New York Botanical Gardens, July 29, 2016
On Friday, we went to see the corpse flower (link above) at the New York Botanical Gardens.
While we were waiting on the line, I struck up a conversation with a man a little older than me who turned out to be a veteran of the Vietnam War. Despite his deceivingly coarse Bronx accent, he turned out to be a man with a lively interest in the arts—even in what one would think, for him, would be outlying subjects like Robert Mapplethorpe— with the sharp and discerning mind. We ended up discussing how we felt about the war. Of the people he served with, he said, "People don't understand. The guys I was with – they wanted to kill people." He said it with a sense of wonder: and then he said it again, in an odd combination of conviction and disbelief.
They wanted to kill people.
This brings me around again the question of our fascination with destruction and death. Hell is always more popular in art than heaven; people being murdered somehow seems to be more interesting to watch than people loving one another. And we live in an age where the internet meme of slaughter — whether by ISIS or the ordinary, run-of-the-mill sociopath/psychopath — seems to gain more traction by the day.
Why does the impulse of destruction drive us more than the impulse of love?
As creatures, it's in our nature to always lean towards a preference for certainty, isn't it? And our mortality is certain; questions of the soul are far less tangible. A man or woman always reaches first for what is most easily grasped; and it's easy to grasp our death, at least in principle. We live in an odd no man's land between the absolute certainty that we will die and a strange, dreamlike fantasy that we are immortal — a fantasy that's particularly powerful when we are young. Perhaps we're attracted, in works of art (including media such as television and film) to the contradiction between the undeniable living, breathing quality of our own life, and the undeniable inevitability of its termination. Yet these psychological states don't explain the wish to kill or the fascination with it; at least not in terms of the visceral, immediate action that's required. That is much more organic and driven by impulses and desires that remain dark to all of us that don't feel them. The opacity of the killer's mind, its impenetrability, is what fascinates; and perhaps the sheer perversity of violence itself — what is that? Why does it hold beauty when it should not? — has an equal attraction for us.
This is an ancient question. Homer's Iliad brings us a world of violence framed in the illogically gilded wood of heroism; Achilles is the most violent of all men, and slaughter is a noble end unto itself. The killing, here, is gruesome, grueling, relentless—and celebrated. If that sounds familiar, it ought to; we have not changed much since this Bronze Age epic was composed.
As Adam Nicholson points out in his fine book Why Homer Matters, The Iliad itself dates back into the darkness and obscurity of the Bronze Age, when truly sharp swords and fearsome spears were first forged, and men learned new, ways of killing each other. Even then, at the dawn of society as we now know it, a hardness and brutality ruined men and their lives: and this is what the Iliad brings us, ruined lives and ruined cities. All through violence; and instigated, more often than not, through the agency of amoral gods just as flawed as the humans who serially act out tragedies on their behalf.
In this mythos — what one might argue as the formatory, foundational mythos of the Western world — men do not have the agency to resist. Agamemnon is ultimately forced to go, against his instincts and the needs of his people, into combat by jealous gods and plague.
Whether rooted in the gods or our biology, the stain runs deep.
We've not released ourselves from this bondage; and we cannot, for as long as we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves. Humanity at large, as well as every individual, carries demons within itself that seek to act on behalf of of the destructive impulse. We need to see this in ourselves; and we need to see it is different than what we are. If we do not exercise agency to this extent, we become the demons. This happens all too often in today's world. So in the end, it becomes a question of responsibility. What do we stand for?
It is easy to stand for hatred, for cruelty, for violence. It is much more difficult to plant our flags, both inwardly and outwardly, in the territory of love and kindness. Yet if there is a real impulse toward civilization, a real impulse towards the good, we have to take that chance.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.
Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.
Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.
These things I command you, that ye love one another.
John 15, 13-17
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.