Last Wednesday I walked into my living room and saw three gay rednecks in hot pink shirts being married as a “throuple” on a TV screen at close range, followed by one of the grooms singing a country song about a woman feeding her husband’s remains to her tigers.
I could not look away. What the fuck.
If you too have been rubbernecking the Tiger King — at any range — I have a book that will help you make sense of things: “Blood Rites: On The Origins and History of the Passions of War“, by Barbara Ehrenreich. I re-read it last night, and here is my book report.
In Blood Rites, Ehrenreich asks why we sacralize war. Not why we fight wars, or why we are violent necessarily, but why we are drawn to the idea of war, why we compulsively imbue it with an aura of honor and noble sacrifice. If you kill one person, you’re a murderer and we shut you out from society; kill ten and you are a monster; but if you kill thousands, or kill on behalf of the state, we give you medals and write books about you.
And it’s not only about scale or being backed by state power. The calling of war brings out the highest and finest experiences our species can know: it sings of heroism and altruism, of discipline, self-sacrifice, common ground, a life lived well in service; of belonging to something larger than one’s self. Even if, as generations of weary returning soldiers have told us, it remains the same old butchery on the ground, the near-religious allure of war is never dented for long in the popular imagination.
What the fuck is going on?
Ehrenreich is impatient with the traditional scholarship, which locates the origin of war in some innate human aggression or turf wars over resources. She is at her dryly funniest when dispatching feminist theories about violence being intrinsically male or “testosterone poisoning”, showing that the bloodthirstiest of the gods have usually been feminine. (Although there are fascinating symmetries between girls becoming women through menstruation, and boys becoming men through … some form of culturally sanctioned ritual, usually involving bloodshed.)
Rather, she shows that our sacred feelings towards blood shed in war are the direct descendents of our veneration of blood shed in sacrifice — originally towards human sacrifice and other animal sacrifice, in a reenactment of our own ever-so-recent role inversion from prey to predator. Prehistoric sacrifice was likely a way of exerting control over our environment and reenacting the death that gave us life through food.
In her theory, humans do not go to war because we are natural predators. Just the blink of an eye ago, on an evolutionary scale, humans were not predators by any means: we were prey. Weak, blind, deaf, slow, clawless and naked; we scrawny, clever little apes we were easy pickings for the many large carnivores who roamed the planet. We scavenged in the wake of predators and worshiped them as gods. We are the nouveaux riche of predators, constantly re-asserting our dominance to soothe our insecurities.
We go to war not because we are predators, in other words, but because we are prey — and this makes us very uncomfortable! War exists as a vestigial relic of when we venerated the shedding of blood and found it holy — as anyone who has ever opened the Old Testament can attest. It was not until the Axial Age that religions of the world underwent a wholesale makeover into a less bloody, more universalistic set of aspirations.
When I first read this book, years ago, I remember picking it up with a roll of the eyes. “Sounds like some overly-metaphorical liberal academic nonsense” or something like that. But I was hooked within ten pages, my mind racing ahead with even more evidence than she marshals in this lively book. It shifted the way I saw many things in the world.
Like horror movies, for example. Or why cannibalism is so taboo. How Jesus became the Son of God, the Brothers’ Grimm, the sacrament of Communion. The primal fear of being food still resonates through our culture in so many sublimated ways.
And whether what you’re watching is “Tiger King” or the Tiger-King-watchers, it will make A LOT more sense after reading this book too.
Stay safe and don’t kill each other,
 Ehrenreich is best known for her stunning book on the precariousness of the middle class, “Nickel and Dimed”, where she tried to subsist for a year only on whatever work she could get with a high school education. Ehrenreich is a journalist, and this is a piece of science journalism, not scientific research; yet it is well-researched and scrupulously cited, and it’s worth noting that she has a PhD in biology and was once a practicing scientist.