Excited by Conflict

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed those battle scenes. Rifles, tanks on the streets, maps analysing the conflict: all was so… well… exciting. A few months ago the police, army and navy in Rio de Janeiro mounted an overwhelming attack to conquer slums that have been dominated by drug dealers. Like most of my fellow Brazilians, I caught being myself curiously attracted to the conflict, rooting for the police and accessing news sites many times a day to catch the newest

developments. In these past weeks, a similar thing has happened with protests throughout the Middle East, and the world tuned in to watch and speculate on the protests. Conflict, at least controlled, distant conflict, feels fun.

Rainer Rilke went so far as to compose five hymns to celebrate the start of World War I. When the conflict began, the man who many regard as the greatest German poet of the 20th century was caught up in the euphoria, and wrote verses to exalt a sort of greatness absent from peaceful seasons. “Joy! To see those passions born.”[1] For a brief month, before he became disillusioned like everyone else, Rilke celebrated the stark horizons and roused feelings sparked by war, in contrast to boring everyday life.

There are spooky excesses, for sure, but the question still remains I imagine for all of us: why do we enjoy war? Why are we attracted to conflict, violence, superiority? Why won’t we be interested in a movie about a family who lives
happily and harmoniously but are quickly aroused by plots about betrayal, thefts, murders? Even when explicit violence does not take place, why do we crave competition and the feeling of victory and subjugation so strongly, be it in board games, sports or politics?

The simple answer is of course that we are wicked. We enjoy evil, at least when we are far from it. When contrasts are drawn, and we are caught in the collective fervour of hurt pride, we want to see the enemy crushed. We want to see the rival soccer team humiliated. We want the lead actor to steal millions, steal the girl and get away with it, while the police looks clueless.

Our attraction to evil and its pleasures may explain why we resist and scorn goodness so strongly. To be good is to be cheesy, we feel; it is to lack “attitude”. A strong personality is one who is felt to be superior, and whose accomplishments are so tall as to overshadow life anywhere else. As Oscar Wilde quipped, “To be good, according to the vulgar standard of goodness, is obviously quite easy. It merely requires a certain amount of sordid terror, a certain lack of imaginative thought, and a certain low passion for middle-class respectability.” Some people even advocate forms of evil for our wellbeing, like the director of the recent movie Black Swan, who expressed in an interview, “The only way to be perfect is to allow chaos and madness to invade our lives.”[2]

“So are you proposing a merry collective group hug of losers who can’t shine and fight on their own?”, our cynical side may be objecting. Well, kinda, if you put it that way.But let me phrase my suggestion in a tougher way to the “Rambo” inside of us: war with yourself. Channel your aggressiveness for self-pruning; use your longing for victory to win over your dark side. Old-time Puritans called this mortification of sin: the steady resistance to temptation, the confession of any and every sin to God, the courage to repent and ask Jesus to regenerate our hearts. I guess such a battle won’t be undertaken by those who are still afraid to face themselves, and who hurt others with a need to feel superior. But this is a war to be fought, and won, by those who understand and mortify their aggressiveness, who can answer offense with silence, resentment with a reasonable voice, cycles of abuse with a brake of forgiveness. This war is won by those who seek, even in little moments, to create a more peaceful, less vindictive, more at-ease world.

René Breuel


[1] Rainer Rilke, quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, La Bellezza Salverà il Mondo: Wilde, Rilke, Cvetaeva [Les Aventuriers de l’absolu] (Milano: Garzanti, 2010), 96.

[2] Darren Aronofsky, in an interview to the Portuguese Vogue (March 2011).

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One response to “Excited by Conflict

  1. Pingback: This is a Fascinating World | Wondering Fair·

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