On suicide

Over the last month or two I have been writing a government policy statement on suicide. Here is an interesting conundrum: how do you write about a topic with such deep, rich veins of emotion within the favoured managerial babble of today’s governments? How do you write with care for the traditions of thought and symbols that a learned person surely knows, while being forced to obtain the approval of the courtiers who are astonishing only in their ignorance, despite their careless declarations of cases for changes and ideas struck from the hot air of their own minds alone. How can you write while hearing the voices in your head of Donne and Durkheim, Ajax and Judas, Mishima and Plath, and many, many more, and still get a text approved by people whose cultural repertoire fits on a powerpoint slide. It seems to go one of three ways.

The first way is to adopt an impenetrable armour of managerial pseudo-science. In this approach, suicide is a problem to be solved, and not a freedom to be wondered about. The problem is solved with all the illusions of technique with which these managers seek to govern the unruly world of human emotion. Despair is countered by “systems approaches.” Uncertainty is banished with targets, and the suicide is again buried outside the courtyard of modern counting, since we will only be satisfied when there are zero suicides: so suicide resumes its status as the gravest sin against the theology of policy. The researchers who confect models and evidence with fictional numbers rename themselves “chief scientists,” and engage in old-fashioned rivalry about the competing ideas. The unpredictability of suicide becomes a threat, and statistics that do not tell the right story are suppressed.

The second ruse is to clothe old ideas in corny sentiment. Suicide is preventable because, well, it is wrong to think any other way. If we can aim for zero road deaths, even when they are increasing, why not also for suicide? Lived experience excuses the most mawkish of sentiments, and muddled thinking stalks moral urgency. If everyone just works together – at a local level – and does everything they can and all at the same time, well, then, we can do this. Do what? Make this troubling phenomenon go away.

The third approach is to speak of a balance of ambition and complexity. All the richness of traditions of thought, symbolism and events is gestured to by the word, complexity. Even if the author cannot release the magic that lies within that code word, it sits within the policy text on suicide like an alchemist’s stone. The knowing, if not the approving, reader will understand what is meant by the use of this word. They will hear in it Donne’s words: “no man can take away my soul… I have the power to lay it down.”  But this complexity cannot paralyse us in thought, the enemy of the modern bureaucrat. Action rushes in, at once, and still we must seek to express a governing ambition to change these outcomes. A more tragic view of life is incorporated into the text, but the sea of troubles is finally nobly opposed. Here then all the targets and the systems and the interventions and the rational nomenclature of modern government dress a new Don Quixote, who despite knowing his folly, still marches on the windmills. Despite the impotence of the effort, the nobility of the aim still rings true the bell that tolls for us all.

Whatever the final result of these policy texts on suicide then, they will have little impact on the outcomes that the modern bureaucrat measures so dear. Suicide rates fluctuate year to year in response to ideas, events and passions that disobey the wills of ministers and the forensic techniques of coroners. They change remarkably over time for reasons that are hard to fathom, but that dwell in the chaos of cultural change, or so argues Marzio Barbagli in the magisterial, yet compassionate Farewell to the World: a history of suicide (Polity, 2015). The explanation of the variation in suicides in different times, places and social groups lies in the formation, breakdown and refashioning  of “this set of rules and beliefs, symbols and meanings, cognitive schemas and classification systems help people variously to resist or to impel them to take their own lives.”


The enigmas of Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible tests the limits of historical understanding. All that we know of him we only seem to know of him. All the stories we tell of him we can narrate only with difficulty separate from legend. His experience of the world, to the extent that we can reach that interpretation beneath other interpretations, is of a reality that many of us are troubled to accept: borderline madness; a belief in an idea of sovereignty, which was in turn consecrated by a Byzantine political tradition that has now disappeared from the world; an intimate familiarity with violence, complex trauma, and their effect on the disassociation of memory, image and culture.

Here are seven enigmas of Ivan Groznyi, fourth of his name, Tsar of Holy mother Russia:

  1. How did he die? The English commercial agent, Jerome Horsey, leaves the only account. With Bogdan Belsky and Boris Godunov – the two principal counsellors and rivals in the court – in his room, Ivan was anticipating death, calling for gemstones and magic. He called for apothecaries and his confessor, and then, Horsey writes, “In the mean he was strangled and stark dead.” Was Ivan then murdered, and if so by whom and why?
  2. Was he mad and if so how? It is difficult to account for the savagery of his fits and turns of violence, the spectacular cruelty of his revenge against the loyal diaks and priests who served him, or the accounts of debauchery and ritualistic violence without believing there was some kind of derangement in his mind. Yet at the same time he may be seen as ruthlessly if violently imposing his will on the world. My theory is that he suffered what we would today call borderline personality disorder.
  3. What purpose was served by the creation of the oprichniki? The old Marxist histories of course see it as an attack on the feudal boyars. It seems in some ways consistent with the formation of stronger states by sovereigns across Europe. Was this creation of a warrior band and personal estate of the ruler also an imaginative development of themes of Mongol and Byzantine traditions of governing that Ivan was an heir to?
  4. What were the reasons for his feigning abdication? Before the creation of the oprichniki he feigned abdication, taking himself on a pilgrimage? Was it only an act, which worked strategically in forcing loyalty to a ruler among quarrelsome boyars? Or was there a psychological discomfort with sovereignty – especially when his concept of sovereignty brooked no opposition to his will? What are we to make of the alter episode when he gave the crown to a Tatar prince, and with dramatic revenge took it away, so creating through his personal execution of this prince a theatrical symbol of his absolute power?
  5. What was the nature of his religious belief, especially his belief that he was a dread angel? Deep religiosity pervades his life – day long sessions of prayer, his taking of a monastic name on his deathbed, his early fidelity to the Priest Sylvester and the Metropolitan Filip, his strange poems that expressed his belief that he was an incarnation of a Dread Angel. Yet magic, debauchery, ritualistic and sacrificial violence haunt him, alongside perhaps a chiliastic belief that he was living hell on earth and the end of days before the judgement of God. How do such strange and powerful currents of good and evil inhabit the same mind?
  6. Are the stories of his traumatic childhood later dissociation and reconstruction? The rage and violence in his descriptions of his treatment by the boyars after his mother and nurse were killed and taken from him ring true. But are they screen memories? Are they justifications of a sulking anger, an indulged bloodlust? Are they indeed the later fabulations of the myth of the cruel tyrant who pulls wings off flies as a child?
  7. Is his famous correspondence with Prince Kurbsky a later forgery? Is indeed anything that we say we know of him reliably true or available for extrapolation from a true primary source. Edward Keenan, who died only in the last year or so, made this argument, and it may be true. But if it is, then how are we to speak of this character, whose life is too real, too implausible to be mere invention, forgery and fiction?  Surely whereof this life of which we must speak, we must not be silent.