This is a chapter from the book:
Psychology of the Private Individual

Chapter 12: The enforcement of psychological self-criticism: suicide

Quite a few who wish they were able to deal with the world, but aren’t, manage the personality’s leave-taking from the bourgeois world more simply than through the self-tormenting procedures of psychopathology: they kill themselves, without insisting beforehand on getting much sympathy for their self-destruction — whether from the psychological amateurs around them or from professionals. The enforcement of the judgment that an individual oriented toward proving his righteousness makes when he fails is a psycho-logical consequence drawn by bankrupt capitalists, bad pupils and students, disappointed spouses, husbands fathering kids outside the home, as well as lovesick teenagers. And the decision not to want to live any longer is by no means accounted for by failure: in order to do away with oneself, one really has to apply the standards of bourgeois morals to oneself without any reserve, i.e., without having their “use” in mind. The “transition” can be made with respect to any element that characterizes a moral subjectivity, although the predominant motives are those originating in private life, because this is where the individual with his high expectations of happiness is hit hardest by disappointments.

In suicide, also known as “voluntary death,” abstract free will resorts to its “final argument” and, to the horror of the bereaved, makes its irrationality tangible to the world at large; even when the individual’s interpretation of his own failure, his conscience gone mad, “commands” him to execute himself, he acts calculatingly by advance warning and farewell letter, and launches a last offensive. The fact that he has no benefit from this calculation, which is intended to get to other people’s consciences, may serve as a reminder of the epigraph at the beginning about making abstractions hold in reality…

12.1. Self-pleasing in despair

The suicide is undoubtedly a victim — but this observation is a very stupid ideology when it gives no information about what he is a victim of. In any case, it is not “social conditions” that guide the suicide’s hand: for even with the greatest wretchedness and misery imaginable, what matters is the conclusion the person affected draws from it. And it requires a fairly crazy logical consistency in order to proceed from whatever starting point and arrive at the result that one no longer belongs in this world. After all, the suicide is not merely executing on himself the feeble judgment that life is not worth it anymore, since being dead surely ought to be a lot less worth it. With radical narrow-mindedness, the suicide candidate measures his life against a most personal idea of certain conditions, only under which his life would be worth living at all. Whatever reason he may cite for his death sentence — from the failed exam, the darling who ran off, the wayward children, career-related failure or the fear of being busted for crooked dealings in business or marriage, to the impending or actual end of his accustomed way of life, or a general lament about the unkindness of the world — it becomes a reason for ending his own life only by his taking it as an argument against himself: as evidence of the inadequacy of his own person in the face of a standard of fitness he wants to submit to completely. So it is not simply his own circumstances or the will of other people that have made his life is a failure: the suicide candidate deems his most personal moral life agenda, in which he alone wants to be pleasing to himself, to be a failure and unworkable from now on — but without in the slightest losing faith in the criteria for the character mask that he solely wants to accept himself as, and even live as. It is thus an idealism — taken seriously without compromise and without the usual qualifications of fitness for bourgeois life — of a perfect moral character, an idealism whose crazy demands the candidate sees only one chance of standing up to; namely, by freely sacrificing himself to this idealism: this is the only way he likes to be pleasing to himself. This logically consistent moral stance is easily the equal in brutality to the National Socialist program of “euthanasia” in the interests of preserving the racial purity of the national character; turned against himself, the suicide’s logically consistent cruelty serves as his last and utmost means for proving the validity of his ideal of successful self-assertion against its practical refutation in his own person, and thus for saving the madness itself, in which he has placed his entire honor.

Bourgeois individuals from all classes and social strata, political or ideological “camps,” “unemancipated” nuclear families or “progressive” shared households — all are equally capable of such logical consistency in submitting to their self-fabricated character program. For the basis and content of the plan to remove oneself from the world is the general moral idealism of class society. And the fact that everyone subscribes to this idealism in his own special way, which he is God only knows how proud of — and which he above all has no problem regarding as a very superior criticism of the prevailing “lack of principles” and “double moral standards” — is the best guarantee that everyone, proudly believing he is taking quite a unique journey through life, can also work toward the not-at-all unique logical conclusion of murderous self-criticism, which is included in all moral idealism, but also follows only from moral idealism.

12.2. Ridiculous respect for “voluntary death”

Of all the moralistic follies of the bourgeois individual, none is made so much fuss about as planned, attempted, and completed suicide. In theory, suicidal thoughts are familiar to everyone, because everyone, in the course of his life, is occasionally ashamed in the face of the maxims of character-laden self-stylizing — and shame is simply the “argument” for suicide. So the “normal” person, who is “normal” in that he deals pragmatically with his self-incriminations, admires the practitioner of a destroyed sense of honor for a firmness of principle that he declares unsuitable for himself, but not without a somewhat guilty conscience. Even when a brilliant deed of this kind is denied recognition — on grounds that it was “unnecessary” a) for someone with an otherwise steady personality, b) for such a relatively trivial reason, c) at the present time, etc. — even then, the proof offered by the suicide of how much his absolute “self-respect” is worth to him still makes quite an impression. Surviving friends and relatives, and whoever else wants to consider himself affected, are moronic enough to compare their own strength of character with that of the one who departed in such an evidentiary manner, and to wonder whether they perhaps failed to do justice to the depth and fineness of his character and to the subtle moral demands on the world that it entailed, and what they might have “done wrong.” In their efforts to regularly work their way forward to contempt for the “victim” by discoursing about his entirely individual unfitness for life, in order to obtain a good conscience on this point — “He just wouldn’t let anyone help him!” — in these efforts, they pay their last respects to his crazy materialism.

This ridiculous respect is, of course, the fitting basis for the bourgeois public responding to reports of dramatic suicides with a pleasurable shudder, and liking to be culturally entertained by the lie that such a “voluntary death” really gives the audience rather a lot to “think about.” The sympathetic observer feels very close to the “question of the meaning of life” — and quite rightly, since someone has just paid his last tribute to this idiocy; only this is not at all what a morally indoctrinated intellect sees in the suicide’s “sacrifice.” Philosophers and clergymen, both pros and amateurs in fact, have not the slightest difficulty sponging ideologically off every act of bourgeois madness, so also and all the more off suicide, by blowing it up into an unsuccessful or — more rarely — even successful object lesson on the “existential emergency,” thus turning the ultimate gloominess of bourgeois self-assertion by self-destruction into an opportunity for enjoying their boring “ultimate questions.” And while the Christian churches condemn suicide because they see in it, of all things, an extreme lack of moral willingness to bear life patiently, and, in the name of their pious servitude to God, interpret self-destruction as a last radical rearing up of materialism and man’s hubristic lack of restraint; on the other side, the critical leftist takes the liberty — not only since “Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness”[1] — of discovering in all bourgeois crap, so also in young proletarian or other “fringe-group” suicide, a misguided, but “basically” revolutionary protest against the callousness of capitalism.

12.3. Calculation in suicide: The idealism of spitefulness

The fact that the bereaved family and friends of a suicide have pangs of conscience about his act of desperation is no secret, least of all to a suicide candidate. And so the multitude of “suicide” attempts arranged so as to be discovered in time, and the practice of farewell letters, are not the only evidence of the sort of calculation that a bourgeois individual performs even when he is despairing of his moral life program. With his narrow-minded radicalness, the suicide candidate finally and incontrovertibly puts himself and his ideal of life in the right, in this way having the last word against all who failed to give him sufficient recognition, or at least reproach themselves for that afterwards. And so his deed is not only a final reckoning with himself, but at the same time a last offensive in the fight for the recognition of his own special character, namely, for a final, no longer refutable compensation for missed recognition, an offensive that has freed itself from any hope of a real advantage, that simply aims to recoup itself from the envisaged horror of others, and is thus hard to beat for petty spitefulness. With the final ratification of the idealism that the suicide candidate has subjected his existence to, the purpose of this idealism — to be the means and the embodiment of a will to defensive self-assertion against everything and everyone — this purpose also comes into force in a final way in all its wretchedness and shabbiness.


[1] Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück, Phil Jutze’s 1929 film depicting the horrors of poverty ending with suicide — with a plug for Communism!