to show the basis for the legal prohibition of suicide in Christian theology. Jesus say nothing about suicide, nor does the Hebrew Bible. The prohibition against suicide arises in Catholic theology in the middle ages and that wouldn’t matter unless it didn’t shape our understanding of law. This is the story I tell in the book. Whether one lives or dies is a question that has to be decided freely by each of us.
AB: In the book, you use suicide notes as a tool for analysis, treating the suicide note as a unique kind of literary text that needs analysis as much as any other text does, perhaps even more so. I also found it fascinating to read about your workshop on suicide note writing. Why are suicide notes so important to understanding suicide, and what is their role as objects of study in this debate?
SC: There is a whole chapter of the book on suicide notes. It’s a fascinating topic, but it also lies under a prohibition. We need to be able to see and read suicide notes and understand them as a strange dialectic of exhibitionism and melancholia, of expressions of profound self-hatred, but also as the most sincere declarations of love. They are fascinating documents and modern too. The suicide note, to my knowledge, begins in the 18th Century in England and they were usually sent to the press for publication. Suicide notes are attempts at communication, last desperate attempts to communicate what cannot be communicated. It’s grim stuff, but we need to look and to understand.
AB: One of the things that my own project Everyday Analysis has discussed is death in media culture. While your book isn’t so much about popular culture, you do think about the context of the death of artists like Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kurt Cobain, Hunter S. Thompson and others icons of mainstream culture. Do you think this kind of fetishism, this bizarre popular race to discuss the dead on Facebook, is a good way or a bad way to help to normalizes suicide and to encourage discussion about it?
SC: No, this is not a pop essay. But it did begin with the reaction to the deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman (PSH) and Robin Williams (RW) in New York. I knew PSH a little and did a conversation about happiness with him, where we talk about death quite openly. People in NYC were profoundly moved by the death of PSH because he was such a nice man and had fought so long with addiction problems. The reaction to the death of RW was similar. People were immensely moved. But they didn’t know what to say or how to react because our societies still live under the prohibition of suicide. We have to remove the prohibition and begin to speak. It’s as simple as that.
AB: Let me ask you something just outside the remit of the book perhaps. All these examples of suicides that I gave above, and the ones you mentioned, were men. This is an idea that we already have read in feminists and gender studies, and is a fact that male suicides outnumber female suicides. Do you have an idea about why this might be?
SC: I did a lot of sociological research for this book, most of which I didn’t use in the finished publication. It just didn’t fit. One thing I researched but I didn’t write about was the relation between gender and suicide. Men are 3 to 4 more likely to commit suicide than women. The reasons for this might be because of the pressure to be masculine, but that is far from clear from the evidence I have seen. By contrast, 3 to 4 as many women as men attempt suicide, particularly women in their teenage years and into their 20s. Part of the reason I didn’t write about this is that I’m not a sociologist and it is very questionable to draw inferences from partial data. For example, in China 3 to 4 times more women kill themselves than men, often women in conditions of rural poverty, often using pesticides. In general, I think that women have a much more healthy and thoughtful relationship to suicide and death than most men I know.
AB: I think our readers will be particularly interested in this last question, given what we’ve been covering at the Hong Kong Review of Books lately. One thing we’ve discussed is the Roy Scranton’s book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene and the idea that we’re all on the way out and all that matters is how we want to go. Do you think all that matters is how we die? Or to put the question a more direct way, is this all pessimistic, or is there some hope?
SC: Well, I’m still alive, so the book worked for me (ha ha). But seriously, I tried to go very deep in this book and really look at the skull beneath the skin. There is a pessimism here, for sure, but for me (as a reader of Nietzsche), this is a pessimism of strength and courage. That’s what we need in my view. My book ends with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Ramsay affirming life: “it is enough” she says “it is enough”. Life is a beautiful thing, but only when we stop being stupidly optimistic and have the courage to look death in the face and maybe even laugh.
Notes on Suicide is available from Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Alfie Bown is an assistant professor of Literature in Hong Kong and co-editor of Everyday Analysis. He is the author of Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero Books) and lives in Hong Kong with his wife Kim and tiny daughter Lyra.