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Currents: expression and survival

Expression and Survival: A Philosophy Professor Tackles the Problem of Suicide

On the cover of Craig Greenman's first book, Expression and Survival: An Aesthetic Approach to the Problem of Suicide (Cambridge Scholars, 2008), is his painting of a gaunt, pale-faced man, whose wide eyes—framed by a cocked eyebrow and grim line of a mouth—suggest a wrenching soul sadness. The figure conveys conflicting messages of knowingness and despondency, of fragility and stolidity, of resignation and wary pleading. He is alone in the world, yet not without a glimmer of hope.

The man in the painting is as intriguing and confounding as the title of this compact, ambitious book, and the writer himself, an assistant professor of Humanities who joined Colby-Sawyer in 2004. In the book's preface, Professor Greenman outlines his argument—with a tentativeness he has come to regret—that “(1) while life can be horrible, (2) art, broadly construed, can help us survive it.” He explores the philosophical problem and the ethics of suicide through the lens of personal experience and the texts of venerable philosophers, writers and artists, and offers another way to view and perhaps surmount the terrible specter of intentional self-destruction.

“I'm trying to open new ways to think about (suicide),” he said in a recent interview. “Maybe suicide is not just a psychological issue that's limited to treatment through psychiatry or psychology. Maybe it has something to do with the way the world is.”

Professor Greenman suggests that some suicidal people are neither sick nor deluded; they may instead be responding understandably to the chaos and horror they encounter in the world. It may be logical for them to question whether their lives—so full of suffering and acute awareness of life's most brutal realities—are worth living. While medication and psychotherapy can relieve some people's suffering, they may not be enough; he proposes an alternative or supplemental approach—making or experiencing art, widely construed to include music, the visual arts and literature.

Rather than try to alter the consciousness of suicidal people, Professor Greenman believes we should acknowledge the sources of their pain as valid, stand by them and offer what solace we can. For his part, he gently extends a life line in his belief that the creation or experience of art may offer viable means of re-directing the negative thoughts and feelings of suicidal people and re-engaging them in life.

Expression and Survival, derived from Professor Greenman's doctoral dissertation, is a scholarly book that tackles a difficult subject with courage, honesty and self-deprecating humor. His audience is not just fellow scholars; he seeks to engage lay readers, especially those who wrestle with suicidal tendencies. His willingness to share some dark parts of his life, including bouts with suicidal feelings, as well as his earnest critiques of U.S. government policies and actions and his occasional confessions of self-doubt, help the reader understand and connect to the author. He may struggle with life's big questions more than most, but his humanity and sensitivity, and his zeal for getting to the truth, make the text accessible and more real than abstract. He is, after all, a philosopher in a time and place that sorely needs, but doesn't always welcome, their questions and insights.

To Be or Not to Be: An Ethical Dilemma

“We all hold our lives and deaths in our palms,” Professor Greenman writes. “We choose; so we can choose to die.” Suicide then is the “terminal possibility of choice...a final, devastating act of freedom.” Yet in choosing death, one actually forfeits their freedom, he suggests: “Once you're dead, you're no longer free, because the freedom you've won is nothing.”

Philosophers and intellectuals have long wrestled with the question of suicide as a central ethical dilemma—mostly in terms of right or wrong. The ancient Greek Socrates, often credited as the founder of Western philosophy, believed he had been convicted unjustly of crimes against the state, yet he drank poison, in accordance with his death sentence, because he believed it was more just to kill himself than to break the law through non-compliance. Fellow Greek philosopher Aristotle later introduced secular arguments against suicide focused on concepts of happiness, virtue and the state; he viewed suicide as a cowardly act and a crime against the state.

The book cites philosophers through the ages who condone suicide in some circumstances and others who categorically reject it. In his essay “On Suicide,” for example, Scottish philosopher David Hume attacked Aristotle (who had been dead for more than 2,000 years) in stating that “I am not obliged to do a small good for society, at the expense of a great harm to myself.” Hume then kicks it up a notch: “[S]uppose that it is no longer in my power to promote the interest of society; suppose that I am a burden to such cases, my resignation of life [is] laudable.”

German philosopher Immanel Kant—the gorilla in the room of the world's philosophers—figures prominently in Professor Greenman's critiques of ethical arguments on suicide. Kant's “categorical imperative” to follow the “moral law” seems both deceptively simple and transcendent: one's actions are moral if they can be universally applied to everyone else. Obviously, suicide “fails the test” for Kant. While few philosophers are likely to escape graduate school without grappling with the mighty Kant, it's doubtful that a single human being has ever lived in complete accordance with Kant's moral law.

The book also explores the ethics of suicide through the prism of religion in the works of Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Dostoevsky and others. Aquinas argued that “it is altogether unlawful to kill oneself...because life is God's gift to man, and is subject to His power...” Professor Greenman notes that Dante's work, when combined with a “veritable inferno of sermons about hellfire, brimstone and damnation" from history, presents a searing Christian prohibition against suicide. In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, a suicidal character is cast as a rebel who sins against God and life; Greenman suggests that Dostoevsky may believe such people “choose to be miserable, because life is fundamentally good.” Similarly, in Islam, God is seen as the master of all human lives, and thus suicides are condemned to hell, while in Judaism, those who kill themselves may not receive full funeral honors.

Ultimately, Professor Greenman proposes that a more ethical approach to suicide can be found in art, and in aesthetics, the philosophy of art. He hastens to acknowledge he is not the first to embrace art as a means of catharsis, as “more than two thousand years ago Aristotle argued that art can help heal troubling emotions.” In the last section of Expression and Survival, he explores the theory that immersing and expressing oneself in art can be a healing, redemptive alternative to choosing death.

A Personal Revelation

Craig Greenman grew up in a religious family with his mother, father and two sisters. His mother, a devout Catholic, died of cancer when he was just 11 years old, an experience that he still struggles to come to terms with. He set off for college as a “believer” but was soon caught up in discussions of philosophy and religion and eventually “did the classic college thing” by leaving his religion behind. An agnostic initially, he later settled on atheism.

He has long been drawn to music—listening, creating and composing it. He began playing drums as a teenager, which he describes today as a “wonderful thing.” “You don't think about anything. You're joining the rhythm of life,” he says. In college, he began playing the guitar, which he had tried and quit as a youth, and eventually started to compose music. It was not until he arrived in Paris0 in 200, while a doctoral student at Loyola University, that he began to find a means of expression through visual art.

“Paris is a wonderful and horrible place,” he recently recounted. He stayed for five months and was both smitten by the city's beauty and isolated by his lack of money and inability to communicate well and connect to the people. He grew sad—he had had bouts of severe sadness since the mid-1990s—yet he was captivated by the extraordinary scenery and abundance of glorious art around him. For the first time, he felt compelled to paint—though he had no formal training.

“Since then, there have been times when I've painted my way through feeling sad,” he recalls. “Though I often paint when I'm not depressed or anything, there have been times when I've felt suicidal and have used painting to get me through it.” He continues to paint and play guitar on a regular basis and says he's not happy unless he's doing something creative.

His experiences in countering suicidal feelings with art inspired the topic of his doctoral research and dissertation at Loyola Unversity. His dissertation committee encouraged him to publish his work; they felt he had something important to contribute. While he was teaching at Northern Illinois University, he began to turn his dissertation into a book and completed it a few years later while in his current position as an assistant professor at Colby-Sawyer College.

An Aesthetic Approach

In the final section of his book, Professor Greenman expands on his “simple thesis”—that art gives suicidal people a way to express themselves and “directs” them to an alternative to ending their lives. "The goal of the aesthetic approach is to create a way for (one's) body to express its horror without destroying itself," he writes.

He emphasizes that the aesthetic approach is amoral; it does not pass judgment. “In art there is no need to convince someone that life is good, or that she is wrong to say how bad it is,” he writes. “Rather, we say, speak! Express! But do it here, in this artistic medium. Instead of picking up a razor, pick up a paint brush.” The aesthetic approach is also flexible, he maintains, in offering a variety of forms and mediums, from the musical to the literary, which speaks to people's different values, interests and abilities.

Professor Greenman finds affirmation from philosophers both past and present for his belief that the experience of art can represent and even purge the most negative and violent thoughts and emotions. He cites the ancient Aristotle's view expressed in Politics and Poetics that distraught people can be healed through an equally distraught form of artistic expression. “For any emotion that strongly affects some people's present in everyone to a greater or lesser degree,” Aristotle wrote. “But under the influence of sacred melodies (when they make use of the ones that induce a frenzy in their souls) we see that they calm down, as if they received medical treatment and a purifying purgation...”

He cites German philosopher Arthus Schopenhauer as the first Western philosopher to thoroughly conceptualize the therapeutic value of art, and in particular, his belief that aesthetic contemplation can counter suffering. Greenman references music critic Greil Marcus's observation that punk rock, though violent in its appearance and rhetoric, was actually one of the least violent musical forms, and relates it to the Schopenhauer's thoughts on music's tranformative powers. “Violent music...can transfer the feelings that would be expressed in real violence to a space where they can be released harmlessly, even productively.”

Professor Greenman also explores the works of two 20th-century European philosophers, Julia Kristeva and Sarah Kofman, who also wrote about art and healing from different perspectives. In Revolution in Poetic Language Kristeva describes the "social function" of poetic texts for depressed people in producing a "different kind of subject" and bringing about "new social relations." As Greenman interprets it, "by putting my sadness into language, I transform it into symbols, forms, schema...the very substance of the social and economic world" and "thus, the artwork becomes not only a shelter, but a staging ground for reengagement in life."

Similarly, Kofman, a Holocaust survivor, developed an artistic life, drawing and writing constantly, in Greenman's view, to "survive" her suffering. But after writing her seond memoir, one of more than 20 books, she felt herself "disastrously unable to read or write" and committed suicide. Like the musician Kurt Cobain, whom Greenman discusses extensively earlier in the book, Kofman is cited as someone whose art was essential to her survival and allowed her to live as long as she did.

Curiously, although Professor Greenman painstakingly and often eloquently argues his case for the aesthetic approach, he opens his book with a tentative preface and closes it with a jokey conversation in which someone says, “I retain the right to be wrong about everything.” When asked why in an interview, he has a complicated, albeit ready, answer. In short, he says there's a cultural context for it; contemporary academic culture doesn't always acknowledge that philosophy or the humanities in general contribute real knowledge. “So do I really know anything about the problem?” he wonders. “Do I have a right to speak?”

The professor is also intensely self-aware and thus worries about coming across as too forceful or presumptuous. “There's a power in this, but not a dictatorial power,” he says. “The language itself, to be powerful, has to be a combination of strength and fragility. You don't want to be so forceful that you undermine people's independence.”

And yet one senses that Professor Greenman has thought much about and come to believe in the aesthetic approach to the intractable problem of suicide. In writing this first book, he has bravely offered his perspective and personal experience in the hope of helping others find their way toward expression and survival.

-Kimberly Swick Slover