Tyler Cowen interviews Donne scholar and children's book author Katherine Rundell:
COWEN: For Donne, can the meaning of a suicide ever be truly transparent?
RUNDELL: No. I think, for Donne, suicide is one of the things that dogs his life. It was illegal during Donne’s lifetime to commit suicide. It was a crime, in that most strange of ironies, punishable by death. Suicides could be buried with a stake put through their hearts at the crossroads. In France, there have been accounts of dead bodies of suicides dragged through the streets as a warning. Of course, it was against religious doctrine.
John Donne’s letters tell us about his very real and urgent keening towards death. He was a man who felt the pull of, he says, his own sword. And he wrote the first full-length treatise in the English language, Biathanatos, on suicide , which argues that in very specific, limited circumstances, suicide is not a sin, that Christ himself was the one great suicide.
For Donne, to be pulled towards suicide was both, for him, to feel he was being pulled towards sin, but also to feel that it would be a shortcut, a leaping into infinity and into the presence of God. For him, it was never going to be, in any way, straightforward or transparent.
COWEN: What’s the political meaning of Biathanatos, Donne’s tract on suicide? Is it asserting a right of self-ownership? How do we think about it? Is it egalitarian, or what is it doing, politically, in a very political time?
RUNDELL: Politically, of course, it’s complicated by the fact that he wrote it, but not to be read. He wrote a text that he explicitly told a friend, when he went to Germany later in life, “Neither burn it nor publish it. Give it not to the fire, but show it to no one,” because he was aware that it was a text that could lead him to be put in very real peril, not necessarily of anything dramatic like court cases, but he would’ve probably lost his job.
For him, the politics of it — profoundly opaque and probably informed by a lot of his own desire to justify his own suicidal tendencies. There are those within Donne’s scholarship who think that Biathanatos was, in fact, a personal bid to write out of himself his desire towards suicide, that in some ways, those who talk about it a great deal are perhaps the least likely to commit it, and that he was in some way protecting himself in that way, so that it was a personal text in a way that it doesn’t look.
I don’t think that it is arguing anything as radical as absolute self-ownership because I think that would be anachronistic for the time. But I think it’s one of the texts that come closest to arguing that our certainties . . . It famously says we have been sure about so many things, and we have been wrong about them. We have been wrong about the stars.
He is certainly saying all certainty has in it the peril of being not just wrong, but wrong in a way that will create misadventuring chaos. He is doing something quite radical there. He is saying there is no single great truth upon which we can base anything, and that was bold.