Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Archetype of the Gun

I don’t want to sound alarmist, but I am surrounded by guns, starting with my URL.  I thought I was clever coming up with www.magtech.org because everyone would know the site referred to magazine technology.  Except for those looking for www.magtech.com or www.magtechammunition.com to make their next assault weapon or ammunition purchase.

A few weeks ago, The Journal News, a local newspaper, posted a map on its web site that showed with digital teardrops the actual locations and addresses of homes of those who had a permit to carry a handgun.  This act was in response to the Newtown, Conn., shooting and, however well-intentioned, had a blowback effect because some permit holders had moved, given up their guns, or died.  And it didn’t include rifles.  So the newspaper squandered an opportunity.  Nonetheless, it had a sobering effect on the community.  Has the guy down the block who might have a gun been acting weird lately?

I’ve lived in the north Bronx and Brooklyn, New York, and assumed that most people had a gun or a knife and acted according.  I’ve had guns pulled on me while on business travel to Mexico and Romania.  But I’ve had good gun instructors from an early age.  As a detective, my father carried a gun and taught his three sons gun safety.   My brother-in-law, a US Army veteran who saw vicious fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and earned a Purple Heart, taught me to shoot skeet along the Ohio River.  I purchased my first gun, a 12-gauge shotgun from Sears, for small game hunting.   While in the Navy, I fired everything I could get my hands on, including deck guns.  My father-in-law taught me how to hunt deer using a 12-gauge shotgun and “pumpkin balls” or lead slugs good within a hundred yards.  I will always remember him for emphasizing the “sport” in sportsman.  In this spirit, I took up hunting with bow and arrow.

I gave up my last gun, used to keep down the groundhog population, when I moved off a farm in Pennsylvania more than a decade ago.  So I’m quite comfortable, digital gun mapping aside, around guns.   But why are we Americans so uncomfortable talking about guns and about placing certain restrictions on assault weapons and size of magazines?  The murders of the children and teachers in Newtown, Conn., have become an all-too-familiar narrative, bookmarked by the media.   Sadness, horror and outrage are followed by political vows that this time things will be different and something will be done.  In the meantime, the NRA vows that nothing will change and waits for the Connecticut effect to “blow over.”  The organization knows that it has time and much of the Congress on its side.     

I was working in England at the time of the Dunblane, Scotland, massacre, in which 16 children and a teacher were murdered by a man carrying four handguns and 743 cartridges.  It was widely reported that the shooter was a pedophile and deeply troubled by being booted out of the Boy Scouts.  The outrage in the UK lasted more than a few news cycles.  The outrage lasted.  Period.  I recall the punk rock band UK Subs, releasing their “Dunblane” single with the lyrics: “After Dunblane, how can you hold a gun and say you’re innocent.”   This guilt-by-association and similar effects worked.  By 1997, the UK had outlawed all handguns, with some exceptions.

Of course, the US is not the UK.  We have a Constitution and the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment that gives the people the right to keep and bear arms.  A common sense approach to gun restriction would be to state the obvious.  No right is absolute.  We can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater.  Why the absolutism when it comes to gun control?  The answer to this question won’t come from the hacks, pundits or the fringe.  The answer must come from psychology and the gods of mythology, all of whom are well-armed.

As a veteran, a media crank, and a student of psychology I keep the book, A Terrible Love of War by psychologist James Hillman close at hand because the author utters the unthinkable and rarely stated thesis: that America and most of the world loves war; that war is constant throughout history and ubiquitous around the globe; and war is considered normal and acceptable.  Hillman reminds us of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words:  “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today … is my own Nation.”

To make his point, Hillman notes there have been 16,000 wars of consequence during the last 5,000 years, more or less.  The author would ask us to re-read The Iliad and get to know the Greek God of war, Ares, and his more familiar Roman cousin, Mars, and the myths and legends around these gods to better understand that “the spirit of war and the rage of battle are archetypal, forced upon all animal life, all gender and all societies.” War is indeed inhuman, but it is also sublime.  In the film Patton, the general tells a soldier how much he loves war, more than life itself.  The myths tell us that Mars, no matter how much of a bastard he was, was never far from Venus.

Hillman walks among the mythical figures as if they were next-door neighbors.  But his interest is in psychology, not story-telling.  He reminds us, often, that “Myths provide archetypal ways of insighting the human condition; they present psychological truth such as we discover when turning to war with Mars/Ares in the background of our minds.”  Myths “ask the psyche to invent and speculate; to listen and be amused; religion, first of all, calls for belief.”

So what about guns in this psychological tableau?  The author takes us on an excursion to Japan which had gun control from 1543 to 1879.  The Portuguese introduced guns to Japan and that nation, already skilled at metallurgy, quickly became expert gunsmiths, improving the products in fundamental ways.  Then the country turned away from guns until Commodore Perry arrived in 1853.  Hillman suggests a number of reasons for this.  The skill of engagement moved from soldier to manufacturer; the warrior class didn’t want peasants getting the gun; Japan had no external gun enemies.  The gun was an “outside” idea.  For the author, more to the point is that “The cult of the sword was ancestral, symbolic, and religious—and also aesthetic.”  The sword was associated with elegant movement. The gun required award kneeling positions.

Hillman sees aesthetics as one possible solution or way out; the more beauty, the less violence.  He writes that, during the European Age of Enlightenment, there was a dis-taste for bloodshed and a reluctance to kill fellow Europeans.  Serious thinkers, including Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Swift, Samuel Johnson and many more advanced “a kind of guerrilla warfare against the cant and hypocrisy that form the fabric of nationalistic patriotism, sentimental personalism, and light-hearted religiosity so signal to our times.”

He adds that the idea that “culture restrains war is being proven in reverse.  Along with the American state’s promotion of bellicose militarism, it withdraws from the arts.  The impoverishment is furthered by debasing the language, neglecting education beyond occupational training, and narrowing the rich complexity of religious studies to one’s own favorite brand.”

At a recent NRA convention of Wausau, Wisconsin, The Reality News, not specifically tied to the gun lobby, published an article, “What Would Davy Crockett Say?”  The newspaper calls for Secession and a Combo Civil/Re-Revolutionary War and pushed this cant to the extreme.

This kind of rhetoric makes Hillman’s point.  In A Terrible Love of War, he argues that we need new myths and a heightened sense of aesthetics to explain our love of war and guns.  America’s love of guns is certainly tied to the frontier myth and the fantasy we have about taking things into our own hands.  American literature has a long tradition of the male antagonist as outsider, on-the-run, or in combat, anything to avoid “civilization” and the embrace of the feminine.  It is this simple archetype of nostalgia, co-opted by politicians and cause marketers, that asks “What would Davy Crockett Say?,” sounding very much like the Disney version but deadly as gunfire in its primitive, inelegant, and dime novel chant.

Hillman is too complicated and rich for summary.  He’s best read in the original.  He acknowledges that the pen is not mightier than the sword, that the expression is a writer’s delusion.  But he continues, in this book and others, to take us back to the eighteenth century and the Age of Enlightenment “when orthodox faith was giving way to freethinking,” suggesting aesthetic passions restrain war.  He writes that “all the arts and sciences, and the intimacies of talk, letters and diaries, are lived on slowness and its pleasures.”  By this, Hillman means the “slow aesthetics of workshop, studio, husbandry, garden, and laboratory, taming haste but not its passion.  Venus ‘victrix’ still wants to win and conquer the task at hand.  Aesthetic intensity draws Mars onto a parallel path.”

Less than one percent of Americans serve in the military.  A handful in government set military policy and send us to war.  Most of this is done in secret.  Organized religion, especially Christianity, offers no real counter.  Mars is well represented.  We need more of Venus in the dialogue; more of the feminine. Today, the conversation about guns is narrow and metallic, made intentionally circular and hollow by the convening parties.  We need more artists, poets, scientists, philosophers in this circle of fire.  Hillman asks us to imagine a “nation whose first line of defense is each citizen’s aesthetic investment in some cultural form.”  Might war lose some of its magic?  The author suggests that “aesthetic passion provides multiple fields for engagements with the inhuman and sublime certainly less catastrophic than the fields of battle.”

Until we get our heads around the notion that the gun, and the way it is worshiped in America, is an archetype and therefore a god, gun control, however useful, is a legalistic enterprise.  We should be far more interested in what Venus or Aphrodite has to say on this matter than the “king of the wild frontier” musing about the Alamo. 

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