A Very Post-modern Story of Suicide

The public suicide of Dimitris Christoulas, the Greek pensioner who shot himself in Athens’ Syntagma Square on Ash Wednesday of the very same week when believers commemorate the passion of Christ, should jolt us into much deeper awareness about the Post-modern state of Europe.

Not the rights and wrongs of the single currency, but the rights and wrongs of a world-view we have created. The story is gathering weight like a runaway snowball.

In addition to the riots that rocked his native Athens, the reverberations caused by his death prompted somber reflection around the world. Christoulas takes his place in a long line of “martyrs to Post-modernity.”

Jan Palach was a Czech student who burned himself to death in January 1969 as a protest against the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring. Palach’s death contributed to the later Velvet Revolution and a return to democratic values in the Czech Republic.

Mohamed Bouazizi was a Tunisian street vendor who burned himself in December 2010 as a protest against government harassment. His death in early 2011 set in train the Tunisian Revolution and the whole Arab Spring movement.

During 2011 at least eleven Tibetan monks and nuns set fire to themselves in protest against the occupation of the their homeland by Chinese authorities. Many more are believed to have been rounded up to prevent mass suicide by this means. Tibetan monks won’t stop China’s final suppression of local culture – but they are certainly delaying it.

Just why are people prepared to sacrifice their lives – and what does the need to make such an extreme gesture say about the societies in which we live and the way in which our consciousness is evolving?

Reports said that in a handwritten note found near the scene of his death April 5th, Christoulas, a divorced and retired pharmacist aged 77, said he could not face the prospect “of scavenging through garbage bins for food and becoming a burden to my child,” blaming the Greek government’s austerity policies for his decision.

Yet the blame lies deeper – and much closer to ourselves. Just as Palach, Bouazizi and the Tibetans all died to protest against occupying forces that had taken control of their state, so we should hold ourselves accountable for what is happening in modern Greece.

For Greece too is a country under occupation, just as surely as it was 200 years ago when the English poet Lord Byron travelled there to champion its emergence as a modern state. Eventually, Byron’s support for the Greek cause would bring about his own death. Not, like Christoulas with a pistol, but though infection.

Then, Greece was a part of the Ottoman empire and prospects for its liberation from Turkish control inspired Romantics across Europe. Byron, a charismatic, womanising yet tortured rockstar-poet who was the Bob Geldorf of his day, achieved lasting fame by swimming the Hellespont in May 1810 in what might be called the first “celebrity swimathon” to raise public awareness  for the plight of Greece.

It was on Easter Monday, April 1824 that Byron died in Missolongi at the age of 37. As a symbolic (though not particularly effective) figurehead and hero of the Greek War of Liberation, he had in part financed the nascent Greek navy, and then tried to bring some political unity to warring factions during a lull in the war with the Turks.

What inspired Byron – and what has inspired countless Romantics – is the recognition that ancient Greece is the bedrock of our civilization and that we should honour it as the fountainhead and provider of our most fundamental values.  Philosophy, poetry, democracy, moral philosophy, logic, aesthetics, rhetoric, mathematics, ethics. If it has an “ism” on the end, it was invented by the Greeks.

So why does the country keep on getting itself invaded, and who’s doing it now? Who, in short, was Christoulas really protesting against?

The occupying Turks, of course, are long gone, and even their descendants were relocated to the mainland of Asia Minor after World War I as a precursor of a UN style refugee exchange programme. There may still be remote places in Greece where bad old memories of the German occupation during World War II still linger. But mostly, and thankfully, the tourist euro and the summer time invasion of vacationers has wiped away such bitter recollections.

So who, then, is occupying modern Greece? We all are. The new invading army is our money, our economic policies, our economic imperialism. With our connivance and in our names, the European Commission and its allies at the IMF and the European Central Bank are doing something monumentally wrong. No wonder, then, that anti-EU English-language media is (perhaps a tad triumphantly) charging European bureaucrats with having “blood on their hands” with the Greek pensioner’s death.  Unless, trumpets Britain’s Daily Mail “the EU’s cowardly leaders abandon their attempts to save face by keeping their wretched currency in being, his will not be the only blood on their hands.”

Headlines in the more nationalistic German newspapers reflect more of this ugly reality, highlighting the righteous indignation of those paying for the Greek bailout. As Bild newspaper said: ‘We are once again the schmucks of Europe!’ The idea that good, hard-working western Europeans are giving handouts to bail out a band of shiftless, lazy Greek cheats has become a public caricature. Greeks may not be very productive, but those that still hold down jobs actually work some of the longest hours in Europe.

We need to look more closely at what is happening here – not just at the moral bankruptcy of the European Commission and the European Central Bank’s behavior, but at our own need to scapegoat Greece. And we need to wake up. Greece is part of the Balkans.

And the Balkans are the tinder-box where wars have been sparked over the last century. Not just the horrors of the Bosnian war that began 20 years ago as a consequence of the unwinding of Yugoslavia (which in turn was an indirect  consequence of Britain’s wartime funding for the then-partisan chief, Tito, who later emerged as the unifying strongman). But events that began in Sarajevo in June 1914 when Gavrilo Princip  assassinated  the Austrian Archduke and so set in train World War One.

Neither the Balkans, nor Greece, are places to play around with extremist politics, and especially not with public suicides. As the crow flies, Chechnya and its suicide bombers are closer to Athens, than Athens is to London.

So why do I call these suicides ‘Post-modern,’ and why should these be part of such a dangerous trend? The prevailing sociological wisdom behind Post-modernity, as defined by Jean-Francois Lyotard, is that the “grand narrative” of historical determinism has evaporated and been replaced by a multiplicity of claims to knowledge.

Cacophony has replaced harmony. The decline of certainties in industrial society (as instanced by the Greek collapse) has encouraged a process of  individualization whereby people are compelled to  reinvent themselves as individuals (perhaps even gaining Andy Warhol’s famous 5 minutes of fame  through a fiery act of self-extinction). Postmodernists talk about a lot about deconstruction of paradigms, meaning and significance – but not so much about reconstruction.

In other words, if retired Greek pharmacists choose to start riots by blowing their brains out in public, the action has little aggregate meaning. But this is all based upon the first reaction to conceptual frameworks for sociology built almost a century ago. Now comes the second reaction – not just to sociological concepts, but to Post-modernism too.

It’s called the theory of Reflexive Modernization (or sometimes late modernity) and it has something to say – perhaps – about the way we’ve built a world where protesters need to dowse themselves in gasoline or blow their brains out in order to resolve the contradictions of made-up economic system that has to reconcile the needs of auto workers in Dusseldorf, Shanghai or Detroit, with those of tourists seeking a cheap colourful vacation in the Aegean, Bali or Lhasa.

Reflexive Modernization is an alternative to the (Post-modernist) theories of disorganised capitalism, in which we are supposed to celebrate such contradictions. Traditionally, Modernity was studied by looking at a big overriding trend and its contradictions. For Marx is was capitalism. For Durkheim, the impact of industrialization. For Weber, the growth of organised bureaucracy. All these three — bureaucracy, capitalism and industrialisation, have played a part in the Greek economic drama.

Reflexive Modernization – in my limited understanding of the work of Anthony Giddens (The Consequences of Modernity, 1991) – has a lot to say about the way we take in knowledge and study awareness (epistemology). It looks at the whole mystery of Modernization itself (which explains the Reflexive tag). Giddens believes that modern social institutions are unique and quite different from anything that has gone before. So this discontinuity means we can’t understand what’s coming on the basis of past structures.

But that doesn’t mean events are meaningless. The deaths of Lord Byron, Palach, Bouazizi, the Tibetans, Dimitris Christoulas and even Jesus too, if you like, do have meaning as part of a wider narrative of protest, of mobilization — of the taking ultimate sanction against meaninglessness.

I’m not a sociologist, and I’m not sure I believe that either Post-modernism, or Reflexive Modernization, can explain what happens when single catalytic events acquire so much meaning that they trigger wholesale change. I’m a believer in narrative, in the power of compelling story. As you’ll know if you have read any of these columns, the structure of stories, their deep influence upon us, their origins in myth and the cognitive pathways they travel along in our shared cultural memories, are what I believe drives human events.

And so I don’t think the fundamental need for a clear narrative has evaporated. In fact, what’s happening in Athens shows the unfolding of what the Greeks do best and which is the exact opposite of Modernism. It’s called Classic Drama. And in terms of the Greek tragedy, the narrative is just starting to fit into place.

© Richard House


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