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To Be or Not to Be? That’s the Question

Photo by Tony Webster | Public Domain

Here’s the state of American society: the topic of suicide has recently been “trending.” Along with #FakeCheeseFacts, #XBoxE3, #TheBachelorette, #DanceToThis, and any number of such topics of deep cultural and existential moment. For a short while the national epidemic of life-destroying despair has become enough of a spectacle for the culture industry to notice it, in light of the suicides of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade. (Less noteworthy was the suicide of a Honduran man whom Border Patrol agents had seen fit to separate from his wife and son.) No less a personage than actress Rose McGowan has called for a “collective conversation” about depression. America’s newfound concern for those who are emotionally suffering appears to be fading even as I write these words, but hey, there’s no higher honor than Twitter recognition, right? At least suicide had its moment of glory.

Coincidentally, on June 7 the CDC released a report on the increasing rate of suicides between 1999 and 2016. In half of states, rates have gone up more than 30 percent, so that the national average is now 13.4 suicides per 100,000 people (which approaches the average of 15.4 per 100,000 during the Great Depression). This equates to an official aggregate of almost 45,000 suicides in 2016, a number that certainly understates the total. Meanwhile, less than half as many people are murdered, even as the political and cultural attention devoted to homicide is astronomically greater than that devoted to suicide.

Call me cynical, but could the reason for the disparity of treatment be that homicide, unlike suicide, sells? It sells movie tickets, video games, and television shows. It sells the local news every night—some woman was killed by her lover, some gang member was killed by gunfire, or preferably a more entertaining/horrifying story involving, say, serial murder, kidnapping, rape, necrophilia, a child’s death, etc. The more grotesque, the better for ratings. Most importantly, though, homicide sells repressive, reactionary politics. Even the buffoon in the White House understands this. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” Let’s lynch them all!

By contrast, of what use is suicide? Whom does it allow us to demonize? What business-friendly legislation can it serve as a pretext for? How can we manipulate the collective tragedy to advance white supremacy or the interests of capital? How can we make money from it? Aside, perhaps, from the pharmaceutical industry, it seems to serve no interests. It only elevates useless moral feelings like compassion, the desire to help others, awareness of social dysfunction, and outrage at the barbarous inhumanity of a society structured solely to accumulate profit. It gives capital a bad conscience, so it’s better just to keep silent about it. Let’s all ritualistically wring our hands after a celebrity kills himself and call for a national conversation so we can preen ourselves on our exemplary social consciousness, but aside from that, let’s just brush this problem under the rug.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to avert our eyes from the homeless woman and child huddling in the corner of the subway station, and the disheveled man with puffed-up eyes asking plaintively for a dollar. It would be unseemly to pay any attention to them. Just keep looking down at your phone and the unpleasantness will be gone in a moment…

It is hardly a mystery why so many millions of Americans are depressed and even suicidal: our society is approaching ever more closely the totalitarian ideal of no-human-connections, in which interactions take the means-to-an-end form of bureaucracy or the market. Beneath the immediate factors of overwhelming debt, long-term unemployment, a broken marriage, a hated job and no path forward, or simply low self-esteem and agonizing disappointment is the very nature of the social fabric pulled taut and tattered by the forces of capital. The pathology of collective loneliness has already been diagnosed plenty of times, and we who experience it day in and day out don’t need yet another long analysis to tell us what we already know.

But how do we act on this knowledge? How do we act constructively on our rage, our despair and disgust? The genius of the system is that by keeping us atomized it so demoralizes us that we see no other option but to keep running on our lonely little treadmill day after day, year after year, as the existential nausea grows more acute and we’re finally smothered by Meaninglessness. And kill ourselves. And are ignored in death as we were in life. Unless we have money.

Until something big happens, some major social event—like a Great Depression—that creates the opportunity for an insurrection or a series of insurrections, I don’t see much changing. Society is stuck in a cul-de-sac, for now. Cosmetic changes may happen as the biennial cycle of elections grinds on, but nothing thoroughgoing is in the cards.

We’ve all experienced our fair share of despair, but, in a vain attempt to do lyrical justice to the enormity of suicide, perhaps I might end this article by quoting a short passage from the journal of a deeply depressed young man. On far more than one occasion, many years ago, I longed for death—out of the crushing loneliness and absurdity of modern society. Couldn’t kill myself because of the people it would hurt, but longed for it all the same. Maybe some readers will identify with these thoughts…

***

November, 2005. “Walking home tonight on the side of the road a car sped past me five inches away. I’d been about to step onto the road to avoid a puddle. Had the car driven by one second later, I’d be in a hospital right now. Maybe DOA. –And thus would I have ended. Thus would have ended this non-life.

“The incident made me think about contingency. I think about it every day, but this time it was more intense. Well, intense isn’t the word. Its emotional associations are inappropriate. In fact, immediately after the experience I was laughing, laughing at how tragic it would have been, and how funny, and how perfect. The perfect end to my life. Symbolically perfect, that is.

“Back to oblivion, whence I came!

“So it was all cerebral for a while, an academic meditation on how random life is and how worthless. Gradually it evolved into a mood. But even in this half-moody despair, I knew that if a friend suddenly appeared and we talked awhile I’d be refreshed and happy. It would take something as mundane as a short conversation for me to go from one extreme to the other. I was on the verge of happiness even as I was on the verge of suicide. And I felt this. I felt as if my progressively strengthening mood was just waiting for an object to latch onto, be it a pleasant one or an unpleasant. Since no pleasant object materialized, all this psychic energy finally poured out as tears. It was a peculiar experience. I kept trying to hold back the tears as they came, determined not to sink to this childishness yet again; the combination of my willed refusal and the obstinacy of my tears made for a wonderfully intense bout of near-nervous-collapse. I recommend you try it sometime. In the midst of a crying-session, battle against yourself, your weakness. You’ll feel like you’re milking your despair for every last drop of life that lies within it. There’s no question I was capable of killing myself in those moments. No question. I could see my hand holding a gun, raising it to my temple, pulling the trigger. Mercifully, I don’t own a gun.

“It would be nice if I could turn to my friends (?) for comfort, but their attention spans are short. They’d give me a few words of advice and tire of the conversation. Such is the substance of modern relationships, and modern people…”

***

I don’t know the answer to Hamlet’s famous question. But in our time of crisis, I can’t help recalling Karl Marx’s answer to an even more profound question, which was posed to him late in life by a reporter as they stood on a beach gazing out at the ocean. “What is?” Marx was asked. He was silent a moment, perhaps thinking of the suffering he had known his whole life, and then answered with one word: “Struggle.”

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Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is the author of Notes of an Underground HumanistWorker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, and Finding Our Compass: Reflections on a World in Crisis. His website is www.wrightswriting.com.

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