Slowly, the land recedes.
I am writing this on a ferry, pushing its way across the surprisingly flat Bay (or is it Gulf?) of Finland. The ship crept out of one of Helsinki’s several ports about an hour ago, wove its way through the archipelago south of the city and out into the Baltic. The islands south of the city were different from the rest of the place – rather than the concrete and steel that characterises a settlement that clearly underwent a lot of construction in the latter half of the twentieth century, on these small islands were fortresses and cottages. An island the size of a tennis court with a house the size of a shed in the middle; one of them, the largest, was I believe where Helsinki was first settled, and it appears as a fortified town, Baroque towers rising up from behind a star-shaped wall, the sharp corners of hewn stone overhanging the pebbles of the tiny beach, an island only about 20 metres from water deep enough for massive ships to pass through. This is the glacial landscape of the country continued into its sea – mostly flat, but pockets, sudden, sharp, pockets of harder rock, not soft enough to be washed away by the torrents of ice that once covered everywhere in Europe north of [insert geographical pointer to where the permafrost stopped during the last ice age].
But, anyway, the land recedes.
The sea here isn’t wide enough for it to feel like an ocean. The journey takes between two and three hours, depending on the ferry line and time of embarkation, but there is always the smudge of land on the horizon. The distance is further (by a long way) than the narrow gap between Spain and Morocco (see my blog about that journey here), and about two or three times the distance from England to France, a ferry journey that (despite my love of the transportation method) I have not taken as an adult, the wonder that is the Eurotunnel having made cross-channel ferry use pointless for everyone who isn’t scared of tunnels. Actually, maybe you need to use the ferry if you’re transporting an animal. Look it up, I can’t be bothered (even though there is Wi-Fi on this ship).
ANYWAY, the land recedes, and with it my attention shifts from the book I am trying to write about and into the present tense of my current thoughts and situation. A rare moment where the Now triumphs.
Notes on Suicide is exactly the kind of book that I love, and if I had the kind of friends I imagine I’d have if I had friends, I’d be buying it for all of them for our secular mid-Winter gift-swopping party*. Simon Critchley is a Philosophy professor who has written many works about death and attitudes towards it, and Notes on Suicide is his collation of all the varying thoughts he has had on this topic. In some ways it is a defence of suicide, in other ways it is a condemnation of it. Critchley includes arguments both for and against suicide on an individual basis, and also explores the varying reasons why society seems to see people taking their own lives as a bad thing.
We do not, is one of Critchley’s key points, have possession of our lives in the same way that we have possession of, say, our fridges. We are beholden to others by the nature of our personal, social, familial and professional ties, and it is traditional thought that a society that allows suicide allows people too much control. In the past, the size of a tribe was a key thing in keeping it safe. You don’t want anyone killing themselves idly at home when they should be off laying their lives on the line in some kind of offensive or defensive war.** Tribalism is key. Then there comes the idea that the subject is the possession of the state, that suicide must be punished in order to discourage it. Critchley writes about the medieval policy of one country dragging the corpses of those who killed themselves through the streets of their hometown then refusing to bury them; another rule he mentions was one still enforced 100 years ago in China, whereby that if it could be proved that a couple killed themselves together for the financial gain of a child, that child would also be killed. Critchley, thus, makes clear that an objection to suicide is something truly international, and that even though no religious scripture rules against it (except for one single mention in a late passage in The Qur’an), it is still a crime in most Muslim countries and was a crime, historically, pretty much everywhere.
Why, he asks, can the state dictate what we do to our own bodies? And that is the argument, really, isn’t it? That’s also the libertarian argument for gay rights and the decriminalisation of all intoxicants,*** and Critchley uses the non-fascistic arguments used against the latter of these to argue against himself. He explores the likely effects of suicide on others, and then he goes on to – in probably the finest chapter in the book – discuss suicide notes in detail, and particularly the manifesto-suicide notes of the numerous recent people who’ve gone on a shooting spree ending with one in their own head in North America. Notes on Suicide discusses the touching nature of suicide notes, how public they are and how common it is for them to contain both a) apologies and b) declarations of great and overwhelming love. Critchley also discusses the time, in a creative writing class he ran during a series of intellectual events about death, when he asked a room full of people to write their own, fictional, suicide notes, and he couldn’t bring himself to write one. These occasional, soft, insights into the writer’s mind are what lift this interesting non-fiction piece about the history of suicide into the open and engaging text that it is.
Notes on Suicide is full of ideas, and interesting discussion. Suicide is an attack on the mind of the self: hence why people shoot themselves in the head, not the heart; suicide is a refutation of society, but one that expects to be noticed by it, hence why people jump off the Golden Gate Bridge on the side that faces the city rather than the sea.
The conclusion, though, and one that I was thankful to find spelled out in such compelling terms, is the notion that suicide is the final recourse of the optimist – that there is such Hope intrinsic to the act of self-murder that it isn’t really ever undertaken, rationally, by a true pessimist. There is so much to enjoy not enjoying, Critchley points out, that it would be pointless for anyone who truly sees no Hope in the world to bother killing themselves. It is too violent and too certain to be justified unless it offers something better. After death, there is nothing – so who can you whinge and whine to if that’s all you’ve got?
Notes on Suicide is informed and informative, it is moving and funny and offers fresh and interesting exploration into a topic that I, for one, tend to dedicate rather a lot of time thinking about.
An excellent read. Highly recommended.
* So, I imagine my friends like this: there’d be about five of them. One of them would be like a palaeontologist or something, ideally with a pet monkey, one would be a jobbing actor, one a chef, one would work in fashion, one would be like the kooky one, yeah, and then I’d be Chandler Bing. Basing.
** This flags up an interesting discovery I made in the Finnish National Museum yesterday. Throughout its history (only independent for about 100 years), the control of the territory of Finland oscillated between the Swedes and the Russians. I had forgotten that Sweden used to be a big European power. Obviously, that comes from its rich natural resources, and even now it is Sweden that dominates the internationally-accepted cultural idea of Scandinavia (Abba, Ikea, Volvo, swedes, attractive people). But there was a time when it had a huge military presence, too, but it essentially lost all the martial power it had due to relentless and never-ending wars against Russia, a country able to draw soldiers from all over its massive terrain. I’m not going to do the maths about current population and area comparisons between the two countries because it’s obvious the way it would go. Not only did Sweden lose the last war it fought against Russia, it lost it so badly it wasn’t really able to have another war with anyone ever again. It did, though, learn from its mistakes and now it is the land of the dragon tattoo, the place where you are the dancing queen, etc etc etc. I have never been to Sweden.
*** Put alongside the right to die and the right to have consensual sexual experiences with anyone you want, this makes my personal opinion that prohibition for all inebriants, including alcohol and coffee, would solve a lot of social ills look very shaky. Shaky like my cold, hungover, state-enabled hands.