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"And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be? ... You'd be nowhere. Why, you're only a sort of thing in his dream! If that there King was to wake you'd go out -- bang! -- just like a candle!"

"Hush! You'll be waking him, I'm afraid, if you make so much noise."

"Well it's no use your talking about waking him when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real."

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

David Hume: On Suicide

"Has not every one, of consequence, the free disposal of his own life?"

Last Christmas, I brought volumes of Hume home with me to think about and copied out every reference in his Essays to superstition, thinking that my dissertation's genealogy of the word "superstition" might begin in depth with Enlightenment thought, and specifically with Hume's skepticism. Writers in the 18th century use the word pejoratively to denounce religion--at times they use superstition synonymously with Catholicism; at times it signifies a liberal slam against England's conservative Tory government; almost always it is wielded against anything under the sun that might be seen as dogmatic, in both church and state alike--which, for me, is the beginning of the end of God.

Assuming there is a God, the essay argues, there is every reason to believe that suicide is ethical, socially reponsible, and noble. Only the irrational superstitious fear of sinning against the divine keeps a suicidal mind from acting, and yet, Hume suggests, it is only rational to see that it is impossible for human kind to disrupt the divine plan. Anything you do is already accounted for, which is to say, if you are miserable and suicidal, God wants it that way, and if you slit your wrists and die, God also wants it that way. It is an excess of reason. The essay's subversive edge is that it demonstrates the logical consequential realities of Chrisian belief: all the suffering and misery in the world--poverty, oppression, tyranny--all the suicides? Christian born and Christian made, by God.

The superstitious miserable in every scene, in every incident of life. Even sleep itself, which banishes all other cares of unhappy mortals, affords to him matter of new terror; while he examines his dreams, and finds in those visions of the night prognostications of future calamities. I may add, that, tho' death alone can put a full period to his misery, he dares not fly to this refuge, but still prolongs a miserable existence, from a vain fear, lest he offend his maker, by using the power, with which that beneficent being has endowed him. The presents of God and Nature are ravished from us by this cruel enemy [superstition]; and notwithstanding that one step would remove us from the regions of pain and sorrow, her menaces still chain us down to a hated being, which she herself chiefly contributes to render miserable.

Matter of new terror: but isn't it really the same terror taking its phantom shape in the nightmare anxieties of living day after day, what now, and what next, and when will there be peace, or if not peace then euphoria, complacency, contentment that leads me away from the inevitable horror of my life: I will die.

There is no more pure masochistic fantasy than the suicide fantasy. There is pleasure in cheating death by dying--and a way of denying that death will arrive in its own good time--isn't there? There is no death outside of me having its way; I am death. Death will not happen to me; I will create it and thus break also with birth which also happened to me. And in this fantasy, death is the great punisher for no worse thing could happen even to the best of us than a slow agonizing gruesome death, but for the wretched who are wretched because guilty, death is coming. It is always on its way to carry out the law. You are bad: you deserve to die. But the suicide says: I am bad, I deserve to die, but I will decide how and when.

See Christine Hume: Hume's "Suicide of the External World"

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