The whole world is sick…and you can’t put this right by having a good therapeutic dialogue or finding deeper meanings. It’s not about meaning anymore; it’s about survival. – James Hillman
I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside. – Rumi
Tourist: “Have a nice day!” San Francisco Bagwoman: “Don’t tell me what to do!”
Dionysus is an image of our dismembered soul. We see ideals in other gods, but we see ourselves in him. He reflects our diminished, modern condition. But paradoxically he also represents our instinctual, embodied, integrated, original face. “I’m looking for the face I had,” wrote Yeats, “before the world was made.”
And his unique condition is one of his gifts to us. The suffering god models the universal connection between personal wound and intrinsic purpose. Finally, he shows us the way back to wholeness – the ecstasy of being, paradoxically, outside ourselves. But with no communally accepted and ritually precise methods of accepting his invitation, we encounter ecstasy’s other face: violence and horror. Those who deny him in themselves must force him upon others, because he must reside somewhere. Then he recruits his followers from imprisoned or marginalized regions of the culture – and the psyche – those with nothing to lose.
He requires that we endure the tension of irreconcilable opposites and resist the temptation to choose. As soon as we locate him in one half of any of his polarities, we repress the other side, and it begins to plot vengeance. Each truth is a mask that conceals its opposite. He enters our lives when that opposite quality breaks out past the mask. Tragically, by that point, it is often too late to appease him.
The distinction in his stories between the Maenads and the Bacchants is crucial. Approaching the darkness in a ritual manner, within a strong communal container, we may pass through madness into a deeper sanity. The Bacchants sought a holy madness caused by – but also cured by – Dionysus. They provoked extreme emotions, but opposed the other, more destructive madness he imposed upon the Maenads who had refused him. They engaged in the first to avoid the second, losing their minds to become sane.
Fifth-century Athens incorporated toned-down Dionysian rites into its religion. Among its major festivals were the Anthesteria, when he returned from the underworld, and the Greater Dionysia, celebrated with dramatic presentations. The mad, drunken god was the patron of Greece’s most profound cultural creation, Tragic Drama. The entire male population of Athens crowded together in the theater in broad daylight. Confronted with irresolvable conflicts, they suffered like Dionysus himself, weeping openly in a purging (katharsis) of emotion. Aristotle explained that this came through “pity and fear,” but classicist W.B. Stanford translates eleos (“pity”) as “compassionate grief.” They left the theater exhausted but revitalized, not because their differences had been resolved, nor because a victim had been sacrificed for their sins, but because they had suffered together.
The rational Greeks had great respect for the irrational. In the Dionysian festivals, solemnity and mourning combined with dancing, drunkenness, and inversion of sex roles. Wild processions with large phalluses recalled his mythic intrusions into the city – and the mind. In myth, Apollo – most exemplary Greek God of reason, beauty, exalted discourse and refined culture, voluntarily relinquished his shrine at Delphi for three months every year, inviting his raving, trailer-trash, half-brother Dionysus to move in.
What would a culture that invited Dionysus back look like? The easy answer is a replay of the 1960s: sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll, wild abandon, relaxed boundaries, blurring of gender roles, long hair, colorful clothing, anarchy, irresponsibility, spontaneity, and chaos. The Id conquers the Superego. A return to childhood and innocence…
Wait. Stop the fantasy. First, lest we forget, when the archetype emerged in the form of sexually ambivalent Rock stars, its darker side also appeared as disturbed but charismatic figures – Jim Jones, Charles Manson and David Koresh – who led modern Maenads on lethal rampages. Fifty years later, their grandchildren thought they were following Trumpus when they attacked the U.S. Capitol.
Second, I have already described the repression of Dionysus as a return to innocence. To recapitulate: the myth of American innocence is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, a series of narratives that presents America as a beacon of freedom, equality and opportunity, the land of the new start, where anything is possible if we work hard. An America that only goes to war to defend democracy and spread the pure light of freedom. Pure. Light.
The myth, however, requires Others, from Native Americans and African slaves and their descendants to immigrants to gays to communists and the most recent Others – Muslim terrorists, Chinese, Iranians and (once again) Russians – all of whom the myth has weighed down with Dionysian characteristics. Because they have carried Dionysus, white Americans haven’t had to.
One of the epithets of Dionysus was Lusios (the Loosener), derived from lysis, also the root of analysis, which means setting free. A catalyst is a chemical agent that precipitates a process without itself being changed. Dionysus Lusios relaxed the boundaries of ego, family and society. To truly invite him back into American culture after so long is to relax those boundaries without knowing what will come in, because opening to one extreme means opening to the other as well. This is the essence of Dionysian ritual as it is still practiced in places like Haiti: create the container, invoke the gods, then get out of the way, because the ritual belongs to them. It is to invite the madness back, in hopes that it might save us from our own culturally induced, hyper-rational, violence-at-a-distance, ecology-crushing, disembodied madness.
Dionysus was the only god who died and was reborn, and the only god (except for Demeter) who grieved. Here is the clue. For long-term healing to occur, America will have to pass through, to spend much time, in the territory of grief. Indeed, mass celebration without rituals of grief reduces to mere spectacle. For Dionysus, if we truly welcome him, will open up the boundaries of innocence and memory, and through the gaps (as poet William Stafford wrote) will come
…with shouts, the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dike.
Consider another story. Hera was disgusted by Hephaestus, her lame, ugly son, and hurled him out of Olympus. He survived and was ultimately accepted, but never forgot his early abuse. Eventually, he took his vengeance by tricking Hera into sitting in a golden chair, where she was instantly bound.
Looking at this myth, Murray Stein argues that behind the rejection of the son is the rejection of the mother under Patriarchy. The result is a cycle of mutual ambivalence and hostility. In Jungian terms, a man’s repressed feminine “marries” his shadow complex of repressed masculinity, giving the feminine an evil tone. Projected onto actual women, this feminine threat justifies his unwillingness to become emotionally intimate.
This emotional distance describes a long series of American heroes, from Daniel Boone to Rambo and beyond, who unleash their violence upon the Other, save the innocent community and then ride off into the sunset – away from women, family and all relational values.
But this story entertains the possibility of an integrated masculine identity. None of the gods, even Aries, could force Hephaestus to relent. So Zeus called upon Dionysus, who brought his wine and got him drunk. When he woke from his stupor, Hephaestus beheld Aphrodite and fell in love. They married, Hera was released, and peace was restored, all because of Dionysus.
Getting Hephaestus drunk symbolizes initiation into a masculinity that has made peace with the mother complex. Dionysus, says Stein, is both the “agent and the product of initiation…the integration of feminine spirit into masculine consciousness.”
Before he bestows these gifts, however, Dionysus will confront us with the madness of our history: the massacres, smallpox-laden blankets, slaughter of the buffalo, Indian schools, sexual repression, witch hunts, thefts of resources, robber barons, invasions, Hiroshima, B-52’s, napalm, deforestation, My Lai, Wounded Knee, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, embargoes, assassinations, coups-d’état, slave-whippings, selling of children, castrations, Eugenics, lobotomies, rubber hoses, lynchings, police murders and stolen elections. The children ignored and the lives wasted working at unsatisfying jobs while chasing the elusive pie in the sky. The sorrows. The madness. The refusal to grieve.
An unveiled look at American history reveals an enormous catalogue of injustice. It also requires, however, that we be willing to imagine a different story. America has two histories; the first is literal, unveiled history. As painful as it is to contemplate, the truth undermines the myths of innocence and good intentions. However, if we persist in the search for the Other – Dionysus in America – we imagine a second history that psychologist Stephen Diggs calls “unconscious and alchemical.”
This is the story of America’s slow transformation and descent from the Apollonian heights of the heroic, isolated ego and the abstract, distanced killing of life. It is America’s return to its body, to the communal experience of shared joy and suffering; healing as a gift of the Other.
However, honoring Dionysus means re-learning the old rituals of mourning from indigenous people, because we are at the end of an age, and the appropriate behavior at the death of anything – especially an empire – is mourning. In the novel Beloved, Toni Morrison coined a phrase, “disremembered past” to describe that which is neither remembered nor forgotten but haunts the living as a ghost. The path to healing, for the soul and for the soul of the culture, goes directly through the recovery of memory – inviting the return of the repressed – through art and ritual.
I envision a culture that invites, invokes and celebrates its own grief. And we have only to look to the Other to re-discover the way. Consider the Jazz funerals of New Orleans. The traditional procession has two sections. The “first line” consists of officials, musicians, the family of the deceased, and pallbearers. The “second line” of local people follows behind. Everyone marches from church to cemetery, while the band plays slow hymns and dirges. This is the first stage of the familiar three-part ritual/initiation format. The second stage is internment at the cemetery, where the dead and the living briefly share liminal space.
The third stage is the procession home. Now the second line takes over and the tone changes from melancholy to ecstasy. The band (now in the rear, separating the living from the dead) shifts into high-spirited tunes, and the mourners’ slow cadence becomes wild dancing, or “second lining.” Returning to the neighborhood, they celebrate the life of the deceased; in making ritual closure with the dead, the mourners achieve re-integration into their community.
Imagine combining two Dionysian concepts, Greek Tragedy and New Orleans Funerals. Imagine mass public rituals attended by the citizenry and political leaders, in which warriors and civilians, rich and poor, women and men, white and POC, gay, straight and in between, and crazy and “normal” confront the impossible paradoxes and crimes of our history and suffer together. Imagine an American President standing in this container, begging forgiveness for his country from an African-American and a Native American. (It’s already happening in New Zealand).
Imagine the community pouring out grief for all those who died as soldiers, victims and activists, and even for the forests that once covered the continent. Imagine the relief at having finally shed tears together as a mosaic of uncommon peoples sharing the land with the Other, and the gratitude bordering on ecstasy with which an entire nation dances the “second line” on its way back home.
Imagine a critical mass of individuals willing to bear their own shadows, unlike Pentheus, the boy-king who realized too late that he was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Death before rebirth. Such madness might cure us of our madness.
For four centuries, American Dionysus has been willing to offer this nation images of its own dark soul, so it can see what it must reconcile with. Imagine if America stopped trying to force those images back outside the walls of the city, back onto the shoulders of the Other. Imagine (to use Christian terminology) that he loves us so much that he offers us the path to suffering – and eventually to laughing – together. Imagine a language like ancient Greek, whose word for “stranger” (xenos) also meant “guest.”
Before sending Pentheus to his death (by dismemberment), Dionysus pleads:
Friend, you can still save the situation.