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Meera Tamaya: The real lives of tin soldiers

Just when I felt I would literally be bored to death, and with luck, wake up after all this was over, rather like Rip van Winkle, I was jolted awake by the embers erupting into a blaze of headlines about what is perhaps uncontainable and messily human, and therefore, truthful: stories about love, lust, jealousy and their consequences which the ancient Greeks understood only too well.

Very reassuring indeed. Under all those stiff uniforms, the medals, the rigid bearing and granite faces, four star generals are human. They may not like the drawdown of troops or the ending of wars, but they enjoy sex so much they are ready to sacrifice their careers.

Hurray, they are not robots, they are actually human. The photographs say it all. Former CIA Director David Petraeus looking across an acre of desk at Paula Broadwell, wearing a grin like that of a Cheshire cat dribbling cream. The former general looks young, unguarded, joyously relaxed. And she, of course, returns his look with a feminine mix of admiration and enchantment.

Kissinger famously said that power is an aphrodisiac and he should know.

Imagine Petraeus in jeans and sweatshirt, scoured of the patina of military success — he would look a very ordinary Joe indeed. But even an average Joe would beam if a beautiful highflyer, who was his match in physical fitness, whom he termed his avatar, was writing his biography/hagiography. Who can resist such attention?

All living things need attention as much as food and drink. Leave your dog alone with enough food and drink for a whole day and you will return to find everything trashed. If you don’t talk to your plants, they too will sulk.

Sex is perhaps the ultimate, total attention every living organism needs. Sex and an absorbing interest in your life, what could be a more potent aphrodisiac? That total relaxation of facial muscles, that cream-eating grin can also be seen on former Sen. John Edwards’ face in an unguarded moment when Rielle Hunter is training her video-cam at him.His hair seems to stand on end with electricity.

If rigid control of your face, your hair, your clothes, your bearing are the necessary ingredients in the pursuit of career success, the Apollonian principle of order which underlies civilization, beware of the fact that the Dionysian anarchy of desire periodically erupts . It shows that the messily human cannot be repressed forever.

Freud famously proclaimed that civilization is built on repression. “Great” civilizations are built on war and conquest. Even the form of that great emblem of Greek civilization — the Parthenon — is built in the form of a phalanx, the Greek fighting unit of foot-soldiers or hop-lites, marching in a tight, rectangular formation. While a handful of aging Greeks philosophized in the marketplace or agora, the majority of Greek young men spent their lives training in the gymnasia — not unlike the boot camps which turn American young men into killing machines.

Of course, the most efficent machines make it to the top rank of the military hierarchy and Petraeus’ rigid body and bearing proclaimed him the fittest of military machines. When he first ascended there were admiring accounts of how he runs five miles and eats one meal a day. I remember wondering if his brain chemistry would screw up if he ate so little and exercised so much.

Well, could Dionysus, the god of wine and anarchic libido, have exacted revenge? Did Apollo, the god of reason and order, the bulwarks of civilization, hand over Petraeus to Dionysus, to restore life into the tin soldier?

In our age of the machine, it is good to know we are messily, joyously, fleetingly, disastrously alive after all. If keeping company with Apollo encases us in a carapace of lava, too much of Dionysus periodically erupts into flames of anarchic desire.

Whatever the worldly consequences, it assures us that life cannot be controlled out of its vigorous existence. Three cheers for the merely human!

Meera Tamaya of Northampton is a retired professor of English at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

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