- Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide by Marzio Barbagli
This wide-ranging study provides fascinating insight into, and analysis of, the history and practice of suicide across a range of cultural and historical contexts. The book takes the reader on a methodical and thorough journey through the subject matter: it is divided into two main sections dealing with Western and Eastern perspectives respectively, and into further subsections that take into account questions such as religious and spiritual beliefs about suicide, national contexts, and some theoretical approaches to the study of fluctuations in the suicide rate over time. It will be of particular interest to scholars of sociology, of the history of death practices in Europe and the West, China, India, Japan, and the Middle East, and of cultural perspectives on death, suicide, attitudes toward and treatment of the body. It will also appeal to non-academic readers with an interest in any or all of these subjects; it is an informative and well-structured text.
In the Introduction, Barbagli places his study within a sociological context, by explaining the ideas of the French scholar Emile Durkheim (1858–1917). He explains in the opening paragraphs that the study was motivated by the shortcomings of Durkheim's 1897 theory on suicide, which has been widely held as the foremost such theory in sociological studies, which "is very useful as a way to explain changes in the suicide rate over time and space, the differences between historical periods, countries and social groups. However… it could not account for the unexpected new trends that had appeared in many countries" (1). Different types of suicide are identified: egoistic; altruistic; aggressive; and as a weapon — each according to the intentions of the individual carrying it out (5–7).
The author returns throughout the book to the limitations of Durkheim's theory, which is centred around two main factors: social integration, and social regulation (1), within each of the presented case studies. This gives Farewell to the World an overall coherence that complements its highly interesting content. He provides plentiful statistical data alongside an engagingly-written verbal analysis of the chosen areas.
The first section of the book focuses on Europe and the West. Its scope is wide-ranging, encompassing a period from the Middle Ages through to the early twentieth century. The author examines trends in suicide with the aim of identifying cultural and historical factors that could account for the rise in the number of voluntary deaths, which was noted by nineteenth-century intellectuals. Barbagli gives a review of pre-Christian and [End Page 405] early Christian beliefs about suicide before moving on to give detailed attention to legislative perspectives. He identifies a period during the mid sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when "Christian ethics on suicide showed the first signs of crisis, in cultural elites, at least" (72), and a shift in beliefs became visible in the public realm. During this time, there was a destabilization in the established structures of thinking and perception regarding Christian tenets and symbolism, "which for centuries had guarded men and women against the temptation of taking their own lives" (13). Referring at the beginning of each chapter to Durkheim's theory on the increase in suicide, which he attributes to a decline in social integration and connectedness, the author re-examines the factors analyzed by Durkheim and introduces a variety of other information that shows Durkheim's ideas to be insufficient as an explanation for the trend. For instance, Durkheim's assertions that over time, "the prohibition against taking one's own life became 'ever more strict"' and "that censure of suicide grew in parallel with the development of the rights of the individual against the state" (71), which have been widely adopted by social scientists, are disproven by the impressive quantity of evidence Barbagli provides throughout this study. He shows repeatedly, drawing on statistical data, that a multitude of processes and factors were at play through the...