When all seems lost for humanity — when politics cannot disprove the cynicism of satire and satire laments its inability to transform politics — I sometimes think of Pangea. When the world knew nothing of internal borders and ambulating life forms, from Paleozoic beetles to our earliest mammalian ancestors had to somehow interact in a lumpen ecosystem or become quickly extinct. Doubtless, ancient fauna kept mostly to their own subsystems, but the oceanic coasts sealed in long-term migration patterns rather than obstructing them, although theoretically, anything with clambering feet or a cockroach’s curiosity might discover new frontiers without the impediments of a shoreline. Three hundred million years later, every aspects of our lives — political, geographical, religious, social, and economic — is defined by territorial borders, and we had to wait dumbly for postmodernism to remind us that borders are illusions built from fear, tyranny, and self-interested provincialism. To think that the entire project of human political toil sprang from the mindless shift of tectonic plates…
Imagine if the plates hadn’t wandered. Were we landlocked into a single supercontinent, without the safe alienations of oceans, would we have learned long ago to champion cooperation over competition? Pressed together into a heap of humanity, into a single unnamed country, would our ancestors have had only marginal cultural differences through so many centuries of clans inevitably intermingling? Would we all have had nearly identical skin color after a few dozen generations? Could we have sidestepped the entire sorry history of transoceanic exploration, imperialism, and colonialism precisely because the initial step — geopolitically biased exploration — was never necessary?
But this is radically oversimplified conjecture. If the thesis of Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger is correct, primitive tribes, seeking order by defining themselves as intact and their neighbors as chaotic and infectious, would only see their animosities intensified were more clans landlocked together. Yet these animosities, perhaps, originally sprang from tribesmen’s early discovery that they were trapped by shorelines; with broader, uninterrupted land masses across which to spread, tribes might have benefited from roomier migrations across a bloated land, rather than being squeezed into the (relatively) narrower parts of Africa and South America. Enjoying greater migratory spaces, early humans wouldn’t have developed the reactionary tendency to seek internal order, for their contaminating neighbors had migrated long ago at the first signs of conflict. Simply, open territories were so plentiful that there would no need to fight for them.
This is still foolish conjecture. We cannot know which tribes within a Pangean clump would move to safety and which would attempt a proud stand against overconfident rivals. Furthermore, we’re imagining only inter-clan conflicts; internal wars and civil strife, as existed throughout China’s history, have always afflicted single nation-states unable to adjudicate factional differences. Yet, were China smaller and surrounded by equally powerful and less homogeneous neighbors brought by unfettered migration, it might have witnessed greater internal cohesion and fewer civil uprisings.
This is more empty conjecture, especially as we’ve ignored the pessimisms of psychology, whereby neuroses, if we believe Freud, inevitably would sabotage any attempt at individual or communal harmony, advantageous geographies notwithstanding. Every civilization, insular or widely spanned, will spawn self-staining taboos and the neuroses that underwrite them. We suffer eternally from a “narcissism of small differences,” a term Freud initially used (but did not develop) in his essay “The Taboo of Virginity” and to which he returned briefly in Civilization and its Discontents. In “The Taboo of Virginity”, the idea is little more than an offhand remark, a digression by Freud’s own admission. Nevertheless, the idea, though apparently reductive, seems to explain all conflict, across all cultures. After all, who hasn’t narcissistically carved out some petty and absurd facet of self-identity by seizing upon and exaggerating a minor difference between oneself and one’s feared, envied, or misunderstood neighbors? Under the reign of neurosis, the width of a landmass seems rather insignificant.
Though Freud refers to narcissism only digressively in “The Taboo of Virginity”, it’s no accident that the idea emerges from a discussion of purity and manhood. Because the taboo mandates that a man possess a woman singularly and exclusively, it signifies primarily a male fantasy about female desire: that the woman holds herself in sexual reserve, waiting only for her rightful captor, rather than having had her sexuality repressed by the manhood that seeks to claim her. Furthermore, she is kept untouched to distinguish the conquering man from neighbors and rivals undeserving of the virgin prize; through his sexual claim, the man derives individuation, if not the individualism that attends bourgeois striving. Obviously, Islam today preserves with the veil a manhood which is itself veiled and shameful — the possessing man must believe his virgin is too beautiful to be gazed upon, revealing not only a deep-seated masculine insecurity but a mandate to render invisible the very value of masculine conquest. What is invisible must be beautiful, and what is not transcendent deserves to be revealed.
The hopeless, narcissistic quest for purity and wholeness, one might conclude, exists only for the hermit, who is indivisible and without an ego imperiled by the political threat of rival clans or the psychological threat of rival suitors. Only the committed hermit has successfully rejected (but has not existentially escaped) the aggression that drives men to kill for passion and, for the sake of self-aggrandizement, conquer rather than befriend neighbors. Though Freud’s pessimism arises from an unprovable philosophy of ego, history bears out the thesis time and again.
The recent mass shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua community college seems, at first, unrelated to this fanciful history of territory and dominance, but the massacre, like all such massacres, is the direct outgrowth of problems in human geography (or “psychological geography”). The killer is the clan’s worst loser, unable to claim a virgin (or her lesser sisters) and incapable of fighting for dominance; as a result, the clan shames and excommunicates him. Filled with bitterness, however, he cannot live successfully as a hermit; he desires safety and distance but cannot contain a masochistic desire for futile retribution. Consumed by ego and ressentiment, the young killer lives on the fringes of an overly huddled mass but psychologically is separate, while his brain, suffering from the intemperance and puerility of post-adolescence, fantasizes about shedding blood. In Freud’s scheme, he desires the virgin’s blood, the life-blood spilled when the hymen is broken. But because he himself is virginal, or at least sexually frustrated, the drive to conquer the virgin is directed politically outwards, as a torrent of mass murder predictably executed with overlong phallic symbols.
The massacre at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College featured centrally in the October 2 edition of Real Time with Bill Maher, although the true origin of the problem — our national construction of masculinity — was never mentioned: it rarely is. (Occasionally critics raise gender as the source of America’s gun problem, but it’s usually a distant third or fourth after the usual platitudes: “We have too many guns on the streets,” “We have a mental health problem in this country,” and perhaps “Guns are certainly wonderful but we need stricter background checks.”) During the Real Time conversation, participants danced around the gender issue without striking at its heart. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik noted that, before the age of Scalia, generations of Constitutional scholars had agreed that the Second Amendment referred only to militias; peering into the national psyche, he further observed that Americans cling to guns as “symbols of autonomy,” albeit ineffectual ones (because real autonomy is unattainable). Maher rightly described American gun-totemism as a “collective mental aberration” and suggested that mass shooters represent in extremis our unspoken national credo: the best way to solve a problem is to shoot at it. Yet the word “masculinity” remained conspicuously unmentioned.
I know of only one case in which a mass-shooter was female: some years ago, an assistant professor denied university tenure produced a handgun and shot four or five members of the tenure committee at point-blank range. Those who’ve spent only a short spell in academia might well sympathize with her rationale. Otherwise, the word “male” in the construct “young, male, alienated loner” is key; civilization has afforded young alienated females more private and less spectacularly lethal modes of sublimation. But American men, who cannot veil themselves, must make their suicides public. If their guns were confiscated, they couldn’t even be successful as ostracized losers, for they’d be robbed of the chance of a gloriously fleeting suicide.
True, other intractably macho, sport-obsessed cultures, such as those of Scotland and Australia, have enacted gun control without their populaces balking at the effrontery of governmental emasculation. Not a comparative anthropologist, I can’t really account for the differences. Perhaps American masculinity suffers from deeply rooted insecurity: if you believe the mere removal of an industrially manufactured firearm is tantamount to castration, your masculinity must have been feeble from the get-go. It’s no accident gun-lovers are religious folk, for an analogous insecurity underlies their thin-skinned god, who’s too easily outraged by everyday blasphemies and harmless transgressions.
Cultural norms of masculinity will shift fractionally with each generation, and reactionary actors — the Huckabees, Santorums, and other proper names that will mean nothing in 20 years — will recede into oblivion. Nevertheless, old masculinities die hard. An October 4 radio broadcast on NPR entitled “Why Play Football?” intended to address the sport’s dangers but only glorified the narrowest, most provincial constructions of masculinity. The football players interviewed cared little about addling their brains; for them, a heroic culture of ramming one’s padded, insulated head into those of opponents on a pseudo-militaristic field of territorial conquest was an indispensable test of “manhood”. Of course, such statements are unsurprising; what is frustrating is that NPR’s allegedly “liberal” journalists let these bromides stand, never once imagining the fates of those excluded from accepted cults of manliness.
Maher’s show happened to have two scientists — albeit the ubiquitous Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins — who lauded the randomness of existence, the “laws of physics”, as Dawkins said, that miraculously send “atoms bumping into each other” without the fallacious order of theistic enterprise. The conversation with Dawkins settled on the humorlessness of religious folk and the atheism of professional humorists (including Charlie Chaplin). Implicitly, randomness frightens those who, like Douglas’ tribesman, seek order at the expense of sanctifying fear (of outsiders, of contamination, etc.).
Both Maher and Dawkins were stumped trying to think of a devoutly religious comedian; oddly, neither thought of Swift, who in Dublin had served as Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral until his death in 1745. Yes, Swift commonly satirized clerical hypocrisies, as in An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, but, like Chaucer, he mocked practice rather than dogma. We tend to think Swift’s misanthropy trumped his religiosity, and this is probably true. Humorists are more likely to be misanthropes than atheists, though for obvious reasons the two communities frequently cross paths. Unlike Tyson, who lectures the public on the wonders of earthly and galactic chaos, Swift believed the common man — the Yahoos — were ineducable. Thus does Gulliver find himself alone at the end of his journey, a hermit disgusted by the stench of irrational humankind. Rejecting Aristotle’s babblings about man “the social animal”, Gulliver finds a small space — in a horse stable – in which he can cast off both sociality and animalism. But we learned nothing from Gulliver: we enviously crave our society and our primitive urges to our detriment and our tragedy. We only need to understand space, we only need to understand how to be alone, unjudged by the taboos of unworthy, pitiless tribes.