A Historical Perspective on Suicide

July 27, 2018
Elliott B. Martin Jr, MD

Volume 35, Issue 7

Walter Benjamin’s suicide is especially interesting as a bridge from the Freudian psychosocial era of hysteria-neuroses to the current era of the borderline-narcissist.

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.      -Walter Benjamin1

When I first read this quote, my initial impression was that it came from Freud. If pressed, I would have guessed from his late-life despairing opus, Civilization and Its Discontents.2 But I was wrong. These were among the last words written by Walter Benjamin, months before his suicide in 1940. In fact, these words are engraved on his tombstone. Even more oddly, and perhaps profoundly befitting his somewhat scattered career, this German-Jewish atheist who died by suicide was allowed burial in consecrated Catholic soil in Spain.

Walter Benjamin was one of the founding fathers of the so-called Frankfurt School of Philosophy in the 1920s and 1930s, which included Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Hannah Arendt, and Herbert Marcuse. The members were German neo-Marxists and psychoanalytically influenced scholars who were openly critical of the German people who allowed the National Socialists to come into power. The group introduced the concept of applying multidisciplinary study and dialectical methods to the bigger questions of history, psychology, economics, philosophy, and art-even to medicine, long before there was any discussion of a “bio-psycho-social” approach. For better or for worse, they developed the increasingly ill-defined “critical theory” that has so pervasively, even fetishistically, enthralled the academic towers in America since the 1960s.

Of all the group, Benjamin, primarily an historian and art critic, struggled most with mood lability. He wrote several suicide notes throughout the course of his brief lifetime, typically addressed to his current female partner, before finally composing his last one-addressed to no one in particular, on the night of September 26th, 1940. He gave the note to one of his fellow German-Jewish refugees, Henny Garland, who took it and did nothing to stop him from overdosing on morphine. She destroyed the note and convinced the authorities that Benjamin’s death was the result of heart failure, concerned that if the authorities discovered Benjamin’s death was a suicide it would weaken the entire group’s chances of obtaining exit visas.

The standard historical interpretation of Benjamin’s death is one of tragic pseudo-irony. Benjamin, with the help of his expatriated colleagues, Adorno and Horkheimer, had undertaken a desperate flight from Marseilles to Port Bou in Spain with several other refugees. Benjamin carried a single attaché case reportedly containing an unknown manuscript, and “enough morphine to kill a horse.” He had already abandoned his brother and sister to their own devices (as German-Jewish exiles with no citizenship; as did Gurland, who abandoned her prisoner-of-war second husband, only to marry Fromm 4 years later, and to commit suicide herself in 1952). Once in Port Bou, the group was told that Spain was no longer issuing exit visas to undocumented French refugees, and this was the pretext for Benjamin’s suicide. The next day, this decision was reversed, and the group was allowed to leave for neutral Portugal, and eventually for New York.

Walter Benjamin’s suicide is especially interesting as a bridge from the Freudian psychosocial era of hysteria-neuroses to the current era of the borderline-narcissist. Psychoanalysis was foundational to the Frankfurt School, and philosophically they were really a marriage of Marx and Freud. All the founding members were sons of wealthy Jewish businessmen who turned their backs on the capitalism of their fathers (often able to do so, ironically, with the financial support of their fathers), but who frequently, especially Benjamin, wrote nostalgically, almost longingly, of their childhoods.

Benjamin especially refused to grow up. His entire historical worldview in fact was that we all march through history backward, that we all greet the imminent future with our backs turned. In other words, the future is a constant reappraisal of the past, a constant atonement, a series of ruminations and regrets, a wistful clinging to prior accomplishments.

The biggest target of Benjamin and his colleagues, and the root of their almost paradoxical nostalgia, was the so-called “culture industry,” the manufacture less of products than of wants and desires by, as they saw it, vast capitalistic machines. They frequently compared Hollywood to the Nazi propaganda machine, and they harbored little doubt that Hitler and his lieutenants’ primary motivation was less ideological than financial. (America was under the sway of “monopoly capitalism”; Germany and the Soviet Union under “totalitarian capitalism.”) They feared less that the Nazis would militarily conquer the world than that the rest of the world would link arms in capitalistic solidarity with the Nazis.

In this context Walter Benjamin became the 20th-century iteration of the “wandering Jew.” While his colleagues settled in Frankfurt, at least until it became too dangerous, he remained restless, taking up residence variously along the Mediterranean and in Germany and Paris, intermittently moving back home with his parents. He was married, but he had frequent affairs, often quite intense relationships that left him temporarily suicidal. He seemed to care little for his only son.

What is especially significant here is Benjamin’s comparison of the what he calls “destructive character,” what we might more euphemistically call the “cluster B personality,” with the “consciousness of historical man.” In his 1931 essay, The Destructive Character, he sums it up in this way: “The destructive character lives from the feeling not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.”3

This reads like a blithe shrugging off of the slightly later Algerian-French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus’ famous admonition that whether to commit or not commit suicide is the only legitimate philosophical question remaining.

So why go on?

This is where the German critical theorists and French existentialists agreed. Because there is always work to be done.

Arthur Schopenhauer, perhaps the most miserable 19th-century philosopher who ever lived, in his cheerily titled On the Suffering of the World,4 ironically provided what may be the best admonition against suicide, and the one repeatedly resorted to by the critical theorists and existentialists: “The only cogent argument against suicide is that it is opposed to the achievement of the highest moral goal, inasmuch as it substitutes for a true redemption of this world of misery a merely apparent one.”

In other words, suicide is inauthentic. The redemption sought through suicide is illusory. As Benjamin himself put it, “The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. . . . Because he sees ways everywhere, he always stands at a crossroads. . . . What exists he reduces to rubble-not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.”3 Jean-Paul Sartre qualified this years later by specifying that suicide is essentially “out of bounds.” It is the one “way” out that, by its very inauthenticity, remains inaccessible.5

Benjamin’s essay was 10 to 11 years before Camus’ seminal work, The Myth of Sisyphus,6 in which he elaborates upon the “absurdity” of existence, the inescapable contradiction between the human faculty of reason and an unreasonable world. He bemoans the inevitable “philosophical suicide” that results from any attempt to provide an overarching metaphysical structure to existence: all conclusions invariably contradict their (absurd) premises. His conclusion? We must continue on. We must find our path. Sisyphus was damned to a hell on a treadmill. But even he eventually acknowledges the truth of his absurd situation, of his own personal tragedy, and there is meaning in that.

That is, even in the midst of hell, there is still, or even especially, work to be done.


Dr Martin is Director of Consultation Emergency Psychiatric Services at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, MA, and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.


1. Benjamin W. Theses on the Philosophy of History. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theses_on_the_Philosophy_of_History. Accessed June 18, 2018.

2. Freud S. Civilization and Its Discontents. Seaside, OR: Rough Draft Printing; 1913.

3. Benjamin W. The Destructive Character. http://www.revistapunkto.com/2011/12/destructive-character-walter-benjamin.html. Accessed June 19, 2018.

4. Schopenhauer A. On the Suffering of the World. London/New York: Penguin; 2004.

5. Sartre J-P. Literary and Philosophical Essays. New York: Collier; 1955.

6. Camus A. The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage; 1983.

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