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By 2017-10-08

By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake
Ceylon Today Mosaic

My newest book of Sinhala poems, 'Jayasirige Samuganeema'
(Jayasiri's Farewell ) will be published shortly. It deals with the thoughts and sensations of a school teacher who has resolved to commit suicide operating under the mistaken belief that it is away of establishing his freedom and taking command of his destiny. Working on this book of poems I was compelled to confront the diverseand complicated facets of suicide.It is a topic that we like to talk about and avoid at the same time.

Suicide is a fact of daily life. The thought that Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates of suicide in the world make it a topic that cannot be ignored. There are many factors that lead people to suicide; there are many mental, psychological, emotional, economic, social, physical and,metaphysical reasons that pave the path towards self-destruction. The demands of passion play a central role in taking one's life. The recent suicide of a young and popular television actor bears this out.

There is a very interesting and complex interconnection between literature and suicide. Some very important works, both in theWest and the East,have beenwrittenon this subject.It is also a fact that some of the most gifted and celebrated modern writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath,John Berryman, Paul Celan, Primo Levi, Cesare Pavase, Yasunari Kawabata, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Yukio Mishima, Walter Benjamin, Georg Trakl ,and Hart Crane chose for a variety of reasons to end their lives.

In this regard, I find the writings of the American poet Sylvia Plath who died at the age of thirty one most instructive. Death was a theme that found expression even in her earlier worksgathered in her book The Colossus. But it is prominently and pervasively present in her second collection of poems Ariel, that was published two years after her death. In one of her poems she says through the mouth of acharacter that
Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.
Sylvia Plath wrote her poem Sheep in Fog just two weeks before she committed suicide. It was, in fact, a revision of a poem that she had written earlier. She changed the ending to suit her newer mental disposition. This is the poem in its entirety.
The hill step off into whiteness.

People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.
O slow
Horse the color of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells –
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.
My bones hold stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

This poem is taken from book of poetry titled Ariel. Many of the poems contained in this volume were written during the last month of her life. There is a prognosticative power in poems such as Sheep in the Fog that I have quoted in full. The self-loathing and the complex relationship that she had with her father are manifest in this composition.The great American poet Robert Lowell, who in some ways influenced Plath, made the following comment about Ariel.' In these poems, written in the last months of her life, and often rushed out at the rate of two or three a day, Sylvia Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly,and subtly created – hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another poetess, but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines.'

Suicide, to be sure, has been looked down upon by all religions as a violation of God's law or a subversion of human values. Most philosophers like Kant thought poorly of suicide. However, there have been a few philosophers and philosophically-oriented writers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Albert Camus who wrote about suicide with a great degree of understanding, even empathy. Let us take the case of Arthur Schopenhauer. Although he did not endorse suicide he created an intellectual space in which it could be discussed rationally and sympathetically. He said in his important and multi-volume work The World as Will and Idea that, 'death is the true inspiring genius, or muse of philosophy.....indeed, without death men would scarcely philosophize. The brute lives without the proper knowledge of death. In the case of man the terrifying certainty of necessarily entered with reason.' Schopenhauer went on to argue that moral freedom, which many regard as the zenith of ethical endeavor –can be attained only by a denial of the will. According to him, suicide, far from being a denial is in point of fact the categorical assertion of that will.Similarly the great French novelist, playwright and essayist Albert Camus,although he did not advocate suicide,encouraged us to confront its inevitable reality with depth and compassion. He once famously said that, 'There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.'

Schopenhauer and Camus, then, are two thinkers who stressed that importance of re-imaging the idea of suicide. Until recent times, many have chosen to avoid discussing the topic of suicide openly and publicly. However, with the phenomenon of euthanasia gaining greater traction and it beginning to occupy a central place in bioethics and medical experience, the idea of suicide is no longer discussed in muted tones.



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