Did shame silence Siddhartha and Epstein?
Shame, the most obvious prefix to suicide, is the noise within that can drive you crazy, to the edge.
We are all shameless. And maybe that is what it takes to be alive and that is what makes every waking hour of ours a quiet, nameless struggle, a private rite of overcoming. In the battles we win, and in the battles we lose, lies a moral fable, accessible to us alone, forcing us to make a fine balance between the rational and the emotional, a necessary ruthlessness of being what we are.
Shame is a self-inflicted wound. It can kill. Seldom does it kill though. Mostly it remains an existential awareness. In Sartre's profile of shame in Being and Nothingness, it "realises an intimate relation of myself to myself. Through shame I have discovered an aspect of being. Yet although certain complex forms derived from shame can appear on the reflective plane, shame is not originally a phenomenon of reflection. In fact, no matter what results one can obtain in solitude by the religious practice of shame, it is in its primary structure shame before somebody." Somebody.
The Other is a permanent provocation, an invitation to our deepest riddles.
Some dare to resolve the riddle by killing themselves. Two high-profile suicides that still remain mostly unexplained are united by the power of shame, which separates self from esteem.
VG Siddhartha, the founder of Café Coffee Day, was an inspirational figure in the Indian business lore, but he largely lived beyond the media gaze. After missing for a couple of days, he was found dead on a riverbank in Karnataka. Through the obituaries and appreciations that followed the death of India's reclusive coffee tycoon emerged a man tortured by his own bad business decisions and harassed by authorities and abandoned by his impatient lenders. So he pressed the exit button. Or that's what we think. The cruel intimacy of suicide makes it a story never fully told.
Jeffrey Epstein was perhaps the most compelling story of crime and retribution that dominated the American media for a while. The billionaire financier with an enviable list of friends and clients, at the time of his mysterious death in a federal prison cell in Manhattan, was America's most enigmatic offender in paedophilia and sex trafficking.
College dropout. Maths teacher. Networker. Whiz kid. Transhumanist. Owner of a private island who mostly lived in a Manhattan townhouse that, in the words of a journalist who visited him, looked from the outside like a museum or an embassy. And a serial sex offender whose victims were mostly minor girls 'procured' for him by his friends and handlers. The man with a massage fetish. The man who, in one interview, differentiated between being a predator and an offender, and even went on to de-criminalise sex with minors, quoting from ancient examples. At the time of his suicide, which itself has spawned a host of conspiracy theories, he was reduced to a parasitical conman and a charlatan whose source of wealth was as mysterious as his personal life. He was stripped naked on some of America's most influential news pages. He exited, voluntarily.
Is it shame that killed them, the good billionaire and the bad billionaire? In the Siddhartha story, it was a trial that remained personal till the very end, it seems in retrospect, and, even after his death, thanks to the inadequacy of our journalism, it remains private. In the Epstein story, it was a toxic script of public pornography and moral opprobrium, played out in courtrooms and news pages. The mythology of the wonder man came crashing down. The myth was killed before Epstein killed himself. There was no myth-making in Siddhartha's life. He was born rich. He died richer, an idealist failed by his own flawed business model.
Suicide, as Camus would have said, is what Sisyphus does when he realises the futility of trying, convincing, explaining, and the yearning to be understood. What Camus thought as the most pressing philosophical question of our time is also the forced ending of a conversation between one's conflicting selves, the shamed and the pure.
The profile writer, the judge, and the tax inspector expedite the process.
The story is so loud before it attains silence. Shame, the most obvious prefix to suicide, is the noise within that can drive you crazy, to the edge. Camus will tell you that Sisyphus has to stay happy. He has to be aware of the beautiful absurdity, the beguiling meaninglessness, of life. Wealth is what made the lives of Siddhartha and Epstein meaningful, though, in their individual morality, they saw its possibilities differently. They reached the summit only to be pushed into the abyss, to the comfort of silence, by shame.
There is no shame in afterlife, only the lingering curiosity of those who still seek answers from the dead.
- The author is editor of Open magazine.