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Eros, Thanatos, and Sunday Afternoon

Across the River and Into the Trees

One day last summer my son came home from a birthday party covered with bruises, bleeding, and looking very proud of himself.  Happily examining his wounds in the bathtub, he explained that he’d been playing paintball, which was actual combat with kids shooting at each other. The bullets splattered paint on you, and they really hurt. And it had been the happiest day of his life. 

Within a week, I’d somehow agreed to drive a car full of 12 year old boys to play paintball.  We pulled in to the parking lot, which was filled with men and women and kids of all ages wearing camouflage and toting weapons.  And an hour later, outfitted with a mask and fatigues and armed with a paintball gun loaded with bullets, I was marching up a muddy hill with my team on the way to a battle.

It was every bit as exciting as my son had portrayed it.  The adrenaline, the instant camaraderie, the fear of being hit with a paintball.  The thrill of seeing the other team first come over the hill, bent on our destruction.

Reality intervened quickly.   Hit in the shoulder in the first 3 minutes, I was required according to the rules to evacuate myself to a neutral spot.  The adrenaline wore off, and I sat down exhausted.  The other team swept us from the field.   The next battle came, and I was again eliminated early.  Again we lost.

At that point, our team was assigned a late arrival – a tall young man with tattoos and his own customized gun.  “We’re gonna win now,”  someone said.  And win we did.  The tall young man felled so many of the enemy in the next battle that he won for us virtually single-handed.

I was unprepared for how much affection I would feel toward this young man.  In an instant, I understood why war-torn countries elect strong dictators.  He could have had anything of mine he wanted, as long as he smote lots of enemy soldiers. I’d easily have voted him president for life.

Suddenly, Bible verses that had seemed obscure now made complete sense.  For example, the first book of Samuel:  And it came to pass as they came, when David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul . . . And the women sang one to another in their play, and said: Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.  And Saul was very wroth, and this saying displeased him; and he said: ‘They have ascribed unto David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed but thousands . . . ‘” (Samuel I: Ch 18, v. 6-8).

Now it made perfect sense.  Numbers matter. The enemy is dangerous. When it comes to kings, you want the ones that can eliminate as many of them as possible.

My son had hoped to get me hooked on paintball, but I felt no urge to go back. I could see the appeal.  And I was proud that he was much better at it than his father.  But I felt relieved that it was over. Adrenaline is not really my thing.  I kept telling myself that it was just a fantasy of armed combat, not the real item.  But the emotions had been very intense.


Love and Death

When Freud first made a name for himself, it was as an explorer of the sexual urge.  He conceived of it as eros, and felt it was the life instinct.

Much later, though, in his 60’s — partly from the experience of living through World War I — he turned his attention from sex to aggression, which he associated with something he called thanatos.  If eros was the life instinct, then thanatos was the death instinct.

The idea of a death instinct struck many of Freud’s contemporaries as odd, but he stuck to it.

Freud’s old categories passed from the popular imagination long ago. But on reading Vanessa Woods’ new book, Bonobo Handshake, I couldn’t help imagining bonobos — our nearest primate relatives, who make love frequently (at least when in captivity) and have never been observed to kill each other — as the embodiment of Freud’s eros, the drive to sustain life and to connect.  For those of you who haven’t read the book — here’s a sample description of bonobo sex:

“Isiro combs through Mikeno’s hair, raking her fingernails gently over his scalp. Occasionally he grasps her hand.  She pulls it away playfully, and when he catches it, he kisses her fingertips.  Whatever she is doing to his head must feel good, because he gets an erection. The corner of her mouth twitches as she bends her long body over his face and nibbles on his ear.  He murmurs in her ear. She lies back, and he positions himself between her legs. She wraps her arms around his shoulders and her ballet thighs around his waist.
They stare into each other’s eyes and make love face to face.  He shuts his eyes and throws his head back when he comes, and she cries out, high and triumphant.
Afterward, they collapse against each other, a warm breeze blowing across the midday sun . . .”

If that’s not eros, then I’m a chimpanzee.

Woods also spends some time with chimpanzees in the book. Chimps are our other nearest primate relatives, besides bonobos.  They’re generally more aggressive, and they do kill their own kind.  Here’s Woods discussing the matter of chimpanzee sexuality:

“Every female chimpanzee is battered. When males reach adolescence, they start to hit, kick, bite, and pummel each female in turn until she acknowledges his authority and submits. The main benefit of battering is that while the female may not feel very amorous after she’s had the shit kicked out of her, she is more likely to mate with the male who battered her, days, weeks, or even months later.”

If bonobos seem the embodiment of Freud’s eros, it’s tempting to see chimpanzees — and their sexuality — as infused with thanatos.

Now who are we humans more like?  Well, our romantic movies tend to be more bonobo-like.  But our battered womens’ shelters bear witness to a chimpanzee-like tendency.

In bonobo culture, the females bond together to keep the males’ aggressiveness in check.   If female bonobos, like female humans, tend to be more wired for empathy (see my article “Empathy’s Magic,” for a larger discussion of this), then having them in power would make for a more peaceful society.

Chris Ryan in Sex at Dawn argues that our original pre-agricultural state may have been more bonobo-like.  We’ll never know.  But it’s startling how much of the modern human world seems designed to reinforce our chimpanzee tendencies.

You can show a lot of violence without losing a PG rating.  You can have a thriving business as a paintball center, and still be respected in your community. We seem intent on promoting thanatos.  And we certainly don’t do a lot to suppress it.

In a bonobo-based alternate human universe, maybe paintball would be considered shameful.  Maybe our youngsters would dance together — instead of shoot at each other — on a Sunday afternoon.

stephen snyder md author photo Stephen Snyder, MD

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