A Terrible Love of War
By James Hillman
The Penguin Press
by Gwen Nowak
Review published in Books in Canada, November 2004
A Terrible Love of War is James Hillman’s last testament. In four charged chapters Hillman guides his reader on an excursion into the dark underworld of the soul to shed light on what he claims has never been seen before the bunkers of the dark god of war, the dark god who rules the world, the warring world, the everyday world where war is now, has always been and, unless this ubiquitous force is decommissioned, will always be.
Hence the title of chapter one: War is Normal. But admittedly war is not an acceptable normal given its horror, the pathologies of bloodletting, scorched earth, shell shock. If ‘normal’ we hope that war is the old normal; that a new normal is possible. And we hope that internationally renowned psychologist James Hillman will show us the way out, a way beyond our ‘terrible love of war.’ In this book Hillman puts to work his theories of the soul [Suicide and the Soul 1964] and his new approach to psychotherapy [Re-Visioning Psychology 1975] to addressing the phenomenon of war. When presenting his qualifications to be an authoritative “Analyst of War” he highlights his personal credential“his thin red line of calling”, his astrological sign as a “child of Mars”, his destiny ordained by Mars, the god that Christianity thought it had left behind.
Founder of Archetypal Psychology, Hillman is thus prepared to lead us into “war’s deepest mind”, to that place in our inmost depths where the individual psyche is embedded in the collective. Hillman urges us past the conventional explanations of the sources of psychic dysfunction associated with our personal histories [birth trauma, bad parents etc.] to reach the basic layer of the mind, the transpersonal realm of myth, poetry, the home of the gods. As our guide in this psychic underworld, he offers a package of readings, relevant reflections on the nature of war by military generals, philosophers, writers like Twain and Tolstoy. He tells us that if we are to tame the beast that is war ours must be a work of imagination, a full engagement with the ubiquitous god of war, the god of many names Mars, Ares, Indra, Thor, the “Inhuman” as the divinity who “rages, strikes death, stirs panic, driving individual humans mad and collective societies blind.”
By the time we reach chapter two titled “War is Inhuman” we know that ‘inhuman’ is more than a descriptive epithet pointing to the obviousthose wild butchering brutalities of war savaging both the land and the children of the land. And we are forced to recognize the terrible destabilizing irony that it is humans whose behaviour is inhuman. How so? Hillman tells us to look and look again at where he has shepherded usinto the realm of the gods whose life is autonomous, as war seems to be autonomous. He points out that the search for secular models as analogues to account for the universal self-replicating aspect of war fall short; the fullest explanation is that war is an archetypal impulse, an emanation of a god, namely Ares [Greek] Mars [Roman]. And Hillman reveals this god as an “enemy of life”, as evidenced by one universal atrocity persistent in war, the act of rape. So much so that in Hillman’s view rape “becomes a cover word for all of war’s brutal conquests, a word for war itself.”
But then Hillman suggests that he can take us deeper, deeper even than the gods of war. He asks: “Could the land want war?” We might wonder how the land that we can see could be deeper than the collective unconscious that we can’t see. So we listen as Hillman posits a mythic power to the earth, Mother Earth [alternatively “the gods of the land”] requiring blood sacrifice before she will accept the people of the land as her children. Hillman’s example is the American Civil War, its fury and devastation, the blood of the colonists’ sons soaking the earth before the earth would release her bounty. Alternatively, or perhaps in parallel, when the earth is fed war’s blood, “its blood soul remembers, addicted, insatiably needing more.” Hillman points out that our rational debates about persons, politics, economics and genderour day-world analysis of immediate causes of inhuman slaughterare irrelevant given that we are but playthings of inhuman forces working from behind, or rather below, the scene.
And then Hillman invites us into the next chamber, his third chapter: War is Sublime. We are again in the Hall of Hades but this time Mars is not alone. He is with his paramour Venus. And we learn that it is this concord between Venus and Mars [Aphrodite and Ares] Love and War, which generates the feeling of the sublime, that “stunning concatenation of the baleful and the beautiful,” the great exaltation expressed by so many combatants in the midst of spectacular destruction. Our guide to the interface between mythology and psychology, Psychopompos Hillman acknowledges that this descent into the irrational, into the madness of war “seeks what war achieves: destabilize, desubjectivize, destroy” both writer and reader. It seems natural to wonder, if the writer himself is destabilized by this journey, should we continue with him as guide?
But we are already enchanted with his reflections. And we are infused with the hope that he will ultimately show us a way out of our terrible love of war by taking us more deeply into it than we have ever gone before. So we are intrigued when he flashes before our eyes the contradictory aspects of Venus/Aphrodite, her own passion for war revealed according to Hillman in war’s most sublime aspects but also her influence on the aesthetics of war as manifested in the myriad protocols and ritual excesses of military culture. Hillman asks if such embellishments of war are a “seductive deceit of Venus” or alternatively her attempt to put an Aphroditic halter on mad dog Mars? This leads him to explore the notion that aesthetic culture itself might be what is needed to pull mad dog Mars back from the brink. It is natural then to wonder if Venus/Aphrodite could bring some deeper understanding to the horror of war rape and genital mutilation. But Hillman seems to have abandoned this issue even though he has proclaimed it central to any understanding of war.
Whereas he began his presentation with sweeping universal, even cosmological analysis of war, including reference to ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ dictum that “War is the father of all things” Hillman ultimately narrows his focus to the United States and Christendom. It is the USA that he accuses of a withdrawal from culture and an adherence to a fundamentalist belief system that simplistically divides the cosmos into “for” and “against”, good and evil, Christ and Antichrist. He does not mention the fact that neither the high culture of Germany, nor Nazism’s rigid military protocols and sacred rituals did anything to impede her aggression against her European neighbours or her fierce enactment of a ‘final solution’ against the Jews. At this point Hillman segues into his fourth chapter, Religion is War, with a speculation which morphs into a dogmatic conclusion in one sentence: “Culture which could possibly leash the violence of war with a love of equal strength is so blocked by the American ways of belief that we must conclude that war’s sinister godfather and secret sharer in the spoils is religion [my emphases].” We are justified in wondering if our guide will reveal a connection between the two secrets of war he claims to expose: rape as the secret heart of war’s desire and religion the secret sharer in the spoils.
But no. Hillman does not think to imagine that the rages of Mars/Ares might be a gender issue, or that the Mars/Ares relationship with Venus/Aphrodite needs to be imagined more fully. But he does set his sights on religion, on Christianity specifically, to expose it as an impostor, or at least as wilfully unconscious of the fact that Mars is actually the unseen god who has invaded and now energizes Christian cult. “Other wars with other-named gods among other peoples are no less terrible, but ours is ours.” Hillman focuses on American Christianity as the blind instrument of Mars/Ares marching us inexorably forward towards the dark promise prophesied in the last book of the Christian Bible, the book of Revelation. That promise is Armageddonthe mythic conflagration about to be historicized unless the Christian West can wake up. He closes with a reference to Yeats’ great prophetic poem “The Second Coming” with its bleak prediction that “The darkness will fall again.” But he does not draw attention to Yeats’ striking image of “the Beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born” even though such a mythic Beast calls to mind the fictive figure of the Inhuman that he draws for his reader in chapter two. It occurs to this reader that such a beast has actually been seen by Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire: “When I think about the consequences of the Rwandan genocide, I think first of all of those who died an agonizing death from machete wounds inside the hundreds of sweltering churches, chapels and missions where they’d gone to seek God’s protection and ended instead in the arms of Lucifer” [Shake Hands with the Devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda].
At the outset of reading A Terrible Love of War I wondered if James Hillman would provide answers to humanity’s most pressing questions about war, questions like those articulated by Margaret MacMillan at the conclusion of her award winning book Paris 1919: Six months that changed the world: “How can the irrational passions of nationalism or religion be contained before they do more damage? How can we outlaw war?” Or more poignantly, the agonized questions written in the visitors’ comments book by a teenage girl at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington: “Is this planet doomed? Is everyone mean? What will happen? Is everybody evil? Can we at least stop fighting each other? Who knows all the answers to my questions? Who knows
Does Hillman answer these fundamental questions? Will the light Hillman uses to scan our psychic underworld be sufficient to generate new energy for waging peace? Perhaps, but only if we can find a way to go beyond Hillman’s own dark conclusion. In the end we are left with the most disturbing question of all: does the closing lament of Hillman’s last testament actually expose hope as a fundamental delusion? Is his “Reveille” really “Taps” for humanity?