Let Freedom Sting: War, Peace, and Psychiatry


By Seth Many, Sharon Springs, 1991

            "Maya the Bee" is one of my favorite kid TV shows. Cassie, my 5 1/2 year old daughter, calls out from her sofa domain, "Daddy, your favorite show is on," and we both hunker down for an hour of good solid thought-provoking entertainment. Maya is a feisty little character, smart enough to know what and when she doesn't know; brave, creative and above all, empathic. Last Saturday the guest star was a mean and nasty looking hornet, a bully girl who terrorized all the insects with bluster and threat. When the chips were down, in the face of real danger, she turned out to be a faux wasp, a patsy, one of those nature-made look-alikes that lack the wing and fang (in this case, stinger). Just the same, in the crunch, she turned her back on her isolating malignant narcissism, and helped out a stranger for the sake of a friend, or more precisely, friendship.

On Saturday night I drove 45 miles to the end of an all-night "Peace and Poems" Vigil, an annual affair in Albany, NY that is a 24 hour-long bee-hive of creative, experimental theater. Words are the stinger. I met a dark-costumed stranger there, black, decked out in heavy metal and electronic boutique fashion, tape deck in pocket, tape pouch poised between skirted legs swathed in black and chrome space boots, topped in motorcycle caps, earrings, bracelets and lapel pins. I searched for a context. This was not it. On uncommon ground we both found something in the other. Both strangers seeking.

He elaborated life as a tortured labyrinth in which he searched for "logic." Born premature at one pound, confronted with poverty, the suicide of his first pregnant-with-child-mate, murder of his subsequent girlfriend, etc. I was enamored of his conscious format, and his courage in that forum. Yet his story was conventional, no nuance, only horror. There was ritual style in the way he "wrote off his relationships" (I just slipped on the words, and wrote "victims"). After each painful experience, a poem, ode, couplet, or ballad would ensue. It is noways fair to term these throwaway notes. They are bread-and-butter. Life is business, material for poetry. His performance group,"Dark Crew," is a composit of poets and poetic ecstasy sounded in the barbarisms of life laid raw.

Susan Sontag in her essay on Simone Weil writes

The culture heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are..repetive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress ...by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity.The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self...it is hardly possible to give credence to ideas uttered in the impersonal tones of sanity....Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. Footnote

This is true both in literature and the idiom of street performance, i.e. rap, graffiti, and heavy metal; the sounds, not of silence, but of insolence. But not in anti-war poetry. I was deeply surprised to see him there, at the Vigil for Peace. It made an impression. But I was troubled. Was “Crew” a faux hornet, there to remind us of bully-boys and boneheads but present us with the sublimity of the heard word, the exchange of nature (character) for friendship? Or would he sting us with some gratuitous act of violence, foreign to our expectation, yet in harmony with our need for living theater? A real foe-faux hornet, so to speak.

The Peace movement is hugely disconcerting. "Peace" is remarkably devoid of focus, embracing a melange of existence short of war. Peace-niks find comfort is talking to each other, the hymnal of shared consciousness, the lullaby of consensus. What we talk is War, the war of Business as Usual: murder, mayhem, chaos, barbarism, innocent victims, profits, destruction and loss. By the persistent gravity, the repetition of horror and waste, the murderous statistics and countless sadisms, we talk ourselves into hopeless denervation, bore our cause to extinction.

Should we not discuss, the pleasure, the thrill, the lust, the satisfaction these most ancient rituals of blood permit, the franchise issued in the name of culture to enable that unique experience, the taking of death? Can we not recognize and honor the instinct for kill and death, so lethally present in civil society, in our cities and homes?

The sounds of Peace are not false, just falsetto; a high pitched chorus lacking the tenor and baritone of intellectual honesty. Base is present, bui as a persistant drum that demands we all march (or sit) in one direction. Example: some family life is beset, ab initio, by enormities of rape and violence, abuse and neglect. But how many more infantry are born in the spiritually lethal vacuum that precludes active participation in decisive life until legal majority? War is not just a great escape, but the Great Escape, a theme park where life intersects with thrill and lust and power. There are few frontiers so beguiling.

On this topic, psychiatry is formidably echolalic. Our journals, our conferences, our literature, our poetry are self-talk in endless repetition, devoid of passion, emboldened by litanies of dreary circumspection. We need less droning noesis (ideas originating in the mind), and more attention to the indelible language of the body in tension and action. Less quasi-experiential rhetoric; more exploration, risks, living, fighting. We need a voice sustained not by custom or costume, but by trade, traffic, and intercourse.

To acknowledge, to see war in the natural realm requires more than a "focus on affliction." We who are most accustomed to the odd, bizarre, and unusual; most persistent in its pursuit for our own business; have a singular potential motive for peace, and often seek it in our private lives. But we appear monotonal, striving for relevance in the accepted style and mute as we listen to ourselves. Better faux hornets than insipid drones, lulling ourselves to sleep with our banal buzz. Better yet, foe hornets. Let each doff the disguise and proceed directly in our own naked plumage. Let us do this not for some specious empathy. But let it transpire to save what we have of the difference within, a difference stifled by professional vanity and the need for collateral friends. Let freedom sting!

Seth Many

Sharon Springs, NY