Jennifer Michael Hecht is a poet, philosopher, historian and commentator. She is the author of the bestseller Doubt: A History, a history of religious and philosophical doubt all over the world. Her new book is Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, out from Yale University Press. Her The Happiness Myth brings a historical eye to modern wisdom about how to lead a good life. Hecht’s The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology won Phi Beta Kappa’s 2004 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award “For scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity.”
C. Derick Varn: Stay was prompted by the lost of two friends, both poets. Why do you think poets are so given to take particular social contagion?
Jennifer Michael Hecht: I don’t think they are, exactly. Most of all I think pain comes first and draws people into writing (which actually helps them live longer and happier than they would have). People who experienced trauma or childhood abuse or neglect come to literature to think about pain and meaning. Life is painful for most everyone, but to dedicate your life to writing into the problem requires an unusually deep need.
The first question is do author’s kill themselves more than the rest of the population? We don’t know. A study discussed in a Forbes article suggests we don’t; a study examined in The Atlantic, says authors do it twice as often as the general public. There are a lot of variables to testing this, so it’s hard to get consensus without a lot of different studies.
As for poets in particular, on the website TopTens, Shell Harris picks “Top 10 Authors Who Have Killed Themselves,” which I have annotated with their principle genre: Ernest Hemingway (novels), Virginia Woolf (novels), Anne Sexton (poetry), Ryunosuke Akutagawa (short stories), Karin Boyle (poetry), John Berryman (poetry); Richard Brautigan (novels), Hunter S. Thompson (journalism), Jerzy Kosinski (novels), Yukio Mishima (novels and plays).
That’s three poets to seven other kinds of writers, which doesn’t seem extreme. (Check out Harris’s short bios and you’ll see some bizarre and awful childhoods.)
Since none of these studies or estimates are sufficient to an answer, I’ll give you my impression. Personally, in the last twenty years I think I have heard of more poet suicides than other writers, but that that memory might be skewed because I knew quite a few of them personally (poets teach together, have festivals and conferences and joint readings, so we know each other – we’re completely mobbed up on facebook too). Someone who is part of the fiction world might remember it differently. I’ve asked poet and novelist Juliana Baggot and she said it seemed to her, too, that poets do it more and suggested it might be because of the low pay and solitary nature of writing poetry.
As I see it we are weird, pained, and want to be solitary before we get into poetry and that’s why we get into poetry. Yet the more I think about it, the more I have to admit that for my own happiness I have had to write less per day and be around people more. And worrying about money does make life torturous at times (though lots of writers in other genres are broke too). Solitude and lack of money can certainly do add to feeling bad.
Again, I think killing oneself is not usually about succumbing to a fatal biological disease called depression, instead it is about trauma and misery in childhood, which enact themselves in the biological/mental symptoms – or which make “failure” harder to bear. On the biology question, consider that we’ve never had so many pills for mental illness, yet the suicide rate has skyrocketed in the past fifteen years.
For me, poets do it more because troubled people become poets. Also, in this past decade, most poets know another poet, personally, who has killed him or herself. That’s where your question about whether poets are more susceptible than prose writers. Maybe we are actually closer to each other (smaller numbers, intimate art) and therefore more of an influence on each other, or maybe we have been going through a suicide cluster, which has happened, historically, in many other professions – which I discuss in Stay.
The literary world’s most recent horrible loss by suicide was the great prose author Ned Vazzini. David Foster Wallace also stands out in one’s mind. If I expand may gaze to other people in the public eye, I’m immediately struck by the large number of painful losses of musicians and actors.
How has the secular community responded to your book so far?
I just came back from a lecture and book signing at the DC branch of the Center For Inquiry (CFI is one of the leading national secularist groups). It was an incredible experience (there are pictures on my facebook page), from the experience of talking to that group about these ideas; to the engaging Q and A; to what the people in the book signing line told me about what this lecture had meant to them and why. I’m still glowing. Yet it is true that one of the questions in the Q and A mentioned the negative secularist response to David Brooks’s very positive column about my book in the New York Times. I told them some of the specifics about that but also told him I knew I was writing something that would be controversial in the secular community when I wrote it. I did it because I feel strongly that secularists went down a wrong path when we became associated with a neutral attitude towards suicide. I’m for that moral neutrality in the case of doctor-assisted suicide, which I see more as managing the way cancer, for instance, kills you – it’s not really suicide. It is certainly not the same as despair suicide, which deserves its own look. There are two strong secular arguments against suicide.
One is the argument from community, which says that we should not kill ourselves because we mean too much to each other and because we influence each other’s behaviors so much. There is excellent evidence – hundreds of studies – that when one person kills him or herself, it happens again among those who knew him, knew of him, or were like him in age, gender, and profession. We need to stay alive because we believe each other into being. As described in a great number of places, one of the main reasons suicides cite is that they feel that they are a burden. People should know that the burden caused by a person who is out of commission is generally much less burdensome on family, friends, and society than suicide would be. This idea arises a lot in the history of secular philosophy – Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Durkheim all said suicide is morally wrong.
Then there is the argument of one’s future self. You shouldn’t let one of your moods kill all the others. There is much evidence that the vast majority of people who try to suicide, but survive, are glad they survived. Your pain right now doesn’t give you the authority to kill off all your previous selves, with their plans, sacrifices, and accomplishments. Voltaire wrote that anyone feeling suicidal should wait three weeks. Atheist philosophers Schopenhauer and Camus both believed it was wrong to kill oneself for one’s own sake. Camus said life is absurd, but we should embrace the absurd, and stay alive as long as possible to experience it. He describes the human experience as like that of Sisyphus, every day rolling a massive bolder up the side of a pit, then watching it roll down and following it to roll it up again. For Camus embracing this absurd life is the great defiance of death. “The rock is his thing,” writes Camus. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Why do you think the Stoic ambivalence about suicide is so important to both pro- and anti-suicide arguments in secular circles?
As to your question about the stoic response, let me sketch the question in terms of death rather than just suicide. When you don’t believe in an afterlife, in the form of heaven, ghosts, life energy, or karma, you have to find your own way to feel about death. Many people find that difficult, many people feel okay about it. Death does not terrify me. If a believer asks me how I cope without belief in an afterlife, I’m a historian of the subject so I can answer by listing figures and populations throughout time and around the world who had no afterlife, and how they were basically at peace with the idea of death. Other secularists seem to just tell the believer that it is perfectly fine with them, life is life and then its over. The truth is we’re all scared sometimes, but so is most every believer. I think it’s this combative atmosphere that makes people sound like they are being stoic about it.
The Ancient Stoics were famous for saying that one should walk out of a life that is going wrong as easily as you would walk out of a room that had grown too smoky. This idea seems to have increased the suicide rate among Stoics. This cool headedness seems ultra-rational so secularists have liked it, but it is also a bit cold hearted. If you care about someone at risk, or you are at risk and want to defend against suicide, it is better to be aware of all the rationalists who have argued against suicide. They offer fascinating reasons and can be great comrades to the suffering.
What do you make of the existentialist focus, particularly Camus and Sartre, on suicide as the key philosophical question influence on secular ideas about suicide in the early 20th century?
I think that Camus and Sartre had a huge effect on what we think of suicide in secular culture today, but it has been a little confused. Camus and Sartre were not believers and they thought that without God there could be no ethics. While we remember that they took up the question of suicide in a blunt, matter of fact way, we forget that they were mostly, and volubly, against suicide.
Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus (1942) proclaimed that the only important philosophical question is whether we should commit suicide. The world without the supernatural to fix it, was absurd. He asks if the absurd requires suicide in response, and answers “No. It requires revolt.” In a departure from most philosophy through history, Camus said it really did matter how long one lives. For Camus a long life was always better than a short life. We witness and deal with the absurd. It doesn’t matter if you have a great life or a bad one, what matters is that you are aware of life, and nothing can rival decades of experience.
Sartre also believed that there is no God and therefore no ethics pertained, but he didn’t always sound as sure as Camus that we shouldn’t commit suicide. On the one hand he is famous for saying that suicide is “an opportunity to stake out our understanding of our essence as individuals in a godless world” and on the other, speaking of Camus’ work: “The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions … and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the ‘divine irresponsibility’ of the condemned man.” Sartre lived until lung disease took him and Camus lived until a tragic car crash (he wasn’t driving).
Though they both argued that life has no meaning and so nothing is forbidden, in their lives they both put themselves in hard situations in defense of moral ideals and for the good of others. Sartre wrote that we live without morals but with integrity. Camus argued that we should stand up to death and embrace our absurd life.
Other than religion, why do you think the defense of community as been largely ignored as an argument against suicide?
Well, read these and then we’ll talk:
(From) To Marguerite – Matthew Arnold
Yes: in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone
Islands – Muriel Rukeyser
O for God’s sake
they are connected
People used to be connected, right on the surface. You needed tight social ties to get anything done. We need more than a barn raising party to put up a house, but that human interaction is low on the human. In the past you were stuck in the faces of a relatively small group who all knew your business. We voted with our feet and went to the anonymous city, where most of us now live. (Through all settled life before now most human beings, by far, lived in farm villages.)
People used to sit in one room together, where the best fireplace was, and tell stories or sing, there was little else to do; same for the breezy front porch in the summer. Now we all have our own rooms with heat, ac, a TV, and the web. It is possible as never before to avoid millions of dull random conversations (and accidentally miss out on many good ones, and even the human ties of the dull ones). So our connection is less, but deeper down it still makes sense of our whole lives.
If you want to know about the highly social mole rat, taking one specimen to the lab and watching it is not going to help. Nor for us. We are still a group animal, in many deep ways. We follow each other into both practices both dangerous and healthy. We matter to each other. The shock of modernity made us see ourselves as utterly alienated, but we overshot the mark. It is not the peak of rationalism to say love doesn’t exist. It clearly does, and is rich and strange. Things exist between people that are quite uncanny. It is not rational to deny that. The argument in Stay started as literary and philosophical but became scientific when the statistics robustly backed up the reality of suicidal contagion.