Archive | 5:21 pm

Manet and Emile Durkheim- The Suicide

23 Nov

the best often die by their own hand
just to get away,
and those left behind
can never quite understand
why anybody
would ever want to
get away
from
them.”

(Charles Bukowski, Cause and effect)

Edouard Manet, The Suicide, 1877-81

Painting “The Suicide” is an unusual one in Manet’s oeuvre. Scenes of murder and violence do appear here and there in his paintings, for example in the paintings “The Dead Toreador” (1864), “Bullfight – The Death of the Bull” (1865-66), and “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian” (1868). What makes the painting “The Suicide”, just like Degas’ painting “Interior” (1868-69), stand out is its lack of context which makes it intriguing. We don’t know who the man in the painting is, and we don’t know why he decided to kill himself, nor what led up to that moment. We are brought to this tragic scene without knowing what had happened before. We are confused, bewildered, shocked, and saddened. The closely-cropped scene shows an interior with a bed, a painting (or half the painting) hanging over the bed and some furniture. The man’s lifeless body is lying on the bed; a gun in his hand, a bloody stain on his white shirt, and the puddle of blood on the floor are visual hints at what has happened. “Different colours, different shades/ Over each mistakes were made/ I took the blame/ Directionless so plain to see/ A loaded gun won’t set you free… so you say”, the lyrics (and the music) from Joy Division’s song “New Dawn Fades” instantly comes to mind.

Some art critics thought the painting represents Manet’s assistent who had killed himself some years before the painting was painted, and others, not knowing how to interpret the painting, simply concluded that it has no meaning, that it is merely an exercise in colour and light. I am of an opinion that even if we can’t decipher the painting, interpret it and pinpoint its symbolism or meaning, it doesn’t mean the painting has no meaning. I definitely don’t think this is just a painterly exercise. When Impressionists wanted to play with colours, and with the effect of light and shadow, or simply use the left-over paint from their palettes, they painted gardens and flowers, just like Klimt did, not suicide scenes. There are many reasons why someone might commit a suicide, but this painting made me think of the sociologist Emile Durkheim’s book “Suicide: A Study in Sociology”, published in 1897, just twenty years after this painting was painted.

In the book Durkheim explains his theory that all suicides fall under four categories: egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic. Looking at the time when the painting was painted, the French society at the time, and thinking of the books which I’ve read from that time period, I would say that the motif of the man’s sucide was either egoistic or anomic. The reason for egoistic suicides is that the person is overly individualised and is not connected to any social group, not tied to it by well-established social values, traditions and norms. The lack of integration leads to a state of apathy, pointlesness and melancholy, and this type of suicide, according to Durkheim, is most common in umarried men. Anomic suicide comes in times when society is in disorder and hence a lack of social direction, a lack of moral regulation is present. This leaves the person feeling unsure of where they belong or how they should act, they are carried by the wind of life in all directions, scattered, confused and lost. This type of suicide also occurs when a great change happens, whether in society or in the person’s personal life, and the person just cannot adapt to the new situation.

Now, just to mention the other two types of suicides: altruistic suicides happen in societies which are too integrated and the collective openly demands from the individual to sacrifice its individualism, its rights and freedoms, even to die for the collective (something we are sort of experiencing nowadays, this raging collectivism). And fatalistic suicide, according to Durkheim, exists only in theory, only as a concept. It is a type of suicide that happens when the society is so oppresive and has such control over the individual that the person feels as if his passions and his future are destroyed and he would rather die than live on. Durkheim may have thought this type of suicide exists only in theory, but later on dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s “1984”, or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, have shown that the types of societies that oppressive actually exist and our own times are revealing to us the same thing. Our world is indeed becoming more and more a place from which the only escape is death because all joys and freedoms are being crushed to dust. Now, I don’t know what the man in the painting was feeling or what was going on in his life, but I thought it was interesting to connect the painting’s theme with the sociological perspective on it.