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Culture, Suicide, and the Human Condition

Culture, Suicide, and the Human Condition

Marja-Liisa Honkasalo
Miira Tuominen
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 230
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  • Book Info
    Culture, Suicide, and the Human Condition
    Book Description:

    Suicide is a puzzling phenomenon. Not only is its demarcation problematic but it also eludes simple explanation. The cultures in which suicide mortality is high do not necessarily have much else in common, and neither is a single mental illness such as depression sufficient to lead a person to suicide. In a word, despite its statistical regularity, suicide is unpredictable on the individual level. The main argument emerging from this collection is that suicide should not be understood as a separate realm of pathological behavior but as a form of human action. As such it is always dependent on the decision that the individual makes in a cultural, ethical and socio-economic context, but the context never completely determines the decision. This book also argues that cultural narratives concerning suicide have a problematic double function: in addition to enabling the community to make sense of self-inflicted death, they also constitute a blueprint depicting suicide as a solution to common human problems.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-235-5
    Subjects: Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction. Varieties of Suicide: Inquiring into the Complexity of Human Experience
    (pp. 1-26)
    Marja-Liisa Honkasalo and Miira Tuominen

    The World Health Organization (WHO 2012) just reported that nearly a million people across the world commit suicide every year,1 and approximately ten million attempt to do so. On a global scale, about 2 percent of an estimated total of 90 million deaths can be classified as intentional and self-inflicted. What is more, a slight but troubling worldwide tendency points toward an increase in the incidence of suicide. In particular, this tendency is found among women in general, in the middle-aged population, and among the elderly, meaning men and women over 75 years old. In the 15–44 age group,...

  6. Part I Suicide:: Cross-Cultural Perspectives

    • Chapter 1 The Construction of the Suicidal Self in Phenomenological Psychology
      (pp. 29-45)
      Charles J.-H. Macdonald and Jean Naudin

      Anthropologists have met with difficulties using their conceptual toolbox while approaching the problem of suicide (see Verrier 1943; Bohannan 1960; Devereux 1961; Cátedra 1992; Eveno 2003; Macdonald 2007).One is that notions like role, status, cultural values, and the like may be conceptually inadequate when trying to make sense of suicidal behavior. Another problem is generalizing certain specific psychodynamic profiles to a whole culture or society (Macdonald 2003, 2007). In other words, these researchers have faced the usual challenge of making sense of the double conundrum of suicide: its statistical stability and its individual unpredictability. The phenomenon of suicide must indeed...

    • Chapter 2 When It Is Worth the Trouble to Die: The Cultural Valuation of Suicide
      (pp. 46-74)
      María Cátedra

      Suicide is a cultural and human topic. In no known human society or culture is suicide absent (Maris 1981; Lester 2004). Some authors—Durkheim, for example—have stated that suicide, like crime, is necessary in society and linked to the basic conditions of social life. It has even been suggested that suicide “may function to remove the genes of defective people (those who are psychiatrically disturbed for example) and those past child-bearing age from society” (Lester 2004: 65). The problem with those theories, however, is that suicide is not a crime or a disease but belongs to the sphere of...

  7. Part II Ancient and Medieval Approaches to Suicide

    • Chapter 3 “Tell Him to Follow Me as Quickly as Possible”: Plato’s Phaedo (60c–63c) on Taking One’s Own Life
      (pp. 77-104)
      Miira Tuominen

      In this essay, I shall scrutinize Plato’sPhaedo(60c–63c) and its relevance to the conundrum of suicide—not only because the dialogue is one of the few instances in which Plato explicitly considers whether taking one’s own life is permissible or justified, but also because it urgently poses the question of the demarcation of the very phenomenon of suicide. Socrates clearly decided ¹ to die—he argues at length for compliance with his death sentence in theCrito, and thePhaedostrengthens the conclusion. He was also causally responsible for his death (he drank the hemlock himself) and seems...

    • Chapter 4 Free Philosophers and Tragic Women: Stoic Perspectives on Suicide
      (pp. 105-128)
      Malin Grahn

      Among the ancient thinkers, the Stoics in particular are famous for philosophizing about self-killing and maintaining a tolerant outlook on it. Certain Roman Stoics even presented it as an act of the outmost freedom. The following famous passage from Seneca’sDe Iraexemplifies this kind of attitude:

      In whatever direction you may turn your eyes, there lies the means to end your woes. See that precipice? Down that is the way to liberty. See you that sea, that well? There sits liberty—at the bottom. See you that tree, stunted, blighted, and barren? Yet from its branches hangs liberty. See...

    • Chapter 5 Moral Philosophical Arguments against Suicide in the Middle Ages
      (pp. 129-146)
      Virpi Mäkinen

      The advent of institutional Christianity was perhaps the most important event in the philosophical history of suicide. Christian doctrine held that suicide was morally wrong, even though Scripture contains no unequivocal condemnation of suicide.¹ For medieval scholars, the main doctrinal source was the Bible, and the biblical suicides (especially those of Samson and Judas) gave rise to discussion. The fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” was the most frequent single text cited in medieval questions and commentaries on suicide. Some nonnarrative biblical passages could also prompt discussion, for example, Paul’s words “I long to be dissolved and to be with...

  8. Part III Morality, Politics, and Violence:: Suicide in Contemporary Societies

    • Chapter 6 “She Kissed Death with a Smile”: The Politics and Moralities of the Female Suicide Bomber
      (pp. 149-170)
      Susanne Dahlgren

      Suicide bombing is a phenomenon that hovers at the margins of suicide studies. More commonly, it is studied within the framework of “terrorism studies,” a burgeoning field of political science with its own journals and book series. A “theory of suicide terrorism” has emerged with links to theorization on ethnic conflicts and asymmetric warfare (Bloom 2005a: 76). There is good reason to ask whether the deeds of suicide bombers have anything to do with actual suicides. When the purpose is to kill as many bystanders as possible (and to give one’s life in doing so), homicide might sound like a...

    • Chapter 7 “When We Stop Living, We Also Stop Dying”: Men, Suicide, and Moral Agency
      (pp. 171-198)
      Marja-Liisa Honkasalo

      How is moral agency negotiated and enacted at the social edge of human life? In this chapter, I will portray this question as it appears in death letters written by men who have committed suicide. Pekka, the writer of the above message, is one of almost three hundred Finnish men who wrote a suicide note before committing suicide in 1987. Referring to men’s death letters as my research material,² I ask how Finnish men write about the limits of livable lives and how they make their evaluations and judgments on death in a country where cultural values such as autonomy,...

  9. Afterword
    (pp. 199-206)
    Arthur Kleinman

    The introduction to this volume emphasizes a point of surpassing importance that the individual chapters further illustrate: namely, that suicide needs to be understood as human experience and practice. To do this we must liberate the subject from the category of pathology imposed on it by medical, psychological, and public health/social welfare institutions. As Georges Canguilhem stated over half a century ago, pathological models are often not a useful way to understand norms and normality (see the English translation from 2012). For psychiatrists, psychologists, and physicians in general, suicide is pathological. And herein, inadvertently, these professional fields serve a Foucauldian...

  10. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 207-210)
  11. Index
    (pp. 211-220)