Nuclear war has been described as a form of madness. Yet rarely does one take this insight seriously when contemplating the dilemma of war and peace.
I wish to describe here the state of mind that has produced nuclear weaponry, a socially accepted insanity born of a philosophical assumption that human consciousness is separate from nature. Part of the foundation and history of this state of mind is the hatred of “the other,” in the form of racism, misogyny (the hatred of women), and anti-Semitism.
The first use of atomic weapons in wartime was against a people regarded by Western civilization as racially inferior. The first experimental nuclear device, exploded over Bikini Atoll, had a pin-up of Rita Hayworth pasted to its surface. The prototype of the first missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads was invented and designed in the Third Reich; those first rockets, the German V-2s, were built in underground tunnels by prisoners of concentration camps who were worked to death. These facets of the evolution of nuclear weaponry can lead us to a deeper understanding of the troubled mind that has created our nuclear crisis.
Consider the splitting of the atom. In the most basic terms, the splitting of an atom is a division between energy and matter. Until this century, modern science assumed matter and energy to be separate. This assumption did not evolve from scientific observation but from a religious bias. Historically, early scientists were associated with and supported by the church (as was most scholarship). “What is the nature of light?” — a question intimately bound up with the theory of relativity and quantum physics — began as a religious question derived from Christian theology. The guiding paradigm of the religion that posed this question was a dualism between matter and spirit. Matter — or body and earth — was the corrupt, degraded region, belonging to the Devil. Spirit — or the realm of pure intellect and heavenly influence — belonged to God, and was won only at the expense of flesh.
Although science does not recognize the categories of spirit and matter any longer, the old dualism has been preserved in the new vocabulary. Newtonian physics considered matter as earthbound, and thus subject to gravity; energy, the equivalent of spirit, was described as a free agent. But when Einstein discovered the formula that eventually led to the development of the atomic bomb, he saw a continuum between matter and energy, rather than a separation. What we call solid matter is not solid, nor is it static. Matter is a process of continual change. There is no way to divide the energy of this motion from the physical property of matter. Also, energy has mass. Thus, it is impossible to divide any single entity from any other single entity. For example, no particular point exists where my skin definitively ends and the air in the atmosphere begins, where this atmosphere ends and your skin begins. We are all in a kind of field together. In Einsteinian physics, the old line between subject and object disappeared. According to Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty, whatever we observe, we change through our participation. Objectivity, with its implied superiority and control, has vanished.
One might imagine that with the disappearance of a scientific basis for dualism, and the scientific acceptance of a view that is unified and whole, a different philosophy might arise, which might help us make peace with nature. Instead, our civilization chose to find a way to separate matter from energy. (“Liberating energy” is the expression used.) In turn, this separation has produced a technology of violence, which has divided the world into two separate camps that regard each other as enemies.
The real enemy in dualistic thinking is hidden: ourselves. The same thinking that imagines matter and energy to be separate also divides human nature, separating what we call our material existence from consciousness. Actually, the mind cannot be separated from the body. The brain is part of the body, and is affected by blood flow, temperature, nourishment, and muscular movement. The order and rhythm of the body are reflected in the medium of thought and in our patterns of speech. Yet, we conceive of the mind as separate and “above” the body. Through a subtle process of socialization, we learn to regard the body as inferior and without intelligence. Most rules of polite behavior are designed to conceal the demands of the body. We excuse ourselves, and refer to our bodily functions through euphemisms.
From this dualistic frame of mind two selves are born: one acknowledged and one hidden. The acknowledged self identifies with spirit, with intellect, with what we imagine to be free from the influence of natural law. The hidden self is part of nature, earthbound, inextricable from physical existence. We have become alienated from this denied self. Our alienation has become a kind of self-hatred, leading us today toward the suicidal notion of nuclear combat.
Of course the body and mind are not separate. Ironically, the warfare between who we think we are and who we really are is made more intense by the actual unity of body and mind. Consciousness cannot exclude bodily knowledge. We are inseparable from nature, dependent on the biosphere, vulnerable to the processes of natural law. We cannot destroy the air we breathe without destroying ourselves. We are reliant on one another for our survival. We are all mortal. This knowledge comes to us, whether we want to receive it or not, with every breath.
The dominant philosophy of this civilization has attempted to posit a different order of being over and against this bodily knowledge: that we are separate from nature, and thus above the natural process. According to this philosophy, we are meant to dominate nature, control life, and — taken to its extreme — avoid the natural occurrence of death.
To maintain a belief in this hierarchy, one must repress bodily knowledge. This is no easy task. Our knowledge of our own natural existence comes to us with hunger, with intimacy, with dreams, with all the unpredictable aspects of life which constantly assault our imagined superiority over nature.
In the biosphere, nothing is ever entirely lost. Death itself is not an absolute end, but a transformation. What appears to be lost in a fire becomes heat and ash. Likewise, knowledge can never really be lost to consciousness. For consciousness is part of nature, and as such mirrors the most essential qualities of nature; it must remain, even if disguised as a symbol of itself.
If I choose to bury a part of myself, it will haunt me in another form: as dream, or fear, or projection. This civilization, which has buried parts of the human self, has created many projections. Out of the material of self-hatred, ideologies denouncing “otherness” have been fashioned. Existing on a mass scale and by social agreement, these categories form a repository for our hidden selves.
Misogyny and racism have created a fundamental category of otherness. In the ideology of misogyny, a woman is a lesser being than a man. The root cause of her inferiority is that she is closer to the earth, more animal, and hence more material in her nature. She is thus more susceptible to temptations of the flesh (or devils, or serpents), more emotional, and thus less capable of abstract thought than a man. Similarly, in the ideology of racism, a person with dark skin is perceived as more sensual and erotic, and less intelligent.
During the rise of fascism in Europe, a fictitious document was created, called the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” It purported that Jewish elders planned to corrupt and eventually control Aryan bloodlines through the rape and seduction of Aryan women. The significance of this myth — and much of the misogynist, racist, and anti-Semitic imagination — is that a sexual act, particularly rape, lies at its heart.
I first began to understand the ideology of misogynic projection while writing a book on pornography. Since there is so much violence in pornography, I began to ask why sexual experience is associated with violence. This question arises again in the context of nuclear weaponry: for example, Rita Hayworth’s image adorning an experimental nuclear bomb, the phallic shape of the missile, the language used to describe the weapons (the first atomic bomb was called “little boy”; the second, “big boy”). Warfare itself has been sexualized with the eroticizing of violence in war and the general equating of masculine virtues with prowess in battle.
I began to understand that pornographic imagery is an expression of the fear of sexual experience itself. Sexual experience takes one back to a direct knowledge of nature and of one’s own body, an experience outside the realm of cultural intervention, which has created a delusion of dominance. Inherent in the nature of sexual pleasure and of orgasm is the loss of control. The feel of a woman’s breast, or simply of skin against skin, must recall infancy.
As infants we all experienced dependence and powerlessness and vulnerability. Our first experience of a power outside ourselves was through our mothers’ bodies. Thus, we have all come to associate nature with the body of a woman. Our mother could choose to feed or not to feed us, to give or withhold warmth and comfort. She had the power of life and death over us.
As infants we also confronted what we have come to know as death. Our concept of death — coldness, isolation, fear, darkness, despair, trembling — is really the experience of an infant. Whatever death really is lies in the dimension of the unknown. But from the infantile experience of death, one can see the psychological derivation of civilization’s association between women and death. (One also sees this in the creation myth from Genesis, as Eve the seductress brings death into the world.) Sexual experience, too, returns one to a primal fear of death. At the center of the impulse to rape is the desire to dominate sexual experience itself, and to deny the power of nature as it is felt through sexual experience.
The connection between sexuality and violence exists as a kind of subterranean theme in the fascist and authoritarian mentality. In his book Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, Jacobo Timmerman describes the relationship between the violence of a dictator and his attitude toward sexuality. Imprisoned and tortured himself, Timmerman recalls that those who did not do “a good scrubbing job” on the prison floors were forced to “undress, lean over with their index finger on the ground, and . . . rotate ’round and ’round, dragging their finger on the ground without lifting it. . . . You felt as if your kidneys were bursting.” Another punishment for prisoners was to run naked along the passageway “reciting aloud sayings dictated” to them, such as “My mother is a whore,” “I masturbate,” “I respect the guard,” “The police love me.”
To the fascist mind, “the other” represents a denied part of the self, as shown clearly in the following story about Adolf Hitler. In a famous passage in Mein Kampf, Hitler describes the moment when he decided to devote his life’s work to anti-Semitism. While walking through the streets of Vienna, he happened to see an old man in a kaftan, the traditional dress of Jewish men in that city at that time. He first asked himself, “Is this man Jewish?” Then he corrected himself, replacing that question with, “Is this man German?”
To project a denied self onto another, you must establish that this other is different from yourself. You would be endangered if you perceived any similarity; you would see that what you project may belong to you. Hitler’s question became a standard part of German textbooks in the Third Reich. A stereotypical portrait of a Jewish man’s face was shown under the question, “Is this man German?” The correct answer, of course, was “No.” In fact, Germany became a nation rather late; for centuries it existed as a collection of separate tribes. One of the oldest was Jewish.
Hitler’s anecdote about the man in the kaftan became a standard part of his orations. He would sometimes become nearly hysterical while telling the story; it even said that he once vomited during the tale.
In light of this history, a seemingly trivial story from Hitler’s earlier life becomes significant. As a young art student, he bought his clothes secondhand because, like many students, he was poor. In this period, most of those who sold secondhand clothing were Jewish. Hitler bought from a Jew an item of clothing which he wore so often that he began to be identified with it: a kaftan.
The kaftan was a form of medieval German dress. Exiled from Germany during a period of persecution, many Jews continued to wear this traditional German dress. Centuries later, Jews were still wearing it when they returned to Germany. Not only did Hitler fail to recognize an image of himself in the streets of Vienna, but so did an entire generation of Germans. In the same way, our entire civilization is in conflict with a part of our own human nature that we try to bury, and even, eventually, to destroy.
The weapons that could now destroy the Earth were developed because the Allied nations feared the fascist powers were making such weapons. In order to understand ourselves and the part of us that has led to the nuclear crisis, it is crucial that we begin to look at the Nazi Holocaust as a mirror, to find a self-portrait in “the other” who is persecuted and denied, and to see as a part of ourselves the fascist dictator who would destroy that denied self.
Not only does our civilization retain the illusion that we are somehow above nature; we have even come to believe we can end material existence without dying. We use nuclear weaponry as a strategy for defense, yet the use of those weapons would annihilate us. Looking closely at the overall nuclear strategy, one encounters the same estranged relationship with reality. A former member of the Reagan administration proposed that a viable method of civil defense would be to issue each citizen a shovel. The absurdity of this plan was pointed out by an eight-year-old boy: after you dig a hole and get into it for protection, someone else must stand outside the hole and shovel dirt on top.
One year the Pentagon wrote a dramatization of a nuclear war. I found their scenario very disturbing. In this play, the President was killed by a direct hit to Washington, D.C. Any student of tragic drama knows that what happens to the King — or the President — is symbolic of what happens to the self. But this death is not experienced as real. Though the earth self dies, the sky self does not die: the Vice President goes up in an airplane equipped to wage nuclear war by computer. (There is such a plane flying above us now, at every hour of the day and night.)
The separation that we experience from the natural self, the self that is material and embedded in nature, impairs our perceptions of reality.
As Timmerman writes:
The devices are recurrent in all totalitarian ideology, to ignore the complexities of reality, or even eliminate reality, and instead establish a simple goal and a simple means of attaining that goal.
Alienated from nature as well as from the natural self, our civilization replaces reality with an idea of reality. By maintaining the supremacy of the idea, we create a delusion of a power over nature.
As this alienation becomes a state of mind, the delusion of well-being and safety eventually becomes more important than the realistic considerations that can actually effect well-being or safety. Hannah Arendt describes an illusionary world created by totalitarian movements in which “. . . through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home, and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experience deal to human beings. . . .” “In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt writes of the mass state of mind under the Third Reich, in which people ceased to believe what they perceived through their own eyes and ears, preferring to believe the conflicting reports issued by the Fuhrer.
The same failure to confront reality appears in Stalin’s psychology, as described in his biography by Isaac Deutscher:
He was now completely possessed by the idea that he could achieve a miraculous transformation of the whole of Russia by a single tour de force. He seemed to live in a half-real and half-dreamy world of statistical figures and indices of industrial orders and instructions, a world in which no target and no objective seemed beyond his and the party’s grasp.
During the period of forced collectivization of farms, Stalin destroyed existing farms before the collective farms were created. As Deutscher writes, it was as if a whole nation had destroyed its real houses and moved “lock, stock, and barrel into some illusory buildings.”
We are now, in fact, living in such an illusory building. The manner in which plans for nuclear war are discussed, rehearsed, and envisioned attests to a kind of unreality, an anesthetized and nearly automatic functioning, in which intellect is strangely unrelated to experience or feeling. The generals imagine themselves conducting nuclear war from a room without windows, choosing strategies and targets by looking at enormous computerized maps. The language they use to communicate their decisions is all in code. They do not use the words war, bomb, death, blood, pain, loss, grief, shock, or horror. Siegfried Sassoon, in his recollection of World War I, describes an encounter with a fellow soldier who had just learned that his brother had been killed. The man was half-crazy, tearing off his clothes, cursing the war. As Sassoon passed beyond him into the dark of the war, he could still hear “his uncouth howlings.” Such uncouth howlings are what the planners of nuclear war have muted in their imaginations.
Of course that howling is not entirely lost. In the shared imagination of our civilization, it is “the other” who carries emotion; the women who howl. Far from wishing to protect the vulnerable and the innocent, this civilization secretly desires to destroy those who feel, to silence feeling. This hidden desire becomes apparent in pornography, in which women are pictured as weaker than men and in need of protection. Simultaneously, eroticism is freely mixed with the desire to brutalize and even murder women.
The pornographic film “Peeping Tom” grimly depicts the insane logic of the alienated mind of our civilization. The hero of this movie is a pornographic filmmaker. He has a camera armed with a spear. As he photographs a naked woman, the camera releases the weapon and records her agonized death. The alienated mind’s final victory over reality is to destroy that reality (and the experience of it), and to replace reality with a record of its destruction. One finds the same pattern in actual atrocities. In California, a man lured women into the desert, promising them work as pornographic models. While he tortured and then murdered them, he made a photographic record of the event. Similarly, the best documentation of atrocities committed in German concentration camps was kept by the Nazis themselves. And the most complete records of the destruction of native Americans have been kept by the United States military.
Now, the state of conflict in which this civilization finds itself has worsened. The enemy is not simply “the other,” but life itself. The Pentagon declares that we can win nuclear war: we have situated satellites in space that will record the annihilation of life, and the Pentagon counts as future victor that nation which will have the best documentation of the destruction.
There is, however, another form of reflection available to us by virtue of our human nature. We are our own witnesses. We can see ourselves. We are part of nature, and nature is not divided. Feeling, sense, the needs of the body — all that has been consigned to “the other” and made the province of women, of darkness — contains a deeper and sustaining wisdom. It remains for us to empower that knowledge and carry it into the world. In madness, we are lost to ourselves. It is only by coming home to ourselves that we can survive.