Episode 12 - Simon Critchley - Love, Children and Suicide during the Pandemic


Sahana: Hi Everyone! Welcome to In Limbo Conversations! Today, we have with us Simon Critchley- he's a Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. He works on continental philosophy, philosophy and literature, psychoanalysis, ethics and political theory among other domains. For more information about his research, please click here and you can also check his personal website here. Thank you for joining us Simon.

Today I thought I could try something new with you- we got a few sort of letters and descriptions of people's experiences and what they are going through during the pandemic situation and I thought I could ask you what you think about them and how you relate to them personally. I tried to sort them out by themes and the first theme is largely love and relationship during the pandemic.

The name of this person is Tapaswi. Tapaswi is a 29 year old woman, who is married and has two children- so for the past five-six months like, that is, throughout the lockdown- they have been with each other- day in and day out with her spouse and with her children- she says that even though her partner is really nice to her and tries to do everything that would make her comfortable, and she loves her children, in her words, "to death"- she sometimes just wishes that they were gone, that being with them has become too much for her and that there are instances, she says, where she just loathes looking at them and can't understand why. That makes her frustrated and guilty- so, in relation to Tapaswi, I wonder there is the part about having to be with someone just about all the time- how that could be encroaching on one's private space but also there is the comfort of having someone during the tough time and also just being so immensely loved and being taken care of, especially by your primary caretaker like parents or later, your partners, that it becomes unbearable- so how would you understand what she's experiencing- the loathing and frustration of being with someone and the guilt of not wanting those who care for you?


Simon: Well I understand. I empathize with it but I'm very happy to say that's not the situation I find myself in. So, I don't know how people have been coping with young children in particular and even partners. So, she has all my sympathy but I don't have much in the way of advice. I mean I don't know. I know a lot of people with kids and it's been difficult. I am happy that my son is very grown up and I've got a stepson too and he's also grown up- so I don't have that thing to worry about. And I think dating and relationships and the pandemic- it's a fascinating topic. One of the classes I am teaching this semester is called Human Observation and one of the groups of students that's working is going to be working on that question- Love in a Pandemic, relationships and we'll see what they find out, but I have no wisdom to pass on.


Sahana: What do you think it's about like- if you look at love- because my area is not this- so you know, I'm going to be just asking you a bit of a novice question- I hope you can put up with that. What do you think it's about love, about the idea of possession that sort of makes people want someone and at the same time not want them- what do you think it's related to? The pattern in which we relate, as children with everyone- is that why adults also feel that way? Because she felt that towards her partner as well- does love inherently have that nature? Of wanting but not wanting? That always- it's the Lacanian mirroring where you're just always wanting to go towards and never really, say, satiating that desire.



© Margaret C. Cook

Love is to give what you do not have and to receive that over which you have no power...so if love becomes possession, I think that becomes a kind of a sickness and it reduces love relations to property relations-

it reduces relationships to contracts...




Simon: Yah. I'm not really a Freudian but I've learned things from Freud over the years. I'm suspicious of lots in Freud and suspicions of a great deal in Lacan, particularly with Lacanians but that's a separate topic. But the idea that you know- love is in possession- the best formulation I've come up with is the idea that to love is to give what you do not have right? Love is to give what you do not have and to receive that over which you have no power. That's always struck me as about right- so to give what you do not have- so if love becomes possession, I think that becomes a kind of a sickness and it reduces love relations to property relations- it reduces relationships to contracts. Some people do this, I mean, they have understandings- “You do this, I'll do that”- that strikes me as a total misunderstanding of love. And so, to love someone is to know that you do not possess them- it's always that dimension of- there has to be a dimension of something unknown in love. I mean this is a human being- it's not an object- it's not a thing in the world. What you receive is that over which you have no power- there's a kind of, at its best- something like grace- an experience of grace in love on one hand. On the other hand, I think, you know, Freud has a point when he says "hate is..older than love". In a sense, the way we tend to bind ourselves to ourselves through hatred is a more primal emotion than love. Sadly I think he's right.


Sahana: This reminds me of- I'm not a very big fan of very watered-down novels but- there was Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness and he talked about this moment where this character is looking at his girlfriend and you know he's apparently been madly in love with her and he sees her buy these flashy purple shoes and just that moment is- just magnified and you know they're like- “I don't know how I love this person”- but all around, it has been love. So yes, I do think that loving can only come if you're aware of its death and at the moment where you are with the person, in a certain sense.

That touches upon something that I wanted to also say about the next subject who is Maya- this is about children and suicide. Maya is a 12 year old girl, and she lives with her parents and has no siblings- her father Raghav says that over the last 2-3 months, she has been asking about death a lot and more specifically, that she has dreams where she dies- she asks where people go after that, which is more general but also what would happen if she was burning- this is probably related to immolation- or if a building fell over her- so, when Raghav posted about this- the forum- he was saying that he's a bit concerned about how to look at Maya wondering about her own death.

It seems natural that children are going to be asking these big questions about life and death and disease during this time. Dr. Lone had talked about this with us a few weeks back. I was wondering for a child who probably has no control over her surroundings and who is watching- probably- is undergoing a lot of unrest- do you think there is a possibility that she's contemplating suicide? Because statistically, there has been an increase in youth suicide attempts over the last five-six eight-nine months and do you feel that we can even talk of suicide when it comes to children?


Simon: Yah sure! Children, in my experience, are very preoccupied with death in different ways, I mean, in particular- the possibility of the death of their parents- that's something which can emerge as a thought at a very very young and it can be quite disturbing for a child to know that their parents are not always going to be around. I think the idea of hiding things from kids around death is totally pointless and there needs to be more discussion of that and one of the virtues- one of the virtues of say, Christianity- I'm not a Christian- is that it's a very kind of death-obsessed religion. So at least you become aware of the idea of a God who dies and this death having significance and death being something central to human life. So, I don't think you can ever- I don't think you can ever disguise anything from children. I think children always see through bullshit- they can always see the truth. So, if their parents are unhappy, the children always realize it. I think you should talk with kids about death as much as possible. It's a good thing- you can do that through all sorts of examples.





I think the idea of hiding things from kids around death is totally pointless and there needs to be more discussion of that (death)...I don't think you can ever disguise anything from children. I think children always see through bullshit- they can always see the truth...




I think the question of suicide- where we are with suicide- there's been a shift. I have done some writing and thinking about this and one thing that you find in- you look at the history, the sociology of suicide- is that the rates of suicide in different cultures vary. More people kill themselves in Hungary than in Austria. We don't know why but it's a fact. It's a cultural feature, so there are cultural variations and there are gender variations- more women attempt suicide, more men complete suicide and the figures- there are quite interesting. So those- the suicide patterns, patterns of behaviour and how that features in particular societies- these are things that can shift but they're fairly constant. But there's been a significant change in the last 10 years in particular, with suicide, suicidal ideation and suicidal thought and national suicides amongst teenage girls and even pre-teen girls- a significant increase and then, you think, "Well, what's changed?" and then what's changed is this (pointing to mobile phone)- social media has changed. Is there a causal connection between social media and suicidal behaviour? That's very hard to show. But there's certainly a correlation between them. That's really really worrying. You can't, as a parent, you can't win because you can't, if you don't allow your child access to a phone, they're a weirdo. They're a kind of freak. And if you do, give them access to a phone- you're exposing them to that risk, you know- whether it's through bullying or whatever it might be. So, yeah. We're in a very strange situation when it comes to this.


Sahana: How do you feel being in this sort of pandemic affects the experiential resilience? Like the worldview of the child who has to face such a crisis, especially when they're such at a tender age. Like going through divorce or all different kinds of crises and to be able to see the world around them completely change- the uncertainty and a complete change in lifestyle. How do you think that affects people and children?


Simon: Well, it affects people. In the United States it was really happening in April and May. And then there was the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter issue became the key issue but now things are moving back to that. Questions of anxiety, depression suicide, and the rest. And the fact is that for people who are melancholics- melancholics, depressive- and most people who would say, “I think of myself as a kind of a normal melancholic”. When the rest of the world is in a state of, you know, anxiety and fear with regards to say the pandemic, actually the world feels a much more comfortable place. So the peculiar thing about the pandemic is that people that are really, say suicidally depressed are less likely to take their lives during a pandemic. The research on suicide shows, certainly in the northern hemisphere- the peak, the most popular time for suicide is spring. People take their lives not when things are dark and awful and difficult but when things are getting better. So the time that we have to worry about is not now. It's what happens when this changes and the fear begins to really lift and there's a vaccine and things seem to be getting better. That's when I imagine there'll be more suicides.


...for people who are melancholic- when the rest of the world is in a state of, you know, anxiety and fear with regards to say the pandemic, actually the world feels a much more comfortable place...So the peculiar thing about the pandemic is that people that are really, say suicidally depressed are less likely to take their lives during a pandemic...The research on suicide shows, certainly in the northern hemisphere- the peak, the most popular time for suicide is spring...People take their lives not when things are dark and awful and difficult but when things are getting better...



Sahana: Okay, so this reminds me of just one last question about this. It reminds me of the 2013 workshop that you had mentioned in "Notes on Suicide", which was I think a creative suicide note writing workshop. Like I think it was a parody. It was called The School of Death?


Simon: It was a parody of The School of Life.


Sahana: Right! And do you think children can actually- given that they're not, at least we think- that they're not cognitively developed or exposed to the world enough to grasp the idea of giving up on life- given this, do you think children can write suicide notes like- is it a possibility we could have a book which has suicide notes that children write?


Simon: Well, there were no children there in that- actually there was! My stepson was there. It was a little bit of, say, performance art. Me and two of my friends were trying to poke fun at this thing- The School of Life-which used to exist just in London but no- it's kind of all over the place. This is how you know middle class people can feel better through reading bad philosophy. So, we don't like that and then also to ridicule creative writing and creative writing workshops, by doing a suicide note creative writing workshop- it just struck as a funny idea. So, we did it and it was very serious. It was a tiny tiny room. It was smaller than the room I'm in now- just 10-15 people stuck in a little room. It was raining outside and it was really rather moving and kids, we have children- I mean we were children relatively recently- they're not that different from us. There has to be a kind of a legal status that separates children from adults- that's important but the idea that children are in some separate domain- I've always found ridiculous. I think the more discussion of death and things like suicid- the more that that is discussed openly, the better. There's a kind of moral panic amongst parents, around questions of suicide that- if you tell children about this, they're gonna sort of act on it. They're not stupid- children are not stupid- they're children but they're usually pretty clever.




There has to be a kind of a legal status that separates children from adults- that's important but the idea that children are in some separate domain- I've always found ridiculous. I think the more discussion of death and things like suicide- the more that that is discussed openly, the better.






Sahana: If you're comfortable- this is a personal question- because I just wanted to ask you- that you have talked about the right to suicide, you know about letting us exercise our power to choose and if we reason in this line far enough, how do you feel of anti-natalism? Because I relate quite a bit to the way Peter Wessel Zapffe and Emil Cioran and Thomas Ligotti talk- look at the world. Do you feel like we are also under an obligation to not bring into this world beings who are condemned to face pain and suffering, especially with the whole pandemic situation? Are we obliged to not choose life for others and give birth?


I run this column called The Stone with the New York Times- and we did a piece very early on by Peter Singer and he just raised the question well- “Given what we know about climate change, should we have children?” and people freaked out, they freaked out- they went crazy and so when you raise that question, people go mad.


Simon: Big question- it's a big question. I think it’s a question that excites a lot of emotion. I remember when- I run this column called The Stone with the New York Times- and we did a piece very early on by Peter Singer and he just raised the question well- “Given what we know about climate change, should we have children?” and people freaked out, they freaked out- they went crazy and so when you raise that question, people go mad. I think it's sure- it's an issue. I think people could do what they like but I think that the world is a strange place to bring people into at the moment I must say that. Given that we know what we know, given that there'll be no climate and there will be no global unified action on climate change- it's not gonna happen, it's you know the best we have Paris Accord, we had the Kyoto Accord- if Kyoto had stuck and people had, you know, stopped and the government had stuck with that, then maybe we'd be in a better place. But countries like the United States are kind of rogue states that are just in denial, doing crazy stuff- Brazil too. So, it's very hard to imagine, to even think about the future beyond our lives and that's enormously depressing. So, in that context- it does raise a question about children- sure, because to have a child is to imagine a future after your death- that's really the deal.


Given that we know what we know, given that there'll be no climate and there will be no global unified action on climate change..it does raise a question about children- sure, because to have a child is to imagine a future after your death- that's really the deal...


It's a horrible thing for a parent to lose a child, for a child to die before a parent- when you're having a child, you are imagining a time after your death and you're imagining a life that continues on into the future and you know at this point, we're imagining that life continuing on into the future- in the actual climate which is heading towards a disastrous situation, an unsustainable situation- that is just too much information to process. I don't know about you but- one thing I was doing during the pandemic, amongst other things, was that I was reading a lot of pieces around about climate change and then at a certain point, I just couldn't do it anymore- it was just too much- I couldn't take any more in because you think, "Oh, no! This is gonna be so sad!" and, so there's a limit to what we can tolerate. But the key thing about climate change is that this is not- it cannot be based on how people feel, right? This has to be an issue where there simply has to be unified governmental action, transnational action. Hopefully, you know, as every nation in the world would- that would be great and they have to be legal obligations that each country has to follow and if they don't follow it, there have to be sanctions and that's what we're incapable of even beginning to imagine and the main culprit in that is the United States.


Sahana: For me, it's more troubling for me in this whole situation that it is non-consensual- I understand we cannot talk of consent when it comes to children who are not born yet- but the very fact that, as human beings, we are ready to make a decision to bring someone like- even if the world were great- even if the world was a wonderful place to live in- do I have the right to make that decision from for anyone? Who's potentially going to have a life- I personally don't believe in marriage or I'm an anti-natalist but of course, I'm ready to revise those views. I feel like I can't do that for any being, even potentially.


Simon: Yeah. I don't think it's a question of rights- I think it's a question of- it's much more a question of habits, traditions, expectations. I mean it's more that- if we are the offspring of somebody, our parents or wherever it might have been- there's a kind of expectation, a habit, a tradition- that maybe I will continue to do the same thing. So, it's more like that. When it comes down to questions of rights, I think I always get confused. It's a question of how you persuade people. Given the nature of the world- that we are moving into in the next 30-50 years then, what should human beings do? Should they think more carefully about questions of reproduction? I think they should. I think they should. [Yeah- I'm looking out the window- behind- you can't see this but I'm looking- I have a back garden here and I'm watching a squirrel hanging from a branch on a tree- it's very strange- how odd- I have a very gymnastic squirrel in my backyard.] Anyway so yeah, so I would say- I don't really do rights discourse- I'm not really keen on that. I like to think about social and political issues from the perspective of habits, moral views, routine, conditions, practices.



It's a question of how you persuade people. Given the nature of the world- that we are moving into in the next 30-50 years then, what should human beings do? Should they think more carefully about questions of reproduction? I think they should.




Sahana: Yes. And the more whole intricate relationship between how- I am coming from a society where marriage and having children are the norm and you know I come from India where that's the formula for a happy life- so, yes, I understand how those are very important details to look at.

These are the things that I wanted to ask you.

Thank you so much for joining me Simon! It was really great talking to you!


Simon: Pleasure- thank you for your questions! And it was very nice to talk to you!


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