Are we made for war or peace?
Hello, Every readers! Today we're excited to bring you an essay from Anna Gát. Anna is the founder and CEO of Interintellect, a platform that reinvents the art of the French salon for the 21st century. This essay is a meditation on what it means to fight—as a founder, as a woman, and as a human. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
We’ve spent the past weeks watching fighting: the 100th day of an invasion in Europe, a public trial of domestic abuse. Young companies like mine are told to fight a recession that may or may not be a phantom. You fight hours, kilos, weekend schedules, the heavy hand of time, memories clouding good present offers, misread words, unruly children, vacant friends.
I have an unhappy habit: I start to want to fight at 1 am or 2 am, at any am that’s one hour before bedtime. My muscles tense up in joy, I feel fresh, strong, strung, ready for war. But there’s no one here with whom to fight. It’s not the time, I tell myself. Maybe it will never again be that time when I have to fight. It’s alright, the clean apartment or hotel room, the soft smell of folded clothes, the stacked books, lining up as order. It’s time to lie down, I tell myself, to not move, to sleep.
I’ve wanted to write about fighting for weeks now, but it’s very hard for me to go there. I know for a fact that reincarnation is a myth, but when I was a 16-year-old high-school student in France, one winter morning our hyperactive PE teacher (aren’t they all?) took us outdoor to do athletics on a frosty football field, at 7:30 am, in gloves, as one does. I picked up the javelin, my grip firm on its handle, and I knew it. I remembered. I remembered my steps as the grass crackled and broke under my shoes. My palm, my fist. my biceps recalled the spear, and I threw it. My body burst into delight at something familiar to someone else, a puppy’s first thrown stick, brought back, that height! The PE teacher gaped at my javelin sticking out of the frozen ground at the far end of the pitch, and asked me if I had ever thrown a javelin in my life. I said no.
I am built for war, and I know it. So are you. And peace too, the gathering. Sitting in love around fires and laughing at stories. And touching and waiting. And growing and eating. I have fought and have been fought with in my life, I have been fought, and so have you. It is war and peace, always, through and through. The great Hungarian poet László Nagy wrote that love is something that must be carried across the river held between your teeth. So what have you saved in this life? What was contested when you won? When your muscles tighten at night, what is it that you want back? Have you given up on it? Will you ever sleep again?
I’m stuck with some questions, and I thought I’d line them up like an order, to see what sticks.
Are we made for war or peace?
If you brought together two equally skillful groups of debaters tasked with battling out whether it’s wartime or peacetime that’s more “normal”, they’d likely end up with a tie. Wars are avoided at great effort in order for things to remain normal. For cities to stand and economies to be in balance, for children to grow up and couples to stay together, for the body intact, the faith at half-mast. Humans are BAU dwellers, your debaters might say, we thrive into art and ennui when bored. We read, we philander, it’s delicious.
Then wars break out, and we rediscover nature. The goodness of man, his evil. People talk about a more real state of being, with the masks now off. All the cities and books and symphonies were just wallpaper on the ruins, it turns out. This, this is what we are, the timeless beast. Humans come alive in states of exception. It’s hard to come down from it. Some never do.
So which one is it? What are you? A farmer or a fighter? The ease of the workless evening, the readiness of the wrist. The sons taught the polite “Good night!”, the quick punch-back, the letting you go first through the door, the their staying on top. The invention of triggers. I delve into poetry on some nights, and find blood. I read the news of vast destruction, and find literature composed in shelters.
I run a company building places of peaceful gathering like it was an army. We train event hosts in the martial art of peace. For Christmas, my Russian friend sent me a picture an artist had made on commission. It’s a woman holding a sword, in tears. My friend inscribed it for me, “Keep weeping, keep fighting." She’s set to host an event for us now with my favorite Ukrainian poet.
When are you more you? In love? In war? In between?
Do we fight for or against things?
If you trace back even just the past few years of your life, you’ll surely happen upon one paradox of peace or another. I myself surely have fought a lot for my current state of peace, and what I fight for today I earned the right to during years seemingly still and uneventful. Then we fight against mediocrity, too, non-achievement, dullness — the everyday, every day. Or we get angry and make uneasy peaces with where we stand and what we can do.
I fight my way out of situations I get myself into. Time loops where events repeat every year like school. The same email sent every year, once, the same trip booked again, to the same place. You wonder if these are wholesome life seasons, the Tao, or you’re going around in circles like Winnie the Pooh in the fog. I try to fight my way into knowledge sometimes, into circles that often turn out not to exist once I’m nearer. The greatest positive freedom seems to still call for fighting against things. The privilege of the most effective altruisms seeks to crack the greatest ills. I am fought sometimes by people who don’t even know me, and I’m invited to fight back in their imagination.
Kundera knew about how embarrassing fighting is. In Immortality his Agnes, the reasonable sister, understood the intimacies of war. That it takes two to tango. In a duel your wanting to win is most clear, that you joined, you showed your teeth, your desire. Un désir comme du sang à vos pieds a coulé hors de moi, says one of the men in Koltès’s two-man play where the Dealer and the Client face off in the double-entendre filled Parisian darkness. So Agnes doesn’t confront anyone lest she’d get too close to another, so revealed.
It makes sense that it is two sisters in Immortality, one rational, one romantic, through whom the real conflict, war versus peace, unfolds. Most people first encounter love and war in the form of a sibling, whether they were already there when they were born, meeting them in shock, wonder, and jealousy, or would be born after them, eliciting that same response. Two siblings are the original zero sum game, competing for what indeed is a scarce resource, the 24 hours of the mother, in luckier cases alleviated by fathers’ and grandparents’ contribution. Two-child households don’t have the Pentecostal or Hegelian triad, no third party can really dissolve and to absolve. A lot of clashes feel like life and death. Indeed, at some point they were. We must have fought in humanity’s crib, if not the womb, we were never our brothers’ keepers.
When it comes to our new polarization in the West, I’m tempted to think an unexplored underlying cause may well be that now the second generation of mostly two-child households has grown up, people who from early childhood have fought ugly for either/or, to whom it’s her or me!, who have no visceral knowledge of forming allegiances, we know only how to appeal, who understand all things through interest and difference.
Doctors in first world countries are told not to deliver serious diagnoses facing you across a desk. One-on-one frontal conversations feel confrontational to monkey-you. They take you on a walk instead, moving two-step in the same direction already feels like resolving. There is progress, step by step, an alignment. There goes all your first date dinners, sensitive work lunches! Humans want a profile, the phalanx row.
As I am writing this, a fight breaks out in the street outside my apartment. The balcony door is open, I can hear everything. A group of teenagers, a girl is yelling, it’s something somebody has said, and I know with near-absolute certainty that the subject of their conflict is insignificant. But it will nevertheless lead to ruptures—friendships will break up, new couples will form, people will move to different places eventually as a result of it, different children will be born than would have otherwise, even if tonight it’s just meaningless shouting.
Sibling wars, whether on Olympus or in suburbia, can become similarly contentless once the dependence on the caregiver eases, a stage on which the parents’ conflict can be replayed by two actors. A breakthrough in my self-therapy these past years was to realize how my own parents, seemingly locked into quasi-parental love/hate with one another, were in fact reliving siblingly frictions in their union, which they then outsourced to their children. Since I’ve known this, I now notice it in many homes, the passed down duels spanning decades which we, in our bloodless lives, can never and should never fight to completion.
But some households do fight. There, there is blood. Like a desire it pools at one’s feet. When there is violence in a family you fast learn there is no appeal. The illusion of justice was just that, that one can flee, or one kills or dies.
What does it mean to “survive"?
I watched the news last week and wondered: if I were sued after claiming abuse, would I remember events from eight years ago so precisely? Would I have people from back then whom I could call up? Would they agree to sit upon the witness stand for me? One consequence of abuse is that you lose friends. Some just don’t enjoy the drama, some side with the other side or are neutral, some you’re disappointed in when they say you should forgive unforgivables. Do all women have an obligation to spin a string of contacts in case some man in the future has anger issues and decides to strike them, to tear your stuff up, to spit on you?
When people seek peace, they go via elimination. You get rid of stuff. A job, a spouse, or booze, some other routine. In the freed up space energy gets freed up, too. The silence refilled with strength we register as peace.
Yet another paradox of peace is how we all and all we own have survived some wars. Life is short and all you’ll one day leave behind is what you have made or saved. Every book in here, every picture, every thought even, has made it through the brutal sorting of past conflicts, trials, the near-death experiences of DNA.
With ownership comes conflict, half of Moses’ tablets will tell you. Solomon forced out the truth through threatening to eliminate a child. What’s salvaged can feel so unworthy, you need eternal pyramids from eternities ago to be able to forget what was sacrificed. The flesh for the stone, or entire cities, nations, cultures saved through the many lives lost, for it to seem justified.
I have always fought for freedom at a great expense: first, by trying to make do with unbearable ways to live, to carve out my mole’s corridors in them, a subterfuge, the tunnel system under the siege. Then I fought through cutting off. I severed my country and my home, I sheared my hair into the bowl where the money was. I shut my mouth and I never looked back. I surrendered the pleasure of the famous name, the familiar face, the eyes that would meet mine, for the face unhit, the name unshamed, the walking tall even if with my eyes cast down.
There’s so much freedom in owning nothing and owing no one. There lies the safety. To build not possessions but living systems that are nourished and can metabolise. Everything under the sun can take care of itself, including you. And when I pray, I pray for my work to be blessed, my independence sustained. And yet I know that accumulation in peacetime is normal, that I will do it too: relations and wealth and reputation and comforts. One develops one’s defense technology even before a city’s built. There are walls to guard off envy around some homes, there are homes built on the go and disassembled, with the cycle of seasons moves the family.
What’s the difference between fighting and abuse?
Inter-eras are filled with fighting, status quos are challenged at every scale. The small get an opening to try for a bigger slice, the great claim it’s safer if they get greater. Sportsmanship is on my mind these days—how a fight is fair, the rules of engagement in action.
It’s a challenge for me to tell sometimes what is fair. A source of my uncertainty is how a lot of useful information from the world reaches me in the form of my own reaction. I read so much of the world through my gut reactions: the truth, the joy, the anxiety, whether someone is to be trusted, if a street is safe to walk through. All that literature on becoming more discerning, not trusting the knee jerk, the intuition! I’m teaching myself religiously to listen to my intuition more. I’m always right about people and things in retrospect. I want to train myself to rely on instincts much more, and ahead. Unless something is truly dangerous or violent, I’ll rationalize it away. I’ll think I can make anything work — but I can’t. This is how the wide gap between abuse and fair fighting appears to me, too. One a happy, cocky perk in one’s muscles, you can tell a good fight, a new might pulls up the body, you want to participate; the other a cold, cowering pull toward the ground, to curl up, to squeal, to disappear, the ancient curse fallen upon your head, the turning into nothing.
During the year when I was told I was a survivor and what I had taken as a normal way of disciplining me was abuse, the great Judit Wirth, the leader of the Hungarian nonprofit against domestic violence NANE, gave me sessions over Skype. I lived in London; during that year it feels like a virus has attacked your brain, making you hellbent on finishing the job, and the other part of your brain is fighting to get rid of it and stay alive. During that year I just cried and cried, not understanding why I still lived, agreeing with and feeling guilty about those I had to leave. She held me up out of goodness and curiosity, told me it wasn’t my fault, that it is alright to be very angry, that it’s not normal to be made to suffer. I held on to her because I wanted to live, and there was no one else to hold on to. Then came a day, after around 18 months, when we talked again about what a victim is, and her words, however right, suddenly no longer struck a chord with me. I was now listening with general interest, and that was all well. I didn’t need care anymore or her crutches. I instantly grew obsessed with social contracts and Scanlon, and cooperation theory, my own responsibility when going into action, and the rules of any deal. I rethought my whole life based on that and made new plans, and I tried never to look at any scene again like a victim. That was only needed when I was one but didn’t know, and I remain for this reason skeptical of things like trigger warnings, and handing out medicine to the healthy.
When I was around eight, they forgot to put sunscreen on me for weeks out in the African sun. I got so sunburnt that my shoulders became a hard, consecutive scar like two epaulettes. I’m still left with freckles there. After those calls with Wirth I wrote my last Hungarian poem, rephrasing Paul Celan, and published it, about how I was beaten across those scars during a formal dinner, up at the main table with an entire film crew and all my friends watching. I recalled the pain and how no one came to stop it or to help me. The social hierarchy was stronger than saving a child. I got in trouble, I later found out, for having published that, cruel me. During that year I learned that I love to fight, that it’s not a fight when you’re a child, or if you’re an adult but much smaller, if you’re in some way exposed. It is not a fight when the goal is to shut you up. I love a fight, I was a Girl Scout, I was an athlete all through my teens, I’m here for the scuffle. But it turns out it’s not a fight when the opponent seeks for it to be your last. It’s something I’m still learning, I must admit. So much of it is ungraspable to me through my instincts, so much of it lies outside my intuition, shut off from any internal sense of balance or peace. During that year I learned one must not stop at empathy even when that seems like their best hope, empathy is just someone’s self-pity pasted upon your example, but to demand real help, fighting for you, action. I learned that everything that had happened to me can be chewed and ingested into literature, an edible, it’s all mine now, and it was all worth it.
Years ago, when I last saw my father, I told him about my nervous breakdown to make my case, he scoffed, repeated my words back to me in my voice, and went on to mock me for ten minutes. He then cut himself with something, and blood started dripping from his lip onto the white tablecloth of the restaurant.
Everything that I write is true. A hard thing for me about writing is how it calls for a certain narcissism, for standing up and saying, I’ve got this, I know this. Not how I normally spend my days, believe me—I’m more on the “people are crazy and I have no idea” team. But I do know that I do know some things, and they might be worth saying. I started Inter-Era because I tend to have two opinions about each important thing. There is an internal argument, a hesitation. So I see this series of essays as a scale, each question I’m drawn to has two pans, and I’ll see which side ends up heavier once I have filled in all of my queries, the real weights will reveal themselves and maybe then I can decide.
How can kindness kill?
Last night, perhaps because I was already preparing to write this part of the piece, I reunited in a dream with my Budapest ex-partner, pushed him down on a bed with such authority as if at any point we’d done this in the past ten years, I wanted him more than ever in our real life, a kind of sum, then I saw myself walk away in agitation on Budapest’s streets only to realise I’d left my phone and stuff at his place. I turned around but his part of town was now under a full blackout, in the darkness I could not find my way back.
I spent the weekend planning to write about him as an experiment of mine gone wrong, my big bad bet on the absence of fight. When I was 25, I entered my longest relationship, and swore to myself I’d do everything just right. There would be no screaming, annihilating, object-throwing, name-calling, no one would call me a rat, or evil, like at home. We’d go full Kantian, vowed I. I’d be an adult woman, rational, intelligent. I’d clear up every misunderstanding over white linen and china. A voice mustn’t be raised here unless in pleasure. And so we lived like that and nearly went insane.
I’d sit at my kitchen table tapping on my laptop and I wouldn’t fight. He snapped at me at home and shushed me in public, and I wouldn’t fight. I made food, I put on garters, made conversation with his grandma, and wouldn’t fight. He’d imitate my voice in mockery, sigh helplessly, we both got fat, and I wouldn’t fight. I looked at the good things, the care, the beauty, and I didn’t fight. I’d joke to my friends that I was so panicked when I finally resurfaced from the university library where I had been hiding, and realized I hadn’t partied at all, that the logical thing to me seemed to be to try and become a groupie and make up for all that lost time, only to soon conclude that I’m boring, I’m monogamous to the bone, and end up loving exclusively well-known alcoholics.
I was like Mia Farrow in Husbands and Wives, I thought, impossible to argue with, impossible to leave, a smooth boa constrictor creeping with reason, curling her terrible spine, and there’s nothing he can do because he cannot fight me, and I want to help but I don’t know what to do either because to me the alternative is apocalypse. And so I’m so kind and affable that he always almost explodes, my undulating philosophical sentences, my forgiveness, the despot with her teeth sunk into his neck! The man wriggles in my grip like a spear, until I throw him, I must have done this too before, the ejection.
The scales won’t even out alone, the balance between war and forced peace, between setting it all on fire and suppressing the fair concern. When I was young, I was told I wasn’t mysterious, I am like my mother, my father told me. I spent my childhood smiling in family photos in tabloid magazines. Now that I am older, I see younger women acting all mysterious, it can’t be real, when nothing has ever happened to you, where’s the mystery. Only adults can have secrets, and you really don’t want to know them.
We stayed together because of the music, really, I was managing a rock band, he was in one. There’s a lot of anger in that music, it’s a good fight. The strength of the crowd’s crushing, the volume of the stage, the spit of singing, the elbows poking, my cold sweaty hair stuck to my hot bare back, and thus we lived back then raging into the night. And this sublimating of the fight did work for a few years but that was all, and I miss the wildness of that phase, the staying up till dawn, the speeding down highways, the packing up amplifiers in my stilettos. But with that trance would come the censors too, the lack of true two-way conversation, the sly smile. And so my dream goes black when I’d try to return there.
Can we keep peace without violence?
When in late 2016 I started my first startup, which then morphed into a half-built AI-mediated chat app, which then morphed into the patient conversation spaces that is today, fully built, Interintellect, we looked at language complexity in research, and how the simpler the sentence, the more likely there would be a fight.
When you’re stressed and want something real fast, you don’t waste the time explaining. A mother chasing her kid on a scooter will simply yell “STOP!” when the child reaches the cars. On the other end of the spectrum would be a long day of hiking, with friends chatting away with no time pressure or agenda. While trying to build the app, we explored how to intervene when the lines got short, when the machine gun fire of messages began. At Interintellect we simply provide more time, for curtness to re-extend into kindness with no constraints.
We hold up our peace with strict, repeated rules. Interintellect—which is at its core art, built with tech, looking like a nonprofit—works like a production apparatus, the idea being that safe and regular acts invite detente. There is nothing unpredictable about the space itself. The ritual environment is reborn with each day, the threshold through which you step re-forms for every entry. Then, in that fixed layout and familiar setup, the new idea, the deep relationship, the great insight will emerge, while outside our metaphorical guards watch over the literal peace within. The walls stand firm, you can even lean against them and rest.
People think that peaceful gardens are cultivated by angelic gardeners, not the tight-gripped sawer, the sharp-eyed weeder, the tireless waterer. A paradox of peace and war is in the walls, that inside you want to be allowed to forget that the outside world will never, can never, be safe.
Our homes are predictable capsules built on primordial chaos. You want to be able to close the door, and learn and invent and love and sleep in peace. War cries are “STOP!” or “CHARGE!”, never long undulating sentences that build kinship. Walls gift one with time, and are worth defending at all costs.
There is a freedom and an emptiness won through elimination. If I listened to my intuition it would almost always suggest elimination: separation, cleaning up, and flight. It must be cowardice that propels me not to fight. I stop the elimination and tell myself I am too harsh, I’ll make it work, I always try to make it work, I’m a wartime CEO, an action hero of making do, the far-flung spear, the disappointing child.
The ancestor who grabbed his spear and approached the rustling bush, with a killer or a dinner concealed moving in it. We’re here because a few of them weren’t wrong, and enough fools died, and enough fools ran, and some of us just freeze into the ground all unsure.
Some of us calm lions, we have the experience, we deflate, the devil’s know-how learned the ugly way. The roar’s hot breath, your soothing hands, you survive. Your own roar stuck in throats that don’t feel your own. When I’m angry I often gag. Moral outrage makes me physically nauseated. A book can even, Coetzee, Michel Faber, Günter Grass. I grew up to end up feeling so filled up, my esophagus revolts, I have had too much, there’s nothing more to swallow, I protest with my tongue stuck out. On psychedelics I can see my whole gastro-intestinal tract aglow, the muscled tube that connects my plantlike up and down and fights to rid me of the poison of the words I’ve downed, that messed up my tolerance limit for good. And when it’s 1 am or 2 am in this silence, the spotless apartment, the cut flowers’ fragrance make me stand so strong, and I want to fight for futures that are good. The hand that soothed and no one left to harm.
Anna Gát is the founder and CEO of Interintellect, an online event platform for artists and intellectuals. Follow her on Twitter and Substack.