Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Terrible Love of War

"The painting which I did after the defeat
of the Republicans was L'ange du foyer
(Fireside angel). This is, of course, an ironic
title for a clumsy figure devastating everything
that gets in its way. At the time, this was my
impression of what was happening in the world,
and I think I was right."
Max Ernest,from his writngs, 1948 
I was struck by Max Ernst’s painting, Fireside Angel, we recently viewed while visiting the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. It evoked in me the same feelings of chaos and destruction as A Terrible Love of War[1], a book I’m reading by James Hillman, which also portrays war in a stark light as a mythological element and implacable force in the human condition. The above image is a Photoshop manipulation of my photograph of Ernst’s painting, attuned to my own emotional connection to war as a Vietnam veteran.

Hillman’s book quotes Susan Sontag who claimed we can’t understand war, confirming what she says is the conventional wisdom of “what every solder, journalist, and independent observer who has ever spent time under fire and evaded death, stubbornly feels:” “We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is – and how normal it becomes.”

Hillman says, however, Sontag is wrong.  “Can’t understand, can’t imagine” is unacceptable. Hillman says “it gets us off the hook, admitting defeat before we have even begun.”  Instead he quotes what Robert McNamara, secretary of defense during much of the Vietnam War, who in his old age said, “we can now understand these catastrophes for what they were: essentially the products of a failure of the imagination.” (p. 4)

Hillman continues “the failure to understand may be because our imaginations are impaired and our modes of comprehension need a paradigm shift.’ (p. 5) “War demands a leap of imagination as extraordinary and fantastic as the phenomenon itself. Our usual categories are not large enough, reducing war’s meaning to explaining its causes.” (P 6).

He approvingly quotes Tolstoy who mocked the idea of discovering the cause of war by demonstrating that the causes of war are “innumerable and yet not one of them deserves to be called the cause.”

Hillman, quoting Vico, discounts the significance of causal reasoning by showing how it is added on, something that comes late in human evolution while the foundation of our psyche “the basic layer of the mind is poetic, mythic.”(p 8)

Therefore, according to Hillman’s reasoning, in order to understand war, we must recognize that when we are in the throes of it’s passion, we are removed to a mythical state of being, that is rationally inexplicable: “War belongs to our souls as an a archetypal truth of the cosmos. It is a human accomplishment and an inhuman horror, and a love that no other love has been able to overcome.” (p. 214).

Yet Hillman says we can and must do better. But this can only happen if we first acknowledge this “terrible truth,” this mythical spell that war casts over us. How in good conscious can we deny it: “where else in human experience, except in the throes of ardor – that strange coupling of love with war – do we find ourselves transported to a mythical condition and the gods most real?”(p 9)

If war is a mythical condition, a primal state of passion, we must use our cognitive facilities of reason to regain control: we can be “encouraged by the courage of culture, even in dark ages, to withstand war and yet sing. We [can work to] understand it better, delay it longer…”(p.22)

I believe Hillman is on to something: surely, we need to regain what he calls the courage of culture. No one can deny we have a long track record of controlling certain passions. All societies, for instance, have learned to establish customs, ceremonies, rituals, and laws to restrain unbridled sexual passion. In our own country, in just the last 50 years alone, we have made major strides by passing laws and raising public awareness to reduce sexual victimization by broadening the definition of what constitutes rape, abuse, and sexual harassment.

Yet when it comes to war, our politicians and mass media have done the opposite, loosing prohibitions, even becoming cheerleaders for war. As Hillman points out, “War” becomes more normalized every day:

“Trade wars, gender war, Net war, information war. But war against cancer, war against crime, against drugs, poverty, and other ills of society have nothing to do with the actualities of war. … This way of normalizing war has whitewashed the word and brainwashed us, so that we forget its terrible images.” (P. 22)

War has increasingly become the metaphor of our times This corresponds with what George Lakoff wrote in 1980 in his now a classic, Metaphors We Live By. Using linguistic evidence, Lakoff demonstates how the metaphors we use structure what we perceive, how we think and what we do.

Lakoff goes on to illustrate how the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR is omnipresent in our everyday language, giving the following as examples:

“Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I've never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.
Once one starts looking into it, it is frightening how much of our language is based on the war metaphor along with it’s evil twin: our free market economy and survival of the fittest mindset.
For an alternative vision, Lakoff asks us to try the following thought experiment; “Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground.
“Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.”[2]
It is extremely difficult to imagine an alternative culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, living as we do in the ultimate warrior society. We are cogs in the wheel of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen, a mindset that infects all of us, even those of us on the bottom of the totem pole. We are all conditioned to play the game, strive for mastery and control – or feel like a failure.
Carol Pearson, in Hero Within, points out the tragic nature of life of the warrior life and suggests a way to shift our expectations:
“The Warrior’s life, with its focus on power over other people and the earth, is lonely and ultimately tragic. We may complete our journeys, be rewarded by being made king or queen, but we all know that the story goes on. We  will, we know, lose power, be replaced by the new hero, and die. And our last moments on this earth will be marked by the least control over ourselves, other people, the future, and even our bodily functions ...

“But what if we simply shift our expectations a bit? What if the goal of life is not to prevail, but simply to learn? Then the end of the story can seem very different; and so can what happen in between birth and death. Heroism is redefined as not only moving mountains but knowing mountains: being fully oneself and seeing without denial, what is, and being open to learning the lessons life offers us.”[3]

[1] A Terrible Love of War by James Hillman
[2] Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980).  Selections from chapters 1, 2, 3, and part of 4
[3] The Hero Within by Carol Pearson, pp. 9-10
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