To really understand our stubborn and increasingly dangerous attachment to the myth of American Innocence, we must become familiar with our heritage of what I have called the paranoid imagination, which combines eternal vigilance, relentless anxiety and literalistic religion with contempt for the erotic and tolerance for sadistic treatment of the weak or marginalized. Why these last two features? Because what we will not allow ourselves to desire becomes a vector of judgment, fear and hatred of those people and groups whom we perceive as being willing to enact those desires.
Another characteristic of the paranoid imagination is our obsessive voyeurism. We like to watch, and we especially like to watch our heroes, those who embody our highest ideals, punish our villains – those who invert those ideals. American life, popular culture and politics reveal an endless litany of fascination with the so-called violent and sexually unrestrained behavior of “the Other.” And we seem to like nothing better than seeing the Other suffering for their moral transgressions. I write about the paranoid imagination in much greater detail in Chapter Seven of my book, Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence.
Archetypal psychology has made us familiar with the concept of the Shadow, that vast range of our unconscious minds that we will not acknowledge. But it also suggests that every curse has a corresponding blessing. Very often, below our traumatic fear and contempt for the Other lies envy, and even deeper below that is the universal drive to achieve authentic psychological integration. This is both the great longing and the worst terror of those millions of white Americans who still carry the formidable burden of our Puritan heritage.
Denying our unacceptable fantasies, we condemn them to the dark regions of the mythological underworld. We identify ourselves and our nation as cultured, hardworking, peaceful, rational, Apollonian and, above all, innocent of all evil intentions. This is white privilege: the willingness to see those desires not in ourselves but in people of color across the world, whom we define as primitive, Dionysian, lazy, dangerously irrational and (this is the core of the projection) unable or unwilling to restrain their impulses, unlike us.
Another fundamental aspect of American Innocence is the myth of progress, which I address in Chapter Nine. We believe that we must keep moving upwards and onwards, or risk re-gressing. But a lifetime of pushing ourselves to conform and achieve has its costs. Hence the universal appeal of periodically – and safely – trans-gressing conventional moral and behavioral standards. We see this theme in the common film trope (think Marx Brothers) of sticking it to our bosses, teachers and social superiors. This is clearly one of the attractions, by the way, of Trumpus rallies (I’ve invented this word to remind myself that Trump serves the myth of innocence by enacting it for all of us, and in that sense, we are all Trump-us).
The terrible personal and cultural strain of repressing one’s emotions and fantasies – of delaying gratification, of tamping down our passions, of pursuing advancement in the relentless rat race of capitalism, of putting up with ignorant managers and sadistic bureaucracies – always threatens to burst out past our internal censors into consciousness and wreak havoc with convention. This is one of the reasons why many traditional societies institutionalized regular periods of carnival, so as to literally blow off the excess steam before it causes an explosive “return of the repressed.” Chapters Four and Ten of my book explore this theme in greater detail.
The body knows all this, and the body understands metaphors and mythic images, even if the mind does not. As Carl Jung wrote, the gods never died; they went underground and resurfaced as illness in the body, in the body politic and in the soul of the world. Dionysus, the god of wine, madness and intensity, constantly lurks at the edges and boundaries of our rational and predictable lives, beckoning us, for our own good, to take an occasional walk on the wild side. But we typically settle only for the minimum, the toxic mimic of the real thing, allowing Dionysus and the other divinities into American life in ways that keep ourselves barely alive yet hungry for real nutrition. Like the mythic Tantalos in Hades, we are tantalized, dimly perceiving the soul’s food almost within reach. But our eating muscles – our capacities for thinking mythologically – have atrophied, even as our need grows. Psychologist Robert Johnson saw this as a defining characteristic of our age:
… we hear a screech of brakes and a crash…Cold chills go up and down our spine; we say, “How awful!” – and run outside to see the accident. This is poor-quality Dionysus…what happens to a basic human drive that has not been lived out for nearly four thousand years.
This need for intensity and ecstasy is both personal and collective. Chapter Ten is an extended discussion of what I call five styles of poor-quality Dionysus. This is how we unconsciously search for what anthropologist Victor Turner called communitas, the group experience of liminal space, where social and ego boundaries relax and people sense that “everyone’s in this together.” It may occur spontaneously in situations such as shared grief, the funerals of major celebrities, religious pilgrimage, rock concerts, club dancing, sports venues, horror movies and, most recently, political spectacles. It lies behind Marx’s vision of the classless society and other utopias in which men drop their perpetual competition for status. Communitas is the social and ritual space of transformation, when we can potentially drop an immature, outdated or dysfunctional identity and become who we need to be.
A twisted form of communitas also occurs (see below) when we go to war, and when a large-scale environmental disaster or pandemic threatens the entire community.
If there ever was a time in the modern history of our country when we were all in this together, this is the moment. – Bernie Sanders, 3/12/20
If we were honest, we’d admit to a sense of relief and even festivity when disaster hits, because it often brings a refreshing sense of potency, community and purpose. Both the problem and the response become clear. We skip work and speak intimately with neighbors we normally ignore. Something important has grabbed our attention: the opportunity to relax our painfully rigid social boundaries. Dionysus Lusios, the Loosener, has arrived in his non-alcoholic form, getting us drunk with excitement and temporarily unifying us. “I” become we. Something overrules my conditioning against any cooperation that doesn’t serve my personal interests; I’m glad, in more ways than one, to help.
But we cannot institutionalize authentic communitas. We can only discover it, briefly enter it and lose it, because it is a very temporary gift of Dionysus. And, since few of our modern attempts to create it result in significant initiatory change, we endlessly repeat our attempts to achieve ecstasy and turn them into addictions. Whether we find a brief hint of it in church or forget ourselves in a bar fight, the haunting sense of loneliness returns.
Increasingly, we have only second-hand experience of communitas. “To go from a job you don’t like,” writes Michael Ventura, “to watching a screen on which others live more intensely than you… is American life…” Electronic media have become our immediate environment – not the land, not people, but images of the land and people. For three generations now, tens of millions have retreated from social engagement to spend their evenings alone or with their spouses in front of a television or computer, or in taverns dominated by the ubiquitous TV. And in only one generation, we’ve become all too familiar with the image (in coffeehouses and waiting rooms, on trains, at bus stops) of people staring at their smart phones rather than speaking to each other. But we know intuitively how diminished our lives have become when we hear these words of Rumi: “RUN from everything that’s comfortable and profitable!”
We have set aside certain very specific places to escape this life (perhaps half-life would be more appropriate) for a while. As I wrote here, for nearly 300 years in New Orleans (one of the very few American cities, along with Santa Fe and San Francisco, that were originally settled by Catholics), Mardi Gras has served this function for an America whose value system has never fully allowed the mind to connect joyfully with the body. Because of this dilemma, Protestants in particular are filled with a longing that rarely achieves even temporary satisfaction, except through the brief, communal sense of innocence achieved in fundamentalist religion – and vicarious violence: we like to watch.
But every day, current events present opportunities to take an honest look at what we have allowed our lives to become, to acknowledge that we have hardly begun to understand the catastrophic consequences of our unwillingness to confront our national darkness. James Hillman said:
The more innocence you have, the more violence you constellate. And you can’t get rid of violence by returning to innocence. You just repeat a cycle…These are deep themes of our culture…We came with innocence in mind…But our movements were filled with violence. The earth of the United States is filled with (the) blood of what we killed in order to make it our paradise…Other peoples are always aware of what’s in the soil. But innocence keeps us from even looking at it…From the Greek perspective, what’s in the soil is constantly looking at you…They would call it “blood guilt.”
We all long – unconsciously – to know who we are, and to be seen and acknowledged by our community. And we suspect intuitively, if with trepidation, that in a Puritanical culture such as ours, the way to Spirit must pass through the realm of the sensuous, through the intense, communal experience that Dionysus offers. But America offers us very few ways to go there in a healthy manner. Most of them skirt the edge of addiction.
This longing for intensity drives gambling fever, which is also an alternative expression of our peculiarly American drive to achieve a kind of salvation by attaining wealth. In this case, our opportunistic greed overcomes our Puritan virtues of thrift, hard work and deferred gratification. The anxiety associated with the risk yields to the greater American fantasy of winning. The Puritan heritage remains most robust among Trumpus’s reliable supporters, those who insist on a strictly literal interpretation of a two-thousand-year old myth from the Middle East. But so does its shadow. How else can we explain how rates of gay porn viewing are highest in Bible Belt states?
I have to imagine that many of these people are quite desperate for an escape, if only brief, from their constricted lifestyles and from the furious judgment of their internalized moralities. Perhaps this (along with their open racism) helps explain why their support for Trumpus remains so resistant to reasonable argument. Perhaps the long litany of his crimes, his obvious mendacity, his infantile bragging, his absurd facial makeup, his cruel treatment of minorities and his shameless, misogynistic behavior – speech and behavior that they would rarely admit being capable of themselves – is precisely why they claim to love him. Perhaps having such a venal clown as symbolic head of the national psyche is precisely the vacation in chaos, vicarious as it is, that they can allow themselves.
In any event, the need for a cultural safety valve is stronger than ever, and if America is about anything, it is about identifying markets (legal or otherwise) and providing products to satisfy them.
https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/casinopit_1409x577.jpg?w=1280 1280w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/casinopit_1409x577.jpg?w=150 150w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/casinopit_1409x577.jpg?w=300 300w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/casinopit_1409x577.jpg?w=768 768w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/casinopit_1409x577.jpg?w=1024 1024w" sizes="(max-width: 640px) 100vw, 640px" />In the last seventy years, consumer culture has responded by providing an entire city way out in the desert where “anything goes,” and people can briefly drop their corporate or small-town lifestyles and moralities to safely enact the shadow of Puritanism.
So a week in Las Vegas, America’s fastest growing city, has taken on the characteristics of a pilgrimage to a protected environment – a sacred space – where one can engage in activity that approximates the conditions of liminality, where “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” – overeating, drinking, sleeping till noon, watching soft-porn stage shows, whoring and, especially, throwing money away. In other words, getting shamelessly, proudly, defiantly out of control.
How often do we hear a recent returnee bragging not about how much he won at the tables, but how much he lost? What talk or behavior could be a better example of (briefly) turning the Protestant Ethic on its side? A real gambler, of course, would never say something like this. Indeed, bragging about how much one has lost is really an indication of how much “disposable” income he had in the first place.
Think of the entire city as a shrine to the goddess of luck, Fortuna, and the god of intensity, Dionysus. Gambling corporations know this very well, designing their casinos to enhance the effects (total environments, constant sounds and flashing lights, no clocks, etc) of what are, in actuality, large public rituals, or more accurately, spectacles that blur the distinction between Heaven and Hell. Perhaps the well-worn association of Vegas with organized crime – the Underworld – in our minds adds to the thrill. But not to worry: the police are always nearby.
America is also supposed to be about the freedom to choose. In the 21st century we have, in a superficial sense, more choices. We can have our safe vacation in chaos (knowing we can return to our normal lives whenever we want) for a week at Mardi Gras, or Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale or Mazatlan, or a weekend at the Superbowl, or a memorable but confidential hookup during convention week in a distant city or a staff Christmas party. Or we can go any time of the year to Vegas.
And, in a most delicious irony, many Native American tribes have got into the act, building casinos and getting rich off our need to vacation in chaos. Now we can get a cultural-appropriation selfie with a Native Princess. And the selfie is proof to our coworkers that we really did spend time, out of time, in some version of liminality.
And of course, we are also talking about addiction. From the indigenous, pagan or archetypal perspective, we are seeking out something so old that it is, in a sense, our birthright. We have been conditioned by thousands of years of communal and initiatory ritual to expect the real thing. We come into the world with these expectations, and something deeply traumatic happens to us when we don’t receive it. Worse, our Puritan legacy conditions us to believe that this wounding is our own fault, not that of capitalist and radically individualistic conditions. So we try, again and again, to achieve some version of it, either in substances, in ideologies (religious or political) or in extreme experiences. And when the high wears off, we try again.
We are talking about the Indigenous Soul and its longing to immerse itself in genuine, communal, transformative ritual, under the guidance of authentic elders, the actual “masters of ceremonies”. And when we are deprived of the real thing, our hunger for authenticity drives us toward alternatives, unsatisfactory as they always prove to be. But they really are, it seems, better than nothing. Our cliché – “What happens in ___ stays in ___” is an unconscious acknowledgement of the value and the potential of ritual space. As such, it is surprisingly and ironically close to the traditional Wiccan invocation: And now the circle is cast. We are between the worlds. And what happens between the worlds changes all the worlds.
As countless ancient peoples understood, the annual (usually around New Year’s) descent into chaos was necessary for the reviving of culture. The Pagan world and the Indigenous Soul knew that any truth was defined by its opposite, that everyone at some time needed to walk the fine line between two irreconcilable opposites, that chaos was the crucible in which a new, creative order was forged.
Another reason why Americans long for our vacations in chaos is because our legacy of radical individualism in a capitalist economy has made us the loneliest people who have ever existed. Some argue that negative experiences on social media are tied to even higher odds of feeling lonely. My blog series, “Why are Americans So Freaking Crazy?” investigates this theme further.
Another reason for our fascination with vacations in chaos is that we spend so little time taking conventional vacations. As I write in Chapter Nine,
We are the only industrialized country without a national health care system and the only one that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. America is not among the sixty-five countries that offer paid paternity leave, the 145 countries that mandate paid sick leave, the 134 countries that limit the length of the workweek, or the 137 countries that have paid vacation laws. Half of working Americans receive less than a week of paid vacation, a quarter have no paid vacation or holidays, and nearly half of all private sector workers have no paid sick days…
“What do you mean there are no jobs? I have four of them!” The joke ironically describes conditions in a world where capitalism has clearly failed to provide a decent life for a very large percentage of the population. But it’s an old joke, and it pre-dates the financial crises of the past twelve years. Whether by choice or by necessity, Americans have always labored unceasingly, because our mythology and our theology teach us that we, men especially, have no value outside of our productive capacity. If we cannot be winners (or heroes) then we see ourselves as losers (or victims). Furthermore, we are taught, consistently, from early childhood, that just as we succeed only as individuals, we fail because of personal flaws, not flaws in the system.
This was true even when, in the 1950s, both liberals and conservatives shared the New Deal values of limiting the worst excesses of capitalism and taxing the wealthy. That period lasted roughly forty years, from 1935 to 1975, or until the rage of privileged white males boiled over into a reaction against the Civil Rights movement. In simple terms, the idea of sharing the wealth was deeply popular – until black, brown and red people claimed their share of it. A reactionary period (much of its legislation passed, by the way, under Bill Clinton) set in that has lasted another forty years, and it has swept away most of the gains of the New Deal. Now, it seems clear that Europeans work to live while Americans live to work.
On average, Americans work nine weeks longer per year than Europeans. Our vacations, if we get them at all, average two weeks, compared to 5-6 weeks in Europe. Forty-three percent of us did not take a single week off in 2007, and only 14% will take a vacation of two weeks or more this year. In 2010 we spent 40% less time with our children than we did in 1965. The American Dream emphasizes independence; yet only one working American in thirteen is self-employed, compared to one in eight in Western Europe. We relax only when we have acquired the symbols of redemption. Even then, we keep working.
Is it any wonder that as a nation we continue to perceive immigrants and the poor (and people of color, who in our mythology, are the same thing) as being lazy, that we hold them in such contempt and are willing to allow our government to treat them with such callous brutality?
Or that we feel so attracted to their seemingly carefree lifestyles? The old word, popular in the 1920s, was “slumming.” For more, please see my blog series The Myth of Immigration, especially Part Six.
Such cultural projections accuse the poor of inability or disinterest in delaying gratification. To the Puritan consciousness, this is the greatest of sins, and it surfaces in odd circumstances, such as in accusations of “permissiveness.” The moral censors are particularly horrified when their own children threaten to pollute their “family values” by bringing bad habits back from Spring Break. In the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives blamed Dr. Benjamin Spock for the perceived disorderliness of young people, many of whose parents had been devotees of his book Baby and Child Care. They referred to the rebellious youth of that era as “the Spock generation,” and made sure that future educational standards would reverse that trend.
So thousands, perhaps millions of us go to Vegas, Mexico, Amsterdam, Southern Spain, Spring Break, football games, Rolling Stones concerts and countless other places to get our “hit” (a term originally referring to drug use) of liminality or communitas.
But the vast majority of us do it the easy way, on an electronic device. As we watch people getting out of control, we allow the fantasies to parade – safely, for as long or as briefly as we want – across our minds, even as many of us condemn those who seem to be acting them out in real life. This is “vicarious intensity,” one of the ways that we unconsciously invite Dionysus into our lives. Often, it’s the excitement we feel when someone else (usually the image of someone else) confronts the edge of danger.
The hope of encountering communitas explains why we prefer to watch major sports events among friends. “Fans” (Latin: fanaticus, mad, divinely inspired, originally pertaining to a temple) make up an emotionally engaged community holding the container for rituals of “com-petition”, a word that originally meant “petitioning the gods together”. Shared interest and experience forge our identity. We take this same longing for communal ecstasy into rock concerts and dance clubs. Often, sexually ambiguous (long-haired but clean-shaven) young men enact the ritual on stage and provide our minimum requirement of Dionysian experience.
Watching sports, however, we’re never really satisfied. We demand more vicarious intensity, and often only the expectation of violence can penetrate our emotional armoring. Hence the increased popularity of football, hockey, pro wrestling and auto racing, where helmeted Christs suffer for us all. And even if we watch alone at home, we know that we are part of a virtual community of fans. We belong.
There were times, however, when societies channeled their aggression into ritual, thus containing and minimizing much of it. In Chapter Six I give many examples of symbolic violence. But in America, war and sports, especially football, are so closely linked that they share many of the same metaphors. My essay “Military Madness” offers a long list of the military metaphors we use in our daily speech.
Team spirit has archetypal roots, of course: we all share a deep and ancient longing to relax the hold of the isolated ego and submerge our identity into clan or tribe. But when we have not been initiated into a fundamentally spiritual identity, team spirit becomes war fever. Jung wrote that people become “…sick of that banal life…they want sensation…when there is a war: they say, ‘Thank heaven, now something is going to happen – something bigger than ourselves!’”
Super Bowl: There were times when organic, ecstatic and somewhat unpredictable festivals took people out of their individual selves and truly connected them to each other. But by the late-nineteenth century, nationalism replaced religion as the dominant organizing force in society, and governments everywhere began to present spectacles for audiences to passively consume. Spectacles are scripted in nearly every detail. They connect people not to each other but to the state. Hence the genuine horror so many puritan viewers experienced when Janet Jackson had her infamous “equipment malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.
When not watching sports, the young watch the fictionalized experience of danger in Superhero action movies. But older people watch it in TV crime shows, which ironically feed their paranoia about people of color and the inner cities.
Years ago, observing this, critic Michael Wilmington coined the phrase that I’ve used to title this essay. Such viewing patterns are particularly appealing, he wrote, because, once the villains have been punished, they offer a comforting sense of “moral order restored after a holiday in chaos.” We like to visit Dionysus’ neighborhood, but we don’t want to live there.
As early as a hundred years ago, writes Michael Ventura, movies “usurped the public’s interest in the arts as a whole and in literature especially.” Whereas indigenous people had participated in their entertainment, Americans (except for dancing) had very quickly become passive consumers of culture. He argues that he Western mind-body split comes to its extreme in the concept of an audience. It “… has no body… all attention, all in its heads, while something on a screen or a stage enacts its body.”
Sociologist Christina Kotchemidova writes that media foster an experience of emotion that is controlled, predictable, and undemanding without impinging on our rational lifestyles. Thus, “We can engage in mass-mediated emotions to the full while retaining control over our emotion experience and avoiding the risks of personal communication.”
But one of the prices we pay for constantly watching images of other people experiencing liminality is our willingness to dissolve another boundary, between religion and nationalism. Vicarious, voyeuristic intensity meets electronic spectacle in our recent wars. We see without being seen, writes Marita Sturken:
This tension of immediacy, sadism, and a slight tinge of complicity was thus integral to the pleasures of spectatorship. We saw, we were ‘there,’ yet the technology kept us…at a safe distance.”
Suddenly submerged in a great communal cause, we anticipate holy vengeance and hope that a sacred King will allay our anxieties and bring us all together. Every time the politicians and the media drive the nation toward the next war, our most well-known religious figures can be counted upon to sacralize it. And, as the young and poor experience the actual danger, we – especially our intellectuals – enjoy the spectacle from a safe distance. After the 9/11 attacks, the formerly liberal writer Christopher Hitchens, utterly insensitive to his own privilege, articulated the thrill that he and other “Neocons” — almost none of whom had actually served in the military – experienced:
…another sensation was contending for mastery…to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out to be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy…if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.
It’s easy enough to criticize social trends and the self-defeating behaviors of other people. This also puts one into the familiar role of the grumpy old (white) guy complaining about how much better things used to be (and it’s uncomfortably close to the idea that we can “make America great again”). Indeed, many mythological traditions did exactly that. The ancient Greek notion of the Five Ages of Man, for example, lamented that in each stage, humanity had devolved further and further from its nearly divine original state.
But it’s also true that we live in the age of the cult of celebrity. Along with total war, literalistic fundamentalism and consumerism, this is one of the most flagrant examples of what Joseph Campbell called our demythologized world. Michael Schulman notes that we have many earlier examples of celebrity worship dating as far back as the 1840s. But it began in earnest with the astonishingly rapid rise of the movies, and it essentially defined the entire course of 20th popular culture. I write about it in three essays, here, here and here:
The losses of meaningful stories, effective ritual and divine images have resulted in our cult of celebrity. Instead of developing relationships with Aphrodite or Zeus, we adore each in a succession of actresses, athletes or politicians, who inevitably betray us by proving to be all too human…If we only knew: The soul grows through an endlessly repeating cycle of innocence, projection, disillusionment, grief and expanded awareness, followed inevitably by new innocence or denial. In that process, those who cannot acknowledge or manifest their own creativity or nobility are likely to perceive those features in public personalities. We personify a grand, transcendent cause – the cosmos itself – as the King.
“Fan”, of course, is short for “fanatic,” a term which long ago was associated with orgiastic rites and demonic possession. This may explain why we often describe fan behavior in religious terms, such as “worship” and “idol.”
For several generations we have idolized stage, film and TV actors, a few politicians and plenty of Rock musicians. For a detailed discussion of Elvis and his mythic implications, see Chapter Eleven of my book. We all grew up with the cult of celebrity as the ongoing background of our daily lives and our nighttime dreams. But, as William Shatner told the Star Trek conventioneers in a Saturday Night Live skit way back in 1986,
Get a life, will you, people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show!…You, you must be almost 30. Have you ever kissed a girl?…When I was your age, I didn’t watch television…I lived. So, move out of your parents’ basements and get your own apartments—and grow the hell up!
At least the Trekkers (who at the time could actually afford to rent their own apartments) were getting out of the house and interacting. And so were the crowds attending Comic-Con International, which had begun in 1970, with 300 attendees (it’s now a four-day bonanza attracting 135,000 fans, many of whom wear elaborate cosplay costumes).
By 2005, teenagers were being exposed to over 3,000 advertisements daily, and ten million by the age of eighteen. Very soon, however, smart phone technology drove the cult of celebrity in ways no one could have foreseen. Now, the dominant influence on all our lives is screens, and the screens direct us inevitably toward the rich and famous.
Schulman’s article “Superfans: A Love Story” is essential reading on this subject. He begins by recounting how a music writer who tweeted some mild criticism of rapper Nicki Minaj received startlingly nasty tweets and texts within two hours from hundreds of Minaj’s twenty-one million Twitter followers. Schulman continues:
Like most music idols, Minaj has a hardcore fan base with a collective name, the Barbz; Beyoncé has the Beyhive, Justin Bieber the Beliebers, and Lady Gaga the Little Monsters. The most fervent among them are called “stans.” The term derives from a 2000 track by Eminem, in which he raps about a fictitious fan named Stan (short for “stalker fan”), who becomes so furious that Eminem hasn’t responded to his letters that he drives himself off a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk. Unlike regular fans, stans see themselves as crusaders, pledging loyalty and rushing to their idol’s defense against dissenters…A glance around the pop-culture landscape gives the impression that fans have gone mad. In May, viewers of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” revolted against the show’s final two episodes…More than 1.7 million people signed a petition on Change.org to “remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers.”
The language evolves quickly. Another term – “shippers” – refers to fans who, often disregarding narrative logic, advocate for certain characters to couple up. Schulman lists other examples of the current madness, such as a lawsuit against the producers of a documentary about Michael Jackson, which
…gets at the heart of modern fandom: an attack against a celebrity or a beloved character is an attack against the fans, and it is their duty to retaliate…(and) nerd culture has become mainstream. Now that couch potatoes have social media, they have risen up and become active, opinionated participants. As a result, movie studios and TV showrunners have to cater to subsets of diehard devotees, who expect to have a say in how their favorite properties are handled. The producer I spoke to said, “The question we always ask ourselves in the room is: Is the fan base so strong and such an important part of the box office that we have to change something to keep them happy?”
This business has long preceded smart phones. Schulman gives an example from 1893, when Arthur Conan Doyle, sick of writing Sherlock Holmes stories, finally killed him off in a magazine story. However, when thousands of readers cancelled their subscriptions and formed “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs, Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect him.
Another aspect of the new landscape is that fan disputes are nearly indistinguishable from partisan politics, and both have thrived in the new technological landscape. Schulman writes that the rise of Trumpus (my term), “…who was a pop-culture icon before he was a politician, neatly overlaps with the rise of toxic fandom…” It’s well known that his most enthusiastic fans – white supremacists and gun crazies – have organized over the same Facebook/Twitterverse that he manipulates.
But here, we mythologists have to ask what new order might be trying to be born out of this particular vacation in chaos. We can begin to reframe the current loony environment by observing that technology now allows fans, for better or for worse, to (figuratively) rise up off their couches and get involved. Henry Jenkins, a self-described “Aca-fan” (part academic, part fan) and author of Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, one of the founding texts of fan studies, seems to be our best guide. Early on, he was struck by…
…how impoverished the academic framework for thinking about media spectatorship was – basically, though everyone framed it differently, consumers were assumed to be passive, brainless, inarticulate, and brainwashed. None of this jelled well with my own robust experience of being a fan of popular culture.
He sees fandom as
…a source of creativity and expression for massive numbers of people who would be otherwise excluded from the commercial sector…(it) is born out of a mix of fascination and frustration. If you weren’t drawn to it on some level, you wouldn’t be a fan. But, if it fully satisfies you, you wouldn’t need to rewrite it, remake it, re-perform it.
Jenkins introduced the concept of “poaching,” the idea that fans construct their own culture – fiction, artwork, costumes, music and videos – from content appropriated from the mass media and reshape it to serve their own needs and interests. Now, he points out, surveys indicate that over 60% of American teens have produced some forms of media, and large numbers of them have distributed that media content online. He proposes a “Civic Imagination”:
We believe that imaginative acts shape many elements of our understanding of the political realm helping us to: model what a better world might look like; identify ourselves as civic agents, map the process for change; build solidarity with others within our imagined/imagining community; develop empathy with those whose experiences differ from our own, and for the oppressed, imagine equality and freedom before we directly experience it.
This is mythological language; may it be so. For more on his ideas and related concepts, read about Participatory culture, the Fan Studies Network, Archive of Our Own, (which hosts more than 33,000 fan communities), Transformative Works and Cultures, New Media Literacies, Civic Imagination, and Mark Duffett.
Political and cultural reactionaries seem to be motivated by the fear that their long-cultivated identities may be in question. But should we be surprised that such anxiety actually masks its opposite? Deeper down, the hunger we feel is not simply to be entertained (see below), but to be drawn out of ourselves, and this includes our notions of gender.
An early and profoundly important version of participatory culture began in the 1950s. The Elvis craze and Beatlemania crystallized the image of the “screaming teen” stereotype, which has often inspired a certain contempt, a way of policing adolescent-female libido. But Duffett has suggested that “fan screaming may be a form of ‘affective citizenship,’” a communal defiance of ladylike behavior.
We are back in the realm of myth and ritual. I have heard accounts of African boys dancing before the huts of their elders, demanding to be initiated. Similarly, perhaps, young white girls (who might have been timid and obedient as individuals) formed mobs, breaking through police lines to approach their Dionysian priests, and sometimes to “dismember” them as the Maenads had done with Pentheus. One of Elvis’ bandmembers
…heard feet like a thundering herd, and the next thing I knew I heard this voice from the shower area…by the time we got there several hundred must have crawled in…Elvis was on top of one of the showers…his shirt was shredded and his coat was torn to pieces. Somebody had even gotten the belt and his socks…he was up there with nothing but his pants on and they were trying to pull at them up on the shower.
Elvis beckoned to women, inviting them into Dionysian ritual – the madness, the pharmakon – that is both cause and cure of itself (later, the publishers of a 1998 translation of The Bacchae would acknowledge the connection by putting a mug shot of Elvis in his army uniform on the cover), as I write in Chapter Eleven:
Recall that Dionysus descended to Hades and raised Semele to Heaven. Similarly, while the spirit of feminism was veiled in America’s collective unconscious, young Elvis descended to America’s underworld, Memphis’s black ghetto. The blues had power (and danger) because it tapped into the soul’s depth, where extremes of joy and grief meet each other. Having become a conduit for that dark and terrible beauty, he emerged into the light – the national spotlight of show business – precisely at America’s initiatory moment. And in some profound yet inarticulate way, he brought guests with him – the Goddess and the beginning of the long memory. His eroticism, writes Doss, encouraged girls “to cross the line from voyeur to participant…from gazing at a body they desired to being that body.” Abandoning control – screaming and fainting, and eventually choosing to be sexual on their own terms, to desire their own orgasms – was the beginning of their revolution. One woman writes that Elvis “made it OK for women of my generation to be sexual beings.”
It became apparent that millions of girls had deep longings and deep pockets. Quickly, the music industry responded with “girl groups.” By the early sixties, this music was the one area in popular culture that gave voice to their contradictory experiences of oppression and possibility. It encouraged girls to become active agents in their own love lives. By allying themselves romantically and morally with rebel heroes, they could proclaim their independence from society’s expectations about their inevitable domestication. And even when the lyrics spoke of heartbreak and victimization, the beat and euphoria of the music contradicted them.
And the music was made by groups of girls. It was, writes Susan Douglas, “a pop culture harbinger in which girl groups, however innocent and commercial, anticipate women’s groups, and girl talk anticipates a future kind of women’s talk.” If young women could define their own sexual sensibility through popular music, couldn’t they define themselves in other areas of life? Another woman claims, “Rock provided…women with a channel for saying ‘want’…that was a useful step for liberation. Eventually, their desires crystallized as the quest for the authentic in all areas. Decades later, Douglas argues that “…singing certain songs with a group of friends at the top of your lungs sometimes helps you say things, later, at the top of your heart”…Cynthia Eller writes that feminism began by asking why little girls had to wear pink and big girls had to wear high heels, but it “…segued naturally into one that asked why God was a man and women’s religious experiences went unnoticed.”
We need our vacations in chaos that might temporarily relieve the crushing burden of life under late capitalism.
Even now (March 2020), as authorities ask millions of us to “social distance” or “shelter in place”, a “stay-cation” in chaos may be the antidote to the pandemic of fear that sweeps over us. As always, follow the money to understand what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.”
But let’s get back to our broader theme, and to a broader and older imagination. Below our fear and contempt for the Other lies envy and the desire to achieve authentic psychological integration. Ancient cultures knew this. For much more, see Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent book, Dancing in the Streets. This is why many Greek seasonal festivals, especially those of winter solstice and early spring, were celebrations of Dionysus. He was the god who presided over the great competitions of tragic drama, as well as the Anthesteria.
The Athenians were deeply aware of the seduction of the irrational. Every February, for over a thousand years, this all-soul’s festival welcomed the spirits of the dead – and Dionysus, who brought with him the new wine – for three days of drinking, processions, insults and merry-making. But it was also a period of deep solemnity, because many knew that they couldn’t go to one extreme without invoking its opposite.
Impersonated by a priest wearing a two-faced mask, Dionysus returned from Hades on a wheeled ship crowned with vine tendrils and pulled by panthers. People masked themselves as (sometimes angry) ancestral spirits who had emerged from the wine casks and were roaming the city. “Wild laughter,” writes Walter Burkett, “is acted out against the backdrop of terror…”
In similar Egyptian, Babylonian and Roman New Year’s festivals ritual purification announced the end of one cosmic cycle and the beginning of another. Later, Christian Europe celebrated Carnival at this time, and the King and Queen still arrive on a wheeled ship. Dionysian revels are followed by the austerities of Lent, the grieving of Good Friday and Easter.
Carnival was characterized by temporary inversion of the social order and breaking of taboos. Entire communities participated as temporary equals, with little distinction between performers and audience. In the “Feast of Fools” pent-up repression exploded in mock rituals and wild excess within churches, sometimes with clergy participating. Amid the merriment, we still observe the ancient theme of welcoming the masked spirits of the dead.
The Anthesteria was all this and more. The Basilinna, wife of the religious leader, ritually copulated with Dionysus. While scholars consider this a fertility ritual that ensured good crops, she was also re-enacting the ancient hieros gamos marriage of goddess and consort, of the inner queen and king meeting in the sea – a universal symbol for the deep Self. It recalled and evoked the unity behind all dualities. Indigenous knowledge was still alive: the proximity of decomposition and fertility, of pollution and the sacred, of death and new life.
We will never know exactly what occurred, or how people interpreted it. Who the Basillina slept with, or whether they consummated literally, doesn’t matter. This does: the Other symbolically invaded the royal household and claimed her. Then the Athenians donned masks, got drunk, and ignored all the rules, with master and slave, men and women briefly exchanging roles. Next morning, however, they symbolically fed the spirits, swept through the streets and chased them away for another year.
We have here a partial record of how an advanced urban civilization acknowledges the irrational. The rich certainly hoped these rituals would minimize the eruption of energies that could topple their palaces, that because of the attention they paid to the Lord of the Darkness there might not be a catastrophic return of the repressed, in the city or in their souls.
Clearly, the deep tensions in Athenian life could only be partially resolved by such festivals as the Anthesteria. Dionysus inhabited the center of this paradox, representing the return of the repressed needs of women and slaves, return of the non-rational part of the self, and return of the ancient connection to the living unity of nature.
The Anthesteria gradually transformed into both Carnival and Holy Week. Similarly, the Romans celebrated the winter Saturnalia, which clearly influenced Christmas traditions.
Can we sophisticated, modern people even conceive of a rational culture with an annual event in which the entire population simultaneously partied to excess and grieved their dead? Mexico, perhaps – another Catholic, non-Puritan country. It is comforting to know that our ancestors understood that these liminal periods offered ideal opportunities for symbolic re-integration of repressed aspects of both person (derived etymologically from persona, or mask) and culture.
African slaves, Haitians and other Catholics brought this dark knowledge to New Orleans. Even now we can observe vestigial aspects of the old ways, including the tradition of the “Second Line.” Other aspects include the devils and ghosts (not the cute and harmless figures of Halloween) appearing everywhere as Mardi Gras masks; the processions with their large floats that recreate the ship on wheels of Dionysus; and the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians.
Those devils and ghosts once reminded us that the potential of reintegration calls forth the necessity of confronting all that we have repressed and condemned to the underworld of the unconscious. As Mahatma Gandi wrote, one of the modern world’s “seven deadly sins” was religion without sacrifice.
This is precisely what is lacking in our safe, contemporary vacations in chaos. To paraphrase the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, a culture that begins by denying death will end up denying life. Or as Michael Meade puts it, those who deny death will end up inflicting it upon others. Without an intentional approach to sacrifice, loss and grief, our vacations in chaos amount to nothing more than entertainment.
Entertain means “to hold together.” Novelist Michael Chabon suggests that this implies “…mutual support through intertwining, like a pair of trees grown together, interwoven, each sustaining and bearing up the other.” He insists that the transmission from writer to reader must involve pleasure, a notion that clearly remains suspect to all Puritans. Indeed, James Hillman taught that the mythical daughter of Psyche (Soul) and Eros is Voluptas, or Pleasure incarnate. The end of soul work is pleasure, not escape from the body.
…entertainment – as I define it, pleasure and all – remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else.
But reading is an active behavior. It requires people to create images in the mind that are suggested by the words they are reading. I’m thinking of something far more common, and far more passive.
The American middle class traditionally divides the day into eight hours of sleep, eight of work and eight of rest. Of course, it doesn’t work out quite so simply. But once we’ve returned home from work, had dinner, washed the dishes and put the kids to bed, the primary activity (or inactivity) we anticipate is entertainment, especially on weekends. Typically, this implies the experience of sitting back, snacking and being passively entertained by someone else, usually by the electronic image of someone else. It implies machines that create images and inject them directly into our minds. Certainly, we deserve to relax and restore ourselves. But why does it seem so unrewarding; and despite this, why do we constantly repeat the experience, as if something might change and our longing be fulfilled?
To go deeper, let’s go back to this idea of “holding together”. What does “together” refer to, subject or object? I see three possibilities. Two or more subjects can agree to hold one object, objective or idea in common, as people commonly do in Church, or in Trumpus rallies. Or one subject can hold two or more objects.
Finally, two or more subjects – a community – could hold mutually exclusive concepts. Jung argued that this ability to “hold the tension of the opposites” is a characteristic of someone who is comfortable with metaphor, poetry and myth. Our world of either-or thinking rarely rewards this. But our ancestors understood that communities needed ritual containers for such deep introspection and debate. Athenians had the Anthesteria, and they had tragic drama, as I explain in Chapter Three.
So I’m imagining that the original meaning of entertainment was ritual renewal of the community though shared suffering. Audiences in the Theater of Dionysus did exactly that. Yes, they sat passively while people on stage enacted their oldest – and most confounding – myths. But these stories forced them to contemplate the clash of unbearable contradictions, to hold that tension without resolving it, and ultimately to weep together. They emerged spent but renewed, purged of their anxieties for a while.
The lack of such ritual containers explains why the satisfaction of passive entertainment is so fleeting. Certainly, we hold some things together, such as hero-worship, villain-hatred, team identification or lust for the commodities constantly tempting us. But since we (in our darkened rooms) rarely encounter authentic paradox or nuance, we miss the shared grief and joy that can actually unite people. Instead of embracing the mysterious and tragic coexistence of opposites, we release the tension by watching it being resolved, either violently or comically.
Because America demands or only receives Disneyfied versions of Carnival, where Death is scrubbed away (or projected, literally, with projectiles, onto targets throughout the Third World), we remain insulated from unvarnished reality. So we force it upon those people who must live – not temporarily – within the “inner cities” of our imagination. Even before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was known as the murder capital of America. For its African American inhabitants, life there partook of the bittersweet totality of life, but it was and is no vacation.
I write extensively about rituals of grief in Chapter Twelve. The Dagara people of Burkina Faso in East Africa are particularly known for having kept alive the tradition of lengthy and cathartic funerals (which survive in a different form in New Orleans). One American I know who has spent much time in that country recalls a woman he met there. Asked why she seemed so happy, she responded, “…because I cry so often.”
In recent years we’ve seen the rise of many new types of Carnival, from Burning Man to the countless Yogafests and Bhaktifests that attract large New Age crowds every summer.
Although I haven’t attended any of these events, I’m glad to hear that Burning Man does feature an annual Temple, an all-purpose sacred space that is generally but not exclusively used for remembering the departed. (Note: As of 2019, the Burning Man organizers are honoring the requests of the local Native Americans, the North/South Paiute and Goshutes, that no human remains be brought to the playa.) But I doubt if any of the New Age events acknowledge the dark side of existence (except as something to rise above), and I’d be happy to hear from any readers who have been to them.
Sociologist Nicholas Powers suggests that there are three types of modern Carnival:
— Status Quo: Living in hierarchy – the vacation in chaos is essentially a public ritual that by carefully containing transgression within time and place actually confirms the status of its participants.
— Reactionary: Breaking the rules to re-assert old hierarchies. Think of Trumpus rallies and white supremacist events.
— Revolutionary: Such events, especially when they are spontaneous and not sanctioned by the state, have the potential of transforming and even abolishing the hierarchy.
But even if most participants in the vacation in chaos do not expect or even consciously desire any real transformation, their indigenous souls understand the potential that exists in such spaces.
Thousands come to Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival for their vacations. But some local people remember its dark roots. Here is the translation of Sergio Mendes’ popular song Samba of the Blessing:
It’s better to be happy than sad
Happiness is the best thing there is
It is like a light in the heart
But to make a samba with beauty
A bit of sadness is needed
If not the samba can’t be made
To make a samba is not like telling a joke
And who makes samba like this is worth nothing
The good samba is a kind of prayer
Because samba is the sadness that sways
And sadness is always hopeful
Of one day not being sad any more
Put a little love in the cadence
And you’ll see that in this world nobody wins
The beauty that a samba have
Because samba was born in Bahia
And if today it is white in it’s poetry
It is very black in its heart.
In 1956 Allen Ginsberg asked:
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
Someday, American culture – may it be so – will open itself up to this kind of indigenous wisdom. Until then, we have Comic Con, where “…an aspiring psychotherapist…gesturing to the crowds” told Michael Schulman:
“There are three needs that all people have: they want to be seen, they want to be heard, and they want to be valued.” That he was dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants did not dilute the insight.