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The Original Name of Violence

Solomon, the prophet and king of Israel who killed his brother Adonijah, summarized in six short words, my feelings on violence:

Futility of futilities. All is futility.

I’ve been writing about violence, and how we should feel about violence, through my art posts for three years here at On Violence. But violence isn’t the right word thematically. I want to understand reciprocal cycles of violence and vengeance.

It’s taken me three years to finish this blog post. I wrote the first draft before we even began the blog, and I’ve been rewriting it ever since, vainly trying to explain, or describe, or lament this theme. Three years later, I think I’ve finally succeeded.

Reciprocity of violence is the first literary theme I ever learned, way back in ninth grade English class. It’s the most important theme I learned, and it remains first and foremost in my mind. A few years ago my dad asked me to name the great literary themes. It was kind of a trick question--he had an answer he expected me to say the concept of the forbidden other, as in The Scarlett Letter, which is a major literary theme--but I blurted out “reciprocity of violence”.

To me, this is the great theme of literature and art. And life.

Vengeance begets more vengeance. Violence creates violence. Revenge causes unending cycles of violence. A man kills an enemy. The enemy’s son then comes to kill him. Then his son kills the other son in turn. Violence creates violence.

Think of the Greeks. Hector kills Polymachus, Achilles kills Hector, and Paris kills Achilles. Violence begets more violence; the cycle evolves, but the pattern remains the same. Oedipus kills his father, so his uncle banishes him. Oedipus’ sons then start a war, and Creon refuses to bury one brother. This leads to another war, in which Creon dies.

Think of the Hatfields and McCoys, or the Corleones, or the Skywalkers. Or think about 9/11. I’ve always wanted to write an essay tracing a line through the First Gulf War, through to 9/11, then to Afghanistan and Iraq, again, and back to domestic terrorism. Americans place military bases in Saudi Arabia. Terrorists attack Americans. Americans attack Afghanistan and Iraq. Iraqis and Afghans become insurgents.

The Germans destroy Coventry, so the Allies destroy Dresden. Violence begets violence.

The Elizabethans vicariously enjoyed the appropriately titled “revenge plays”, an entire genre dedicated to vengeance. At the end of each revenge play, every character dies a bloody death, coating the stage in a layer of blood. Motivated by a murder, the protagonist avenges the murder, but dies himself. Think Hamlet, the most famous example of a revenge play. Claudius kills the king, Hamlet gets his revenge, then everyone dies.   

Art isn’t about the what happens, but how it makes you feel about what happens. The best artists understand this cycle of violence, then make us feel it, capturing its senselessness, hopelessness, meaninglessness, futility.

From A Farewell to Arms to Dispatches to The Forever War, hopelessness pervades the best war literature. Why did Lt. Henry join the Italian military? He doesn’t know. But the Italians do--because their countrymen have died. Some novels try to rescue meaning from the abyss; the best ones know they can’t. “So it goes” Vonnegut’s narrator writes in Slaughterhouse-Five.  

This is “War at its Worst”, retreats to nowhere, senseless slaughter of men and horses, starving civilians living next to feasting generals.

And going back far in the literary tradition, war at its worst occurs throughout the Old Testament, with its endless blood feuds and battle and wars and deaths and violence.

And Ecclesiastes. “What does Ecclesiastes have to do with violence?” you may ask. There’s barely a mention of war or warriors in this enigmatic, little chapter. And Solomon--the chapter’s assumed author, by tradition--lived a relatively peaceful life compared to the rest of the Old Testament.

The connection and the magic comes from the the opening line:   

"Futility of futilities, all is futility."

Every version of Ecclesiastes has a massive footnote on the first page trying to define this opening sentence, or, more precisely, the thrice repeated word “hevel”. Some translations define it as "Absolutely pointless! Everything is pointless." or “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” I prefer the King James’ version, “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.”

The word “hevel” roughly means futility, hollowness, absurdity, emptiness, meaninglessness, or vanity in the 15th century sense. Precisely, it means breath or air, something transitory, a literary flourish for something without substance and weight, a formless thought we can’t get around.

It is also a name. In English, we know the name as “Abel”, brother to Cain, son to Adam and Eve, and the first victim of murder, the act that, symbolically, began off the chain of violence humanity’s endured throughout its history. It’s no accident that one of the two pictures at the top of this page is of Cain killing Abel.

Violence, in Hebrew, is a synonym for meaningless, inescapably linked to futility and vapor. We’ve been killing killing each other from the very beginning, and the Hebrew scholars knew how to describe violence, how we should feel about it:

“Vanity of vanities. Futility of futilities,” says the philosopher, “All is meaningless.”

four comments

The hang your head and sigh sad part of it is, there is no way off the merry-go-round. We might be able to slow it down some at times, but it will always keep going.


I actually disagree slightly in that I think the cycles can end. The Hatfields and McCoys, as far as I know, don’t fight anymore. So if we stop more cycles than we start, than maybe the world is getting better.


You are right to a point. Cycles can end and things are better than they were, at least in some parts of the world. That’s good and it is well worth the effort made to do it.

But I was thinking more of the beast in man that I mentioned once. That beast will be there and the only thing that stops it is fear, fear of being the object of violence. That beast will not recognize anything else. So you must be willing to use violence to control the beast. That is the merry-go-round and that is why it is so sad.


Many years ago I was a teacher. As part of my teacher training I elected to do an optional course called something like “Dealing with difficult children”. The course involved quite a bit of role play of teacher pupil confrontations. The thing I learnt on that course, and the thing the instructor wanted us to take away was this: it is the job of the teacher to lower the level of confrontation, because the pupil sure won’t. If the pupil shouts and the teacher shouts louder, then things escalate. The teacher must work to lower the level of confrontation. That doesn’t mean being weak, or capitulating; it is rather the intelligent exercise of power to achieve the teacher’s goals.

The lesson generalises: in a conflict, it is the duty of the more powerful to lower the level of confrontation(1).

There are two ways to stop a conflict: for the weak party to surrender, or for the powerful party to be magnanimous(2). But when the weak surrenders, it is armistice rather than peace. (Think Treaty of Versailles after WWI c.f. Marshal Plan after WWII). The only way to lasting peace is for the more powerful party (or the victor) to be magnanimous.

All is not futile: the cycle of violence can be ended, but it can only be ended by the more powerful.

(1) This is actually one of the most important life lessons I have learnt.
(2) There is a third way: mutual destruction, but I’ll avoid that as it is a distraction to my main point.