Nothing glamorous about final, desperate act
Suicide rates have increased in Britain over the last two years.
He was a kind, gentle mannered and clever man, with a highly successful public career. But he also fought a daily battle against a darkness that was finally to overwhelm him. Mostly he hid it pretty well. But the moment I received the phone call to say that he had died, I guessed it might be suicide. And now there are so many what-might-have-beens coursing through my head.
Last week, Britain's Office of National Statistics released figures showing that suicide rates in Britain are rising - from 5608 in 2010 to 6045 in 2011. We have to talk more about this. To what extent are these figures a reflection of the misery that is created by economic austerity, for instance? But talking about suicide is also genuinely problematic, and not just for the obvious reasons of sensitivity towards living relatives. Guidelines issued by the Samaritans demonstrate the considerable extent to which media depictions of suicide can influence the vulnerable, often leading to imitative behaviour.
When Marilyn Monroe took her life, suicides in the US temporarily rose 12 per cent. As Emile Durkheim once put it: ''No fact is more readily transmissible by contagion than suicide.'' So here, then, is the immediate problem. The 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's suicide is February 11. This could easily turn into an excuse for yet more column centimetres linking the idea of suicide to that of tortured genius. Cue references to Kurt Cobain, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, and so on. It's a terribly dangerous cliche.
In September 2010, I took the memorial service of the talented fashion designer Alexander McQueen at St Paul's cathedral. He took his own life just days after the death of his mother, Joyce. The service was unsurprisingly a star-studded and glamorous affair. And it went well. But soon after I was contacted by a clearly very agitated Peter Hitchens from the Daily Mail, who wanted to know whether the church had changed its teachings on suicide and whether I thought there had been a danger of glamourising suicide. It was a complicated conversation. Only later did I discover that his mother had also killed herself in an apparent suicide pact with her boyfriend who happened to be a former Anglican clergyman.
At the time I was defensive towards Hitchens's characteristically assertive intervention. Not that I was overly perturbed by the theological part of his challenge. The Bible contains no obvious condemnation of suicide and reports the suicides of Saul and Sampson without any apparent sense of condemnation. It was Augustine who first argued that it contravened the sixth commandment, popularly translated ''thou shalt not kill'' (though ''thou shalt not murder'' is a much better translation). Later, Aquinas intensified this prohibition with the insistence that suicide was unpardonable. And it wasn't until the mid-16th century that those who took their own lives were denied a Christian burial.
As it happens it was the dean of St Paul's, the priest and poet John Donne, who first signalled a change in the church's attitude towards suicide with his essay Biothanatos in 1608, encouraging ''a charitable interpretation of theyr Action, who dye so''. It took a while for attitudes to shift, but slowly the belief that suicide was a sin began to break down. And a good thing too.
However, from the mid-18th century onwards, and particularly with the advent of Romanticism, a different problem presented itself: the glorification of the suicidal person as a romantic hero. In 1774, Goethe published the literary sensation The Sorrows of Young Werther, the story of a painfully earnest young man, tortured by unrequited love, who ends up shooting himself. All over Europe, young men started to dress up in yellow trousers and blue jackets, following Werther. They also began to imitate the manner of his death, and Goethe's book was banned in several countries. The roots of the poisonous connection between suicide and the romantic hero began to form at the very same time as the development of modern celebrity culture.
The reason this aestheticisation of suicide is such a treacherous lie is it denies the reality that most people who kill themselves are trapped and desperate. They are commonly suffering from depression, or schizophrenia, or debt, or homelessness, or alcoholism, or drug addiction, or a combination of these things. This is the truth of real rather than literary suicide, and it is not the slightest bit glamorous. There may be no shame in suicide, as the church once proposed, but there is no glory in it either.
Albert Camus wrote: ''There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.'' Maybe he was right. For the ultimate question has to be whether and why and how life is worth living. For some, this question never arises. Perhaps they are the lucky ones. For others the answer is God or the love of someone special or outright hedonism or the struggle to make the world a better place, thus to answer the question practically.
But despite the obvious significance of Camus's question, I remain deeply uncomfortable with the fact that he makes the whole life-or-death thing seem so appealingly dramatic - a drama in which you are always cast as the star.
No, if suicide is on your mind, forget the existentialists and the poets. Phone a helpline. Go and see your GP. Talk to friends. Stop drinking. Misery is survivable. And hold fast to the belief that a brighter day will dawn.
Giles Fraser is priest-in-charge at St Mary's Newington in south London.