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  • Biting the Bullet:The Ethics and Aesthetics of Violence
  • Jonathan Allen
The Bullet's Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia, by William Pfaff. New York. Simon & Schuster, 2004, 368 pp.
Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag. New York, Picador, 2003, 131 pp.

In the nineteenth century a broadly influential branch of Romantic philosophy insisted that goodness and beauty were intimately related. The goals of ethical and aesthetic education were taken to be one and the same—the cultivation of the kalokagathos or "noble-and-beautiful" individual.1 This robust view of the relation between ethical and aesthetic education is now rarely defended; it was dealt a mortal wound by the inconvenient fact that highly cultured or Gebildete individuals have been implicated in the twentieth century's worst political crimes.

This does not mean, however, that connections between ethical and aesthetic projects are no longer made. One such attempt to relate ethics and aesthetic—a bleak, somber, and deeply chastened attempt—is presented in the late Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others. In this small but dense book, Sontag assesses the hope that the reproduction of images, especially photographic images, of violence and atrocity might help to abolish war, or at least to play a role in combating genocide or the commission of gross violations of the laws of war. While she evidently wishes to find "an antidote to the perennial seductiveness of war," Sontag is doubtful that photography is equal to this moral burden.2

Sontag's work concentrates on the aesthetic and ethical challenges that confront any attempt to convey the horrors of war to uninvolved observers. Her focus is thus trained on an attempt to exorcise what she refers to as the "seductiveness of war"; she is not primarily concerned to identify the source of war's allure (though she does have some interesting observations to make on the issue).3 William Pfaff, by contrast, is both repelled and fascinated by the modern embrace of violence. The Bullet's Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia offers an enthralling account of the intellectual and aesthetic forces that provoked the feverish modern love affair with violence and war. Pfaff is at least as doubtful as Sontag, however, that that love affair [End Page 100] is over and that we are in a position to forge a more pacific sensibility. Nevertheless, he insists that if we are to have the slightest hope of avoiding a full-scale repetition of the twentieth-century's "carnival of inhumanity," we need to understand the nature of its romance with violence.

So how did that romance come about? The central theme of The Bullet's Song is the consequences of the loss of "chivalry." This, according to Pfaff, was a code that "held that what an individual or society could licitly do to another was limited by a morality linked to the essential values of Western civilization."4 Within this framework, it was expected that states would sometimes go to war with one another, but war was seen merely as an extreme means of settling disputes, not of eliminating entire societies or remaking the world. For individuals, war was presented as "a test of valor, rewarded by 'honor'"—in other words, it was seen as an occasion to test oneself in the light of a set of ideals of conduct that operated as constraints on permissible behavior in war.5 All of this came to a sticky end in the trenches of World War I, replaced by a morally nihilistic idea of total war. Pfaff claims that this moral vacuum proved intolerable to many individuals. They reacted in several different ways. Some attempted to construct "codes of individual transcendence" and "collective will," while others gave themselves over to "utopias based on historical fictions."6

This is a very large story, and it is in fact too bulky for the confines of this book. First, it must be said that Pfaff fails to present his central claims clearly. He is unclear, for example, as to exactly what was lost with the destruction of the chivalric code, as well as what caused its destruction. At times, he seems to be suggesting that the rise of...


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