*As a major disclaimer: This post will be negatively critiquing the act of suicide. However, it in no way is meant to diminish or attack the individual character of those who struggle with it, have attempted it, have lost a loved one to it, or have actually committed it. I will be painting with a broad brush while dealing with a delicate topic.
It’s amazing how much the topic of suicide comes up in literature. Yet, when we consider that “literature [is] the laboratory of the human condition,”1 should we be so surprised? After all, the best literature will always be philosophical in nature, which, as its own discipline, conducts its fair share of experiments within the shared lab. Once we connect philosophy to literature we may quickly find some truth in the famed quote by philosopher Albert Camus who argued that, “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy.”2
The books I read are relatively random in their selection (besides a classical bent), and yet over the past couple years several have either ended in the suicide of the protagonist or at least included a serious attempt at it from them. A few of these protagonists include Werther from The Sorrows of Young Werther, Edna Pontellier from The Awakening, and Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar.
Literature is well known for its moral good of producing increased empathy in those who regularly partake of it. My own experience can certainly attest to that fact, even from a relatively early age. I’ll never forget reading The Kite Runner in high school (to my shame, one of the few books I actually read back then!). Having only read the novel one time, I’ll always remember thinking how similar these distant Middle Easterners were to me, which was a shock. I believe I was expecting (at least at a subconscious level) something far more barbarian than human. Sure, I didn’t think I had a racist bone in my body, but my own development in my understanding and appreciation of their culture through literature at least attests to a rather appalling level of ignorance I had, mingled with a hint of ethnocentrism I’m sure.
In many ways, I’ve experienced this increase of empathy along with a genuinely better way of understanding the world and my fellow human beings through good literature. It’s important to remember, that mere empathy itself is not necessarily virtuous. Though it helps to pave the way to virtue, it is not immune to the service of vice. For, is it not empathy that makes us sympathize with a true villain as we read about his horrible back story and upbringing? Of course, even this may be for good, we can empathize and sympathize without supporting or encouraging, or even tolerating. Further, such understanding gained through empathy may indeed help us to build the bridges of connection that give us the influence necessary to bring about true change in the wayward. All this is merely to point out the good of empathy, while giving a gentle caution in regard to its potential misleadings.
Literature has taught me so much, and truly changed my own beliefs in reference to many people. My concern for the rights of blacks in America has been influenced through their historic cries made through ink and page, women have been seen in their true brilliance due to both author and protagonist, and even the villainous, while not receiving pardon, have at least provided fuel to the charge to search my own eyes.
Interestingly, I have found that the suicidal characters I’ve read about have been a sort of mixed bag in regard to their ability to produce a measure of empathy. In fact, more often than not, it is their vices, their short sightedness, their self-centeredness, their obsessiveness, that truly stands out, and digs a moat rather than lowering a drawbridge. There are always exceptions. Most notably Edna as she describes her life spent suffocating under the bell jar, “sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.”3 This resonants poignantly with the ‘fear of missing out’ which permeates our current societal moment. Who cannot empathize with the at times suffocating opportunity cost which we are faced with on a daily basis in this world of endless possibilities?
Silvia Plath captured this feeling in its true metaphorical form perfectly. Unfortunately, she herself could not bear the weight of the bell jar and took her own life. Nevertheless, I have noticed a personal tendency of getting upset at these characters more than I do of so many others which I come to know through page and story. Consider a thief. A thief steals, and this is a sin. No question about it (most of the time). Simultaneously though, the thief also values. The first pillars of the bridge are given their foundation, for do we not also value? Not only that, but do we not also value something to such a degree where we ourselves could be forced to break the law in order to obtain or achieve it? The more that we come to understand why it is what is stolen is valuable to the thief, the more or less likely we are to empathize with them.
But what of the Suicide? It is the reverse. It is the subtle message of the Suicide that existence itself is not worth living for. And not only existence, but all that exists. One more harmonious note to fill the ears. One more rush of sweet pleasure to satisfy the tongue. The reds, oranges, hot pinks and dark blues wisping along as they paint the late evening sky. The face of another, any other. All is rejected with a single stroke. All is cast away with a final note.
As mentioned within the qualifier above, I’ve no desire to critique the dead, but rather to shine light in the darkness to the living. In fact, the best short story I’ve ever written explored the theme of casting away all of existence through suicide, and my current novel project is fleshing that out even more. I’ve found many others who seek to do the same. It was G.K. Chesterton who first showed me this truth when he wrote of the contrast between the suicide and martyr, saying:
Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world… The thief complements the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer… Obviously a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. One wants something to begin: the other want everything to end…. The martyr is noble… he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble… he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe… The Christian feeling [is] furiously for one and furiously against the other.4
Indeed, “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”5 Even, “The smell of a pancake is a more powerful reason for remaining in this world than all young Werther’s supposedly lofty conclusions for leaving it.”6 This world is difficult, its trials are many, its hurts are many, its sorrows are true, its pains are constant. Indeed, “This world is cruel and merciless… but it’s also very beautiful.”7 The statement which suicide makes is to curse the beauty while surrendering to the cruelty.
All this said, a part of me does empathize with the Suicide. Particularly, the Suicide who stares into the utter blackness of a philosophically materialistic worldview rather than a theistic one (the theme my novel is exploring). When one foresees the final death of beauty, that chilling curtain falling down upon living existence itself, then is the thought of speeding up that Final Act odd? The very thought casts a doubt upon the reality of beauty itself, upon the very existence of beauty. Consider the famed atheist Bertrand Russell’s description of humanity’s state of existence:
That Man is the product of causes which had no provision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.8
If the soul may only build upon the foundation of unyielding despair, it shall find that it is building a house of straw. A hollow and finite dwelling constructed upon the shiftiest of soils. The human soul cannot bear the thought of the death of Beauty. We were never meant to. For the shallow and soul crushing story of colliding atoms is not the only story there is. If Christianity is true, then “the triune God is the most beautiful being who ever has or ever will exist. All that is beautiful derives its beauty from him, and nothing that is beautiful is so apart from him.”9 If, with Nietzsche, we must say that God is dead, we must, following Russell’s fierce logic, also conclude that Beauty has died along with him.
If we could fool ourselves into believing the former, we will find that we cannot existentially sustain the feeling of the later. Reasons for valuing existence are wed to our appreciation of it, this appreciation is tied to our perception of its inner, and outward, beauty. Beauty is the thread which ties us together to the good of existence, both ours and this universes. Therefore, perhaps the best argument against suicide is not the smell of pancakes, nor even the presentation of more beauty detached from any root of lasting meaning, but rather an understanding of beauty which goes beyond the beholder, a beauty which functions as goodnesses prophet.10 With such a faithful herald we shall behold the truth of a valuable existence. For, “there is no argument against beauty.”11
- Kevin Vanhoozer, “4 Reasons Pastor-Theologians Should Read Fiction,” The Gospel Coalition, November 12, 2015, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/4-reasons-pastor-theologians-should-read-fiction/
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Albert Camus,” October 27, 2011, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/
- Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013), 85-86
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Cross Reach Publications, 2017), 44-45
- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York, NY: Picador, 2004), 243
- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther translated by Michael Hulse, (London, England: Penguin Classics, 1989), 13
- Quote from the character Mikasa in the anime show Attack on Titian
- From Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays; sourced from: Gavin Ortlund, Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t: The Beauty of Christian Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 106-7
- Matt O’Reilly, “What Makes Sex Beautiful?,” in Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality, ed. Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 200
- Paraphrased and sourced from: Ortlund, Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t, 8
- Peter Kreeft, “Lewis’s Philosphy of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty,” in C. S. Lewis as Philospher: Truth Goodness, and Beauty, ed. David J. Baggett, Gary R. Habermas, and Jerry L. Walls (Downer Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 23, 30: sourced from: Matt O’Reilly, “What Makes Sex Beautiful?,” in Beauty, Order, and Mystery, 198-99