Born in Trier, Prussia, the third of seven children, Karl Heinrich Marx was educated at home until the age of 13. His father, descended from a long line of rabbis, was prohibited by the Prussian authorities from practicing law as a Jew; he converted to Lutheranism despite his liberal, deistic beliefs. Karl attended the universities of Bonn and Berlin, where his involvement with political thought and activism began early. In 1842, he became the editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, published in Cologne, but it was suppressed by the government a year later. He spent the next years in exile in Paris, where he wrote for the radical newspaper, Vorwärts, and in Brussels. When revolutionary activity broke out in 1848, he returned to Cologne to found the Neue Rheinische Zeitung; a year later, it too was suppressed, and he was expelled from Prussia. Marx then moved to London, devoting himself to developing his theory of socialism and to political activity in on behalf of revolution and social reform.
Marx collaborated with Friedrich Engels in the writing of the short and politically incendiary Communist Manifesto (1847) and in the extended theoretical work on political economy critiquing capitalism and developing communist economic theory, Das Kapital (3 vols., 1867, 1885, 1895), which Engels completed after Marx’s death. These works are particularly sensitive to issues of exploitation, which were central in Marx’s understanding of not only industrial capitalism and the labor theory of value, but also of suicide, as the selection here makes clear.
The excerpt is Marx’s only published discussion of suicide. It is his translation from the French of a text from Jacques Peuchet (1758–1830; Marx misidentifies Peuchet’s birth date as 1760), with interpolations added by Marx to augment the argument Peuchet was making. In the text here, Marx’s interpolations appear in boldface in the text; omissions from Peuchet’s text are provided in the footnotes. Peuchet, a prolific researcher and writer, and the editor of Dictionnaire Universel de la Géographie Commerçante, was the archivist of the Paris Police Prefecture, who, Marx tells us in his introduction to Peuchet’s text, drafted his memoirs as an old man, using materials from the Paris Police Archives and relying on his lengthy practical experience in police work and administration. With the interpolation of a few deft sentences, Marx transforms Peuchet’s already unsettling case histories—like the wedding of the daughter of a tailor that ends instead in suicide, or the case of the Creole from Martinique, whose sister-in-law is understood as property—into serious social critique. Marx’s translation/essay was published in 1846 in Gesellschaftsspiegel (Mirror of Society), a small German socialist journal in which Engels was involved, but it was not mentioned in any of the surviving letters with his colleagues at the time, nor was it reprinted during Marx’s lifetime. The original on which it is based, Peuchet’s Memoires tirés des archives de la police (1838), is available in a facsimile edition.
Eric A. Plaut and Kevin Anderson, eds., Marx on Suicide, trs. Eric A. Plaut, Gabrielle Edgcomb, and Kevin Anderson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999, pp. 45-70. Material in introduction from Kevin Anderson, “Marx on Suicide in the Context of His Other Writings on Alienation and Gender,” ibid., pp. 3-40. Footnotes deleted.
from PEUCHET ON SUICIDE
French critique of society has, at least partly, the great advantage of demonstrating the contradictions and the unnatural state of modern life, not only in the relationship between particular classes, but also in all spheres and forms of current intercourse. Indeed, their descriptions have a direct warmth of feeling, a richness of intuition, a worldly sensitivity and insightful originally for which one searches in vain in all other nations. One need only compare, for example, the critical descriptions of Owen and Fourier, insofar as they deal with actual intercourse to get a picture of the superiority of the French. It is by no means only the “socialist” French writers among whom one should look for these critical descriptions of social conditions. Included are writers of every type of literature, particularly those of fiction and biography. I shall use an excerpt about suicide from the Memoirs drawn from the Police Archives by Jacques Peuchet as an example of French critique. At the same time, it may show the extent to which it is the conceit of the benevolent bourgeoisie that the only issues are providing some bread and some education to the proletariat, as if only the workers suffer from present social conditions, but that, in general, this is the best of all possible worlds.
With Jacques Peuchet, as with many older French practitioners (now mostly deceased) who lived through the numerous upheavals since 1789—the numerous deceptions, enthusiasms, constitutions, rulers, defeats, and victories—there appeared a critique of the existing property, family, and other private relationships (in a word, of private life) as the necessary consequence of their political experiences.
Jacques Peuchet (born 1760) went from the fine arts to medicine, from medicine to law, from law to administration and police work.
Before the outbreak of the French revolution he worked, with the Abbé Morellet, on a Dictionnaire du Commerce of which only a prospectus appeared, and he preferred dealing with political economy and administration. He was a supporter of the French Revolution but only briefly. He soon turned to the royalist party, was for a time the director of the Gazette de France and later even took over, from Mallet-du-Pan, the infamous, royalist Mercure. Cleverly wending his way through the French Revolution, some times persecuted, then occupied in the Department of Administration and the Police, his five-volume Géographie commerçante (published in 1800) drew the attention of Bonaparte, the First Consul, and he was appointed a member of the Council of Commerce and the Arts. Later, during the ministry of François von Neufchâteau, he assumed a higher administrative position. In 1814 the Restoration appointed him censor. During the 100 days he withdrew. With the reinstatement of the Bourbons, he attained the position of archivist of the Paris Prefecture of Police, a position he held until 1827. Peuchet was directly involved, and, as a writer, not without influence on the spokesmen for the Constituent Assembly, the Convention, the Tribunate, and, under the Restoration, the Chamber of Deputies. Among his many, mostly economic works, in addition to the aforementioned commercial-geography, his Statistique de la France (1807) is best known.
As an old man, Peuchet drafted his memoirs, partly from materials from the Paris Police Archives, partly from his long practical experience in police work and administration, but insisted they be published only posthumously. Thus, under no circumstances can he be included among those “premature” socialists and communists who, as is well known, lack so totally the wonderful thoroughness and the all-encompassing knowledge of the vast majority of our writers, officials, and practical citizens.
Listen then to our archivist of the Paris Police Prefecture on the subject of suicide:
The yearly toll of suicides, which is to some extent normal and periodic, has to be viewed as a symptom of the deficient organization of our society. For, in times of industrial stagnation and its crises, in times of high food prices and hard winters, this symptom always becomes more prominent and takes on an epidemic character. At these times, prostitution and theft increase proportionately. Although penury is the greatest source of suicide, we find it in all classes, among the idle rich, as well as among artists and politicians. The varieties of reasons motivating suicide make a mockery of the moralists’ single-minded and uncharitable blaming.
Consumptive illnesses, against which present-day science is inadequate and ineffective, abused friendship, betrayed love, discouraged ambition, family troubles, repressed rivalry, the surfeit of a monotonous life, enthusiasm turned against itself. These are all surely causes of suicide for natures of greater breadth. The love of life itself, the energetic force of personality, often leads to releasing oneself from a contemptible existence.
Madame de Stael, whose greatest service was to beautifully stylize commonplace fictions, was eager to demonstrate that suicide is contrary to nature and that it cannot be understood as an act of courage. Above all, she argued that it is more worthy to fight despair than to give in to it. Such reasoning has little effect upon those souls who are overwhelmed be misfortune. If they are religious, they may be thinking about a better world: if they believe in nothing they may be seeking the peace of nothingness. Philosophical tirades have little value in their eyes and are a poor refuge from suffering. Above all, it is absurd to claim that an act, which occurs so often, is an unnatural act. Suicide is in no way unnatural, as we witness it daily. What is contrary to nature does not occur. It lies, on the contrary, in the nature of our society to cause so many suicides, while the Tartars do not commit suicide. Not all societies bring forth the same results. We must keep this in mind in working to reform our society to allow it to reach a higher level. What characterizes courage, when one, designated as courageous, confronts death in the light of day on the battlefield, under the sway of mass excitement, is not necessarily lost, when one kills oneself in dark solitude. One does not resolve such a difficult issue by insulting the dead.
All that has been said against suicide stems from the same circle of ideas. One condemns suicide with foregone conclusions. But, the very existence of suicide is an open protest against these unsophisticated conclusions. They speak of our duty to this society, but not of our right to expect explanations and actions by our society. They endlessly exalt, as the infinitely higher virtue, overcoming suffering, rather than giving in to it. Such a virtue is every bit as sad as the perspective it opens up. In brief, one has made suicide an act of cowardice, a crime against law, society, and honor.
How is it that people commit suicide, despite such great anathema against it? The blood of the despairing does not flow through the same arteries as that of those cold beings who have the leisure to debate such fruitless questions. Man is a mystery to man; one knows only how to blame him, but does not know him. Has one noticed how mindless the institutions are under whose rule Europe lives? How they dispose of the life and blood of the people? How civilized justice surrounds itself with large numbers of prisons, physical punishments, and instruments of death to enforce its doubtful arrests? How one observes the shocking number of classes left in misery by all concerned? How social pariahs are dealt brutal, preventive, contemptuous blows, perhaps so one does not have to take the trouble to pull them out of their dirt? When one has noted all these things, one cannot comprehend how, in the name of what authority, an individual can be ordered to care an existence that our customs, our prejudices, our laws, and our mores trample under foot.
It has been believed that suicide could be prevented by abusive punishments and by branding with infamy the memory of the guilty one. What can one say about the indignity of such branding, hurled at people who are no longer there to plead their case? The unfortunate rarely bother themselves with all this. And, if the act of suicide accuses someone, it is usually those remaining behind, because in this crowd there was not one person for whom it was worth staying alive. Have the childish and cruel means, that have been devised, successfully fought against the whisperings of despair? To one who wishes to flee this world, how do the insults that the world promises to heap on his corpse matter? He sees therein only another act of cowardice on the part of the living. In fact, what kind of society is it wherein one finds the most profound loneliness in the midst of many millions of people, a society where one can be overwhelmed by an uncontrollable urge to kill oneself without anyone of us suspecting it? This society is no society, but, as Rousseau said, a desert populated by wild animals. In the positions in police administration that I have held, suicides were part of my responsibilities. I wanted to find out if, among the determining causes, one might find some whose consequences could prove to be prevented. I undertook a comprehensive study of this subject. I found that, short of a total reform of the organization of our current society, all other attempts would be in vain. Among the sources for the despair that leads easily excitable people, passionate beings with deep feelings, to seek death, I found the primary cause was the bad treatment, the injustices, the secret punishments that these people received at the hands of harsh parents and superiors, upon whom they were dependent. The revolution did not topple all tyrannies. The evil which one blames on arbitrary forces exists in families, where it causes crises, analogous to those of revolutions.
We must first create, from the ground up, the connections between the interests and dispositions, the true relations among individuals. Suicide is only one of the thousand and one symptoms of the general social struggle ever fought out on new ground. Many warriors withdraw from this battle, because they are tired of being counted among the victims or to take a place of honor among the hangmen. If you want some examples, I will draw them from authentic police proceedings.
In the month of July 1816 the daughter of a tailor became engaged to a butcher. He was a young man of good morals, frugal and hardworking. He was very taken with his beautiful fiancée. She in turn was much drawn to him. She was a seamstress and was held in high esteem by all who knew her, and the parents of her bridegroom loved her dearly. These good people missed no opportunity to anticipate the arrival of their daughter-in-law. They threw many parties wherein she was queen and idol.
The time for the wedding approached. All arrangements between the families had been completed and the contracts signed. The night before the day set for the trip to city hall, the young daughter and her parents were to have dinner with the bridegroom’s family. An unimportant event unexpectedly interfered. The tailor and his wife had to stay home—customers from a rich house had to be taken care of. They excused themselves; but the butcher’s mother came herself to pick up her daughter-in-law, who had received permission to follow her.
Despite the absence of two to the guests of honor, the dinner turned out to be one of the jolliest. The anticipation of the wedding occasioned the telling of many family anecdotes. People drank; people sang. The future was discussed. The joys of a good marriage were the subject of lively discussion. Very late at night, all were still around the dining table. The parents of the young people, in an easily understandable indulgence, closed their eyes to the still secret understanding of the engaged couple. Hands sought each other. Love and intimacy were on their minds.
Besides, the marriage was a foregone conclusion and these young people had been visiting each other for a long time, without giving the slightest reason for reproach. The sympathy of the lovers’ parents, the advanced hour, the mutual longing (set free by the compassion of their mentors), the unabashed joyousness that reigns at such repasts, the wine spinning around in their heads, the opportunity that smilingly beckoned, all these combined to end in an easily anticipated result. After the lights were dimmed, the lovers found themselves in the dark. One pretended to notice nothing; they had no inkling. Here their happiness had only friends, no envious witnesses.
It was the next morning before the daughter returned to her parents. That she returned alone is evidence that she had no sense of wrongdoing. She slipped into her room and performed her ablutions. No sooner had her parents noticed her, than they furiously poured scandalous names and curse-words on her. The neighborhood witnessed all this: there were no limits to the scandal. The child was shattered by these judgments; her modesty and her privacy were outrageously assaulted. The dismayed girl pointed out to her parents that they themselves brought blame upon her, that she admitted her wrong, her foolishness, her disobedience, but that all would be set to rights. Her reasons and her pain did not disarm their fury. Those who are most cowardly, who are least capable of resistance themselves, become unyielding as soon as they can exert absolute parental authority. The abuse of that authority also serves as a cruel substitute for all the submissiveness and dependency people in bourgeois society acquiesce in, willingly or unwillingly. Neighborhood men and women, drawn to the uproar, supplied a chorus. This awful scene aroused such feelings of shame, that the child decided to take her own life. In the midst of the crowd’s cursing and scolding, she rushed down to the Seine and, with a crazed look in her eyes, threw herself into the river. The boat people pulled out her dead body still adorned with wedding jewelry. Not surprisingly, those who had been screaming at the daughter, now turned against the parents. The catastrophe scared these empty souls. A few days later the parents came to the Police Bureau’s depository to reclaim that which had clearly belonged to their child—a gold necklace that had been a present from her future father-in-law, as well as a silver watch, earrings, and a ring with a small emerald, all objects deposited with the police, as would have been expected. I did not fail forcefully to throw up to them their foolishness and barbarity. Telling these infuriated ones that they would be accountable to God would have made little impression, given their hard-hearted prejudices and their particular kind of religiosity, so common among the lower mercantile classes.
It was greed that drew them to my office, not the claim to ownership of a few relics. And, it was through their greed that I thought I could punish them. They claimed their daughter’s jewelry; I refused to give it to them. In order to get the jewelry which, according to the regulations, had been placed in the depository they needed a certificate that was in my possession. So long as I held my position their claims were in vain. I enjoyed defying their attacks on me.
That same year there appeared in my office a very attractive young Creole from one of Martinique’s richest families.He was absolutely opposed to our releasing the corpse of a young woman, his sister-in-law, to its claimant, the lady’s husband and his own brother. She had drowned herself. This is the most common form of suicide. The officers assigned to fishing the corpse out of the river found the body near the Argenteuil shore. Through one of their conscious instincts—namely shame—which governs women even when they are in darkest despair, the sad victim had carefully wrapped the seam of her dress around her feet. This modest precaution was evidence that she had committed suicide. She was hardly disfigured when the sailors brought her to the morgue. Her beauty, her youth, her rich attire, her despair, occasioned a thousand speculations about the cause of this catastrophe. The despair of her husband, the first to identify her, was boundless. He did not understand this disaster, at least so I was told: I had not yet seen the man. I told the Creole that the claims of the husband had priority. He had ordered a magnificent marble tomb to hold the remains of his wife.
“After he killed her, the monster,” screamed the Creole, as he ran off enraged.
After the excitement, the despair of this young man, after his fervent supplications to grant his wishes, after his tears, I believed I could assume that he loved her and I told him so. He confessed his love, but with the most vivid protestations that his sister-in-law never knew of this. He swore to it. Only to save his sister-in-law’s reputation, whose suicide public opinion would, as usual, ascribe to some intrigue, did he want to shed light upon the barbarity of his brother, even if thereby he were to place himself on the accuser’s bench. He begged me for my support.
What I could ascertain from his disconnected, passionate description is as follows: M. de M., his brother, was rich and a connoisseur of the arts, a lover of high living and high society. He had married this young woman about one year before. It seemed to have been mutual attraction; they were the loveliest pair imaginable. After the wedding, the bridegroom suddenly and strikingly began showing unmistakable signs of a possibly hereditary blood defect. This man, formerly so proud of his handsome appearance, his elegant figure in matchless perfection of form, suddenly fell victim to an unknown evil against whose devastation science was powerless. He was terribly transformed from head to toe. He had lost all his hair: his spine had become bent. Most noticeable were the day-to-day changes in his appearance as he became thinner and more wrinkled. At least this was so to others; his vanity sought to deny the obvious to himself. None of this made him bedridden. An iron will seemed to overcome the attacks of this evil. Forcefully, he overcame the wreckage. His body fell in ruins, but his spirit soared. He continued organizing celebrations, overseeing hunting parties, continuing to live the life of wealth and splendor. It seemed to be built into his character and his nature. Yet, when he exercised his horse on the bridle paths, there were insults and innuendos, jokes by schoolboys and street children. There were rude and scornful smiles. The well-intentioned warnings by his friends about the frequent ridicule he was subjecting himself to by his fixation on gallant manners with the ladies, finally dissolved his illusions and caused him to be on his guard toward himself. As soon as he acknowledged his ugliness and deformity, as soon as he became conscious thereof, his character turned embittered and cowardice descended upon him.
He seemed less eager to take his wife to soirées, balls, and concerts. He fled to his country home, ceased issuing any invitations, avoided people with a thousand excuses. So long as his pride gave him assurance of his superiority, he indulged his wife the attention she got from his friends. Now they made him jealous, suspicious, and violent. He saw in all those who persisted in visiting him the determination of making his wife’s heart surrender, she who was his last source of pride and his last consolation. At this time the Creole arrived from Martinique on business, the success of which seemed to benefit from the reinstatement of the Bourbons to the French throne. His sister-in-law welcomed him superbly. In the course of the many connections that she arranged for him, the new arrival had the advantages to which his status as M. de M’s brother naturally entitled him. Our Creole foresaw the isolation of the household that was developing, stemming not only from the direct quarrels his brother had provoked with numerous friends, but also from the thousand occurrences by which visitors were driven away and discouraged. Without very much taking into account the amorous motives which made him also jealous, the Creole supported these ideas of isolation and furthered them himself through his advice. M. de M. concluded the process by completely withdrawing to a lovely house in Passy that, in sort order, became a desert. The slightest thing will stir jealously. When it does not know where to turn, it feeds on itself and becomes inventive—everything nourishes it. Perhaps the young woman yearned for the pleasures suited to her age. Walls cut off the view of the neighbors’ houses, and the shutters were closed from dawn to dusk.
The unfortunate woman was condemned to unbearable slavery and M. de M. exercised his slaveholding rights, supported by the civil code and the right of property. These were based on social conditions which deem love to be unrelated to the spontaneous feelings of the lovers, but which permit the jealous husband to fetter his wife in chains, like a miser with his hoard of gold, for she is but a part of his inventory. M. de M., weapon in hand, strode around the house at night, and made his rounds with dogs. He imagined finding tracks in the sand. He lost himself in strange assumptions about the placement of a ladder, which a gardener had moved. The gardener himself, an almost 60 year-old drunkard, was placed as a guard at the door. The spirit of exclusion knows no limits to its excesses, it extends to absurdity. The brother, an innocent accomplice in all this, finally understood that he was collaborating in the young woman’s misfortune.
Day after day she was watched and insulted. It robbed her of all that might have helped distract her through her rich and happy imagination. She became gloomy and melancholy, where before she had been free and cheerful. She cried and hid her tears, but their traces were there to read. The Creole became remorseful. He decided to declare himself openly to his sister-in-law and to rectify his error, which surely stemmed from his secret feelings of love. One morning he crept into a little grove where the prisoner occasionally came to get some air and look after her flowers. Even in this circumscribed freedom, one has to believe, she knew she would be under the watchful eye of her jealous husband.
For at the sight of her brother-in-law, who at first appeared before her unexpectedly, she became greatly agitated and wrung her hands. “For God’s sake, leave!” she cried in a panic. “Leave.” And indeed, he had hardly hidden himself in a greenhouse, when M. de M. suddenly appeared. The Creole heard screams. He wanted to eavesdrop, but the pounding of his heart prevented his recourse to even the smallest word of explanation of this escapade, which, if discovered by the husband could result in a lamentable outcome.
This event spurred on the brother-in-law; from this day on he saw the necessity of becoming the victim’s protector. He forced himself to give up hidden thoughts of love. Love can sacrifice anything except its right to protect, for this last sacrifice would be cowardice. He continued to visit his brother, prepared to talk openly with him, to tell him all, to expose himself. M. de M. had no suspicion of this aspect, but his brother’s persistence let it arise. Without clearly reading the cause of his bother’s interest, M. de M. mistrusted him, sensing in advance where it might lead.
The Creole soon realized that when he came to ring the bell at the gate to the house in Passy and received no answer, his brother was by no means always absent, as he subsequently claimed. A journeyman locksmith made him keys, copied from the models his master had used for M. de M. After ten days absence, the Creole, embittered by fear, and tortured by wild fantasies, climbed over the walls one night, broke the gate to the main courtyard, and, with a ladder, climbed up to the roof. Sliding down a drainpipe, he reached a garret window. Loud cries induced him to sneak, unnoticed, to a glass door. What he saw broke his heart.
A lamp brightly lit the alcove. Beneath the draperies, his hair in disarray, his face purple with rage, a half-naked M. de M., on his knees near his wife on the same bed, showered biting reproaches on his wife who cowered, not daring to move, yet trying half-heartedly to extricate herself. He was like a tiger, ready to tear her to pieces.
“Yes,” he said to her, “I am ugly. I am a monster as I know only too well. I scare you. You wish to be freed from me, never again to be burdened with the sight of me. You long for the moment that will make you free of me. And, do not tell me the opposite. I can read your thoughts in your fear and your repugnance. You blush at the undignified laughter that I arouse. Deep down, I revolt you. Surely you are counting every minute that has yet to pass until I shall no longer burden you with my infirmities and my presence. Stop! I am filled with horrible desires, a rage to disfigure you, to make you resemble me. Then you would no longer have the hope of solace from lovers for having the misfortune to have known me. I will shatter every mirror in this house, so that they will no longer reprove me with the contrast, will no longer serve to nourish you pride. Must I take or let you go out into the world so all can encourage you to hate me? No, no, you shall not leave this house until you have killed me. Kill me; do it, that which I have been daily tempted to do.”
With loud cries, with gnashing of teeth, with spittle on his lips, with a thousand symptoms of madness, with enraged self-inflicted blows, the wild man threw himself on the bed near his unhappy wife. She wasted tender caresses as well as pathetic entreaties on him. Finally she tamed him. Pity had, undoubtedly, replaced love, but that was not enough for this now revolting man, whose passions still retained so much energy. A prolonged feeling of dejection followed this scene, which turned the Creole cold as stone. He shuddered and knew not whom to turn to, to free the unfortunate woman from this deadly torment.
Apparently this scene was being repeatedly daily. To allay the spasms that followed these scenes, Mme. de M. took refuge in the medicine bottles, prepared for the purpose of affording her tormentor some peace.
At this time the Creole was the sole representative of the family in Paris. Perhaps he foresaw that starting legal proceedings would be risky. It is above all in these cases that one wants to curse the law’s delays and its indifference. It cannot budge from its narrow, humdrum way, particularly when it is a question regarding a mere woman, the creature to whom the legislator provides the least protection. Only an arrest warrant of an arbitrator’s act might have forestalled the tragedy that the witness to this madness forsaw. Nevertheless, he decided to risk all, to accept the costs of his decisions as his fortune enabled him and to make enormous sacrifices, not fearing for the accountability for his bold undertaking. Some physician friends of his, similarly determined, planned to break into M. de M.’s house to confirm the episodes of insanity and to separate the couple forcefully, when the occurrence of the suicide justified the too-long-delayed preparations and ended the problem.
Surely, for anyone who does not reduce to its literal meaning the whole spirit of a word, this suicide was an assassination perpetrated by the husband, but it was also the result of an intoxication of jealousy. The jealous man requires a slave he can love, but that love is only a handmaiden for his jealousy. Above all, the jealous man is a private property owner.
I prevented the Creole from creating a useless and dangerous scandal, primarily endangering the memory of his beloved, as the idle public would have accused the victim of an adulterous relationship with the husband’s brother. I witnessed the funeral. None but the brother and I knew the truth. Around me I heard unworthy mumblings about the suicide, and I regarded them with contempt. One blushes at public opinion when one observes it close at hand, with its cowardly malice and its salacious inferences. Opinion is too divided through the isolation of the people, too ignorant, too corrupt, for all are strangers to themselves and to one another.
Few weeks passed, by the way, without bringing me similar revelations. That same year I recorded love matches that ended in two pistol shots, occasioned by the refusal of parents to grant their consent.
I also recorded suicides by men of the world, reduced to impotence in the bloom of their youth, having been plunged into uncontrollable melancholy by the abuse of pleasures.
Many people end their days subject to this obsession. Medicine, after long, unnecessary torment through ruinous prescriptions, could not free them from their miseries.
One could compile a strange collection of quotations from famous authors and poets which the despairing have written, preparing for their death with a certain splendor. During the moment of wonderful cold-bloodedness that comes with the decision to die, breathes a kind of contagious inspiration that flows from these souls onto these pages, even among those classes who were deprived of education. As they gather themselves together before the sacrifice, whose depths they have plumbed, they summon up all their powers and, with characteristic, warm expression, bleed to death.
Some of these poems, now buried in the archives, are masterpieces. A dull bourgeois, who places his soul in his business and his God in commerce, can find all this to be very romantic and refute the pain that he cannot understand with derisive laughter. We are not surprised by his derision. What else to expect from three-percenters, who have no inkling that daily, hourly, bit by bit, they kill themselves, their human nature. But, what is one to say of those good people who play the devout, the educated, and still repeat this nastiness?
Undoubtedly, it is of great importance that the poor devils endure life, if only in the interest of the privileged classes of this world who would be ruined by the large scale suicide of this rabble. But, is there no other way to make the existence of this class bearable besides insult, derisive laughter, and beautiful words? Above all, there must exist a kind of greatness of soul in these beggars who, fixed on death as they are, destroy themselves rather than choosing the detour of the scaffold on the way to suicide. It is true that the more progress our economy makes, the more rarely do these noble suicides occur, and conscious hostility takes its place and the unfortunate recklessly chance robbery and murder. It is easier to get the death penalty than to get work.
In rummaging through the police archives, I found only a single obvious symptom of cowardice among the list of suicides. It was the case of a young American, Wilfred Ramsay, who killed himself in order not to have to duel.
The classification of the different causes of suicide would be the classification of the failures of our society itself. One has killed oneself because some schemer stole one’s invention, on which occasion the inventor plunged into the most awful misery due to the long, learned investigation to which he had to submit, without even being able to buy a legal brief. One has killed oneself to avoid the enormous cost and the demeaning persecution in financial difficulties, which have become so common, by the way, that those men mandated to administer the public weal pay no attention whatsoever. One has killed oneself because one cannot find work, after having groaned for a long time under the insults and the stinginess of those among us who are the arbitrary distributors of work.
A physician consulted me one day regarding a death for which he accused himself of being responsible. One evening, on his return to Belleville, where he lived on a small street, he was stopped by a darkly veiled woman. In a trembling voice she begged him to listen to her. At some distance a person, whose features could not be discerned, was pacing up and down. She was being watched over by a man.
“Sir,” she said to him, “I am pregnant and if this is discovered I will be dishonored. My family, the opinion of the world, the people of honor would not forgive me. The woman whose trust I have betrayed would go mad and would certainly divorce her husband. I do not defend my actions. I stand in the midst of a scandal whose eruption only my death can prevent. I wish to kill myself; others want me to live. I have been told that you are a compassionate man and this convinced me that you will not be an accomplice to the murder of a child, even an unborn one. You see, it is a question of an abortion. I will not lower myself to pleading or to the glossing over of that which I consider the most despicable of crimes. I’m giving in to the request of strangers, as I present myself to you, as I shall know how to die. I invoke death and for that I need nobody. One gives the appearance of finding pleasure in watering a garden; one puts on wooden shoes; one chooses a watery place, where one draws water every day; one arranges to disappear in the pool of the spring; and people will say it was a ‘misfortune.’ I have foreseen everything. Sir. I wish it were the next morning, for I would go with all my heart. All is prepared, so that it will be so. But I was told to tell you and so I tell you. You must decide whether there are to be two murders or one. Out of my cowardice I have sworn an oath that I will abide by your decision without hesitation. Decide!”
“This alternative appalled me,” the doctor continued, “the woman’s voice rang pure and harmonious. Her hand which I held in mine was fine and delicate. Her free and unequivocal despair bespoke a fine sensibility. But, an issue that really made me shudder was at hand. Although in a thousand cases, for example in difficult deliveries when the surgical choice hovers between saving the mother and saving the child, politics or humanity decide the issue accordingly without scruple.”
“Escape abroad,” I said.
“Impossible,” she responded. “It is unthinkable.”
“Take clever precautions.”
“I can’t; I sleep in the same alcove with the woman whose friendship I betrayed.”
“Is she a relative?”
“I may tell you no more.”
“I would have given my life’s blood,” the doctor continued, “in order to save this woman from suicide or crime, or so that she could be freed from this conflict, without needing me. I accused myself of barbarity, for I shrank in dread from being an accessory to murder. It was a frightful struggle. Then a demon whispered to me that one doesn’t necessarily kill oneself just because one really wants to die; that, by taking away their power to do harm, one forces these compromised people to renounce their vices.”
I inferred luxury from the embroideries moving beneath her fingers and the resources of wealth in the elegant turn of her speech. One believes one owes the wealthy less sympathy; self-esteem aroused indignation against the thought of being seduced by the compensation of gold, although this matter had not been touched upon up to now. That was a matter of tact and evidence of respect for my character. I gave a negative response; the lady removed herself quickly. The sound of a carriage convinced me that I could never undo the harm I had done.
A fortnight later the newspapers brought the solution to the mystery. The young niece of a Parisian banker, at most eighteen years old, the beloved ward of her aunt who had not let her out of her sight since the death of the girl’s mother, had slipped and drowned in a stream on her guardian’s estate near Villemomble. Her guardian was inconsolable; in his role as uncle, he, the cowardly seducer, let himself be overcome by his sorrow before the world.
One sees that, for want of anything better, suicide becomes the most extreme refuge from the evils of private life.
Among the causes of suicide I very frequently found dismissal from office, refusal of work, and a sudden drop in income, in consequence of which these families could no longer obtain the necessities of life, all the more so since most of them lived from hand to mouth.
At the time when one reduced the royal guards, a good man was fired, without ceremony, like all the rest. His age and his lack of patronage precluded his transfer back to the army; his ignorance closed industry to him. He sought to enter the civil service but competitors, numerous here as everywhere, blocked his way. He fell into heavy sorrow and killed himself. In his pocket one found a letter and disclosures of his circumstances. His wife was a poor seamstress; their two daughters, ages 16 and 18, worked with her. Tarnau, our suicide, wrote in the papers he left behind “that, since he could no longer be useful to his family and was forced to live as a burden to his wife and children, he saw it as his duty to take his life and free them from this added burden. He recommended his children to the Duchess of Angoulême.15 He hoped that the goodness of this princess would take pity on so much misery.” I drafted a report for the police prefect Angles and, after the necessary formalities, the Duchess provided 600 francs for the unfortunate family. Sad help, without doubt, after such a loss! But, how should one family aid all the unfortunates since, when all is said and done, all France as it currently is, could not nourish them. The charity of the rich would not suffice even if our whole nation were religious, which it is far from being. Suicide reduces the most violent share of the difficulty, the scaffold the rest. Only by completely recasting our entire system of agriculture and industry can sources of income and true wealth be anticipated. It is easy to proclaim constitutions on parchment guaranteeing every citizen’s right to education, to work, and, above all, to a minimum subsistence-level existence. But it is not enough to put these magnanimous wishes on paper; there remains the essential task of bringing these liberal ideas to fruition through material and intelligent social institutions.
The ancient world of paganism brought splendid creations to this earth; will modern freedom be left behind by her rivals? Who will join together these grandiose elements of power?
Thus far Peuchet.