Art, we may learn from Picasso, is “the lie that lets us see the truth.” In this connection, Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti’s iconic sculpture, Man Pointing, appears to indict an entire world. Skeletal and (at least by inference) tormented, it casts a prophetic “last judgment” upon our determinedly self-dooming species. Willfully self-destructive, humanity continues to murder almost routinely, en masse and, in essence, to fully scandalize its own creation.
Usually without any hesitation.
There is more. For millennia, of course, the lead engine of human destructiveness has been war. Reciprocally, this unending “tribal” conflict has expressed myriad spasms of individualhuman needs. Though generally inconspicuous in launching such expressions, the personal and political have always been both darkly overlapping and deeply inter-penetrating.
Always, though not readily apparent, insistent human needs emerge as the principal driving force of all world politics. More than anything else, sometimes even more than the “normally” overriding drive to avoid death, human beings need to belong. This particular need can be manifested quite harmlessly, as at any large sporting event or rock concert, or perniciously, as in predictably recurrent eruptions of war and terrorism.
Still, one underlying dynamic of belonging never varies. This one is always the same. From the start, each individual human has carried forward, in his or her own memory, a bygone collective moment. This is an indelible marker of “membership” that, even over time, has lost none of its hideously virulent satisfactions.
This is a difficult concept to decipher and apprehend. Widely overlooked, its core source of comfort is an allegedly sacred complicity, that is, a tacit sharing with some and against “others,” a collaboration which sanctifies the original forfeiture of self and then inaugurates a grotesque and now all-too-familiar metamorphosis. When, at long last, the bitter transformation is more-or-less complete – when certain lethal differentiations based on “us” versus “them” have become de rigueur – entire civilizations could come to understand Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard’s utterly primal scream: “The crowd is untruth.”
There is more. In part, at least, Giacometti’s Man Pointing may represent a statuary expression of human isolation, of alienation, of “aloneness.” Already recounted for us long ago by Homer and Aristotle, each individual person ordinarily feels empty and insignificant apart from some recognizable membership in the crowd. Sometimes, that sustaining crowd is the State. Sometimes it is the Tribe. Sometimes it is the Faith (always, of course, the “one true faith”). Sometimes, it is even the “liberation” or “revolutionary” movement.
Whatever the particular aggrandizing group of the moment, it is always the persistent craving for membership that threatens to bring forth a catastrophic downfall of individual responsibility. The calamitous result, as we have witnessed so often from time immemorial, is a convulsive and plausibly irreversible triumph of collective will. As a modern example of what can ultimately happen, the most alarming is plainly Nazi Germany. Hitler’s own personal filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, even named her classic work about the 1934 Nuremberg party congress accordingly (The Triumph of the Will).
“Reading” between the lines of Giacometti’s emaciated figure, a practical conclusion should quickly present itself. Unless we humans can finally learn how to temper our overwhelming desire to be members, to belong, all currently prevailing military and diplomatic schemes to deal with war and terrorism will immediately or eventually fail. Without more expressly protean human transformations, these assorted and generally well-intentioned schemes for a balance of power, collective security (United Nations) or collective defense (alliances such as NATO), will remain effectively beside the point. Them expressed in more properly social scientific terms, these ineffectual schemes will remain “epiphenomenal.”
There is still more. The categorical obligation to read must go beyond any pertinent metaphoric allusions to art. This obligation must represent a distinctly literal imperative.
To wit, to finally succeed in its planetary search for peace, humankind would especially benefit from understanding Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Emerson, Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Ionesco, and Beckett. There, as a philosophic start, one could learn how to frame human-scale strategies and imperatives for defying the “crowd.” To survive and to prosper, Freud had noted, every civilization will need to harness Eros, that is, to help unite each single human life with all others.
Alternatively, as Freud had already understood, individuals, in the name of some sort of ritualized herd loyalty, will continue to flee their own inwardness. They will flee “normally,” in expectation of a desperately needed liberation from “repression.” Facing even a conclusive death of self, these terror-struck individuals will still refuse to be resuscitated.
Then, at last, perhaps stubbornly, they will have succumbed altogether to the crowd-created dizziness of the irremediable.
Conspicuously, Nietzsche had longed for a world “beyond Good and Evil.” Freud, who preferred the term “primal horde” to Nietzsche’s “herd” or Kierkegaard’s “crowd,” sought dispassionately to identify a world in which this longed-for transcendence might already have applied. Unsurprisingly, his discovery turned out to be our very own extant world, one wherein Eros remains unable to play its indispensable world-unifying role. Instead, it merely reinforces baneful or narcissistic identifications with each individual’s particular herd of choice.
For easily determinable reasons, the evening news is always about “disease” manifestations, but never about any authentically underlying pathologies. Our most pressing dangers of war and terrorism continue to stem from the combining of more-or-less susceptible individuals into various crowd-centered herds. Not every herd is violent, of course, but war and terrorism can never take place in the absence of herds.
This is a point well worth keeping in mind.
Whenever individuals crowd together and form a herd, the latently destructive dynamics of the mob may sometime be released. These dynamics lower each person’s moral and intellectual level to a point where even mass killing may become acceptable or welcome.
Genocide, it follows,must now “join” both war and terrorism as a potential consequence of these myriad collective identifications.
This brings us back to current events, to symptoms, to “epiphenomena.” At their core, most ongoing conflicts across the world – e.g., Syria; Egypt; Afghanistan; Pakistan; India; Sudan; Nigeria; Kenya; etc. – represent just another expression of endlessly fragmenting struggles between warring herds. Often, though the various tribal contenders would have us believe that “God’s will” is the gold standard of all their policy decisions, the de facto end to their blind fury is anything but divine.
In the end, Giacometti’s Man Pointing may be taken as an imaginative signpost of what is most deeply causal in spawning war and shaping peace. This is a consciously far-reaching detachment of individual human meaning from membership in certain herds, and a corresponding awareness that war has already decimated the herds of centuries. Whether such detachment and awareness are still within our remediating grasp is uncertain. What can be said with certainty, however, is the following:
A triumph of peace can never be achieved at just the “symptomatic” level of international relations, but only at the more starkly underlying level of individual human beings.