Jared Diamond wrote a fascinating article in last week’s New Yorker about vengeance. On one of his trips to Papua New Guinea, he met a man named Daniel who had been responsible for “organizing the revenge” against the man who killed his paternal uncle Soll. (Incidentally, Soll’s killer was also an uncle of Daniel’s.)
Among Highland clans, each killing demands a revenge killing, so that a war goes on and on, unless political considerations cause it to be settled, or unless one clan is wiped out or flees. When I asked Daniel how the war that claimed his uncle’s life began, he answered, “The original cause of the wars between the Handa and Ombal clans was a pig that ruined a garden.” Surprisingly to outsiders, most Highland wars start ostensibly as a dispute over either pigs or women. Anthropologists debate whether the wars really arise from some deeper lying ultimate cause, such as land or population pressure, but the participants, when they are asked to name a cause, usually point to a woman or a pig.
The process of vengeance is very important to the people living in this region of New Guinea; people there speak openly of revenge killings as Americans might speak of friendships and family. Diamond argues that the New Guineans’ everyday open embrace of such a strong emotion is not necessarily a bad thing and that modern society can circumvent people’s need for vengeance, resulting in feelings of dissatisfaction that can create unbalanced emotional lives. At the end of WWII, Diamond’s father-in-law had a chance to take his revenge on someone who had killed his mother, sister, and niece but was persuaded to turn the man over to the new Polish government for punishment. The man was never charged with the crime and Diamond’s father-in-law was never the same.
One day, he took out a sheaf of photographs and showed [his daughter] Marie a picture of three shallow excavations in a forest: the photo that he had taken of the graves of his mother, sister, and niece. Then, for the first time, he told Marie the story of how he discovered what had happened to them, and of his release of their killer. Once, when he was about ninety years old, he recounted the story to Marie and me together. I recall his talking in an emotionally flat, distant, storytelling way, as if he no longer attached feelings to the story. In fact, his distanced manner must have been a tightly controlled act, a way of preserving his sanity while living with his memories.