BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 29 NOV 13
Featured in
Issue 159

Fighting Talk

Words and nations

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 29 NOV 13

Corita Kent, IN, 1964, serigraph on paper. Courtesy: Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

Max Weber defined the State simply: it was legitimated to kill, and no other entity was. This singular right separated it from every other institution.

Separations are rarely so neat. A nation is regularly anthropomorphized: a nation has a face, it can feel ‘shame’ or lose its ‘honour’. President Barack Obama’s threat to Syria about ‘crossing a red line’ (new meme for grievous verbal misstep) forced the president’s hand. Obama would lose ‘face’, i.e., the us would be ‘embarrassed’ if he/it did not ‘punish’ Syria for its use of chemical weapons against its own people.

The language people have invented and employ for nations creates problems, because words act in us – they carry emotion, say, as fighting words or loving ones. Obviously, nations don’t have faces or feel humiliated. Only the humans who lead them do, and maybe their citizens or subjects. Those who represent a nation might go to war out of pride. For in­stance, George W. Bush started a preemptive war in Iraq, not just for oil but also to avenge his father, the first Prez Bush. Shakespeare’s history plays and tragedies regale readers with tales of just such ambitions: kings’ and queens’ dubious personal reasons for war and murder, desire for revenge, power. Lust and greed. To go to war is a tragedy; to go to war for a nation’s face, pride and honour is delusional.

Weber brought ‘charisma’ into the political playbook. Theorizing it, he analyzed people’s fascination with leaders, how certain personalities’ fantastic charms could cause others to follow them blindly. Weber didn’t anthropomorphize nations, but he did sometimes use metaphors. At the end of The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism (1905), he tendered the striking image of ‘the iron cage’ that capitalism – spirited by ‘Puritan worldly asceticism’, its idea of ‘labour as calling’ and the drive for ‘the acquisition of worldly goods’ – had built for its believers. (Studying Weber with Joseph Bensman, a noted scholar, I learned that, as a young man, Weber lay in bed with depression for five years, during which time, I thought, he might have begun to rationalize the irrational. Weber instantly became a very sympathetic character.)

Obama has eulogized victims of ‘massacres’ often since his presidency. He speaks for the us, he says. Commentators chew up the TV screen discussing ‘gang violence’ in Chicago, ‘a lone gunman’ at a Washington, D.C., naval base. ‘America grieves’, Obama might say. ‘School shootings’ is a familiar term. A ‘massacre’ provokes shock as well as truisms, words badly used, duly applied, sapped of vitality. ‘Massacre’ smothers unique beings under a mass of anonymous, dead bodies. The word itself steals what humans call ‘humanity’.

Terms for brutal chaotic acts specify unusual occurrences, while also normalizing them; meanwhile, these ‘exceptions’ happen week after week. A ‘lone gunman’ and ‘gang violence’ have many precedents. A ‘homegrown terrorist’ is applied only to us-born or naturalized citizens who murder with political or religious motives. For assaults aroused by virulent prejudices, the term is ‘bias’ or ‘hate crime’. Statutes and laws against this type of crime were introduced in the us in the late 1980s.

Some might call this seemingly boundless violence a domestic war. I don’t know what to name it. To call it ‘war’ might not be accurate or helpful. Sigmund Freud wrote that ‘civilization began the first time an angry person cast a word instead of a rock’. Certainly, this society is less civilized than it should be, even uncivilized. But then Freud would not say ‘uncivilized’ (though expecting the American experiment to fail), because he comprehended what most people find most perplexing – contradiction, especially the unrelenting power of the irrational: the drive for life, libido, and also for death, the death drive.

I was a writer in residence at the University of Sussex, Brighton, when Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction opened in 1994. The English/American Department hadn’t had an American writer in residence for 20 years. I was a curiosity. When American literature, art, politics were discussed, the Americanists turned to me, sometimes sullenly. I was meant to be the real thing. Now, ‘authenticity’ is troubling as an idea or ideal. I don’t buy into it. But holding a us passport, I was the American, though not Edith Wharton’s or Henry James’s edition. ‘Let’s go to see Pulp Fiction,’ I said to my grad writing workshop.

I’d been out of the country nearly three months, and laughed at Tarantino’s wry, dissonant dialogue between hit-men (played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta), who compared French Big Macs to the American original (talk about authenticity), before ‘eliminating’ another man. Smart talk, nihilism and the movie’s casual violence, weirdly and sorrily, brought me back home. Home, where, in the Constitution’s second amendment, citizens have the right to bear arms and form militias, because the State alone should not have the right to kill.

My English students and I walked outside, onto Brighton’s boardwalk, when I remembered where I was, and who, supposedly.

Lynne Tillman is the author of Mothercare (2022) and numerous other books. The reissue of her 

second novel, Motion Sickness (1991), was published by Peninsula Press in September.