April 25, 2006

The Denial of the Body in the 21st Century

“Make Love Not War.” It was a favorite slogan of the 1960s; one often saw these words on placards at Vietnam protest marches. The motto was based on the work of the Austrian psychiatrist, Wilhelm Reich, who argued that when people are deprived of satisfying sexual love, their repression turns into aggression. Now we are faced with a possible American war against Iraq, and one can’t help wondering if Reich’s analysis still holds true.

Of course, one of the problems with Reich is that he construed the idea of the repression of erotic life much too narrowly. As I argue in my book, Cuerpo y Espiritu: La historia oculta de occidente, eros—the life of the body—is not just about sex. The ability to breathe deeply, to feel the sun on one’s cheek, even to smell the strong aroma of coffee in a Barcelona café—all of these things are avenues into our emotional life. They bespeak a world of primary satisfaction. The notion that there can be a life of the mind separate from the body is a Puritan fantasy, and it has done the human race untold harm. It leads to a world of secondary satisfaction, a world of substitute satisfactions that we normally call “addictions”. This includes psychological “drugs” as well as chemical ones, and in this category we can put the lust for power, for control, for violence itself. War is a heady wine; it enables us to get high not only from rage and destruction, but from the self-righteousness, the phony moral indignation, that is used to justify this behavior.

Why would the United States suddenly want to go to war with Iraq, especially when the latter has no clear tie to the Al Qaeda network, and when the CIA has bluntly told President Bush that Saddam Hussein is less of a threat left alone than if attacked? As a number of scholars and journalists have pointed out, this war—if it indeed comes to pass—is not really about Iraq as a political opponent or about its alleged weapons of mass destruction. More significant is the American desire to take over Iraqi oil fields, as well as the the intention of having a controlling (military) presence in the Middle East—a key feature of America’s plans for global hegemony. But there is a hidden dimension to all of this, I believe, where the life of the body needs to get factored into the equation. The former American president, Jimmy Carter, alluded to this in an essay he wrote for the Washington Post several weeks before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Remarking that “there is no current danger to the United States from Baghdad,” Carter said that war fever was being fomented by “a core group of conservatives trying to realize long-pent-up ambitions under the cover of the proclaimed war against terrorism.”

I do not wish to make too much out of this; it is easy to get seduced by a kind of psychological reductionism. War, as we all know, is a complex phenomenon; it cannot be attributed to a single cause, and I am not making any such claim. But Carter’s remark does beg the obvious question: Where do these pent-up ambitions come from? Reading Nicholas Lemann’s descriptions of Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (New Yorker, 7 May 2001; 14/21 October 2002)—to take only two members of the pro-war team—one is struck by how “out of touch” these individuals are. Nothing, or so it would seem, could be more lacking in their lives than an awareness of the body and its emotions. Cheney’s perfectionism is so legendary, and his anger so rigidly under control, that he has suffered a string of heart attacks as a result. Watching him on television, one has the impression of someone barely able to conceal his contempt, his posture of virtuous inflexibility. As for Ms. Rice, the picture that emerges is one of a life that is extremely “successful,” at the cost of her having no loves and no real friends. In television interviews, she tends to talk in clichés, and of a black-and-white world of good vs. evil. There is a terrible sadness to people such as these, whose body language reveals how crippling the life of secondary satisfaction finally is.

Who pays for it, in the end? They do, of course; secondary satisfaction, by definition, misses the whole point of life. Such people look like heroes; the truth is that they are victims. But the real losers in this game are the victims of the victims, as it were: three million people, in the case of Vietnam, for example. What the civilian death toll might be in Iraq, should war come to pass, is as yet unclear. It is hardly the best way to begin the twenty-first century; but as long as the denial of the body is the central motif of our existence, we shall continue to make others suffer—and die—for the lives we are ultimately afraid to live.

©Morris Berman, 2002
3701 Connecticut Ave NW #618
Washington DC 20008


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