Perhaps today is as good a day as any to talk about blood and blood guilt.
Pratchett was right that once you get really far deep into any religion, any myth, any legend, any story that MATTERS, it’s always about the guilt and the blood.
The genius of the averted sacrifice of Isaac is that – and those who aren’t believers will forgive me, okay? Just assume there is some genius in the story, even if you don’t believe it happened. – humans learn only by example. Saying “don’t sacrifice your kids, then m’kay” doesn’t work. Even the Greeks, when the going got really tough reverted to human form, which is grab the nearest defenseless human being and sacrifice him/her so the angry/hungry gods, spirits, ghosts, creatures of the night will be happy and leave us alone.
No, I actually have no idea why that is built into our psyche. I mean, as Ori mentioned in the comments, the paleolithic “envy is good” thing actually made sense in a very small group of humans or hominines or whatever they’re calling it these days. If one of you gets all the food, someone is starving. (Though even in that situation there are reasons someone should/would eat more. But never mind.)
Where the “things have gone pear shaped, let’s kill someone to stop it” makes less sense. Unless, of course, the someone you are killing is responsible for the tensions in some way, or you can convince yourself he or she is.
Which bring us to blood guilt and World War One, because Christmas Eve or not, I’m not going to get in religious arguments in the comments. (You’ve been warned.)
So we’re going to talk about World War One, which in a way is TOTALLY traditional, because for your information it was traditional to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve. (And all through winter I tend to bop around the house listening to my audible editions of Agatha Christie’s Mr. Quin tales – ghost stories – while waging merciless war on the dust bunnies and chasing the cats with the vaccum. [Well, THAT’s what they think I’m doing.])
If you prefer I start again (Should I come in again?) it could go this way:
There is a ghost haunting western civilization. It is the youth of the early twentieth century, the fine flowering of the early industrial age. I am told in certain fields in France, you can put in the plow and turn up human bones, and uniform buttons.
The enormity of it can’t be perceived by anyone of my generation, and probably – maybe – not even anyone of my parents’ generation, born during World War II. Possibly, it can’t be understood by anyone who either wasn’t there, or didn’t read extensively about it. (Which I have done. And yes, I AM quite aware what I “know” is not a patch on the people who served. OTOH what I know is quite enough to dip me head first in unimaginable horror.)
Let’s back up, shall we? Let’s take the very long view (though the person who suggested fifty thousand years is unduly optimistic about our species’ survival, at least unless we find a better way, and more importantly our chances of understanding something that far off.)
Let’s take the view of backing up and up, away from our present troubles, and then look way back from– say — two thousand years in the future. Our present civilization, which is well nigh worldwide, comes from the fact that we’re descended from the BEST sorts of sons of b*tches. Specifically, the Indo-European culture seems to have won out big time. And part of this is because other people adopted their culture a lot, (we now believe that a lot of the people who became “Indo-Europeans” were not related by blood, they were just imitating) but this wasn’t done out of fluffy goodwill. It was done because frankly not only could the Indo Europeans kick the butt of all their neighbors, (Chieftains were buried with maces as a symbol of their power. Their power was, of course, the ability to crush people’s skulls.) no – they seem to have come up with a new idea. They glorified the ass kicking in long spoken poem sagas. The Iliad is a good example. A more advanced form, mind, as the death, mayhem and glory seeking is less.. in your face than in the fragments surviving of the older examples.
Perhaps it is my professional deformation. When all you have is a keyboard, everything looks like a story, or something. Or perhaps it is the truth. In one of those ridiculous “reading cravings” I get into every so often, I spent a good part of the last year reading what we know and conjecture about Indo-Europeans and their sweep through Europe. No, I have no idea why. Yes, there are things I would rather/should rather read, that are still sitting in a pile. Sue me. It’s the way my brain works, you know, like sometimes you simply MUST have that roast pineapple or something. Sometimes I have to have books on something. And sometimes I figure out why years later. And sometimes… I don’t.
Anyway, perhaps it is my professional perspective leaking, but I think the extraordinary success of our culture was in telling stories to fit us. To fit our expansion, to fit our conquering. The saga-poems made other tribes want to join in. They too wanted their share of righteous ass-kicking glorified. (How much ass kicking? Well, it always amuses me to go to New Age Stores and find Celtic this and Celtic that. As far as we can tell, the Celts were as much cattle thieves as the Maasai (well, like the Maasai they seemed to believe all cattle belonged to them) but they also believed there was an inherent good to raiding/war/headhunting. The niches in Celtic homes are believed to have been put there for displaying human skulls. “You should see that one. I caught it when…” And when they weren’t at war with anyone else, they would go to war among themselves, because that would allow them to attain manliness and glory.))
So… Manliness and power depended on spilling blood. Sometimes a lot of blood.
But things changed. We… tamed ourselves. And the stories were part of it. (And Christianity with its own set of admirable virtues was a great part of this. Though the Romans and Greeks had made SOME steps in the direction of what we consider virtues. Filial piety, as opposed to killing the old man and taking over was an ideal, for instance, even if more honored in the default, I think. And before you attempt to throw things at me, I’m AWARE Greek and Roman Values weren’t exactly our own. As older son put it after visiting an exhibit of Roman artifacts and every-day life-objects “Rome is like us and not like us in startling ways. It’s like P.J. O’Rourke said about the Phillipines, more shocking that some utterly alien culture. It’s like thinking that this person is your mother, and everything is fine, till you find mommy in the kitchen, in the middle of the night, eating live snakes.)
It took time. This sort of thing takes a lot of time. One of my favorite things about nominally Christian rulers in the Middle Ages is the way they’d put off being baptized until they were on their death beds, because then all their sins would be washed away.
The ideals changed humans and humans changed the ideals, until by slow progression we had the industrial revolution, with its printing press, its trains, its glorification of another type of – no less – manly virtues: protecting, taking care of women and children, creating wealth.
If “rulers” – leaders – in the nineteenth century had been buried with symbols of their power, it might have been a fountain pen and a watch. Or rather, a lot of them were buried beneath symbols of their power – beneath statues of weeping women and children. The feminists, who are almost as bad as communists at getting symbols, (they’re like the man who is afraid of dogs and who sees a dog in every ink blot) would say that those women and children were the man’s possessions, symbolically buried with him, but truly, they have a tin ear for meaning. The woman/women and children were the outward projection of his power “Look, I can protect/look after this many.”
Helped, in large part, by the printing press, by the ability to disseminate stories far and wide and to everyone in society, the story of the vast Indo-European civilization, by then spread over much of the globe, even if in the position of conquerors, changed. All of a sudden, the glorification wasn’t of our power to kick ass. That had been demonstrated well enough, but now the story was about looking after other people. Even when we invaded, we invaded for other people’s OWN GOOD. (And btw some of it is still arguably so. I mean, look, no, all cultures aren’t created equal, and some cultures would be better off eradicated. No. Really. YOU whistle past the graveyard if you wish, but any culture that enslaves women, kills people because of their sexual orientation, and which keeps their people mired in Medieval-levels of poverty does not deserve to survive. Yes, they might make beautiful buildings. And?)
So that was the logic of empire, and how Europe justified the righteous ass-kicking it was still inflicting around the globe. “We’re bad asses with a purpose.” “Yes, Indian culture is older than ours, but WE stopped suttee.” “Yeah, okay, we are getting this and that, but—”
The expansion and conquest had a price in blood and sometimes a high price on both sides, BUT it was against those people, over there, who needed to be saved from themselves.
Then came World War One. To some extent, what made it horrible was that it was the result of an archaic survival, of doctrines and facts not quite meshing – trench warfare, who the h*ll came up with that. To another extent it was, as RES has pointed out a family quarrel. It was all about what Wilhelm said about our king. To another extent, it was the result of the competition for markets, the change in value, the shift in power. It was, in fact, a violent, convulsive, change in material culture, in how things are done. (Which btw, scares the living daylights out of me, considering how fast we’re changing those now.)
Up until that moment, one power structure of the Indo Europeans remained in place. The reason the leaders were leaders might have changed, but we were still led by the “wise old men.” (Who, for the feminists benefit, were sometimes women. Yes, even in pre-historic times, sometimes it was women buried as men and with the mace of power. Yes, yes, sometimes the best man for the job is a woman and not being gender doctrinaires the ancients could see that. Look you to the mote in your own eye.)
The stories were still about the wise old leaders. If you read stuff from the nineteenth century you get the whiff of respect for years, for position, for learning. It wasn’t so much our ersatz belief in the experts in whatever field but the “people in position to know.”) (The final flowering of this was eugenics, and let’s not go there, shall we? Yeah, there was a patriarchal structure, in the new patriarchy, where men not only ruled, but defended and protected.
And then… And then the story failed. Those we trusted, those in a position to know, sent waves of young men to be slaughtered for not much purpose at all. They sent them to stack ten deep in death and to stink the air so badly with their rotting that everyone in the vicinity took up smoking to dull the sense of smell. Worse, this was reported in papers all over Europe. Worse, people could go to the front and back in almost no time. Worse, yet, was the reports of German atrocities, a lot of it, at that time, made up to incite people to hatred and war. (There weren’t as many nuns in Belgium as, reportedly, were raped by the German Army.) It was all too big and too glaringly obvious. After all, it’s not unusual (though it tends to surprise Americans) for Europeans to have relatives all over Europe, relatives who are nominally foreigners. This was especially true in England with Germany.
It wasn’t the same thing as going and conquering them-over-there no matter how much for their own good. These were people we knew. This was, beneath the superficial differences, our own people.
The narrative collapsed. It broke and shattered. The veterans coming back from WWI and those who heard their stories didn’t believe the elders of the tribe knew better and there was an inclination to reverse it all.
The worm of Rosseaunism that had been biting at the edges for a while, the whole idea of the noble savage, took deep, deep hold after WWI. “Let’s upend everything” became a “sane” cry.
Only it wasn’t. Oh, yeah, patriarchal power can be thrown over. We’re safer now than in the Neolithic. We don’t need the big silver-back up front. But… but we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water. We’ve thrown out the idea of honor, even when honor means “looking after yourself and those who depend on you.” We’ve thrown out the confidence in our own culture. We went looking for some mythical noble savage who was never there. Back there, in that unthinking age, when reason is not applied, there’s only our cattle-thieving ancestors and their polished skulls of enemies, or cousins, or brothers if there’s no one else on whom to prove one’s manliness. There’s only the ululating darkness where tribalism reigns and everyone’s hand is against everyone else. And we’ve gone an awful long way towards that.
However, we’re still humans, still social animals, still designed for hierarchy. So we’ve fallen into the rabbit hole of this sort of anti-hierarchy hierarchy, where greater power is given to those who claim (even while making d*mn sure no one unseats them) to want to “smash the establishment” and where greatest honor is given to those who hate their own culture and who glorify some mythical “other” who will never come close to their imagined greatness. Power is attained by claiming a wish to commit cultural suicide. And the sad thing is that some of these people actually mean it.
The story has come unmoored and is flapping in the wind, like a shroud. The specter of WWI is haunting western civilization. It’s time to lay the ghost to rest.
Western civilization was never a thing of tribe. From the beginning we’ve absorbed people of different genetics who wanted to adopt our customs.
We’re all of us humans descended from murderers, rapists and sons of b*tches. EVERY ONE OF US. But we, in the West, are descended from the sons of b*tches who told stories. We’re descended from those who gradually convinced themselves it is not always right and just to smash the weak. We’re descended from those who told themselves we should help the helpless. We’re descended from those who believed in doing the right thing even when it hurt.
We’ve sold our birth right for a mess of modernism and post-modernism.
Metaphorically speaking, we’re the little kid screaming in the dark because he/she can’t face the blood guilt.
Let’s let go of it. Let’s make stories about it. Let’s make the horrible and largely senseless sacrifice of WWI the place to begin. They died, yes, but let’s not build chaos on their graves.
In the blood soaked soil of Europe, and in the US to which Europe has offloaded a great part of their blood guilt (no? Well, that’s another post) let a new idea flourish: the state, the state that considers the individual as nothing but a cog in a machine is wrong. Let the individual count. Let the individual come forth as the harbinger of the new age. The new tech is suited to it.
Let’s start from the individual. Let’s employ reason. Let’s stop dreaming of the noble savage, the noble animal. Let’s start as humans, flawed, wounded. Let’s build from the flawed individual human, accepting we’re flawed.
Let’s build neither utopian schemes nor great individual-mauling bureaucratic apparatus.
The long night is gone. The blood has been paid. Let’s not go back there, to that yawning maw of irrationality.
The old is not necessarily worse. The new is not necessarily better. No one’s skin color/gender/age is proof of good (or evil.) On the other end, some cultures are better than others: those that provide better living conditions, more wealth, better ability for individuals to survive. We need to start making those distinctions again. Those distinctions did not lead to WWI. No, the old thirst for power, the old family arguments on who gets to be the leader of the clan did. It was an old, old evil. And not the same at all as the spirit of the age in which it occurred.
Which is why it fractured us. And it’s time we understand that.
Let WWI rest in peace. And come out of the dark.