Saturday, 13 February 2016

Romanticism Blog

I'm teaching an 'Advanced Romanticisms' course this term, and have set up a course blog. I link to it here because it occasionally includes Coleridgeana, alongside various posts culled from various places, mostly by me but sometimes by course members, on general Romantic topics.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Arguing the Suicide (1828)

Drafted 1811, first published in 1828 (that's a screenshot of the first edition), this strange little poem is not often discussed. The first four lines, we presume, are spoken by an individual contemplating suicide. He says: I didn't ask to be born. He says: if life is a question, then it can be answered in more than one way. Perhaps the answer to life is: we should live on. But perhaps the answer is: we should die. To this position Nature herself responds. Life, she says, was given to you, and suicide amounts to a refusal of this gift, an attempt to return the donation to the donor. Accordingly the giver is entitled to say: look here, this gift is not in so pristine a state as it was first proffered. The suicidal individual's life is 'worse for wear'. What used to be innocence, hope, health, genius and 'an ample scope' has become 'guilt, lethargy, despair'. Nature instructs the potential suicide to draw up an inventory comparing 'what you ARE' and 'what you WERE', to see how little he has made of his life, how he has wasted his potential. When the nameless individual has done this, Nature seems sure he will no longer have the nerve to contemplate suicide.

Now, this is very odd. One thing is clear: an immiserating sense of how far things have gone wrong in one's life, from promising beginnings to present-day guilt, lethargy and despair, is liable to provoke rather than to allay suicidal impulses. This makes 'The Suicide's Argument' incompetent to its supposed task of dissuading self-murder. The questioner makes two points: one, I didn't ask to be born; and two, if life is a question, then it can be 'answered' in more than one way. Nature's reply tacitly concedes both points: you were given life as a gift, you didn't ask for it; and dying is an option you have. I suppose the 'die if you dare!' with which the poem ends is a rebuke designed to shame the suicide out of his actions. Or perhaps it is more of a threat: do it, and see what comes next. But the most striking, and strange, thing about Nature's answer is its implication that suicide would be fine if the suicide were as innocent, hopeful and healthy as he had been at birth. Then the gift could be returned in the same state it had been handed out, the inventory drawn-up and everything satisfactorily squared off.

Now presumably this is not the logic Coleridge thought he was expressing. Perhaps he thought he was putting together a kind of common-sense 'pull yourself together!' rebuke to the self-indulgence of suicidal depression. But I'd be surprised if he were as foolish as that. Depression, especially depression of the sort of intensity that leads to active parasuicidal and suicidal ideation, is indeed self-indulgent, in a manner both pathological (which is to say, in a way that is not the sufferer's 'fault') and tragic; but 'pull yourself together!' is absolutely not an effective strategy for addressing it. The strongest argument against suicide is the terrible effect it has on loved-ones and people left behind, what Mark Twain eloquently called 'the awful famine in their hearts'; and anything liable to encourage suicidal people to think 'oh I'm so terrible they'd be better off without me' is liable to be catastrophically counter-productive.

Another way of putting thus would be to describe Coleridge's 'Suicide's Argument' as a poem written from within the logic of suicidal depression, rather than a poem capable of stepping up to any objective kind of pou sto from which to critique that logic. And this in turns suggests that it functions more as an argument in favour of than an argument against taking your own life. Just taking the poem on a formal level: look at the way its first word rhymes with its last, both of which are then rhymed with 'despair', in a barren closed-circle sort of way. The way it starts with birth in line one, and ends with death (die, die, dare) in line ten. The way the word 'no', its cognates ('not'), reversals ('on', 'questi-on') and rhyme words ('so') chime through the first four lines:
Ere the birth of my life, if I wished it or no
No question was asked me—it could not be so!
If the life was the question, a thing sent to try
And to live on be YES; what can NO be? to die.
No, no, no, no. The slightly tangled syntax and the overall feel of repetitive reiteration here embody something of the psychologically corrosive monotony of depression. It's all monosyllables, too, which makes for an awkwardly clip-clop feel, with the one exception of the twice-repeated 'question', a disyllable lifted from Hamlet's famous suicide soliloquy. The final seven lines wrongfoot us prosodically: I keep tripping up over how we're supposed to scan some of these lines:
Is't returned, as 'twas sent? Is't no worse for the wear?
Think first, what you ARE! Call to mind what you WERE!
I gave you innocence, I gave you hope,
Gave health, and genius, and an ample scope,
Return you me guilt, lethargy, despair?
Make out the invent'ry; inspect, compare!
Then die—if die you dare!
'Gave health, and genius, and an ample scope' seems to throw an awkwardly unwanted stress on the 'an' in 'an ample scope', and 'Return you me guilt, lethargy, despair?' stalls on the unidiomatic second-syllable stress in laTHARgy, before running out of steam by the line's end: decasyllabic, but halting to its final point, as if drained of the energy in the more anapestic and twelve-syllabled 'Is't returned, as 'twas sent? Is't no worse for the wear?' Maybe that's the point: that the verse is enacting the psychologically crippled awkwardness of the state it describes. But that oughtn't to be Nature's voice. Nature, here, presumably stands for something more robust and dependable. No?

I think there is a way to make this poem seem less counter-intuitive and tangled, and that way is to read it as a specific reaction to a specific text. The text in question is by Swedish-German philosopher Johan Robeck, and is called Exercitatio philosophica de eulogo exagoge sive morte voluntaria (1736).

A book with a Graeco-Latin title: ἐξαγωγη (or ἐξαγωγέ) refers to 'a leading out of soldiers', and by extension means 'a going out, the end of life': so that's 'A Eulogy for Dying, or On Suicide'. There are two names on that title-page, and there's a particular reason for that. The actual author, Johan Robeck, was a Jesuit who was moved to write a defence of suicide. Robeck's argument is that life is a gift, given to us by God. He insists that once a gift is given, it stops being the property of the donor and becomes the property of the receiver; and that this being so, the receiver can do what he wants with the gift, including, if he so chooses, destroying it. Therefore, suicide is legitimate. But instead of publishing this book, Robeck left it on his desk, walked out and drowned himself in the river Weser in 1735. It was Robeck's friend and fellow-Jesuit, Nicolaus Funccius, who saw the book through publication, and in doing so he added a lengthy commentary to the piece that set out to refute Robeck's arguments step by step.

It makes for an interesting read. Here's a representative page, in which Robeck is developing his core argument, and Funccius is footnoteishly attempting to refute it.

Here Robeck is attempting to overturn the argument made by Josephus that receiving a gift, a donum, places an obligation upon the recipient: Euertimus argumentum beneficiarium sive quod ex beneficiis extorquetur, says Robeck. Hic vero Iosephus ita nugatur: Deum vero non indigne ferre arbitramini, cum donum eius homo despiciar. Аst vero donum non despicit, qui illi renunciar, dum sibi est inutile, vel perniciosum quoque. Which is to say, Josephus is wrong: giving someone a gift does not entitle the donor to extort ('extorquetur') the beneficiary once the giving is over with. If man decides to set God's gift of life itself at naught ('despiciar'), God Himself will not be angry ('indigne'). Indeed, renouncing a gift is not the same thing as treating that gift as despicable, since only the recipient is in a position to judge whether the gift has proved a useless or even perhaps a dangerous thing. But there, in the footnotes, is Funccius, trying his best to contradict the main argument. When you think of all the good things God has given us, he says in footnote zp—to destroy that gift is to be guilty of ingratitude, at the very least. A gift from God is not the same as a gift from a regular person.

So it goes, through the hundreds of pages, one man arguing in favour of the suicide he had, evidently, already decided to perform; the other haranguing his now-dead friend, urging him not to do what he had already done. Very sad, really. But here, I think, also is the germ of Coleridge's little poem. I think he wrote 'The Suicide's Argument' because he'd been reading Robeck, or been reading about him. After all, Robeck's book was widely discussed through the later 18th-century. Voltaire even makes fun of its thesis in Candide (1759), where we are told that 'only eight people have ever voluntarily put an end to their miserable lives', those eight being 'three negroes, four Englishmen, and a German professor called Robeck.'

Coleridge has been pondering the logic of suicide not from the point of view of the actual psychopathology of depression (however much personal experience he had of that), but from a more theological perspective, in the light of the metaphysics of the gift. And when we read the poem in this light it makes more sense. STC suggests a two-part critique to the Robeckian thesis. We could summarise: that whether or not receiving a gift imposes any moral obligations on the beneficiary, a gift such as life cannot be destroyed. That's not in the nature of the gift. Rather it is returned to its donor, who is also its creator. And in the light of that, there is a delinquency in returning a gift in a markedly worse state that you received it. I don't know how convincing I find this reasoning, but it makes more sense of the poem, I think, than the earlier reading I suggested.