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Magical Thinking in Wartime



There is a growing surge of Art as Resistance to War campaigns but what about the art created by so-called 'non-artists', those who are surviving the horrors of occupation, violence and displacement right now, what inspires their creativity? 


It may seem an obscure question,  surely violence would inhibit creativity - the last thing one might think about in an environment where conflict, destruction and terror are abundant. However, in an everyday context of tragedy and self-preservation, creativity seems to feature heavily in wartime conditions. It unifies, promotes optimism, allows an ownership and gives meaning in times of despair.


Is it much more than the proximity of death or the way that people create meaning in the face of death, as suggested by Ivana Maček in her book Sarajevo Under Siege (chapter 2,  Death and Creativity in Wartime), could it be more closely associated to a form of social dislocation from what Norbert Elias describes as the ‘civilising processes’ of society which amplifies our creativity in the face of wartime violence. 


Ivana Maček employs first-person accounts of the Sarajevan's everyday adaptations for survival during the war in the former Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1996.  Maček skilfully articulates the “experience of chaos that was characteristic of Sarajevan’s struggle to recreate familiarity during the siege,” (Maček, 2009, p. 35) and emphasizes the importance of “magical thinking,” “macabre humour,” creative expression, and other survival mechanisms. A thinking aimed at helping citizens regain a sense of ownership and control over their lives, suggesting that during wartime where death and destruction are all-consuming and relentless, then culture becomes central to the ways society creates meaning in the face of death (Maček, 2009)


Maček continues to explore the citizen’s experiences of chaos and the struggle to recreate normality during the siege. A condition Maček calls a ‘Limit Situation’ in which making sense or developing meaning within wartime situations often proves useless when confronted with the sudden terror of violent death; meanings that evaporate as soon as the Sarajavan public conjurer them, leaving them in the “Grey Zone” where nothing can be trusted and life conditions are unrecognisable and incomprehensible. When public foundations crumble and meanings fade, Maček might argue that we will then use the full array of our cultural resources and inventiveness in order to make sense of a wartime existence and that the omnipresence of destruction that makes death a constant companion of people living in a war zone drives them to respond with startling creativity. The Sarajevan's felt compelled to re-create culture through reshaping knowledge and forms of expression but also to deal with profound existential issues.


The notion of ‘Death and Creativity in Wartime’ is engaging and appears convincingly reinforced by eyewitness accounts and first-hand experiences. That said, there is a subtle yet more profound narrative working in parallel, an alternative and perhaps a provocative position to be taken.


However, It could be argued that Maček’s proposal romanticises the synergy between death and creativity and that the main reason for the public’s ‘creativity and ingenuity’ could be attributable to a form of dislocation from what Norman Elias calls the ‘civilisation process’, (the rise of capitalism in contemporary occidental society and the unexpected return to a primitive and barbaric existence). Detached from elements such as ‘the apparatus of self-restraint’ and ‘embourgeoisement’, people are at liberty to express themselves passionately, with an ‘uncivilized’ spontaneity and with uninhibited emotion. A context where macro social conditioning interwoven with ego and superego seemed to disentangle, thus lowering the threshold of shame and embarrassment to a point where natural creativity develops an alternative, deeply personal meaning and expression. 


As the conveyor belts running through his existence grow longer and more complex, the individual learns to control himself more steadily, he is now less a prisoner of his passions than before” (Elias et al., 2000)


Norbert Elias explains that civilization is never complete and constantly endangered. It is endangered because the maintenance of civilized standards of behaviour requires particular conditions of self-restraint where spontaneity, a prerequisite for creativity, is replaced by strategy and the trade-off between the uninhibited joy of the moment and the security of controlled planning, which in turn are linked to social structures based on social pacification and an accustomed standard of living. According to Elis, the “most important elements of civilized behaviour are the degree of pacification, refinement of customs, and the degree of restraint in social interactions”. (Elias, 1988).  A state of social affairs which evidently ruptures in wartime and provides occasion for an awareness of a more personal and primitive kind.


Elias’s concept of civilisation is expressed through a variety of conditions which in part echo Max Weber’s characteristics of occidental rationalism and acknowledges Kuzmics argument that the state’s monopolization of violence and power through methods of internal and individual pacification is the answer to “how it is possible that so many people can normally live together peacefully without fear of being struck or killed by stronger parties” (Kuzmics, 1988) An argument that parenthetically also highlights the contrasting lack of a monopoly of violence on an international level and declares “we are living today just as our so-called primitive ancestors did. As tribes were earlier a danger to other tribes, so states today are still a constant danger to other states”. (Kuzmics, 1988) Elias, Weber and Kuzmic reveal in their publications a more subtle contemporary compromise our occidental society has made to modernise in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A compromise of individual creativity, inventiveness and emotional exploration, a compromise which has led to politics, architects and engineers perpetually overcompensating and designing-out opportunities for individuality, personal initiative, artistic risk-taking and expressions of emotion.   Maček’s text reveals examples where during the dislocation from the civilisation processes members of the public override their passive conditioning, feel more empathy with the arts and creativity, experiencing the delicate resonance of ‘magical thinking’ (“I wore my anti-sniper shoes every time I was in Sarajevo” (Maček, 2009), performance, storytelling and sculpture, feeling more confident to engage, practice and explore forms of creativity in their ‘every day’ adaptations for survival during the war in the former Yugoslavia


"Many millions, united into nations, strive for the common good, each individual on account of his own; but many thousands fall as a sacrifice for it. Now senseless delusion, now intriguing politics, excite them to wars with each other; then the sweat and the blood of the great multitude must flow, to carry out the ideas of individuals, or to expiate their faults. In peace, industry and trade are active, inventions work miracles, delicacies are called from all ends of the world, and the waves engulf thousands. All strive, some planning, some acting; the tumult is indescribable. But the ultimate aim of it all— what is it? To sustain ephemeral and tormented individuals through a short span of life, in the most fortunate case with endurable want and comparative freedom from pain, which, however, is at once attended with ennui; then the reproduction of this race and its striving”. (Camus, 1955)

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