Monday, December 31, 2012

Inventing the Enemy (Umberto Eco)

A little background on this piece--Eco gave this as a lecture at the University of Bologna in May of 2008. It's the first piece in a new collection of essays with the same title. I'm not sure why I'm so drawn to Eco's work. It may be because his specialty is semiotics, a field that makes us think about how we express and understand things in more than a superficial manner. His novels are very involved but engrossing, and it requires some level of discipline to catch every nuance, to follow every plot. Like a good workout, I'm tired afterward, but glowing with a sense of having done some real "work". I can confidently go on to approach my own writing and research, feeling like my mind has been warmed up for the race.

"Inventing the Enemy" starts with an anecdote about an encounter with a Pakistani cab driver who asked him about his home country of Italy--"who are your enemies"? Eco was taken aback by the question, and by the assertion that a country must have enemies. After thinking about it, he realized that Italy had no outside enemies--all the enemies were from within--"Pisa against Lucca, Guelphs against Ghibellines, north against south, Fascists against Partisans, mafia against state, Berlusconi's government against the judiciary." (p. 2)

Eco then muses on the notion of having an enemy, making references ranging from ancient Rome to the plight of the Black man in more contemporary eras. He looks at the way Blacks are negatively painted, as well as Jews, throughout history.

He notes that enemies are necessary for identity--we define ourselves in terms of the "other". It becomes a battle of sacred vs. profane, moral vs. immoral, beautiful vs. ugly and fetid. The enemy who kills children and drinks their blood (something said of both Jews and Christians at different times in history). The enemy is something foul, from the bowels of the earth, the Fomorians as opposed to the Tuatha. The Enemy is smelly, monstrous, and ugly, and it is worth noting that demons in Judeo-Christian writings have the same attributes. Eco in fact talks about the alleged witches' Sabbats that involved allegiance to the devil and the defaming of the cross. The enemy is also portrayed the criminal and the prostitute, disrupters of the social order.

At this point, I can't help but to reflect on Western myth and its own reflection of Western consciousness. The mythology of the West suggests that Nature is bad, or at least inferior. God is separate from Nature, God created Man and Nature, Man sinned against God, God withdrew from the world and left it as corrupt, and ruled by Death, also considered to be unnatural.

As Western culture marched from the ancient Semitic days towards the Hellenistic period and the Roman empire, the notion of the Enemy became more central. Hades always had its place in the cycle of life, as did Ge, the Earth Mother. But as the world became more philosophical, glorifying Spirit and Ideas over Matter and things of the Earth, the split became more pronounced. There had always been a tension between the orderly rituals and rites of elite society and the rituals of the masses, which were often related to fertility and could involve chaotic, frenzied rites. With the coming of the Christian Era, the Church rejected and sought to stamp out these baser rituals and their deities. The philosophers and the Christians became champions of the "Good", and sought to eradicate "Evil". And, just as spirit was seen as more valuable than matter, so the "good" became identified with spirit, and evil with matter and the Earth.

In Jungian theory, Eco's idea of the Enemy is in accord with Jung's map of the psyche--it is made up of pairs of opposites. Those weaker sides that we don't want to admit are part of us, or are under-developed, are known as the "Shadow". Jung's proposition was not to get rid of the Shadow, but rather to integrate it via something like Hegelian synthesis. It is often an uneasy alliance, but it is the mark of the mature individual, the Hero who has successfully gone on a quest and returned a new person.

James Hillman defines the metaphorical Hades of the unconscious as the "place of soul-making" for this reason. He sums up the problem of the Christian idea of salvation by saying that Paul exchanges psyche for pneuma: "We pay for spirit with our souls. Christianism's defeat of the underworld is also a loss of soul." To have a "victory over death" means that we lose the ability to make our souls. (Dream and the Underworld, p. 87)

With respect to this issue, and the demonization of things of the Earth (e.g., sex, wine, etc.), Jung states: "The medieval carnivals and jeux de paume in the Church were abolished relatively early; consequently, the carnival became secularized, and with it divine intoxication vanished from the sacred precincts. Mourning, earnestness, severity, and well-tempered spiritual joy remained. But intoxication, that most direct and dangerous form of possession, turned away from the gods and enveloped the human world with its exuberance and pathos. The pagan religions met this danger by giving drunken ecstasy a place within their cult...Our solution, however, has served to throw the gates of hell wide open." (Jung, 12: ¶182).

And so we return to the question of the Enemy. Eco correctly points out that we need an Enemy, and notes at the end of the essay, "We can recognize ourselves only in the presence of an Other, and on this the rules of coexistence and submission are based. But it is more likely that we find this Other intolerable because to some degree he is not us. In this way, by reducing him to an enemy, we create our hell on earth." I would add that it's not so much that the Other "isn't us", but that our ego does not want to acknowledge that the Other is as much a part of us as all those wonderful things we believe about ourselves. Where there is Heaven, there must also be Hell, and it all exists within the space of the Psyche. Rejecting and denying the Other only makes us unconsciously hateful human beings.

A friend and I had coffee recently, and she and I had both been to see the Hobbit at different times this month. She blasted the movie for being "too violent" and teaching kids to be violent. I told her she'd missed the point entirely. Life is violent and full of suffering. Even if it's not physical violence, there is a certain violence involved in growing up. We are always encountering the Enemy, seeing monsters everywhere. You don't get through life by hiding and pretending the monsters aren't there. Each confrontation changes you, and makes you a person more aware of the totality of being, not of the smallness of the ego. For all the faults of the movie vis-a-vis the book, it is pretty clear that Bilbo Baggins is not the same Hobbit that left the comforts of his home and his mother's dishes in the Shire. He has gone outside his comfortable little world and develops his weak points on behalf of others, instead of simply indulging his own desires. The process of becoming involves a lot of discomfort, and a constant engaging of the Enemy. However, we are not out to destroy the Enemy, but to come into an uneasy alliance. Even in the Titanomachy of ancient Greek myth, the monsters were not killed, they retreated to the depths of Tartarus.

Perhaps this quote from Jung sums up my reflections the best: "The devil always seeks to saw off the branch on which you sit. That is useful and protects you from falling asleep and from the vices that go along with it. The devil is an evil element. But joy? If you run after it, you see that joy also has evil in it, since then you arrive at pleasure and from pleasure go straight to Hell, your own particular Hell, which turns out differently for everyone. Through my coming to terms with the devil, he accepted some of my seriousness, and I accepted some of his joy. This gave me courage. But if the devil has gotten more earnest, one must brace oneself.   It is always a risky thing to accept joy, but it leads us to life and its disappointment, from which the wholeness of our life becomes." [The Red Book; Page 260-261] *

*(Thanks to the Carl Jung Depth Psychology blog for this piece.)

No comments: