No person on this earth, not mother or father, or brother or sister or friend, is closer to us than ourselves. We are far too special for anyone else to fully feel exactly what we feel as individuals, to wholly understand us. Our thoughts are our thoughts, our heartbeats and breathing, the rhythms that keep us alive, our secrets, belong to each one of us alone. No one can ever really monitor us, no matter how empathetic they may be, no matter how hard they try with searching, sensitive questions, with touches and other physical intimacies of love, even with the most elegant of diagnostic instruments that modern science can contrive.
At times, in the dull days and the dark nights, we suddenly lose that special, exclusive contact with ourselves. We cannot understand ourselves any longer. We feel lonely, sad, hopeless, perhaps guilty and helpless. We wish to die.
The Idea of Suicide in Hamlet:
The gravediggers in act 5 of Hamlet are quite clear on this point: "if the man go to this water and drown himself, it is will he, nil he, he goes, mark you that, but if the water come to him, and drown him, he drowns not himself; argall [therefore], he that is not guilty of his own death, shortens not his own life" (Shakespeare, 15-19)! The terrible irony of the term, suicide is that it is never just a "self killing"; rather, suicide is a social vocation, a job (however unknown this may be to those killing themselves), though not a particularly remunerative one given that one's compensation for doing this job is to be misrepresented as a sick or evil aberration over which society has little or no control. Patriarchies manifest contempt for suicides because, of the people they exploit, suicides are the most subjected to their needs, the most given over to doing their dirty work. Thus, one reason that no one in the past, except marginalized emergent thinkers like Shakespeare, came anywhere close to an adequate understanding of suicide was that for centuries, suicide was so necessary to those in power that they could not afford to identify its cause, or solve what to them was not a problem to be solved, but a solution to a problem.
Now we may understand what led Durkheim's account of suicide awry. He assumed that suicide was a cultural problem, a site of loss, and an unwanted by product of power. Thus he did not see that for patriarchal societies, suicide is a gain, a solution to problems they cannot otherwise solve, and thus a necessary and desirable relation of power.
If we were now to ask what patriarchal structures do to prevent suicides, the answer is simple: little or nothing. Despite rhetorical attacks, legal prohibitions, barbaric burial practices, and/or strategic feints in the direction of pretending to prevent them, such societies do not in fact go out of their way to prevent suicides (or, for that matter, many other forms of death) precisely because they can't do without them. Moreover, because they need suicides, they become quite good at producing them. In the face of this fact, our next question surely is, "But why?"
In formulating an answer it is helpful to return to Hamlet and ask why the fictive, onstage Danish patriarchy embodied in Hamlet constructs Ophelia as a suicide. First let us distinguish among two things, the first between suicide and chosen death. A chosen death kills a body to keep a self from collapsing into a failing body's incapacitating, incurable pain--that is, chosen death, like euthanasia, gives death to a no longer functioning biological body, but an unwanted death to a self that desires to go on living. Suicide, however, kills a body to obliterate an unwanted self. The second is a distinction between active and passive suicides. Active (or heroic) suicides are committed by individuals like Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra who seem to have their wits about them, whereas passive (or abject) suicides are committed by individuals like Ophelia who seem not to have their wits about them. What follows below deals only with passive suicides?
Why then does the patriarchy Hamlet represents need to produce Ophelia as a suicide? To answer this question, observe that at the beginning of act 5, there is an open grave in the middle of the stage. Ophelia is brought in and laid in this grave with scant, forced honors. Laertes and Hamlet jump into the grave, argue and gesticulate, and then jump out as the scene changes. To understand what we have seen, the relevant questions are: (1) what symbolic actions are taking place in Ophelia's grave? And (2) why do these actions have to take place in the grave of a suicide?
One answer is that patriarchies use suicide to purge women who individualize themselves and, since Ophelia seeks to do this, she must be dumped in a grave. But why rely on such an indirect technology as suicide to get rid of such threats to male dominance? Why not murder/execute transgressive women the same way Polonius and Claudius are murdered/executed? For several reasons:
Because the blood of such women would pollute patriarchal hands;
Because it is taboo to take up phallic arms against women in Hamlet's father's culture;
Because from a patriarchal perspective all the women in this play must die, it is useful to let both of them kill themselves: who (a man can then ask) can be held responsible for the actions of deranged women?
To make women prove--by committing an unforgivable mortal sin--that they are the demonic "things of nothing" patriarchal men take them to be, and thus to prove as well that their suicides, technically capital felonies, are self executions and thus are forms of justice; and
Among other reasons is to solve the problem of gender sameness. When women threaten to become too much like men, suicide is an effective mechanism by which to reestablish an allegedly unbridgeable difference. To be sure, wealth, power, education, mobility, and status establish such difference, but these mechanisms are notoriously fickle, subject to reversals, not to mention subject to appropriation by women. Suicide has the advantage of creating irreversible difference because, in its passive or (allegedly) female form, it displays difference as painful depression, chaos, psychosis, and eventually as death. Over such abject and dead selves, patriarchal men and women feel superior, powerful, and immune from death. They feel that their world is no longer out of joint if only because someone else's world is thoroughly and permanently disjointed. In short, Ophelia's role as a dead woman is (to borrow a line from Judith Butler) to "be" precisely what Hamlet is not-that is, dead
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A second answer to the question of why patriarchies construct suicides is that once Ophelia's grave is opened in their midst, a number of onstage Danes will be able to use this aperture into the void as a bottomless pit to dump any toxic-waste product they feel they must eliminate to survive, be happy, excel, or escape punishment. In Luce Irigaray's terms, Ophelia and her grave function "as a hole" (shakespeare, 71). Think, for example, about the sorts of toxic waste Hamlet is dumping into Ophelia's grave, and thus how necessary this hole is to his program of self-purification.
All those suicidal feelings Hamlet has been soliloquizing about, all that "to be or not to be" melancholia which has been paralyzing his patriarchal identity and delaying his phallic action. Notice that it is not until he dips himself into Ophelia's open grave and as it were, washes himself clean in the bathtub of her grave, passing to her the dirt of his suicidal tendencies, that he is able to feel that his psychic diversity is healed, and that he can act, at last, as a unitary and phallic man--as "Hamlet the Dane."
This antic disposition marked him as mad in the eyes of the court. Having progressively had this antic disposition transferred onto her from the beginning of the play, Ophelia now is mad, and Hamlet becomes sane at the very moment that he drops the last of his anxieties, doubts, despair, and manic-depressive vacillations into the void of her grave, this second lethal orifice opened up by Ophelia's body, her female "nothing."
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