Under the Sun/The Hara-Kiri
THE Hara-kiri is a universal custom, for there is no passion in the mind of man so weak but it masters the fear of death. So said Lord Bacon; and he illustrates his text, as also does Barton, in his “Anatomy,” with many notable examples of revenge triumphing over death, love slighting it, honor aspiring to it, grief flying to it, fear ignoring it, and even pity, the tenderest of affections, provoking to it. When Otho the Emperor committed suicide, many out of sheer compassion that such a sovereign should have renounced life, killed themselves. Indeed it requires no strong passion to take the terrors out of death, for we know how frequently suicides have left behind them, as the only reason for their act, that they were “tired of life,” weary perhaps, of an existence monotonous with poverty or sickness, or even simply borne down by the mere tedious repetition of uneventful days. In spite, however, of the .multitude of examples which past history and the records of our own every-day life afford, that death wears for many of all classes and both sexes a by no means fearful aspect, the human mind recoils from the prospect of digging, as it were, one’s own grave, and shudders at the thought of being the executioner of one’s own body.
Apologists have, however, been found for suicide, not only in antiquity, but in modern days; some, like Dr. Donne, claiming for the act the same degrees of culpability that the law attaches to homicide, others founding their pleas on the ground that Holy Writ nowhere condemns the crime, and one profanely arguing that his life is a man’s own to do with as he will. Goethe may be called an apologist for suicide, and so may all those historians or novelists who make their heroes “die nobly” by their own hands; and De Quincey himself seems to have been at one time inclined to excuse under certain circumstances the act of “spontaneous martyrdom.”
Pity at first carries away the feelings of the sympathetic, but there are few healthy minds to which, on the second thought, does not come the reflection that suicide is, after all, an insult to human nature, and, for all its pathos, cowardly. There are, indeed, circumstances, such, for instance, as hideous, incurable disease, that tend to soften the public verdict upon the unhappy wretch, who, in taking his own life, had otherwise committed a crime against humanity, and played a traitor’s part to all that is most noble in man. But these, as actually resulting in suicide, are very exceptional and infrequent. In most cases life is thrown away impatiently and peevishly, a sudden impulse of remorse or grief nerving the victim to forget how grand life really is, with its earnest aims and hearty work, and how bright it is with its e very-day home affections and its cheerful hopes of better things and better times. Our courts of law generalize such impulses under the term “temporary insanity,” and the world accepts the term as a satisfactory one, for it is not human to believe that, a sane person would under any circumstances throw up life. Races, our own notably, conspicuous wherever found in the earth for their active, hearty, healthful pursuit of work or pleasure, refuse to believe that any but the mad, whether permanently or for the time only, would wilfully cut short their life’s interests, and exchange sunlight and manly labor, all the ups and downs that make men brave and hopeful, for the gloomy ignominy of a premature grave. “Above all,” says Lord Bacon, “believe it, the sweetest canticle is ‘Nunc Dimittis, when a man hath obtained worthy ends and expectations;” but death in the prime of life, “Finis” written before half the pages of the book had been turned, must always present itself to the courageous, cheerful mind as the most terrible of catastrophes.
In its most terrible form, the Hara-kiri is of course a Japanese evil; but suicide, alas! is not peculiar to any one country or people. In the manner in which they view it, nations differ, — the Hindoo, for instance, contemplates it with apathy the savage of the Congo with pride, the Japanese with a stern sense of a grave duty, the Englishman with horror and pity, — but the crime has its roots in all soils alike, and flourishes under all skies. But that really grand system of legalized self-murder which was for ages the privilege of all who felt wounded in their honor, gives the Japanese a horrible pre-eminence in the Hara-kiri, and crime though we call it, there was much to admire in the stately heroism of those orderly suicides, notable for their fine appreciation of the dignity of Death, their reverent courtesy to his awful terrors, and sublime scorn for pain of body. From their infancy they looked forward to suicide as a terrible probability, the great event for which through the intervening years they had to prepare themselves. They learned by heart all the nice etiquette of the Hara-kiri: how they must do this, not that, stab themselves from left to right, and not from right to left. Strangely fascinating, indeed, are the “Tales of Old Japan,” and among them most terrible is the account of “the honorable institution of the Hara-kiri.” I will try to describe it, keeping as well as I can the tone of Japanese thought: —
In the days of Ashikaga the Shiogun, when Japan was vexed by a civil war, and prisoners of high rank were every day being put to shameful deaths, was instituted the ceremonious and honorable mode of suicide by disembowelling, known as Seppuku or Hara-kiri, an institution for which, as the old Japanese historian says, “ men in all truth should be very grateful. To put his enemy, against whom he has cause for enmity, to death, and then to disembowel himself, is the duty of every Samurai.”
Are you a Daimio or a Hatamoto, or one of the higher retainers of the Shiogun, it is your proud privilege to commit suicide within the precincts of the palace. If you are of an inferior rank, you may do it in the palace garden. Everything has been made ready for you. The white-wanded enclosure is marked out; the curtain is stretched; the white cloth, with the soft crimson mats piled on it, is spread; the long wooden candlesticks hold lighted tapers; the paper lanterns throw a faint light around. Behind j’on paper screen lies hidden the tray with the fatal knife, the bucket to hold your head, the incense-burner to conceal the raw smell of blood, and the basin of warm water to cleanse the spot. With tender care has been spread the matting on which you will walk to the spot, so that you need not wear your sandals. Some men when on their way to disembowel themselves suffer from nervousness, so that the sandals are liable to catch in the matting and trip them up. This would not look well in a brave man, so the matting is smoothly stretched. Indeed it is almost a pleasure to walk on it.
Your friends have come in by the gate Umbammon, “the door of the warm basin,” and are waiting in their hempen dresses of ceremony to assist you to die like a man. You must die as quickly too as possible, and your friends will be at your elbow to see that you do not disgrace yourself and them by fumbling with the knife, or stabbing yourself with too feeble a thrust. They have made sure that no such mishap shall befall. They will be tenderly compassionate, but terribly stern. They will guard you while your dying declaration is being read; if you are fainting, they will support you, lest your enemies should say you were afraid of death. But do not trust to your old friendship with those around you; do not try to break away from the sound of those clearly spoken sentences; for if you do, your friends will knock you down, and while you are grovelling on the mats, will hew your head off with their heavy-handled swords. They will hold yon down and stab you to death. Remember this, — you are to die, hut you will not he allowed to disgrace yourself.
You are here an honored guest. The preparations for your death are worthy of a Mikado. But you must not presume upon the courtesy shown you. It is merely one half of a contract, the other being that you shall die like a Samurai. If you shirk your share of the contract, your friends will break theirs, and will strike you to the earth like the coward you are.
See, the tapers are lit! Are you quite ready to die? Then take your way along that spotless. carpet. It will lead you to the “door of the practice of virtue.” Yours is the place of honor on the piled rugs — in the centre of your friends. How keenly they fix their eyes upon you. It is their duty to see that you are dead before those tapers are out. Those tapers cannot last another fifteen minutes. Be seated. Here is your old schoolmate, Kotsuke, coming to you with the dreadful tray. How sternly his lips are closed! You must not speak to him. Stretch out your hand to the glittering knife. Behind you, your relatives are baring their strong arms. You cannot see them, but they are there, and their heavy-handled swords are poised above you. Stretch out your hand. Why hesitate? You must take the knife. Have you it firmly in your grasp? Then strike! Deep to the handle, let the keen blade sink— wait a minute with the knife in the wound that all your friends assembled in the theatre before you may see it is really there — now draw it across your body to the right side — turn the broad blade in the wound, and now trail it slowly upwards.
Are you sickening with pain? ah! your head droops forward, a groan is struggling through the clenched teeth, when swift upon the bending neck descends the merciful sword of a friend!
A Samurai must not be heard to groan from pain. How different from the respectful applause that greets the Japanese self-murderer is the first sentiment of healthy aversion that is aroused in English men and women by the news of a suicide. It is true that sometimes, at the first glance, the preceding circumstances compel our scorn or provoke us into only a disdainful commiseration with the victim, but pity is sure to follow. For the Hara-kiri is always pathetic; and if the suicide be a woman, how tenderly the feeling of pity is intensified!
Take such a case, for instance, as that of Mary Aird. Happily married, a loving mother, she yet threw her young life away in a sudden impulse of groundless apprehension for the future.
Mary Aird’s letter, in which she announced . to her husband her dreadful intention, hardly reads like a suicide’s last word to those she loved best; and the miserably inadequate reason she gives for putting an end to her life makes the sad document intensely pathetic. “Do not think hardly of me, Will, when I tell you I am going to throw myself over Westminster Bridge. Look after our two poor little children. Pop and George, and tell Bessie I want her to look after them for you. Cheer up, dear Will; you will get on better without me. There will be one trouble less. God bless you!” Such a letter as that, had that been all, would have gone far to prove what some have asserted, that suicides are not of necessity, and from the fact alone, insane. But there was a saving sentence. The poor woman feared she could never meet her household expenses, because a pitiful debt of six shillings had “thrown out her accounts for the week. Moreover,” said she, “troubles are coming.” There really were no greater troubles than all mothers look forward to with hope, and back upon with pride. Yet Mary Aird was .dismayed for the moment at the thought of them, and seeing before her so easy a path to instant and never-ending rest, carried with her to the grave the infant that would soon have owed her the sweet debt of life.
It is impossible, being human, for any to read the brief story without feeling the tenderest pity for the poor sister, wearied all of a sodden of this working world, fainting under the burden, as she supposed it, of exceptional, insurmountable misfortunes. Had any one met her on the way to death, and, knowing her case, offered her six shillings, she might have perhaps turned back, and been now the happy wife and happy mother that she was. She had her secret, however, hidden deep away in her heart — the secret that, by her own death, she would (as she thought) release those she loved best from many of the troubles of life — the secret that her duty to husband and children, the “poor little children Pop and George,” called upon her for the instant sacrifice of her life! In other forms the same unhesitating resignation of life presents itself to us as heroism of a grand type; but in the piteously small scale of the surrounding circumstances, and even the familiarity of the nature of the death, the grandeur of such a sacrifice is lost, and we feel only pity for the unhappy creature thus needlessly exchanging her bright home for the grave. False sentiment tempts men often to magnify the bravery of self-inflicted death, forgetting that the insanity which makes suicide so pitiful robs it also of all that commands admiration. In itself the crime is detestable, not only as high treason against the Creator, inasmuch as, to quote the main argument of the Pagan moralists, we betray at the first summons of danger the life it was given us to guard, but also as profaning the nobility of our nature. Man is born with the strong instinct of living, and, as happy, careless childhood is left behind, serious and tender interests grow round the individual life, each of which makes it a more precious possession, and, by admitting others to share in its troubles and joys, robs the owner of all claim to dispose of it as if it were his own, undivided and intact. In death itself there is nothing for hopeful and helpful men and women, the workers of the world, to be afraid of. Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark, and with as much reason. But this manly disregard of superstitious terrors should not degenerate into the holding of life cheap, nor, under the sudden pressure of unusual circumstances, make us lose sight of that bright star of hope which, if we will only look ahead, shines always over to-morrow.
To some races such hopeful prospects seem impossible, and, in the East, especially, the first summons of the enemy finds the garrison ready to yield. This frequency of suicide, however, and the general indifference to the crime as a crime, are among the surest signs of inferiority. All savage tribes, and even some of the nations of the East, though more advanced in civilization, fly to death as the first resource in trouble. They seek the relief of the grave before having sought any other. But the circumstances of their lives, with religion or superstition teaching them that fate predestines everything, and magnifying the most trivial occurrences into calamities from which there is no appeal, often surround their deaths with incidents so picturesque and quaint that they deceive the judgment, and exalt the paltry suicide into an heroic surrender of life.
Such a one is, perhaps, that student’s death up in the cloudy wilderness within Blencathara. He had to leave college to go into a trade that was hateful to him; but rather than live apart from his books, he climbed one morning up to the misty heights, taking with him his Æschylus, Apollonius, and Caesar, and having read them till daylight failed, made a last pillow for his head of the three volumes, and took a fatal dose of laudanum. Some again, by the terrible blackness of the clouds that had gathered over life, seem almost excused, as the crime of Jocasta against herself, or the death of Nero; while others — like those of Dr. Brown, who had prognosticated the ruin of England, and was so mortified by the brilliant successes of the Pitt administration that he cut his throat; and the Colonel in Dr. Darwin’s “Zoönomia,” who blew his brains out because he could not eat muffins without suffering from indigestion — tend to the positively ludicrous. We are thus often betrayed, from one cause or another, into forgetting for the moment that the act of suicide is really only one of impatience with the crosses of life, and a confession of defeat. Immeasurably sad it often is, as in the case of Mary Aird; but in spite of the pathos surrounding the unhappy incident I have selected as typically pathetic, it is better to look at it gravely. We would, of course, far rather see in it only a young mother sacrificing her dearest treasures, life and the love of husband and child, under the delusion that her death was for their benefit; but we are compelled to see in it much more than that. Lurking under the delusion lies the faint-hearted apprehension that to-morrow would be, and must be, just the same as to-day, a fear of the future that underlies every wilful suicide, and is at once the most disastrous and deplorable frame of the human mind. If troubles are ahead, the more need for, the more honor in, a resolute hold on life. Our race does not readily yield to despair, and every suicide among us, even though it be a woman’s, takes something therefore from our national character; and, in spite of an unavoidable feeling of sincerest pity for those who reckon death among the boons of nature, we ought to condemn with all our hearts the ignoble abandonment of life by those amongst us who have not the courage to wait and see if to-morrow will not cure to-day.