Sublimation of the Primal Soul

I finally got around to reading Jared Diamond’s New Yorker essay on tribal vengeance in Papua New Guinea. Alex Golub’s detailed post on the subject at Savage Minds, and the reader comments that follow it, are pretty sophisticated; for what it’s worth, this is my two-cents worth.

The title, "Vengeance is Ours: What Can Tribal Societies Tell Us About Our Need to Get Even?" is telling, but I was surprised by the turn it took and intrigued by its comment on  modernity  and foreign policy. Diamond starts off by recounting, through the lens of Daniel Wemp, the sort of tit-for-tat vendetta-based warfighting that’s a regular feature of daily life in the New Guinea Highlands. Cultures of individual and local violence are contrasted against the impersonal mechanisms of the state; the recurring theme is the personal satisfaction that accrues from the former.

It’s Diamond’s foray into his own family history that drives his point home. His father-in-law, Jozef Nabel, a Polish Jew who fought in WWII, sought to ascertain the fate of three family members who’d gone missing near the end of the war. When he discovered they’d been executed, and then came face to face with their killer, he declined to kill him and avenge their deaths. "Until his own death," Diamond writes, "nearly sixty years after the murders of his parents and his release of his mother’s killer, Jozef remained tormented by regret and guilt—guilt that he had not been able to protect his parents, and regret that he had failed in his responsibility to take vengeance." For Diamond, Papua New Guinea’s tribal system of vengeance is disruptive, but offers emotional release and gratification to its participants.

We regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions. It ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly. Modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance. We grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and to transcend.

There is no doubt that state acceptance of every individual’s right to exact personal vengeance would make it impossible for us to coexist peacefully as fellow-citizens of the same state. Otherwise, we, too, would be living under the conditions of constant warfare prevailing in non-state societies like those of the New Guinea Highlands. In that sense, Jozef was right to leave punishment of his mother’s killer to the Polish state, and it was tragic that the Polish state failed him so shamefully. Yet, even if the killer had been properly punished, Jozef would still have been deprived of the personal satisfaction that Daniel enjoyed.

My conversations with Daniel made me understand what we have given up by leaving justice to the state. In order to induce us to do so, state societies and their associated religions and moral codes teach us that seeking revenge is bad. But, while acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discouraged, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged. To a close relative or friend of someone who has been killed or seriously wronged, and to the victims of harm themselves, those feelings are natural and powerful. Many state governments do attempt to grant the relatives of crime victims some personal satisfaction, by allowing them to be present at the trial of the accused, and, in some cases, to address the judge or jury, or even to watch the execution of their loved one’s murderer.

 Diamond, Jared. "Vengeance is Ours: What Can Tribal Societies Tell Us About Our Need to Get Even?" New Yorker (21 April 2008).

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One thought on “Sublimation of the Primal Soul

  1. From my very limited knowledge on this topic, it would seem that tribal societies quickly evolve toward a "vengeance economy" that makes payment in goods and social ritual acceptable means for terminating a vendetta. Even the ferocious Chechens had, under Adat, customary limitations on "acceptable" forms of executing revenge and satisfying honor, including mediation by elders. Otherwise, Hatfield-McCoy type feuds would so weaken the group as to make it vulnerable to predatory outsiders.

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