Wednesday, March 09, 2005

“War is hell: a beautiful hell”

What are the prospects of the future of humanity? The 2003 Iraq war spurred an enormous public uproar all over Europe and the World. Despite the fact that the Italian government is formally part of the “Coalition of the Willing”, public opposition to the war in Iraq in Italy was and still is enormous. Last example of the liberation of the Italian journalist Sgrena and the killing of the secret agent Nicola Calipari by US soldiers only confirmed that vast majority of Italians continue to oppose the war in Iraq, despite recent Bush’s visit to Europe.

When the war in Iraq was about to start the entire country was covered by Peace flags, endless demonstrations repeated pacifist slogans of the Vietnam war singing with one voice, “mai piu’ Guerra: via le truppe dal’Iraq” (never again the war: out with the troops from Iraq). Despite being some times a participant of these demonstrations, I never stopped doubting…was the coalition of the willing right to attack? Is this the way to bring democracy into a country? Is democracy worth fighting a bloody war? I still do not manage to come up with the answer. The same counts for the war waged against my country by NATO in 1999. I ask myself was democracy and the downfall of Milosevic’s regime possible even without that war, much earlier?

Still this is not what I want to write about in this piece. What I want to make you think about is whether eternal peace is possible or is war and conflict something immanently linked to the human nature? Moreover, I want you to think about whether ideology of Pacifism is a suitable way to combat war? Are we like other animals able to learn only on our mistakes, are we to love peace only as long as we remember the atrocities of the war, and as soon as the memories of the horrors of the battles fade away, are we, pushed by the boredom and hoplessness of every day life, dazzled by the dream of heroic death, to jump back to the trenches?

This time I suggest you do not search the answers in philosophical literature. Read novels.

Alessandro Baricco, one of the most prominent contemporary Italian writers, in his recent book “Omero, Illiade”, actually in an essay that is included in the book (see) writes about the phenomenon of war and the possibility of overcoming its appealing force.

The author argues, “what is surprising about the Iliad, is the power…compassion with which the reasons of the vanquished are transmitted. It is the story written by the victors, however, in the memory remain also, if not mostly, the human figures of the Troians.”

Barrico discovers in “Iliad” the “supernatural” capacity of the Greeks to truly speak for the whole of humanity. A prime monument of the war such as Iliad simultaneously carries in itself an obstinate love for peace, or as Barrico calls it, the feminine side of the Iliad. The characters in the novel, instead of fighting talk and talk about meaning of life, its absurdity, fear of death, hope of immortality, human nature…”The word is the arm that freezes the war…They are all condemned to death but they make their last cigarette last for eternity.” Yet, they throw away the cigarette, the words cease, and they transform themselves into blind fighters. Despite this fact, the Iliad gives a glimpse of a civilization unknown to the Greeks that they nevertheless manage to perceive, and had known, and had kept in the secret and protected angle of their soul. Therefore, the main problem is, says Baricco, how to make the world follow and become aware of its own hidden and ever-present inclination for peace?

Iliad does sing about the beauty of war, splendor of arms, but not in a superficial way, the Iliad makes us remember, says Baricco, of a troublesome but inexorably real fact: for thousands of years the war had presented for men, a moment in which the intensity (the beauty) of life was releasing itself in all its power and beauty. It presented, almost a unique opportunity to change one’s own destiny, to find the truth about ourselves, to achieve a higher ethical awareness.

Against anaemic emotions of ordinary life, against the mediocre moral stature of every day life, war puts the world back into motion and drags individuals out of their customary limits into the part of the soul that seems to them a landing place of any desire. Baricco notes that he is not talking about the far away and barbaric history, not so long ago refined intellectuals as Wittgenstein and Gadda searched for obstinacy in the first lines of the front, in an inhuman war, with the conviction that they will there understand the true meaning of life.

Still today, when for the large part of humanity the idea of going to war seems absurd, the Western world, through the intermediaries of professional soldiers continues to live the old ideal of heroic life, unable to find the true sense of life, unable to value ordinary life as it is.

Baricco wishes to say that Pacifism that argues tout court that war is hell teaches us a horrible and dangerous lie. No pacifism should simply negate the beauty of war, War brings about a feeling of equality among men (which no welfare state is able to provide), war makes the life after war more worthwhile living for. Baricco argues, As much as it sound atrocious: it is necessary to remember that war is hell: but a beautiful hell.

As far as the possibility of overcoming the appeal of war is concerned Baricco ponders about a possible solution (utopia?). The road towards true and everlasting peace is possible only through building an alternative source of beauty; to be able to demonstrate that we are capable of risking the shadow of existence without resorting to the fire of wart; to give a strong sense to things without having to bring them under the blinding light of death; to be able to change our destiny without having to take one of the other; to manage to make the money and wealth flow without having to resort to violence; to find an ethical dimension without having to search for it at the margins of death; to discover ourselves intensely in places and moments that are not those of the trench; to know the emotion, even if the most dizzy one, without having to resort to the doping of war or methadone of the small every day violence; to discover another beauty, says Baricco, Freud would say, to conquer the workings of the “bloody” Thanatos (Sigmund Freud, “Civilization and its Discontents”, I added bloody)

Today Peace is nothing more than a political convenience: it is certainly not a diffused system of thought, argues Baricco.

What about the European Union? Is it a model of peaceful integration able to one day transform itself into a World Federation (Confederation) corresponding to the Kantian dream? Supranational Europe, endowed with the twin ideal of Peace and Prosperity rose from the smoke of Auschwitz and the ashes of Dresden-simultaneously. Are Europeans forever able to nourish this memory as a reminder of how horrible the war is? Does the Shoah present a powerful deterrent of irreplaceable significance for the whole of humanity? As we saw in the Balkans, Rwanda…all over the world it does not. It demonstrates, to great discomfort of Freud for example, that even the civilized and industrialized countries are able to commit atrocities that we believed to belong to the barbaric past.

Are we able to find an alternative to the beauty (curse) of war in the contemporary consumer society? Is marketplace to replace war as a forum in which we become aware of eternal truths about human nature?

If you want to read about this without having to read a cumbersome and complicated philosophical essay read Baricco. Moreover, if you want to read about these things and simultaneously learn something about the spirit of the Balkans (Serbia), read Dobrica Cosic’s novel “A Time of Death”. This book is Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” enriched by dialectical materialism, Niche, Wittgenstien…a truly wonderful and easy read (at least in the original, for the English translation you have to risk and let me know about its quality).

1 comment:

Sonia G. said...

I am not used to give my own “philosophical” point of view in this way and maybe I feel unprepared… anyway, as one of the thousand Italians who participated in the anti-war demonstrations during the last two years, I would like to make some comments on this article. First, I understand what the writer wanted to say and I agree with him to a certain extent, as for example the need for our consumer-oriented and bored society to find unordinary and extreme forms of excitements. On the other hand, this is not enough to claim that the Iraqi war was “good”. At least I hope that it is not enough?

I don’t agree with Baricco’s argument. What I find extremely dubious is his historical perspective. Are we sure that the Iliad was actually written in order to “sing the heroic manners of the warriors”? As far as I can judge this great and fascinating oral poem, its words had a totally different purpose, such as to keep together the population. The purpose of the Iliad was to justify, in a very poetical and masculine way, the incredible loss that ordinary people had suffered, and that they were supposed to suffer in the future. The goal of the Iliad was to give our men (Greek men) the illusion that their life was lost for a noble ideal, not for the will of power, richness or maybe just for the stupidity of someone else! Are we sure that a normal person is waiting for the war in order to prove his (more than hers) strength and to give sense to his life? Are we sure that a normal woman is happy to have only the picture of his son or his lover or his husband? In this crazy world everything seems possible but maybe the Iliad had, at that time, the same power of our mass media! Iliad is propaganda, a masculine propaganda. So, look at this poetic example in the right way! Just to conclude: I am an optimistic person and I still trust that human beings can find life more exiting than death…thus, life is a wonderful hell!
Sonia-the Livornese Philosopher