Friday, February 15, 2013


Emile Durkheim
“In l738, a journalist (possibly Samuel Richardson) claimed that suicide was England’s 'new religion,'” Freya Johnston remarks a TLS review of three tomes on suicide, Kelly McGuire’s Dying to be English, Paul Seaver et al, editors, The History of Suicide in England, 1650-1850 and Richard Bell’s We Shall Be No More (“Suicide Watch,” TLS, 1/18/13). “Melancholy seemed to infect everyone and everything: even a sedan chair, narrating the history of its life and adventures in London in l757, admits that it has flirted with self destruction: ‘Since my reparation, I have had a very particular dejection of spirits. Whether I am almost tired of a foolish and ridiculous world, I can’t tell…’” Shakespeare reflects the suicidal British temperament. Hamlet was suicidal, Ophelia drowns (and there has always been a debate about whether it was suicide or accident), Othello did it along with both Romeo and Juliet. Of course another English great, Virginia Woolf, would drown herself. Hume, Johnston points out, condoned suicide while “Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) condemns the act in its definition of “SUICIDE:” “Self-murder, the horrid crime of destroying one's self.” Not that the English have any monopoly on suicide, which has been particularly prevalent amongst American poets including Anne Sexton, John Berryman and Sylvia Path. Amongst the Italians Primo Levi survived Auschwitz only to take his life after the war (although there are those who have cast doubts on whether his fall from his Turin residence was suicide or not).  Cesare Pavese, a noted editor and writer, also killed himself. And speaking of melancholy Danes, the Swedes were always known for their high incidence of suicide despite all the entitlements of the welfare state. Albert Camus famously began The Myth of Sisyphus by saying, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”And the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, wrote a book on the subject tersely titled Suicide, in which he attempted to isolate factors such as religious belief, marital status, sex and education, which contributed to suicide. Protestants he concluded were more likely to commit suicide than Catholics or Jews.

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