On Suicide — Give Me A Reason To Live

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Can the ethical tradition of tragedy teach us anything about modern day suicide? ¹

In tragedy, before the question of Why not commit suicide? is responded to, the questions of Why live? and How to die? must first be asked.

Man’s Ethos ( ἦθος ) is his Daimon (δαίµων)

Or in everyday language, ‘A person’s character is their fate.’ Today, it is often said that someone has their ‘internal demons’ in referring to a depression or suicide without recognizing that what underlies such statements is not merely — or primarily — a psychological problem, but an ethical one. What I want to show is that far from being a mere question of books and plays, the lessons of tragedy have another voice in the city.

  1. Second, if they pass, then go to the next level, the ‘suicide hotline,’ which poses a question infinitely more challenging to respond to: “Why should I not kill myself?”. Now, ask the ‘trainee’ to speak of how s/he would address someone who is suicidal: Why should someone not kill him/herself? If they give a series of moralistic slogans, biblical passages, empathetic understandings, empowerment speeches, or CBT jargon, then they flunk and should change occupations since such slogans often carry the very germs for why one would commit suicide in the first place:

There are no reasons for why one should not commit suicide.²

4. The tragic tradition of ethics starts with such a premise:

There is no sign or prescription of the individual adequate to express its suffering or direct the decisions upon its own death.

This statement does not amount to encouraging anyone to commit suicide or resigning oneself to apathy, but merely states that an individual has a right to specific modes of detachment and difference not only from the world and the ego but as we will show, any discourse — or system of signs — that aims to determine what and who an individual is³.

In addressing the question of suicide, who is spoken TO is more important than who or what is spoken ABOUT.

Who should be addressed and recognized is a more absolute difference: an Other, a place that I may have no way to comprehend, understand, or signify in his/her difference and suffering. It is this absolute difference of the Other that opens up a notion of care that goes beyond mere empathy to situate a place of ethics and a practice of xenopathy. Schematically, these distinctions are:

How to tolerate the ignorance of the Other without falling into apathy and empathy?

The question begins to ask why someone who would pose questions with regard to the truth of their suffering, needs to fall ill, become suicidal, or be treated like a mental patient who has a chemical deficiency or an emotional problem. And if there is no necessity to this ‘standard treatment,’ how to proceed differently.

Well, o.k….. but if you do, then you will never know the real reasons for why you did so. You might as well already be dead.

In this respect, suicide is not merely an emotional response or an error but has the structure of something like tragic deception.

Suicide is a failed form of detachment, it is a refusal to read alienation, since it confuses symbolization of the absolute difference of the Other with living it in the relative difference of the other, i.e., the self and others.

Such a confusion can be seen, for example, if one were to confound the writing act of suicide in the hands of a tragedian with the representations of suicide in the masks of the actors on the stage. To kill the actor is undoubtedly a way to detach from a mask and a stage, but inevitably it mistakes the subject position of the author with the ‘lived’ relations between the self and a world. An introduction to a different mode of separation from the ego and the world, not just detaching physically, but symbolically is another name for tragedy.

How to separate from an alienation without going anywhere?

Some use travel as a way to escape the alienation and the conventions they lead their lives by. For others, no trip goes far enough to introduce a form of detachment, and they may join a religion or sect in the attempt at a vertical movement to ‘higher ground.’ Still again, some require a more substantial separation and begin to take drugs, either prescribed or unprescribed, in the attempt to chemically induce a detachment. Others, perhaps more sensitive to the inadequacy of the previous three types of detachment, try to leave the planet in killing themselves.


[1] By the ethical tradition of tragedy, I am referring in a first instance to the pre-philosophical Greek works of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. In a second time, I refer to the more modern period of Shakespeare, Racine, and Corneille.

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Winter 2018

Researcher in le temps perdu: sex, race, ethics, the clinic, logic, and mathematics. Founder and analyst at PLACE www.topoi.net

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