Horror

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of Sociology at Middlesex University. His next book, Penal Abolitionism, will be published by Oxford University Press.

A Gorgon's head sprouting the loose limbs of civilians

How did we get used to the horror of war? Perhaps by turning it into a chess game, a noble contest that hides the coarse armies clashing; or by declaring the mechanical, industrial organization of killing to be heroism. The notion of war as a value is crucial if we want to muster a tentative explanation. We have learned that war marks the difference between barbarianism and civilization; that it establishes "just" hierarchies and allocates deserved ranks. War is also regenerative, shaping the world and triggering transformation. Moreover, war appears to belong to the divine sphere, as it generates social and institutional forms through a sort of theomachy, a sacred fight which brings destruction while creating something new.

In brief, war is the expression of supreme forms of interaction, and a crucial factor in the constitution of identities. And yet, the Trojan War, a decisive literary event for the construction of Western collective memory and identity, appears to be devoid of a precise motive, as there is no proportion between the kidnapping of Helen and the consequences of the war. This lack of motivation reflects a widespread conviction that war is essentially an irrational phenomenon, the result of a deplorable misunderstanding, an incident caused by mistake or chance. Only a malign mastermind from Mount Olympus may induce humans, through deception, to engage in a war lasting a decade over the honour of a woman.

The notion that war is "intimately" irrational established itself in relatively recent times, particularly after the two world wars, and as an effect of the nuclear threat. This irrationality shares many components with the innate violence possessed by Nietzsche's "blond beast", the wild animal within human nature, the magnificent, wandering beast avid for prey and victory. Its rapacity is bound to manifest itself every now and then, and cannot be suppressed by civilization, let alone by the state. In much Greek philosophy war is the original principle of the state itself, as it heralds the passage from the primitive "state of the pigs" to the advanced state of luxury. A constant element of humankind, the instinct for aggression is not a remnant of a brutal ancestry that cannot be eradicated. Its operation is far from being only injurious. On the contrary, it is one of the essential factors in the evolution of higher forms of social organization.

In 1959, in a letter addressed to Albert Einstein, who poses the question whether it is possible to free humankind from the menace of war, Sigmund Freud starts off by examining, as he is required, the relationship between "might" and "right". He replaces the term "might" with the more telling word "violence", and remarks that, though in "right" and "violence" many may see an obvious antinomy, a proper enquiry would prove that the former evolved from the latter. Original violence is, in his view, the force of a community expressed in its law. Conflicts between humans have always been resolved by recourse to violence, and brute force is the deciding factor of property ownership and the establishment of the prevailing will. Freud notes, however, that physical force is increasingly replaced by the use of various mechanical adjuncts, whereby the victors prove to be those whose weapon is more effective or handled more skilfully. With the coming of modern weapons, superior brains begin to oust brute force, but the object of the conflict remains the same: one party has to be constrained, by injury or impairment, to retract a claim or a refusal. This objective is fully achieved when the opponent is definitively put out of action – in other words, is killed. This procedure, Freud continues, has two advantages: first, enemies cannot renew hostilities, and, second, their fate deters others from following their example. Moreover, the slaughter of a foe gratifies an instinctive human craving.

War, in brief, is the result of an active instinct for hatred and destruction, an instinct cohabiting in humans together with its opposite, "eros", which aims at conserving and unifying. Love and hate are akin to those eternal polarities, attraction and repulsion, which fall within the field of study of the physical sciences, and Freud concludes that both instincts are indispensable: all the phenomena of life derive from their activity; whether they work in concert or in opposition, each is blended with a certain dosage of its opposite. Freud, however, does not imply that destruction and conservation are destined to cohabit in equal measure forever. Rather, he feels that cultural change is accompanied by striking psychic changes, whereby norms and regulations may produce a "progressive rejection of instinctive ends and a scaling down of instinctive reactions". Therefore it is likely that, in the future, conducts "which delighted our forefathers" will become "unbearable to us". He continues:

"Now war runs most emphatically counter to the psychic disposition imposed on us by the growth of culture; we are therefore bound to resent war, to find it utterly intolerable. With pacifists like us it is not merely an intellectual and affective repulsion, but a constitutional intolerance, an idiosyncrasy in its most drastic form. And it would seem that the aesthetic ignominies of warfare play almost as large a part in this repugnance of war's atrocities."

His optimism that cultural change will make war repugnant is shared by early sociologists, who see in the development of industrial societies signs of the inevitable decline of military societies. The former, they argue, need two fundamental properties if they intend to function, namely solidarity and co-operation, and such properties are the exact opposite of what war requires.

Is this naïve optimism? What if Freud and the early sociologists are right? What if wars are no longer fought and pacifists are proliferating? If we want to prove this we are left with one analytical option: what we witness now in the world are not wars, but something else. The horror remains, but it is no longer the phobos, the timor, the fear and panic caused by two regular armies clashing and two identifiable states declaring mutual hostility. The horror is caused by degenerate violence directed less against an organized enemy than against largely unarmed populations. What we witness now are non-Clausewitzian conflicts, forms of paramilitary international policing taking place outside agreed rules, aggressions that destroy the very principles in the name of which they are waged. Horror without war, then, triggers a different kind of reaction: one does not instinctively run away, but is paralyzed, blocked by the disgust, made rigid by the sight of the human condition, not just human life, being destroyed. What is destroyed is the very idea that we are singular vulnerable bodies, and the horror we feel is associated with the loss of that singularity, because the bloody limbs left around become interchangeable, and can be united to one body or another, like sanguinary Lego.

Hannah Arendt conveys a similar type of horror when she describes how the concentration camps turn unique beings into a mass of superfluous bodies: the act of group slaughter takes away from the victims their own right to a unique death. The camps host ghastly marionettes and manufacture the superfluity of human life. It is this ontological offence to humanity itself that is horrid, and our reaction is a soundless shriek, like Munch's cosmic scream that comes from nature itself. Deleting singularity amounts to dehumanizing the enemy, so that those who survive, as Primo Levi said, will be dumb forever. But humans are also capable of being horrified by shame felt for someone else's actions. Those who have seen the nucleus of horror have been face-to-face with the Gorgons, the snake-haired sisters who petrify any who look upon them. We may need a new Perseus to slice off Medusa's head, kill horror and give life to a winged horse.

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