Examining Old School Anime: Suicide

You can say that this article derives from my adherence to the principle of choosing the lesser of two evils–in this case, the lesser of two spoilers: I weighed spoiling the ending of Space Pirate Captain Harlock against revealing the death of a minor character in The Rose of Versailles.  The topic of death appeared the best choice–like on another occasion.  As you glean from the title, this particular character takes her own life.  This unfortunate event (The Rose of Versailles can be surprisingly dark) comes about through Madame de Polignac forcing her eleven year old daughter to contract an engagement with a forty-three year old duke, who is plainly a pedophile.  At the time, the age of consent in Europe seems to have been twelve for women, following the old Roman law.  So, Charlotte faces the prospect of consummating a marriage with a degenerate in the very next year so that her mother might gain prestige–or, did de Polignac actually believe this would make her daughter happy?  In any case, Charlotte sees no way out of this abhorrent union besides death and leaps from the roof of a chateau in a state of despair and insanity.  Just what are the ethics regarding suicide from Catholic doctrine, and how do they apply to this case?

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The two best sources I know of on this question are the Catechism of the Catholic Church (search for paragraphs 2280-2283) and New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia entry on suicide.  The former more accurately reflects the modern attitude of the Catholic Church toward suicide, while the latter offers a more in-depth explanation but presents a more dated attitude–as can be seen by the author comparing the suicide rates of 1826 and 1900.  The following stand as the most important points regarding suicide: 1) suicide is usually a mortal sin, i.e. having the consequence of eternal damnation; 2) conditions exist which may reduce a person’s culpability, meaning that the sin is venial in certain cases; 3) rare cases exist where suicide is not against God’s will; 4) there is a clear distinction between taking one’s life for one’s own sake (suicide) and accepting death in order to help or save another person (self-sacrifice, see John 15:13); and 5) we ought never despair of God’s mercy in regard to suicides.

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The most surprising point is the third.  However, St. Augustine in his The City of God recognizes certain women who committed suicide in order to preserve their chastity from nefarious Roman soldiers as martyrs.  Also, the Aurea Legenda (whose accounts must be taken cum grano salis but reflect Catholic sentiment well) records one young Christian man who had been strapped naked to a table and then had a prostitute forced upon him.  When he felt his flesh giving way to temptation, he bit off his own tongue, which earned him as place among the martyrs.  (Perhaps I should say “Christian sentiment” rather than “Catholic sentiment,” because two friends of mine, one Lutheran and one Non-denominational, also cheered the martyr as a hero.)

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Her mother couldn’t have chosen a worse creep for Charlotte to marry.

I mention the above cases to show that the Catholic Church has ever been lenient in their judgement of suicides facing the certain threat of sexual assault.  This would seem to apply to the case of Charlotte, except that one is not sure whether she really had no recourse besides suicide to prevent her defilement.  The Church has never favored forced marriages.  For example, in the 11th century, waves of Anglo-Saxon women fled to convents in order to escape the amorous attentions of various Norman invaders.  One doubts that eleventh century England provided more protections for women than eighteenth century France.  (Or am I wrong?)  Charlotte could have found a way out of her plight had not her terror and disgust toward this union not driven her to insanity.

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Those are the two pivotal differences between Charlotte and the Christian martyrs mentioned above: 1) for Charlotte, there might have existed another way out; and 2) what the martyrs did sana mente Charlotte committed insana mente.  The martyrs faced a situation like that of Rebecca standing on a window ledge with Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert blocking the only other way out of the room.  Unlike that pivotal scene in Ivanhoe, Charlotte is still permitted freedom of movement: she can apply to the queen, perhaps seek the help of a decent noble like Oscar de Jarjayes, or even afflict herself with such sorrow and mortification as to move the yet unyielding heart of her mother.  Instead, she seeks death as the only way out of her predicament.  Catholics believe that a person might commit a mortal sin following reaching the age of reason or seven.  But, did Charlotte sin mortally, or was her sanity so impaired as to diminish that freedom of thought required for a sin to be damning?

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My own opinion is that her suicide is not the type as to merit a place among the damned because of her lack of sanity.  Yet, the Catholic Encyclopedia does note that certain people go insane by rejecting grace, and so do not move from a state of grace to one of spiritual death but from spiritual death to both physical and spiritual death.  Such people can only be saved through God spontaneously offering the gift of final repentance at the moment of death–as St. John Vianney revealed to one woman in the case of her husband’s suicide.  So, we ought never despair of God offering mercy to suicides, which is why the Church now allows for some suicides to receive a Christian burial.

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So, to what extent do our dear readers think that Charlotte is culpable?  What are your own thoughts on the subject of suicide?

14 thoughts on “Examining Old School Anime: Suicide

  1. I think the Catholic view of suicide is that it must not be a rejection, with full knowledge of the act’s sinfulness and full consent of the actor, of God’s gift of life or salvation. In other words, as long as Charlotte wasn’t thumbing her nose at God, as long as it wasn’t a gesture of contempt, she is not fully culpable. I wouldn’t think God would expect much theological depth or thoughtful moral judgment from an eleven-year-old girl, anyway.

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    1. Chesterton does write that someone intending to commit suicide must hate everything down to each blade of grass before he takes his own life. Those who kill themselves out of hatred of God are certainly the most culpable. And, I do think that circumstances make Charlotte less culpable than people with more freedom of action, freedom of thought, and maturity. At any rate, taking one’s own life is certainly something to be avoided at all costs unless one is trying to save someone else’s life, e.g. jumping in front of a gun aimed at a loved one, killing oneself lest one divulge vital intelligence to the enemy under torture, etc.

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  2. As for Charlotte’s suicide, I really couldn’t say. As for suicides in general, there are quite often extenuating circumstances we have to take into account, but even then, there is always a level of uncertainty. Asking “why” or trying to determine the eternal fate of suicides can be a fruitless and sometimes harmful endeavor, as we saw last year with Robin Williams.

    For many who choose to kill themselves, I am not sure they “choose” to kill themselves in the same way we choose what to eat today. That doesn’t mean suicide isn’t a bad choice, or that it isn’t a choice at all; it does mean, however, that even as we choose (self-owning individuals that we are), there are various forces beyond our control, Behemoths and Leviathans that could very well overcome us. It is not merely a physical thing (as many psychologists would suggest), nor is it merely a spiritual thing (as many preachers would suggest). The reality of suicide is multifaceted and complicated.

    To make a long story short: there are so many variables at play here that I hesitate to make inflexible, authoritative judgments as to suicides’ culpability and eternal fate (though let it be said there is a great disparity between a Charlotte, who is forced into a bad situation, and a Charles Logan, who nearly kills himself to avoid the embarrassment of presidential scandal — one of the best scenes in “24,” by the way).

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    1. It pretty much is fruitless to wonder about the fate of suicides. The Catholic Church actually doesn’t say that any specific individual is in hell besides the devil and his angels; though, it did come close in the Middle Ages when it denied suicides Christian burials and anathematized certain persons, both of which the Catholic Church no longer does.

      I think suicides decide to kill themselves because the weight of sorrow on their minds, presentiment of extreme bodily harm, great physical pain, or loss of wealth or honor overwhelms them. To determine what happens to them, one would need to know how greatly the force of temptation inhibited their free will and whether God offered them final repentance while in their death throes. As you say, these factors are imponderable–especially the latter.

      Yet, I would say from appearances that Charlotte’s suicide was less culpable than Charles Logan’s near suicide. After all, he had a positive duty to endure the effects of scandal while the factors influencing Charlotte to suicide were not of her own making and worse harm threatened her.

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  3. I addressed this in looking at a manga from the 80s, Black Angels, and wondered why in the manga a suicide (by hanging in jail–falsely imprisoned) would get a Catholic burial. There are other suicides in anime/manga where absolution isn’t even a consideration. In “The Legend of Syrius (aka Sea Prince and the Fire Child)”, Piyale uses suicide to cover for the elopement of Malta (Princess of the Fire Kingdom) with the Prince of the Water Tribe. She did that out of her love for Malta, so distress or depression doesn’t even apply. (There’s a similar example in “Sword Art Online” but I don’t recall the details.)

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    1. The curious thing about suicide in Japan is that it has become romanticized in their culture, so many of them don’t consider it evil. In Black Angels, the author–likely not well versed in Catholic doctrine–probably thought that suicide was not sufficient reason to deny someone a Catholic burial. The example in “The Legend of Syrius” is a perfect example of Japan’s romantic view of suicide: many Japanese would view Piyale’s suicide as ennobling her devotion to her friend or master.

      At any rate, both of those manga sound interesting. I’ll have to take a look at them.

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      1. I’ve always considered suicide to be….desertion of sorts, the act of a coward. Cowards and traitors (Although a special case might be made for those who become traitors due to moral imperative rather than their own self-interest, or due to being betrayed themselves) repulse me more than anything else, because they are moral universals. Every human society and every creature I’ve met has an almost reflexive disgust toward both.

        There’s also this sense that a person contemplating the idea misunderstands the situation a lot. Killing yourself indirectly reveals a certain atheism. Most people die believing that there is NO way out of the situation they have entered, and no one cares about them genuinely enough to help. But if Christian ideals are true, this is practically never the case. There are in fact a LOT of people who care a LOT about what happens to you, and you’ve revealed by your actions that you either don’t believe in them (Or Him, as the case might be) or don’t believe He will help you.

        Furthermore, some suicides ultimately reveal that the person was dead wrong…And there were a lot more humans who wanted them to live than expected. This is the other reason dying can be a selfish act.

        But at the same time, everyone here is right in that there’s a moral ambiguity to offing your own damn self out of crushing, intolerable despair. It doesn’t seem like a blameworthy kind of sin because the only person it directly harms is never coming back. I don’t know that anyone can really answer questions about it or judge it, certainly not me, if they have never themselves seen the Void within and wondered if fighting it was worth it.

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        1. Your comment expresses the objective horror one should have of suicide quite well. If all sins committed with premeditation reveal a lack of faith, suicide can certainly reveal that the person had not the slightest faith in God. My earliest reaction to a suicide, committed by a student who attended my high school, was to shrug my shoulders and think “Ah! She is in hell.” I could not understand why the other students around me actually mourned her loss. And their reaction proves that other people cared for her.

          These days, I find myself less harsh towards suicides, especially having read the lives of certain mystics who claimed that certain suicides, by reason of illness or the unfathomable mercy of God, escaped final damnation. So, really the best thing is to hope for the salvation of all, teach sound doctrine (the fact that people in the Middle Ages fully grasped that suicide was damning made suicide virtually unheard of for most of the period), and leave the fate of particular sinners to the mercy of God.

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          1. “My earliest reaction to a suicide, committed by a student who attended my high school, was to shrug my shoulders and think “Ah! She is in hell.”

            ~Perhaps, but I think the reason she chose to die is because she saw herself as being already in Hell. And it is debatable to me as to whether she was mistaken, in a sense! Hell might have a way of focusing one’s perspective, but really we so often create it without the Devil’s help.

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            1. Very true, as Milton puts in the devil’s mouth: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” I think there is always a reason to persevere, and suffering in this life often is a sign of beatitude in the next. As St. Jerome wrote, one cannot live a double paradise, one here and another in heaven. How much more easily people would bear pain if they kept eternity in mind!

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  4. And as another last note today…..

    We think of the root of all evil as being pride, or thinking of the self before others, or selfishness without considering the consequences. Yet with a lot of people I’ve met, and what a lot of studies have shown, is that the other two are actually symptoms of either madness, envy, or despair. When envy and despair combine, they become one of the great evils of the world—- ironically…. excessive pride as a defense mechanism. Narcissism.

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    1. But, you must remember that Narcissus drowned by becoming too far caught up in his own reflection. 🙂 The kind of pride which is the capital sin is the root of madness, envy, and despair. C. S. Lewis writes that one must separate competitive pride, i.e. the vice, from the pride we refer to when we say “proud to be an American” or “proud to be a Marine.” The latter is actually a kind of joy or admiration, while the former is the wish to be praised as better than other people. When one sees that other people are more talented, richer, more well liked, smarter, etc., the person who merely takes joy in what he is has no trouble praising them, and seeing others’ gifts contributes to his own happiness. On the other hand, the person who wishes to be seen as better than others, becomes saddened at others’ good fortune and cannot take any joy in his own works and talents. Envy and pride work hand in hand and often lead to self-destruction.

      So, I think that those studies must be referring to the good pride or sense of dignity rather than what we consider vicious pride.

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      1. “On the other hand, the person who wishes to be seen as better than others, becomes saddened at others’ good fortune and cannot take any joy in his own works and talents. Envy and pride work hand in hand and often lead to self-destruction.”

        With most people, the bad kind of pride occurs because you become jealous of someone else’s accomplishments because at your heart you feel inadequate to match them. Basically, jealousy doesn’t usually exist in a person with high “good” pride and self-esteem. I’ve known people of both types—- a woman with very high self-esteem and no empathy who is actually the most conscientious person I’ve ever met….And a man (My own father) who was very empathetic but completely self-obsessed and obsessed with being perceived as “impressive” and “famous.”

        Sin makes you sad and hollow, ultimately….and I think that applies to the supposed prideful people, the so-called “villains,” as well. The people who can’t stand being “less” than anyone.

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