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Facing the Ocean: A review of Notes on Suicide by Simon Critchley

By Cal Revely-Calder.

Notes on Suicide

Simon Critchley, Notes on Suicide (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015)

There are concepts that hang like icebergs within a writer’s prose, the surfaces covered by thin, quick words, and the greater bulk of the thought still hidden below. Simplicity is one such concept: skimmed down to ‘simply’, it’s a classic example of an adverb saying a lot but telling little; when a writer claims that something is ‘simply’ the case – and any writer might – it’s worth slowing up to question whether simplicity’s ever as simple as it seems. The trick is to grasp this doubleness of scale, inhabit it, and be aware of the fissures that always develop between the ideal and the practical compromise. Listen to the note of humility that opens Simon Critchley’s moving “little treatise”, Notes on Suicide:

Suicide, in my view, is neither a legal nor moral offence, and should not be seen as such. My intention here is to simply try to understand the phenomenon, the act itself, what precedes it and what follows.

“To simply try to understand”: a phrase that dirties its own euphony as it works its way around the broad savannahs of thought mapped by such miniature words: “simply”, “try”, “understand”. The problem, as Critchley knows well, is one of number, of knowing exactly what to focus upon, “closely, carefully, and perhaps a little coldly”, with his tolerant attention. Since Wittgenstein, in particular, we’ve been alert to the truth that concepts, as encountered in our languages and interactions, are inseparable from the way they’re lived; but ‘suicide’ is a singular noun, an abstract phenomenon, and it’s so hard to believe that any one suicide (meaning the act? or, more archaically, the actor?) can be thought of as ‘like’ another. (Quote marks again, out of hygiene and uncertainty – nothing better.) Every black sun is different, and each one leaves behind a different blackened earth.

Notes on Suicide is restlessly motivated by this tension between the one and the many, and how suicide’s place in the world (here, mostly Western) has been shaped by its claims upon neither and both. The book opens by weaving an account of what “we” think into Critchley’s attempt to find a place for his “I”-reflections. Often, as he admits, he’s been no more clued-up than anyone else touched by this topic – which is all of us, without exception or excuse – and that

it is still regarded as a failing that invites an embarrassed response. We think that suicide is sad or wrong, often without knowing why. And we don’t know what to say, other than mouth a few platitudes.

Suicide is toxic to language. Actual moments of actual speech grow weaker and snap under the strain of words, thoughts, acts too heavy to bear. All we want is to stop talking.

We lack a language for speaking honestly about suicide because we find the topic so hard to think about, at once both deeply unpleasant and gruesomely compelling. […] It is as if our very proximity to suicide, the fact that our fate literally lies in our hands, is almost too much to bear, and words fail us.

That “us” could be anyone, may be everyone, because every forty seconds, according to the World Health Organisation, someone somewhere ends their own life. By current estimates, before 2020 that rate will have doubled. Critchley writes that suicide “saddens the past and abolishes the future”. Again, singulars, plurals: “the future” is an abstraction, and too many futures are always being lost. This topic wastes words, none of which add up to what they need to say. He knows it, and admits he’s as prone to it as anyone, telling the story of a devastated friend confiding that someone deeply loved had killed themselves. “I really wanted to help,” writes Critchley, and (like anyone) “found myself either asking dumb questions or uttering banalities”. And so, exiling himself to a hotel room in East Anglia, he faces the North Sea (an oddly stylised setting which appears again and again, “beating” and “churning”), and holds his tongue, trying to “think through the question of suicide in the only way I know how – in writing”.

So ends the introductory section of Notes on Suicide, and its reflective mood, its determination to keep its feeling and expression grounded in the lived, the singular. And then comes the second part, which opens: “Why is suicide seen as illegal, immoral or irreligious?” Quick-stepping through the historical bases for outlawing the act, Critchley sets out the Christian arguments against it, and shows that they’ve never been free of some degree of inconsistency. He expands that into secular conceptions of the right-to-life, and reaches the same “provisional conclusion”:

…perhaps all talk of rights in relation to suicide is doomed to severe conceptual confusion, whether that right is deemed to be exerted by God, King, the sovereign state or the sovereign self.

This section is the longest, and it’s interesting enough, laying out a historical set-piece here and an intellectual lineage there. But in the end, it retrospectively seems paler, the only disappointment in Notes on Suicide: it’s a Very Short Introduction left pinioned and struggling between the poles of exhaustiveness – show how all these arguments leak water – and dismissal, because of Critchley’s general reservations about the idea that reasoning it out will get anyone anywhere. Having stated on his opening page that “suicide is neither a legal nor moral offence”, it seems odd that he spends his longest chapter patiently explaining why this is, and has always been, the case: at its best, the book is insistently personal, and he opened that first judgement with “in my view”, so presumably he didn’t need to reason himself out of the prospect – at least, not by reason alone. He notes that “to believe that suicide is a crime because life is sacred while also believing in the death penalty […] is a sheer contradiction”; only if you think people necessarily treat others as they do themselves. To hold simultaneous contradictory beliefs is something we evidently do all the time; it may be at the heart of being a person. Whatever its position on the side of a given moral line, there’s little to be learnt about suicide by thinking first of its historical status, its condemnation. Everyone living is at risk. It doesn’t belong to cultural time any more than death in general; this isn’t how those left behind will experience it. Critchley writes with sobriety that “to be human is to have the capacity, at each and every moment, of killing oneself”, and what’s immeasurably heavy about that truth is its application to every past, present and future life. But it gives the lie to his measured dissection of cod phrases like “life is a gift”, because such a phrase is (of course) disputable as a proposition, but any human saying it to another may well mean it as several other things: an expression of love, a tentative test of feeling — an embarrassed and restrained way of begging someone not to break your heart by ending it all. Critchley’s précis of Western thought isn’t wrong; it just feels beside the point in an elegant book so determined to abandon itself to the difficulty of grasping an act beyond the conception of those left in its wake – an act which nevertheless will leave their world in ruins.

The clue to this section may lie in what follows Critchley’s text, which fills only four-fifths of his book. The remainder is by David Hume, whose essay ‘On Suicide’ constitutes the Afterword: a curious cameo, as if he were a friend whose voice had played a counterpoint during Notes on Suicide’s gestation. But Hume’s essay might be giving Critchley the wrong kind of support; at best, it’s only convincing in a very particular way. Hume puts a lot of stress upon the notion of what’s ‘criminal’, transgressive, and shows clearly enough that, again, there are no consistent and complete frameworks within which suicide seems entirely off-limits – and so “that action may be free from every imputation of guilt or blame”. The sentiments are worthy, but read alongside Notes on Suicide, this sounds like a heroically-sustained category error. It would be like exhaustively detailing the reasons why you can’t condemn extramarital affairs in every instance, under all possible circumstances; your spouse won’t be any more impressed. ‘On Suicide’ is a clever little cradle of reason, for which Critchley has a lot of respect, but which he then goes on to transcend; in the end, he doesn’t imagine that rhetoric can fashion a route across this immense subject, instead showing that the problem is deeper within the individual – bridges can’t cure a horror of water. As he says, “the question of rationality with respect to suicide is severely complicated […] Rationality is usually combined with severe depression, which causes havoc with one’s reason.” The act of suicide, then, being at once somewhere beyond both rationality and its conspicuous lack, doesn’t lend itself to the kind of writing that builds its thought out of verbal Lego-blocks, like Hume’s: “If Suicide be criminal, it must be a transgression of our duty, either to God, our neighbour, or ourselves.” Well, maybe it isn’t, then; and so? Critchley admits early on that though he’s a professional philosopher (my shorthand), for him “the question of suicide is not really or even remotely an academic issue”. What he means is sobering and clear enough – he explains that throughout 2014 he was “genuinely struggling with thoughts of suicide” – and one of the great strengths of the rest of Notes on Suicide is its willingness to fail precisely by philosophising, setting out the pros and cons and eventually abandoning them to end in a series of poignant questions:

Why not calm down and enjoy the world’s melancholy spectacle that spreads out so capaciously and delightfully before us? Why not linger a while in the face of what Nietzsche calls “strict, hard factuality”? Why not try and turn our selves inside out, away from the finally hateful inward suffering, and outwards and upwards towards others, not in the name of some right or duty, but out of love? Each of us has the power to kill ourselves, but why not choose instead to give oneself to another or others in an act of love, that is, to give what one does not have and to receive that over which one has no power?

This is sensitive, wise, alive to Simon Jarvis’ canny warning that “with a rhetorical question there is always the risk that the reader may give the wrong answer”. Critchley could be answered with positives or negatives, according to each new reader in each new life. It’s the sort of reasoned elegance that makes David Hume’s afterwords seem ironically unreasonable; Hume might be correct in writing, a little superciliously:

It would be easy to prove, that Suicide is as lawful under the Christian dispensation as it was to the heathens. There is not a single text of scripture which prohibits it.

– “might” be correct: plenty of theologians would dispute the point. But, in any case, it’s a point about Christian doctrine. In the face of what someone on the brink is feeling, trying to express – Christian or otherwise – this wit and skill is just silk in the wind.

Sensing something amiss in all this craft, Critchley steps back – “Truly, one has to be inside such a mental state in order to understand it” – and begins an exploration of the suicide note, that “last and usually desperate attempt to communicate”. Again, these notes aren’t considered as societal or cultural phenomena, so much as personal exchanges of something too large to exchange:

They are […] failed attempts in the sense that the writer is communicating a failure to communicate, expressing the desire to give up in one last attempt at expression. The suicidal person does not die alone, but wants to die with another or others, to whom the note is addressed.

This time Critchley covers the history in a few sentences, and anchors his meditations in the present. He sets up a “suicide note creative writing workshop” as part of his ‘School of Death’ art-installation in New York. (This, as he puts it, was “a rather shy and admittedly smart-alecky reaction” to London’s ‘School of Life’, and its self-help for the bourgeois fretful.) He’s attentive to the violently tender sharing that suicide notes demand; he opens his discussion by noting how the act corrodes other lives, never the actor’s alone:

…the desire to keep the details of suicide secret is questionable. As everyone knows, the Golden Gate Bridge is a popular suicide destination. Yet all the suicides jump from the side of the bridge that faces San Francisco. No one wants to jump from the side that faces out to the Pacific Ocean. Peculiar, no? It is, unless one accepts that suicide is very often a public act, an act of publicity.

Though most suicide notes are personal documents torn between love and its betrayal, some are proudly public in the fullest sense. Critchley tells sad stories of those who die after writing what are, in effect, open letters: a Saigon teacher who self-immolates over the Vietnam War; an American husband broken by worsening tax affairs; most recently, Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street-merchant who “immolated himself because of police harassment and ignited the conflagration called the Arab Spring”. (A rare moment when Critchley’s style becomes slightly oversanguine, and – with that riff on fire – a little too assured for its own good.) Again, remember that suicide rates are rising, without the slightest hint that the growth will abate. These endings will come again, and again, and again. We’re caught between devastation and inadequacy: something should change – must change – but what change to make? Suicide notes may be eloquent, but their expression is so often unanswerable in the wake of their authors’ final acts.

“Such testimony surpasses commentary.” The words break down. “We might learn something”, thinking upon these notes; but it’s difficult to know what that something will look like, or how to make good upon it. In the event, Critchley’s workshop is a success, in whatever sense that word can be fitting. Around fifteen people turn up in the rain; he gives a short talk and invites them to write their own notes. (What to call these? Practice notes? fictional? play? Knowingly – perhaps self-knowingly – Critchley never addresses their status.) A quarter of an hour goes by, and then the little white index cards are read aloud, by those who so wish. What then transpired, he relates, was “genuinely surprising…intensely moving”. Some notes were obstinately unserious, like the one by Jamieson Webster, Critchley’s wife:

Dear Simon,
Break a leg, or all your legs. I better brake fast.
With all my love-hate,
Jamieson (who is about to drive us off a cliff)

(As Critchley notes, tartly, she’s “a psychoanalyst and therefore a specialist in ambivalence”.) Some were haunted by the competing lures of sunny wit and mordant honesty:

I am sorry, mostly to my dog. Love Lauren. P.S. Please don’t bury me in Los Angeles.

And some writers let go, abandoning themselves to the possibility (dream?) that this could be a real goodbye, the last thing they’d allow themselves to say to those they felt bound to embrace, and bound to leave. For instance:

When you inevitably discover those things I kept secret, let these not diminish the reality, nor the magnitude of my love for you.


I am so filled with love it is still too much to bear. I cannot find my way. The world is all wrong and although I withstood the worst of it, I lost out.

In the face of these testimonies, these fifteen-minute journeys to the bridge, Critchley has no commentary to add. He himself is unable to write a note. “I tried repeatedly, but no words would come.”

The suicide notes invite compassion by touching what’s both singular and plural about the concept: ‘suicide’, noun, an immeasurable group of individual events with which we forever try, and fail, to come to terms. It’s no surprise that these final messages, on the cusp of self-destruction, are suffused with the outward reach of (and for) emotional life. As Critchley puts it, “love takes place in the subjunctive mood: it may be, it might be, would that it were the case. The logic of love is akin to the logic of grace”. And Notes on Suicide gives itself to that precarious task of reaching out without knowing if anything will be given back; there’s hope, and hope alone, because “there can be no assurance that love will be reciprocated”. The notes recorded here are beautiful in a way it’s difficult to understand; but this delicate and sensitive book only aims “to try to understand”, not to aspire to a goal beyond our ambit. We may gain something from the attempt – as we gain plenty from Critchley’s writing – but we can never gain everything, a complete sense of what suicide, to put it falteringly, means. To have this would require us to stand outside of life, to see it in the round. But we can’t, and that’s our curse – in the fullest sense, the condition of living a life. Notes on Suicide shows us not how to understand, but how to realise what we don’t know, can never know, and what it is to deal with that awareness. Suicide damages the living, but lies beyond us: simultaneous, contradictory truths. To “understand” it would take someone with the vantage of God; someone bereft by what they saw and knew; freighted, perhaps, with a sadness they could never live to tell.


Cal Revely-Calder

Cal Revely-Calder works and writes in Cambridge. He co-edits the experimental poetry/prose magazine Charlatan Works, and is a contributing editor at the Cambridge Humanities Review.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 30th, 2015.