What I call the paranoid imagination, an essential aspect of the myth of innocence, combines eternal vigilance, constant anxiety and creative sadism with contempt for the erotic and obsessive voyeurism. In historical accounts and current politics and culture, we see endless examples of this obsession with the so-called violent and sexually unrestrained behavior of “the Other.”
Why? Because below the fear of the Other lies envy and the desire to achieve authentic psychological integration. This is the great desire and worst fear of those millions of white Americans who still carry the burden of our powerful Puritan heritage.
To cover up such unacceptable fantasies, whites, who prefer to see themselves as Apollonian, hardworking, rational and progressive, project their desires onto blacks, whom they still see as Dionysian, irrational, primitive and (this is the core of the projection) unable or unwilling to restrain their impulses.
But the terrible personal and cultural strain of repressing one’s emotions and desires always threatens to burst out into consciousness. This is one reason why most societies have institutionalized occasional periods of carnival, so as to literally blow off the excess steam before it causes an explosion of the “return of the repressed.” For at least 250 years in New Orleans (one of the very few American cities that was originally settled by Catholic Latins), Mardi Gras has served this function for an America whose Protestant 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 gets satisfied, except through violence.
This longing for intensity drives gambling fever, which is also an alternative expression of the drive to achieve salvation by attaining wealth. The Opportunist’s greed has trumped the Puritan 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.
In the last fifty 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 to safely enact the shadow of Puritanism. So a vacation in Las Vegas, America’s fastest growing city, takes 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,” the entire city is a shrine to the goddess of luck, Fortuna, and the god of intensity, Dionysus.
Now we have, in a sense, more choices. We can have our 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 we can go any time of the year to Vegas.
But the vast majority of us still prefer to do it the old-fashioned way: we watch other people getting out of control on TV or on our computers, and allow the fantasies to parade — briefly, safely and respectfully — across our minds, while severely judging those who seem to be acting them out.