This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Walker Percy’s death, and the eminent philosopher-novelist repays our attention and thought more than ever.
“The only cure for depression is suicide.” Walker Percy was not joking when he penned this line. The author himself was a survivor of suicide—though he did not attempt it. His grandfather and father both shot themselves at home; his mother either intentionally or not drove off of a bridge and drowned; and the first American Percy, Charles Percy, tied a kettle to his neck and also drowned.
Unlike his ancestors, Walker Percy lived a full life and died of prostate cancer at 74 years old. Why did they die but he lived? Because Percy chose to be a survivor, to find out not only why his father took his own life, but, as he put it, “to make damn sure it didn’t happen to [him].” This determination fueled his work. Percy wrote novel after novel trying to solve what Albert Camus called the only philosophical question, to be or not to be.
In his National Book Award-winning novel The Moviegoer, the hero’s lover is suicidal, and there is no cure for her; each day she lives is a victory. Percy’s quixotic Will Barrett from The Last Gentleman, has, like the author, lost a father to suicide, and in its sequel The Second Coming, he too attempts suicide in a lunatic Pascalian wager. Both Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome center on Dr. Tom More, who slashes his wrists and then discovers he wants to live. Real suicide is tragic, painful, and sometimes, no matter how much therapy or time, the wound cuts so deep that it feels forever raw.
In the wake of recent celebrity suicides—that of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain—there is a whir of explanations as to why they died. The majority of us were not close to these public figures. We could not tell you their pet peeves, what made them laugh, or their favorite childhood memory. Therefore, it seems audacious for so many to theorize on why they took their lives. Despite our ignorance regarding Spade’s and Bourdain’s reasons, we can speak about them as examples of a larger cultural problem. If suicide is the third leading cause of death in America, if it has risen, as journalists contend, thirty percent in a couple of decades, then our silence, in this instance, would be the more galling response.
It is too easy to dismiss suicide as a mental health problem. When we do so, we think we can throw money at the problem, and it will go away. But, the number of suicides has only risen with the increase in mental health care. Is suicide, then, another byproduct of modernity, this nondescript label we give our contemporary culture? As far as modernity has increased our alienation from one another, this may be true. Yet, we’ve been in a modern era for the past century, and suicide has only climbed the charts over the past twenty years. What of the faults of technology, how it disconnects us and dices us up into partial roles with one another rather than deep relationship? True, that’s a problem. However, there are plenty of social media users out there who are hashtagging “My Story” and telling how they overcame suicide rather than succumbed. It seems that social media, in this way, is acting as a bridge, not a divider. So, should we cast stones at American-ism? Our desire for achievement and financial success?
Percy indicts many of these factors but digs deep underneath them to the roots. The problem may be legion, but it has one cause: we do not know ourselves. We do not know where we came from, why we are here, or what comes at the end. We do not know what it means to have a good life or a good death. Often, Percy accuses Descartes as the great rabble-rouser who sliced us into two and made us question, for the past few centuries, whether we are organisms in an environment or gods within. Beasts or Angels. Who are we?
Lacking in this knowledge, we live and die for all the wrong reasons. The Declaration of Independence calls for the pursuit of happiness, but we define “happiness” as pleasure, achievement, or fortuitous circumstances. When we have all that we’ve ever wanted, then, we are surprised to find that we are still unhappy (read The Second Coming). Human beings seem paradoxically able to find enjoyment in bad environments, and sadness in pleasant ones.
If we do not literally kill ourselves, many of us are spiritual suicides, living in despair, and those of us who are not contemplating suicide, Percy labels “non-suicides”: “The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future.” Films, like Shaun of the Dead, parody our condition by casting us a physically living-dead, zombies going about our day with a pretense of happiness. We are spiritually sick, without being cognizant of the symptoms.
While there may be something wrong with our culture—and I’d grant that there is a lot wrong with it—the problem begins with ourselves. To combat this culture of death, we must acknowledge that the world is deranged, that we are not alienated individuals, but we are all born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. The Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us that if humans were made to be happy, we would not be born to die. Perhaps, we were not made for this world. Perhaps, earthly happiness should not be our primary pursuit. Perhaps, we should search for something more, and that search is life.
For Percy, we are wayfarers and pilgrims, and he always used “we” because, in this search, we are not alone. Yet, most of the time, we do not know this. We struggle to make it through a Wednesday afternoon. There seems to be no point or meaning, and we contemplate ending it all. Percy would say this is right. Consider suicide. Follow along with Percy’s thought experiment:
Suppose you elect suicide. Very well. You exit. Then what? … Your fellow townsmen will have something to talk about for a few days. Your neighbors will profess shock and enjoy it. One or two might miss you, perhaps your family who will also resent the disgrace. …The priest or minister or rabbi will say a few words over you and down you will go on the green tapes and that’s the end of you. In a surprisingly short time, everyone is back in the rut of his own self as if you never existed.
Seems like a poor option.
But, what freedom will come after this! After contemplating suicide, with all of its finality, tragedy, and consequences, then, life suddenly becomes livable. Once you realize that living is your choice, your preference, you are, in Percy’s terms, an “ex-suicide,” one who now “opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.” Suicide is not the natural outcome of depression, though it’s the only “cure.” By considering suicide and not electing it, we reaffirm that to be is better than not to be.
We are the survivors. And, we must make damn sure it doesn’t happen to us.