The Body Politic Feeds Upon Human Bodies
by Richard Koenigsberg
This issue of the LSS Newsletter presents the Second Part of Richard Koenigsberg's paper, consisting of the sections below:

  IV. The body politic feeds upon human bodies
  V. The Western fantasy of rationality
  VI. The nightmare of history

Read the complete paper on our website.

IV. The body politic feeds
upon human bodies

Based on analysis of the letters of French soldiers who fought in the First World War, historian John Horne (in Coetze and Shevin-Coetze, 1995) found that the central theme running through them was the idea of national sacrifice as a source of redemption and renewal.

Shortly before his death, Robert Dubarle wrote of the glorious privilege of "sacrificing oneself, voluntarily." Looking at the warriors who had fallen around him, French soldier J. Saleilles wondered whether the "gift of their blood" was not the supernatural source of the "renewal of life that must be given to our country."

F. Belmont—moved by attending a field mass with 500 soldiers—wrote that the war, like all great sacrifices "at least has a purifying role." It was by virtue of sacrifice and suffering that regeneration occurred. A Catholic priest serving as an ambulance man on the Western Front expressed a similar vision: "We await the decisive all-out assault. So many sacrifices! May they help bring the resurrection of a greater, more beautiful and truly Christian France."

Whence came this conviction that dead soldiers constituted the "supernatural source" of the renewal of the life of France? Why would the sacrifice and suffering of French soldiers bring about the regeneration of France? What is the logic that connects redemption of a nation to the death of its soldiers?

Perhaps the metaphor of the soldier’s death as a "gift of love" provides a clue. This metaphor conveys the idea of death in battle as a transfusion—the moment at which blood contained within the body of the soldier passes or flows into the body politic, functioning to energize the latter and keep it alive.

The Aztecs believed that the hearts and blood of sacrificial victims were required in order to keep the sun god alive. What sustained the First World War was belief that the hearts and blood of soldiers were required to keep nations alive. The First World War represented the enactment of a massive, sacrificial fantasy.

This fantasy of sacrifice builds upon the idea that nations are actual, concrete entities: real "bodies politic." To keep these entities—bodies politic—alive, they must be fed with human bodies. Just as the Aztec sun god continued to exist only insofar as it was fed with sacrificial victims, so nations continue to exist to the extent that soldiers die in their name. The body politic feeds upon human bodies.

V. The Western fantasy of rationality

Most of us find the Aztec ritual of heart extraction bizarre, shocking and painful to contemplate. Yet we barely reflect upon our own suicidal political rituals, such as the First World War. Western people believe they are superior to the "primitive" Aztecs. However, the Aztecs were not unaware of the sacrificial purpose of warfare.

Western people live deeply within another fantasy as well: that human behavior is governed by “rationality.” We imagine that societies wage war for "real" reasons. We desperately cling to this fantasy despite what actually occurred during the twentieth century, when 200 million people died as a result of political conflict generated by states, producing little in the way of substantial, meaningful or positive results.

A central theme of the twentieth century was massive, collective acts of destruction performed by nation-states. The irrationality of these episodes of mass slaughter stares us in the face, yet social science continues to be dominated by the idea that political acts are undertaken in the name of achieving "real" goals or objectives.

In the twentieth century, Western people undertook acts of warfare and genocide—sacrificing human beings on a scale that would have been unimaginable even to the Aztecs. Yet we are not yet aware—or are unwilling to acknowledge—that we have been enacting massive rituals of sacrifice.

VI. Awakening from the nightmare

Implicit in this aspiration of "awakening from the nightmare of history" is the idea that, when human beings enter the domain of politics, they are living within a dream. To this day—as you read this—people continue to blow each other up in the name of nations, gods and ideologies.

Infantryman Coningsby Dawson fought in the First World War and published two books in 1917 and 1918. He sought to convey the experience and motives of his fellow British soldiers. These men, he said—in the "noble indignation of a great ideal"—face a worse hell than the "most ingenious of fanatics ever planned or plotted."

Dawson described some of the horrific scenes he witnessed. Men, he wrote, die "scorched like moths in a furnace, blown to atoms, gassed, tortured." Yet the carnage continued because, while some men perished, other men stepped forward to take their places "well knowing” what their fate would be.

What was the source of this willingness of men to die? Dawson claims that it was precisely for the sake of Great Britain, proudly proclaiming that although “bodies may die,” the spirit of England “grows greater as each new soul speeds upon its way." Dawson, in short, posits a correlation between the death of British soldiers and the soul of the Empire.

With the death of each soldier, the spirit of England grew greater. Changing one word in this passage crystallizes the logic linking the death of soldiers to the growth of one’s nation: “Bodies may die—therefore the spirit of England grows greater as each new soul speeds upon its way.” A mathematical formula is suggested: one’s nation grows in proportion to the number of men who have died in its name.

The nightmare of history derives from the fantasy that human beings exist in a symbiotic tie to—cannot be separated from—their nations. Rudolf Hess often introduced his Fuehrer by declaring, "Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler." This is not an unusual idea. Many human beings identify—link their identities—with their nations.

People conceive of their nation as an omnipotent entity with which their self is fused. Human beings equate their own bodies with a body politic. In the name of devotion to nations or bodies politic, societies are willing to sacrifice the lives of actual human bodies.

What would it mean to awaken from the nightmare of history? The first step is to recognize that we live within a waking dream. This dream—this collective fantasy—centers around the idea that lives must be sacrificed in order to keep nations alive.