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Jan. 18th, 2017

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What did you just finish?
Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide by Marzio Barbagli, translated (from Italian) by Lucinda Byatt. This is an academic investigation into suicide – not into why an individual might commit suicide (eg, depression, grief, incurable illness), but into the different ways cultures have interpreted and understood suicide, and how those contexts have resulted in different suicide rates between countries, genders, classes, races, and urban areas vs rural ones.

Barbagli's speciality is the history of Europe, in particular the cultural changes from Classic Rome through Medieval Christianity up to the modern day. About half of the book covers this topic, but he also ventures outside of his usual focus with chapters on sati in India (the tradition of a widow killing herself to follow her deceased husband), female suicide in historical China (sometimes also committed to follow a husband or fiance, but also done to get revenge on someone with power over her), and modern-day suicide bombers and suicides done as political protest. Although all of these topics were very interesting, the fact that Barbagli didn't have the same depth of knowledge about them as the first half of the book was unfortunately quite clear. In the sati chapter, in particular, it was inescapably obvious that he cited only European scholars, with no (or perhaps only one) Indian voices. And while an outsider perspective can sometimes be helpful, it should never be the only take on a cultural topic.

But despite those problems, the chapters on Europe were absolutely fascinating. Barbagli sets out to explain the rise in suicides that occurred in much of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, opposing Durkheim and other contemporary scholars who saw the origins in the Industrial Revolution and subsequent breakdown of the strong social ties of family and village. Instead he argues that the rise was a result of the breakdown of Medieval Christianity, which had seen suicide as the gravest sin (even worse than homicide or the murder of a young child!), into seeing it as resulting from a melancholic personality or as an understandable response to suffering, and then into the modern day's medical understanding of it (depression as a mental illness). Despite the depressing nature of the topic, I really can't think of a better word for these chapters than fascinating; just the way Barbagli lays out his evidence, the accumulation of little historical details and their step by step change through time, gives the book the compelling power of a thriller.

I wish all of it could have been as good as those opening chapters, but nonetheless the book's well worth reading for what it does accomplish.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. A fun sci-fi book I found through a recommendation.

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