No matter how many layers of language and manners we paint over our selves, at our centers, implies Joseph Conrad, is a desperate selfish hunger, a need to account for ourselves by defining the “I” against the “Other,” to lash out in violence.
At some levels, our proclivity towards violence is obvious. We write “Kill them!” in our Facebook posts during the SuperBowl, we threaten friends with the mock “You’re dead,” we “beat” our friends literally and figuratively at Halo, and we beat them at Monopoly.
What may not be so obvious is that our language is thick with metaphor. Our casual conflation of the literal meaning and the connotative is unavoidable. The Colts and Saints have no plans to cooperate. They seek weaknesses and attack. They blitz in offensive units. They seize territory. And sure, football is easy to see as a parallel to the language of war, but this “institutionalizing” of war through formal sports only satisfies us to some degree. It won’t be long before fans trash bars, firebomb automobiles, and stampede each other; insult the team I identify with and who knows what I will do?
Formal sports, then, gives away to more simple urges such as cage fighting. In the past three months, no less than four separate cage fighting arenas have opened in Waterford where I live. One of them is in the Christian Recreation Center!
So our formal ritualizing of sports and our metaphors of war are the thinnest of veneers over our violence. In other words, while Stephen King and others might argue that we all need a cathartic purging through such civilized devices as soccer, The Stand, and Gladiator films, these behaviors serve a dual purpose. If we have a dark interior, creating social outlets both purges these desires and affirms them. Extreme fandom of the SuperBowl legitimizes my violence, assures me that if I watch the Indy 500 only to hope for the fiery crash, it’s okay. All of the best video games are rated “M.”
Conrad’s Kurtz exemplifies this, abandoning the lie of ritual violence and exposing its rawness. The Kurtz of Apocalypse Now reads a copy of The Golden Bough, which examines the mythological succession of the priest-king by regicide. Down with the King! He who is Other than Us must be removed by violence. And so Gatsby is removed as is Okonkwo; Sauron and Voldemort; Arthur and Jesus. Good or evil, our mythology tells us, the violence at our centers must resolve the story.
It is no wonder that our Western literary narrative, then, is an allegory of our human psychology. What happens when we remove the Superego, the civilized, the rational, from our consciousness? Beer sales soar during a championship sports weekend, Klingons drink Bloodwine, and Viking warriors fight in a “bare sark” frenzy.
This is no Swiss Family Robinson, no Coral Island, no NeverNeverLand (though this last place had no rules, either). The imposition of the civilized (what Twain calls “sivilization” and Joyce calls “syphilization”) upon us may reduce our violent tendencies, but only by channeling them into an art of suffering, a literature of conflict, a public school and economic system based upon competition. Competition, we are told, is a virtue. Diplomacy and dialogue are weakness.
But while civilized propriety is a gloss over our violence, the relationship between brutality and rationality is somewhat different. I would argue that these are contradictions, that violence in most of its incarnations is the absence of the rational. This is not Vulcan-ized logic, but a suggestion that where reason fails us, the rawness of violence is what remains, the inevitable attack upon the Other. Fear and extremist loyalties can each undermine the rational principle; in this way, the battle between the violent and the rational is within ourselves.
Derrida says that violence upon the Other is violence upon the Self. The two principles are each within us, met forever on the psychological arena as inevitably as Arthur and Mordred upon a single spear, St. George and his Dragon upon a lance. Even Rowling understood it, linking the minds and essences of Harry and Voldemort through a wand. Any attempt to reject the violence inside us is to declare war upon ourselves, the paradox upon which Western philosophy is based.
“Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves.”