On Voluntary Death

Or selbsmort or mate whakamomori or freitod or suicide… I just finished reading Jean Améry’s quite wonderful short book of essays titled “On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death”, which could also be titled “A Defence of Voluntary Death”, since that’s what it is. But it is much more besides. For one thing, it’s perhaps the closest you could ever get to reading a treatise on suicide by a suicide. Améry, a Holocaust survivor (barely!), attempted suicide in 1974, wrote these essays in 1976, and in 1978, did take his own life. I found my way to this book after reading, first, his “At The Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities,” then “On Aging: Revolt and Resignation.” To me, Améry is a

Amery_suicide-coverphilosopher of the 20th Century Continental non-Anglophone analytic variety, an Existentialist you might say, a literary reader-writer-thinker type. And he writes so beautifully.

I’ve been looking for this book for quite a few years. By that I mean, a book about suicide that, as the translator John Barlow writes in his introduction, tries to “understand those who take their lives ‘from the standpoint of their own world’ … rather than from that of conventions practiced and observations made.”

It’s always struck me amid the wringing of hands and tearing of hair about suicide — and here I refer to society not to individuals who have lost someone close to them — that none of it ever really does that. None of it tries to pull back even the first layer of platitudes to seek any acknowledgement or understanding of the almost impossible absurdities of being human, the “burden of being” if you will, that we all face and variously find ways to avoid confronting. Instead, it’s mental health services this, and poverty that, and bullying the other. Yes, all worthy, all important, all necessary, but all built on a foundation of an unquestioning (because we aren’t allowed to question it) collective condemnation of suicide. Perhaps it’s right that, as a society, we agree that suicide is always and everywhere to be condemned without debate. I don’t know the answer to that. But if we do impose such a blanket condemnation, we also preclude discussions like Améry’s, we rule out all the ways suicide and everything that goes with it are windows onto the human condition, perhaps even an understandable response to that condition. Continue reading