Jacques Maître : self-mutilation as a return of the religious ?

The object of this contribution is to locate in the history of Catholicism some elements whose echoes we hear when analyzing current adolescent self-mutilation in French society. In Antiquity, we find the martyr used as a model of asceticism; in the Middle Ages, we note the appearance of the Gothic Christ. The relation between old texts and current clinical data will be thrown into relief by a reading of messages about self-mutilation posted by youngsters on Internet forums.
The heritage of the Catholic past can be read in the practices of flagellation, illustrated by the mortifications of the flesh Marie of the Incarnation and her son Claude Martin inflicted on themselves in the XVIIth century. We also find the bodily inscription of stigmata of the Passion, and mystical anorexia ; the latter prefigures, within the framework of mystic Catholic virtuosity, the mental anorexia which is its secular version, and is now considered to be one of the major pathologies of adolescence. The link between adolescent self-mutilation and anorexia is well known to epidemiologists.
In the area of « post-modernity », scarifying practices are tied in a certain way with Medieval Catholicism through currents such as the « Ghotik », for example, when the singer Marilyn Manson uses Grüneweld’s painting of the Crucifixion as an emblem in a quasi-expressionistic way. The words of youngsters who engage in these practices show a wish to flee an uninhabitable world. However, it is necessary to distinguish clearly the different institutional settings where these adolescents live : family or group homes. In a penal setting, even adults scarify and burn themselves to « deal with » their existential distress.
Finally, this reflection leads to a question dear to the media : are we witnessing a « return of the religious » ? On the contrary, it is a radical decline in the control exercised over the French population by what was once the dominant « religiousness », that of the Catholic church. The dogma repeatedly asserted by the Magisterium is more and more lacking in credibility, which enables one to re-employ its scattered pieces without subscribing to its system of dogma, as we see in the current fashion of having a personal relationship with one’s « guardian angel ». It is the same with the satanism of young « goths »… Moreover, this does not lead to institutionalized ceremonies, but to private rituals that are a cry of suffering addressed to a heaven with a loving ear.