Karl S. Guthke. The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. xii+297pp. ISBN 0 521 59195 3 Cloth, 0 521 64460 7 Paper.
Georges Minois. History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. 387pp. ISBN 0 8018 5919 0 Cloth.
University of Nottingham
Robson, Mark. "Review of Karl S. Guthke. The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature, and Georges Minois. History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 14.1-10<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/06-2/robsonrev.htm>.
Karl Guthke's The Gender of Death opens with an intriguing question which sets the tone for the book as a whole: Is Death a woman? Beginning from a recognition that different cultures at different times represent death as (among other things) either male or female, young or old, beautiful or ugly, weak or powerful, Guthke asks what significance these representational choices might have. Arguing that death is representable, if only through a multitude of images, Guthke proposes that a culture may be judged by its attitude to and knowledge of death, and therefore by the images that it produces. Guthke quickly disposes of the notion that a linguistic culture will visualize the gender of death according to the grammatical gender of the noun used for death, since the numerous exceptions to this rule (and the problems of languages, such as postmedieval English, which do not use such gendering) make the connection between grammar and image "tenuous at best" (24). Similarly, classical and biblical sources offer both male and female models, including Thanatos and the Parcae, the Angel of Death and Nimrod. In the Middle Ages, this dichotomy becomes more clearly focused on Adam and Eve, since death as mortality comes into the world through the sin of disobedience. But whose sin is it, Adam's or Eve's? Whilst there is an early concentration on Adam and masculinity (in the transi, the knightly death or King Death), this is joined by Triumph of Death figures in which death is generally female, eventually identified as Atropos. Guthke makes the interesting claim that only female images could be used to represent the idea of mass death, such as that caused by plague. At the same time, Guthke detects the emergence of an eroticisation of death that will become far more prevalent in later centuries. It is this erotic charge that Guthke sees as separating the Renaissance and Baroque periods from earlier centuries.
Thanatos and Eros also figure at the centre of Guthke's discussion of the Romantics, in particular Goethe, Lessing and Herder, in which he traces the emergence of a "friendly" death which is still predominantly male. It is only in the nineteenth century that the threatening female image of death becomes the dominant one, a subject of both anxiety and erotic fascination. Guthke's "dialectic" of the interplay between depictions of death and attitudes to gender roles points to much material that is of interest, but is ultimately disappointing and not as novel as he might claim. There is an eclecticism here that fails to support his central claims about the possibility of representing death itself, and his swift dismissal of opposing views is unconvincing.
Debate is at the heart of George Minois' project. Is suicide a crime? Can we distinguish the discursive attitudes to suicide presented in law, literature and religious doctrine, from the actuality of individual cases? The waters are muddied by a Christian inheritance which provides conflicting models and doctrine. It may be argued that Christ's sacrifice is a form of voluntary death, a consciously willed act of martyrdom, and that the central Christian myth is founded upon suicide. This accords with advocacy of a contempt for the world and for the body which presents death as a joyous consummation devoutly to be wished. Such a model leads to the willing participation in their own persecution of the martyrs of the early church. Conversely, there is the Mosaic prohibition against murder of any kind, coupled with the idea of the body and soul as God's property, and perception of suicide as motivated by despair. Here the example is not Jesus but Judas. What then of a Socrates, of a Samson, or a Lucrece?
Recognition of the duality of this inheritance from Christian and Classical sources, proposes Minois, marks out the Renaissance from the Middle Ages. He argues that the re-emergence of Classical culture brings with it a re-examination of attitudes to suicide, particularly examples such as Brutus, Cato, Cleopatra and Lucrece. With this openness to varied perspectives on suicide also come particular forms of voluntary death: suicide as a result of boredom with or distaste for life is, according to Minois, a marker of sceptical and uncertain ages, and humanism not only allowed the question of suicide to be raised again, it also offered new reasons for voluntary death. As the scope of the humanists' ambition increased, there were more areas in which a man might be frustrated to the point of despair.
There is certainly strong evidence for the interest taken in suicide and its justifications in the Renaissance period, but this should not be taken as evidence for an increase in the number of suicides. As Minois points out, those who talk most about suicide are often those least likely to commit the act, and the discussion or staging of suicide may well have a therapeutic effect. His discussion takes in familiar and non-canonical writers, and there are interesting comments on the mid-sixteenth century religious disputants eager to claim that the other's doctrine leads to despair. Minois identifies the shift in attitudes in texts by Sidney, Montaigne, Bacon, and especially Donne and Burton, recognising both a revised rationalism and medicalisation in their approaches. This intellectual heritage supplements an account of the popularity of scenes of voluntary death on the English stage between 1580 and 1620, citing over two hundred instances of suicide in one hundred plays. Noting the fifty-two instances of suicide in Shakespeare's plays, he concludes that: "Shakespeare's real question is, Has suicide any meaning?. . .Might not the best response to Hamlet's question, "To be or not to be?" perhaps be 'The question makes no sense'?" (109-10)
Minois offers sociopolitical, as well as psychological or metaphysical, reasons for voluntary death and its prohibition. Despite Hamlet's questioning, most people kill themselves as a result of far more mundane unhappinesses or oppressions. Poverty, jealousy, tyranny, religious doubt, fear, or the death of a loved one, kill more men and women than existential angst. Yet this also explains governmental, legal and religious aggression towards the suicide: for one of your subjects to choose the uncertainty of death over present life comes as an unequivocal reproach, and this accounts for the treatment of the bodies of the dead, submitted like executed traitors to extremes of punishment which go beyond death into rituals of humiliation and annihilation. Greed for confiscated property should also not be discounted.
In Minois' account, the questions raised towards the end of the sixteenth century were met in the seventeenth by an increasingly hard-line response within law, the clergy, and certain forms of thought such as casuistry. Yet as belief in satanic influence on suicides declined, so too did faith in the notions of punishing corpses and confiscating property. Direct attempts at suicide were substituted for by acts such as duelling, by literature, and by forms of spiritual (as opposed to physical) self-annihilation (particularly in devout humanism and Jansenism).
In his section devoted to the Enlightenment, Minois charts the emergence of the "English malady" in the period 1680-1720, again pointing out that the suicide rates were not significantly higher than elsewhere in Europe, but that again perception and actuality diverged. From here he discusses the attitudes of the Romantics, the philosophes, and famous cases such as Chatterton's death and Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther. He ends with an epilogue which looks briefly at the French Revolution and makes comments on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly on the works of Durkheim and Freud.
It is only in his final pages that the full weight of Minois' project becomes apparent. Contrasting his own stance to current debates on euthanasia, Minois calls for an attempt to think what he calls a "thanato-ethics" to complement the current work on bioethics. Is life actually preferable to death in all cases, even if that life is characterised by excruciating and incurable suffering? This question brings the motivation for Minois' study into sharp focus, indicating an intellectual project that is not only valuable but necessary. This lends Minois' text an urgency missing from that of Guthke.
- In both books, a broad range of reference and historical sweep means that interesting material is treated too quickly. Equally, literary critics might have some qualms about the way in which texts are used as historical evidence without being subjected to close reading. Frameworks for more detailed investigation are offered, but the catalogues of evidence continually call for more detailed analyses.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).