August 22, 2010
The Expanding Horror of Life on EarthBy Louis René Beres
"The horror, the horror," mumbles the Marlon Brando character in Apocalypse Now. It is a timely observation. While individual death is an essential part of species survival, we humans need not always hasten the process with recurrent war, terrorism, and genocide. Instead, as the grinding technologies of destruction loudly overwhelm the dimming voice of reason, we should ask, quite reasonably, How much more can our tormented planet endure?
This is not a silly question. Rather, it is the single most important question anyone can raise. In universities, where prevailing intellectual fashion is now often determined by ratings, advertisement, and "branding," our students still need to learn something very basic: Each one's personal and professional success can make sense only if the world as a whole has a foreseeable future.
"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed," observed the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, and "everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned." Today's expanding global chaos is more a symptom than a disease. All world politics expresses an underlying and unchanging human characteristic. This is the incapacity of individuals to find meaning and comfort within themselves.
Although unrecognized, there is a critical inner meaning to world politics. This meaning can be discovered more readily in Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung than in Adam Smith or Karl Marx. It is the persisting refusal of individuals all over the world to find their core identity and status apart from membership in The Nation, or in other associational forms of "tribe."
From the beginning, all behavior in world affairs has been driven by some kind of tribal conflict, by incessantly violent struggles between "us" and "them." From time immemorial, without a clear sense of an outsider, of an enemy, of an "other," most people everywhere have felt lost. Drawing all sense of self-worth from membership in the State or the Faith or the Race -- from what Freud had called the "primal horde" -- we humans still cannot satisfy even the most minimal requirements of coexistence.
Our technical and scientific intelligence is remarkable, to be sure, but this commendable progress has no recognizable counterpart in human relations. We can manufacture complex jet aircraft and send astronauts into space, but before we are allowed to board commercial airline flights we must first take off our shoes. The point, ironically, is not to make us more comfortable, but rather to ensure that we won't blow up our fellow passengers.
We all want, more or less desperately, to be upbeat about the world. We are turned off by anyone who speaks of "the horror, the horror." When a friend is asked mechanically, "How are you," the expected answer is always the same: "I'm great."
But this is usually a push-button response, a mostly disingenuous reply. It is born of an almost viscerally felt need to appear successful.
Such a need is sorely misplaced. No one of us is ever really successful except to the extent that we are able to relieve the suffering of others.
The veneer of human civilization remains razor-thin; whole portions of humankind remain dedicated to various sacrificial practices that are unwittingly disguised as war, terrorism, or genocide. This hideous dedication is not "normally" an authentic example of immorality or foolishness. After all, our entire system of international relations is itself rooted in a deeply etched pattern of horror. The pleasingly cleansing name that we assign to this repetitive pattern is "history."
Seeing requires distance. Up close and personal with statistics and calculations, entire civilizations now glance hastily over mountains of fresh corpses and announce without any apology that "life is good." Set in motion by hordes that flee their own human inwardness, our competing mass societies, both within nations and between them, greedily suck out the very marrow of wisdom, reverence, and compassion.
Hope still exists, but it must now sing softly, in a decisive undertone. The true horror of life on earth creates a deafening noise, but it is possible to listen closely for transient sounds of grace and harmony. To begin, we must pay much closer attention to our most intimate and universal human feelings of anxiety, restlessness, and desperation.
Why, exactly, is it that "we can't get no satisfaction"?
It may be that the time for science, modernization, globalization, and even new information technologies is already over. To survive together, on a genuinely imperiled planet, all of us must seek to rediscover an individual life that is detached from cheap entertainments, crude commerce, shallow optimism, and utterly contrived happiness. In such a candid expression of awakened human spirit, we may yet learn that our common agony is more important than astronomy, that our despair is more serious than our "success," and that our tears have much deeper meanings than our robotic smiles.
"The man who laughs," observed the poet Bertolt Brecht, "has simply not yet heard the horrible news."
The true horror of life on earth can never be undone by improving global economics, by building larger missiles, by fashioning new international treaties, by spreading democracy, or even by raising student test scores. We misdirected humans lack a tolerable future not because we have been too slow to learn, but because we have failed to learn what is most important.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton and is Professor of International Law at Purdue. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with world politics, law, literature, and philosophy.