Violence and Identity

by E. John Winner

  1. “I wouldn’t have it any other way”

The Wild Bunch is a 1969 film directed by Sam Peckinpah (written by Peckinpah and Walon Green) [1]. Nominally a Western, it tells the story of a gang of aging outlaws in the days leading up to their last gun battle.

After a failed payroll robbery, in which more innocents are killed than combatants, five surviving outlaws make their way into Mexico, broke and dispirited. The lead outlaw, Pike Bishop, remarks to his colleague Dutch that he wants to make one last big haul and then “back off.” “Back off to what?” Dutch asks, for which there is no answer. Finally Dutch reminds Bishop “they’ll be waiting for us,” and Bishop, the eternal adventurer, replies “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

In Mexico, the Bunch, including the two Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector, and Sykes, an old man who rides with them, visit the home town of their youngest member, Angel, which has recently suffered a visit by Federal troops under General Mapache, during which anti-Huerta rebel sympathizers were rooted out and murdered. The Bunch forms an odd bond with the townsfolk, but they’re outlaws and they’re broke. Eventually they make a deal with Mapache (who is advised by Germans, eager to see Mexico allied with them in the impending war in Europe) to rob a US arms train across the border. This robbery is successful, and they return to Mexico with the stolen arms (including a machine gun) pursued, however, by a group of bounty hunters led by Deke Thorton, a former outlaw that Bishop once abandoned during a police raid on a bordello. Later ,the bounty hunters will wound Sykes, whom the Bunch will abandon to his fate.

Along the trail, Angel, a rebel sympathizer himself, has some Indian friends carry away a case of guns and another of ammunition. Angel, however, has been betrayed by the mother of a young woman he killed in a fit of anger for having run off to join Mapache’s camp followers. The outlaws complete their deal with Mapache, but surrender Angel over to Mapache.  Deciding to let Mapache deal with the bounty hunters, they return to the Army headquarters in the ruins of an old winery. However, their betrayal of Angel haunts them. After a brief period of whoring and drinking, they decide to confront Mapache and demand the return of their colleague. Mapache cuts Angel’s throat, and without hesitation Pike and Dutch shoot him down. At this point, the Bunch probably could take hostages and back off, but to what? Instead they throw themselves gleefully into a gun battle with some 200 Federales, and by taking control of the machine gun do quite a bit of damage. Eventually, however, the inevitable happens, and they end up dead, Pike shot by a young boy with a rifle.

As the surviving Federales limp out from the Army HQ, Thorton shows up. From there, he sends the bounty hunters home with the outlaws’ bodies, but remains to mourn the loss of his former friends. Sykes rides up with the rebel Indians who have saved him, and suggests Thorton join them. “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” Laughing in the face of fate, they ride off to join the revolution.

The thematic power of the film hinges on two apposite recognitions. The first is that the outlaws are bad men. They rob, they cheat, they lie, they kill without compunction. They seem to hold nothing sacred and have no respect for any ethical code.

The second recognition is that this judgment is not entirely complete or correct. They have a sense of humor and an undeniable intelligence. They are able to sympathize with the oppressed villagers in Mexico. They have a sense of being bound together, and this is what leads them to their final gun battle.

The Bunch have lived largely wretched lives. As professional outlaws, they are dedicated to acquiring wealth by criminal means, but throughout the film, it is clear that wealth offered only two things for them: prostitutes and liquor. Although Pike was once in love and thinking of settling down, and (the asexual) Dutch speaks wistfully of buying a small ranch, they are just as committed to the outlaw lifestyle as the unrepentant Gorches; they just would rather believe otherwise.

This is because they are committed to a life of violence, to the thrills of dangerous heists, of chases across the landscape of the Southwest, and of gun fights. They rob largely to support that lifestyle, not the other way around.

The finale of the film has two major points of decision, the first determining the second. The first is when Pike, dressing after sex with a prostitute, sits on the bed finishing off a bottle of tequila.  That’s his life; and with the wealth gotten from the Mapache deal, he could continue it indefinitely. In the next room, the Gorch brothers, also drunk, argue with another prostitute over the price of her services. That’s their life, too. Meanwhile, Angel is getting tortured to death for being an outlaw with a conscience. Pike slams the empty bottle to the floor, and the march into battle begins.

The second point of decision has already been remarked on.  The moment after shooting Mapache, when they might have escaped, the Bunch choose to fight instead. Why do they do it? It’s not for the money, the drinking or the prostitutes.  Is it for revenge?  No, it’s because they live for the violence, and they do so as a team, and they have reached the moment at which they can live it to its logical conclusion.

Peckinpah remarked that, for that moment to carry any weight, the outlaws needed to be humanized to the extent that the audience could sympathize with them. He was, I think largely successful. But the film has been controversial, not only because of its portrayal of violence, but because in the climactic battle Peckinpah pushes our sympathies for the Bunch beyond mere recognition of their humanity.  They become heroic, larger than life, almost epic figures, challenging fate itself, in order to realize themselves, like Achilles on the field before Troy. And oddly, while not really acting heroically, they become heroes nonetheless, remembered by the revolutionaries who benefit from their sacrifice.

As a side remark, let’s note that Peckinpah was raised in a conservative Calvinist, Presbyterian household. But, like Herman Melville a century before, he was a Calvinist who could not believe in God.  In such a universe, some are damned, but no one is saved. We only realize our destiny by not having any. The Bunch destroy any future for themselves and thus, paradoxically, achieve their destiny. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

  1. A Soldier’s Story

The Wild Bunch is set in the last months of the Huerte dictatorship (Spring of 1914), a phase of the series of rebellions, coups d’état, and civil wars known collectively as the Mexican Revolution. [2] Officially, this revolution began with the fall of the Diaz regime and ended with the success of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but rebellions and bloodshed had already permeated the Diaz regime and continued a few years after the PRI came to power. In the official period of the revolution, casualties numbered approximately 1,000,000. When one discovers that the Federal Army only had about 200,000 men at any time, and that rebel armies counted their soldiers in the hundreds, one realizes that the majority of these casualties had to be non-combatants. Not surprisingly; the Federal Army, and some of the rebels, pursued a policy (advocated by our current US president) of family reprisal – once a rebel or a terrorist is identified, but cannot be captured or killed, his family is wiped out instead. Whole villages were massacred. Dozens of bodies would be tossed into a ditch and left to rot.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve nothing against thought-experiments that raise ethical questions, only those that limit the possible answers unjustifiably. So let us now imagine ourselves in the mind of a young Federal soldier, whose commandant has ordered him to shoot a family composed of a grandmother, a sister, a brother – the latter having atrophied legs due to polio – and the sister’s six-year-old daughter. The relevant question here is not whether or not he will do this. He will. The question is why.

This is a kind of question that rarely, if ever, appears in ethical philosophy in the Analytic tradition. It is, however, taken quite seriously in Continental philosophy. There’s a good, if uncomfortable, reason for this. Continental thinkers write in a Europe that survived the devastation of World War II and live among both the survivors of the Holocaust and the perpetrators of it. Analytic philosophers decided not to bother raising too many questions concerning Nazism or the Holocaust. Indeed, in the US, the general academic approach to events in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s has been that they constituted an aberration. Thus, even in studies of social psychology, the Nazi participants in the Holocaust are treated as examples of some sort of abnormality or test cases in extremities of assumed psychological, social, or moral norms.  This is utter nonsense. If it was true, then such slaughters would have been confined to Europe. And yet, very similar things went on in the Pacific Theater: during the Japanese invasion of China, the number of causalities is estimated as being into the tens of millions.

There were a million casualties resulting from the Turkish mass killing of the Armenians, long before the Holocaust.  There were several million victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, decades after the Holocaust.  Far from being some pscyho-social aberration, human beings  have a facility for organized cruelty and mass slaughter.

At any rate, assuming that our young Mexican soldier is not suffering from some abnormal psychology, what normative thoughts might be going through his mind as he is about to pull the trigger on the family lined up before him?

For the sake of argument, we’ll allow that he has moral intuitions, however he got them, that tell him that killing innocent people is simply wrong. But some process of thought leads him to judge otherwise; to act despite his intuition. Note that we are not engaging in psychology here and need not reflect on motivations beyond the ethical explanations he gives for his own behavior.

While not a complete listing, here are some probable thoughts he might be able to relay to us in such an explanation:

For the good of the country I joined the Army, and must obey the orders of my commanding officer.

I would be broke without the Army, and they pay me to obey such orders.

These people are Yaqui Indians, and as such are sub-human, so strictures against killing innocents do not apply.

I enjoy killing, and the current insurrection gives me a chance to do so legally.

So far, all that is explained is why the soldier either thinks personal circumstances impel him to commit the massacre or believes doing so is allowable within the context. But here are some judgments that make the matter a bit more complicated:

This is the family of a rebel, who must be taught a lesson.

Anyone contemplating rebellion must be shown where it will lead.

This family could become rebels later on. They must be stopped before that can happen.

All enemies of General Huerta/ the State/ Mexico (etc.) must be killed.

Must, must, must. One of the ethical problems of violence is that there exist a great many reasons for it, within certain circumstances, although precisely which circumstances differ considerably from culture to culture, social group to social group, and generation to generation. In fact, there has never been a politically developed society for which this has not been the case. Most obviously, we find discussions among Christians and the inheritors of Christian culture, concerning what would constitute a “just war” (which translates into “jihad” in Islamic cultures). But we need not get into the specifics of that. All states, regardless of religion, hold to two basic principles concerning the use of violence in the interests of the State: First, obviously, the right to maintain the State against external opposition; but also, secondly, the right of the State to use lethal force against perceived internal threats to the peace and stability of the community. We would like to believe that our liberal heritage has reduced our eliminated adherence to the latter principle, but we are lying to ourselves. Capital punishment is legal in the United States, and 31 states still employ it. The basic theory underlying it is quite clear: Forget revenge or protection of the community or questions of the convicted person’s responsibility – the State reserves the right to end a life deemed too troublesome to continue.

But any conception of necessary violence seriously complicates ethical consideration of violence per se. Because such conceptions are found in every culture and permeate every society – by way of teaching, the arts, laws, political debates, propaganda during wartime, etc. – it is likely that each of us has, somewhere in the back of our minds, some idea, some species of reasoning, some set of acceptable responses, cued to the notion that some circumstance somewhere, at some time, justify the use of force, even lethal force. Indeed, even committed pacifists have to undertake a great deal of soul-searching and study to recognize these reasons and uproot them, but they are unlikely ever to get them all.

Many more simply will never bother to make the effort. They are either persuaded by the arguments for necessary force, or they have been so indoctrinated into such an idea that they simply take it for granted.

Because there are several and diverse conceptions and principles of necessary violence floating around in different cultures, one can expect that this indoctrination occurs to various degrees and by various means. One problem this creates is that regardless of its origin, a given conception or principle can be extended by any given individual. So today I might believe violence is only necessary when someone attempts to rape my spouse, but tomorrow I might think it necessary if someone looks at my spouse the wrong way.

The wide variance in possible indoctrination also means a wide variety in the way such a principle can be recognized or articulated. This is especially problematic given differences in education among those of differing social classes. So among some, the indoctrination occurs largely through friends and families, and may be articulated only in the crude assertion of right – “I just had to beat her!” “I couldn’t let him disrespect me!” – while those who go through schools may express this indoctrination through well thought-out, one might say philosophical, reasoning: “Of a just war, Aquinas says…” or “Nietzsche remarks of the Ubermensch…” and so on. But we need to avoid letting such expressions, either crude or sophisticated, distract us from what is really going on here. The idea that some violence is necessary has become part of the thought process of the individual. Consequently, when the relevant presumed – and prepared-for – circumstances arise, not only will violence be enacted, but the perpetrator will have no sense of transgression in doing so. As far as he is concerned, he is not doing anything wrong, even should the violent act appear to contradict some other moral interdiction. The necessary violence has become a moral intuition and overrides other concerns. “I shouldn’t kill an innocent, but in this case, I must.”

Again, this is not psychology. After more than a century of pacifist rhetoric and institutionalized efforts to find non-violent means of “conflict resolution,” we want to say that we can take this soldier and “cure” of his violent instincts.  But, what general wants us to do that? What prosecutor, seeking the death penalty, wishes that of a juror?

The rhetoric of pacifism and the institutionalization of reasoning for non-violence is a good thing, don’t misunderstand me. But don’t let it lead us to misunderstand ourselves. There is nothing psychologically aberrant in the reasoning that leads people to justify violence, and in all societies such reasoning is inevitable. It’s part of our cultural identity.  Strangely enough, it actually strengthens our social ties, as yet another deep point of agreement between us.

  1. Being Violent

I’m certain that, given the present intellectual climate, some readers will insist that what we have been discussing is psychology; that Evolutionary Psychology or genetics can explain this; that neuroscience can pin-point the exact location in the brain for it; that some form of psychiatry can cure us. All of which may be true (assuming that our current culture holds values closer to “the truth” than other cultures, which I doubt), but is nonetheless irrelevant. It should be clear that I’m trying to engage in a form of social ontology or what might be called historically-contingent ontology. And ethics really begins in ontology, as Aristotle understood.  We are social animals, not simply by some ethnological observation, but in the very core of our being. We just have a difficult time getting along with each other.

It’s possible to change. Beating other people up is just another way to bang our own heads against the wall; this can be recognized, and changed, so the situation isn’t hopeless. As a Buddhist, I accept the violence of my nature, but have certain means of reducing it, limiting it, and letting it go. There are other paths to that. But they can only be followed by individuals. And only individuals can effect change in their communities.

This means we have to accept the possibility that human ontology is not an a-temporal absolute, and I know there is a long bias against that, but if we are stuck with what we have always been, we are doomed.

Nonetheless, the struggle to change a society takes many years, even generations, and it is never complete. Humans are an indefinitely diverse species, with a remarkable capacity to find excuses for the most execrable and self-destructive behavior. There may come a time that humans no longer have or seek justifications for killing each other; but historically, the only universal claim we can make about violence is that we are violent by virtue of being human, and because we live in human society.

Notes

  1. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065214/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_Revolution

25 Comments »

  1. EJ, Bravo! While I am an analytic philosopher myself, the ethical and political philosophy it produced in the mid- to late-20th century is embarrassing for its abstractness and its failure to engage with the utter and complete collapse of civilization that occurred during that time. Your critique in the second half reminds me of Allan Bloom’s devastating, eviscerating critique of the universally and tediously lionized — and remarkably mediocre — A Theory of Justice, from which I give an extended quote, below:

    Allan Bloom, “Justice: John Rawls Vs. The Tradition of Political Philosophy,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Jun., 1975), pp. 648-662.

    “Liberal democracy is in need of a defense or a rebirth if it is to survive…

    The practical challenges to it over the last forty years have been extreme, while the thought that underlies it has become incredible to most men living in liberal democracies. Historicism, cultural relativism, and the fact-value distinction have eroded the bases of conviction that this regime is good or just, that reason can support its claims to our allegiance. Hardly anyone would be willing to defend as truth the natural right teachings of the founders of liberal democracy or of their philosophic masters, as many, for example, defend Marx. The state of nature and the natural rights deriving from it have taken their place beside the divine right of kings in the graveyard of history…

    But, disappointingly, A Theory of Justice does not even manifest an awareness of this need, let alone respond to it. In spite of its radical egalitarianism, it is not a radical book. Its horizon does not seem to extend to the abysses which we have experienced in our own lifetimes; the horrors of Hitler and Stalin do not present a special or new problem for Rawls. Rather, his book is a correction
    of utilitarianism; his consciousness is American, or at most, Anglo-Saxon. The problems he addresses are those of civil liberties in nations that are already free and of the distribution of wealth in those that are already prosperous. The discussion is redolent of that hope and expectation for the future of democracy that characterized the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, forgetful
    of the harsh deeds that preceded it and- made it possible, without anticipation of the barbarism that was to succeed it…

    Thus, those who turn to Rawls hoping to find a reasoned statement of the superiority of liberal democracy to the other possibilities or a defense of the rationalist tradition of political philosophy will not find what they are looking for. They will find reassurance that their sentiments are sufficient, that they need not enter the disputes of the philosophers…

    Rawls is the product of a school which thinks that it invented philosophy. Its adherents never approach an Aristotle or a Kant in search of the truth or open to the possibility that these old thinkers might have known more than they do; and since they have a virtual monopoly on the teaching of philosophy, there has been a disastrous, perhaps irreparable, loss of learning and extinguishing of the light which has flickered but endured across so many centuries.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. E. John Winner

    Lots to digest here. Some (picky) reactions…

    You end the first section with a “side remark”…

    “… [L]et’s note that Peckinpah was raised in a conservative Calvinist, Presbyterian household. But, like Herman Melville a century before, he was a Calvinist who could not believe in God. In such a universe, some are damned, but no one is saved.”

    I find this a bit rhetorical. Okay, so someone is raised a Calvinist and then stops believing in the truth of the doctrines. Obviously such an upbringing will have affected in profound ways how this person sees the world and thinks (to some extent) for life. I would say that Calvin was a deep thinker in the sense that he had a profound intuitive understanding of human psychology. His view of the world was wildly mistaken in its supernatural elements but not so far off in other ways.

    Some are damned, no one is saved? Are you just meaning “bleak view of the world”?

    “We only realize our destiny by not having any.”

    Again, I find this rhetorical and unsatisfactory. Why assume the “destiny” idea is meaningful or worth keeping?

    “The Bunch destroy any future for themselves and thus, paradoxically, achieve their destiny. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

    Ditto.

    “… [W]e find discussions among Christians and the inheritors of Christian culture, concerning what would constitute a “just war” (which translates into “jihad” in Islamic cultures)…”

    No it doesn’t!

    “… [E]ach of us has, somewhere in the back of our minds, some idea, some species of reasoning, some set of acceptable responses, cued to the notion that some circumstance somewhere, at some time, justify the use of force, even lethal force. Indeed, even committed pacifists have to undertake a great deal of soul-searching and study to recognize these reasons and uproot them… Many more simply will never bother to make the effort. They are either persuaded by the arguments for necessary force, or they have been so indoctrinated into such an idea that they simply take it for granted.”

    Okay. But then you go on to ignore the possibility that a belief that violence – even lethal violence – is sometimes appropriate may be justified, emphasizing the indoctrination idea and using a slippery slope argument.

    “Because there are several and diverse conceptions and principles of necessary violence floating around in different cultures, one can expect that this indoctrination occurs to various degrees and by various means. One problem this creates is that regardless of its origin, a given conception or principle can be extended by any given individual. So today I might believe violence is only necessary when someone attempts to rape my spouse, but tomorrow I might think it necessary if someone looks at my spouse the wrong way.”

    I don’t find this convincing at all (for the reasons given above).

    You seem to be characterizing reasoning (or other mental processes) justifying violence as necessary and ineradicable but also as necessarily bad or evil. I don’t get it. (Sounds like “original sin”.) I see that this is partially explained towards the end where you talk about Buddhism. You seem to be postulating and embracing a spiritual (and political?) ideal.

    I don’t find this compelling. The way I see it, the world is (and we are) a certain way. We try to make the best of it. Violent conflict represents social failure, sure. It’s not a perfect world. But do we really need to dramatize this in the way religions (and ideologies) typically do?

    I recall now that you said recently that these matters are particularly painful to you. I hope you don’t find these notes trivial or hostile. I’m just responding as honestly and directly as I can. There are elements of your thinking (including parts of this piece) with which I am in deep accord.

    Like

  3. Mark:

    Funny how perceptions differ.

    1. I find Calvinism the least psychologically profound or intuitive understanding of human nature, as well as the least appealing. It gets just about everything wrong and casts it in the ugliest possible light.

    2. What you refer to disparagingly as “rhetorical” I find some of the best lines in the essay. Short of an actual argument as to what is wrong with good rhetoric and style, the charge is nothing more than an empty epithet.

    3. You write: “The way I see it, the world is (and we are) a certain way.” To which I say — echoing you on jihad — “no they aren’t.”

    4. EJ did not say that there are never any justifications for violence. That most of the justifications we give are poor and often the result of indoctrination of one kind or another strikes me as being obviously true, given what I know of human nature.

    Like

  4. Hi EJ, I agree this was a pretty great read of Wild Bunch. I was not a big fan of Peckinpah, or this movie, but you really got the most out of it.

    Ignoring our differences on tools of violence, I agree with much of what you say here. I view violence as problematic, the habit to use it before other means especially problematic, and a belief that violence is something that “other people” do (only the aberrant) an extremely dangerous delusion.

    Perhaps I never related to Peckinpah, given his focus on violence as a means to manifest something important about his characters, maybe due to the outlook you suggest (in Straw Dogs the main character is a mathematician/astronomer and so presumably an atheist). I get the bonding principle you discuss. I don’t dispute it. I just don’t see it as the only, or most common means to achieve it. And it is usually ugly to me when it happens. So I kind of find his films leaning toward nihilism, or at least emptiness, even if they have interesting “characters”.

    Like

  5. Dan.
    Thank you.

    I admire Allan Bloom quite a bit. His book on friendship was enlightening and even, one might say, moving. And his criticism of Heidegger in “Closing of the American Mind” is one of the few that appeared in America in that period that I respect, and now think largely correct.

    Mark,
    Well, that’s the first time I’ve been criticized simply for using rhetoric in an essay. I’ll try to write without it sometime.

    “Some are damned, no one is saved? Are you just meaning “bleak view of the world”?”
    No, I mean some are damned, no one is saved. Ahab is damned, but the crew of the Pequod is not saved. Ahab realizes his destiny by dying with his hated whale; Ishmael realizes his by floating on a dead man’s coffin in the middle of the empty sea.

    Non-believing Calvinism contributed heavily to what is recognized as a particularly American form of Existentialism. We find it in a considerable number of American novels and films, especially in the 1st half of the 20th century. It’s something of a cliche among American literary critics to refer to it.

    Whether or not violence can ever be justified ‘objectively’ is entirely irrelevant to my discussion (and seems to beg a ‘view-from-nowhere’ that I reject). However, the historic trend of American culture has been a profoundly, complexly ambivalent set of attitudes toward violence and its usefulness that get hashed out in all sorts of cultural formations and public discourse. It is exactly these complex, ambivalent attitudes – and some of their sources – that make ethical discussions of violence non-reducible to binary choices derived from pre-suppositions. concerning human psychology.

    Finally, I am not using the term ‘indoctrination’ in any pejorative sense here. I had to decide between that word or something like ‘acculturation,’ However, since violence enacted as a presumed necessity clearly indicates an underlying principle – a doctrine – ‘indoctrination’ seems to be the more precise terms here.

    Indoctrination is hardly a bad thing in itself. We are indoctrinated in good manners, in how to obey the laws of our communities… I doubt one can truly imagine a social order in which indoctrination does not occur.

    dbholmes,
    Peckinpah had a lot of personal problems that occasionally shaded into his films. However, if they veer near ‘nihilistic’ (and at least two, Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner, end on optimistic notes), it is because they are rooted in what I remarked to Mark as ‘American Existentialism.’ There’s hardly a darker last page in American literature than that of A Farewell to Arms, when Frederick realizes that he has no response to the death of Catherine and simply walks away.

    Like

  6. EJ wrote:

    Non-believing Calvinism contributed heavily to what is recognized as a particularly American form of Existentialism. We find it in a considerable number of American novels and films, especially in the 1st half of the 20th century
    ————————————-

    This is fascinating and would be a most suitable subject for an entire essay of its own.

    Like

  7. Dan

    On Calvin (I will refer to ejwinner’s response on Calvinism and other matters separately)… In my late teens I read a lot of theology to try to orientate myself with respect to Christianity and ended up a big fan of Karl Barth who was very much in the Reformed tradition (which Calvin pioneered). Barth said that Congregationalism was the denomination closest to his ideas. I had some nice dealings with a local Congregationalist church. Very well-educated people, some academics. I left all that behind *long* ago, but I know for sure that there is great beauty and joy in Barth’s vision of the world and, for a guilt-ridden teenager, he was a lifeline. The Reformed tradition has been much maligned and misunderstood in my opinion. Certain New Testament doctrines are quite poisonous, no question. Believers in the traditions that arose out of those texts tried to deal with the nastier aspects as best they could. The likes of Origen, Julian of Norwich and Karl Barth, amongst others, took a strongly optimistic line. Calvin was too orthodox to do this, but he played a significant role as a reformer. I think you have to see people like this within the context of their time and, in particular, in terms of how they relate to various other (contemporary and subsequent) strands of Christian thought.

    “What you refer to disparagingly as “rhetorical” I find some of the best lines in the essay.”

    I don’t deny this. I prefaced my remarks by suggesting that they could be seen as picky. But I wanted to clarify a couple of things (for example, the exact intended sense of “In such a world, some are damned, but no one is saved”). This seems to have generated a certain amount of amusement at my expense. Oh well.

    “You write: “The way I see it, the world is (and we are) a certain way.” To which I say — echoing you on jihad — “no they aren’t.””

    I take it that this is an assertion of some kind of anti-realism. Are you also suggesting (as ej seems to be doing) that we can (and must?) change the parameters of human behavior in some kind of significant way. I’m very wary of this idea which has a long and unhappy history. Marx thought this. Chomsky believes it…

    “EJ did not say that there are never any justifications for violence.”

    I took him to be claiming something along these lines – in some sense or at some level. Buddhism is radically pacifistic, after all.

    Like

  8. ejwinner

    “Non-believing Calvinism contributed heavily to what is recognized as a particularly American form of Existentialism. We find it in a considerable number of American novels and films, especially in the 1st half of the 20th century. It’s something of a cliche among American literary critics to refer to it.”

    I am familiar with some possibly relevant early-20th century American novels (Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome was the only one that touched me in a powerful way; I’ve also read some Hemingway and William Faulkner) but I have never studied “American literature” or read the critics. I was vaguely aware of this talk of Calvinism. Julien Green was another writer with an American Calvinist background that I read, but he wrote in French. I loved his work. I haven’t read Moby Dick as it happens. Not my cup of tea.

    Like

  9. I was always a little mystified by talk by young American writers, in the first 8 or 9 decades of the 20th Century, about wanting to write ‘the Great American Novel,’ since Melville had already written it. I recommend it, if only because there’s no better reading of the American character. (Indeed, writing that, I recognize how similar Ahab is to the current US president.) If there are uniquely American ‘archetypes,’ most are to be found in that book.

    Like

  10. DanK,
    Feel a need to jump in here quickly about Buddhism.

    The core of Buddhism is a path to release from suffering.

    However, Buddhism is part and parcel of many Eastern cultures and has had to adapt to those cultures, and has in turn shaped much of those cultures. But Buddhists are only human beings. Expecting them to be saints sets them up to appear as monsters when expectations are not met.

    Buddhism is committed by doctrine to vegetarianism; but many Buddhists in China eat meat, the Chinese love their meat.

    Buddhism is best realized in a closed community, a monastery. Nonetheless even monasteries got involved – on both sides – during China’s war with Japan.

    The Buddhist path as a resolution to suffering is all that I was referencing in my essay. I said nothing about pacifism, except to remark that there are some people committed to it who engage in active efforts to accomplish this for themselves. I didn’t identify those as Buddhists, and was making no general case on their behalf. That’s a choice; I respect it. But it isn’t directly a part of my discussion.

    However, to reply to Mark’s remark on whether human nature can be changed – individually, yes, and that’s been my experience; in the general only slowly. But humans used to live in caves heated by smoldering dung (in some parts of the world they still may), but in the West this lifestyle has been changed. So too has the very nature of marriage – once universally an arranged process, now more a matter of choice.

    As to Buddhism as an actual practice in relation to violence or potential violence, to avoid having to reference a raft-load of sometimes conflicting literature, I suggest two recent films: Zen – The Life Of Zen Master Dogen, about a man born to the knightly class of Japan, who became one of Japan’s most insightful abbots; and Ip Man, about a Chinese martial arts master (Bruce Lee’s teacher) who just happened also to be a Buddhist. (I mean the first Ip Man film, the sequels are only so-so.) (There was also a recent Bollywood film about the Emperor Asoka, who converted to Buddhism following an horrific battle, that is at least entertaining.)

    I jumped in because this article is not a discussion about either pacifism or Buddhism. I just wanted to make sure that was understood.

    Like

  11. On Buddhism and nonviolence… Not central, but worth discussing a bit further.

    From the OP:

    “It’s possible to change. Beating other people up is just another way to bang our own heads against the wall; this can be recognized, and changed, so the situation isn’t hopeless. As a Buddhist, I accept the violence of my nature, but have certain means of reducing it, limiting it, and letting it go.”

    I mentioned Buddhism in a comment, and Dan picked up on my comment.

    My response to Dan’s question about Buddhists and violence would be similar to ej’s, I think. Obviously Buddhists, just like any other religious group, are subject to the same behavioral imperatives as anyone – including in-group/out-group thinking – and are open to a wide range of cultural influences, including those associated with what we now call identity politics.

    I came across an article by psychiatrist Paul Fleischman arguing (again, in accord with what ej says, I think) that, though Buddhism is focused on nonviolence as its central tenet, this is not theory (political or otherwise), but rather is all to do with personal attitudes. He distinguishes nonviolence from pacifism, and argues that Buddhism is not pacifistic.

    The Pali Canon is highly regarded, I believe, as reflecting the Buddha’s original teachings. I quote from Fleischman:

    “Himself a member of the warrior caste, the Buddha maintained cordial re­lations with kings. Numerous suttas in the Pali Canon record his conversations with Kings Pasenadi and Bimbisara. Shun­ning political involvement, the Buddha never advised his royal students to con­vert their kingdoms into democracies, de­spite the fact that many local states were in fact kingless republics. Although we have on record numerous discourses that the Buddha gave in the presence of, or even directly to, royalty, he never counsels them to abandon legal administration with its attendant consequences and punish­ments for crimes, nor to abandon war­fare and protection of their state.

    “In a poignant conversation that oc­curred when both the Buddha and King Pasenadi were 80 years old, the king praises the Buddha, his teaching and the conduct of his followers, while describ­ing himself as “… an anointed warrior-king, able to have executed those who should be executed….” After the king de­parts, the Buddha comments to the medi­tators around him that the King’s insights were “monuments to the Dhamma” that should be learned and remembered as “fundamentals of the holy life.” [Majjhima 89] This passage clarifies that the Buddha neither condemned nor even rebuked the king for his fulfillment of the kingship, with its dire responsibilities.”

    Once a prince, always a prince?

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Hi Dan,

    “Do you think Peckinpah glorifies violence? Because I never got that from his movies.”

    No. That’s a good question, because I see that kind of claim a lot. Whether there is violence, and whether characters are violent (and enjoy it), is a very different question than if a work (or a person’s body of work) “glorifies” violence.

    I don’t think Peckinpah glorifies violence. Then again, even if he did, that would not necessarily upset me. I like Tarantino and Takashi Miike who arguably do… and what are all these super hero movies except a form of glorifying violence? The fact that they might be less bloody (obviously super heroes, not Tarantino or Miike) or less realistic, does not make them less glorifying.

    The “problem” of glorification of violence in cultural media, since I happen to dislike violence as a solution to problems, is an interesting issue.

    For me, it really comes down to the “nihilistic” feeling I get, though the more I think about “empty” is a better term. Another set of artists that remind me of this are Larry Clark and Harmony Korine. I’m sympathetic to EJ’s argument that it takes a view that without a god (or whatever) there is nothing left but negation, a quick burnout before the dark. To me it seems that for Peckinpah, his characters are already dead in some way, and that there is only that brief exposure of something real (that’s all there was) in them, in those moments of violence.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I just realized the last paragraph should have been clearer.

    “For me (regarding Peckinpah)…” is how it should have started. And when I bring up Larry Clark and Harmony Corine I am not meaning they use violence in the same way as Peckinpah, just that their characters seem dead outside of some individual acts that give them brief (if any) meaning.

    Like

  14. Hi EJ,

    “…it is because they are rooted in what I remarked to Mark as ‘American Existentialism.’ There’s hardly a darker last page in American literature than that of A Farewell to Arms,”

    Yes, this makes some sense to me.

    “‘the Great American Novel,’ since Melville had already written it”

    I’m sort of on board with this, though it is a bit antiquated in language. I was surprised though when I did read it, that it had humor and some interesting insights.

    For more modern tastes, I think Bukowski wrote a couple that could be called “the great american novel” and what I would consider a very different form of “American Existentialism”.

    “Ip Man, about a Chinese martial arts master ”

    Yes.

    I’ll check out the other movie.

    Like

  15. Dwayne: I think your characterization is why I find Peckinpah so fascinating.

    This essay and discussion inspired me to rewatch my favorite Peckinpah movie: The Killer Elite. God, that’s a good movie!

    Like

  16. Hi Dan, that’s fine, great even. I definitely would not criticize him for being a bad filmmaker. Just that his movies don’t do it for me.

    This essay has made me want to rewatch Wild Bunch (I even rewatch Clark and Korine sometimes) as well as the two he mentioned to me in reply (at least one I have not seen). Intringuingly, about two months back I wanted to watch Killer Elite again. I know I watched it (a long time ago) and just couldn’t remember much about it… except that there was something in it that I liked. But I didn’t have easy access to it and gave up. I think it might be the single film of his that I enjoyed on first viewing. Hmmmm. Now I’ll have to track it down.

    Like

  17. EJ,

    Enjoyed. It’s been a while and I’m having trouble following my notes, so I’ll just point to some parts I’m particularly sympathetic too.

    “As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve nothing against thought-experiments that raise ethical questions, only those that limit the possible answers unjustifiably”

    “This is a kind of question that rarely, if ever, appears in ethical philosophy in the Analytic tradition. It is, however, taken quite seriously in Continental philosophy”

    “It should be clear that I’m trying to engage in a form of social ontology or what might be called historically-contingent ontology. And ethics really begins in ontology, as Aristotle understood”

    “Beating other people up is just another way to bang our own heads against the wall; this can be recognized, and changed, so the situation isn’t hopeless”

    Like