Suicide And Our Many Personas

Over a decade ago, a friend of mine killed himself. As we, his many shocked and grieving friends, exchanged notes of commiseration and regret and nostalgic remembrance of a life we had all drawn pleasure from, one refrain made the rounds: “I guess I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did.” Indeed. None of us did. None of us know each other, our lovers and friends and parents and children, as well as we imagine we do. We have many, many personas; to ‘know’ someone is to have some measure of acquaintance–emotional, intellectual, physical–with some subset of these. These personas equip us to play the multiple roles we are required to play in the course of our daily lives; there is no one ‘real person’ lurking underneath all of these; the sum total–if such a concept can ever be meaningful–of these personas is, for better or worse, us. (As such, the most common complaint made against the online life, that we are not our ‘real selves’ online, that our ‘real selves’ emerges only in face to face encounters, makes little sense–for these supposedly authentic interactions, require the careful deployment of yet another persona, the one we use for social, in-the-flesh encounters. The immigrant, a master of many personalities, knows this all too well.)

A suicide reminds us, all too often, of this fact. (So does, on a much less tragic scale, the demise of a long-standing romantic relationship.) From the ‘outside’ we saw a life adorned with the usual indications of success or happiness, many of which we desire for ourselves and as such, may even envy; and then, abruptly, we receive the intimation that besides the personas we had been exposed to, there was yet another one that lurked alongside, not beneath, them, that of the suicidal person, the one determined to take their lives. Those external markers? Flags flown by one of the many personas that made up our friend; they are lowered to half-mast on other occasions, by other personas.

In the face of this fact, we often take recourse in claims like ‘mental illness can be so well hidden’ or ‘mental illness is a silent killer.’ But in point of fact, the suicidal person is more close to ‘normal’ than we want to believe. Many of us have entertained thoughts of wanting to bring everything to an end; some of us act on those impulses. The suicide is not a mystery; we would be more honest in our assessment of its supposed inexplicability if we would just ‘fess up the fact that you don’t have to be mentally ill to want to, or actually, kill yourself. You just have to be human, as perplexed as any of us about whether of any of this is worth it, about whether the effort required to move back and forth between our many personas can be sustained.

Many philosophers have held that a singular question that confronts a being like us–if we let it–is whether this life is worth living. Many of us, like us in all the relevant regards, take this question on, and answer it in their own way.

Science And The Provision Of Existential Comfort

Stephen Asma offers a well-worn and reasonable defense of religious belief in The Stone–but ironically enough, in a plea for more tolerance, strikes a rather dogmatic note himself. The defense of religious belief and ritual is a familiar one: religion may be an opiate but it is an effective painkiller as a result. Asma offers us a story of a bereaved student and his family to illustrate the kind of tragic personal situation whose attendant pain can be palliated by religion:

Five years ago, he explained, his older teenage brother had been brutally stabbed to death, viciously attacked and mutilated….My student, his mother and his sister were shattered. His mother…would have been institutionalized if not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife….These bolstering beliefs, along with the church rituals she engaged in after her son’s murder, dragged her back from the brink of debilitating sorrow….

Asma goes on:

[R]eligion can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not. Yes, science can give us emotional feelings of wonder at the majesty of nature, but there are many forms of human suffering that are beyond the reach of any scientific alleviation….Different emotional stresses require different kinds of rescue….we need religion because it is a road-tested form of emotional management….No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy…..the magical thinking that she is going to see her murdered son again, along with the hugs from and songs with fellow parishioners, can sustain her….we can see why religion persists.

The italicized sections above are in tension with the overall tenor of Asma’s claims: they insist, seemingly as a matter of principle, of conceptual definition, that ‘scientific alleviation’ and ‘scientific explanation’ can provide no consoling, no comfort, whatsoever, in the face of this world’s relentless capacity to dish out inexplicable suffering to humans. But how can Asma claim, in the face of the diversity of the human condition, that scientific claims will provide no comfort at all to the afflicted, the bereaved, the suffering? Sometimes understanding the workings of disease may calm a terminally ill patient and those who love them; understanding the physical composition of the body and its relationship with the world of material forces may comfort both those who die and those who grieve for them; sometimes understanding the molecular basis of bodily pathology may ease the feeling of having being struck down by a malevolent curse. We need religion and science both to accommodate the diversity of the human condition; the knowledge science provides may too repel, in part, that terrible anxiety which underwrites our deepest fears.

Asma is right to try to make room for religion; but the catholic attitude he is calling for requires him to be open-minded about the role that science and scientific knowledge can play in providing humans existential and spiritual comfort. Not exclusively, of course. We are many; so are our solutions.

Academia As Pie-Eating Contest

Some wag once said that academia was a pie-eating contest in which the prize was more pie. The reason this evokes rueful chuckles from academics is that, like all good jokes, there is truth in this hyperbolic description. (The more gloomily inclined among us will recognize a deeper existential truth in here: life can all too easily feel like a treadmill.) You read, you write, you teach, you ‘conference’; if you are lucky, you get a job. Then you read and write and teach and ‘conference’ some more. If all goes well, you secure tenure and promotions. You’ve ‘made it.’ Then you continue reading and writing and teaching and conferencing–this last part can be especially pleasant if it involves travel to salubrious destinations. Some folks are considered ‘lucky’ if they can stop teaching and concentrate on reading and writing. (I’m leaving out, for the time being, all the gruesome administrative tasks that most academics find themselves saddled with.) This, I think, is where the bit about ‘more pie’ comes in.

If the reading and writing is going well–that is, if you are getting published in the ‘right’ places–you can count on more publishing opportunities: invitations to contribute to edited collections; proposals are read with more alacrity; journal acceptances magically become easier. Moreover, if there is one feeling an academic is extremely familiar with, it is the horrifying sensation of realizing that the moment a written work is ‘done’ another ‘must’ be commenced. Even those who have moved on beyond the supposed ‘publish or perish’ phase of tenure and promotion acquisition sense the ‘what have you done for us lately’ question directed at them. If you have ‘produced,’ you must keep ‘producing.’ Or run the risk of being condemned as ‘useless’ or sinking into a slough of self-loathing. Small wonder that most academics continue to feel unaccomplished even as they rack up impressive publication and research records.

Writing is hard, good quality research is hard. So whatever relief one might feel on having ‘turned in’ some substantial piece of written work, it is all too easily replaced by the sinking feeling that this whole grinding, excruciating, process must be repeated if one has a ‘rep to protect.’ A good piece of writing is a very tough act to follow and the academic might be excused for feeling some resentment at being expected to ‘perform’ all over again. (The suspicion arises that it might have been better to not have ‘performed’ in the first place.) The unfinished creative task is always a terrifying space; anxiety and self-doubt lurk among its environs and must be confronted time and again as we traverse it. Weariness is experienced all too often, all too easily. Why not just lay down the pen and call it a day? What if you have no more to say? Whence the expectation that a ‘seeker of knowledge’ must continue to seek his entire life?

Note: Similar considerations apply, I’m sure, in some variant or the other , to all other professions,

April Fool’s Day And The Cruelest Month

The contemporary comedic take on April Fool’s Day is that it is the one day of the year that we direct some skepticism at what we encounter on the Internet; it is the one day of the year that we exercise discretion and judgment over the content of the material we read and deign to ‘share’ with our ‘friends’ online. We are treated to news of disasters, absurd decisions, and perhaps even cosmic catastrophes; we hasten to spread the word, but our hands are stayed by a quick glance at the calendar, electronic or otherwise. If only we were so discriminating for the rest of the year–when we are busily and happily aiding rumors and conspiracy theories and even worse, destined-to-be-stale ‘hot takes’ go ‘viral.’

Comedy always being paired with tragedy it is but inevitable that we should peer at the dark side of such an understanding of April Fool’s Day. For it is on this day–thanks to the many faux news bulletins that make the rounds– that many, many of our hopes are raised, only to be cruelly dashed against the unforgiving rock of the cruelest month’s first day. We are told that corporations have acquired common sense and stopped polluting the world that contains their consumers, present and future; we are assured the substances we would most like to consume but which medicine claims are slowly killing us are actually harmless and might even be good for us; we learn of windfalls and literally unbelievable strokes of fortune; the list goes on. (The science fictionish April Fool’s announcement has its own pride of place here: we are informed that cold fusion will soon power our cellphones, perhaps setting us free from the onerous business of recharging batteries, or perhaps, as Google once claimed, we could even recall the emails we had sent.) Lies, all of them.

We smile ruefully when we learn we have been duped. We had dared to hope against hope, dared to believe that this promise-breaking world had changed its ways. All for vain. That little flight of fantasy, borne aloft on wings beating powerfully and hopefully, has been called back to earth; the gravity of the real world has proved irresistible. April Fool’s Day had animated it; it renders it moribund too.

April Fool’s Day is the perfect symbol of our civilization; it isn’t enough that we have been systematically duped into imagining salvation lies around the corner in some religious, political, or intellectual dispensation. No, we must also set aside a special day of the year when we can reenact, worldwide, a human simulation of the cosmic prank.  Ours is a species that dares to hope in the face of hopelessness; it is on this day that those hopes can be made to look even more forlorn.

Note: On this second day of April, residents of East Coast received their own particular notification from the cruelest month: a spring snowfall in the morning that snarled commutes and for a few hours made it clear that winter hadn’t gone anywhere just yet.

Gide’s Immoralist And The Existential Necessity Of The Colony

The immoralist at the heart of André Gide‘s The Immoralist, Michel, does not travel just anywhere; he travels to French colonies like Algeria and Tunisia; the boys who he meets, is attracted to, and falls in love with, are not just any boys; they are Muslim Arab boys. He is old; they are young. He is white; they are brown. He is sick and tubercular; they are young and exuberant, bursting to the seams with health and vitality. Their blood is redder, and flows more freely; Michel’s blood is black, and hideous, and disgusting. He is diseased, but as he spends time among his new companions, whose bodies and nakedness underneath their clothes he cannot take his eyes off of, his health improves and he begins to describe the arc of a journey to greater health and well-being, away from disease; he begins a journey from flirting with death to welcoming life in all its fullness. The language that Gide uses to describe Michel’s journey or passage is richly symbolic and metaphorical, and invites multiple interpretations, mingling as it does, these descriptions of the physical with those of the mental, so that we are tempted to see Michel’s journey from bad to good health as his journey from being ‘a lost soul’ to being ‘a found self’; that much is straightforward.

But why place this journey in colonized lands, why make the vehicles of Michel’s transformation and self-discovery be the colonized, the subjugated, the colonial subject? For one, we can see the colonizer use both the land and the peoples of the colony as his experiential space for self-discovery; it becomes one more of the services or functions that the colonized provides; besides markets, it provides an avenue and domain for self-construction; it becomes one more of the means by which the colonizer comes to realize himself. Because the colonized inhabits a world in which the colonizer has been, as it were, ‘marketed’, Michel finds in the colonies and in the gaze of the colonial subject, one component of his identity: how a Frenchman is understood by those he has colonized. If the colonial identity is an indissoluble part of what it meant to be a Frenchman in the twentieth century then Michel has done the right thing by traveling to a French colony; it is there that he will find out what a Frenchman truly is.

But this salvation need not be individual; all of French culture and Western civilization may be redeemed in the colonies; it is where a decadent, dying civilization looks to being revitalized; to literally being brought back to life. French and Western civilization has become old and tubercular, its blood is polluted. But the Muslim Arab world is younger, even if immature, it promises a new vision of life to a culture on its death-bed and drags it back from its flirtation with death.

The colony is a material and spiritual and existential necessity; it extends the life of the colonizer; the journey to a new form of life for the colonizer begins there.

Szasz On The Myth Of Mental Illness

This semester, in my Landmarks in Philosophy class, I used Thomas Szasz‘s The Myth of Mental Illness as one of the three texts on the reading list (The other two were Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and William James’ Pragmatism.) Szasz’s argument that mental illness does not exist, that psychiatry is a pseudo-science was, as might be expected, fairly controversial; critics accused him of overstating his case and of drawing too sharp a boundary between the physical and the mental. Be that as it may, there are many, many acute insights in Szasz’s work; these continue to make reading his work a useful experience for any philosophy student.

Among these insights, in no particular order, are the following:

1. Reducing the mental to the physical comes at a cost of explanatory power. Especially when such reduction is merely offered in the form of a promissory note; many existing behavioral disorders still lack physical correlates in neurophysiology. The languages of the mental and the ethical often offer us richer and more useful explanations for understanding our fellow human beings than the language of the physical; many phenomena of social and ethical interest ‘vanish’ when subjected to the lens of the physical.

2. The so-called ‘mentally ill’ are engaged in a species of communication with us; it behooves us to try to translate their ‘speech.’ This leads to a consideration of a hierarchy of languages and a study of the metalanguage and object language distinction.

3. The category ‘mentally ill’ functions, all too often, as a catch-all category used to lump in socially undesirable behavior; what counts as desirable and undesirable is clearly a function of existing social prejudices.  The infamous DSM criteria often encapsulate such prejudices; unsurprisingly these need to be revised over time to accommodate such inclinations. (Remember that Dostoyevsky’s ‘Underground Man‘ was a ‘sick man.’)

4. A game-playing and rule-following model of human behavior offers us interesting and useful interpretations of social situations and interactions within them. (Wittgenstein’s notion of language as a kind of social game immediately comes to mind here and allows for a fruitful investigation of this claim.)

5. Medicine functions within a social, economic, political, and ethical context; the rights of patients and healers emerge within this context.  We should expect medicine to be practiced differently–with different medical outcomes–in different contexts. From this, a larger point about the social construction of science, scientific practice, and scientific knowledge can be seen to follow; the boundaries of science are very often informed by social and legal considerations. Consider, for instance, the testing of cosmetic products or new drugs on laboratory animals, experimental procedures which stand and fall depending on whether they have received legal sanction from the surrounding legal regime.

6. The autonomy and personality of the patient is a moral good worthy of respect; the practice of medicine and the relationship between the doctor and patient should be cognizant of this. (The notion of ‘informed consent’ in modern bioethics can be seen to be powerfully informed by such a consideration.)

The Self As Prison

In his review of Charles Simic‘s The Lunatic: Poems and The Life of Images: Selected Prose Phillip Lopate makes note of Simic’s “cultivation of awe,” his “opening himself to chance, that favorite tactic of Surrealists” and makes note of this pronouncement:

Others pray to God; I pray to chance to show me the way out of this prison I call myself.

I have written here about the difficulties and myths of ‘self-improvement’; one of the possibilities suggested by those difficulties is a terrifying species of realization, of self-discovery, perhaps the most terrifying possibility of all: that we want to change, but find that we cannot, and this knowledge of our inability to do so does not in turn bring about a corresponding diminution of the desire to change. (Hannah Arendt has written of the perennial “wish to escape the human condition;” we may also wish to escape our own personal version of that condition.) We are now locked in a hell of our own making, locked into an eternal ‘repetition compulsion,’ doomed to spend our days like a not-cheerful Sisyphus, one not reconciled to his fate. We wish to change; we find that the combination of this world’s arrangements and workings and our own capacities and inclinations and limitations do not permit such a change; we retreat, defeated time and again in our attempts to transcend ourselves.  We find failure and disgruntlement each time; but rather than accept defeat and ‘go home,’ we, unable to reconcile ourselves to this state of affairs, to the distance now revealed of a bridge too far, persist.

There is nothing noble or heroic about such persistence now; we are not possessed of an amor fati, we do not ‘own it’; we seek to distance ourselves from ourselves, but cannot. We are not reconciled to our being; we are tormented by ourselves, by the bars for this cage we have constructed on our own. Time on the couch does not help; we are urged to construct a narrative of our life that would make sense of the state we find ourselves in, and simultaneously suggest an onward path; we find ourselves unable to write this tale, to take the first step on a new road. And if we do, we find a familiar character populating that myth, we find familiar roadblocks. We are dogged, at every step, by ourselves.

Our ambitions, which almost always outstrip our abilities and capacities, may bring us to this pass; so might the ambition of others. This world’s orderings might suggest routes and journeys that are not for us to undertake. They require us to be not ourselves, and we cannot change.

This a terrifying state of affairs; all too many of us find ourselves in this state of being. Hell is here, on earth. It is not other people; as John Milton’s Satan had noted,

A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven
What matter where, if I be still the same

Hell can be, and very often is, just us.