Death by bad habits

Suicide is such an intensely private act it cannot easily be
linked to broader social factors. Or can it? In his classic study
of suicide, The Savage God, Al Alvarez makes a persuasive
case for a connection between the rise of social turmoil in the
20th century and that of the artistic self-destroyer: think Ernest
Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Mark Rothko or Sylvia Plath. Making art
out of the messy materials of modern life, Alvarez argues, was a
way of both subduing or attempting to master chaos; a risky see-saw
act that could, and so often did, fail. Interestingly, suicide
among artists was much less common in previous

Most people are not creative in this extreme sense. They have not
tried to express the mayhem of their age and paid the ultimate
price for it. But numerous citizens experience social upheaval as
extreme as war or as ordinary as divorce and many have felt the
same things as the despairing artist: anger, bleakness, a complete
absence of hope. Judging by the contemporary suicide statistics, it
seems to be men who are feeling these emotions most acutely. How do
we account for this gender gap in death?

The higher incidence of suicide by men always surprises me as if,
at some unconscious level, I still think of killing yourself as a
soft option, a kind of giving up, which goes against the
traditional masculine grain. But despair is irrational in one
important sense: no one, man or woman, chooses to feel it. Instead,
they find themselves overwhelmed by bleakness and cannot find the
mechanisms to cope. So, why do so many men feel such hopelessness
about life?

It is not that hard to understand. Despite feminism and the
so-called feminisation of the economy, women are still largely
expected to make sense of their life through human connections be
it friendship, sexual love or motherhood.

A woman may become frightened or depressed by separation from the
crowd, even if involves success rather than failure. She may not
even be able to distinguish between the two. The resignation last
year by education secretary Estelle Morris from the Cabinet was a
good example of how uncomfortable women can feel about the natural
offshoots of power and success, including high levels of personal
attention and conflict.

In contrast, men still tend to prove themselves through work,
achievement, personal success. The intense turmoil in the economy
over recent decades has had a massive effect on the male psyche. In
The Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett shows
brilliantly how the decline of long-term security in employment has
had a devastating impact on the self-esteem of a generation of
working and middle class men.2

Women tend not to experience the impact of economic change so
acutely. Our place in the economy still feels somewhat tentative
and conditional. In some way, we are still so amazed to have a job
or a profession at all. Losing one or the other might be a
financial blow but it doesn’t feel like the alienation of a birth

Women are also better at interrogating their feelings, including
those of apparent personal failure. But to those whose emotional
literacy is less developed powerful emotions can feel like the
definitive statement, the final bulletin on the condition of their
own reality rather than a temporary disturbance.1

Suicide is not just a collapse into nothingness, the final defeat.
It is also an act of unique aggression. Indeed, some people who
have attempted suicide but failed have later reported that they
believed the act to be somehow temporary and reversible. They
thought they would retain some degree of consciousness after their
death which would allow them to experience the guilt of those
around them. Thus, their desire to punish was even stronger than
their apparent understanding of death itself.

In a post script to The Savage God, Al Alvarez describes
his own attempted suicide. His own period of disturbance might
fairly be seen as a kind of existential crisis. But he also
describes a life of little sleep, enormous amounts of drinking and
precious little relaxation. Such everyday bad habits are not a
strictly male failing but preoccupation with looks and shape and
general care of the self perhaps makes women quicker to understand
the beneficial effects of a good diet, exercise, rest and sleep in
preserving their mental health. Living wisely is so often a
question of getting the small things right; life so often looks a
great deal bleaker after three hours sleep than it does after

1 A Alvarez, The Savage
God. A Study of Suicide
, Penguin Books, 2002

2 R Sennett, The Corrosion of Character. The
Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism
, WW Norton
and Co, 1998

Melissa Benn is a journalist and novelist.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.