To really understand our stubborn attachment to the myth of American Innocence, we must become familiar with our heritage of the paranoid imagination. It combines eternal vigilance, literalistic religion and constant anxiety with contempt for the erotic and a highly creative style of sadism. Why these last two features? Because what we will not allow ourselves to desire becomes a vector of judgment, fear and hatred of those whom we perceive as being willing to enact those desires. This results in obsessive voyeurism, as I write here. American life, politics and culture reveal an endless litany of fascination with the so-called violent and sexually unrestrained behavior of “the Other.” I describe 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.
It may be that every curse has a corresponding blessing. Below our fear and contempt for the Other lies envy, and even deeper below 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.
To cover up their unacceptable fantasies – to condemn them, mythologically speaking, to the underworld – those white people who still prefer to see themselves as Apollonian, cultured, hardworking, peaceful, rational and progressive (not to mention innocent) are likely to project those desires onto people of color across the world, whom they still see as primitive, Dionysian, dangerously irrational and (this is the core of the projection) unable or unwilling to restrain their impulses.
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. Hence the appeal of periodically – if 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 stuffed-up social superiors. This is clearly one of the attractions, by the way, of Trump rallies.
But the terrible personal and cultural strain of repressing one’s emotions and fantasies for an entire lifetime always threatens to burst out past our internal censors into consciousness and wreck havoc with our convention hopes and dreams. This is one reason why many traditional societies have institutionalized occasional periods of carnival, so as to literally blow off the excess steam before it causes an explosive “return of the repressed.” Chapter Ten goes into greater detail.
As I wrote here, for at least 250 years in New Orleans (one of the very few American cities, along with Santa Fe and San Francisco, that was 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 an intensity that rarely achieves even temporary satisfaction, except through fundamentalist religion – and vicarious violence.
This longing for intensity drives gambling fever, which is also an alternative expression of the drive to achieve salvation by attaining wealth. In this case, the Opportunist’s greed trumps the Puritan’s virtues of thrift, hard work and deferred gratification; now many believe success should come quickly and effortlessly. The anxiety associated with the risk yields to the greater American fantasy of winning. But the Puritan heritage remains robust among Trump’s most reliable supporters, those who insist on a strictly literal interpretation of a two-thousand-year old myth from the Middle East.
Many of those people are quite desperate for an escape, if only brief, from their constricted lifestyles. In the last sixty 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. This has been described as a “vacation in chaos.” So a week in Las Vegas, America’s fastest growing city, has taken on the characteristics of a pilgrimage. A protected environment – a sacred space – to engage in activity that approximates the conditions of liminality, where “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” – overeating, sleeping till noon, watching light-porn stage shows, whoring and throwing money away. How often do we hear a recent returnee bragging not about how much he won at the tables, but how much he lost?
The entire city is a shrine to the goddess of luck, Fortuna, and the god of intensity, Dionysus. Gambling corporations know this very well, and their casinos are designed 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 attempt to blur the distinction between Heaven and Hell.
Now 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 a weekend at the Superbowl, or a memorable but confidential staff Christmas or New Year’s party. Or we can go any time of the year to Vegas.
But the vast majority of us still prefer to do it the easy way: we watch other people getting out of control on our electronic devices, and allow the fantasies to parade – briefly, safely and respectfully – across our minds, while we simultaneously condemn those who seem to be acting them out. I address this “vicarious intensity,” one of the ways that we unconsciously invite Dionysus into our lives, in Chapter Ten.
We think we can have it both ways, but in doing so, we have neither.
One reason why Americans long for their vacations in chaos is because 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 certainly describes conditions in a world where capitalism has clearly failed to provide a decent life for a large percentage of the population. But it’s an old joke, and it pre-dates the financial crises of the past ten years (as do these statistics). 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... Furthermore, we are taught, consistently, from early childhood, that just as we succeed as individuals, when we fail we do so 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, the notion that Europeans work to live while Americans live to work seems as applicable as it did three hundred years ago.
On average, Americans work nine weeks longer per year than Europeans.Our vacations average two weeks, compared to five to six weeks in Europe. Forty-three percent of us did not take a single week off in 2007, and only fourteen percent will take a vacation of two weeks or more this year. We spend forty percent 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.
https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/chartoftheday_15005_statutory_minimum_paid_leave_and_public_holidays_n.jpg?w=522&h=372 522w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/chartoftheday... 150w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/chartoftheday... 300w" sizes="(max-width: 261px) 100vw, 261px" />
Is it any wonder that as a nation we continue to perceive the poor (and people of color, who in our mythology, are the same, and immigrants) as being lazy, that we hold them in such contempt?
Or that we feel so attracted to their seemingly carefree lifestyles? The old word, popular in the 1920s, was “slumming.”
A digression: that projection accuses 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.
As I wrote above, 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. That is why many of their seasonal festivals, especially those of winter solstice and early spring, such as the Greek Anthesteria celebration of Dionysus. https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/Anthesteria.jpg?w=416&h=302 416w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/Anthesteria.j... 150w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/Anthesteria.j... 300w" sizes="(max-width: 208px) 100vw, 208px" />From Chapter Four:
How does an entire society welcome this vengeful, unpredictable god in hopes that he won’t take vengeance? The Athenians were deeply aware of the seduction of the irrational. Every February, during the Anthesteria, they invoked him as purifier, rather than as destroyer. For over 1,000 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 the people 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. https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/dionysus-mosaic.jpg?w=150&h=106 150w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/dionysus-mosa... 300w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/dionysus-mosa... 408w" sizes="(max-width: 210px) 100vw, 210px" />People masked themselves as 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. Clearly, the Anthesteria was a model for this holiday.
Temporary inversion of the social order and breaking of taboos characterized carnival. 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. Modernity, however, has reduced Carnival to the consumer spectacles of Mardi Gras, New Year’s, “spring break” and the Superbowl. But the Greek town of Monoklissia still celebrates the Gynaecocracy (“rule of women”) festival, when women and men trade roles for a day.
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 – 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 gender-roles and rules of fidelity. Master and slave briefly exchanged 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 gave us both Carnival and Holy Week. Similarly, the Romans celebrated the Saturnalia around the winter solstice, and many historians suggest that from it Christianity evolved its Christmas traditions.
Can we modern people even conceive of a rational culture that institutionalized an annual event in which the entire population simultaneously partied to excess and also grieved their dead? Mexico, perhaps – another Catholic country.
Our ancestors (including our European 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.” Another aspect is the devils https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/3327496784_b92d2aa55d_b.jpg?w=370&h=250 370w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/3327496784_b9... 150w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/3327496784_b9... 300w" sizes="(max-width: 185px) 100vw, 185px" />and ghosts https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/013ea652ff476e2af71679a0a6238cb1-mardi-gras-ghosts.jpg?w=150&h=150 150w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/013ea652ff476... 236w" sizes="(max-width: 120px) 100vw, 120px" />(notthe cute and harmless figures of Halloween) appearing everywhere as Mardi Gras masks, as well as the processions with their large floats,https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/images.jpg?w=150&h=100 150w, https://madnessatthegates.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/images.jpg 275w" sizes="(max-width: 215px) 100vw, 215px" />which are direct (if unconscious) recreations of the ship on wheels upon which Dionysus entered Athens during the Anthesteria.
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 Ghandi 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.
Because America demands these Disneyfied versions of Carnival, where Death is scrubbed away (or projected, literally, with projectiles, onto targets throughout the Third World), our culture can only see both its potential and its misery among those people of color 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. A friend of mine who has spent much time with them tells of a woman he met. Asked why she seems 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 New Age crowds every summer. Although I haven’t attended any of these events, I’m glad to hear that Burning Man does have an annual Temple of Remembrance.But I doubt if any of the others acknowledge the dark side of existence (except as a Hell-like condition 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 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 Trump rallies and white supremacist events.
— Revolutionary: Since these events are often spontaneous and not sanctioned by the state, they 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.