A professor examines the phenomenon of college suicide.
When, in 1774, at the age of twenty-five, Goethe published the epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, the frenzied affection with which the youth of that age greeted it was at first a surprise and eventually a horror to the author. There were Werther china figurines, eau de Werther, a Werther breadbox. Napoleon himself called Goethe in to talk Werther-shop.11xDaniel Purdy, ed., Goethe Yearbook 17 (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010), 9. But the more charming aspects of the fandom were part and parcel with this further phenomenon: the young men dressing up in their hero’s blue coat and yellow vest, leaping into rivers or blowing their brains out, book in hand.
Although we still speak of “the Werther effect,” we lack a novel on which to pin the rashes, contagions, clusters, and epidemics of suicides that take place now seemingly every year in the American educational system. These are occurring not only among the college-age youth, but even among sixteen-year-olds who find high school quite enough and wish for no more. Although these suicides form a small fraction of the total sua sponte deaths in the United States, suicide clusters usually involve people in their college years.22xRomeo Vitelli, “When Suicide Comes in Clusters,” Media Spotlight (blog), Psychology Today, August 28, 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201208/when-suicides-come-in-clusters. Suicide takes place, too, among professors and adjuncts.33xJennifer Young, “Another Drowning in the Adjunct Pool,” The Offing, May 2, 2016, https://theoffingmag. com/dead-letter-office/another-drowning-in-the-adjunct-pool/. And though news coverage focuses on wealthier universities, the suicides are not limited to them.44xJulie Scelfo, “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection,” New York Times, July 27, 2015, http:// www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/education/edlife/stress-social-media-and-suicide-on-campus.html?_r=0.
For teachers like me, the details of these deaths often come thirdhand. Our information is mostly limited to official e-mails, which (if they mention death at all) often do not even name the dead; they certainly don’t give the cause. Yet while one simply never learns that much about what happened (it was only by accident, for instance, that I learned the first death of 2014 was a suicide by hanging), the volume on health services news gets turned right up. Various incarnations of daily, weekly, monthly e-mails from recently convened or amplified offices and sub-offices, offices you’ve never heard of, remind you of gym hours, point out new on-trend exercise classes or ever-farther-afield hiking trips, cheerfully advertise things such as “Massage Mondays” or new mindfulness classes; the e-mails attempt to be tactful about the expansion of the suicide hotline.
This very quietness is in fact part of newly instituted official best practices, the idea being that the less you hear about death or how it was brought about, the more likely you are to wish to stay alive. Harvard’s “Means Matter” campaign recommends working with local and student media to avoid “detailed descriptions” of how a suicide takes place or giving too many “personal details” about the suicide’s life that might lead the reader to identify with the deceased; they warn against presenting suicide as “common, normal, or acceptable.”55xFor the need to restrict means in general, see the Means Matter campaign, “Recommendations for Colleges and Universities,” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/recommendations/colleges/. For media, they follow the recommendations of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center in limiting news of means and so the manner of death: “Safe and Effective Messaging for Suicide Prevention,” http:// www.sprc.org/sites/default/files/migrate/library/SafeMessagingrevised.pdf. See also the work of the JED Foundation’s Campus Program, http://www.thecampusprogram.org/learn-about-campusprogram, who incorporates the work of Means Matter into their for-profit program for schools. After one of the Palo Alto high school suicides in 2015, the adults decided to erase the memorials the students had snuck in to write on the chalkboards.66xHanna Rosin, “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” The Atlantic, December 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/ magazine/archive/2015/12/the-silicon-valley-suicides/413140/. The silence spreads farther afield: Although Northern Michigan University’s policy that students are officially prohibited from discussing potential self-harm with other students sits at a terrifyingly absurd extreme, I’ve been counseled to explain to my students that they have to stop talking before they tell me about suicide ideation, and refer them instead to the health services office.77xRobby Soave, “Northern Michigan University Might Have the ‘Most Dangerous’ Speech Code Ever,” Reason.com, September 22, 2015, http://reason.com/blog/2016/09/22/northern-michigan-universitymight-have.
Even aside from being a disastrous way for a community to mourn, the official evasiveness on the subject of a recent death is pragmatically flawed: Among the students, detailed news spreads in minutes anyway by means of location-based social media apps tailored for college campuses, where users check in anonymously. It’s also galling spiritual fakery: One walks the campus pathways and sees no visible memorials of the dead, while you don’t even know if the latest death is the last in the cluster or not; the false cheer of passersby seems to harden into a rictus grin. The result of this is the peculiarly gothic atmosphere that develops when a bunch of people insist there is nothing gothic about life. Without reliable news, teachers make what trivial gestures are still available: giving the best friend extra weeks for the paper; stopping class to make sure the person who just ran from the room is all right and the friend network is alerted; apologizing in horror when (no name being given yet to that morning’s dead) while taking attendance you announce the name of the departed.
We talk about a suicide contagion’s progression across a given community as though it were a biological phenomenon, an epidemic without conscious direction. The desire to commit suicide is uniformly understood as a sickness, one limited to a relatively small number of ill-fated individuals, whose triumphant return to good health can be achieved by identifying and naming their sickness as a Sickness: If the organism is treated with exercise, nutrition, or drugs, the reasoning goes, the self will follow suit back into good order. Therapy is where one gets one’s head back on straight, the head back into the game; in short, it is the place where one recovers one’s mental health. To the healthy, we insist the Sick are not normal; to the ill, we stress that sickness is perfectly fine and can happen to anyone. America is full of communities with the funds and the manpower and the sincere desire, when faced with a string of deaths, to try more than a few rounds of something a little different—as long as it fits this basic script. Nevertheless, the suicides continue. For once, the Why on earth? ought to be as urgent a question as the What in God’s name to do?
Much of the action taken in university policy is a classic case of dishonoring the What is the problem? in the service of a quick How do we fix it? Certainly, health, with all its Pythagorean and Platonic resonances of the psyche or soul, the living breath of the organism, is not a bad metaphor for questions of selfhood. But it’s remarkably easy to forget it’s a metaphor. Healthiness becomes the term for a properly functioning self, neatly divided into health of body and of mind, but with bodily health as the primary reference point, and the mindfulness of the so-called mind remaining a distant afterthought. Health is given such teleological pride of place that any departure from it becomes a failure to live up to one’s proper work as a human being. When the notion that a human soul would need any sense of itself beyond the horizon of health becomes chimerical, the results resemble a train-wreck where everyone keeps insisting the train’s still on the rails.
To speak or write about suicide is always to risk tromping on someone’s private sorrow, or to risk dishonoring the speechlessness of one’s own. But there’s something here that needs to be witnessed to. The more the university’s rhetoric focuses on health as the goal, the sharper the failure to maintain it is felt, and the wider the gap becomes between those who can maintain at least the appearance of being fine, and those who can’t. In this atmosphere, is it any wonder that death is a taboo?
Many admit that college students’ problems have become existential ones: Julie Lythcott-Haims speaks of the “existential impotence” felt by the college student, who responds to the question “Who are you?” with a list of their accomplishments.88xIn How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims points out the need for independent thought in order to rescue students, although ironically she cites Descartes as an authority (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015), 98. You ask the student what he or she wants or desires, and you notice that the question itself is foreign. Yet the university nevertheless seeks every sort of remedy except for one that would allow individual human beings to ask for themselves, as part of their normal daily work, direct questions about the nature of selfhood and human existence: to ask why and what, rather than simply how. Why are people given the space to inquire into their selfhood only after they admit they’re broken?
The Ghost in the Machine
We don’t have a Werther to blame for the situation, but we do have, perhaps, a book that can serve as a reverse-Werther. Twice as a teacher, I have lost my patience with the business of our carefully orchestrated mutual silence, and assigned the chapter “The Depressed Self” from Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. Although Percy-mania is not yet at hand, no other reading I have ever assigned has had students’ roommates asking for a copy.
In “The Depressed Self,” Percy discusses the merits of becoming the ex-suicide, the one who, having considered suicide as a perfectly sane alternative to the quite recognizable madness of the world, has nothing to lose after all by remaining alive, and so is rendered for the first time free, and able to live.99xWalker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos (New York, NY: Picador, 1983), 73–79. I’m indebted to Artur Rosman’s look at Lost in the Cosmos, as linked to on Andrew Sullivan’s post on The Dish of October 26, 2014, which I ran across when preparing to teach Percy’s novel The Moviegoer for the first time (Artur Rosman, “Percy on Mental Hygiene,” Cosmos The In Lost [blog], Patheos, October 21, 2014, http://www.patheos.com/ blogs/cosmostheinlost/2014/10/21/percy-on-mental-hygiene-you-are-entitled-to-your-depression/). To my fellow pedagogues, I recommend adding the relevant video of Walker Percy on Sullivan’s blog, should you teach this passage, found here: “‘You Have Every Reason to Be Depressed,’” October 26, 2014, http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2014/10/26/you-have-every-reason-to-be-depressed/. You have a right to be depressed, he says: We are born into this world as alienated from ourselves, and our division has been exacerbated by our philosophic inheritance, and the strangeness of how modern life is lived. The world itself is mad, as witnessed to by its ever-novel modes of world destruction; in such a world, to be mad is to be sane. As for anyone who is not depressed by all this, one may well be suspicious of their sanity.
Whether the students thought the point was fair or not, Percy’s text opened a space not for confession but for conversation, where the professor, the least important person present, no longer stands as orchestra conductor but as one simply poking the fire every now and then. It provided space for what is after all the hardest thing for humans to do: allow a founding principle of their life become a question for them.
Our obsession with heath can be traced back to Descartes, who (in the words of Percy), “ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its house.”1010xWalker Percy, Love in the Ruins (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 181. As Alexis de Tocqueville wryly observed, America is the place where Descartes is the least read but the most intuitively taken up by the populace: We adopt, in a sense, his psychology, his predilections, his tasks.1111xAlexis de Tocqueville, “Philosophical Method of the Americans,” in Democracy in America (vol. 2, book 1, ch. 1). For an American, to think a little on Descartes is to begin to know oneself.
We can understand ourselves not only in Descartes’ assertion that the living may be adequately described by the division of ourselves into “body” and “mind,” an awkward dichotomy if there ever was one, or by his famous and entrancing notion of the mind being “entirely distinct” from the body—the moment in which our essential core is stripped of any merely animal or mortal qualities. But there is also his postulate that the body is not distinguishable from the corpse; his adolescent insistence that everyone outside his window could probably be automata; his strange but telling penchant for living under martial law (since there, and only there, can a man hear himself think!); his wish to prolong his own life indefinitely, and his call to arms for a legion of researchers to apply his discoveries to the betterment of health. Most telling of all is his assertion that “health…is undoubtedly the chief good and the foundation of all the other goods of this life.” Poor Descartes; he is concerned that “unwanted visitors” will take from him twenty minutes of his life better spent in work. Would he be satisfied with the merely posthumous immortality achieved as patron saint of an entire nation?1212xFor health as chief goal, as well as indefinite extension of life, call to arms, and unwanted visitors, see Descartes Discourse on Method, Part 6; for “entirely distinct” and martial law, see Discourse on Method, Parts 3 and 4, respectively. For corpse and automata, see Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation 2.
And yet, while it is respectable common knowledge—so internalized as to be almost folk wisdom—that the Cartesian split is a so-called false dichotomy, and manifestly bad for the practice of medicine, we are still left with the problem of how to wrest our intuitions out from the metallic, mechanical way in which we reenact the original divide.1313xNeeta Medha, a clinical psychologist in India, has a very helpful non-American articulation of the problem: see “Mind-body Dualism: A Critique from a Health Perspective,” Brain, Mind, and Consciousness: An International, Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. A.R. Singh and S.A. Singh (Mumbai, India: Mednow, 2011), 202–209, available at National Center for Biotechnology Information website; http://www.ncbi. nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3115289/. Our attempt to remarry the halves of the soul is in limbo, and though health may be our chief good, it somehow remains all too unachieved. Certainly, health is a positive state, a flourishing if you will, and not a mere absence of illness. But a positive state of what? The mind? Or the body? Who and where is this ghost, who insists it is fine, but nevertheless, drowneth?
Strategies for Losing the Self
Against our unconscious Cartesianism we can set Walker Percy’s American existentialism. Here, these questions are not filtered through the melancholy of the pre- and postwar French, but rather are engaged with directly in America’s own fight to the death with questions of anxiety, boredom, alienation, and bad faith.
Percy begins with the fundamental problem facing every human being, as long as he or she is human: the almost too-great responsibility of a Self, our unique self-relation to self (too often anti-climatically named “consciousness”), the relation of which is the self. The strangeness of this relation is bound up in our strange desires with respect to its constant presence: to nail down the self by identifying it with something else and so close the book on the problem; or to come up with increasingly devious ways to lose the self and so bypass the problem altogether.1414xPercy’s more theoretic rendering is in Lost in the Cosmos, 85–126. The man who dreams in his basement of becoming Caesar wishes not so much to be Caesar as to be someone, anyone, other than himself; should he succeed beyond his wildest dreams, he will be all too disappointed to learn he remains, after all, himself.
It refreshes us, not to be ourselves, but to be something or other else, to identify our selves as a matter of our being with something, anything, other than the singular finite all-too- specific self: I am a Buddhist, I am an American, I am an Engineer. Any class-noun will do. Consider what Percy calls The Totemic Self: “Ask an LSU football fan at a football game: Who are you? He may reply: ‘I am a tiger.’”1515xIbid., 11.
Such a self is a satisfying but ultimately too difficult a fiction to maintain for any length of time, as is evident in even the victorious fan’s post-game depression.1616xIbid., 122. Alternatively, we seek to lose our self by diverting ourselves with art, whether inane or profound, it doesn’t matter; what matters is we forget for a time who and where we are. Likewise, modern party-politics, in the desire to immerse oneself in an abstract side as being Left or Right, is no less a seeking of freedom-from-self-by-identification-with-quite-another-thing than the Tiger Fan. There are plenty of respectable ways to escape self, whether as the happy scientist in love with his work or as the struggling writer tortured by his. As for the minor daily problem of re-entering the specifics of one’s self, well, there is always alcohol, for all that it anesthetizes the problem rather than solves it.1717xIbid., 123. As for college students, it’s striking how often I hear them naming themselves not merely by their major (“Who are you?” “I’m an English major”) but by the full professional status of the field they have only just begun to study: “I’m an anthropologist,” says the anthropology major, “I’m a sociologist,” says the sociology major.
The variety we display in performing these two basic moves shows our inventiveness, if not our courage, in the face of existing merely as ourselves; being in Percy’s phrase, a concelebrant with the world, which perhaps only the four-year-old can pull off with something close to perfection. Most of us prefer losing ourselves in the world or retreating from it altogether.1818xIbid., 108. As Percy points out, even ordinary dangers (such as, he offers, being non-fatally shot, or hearing about the sudden violent death of someone famous) recall the vividness of the world to us. Often, we seek such moments when the world does not hand them to us.
A Cartesian Waking Nightmare
Acts of “senseless” violence are not “the work of a madman” but of the nihilist, who seeks the neat metaphysical opposite of self-through-self-harm, instead hitting upon harm to others as his way of asserting self. Indeed, to call out the nihilist as madman is an act of disrespect to the self-respecting madman. And so, on this analysis, our willingness to consider the health of body while shelving the health of soul becomes a particularly sharp scalpel with which we act out the existential drama of self-sundering: One becomes oneself by exercising mind over matter, by negating the body; or one attempts to turn the body into the self, escaping problems of self by insisting we are the body, trusting the self will always follow its lead. What on earth to do with us, the cradle Cartesians of the earth?
In his earlier, harsher writing, Martin Heidegger opines quite baldly that anxiety is an early and necessary step to philosophical activity: We have to allow the familiar to become uncanny to us, in order for the simplest, most cosmic things to announce themselves as questions.1919xMartin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1968), 233. First published 1927.
But what happens when anxiety becomes the condition of us all? The opposite of anxiety is being at home in the world, drawing in the comfort of the familiar as such, dwelling well and fully among the things, houses, and people to which and whom one has devoted a lifetime of care. But today’s students, if they aim for an upper-middle-class existence, are meant to become soldiers of fortune who will travel wherever the job takes them. The particularities of their cities are irrelevant; they live in a place long enough to make half-informed complaints about local government before flinging themselves off to another place to discover what novel luxuries it can provide. Freedom comes through utter placelessness, a condition in which one is utterly indifferent to one’s birth and resistant to any thoughts about those future years that will bring one close, then closer, to one’s death.
College students currently seek such placelessness as their rite of passage: The more money one has at hand, the more one can put into the various and necessary forms of pre-college training, the easier it is to cut loose from limiting bonds of home and family—all leading to the discovery of how awkward and hard it is when one simply can’t go home whenever one feels like it, or for that matter, call a doctor who knows one’s history. Not all of us have it in us to be true wanderers. The bureaucratic college therefore spends vast resources to provide the goods and services that create the homey atmosphere of a small-town mall. A mediocre chain restaurant provides comfort not so much in the food but in the twinge of recognition: This place can now be reified as place. But ramp up the services as you will, the bad joke is that the place was supposed to be not home.
The college itself is a sort of existential black hole at present, suffering in its attempt to name and give being to what has none. What self, after all, does a university have? It is a puzzle worthy of Heraclitus’s river, because the waters of youth and wealth that give the university being are continually moving on. A third party, who does not see the inside of the classroom or the inside of the dorm, attempts to create a character for the place out of a handful of two or three utterly random colors, a mascot, possibly a few stickers. If the marketers who work on branding every living thing in the college community with some artificially cheery, utterly invented nickname knew how much their little figurines and ephemera contribute to the utter despair of the place—how each new piece of non-clever cleverness consciously underscores the terrible artificiality of the community—well, perhaps they would do nothing different after all. I will note in passing that the one stratum of the university community not particularly at risk for suicide is that of the upper-level bureaucrat/administrator.
Some colleges are lucky to have a more organic ethos; but the branding of self to self, witnessed in the eagerness with which the newly admitted students buy their first college T-shirt, makes an absurdity out of the lonesomeness of the student who in February has still not met the ideal friend he saw in the promotional videos, or his privately envisioned perfect first love. College is, can be, one of the great shelters of the psyche, four years circled off around one as a horizon, within which one sits down to figure out what might constitute one’s adult happiness. Or, as the stepping-stone to the world, a microcosm of the world’s most worldly properties, it can also be a macrocosm of despair. As Morgan Guyton, a Methodist campus minister, puts it, “Hell is believing that you have to fill a résumé with accomplishments to justify your existence.”2020xMorgan Guyton, “To Mainline Christian Parents of Rising College Freshmen,” Mercy Not Sacrifice (blog), Patheos, June 16, 2016, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice/2016/06/10/to-mainline- christian-parents-of-rising-college-freshmen/.
One might think that throwing a little hedonism into the mix would help bridge the gap between mind and body; that embodiment by means of bodily pleasures, more or less Dionysian, would do at least something to recall the self to the body. The ghost marooned in the Cosmos takes a little reassurance from the reminder that at any rate he is a sexual being. Binx Bolling of Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer is for a time sufficiently content with the “little way of the warm deep thigh.”2121xWalker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York, NY: Vintage, 1998), 136. First published 1961. Likewise, as the story goes, there is drunk, and there is Walker Percy Drunk: Hedonism has its possibilities, when one brings oneself to take pleasure in it, so long as one is able to fend off its accompanying ennui.
But as Guyton also notes, “The debauchery of college students on our campus is not primarily about seeking pleasure; it’s about drowning anxiety.”2222xGuyton, “To Mainline Christian Parents.” If pleasure after all were less fleeting, then there would be nothing to see here after all. But one really cannot stress enough the current strangeness that constitutes the bodily world in these places. When one drinks to avoid the question of whether there will be pleasure in sex, or when one actually prefers having sex with an unconscious body (Camille Paglia fancies that this remarkable preference for necrophilia is an attempt to avoid the power the body has while awake), or when one finds it relatively easy to abstract the self in the midst of it all, sending the mind somewhere quite different, the better to avoid “catching feelings”—this is not hedonism, but a Cartesian waking nightmare.2323xSee Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2016); the anthropologist Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshmen Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005); and David Daley, “Camille Paglia: How Is Bill Clinton Like Bill Cosby,” Salon, July 28, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/07/28/camille_ paglia_how_bill_clinton_is_like_bill_cosby/.
But it must be asked, is all this Angst merely the side-effect of the comfortable, coddling safety the bourgeoisie enjoy, and the expectation of comfort their children take with them to school? Indeed, one may well ask whether existentialism itself is essentially a bourgeois phenomenon: a trivial set of problems that arise only when all other needs of the suburban soul are safely met. For instance, I have noted a shared desperation on the faces of the more and the less well-off when they realize they’ve simply fallen too far behind in their courses ever to catch up. But it is the suburbanite who knows how to ask for and receive the perfectly reasonable medical withdrawal; the poorer student will quietly and with despair take their failing grade, often simply leaving college altogether.
The truth is, the middle class is one of the best shelters from the exigencies of Being, membership to it being granted, in the Aristotelian sense, as long as you stand anywhere between the stifling temptations of the very rich and the desperate clarity of the very poor. There is nothing essentially middle-class about taking a reckoning with one’s mortality. Indeed, the whole problem is that these heirs to what everyone except themselves would consider wealth, have been shielded from what stands beyond their happy success-narrative, according to which college is merely the brief stepping-stone to “a comfortable life.” There is a special quality to the malaise of the bourgeoisie; not being conscious of despair is precisely their form of despair.2424xSøren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, in The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 358.
To be the offspring of such expectation is rather a heavy price to pay, even for yearly trips to a private beach. Hence the peculiar gravity of their despair, when they receive the first intimation of the possibility of despair’s presence; there’s a reason why suburbia is such a breeding ground for nihilism. But death is not a luxury. A reckoning with one’s end and the end of others is the beginning of human consciousness, not its final stage. Again, Werther-contagions are not limited to the wealthier places. Even a small, not particularly well-funded college, when it makes worldly success the narrative, and makes numbers on a test the measure of the success that will immediately translate itself into $$, inevitably leads some of its students to an existential crisis. The wonder is not that these things happen so frequently, but that they happen as rarely as they do.
A Percy in Every Pocket
Some of what I have recounted is perhaps too grotesque to be believed, just as one is sure the grotesquerie of a Flannery O’Connor story could never exist—except that it exists in such crystalline detail. As the suicide in Dante says, “If I had known you were to return to the land of the living, I would never have told you what I knew.” When one has been a shade in the land of the living, or the living Odysseus in a hell of shadows, what one sees is, in a real sense, unspeakable. And yet it’s only in the acknowledgment that the world is on the brink that real relief is found.
Far down on the list of best practices for preventing suicides on campus is the recommendation that high windows be closed off, that access to rooftops be limited. An “environmental scan” is prescribed, to take the means away, to hide the problem.2525xJED Foundation Campus Program, “The Framework for Success,” 2016, http://www.thecampusprogram. org/framework-for-success. There is nothing trivial in this desire to do every last little thing, to lock up the poison, to wrest away the opiates. And yet there is something lovely about the image of Cornell University’s gorges, before the raising of fences and nets. The problem announces itself right away—to be or not to be—in the shape of stone and space, the anti-cathedral. On the one hand, you have the death-in-life of despair that does not even known itself as despair; on the other hand, you have the honesty about what you are, a being who was from the very beginning uncomfortable with its own existence.2626xJulie Lythcott-Haims speaks of “the brilliant, accomplished students who ‘would sit on my couch holding their fragile, brittle parts together, resigned to the fact that this outwardly successful situation was their miserable life” (quoted in Scelfo, “Suicide on Campus”).
To this honesty there is a moral seriousness. Percy writes: “Notice that as soon as suicide is taken as a serious alternative, a curious thing happens. To be or not to be becomes a true choice, where before you were stuck with to be. Your only choice was how to be less painfully.”2727xWalker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos, 77. In this moment, for the first time, there is the possibility of complete reversal, the sort of thing Robert Pinsky is trying to get at when he remarks that for Dante, the only way out of his own hellish depression is walking to the center of the earth to Hell and discovering there the sudden tipping-over reversal of gravity, where the only way up out of Hell is climbing down, then up past Satan’s balls.2828xJan Breslauer, “Pinsky Relates ‘Inferno’ for the Common Man, Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1998, http://articles.latimes.com/1998/dec/07/entertainment/ca-51400.
“You can elect suicide, but you decide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the door to the cell is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive.”2929xWalker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos, 77–78. What Percy describes is not so much catharsis as a radical rearrangement of the world, the sudden presence of the horizon of death, which reminds one there are, after all, the days between now and then. One becomes free to notice the existence of other things, rather than remain stuck inside one’s head, busily ignoring one’s existence. Percy notes that the building you haven’t noticed for fifteen years is suddenly visible again; Dante looks up and sees the stars. While “the non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care,” caught between recollection of past sorrow and anxiety for the future, the ex-suicide laughs: “Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.”3030xIbid., 79.
Again, in a real sense, this is terrible advice. But at times something other than advice is needed. Suicide is not something you pick up like a venereal disease. The more death is hidden away, the more the temptation grows to find it for one’s self, to seek it more inventively, more thoroughly. In the absence of words about death, death itself becomes more honest than silence. Now, it would be a mistake to trivialize the great suffering of some, by generalizing a singular phenomenon into a universal one, where we’re all just a little bit depressed. But the sickness unto death is real: The only problem is that suicide doesn’t solve the problem of life. It merely helps us to see it. We can’t afford to rope off the rest of the suffering as the goats of the world, flawed in some fundamental way that separates them from us the living. None of us are going to make it out of this world alive. Death is a human problem, and those who find themselves seeking it for themselves are like the vivid echo of ourselves at the hour of our own death. But if we can face the reality of our own future death as the horizon of this life, then it becomes possible for the sufferers to once more have a voice within the human community, and not remain the madmen who unaccountably step out of it.
Existentialism is often seen as a lightweight sort of popular philosophizing, according to which black clothing and a few berets will put us right back on our feet again. And it possesses the more troubling temptation, at best adolescent, at worst solipsistic, that one will ruminate on one’s own self and self-hood to the point of sententious, self-indulgent madness.
But one of the most loveable things about Walker Percy is his nose for merde; he operates in the true seriousness of the seriously funny, the playful seriousness that Plato marks out as the necessary spirit of any really thoughtful activity. It’s this quality most of all that makes Percy’s writings such good medicine, because he is more successful than most in finding the humor in our deathly plight. It’s is one of the best weapons we’ve got to free ourselves from le main mort of Descartes: Only when we take death seriously do we notice that, after all, even death itself is funny, one may even say absurd, compared to what we reluctant mortals conceive of as under our power. Percy offers “The Depressed Self” not as official best practice but as the gallows humor peculiarly necessary to the souls who, despite the upbeat advice, find themselves nevertheless at death’s door.
Preventing suicide does not come down to a handful of quantifiable variables. It requires an honest reckoning with questions of place, coherent scale, horizon, and self, questions that come alive when we start to ask them, and when we make a place where young people on the brink of adulthood have the space and the time to notice that these are even questions for themselves in particular.
Most of all, college students are human beings who require the mediation of real, human-scale community—the one thing that most academic communities, absurdly, fail to notice amid their attempts to manufacture new little communities within an institution they insist must become larger to sustain itself. The madness of the American college’s unholy marriage of for-profit career-mongering beneath the façade of book-learning is not something we can afford to allow to go gently into the night. How many deaths will it take, do you suppose, before we stop pinning them on the health of a few, and directly address the structural madness of the academic community itself?3131xMartha Cabot, a student present for the Palo Alto suicides, made a video aimed at parents in which she notes that the amount of academic pressure put on students is “completely ridiculous.” See Rosin, “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” As long as we treat an existential problem of both place and self as something that can be solved by more time at the gym for the sufferer or treated with more or less legal drugs, we have utterly failed the souls of the children who looked to us for grander things. Children are saying that death is a better option than the kind of life we’ve given them. This is the moment not to hide death from them so they can continue to participate in the world’s insanity, but to investigate why they say the life they lead is so death-defyingly awful.
Let us allow our crisis to know itself for what it is: a crisis of being, not merely the secondary one of public health. In our pressure cooker of health, the proper end of which is not just an impossible worldly perfection we call success, but even, the Singularity permitting, physical immortality, one’s ill-health becomes a sin to be confessed and redeemed by whatever means necessary.
What would we do, Kierkegaard writes as Johannes de Silentio, if there were no eternal consciousness in man, if we were doomed to wander the earth like wind blowing through the desert, without even the ghost of something more than unfathomable emptiness?3232xSøren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 15. What are we left with, when witnessing the continual failure of the adage “He who works receives bread,” (one hopes it is clear enough that this is not the world we inhabit), if we have no image of the world of Geist, where there was bread enough for all? Binx Bolling of The Moviegoer speaks of the Search: what everyone would undertake if they were not sunk in the everydayness of life. He refuses to speak of what the search is for. But as he searches, the reader feels the tug, catches the scent of what might be beyond all this.
In a pressing sense, I do not know what the world would look like if a copy of The Moviegoer rested in every pocket, or if Lost in the Cosmos replaced Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy as true philosophical wisdom. But to pretend that a collection of little treats, self-care, and “Massage Mondays” can effectively take the mind off itself is criminal. You can’t treat yourself out of the modern anxiety of placelessness. True care and concern for self, which begins with knowledge of the self and of what lies beyond it, are not achievable merely through the distractions of “self-care.” Therapy should not be the first place you start to ask yourself who you are. The suggestion is absurd. It ought to be funny. If we can let ourselves be schooled by Walker Percy’s willingness to call out merde for what it is, we can allow ourselves the therapeutic, cosmos-inverting laugh.