Review of Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present by Russell Jacoby

Doctors take a pint of blood from me twice each month. A crapshoot of parental genetics came up snake eyes, twice in a row, to give both my older brother and me a rare and tiresome condition. We must regularly undergo a medieval regime of bloodlettings, otherwise we will slowly rust-up inside due to an overabundance of iron.  Russell Jacoby’s book-length essay Bloodlust offered me a reason to reflect on the qualities of blood I share with my brother. Here I say blood as though its physical and metaphorical forms blend together seamlessly—a convention typical in the euro-American folkways of my youth. The cultural blood that I share with my brother provides an idiom, a way of speaking, about an uncanniness many readers probably recognize in their own sibling relations. Donald and I look enough alike to be taken for twins on occasion, we exhibit nuanced and obscure familial traits, we work in adjacent fields in Higher Education, and we express nearly identical preferences when purchasing our worldly possessions. As he pointed out after reading these words, we even share the same sense of humor. Aesthetically and experientially, in American Jurisprudence and in the eyes of our parents, we are alternate versions of one another—doppelgängers.

It follows perfectly with Jacoby’s perspective in Bloodlust that, perhaps a result of sharing so much with my brother who I dearly cherish, he is the only human I have ever physically harmed with forethought and malice. In turn, he is the only person I can recall having ever similarly hurt me. If we were unrelated strangers on the street, one of us surely would have gone to jail for the things we did in our youth (or at least reform school). Our anecdotal experiences of brotherly violence, tempered with enduring love, are far from unique. An unprovoked punch to the face or attempted suffocation seems de rigueur in the experiences of brothers everywhere. If you stop to think about it, as Jacoby’s essay encourages us to do, it is unnerving that brotherly hate can flow just as naturally as brotherly love.

Jacoby’s essay suggests this everyday occurrence of brotherly violence can be taken as the root of human violence in general. The stunningly simple proposal is that if we take a hard look at the facts, we humans are far more likely to be victims of aggression from family members and neighbors close at hand than from strangers or outsiders. Conventional wisdom, reiterated in common sense cautions from mom, teaches us to fear strangers even though any homicide detective can confirm that outlanders are not usually the problem. This sensibility has yet to find its way into everyday thought. Fears are too often focused on rare figures like Osama Bin-Laden rather than the drunk-driver next door. Family members, neighbors, and fellow nationals are the authors of domestic violence, ethnic cleansing, and civil wars—events which Jacoby describes as fratricidal in character and carried out with a marked bloodlust. He presents fratricidal tendencies not as an exception, but instead as a widespread human condition.

For all this conjecture about humanity in general, the subtitle warns readers that the roots of bloodlust will be found with Cain and Abel. It is then no surprise that the bulk of Jacoby’s materials come from the Judeo-Christian and Latin worlds, with occasional forays farther afield. The first chapter focuses accordingly on historical examples of religious violence in Europe. The murders of Protestant converts by Catholic friends and relatives during the Spanish Inquisition and St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre show that objectively minor differences can build into fratricidal hatreds—to such an extent that the aggressors express pleasure in their gruesome doings.  Jacoby nicely documents their pleasure with textual evidence. He continues to construct a thesis of the contemptibility of minor differences in the Nazi attempt to exterminate their Jewish neighbors, even as they “breathed and exhaled the same culture as non-Jews.”  The lesson Jacoby draws in these centuries-long cycles of religious violence is that “Minor differences between neighbors, not grand ideas about freedom of thought, spark civil strife.”

In his second chapter, Jacoby builds on an observation made by Montaigne: Why do civil wars have a personal gruesomeness and rancor not seen in wars between sovereign nations?  Why would members of the same cultural or national body treat each other harshly in the first place, let alone reserve a special vindictiveness for themselves? He points out that in the present era, most armed conflict takes place between ethnic and religious groups within the same nation-state. His examples of ethnic violence and religious civil war sometimes read like a review of the Clinton presidency (Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia), somewhat awkwardly bundled up with Thucydides’ account of the savagery of the Peloponnesian War. He brings up the clichéd brother-against-brother narrative of the American civil war, but justly—first for its chilling body count (more Americans were killed than in all other wars combined from the revolution through Vietnam) and second as an example of how resentments from civil wars can simmer on long after the end of overt hostilities. Relatedness in civil war actually seems to multiply rather than dissipate acts of inhumanity, as in the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—which Jacoby casts as a latter-day reprise of the contests of Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael.

At this point midway through chapter two, Cain and Abel make their appearance along with Livy’s description of Romulus and Remus (and even the quarrelsome brothers in Steinbeck’s East of Eden). Compellingly, after both Cain and Romulus murder their brothers, they go on to build a city. This coincidence allows Jacoby to build a provocative proposal: What if fratricide sits at the foundations of social order? What if the killer of brothers is the one who goes on to build civilization? This is the precise opposite of what I learned long ago from Hobbes (that people leave behind the State of Nature and enter into a Common Weal to seek security from bandits and other foreign or outside threats to security and property). In this new model of the origin of society, violence is fraternal, and both the perpetrator and victim come from within.

With a postulation of the sui-generis origin of violence, chapter three examines the history of anti-Semitism that sustains the Nazi attempt to eradicate Jews through genocide. Over the centuries, anti-Semitic thinkers were continuously flummoxed by their inability to distinguish Jews from non-Jews on an objective basis alone. In Germany by the 19th century, Jews and Gentiles are indistinguishable and overt differences could not be found. Filling this absence, old textual interpretations of Jews-as-Cain made by the likes of Augustine and Pope Innocent III, suggest—with no substantiation in reality—that Jews can be identified by bizarre traits. ‘Trembling’ and ‘anxiety’ and other contrived markers of Jews-as-Cain are recognizable as the source material of modern stereotypes. Since non-extant and vague “Jewish” traits are what genocide was supposed to eradicate, the Nazis had to emulate their peers of old and make recourse to overt marking of Jews (Starts of David, yellow ribbons, etc.). In Jacoby’s telling, this history shows us a case where difference is manufactured because none could be found, and genocide was conducted in the name of eliminating traits that simply did not exist. He cautions that “No simple or single account can comprehend the history of Jews, anti-Semitism, or genocide” but surely Jacoby’s perspective is an important piece of the overall tragedy: there were no minor differences in this case, only similarities.

In the closing chapter, Fearful Symmetries, we step into mythology and psychological theory of hatred of similarity—starting with the Biblical twins Esau and Jacob who fought even in the womb of Rebekah.  Jacoby’s theme is recognizable by now, that similarity breeds contempt, and he works to provides us with the psychology behind the phenomena of manufactured and feared differences. Among others, he targets the clash of civilizations thesis, in which Huntington (and Lewis before him) suggest that Islamic society is fundamentally different from the West. Details easily undo this proposal, for instance that Mohammed Atta of the 9/11 attacks was a western-educated urban planner with gripes against the aesthetics of modern design (i.e. he was not some nomadic tribesman steeped in the Koran).  Jacoby encourages us to instead see assertions of difference, like those that purportedly separate the West and Islam, or Jews from other Germans, as being born of close interactions and mutual intelligibility.

For a psychology of how similarity and proximity can beget contempt and fear, Jacoby then digs into Freud’s work on the  “narcissism of minor differences”—reaching back into a 1918 work on taboo and the sexual dangers of women. This early work yields a surprise left-turn, a final twist for the last twenty-odd pages that I will not attempt to lay out here. In brief, Freud identifies a “dread of women” demonstrated in myriad cross-cultural prohibitions that separate men from the women around them. Jacoby uses this new direction to close his essay with a needling question: “Is misogyny the crux of fratricide?”

Jacoby’s essay paints a picture of violence that is at times a-historical and at other times historically nuanced. He preemptively asserts in the preface that his identification of fratricide at the roots of violence is not universalist, and neither sociobiological nor based on DNA. I will grant him this, since nowhere else in the essay does biology rear its head. But then again, he never quite tells us why he chooses to paints with broad strokes, nor what it means.  He is at his strongest in his careful historical constructions in chapters one and three—truly fascinating reads with good supporting evidence—and at his weakest when he reaches for generalizations and takes cases out of context. This latter tendency in the work has a real drawback, as when he explicitly suggests that the assassinations of Mohandas Gandhi and Anwar el Sadat can somehow be stripped of the political contexts in which they happened and still retain their coherence as meaningful events—only because both men were killed by a fellow national. This detracts from the substance of the essay.

My own copy of the book is extensive in its marginalia. When Jacoby proffers a series of places in Africa where twins are feared or considered bad luck, I jotted other places where they could be considered providential (including my own kin-group). When he proposes that “Civil wars are generally more savage and bear more lasting consequences” than foreign wars, I think immediately of bloody wars fought over territorial acquisition and race. John Dower’s War Without Mercy (1986) makes it difficult to see World War II in the Pacific as anything but a needlessly vicious race war on the part of both the Allies and the Japanese. The war remains politically touchy on all sides of the Pacific, from the issue of comfort women to the decision to drop the atomic bomb. If settler and frontier wars are “foreign wars” for Jacoby, then I would be interested to see how he approaches the scorched earth policies of the French colonial exit from Algeria, and genocidal settler violence against Native Americans in the Western U.S. or Aboriginal peoples of Australia. For a broader historical perspective on the savagery of foreign wars, the murals of Ramses III at Madinat Habu depict triumphantly, in carved stone for all eternity, the sordid bureaucratic counting of severed heads, penises, and hands of the foreign Sea People.  The idea that civil wars are generally worse than other wars happens to fit well with a United Nations worldview in which wars between nations can be conducted honorably. Perhaps this is a fixed idea worth challenging.

As I hope the preceding paragraph makes exceptionally clear, I deeply enjoyed Bloodlust. I suspect other readers will also find it fruitfully provocative and engaging—which is the point of an essay after all, to try out an idea and open a conversation. His basic contrarian premise cannot be discarded: most violence is committed between kith and kin, not between people unknown to one another. Jacoby’s treatment of this problematic phenomena is worth considering—even as I disagree with his interpretation of many examples, and would prefer not to use biblical tropes to talk about peoples and experiences outside the Abrahamic world.  Although he succeeds at finding fratricidal violence everywhere, there is hope. He shows that genocide has historical origins, and that Nazi anti-Semitism in particular was built on a desperate and ill-founded search for differences where none existed. Freudian psychology might offer an explanation of brotherly bloodlust, but it might also take us in a direction towards brotherly love. Jacoby’s essay holds the same tenor of disquieting truth that I felt upon hearing the following comment: school children everywhere learn that opposable thumbs make human accomplishment possible, but we might just as easily observe that thumbs are what you use when strangling someone else to death. Fratricidal bloodlust needs to be pointed out, since it is too regularly glossed over with a rosy narrative of love.


Marston H. Morgan is a cultural anthropologist.



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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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