“Suicides have a special language. Like carpenters they want to know which tools. They never ask why build.”– Wanting to Die, Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton was an American poet revered for her confessional poetry. Sexton implicates the inner turmoil of the severely suicidal person in her confessional poem, Wanting to Die. She explains how the invocation to want to commit suicide is one particularly hidden and paradoxical to the suicidal or depressed person, a special language. But she rejects the societal rhetoric of perseveration in life and creates a positive rhetoric of suicide. Where suicide is not a life-negating thought but instead as she exemplifies through her use of the rhetoric of suicide. Where suicide is not a life-negating thought but instead as she exemplifies through her use of the metaphorical analogy of carpenters, a constructive life-affirming action of omitting ones suffering by becoming the sole representative of their destruction.
For Sexton, suicide or wanting to die surpasses standard language and the suicidal person may not fully comprehend the essence of why they may feel that way. Most people who do kill themselves do not want to die, but they may not see any other options when dealing with their insurmountable pain. Translating this special language becomes an arduous feat, for doctors, to family members. The position of talking about depression or suicidality becomes an impossibility. Like discussing the world through a bleak visage of greys and everybody else has the full spectrum of the rainbow.
To choose to die is not the issue at hand here, people should have bodily autonomy, and this should extend to our demise. Many Northern European countries have taken this on board. The Benelux nations, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have facilitated the permissibility for medically assisted suicide since 2002. And a documented 100 and 200 psychiatric patients are euthanised annually in Belgium and the Netherlands as of 2019. Canada passed its C-14 bill in 2016, allowing for medical euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. The bill disallowing medically assisted deaths for mental illness has now been overturned in bill C-7 which now extends to allow euthanasia for mental illness. The question for me isn’t who should be allowed to have such a procedure happen, but rather: will Neoliberalism invoke euthanasia to wash its hands of responsibility to the disenfranchised? Where euthanasia was once a treatment for the physical suffering of those with a terminal illness or debilitating chronic pain, with the growing domain of assisted death to mental illness, can we safely normalise such a concept which is meant to dignify death under an incompassionate economic structure?
The critical theorist and philosopher, Mark Fisher wrote extensively about his issues with depression and mental illness. Notably writing that depression may be aligned with the chemical imbalance in our brains but that the body of existing psychotherapy does nothing at diagnosing the issue at a social level. The strife of a depressed person is to take their depression on board as an individual problem of their misaligned brain chemistry. Depression suppression to articulate its special language thus becomes a staple of its horrific ontology. The political and social causes of said depression exist outside of the dominion of your broken brain. One essay that sticks out in Fisher’s oeuvre of writings on social issues and depression is, Good for Nothing, where he pinpoints a large factor of his depression with imposter syndrome, he experienced working in Philosophy academia. He notes that his background of being a working-class individual often left him feeling that he could never fit in. An alien and deletant that didn’t neatly fit into the academic sphere, leaving him feeling useless. He comments that Neoliberalism denotes a message of individual responsibility for our depression but also cradles this idea of cruel optimism where anything is possible due to the free market. He says it best:
“A particularly vicious double bind is imposed on the long-term unemployed in the UK now: a population that has all its life been sent the message that it is good for nothing is simultaneously told that it can do anything it wants to do.” – Good for Nothing, Mark Fisher
Lauren Berlant uses the phrase ‘slow death’ to describe ‘the physical wearing out of a population and the deterioration of people in that population that is nearly a defining condition of their experience and historical existence… in Spaces of Hope [David Harvey], under capitalism sickness is defined as the inability to work.’ Given this can we rightly see that euthanasia will be presented to those wanting to die as a project of compassion or an opportunity to dispose of those seen to inefficiently drain resources? Or under the guise of capitalism with a smile, be presented as an embellished semblance of communal concern hiding the insidious self-serving nature. The problem of euthanasia or assisted suicide is the growing category of what insurmountable debility may be deemed. Many would invoke that this is a slippery slope fallacy but is it better to fix every coming individual and notthe cracked system which manifests such problems? Foucault writes concerning power (the description is highly applicable to psychiatry which he also wrote extensively about):
“The chief function of the disciplinary power is to ‘train’, rather than to select and to levy; or, no doubt, to train in order to levy and select all the more. It does not link forces together in order to reduce them; it seeks to bind them together in such a way as to multiply and use them. Instead of bending all its subjects into a single uniform mass, it separates, analyses, differentiates, carries its procedures of decomposition to the point of necessary and sufficient single units. It ‘trains’ the moving, confused, useless multitudes of bodies and forces into amultiplicity of individual elements – small, separate cells, organic autonomies, genetic identities and continuities, combinatory segments. Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise.” – Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Person, Michel Foucault, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, Vintage Books, 1979), p. 170
Foucault used an illustration of a tree bound to a pole with ropes used to correct the direction in which the tree grows, which is mirrored by the frontispiece of Nicolas Andry’s book on parasitology and orthopaedics, Orthopédie. The visual metaphor for Foucault represented the instillation of power structures and is highly applicable to psychiatry. The tree’s growth isn’t congenitally flawed. Its environment has ushered in the way it grows, the tree takes deviations in its growth where there is plenty of water and where best it can reach the light. Yet, much like ourselves, it has been strapped, restricted and straightened by people who inform us of its existence to affirm its potential as a deformity.
In our time of austerity and neoliberalism, it becomes dubious that the right to assisted death, when the value of our bodies confers so readily to our utility and ability to work, could always be deliberated compassionately. Under neoliberalism, euthanasia may potentially become another market choice. Under a neoliberal scope, the concern isn’t about alleviating physical or mental turmoil but rather a solution to the masses that are ‘sick’ under capitalism where the disposability of the workforce becomes an ever-growing option. And the category of debility no longer stretches to the physical body but an ethereal disarray of mental anguish towards society. Euthanasia may no longer become a viable option for dignified death but rather an antidote to undignified living that many have to endure. If we were truly concerned with compassion, would we not be compassionate about inequality in wages, inequality in housing and social resources? Why should we place the trust of compassion in a society that won’t even cater to letting those who are homeless to be able to sleep on park benches? Sexton talksabout the special language around the discourse of suicidality but for the many who endure mental disorders, the discussion simply doesn’t occur in the first place. We lambast the mentally ill by making their struggle a burden of their own. Chastise those who under capitalism represent debility, then tell them anything is possible and one day we will ask, have they simply just tried killing themselves?
Sexton attributes this constructive idea of suicide and the language it speaks as one of will. Where the initiation of suicide can be a language of dying free of fear of death. She comments on the death of her friend, Ruth Soter:
“I would rather that she had killed herself
(which seems a matter of free will)
than to have died of a heart attack
(which seems a matter of being put
through a terrifying machine).”
The quote parallels Gilles Deleuze, own ideas and suicide. His battle with respiratory ailments from a young age developed into a laborious existence of being unable to commit to simple tasks or his work. He took his life by throwing himself from the window of his apartment. Deleuze’s thought spurred from a rejection of hindered dualistic ontology. And accepted an ontological distinction of the univocity of being, where prevailing social and political structures are all connected by differences of individuals and social structures with differentiating forces. For Deleuze, life is a dynamic metamorphosis of individuated structures and the rigid structures they may oppose or integrate with. In Deleuze and Guattari’s ninth plateau of A Thousand Plateau, they outline modes of individual and social structures they called ‘lines’. These lines are composed of varying ways of the organisation towards social and individual structures. The ‘molar’, the ‘molecular’ and lines of flight. Molar lines were lines that exemplified rigid boundaries that created space for hierarchical structure. Molecular lines are similar but more flexible and interweave segments in a non-hierarchical way. And lines of flight are rapid change, bringing about new change and metamorphosis. Imagine being on a highway, the molar lines are rigid structures, built to get to destination A to B, the general highway roads. The molecular lines, intersections or new smaller roads that get you back and away from the highway. And the lines of flight are beaten-up paths and lead to discoveries. These lines on the social level are moral lines of social institutions. Molecular lines are flexible and varying forms of social organisation and culture. Finally, the lines of flight are moments of social, and institutional social change and metamorphosis.
D&G’s reflection on social policy through these lines broaches the issue of suicide. Each line reflects a social structure and individuals’ differentiating forces influencing one another. The molar line becomes a danger to the individual as strict boundaries of institutions may subdue one’s own self-reflective identity. Through the restriction of new patterns of behaviour or stifling free thought that strays too far from the norm, much like the tree bound to the pole. The molecular line can be moving more flexibly from the rigid macro molar line but circumventing it to become a new molar line that only brings about a new restrictive molar line. And the lines of flight, the main posturing of rapid change, the danger being the lack of proper necessary organisation in a new system.
Deleuze’s model of life through its dynamic change can lead to a double-edged sword: When the need for change in a rigid molarized life becomes bereft of the vitality required to feel free or for things to change, it leads to a cumbersome depressing life. But the alternate lines of flight don’t offer the sanctity of security to sustain itself and life lacks the organisation to supersede this passionate vitality. Capitalism, by its very nature, excels in interweaving both of these networks of life. The State is an underlying molarizing force but the policies that ensue from it present rapidly changing lines of flight. Leaving the individual, fraught with bounded restrictions, to accept their material conditions against an expanding technological force that changes a lot but provides no opportunities for the individual. Think about the increasing disposability of the workforce against the growth of automated machines — The suicide of Deleuze can almost be representative of the bigger picture of global suicides. Deleuze, bound by the rigid formation of his body brought about by his increasing sickness, was stopped from being able to affirm an effect on his life in a meaningful way. We can look to suicide as not simply an omission of the pain but rather a choice against the inability to realise a meaningful life. It’s a way of affirming life when one already feels dead in their living body. As Deleuze stated:
“Every event is like death,
double and impersonal in its double.
It is the abyss of the present,
the time without present
with which I have no relation,
towards which I am unable to project myself.
For in it I do not die.
I forfeit the power of dying.
In this abyss they die - they never cease to die,
and they never succeed in dying.” – What is Philosophy? p. 152
This is important in the way we should look at suicide, especially in the case of euthanasia/assisted dying, through the judgement we impose on the suicidal person. But this position also exemplifies a more insidious tragedy in our society when a system of organisation provides rapid change but is bereft of the opportunity to cater to these individuals. Berlant’s notion of a slow death suddenly hastens and we gain a society of young individuals full of vitality unable to effectuate their surroundings in any meaningful way.