Thursday, February 18, 2010

(This is not a cry for help)

I learned today of a fascinating (at least to my morbid tastes) Parisian phenomenon that existed up until the early 1800s called the "filets de Saint-Cloud", a set of nets on the downstream end of the Seine used to recover the cadavers of suicide victims. Apparently jumping into the Seine was the #1 way to off one's self back then--between the lack of swimming skills and the high walls that made it difficult to climb back out, it was more or less surefire.

The reason I found out about this is that the Balzac book we read for yesterday, "La Peau de Chagrin," begins with its protagonist contemplating suicide-by-drowning. This got me thinking about how trends in suicide can reflect on a society. In the book, the protagonist's suicidal tendencies are indicative of both Parisian geography/culture and the bleak 19th century "mal du siècle" ennui. The same could be said of a lot of other literary suicides I've read through so far this year--sacrificial lovers' suicides at the tip of an épée in the medieval ages, which attest to a different perspective of honor, chivalry and passion; Madame Bovary's graphic death by pharmacist's arsenic, which could be seen as the product of strict 19th century marriages and oppressive gender roles and social codes and indicative of a new interest in/fear of science and medicine.

Yes! I thought to myself. Here's a gem to store away in that little jar labeled "potential thesis topics" in the corner of my brain. Unfortunately, a quick Google search proved that I'm far from the first person to have had this stroke of genius. *siiigh* However, my brief researching also turned up a few interesting statistics about French suicide--the non-literary kind, that is--that shed a little light on changes in French culture and differences between France and the U.S. and really got me thinking. It seems that as Seine suicides (more than 300 between 1795 and 1800!) became less frequent due to better swimming abilities and the improved precautionary measures of throwable emergency life rings, ladders, and regular police patrol of the water, Parisian suicides matched trends in Parisian life, switching to jumping from increasingly high buildings or under metro cars.

France's most (in?)famous tall building, the Eiffel tower, has had more than 350 successful jumpers since its construction in 1889, with the annual rate down to about 4 or so in recent years due to new precautionary measures. (Most Parisians still remember a high-profile incident last year, in which tourist plunged to her death on the glass ceiling of the same Eiffel Tower restaurant where I spent Thanksgiving...eesh). The most recent statistic I could find for the Parisian metro was from 2006, and it puts annual metro suicides at either 70 or 150, depending on who you ask, with definite spikes after holidays and vacations. (In comparison, the D.C. Metro got flak from the media for having a record-high 9 suicides last year. Granted that's comparing D.C.'s 5 lines and 2 million riders to Paris' 19 lines and 3 million, but still.) In fact, Parisian suicides outnumber Washingtonian suicides in general. The rate of suicides in Paris is 23 per 100,000 residents, higher than the national rate of 17, but MUCH higher than Washington D.C.'s 6 per 100,000 and the U.S. national rate of 11. (The method is also different; while firearms don't even figure in the statistics here, they are overwhelmingly the most-employed method in the U.S., which only proves that we REALLY need to get our gun regulations under control.)

So why are so many more frogs croaking ? Theories out there include a lower rate of religious fervor (which would account for less of a spiritual support network as well as less moral interdiction), racial/economic tensions in the urban suburbs of Paris, and, most recently, an increasingly oppressive workplace environment. What I didn't discuss in my previous post on the workplace in France is that finding a job in France is much more difficult than it is in the US. The economic crisis has pushed America's unemployment rate to where France's has been for a while--around 10%, and unlike America, France isn't expecting it to go back down. With many service positions filled as careers, part time/temporary jobs are much harder to find here, and with an education system that pushes you to make a vocational choice early in life and a regimented system of competencies/requirements that makes it difficult to switch careers, it's easier to feel "trapped" in a job you don't like (which you then don't want to surrender to unemployment).

Or maybe it's something different entirely. To come full circle with this post, modern French literature is marked by a series of rather depressing philosophical/literary movements that reveal a bleak worldview. Is the outlook of this literature descriptive? Or just intellectual? Making ties between real life and fuzzy fictional universes always gets tricky. In any case, this research was enough to sober me and turn me away from such a depressing thesis topic. I'll stick to women's rights and courtly love from now on.


  1. I love you Becca. I will be reading now and again to live vicariously through you...hold out, do not succumb to the Real World! xxxooo Dolores

  2. nice post mm-hmmm.
    all i can think about is Elliott Smith stabbing himself IN THE HEART