Suicide by M.

"Die, and increase the demand for coffins!"

Motto of Undertakers' Mystery. Free translation.

A certain philosopher once said, with a degree of truth that proved the strength of his own head and the weakness of the human nature he was anatomizing, that "many men could easily bring themselves to practise those things they would in nowise permit to be preached to them." He saw the line of distinction between virtue in thought and virtue in action,—the ease with which we could have the former, the difficulty of possessing in practice the latter; he knew how easy it is to be good when and where there is no temptation to the contrary; he knew the proneness of people thus luckily located on the top of Fortune's wheel, to inquire with seeming wonder wherefore they who were being pulverized beneath the bottom of the same,—the pulverization being no jot the pleasanter from the obvious fact of the inquirer's weight being on the top,—why the discontented fellows presumed to be so uncomfortable, when their superiors made so many inquiries after their well-being; he knew that the top wheelmen were but too apt to argue about the fellows below as if they were of themselves, and to conclude that it was as wicked a thing for a man to steal a penny loaf when starving, as for an alderman to do the same thing, whose well-turtled stomach would bring the robbery into an act of wanton appropriation, only to be explained by his superabundant organ of acquisitiveness. In short, respectable reader, he knew what we all know, after he has made it clear, that the degree in which we practise what we will not permit to be preached to us, is proof of human weakness, and measure of the want of health in our personal morals. It is a confession of our inability to act up to our conception of virtue; and the cherishing the theory of good without making the practice follow after, is a postponement of active virtue sine die. Or if we beat away that pertinacious dun, conscience, by saying, "Ah! never mind, I'll start with bran-new morals next year," it is only like moving that a bill be read this day six months,—a humane method of knocking the measure on the head without the unfeeling necessity of saying in so many words that knocking is to be its entertainment.

Now, if I were to say,—which I feel very much disposed to do,—that cutting one's own throat (where there are no kindred feelings to be cut)—"that cutting one's own throat in this case was a very proper thing,—where a man likes it," I should at once have a cloud of the schoolmen upon me, each with the weapons his master of the ordnance, Paley, has supplied to him, proving, until breath, temper, and text were exhausted, that I am a presumptuous puppy in imagining for one moment that I have any property at all in my own throat, which is given to me for the good of society, and not to be cut by and for me, and my proper satisfaction. This would be the language of these "top wheelmen,"—fellows who are far too comfortable not to wish to be as immortal as a corporation, and who therefore doubt my sanity in not being as jolly as themselves,—like the young princess to her miserable little subject, "What is the matter with you?—how can you cry? I am very happy?" "Live," says the archdeacon, as he wipes his mulligatawnied mouth with his napkin;—"live," cries he to the lank-cheeked fellow who has been fished out of the river against his will, whither he had gone to stop the disagreeable function of breathing on a scanty supply of bread;—"live," cries the archdeacon,—"life you cannot give, life you cannot take. You are placed in this world to run your course; you must run it accordingly. How soon it may require your aid, you do not know; at any rate, when it is fit you should retire hence, you will be called hence; rush not uncalled-for, into the other world. I am sorry for you; here is half-a-crown; and, John," turning to the footman, who has been picking the crumbs of morality falling from the rich man's mouth, "John, show this poor man out." The poor man, with a sad aspect and a slow pace, crawls toward the door; and looks as if, did not deferential modesty restrain him, he would reply to the good archdeacon in these words. As the old man has seen them, and owned, with wonder at our penetration, that they correctly exhibit the thoughts at that time passing through his brain, we at once put the reader in possession. "Live, my dear sir! I am quite willing to do so; it is what I have been in vain struggling to do. Live! Have not the slightest objection; but then I must live; you, your honour, have said you could not afford to keep a conscience, although you doubtless think it a very good thing among people who can afford to do so; indeed I know well your writings venerate many things your acts do not, for want of this article you cannot afford to keep. So my abstract admission must be given to all arguments against suicide in the main, reserving a particular conclusion for myself, viz. that to attempt to live without money is quite as bad as cutting off my legs, in order to pit myself in a walking-match against Mr. Coates. I shudder, Mr. Paley, as deeply as yourself at the general idea of suicide; but, in reference to particular cases, it's all a matter of cash. You cannot afford to keep a conscience, another man cannot afford to keep a mistress, a third finds the keeping himself beyond the capacity of his exchequer: the first denies himself the luxury of a conscience for the present, the second puts his lady quietly away, the third puts himself in a pond quietly and comfortably." The would-be suicide was quite right: as the profound estimator of political tactics some time back remarked, in reference to the gladiatorial exercises of the factions of the day, "it's all a matter of 'wittals:'" necessity compels us to do what principle will not hear preached by others; so that I almost despair of miseries great as mine making out a claim for mortality, and apprehend that only a few very sensible people will say at the end of my paper, "There, go, my good fellow, and hang yourself, as soon as you can beg, borrow, or steal a sufficient bit of cord for that laudable purpose."

Yet if there be one moral truth clearer, stronger, and less assailable than another, it is that, in some circumstances, "self-murder" is the most virtuous act a man can perform. A burthen to himself, an annoyance to the world, no relatives or connexions to regret his loss, may not an intentional stopping of the breathing function be the best act he can commit for all sides? The utilitarian will say "Yes," among whom we rank the Paleyites, all of whom were and are utilitarians; the old-fashioned addlepates will shake their heads, take snuff, and finally declare that a good deal may be said on both sides.

The above useful reflections, as well as those that immediately follow, had their origin on the third step above high-water mark of Waterloo Bridge.

I was thinking about providing for myself in the flood beneath, and after mature reflection concluded I had better not. They are your "thinkers" about it who never do the thing,—a man who is always thinking about marrying is sure to die an old bachelor. Hamlet thought about killing his uncle so long, that that very immoral elderly gentleman had very nearly slipped through his reflective nephew's fingers; and so a man who thinks about throwing himself in the water is sure to conclude the argument as I did, by turning round and walking up the steps. Indeed death's a nasty thing; we go to it as to a last resource, sharp though sure, as the young woman said on handling the hatchet that was to dissociate her head and shoulders. The watery form of it has its advantages and disadvantages; there is little pain, but it is cold, plashy, sneaking, and kitten-killing in its general style: the warmest imagination cannot save the body from a certain shiver as the thing is contemplated; at least that was my experience on the third step aforementioned. I tried to fancy that it was but a sort of hydrostatic bed without the expense of the India-rubber casing. It was of no use; active memory recurred to the attitudinizings of a fine growing family of young mousers whom in early life I had introduced to the cold comfort of a pail of water; and at the reminiscence my blood ran colder than the water at my feet. With a quiet rippling plash it washed along the step. It sounded to the ear as if old Charon called from the bottom, ready to start over that other stream to which this merely branch canal must conduct us. Bright and tempting it ran at my feet, ready to conceal both me and my sorrows. But the foolish instinct for life prevailed within me; I returned to walk the streets at night,—an employment from which I had thought, ten minutes before, death would be a happy relief; a delusion which the being confronted with it soon dissipated. In walking up the steps I felt as one who had been reprieved, to whom life in its worst aspects would be infinitely preferable to that 'hereafter' which the fancy studs with such dimly awful horrors.

"Stuff!" I hear some one say who is reading this perhaps on a full stomach; "nonsense! a happy relief from walking about the streets, indeed! the fellow does not know what to write about." So would not poor old Dr. Johnson have said after one of his street vagabondizings, when he sate down to write the essay whose signature "Impransus," indicated the dinnerless state of the writer's stomach; so would not he have said; no, nor his wandering chum, Savage: warm tears would have coursed down their rough cheeks, for they knew what it was in their time; and living in the streets, notwithstanding the improvement of the paving, is not much more desirable now than it was in their time, or in the old time before them.

It is only at night,—and that cold, drizzly, and muddy,—you can feel in its full force the misery that is foodless and houseless. In the day the busy streets are thronged with the crowds drifting along, intent on their respective objects. Then, houseless though you be, you feel no consciousness of it from contrast: purposeless as you are, the fact is known to none but yourself, and you enjoy the poor privilege of promenading the pavement free from staring remark or official interruption. But at night, about twelve or half-past, the theatre-frequenters hurrying home, happy shopmen returning from their sweethearts, and attorneys' clerks and small joyous shopboys, cigar in mouth, hastening to their quiet beds, the very poorest Cyprian, perhaps, staggering away in silence and ginny stupor to her squalid room,—then you feel that you are not one of the mass; it is the school-boy sensation of strangeness in a new school, carried up and increased into one's manhood; you are a misfit in society,—of no use; a shoe-black, a hackney-coachman, a costermonger are respectable in your eyes, for each of these holds a department in the great game of life. If you walk fast, the tears come into your eyes at the thought of the sad mockery of people with homes,—for where should you walk to? You slink from street to street, shivering and broken-spirited; afraid to pause, lest the searching eye of the policeman shall for one moment mistake the unfortunate for a thief; and tremblingly shunning to stretch your weary limbs in a doorway, tempting as it looks, that your miseries shall not the next morning be presented to a police office, and published to the world. In fine, you almost feel that the "world would move on much the same even if you were dead and buried,"—a root-and-branch cutting-up of one's self-esteem that may be called the last conviction of the dejected.

Many are the poor wretches who for months pass through such an existence as this. If men, enlistment is a last resource: if women, prostitution, paint, gin, and jollity that would look wonderfully like happiness were it not so loud, low spirits, laudanum, or Waterloo steps; paragraph in newspapers—old story—seduction and suicide—fine young woman—parents in the country; penny-a-liner pockets his fee, and keeps the "form" of his female biography open for the next name the same set of circumstances may bring to him.

There is something awfully desolate in walking the streets through a night, passing across that dark gulf of the four-and-twenty which is a sort of temporary banishment from humanity,—that on-and-on purposeless tramp from the coming down of the darkness to the dawning of light, passing perhaps not two persons within the space of a mile; the solitary pad of our feet on the pavement; the sombre and dim hue of the streets relieved by the gas; the seemingly unnatural quiet in a place old custom tells us should be so noisy; the strange feeling that we are watching and thinking, whilst the vast Leviathan of toil, and luxury, and woe, and pleasure, has run its daily course, and is now snatching from the Lethe of sleep the instalment of energy for the next day's career. What passions and aspirations, what purposes of pomp and glory, of wickedness and virtue, what golden glories of the poet's brain quenched, or flickering in the twilight of dream, the strategy of the politician, all plunged into the "death of each day's life!" What a time, what a scene for reflection, with the deep, and awful, and warning gong of old Paul's clock striking two, in a tone which, plain as words, tells us how time with flying foot runs from us,—and all the humbler fry of iron pots in the metropolis plagiarising the sad fact tolled forth by their grave old leader! The streets are completely empty; the very policeman has slunk into some early house, and we feel like the last man.

And who will wonder, after this course repeated with little variation for a respectable period of three or four months, that a man looks upon a dissolution of partnership with this lower life as the best fate open to him? Why should one in this state stay longer among men, when no occupation can be secured which will rescue him from indifference, or shield him from contempt? Why should moralists, like Paley, try to stay his purpose by flinging the salt of their sapiency on his tail, when his only ambition, like Goldsmith's George Primrose, is to live, and that humble aim thwarted at every avenue by the grim visage of starvation staring him in the face? It is time he is gone. Let him unlock his soul from its painful prison, and send it cleaving its way in the joy of emancipation to those regions where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest. Without wife or children, brothers, sisters, or cousins, grandfathers or grandmothers, dogs, cats, or birds, which can call with the voice either of nature or custom for my personal presence here below, why should I be tied by the leg with a moral "ne exeat mundo?" I am my own,—not a chop or a cutlet of me belonging to my creditors, for I am out of debt; and surely, I repeat, I may do what I like with my own. "You are not your own," again cries my moralist, attempting to throw a net of words over my mind about relative and social duties, society and its incidents, law of civilization, &c.—the whole leading to a sort of conclusion that if the world may not want me now, there is no saying the time will not come when it may find out what an indispensable person I am; and upon the dependence of this "may want" I am to hang about in the outer hall of this sublunary state, until those very comfortable fellows within, happen to think of us shivering without, and promote us to the pleasures of their well-plenished table. Truly we must wait long for this,—perhaps until an earthquake comes, and they call for our assistance in fishing them up through the bricks and beams of their fallen chambers.

No, no; Mr. Creech was quite right, if he thought himself so, in writing on the margin of his Lucretius, "When I have finished my translation, I must kill myself." That gentleman took the extended and philosophical view of the subject; life was to him something to be and to do; to be a translator, to do Lucretius, and then to do for the personal estate of Mr. Creech in this world, in order to translate the accidents and chances of personalty into the settled and comfortable remainder of eternity. Cool, philosophical man! what refinement of reflection, to come to regard the act of letting out life with as little perturbation as ordinary men contemplate eating their dinners! To translate Lucretius was his task; performed, he was to kill himself: a silk-weaver has to weave so many yards of his fabric; done, he promises himself with his wife and little ones a walk in the fields. In both cases there is a duty to fulfil, in both cases the emancipation follows; both must we subject to the same test in endeavouring to settle their respective characters,—the necessity or obligation of the translator on the one hand, or the weaver on the other, loitering in the world, or the workshop, after their work is executed. The only difference is an affair of time and distance; the one being bound, as he thinks, for the Elysian, the other and humbler for the Marylebone fields.

"Well, my dear sir," cries the reader, "I see you are intent on your point. I shall perhaps only waste my lungs and logic in trying to beat you away from your delusion; but reflect, sir, the tendency—how catching—the imitative faculty in man,—lateral organ largely developed." Fiddlestick!—away with your organs and developements! An old gentleman, who has read all qualities of human dealing in a learned spirit, writes as follows:—"All I will venture to assert with confidence is, that there is no reason to apprehend that suicide will become an epidemic malady. Nature has provided too well for that. Hope and fear are too powerful as inducements not to frequently stop the hands of a wretch about to terminate his own life."

Meanwhile, it is useless blinking the moral fact, that suicide is as natural a result of compared good and evil as any other act in life. In every case (not excepting those of insanity) we shall find it takes that shape. Whether it be Mr. Creech, who sits down and stares death out of countenance with a familiarity that must have disconcerted the conceit of the omnipotent old commissioner,—or one with blasted hopes, like myself,—or blighted ambition, like old Anthony,—or repulsed patriotism, like Brutus,—the process is the same in all,—comparison of the inestimable evils of life with the presumed quiet and rest of the grave, and action in accordance with the conclusion. Men are not cowards for not living to face evils, for the mere sake of facing them without any other result; they are men of policy and magnanimity to quit, when the grappling with them can alone be productive of a self-destruction of a more painful and protracted character, or at best exhibitory of an idle and vain bravery of bearing, of no avail either one way or the other. They are not cowards, and no imputation of cowardice will prevent them following out the clear conceptions that are shaped from their exigencies, any more than it would deter one in a burning ship at sea from casting himself overboard, rather than become an insulated and floating roast; or than it shall prevent me, when I have made an end of this confession, plaiting my garters for the office of strangulation, if after the plait is finished I entertain the same fixed principles on the subject as I do at present.