Why Guns Have a Powerful Hold On the American Psyche: An Interview with Psychoanalyst Luigi Zoja

Yet wishing can't take away the fact that guns are a powerful presence in American life -- and an equally potent symbol in the American psyche. In search of an outside perspective, I turned to Italian Jungian psychoanalyst Luigi Zoja.
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Part of an ongoing series on the American psyche.

In my vision of a perfect world, there would be no guns. Yet wishing can't take away the fact that guns are a powerful presence in American life -- and an equally potent symbol in the American psyche. In search of an outside perspective, I turned to Italian Jungian psychoanalyst Luigi Zoja. Author of many books that have been translated into twelve languages, including Violence in History, Culture, and the Psyche, Zoja brings history, anthropology and psychology to bear on contemporary issues. The following is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Pythia: It could be said with sad irony that in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the topic of guns has become so loaded the country can't even pass reasonable gun legislation. Is this a uniquely American problem?

Zoja: I don't think this issue is specifically American. If you took away the two World Wars, which left a scar in the European psyche, and started allowing gun ownership in Europe, I think we might love guns as much as Americans.

Pythia: How did Europe's experience during World War II change its relationship to guns?

Zoja: Europe has suffered more under the weight of history. Auschwitz and the concentration camps took place on European soil; fifty million people were killed during World War II. Apart from the Civil War 150 years ago, there hasn't been a similar war of occupation or mass destruction on American soil.

Combined with America's optimistic nature, this makes a difference. In America there's more tolerance of violence in the culture; sex is censored in the movies but violence is not. Here it's the reverse -- violence is censored, but sex is less censored.

Pythia: Are you saying that Europe is more experienced with the darker side of human nature?

Zoja: Yes. In Italy after the war, capital punishment, which had been re-introduced by the fascists, was banned because of its associations with totalitarian regimes. In addition, for complex political reasons, everybody was ordered to turn in their guns. Even today, you can be severely punished for possessing weapons, and the topic remains politically charged.

But whether guns are forbidden or allowed, our feelings around them are never neutral -- one either loves guns or hates them. My father recently died, and among the things he left behind was an Austrian pistol my grandfather brought back from World War I. I've found myself wondering which of my brothers will get it, or if we should throw it away, because it's forbidden. And because it's forbidden, that makes it even more difficult to throw away!

Pythia: So a gun isn't just a gun, but something more?

Zoja: Right -- it would be a mistake to consider guns as just any ordinary, modern object, such as a toaster. Independent of culture, they're loaded with an archetypal charge because they're connected to the hero myth. And the hero itself is the primary archetype: A metaphor for the development of the individual ego, and the nucleus of all other archetypes.

Pythia: Why is the hero connected to guns?

Zoja: Because the hero in its most traditional expression, particularly in male-oriented cultures, is somehow always connected with weapons. In humankind's earliest stages, primitive weapons functioned as an extension of the human arm. Greek-Roman mythology is full of gods represented with weapons. Even the goddess Athena is shown with a spear. Christ is -- un-Christianly -- at times pictured with a sword. Both the Crusades and the conquest of the Americas were carried out with the Gospel and the sword and, later, the gun.

So there is something almost religious about weapons. This means that you cannot deal with the topic in a logical way, because for many the gun is something sacred.

This is even more complicated in America. Because of its separation between church and state, it's full of unconscious, undeclared religion: America itself is a religion of democracy, and the gun is a symbol of democracy. So partly because of its history, and partly because the gun belongs to a collective archetype present in every country, guns in America are imbued with a religious quality.

Pythia: And because we're not conscious of the underlying symbolism around guns, we expect our debates to proceed reasonably. But wouldn't this awareness change our debate -- wouldn't we treat guns with more respect, striving to keep them out of the hands of those who would use them for profane reasons?

Zoja: Possibly. But the commercial, pop side of guns in twenty-first century American culture has become horrifying. This may sound contradictory to what I just said, but we have to be equally aware of the pathological, almost pornographic, side of America's preoccupation with guns. Psychologically, owning a gun has become a naïve expression of macho masculinity -- a show of sexuality and arrogant power.

When a powerless young boy buys a gun and kills defenseless kids, he has the momentary delusion that he has the omnipotent power of a hero, even if he knows that he will be killed by the police, or will even kill himself. But this is a total degeneration of the archetype of the hero -- it's the opposite of a hero.

Pythia: So while the targets of these shooters are innocent children and bystanders, they themselves are powerless on some level. Is there significance to be found in that?

Zoja: Yes, these shooters don't kill people who are potential killers. A school with young children is a place of hope and goodness -- so they kill the innocence of the child. In addition, for psychologically weak kids, weapons are a powerful temptation. An automatic assault weapon that can kill dozens in a few seconds offers a dangerous form of over-compensation for weaknesses of character or frustrations with society. And unfortunately, this temptation is constantly fed by the images of guns circulating throughout American culture.

In the Aurora, Colorado movie theater rampage, there may have been an unconscious attraction on the shooter's part to being "seen" and in everybody's view. So, psychologically, we might ask whether putting more cameras in schools or increasing surveillance is really a deterrent -- or if instead this might attract another exhibitionist with an unconscious need to be on camera. It's at least the duty of a psychoanalyst to wonder about that! Pythia: In your book you refer to a tradition from ancient Roman times, in which the triumphant conqueror in his chariot had a "double" placed beside him whose task was to whisper in his ear that he was a mortal, flawed human being. What meaning might that have for us in this gun debate?

Zoja: This is an image of that dialogue between our limited ego, which can fall prey to inflation -- like a general coming back from a victorious military campaign -- and a critical inner voice, which we might hear in dreams, and who checks our pride and reminds us of our limitations.

Today we could use this image to suggest to anyone who is considering buying a gun, particularly a young person, that they first go within and consult this inner voice accompanying the hero, and ask "Is it really necessary? Or am I falling prey to pride and paranoia as a way to compensate my human weakness?"

Pythia: So it seems that our society can't completely address the problem of gun violence until we become educated about these deeper undercurrents -- not just within the psyches of the shooters, but our own cultural beliefs around guns and violence.

Zoja: The problem of guns has to be faced through both a collective debate, which should also be psychologically oriented, and individual soul searching, whether with a psychoanalyst, a spiritual guide or in a good conversation with friends and family.

Next: Part Two of my Interview with Luigi Zoja: Drones, Torture, and America's Divided Soul

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