Monday, December 30, 2013

Our Suicidal Christmas Road Trip

[This Post has been Modified to Remove Personal Information]

Not fear but loathing made us do it.  Loathing of taxi rides, being herded through long lines, demeaned  to take off shoes and belt, scanned with empty pockets, only to learn that the passenger next to you paid a fraction of the $1,300 fare being asked to fly two of us for two hours to Vancouver, scrunched like stressed chickens on the factory farm. That, and the allure of a road trip.

The Books

We did not exactly take our lives into our hands by embarking on this trip.  The entire West Coast was blessed with unseasonably sunny weather.  We encountered no rain, no ice, no snow; the new chains purchased for the trip went unused. On the way we finished two books on tape:  "Mrs. Dallowayby Virginia Woolfe, and "Ancient Light" by John Banville.  These books are related by their examination of old loves, beautiful language, attention to observed detail, and suicide.

A Theme

In some ways, 2013 has been the year of suicides for me.  I started out in February thinking and writing about David Foster Wallace, one of the most brilliant writers and thinkers of my youngest sister's (my?) generation.  Born in 1962, he struggled with depression throughout his adult life and committed suicide in 2008. His novel Infinite Jest addresses nihilism in the modern world.  Is his preoccupation with nihilism related to his depression, or are these things apart?   In April I reviewed Amy Shearn's novel, The Mermaid of Brooklynwhose protagonist, Jenny Lipkin, overcome by life and depression jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge.  That's the tried and true spot, of course;  "who jumps off the George Washington Bridge?" as the John Goodman character points out in the new Coen brothers film "Inside Llewyn Davis," which also deals with depression and suicide.

Alex, the protagonist in John Banville's Ancient Light is an actor nearing 70 who is still suffering from his daughter's suicide ten years before.  And it's what suicides do, of course: they hurt those who love them best.  Alex's daughter dashed herself on the rocks in Portovenere, on the coast of Liguria in Italy, near the harbor where Shelley drowned.  Alex returns there now with his leading lady who tried to commit suicide with sleeping pills. He has no particular purpose, except, perhaps, vaguely approaching the past.

Virginia Woolfe published Mrs. Dalloway in 1925.  She drowned herself in the river in March, 1941, at age 59, leaving behind a loving note to her husband, very much in control.  She led a productive life and she delayed her fateful decision longer than David Foster Wallace (age 46),  Anne Sexton (age 45),  or Sylvia Plath (age 30).  Based on the evidence of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolfe did not think much of the the profession of psychiatry in her day. She portrayed the two doctors treating Septimus Warren Smith as charlatans and crooks.  They spoke of the problem being a "lack of proper proportion," and they were eager to collect fees and shuffle their patients off to asylums that they owned.

Mrs. Dalloway was sympathetic to Septimus leaping from his window. Speaking in the voice of Virginia Woolfe, of course, Mrs. Dalloway knows what she is talking about.  But we have not always been so tolerant of suicides.

A Short Taxonomy on our Attitudes to Suicide

Plato opposed suicide because he felt it represents an abandonment by the soul of its guard duty in the body assigned by the gods.  He recognized common sense exceptions that would sound reasonable to us. 

The stoics felt suicide was alright if the means to living a naturally flourishing life was not available.  The roman stoic, Seneca, noted that it is the quality of life, not the quantity, that matters.  

Saint Augustine set Christianity's views on suicide on a harsh path; as with so much else, the effect of his views still linger.  He took the fifth commandment (thou shalt not kill) and extended it to killing oneself.  God has given us life as a gift and we don't have the right to determine the duration of our earthly existence, he felt.  The medieval church turned this into a perversion.  They developed the doctrine that suicide nullified human beings' relationship with God.  They applied property law principles:  the use of our body is limited to usus (possession) whereas God retained dominum (authority over the body).  Suicides were denied a Christian burial, their property was forfeit to the Church, and desecration of the body was permitted. 

It took the Enlightenment to loosen the grip of opprobrium. David Hume argued that suicide should be free of any imputation of guilt or blame. Still, Kant continued to cling to the traditional view.  Like Spock (Star Trek), Kant considered suicide "illogical."  He wrote that because the rational will is the source of our moral duty, suicide somehow offends our rationality.  I'm not getting it, but I'm sure there's more to it.  

In the meantime, novelists like Flaubert, Rousseau, and Goethe idealized suicide as a romantic act by misunderstood and anguished souls jilted by love, or misunderstood by society. 

Psychiatry developed doctrines like "melancholia," "hysteria," or "proportions" as disdainfully discussed by Woolfe in Mrs. Dalloway.  Views of depression as a social ill resulting from widespread alienation in modern society, a sign of cultural decline, caused a wave of institutionalization of suicidal persons.  It also contributed to a view of suicide as resulting from impersonal social forces, not from personal autonomy.  

On the other end of the spectrum, existentialists exalted the personal choice. They proffered suicide as a rational response to the meaninglessness of the world and human endeavor.  Camus, portrayed Sisyphus as heroically enduring the absurdity of his task, resisting the urge to succumb to suicide.  Sartre posed suicide as an authentic assertion of human will in the face of absurdity; an opportunity to stake out our understanding of human essence as individuals in a godless world.  [I'm sure it's more sophisticated and less silly than that in French]

Free Will?

That major depression is rooted in the physical qualities of the brain is beyond question.  To that extent, the symptoms of major depression, sadness, lack of interest in things previously enjoyed, distraction, suicidal thoughts, and the rest… are all caused by the illness.  There is no choice, no free will involved with this.  Yet, here is Virginia Woolfe's suicide note: 
Dearest, 
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.  
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
This seems to make it plain that Woolfe, although in the grip of her illness is very much in charge.  She deserves respect for the free choice she has made without opprobrium or regret.

It's a question posed by Michael Gazzuniga in “Who’s in Charge:  Free Will and the Science of the Brain.”  Gazzuniga is a Stanford psychologist who is an expert on split brain studies.  He notes that we  lack a proper vocabulary to relate all the things we’ve learned about the brain and how to properly think about consciousness.  He thinks of consciousness as an emergent property.  Will the mind/body problem be solved this century? We will see. 

In the meantime, I'm a champion of free will.  Whatever went into our decision to drive to Vancouver, instead of flying this Christmas, we are responsible for that decision.  We exercised our free will; it was not pre-determined.  And major depression or no, Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway, Cass, Alex's daughter in Ancient Light, Llewyn Davis's partner in Inside Llewyn Davis, no less than Sexton, Plath, Woolfe, or Wallace deserve our respect for the decision they made.  In the end, the allure of a road trip and the allure of death are not so different.  And, perhaps, it's accepting and coming to peace with the decision his musical partner made by jumping off the wrong bridge that will ultimately set Llewyn Davis free.