A Chat with Amy Ronner about Dostoevsky as Suicidologist

This week Kate Holland, the President of the North American Dostoevsky Society, sits down with Amy D. Ronner to talk about her new book, Dostoevsky as Suicidologist: Self-Destruction and the Creative Process, published in January 2021 by Lexington Books.

KH: Tell us a little about its central premise. What is a suicidologist? How do you approach the problem of Dostoevsky’s status as a suicidologist? How do Dostoevsky’s ideas about suicide measure up with those thinkers who came after him such as Freud and Durkheim?

AR: Suicidologists study suicidal behavior, which goes beyond self-homicide.  Suicidology elastically subsumes suicidal ideation, partial self-destruction, parasuicide, addiction, transgressions against others, and conduct or attitudes that undermine life. Twentieth-century psychiatrist Karl A. Menninger has been called “the grandfather of American suicidology” and he builds upon the Freudian bedrock (Edwin S. Shneidman, The Suicidal Mind (NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 63 (awarding him that title)). Menninger states that “the extraordinary propensity of the human being to join hands with external forces in an attack upon his own existence is one of the most remarkable of biological phenomena” (Man against Himself (NY: Harcourt Brace & World, Inc., 1966), 4).  In A Writer’s Diary, Dostoevsky’s puzzling over the Russian suicide epidemic presages the tenor of Menninger’s groundbreaking book.   

Dostoevsky’s lifelong polemic on suicide surfaces not only in A Writer’s Diary, but also in his letters and throughout his fiction. One objective in my book is to show how Dostoevsky’s commentary and fictive self-offenders prefigure not just Menninger and the etiology set forth in Emile Durkheim’s seminal monograph (Suicide: A Study in Sociology (NY: The Free Press, 1951)), but also the insights of other theorists, including David Aldridge, A. Alvarez, Silvano Arieti, Charles I. Brooks, Michael A. Church, Norman L. Farberow, Otto Fenichel, Mark J. Goldblatt, Ray Isaac, Kay Redfield Jamison, Elizabeth Kilpatrick, Howard Kushner, Jacques Lacan, Robert E. Litman, Steven Lukes, John T. Maltsberger, Eric Marcus, Paul Quinnett, Edwin S. Shneidman, Andrew Solomon, Erwin Stengel, William Styron, and Charles William Wahl.   

Multiple writers, poets, artists, psychiatrists, psychologists, theologians, thanatologists, philosophers, sociologists, and medical specialists have tried to parse that ineffable, incomprehensible, timeless, and ubiquitous phenomenon: namely that drive to eradicate one’s own existence. Although Dostoevsky died before many of the experts discussed in my book, his writings not only anticipate but also graphically bring such later findings to life. In essence, Dostoevsky’s work as suicidologist surpasses that of many acclaimed scholars and scientists who have dedicated their lives to deciphering that enigmatic lust for self-destruction. More about that later.

KH: Your book begins with a quote from A Writer’s Diary in which Dostoevsky remarks on the “epidemic” of suicides in 1870s Russia that “occur with no evident reason” but you then go on to argue that Dostoevsky actually does offer quite a few reasons why people kill themselves.  What are some of the reasons for suicide which he explores in his novels?

AR: This is one of the best questions that I have fielded so far! Of course, it is gratifying when a reader sees what the author is up to. I purposely structured the book to start with Dostoevsky’s bewilderment over people killing themselves “for no apparent reason” and then in its wake, explore how Dostoevsky’s characters let the reader experience the reason (or nonreason) for such self-annihilations.

But before discussing a few suicides analyzed in my book, I want to say a few preludial words about Durkheim.  Although this father of modern sociology revered the deity of “social fact,” he was not the implacable foe of psychology as he has been portrayed. He was well versed in the psychological literature of his day and even engaged in the debates. Moreover, his suicide categories – -fatalistic, altruistic, egoistic, and anomic- – parallel the thinking of multiple suicidologists.  That is, the nomenclature may differ, but the gist of many concepts is essentially the same. By way of example, Durkheim, along with Freud, Menninger, Shneidman, Michael A. Church, and Charles Brook all alert their readers to the existence of veiled substitutes for the overt act of murder.  While Durkheim applies the term “embryonic suicide” to people who imperil their own lives and perform acts loaded with mortal risk, Menninger describes “unconsciously determined purposes of . . .self-destruction” and Shneidman speaks of “indirect suicide” or “subintentioned deaths” (Durkheim, Ibid., 46; Menninger, Ibid., 317; Shneidman, Ibid., 62). Still others use their own lexicon to express what is the same or an analogous phenomenon: Freud delves into “half-intentional self-destruction,” and “purposive accidents” while Church and Brooks enumerate the multifarious forms of “subtle suicide” (Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, trans. A. Brill (SC: Columbia, 1901) (chapter on erroneous carried-out actions); Michael A. Church and Charles I Brooks, Subtle Suicide: Our Silent Epidemic of Ambivalence about Living (CA: Praeger, 2009)). Because of the affinity between Durkheim and other experts, all chapters of my book cordon the “social fact” to kindred psychological thought. But Dostoevsky is the one who really lays bare the thanatotic psyche.

With respect to specific characters and their suicides, Chapter 3 of my book is illustrative. It delves into Durkheim’s egoistic suicide as it figures in two Dostoevsky masterpieces: Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. While Durkheim talks about suicide as rooted in excessive individualism which unplugs people from collective vitality, Dostoevsky has his readers not just read about, but instead vicariously experience that isolating downward spiral. This is how Dostoevsky surpasses the genre of suicidology: through artistry, he does what the suicidologists do not and cannot do in their scholarly treatises. As readers, we live alongside Raskolnikov, who has sentenced himself to a form of self-imposed exile, a state which predisposes him to take his own life.  We contend with Svidrigailov, who is adrift in a realm of indifference, boredom, ghosts, and eavesdropping before he decides to figuratively embark “for America.” In The Idiot, we plunge into the suicidogenic realm in which Rogozhin, Nastasya, and Ippolit either deliver, embrace, or fear death. Afflicted with not just egoism but also with unresolved grief and anomic rage, Nastasya secures Rogozhin as her executioner and commits suicide by proxy. Ippolit’s botched blast to the brain also has a shade all its own. What impels this consumptive to pull the trigger is solipsistic thanatophobia and a deep-seated need to effectuate the impossible – – to joltingly renew life through the exorcism and conquest of death.

Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov, Nastasya, and Ippolit are not the only suicidal characters analyzed in the book. My book explores the autobiographical novel, Notes from the House of the Dead, in which Dostoevsky foists readers into the very psyches of those who transgress against others and themselves. He incarcerates us in a cauldron where lethal fatalistic and fatalistic-altruistic forces percolate. In Demons, we insinuate ourselves into the realm of which Durkheim merely spoke. It is one in which society’s equilibrium is jolted and anomic suicides skyrocket. Stavrogin and Kirillov die either by the rope or the bullet and we swirl in the very concentric circles leading to their self-obliteration.

Durkheim suggests that everything becomes permissible when individuals are stripped of the tempering “regulative force,” which he denominates the “check rein” (Ibid., 248, 258). In his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky delves into suicidal anomy more deeply than he had in any previous work. Readers meet Mitya, who plans suicide, Ivan, who considers it as a future option, and Smerdyakov, who goes through with it. Under the Durkheimian lens, anomic Smerdyakov seeks to be “free from all restraint,” and psychiatrist Silvano Arieti would gloss his brainwork as raw “paleologic” (Ibid., 287:  Silvano Arieti, Interpretation of Schizophrenia (NY: Basic Books, Inc. 1974), 229). Dostoevsky’s readers, however, transcend doctrines and definitions: we sit across the dining table from Stinking Lizaveta’s son to observe first-hand his preprandial due diligence and thus, witness paleological mistrust at work.

KH: Your book does a wonderful job in showing how Dostoevsky’s novels represent the darkness of suicidal ideation, but you also find countervailing currents, especially in the role of creativity in pushing back such thoughts. Can you tell us a bit about that?

AR: This question is inextricable from the next one and for me, it is quite rewarding because it tells me that the dialectic beating in the heart of each chapter has made itself heard. Toward the close of each chapter, I show how in his post-exile writing, Dostoevsky continually pits radiant light against pitch darkness.  For example, with respect to the lethal fatalistic forces at work in Notes from the House of the Dead, that chapter explores what Durkheim commends and the convicts themselves fashion as antidotes to self-annihilative urges. In this context, I discuss how internment bestows modest gifts on Goryanchikov and greater ones on Dostoevsky whose exposure to and observation of such thanatotic impulses engendered an epiphanic vision of collective unity, which would steadily evolve throughout his literary career. As in Notes from the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky’s other novels also juxtapose the nihilistic mindsets leading to both homicide and self-decimation with the lighted routes heading toward universal fellowship, robust collectivity, and shared faith. In The Brothers Karamazov, the dark and light are so contrastive and oppugnant that they atavistically simulate a kind of Manichaeistic dualism.  In the blackness, everything, including atheism, disbelief in immortality, egoism, fratricide, miscarried justice, and even cannibalism, is permitted. Yet, there is an equal but opposite orb repelling the negativism, one in which Zosima is the quintessential radiance, who advocates “active love.” As elaborated on in my response to the next question, Dostoevsky internalized and marshalled combustive polarities to galvanize his creative process.

KH: The subtitle of your book brackets together the self-destructive urge with the creative process. Can you tell us a bit about how suicide and creativity are connected in Dostoevsky’s works?

AR: This was the toughest task because it began as a feeling in my gut, but words kept eluding me.  In my Introduction, I map out the “road ahead,” one in which “the book aspires to funnel out chapter-by-chapter to an exegesis of how Dostoevsky’s implicit awareness of fatalistic, egoistic, anomic, and altruistic modes of self-destruction helped shape not only his philosophy but also his craft as a writer” (27). The most aspirational destination is also defined: “[m]ore expansively . . . the book hopes to tackle the formidable task of forging a ligature between artistic creation and the pluripresent social fact of self-annihilation.” As a lawyer for more than three decades, I tend to equate a book’s inaugural promises with an opening statement to jurors in a trial.  The only way to prevail is to deliver – – to scrupulously honor each and every pledge. That became my relentlessly gnawing challenge throughout the writing process.  For that reason, I handled the bugaboo in gradations.

At the close of each chapter, I take baby steps toward the overarching goal of disclosing Dostoevsky’s ever-evolving intuition that the drive to self-expunge is not only ubiquitous, but also has the potential to engender the emergence of the kind of contrapositives that foster creativity. These chapter-prequels build and build to culminate in the book’s conclusion. In the end, I recap how over time, Dostoevsky was increasingly amalgamating polarities while his message was becoming more about sobornost’ and about the “panhuman” Russian soul, which could placate discord by merging all into a collective to share love of Christ and faith in the soul’s immortality. The last chapter homes in on Dostoevsky’s celebrated Pushkin Memorial speech in Moscow, Stavrogin’s dream of “The Golden Age” and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man: A Fantastic Story.”  Within these parameters, I anatomize Dostoevsky’s tautological juxtaposition of combatant forces, like darkness versus light, mind versus heart, egoism versus collectivity, atheism versus faith, and indifference versus empathy. As a finale, I endeavor to divagate into the innermost recesses of the creative process and unveil the alchemy therein as Dostoevsky converts his cognizance of suicide’s pluripresence into an antipodal life-affirming alloy, one which fuses matter and form into “all-unifying artistry.”

KH: How did Dostoevsky’s own life experience contribute to his understanding of suicide as a phenomenon?

AR: There are at least four circumstances in Dostoevsky’s own life experience which by themselves and together yielded his invaluable insights into suicide. One, and most patently, the news. Between the 1860s and the 1880s, Russia was in the throes of a suicide epidemic. These years correspond to the publication of Dostoevsky’s major works and A Writer’s Diary in which he comments on fatal incidents that were chronicled day after day in newspapers. Two, his epilepsy. In The Idiot, Dostoevsky describes the nanoseconds before the ictal howl with its ineffable afflatus. These seizures, which bestowed undreamed-of treasures, redundantly aroused a reverence for life as ecstatic and synthesized. Three, Nicholas I’s pardon. Dostoevsky’s near-death experience before the firing squad also played a part. It likened him to the pardoned man in The Idiot, who vowed to cherish that precious windfall and, thus, savor each waking minute. For Dostoevsky, the nagging query was this: how could a human being (like Werther) squander the most priceless gift with a gun blast or a noose? Four, gambling.  Multiple experts hold that courting self-destruction through addiction to drugs, alcohol, or gambling is a species of suicide. Dostoevsky was no stranger to the hobbling effects of irresistible addiction. In fact, his compulsive gambling flared up with intensity while he was working on The Idiot and filling his notebook with executions, deaths, arson, rape, murder, and suicide.  Dostoevsky’s letters and his wife’s memoir portray the couple’s desperation as the gambling fiend, like Marmeladov’s dipsomania, stalked them and threatened to take away life’s essentials.

KH: Do you think Dostoevsky’s representations of suicide still have something to contribute to current discussions of the problem?

AR: My answer – – a resounding YES! It is no coincidence that in his discussion of motives for suicide and exposure of the ego to punishment, Menninger turns to The Brothers Karamazov for succor. In doing so, he implicitly concedes that Dostoevsky is the one who can best illustrate the point he is trying to make. Menninger and others recognize that suicide has been and will always be present in every culture. It is apodictic that we cannot abate this timeless scourge without trying to get a handle on how and why individuals seek to end their own lives.  Dostoevsky’s genius takes us there. Dostoevsky foists us into the kind of family dysfunction that can make people more prone to suicide.  For example, Joseph C. Sabbath’s exegesis on the “expendable child” syndrome and Howard Kushner’s hypothesis about “incomplete mourning,” apply to various Dostoevsky characters, like the Karamazov brothers, Stavrogin, and Nastasya Filippovna with her self-imposed death penalty (Joseph C. Sabbath, “The Suicidal Adolescent – – The Expendable Child,” in Essential Papers on Suicide, eds. John T. Maltsberger and Mark J. Goldblatt (NY: New York University Press, 1996), 185-99: Howard J. Kushner, Self-Destruction in the Promised Land: A Psychological Biology of American Suicide (NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 119)  But in Dostoevsky’s writings, the soundbites in scholarly tomes become flesh and blood people. Readers see, feel, and touch those early years that are rife with the potential to spawn suicidal behavior and ideation. Dostoevsky’s readers can vicariously grow up in accidental families, one in which a mother abandons a child, a father forgets about his expendable son, a tutor awakens his young charge in the middle of the night to pour anguish into his tender soul, and a longtime benefactor, one in loco parentis, suddenly morphs into the seducer.  Moreover, as discussed earlier, Dostoevsky does not leave us in the lurch, but takes pains to shed light on solutions and antidotes to lethality. In sum, for anyone studying or writing about suicide, I would suggest that they not just dutifully amass a library of psychological literature, but also acquire and consult this Russian suicidologist’s complete works.

A note from Amy Ronner: I would like to thank Katherine Bowers and Kate Holland for giving me this awesome opportunity to chat about my new book, Dostoevsky as Suicidologist: Self-Destruction and the Creative Process (MD: Lexington Books, 2021).  I am also deeply indebted to Irina Paperno’s Suicide as a Cultural Institution in Dostoevsky’s Russia (NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), and Susan Morrissey’s Suicide and the Body Politic in Imperial Russia (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Both superb, beautifully written books fed me crucial background information and provided me with sources that would have been inaccessible.

Amy D. Ronner, who holds both a law degree and an M.A. and Ph.D in literature, is a Professor Emeritus of Law at St. Thomas University School of Law, where she taught Constitutional Law, Wills and Trusts, Sexual Identity and the Law, and Criminal Procedure. She is the author of six books, including Law, Literature, and Therapeutic Jurisprudence (2010), Dostoevsky and the Law (2015), and Dostoevsky as Suicidologst (2021).

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