Jan 28, 2016

Sacrifices to the Savage God

Wall Street Journal
November 30, 2015 

Available from Cults101 Bookstore.

The Savage God
On Feb. 11, 1963, the 30-year-old poet Sylvia Plath tiptoed into her children’s room, left them some bread and milk, opened their window and sealed their door, then went into her kitchen and put her head in the gas oven. Later that morning, a visiting nurse discovered her body. It was not her first attempt at suicide, but it was successful. A few years earlier she had written about feeling “outcast on a cold star, unable to feel anything but an awful helpless numbness. I look down into the warm, earthy world. Into a nest of lovers’ beds, baby cribs, meal tables, all the solid commerce of life in this earth, and feel apart, enclosed in a wall of glass.”

Plath was one of many gifted 20th-century literary figures (including Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and Ernest Hemingway) to commit suicide. In 1972 Al Alvarez (poet, critic and friend of Plath) wrote “The Savage God in an attempt to come to terms with her death.

“Suicide,” he wrote, “has permeated Western culture like a dye that cannot be washed out.” He lamented the mythologizing of Plath’s suicide. The “myth of the poet as a sacrificial victim, offering herself up for the sake of her art,” failed to do justice to either her life or her death. He was dismayed that there seemed to be only two ways of thinking about suicide. The first was religious, viewing it as a “horror,” a sin that was more wicked than murder, since it destroyed the soul as well as the body. The second was scientific, venerating statistics and objective analyses over individual maladies or misery.

In “Farewell to the World,” Marzio Barbagli, a professor of sociology at the University of Bologna, seeks to change how suicide is understood. He is not interested in why people like Plath kill themselves. Instead, he wants to explain “changes in the suicide rate over time and space” and “differences between historical periods, countries, and social groups.” Mr. Alvarez might accuse him of reducing human despair to “the boniest statistics.” That would be unfair.

Mr. Barbagli’s ambitious book has one primary aim: to demolish the most influential way of thinking about suicide, that of the founding father of sociology, Émile Durkheim. In 1897 Durkheim argued that to understand trends in suicide you have only to look at regulation and social integration. Poorly regulated societies have elevated levels of suicide. Suicide rates are also high when individuals become isolated from their communities (“egotistical” suicide) or when their communities exert such power that individual egos can be sacrificed for the greater good (“altruistic” suicide). Durkheim believed the latter was common among “primitive peoples.”

Mr. Barbagli devotes 400 pages to systematically undercutting these hypotheses. To do so he draws upon a vast range of research, including evidence from anthropology, biology, archaeology, psychology and sociology. He also interrogates suicide from the Middle Ages to the present and in Europe, America, China, India and the Middle East. He is as interested in Muslim and Hindu beliefs as in Christian ones; he contrasts sati in India with tat’ai in southeastern China, both of which involve the suicide of widows after their husbands’ death, though in different ways.

The crucial thing that Mr. Barbagli seeks to explain is the rise in the number of voluntary deaths since the 17th century. Unlike Durkheim, he argues that the answer lies in cultural factors, or transformations in “moral evaluations.” People changed their minds. No longer was suicide considered to be deserving of punishment, as in the medieval practice of insulting the lifeless bodies of suicides or giving them dishonorable burials. Instead, compassion began to be expressed for the suffering that the person must have been experiencing in order to have committed the act. In the West, he observes, the medicalization of suicide has become important. A growing awareness of the correlation between suicide and psychiatric diseases has meant that physicians have played an increasing role in managing these vulnerable people.

In his book’s most interesting chapter, Mr. Barbagli turns his acute intellect to the problem of suicide bombers. More than any other type of suicide, the suicide bomber cannot be reconciled with Durkheim’s model. Compared with other people who commit self-murder, suicide bombers tend to be younger and have higher levels of education. They are also more likely to be employed and less likely to suffer from mood or personality disorders. Finally, contrary to what most expect, they are often motivated not by a desire for rewards in this life or the next but rather by a sense of revenge against a hated enemy.

Mr. Barbagli also investigates the important matter of the gender of suicide bombers. Many female Chechen and Tamil bombers had been raped and were seeking to regain their honor within a moral code that had excluded them (albeit through no fault of their own). He also claims that it is meaningful that at least half of the suicide missions carried out world-wide between 1983 and 2003 were launched by secular organizations. The obvious question is: Has this ratio changed in the past 12 years? This is one of those occasional, but annoying, instances when the richness of Mr. Barbagli’s historical analysis is offset by a paucity of contemporary evidence.

Mr. Barbagli’s book is not a light read, but it is a significant contribution to the field. “Farewell to the World” may not help us understand the despair that drove individuals like Plath to commit suicide. It will, however, focus attention on the vast range of motivations for suicide and the rapidity with which societal attitudes can change. Mr. Barbagli demolishes the Durkheimian view of suicide and rightly emphasizes beliefs, symbols and values, including the right to “choose when to bid farewell to the world.” This was the right that Plath embraced.

Ms. Bourke is a professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of “The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers.”


No comments: