Ruth Shonle Cavan
(The University of Chicago Press)There are very few serious studies of suicide in English, and not many in German and French; practically all of them deal with the phenomenon statistically, and get no further than the observation that more people kill themselves in December than in July, or that men do it oftener than women.
Dr. Cavan makes a gallant attempt to go further. Her aim is to find out the fundamental and proximate causes of self-destruction, and to that end she begins with an interesting historical and ethnological survey, and then proceeds to a somewhat detailed examination of concrete cases. Her conclusion, put into plain words, takes on the appearance of a platitude: people destroy themselves because they find it impossible to go on living. But under that platitude there lies a great mass of sound and valuable observation, and its obviousness does not take anything from its scientific truth.
To all of us (barring, perhaps, archbishops and actors) the world is extremely harsh and unsatisfactory. We can all imagine having better times than we do have, and to most of us a new day spells only a new misery. Nevertheless, we manage to keep going, and even to enjoy the farce more or less. What we haven't got we hope for; what we can't have we do without. It is this resilience in the average man that saves him. He is naturally philosopher, as he is naturally a liar: no doubt the two things are really the same. But there is also a kind of man who lacks, congenitally, that saving bounce, or has had it shaken out of him by misfortunes passing the endurable. Confronted by intolerable horrors, he is company stumped. Let a rope be handy, and he will hang himself.
Fortunately for the gods who enjoy human misery, there are not many men so constituted. The great majority of us stick it out, hoping against hope, and sustained when even hope fails by curiosity. We must die in the end, but not just yet! Anon, anon! The morn may bring a check in the mail, or a better girl, or even the Presidency. It has happened in the past, and it may happen again. The doctors have been wrong before. But there is a kind of mind that believes them infallible, and hence sees no light ahead. It is a special type of mind, and if it is not downright pathological, then it is at least somewhat abnormal. Dr. Cavan shows, indeed, that most of the people who commit suicide do it for reasons that, to most of us, would seem trivial.
It is not the great calamities of life that take them off, but relatively small calamities. One man contemplates the bare bodkin because he is torn between his duty to his mother and his desire for his sweetheart --- a conflict that rages, at some time or other, in the breasts of four men out of five, and to no more damage than is inflicted by a severe Katzenjammer. Another kills himself because he yearns for the country, and is bound to the city by his wife and children. A woman slaughters her lover and herself because she fears that he is about to leave her, and that she'll never find another to match him. A young man leaps into the unknown at twenty-three because, having grown up under the impression that he is a genius, he has begun to have some doubt of it.
What dreadful silliness! What a stupendous lack of humor! I have known, in my time, and with intimacy, at least a dozen men who committed suicide, and I can't recall one who had a logically sound reason. They all threw up their hands in the face of difficulties that might have been cured by six quiet months in jail.
I think of a friend of my youth who made away with himself because he had been drunk at an inconvenient time, and with that he had disgraced himself. But what is there disgraceful about getting drunk whether the time be convenient or not? Shakespeare used to do it, and so did Socrates. So, indeed, did the late Warren Gamaliel Harding. The public and private opinion that that friend knew and respected was almost unanimously in favor of it. The only dissentient near to him was a man who also believed that cancer could be cured by going on a diet. Yet this capital fellow, otherwise merry and full of life, took himself off. There must have been some anterior collapse of the faculties. The so-called soul, I daresay, can snap as the femur or tibia can snap. Suicide is a disease of persons who have somehow blown up.
I do not argue thereby, of course, that life is pleasant, or generally worth living. It seems to me that it is not. If there are any really happy people in this world (that is, aside from archbishops or actors) I have yet to meet them, or even to hear of them. The trouble with Homo sapiens is that his imagination will not let him alone. He is always imagining situations more agreeable than those in which he finds himself. The latter, when he is lucky, may be bearable, but they surely are never satisfying.
Speaking for myself, I don't recall a single day in my life when I was contented with my lot, though as human destiny runs, it has been a not unfortunate one. Worse, I have got to a point. in my old age, that I can't imagine any concrete amelioration: experience has taught me that what I want today will only upset me if I get it tomorrow. But to give us hope is surely not the same as to embrace despair. The show remains engrossing, though it is no longer exhilarating. The horror of week after next will at least be a new one. It may be any one of ten dozen: I find myself vaguely eager to know which it is to be. Thus I advise against suicide. Life may not be exactly pleasant, but it is at least not dull. Heave yourself into Hell today, and you may miss, tomorrow or next day, another Scopes trial, or another War to End War, or perchance a rich and buxom widow with all her first husband's clothes. There are always more Hardings hatching. I advocate hanging on as long as possible.--- From "The Library,"
The American Mercury (1929)
H. L. Mencken