By Edward Curtin
"The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one's mind, is the condition of the normal man. Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years. Our behavior is a function of our experience. We act the way we see things. If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive. If our experience is destroyed, we have lost our own selves."
-- R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, 1967
"The artist is the man who refuses initiation through education into the existing order, remains faithful to his own childhood being, and thus becomes 'a human being in the spirit of all times, an artist.'"
-- Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death
Most suicides die of natural causes, slowly and in silence.
But we hear a lot about the small number of suicides, by comparison, who kill themselves quickly by their own hands. Of course their sudden deaths elicit shock and sadness since their deaths, usually so unexpected even when not a surprise, allow for no return. Such sudden once-and-for-all endings are even more jarring in a high-tech world where people are subconsciously habituated to thinking that everything can be played back, repeated, and rewound, even lives.
If the suicides are celebrities, the mass media can obsess over why they did it. How shocking! Wasn't she at the peak of her career? Didn't he finally seem happy? And then the speculative stories will appear about the reasons for the rise or fall of suicide rates, only to disappear as quickly as the celebrities are dropped by the media and forgotten by the public.
The suicides of ordinary people will be mourned privately by their loved ones in their individual ways and in the silent recesses of their hearts. A hush will fall over their departures that will often be viewed as accidental.
And the world will roll on as the earth absorbs the bodies and the blood. "Where's it all going all this spilled blood," writes the poet Jacques Pre'vert. "Murder's blood"war's blood" blood of suicides"the earth that turns and turns with its great streams of blood."
Of such suicides Albert Camus said, "Dying voluntarily implies you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit [of living], the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering." He called this feeling the absurd, and said it was widespread and involved the feeling of being an alien or stranger in a world that couldn't be explained and didn't make sense. Assuming this experience of the absurd, Camus wished to explore whether suicide was a solution to it. He concluded that it wasn't.
Like Camus, I am interested in asking what is the meaning of life. "How to answer it?" he asked in The Myth of Sisyphus. He added that "the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions." But I don't want to explore his line of reasoning to his conclusions, whether to agree or disagree. I wish, rather, to explore the reasons why so many people choose to commit slow suicide by immersing themselves in the herd mentality and following a way of life that leads to inauthenticity and despair; why so many people so easily and early give up their dreams of a life of freedom for a proverbial mess of pottage, which these days can be translated to mean a consumer's life, one focused on staying safe by embracing conventional bromides and making sure to never openly question a system based on systemic violence in all its forms; why, despite all evidence to the contrary, so many people embrace getting and spending and the accumulation of wealth in the pursuit of a chimerical "happiness" that leaves them depressed and conscience dead. Why so many people do not rebel but wish to take their places on this ship of fools.
So what can we say about the vast numbers of people who commit slow suicide by a series of acts and inactions that last a long lifetime and render them the living dead, those whom Thoreau so famously said were the mass of people who "lead lives of quiet desperation"? Is the meaning of life for them simply the habit of living they fell into at the start of life before they thought or wondered what's it all about? Or is it the habit they embraced after shrinking back in fear from the disturbing revelations thinking once brought them? Or did they ever seriously question their place in the lethal fraud that is organized society, what Tolstoy called the Social Lie? Why do so many people kill their authentic selves and their consciences that could awaken them to break through the social habits of thought, speech, and action that lead them to live "jiffy lube" lives, periodically oiled and greased to smoothly roll down the conventional highway of getting and spending and refusing to resist the murderous actions of their government?
An unconscious despair rumbles beneath the frenetic surface of American society today. An unspoken nothingness. I think the Italian writer Robert Calasso says it well: "The new society is an agnostic theocracy based on nihilism." It's as though we are floating on nothing, sustained by nothing, in love with nothing -- all the while embracing any thing that a materialistic, capitalist consumer culture can throw at us. We are living in an empire of illusions, propagandized and self-deluded. Most people will tell you they are stressed and depressed, but will often add -- "who wouldn't be with the state of the world" -- ignoring their complicity through the way they have chosen compromised, conventional lives devoid of the spirit of rebellion.
I keep meeting people who, when I ask them how they are, will respond by saying, "I'm hanging in there."
Don't common sayings intimate unconscious truths? Hang -- among its possible derivatives is the word "habit" and the meaning of "coming to a standstill." Stuck in one's habits, dangling over nothing, up in the air, going nowhere, hanging by a string. Slow suicides. The Beatles' sang it melodically: "He's a real nowhere man/Sitting in his nowhere land/Making all his nowhere plans for nobody/Doesn't have a point of view/Knows not where he's going to/Isn't he a bit like you and me." It's a far cry from having "the world on a string," as Harold Arlen wrote many years before.