A Light for the Future: On the Political Uses of a Dying Body

A Light for the Future: On the Political Uses of a Dying Body

C. Bradatan: On Self-Immolation

ORDINARILY, POLITICS is very much about living bodies—bodies assembled or scattered, hungry or well-fed, bodies migrating or accommodated. In a world without bodies, there would be no politics, and no need for them. Under extraordinary circumstances, however, a dying body comes to perform political functions that a living one cannot even dream of. In such cases, the sheer act of dying can generate among those who witness it an uncanny mix of awe, repulsion, and fascination, which could be best described as a form of power. A naked readiness to die—that’s something that defies human understanding, as well as our basic instincts. Thanks to the voluntary nature of their death, to their commitment to doing something that only very few of us would do, the performers of such acts somehow envelope themselves in an aura of election and transcendence. These people gladly trample on whatever makes human life possible: survival instincts, self-protection impulses, and fear of death. In so doing, the performers of voluntary death come to inhabit a territory where other rules apply and a different logic operates. And it is from there that some of them, like the Tunisian self-immolator Mohamed Bouazizi, come to dominate our imagination, win over our hearts, and, sometimes, even shape our lives.

IN PRE-CHRISTIAN Ireland there was a practice (called Troscadh or Cealachan) of shaming an enemy by starving yourself on his doorstep; one would do that to protest against an injustice or to recover a debt. The power generated and employed in the process was certainly the most paradoxical of powers: you defeat your adversaries not by killing them, but by your determination to kill yourself. The more passively you behave, the more decisive the blow. The hunger strikes that the Irish would deploy mercilessly against the British in the twentieth century were most likely inspired by this ancient Celtic practice.

Yet the one who would bring the “art of dying” to perfection did not come from Europe, but from India. Mahatma Gandhi made “fasting unto death” an essential part of his program of nonviolent resistance (satyagraha). For him, to use one’s body offensively, for example in a battle, would be brave enough. However, the bravest thing of all would be to do nothing and thus turn your dying body into an even more efficient, if only symbolic, weapon: “To fight with the sword does call for bravery of a sort. But to die is far braver than to kill.” This sort of bravery is not easy. It goes against our deeper nature and instincts. The art of dying is a rather difficult art, which requires pain and patience: “Just as one must learn the art of killing in training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for nonviolence.”

At its most intense and expressive, nonviolence is fasting, “fasting unto death” if necessary. You express your withdrawal from the world precisely by stopping to devour it—a radical act of self-denial that cannot go unnoticed by others. Gandhi used it systematically, as a deliberate political tool. “You can influence the mass mind not through speeches or writings,” he said, “but only by something which is most well understood by the masses, that is suffering, and the most acceptable method is that of fasting.”

At the other end of the spectrum, a suicide bomber, too, uses his or her dying body to convey a political message. In the process, the bomber seeks to kill as many people as possible. Yet the ultimate objective is not the sheer volume of victims, but what he or she projects in the process: the terrifying image of an individual (one of the many out there) who does not fear death, someone who does not hesitate to waste his or her life, or anyone else’s life, for the cause. These people mean to convey that they are above “life and death,” that they strike in the way natural disasters do: unavoidably and indiscriminately. It is this carefully induced perception that counts most; suicide bombers know only too well that they cannot win anything strictly militarily. If they win, their victory is due not to military strategy, but to social psychology.

That’s why suicide bombers’ primary targets are not those whom they kill, but those in front of whom they perform the act. Whatever they do they do as if on a stage: the videotapes they leave behind, with all their rehearsals, mise-en-scène, and standard recitations; the posters displayed afterward; and the entire publicity industry backing them—all of these are a structural part of what suicide bombers do. To some extent, the same could be said about the tokkotai (kamikaze) pilots, with the important qualification that they would only aim at military targets. But it does not matter much whether one ties a bomb to one’s body or one’s body is turned into a mere annex to a bomb; the political use of one’s body is similar in both cases.

GANDHI’S “FAST unto death” was part of a pragmatic political strategy. It was an act of self-denial, a very generous one, but still it was meant to serve a specific political agenda; whenever his objectives were accomplished, Gandhi would resume eating. On the other hand, suicide bombers begin and end with death, and the terror it generates. Somewhere in between, the self-immolator combines the element of “purity” that Gandhi’s method of self-annihilation displayed with the “explosive” imagery employed by the suicide bomber, while retaining neither the former’s “pragmatism” nor the reprehensible nature of the latter’s deed. Thus the compelling image that self-immolators project is that of someone performing a completely selfless sacrifice—someone disarmingly generous, disinterested, beyond petty calculations, and free of pragmatic agendas. Wherever self-immolators are going, they are not taking anyone with them; their deaths may be spectacular and fierce, but they remain exclusively their own. Despite the “explosiveness” associated with the gesture, the best way to describe the disappearing act would be “implosion”: it is as though, overwhelmed by an excessive humility, all they want is to slip back into nothingness.

It is no accident that one of the most distinctive traits of the self-immolators’ gestures is their resounding silence. The opposite of the talkative type, these people never make speeches before they die; no famous “last words” are preserved. If speeches were ever made, they’ve gone unnoticed, and that’s telling. Memory, always selective, has its own ways of making things meaningful. For instance, what is remembered most poignantly of the self-immolation of Thích Quàng Đúc (the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in June 1963, to protest the persecution of Buddhists under the Ngô Đình Diem regime) is the uncanny silence that settled in the square: his slowly taking the lotus position—no words uttered, no unnecessary gestures—and gradual disappearance into the flames. This is how David Halberstam, the New York Times journalist who witnessed the event, describes what happened:

Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering….As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.

Similarly, we don’t know what Jan Palach (the philosophy student who famously immolated himself in Prague in January 1969) said, if he said anything at all, as he was being consumed by fire. Nor is it recorded that Mohamed Bouazizi, who through his self-immolation has helped to trigger unprecedented political turmoil throughout North Africa, uttered anything as he was burning. It is only appropriate that silence should accompany such an act; anything else would be unpardonably cacophonic.

However, that self-immolators keep quiet does not mean that their deeds remain untold or their bravery unsung. On the contrary: the more intense the silence, the more it invites a narrative. Self-immolation may be the quietest of performances, but it is one that cries for a story.

INTERMEZZO. Fire has always sparked human imagination like few other things have. Thanks to the rich symbolism it evokes, fire has acquired a privileged position among the elements. In some way or other, the imagery of fire has shaped the way we experience the world and make sense of it; it is as though fire lies at the root of all things human, cosmic, and divine. In The Psychoanalysis of Fire Gaston Bachelard spells out this universal appeal:

Fire is…a privileged phenomenon which can explain anything….Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substances and offers itself with the warmth of love….It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell. It is gentleness and torture. It is cookery and apocalypse.

It is no wonder that in some cultures “death by fire” has been seen not as death proper, but just as the beginning of a new life, a gateway to a higher form of existence. It is reported, for example, that the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles decided to use this type of exit in order to prove his immortality (he threw himself into an active volcano). Self-immolation is also allowed in some forms of Mahayana Buddhism. For instance, in the Lotus Sutra there is the story of the Bodhisattva Medicine King who sets himself ablaze as a form of ultimate renunciation of the body. It was this account in particular that inspired—directly or indirectly—not only Thích Quàng Đúc and other Vietnamese monks and nuns who self-immolated during the Vietnam War, but also a number of self-immolations in India, for example.

All this makes self-immolation (as a form of political protest) particularly prone to “mythicization.” A, say, “death by water” could never have the same significance. In this reading, not only do self-immolators renounce body and life, but in so doing they help others: the same fire that consumes their bodies serves their fellow humans to see better and find their way. Self-immolations always occur in “times of darkness”; self-immolators turn their bodies into candles of sorts, helping others to find the right path. It is highly significant, in this respect, that Jan Palach’s suicide note was signed simply, “Torch Number One.” The self-immolator’s deed almost resembles an alchemical transmutation: he transforms flesh into light, matter into spirit. As a result, although he may have started out as totally powerless, he is now in the most powerful of positions: he has become a path-opener, a founding figure, the one toward whom all the others turn for a glimpse of hope. At the funeral of the same Jan Palach, someone in attendance observed, “What a country we live in! Where the only light for the future is the burning body of a young boy.”

Self-immolation in the Buddhist tradition is not the same thing as political self-immolation: the mindsets and motivations involved are different, and so is the societal impact. Yet even though the importance of religious-cultural background is undeniable in the case of the Vietnamese monks, political self-immolations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have become a major symbolic gesture in their own right. Still, regardless of their different specific aims (mystical enlightenment or political protest), all self-immolators share the same desire to transcend the human body as a strictly biological entity and to turn it, through fire, into a tool for other, higher purposes.

FOR A self-immolation to become politically relevant there must be someone to tell its story. Such a gesture would mean nothing if it did not become a story. So many people have died in vain (farmers in India, for example) because their self-immolations could not find narrators. We cannot be sure, for example, what the name of Thích Quàng Đúc would have meant today if it were not for the journalist David Halberstam or the photographer Malcolm Browne, who happened to be eyewitnesses of the event and reported the story for the Western media. Soon after his death, Jan Palach would start a second career as a literary character, featured in countless plays, poems, novels, and essays. From Pier Paolo Pasolini to Ernesto Sábato, from Václav Havel to Milan Kundera, both East-European and Western authors have written amply about Palach’s self-immolation and its significance. Most recently, the story of Mohamed Bouazizi was made in front of our eyes, so to speak. What’s novel in Bouazizi’s case is, of course, the role of the new social media. For the first time a story of martyrdom has been created not by individual authors, but by a rather new type of narrator: collective, unseen, faceless in a way, yet omnipresent and tremendously powerful.

More important than a storyteller, however, for such a story to be genuine—maybe, even to be possible—it needs to encounter a guilty conscience. Nothing is better in nurturing the formation of a martyrdom story. Martyrdom (political martyrdom included) is as much the deed of the one who performs it as it is of those who witness it. The self-immolator’s death, no matter how spectacular, will remain utterly meaningless unless it is captured by a receptive gaze—that is, unless it occurs within a community eaten up by guilty thoughts and feelings. The guilt can be due to several factors: habitual toleration of injustices, collective cowardice and ethical numbness, passivity in front of political oppression, a general sense of defeat in front of a force (totalitarian government, foreign military occupation, and so on) perceived as invincible, if illegitimate. In other words, self-immolators are effective in societies that feel responsible in part for their servitude, where feelings of complicity, mutual resentment, and distrust have not only poisoned people’s private lives, but also undermined whatever social life is left.

What self-immolators do is disarmingly simple: they break the spell, which is exactly what it takes for the web to start unraveling. As a result, they are instantly embraced as “saviors” and “redeemers,” when in fact sometimes, as was the case with Bouazizi, they only happen to light a match at the very moment when social tension has become explosive. The strength of the witnesses’ embrace is in direct proportion to the intensity of the collective guilt; if the self-immolator redeems them of anything, it is of this oppressive feeling.

The Bouazizi case is remarkable also for the unique light it casts on the role of the crowd in initiating, shaping, and ultimately re-signifying an individual self-immolation. Whereas Palach and Đúc entertained certain political ideas, planned everything in advance, and deliberately meant their gestures to be a radical protest against certain states of affairs, behind Bouazizi’s gesture, as far as we know, there was neither planning nor a clear political vision. Of course, millions of others across the region also experienced oppression and indignity on a daily basis. Yet his action was apparently triggered by a specific instance of personal humiliation (and injured male pride) he had suffered at the hands of a female official who mistreated him. His case only goes to show that when the time is right, the story will invent its own characters. Others could easily take his humiliation as their own and start to build upon it.

Self-aware or not, self-immolators can under such circumstances become fundamental figures for the community in the midst of which they emerge. Their terrible deaths, the unspeakable suffering they must go through, the extremely violent nature of the event—all these contribute decisively to their recasting, in the public mind, as mythical heroes. More important, their deaths might well serve as what René Girard calls a “founding death.” They mark a time pregnant in promise and boundless possibility, a time of a unique ontological quality, on which the future—of course, always a better future—may be grounded.

It is often difficult to speak of self-immolation as a unified phenomenon, when in a certain sense each instance of successful self-immolation has a unique physiognomy. Springing as they do from strong personalities, self-immolations are not easy to reduce to a clear-cut pattern. Furthermore, the way in which they become “successful,” if they do at all, varies by context and culture. Bouazizi’s gesture set the North-African political world on fire within weeks. However, it took Jan Palach twenty years to influence events in his country in such a manner as to lead to a regime change. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Czechoslovakian dissidents owed much to Palach’s gesture. It is telling that many historians consider “the beginning of the end” for the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia to be “Palach Week” in January 1989, a commemoration of Palach’s death that authorities tried to repress violently, thus setting in motion a process that would culminate in the Velvet Revolution several months later.

Regardless of their individual characteristics, political self-immolations always display this feature: they re-signify an individual’s violent death as a collective experience and thereby render it meaningful. They bring about, in those communities where they occur, a certain sense of regeneration and renewal, the promise of a new political beginning. Far from being an annihilating occurrence, death becomes in such cases a life-enhancing event, as strange as this may sound. In the end, the practitioners of this rare “art of dying” are not gloomy figures and apostles of self-destruction. On the contrary, they end up being perceived as gifts, if gifts of a special kind. They demonstrate, as Simon Critchley put it, that “in learning how to die we might also be taught how to live.”

Costica Bradatan is an assistant professor in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. He has also taught at Cornell University and Miami University, as well as several universities in Europe and Asia. Bradatan is the author of, among other books, The Other Bishop Berkeley: An Exercise in Reenchantment. He is currently writing a book on martyr-philosophers.

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