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Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The End of Days (Revised April 2011)

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse', by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887
When Barbara came around for supper several weeks ago we found ourselves discussing how the world seemed to be slipping into an apocalyptic stage. I half expect to open my curtains and see four horsemen allowing their steeds to graze on the meadow that is now the front lawn. The grass has not been cut ever since the O.F. managed to break the lawnmower in the autumn. The Partridge’s brother has kindly offered to send over one of his that he no longer uses but still works. I hope the lawnmower will be able to cut our grass even thought it may feel cut up about used on a more humble lawn than the splendid gardens at Highgate.

In the grand scale of things cutting lawns is but a trifle compared to the almost biblical scale of natural disasters occurring in the world from the unprecedented flooding in Australia to the carnage in Christchurch, New Zealand, following an earthquake. Coupled with the violent political struggles across the Middle East it does make me wonder if we are entering the End of Days. On a more personal level, a number of my close friends have faced serious illness either themselves or within their families over the past year. Others have been close to real financial hardship.
(Little I realise that only  9 days after I first wrote this post Japan would be hit with such a devastating earthquake and Tsunami. The End of Days indeed!)

During World War II the suicide rate apparently went down in Europe.  By contrast it went up in America during the Great Depression. Perhaps that explains why, as the nation journeys through its economic woes, the newspapers seem to report new cases of suicide on a daily basis. What is different is the use of the internet for people to find likeminded souls to enter into a pact with. They are taking a (pardon the pun) grave risk if one of them survives as English law tends to adopt a punitive attitude towards the survivor. They could face up to 14 years in jail. Still, it is an improvement on past laws governing suicide. Whilst I was researching contemporary newsprint from the 1930s at the Newspaper Library Colindale to discover the outcome of a criminal trial, I found constant references to people who had tried to commit suicide but failed and had been jailed instead. Ironically, in earlier centuries would-be suicides were given the death sentence.

Being Finnish, suicide is not exactly unknown to my family, although some deliberately drank themselves to death, which means their deaths would not have been officially recorded as suicide. One of my uncles committed suicide in his early 20s. He had become overcome with guilt despite being cleared of the manslaughter of a friend. The two of them, both highly drunk, had gone boating and my uncle’s friend had ended up drowning. It was years later before I discovered this contributing factor to my uncle’s untimely demise. At the time my mother told me he had been in a fatal car crash. I cannot recall on which visit to Finland it was that my uncle’s friend cornered me wanting to know why my uncle had chosen to hang himself from the rafters of his house. I did not have a clue, having only met my uncle briefly when he visited us in England. I remember serving him a portion of risotto I had made at school (Domestic Science then being compulsory for English schoolgirls of the period) which he gamely ate. In those days there were no microwaves to reheat food so I am not sure how good it would have tasted.

People like my uncle did not need the internet to work out how to end their own lives. Yet whenever there is a prominent suicide nowadays there is an immediate call to close such sites down. In fact there are reputable sites which strictly monitor forums and any conversation which purports to encourage suicide or discuss techniques is immediately stopped.  Far from being bastions of evils, some forums actually help to delay and often prevent suicide, as it allows those with suicidal thoughts to discuss them in a non-judgmental and mutually supportive setting. The great irony is that those newspapers who call for the banning of suicide sites, are often a mine of information themselves, when they provide details of autopsy reports, in some instances giving the actual dosage and name of the drugs used in a successful suicide attempt. There is also the question as to whether media coverage leads to copycats suicides. According to the Ancient Greek historian Plutarch there was a spate of suicides by young women in the city of Miletus. It only came to a sudden end when the authorities ordered the naked corpse of the suicide to be dragged thought the streets on the end of the same rope that had killed them. It seems for the Milesian maidens there really was a fate worse than death.
Attitudes to suicide changed dramatically with the arrival of Christianity in the West. Therefore it comes as something of a surprise to discover that a passionate defender of suicide was none other than the metaphysical poet, lawyer and Anglican priest, John Donne. In around 1608 at a time of great personal tumult in his family life, Donne wrote “Biathanatos” in which he set out reasons for believing that suicide was not an intrinsic sin. 

John Donne would not have needed to convince the Ancient Romans as to the justification of his central tenet in “Biathanatos.” The Ancient Romans would not have understood the Christian West’s obsession with criminalising suicide or, as seems to be the case in more recent decades, treating it as a solely mental health issue. To the Romans it was perfectly rational to commit suicide by literally falling on your sword than endure public humiliation and disgrace. When the modern French city of Marseilles was under Roman rule, its senators passed a law whereby as long as you were not a slave, a soldier or facing capital charges you could get free hemlock from off the state to polish yourself off with. I am surprised our Tory masters have not considered this as one way of reducing the number of those receiving unemployment benefits.

Cleopatra had already seen her Roman lover Mark Anthony commit suicide. She was equally determined to avoid public humiliation at the hands of her captor Augustus Caesar. Unlike Mark Anthony she wanted the option of a quick and relatively painless suicide. She tested out various methods on condemned criminals before choosing one for herself.

The Egyptian Queen would have appreciated the chorus of the John Mandel and Mike Altman song "Suicide Is Painless" which was used as the theme tune for the film and television series M*A*S*H:
“That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please”

I was intrigued to discover that the lyricist Mike Altman, son of the film’s director Robert Altman, was only 14 years old when he wrote the lyrics to accompany Johnny Mandel’s music. The song proved so successful that Altman junior made over $1 million in royalties, which was substantially more than what his father had been paid for directing the film itself. According to the internet movie database site Altman junior originally told the film’s producer that he would be happy with just a guitar for his lyrics. Luckily for him the producer insisted on a proper contract giving him royalties every time the song was sung.
The Death of Cleopatra by Arthur Reginald Smith 1892
 The lyrics are surprisingly mature and profound for someone who was so young when he wrote them. Nevertheless, I am of the Queen Cleopatra school of thought: sometimes thoughts of suicide can be a real pain in the asp.