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Books BloodlustIf there were an “X” Prize for solving the problem of human violence, Russell Jacoby‘s Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present would get past the first read, but likely not onto the short list.  Which doesn’t mean it isn’t a very interesting book.

His argument, in a nutshell is that much, if not all, human violence is between those who are more similar rather than those who are more different; that the current widely accepted view that it is fear of the “Other” that drives violence, is wrong.  After several chapters of examples, he turns to Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences” to understand why this might be so.  Leaning on social theorist Renee Girard,  Jacoby explains:

Likeness does not necessarily lead to harmony.  It may lead to jealousy and anger. Inasmuch as identity rests on what makes an individual unique, similitude threatens the self.

And the loss of ‘self’ operates at the cultural level as well:

Assimilation becomes a threat, not a promise. It spells homogenization, not diversity. The assimilated express bitterness as they register the loss of an identity they want to retain.

Further, world wide traditions separating male and female seem connected to male fear of being emasculated, and so men’s fear of women may be the prime mover of all violence.


Jacoby’s first proposition is that much violence in the world is between those who know each other well.  He begins in 1546 with the murder of one Spanish brother, converted to Calvinism, by another who was still Catholic, and proceeds to the infamous August-September 1572 St Bartholomew day massacre of French Huguenots (Protestant) by Catholics and the subsequent bloodletting of between 5,000 and 30,000 French citizens –indistinguishable except for the difference in the way they worshiped the same God.    As the Venetian ambassador is quoted as saying,

[It is ] strange and barbarous to see people in every street composedly, deliberately committing acts of cruelty upon inoffensive fellow countrymen, often acquaintances, even relations.

Bodies were dismembered, people burned alive, heads carried through he streets and impaled on poles.  To a man who had witnessed native barbarities in the New World, that of the French exceeded even those.

…even among those who bear the name of Christian .. who, not content with having cruelly put to death their enemies, have been unable to slake their blood-thirst except by eating their livers and hearts?

He reminds of recent civil wars, including those between Americans, Russians, Greeks, Spanish, Irish.  Nearer in time the Hutu Rwandans murdered the Tutsi Rwandans, and the Serbs and Bosnian and Croats each other. Sunni and Shiite in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.

What drives his point home is that in all of these mutual murders it is virtually impossible to distinguish who is the enemy and who is the friend.  To quote Montaigne who observed during the Huguenot-Catholic massacres,

 The enemy is ‘indistinguishable from you by any clear indication of language or deportment, being brought up under the same laws, manners and climate.” 

Combatants listen for accents [the famous shibboleth pronunciation test by the Jews of Gilead for the Jews of Ephraim], differing curse word-use, first names, schools attended, neighborhoods lived in.  In fact, and this is where it gets really interesting, is that the reason for forcing Jews in Germany and France to wear yellow stars, was that they could not be distinguished otherwise!


Almost an entire chapter is devoted to showing how absolutely integrated Jews were in pre war Germany:  great Austrian families such as the Wittgensteins and Mendelssohns had become Catholics, their children were forbidden to marry Jews.  Thus it was not outward differences that drove the genocidal fury.  In fact,  Jacoby tell us, the quite odd Orthodox Jews of further east, were far less of a problem to the Nazi mind.  As William Marr, coiner of the word anti-Semite (and husband to three successive Jewish wives) put it,

“One never knows where the Jew begins and where he ends… Better the most orthodox Polish rabbi!”

Even wars between nations, he suggests,  lend weight to the argument.  The French, British, Germans and Russians prior to WW I not only were similar in appearance, economic behavior and religion, but the ruling aristocracies were bound together by kinship and family ties.


Why is this violence between familiars so common? Jacoby asks.


For answers he turns to contemporary social thinkers and psychoanalysts intrigued by an idea Freud wrote of several times and which Jacoby thinks has been too long overlooked — the menace not of difference but similarity.


In part three of Moses and Monotheism, published in June, 1938 after Freud fled Vienna following Hitler’s triumphal entry celebrating the Austrian vote in favor of Anschluss, he wrote that “the intolerance of groups” expresses itself “more strongly against small differences than against fundamental ones.” 

Prior to this in Civilization and Its Discontents, looking specifically at long conflicts between Spaniards and Portuguese, northern and southern Germans, Scots and English he suggested that violence against such closely related neighbors might be a mechanism for turning inward-threatening violence outward and away from the group itself.  “I give this phenomenon the name of the ‘narcissism of minor differences’ he wrote.

In an earlier formulation in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego he see the threat implicit in closeness not only between groups but between individuals.  “No one can tolerate a too intimate” relationship.

 This self-love…behaves as though the occurrence of any divergence from its own particular lines of development involved a criticism of them and a demand for their alteration.”

In Freud’s earliest formulation of this narcissism, in Totem and Taboo, it is linked to the fear of men for women, seen in taboos and separation, many of which are still widely practiced today.  Though Freud didn’t specifically link the two his discussion of one followed closely on the other leading Jacoby to intuit that the two might be the same, or that the violence observed between those separated by minor differences might be rooted  in the fear he claims men have of becoming like the woman, of being emasculated, of losing his core-self.  Jacoby ends his inquiry with this:

Is misogyny the crux of fratricide?  Does the dread of effeminacy in particular drive fraternal violence and the loss of identity in general provoke bloodletting?  Perhaps.

This is all very interesting and thought provoking stuff. In fact, I am provoked to read and re-read passages trying to follow the claims amidst the swirl of authorities, events and sequences.  In the end I am left wondering: is he on to something, or is he seeing patterns which, like those leading mankind to think the heavens circled the earth, are commonsensical but untrue?  At least two things disturb — one in absence and one in presence.


 Absent is an examination of what is meant by “difference” and “similarity.”  The Venetian ambassador’s judgement that the Huguenots and Catholics were indistinguishable is chiefly a remark on his perception not that of the participants.  Or, as a African-American preacher friend of mine said to me during the Rwandan genocide, “How can they be doing this?  They’re all the same!”  Of course his notion of difference came from barely post-Civil Rights America in which black and white were markers; he couldn’t conceive that other markers abound in the world. 

A better population to inquire into than those adjudged by outsiders to be ‘similar’  might be those in which shifts in the groups’ own views have recently occurred: those who were once close and are now distant. While this includes many, but not all, of the groups Jacoby mentions, it at least gives us a more discreet set to examine. And the question becomes not ‘does too close a similarity breed contempt — and violence?’ but ‘under what conditions does difference-enough become similarity-too-much?’

And importantly, if it is true that such a shift to feeling too close produces more savage emotions and actions than in violent encounters of strangers, what is the linkage and how does it happen?  The perpetrators of  narcissistic violence are not feeling, much less screaming, ‘You’re too close!”  They are feeling agrievement and resentment and disgust; they are lashing out against perceived unfairness, for attitudes of superiority.  These emotions may be stronger, or rise faster in those who have passed through a tolerance membrane, but that needs to be shown – by careful citation of historical examples, tested against counter-examples.

Is it really true that Catholics were more savage to Huguenots than Spaniards were to Peruvian Incas in 1572?  Or that Serbian atrocities on Bosnians were more grotesque than Russian on Chechyan, or for that matter of American on Vietnamese?  It’s a question worth asking, particularly if ‘fraternal’ violence is the core of all violence and discovering its triggers may lead to solutions to the wider problem.  That too is still a question, and unexamined which leads to the second problem I kept running up against in the book.

Present is  associative train in which  Violence  is a super-set of Fraternal Violence which erupts from a fear of Identity Loss because of Small Differences which are most primal in Male Fear of the Female and which, assumedly, are inborn to the species.  Fascinating, but not likely to bear up under scrutiny.  Just to begin with, the relation between violence in general and fraternal violence is muddied in Jacoby’s telling.  Sometimes they are linked, other times they seem separate.


The title itself indicates that the book is about the “roots of violence.”  Within several sentences of the preface we are told that the primal form of violence is fratricide, and as evidence he finds stories in the Bible and western mythology.  Then comes the assertion that ‘civil wars are generally more savage … than state-versus-state wars.”  Then he speaks of “global conflict,” and the common belief it is driven by conflicting principles but that it may be motivated by encroachment of others who are too similar.


It does seems plausible that all violence is linked, somehow, but as science has shown us, common sense may lead us away from understanding. e.g. The sun does not go around the earth.

It is at least worth asking, before assuming: Is the explosive violence of domestic disputes related, and in what way, to the exuberant violence of prolonged mutual ethnic slaughter, and are either linked, and how, to nationally directed war?  Within a state-on-state war, rationally planned and logistically supported, are the emotions and violence in the heat of battle similar to those of domestic, ethnic and religious violence?

Even though Bloodlust is an essay, not a study, my unease begins early with Jacoby’s repeated assertions, without documentation, that “the most common form of violence is between acquaintances or neighbors, or kindred communities within nations.”  This might be so, but I’d like to know who says, on the basis of what, over what period of time. The American war in Vietnam is not so long behind us, and though many deaths were the result of the civil war between Vietnamese, many were not.  It seems a hard accounting, but one which would have served.


My unease continued with a too quick assertion of similarity, as I describe previously, and the absence of discussion of great massacres between those unknown to each other prior to their violent engagement: Mongols on Arabs, Arabs on Greeks, Romans on all sorts of ‘barbarians,’ Japanese on Russians, on Chinese, Americans on Natives.  The implication that these were less vicious than so called ‘civil’ or near-neighbor wars needs a hard look.

Argument which mines myth for clues to human behavior needs extra layers of proof, to my mind.   Does Abel’s slaying of Cain, Esau’s threat to Jacob, or Romulus’ killing of Remus,  mark a common experience of mankind, told in legend and song, or is it told because anomalous and cautionary? As we know, constant images of scary events against women in deserted public garages does not mean that they happen very often; more likely are attacks in the home by someone known.  Does Odysseus’ fear of the Sirens really indicate fear of women as such, or is it acknowledgement of the pull of desire against the pull of work to do,  voyages to be completed?

 Since Bloodlust is, as Jacoby himself says, “an essay not a tome,” suggestive rather than tightly argued, it might have had more power for me had it been framed as a set of propositions, testable with real-world observation and data.  What if X is true and not Y — what would we see differently?  As in any thought experiment we should have parameters and propositions which can be falsified. And as with any science we are looking for simplicity out of which complexity grows but we have to keep in mind that simplicity alone in an explanation does not make it correct.

If most violence is between those who are similar and less between those who are different, can we show that?  How is similarity and difference understood?  Is it really true that Iraqi Sunni are more similar to Iraqi Shiite than their differences, or French Catholic from French Huguenot, or Cambodian Khmer Rouge from Cambodian non Khmer Rouge? Can it be shown that the intra-violence of these groups is more vicious that the inter-violence between say, French Catholics and African victims of empire?

Differences may seem small from outside the groups, but are clearly not from the inside. Perhaps it is the shift of perception within a group, from ‘one of us’ to ‘one of them,’ which is of interest and which can be studied.  How did the Japanese treatment of Russian POWs in 1905, in line with the rules of war, shift so radically to the brutality of POW treatment in WW II, one generation later?

 Is it true that people are killed because they are ‘too similar’ or are they killed because ‘they are there,’ in the way, holding something — land, resources, power– the other wants?

If violence rises from fear of assimilation, shouldn’t the being-assimilated group be the most violent?  Most of the cases cited, this is not so. It is the larger group which fears contamination from the smaller, and therefore loss of identity.  The language of opprobrium in almost all such wars — spiders, cockroaches, snakes, devils– tells us something about the state of mind.  Perhaps the language used in ‘civil’ vs ‘national’ conflicts would reveal something.

 Are the emotions of vengefulness, humiliation, sadism, more likely between those once co-habitators and now not, than between strangers?

What if misogyny is the root of the violence between those with small differences, would we see evidence of greater violence in  those societies with greater apparent misogyny? Would we see an increase or a decrease in civil or national violence as misogyny decreases, or increases?

Does the social separation of men and women really stem from men’s fear of women, of being feminized? Is violence against women by men greater or lesser in societies where women are more/less apart from men in public life? Are societies with greater sexual segregation more or less violent to those ‘similar’ or those ‘different?’

 Does the Freudian idea of castration fear, specifically related to adult men and women, have any standing?  Is there any data at all that such a thing exists, or exists widely enough in men to be a possible evolutionarily created mental state?  As a non expert in such matters, such a supposition seems a remarkably thin block to mount a theory of violence on.

It certainly seems to be the case that a large sub-set of American men, and no doubt elsewhere in the developed world, are caught in what Michale Kimmel in Angry White Men has called “aggrieved entitlement,” full of fury at women, often manifested in physical violence. Feeling emasculated is part of the syndrome.  Has there been a concurrent over-all rise in violence against women?  There is certainly highly visible misogyny on internet sites, reported here by Amanda Hess, here by Amy Wallace, and here by a man posing as a woman on a dating site. Ugly stuff but in terms of the question under consideration — has misogynistic violence increased as well?  Has the bellicosity of the United States as a whole tracked this phenomenon?  Can men elsewhere, from Serbia to al-Qaeda terrorists be identified with similar traits?  And what of the women who participate in neighbor on neighbor violence?  Nuns in Rwanda, for pete’s sake, were implicated in the killing of their one-time-parishioners.

Is the viciousness (if it is so) of communal violence worse because of ‘the narcissism of small differences” or because the state monopoly of violence is more ‘rational,’ is integrated with future aims?

For all the questions I have as I read, Jacoby’s inquiry and the examples he cites are rich with possibility and break the certainty that it is the ‘other’ who is feared.  He has written a damned interesting book, one which made a strong case for altering some of my views but doesn’t get me much closer to an understanding of why war is such a constant occurrence in the lives of men (an women) than I had before.

Michael Ignatieff has written a similarly themed book in The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience [reviewed here.]  Though his concern is not to find the roots of violence but to examine interventions in large civil conflicts, he too makes use of Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’ to look at the violence in the Balkans particularly.  For those interested in the proposition, as I am, his would be a good addition to understanding the claim .  I’ve also been intrigued by Barbara Ehrenrich‘s idea in her Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (1997)  that human violence is rooted in the millennial long evolution from being prey to more recently being predator.  Fear is the baseline.  This,  joined with the Freudian notion of identity loss, grown large when another seems too close, may provide some answers to the question, not why do we kill, but why do we kill with such alacrity and such deep amnesia of past experience?

And, as with health and illness studies which, for example have looked at those who do not get AIDS rather than only those who do, perhaps more examination of those who do not succumb to violence against others, whether similar or different, as Eyal Press does in Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, would repay unexpected dividends.

For me, increasingly, there seem to be two pressing investigations needed: one, which most attention is turned to, is why people (men) behave as they do when in battle?  The other, little examined, but perhaps more fruitful, is why people allow themselves to be talked into war, why many men long to be tested in war when so much evidence abounds that nothing is assured except death and misery — perhaps not for you and yours, but don’t count on it.