During a magnificent recent performance of Tschaikowsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin,” I suddenly realized that Lensky’s challenge to Onegin, ostensibly to get satisfaction for Onegin’s insulting behavior, has an entirely different motive. His idealized picture of his fiancéE Olga has been shattered by her behavior with Onegin on the dance floor. Whirling around with Onegin, she seems to revel in the distress she is causing Lensky, and the poet’s long-revered picture of her as his perfect, eternal love is destroyed. This he is unable to bear, and what he now desires is not satisfaction, but death at Onegin’s hands.
This is made clear during the duel. When the dueling-master says “Fire”, Onegin raises his weapon as quickly as he could, but Lensky is unnaturally slow in raising his, as though he had no desire to shoot Onegin, but instead awaited his own death. This behavior was not an invention of the opera’s director, for it is just as Pushkin wrote in his great poetic novel. So actually Lensky provokes the duel as a means of committing suicide.
There are many other instances in literature and drama of suicide by proxy. Suicide is forbidden by all religions and is also condemned as cowardly. One desiring death might not even consciously know that he is deliberately provoking someone else to kill him. But this is clear in Lensky’s case, and also in the following examples.
In Benjamin Britten’s opera “Billy Budd,” Billy is an impressed seaman who is sunny in disposition, handsome, happy with his shipmates and beloved by them all. In contrast, Claggart, the first mate, is ugly in his mien and his heart. He is envious of Billy’s goodness and popularity, and undoubtedly in love with him as well. His homosexual feelings are intolerable to one with his background, and he hates himself for that. Therefore, he commits suicide by provoking Billy mercilessly until Billy, good man though he is, finally loses control and kills Claggart. In this way Claggart not only ends his own life by another’s hand, but also gets revenge on Billy (who, of course, is hung for his crime) for existing.
A similar situation is found in the play “Streamers” by David Rabe. It takes place in an Army barracks in peacetime. The protagonists are a young recruit who comes from a small redneck town and a big-bodied, big-personality, happy black man from a city slum, a former gang member now gone straight.
The captain of the platoon is openly gay, and often invites one or another of the men to join him in bed. The men we see do not participate, although they all seem to be at ease with the captain, accepting him as he is. Trouble arises when the captain offers something to the black guy to accede to his wish even though he is straight. “What the hell, why not?” says the good-natured soldier. Nobody seems to mind except the small-town recruit, who becomes angry and tries to prevent them. Others try to cool him down, but fail. He verbally attacks the black soldier, who brushes him off. This increases the young man’s anger and he begins to physically attack the black man, who is hard to provoke but eventually fights back. The young man snatches a razor for a weapon, but then throws it away and pummels the big guy verbally and physically, eventually making him angry. As the fighting intensifies, the defender finally pulls out a knife and cuts the other on the palm of his hand. I took this as a gangland gesture of warning, an attempt to cool things before something serious happens. But this only goads the attacker to a frenzy of blows, and finally the defender stabs his attacker to death.
The question that arises is why the young recruit is so offended by the tryst arranged by two other men, given that it is none of his business? My answer is that the small-town boy suddenly realizes for the first time that he personally is gay having discovered, against his will, that he desires the captain for himself. He attacks the black man, not because he wants to replace him with the captain, which he could never do, but because his lifelong hatred of gays is turned against himself, and he can tolerate life no longer. That he wants to die and not win the fight is what impels him to throw away his own weapon even before the battle is joined.
“In the Valley of Elah,” written and directed by Paul Haggis, is a motion picture drawn from a real-life event. It received little attention, but is a riveting movie about war and guilt that provides a deeper understanding about what war veterans have to live with when they return home with horrible memories. Three buddies from the same town, who served together in Iraq, come home. They hang out together, carouse a lot and have difficulty adjusting to civilian life. Their parents and friends are unhappy, but say that they just need time to return to normal. Then one of them disappears. After days (or weeks) his body is found in a junk-strewn lot, partially eaten away by wild dogs. No one can tell how he got there.
One day in Iraq, this soldier had been at the wheel of a jeep in very dangerous territory. A young boy appeared in their path. His buddies insisted that he drive on at full speed, ignoring the boy who was surely a decoy intended to make them stop in an ambush, a tactic often used by the enemy. He did this, killing the boy, but then he could not drive on. He stopped, got out of the car and went over to the body for a few minutes before continuing to drive. There was no ambush. This incident haunted him constantly.
Slowly it emerges that this guy, one evening, started a fight with his comrades. It lasted hours. He became more and more enraged until finally one of them killed him, leaving his body where it was eventually found. Soon after, the buddy who killed him hangs himself.
This tragedy clearly emerges from the huge guilt that consumes the ex-soldier, becoming more and more unbearable until he commits suicide by inciting his buddy to kill him in an act of mercy. Then the buddy can take no more, and takes his own life.
In the play “Red Dog Howls” by Alexander Dinelaris, a young man living in the U.S. meets his old grandmother. She is a survivor of the Armenian holocaust who now lives comfortably in a beautiful, well-furnished apartment. She befriends him, inviting him to visit frequently for good food and company. She has one treasured object from the past, an embroidered pillow that somehow was not lost with everything else.
Although her behavior is in no way suspicious, it slowly dawns on him that the reason she has cultivated him is to induce him to kill her with this pillow. Apparently, her memories are more than she can bear, and death at her beloved grandson’s hands with the precious pillow is an attractive way to end her life. When he eventually realizes what she wants of him, he does it.
Among holocaust survivors, suicide many years later is not rare. One can speculate that they had memories of unforgettable horrors that could not be expunged, or even that some of them had done something shameful in a desperate urge to stay alive, such as stealing some food from a buddy, or blaming another for something they had done. Surely such things did happen.
In Thomas Mann’s great novel “The Magic Mountain,” the hard-souled Jesuit, Nafta, provokes a duel with Settembrini, the pure humanist. His motive is not clear since he has no quarrel with Settembrini other than their friendly, long-lasting debate about philosophy. At the duel, as soon as firing is allowed, Settembrini points his pistol straight upward and fires. Nafta is now free to kill Settembrini at will, but instead he goes into a rage and shoots himself in the head. One can but speculate on Nafta’s motive, but I have the feeling that, over their months of friendship and discussion, Nafta had felt morally bested by Settembrini and wanted to be killed by him because life was no longer worth living, and also to get revenge on him, since he would surely be accused of murder. When Settembrini refuses to kill him even at risk of his own life, Nafta has to do it himself.
An obvious example of suicide by proxy is Tristan in Wagner’s opera, “Tristan und Isolde.” When the protagonists’ tryst is discovered by the others, including his patron King Marke, Tristan is convinced that everything he lives for — Isolde — is lost to him forever. He sees death in Melot’s sword and, therefore, welcomes his attack, which mortally wounds Tristan. Back at home, it appears that he might recover, so upon Isolde’s entrance he makes sure his wound will be lethal by tearing off his bandages. Isolde also wants to die, but needs no help. All she has to do is sing the Liebestod.
One might cavil at some of the interpretations above, but not at the concept of death by proxy, for this occurs — probably more often than recorded — in real life. An article in Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations 9, 105-118, June 2009, by Brian F. Kingshott, entitled “Suicide by Proxy: Revisiting the Problem of Suicide by Cop” discusses suicide in which a police officer is deliberately provoked by the protagonist to use deadly force. In view of the high rate of suicide in the world, ~1 million/year, this cannot be a rare event.