Murderous Calculations, Self-sacrifice, and the Excluded Third Way

De Chirico "Gladiators"
Giorgio de Chirico, “Gladiators”, 1928

Imagine that you cannot avoid risking your life – for example, you are a soldier during war. The best thing you can do in this situation is to go ahead, do your duty, expose yourself to death without worrying about it too much not to make an impossible situation even worse. Of course, just to stop worrying is not an option – human beings are not robots, and just giving yourself a command like “don’t worry” or “take it easy“ will not alleviate the anxiety about our life and death.

In these grim circumstances we need to shield ourselves by adopting a number of defensive beliefs and psychological postures which can help not to lose spirit and zest for life. For example, many American soldiers during Iraq war continued to repeat that Saddam was connected with Al Qaida and is co-responsible for 9/11 – if not for this belief how could they follow the orders of their superiors? So, they believe in what is not true and sacrifice facts and truth despite the officially disproved link between Iraq and 9/11 in order to save themselves from the agonizing cognitive dissonance. They keep justifying their presence in Iraq not to go mad. Another example is the Arab suicide bombers – how could they sacrifice their lives without believing that they will be welcomed in eternity with gratitude for their “heroism”?

The same goes for the gladiators – they cannot avoid their destiny to fight to death. So, they develop not only the technical skills how to kill and avoid getting killed and the determination to fight to the end. They also develop psychological positions typical for people trapped into killing/being killed situation – valor, courage, prowess, the feeling of pride for overcoming the fear of death and the readiness for self-sacrifice. They develop the desire to challenge the rival not only with the question of who is stronger and a more skillful fighter, but also – who is greater in overcoming the fear of death. By these psychological “methods” they help themselves to meet their possible death without panic and psychological exhaustion.

People who are locked in killing/being killed situation develop the emotional taste for greatness of character, and with this banner they become ready for whatever will happen. You can never be sure whether you will survive or not – will be able to kill instead of being killed, but how to meet death with courage and even grace – that is up to your individual will. The feeling of being great is so powerful and so rewarding that it is capable to carry you through your suffering, wounds, pain and death. Greatness is the key able to unlock the lock of mortality, the magic passage through death. The pride for being capable of shaking off the fear of death is a kind of (narcissistic) megalomania that psychologically neutralizes the sting of mortality with the balsam of the eternal life.

In de Chirico’s painting we see two fighters who are trapped in the space of bodily existence (the floor and walls are of bodily-earthy colors). The unrealistically constricted room where fight takes place is a painterly metaphor of being locked into a box of our bodily existence inseparable from the necessity to fight for our life with other humans (and, therefore, from fear of death). We see the fighters trapped inside this room as humans are inside their bodies. But the transition to ceiling (which is also of bodily-earthy color) is mediated by the white molding and the narrow foggy-blue area above it. White, it seems, signifies the metaphysical moment of death onto heaven, a transition from mortal to a post-mortal condition. The color of the heaven (the ceiling) is bodily-earthy because in the depth of our intuition we expect to continue to live after death in some kind of beautified scenic style of existence. The painting suggests that for us to die and resurrect into eternal life means getting through the white (the moment of death) and the foggy blue (the sky as a transition) into a new – not really bodily, but a kind of bodily existence (the belief in life after death helps us to open ourselves to death).

The behavioral strategy that helps both gladiators to overcome the fear of death is the narcissistic desire to be great – to out-great the opponent (greatness is more than mortality, it transcends it!) The gladiator with a shield is marked for victory. The gladiator on the right is marked for death (he is not protected with a shield). How much he should be impregnated by the feeling of his own greatness to fight in a condition of not having a shield, in a condition that only his opponent has it! But the point of the painting is that the fighter in a privileged position also sees the situation from the perspective of greatness, not from that of winning! It is a situation when the potential winner will be the looser. And this is decided only between the two gladiators, in spite of their bosses’ planning. Real competition registered in de Chirico’s painting is between two greatnesses, not between two technical virtuosities in fighting. Real victory or defeat is decided here between the two narcissisms – between the opponents’ abilities to overcome the fear of death, between – which one of them will be greater in his ability to fearlessly sacrifice himself!

The readiness to die is considered by the gladiator on the left as a position worthier than to use strength, technique and the advantage (of having a shield) to win. The left gladiator opens his body to take the blow, while the right gladiator who obviously accepts the unexpected sacrifice of his opponent has already lost his humanity (the belief in his immortality?). His face is transformed into a mask of death. He got a pompous hat with a plumage (glorification as a compensation for his planned death). He has a tiny red mark on his left nipple marking the locus of a death blow to the heart. How is his pride for being marked for death is transformed into a pride for being marked to kill? Why will he strike the one who refuses to kill him? Who was marked for death became the weapon of death. Those who were treated justly become innocent self-sacrificial victims. De Chirico portrays Cain and Abel figures as gladiators. From those who were abused Cains of this world come and from those who were not come Abels. Feelings of justice and injustice seem to be always involved in crime. A criminal is prone to feel that in his past he was treated unjustly.

The left gladiator nobly challenges the destiny – he wants to out-play the game. He decided not to use his shield and to meet the deadly blow with his very body. We see that he is advancing – not to strike, but to receive the blow. Decency of self-sacrificial victim is mixed with a delirium, as is the meanness of the murderer. The masochistic pathos in the gladiator who refuses the protection of his shield transcends the sadistic impulse. The masochistic narcissism of megalomaniacal greatness targets immortality as its abode. It as if says – it doesn’t matter if I die here, in this limited miserable world, what matters is that after my death, in another world I’ll forever have better arrangements which I deserve because of my courage now.

What is more gracious – to be a conformist murderer or to be a self-sacrificial non-conformist, to be a noble loser or a plebian winner? This spiritual logic overruns the ordinary logic of physical survival. We can admire the spiritual gesture of the gladiator on the left. The destiny of both people is decided by his will standing against the will of his owners and masters. The right gladiator’s torso is pale but his legs are alive – he will continue to stand his ground. But while the torso of left gladiator is fleshy his legs are pale – he is loosing the ground’s support (he has decided to lose it – he asserts his humanity and his freedom through his death). You can see what an agony he is going through – how stressed are the muscles of his back (the battlefield of his contradictory impulses). It is not easy to open yourself to death.

In this quagmire of chances that is called this life where to live means to fight (to be gladiators in a world of competition and war) for your leaders and bosses – both rivals/fighters are losers. To die because of all the nobility of your soul or to win because of your robotic brutality are both equally losing formulas. The point here is the excluded third way – the opportunity to enlarge the room of life, to make this room a place not for fighting but for living and creating together. There is no grace in confrontation between soldiers, gladiators or business rivals.

De Chirico demonstrates how humanity realizes itself through two kinds of irrationality – that of the murder and that of self-sacrifice, and there is no reliable alternative way yet to realize our humanity. We kill and destroy like de Chirico’s right gladiator, and we die with belief in life after death like his left gladiator. We are locked between being self-sacrificial victims and murderous robots. The both types of behavior coexist in the same persons who during the war kill enemies and civilians and later they’re themselves sacrificed by their superiors.

We are doomed to continue this course forever until the world where people fight to death will not be rebuilt based on another values. And how to do this we all must be thinking about. And, first of all, we should stop to be gladiators.