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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
On Suicide: My Best Essay
25 April 2001
Plato, in the words of Phaedo, had written that his mentor, "then holding the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison...and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions..."
It seems ironic that Socrates who was charged in 399 BC, as "an evil doer and a curious person, searching into things under the earth and above the heaven; and making the worse appear the better cause, and teaching all this to others" refused to contemplate the alternative to death, a fine. Socrates, who offered the philosophical argument that man is the property of Gods and must wait for their decision concerning the termination of his life, chose to end his own life prematurely by drinking a cup of hemlock extract.
Down the history, those who supported and those who protested the act of suicide forms a formidable list. The pendulum of opinion swung in the opposite direction from that of Socratic era three centuries later. The Stoic school (founded in 108 BC in Athens by Zeno of Citium and which exerted its greatest influence in the Roman empire) held the view that, given adequate reason, suicide is appropriate and perhaps required. Seneca, born nearly 2000 summers ago, not only argued this position, he practised it when accused of involvement in a conspiracy against Emperor Nero.
St.Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the medieval philosopher-theologian living in the 13th century, pushed the pendulum back to the anti-suicide camp by preaching that suicide violates the obligation of oneself, to others or to God. Then, David Hume, in the 18th century, expressed his allegiance to Seneca's view that suicide is an honorable and sometimes praiseworthy act. However, his contemporary William Blackstone, while codifying the English law, categorized suicide as 'self-murder' and a grave felony. For the past 250 years, these two schools of thought presented by Hume and Blackstone had split the global society vertically on how to deal with the dilemma of suicide.
In contemporary USA, Jack Kevorkian, a retired pathologist who had assisted over 40 people in committing suicides, had brought the suicide issue prominently into public domain again. While in the San Francisco Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996 that an individual's right to control the time and manner of his or her death outweighed the state's obligation to preserve life, the American Medical Association called the doctor-assisted suicide popularized by Kevorkian as 'fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as a healer and care giver.'
With the 20th century running its last lap, newspaper headlines still report frequently about the rise in suicides in many countries. I speak with familiarity about two; Japan and Sri Lanka. I have been living in Japan for the past 12 years. Before the beginning of this century, the predominant symbols of Japan for outsiders were samurai (with their characteristic suicide ritual of disembowelment, vulgarly known as hara-kiri among non-Japanese) and geisha. During the Second World War, kamikaze pilots with their dare-devil suicide acts tried their best without success to turn the tide of war towards their advantage.
In the post-war era, the man who characterized Japan inimitably to international audience was Akira Kurosawa, the movie director, whom I consider as an intellectual descendant of Socrates. He mesmerized the cinema fans all over the world with philosophical themes like truth and greed in human life. He did this wonderfully by adopting the literature of Shakespeare, Dosteyevsky, Gorky and Akutagawa to silver screen for nearly 50 summers. Though his end came naturally on September 6  at the respectable age of 88, Kurosawa also tried to make a personal statement 27 summers ago, against the society in which he lived, by slitting his wrist. Fortunately he was saved then.
Whereas Kurosawa failed in his suicide attempt at the peak of his career, Juzo Itami (Kurosawa's junior contemporary and an equally talented actor and movie director) who captured the international attention with the satirical portrayal of the anthropology of Japanese funeral (Ososhiki in 1984) succeeded in his suicide attempt. Last December, he ended his life prematurely by jumping from a high rise building. He was somewhat 'obsessed' with death, following an assassination attempt a few years ago, which he survived miraculously. Thus I inferred that Itami's cards were loaded against him. Itami was one of 24,391 suicides recorded in Japan in 1997. The news caption which reported this number (Daily Yomiuri, June 14, 1998) also informed the readers that this figure is the 'most this decade'.
Five years ago, a 198 page book with the title, Kanzen Jisatsu Manual (The Complete Manual of Suicide) authored by one Wataru Tsurumi, became a runaway best seller in Japan. This happened, despite the fact that the publisher refrained from widespread advertising when the book was released and that the distributors controlled the sales by placing stocks to bookstores on the basis of advance orders. Similar to many other things exploited by the quick-buck minded hucksters in Japan, Tsurumi's book is an imitation of the 1991 controversial American best-seller 'Final Exit', authored by Derek Humphrey, a cofounder of the Hemlock Society.
I was born in Sri Lanka, at a time when it was known in the geography books as Ceylon. Now, Sri Lanka holds the dubious record in mortality statistics for its highest rate of suicide. In the span of 45 years since I was born, the suicide incidence has risen from a modest level to competing strongly with that of Hungary, the perennial leader in suicide deaths during our era.
Though it seems like yesterday, forty summers have passed since I was introduced to the reality of suicide of a kin. I was living in a rural village with my mother and maternal grandparents. One day, a telegram was delivered to our household, and I overheard the hush talk which followed immediately among the elder members of the extended family. A little later, my grandmother began to sob. The protagonist in that dreaded telegram message, a niece of my grandmother, had committed suicide. I came to know later that she was only 24 years at that time, having given birth to two charming girls - the younger one, then a mere toddler. My aunt, had taken the easy route to relieve her life's stress by drinking folidol - the trade name of an organophosphorus insecticide, which was (and probably is) handily available in any farming household in Sri Lanka. That was my first, painful introduction to the tragedy of suicide.
The news of suicide revisited me when I reached 12 years. This time, it claimed the life of one of my favorite teachers at my secondary school, Canagaratnam 'master'. He probably had the strongest influence on my juvenile years, from 1963 to 1965. I still remember fondly how he annotated my homework exercised in English language with 'Good' or 'Very Good'. I yearned for those days when only I, among my classmates, was bestowed with those 'Very Good' annotations. Not only English, he also introduced me to Newton and his apple tree.
We addressed him with the dimunitive 'cheeroot [suruttu] Canagar' since he was fond of tobacco processed in the cigar form. He was also partial to liquor from coconut, the local variety called arrack, as well. He was an educator par excellence who laughed at the life's foibles and entertained the students with his dramatic humor. He was also a stern task master who liberally used the cane, when under the influence of arrack. We dreaded his cane whacking in our derriere, but we also were thrilled to listen to his pontifications on how come Newton did not think that the apple should not fly above the tree. After kindling the flame of science in me, one day I heard that he had committed suicide by hanging. During my undergraduate days, I became convinced that alcoholic depression was the cause of his untimely demise. He was only in his late thirties then.
Painful as it is now to ponder, how did I escape getting trapped in the suicide net in my late teens? 27 summers ago, I failed twice in my attempts to enter the medical faculty of one of the two universities in Ceylon. Four years later, I again failed to get even a low second class honors degree in zoology for my graduation. I felt ashamed to face my teachers, friends and relatives. I have no doubt that I suffered from a considerable degree of 'psychache' which Edwin Shneidman, one of the foremost contemporary suicidologists, had labeled as a premonitory symptom to suicidal ideation. My failure to earn a good class degree derailed my chances of becoming a 'permanent' assistant lecturer in any one of the Sri Lankan universities. For five years I languished until I succeeded in receiving a graduate assistantship to one of the public universities in the Land of Lincoln.
Only during the past 12 summers, neurochemists have found out that low 5-hydroxy indoleacetic acid (5-HIAA) in the cerebrospinal fluid predicts future suicide attempts and suicide completion. I count my blessings that my parents had endowed me with a proper blend of genes which code for adequate, if not abundant, supply of 5-HIAA, the serotonin by-product, which is now gaining reputation as a positive marker for depression and suicidal tendencies. Though not internationally recognized like Werner Fassbinder or River Phoenix, I consider myself luckier than them, in terms of 5-HIAA.
Deep in my heart, I also thank my mentor Canagaratnam for teaching me by demonstration that it is better to live rather than surrender one's life to stress. Socrates lived via Plato. Similarly, it is not an exaggeration if I say that my mentor lives via me. That's why, I still get goose bumps when I read (at least in English translation) ever-faithful Plato on how he experienced the ticking moments of the last minutes of his erstwhile mentor. Even with the passage of nearly 2,400 summers, the pathos recorded in Plato's words moves me.
"The man who gave him [Socrates] the poison, now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while, he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, 'No'; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt then himself and said: 'When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end'. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said (they were his last words) - he said: 'Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?..."
Sometimes I wonder whether Socrates is still having the last laugh at the Athenian Democrats who tortured him. In this century, America projects itself as the greatest show piece of democracy. But Ann Landers, the ever popular advice columnist to the American heart, has expressed concerns about the increasing rates of teenage suicide in America. What she agonized 20 summers ago still rings true.
And suicide seems the easy way out of this misery for quite a significant percent of teenagers. Even highly successful young American role models (Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix to note a few) tend to succumb to the tentacles of sucide. Apart from the USA, suicide also remains among the ten most frequent causes of death in many other nations.
Now, as the 20th century is running its last lap in the race of civilization, still there is no 'treatment' for suicide. The Global Burden of Disease Study by Murray and Lopez, published in the Lancet last year (May 3, 1997) and commented editorially as well, shows proof that in 1990, the number of suicides (786,000) in the world far outnumbered deaths from AIDS infection (312,000). But I have a hunch that one or a couple of researchers who are contributing to the understanding of the AIDS infection stand a better chance of being anointed with a Nobel medal in the near future than someone who had done research on suicide. I wish I'm proved wrong."
Post-script in 2001