What Happens When a Professor Tries To Use Philosophy to...

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BOOKS NOVEMBER 22, 2013

What Happens When a Professor Tries To Use Philosophy to Prevent Suicide

In 2010, shortly after two of her friends had killed themselves, Jennifer Michael Hecht, a poet and an intellectual historian, urged her readers not to do the same, in a blog post on The Best American Poetry’s website. “So I want to say this,” she wrote, “and forgive me the strangeness of it. Don’t kill yourself.” She continued: “When a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community….Don’t kill yourself. Suffer here with us instead. We need you with us, we have not forgotten you, you are our hero. Stay.”

Three years later, we have Stay, a book that draws out her argument against suicide and surveys the history of ideas behind it, from philosophy to art to modern social science. Hecht wants to debunk the prevailing secular dogma that killing yourself is morally permissible, a matter of personal choice. “Outside the idea that God forbids it, our society today has no coherent argument against suicide,” she writes. And so she sets out to provide one.

But this is a bigger undertaking than she understands. Hecht’s philosophical goals are monumental: to survey all the historical arguments for and against suicide, to reconcile the tension between social obligation and personal experience, to help establish the “logical, coherent antisuicide consensus” that Hecht believes we need. But the book has no interest in challenging or complicating the ideas it begins with. It’s a 251-page version of Hecht’s blog post, dressed up with lazy summaries of art and ideas. (“Religion’s claim that God rejected suicide clearly had influence on people.” “A profoundly mistaken pair of suicides in Shakespeare is that of Romeo and Juliet.”) In her unwillingness to interrogate the concepts she introduces, Hecht gives us an unphilosophical history of philosophy, a non-intellectual history of ideas. Nothing disturbs the premise of her own pain: that when it comes to the immorality of suicide, the suffering of survivors is proof enough. This makes for an unconvincing argument—and one that ultimuately embodies the very ethical confusion it sets out to diagnose.

Nearly a million people kill themselves in a given year: 40,000 or so in America. The numbers are rising, but certain policies have slowed them, as Hecht shows: targeted counseling, journalism standards, barriers that make it hard to throw yourself off high objects, like the Golden Gate Bridge. As an analogy, Hecht wants to offer “conceptual barriers” to thwart possible suicide attempts, as if her readers were students at New York University in the library whose high walkway was once the site of a number of suicides a year. The idea of the “barrier” is laudable and elegant—but problematic when the barriers are weak, structurally or conceptually.

A short essay can help only so much, yet we learn that the piece that inspired Stay “drew a large response on the Internet, prompting an editor of the Ideas section at the Boston Globe to contact me and ask to publish it in the Sunday paper.” “The Globe” then “printed it on a lovely blue background over a half-page,” prompting “a lot of email from people who had read the essay,” thanking her “for saying what they hadn’t been able to say: ‘Stay.’ They had not known how to ask.” One can be happy for her “significant positive response,” and even happier for the people who told her that her “word and ideas got them through a bad time,” and still wonder what kind of author introduces a book about suicide by congratulating herself on a viral blog post.

The gesture would be less worrisome if it were less representative—if, for instance, when she tells us that it’s been difficult “to think so deeply and constantly on such a painful topic,” there were much evidence of depth or immersion elsewhere in the book. But there isn’t: most of the book reads like a high-school term paper: “Shakespeare seems to be warning us that we can misinterpret our situations just as his characters do.” “Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy.... is among the most beautiful, sad, and intellectually quixotic passages in the English language.” “Plato, who lived from around 424 to 348 B.C.E., wrote about society, government, and morality, but also thought about the true nature of the world.” “Hume was a bold and original thinker.” “For Dante, suicide was very wrong indeed.” You could fill a pillow with the fluff in this book.

Hecht is at her most convincing on the pain suicides cause survivors. The damage is not just emotional. You’re far likelier to kill yourself if you know someone who has committed suicide, especially if you were close to that person, especially if you are under eighteen, especially if the death was your parent’s. This sometimes, tragically, leads to groups of people killing themselves at very high rates, so-called “suicide clusters.” Fictional suicides kill people too. A number of teenage boys in 1981 threw themselves in front of trains after a teenage boy did the same on a miniseries.

But Hecht is not writing for people who need her to explain things: she’s writing for people who won’t read her. She imagines an audience drawn to the prestige of “philosophy” and secretly relieved that instead of thinking for themselves they can skim her summaries of Great Minds or just skip to the words of encouragement at the end of most chapters.

There are any number of clear cases in which someone shouldn’t kill herself—and on the other hand many cases in which the barrier is more porous, such as with “end-of-life management.” Hecht makes it clear that she isn’t writing about the quadriplegic centenarians who live with constant  pain. Quoting Rousseau, Hecht asks, “Have you not learned that you could not take a step on earth without finding some duty to fulfill, and that every man is useful to humanity, by the very fact that he exists?” What about the people who’ll never move again, or the people not only useless to society in general but a serious drain on its resources? Hecht tells us again and again that “it is the nature of existence that ... happiness will return,” that “even depression is not permanent,” that “there is always hope for a better life in the future,” but what if there actually isn’t? These cases may be the exception, but isn’t it the nature of the suicidal mindset to think of her pain as exceptional, to think that her suffering outweighs the harm she’d do to others by killing herself? What could we say to her? How could we save her? Hecht’s muddled logic has not taught us philosophy, and, worse, it gives her readers the false impression that the problems are easy. They are anything but.

A barrier needs no complexity. It can be simple and solid. In this it is the perfect opposite of the suicidal mind—and some of the best models for thinking through the idea of suicide are philosophers and writers and artists, whose tortured feeling and knotty ethical reasoning are much more worthwhile than the digestible platitudes of Stay. So read Infinite Jest or “The Depressed Person.” Read Rousseau or the entry on suicide in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Read the original blog post. Don’t waste your time with this book.

Image via shutterstock.com.

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posted in: culture, suicide, jennifer michael hecht, david foster wallace

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