The politics of suicide

Despite having so many friends and associates, not one came out in public to comment on the tragic path Christos Zachopoulos chose to take. Not one television window was dedicated to the choice he made. It was as though important political players attempt suicide every day. We in the Mediterranean are not accustomed to dealing with such subjects, the proof of which lies in the fact that it is perhaps the only statistic we cannot trust from the outset. Data show that some 400 suicides are reported annually in Greece. But this figure is not true, just as the numbers are not true for Italy and other countries. These numbers have given rise to the myth that suicide is more frequent in Northern Europe. The fact is that in Greece (and other countries) the overwhelming majority of suicides are simply attributed to sudden death so that families can bury the victims without encountering any problems with the Church. Moreover, our perception of suicide in the present-day West is rooted in the Bible, in the story of Judas. Indeed, even though Judas’s suicide is mentioned in just one gospel (Matthew), the new religion was quick to adopt this version of his death. The alleged suicide quickly became the archetype of an ignominious, deplorable death, not so much because of the act itself but for the sense of hopelessness that this act engenders. «People do not kill themselves over a political scandal,» we heard a university professor saying on television. Suicide befits the silence of closed communities. As the renowned researcher Georges Minois notes, suicide is perceived as stigmatizing to the family of the victim and to society as whole, because it is perceived by both as a personal failure. According to Minois, sociological studies of the 19th century showed that attributing suicide to social causes enhances the sense of guilt and the need to cover up the fact. Paradoxically, in the ongoing public debate we see a similar train of thought. The debate addresses the seriousness of the act, but not the questions behind it. Attributing the suicide attempt to a sex scandal is certainly the easiest and most television-friendly solution. In fact it is so easy that even Zachopoulos’s «friends» have washed away their own sins by condemning the «moral burden» which the former Culture Ministry general secretary had to carry. Dante had a special place in his Inferno for people who had committed suicide, in the middle ring of the seventh circle – that reserved for the violent, alongside those who had committed murder, blasphemy, sodomy and usury. They were represented by Pier delle Vigne, who took his own life out of desperation. But according to Dante, desperation is a sin, since it means the Devil has convinced the sinner that the Lord is not merciful. And it is not just Christianity in the West that held these views about suicide victims (variously seen as martyrs, sinners, brave or irresponsible). The view was also adopted by the representatives of authority. When the individual belonged to a master, the act of suicide was seen as «punishable» because the death of a serf undermined the lord’s authority. The political and religious elites who ruled over life felt entitled to rule over death too, especially when a death was seen as an act of rebellion, a reaction. But they also cheated, for they ensured that the suicides of nobles and of the faithful were never recorded as such. Nobles and cardinals were entitled to a «dignified death.» Freud described suicide as aggression turned against oneself, but in today’s political landscape, it is viewed almost with embarrassment – just like on television. Perhaps because Zachopoulos’s suicide attempt was not liberating. Not even for him. He did not put an end to a story, but opened one. And there is nothing lewd about it.