I watched a fascinating drama doco on Maori suicide called Maui’s Hook. A whanau whose mother has killed herself, go on a hikoi, calling in at marae to meet other families who have had a similar experience, before the cohort of whanau reach Reinga, where those who have passed are farewelled. A magical presence is introduced into this realism in the form of Maui and Hine nui te Po figures – Maui seen, I suppose, as having committed suicide in his attempt to kill death, but also having fished up the island along which the hikoi passes. What would have been a simple record of a group counselling and healing process becomes then a testing of the culture as a spiritual system for dealing with the suicide phenomenon which is accompanying the Maori renaissance. For, in a bizarre contradiction, the suicide rate is growing, along with economic and cultural success.
Suicide is a complex phenomenon, with chemical abuse, prescribed chemicals, poverty, relationship dysfunction, romanticism, revenge, despair, imitation, guilt, all playing their part. Quite possibly a belief in an after-life is a factor, as is the fact we live in a success-based performative culture where failure is keenly felt.
Watching the tikanga framework interact with this complex motivation and then, the simple act of someone killing themselves, which, in the words of one young woman, ‘leaves a mess for the whanau to clean up’, I realised that my own unsentimental reaction to suicide, something along the lines of, ‘Your choice, ‘bro,’ comes from the philosophical work done in Pakeha culture last century. Once it became obvious that God was dead, the spiritual and ethical framework that Christianity had provided collapsed and man was faced with a meaningless universe, with consciousness becoming an absurdity.
According to the existentialists, as these philosophers were called, a person was faced with a choice. Suicide was an obvious way out, and the motivation simple: Life’s absurd so why put up with the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune when one may end it…’ to quote Hamlet.
However, if continuing to live is the chosen path, a complex earning of meaning without the help of god(s) in any shape or form has to take place. An essence has to be forged from the existence so far lived, free from all the shackles of convention, in order to create a meaningful project from the rest of one’s life. I suppose the Maui figure can be seen as something of an existential hero who broke the shackles of convention, yet at the same time, to rely on heroes and magical thinking, immediately gives a way out from this hard and commonplace task of making one’s life meaningful and, at the same time, ‘cleaning up the mess.’