Military madness was killing my country. Solitary sadness comes over me. – Graham Nash
Imagination is not a solitary thing. Unlike fantasy, which is self-centered, imagination implies dialogue – between what is and what could be. Consider that some languages lack the verb “to be.” Speakers grow up expecting to communicate indirectly, use metaphors freely and tolerate ambiguity. Metaphors serve as organizing frameworks that shape our thoughts about social reality. They are the language of poetry; they can leap the chasm between thoughts and transmit multiple levels of meaning.
As Joseph Campbell taught, the life of mythology springs from the metaphoric vigor of its symbols, which bring together and reconcile two contraries. When we think mythologically, we perceive meaning on several levels simultaneously, aware that the literal, psychological and symbolic dimensions of reality complement each other to make something greater than the sum of the parts.
But unimaginative language, said James Hillman, “displaces the metaphorical drive from its appropriate display in poetry and rhetoric…into direct action. The body becomes the place for the soul’s metaphors.” In other words, if we can’t make images in art, music or beautiful speech we get sick. Certainly, this is one reason for the huge increase in poetry readings and oral tradition performances such as Rumi’s Caravan. People are hungry for more meaningful – and beautiful – language. For more on this thought, see my essay, Creative Etymology for a World Gone Mad.
But let’s be clear about our situation. There is no reason to assume that indigenous people cannot do this. Actually, it is we who have, by and large, lost this capacity. The curses of modernity – alienation, environmental collapse, totalitarianism, consumerism, addiction and world war – are the results.
We have been living in what Campbell called a “de-mythologized world” for an extremely long time. Literalistic thinking began in patriarchy and blossomed in the victory of monotheism over polytheism. This doesn’t mean that we no longer have myths. Rather, it means that the myths we do have – and we are usually quite unaware of them – no longer feed us. It means that many of us have lost the capacity to think symbolically or mythologically and only have their “toxic mimic,” literal thinking. The most obvious example is fundamentalism, which often replaces metaphor (“This is something else – now go and live with the mystery.”) with parable (“This means that, and only that, so stop thinking.”)
This is unfortunate enough. But the monotheistic world also led inevitably to a world of constant warfare. “Because a monotheistic psychology must be dedicated to unity,” wrote Hillman, “its psychopathology is intolerance of difference.” I offer my thoughts on the religious thinking that resulted in colonialism and empire in Chapter Ten of my book, Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence, and here are some of the basic ideas:
The western world was beginning to understand myth literally, as actual history. The zealots who wrested control of the early church believed that Christ had physically returned from the dead, and they condemned metaphoric interpretation of his life. Very soon, schisms developed, and rival sects attacked each other in furious jihads. As early as the second century, Clement of Alexandria declared that the gods of all other religions were demons.
The holy text that emerged out of this period omitted the few metaphors of the sacred Earth that had been allowed into Hebrew scripture. As a result, wrote Paul Shepard, the New Testament is “one of the world’s most antiorganic and antisensuous masterpieces of abstract ideology…”
So it should be no surprise that this foundational text of our civilization constantly uses military metaphors. Paul describes Christians as “fellow soldiers.” Timothy uses the soldier as a metaphor for courage, loyalty and dedication. Corinthians is concerned about “an adversary that wants to destroy us…the battle we are fighting is on the spiritual level. The very weapons we use are not human but powerful in God’s warfare for the destruction of the enemy’s strongholds.” In Thessalonians, Paul employs a military metaphor of a sentry on duty, writing of “the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation.” Ephesians refers to the “armor of God…even when you have fought to a standstill you may still stand your ground.” Similar crusading imagery appears of course in hymns such as Soldiers of Christ, Arise; Onward, Christian Soldiers; the Battle Hymn of the Republic and untold thousands of sermons.
Propagandists, aware that the Roman empire needed a mass ideology to link the individual to the state, took note of this language. It recognized that Christianity, which was re-writing history to de-emphasize its esoteric origins, could fill this role. In the fourth century, it became the official religion of the Empire, the Catholic (universal) faith. The notion of One True God found its political equivalent in the totalitarian, expansive and ruthlessly violent Roman state. By the fourth century the Church was essentially a branch of government, and it would serve to justify imperial conquests, civil wars, crusades, colonialism and genocidal violence for the next thousand years.
Others were only too willing to turn that violence upon themselves. Christianity became the first religion to make martyrdom a demand of faith. Leonard Shlain put this process into historical context:
Until the Christian martyrs, there does not occur anywhere in the recorded history of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Greece, India or China a single instance in which a substantial segment of the population accepted torture and death rather than forswear their belief in an ethereal concept.
Missionaries spoke of “taking prisoner every thought for Christ.” In Christian iconography, the knife that Abraham would have slaughtered his son with became a soldier’s sword. The ideal of dying as Christ became dying for Christ which, by the time of the First Crusade, became killing for Christ.
Five hundred years later, the English language, steeped in Biblical imagery, was full of martial metaphors, and Americans would add countless others to their lexicon.
Religious fundamentalists took their Bibles, their racism, their hatred of the body, their violent metaphors and their genocidal conduct to the New World, setting the tone for the development of the myths of American Innocence and American Exceptionalism. Four hundred years on, few of us realize how our language, and hence our thinking, is so unconsciously and deeply flavored by military metaphors.
I don’t need to quote statistics about gun violence and mass murders in America. You’ve all seen them. But the fact that 24% of us, far more than in any European country, believe that “…it is acceptable to use violence to get what we want” also underlies our racist politics, the behavior of our police, and – perhaps you haven’t seen this one – the fact that the American Empire has bombed nearly forty sovereign nations since the end of World War Two.
So: We all need to get more familiar with the metaphorical, symbolic, poetic or mythological language that we will need as the old myths die and we are called to imagine the new ones. And we also need to become more conscious of how, in this de-mythologized world, we use metaphors inappropriately. They can lead to insight, but they can also distort. In creating ways of seeing they can also create ways of not seeing.
Military metaphors are common, for example, in the world of medicine. Though they can promote support for research, they also fuel our American obsession with perfect health, where doctors use the “arsenal of science” as “weapons” to “battle” disease in the “war against the invasion of cancer.” A sick child becomes a “little soldier,” “rallying” to secure victory against the dreaded opponent.
C.S. Lewis described what can go wrong when a “master” uses a metaphor to explain a concept to a “pupil.” The “master” understands the relationship between the literal and figurative meanings, while the “pupil” hears “the unique expression of a meaning” which immediately places a constraint on his thinking. Thus, when physicians use metaphors to explain concepts to patients, the latter are “at the mercy of the metaphor” as it “dominates completely the thought of the recipient whose truth cannot rise above the truth of the original metaphor.”
In Illness as a Metaphor, Susan Sontag wrote that cancer is so embedded in the western psyche that the word itself is weighted with connotations:“…in the popular culture, cancer equals death.” We treat it “as an evil, invincible predator, not just a disease…talk of siege and war to describe disease now has, with cancer, a striking literalness and authority…” The enemy is not bacteria but “the fanatic…cells” of the patient whose body has become the battlefield. The cancer takes over the body, perhaps physically, but also metaphorically.”
And, I think, most significantly, cancer is “regarded…as a diminution of self.” Readers familiar with my writings may notice the implications for American myth, where the tradition of blaming victims for their own bad fortune is the shadow that lurks behind our Calvinist heritage of predestination, Social Darwinism, positive thinking and the Prosperity Gospel. In other words, the use of military metaphors tends to stigmatize those who are ill and make them feel responsible for the “wrong thinking” that caused their illness – and, by the way, distract them from considering the politics of environmental pollution and lack of health insurance.
This discussion is particularly relevant to the U.S., where we are almost always invading someone else. Indeed, the nation has been at war 93% of the time, 222 out of 239 years, between 1776 and 2015.
So we find military metaphors in nearly any context, as we’ll see below. Cultural anthropologist Robert Myers says that “gun speak,” or “war speak” has permeated American culture so deeply that it’s used by everybody – men and women, Republicans and Democrats, gun owners and people who have never even seen a real gun:
…it doesn’t break down by education or social class…I can’t say that we use this violent language and imagery and that makes us more violent. But I can ask… ‘Well, if we spoke with all kinds of racist words, were we more likely to be more racist or more comfortable being racist?
Myers writes, tongue-in-cheek (I hope) that the warspeak permeating everyday language “puts us all in the trenches, and most of us don’t even know it.” Everything has been “weaponized” – a word which, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, has increased in print by a factor of 10 between 1980 and 2008. He suggests that warspeak matters for three reasons:
First, it degrades our ability to engage with one another. Framing an issue as a “war” can communicate an urgency that requires instantaneous – and often thoughtless – action.
Second, it evokes violent attitudes. Young adults exposed to political rhetoric charged with warspeak are more likely to endorse violence.
Third, when everything is laden with violent imagery, our perceptions and emotions become needlessly distorted: “Political carnage and carnage in the classroom, weaponized songs and weapons of war, snipers on the hockey rink and mass shooters – all blur together across our cognitive maps.”
In Part Two, I’ll offer a list of these metaphors.
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