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Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor.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?

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