Back to Blog

“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