In the second ring of the seventh circle is the Wood of the Suicides. As mentioned a couple of posts back, it is difficult for us to understand how violence against the self could be morally lower than violence toward others, so let's see if we can make sense of Dante's scheme. Upton
summarizes what is at issue by noting that "the ego did not create the soul and so the ego cannot destroy it; that is the problem with suicide." However, the ego also didn't create anyone else's soul, so this seems neither here nor there.
Dante and Virgil then come upon a fellow -- the particulars are unimportant -- "who killed himself because he couldn't endure the disgrace," and this gets closer to the heart of the matter, to what might be thought of as a lethal combination of shame and narcissism.
Upton elaborates: "Those who habitually scorn others have, in effect, built their whole lives upon scorn, which is why they can't stand being scorned; they have developed no other psychological or spiritual foundation."
As we all know, there are shame cultures and guilt cultures, the former much more psycho-developmentally primitive than the latter. Most people fail to draw a distinction between shame and guilt, but shame is developmentally prior, and hence, more problematic if it becomes dysregulated due to early trauma (i.e., damage closer to the foundation causes more weakness to the structure).
The problem with shame cultures is not shame per se, but dysregulated
shame. What results is a mass of people who actually cannot tolerate shame
, and therefore build their culture around that fact. The culture becomes, in effect, a collective defense against shame
As an aside, our Judeo-Christian culture is -- or should be -- a guilt
culture, which is developmentally higher and more mature.
But what is shame that we should be so mindful of it? How can something that arises in three year olds become so deep, persistent, and painful, to the point that one would prefer suicide to enduring it? A psychotically shame-prone person -- or culture -- would prefer to annihilate the eyes that judge him than endure their gaze. If he can't destroy them, then he'll destroy the self (but note that the gazing and judgmental eyes are just a projection of the shame-prone self).
All of this was brought home to me quite vividly in Max Hastings' Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45
. Because of the fascination with Hitler, Japan's enormities tend to be given less prominence, but on the scale of evil, they were every bit his equal.
But what could these very different cultures possibly share in common? Racism? Imperialism? Militarism? Yes, but each of these was in service to something much deeper: racial and cultural superiority, on the one hand, and its underground twin, intense shame. The superiority and shame are just two sides of the same narcissistic coin. Thus, it is no surprise at all that thousands of Japanese and Germans committed suicide in the wake of their loss of World War II. The shame was just unendurable.
One of the reasons why shame is deeper and more problematic than guilt, is that the former has to do with being
rather than just action. Guilt pertains to merely doing
wrong, but shame applies to existence itself -- to being
wrong (or rather, wrong being
). It is "existential," which is why so many Germans and Japanese simply could not endure the pain of a world in which they were not only conquered, but ruled, by their contemptible "inferiors."
The examples in both Armageddon
are far too numerous to catalogue, but one of the things -- perhaps the only thing -- that made Japan such a formidable enemy was their absolute lack of concern for the lives of their soldiers. Obviously, American GIs wanted to survive the war and go on with their lives, but this placed a sharp limit on what they were willing to do in order to achieve victory.
The Japanese had no such limits, except in scattered individual cases. For them, it was literally a suicidal war, and they knew it. However, they believed in their hearts that they could so impress and cow the allies with their suicidal displays of psychotic violence, that we would eventually back down. "Many shared a delusion that human sacrifice... could compensate for a huge shortfall in military capability" (Hastings). The commander in charge of kamikaze operations said that "If we are prepared to sacrifice twenty million Japanese lives in 'special attacks,' victory will be ours."
Well, yeah. In reality, *only* 4,000 kamikaze pilots are known to have died, about one in seven successfully inflicting major damage to an allied ship (Hastings).
In this regard, the Japanese were exactly like the Islamists, whose only advantage is their belief that they love death more than we love life. A corollary to this is that -- to paraphrase Golda Meir -- there will be peace in the Middle East when Arabs love their own children as much as they hate Jewish children.
Here again, the parallels with Germany and Japan are exact. For example, so unconcerned were the Japanese with individual survival, that they they didn't furnish life rafts on their ships (furthermore, if soldiers knew they could survive, they might not fight to the death). To be taken prisoner was completely unacceptable, again, an unendurable shame. It was assumed that fighting to the death and then going down with the ship was preferable to living with the shame of being taken prisoner.
Likewise, while Americans would go to great lengths to try to rescue downed pilots from the sea, the Japanese usually left theirs to perish, despite the high cost of training skilled fliers. And of course, this also explains their savage treatment of allied prisoners, whom they regarded as subhuman in their willingness to prefer captivity over death.
One of innumerable examples: "Thousands of Japanese civilians in Saipan chose to kill themselves, most by leaping from seashore cliffs, rather than submit to the American conquerors" (Hastings).
Japanese soldiers were routinely placed in situations in which death wasn't only probable or likely, but absolutely certain. We all know about the thousands of kamikazes, but the ground soldiers were just as bad. They knew full well that they could not prevail in places like Iwo Jima, and yet, they fought on to the last man (or last suicide).
Before the battle, soldiers were explicitly told that they should regard their foxhole as their grave, which they were to defend from the Americans who wish to desecrate it. Military handbooks warned that "The man who would not disgrace himself must be strong.... Do not survive in shame as a prisoner. Die, to ensure that you do not leave ignominy behind you!"
I might add that Stalin treated his own POWs the same way. Russian soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Germans were not only given no sympathy, but imprisoned in the Soviet Union long after the war ended.
It is amazing to think that one of the cards Stalin played at Yalta was the disproportionate number of Soviet soldiers killed in the war. But the only reason so many Soviet soldiers died is because Stalin couldn't have cared less how many Soviet soldiers were killed. As with the Japanese, they were routinely placed in situations in which death was a certainty. And anyone who resisted was shot or hanged on the spot. (The Japanese preferred the bayonet.)
The magnitude of the catastrophe resulting from Japan's dysregulated shame is beyond conception. By 1944 it was clear that they could not win the war, and yet, they fought on: "In the last phase, around two million Japanese people paid the price for their rulers' blindness, a sacrifice which availed their country nothing" (Hastings).
Because of the inability to tolerate shame, certain thoughts were literally unthinkable for the Japanese. Due to primitive defense mechanisms, their minds "couldn't go there."
As Hastings explains, "such habits of culture and convention represented a barrier to effective decision-making, which grew even harder to overcome as the war situation deteriorated." In such a psychotic atmosphere, unwelcome news is simply denied. It cannot be. "No one was allowed to say what he really thought," so it was impossible to "explore better ways to do things."
The Japanese also engaged in systematic rape of those they conquered, which in addition to everything else, involves a kind of psychic transmission of shame to the victim. This reflected the low status of women in Japan, which is again an artifact of shame. Anyone who is prone to shame is going to need others to devalue, and into whom they can project their own inferiority.
Hastings notes that "many Japanese soldiers took pride in sending home to their families photographs of beheadings and bayonetings." In the diary of one dead soldier, he "wrote of his love for his family, eulogised the beauty of a sunset -- then described how he participated in the massacre of Filipinos during which he clubbed a baby against a tree." As Hastings, observes, these types of incidents weren't just aberrations but the reflection of "an ethic of massacre."
So I think we can see the problems that arise when suicide becomes a collective virtue.
Immobilized by shame, paralyzed by suicide.