While it sure isn’t beach reading, Georges Minois’s History of Suicide isn’t nearly as dark nor depressing a book as one might think. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
In his book, Minois examines the whos, whats, whys, whens, and hows of “one of humanity’s last great taboos,” beginning with the Middle Ages and concluding with the Enlightenment, generously recalling Classical Antiquity as a reference point. Whereas one would expect an extremely human, perhaps morbid study, while Minois uses excellent writing and research, the book comes up a bit disappointing. But then again, it’s about suicide.
History of Suicide
Voluntary Death in Western Culture
(Johns Hopkins University Press)
Each chapter, taken individually, is fascinating as encapsulated, individual historical reading. However, when read as a whole, a cliched theme arises: in suicide, just as in the rest of the Western world, the more things change, the more they stay the same. People kill themselves out of madness, out of despair for life, to maintain dignity, to exact revenge, and to escape pain. “Glamorous” suicides, from Cato to Vincent Van Gogh to Marilyn Monroe, receive more attention and leniency than “common” suicides. The same ethical questions remain: Is euthanasia still suicide? Is there a “noble” form of suicide? The Church condemns suicide, but some philosophers regard self-murder as the best example of liberty. What about martyrs and soldiers? With a few exceptions even the means have not changed dramatically throughout the centuries.
In this realm of the book’s academic merits, what’s interesting about Minois’ book is all the different subject matters it follows. The reader will find social studies (such as the absorbing differences perceived between noble and common suicides), various forms of philosophy, theology, ethics, and gender studies (why it is almost always considered cowardly for a man to commit suicide, but a woman committing suicide out of shame is considered a heroine?).
One fascinating, tragic, and almost humorous aspect of the book is Minois’ coverage of the Church’s rules and regulations against suicide. If men are going to kill each other, what’s to prevent them from killing themselves? As St. Augustine “tackles embarrassing examples and contradictions,” St. Thomas Aquinas squarely notes the reasons why suicide is definitely prohibited (it is an offense against nature, it is an attack on society, and it is an offense against God). Theologians almost literally split hairs deciding what is and isn’t suicide: Jesuit Francisco Suarez, in 1613, decides that in the case of shipwrecked people grabbing for a floating object, if no one is already using it, one can, without sin, let someone else take it. On the other hand, a person who is already clinging to it commits a mortal sin by ceding his place, “which would never be allowable.”
At the very end of the book, Minois touches ever so lightly upon the subject of suicide in the 20th century and beyond, a tease that the reader will find somewhat infuriating. It seems that if there were a way to definitively contrast the evolution of suicide through the years, it would be by examining contemporary culture. For instance, a suicide victim is no longer “executed” (the corpse hung, stabbed, and dragged through the streets), as was done up to only a few hundred years go, both as punishment and out of superstition for evil spirits. While this practice was no longer used in the 19th century, it was not unheard of, as it is today. People no longer debate the goodness of the “great” Greek suicides. And what would be the medireview comparison to pop-culture suicides, such as that of Kurt Cobain? Even on the most basic level, we use the term “suicide,” not “self-murder,” which was used before 1700.
Minois uses extremely clear-cut knowledge, a bit of irony, and an extremely dry tone that makes his writing more historical than psychological, more witty than sympathetic. “Suicide, of course,” he notes, “remains a sign of failure, whatever its immediate cause or circumstances.” It is refreshing to read a sentence like that, and to think of all the politically correct possibilities that could have replaced it. Suicide statistics seem too matter-of-fact for such a dark topic: men were three times as more likely to kill themselves than women in the Middle Ages; March and April were the peak months; hanging was the most often means used; and so on. Perhaps the best example is the section of the book entitled “Perfecting the Timely Exit.”
There were a few small topics that Minois addresses, scattered throughout the book, that may have provided a bit more titillating information if offered on their own. One is the suicidal tendencies of women. Perhaps it is because not much information has been provided on women who killed themselves, but it would have been interesting to compare who, what, when, why, and how, compared to men. Another topic is the surviving kin of suicides. We know that, often, suicidal people left their relatives bereft of their estates (one of the punishments of suicide was the seizure of property), but what was the medireview spouse’s reaction to suicide? What about suicides that were expedited in order to punish the living?
As these patterns arise one begins to more fully realize the futility of examining suicide. While the idea of the History of Suicide stirs up morbid thoughts and juicy ideas, after examination, it still remains clear the suicide is a ghostly, murky act that even today we have no grasp of. Beyond suicide notes, we have no idea why somebody would choose death over life. We have no idea what, if anything, happens to the soul of a suicide.
“To be, or not to be, that is the question,” Minois repeats ad nauseam. He answers the question as best as he can, but even through all his research, this is a question to which only the victims of suicide know the correct answer.
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