a psychic double-take

The Freudian analyst, Karl Menninger, has said that there are three components of suicide: the wish to kill, the wish to be killed, the wish to die. Kleinian theory would suggest that each of these processes is highly complex, ambiguous and rarely separate from the others.

For instance, a man may wish to kill only some aspect of himself under the illusion that its death will free some other part to live. In part he wishes to kill, in part to be killed. But in part death itself is by the way; what is at issue is not self-murder but an extreme act of placation which will restore some injured part of himself to health and enable it to flourish: ‘If thy eye offend thee, pluck it out.’

But for the suicide, overwhelmed by his obscure and obscuring sense of inner chaos and worthlessness, the ‘eye,’ the part, is his life itself as he is leading it. He casts away his life in order properly to live.

This psychic double-take occurs even in what seems to be the crudest case of aggression. The angry child who says to his parents, ‘I’ll die and then you’ll be sorry,’ is not merely seeking revenge. He is also projecting the guilt and anger that possesses him on to those who control his life. In other words, he is defending himself from his own hostility by the mechanism of projective identification; he becomes the victim, they the persecutors.

Similarly, but on a more sophisticated level, a man may take his own life because he feels the destructive elements inside him are no longer to be borne; so he sheds them at the expense of the guilt and confusion of his survivors.

But what is left, he hopes, is a purified, idealized image of himself which lives on like the memory of all those noble Romans who fell on their own swords with equanimity for the sake of their principles, their reputations and their proper name in history.

Without those high Roman ideals, suicide is simply the most extreme and brutal way of making sure that you will not readily be forgotten. It is a question of a kind of posthumous rebirth in the memory of others, rather like that imagined by the primitive warrior-tribesmen who thought Paradise was reserved only for those who died violently; so they destroyed themselves in order to forestall a degrading natural death by sickness or old age which would otherwise have shut them out for eternity from the best of all possible afterworlds.

Alvarez, A. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971. 9394. Print.


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