Foucault and the will to die


The uniqueness of dying by one’s own hand, was raised by Michel Foucault in a brief interview in 1979. In the transcript, published as “The Simplest of Pleasures,” Foucault argues for the exceptional value of death. While opposing (moral) condemnation of suicide, he argues that recognition of the unique aspect of the experience requires an alternative interpretation. See death by suicide outside of the moral framework, as an “unfathomable pleasure” that through preparation, patience, and space can produce new experiences. In this context, Foucault speaks of suicide festivals and orgies in which the ‘formless form’ of ‘utterly simple pleasure’ must be made possible. In the interview he is also annoyed by the handling of suicidal people and admires the special places where — out of sight, without a clock, nor a calendar — the time and space exist to ‘let go’. There (in Japan, for example) they know much more about suicide, he argues.

Foucault’s remarks are reminiscent of the work of Sigmund Freud. In ‘War and Death’ (1915), the Austrian psychiatrist argues that contemporary man is alienated from death. Strongly inclined to deny the end of life and silence death, man denies that direct relationship. The coincidence of death is falsely emphasized, naturalness is negated, and nothing but good is spoken of the dead. Freud sees a problematic relationship. In it, man loses contact with the truth and the essence of life, namely risking existence. Without the latter, impoverishment and disillusionment occur, and life finally collapses in meaning.

Both Foucault and Freud criticized the contemporary interpretation of death. Here lies the common denominator of the criticism in their texts, in the repression of the end of life. Foucault denounces the moral condemnation of the (in the interview, homosexual) suicidal and the negative significance of suicide in society. For him, this is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Freud, in turn, established the idea that the ‘cultivated’ human being holds (his own) death to be unimaginable and thus lies to himself.

In the current public debate on ‘completed life’ much opposition can be detected. This is not only about what ‘completed life’ means in the first place, when it can be used, but also about possible assisted suicide.

Nevertheless, death is increasingly becoming a choice. In the area between the end of life on the one hand and artificial life on the other, the sick and the elderly become almost hunger artists who, in the words of Kafka, mistake apparent death for (apparent) life. Doctors and patients become artists in delaying death. This is what stands in the way of the opponents of the (widening of the) euthanasia law. In a world where death is constantly more unattainable and will become more and more so, it is untenable to protect life from everything. After all, if death is preventable or curable, Freudian terms like unease and disillusionment are not. To avoid them, war is an option. Then, according to Freud, man faces death. But the self-chosen end of life constitutes a peaceful choice in this regard.

When it is recognized that death belongs to life, the moral condemnation of suicide or euthanasia no longer plays a role. In this form, it becomes possible to pay attention to a dying process that previously seemed impossible, without fear of disapproval or punishment, but more in the direction of Foucault’s “simple pleasure. With the euthanasia law, a major step has already been taken to this end. But in the recognition of the temporality of life and the ‘benefits’ of mortality, there is still much to improve.

‘The main thing is that I understand those idiots’ Jeroen Brouwers quotes the writer E. du Perron in ‘The Last Door’ about people who decide to commit suicide. Brouwers shares his words. It is time for this understanding to assert itself more.