Suicide in Antiquity and in Modern Times by Gaston Garrisson

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Suicide remains an elusive problem, both clinically and philosophically. Indeed, Camus said that suicide was the only philosophical problem of any real importance; but that is an exaggeration, if an excellent opening line to the philosophical treatise in which he makes the claim.

French writing on suicide is extensive; Émile Durkheim’s study on suicide is still a standard work. Twelve years earlier, in 1885, a lawyer called Gaston Garrisson published a book entitled Suicide in Antiquity and in Modern Times, full of the most fascinating and recondite information on the subject: for example, that under the Justinian code, it was permissible for a debtor to commit suicide if he could not pay his debts. This was because if he did not pay his debts he could be enslaved to his creditor; to avoid the shame of this was deemed a good reason for him to kill himself. It is perhaps as well that the Justinian code no longer applies.

Garrisson also mentions the Suicides’ Club that existed in Paris and Berlin at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and which probably inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Suicide Club. The rule of the Paris and Berlin clubs was that every member should be willing to kill himself if chosen by lot to do so. Membership of the clubs, unsurprisingly perhaps, was never very extensive, twelve in Paris and six in Berlin. The last member to kill himself did so in 1819.

Garrison was an early supporter of assisted suicide, though mainly for legal reasons; for if suicide was not a crime (as it was not in post-revolutionary France), how could assisting it be a crime? Before the Revolution suicide was a crime, the corpse was punished, and a man’s property was forfeit; there was a long historical struggle between the king and the nobles over which of them got the suicide’s belongings.

Britain is referred to throughout the book as the classic land of spleen and suicide. The fact that the statistics showed that the French were more prone to suicide was explained by the hypocrisy of the British coronial system, which rarely found that a man had killed himself, thus preventing the forfeiture of his goods to the crown, a regulation that was then still nominally in force though in effect a dead letter. Garrisson quotes Henry Maudsley, the founder of the hospital.

My copy of Garrison’s book serves as a memento mori. One is inclined to suppose that, when one possesses an old book, it has found its final resting place, its true owner. But in fact, one is only ever its temporary guardian.

The first identifiable owner of the volume was a Dr Revertégat, who owned a psychiatric clinic in the town of Sannois, where he several times treated the painter, Maurice Utrillo, for his alcoholism. The second was Dr Gregory Zilboorg (1890 – 1959), the Russian born psychoanalyst and historian of medicine among whose patients were the writer Lillian Hellman and the composer George Gershwin. When Zilboorg emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1919, he lived by means of translation while pursuing a medical degree at Columbia University, among the books he translated being Yevgeny Zamyatin’s early dystopia, We, which is said to have inspired George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Who will own the book after me?

Scapegoated Capitalism

We’ve previously posted two articles Dalrymple has written for The Journal of Modern Wisdom, a publication from author and philosopher Ben Irvine devoted to the search for wisdom and the good life. In addition to publishing Dalrymple, Ben has been a friend to this blog for years, and now he has a new book we want to tell you about. Scapegoated Capitalism examines the history of scapegoating generally, shows how it is perhaps inherent in human nature and demonstrates how it reveals itself today in the arguments of anti-capitalists, who blame an obviously beneficial economic system for problems that have other causes:

The scapegoating of individuals is bad enough when the accused share the blame with their accusers. But, in fact, the blaming of capitalists is more sinister still. The policies advocated and implemented by anti-capitalists do not mitigate but rather cause or worsen the problems that capitalism is accused of causing. Capitalism is therefore blamed not so much for everyone’s sins as for sins that belong to its accusers.

Readers like me who reject the accusation of ignorance and hatred often thrown at defenders of the free market will appreciate Irvine’s linkage of capitalism’s critics to the witch-hunters of old, for it is the big-government types who rely most on ignorance, fear and demonization.

Scapegoated Capitalism is available for the Kindle at Amazon.

Walsall’s Competition

To his surprise Dalrymple discovers a town in France as ugly as most in England:

The only hotel in the town was of such hideousness that it made me laugh. It was built in 1990, with elements of Las Vegas bolted onto a concrete construction of the Leonid Brezhnev school of architecture. Since it did not erect itself, someone must have designed it, a terrifying thought.

Jo Cox; A Very Modern Saint

Well, that’s two pieces in a row. The Salisbury Review appears to have gone the subscriber-only route. (Good for them, I hope they make a mint.) I haven’t yet joined, so the entirety of this piece will also remain behind the paywall, but it’s obviously addressing the victim-as-saint mentality applied to Jo Cox:

Strictly speaking, her brutal death should not have affected the result in either direction: it left the arguments for and against leaving the European Union precisely where they had been before. But no one should dismiss out of hand the effect of candles and teddy bears on the political thought of a modern electorate.

The Radical Disease

Writing of European concern about further terrorist attacks from radical Islamists, Dalrymple says there is a “tendency to think of ‘radicalization’ as a kind of disease”, and now, in order to avoid the spread of the contagion, officials in France have built “five small, special penitentiaries for young radical Muslims found guilty of terror-related crimes”. But will the quarantining of these “patients” stop the spread or concentrate and intensify it?

Dalrymple at City Journal

Fear & loathing in Algeria

My access to subscriber-only articles in the New Criterion is currently down, and while the techs look into it, maybe one of you can summarize this new piece by Dalrymple for us. The subhead indicates that it is about the “novelization of the life and death of Communist dissident Fernand Iveton”, whom Wikipedia informs me was executed for planting a bomb at a power station in Algeria, even though he intentionally set the bomb to explode at a time when no one would be hurt.

Read it here (subscription required)

The Surgeon by Alan Thomas

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Even bad or mediocre novels are not without interest, especially when they have aged a little and so tell us something about times gone by. They are like symptoms.

But symptoms of what, exactly? Do such novels tell us about the past as it actually was, as the author wanted or believed it to be, or as he thought it ought to have been? Do such novels tell us the truth of the age or the illusions of the age, or some combination of the two?

Recently I picked up a novel titled The Surgeon. It was the medical title that drew me to it; it was by Alan Thomas and published in 1964. Although 48 years is not exactly an historical epoch ago, and is well within the memory of people now living, the world depicted would be almost as remote to a young person as that of, say, the court of Frederick the Great.

The author, Alan Ernest Wentworth Thomas, was born in 1896 and died in 1969. He had a varied career, as classical scholar, army captain (wounded four times in the First World War), barrister, crime novelist, employee of the League of Nations, editor for nineteen years, between 1939 and 1957, of The Listener, and finally as a reasonably successful novelist. His first book was published in 1928 and his last, posthumously, in 1970.

The surgeon of the title is Larry Balneath, young, accomplished, handsome, successful and flawed. One day he is called to the hospital because a minor Conservative politician, Sir Humphry Halland, Bart., has had a car crash and fractured his lumbar vertebrae, on which Balneath operates with his customary brilliance. In those days, if the novel is to be believed, titles still inspired awe; when Halland’s young wife asks to be called Gloria instead of my lady it is a sign of her broadminded and democratising informality.

Balneath and Lady Halland fall in love while Halland is flat on his back in hospital. They do so very chastely, I must say, despite Lady Halland being twenty years younger than her husband. He is referred to throughout the book as if he were an old man, though in fact he is only 53, and the marriage was never a successful one.

Unfortunately, when Halland recovers he has a further accident, falling off a podium and injuring his back so badly that he suffers paraplegia (despite Balneath’s second brilliant operation on him). Lady Halland asks Balneath to kill Halland, partly for his own sake because he will be so miserable as a paraplegic, but partly so that Balneath and she can marry. Balneath refuses, and she thereafter discovers an affection and duty towards her husband. It is Lady Chatterley in reverse. Balneath, in the meantime, marries his utterly devoted Harley Street receptionist and secretary.

The world that Thomas portrays is one in which hospital consultants are gods, nurses are ministering angels, divorce is an utter scandal, porters and butlers are deferential, Daimlers are chauffer driven, sex occurs only at the end of an elaborate pas de deux, if even then, and the rich smoke as a matter of course. Did this world ever really exist? Fled is that music: do I wake or dream?

Life de Bois

The medical conferences to which Dalrymple is occasionally invited all sound the same: dull, dishonest and devoid of meaning.

The latest conference on medical leadership has eighty speakers and lasts three days. The organizers seem to believe that the longer the conference and the larger the number of speakers on so patently dull a subject, the more impressive it is, no doubt in the way that a big box of chocolates impresses a greedy person more than a small one. All things considered, however, I’d rather stay at home and read the collected works of Kim Il Sung: to which, indeed, the conference bears a striking resemblance.

Read the rest at Taki’s Magazine

Turkey; Making the sewers run on time

Visiting Istanbul recently, Dalrymple noticed the city’s energy and growth and compares it to Western cities like Paris that appear lackluster and sluggish:

In Istanbul, by contrast, one senses the energy of a confident expansion. Something very remarkable has been achieved there, which I have not seen remarked upon. Istanbul has expanded to become an enormous city, half again as big as Paris in population, mainly by immigration from the countryside: but it has done so without the creation of the terrible slums that rapid urban expansion has brought about it most other cities undergoing such rapid expansion in like circumstances. The vast periphery of Istanbul is in some ways less depressing than that of Paris.

Read the rest of the piece at Salisbury Review

The Same May Happen

How different is Britain’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, from her predecessors? Not much, says Dalrymple:

Mrs. May, like all mainstream politicians in Europe today, is a social democrat, a social engineer, and a statist. She is more open about this than her predecessors… The usual genuflections in the direction of personal effort and responsibility notwithstanding, she is still a knobs-and-lever politician: She will twist what she thinks are the right knobs and pull the right levers, and supposedly the result will be a more equal but also a more entrepreneurial society.

Yes, well… good luck with that.