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Suicide and War

by Dan Knauss “Once the poets resounded over the battlefield; what voice can outshout the rattle of this metallic age that is struggling on toward its careening future? And indeed it hardly requires the call, its own battle-din roars into song. But so far no-one has succeeded in singing an epic of peace. What is it about peace, that keeps its inspiration from enduring and makes it almost untellable? Should I now give up? if I do give up, mankind will lose its story-teller. And once mankind loses its story-teller, then it will have lost its childhood.”

–Homer in Wim Wenders’ Der Himmel uber Berlin



While I was in North Carolina for Christmas, I picked up a copy of The Independent and noticed a sad theme for the end of 2002 issue: suicide. David Need’s review of Jack Miles’ Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Vintage Press) says Miles, who won a Pulitzer for God: A Biography, presents a Jesus who “is an incarnate God, come to kill himself, in order to rob the Devil of the power of death.” Needs is rightly disturbed by this thesis, but initially I thought it was odd that he expressed great worry over the possible influences of Miles’ Jesus, especially among those who would imitate a god-man “who, so as to preserve his power, destroys the world.” Suicide surfaces later in the same issue of The Independent in a movie review of The Hours, a film based on a novel that is a tribute to Virginia Woolf. The film critic, Godfrey Cheshire, wonders if in The Hours‘ depiction of “acts of radical self-determination, including suicide,” the film endorses “suicide as an existential choice.” Chesire knows he is on dangerous ground here, but he pushes on to claim that

“Ultimately, the act–or threat–of suicide serves not to deny or obliterate life, but to underscore the preciousness of each moment, day or hour. . . . No matter how damaging they may be to oneself or others, in every radical act of self-determination lies the hope of a life fully lived, and a life fully honored.”

This is foolishness. No one responds to real suicide or real threats of suicide with this sort of romantic, aesthetic appreciation. It must be a good measure of deadness in our overmediated minds that makes us feel “life” or hope in the vicarious experience of violent, especially suicidal, self-determination in film or fiction. After reading Cheshire’s review, I no longer felt that David Need was odd in his concern that some people might read Miles’ and find desperate, suicidal acts somewhat attractive. Need is on to something. Elsewhere in my holiday reading, I came across something that reminded me that a nihilistic death-wish–to preserve or even, paradoxically, to create power and/or oneself through self-destruction–is deeply ingrained in the Western mind. J. R. R. Tolkien makes this warning in The Return of the King, which is the last book of The Lord of the Rings. There, a radically deformed mind is depicted in Denethor, who has become possessed with the enemy, Sauron’s, totalitarian dream of power in the very effort of opposing him. Denethor goes mad and tries to kill himself along with his wounded, unconscious son, Faramir, but Denethor only succeeds in killing himself. Trying to call Denethor back to sanity, Gandalf the wizard tells him,

“Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death. And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.”

Need, Cheshire and Tolkien returned to my mind on December 26 when I (who seldom watch any TV) perversely took in two consecutive episodes of CSI which were followed by another realistic violent crime program. Often single episodes of old ER reruns make me wonder about the psyches of people who routinely watch trauma shows. (Perhaps the acronymic titles serve to mask the too-obvious fact that we are watching aestheticized depictions of sterile, morbid, quintessentially modern scenes: the Emergency Room, the Crime Scene Investigation.) I switched the channel to the NewsHour on PBS which featured a spot on Atlanta’s notorious urban sprawl, which is also a kind of urban death-wish as everyone (especially dystopic sci-fi writers) intuitively recognizes. Following this feature there was an interview of Chris Hedges, a New York Times reporter who has won an award for Human Rights Journalism and a Pulitzer for writing on global terrorism. Hedges spoke about his book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (Public Affairs, Perseus Group, 2002):

[War is] maybe the supreme drug of human existence. It has a fantastic… a quality of the grotesque, a dark beauty; and the bible called it “the lust of the eye,” and warned believers against it. It creates a landscape that’s almost beyond the realm of imagination. Of course you have the adrenaline rush, you have that exhilaration that comes with that constant flirtation with danger. And it becomes hard to live outside of its environment, often even for the victims.

Hedges read the following passage from his book on the air:

“We believe in the nobility and self-sacrifice demanded by war, especially when we are blinded by the narcotic of war. We discover in the communal struggle the shared sense of meaning and purpose, a cause. War fills our spiritual void. I do not miss war, but I miss what it brought. I can never say I was happy in the midst of the fighting in El Salvador or Bosnia or Kosovo, but I had a sense of purpose, of calling. And this is a quality war shares with love, for we are in love, also able to choose fealty and self-sacrifice over security.”

How has Hedges dealt with this experience, which he found so attractive? He says he has not chosen security:

I wouldn’t put it that way. I would say I’ve chosen not to engage in the necrophilia that is war, not to flirt with my own destruction anymore. You know, the ancient Greeks and Romans… for the ancient Greeks and Romans, war was a god. And it began with the sacrifice of the other, but it always ended with self-sacrifice and self-annihilation. And I think when you don’t understand war, when you allow war to control you, that’s what war’s final cost entails: Self-obliteration.

As Gandalf or Elrond might say, this is good and wise counsel, not just about war but about the deeper issue: how we make meaning in our lives and world, how we use our power in choices of self-determination. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 4 – April 2003