In this essay I want to discuss suicide from within a Heideggerian perspective as a form of freedom. In doing so I will be making the distinction between suicide-as-event and suicidality-as-possibility. To deepen the discussion I will be drawing on Stoic accounts of possibility and fate, situating suicidality in terms of Baudrillardian seduction, theories of sublimation and briefly connecting the discussion to contemporary psychotherapeutic practice. I intend to open a discussion on the place of suicide and suicidality after the post-nihilist turn and to recognise in it not only the moment of despair but also a path toward the sense of liberation and opening of possibility that a catastrophia inflected post-nihilist praxis sees as the pre-requisite for living after nihilism.
‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide’ (Camus 2005, p.1): this is how Albert Camus opens his book The myth of Sisyphus. It is a book that forms Camus’s elaboration of his ideas on the Absurd, ideas that have a more readily accessible form in his novels such as The outsider and The fall. At the outset of The myth of Sisyphus Camus is setting up the question of whether we should live or die as the paramount philosophical problem. In this way of thinking about suicide, it is presented to us as a question, a provocation and, at the same time, as an accusation. The question is: what is the status of suicide, and what is the status of life? Camus is quick to state that to treat this question as a purely social phenomenon in the manner that Durkheim did, and that Franco Berardi does today, is to evade the centrality of the question. It is to flee from the intimate proximity of the suicidal person to themselves and to the terrain of their life. As Camus puts it
An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. (2005, p.3).
Within the silence of the heart the suicidal act is locked into Beckettian profounds of mind; the urge to kill one self lurks subterraneous and mute, being prepared but without communicating to the one who prepares it. This is a work, ‘like a great work of art’, that writhes beneath the everyday consciousness in ferocious activity; working itself out, but unknown to the one who will put the gun to their head or tip the pills from their crumpling plastic cup. This is almost like the kind of process that Charles Bukowski somewhere speaks of in the ideal experience of writing poetry: you should not write unless the poem surges from your mind onto the paper, a torrent lashing from the fractured sky. And just like the great work of art there is a sense of culmination, of destiny fulfilled, of the work coming to fruition, as if all preceding acts were merely rough sketches, vague gestures, and preliminary experiments in style. Prepared in the silence of the heart, it is as if Camus thinks of suicide as a great love or a great sadness that can finally confess itself to a world that it spurns, as if suicide were its mode of intimacy with that world, like the cruelty of a rejected lover. As a great work of art suicide may be the smallest act in a vast and cold universe devoid of final salvations or consolation, but it is sublime nonetheless and even perhaps because of it.
Rarely is suicide committed (yet the hypothesis is not excluded) through reflection (2005, p.3).
While he writes movingly about the topic, Camus’s notions of the process leading to suicide miss something obvious and vital: the suicidal person often comes to suicide through reflection, and often this is an obsessive reflectivity in which the temptation to kill oneself dominates the waking hours. In mental health work, we speak of active suicidality and transient suicidality. In the former case, we mean that someone is thinking about killing themselves most of the time; in the latter case, we are referring to thoughts of suicide that come and go. We ask about and delineate intensities of suicidality so that she is more at risk than he is. We ask about plans. If a person can give a detailed account (usually in response to questioning) about how they intend to kill themselves then we would usually consider them to be high risk, especially if they have acted on any of this planning; many people stock pile the pills they will swallow for months, while others, enjoying a new found serenity following their decision, will take time to “set their affairs in order”. Quite against Camus suicidal people often spend a great deal of time reflecting on suicide, often in banal detail. It is also often the case that the suicidal person will give hints or openly talk about suicide to significant people in their life. The romantic-existential image of the impulsive suicidal is not the norm, although it obviously does occur. While we can reflect on Camus’s error, we can still appreciate the intuition he has of the depths of suicidality.
If Camus’s desire was to draw a more critical and public reason to suicide then he succeeded in a way campaigners often fail. His was an attempt to raise the issue above the silence that it typically receives in society and in general discourse. As a provocation, Camus is provoking the philosophers but also the more general reader. He is saying to this general reader: “your suicide is an important problem; it is the problem of whether you should live or die and the fact that the resolution to that question of the relative values of life and death, being and not being, existence and inexistence is in your hands. It is you and you alone who have the potency and the power to freely end your own life and to answer the question”. As an accusation, Camus is repositioning the question of suicide as an assault. He seems really to be asking: “why is it that you have not killed yourself; why is it that you have no recognised the absurdity of existence?” For Camus everyone is capable for being struck by a realisation of the senselessness of existence. Indeed
At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. It happens that the stage sets collapse (Camus 2005, p.9).
This foreshadows JG Ballard’s observation about this street corner based on his time in the Lunghua internment camp as a child:
I realised that what we think of as conventional reality – this quiet suburban street, for instance – is just a stage set that can be swept away (2006).
In each of these examples there is a feeling of a sudden revelation of the contingency, the senselessness, the meaninglessness, the lack of a coherent reason or teleological purpose for our lives. I have a friend that I went to high school with. We were in an information technology class when I noticed that his shoe laces were untied. When I asked him why he didn’t tie them up he replied that it was pointless to tie them only to untie them again. We live in a universe that science continually tells us is devoid of any ultimate meaning or worth. From evolutionary biology and Darwin’s nihilistic idea to the looming threat of ecological collapse and extinction, we are left in no uncertainty as to our lives being nothing more than that quiet suburban street that has been swept away in knowledge, a knowledge that outpaces the practical sweeping away that is to come. There is a way in which what Camus is doing with the question of suicide is hitting us over the head, albeit poetically.
I want to suggest that this is an interesting position and an interesting spear to throw at us because of the way that these ideas can be received from within a Heideggerian receptivity. Obviously, in Heidegger’s Being and time being-towards-death is one of the most fundamental aspects of Dasein’s being. In a very brief gloss, we can summarise that death is my ownmost possibility, a possibility that cannot be shared in by or with others, and that, as the fundamental limit of my existence, cannot be ‘outstripped’. Neither the material fact of death, the biological cessation of the organism that Heidegger terms as mere “perishing”, nor the deeper ontological sense of death as possibility can be directly experienced. There is a sense that in Heidegger’s hands death is to be understood as the possibility for death as an always impending death which is immanent to my body. If death can be personified as Death then this is a grim reaper which I myself am; my death is always already with me, in the language of phenomenology. I will go on to discuss a Heideggerian inspired way of thinking about thinking about death below. First, I want to consider suicide from the pragmatic orientation of mental health nursing.
Suicide is a problem in mental health nursing. As a mental health nurse I face the problem of suicide as a practical problem. Insofar as the work of a mental health nurse does not allow metaphysical or existential pondering to get very well developed in the working day, it is common to find the possibility of death reduced to a more material fact: the suicidal patient must be prevented from killing themselves. There are a number of techniques for this including the use of psychotechnology in the form of psychopharmacological treatments, cognitive technologies aiming at trying to correct or challenge aberrant thinking, and the more restrictive admission option. In this last instance the suicidal person can be admitted to a psychiatric hospital and placed on the highest level of observation such that their movement around the ward is restricted, and so that they must always be accompanied by nursing staff. In many cases, this really is taken to the highest level possible, with the patient not being allowed any further away than arms length from the observing staff. The entire culture of suicide risk-assessment reduces the opening of the awareness of death and the encounter with the field of personal meaning that this is an opening onto is deferred: death is reduced to a fact, to an actuality, to an event to be addressed, to be assessed, to be postponed and negotiated with, as if it could be escaped. What is the suicidal person doing in all this? Aside from their psychological motivations, which I do not want to suggest are unimportant or insignificant, but from an ontological perspective what is going on?
From a Heideggerian perspective death is my ownmost possibility. I would suggest that the suicidal person is trying to grasp that possibility through the thought of suicide. The thought of suicide, what gets called suicidality, at least my own death is constantly offers itself as a provocation, a temptation and a seduction; it is an escape, a transcendence, a way of getting out of the overwhelming murk and despair, hopelessness and impotence of a meaninglessly suffering finite existence. I stand at the traffic light and wait for the signal to walk to go green. I stand at the traffic light and the thought percolate about how pointless it seems and how without purpose it is; I haven’t found that job and things are going to get worse at home; she has left me for a better life; he has died and left me alone; the bills are mounting; the business has failed; God is dead and I could so easily be as well. Standing at the traffic lights the thoughts distil to that one haunting thought that tortured or cruelly soothed: you could jump into the traffic. I’m not saying that this moment is the one where my possibilities through themselves open and stand before me. It’s not that one steps from fear of death into being-towards-death so lightly and so casually. Suffering does not immediately equate to dignity, as we all of us know.
None of this is to say that each and every instance of suicide or suicidality is the outcome or the means of an ontological engagement with death, but we should remember that such engagement with death is, for Heidegger, always an existential and affective relationship with my own death that hits right at the core of my being. Even if it is not silent, suicide is nonetheless a work of the heart. The relationship to death is the one that sets us on edge, sets us on the edge of an absolute edge. The point is that the person in suicidality is exactly the person who ceaselessly exposing themselves to the possibility of their own death. The person experiencing and undergoing suicidality constantly exposes herself not only to the possibility of her own death, but also to the seduction of the possibility of her own death. Let’s remember that in Baudrillard’s treatment seduction is not a question of sexuality but is fundamentally about being inexplicably drawn to something that we can never quite grasp. We are told that
‘Seduction removes something from the order of the visible, while production constructs everything in full view’ (Baudrillard 1991, p.34).
Here, Baudrillard places production and seduction not as a conjoined pair in sexuality (reproduction and desire) but in the terms of appearance and disappearance that are so crucial to his entire oeuvre. Baudrillard speaks of seduction casting a shadow that is ‘a spiral of the reversibility of all signs in the shadow of the shadow of death and seduction’ (Baudrillard 1988, p.79). Death and seduction do not coincide but they nonetheless cast a singular shadow; and what is a shadow if it is not a kind of absent presence, the registering of something that has been made to disappear from the visual field but which nonetheless perturbs it. If in suicidality we are seduced by the possibility of our death then what is being made to disappear other than life? Except that for Baudrillard we are always semiological organisms and so it is the registration of life in the semiosphere that is made to disappear. Suicidality is thus an experience in which nothing is constructed but in which something is rendered invisible: the sign of the value of this life. This circular erasure or reversibility which is the play of the appearance and disappearance of the valuelessness of life, or rather of life’s insertion as a sign into a symbolic order that would register it as value-laden or valueless, is what is undergone at the symbolic level of the experience of suicidality. Again, in Seductions Baudrillard (1991) states that in our world
Everything is to be produced, everything is to be legible, everything is to become real, visible, accountable; everything is to be transcribed in relations of force, systems of concepts or measureable energy; everything is to be said, accumulated, and indexed (p.32).
This is the pornographic nature of transparency that Baudrillard scorns; and it is also part of the technological approach of the psychiatric practice of suicide assessment. Nothing can be left unsaid, unaccounted for; there is no depth beneath the surface because the possibility of such a depth is obliterated by the enforced realisation of the suicidal person as the suicidal subject of psychiatry. There is a possibility that part of the psychiatric motivation to save the suicide and for the general taboo and awkwardness surrounding suicide comes from our desire to maintain the efficacy of an anchoring system of meanings that we have produced: those undergoing suicidality effectively extend the circularity of seduction to the social field as a whole, exposing the weakness in the foundations of our valorisation of life.
That seduction is at a distance from desire becomes obvious in the case of suicidality. Can we really speak of the suicidal person having a desire to kill themselves, or a desire to die? We might in some cases but not in all: the depressive perspective, for instance, is marked by an absence of desire, and many people experience their thoughts about suicide as intrusive and distressing. While we might think of this as the radical impersonality of desire, I simply don’t think it makes much sense to say that such people have a desire for suicide. Instead, they are seduced by it.
According to Simon Critchley (2004) in Very little almost nothing:
‘in the face of a Godless world individual authenticity produces itself through acts of self-invention and self-creation where death becomes my work and suicide becomes the ultimate possibility’ (p.30).
Here we can begin to fully appreciate the ambiguity or bivalence in how the person undergoing suicidality responds to or is exposed to death. On the one hand, death is taken up as a possibility that is constantly there, constantly with them, almost as if death itself were whispering in their ear “rush ahead and meet me, I am your solution, your apotheosis: I am here”. On the other hand, from a Heideggerian perspective the suicidal person is risking inauthenticity because to commit suicide would be to actualise death, to turn it into a scheduled event, to mark it with a date and method, to render if quotidian and locked in fallenness. Fundamentally, suicide is the instrumentalisation of death as a technical solution to problems with living, to the problem with living. Against certain readings of Heidegger that would see him as finding suicide merely as ‘a possibility to end Dasein’s limited possibilities’ (Kuzmanić, p.3), I think that we would find Heidegger castigating the potential suicide: in the act of committing suicide the individual suicidal Dasein is attempting to be rid of their possibilities, to be rid of themselves as the kind of being that they are. For Heidegger, we could imagine that suicide is to be judged an ontic cop-out of an ontological problem and not the royal road to authenticity. I can’t help but imagine Heidegger as a psychiatric liaison nurse assessing someone who had attempted suicide to discover their current level of risk. In my head, Heidegger might fall into one of those who sneer and judge, their questions usually dispatched in condescending tones: “why did you want to do that for then?” This is of course Camus’s own position: that suicide is a flight from freedom and responsibility.
There is a point to Critchley’s reading of Heidegger though and it can be shown by maintaining the separation that I have operated with throughout this essay: suicidality as the thought of the possibility of self-chosen death as a separate from, though obviously related to, the act of self-killing. It is the fidelity to possibility that is crucial in Heidegger: the being toward as fidelity to the possibility of death. In the face of a Godless world, suicide is the ultimate possibility rather than death. The death which is ownmost would be the death which was own-caused. The pinnacle of my possibilities is my possibility for an ownmost caused death, a death that would be more fully non-relational as brought about by my own hand. It is only the effort of actualising suicidality in the act that would render the Dasein in question as inauthentic.
There is another philosopher who writes on the subject of suicide. EM Cioran has spent a lot of ink writing about the subject and, unlike most of the philosophers, he manages to do so with a dark humour, a caustic smile. Cioran was a Romanian philosopher who lived in a self-imposed exile in France (for Cioran it wasn’t France in which he dwelled, but the French language). A pessimist, Cioran is often assimilated into the existentialist tradition in the same way that Camus was but, just as did the latter, renounced that interpolation. Among the things that Cioran says of suicide is just such a piece of black humour that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Woody Allen movie:
it is not worth the bother of killing yourself since you always kill yourself too late (Cioran 1973).
The joke is, of course, that suicide is a response to the suffering of being alive, of being a life, and to the inability to cope, the inability to go on, to shoulder the burden of living. Suicide might also be a response to the inability to bear death in the tragic-heroic way that Heidegger thinks we ought to. Killing oneself is meant to be a solution to such problems but it fails to be a solution because once one is capable of killing oneself you have already suffered: Nothing is solved, nothing is redeemed. There is a caustic note in the joke that suicide is stupid, that it is an ultimate imbecility, and it is certain that a lot of people have just this response to suicide.
But Cioran (1973) also says that ‘a book is a suicide postponed’. This calls to mind Freudian ideas of sublimation. For Freud, sublimation is a displacement of libido that allows us to act on or to otherwise perform ideas that we or those around us would find unacceptable. Freud (2013) discusses sublimation as
‘the power [of the sexual urge] to replace its immediate aim by other aims which may be valued more and which are not sexual’ (p.25).
Instead of fucking, I am writing this essay; instead of fucking, Leonardo painted; instead of…well, you get the picture (but only because you’re not fucking). So in Cioran we get the image of the seduction of suicide being channelled into the writing of a book; instead of killing himself, Cioran wrote (perhaps this accusation can be made of more philosopher’s than just the Gnostic Romanian). The writing of a book of philosophy thus reinserts appearance against the seductive moment of disappearance of the value of life. Yet, this sublimation is only a postponing. Such a non-technical, meditative approach can only ward of suicide, for Cioran, for as long as it disciplines suicidality and provides a way of making it real, legible, accountable. As such, the book as sublimatory fixation is a way of putting off death as an event, whilst allowing us to dwell on the subject by writing about it (in this way, we might also think that self-harm- typically, although erroneously, regarded as a “para-suicidal behaviour”- is the making visible of invisible pain, making it communicable and allowing the possibility of choosing to withhold communication). This Freudian reading of Cioran’s phrase isn’t the only one open to us.
Fellow pessimist, Peter Wessel Zapffe, also writes about sublimation and groups it among his four fundamental styles of coping-with being alive. As Zapffe (2004) defines sublimation as
a matter of transformation rather than repression. Through stylistic or artistic gifts can the very pain of living at times be converted into valuable experiences. Positive impulses engage the evil and put it to their own ends, fastening onto its pictorial, dramatic, heroic, lyric or even comic aspects.
This is obviously very close to Freud’s understanding of sublimation insofar as it involves transformation rather than repression. Yet for Zapffe the self-protective feature of sublimation has nothing to do with sexuality or desire (or at least not these alone) but is an adaptive response to what he calls ‘life-panic’. This panic is equal to those times when we enter dark nights of the soul from which we think we will never emerge: they are those periods when we feel death upon us and know the meaninglessness and unendurability of the suffering of being alive; the night of lived nihilism. Zapffe’s account of sublimation has it that the negative, destructive, and painful aspects of conscious existence are taken up by “positive impulses” which render meaningless suffering as something meaningful. To rephrase Freud then, in sublimation the power of our consciousness of suffering is replaced in its immediate aim by other aims which may be valued more and which are not focussed on feeling that suffering. In this way, Cioran’s writing about suicide is an obvious method for turning the seduction of suicide into a meaning. Perhaps meaning is too strong a word here; perhaps we would prefer delusion or obsession. Our doubts become the very grounds of our conviction. This isn’t a very optimistic picture, it is one much more in step with the soothing function that Schopenhauer attributes to art.
This bleak hope without optimism might be all for the better. As Cioran (1952) notes:
Only optimists commit suicide, optimists who no longer succeed at being optimists; the others, having no reason to live, why would they have any to die? (p.87)
Suicide doesn’t present itself as linked with any impossibility in this assertion, but the act of committing suicide is only open to the optimist. Optimism and pessimism are usually thought of as psychological terms: the optimist looks on the bright side; the pessimist is the person who is grim, dour, miserablist. The psychologisation of optimism and pessimism do those categories an injustice as it evades the question of philosophical optimism and philosophical pessimism. We can define philosophical optimists in the same manner that Thomas Ligotti (2010) does in Conspiracy against the human race: they are those who think that it is alright being alive. Conversely, the philosophical pessimists are those who think that it is not alright being alive. When Mitchell Heisman killed himself in 2010, he left behind a 1905 page suicide note that in reality is massive text on nihilism that argues that his suicide should be seen as an “experiment”. Heisman (2010) opens a section entitled ‘Open your mind to death’ by declaring that
There is a very popular opinion that choosing life is inherently superior to choosing death. This belief that life is inherently preferable to death is one of the most widespread superstitions. This bias constitutes one of the most obstinate mythologies of the human species. This prejudice against death, however, is a kind of xenophobia. Discrimination against death is simply assumed good and right. Absolutist faith in life is commonly a result of the unthinking conviction that existence or survival, along with an irrational fear of death, is “good”. This unreasoned conviction in the rightness of life over death is like a god or a mass delusion. Life is the “noble lie”; the common secular religion of the West (p.22).
Heisman goes on to say a lot about a lot of subjects: some of it interesting, and some of it deeply problematic. Towards the end of the text Heisman states that
Because fear of violent death is the political premise underlying modernity [liberalism], only by overcoming this fear can one gain perspective over modernity.
It is modernity that Heisman tells us his death is an attempt to overcome experimentally. For him, the Holocaust and the Gulag can be explained in terms of the xenophobic attitude to death. This xenophobia is what Freud termed thanatophobia, but for Freud this fear of death was really a symptom for other unconscious sources of suffering. In Freud’s (1918) view, each one of us is really ‘convinced of his own immortality’ (2-3) because in imagining our deaths we survive ourselves as spectators to that death and to a world of loved ones we leave behind. Freud’s view was profoundly challenged by Ernest Becker’s The denial of death (1973), a book that sets out the profound and debilitating effect that an awareness of our own deaths can have. For Becker (1973)
the fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed towards self-preservation. But the fear of death cannot be present constantly in one’s mental functioning, else the organism could not function (p.16).
The fear of death is thus universal, but it is only in modernity that it comes to be the organisational principle of society. Becker’s ideas about death anxiety have been picked up by Terror Management Theory, a social psychology discipline that so far has well over 300 empirical studies validating Becker’s initial hypothesis. Evolutionary biologists have criticised the emphasis on death arguing stating that all threats are equally profound motivation forces for the organism, not just death. We can affirm both sides of this argument insofar as all threats point to our creaturely vulnerabilities, and that all such vulnerabilities eventually point to the ontological vulnerability of death. Here, we might reflect that suicide is can be seen as an attempt to master vulnerability, a paradoxical pursuit of invulnerability that makes death a matter of decision rather than fate. Suicide has the scent of a kind of ruined sovereignty, the last act of a king who would sooner destroy the kingdom than see it overrun.
There are pessimistic ideas, there is no way to avoid it. If life is sacred it is so because beneath its sanctity is a terror. Theories of the sacred often point out that the function of the sacred is to sanctify: thus, if “life” is sacred then every individual life must also be so. This is the religiosity or delusional structure at work in the Western world that Heisman wanted to destroy in the spirit of seriousness (and probable psychopathology).
So, if it is the case that suicide is only possible for optimists who fail at being optimists then that failure, that coming undone beneath the weight of optimism, what is revealed to them is the world of suffering, despair, horror and tragedy. The optimist comes to see the world through the pessimist’s eyes and blinks. That pessimist is the one without illusion, the one who says that “being alive is not alright, is not normal, and has no more value than a discarded match”. For the pessimist the world is already a horrible place and so there is no shock in such a revelation. They are ‘those others’ that lacking a reason to live have no reason to die. They have no reason to live simply because there is no reason to live. The pessimist may have plenty of motivation, daily purpose and desire to live, but it knows that there is no final reason, no teleology, no ultimate meaning behind or within its existence. The pessimist is like a Gnostic theologian who sees in suffering not the work of evil or of some demonic demiurge but only incompetence. When the optimist is shown the meaninglessness of the cosmos their ‘assumptive world’ shatters and their guiding delusions fail: there are no coordinates by which to live. As we have seen, suicide is one possible response to this breakdown in the order of meanings.
There is another dimension to this problem, also illustrated by Cioran’s (1952) grim humour:
I live only because it is in my power to die when I choose to: without the idea of suicide I would have killed myself right away (p.69).
This echoes the joke that it is too late to kill oneself; if you are going to kill yourself do it right away, but this is impossibility: how could a neonate kill herself? For Cioran it is not suicide itself that presents itself as freedom or as a means to keep going because in the idea of suicide we are emphasising suicide as a possibility, not an act. This thought of suicide is akin to that we encountered in Critchley insofar as it echoes an Heideggerian understanding of possibility. For Heidegger possibility is a specific kind of possibility. It is not the possibility of modal logic (if S then P) and it is not the possibility of probabilities and likelihoods of events transpiring or failing to transpire, of actualities being or not being, but it is possibility as capabilities or capacities: possibilities are things that this or that Dasein can do. In this respect, they are ownmost: they are my possibilities. Therefore my suicide, the possibility of my suicide, is ownmost. As suicide is death at my own hands, there is a sense in which we have to consider it as on a par with Heidegger’s treatment of death. This is the sense in which suicide is the thought of suicide is the active appropriation of the possibility of my own death: it is an active affirmation of the possibility of death. This thought is one that would seem to exceed mere being-towards-death by accentuating the ownmost of my ownmost.
Only because of the thought of suicide, claims Cioran, can he go on. This is a man who suffered from extreme insomnia and terrible bouts of depression, a man who lived with such shame because of his youthful identification with fascism (via Romania’s Iron Guard) that he left his home nation and abandoned his native language. For Cioran it is a language that is Heimlich and so we can see in his self-imposed double exile a man who fled from himself, even abandoning his name so that “Emile” became “EM” Cioran. The production of this subjective discontinuity was the act of tearing a rift. Beyond exile, this was itself a kind of symbolic suicide. This man could only go on because of the thought of suicide: not the doing, not the act, but the thought.
Possibility and fate
A moment ago I wrote that possibility is capacity and capability. It is what a Dasein and, to move beyond Heidegger’s forgetfulness of corporeality, it is what a body can do. What can a body do? The answer to this question must always be determined. There are things that evolution forbids my body from doing (seeing in the full colour spectrum; reproduction through mitosis), things that physics prevents my body from doing (walking through walls; flight), things my enculturation forbid my body from doing (speaking Ancient Greek; thinking atemporally), and there are things my own life history forbids me from doing (getting a job as an astronaut or a tapdancer; performing neurosurgery on a horse). We are all familiar with the facts of facticity. Here, possibility is a being able to that all these factical determinations leave untouched or which they generate; in my own case, I have trained as a nurse and nothing prevents me from striving to be a nurse-specialist or, more extremely, from deciding to try to become a full time writer instead. Possibility in a corporeal sense really refers to the possibility of a body being able to “…”, where the ellipse stands in for some specificity that is open to this body. To further illustrate the point, I want to tell the story of two children. Bear with me; this is my first thought experiment.
There are two children. One child is born in New York City the other child is born in Dundee. It is possible that these two children could live very similar lives. If they were to do very similar things with their lives we might be tempted to group them together as very similar people- they may have similar forms of life. To flesh our story out let’s say that they are both in good health throughout their lives, that they are both lucky enough to be born into affluent families, that they both have above average intelligence, are both successful at work, attractive and photogenic men…and all other things are equal. Both of these children could become Mayor of New York: there is nothing in their genetic or psychodevelopmental background that prevents it, and neither of them are law breakers. If we sidestep a moment, we can see that it is not possible for both of these men to become President of the United States: one of them is an American citizen and the other is a British (or perhaps Scottish) citizen. It is the American juridical system, its Constitution, that determines that the New Yorker can become the American President but that the Dundonian can’t and never could- short of incredible legislative amendments. Even had he been adopted by the parents of the New Yorker and lived an almost identical life to the latter, it would still be impossible for our Dundonian to become the leader of the freeworld. The possibility of presidency is structurally foreclosed to the Dundonian.
This is not the possibility that the Stoic Chryssipus defined when he spoke of it with the example of a log of wood: it is possible for a log of wood to burn, unless it is at the bottom of the sea. This accord with the idea of possibility as the capacity or capability of a body: burning is a capacity of the body of this log- perhaps of all logs. In this example the body-log is capable of burning. When the log is submerged under water, resting at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by Cucumbers, Spongers, Bloodbelly Comb Jellies and other weird life, the log will not burn. If someone asked us if it were possible for the log to burn at these dark depth we would probably say that no, it isn’t. Yet the capacity for burning has not disappeared or withdrawn from the stage of the real. What has changed is not the possibility of the log but rather its environmental setting has profoundly changed to when it was on dry land (on the forest floor, the timber yard, the garden centre, whatever) and with it so to the embedded situatedness as part of an ecological network of bodies has also changed. Nothing about the material constitution of the log has profoundly changed- its fundamental physical structure hasn’t altered. Of course it’s obvious that wet wood won’t burn, but what is less obvious is that we are right about the log’ possibility disappearing. We already stated that this didn’t happen but we stated that from the position of the log but accounting for its transcorporeality across the flesh of its ecological relations, we can say that the capacity of the log to burn has been rendered as an incapacity. The necessary and sufficient ensemble of conditions that allows the possibility of burning to be aroused into actuality- to being catalysed from possibility to event- are absent at the bottom of the ocean. It becomes clear that the possibility of burning may belong to the log but that this possibility is foreclosed or encouraged through a process of distributed actualisation or co-happening.
The same is true for the Dundonian. He is an onto-specific body in an onto-specific situation. It may well be a possibility that our Dundonian could have become a brilliant leader, ushering in an era of equality and material abundance but it was not possible for him to do so in America, at least not as the President. This possibility was blocked by current and historical juridical realities, institutions, attitudes, by an onto-cartographic map so expansive that it would occupy more territories than it does trace the discreet carving up of their regions. Like the log at the bottom of the ocean that cannot be made to burn, the Dundee born boy lacks the catalytic network to actualise this possibility: it is not his possibility to actualise because he is excluded from the distributed ecology of the possible. In other words, despite all appearances the possibility of becoming President of the United States does not belong to the Dundonian: he is incapable, lacks the capacity, is, in a sense, dysabled.
On the other hands, death can’t be taken from us. There is no existing situation in which we could be removed from the ecology that makes our death not simply possible but- viewed “inauthentically”- inevitable. The same can’t be said for the political office of President, which is a contingency much more pliable than the kingdom of death. In Heidegger being born into and so being subject to the contingent political histories of a national and a political body falls under the historicity of facticity, a term that expresses the condition of being a historical being. Facticity is thus a being born or thrown into by accident. We are thrown, without having chosen, into the facticity of the situation in which we are embedded. There is another, older, word for this condition, and that is fate.
Fate was a crucial concept to Stoic cosmology, psychology and ethics. For Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, fate is that which happens, that which has happened, over which we have no control. There is no point in complaining about fate/facticity/what happens because it happens. Despite all our theories, we can’t go back into history to change it in actuality: there is no way to make submerged logs burn. What happens happens, and throughout our lives things will continue to happen. Everybody knows the agony, in a banal example, of saying the wrong thing; that as soon as the words escape your lips, in that tone, with that accenting, at the same time the body becomes a huge organic cringe drenched in guilt, regret, embarrassment, shame. We can go home and wrestle with the said but we can never make it return to a saying, a pre-saying, just as we can wrestle with the events of history but we can’t make them un-happened, pre-happened in anything but our imaginations. We have these historical debates all the time: should President/Prime Minister X apologise for slavery? Such an apology would not expunge slavery as institution and historical reality from the record or the still live racism that ethnic minorities continue to experience today. Whatever else it may achieve, it will not enact a revision in laid tracks of fate.
In Cicero, the late Roman Stoic,
By ‘fate’, I mean what the Greeks call heimarmenê – an ordering and sequence of causes, since it is the connexion of cause to cause which out of itself produces anything. … Consequently nothing has happened which was not going to be, and likewise nothing is going to be of which nature does not contain causes working to bring that very thing about. This makes it intelligible that fate should be, not the ‘fate’ of superstition, but that of physics, an everlasting cause of things – why past things happened, why present things are now happening, and why future things will be.
There is an obviously very strong sense of determinism in this- it is material and corporeal: in the most vulgarly abstract, things do things to things. Cicero is avowedly stating that this is not an idea of fate as pre-determination but is actually a lot closer to Zizek’s idea of retrodetermination: what happened had to happen because it had to happen. The sun cannot unrise; those murdered at the Holocaust cannot be unmurdered (to state the opposite would be to endorse some doctrine of resurrection). So none of this is to say that present manifestations of slavery, such as the sex trade, must happen or had to happen but to say that it is happening, was produced by material infrastructures which continue to be reproduced, even as they might fluctuate and recombine. This isn’t a doctrine then of quietism that dictates pessimistic resignation but simply states that whatever is done was caused. What has happened had to happen, even if it was a horror, even if at the time prior to its or at its happening it could have been prevented or stopped, but now that it has happened, it had to have happened. What you do with what has happened is delimited by what has happened but remain open. Even in this strict ‘ordering and sequence of causes’ we can see that such an openness remains. There is not the now familiar phrase “cause and effect” in what Cicero has said, but instead a sequence of “causes to causes”. In the simplest way of speaking, a cause is that which makes something do something. To cause is thus to have the capacity to act and to be the catalyst of action. As such fate is not simply the list of things that have eternally happened; it is also the general name for that which will be made to happen; not in a pre-determinate manner but in the way of temporal openness and enablement. Fate is what weaves together disparate elements in the mess of corporeal causality; it is the name for what happens when bodies act on bodies.
‘Accept’, says Marcus Aurelius, ‘the things to which fate binds you and love the people with whom fate brings you together’.
I want to briefly linger on the image of weaving and connect it with this idea of binding as I think it is a potent idea. In weaving we have at least two different threads that are interlaced at right angles to each other and so become a fabric. Weaving is an image suffused in our minds with the history of production and generation: from the home-spun fabrics of old women sat reading books, to the great mills such that made parts of Britain industrial centres only to decline and leave them exhausted and struggling to find new forms of significance. Closer to the technique, weaving is always an interweaving and so being woven is also to be interwoven: to be separate but to be with other thread of the fabric. Fate, this weaving, is also that which binds me. I think that Marcus is talking about the things to which I am bound as the things that are inescapable for me as well as those to which I commit myself or am aroused and incited by. In this way it seems like fate is the engine or machine that weaves things so that they are bound together. I want to suggest that this binding, this interdependency, this constitutive vulnerability, is also named under the term of fate in Stoicism.
We seem to have drifted a long way from a discussion on suicide. Recall EM Cioran’s “the thought of suicide is what keeps me alive”, what makes life worth living and so reveals itself as my ultimate possibility. Simon Critchley has stated that such an attitude might be at the heart of why so many artists have killed themselves. If my death is my ownmost possibility- that to which I am bound the tightest- and this possibility is the royal road to access my existential freedom, then suicide is intimately related to freedom. Suicidality may spill over into committing suicide, and other “psychopathologies” and symptoms, such as eating disorders and self-harm, may be seen as para-suicidal behaviours or forms of suicidality that do not centre on the question of the act of self-killing. There may be a sense in which the severely anorexic person and the one who cuts is undergoing a performed embodiment of the idea of death and suicide as one’ ownmost possibility (although I wouldn’t claim this would be necessarily the case or, even if it were, that it was always intentional). This may be why people who self-starve or cut themselves report that their behaviours are ways of coping-with lives that they feel exceed their sense of control.
We can situate this in terms of the discussion of possibility as that which I am capable of against a background of that which I am not capable of (I can do X because I can’t do Y; I can do X because Y happened; etc). Fate can be oppressive because it can remove possibilities and circumstances that I depended on, took for granted, or found happiness in. Fate can reveal to me that my happiness, tracing the lines of history, is dependent upon the oppression or genocide of peoples long ago, or on the rampant exploitation and misery of people still alive but geographically distant and out of sight. Fate can bind me to the suffering of the world and inculcate a full awareness of the nihilism of late capitalism, or even of civilisation itself. I can come to know that I am a self-deluding ape, violent and abhorrent just as much as I am capable of love and nurturing. I can realise that I am a speck in a universe that will someday cool down into oblivion. The philosophical optimist discussed earlier is likely the one who, if she can find no way to bolster her favourite delusions or distract herself will be crushed by fate. This may result in depression, anxiety or any other “pathological” response. Philosophical pessimists will respond with acceptance or, worse than despair, with affirmation (a certain strain of accelerationism comes to mind). Like Atlas, the optimist will shrug and the world will come crushing down upon her: the weight of Meaning, the need for it, will bear down upon her. This is why Camus states the only true philosophical problem is suicide: judging whether or not life is worth living. Facticity and fate constantly undermine us, constantly puncture holes in our Meanings, our Symbolic world, our grand delusions. Our habituated ways of coping-with come apart and our minds are exposed to meaninglessness, our bodies to death. There are a million routes to the experience of nihilism.
The response of suicidality and para-suicidal performativity might be paradoxical and dangerous ways of coping-with–nihilism, misery, lack of control or despair. In cutting, the self-harmer is enacting an intensely intimate experience with their own body and with transcorporeality that I have called sensibility. In sensibility our bodies are able to grasp themselves in their ambiguity as touching-touched and as being the very threshold of such an ontological threshold. Yet in cutting we are also clearly toying with the carnal vulnerability not simply of being touched but of being killed: being exposed to destructive forces that spell our deaths. If the Heideggarian account of being-towards-death can be put into contact with sensibility, as I have argued in the linked article, then para-suicidal behaviours are a kind of auto-sensible carnal relationship to the dying body which is, after all, no less a body of intensity than is the body in orgasm or peak-experience. What the cutting performs on her own body the one in suicidality performs in thought: all inessential possibilities can, if only momentarily, be stripped away and what is my own-most stands forth.
My meanings, my possibilities, are generated by my death, and the attempt to situate oneself in relation to one’s own death is not the sole preserve of people in suicidality. One of the reason I have invoked the Stoics throughout this essay is because they had a kind of thanatological care of the self. Included in Stoic death practices were the advice to constantly remind oneself of one’s own death, to meditate upon it. Seneca constantly states that we should not fall into being engrossed in mindless occupation and pre-shadows Heidegger’s discussion of das Man. Few other schools of philosophy could be said to be as death obsessed as the Stoics, their numbers producing advice on how to prepare for death, exercises on imagining oneself as dead or dying, observing that your family will die (even advising that we kiss our children goodnight as if they would never wake up). In this way, Stoicism, and philosophies like it, was dealing with death-anxiety by instructing us not to flee the thought of our own death but to plunge into it: to cultivate an active suicidality.
If this is so then the idea that suicidality relates to possibility and freedom is one with a long and distinguished philosophical pedigree. The suicidality of the non-philosopher is no less an imaginative leap and exploration, even if it is centred more pragmatically: how will I do it; where will I get the pills from; where should I hide them; when should I take them? And just like the Stoic initiate after her negative visualisations of her corpse rotting in the ground, the person thinking these thoughts will often report at last attaining a strange calm. Indeed, it is well documented that people who go on to complete suicide- who spill over from suicide as possibility to suicide as event- have been happy, uplifted, able to go about their life so that no one might have suspected what was coming.
Contemporary psychotherapeutic approaches like acceptance and commitment therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy. In acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), clients are encouraged to view their suicidality and/or para-suicidal behaviours as ways of coping with distress that is used when other ways of coping-with have apparently failed. From within ACT’s perspective suicide is a final attempt to control or eliminate suffering and as such it is construed as a “problem-solving” behaviour. The point of ACT when dealing with people threatening suicide is not to talk people down or to attempt to teach them that suicide is bad or maladaptive but that there are other ways of coping that they may not have attempted. Intriguingly though, ACT in non-suicidal people is deployed specifically to tolerate distress through gaining in “cognitive flexibility” via techniques of dis-identification (which can involve seeing thoughts as stories, playing with thought like TV screens and so on). Essentially, the thrust of ACT is to allow distressing thoughts to emerge without judgement, observe them, and let them go on their way. In this it is very close to the mindfulness tradition that derives from Buddhist practice; another tradition that has many death meditations and could also be said to seek a cultivate suicidality. In ACT, once some degree of cognitive flexibility is achieved- or often in tandem with such attempts- “values work” is also undertaken. This simply involves listing all the things that a person cares about, from the simplest to the grandest, and dwelling on them. What do you care about?
As such, thinking about death and seeking to relate to one’s own suicidality as a possibility opens the client up to what Heidegger might have called their “authentic possibilities”. We could say that this process is actually pretty common. What are skydivers or other extreme sports participants doing if not playing with their deaths by their own hands? This might just be a non-pathologised form of suicidality. No one would argue that these activities are anything but affirmations of life.
Being alive is a kind of crisis. It is a kind of catastrophe and a yearning for a catastrophe. Cioran says something akin to history being a kind of hatred of time, a sequence of catastrophes. In another sense, life is crisis because it is critical: being alive is a critical position, you can’t not take a stance, you can’t not have a disposition, take up and close off certain possibilities, be vulnerable and open, engaged and pragmatic, and you can’t help but happen, to act and to cause action. This idea that being alive always involves and awareness of material and ontological vulnerability- this is what allows us to be sensible of our interwovenness. It is also what makes us catastrophic. Heidegger would have us bear our catastrophe nobly and heroically. The tragedy in Heidegger is constitutive of our heroism. Yet from the Stoic position, from the position of fate, we see another story: our job isn’t to affirm death heroically, but to accept it modestly. The Stoics are the original thinkers of the eternal return, and for them it was to be a literal return. From the eternal return we get the doctrine of amor fati: the love of fate. How can one love death? Because death is our ultimate fate: our own singular deaths, the species-death of our extinction, the total extinction of heat-death. Our job is not to see death as something to confront and/or overcome whether it be in Heidegger’s angst or through fantasies of the singularity and Houellebecqian dreams of the boredom of cloning: our job is to make friends with death, to love death. How do we love death? We do so by sharing its space, by being close to it, by holding it, nurturing the thought of it, without ever seeking to conquer or become it. Suicidality is not simply a refusal, although it may include that. It may also be that suicidality, the answer to the question of suicide, is a making friends with death: finding a way of living that neither flees from nor deifies death.
The suicidal still live because their death, although an accomplished fact, has not yet occurred. Isn’t this akin to the view that the ecological, industrial, the historical or even cosmological catastrophe has already befallen us? All that remains is the dying dead existing among one another as an interdependent community of dying. Beyond this, pushing it further in the realisation of life as a negative concept (a la Schopenhauer or Thomas Ligotti) we are really a community of interdependent beings on the road to destruction, or disappearance. And this is the key to a post-nihilist praxis: the question is the alleviation of suffering when Meaning has already crumbled and the survivors emerge to build from the ruins. What is it that a collective experience of suicidality might liberate us from and release us to? What new ethic would be produced? What politics? What does it feel like there, in that space before the flames rise too high and the terror beyond the fall?
Ballard, JG. 2006. In interview. Here.
Baudrillard, J. 1988. The ecstasy of communication. New York: Semiotext(e).
Baudrillard, J. 1991. Seduction. London: St. Martin’s Press.
Camus, A. 2005 . The myth of sisyphus. London: Penguin Classics.
Cicero. All quotes taken from here.
Cioran, EM. 1999. . All gall is divided. New York: Gallimard.
Cioran, EM. 2011. . The trouble with being born. New York: Seaver Books.
Critchley, S. 2004. Very little… almost nothing: Death, philosophy, literature. Revised edition. London: Routledge.
Freud, S. 2013 . Leonardo da Vinci. London: Routledge.
Freud, S. 1918. ‘Our attitude to death’. Here.
Kuzmanić, M. Suicide from an exitential-phenomenological perspective [Draft paper]. Here.
Ligotti, T. 2010. The conspiracy against the human race. New York: Hippocampus Press.
Zapffe, PW. 1933. The last Messiah. Here.
Further reading on acceptance and commitment therapy:
Hayes, S.C, Strosahl, K.D., and Wilson, K.G. 2012. Acceptance and commitment therapy: an experiential approach to behavioural change. New York: Guildford Press.
Further reading on dialectical behavioural therapy and suicidality: