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“Literature and war carry opposite genes.”

With all due respect, I must disagree.

Some weeks ago, Nicki forwarded me the following quote from Mai Ghoussoub:

“Literature is inseparable today from the books that carry their stories. If we want to save literature we have to save the rectangular objects that carry and spread their words. We have to respect the book for what it is: an art object that we should defend, defend against censors, narrow-minded educators and, most of all, the dangers of war. Fiction has described wars better than any history book because a novelist, a true novelist, is not a warrior. Literature and war carry opposite genes.”

I was with him until that last sentence.  I think literature and war are distant cousins.  I think they share a common ancestor: the terror of the beast in the night.

In The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin describes his visit to a dig site in southern Africa, where fossil finds indicate that the early humans who lived there were a favorite prey of a saber-toothed cat.  Humans survived, though; the cat didn’t.  What if, Chatwin speculates, that primal terror became imprinted in our genetic inheritance?  “What if,” Chatwin asks, “our weapons were not used primarily for hunting game, but for saving our skins?”  What if the key to our survival was not even the development of weapons, but the development of language?

I think the roots of storytelling grew not out of a need for entertainment, but a need for survival.  I think stories began as a way of passing down information in a memorable way.

I think war began not as a geopolitical game but as a competition for scarce resources.  I think the instinct for war grew out of ancient memories of near-extinction.  Think of some of the oldest literature: the Old Testament, the Iliad, or the funeral scene that concludes Beowulf:

“A Geat woman too sang out in grief;

With hair bound up, she unburdened herself

of her worst fears, a wild litany

of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,

enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,

slavery and abasement.  Heaven swallowed the smoke.” (translation by Seamus Heaney)

That’s what I think.  What do you think?

– Ed


  1. Ed, I agree with you. I think storytelling – as far back as inscriptions on the walls of caves – is a basic instinct for survival. We tell stories in all forms of art in an effort to understand ourselves and share all that we have in common with others. I think art is our best hope for peace. Susan Bryant

    Wednesday, May 28, 2008 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
  2. Glenda Beall wrote:

    What if the key to our survival was not even the development of weapons, but the development of language?
    I believe the key to our survival is language and through language we communicate our ideas,fears, compassion and compromise which is probably the most important key to holding civilization together.
    Perhaps if we had used language instead of weapons during the past five years, our world would be completely different today.

    Wednesday, June 4, 2008 at 7:15 pm | Permalink
  3. Lonnie Busch wrote:

    I could not agree more with Mai Ghoussoub. Art and war do carry different genes and I think the observation is brilliant. War is about destruction, literature is about creation. Literature celebrates life, war celebrates death. Literature holds up the greatest attributes of our culture, while war must turn away from those very attributes to be effective. Literature shines a light on and values what is sublime about being human, while war defiles everything sublime. Literature points at something greater than ourselves, at our otherliness. War destroys other, shifts our focus to what is worst in human nature. Literature elevates humainty, war destroys it.

    Thursday, June 5, 2008 at 8:54 pm | Permalink
  4. edsouthern wrote:

    Glenda wrote: “What if the key to our survival was not even the development of weapons, but the development of language?”

    That’s actually the point that Chatwin puts forward: that our survival was ensured not by superior strength, but by organizing, which required communication, and thus we developed language.

    To respond to Lonnie, I should have said that, like cousins, war and literature share some genes, but not all. I’m not referring to any specific war, or war in the 21st century. I’m talking about the nature of war itself, which I think is rooted in the same fear of extinction that art is. Obviously, I feel that art is a far, far better reaction to this fear than war, or I’d be directing a platoon right now and not the NCWN. I can’t agree, though, that they carry ‘opposite genes,’ when I believe they come from a common ancestor.

    Tuesday, June 10, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

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