The silence of the heart. As religious terrorists fall from the skies, and suicide bombings increase in Sri Lanka and the Middle East, Michael Waterhouse considers our ancient urge for self-destruction

The Art of Suicide

Ron M Brown <em>Reaktion Books, 253pp, £25</em>

ISBN 1861891059

Every day, five young men kill themselves, not on a Jerusalem bus, but here in Britain. Suicide is contagious. One of its dangers, as the Roman Catholic Church has long argued, is that it attracts imitators; suicide runs through families, sometimes through countries. People begin to think of it as the appropriate response to an event or a predicament. In the month after the death of Lady Diana, suicide among women aged between 25 and 44 in England and Wales rose by 45 per cent. Death seemed to be the answer to their loss.

England once had a reputation for being the land of suicide. In 1694, John Evelyn noted how "never was it known that so many made themselves away as of these late years among us, among both men of quality and others". But it was in France, following the decriminalisation of suicide after the revolution, that suicide really took off. Paris boasted a number of "suicide clubs", whose members were moved to do themselves away in imitation of the romantic deaths of the boy poet Thomas Chatterton and Goethe's fictional hero Young Werther.

What is the reason for the fashionable appeal of suicide? Emile Durkheim, the eminence grise of suicidology, argued that it arose out of an altruistic belief that the individual's life is inferior to that of an inspirational leader or institution. Those at the siege of Waco, the followers of Jim Jones in Guyana and, above all, the suicide bombers in the Middle East are contemporary examples that immediately spring to mind. But altruism seems an insufficient explanation for an act of terror such as the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington - unless it is harnessed to another of Durkheim's suicidal categories: egoism. The egoistical suicide is detached from his society and his family, and so enmeshed in his own beliefs and feelings that everything he sees and hears appears to confirm the rightness of his plan.

It is the closed aspect of the suicidal mind that interests Ron M Brown in this study of how the subject has been portrayed in art. For Brown, the route to suicide is dark and secretive - or, as Camus has it, "prepared within the silence of the heart, as a great work of art is". It is not thought out or planned consciously, and the suicidal man is largely unaware of the ambition growing inside him. "One evening," Camus tells us, "he pulls the trigger or jumps."

Brown's central theme is how art has been unable to attach a "fixed meaning" to self-killing. He examines the history of depicted suicide, from early Greek scenes of Ajax transfixed on his sword, to the cold, repeated deaths found in Warhol's Suicide. These images are distant and inward. Whether the suicide is a man or a woman, apparently defiant or bent low by despair, there is a striking ambiguity surrounding the motive of the victim and how we are to take the image, let alone judge it. Penetrated by all sorts of possible meanings, Brown says, suicidal art provides no explanation.

Within Christian tradition, in particular, there has been an eagerness to condemn suicide as the product of sin, the prime example being Judas. Early representations place Judas, alongside Jesus, on the cross, but increasingly, as artists seek to damn Judas, he appears alone, surrounded by stark motifs intended to convey the depth of irredeemable sin to which he has sunk. Demons or black ravens flit about his head, suggesting that he has yielded to the Devil's temptation. But for all its symbolic plotting, the iconography of Judas's suicide remains ambivalent, leaving unresolved important issues of motive and free will.

The struggle to wrest suicide from the moralists and recognise it as an act of desperation or delusion did not really gain ground until the 18th century. Brown claims that the suicides of Chatterton in 1770 and Castlereagh in 1822, and the images they gave rise to, were particularly influential in the debate. Chatterton's death moved many while hinting that society was to blame for his plight. Castlereagh's burial in Westminster Abbey provoked such outrage that only a verdict of temporary insanity could subdue it. Both deaths, Brown contends, opened the door to a closer consideration of the personal and sociological causes of suicide.

Although The Art of Suicide provides a fascinating account of aesthetic developments, the argument disappoints on the question of how art plays in the moral debate. This partly reflects a failure of the art itself. Suicide seems to have attracted many, from Giotto to Picasso, Rubens to Warhol. But their interest in the subject was concentrated on the doer of the deed, not on those affected by it. This stands in marked contrast to other kinds of death art, such as depictions of the Crucifixion or Victorian death-bed scenes, and suggests that the artistic response is, in some sense, incomplete. While suicide may occur in isolated circumstances, its impact is social and diffuse. In art, however, suicides seem to be events without effect, actions without emotional consequence. The contribution that they make to the public debate is therefore partially muted, even biased, and it is thus all the more puzzling that Brown, whose stated purpose is to work at the "intersection between texts and social reading", does not engage fully with this lack. There are good, detailed analyses here of individual works, but too many of the important "social readings" of suicide, such as Durkheim's, receive only passing attention. The result is a book that falls short when attempting a wider discussion about why people kill themselves, and what we think of them when they do.

Although western societies have fortunately reached the conclusion that suicides are more deserving of our compassion than our condemnation, there remain awkward, and largely unanalysed, questions about the public nature of suicide and its influence. That the major religions of the world still assert that suicide is wrong - though it is daily carried out in the name of religion and political injustice - must say something about its continuing allure.

Michael Waterhouse's Staying Close: a positive approach to dying and bereavement will be published by Constable in August