Suicide is Painless? Albert Camus’s First Problem of Philosophy—and the Southern Novelist Walker Percy’s Answer to It

Is the game worth the candle—or not?

And if life is worth living, why aren’t you doing it?

I like this reflection on suicide in Walker Percy’s brilliant Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book (Pocket Books 1984, 80-81):

If you are serious about the choice, certain consequences follow. Consider the alternatives. Suppose you elect suicide? Very well. You exit. Then what? What happens after you exit? Nothing much. Very little, indeed. After a ripple or two, the water closes over your head as if you had never existed. You are not indispensable after all. You are not even a black hole in the Cosmos. All that stress and anxiety was for nothing. 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. Your creditors will resent the inconvenience. Your lawyers will be pleased. Your psychiatrist will be displeased. The priest or minister or rabbi will say a few words over you and 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 had never existed.

Now, in the light of this alternative, consider the other alternative. You can elect suicide, but you decide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the door to the cell is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.

Suddenly you feel like a castaway on an island. You can’t believe your good fortune. You feel for broken bones. You are in one piece, soul survivor of a foundered ship whose captain and crew had worried themselves into a fatal funk. And here you are, cast up on a beach and taken in by islanders, who it turns out, are worried sick—over what? Over status, saving face, self esteem, national rivalries, boredom, anxiety, depression from which they seek relief mainly in wars and the natural catastrophes which regularly overtake their neighbors. . . .

The consequences of entertainable suicide? Lying on the beach, you are free for the first time in your life to pick up a coquina and look at it. You are even free to go home and, like the man from Chicago, dance with your wife.

The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning:

The non-suicide is a little travelling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest.

The ex-suicide 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 knows he doesn’t have to. 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to Suicide is Painless? Albert Camus’s First Problem of Philosophy—and the Southern Novelist Walker Percy’s Answer to It

  1. pochp says:

    ‘And if life is worth living, why aren’t you doing it?’

    A very good question.

    • Anonymous says:

      have you not realized that life is absurd?
      it is better to commit suicide……

      • santitafarella says:

        Anonymous:

        Your statement is self-defeating (or at least self-refuting). Your very act of typing it indicates that you don’t believe it. You are, afterall, still here. I agree with you that life appears absurd, but now I go with Albert Camus and say: Live against the absurdity, in rebellion and solidarity with others against its absurdity. Be Sisyphus, and be happy as Sisyphus (Camus: “We must imagine Sisyphus happy”).

        Unless, of course, you want to give up and let the rock roll over you. I certainly don’t. Not yet.

        —Santi

  2. tara says:

    ‘The ex-suicide 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 knows he doesn’t have to.’

    i never thought of it that way. its great. i am an ex suicide and reading that made so much sense.

    thank you!

  3. santitafarella says:

    Tara:

    You’re certainly welcome.

    —Santi

  4. btw says:

    i reached that conclusion myself in 2000, but that is not the way i phrased it, once you are ready to kill yourself, there is no reason to… you are free. you are free because you cannot be punished, no matter what you do there is absolutely nothing that anyone can do to you that you are not already willing to do to yourself.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I had fresh thoughts of killing myself. I figure I was put on this earth to
    encounter every one’s sickness which became my own. If u don’t have a life of your own, tell me why would u want to live. I ask myself every, If I die every probably will talk about for a few days but I don’t anyone will miss but my son.

  6. Pingback: The Eight Ways of Being in the World « Prometheus Unbound

  7. AMM says:

    Was Camus’s death in a freak car accident suicide?

  8. Pingback: The Two Trees: Darwin’s and that Mesopotamian One « Prometheus Unbound

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