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In My Good Books

Autobiography of a Suicide

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published in The Guardian
15 October 2005

When the poet William Cowper was about twenty (so, some time around the year 1751), his father gave him a copy of Montesquieu's defence of suicide and asked him read and comment upon it. A daring work, no more than two pages long (Letter LXXVI of the Persian Letters), it is scornful of the notion that by killing ourselves we interfere with the order of Providence.

Such ideas, it says, come from nothing more than our pride. We do not understand how small we are. We want to count for something in the universe, to figure in it, to be an important object in it. We imagine that the annihilation of a being as perfect as we are would degrade the whole of nature. We do not realise that we are nothing more than a fraction of an atom, so small that God does not even perceive us.

Cowper read this assertion of our nothingness, and he argued the opposite case. But as he did so his father "heard my reasons and was silent, neither approving nor disapproving, from whence I inferred that he sided with the author against me…" And this experience obsessed him; it "weighed mightily" with him. For, although Cowper himself had not yet become devout, he would have realised that the views expressed by Montesquieu's fictional Persian were deeply wicked.

They were not unprintable -- David Hume's essay "On Suicide" (recently reissued in the Penguin Great Ideas series) argues at length along lines similar to Montesquieu's -- but they were deeply anti-Christian. God does not see us, says Montesquieu, because of the immensity of his knowing. But this is like a brilliant debating trick to permit the unbearable thought: that the scope of God's knowledge is so great it is too large for him to perceive the human race itself.

Cowper in due course went mad and attempted suicide, and when he had recovered himself he was persuade by pious friends to write a narrative of his breakdown. This he did around 1767, and the resulting narrative was so striking that it was passed from hand to hand, and copied into numerous commonplace books, long before it was published in 1816. A certain editing-out of unsympathetic details gives proof that the original readers and copiers of this text were deeply troubled by it, even though the story ends with a sense of God's blessing, followed by two hymns.

When we read these proto-autobiographies, short as they are, we need to read them in the best texts and to see them whole. We want to learn what they are and why they were written, what form, manner of thing it is that we are reading. I have an early printed version of Cowper's "Memorial", as it is sometimes known, and it is no use to me in comparison with the version printed by James King and Charles Ryskamp in the first volume of their edition of Cowper's Letters and Prose Writings (Oxford 1979). For instance, it does not tell me what the text was that Cowper's father handed to him to have him read. Montesquieu's name is piously concealed.

Cowper's despair, his recurring sense of his own damnation, his belief that he has somehow committed the unpardonable sin -- all this he expressed in a poem which stands as one of the greatest and most singular English lyrical pieces of the whole eighteenth-century. This is the untitled poem beginning "Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion," which tells of what it is to be "Damn'd below Judas, more abhorr'd than he was" and to feel oneself "buried above ground."

The prose account describes how a sense of dread grows in the young Cowper at the approach of a public interview for a job at the House of Lords. Such is his terror he begins to look on madness as the only chance remaining: "I wished for it and looked forward to it with impatient expectation. My chief fear was that my senses would not fail me time enough to excuse my appearance at the House..." He thinks back on his father's handing him the Montesquieu, and he decides on suicide.

But he is an unwilling suicide. Every attempt he makes -- by taking laudanum, by drowning, by stabbing -- is unsuccessful. He scuppers his own chances of a release through death. Finally he hangs himself with a garter, and comes reasonably close to success, and having done this is able to go out and seek help.

It is an absurd story, but Cowper has no sense at all of its absurdity. It invites diagnosis (manic depression, paranoia) but not in terms that its author would have recognised. His mind is poised between uncertain salvation and certain damnation. But even hell keeps "herself" bolted against him. He speaks for depressives everywhere.

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For Montesquieu, I was using Lettres Persanes edited by Jean Starobinski, Gallimard Folio Classique 2003.

For David Hume, On Suicide in the Penguin Books Great Ideas series, 2005, £3.99, is a collection of nine of Hume's essays in a handsome simple format. But there is also the Selected Essays in the Oxford World's Classics, edited with introduction and notes by Stephen Copley and Andrew Edgar, 1993. £8.99, and with a much larger selection of essays.

Cowper's account of his conversion is printed under the title "Adelphi" in volume one of The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp, Oxford 1979, pp 5-48. The other part of "Adelphi" (meaning "Brothers") is a description of the conversion and exemplary death of Cowper's brother, John.


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