Despite my contention yesterday, that the horrors of the bloody school siege in Beslan made the desperation of the attackers "seem trivial", I found myself reading a piece on the history of the Chechen conflict today (via Ken MacLeod). It was only as I started talking about these two facts together—my belief that the attacker’s brutality had done less than nothing to increase my sympathies for their cause, and that I had started educating myself about the region‘s history—that I noticed the contradiction. Just as with the Twin Towers attack, I find myself compelled by the horror to start plugging the holes in my ever-patchy historical and geopolitical knowledge—acutely aware that I, and probably many, many others, may not have bothered to increase awareness if it weren’t for the gravity and desperation implied by the shock of such psychotic violence.
History is by far and away the biggest hole in my education, I feel, and in that I imagine I’m typical these days. Of course we long since left behind the world that could be practically comprehended by any single person—and since that watershed, things have continued to complexify exponentially. But I still sense that there’s a yawning gulf between the fragmentary story I have of our collective past, and the story that I’m capable of constructing.
What’s my motivation to elaborate and refine the story though? What’s the point? The best I can offer off the top of my head, in this rambling stream of "open source philosophy" that I call a blog, is that just as history is the sum of individual experiences (and more), the collective capacity to respond wisely to events is the sum of each individual’s historical consciousness. Sounds pretty impressive, but it’s a little too abstract to really motivate you. And while I’m sure there are myriad forces that impel myself and others to broaden and deepen our reading of the human story, current events highlight a crucial motivation: horror. The question "Why?" is never more urgent than when brutality threatens to render sense and reason redundant.
It seems to me that it’s precisely in these instants, when reason itself seems threatened, that we need to dig deeper—just as Freud realised that the "irrational" was a gateway to understanding individual motivations—looking for fossilised remnants of forgotten struggles, the discovery of which will expand our reasoning to embrace the unpalatable. Historical consciousness is the only way this "larger picture" can be achieved.
Still, Chechnya’s past is much more "forgotten" to me than to Chechen separatists. Doesn’t historical awareness perpetuate these conflicts? Blood feuds, ethnic and national rivalries inherited down through generations, bitter memories of abuse and slaughter burning away, fuelled by and fuelling the abuse and slaughter they engender… I often wonder if above is enough like below, macro like micro, for large groups to reflect individual traits such as pathologies like Repetition Compulsion, "the mind’s tendency to repeat traumatic events in order to deal with them"—and its extremist cousin that goes as far as visiting traumatic events on others in order to deal with them. This vicious cycle is a sorry truism for criminal psychologists who study serial killers (overdone in Hollywood of course, but retaining its kernel of truth). But for peoples and societies it’s hard to get to grips with—not least because it’s both complex and unscientific (despite the efforts of evolutionary psychologist Howard Bloom).
Talking of unscientific, I read a interesting but disappointing book recently called The Master of Lucid Dreams by Olga Kharitidi (subtitled "In the Heart of Asia a Russian Psychiatrist Learns How to Heal the Spirits of Trauma"). It has a Casteneda-ish edge to it, the Russian being initiated into an undocumented tradition of Sufi dream control in Uzbekistan. But Kharitidi isn’t a shady anthropology student, she’s a professional psychiatrist accustomed to dealing with severe rape and abuse cases in Siberia. Whatever the veracity of her story, it makes for interesting reading. The tradition she stumbles into holds a belief that severe trauma can incubate psychic entities, "spirits of trauma", that can be inherited, gradually aggregating across individual to families, across families to societies. She tells us that the previously secret tradition had been revealed to her, an outsider, as its guardians feel that these spirits have become so powerful that there is no longer time to be concerned with the coherence of their lineage.
Similarly concerned with the flow between individual and collective, and between victim and victimiser, is Stanislav Grof‘s salutary research into LSD psychotherapy—which was subjected to the rigours of coping with the inner struggles of Holocaust survivors in post-war Prague. His theories focus on the impact of the birth process on the individual, how the oceanic peace of the womb is violently disrupted by its sudden evacuation, with "no light at the end of the tunnel" during the most physically constricting phase.
His emphasis on the birth trauma always flits through my mind when I register the seemingly interminable violence and suffering in Africa, our species’ natal landscape. Or when reporters on the war in Iraq use the phrase "Cradle of Civilization". It also struck me in 2002 when the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was taken over by Arabs and surrounded by Israelis. I’m sure you can fill in your own obviously selective, but nevertheless resonant examples.
I guess these are the places we’ve been the longest—the places with the longest histories, the most baggage, where the spirits of trauma have really dug themselves in. Can some deeper level of historical consciousness unravel these choking knots in our story? Will they only dissolve when we evacuate Mother Earth? Or will we drag them with us until we see sense? Fucked if I know.