Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them. – Albert Einstein
What is now proved was once imagined. – William Blake
The situation is so dire that we can’t afford the luxury of realism. – Caroline Casey
My book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence first appeared in 2010. Since then I’ve taught several college-level courses, and I’ve done dozens of book talks and radio interviews. The two most common questions that people ask me – and usually quite early in the discussion – are, what will the new myths be? and when and how will we create them?
These terribly important questions imply the common understanding that the stories we have been telling ourselves about ourselves no longer feed us, no longer provide us with a sense of identity or meaning in this rapidly changing world. The more privileged among us may understand this on an abstract level. But younger, feminist, non-white and non-gender conforming people speak of how we all need to be “woke” to the urgency of our condition and how all our significant issues are related to each other. Often, if I discuss my book or simply mention “American innocence,” they respond with a knowing interest. They get it.
But those same questions – when, how – also carry with them a characteristic American impatience with “being” in favor of “doing.” We have always preferred to think of ourselves as practical, “can-do” people who value the heights and achievements of spirit over the depths and laments of soul. We’d rather act than think things out fully, or as poet Greg Kimura wrote, to “…sit with the pain in your heart.”
The impulse to leap quickly toward solutions, to “fix” things, to “heal” our wounds, or even to address the nation’s historic crimes may also reveal something else: an unwillingness to take enough time to truly acknowledge the suffering in our midst, the diminishment of our imagination, the darkness that surrounds us, the massive grief that lies just below the surface of our “have a nice day” greetings and New Age affirmations.
So I suggest: Stop. Slow down. Consider (“to be with the stars”) just how rough our predicament really is; sit quietly, listen to the soul’s lament. Be, in Theodore Roethke’s words, “…a lord of nature weeping to a tree.” Otherwise, how different are we from Trump supporters who, correctly perceiving that their world of white, male supremacy is collapsing all around them, can only respond by trying to fix their condition and make America great again?
When we can actually feel the grief of what we have lost, it becomes clear that long-term sustainability requires changes in consciousness as fundamental as those that occurred in the long transition from the indigenous world to the modern. This is both bad news and good. Such changes took millennia in the First World to be completed, but only a few generations in the colonized Third World. Perhaps these more recent transitions can be altered in a relatively short time. The challenge is for Americans to take the initiative and create a sustainable world in this generation, before two billion Chinese and Indians become as hopelessly addicted to materialism as we are. We cannot ask the Third World to control its growth if we will not reverse ours.
Perhaps the proper response to a great ending – of a myth, of hopes for the future, of a national dream, of the deaths of species, of the collapse of the environment – is to enter into rituals of mourning, even as we continue to agitate for renewal. Then, new language may arise, and new visions may come not from us but through us. The paradox grows deeper when we consider Wendell Berry’s words: “Be joyful even though you’ve considered all the facts.” The King – or the Wicked Witch – is dead. Long live the new story, if we can figure out what it is.
But myths – the pre-modern, pre-patriarchal narratives that provided meaning to our ancient ancestors – grew out of the indigenous Earth and the indigenous Soul. These stories were all inconceivably old, and no one person created them. They existed as the collective dreams of entire societies long before people like Homer first wrote them down.
Still, we have to confront the questions that began this essay, and here is our paradox. We desperately need new stories, yet, as Joseph Campbell said, we can’t predict what the new myths will be any more than we can know what we’ll dream tonight.
We can imagine, however, what the new myths won’t be. They won’t express what Jeremy Lent has termed our modern metaphors that have helped to form our collective reality: nature as a machine, dominion over nature, or God as the stern, divine lawgiver. They won’t be local or tribal.
If we survive, our stories will not fit into any of the three major patterns that crushed the older stories and have dominated our thinking for centuries since. First, they will not be stories of original sin, patriarchy, dualism, monotheism, sacrifice of the children, disconnection from the Earth, or any other simplistic, all-purpose fundamentalism. Secondly, they will not consist of the movement of dead matter from the Big Bang through billions of arbitrary combinations of elements into a life that lacks any sense of purpose. And they will not express the third alternative, the cynical view that “it’s always been like this, it’s human nature.” So it follows that they will reject capitalism’s origin myths of individualism, ruthless competition and social Darwinism.
Campbell did predict that the only myths worth talking about would have to express change, the metamorphoses of the Earth and all living beings. They would construct a mesocosm that connects all individuals to each other and to the universal macrocosm of spirit, which will be living, interdependent Nature. We can take this idea as a jumping-off point and imagine that they would characterize human beings more through our relations with others and less as separate entities. They would speak of fluid boundaries rather than the rigid walls of the ego, the corporation or the nation-state. They would emphasize diversity rather than uniformity. Power would necessarily exist in these stories, but it would bring people together and actualize their essential gifts, rather than create hierarchies of domination. The macrocosm would exist in dynamic tension with a decentralized sense of place.
Like the Hindu deities, the actors in the new myths will be aware of existing within a story. They will ask not for belief, but to be entertained. Knowing their own darkness, they will be motivated not by self-restraint, but by what they love. Aesthetics – knowing something because we love it – will become important once again. “Aesthetic passion restrains war,” writes James Hillman in A Terrible Love of War.
Heroes will, once again, emerge from community, find a blessing in the darkness and return with it, rather than restoring innocence to Eden and disappearing into the sunset. Our concepts of gender will change when storytellers teach that the male and female principles exist in everyone in varying degrees. Stories will still contain conflict, but listeners will know that it reflects the inner dynamics of the psyche. Tellers will learn that the most important stories will be best told in certain places, at certain times, to certain people.
It’s already happening. For fifty years, images of the Whole Earth have begun to focus this story for us. Scientific ideas such as the Gaia Hypothesis suggest that the planet’s natural systems reveal long-term self-regulation, like “the behavior of a single organism, even a living creature,” as biologist James Lovelock writes.
Another metaphor and set of images, the Web of Life, describes the interconnectedness of any living ecosystem or social grouping. When one strand is broken, the web starts to unravel. What affects one part of an ecosystem affects the whole in some way. Such thinking brings us back to old notions such as the Ubuntu philosophy of Southern Africa – “I am because we are” – or the anima mundi– the soul of the world – which speaks to us through the unconscious images of dreams and art.
Sometimes healing comes through memory, in the creative re-framing of one’s story. The ancient Greeks told of how memory herself, Mnemosyne, mated with Zeus and birthed the Muses, those nine goddesses who reverse the work of Father Time, Kronos, the god who eats his children.
I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination. – John Keats
The Virgin returns and the Golden Age begins anew. – Virgil
Be joyful even though you’ve considered all the facts. – Wendell Berry
Now we are called to remember immensely ancient things that we have never personally known – to remember what the land itself knows, that which has been concealed from us by our own mythologies, and those forgotten imaginal beings on the other side of the veil. As Martin Shaw writes,
Maybe this is how we seem to the gods now: that one day one of them gently reached over and turned down the volume…Maybe it’s not that we can’t hear the gods but that they can’t hear us.
We have the opportunity to remember who we are, and how our ancestors remembered, through art and ritual. Our task is unique: inviting something new, yet familiar, to re-enter the soul of the world.
Re-membering requires the re-emergence of cultural forms to counter our amnesia (“against Mnemosyne”), our forgetting that we have forgotten so much. Once these forms have arisen to create the containers – the sense that it is finally safe enough to feel and grieve what has been lost – then all the marginalized and split-off aspects of psyche and society may well return. Welcomed back rather than merely tolerated, the old gods may be more helpful than vengeful, appearing as guides rather than (as Jung wrote) as diseases.
As chronological time recedes back into cyclic time, remembering offers visions of the future as well as the past. It offers the possibility of resolution (“finding solutions again”). We may perceive that our crises as well as our solutions have a periodic, cyclic nature. We may find that we have faced disaster (“against the stars”) before and survived.
We may discover that the meanings of many of our religious symbols (such as the cross, the snake and the tree of life) have shifted radically over the centuries, from symbols of life and rebirth to symbols of death, and that we can change them back again. The new stories, seemingly fresh and original, will actually be a return to origins. We may then pay more attention to the words of our remaining indigenous elders and look backwards in order to see forward. Perhaps we will see the return of the Goddess, along with her son/consort.
Many origin myths begin in images of perfection and typically fall into a few basic scenarios. One is the decline from a pure, golden race to an era of strife and ignorance (the Greek version). A second is paradise lost, the fall from innocence into knowledge and sin (the Hebrew myth). Christianity extends the second to apocalyptic finality. Modernity has contributed myths of progress, from lower to higher (the technological utopia), from sin to salvation (the religious solution) or to the Marxist paradise of equality.
Other traditions, however, such as Astrology, Tantric Buddhism and Hindu cosmology, speak of vast cosmic cycles. They offer, among other things, the possibility of a (re-) emerging story, the myth of matricentric (not matriarchal) origin. This is a narrative of times when all genders lived in partnership, and it allows us to imagine our own myth of return, and the return of myth.
Skeptics might suggest that it simply re-tells Biblical myth, with the onset of patriarchy – women’s fall from grace – substituting for the departure from Eden. But the Goddess is not a mirror image of the omnipotent, omniscient, angry Heavenly Father. She is the inherent spiritual capacity in every individual, our most ancient image of the soul. She exists in all beings that paradoxically emerge from and return to her. In a non-linear story, remembering leads to the possibility of re-experiencing the past, both as pleasure and as suffering, and this can lead to releasing the binds that prevent people – and peoples – from moving on to the next turning of the wheel.
With both the remaining indigenous wisdom as well as the new tools of archetypal psychology available to us, we can – we have to – reconstruct the original power dynamic between male and female. If we en-storied a full psychic life in which good and bad, dark and light exist within everyone, the Other would become us, and our fear of him would diminish. Then other distinctions – race, class and nation – might wither away as well.
Myths change exceedingly slowly. After all, it took perhaps 5,000 years for the myths of patriarchy and monotheism to become fully constellated across the planet. And yet, these stories have begun to crack in our lifetimes. The growth of feminism (and spiritual feminism, as well as the mythopoetic men’s movement that arose in response to it) speaks of the return of the Goddess. This narrative is already approaching mythic proportions not simply because millions entertain its images of female (and black, brown, red, yellow and gay) empowerment, but because it pulls us away from linear history, towards the cyclic processes of nature. This story of equality between genders (not, I must repeat, as women ruling over men) invites us to ask: If it happened once, why can’t it happen again?
We all understand the bumper sticker: “She’s back, and she’s pissed!” Has She returned raging and inconsolable, or can She accept our tears of remorse? Can we welcome Her by remembering things deep in our bones, what the land itself knows, and how our ancestors remembered? It is still within the power of the human community to influence the nature of Her return, and the method is ritual.
We can invoke her in two ways. First, by restoring the creative imagination. To Federico Garcia Lorca, imagination “…fixes and gives clear life to fragments of the invisible reality…” We can replicate the original processes of myth making – by telling as many alternative stories, as often as possible, until, perhaps, some of them coalesce into world stories.
Secondly, we must engage in the rituals – and do the arts – that allow us to bypass what I call the predatory and paranoid imaginations. We must become comfortable with poetry and metaphor. We must deliberately use sacred language, in the subjunctive mode: what if, perhaps, suppose, may it be so, make believe, let’s pretend – and play. Then, says Lorca, we move from dreaming to desiring. Now, all creative acts have political implications. Dianne Di Prima writes, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.”
Can we imagine a society like Bali – where people practice all the arts so universally, on such a daily basis, that they have no word for “art,” where communal creativity balances the worlds of the living and the unseen?
Many would argue that for 25 years the best – certainly the most popular – new American poetry has been disseminated orally, along with computers and video. Print – for the first time in 500 years – has lost its primacy in communication. It is as if the smothering blandness of TV that birthed “couch potatoes” who no longer read also brought forth a compensating expression in the spoken word. Poets and storytellers counteract the flood of images being pounded into the brain by our electronic initiators. In a noisy time, the mouth begins to speak. It is no coincidence that the most vibrant language is coming not from the academy at the center of the culture, but from the periphery, from the streets, in Hip-Hop, in poetry “slams,” and from the young and disenfranchised who refused to be silenced. Lalo Delgado spoke from that place:
see that chicano
with a big knife
in his steady hand
he doesn’t want to knife you
he wants to sit on a bench
and carve christ figures
but you won’t let him.
stupid america, hear that chicano
shouting curses on the street
he is a poet
without paper and pencil
and since he cannot write
he will explode.
stupid america, remember that chicanito
flunking math and english
he is the picasso
of your western states
but he will die
with one thousand masterpieces
hanging only from his mind.
And movies: In the final scene of the brilliant 2018 film Blindspotting, a very angry African-American man has a chance to shoot a corrupt and murderous policeman, knowing that he won’t be caught. But he chooses poetry over violence, the symbolic over the literal. It’s no coincidence, by the way, that Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, the writers and two main actors of this film, actually did spend their teenage years reciting poetry in the superb Youth Speaks program.
These voices from the margins offer white America the tremendous opportunity to welcome the Other, and in doing so, to discover that the path home is no straight and narrow superhighway. There are mixed messages everywhere. It is comforting to me to realize that some ancient languages were comfortable with ambiguity. The Greek word xenos (“stranger”) is the root of our modern – and all too common – word xenophobia (“fear of the stranger”). But, depending on its context in a sentence, xenos can also mean “guest.”
For four hundred years, white Americans have chosen to see black, red and brown people – and, for a very long time, women and gays – as unacceptably lesser than “we the people,” to carry the labels of unclean, unreliable, over-sexed, lazy and/or violent. But the new stories will remind us that we can choose to welcome the demonized Other and invite everything that America has forced outside the gates of the city back inside.
When we tell stories – myths – about how the Stranger becomes the Guest, when we agree that the darkness we’ve required him or her to hold is also part of us, that darkness becomes our blessing. The Muses, those daughters of Memory, collected the scattered limbs of dismembered bodies; it was they – art – who reassemble what the madness of the world, and the madmen who rule us, rip apart.
Anything dead coming back to life hurts. – Toni Morrison
Breakdown is breakthrough. – Marshal McLuhan
The visionary is the only true realist. – Federico Fellini
Remember, and failing that, invent. – Monique Wittig
Our task is to do more than simply deconstruct outmoded belief systems. They hold us not merely because of generations of indoctrination, but because of their mythic content. They grab us, as all myths do, because they refer to profound truths at the core of things. If those truths have been corrupted to serve a culture of death, they still remain truths, and they remain accessible through the creative imagination.
We cannot simply drop myths by virtue of realizing that they are myths; perhaps we must go further into them. The methods for doing so are ritual, art and seeing through – de-literalizing – the predatory and paranoid imaginations back to their source in the creative imagination. It may mean telling the same stories but reframing them until we discover their essence. In Native American terms, we will need to search for our original medicine.
Americans have some advantages in our worship of change and our characteristic assumption that newer is better. Our fascination with the new masks our anxiety about the present, our grief at how diminished our lives have become and our fear of being erased in a demythologized future. But it also awakens the archetypal drive to slough off old skin and be reborn into a deeper (not higher) identity. We can cook down the cliché, “We want a better future for our children” to: “We want to be remembered as ancestors by those who come after us.” We can use this fascination with change to escape the myth of progress. As ceremonies of the status quo evolve into authentic ritual, change can become transformation.
New myths are attempting to manifest. The other world is offering help, but indigenous wisdom insists upon our full participation. As Caroline Casey says, ritual etiquette requires that we ask for help – “Cooperators are standing by!” We will develop that capacity as we build our willingness to imagine. This is why the renewal of the oral tradition is so important; poetry enables us to go beyond the literal and think metaphorically.
Re-imagining America’s Purpose
So myths, even deceitful political myths, stick with us for good reason. They grab us because their potency rests on a core of truth. America provides a unique challenge in the study of myth because, except for Native stories, none of our myths arise from this ground, nor do they offer us a path to the archetypal soul. Still, they have no less a hold on us because they are only ten or fifteen generations old. Understanding their contradictions will not make them go away. But if we assume the existence of telos – purpose – we must imagine that even the myths of American innocence and violent redemption can lead us to the universal archetypes. If we can hold the tension of these opposites (the myths and the realities) perhaps we can begin to re-articulate meaning in a world that is descending alternately into chaos and fascism. If we cannot disengage from our myths, then we need to look deeper into them.
To speculate on the deeper meaning of our civil religion is to risk falling into a morass of cliché. For 400 years, apologists, from evangelists and penny novelists to Radio Free Europe, Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, have presented an America divinely ordained to defend freedom (read as: military coups), nurture democracy (repress self-determination), spread prosperity (steal resources) and inspire opportunity (enforce racial oppression). The purpose of this mythic language, however, is to tug at our emotions, and it remains surprisingly effective. Even when we know better, we want America to be what it claims to be – we want to believe – or disappointed, we go to the other extreme, give in to cynicism and disengage from public involvement. Indeed, cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy; as fewer vote, the rest are more easily manipulated.
But – stay with me for a moment – what if America really was born so that freedom could spread everywhere? What if our uniquely good fortune has been the container for a story that has not yet been told? As James Hillman would have asked, what does the symptom want from us? What if the lies of four centuries have been waiting for us to transform them into truths?
Our American cosmogony begins, as all do, with the original “deities” (the Pilgrims and, eventually the founding fathers) who created a world out of “nothing.” If we take a radical perspective, we acknowledge that from the start, their new world functioned to concentrate and perpetuate wealth through any means, including genocide. American history becomes a series of conquests, painful expansions of freedom and counter-measures to protect privilege, culminating in today’s bleak realities. The rich vs. the poor, or the predatory and paranoid imaginations vs. the return of the repressed.
Alternatively, we can take a philosophical approach. Jacob Needleman insists that the founding fathers were spiritual men, adherents of a timeless wisdom, who created a system to “allow men and women to seek their own higher principles within themselves.” The nation was formed of unique ideals and potentials, not from ethnicity; and this explains its universal appeal, even if those ideals have been perverted into their opposites by men far less mature than those founding fathers. The American Dream vs. the nightmare of dreams deferred.
Or we can muse poetically about what is approaching, if we could only recognize its song. Time/Kronos vs. Memory/Mnemosyne. From this perspective, we could read our history as a baffling, painful, contraction- and contradiction-filled birth passage in which the literal has always hinted at the symbolic. Or, as I wrote in Chapter Seven of my book: We must understand their genocidal projections on another level entirely, as a blundering and childish search for healing through re-connection to the Other. This process has occurred specifically through the influence of African-American music. Stephen Diggs has called it “America’s Alchemical history.” Also see Michael Ventura’s great essay, Hear That Long Snake Moan.
If America remembered its song as This Land Is Your Land rather than through “bombs bursting in air,” perhaps we would understand freedom as willing submission to the soul’s purpose. Woody Guthrie vs Francis Scott Key. Perhaps we would understand liberty as the social conditions that allow that inner, spiritual listening to happen. Acceptance of diversity and multiculturalism might reflect back to us the vast spaces of the polytheistic soul, and conflict would be about holding the tension of the opposites to create a third thing, something entirely new. We might remember that the purpose of “self-improvement” is service to the communal good, and that individualism points us toward our unique individuality. May it be so.
Remembering its true song, America would remember its body – Mother Earth – and this would mean the end of both Puritanism and its predatory shadow, those twin beasts that have ravaged the bodies of actual women. Connecting in this sacred manner to the land would naturally lead to rituals of atonement for the way we have treated her, and to a revival of the festivals that celebrate the decline of the old and birth of the new. New Year’s Day could become a national day of atonement – a Yom Kippur – to acknowledge our transgressions and our willingness to start anew. On Independence Day (now Interdependence Day), we would reaffirm that such a start requires the support of the larger community of spirits and ancestors.
Remembering America’s song would allow us to overcome our shameful and brutal contempt for our own children and to see them for who they are, rather than as projection screens for adult fantasies of innocence or retribution. Our national narratives with their deadly subtexts of child sacrifice would become stories of initiation, renewal and reunion with the Other. Then, unlike Pentheus (“Man of suffering”) in The Bacchae, America would have no need to taunt the immense force of repressed otherness by bellowing, as did George W. Bush, “Bring it on!”
And now the Other, in all its colors and genders, will have emerged from the darkness and responded, asking us to join the rest of humanity as a “nation of suffering.” If we saw ourselves in this light – not the direct sunshine of innocence, but the dim glow of an old campfire – we would understand our addiction to violence as a projection of that initiatory death (that we secretly desire) onto the world, and onto our children. We would withdraw those projections, putting them back where they belong, into the ritual containers of the community and the self. There we would meet the Stranger who has been inviting white America to dance; and we would know him as our self. This would open our imagination further; we would define ourselves in terms of what we are and not by what we aren’t.
It would be obvious that democracy is meaningless when restricted to a small elite who force scapegoats to suffer. Shared suffering is the great gift otherness offers us. We would realize that if we suffered together in a ritual container, democracy would invite a higher (in Christian terms, the Holy Spirit) or deeper (in pagan terms, the spirit of the land) intelligence that could resolve conflict. We would realize that an appropriate metaphor has already arisen out of this land: the spirit of Jazz improvisation. Here is what Wynton Marsalis told Ken Burns in the TV series Jazz:
… to play Jazz, you’ve got to listen (to each other). The music forces you at all times to address what other people are thinking, and for you to interact with them with empathy …it gives us a glimpse into what America is going to be when it becomes itself.
Comfortable with nuance, complexity and the vast gradations between black and white, we would realize that we had already dropped our fascination with evil. As in the Aramaic language, we would view destructive behavior as unripe, as a cry for help, and we would know compassion.
Finally, as an initiated nation, we could cook “innocence” down to its essence. Our own light would no longer blind us. We would drop our grandiosity and arrogance. We would no longer wonder, “Why do they hate us so?” Innocence would signify the most basic of all mythic ideas: the new start. Then America could offer the song that the world has always seen in us: not that of a consumer paradise, a destructive adolescent or a wrathful father, but of the ancient story about what makes us human, the rare and lucky opportunity to accomplish what we came here to do. The new start.
The new has been starting for some time already. In 2004, even as America was laying waste to Iraq and Afghanistan, the National Museum of the American Indian
opened on Washington’s National Mall. Richard West, its first Director, proclaimed at its dedication ceremony,“Welcome to Native America!…The Great Mystery…walks beside your work and touches all the good you attempt.”
Ultimately, we heal ourselves and the culture by re-membering what we came here to do. This is how we dream new myths, one person at a time. The old knowledge has never completely left us. The spirits could meet us halfway, but they need to know that we’re willing to work with them. Indeed, the point may not be the content of the new stories, but how we arrive at them. There is a great hunger, and a great opportunity. Long ago, the Persian poet Hafiz wrote:
The great religions are ships; poets are the lifeboats.
Every sane person I know has jumped overboard.
This is good for business, isn’t it, Hafiz?
Dionysus invites us to drop our outdated identities, emerge from the initiatory fires, announce our purpose and dance our way home, welcomed by people who have never forgotten our song. It’s a hell of a story. As Rumi says, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”