A Paradox Comes Home to Roost*
The most aggressive, yet seemingly mute conceptual paradox of our age, because largely unarticulated - I die, therefore I am – owes its authority, as with the greatest paradoxes of mankind, to Religion – You must die to be saved. In the midst of life, we are in death. Only through death are we re-born etc, etc… These in turn are anchored to the very biological paradox that defines human existence – life as a progression towards extinction. No matter how lavishly inserted into religious sermonizing, or even as cultural devices for the acceptance of life’s ultimate denial in death, such paradoxical givens are never intended as instigation towards literal, instant fulfillment through suicide. Rather, they urge, quite prosaically, a pious life, full of good deeds and service to mankind and so on. In a more challenging dimension, they propose that life itself cannot be ontologically grasped, its fullest implications embraced, except simultaneously with an underlying consciousness of an inbuilt negation, death – life as containing the seeds of its own destruction. Such implications are benign, albeit filled with chagrin, regarding which most intelligent beings do their best to put on a brave face. I am reminded of Francois Mitterand’s mordant wit with which he confronted that prospect – “I don’t really mind dying; it’s the thought of not being around that I find unpleasant.”
Not so benign, or reconciled with this human condition that defines ‘mortality’ is the increasingly assertive derivative, a twisted application of the theological intent: I die, therefore I am. I die, and thus, become. I die, therefore exist… or whatever other variation we conceive of in our effort to articulate the state of mind of the suicide bomber as he moves towards the moment of his existential fulfillment. To begin with, it is a dubious, perhaps over generous exercise to ascribe, to a mind in a state of ‘submission,’ a capacity for the exercise of will, or volition – this would only land us in another paradox. Yet the troubling fact is that submission itself implicates the premise of such a condition, since it is an exercise of the mind that leads to any decision. A choice is implicit when one says: In dying, I attain eternal life. However dismissive of such claims we non-believers may be, we still cannot help but remain intrigued by the notion that inhabits the mind of a specific breed of such a believer from the moment of his suicidal volunteerism – which itself is an act of resolve, of choice – all the way to the moment of self-immolation. A seemingly futile preoccupation, but one in which, even for practical purposes, we may profitably indulge since, like it or not, we are potentially implicated. It may just be our turn to accompany this terminal volunteer on the next train or plane ride, or sitting at a bar enjoying a glass of wine.
The phenomenon described so far is vastly different – in critical ways – from the individual self-sacrificial statement of Buddhists who, decades ago, serially set themselves on fire to protest the corrupt and tyrannical regimes of former Indo-china and their western backers. It is vastly different from Europe’s own exemplar in that mode – the student Jan Palach, protesting Soviet invasion of his homeland, setting off a wave of emulators, all young and idealistic. It is miles apart from the even more contemporary act of self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi of Tunisia who set off what is now know as the Arab Spring. By contrast, the more familiar disciple of the doctrine of self-immolation does not believe in traveling light – isolating himself from the rest of humanity – no, his ultimate gesture attains sublimity only when it drags others into its terminal intent. Its impact on survivors and distant observers is not of empathy but of anger, fear and even disgust, certainly a challenge that generates hostility. It does not require any imagination however to gauge the contrasting response in the facilitating camp, among those waiting in line to embark for the same destination. There, we shall encounter only impatience at the delay in their call-up to divine duty, an eagerness to emulate and attain self-fulfillment.
I shall not attempt to explore the banal motivations that, in some cases, general enthusiasm for this terminal gesture, evident in the belief that self-immolation implies no existential paradox, but affirmation of the materialist status quo, only eternally enhanced, since the basis of such belief reads: I die, therefore I live in the hereafter, live in an infinitely enriched hereafter. One refers here to those believers for whom ‘martyrdom’ is filled with material calculations – rewards for the act of self-sacrifice, the lascivious vision of deluded youth who are locked on the prospect of afterlife where, literally and palpably, a thousand virgins exist to cater to the immortal lust of the volunteer. A speculatively prurient dimension of that non-paradox has been offered in the escapade of the most notorious of these – the young Abdulmutallab, who hid an explosive device next to the very asset that would be needed to service a thousand virgins. Regarding that Nigerian trail blazer, little did his countrymen and women know, at the time, that this was a mere blip on a distant radar, that our own soil would soon thereafter be home to a steady propagation of such distorted vision. What was then bruited as an aberrant event has proved to be the mere prelude to a discordant anthem of homebred zealotry. No matter, to indulge a little more in our prurient speculation, perhaps Abdulmutallab approached the prospect of that life-after-death in the belief – which, come to think of it, is both logical and consistent – that the incineration of that very part of his anatomy was the surest guarantee of its resurrection, divinely reinforced, for the daunting task of keeping a thousand virgins satisfied.
Not necessarily Abdulmuttalab himself – we do not know enough of him, psychologically dissected – but such youths exist in numbers, and their conviction is absolute. Despite the self-gratifying motivations among many, one is compelled to concede, paradoxically, a basic, devotional conviction to the enabling paradox of one’s own potential murderers – ardent pilgrims to the meadow of a thousand virgins – a conviction in the belief of resurrection after life. The inescapable datum is that there have existed throughout human history both religious and secular martyrs – of all shades of conviction, often at opposing polarities – whose moment of truth demonstrated that self-extinction was indeed what truly gave meaning to their existence. Some have embraced the definitive moment – at times prolonged and painful – stoically, soberly, calmly, and with unflagging resolve. For the average individual, this is perhaps a state of mind that is outside conceivable rational norms, indeed unimaginable. That is a pity. It is futile to approach the phenomenon within the confines of the rational, seeking to inject the dictates of reason into a condition of unreason. Or could it be that the cohabitation – and interaction – of reason and instinct constitutes the most affective paradox of existence after all?
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