“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” …”(Sisyphus) is superior to his fate. He is Stronger than his rock.” – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It by Jennifer Michael Hecht is a history of suicide and the historical views of suicides though time. Hecht earned her PhD in the History of Science from Columbia University and studied at the Universite de Caen and Universite d’ Angers. She teaches poetry and philosophy in the Graduate Writing Program of The New School. Hecht has published three other books on history and two books of poetry along with numerous articles.
This is a book that I wanted to read but still harbored some hesitation about reading. Like the author, I lost a close friend through suicide just over six years ago. It is something that changes your views and begin to question many previously held ideas. I makes you think, “How could I have not seen this coming.” and makes you second guess many things. The reason I chose to read this book was on the expectation that a favorite writer’s work would be included: Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus. Ironically, I first picked this book up at the library on March 14th. It would be a few days later I found out my friend killed herself that same day.
Suicide has been around since man has been around. From Socrates choosing to to drink hemlock before the state forced him to do so, to (although not covered in the book) a soldier diving on a grenade to save his colleagues lives in Iraq; it can be considered heroic. Other times it is viewed as a weak and cowardly act. Seldom it it viewed as a neutral act. Religion has played a role in stopping suicide. Islam expressly forbids it. Christianity has never embraced it except for a few instances. Martyrs who kept their faith rather than denying it and living were embraced. Augustine and later Aquinas both debated that Jesus’ death was in fact suicide, since he could have saved himself at any time but chose to give up his spirit. Otherwise suicide is considered stealing from God; God gave you life and only he has the right to take it away. Jews typically forbid suicide, but Masada is an exception. There always seems to be exceptions.
There are more suicides worldwide than murders. It is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. More people take their own lives than are murdered, but the news and TV drama shows are filled with stories of murder, but rarely suicide. When suicide is in the news it is usually a celebrity, which in turn causes a spike in suicides. Suicide Clusters are seen in sociological studies. Where one suicide takes place there is an increase in suicides nearby. There is also a link inside families. Sylvia Plath killed herself and forty-six years later her son killed himself. Likewise, Ernest Hemingway’s father killed himself, in 1961 Hemingway killed himself and in 1996 his granddaughter, Margaux took her own life.
Suicide is an issue that although most people, philosophers, and religions find wrong, there are always loopholes. No matter how hard we try to understand or just out right ban suicide, it is still with us. We seem no closer to finding a solution. In fact suicide rates are on the rise; 30% from 1999 to 2010. Hecht brings together some of the great thinkers and religions to bring rational thought to an act that most of us cannot understand and could not go through with. The writing is clear and well documented. Most importantly, she reminds the reader that no matter what, first chose to stay.