BOOK REPORT: Have You Ever Seen a Hydra Eat a Man?

Some useful context: The preface of Adam Curle’s To Tame the Hydra (link to awesome cover) describes his school years as spent “playing the flute (mostly Bach), writing poems, and reading the mystics.” He was appointed as “the first university lecturer in social psychology at Oxford” and was a soldier in World War II (achieving “senior rank”). For the last 50 years, he has devoted himself to large-scale conflict resolution in “a dozen war zones, mostly in Asia and Africa but also in Ireland, attempting to disentangle one lethal imbroglio after another.”

What a fucker! And he wrote letters, and he fished!

So essentially, the conceit of the book is using the mythical creature “hydra” as a metaphor for the manifold clusterfuck that is our contemporary cultural-socio-political economy; that we are all guilty, etc., etc.; points that bear repeating, of course. Representative excerpt describing said cultural/social/political economy since the Cold War era:

Statehood was growing weaker but often cruel and more tyrannical; gulfs between rich and poor were growing wider, both between and within nations; warlords were taking the place of statesmen; at the local and national levels desperate crimes of violence increased; the health of the environment was increasingly jeopardized and no political leader powerful enough to retard the deterioration was brave enough to do so; great transnational corporations, unaccountable save to their shareholders, had an increasing control over global markets; individual speculators acquired the ability to shake the world; everywhere it was the rich who had the power — they called, so to speak, the shots and in some places had little hesitation in shooting, literally or metaphorically, if their interests were challenged.

However, the chief characteristic of this emerging world is, I begin to see, the interconnectedness of the destructive forces, the interwoven and increasingly interacting worldwide forces of economic, political, and military power: a global culture of violence. This is fuelled at all levels, from individual to nation and perhaps even to international bloc, by the hope for power and profit. The greater the hope, the more urgent the craving. And the hope is intensified by a wealth of evidence showing amazing and unprecedented possibilities. By the same token, the fear of not gaining the advantages, or the dread of losing them, aggravates the despairing anger. These are explosive feelings.


But millions of people — most of the rich in the G7P [G7 plus/G20] countries, with their clients, agents and representatives in the poor ones — get some spin-off from the collective wealth of the Hydra. Even if they don’t actively support it or participate in its activities, they share by osmosis much of its outlook and morality. Usually without fully realising the fact, they are accomplices in the execution of violent acts. The acceptance of violence in the schools, in the prisons, in the homes, on the television, and above all in the minds of most of us, represents the hidden core of the worldwide culture of violence richly nourished by the Hydra, particularly in the globalisation of the last decades.  Even the majority who gain absolutely nothing from the Hydra, who are indeed ground down by it, are profoundly influenced by their longing for what it offers: they and we, the more prosperous, are BOTH a part of the Hydra.

Familiar territories for the (as previously noted) modest readership of this blogpage. To add a wrinkle to the robe, Curle’s prescription for humanity is “happiness” (something I fully support), which  incorporates certain Buddhist philosophical elements, such as desire begetting suffering, the profound interconnectedness of existence, and the semi-illusory nature of individual consciousness, etc., leading to the one significant theme of the book that I’m uncertain about (besides the poetry), which is his concept of the “extended mind.”

For the most part, the “extended mind” business is  a Jungian collective unconscious sort of thing (reminiscent of the type of over-lapping consciousnesses that Douglas Hofstadter proposes in I Am a Strange Loop); a somewhat nebulous entity that Curle explicitly describes as “NOT something extraordinary, exceptional, mystical,” and yet in the following paragraph he relates an episode wherein the Dalai Lama communicates directly TO HIM BRAIN. To further complicate things, in one of the final pages of the book, he suggests that the Hydra may be “a feature of the extended mind.” Would that the book, and Adam Curle’s life, were longer!

Also, for auxiliary context, check out some of his poetry (both excerpts from untitled pieces):

Loosen those lips, that sphincter, redeem that heart. Imagine with the

inner eye opened, the multitude of refugees.


the throngs of dispossessed criss-crossing each other’s trails

throughout the world, the ravening hunters ever closing in

with yelps of pleasure to drag them from their rickety shelters,

to strip them, dowse them with petrol, dance around excited,

masturbating, then strike a match


The light at the end of the tunnel

flickers and dies out;

there is no healing night,

only cover for more killing.


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