‘A death that one gives oneself sovereignly’: Embodiment, Emancipation, and Suicide in Philosophy and Literature

Andrew Bennett

Against the ‘normatively monolithic’ contemporary conception of suicide as primarily a question of mental health, this paper will attempt to trace an alternative tradition in literature and philosophy according to which the act involves what Maurice Blanchot calls an ‘exceptional affirmation’. By taking one’s life, Jean Baechler argues, the individual ‘proclaims’ his or her ‘autonomy and sovereignty’; the suicide ‘decides for itself in its full sovereignty’, Jean Améry declares; for Anthony Giddens, the act involves a ‘grasping toward omnipotence’. As such, suicide can be considered constitutively subversive of established order since it contests, in an absolute sense, the rights of others and of institutions over the individual. What Jacques Derrida calls the ‘death that one gives oneself sovereignly’, can be conceived of as a fundamental resistance to theological, legal, and political power, as the subject’s refusal of the supremacy of church and state by its removal from their legislative realms, and as an appropriation of their powers to itself in a gesture of ‘phantasmatic mastery’. In this tradition, the body is used as a paradoxical instrument of political opposition: suicide is seen as a form of resistance to authority, but one that, in destroying the agent of resistance, also paradoxically serves power. In Michel Foucault’s terms, suicide operates ‘at the borders and in the interstices of power that [is] exercised over life’.

As the institution that, in Derrida’s formulation, ‘allows one to say everything, in every way’, literature may be said to invoke suicide without either advocating or simply rejecting or condemning the act. Located in the interstices of law, ethics, and medicine, literature engages fully with questions of responsibility and agency that are insistently raised by the act of suicide – an act that features as a pervasive concern and key narrative crux in the literary tradition from Hamlet to Infinite Jest and beyond.