Wow! I never realized that Kennedy and Vietnam was to your generation what Princess Diana and 9/11 is to ours. – A thirty-something
The Dying God (1)
He was known in Babylon as Tammuz, in Egypt as Osiris and Serapis, in Asia Minor as Attis, in Persia as Mythra, in Italy as Bacchus, in Syria as Adonis, as Fufluns among the Etruscans, as Dionysus in Greece and as Jesus when the Pagan world collapsed.
The ancients marked as sacred not the places where gods and heroes had been born, but the places where they had died. Christianity replaced them with the saints and added, along with their relics, the dates of their deaths. Our modern “toxic mimic” of that world, the culture of celebrity, does the same thing. Who remembers the birthdays of JFK or Elvis?
Steven Stark itemizes the long list of Pop culture celebrities who died young, Elvis most prominently, and he points out the mythic connection:
Dying young freezes the stars at their peak: like the promise of Hollywood itself, they remain forever young and beautiful – the perfect icons for the immortality that films and records purport to offer…As a cultural symbol whose life can now be made into anything with impunity, Kennedy, like Presley, has become, in Greil Marcus’s words, “an anarchy of possibilities” – a reflection of the public’s mass fears and aspirations and also a constant vehicle for discussing those sentiments…Thus Presley and the Kennedys have evolved into a collection of cultural deities – modern-day equivalents of the Greek gods, who were immortal while sharing the characteristics of the human beings who worshipped them…
Stark’s conclusion makes intuitive sense to any perceptive observer of mass media. Today, much, perhaps most political rhetoric, especially the deliberately provocative variety, is not intended to persuade the opposition to change its mind on a given subject. Such politicians offer their statements to rile up their own constituencies, not to convince you. Every time you roll your eyebrows at the latest lies, somebody who already believes them is becoming more certain. Preaching to their own separate choirs, these demagogues (and entire TV networks) are essentially entertainers rather than advocates in the realm of public ideas. Stark concludes:
If mass entertainment is now the civic religion in a country where government can never constitutionally fill that role, it should be no surprise that the path to immortality for a politician today is to become an entertainer in order to become a deity.
Myth tells us that Dionysus was always followed by a band of raving, shrieking, dancing, ecstatic women known as the Maenads, a word related to mania.
Young people, who had been so identified with JFK’s symbolic renewal of the world, took his death particularly hard. Perhaps it is no coincidence that a new form of maenadism erupted only two months later, in February of 1964, when the Beatles performed before seventy million Americans on the Ed Sullivan show. Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “At no time during their U.S. tours was the group audible above the shrieking.” Someone dubbed the experience “Beatlemania.” Curiously, their first major album had been released on November 22nd. Sociologist Susan Douglas argues that the resonance between Kennedy and the Beatles allowed for “a powerful and collective transfer of hope.”
But only some of that hope was channeled into collective political action, because idealism, for many, had been transformed into its opposite, cynicism (see Chapter Eleven of Madness at the Gates of the City for a more in-depth discussion). Cynicism led to apathy; apathy led to abandonment of hope that change could occur through conventional politics; and reduced voting begat Ronald Reagan, the Bushes and Trump.
Fifty Years Later
Like most politicians, media pundits are entertainers charged with diverting the public from the men behind the screen – and from the collective weight of our unexpressed anger and grief, from the anxiety of our diminished, alienated lives and from the pain of remembering that we once dreamed of serving the great King of our souls. The pundits entertain us with silly concepts such as the “red state/blue state” divide, when in fact both major political parties are far more conservative than they were in 1963, indeed far more conservative than the nation as a whole today.
In the context of the myths about John F. Kennedy, the real divide today is between two other groups. The first group is composed of those who still accept the dominant narratives about both Kennedy’s death and about American exceptionalism. They tend to be white and older than age fifty. Many consider themselves “moderates,” who thoughtfully weigh the issues and vote Democratic as often as they vote Republican. And they are either very angry or very scared, because it is harder and harder to cling to their sense of innocence.
The second group is younger, darker-skinned, more tech-savvy, much less affluent and more cynical, despite their youth. They have very little hope of any good coming out of the political process, because they see it as hopelessly broken or rigged to perpetuate power and privilege. They hate the police. Many are rooted in communities that never subscribed to the myth of innocence. As novelist Walter Mosley has said,
I have never met an African-American who was surprised by the attack on the World Trade Center. Blacks do not see America as the great liberator of the world. Blacks understand how the rest of the world sees us, because we have also been the victims of American imperialism.
Many of them feel that they have nothing to lose.
Granted, their disdain for the cesspool of national politics leaves the field to the very worst people in the world. But who can blame them for not voting?
Many others in this second group, however, have permanently rejected the patriarchal, homophobic, racist, violent, imperial, individualistic, competitive, monotheistic values of the dominant culture in favor of non-political (or at least local), collective, creative, soulful, pagan, meditative attention to truly human and environmental values, values of the Whole Earth, who is the ultimate transcendent cause.
Here I recall the Rumi quote that opens my book: 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!
Members of the first group occasionally view the madness behind the door. Horrified, they slam it shut, and as G.W. Bush exhorted after 9-11, they go back to shopping. For them, a quick glimpse into the margins where cracks appear in the seemingly solid walls of the myth of innocence is too much to bear.
But others have chosen to live there, because they know that when the King has vacated the center of the realm, the realm rots from the center outward.
The Dying God (2)
Only the Goddess lives on, unchanging. The God – or the King – must die, because his rebirth awakens the world, the tribe or the psyche to the necessity and the possibility of renewal. His capacity to die to what he had been so as to be reborn into what he could be is the very essence of initiation. And this is why we long for his return, because he symbolizes our own renewal.
It is our responsibility to determine the fact, the literal truth of a situation and then to refine, reframe, re-imagine and retell it in its mythic context. We look at what people do and re-imagine how they would act if they were in alignment with their higher purpose. Ironically, JFK himself quoted George Bernard Shaw: You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?” Political rhetoric? Of course. Archetypal thinking? Certainly.
One of the few factual things that we can say about JFK is that, like Barack Obama, he did not take office as a liberal. He redbaited the Republicans to get elected. In Noam Chomsky’s words, “Kennedy launched a huge terrorist campaign against Cuba (and) laid the basis for the huge wave of repression that spread over Latin America…” He built up the American forces in Viet Nam from a few dozen to 17,000 men. Ronald Reagan praised him for having lowered taxes on business. He initially tried to prevent the March on Washington and didn’t speak out on Civil Rights until circumstances forced him to.
But he did speak out. And, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he told Arthur Schlesinger, “I want to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” In June of 1963 he gave a remarkable speech that seemed to offer a just, workable peace to the U.S.S.R., and it quickly led to the first arms control treaty.
As I mentioned in Part Two of this essay, he may well have been about to pull the nation out of Viet Nam. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. claims that on the morning of November 21st, as JFK prepared to leave for Texas, he told his assistant press secretary Malcolm Kilduff,
“It’s time for us to get out…After I come back from Texas, that’s going to change. There’s no reason for us to lose another man over there. Vietnam is not worth another American life.”
The god must die: Allen Dulles, whom JFK had fired as CIA chief (and who later served on the Warren Commission), said, “That little Kennedy . . . he thought he was a god.”
Some writers claim that his deepest values (imagine even using that phrase to describe his successors!) had undergone profound transformation. Consider the liberating influence that Mary Pinchot Meyer, his mistress, may have had on him.
But so much of what we think we know remains in the category of allegations and has been managed by the Kennedy clan. John F. Kennedy remains a chimera, and because he is more myth than human we all remember him through our own highly subjective lens. So I choose to remember who he – and we – might have become.
Ultimately, the pull of JFK’s image in our national memory evokes that same symbolism I began this essay with, the same image that allows us to picture America in its most ideal light: the New Start.
As Yeats wrote, “the center cannot hold.” Perhaps this is a good thing. When the center is rotten – when the King dies – a the renewal of the world must come not from there but from the margins. Perhaps only those who inhabit the margins of the culture – the realms of Hermes and Dionysus – are capable of reframing the American story.
Perhaps history is forcing us to learn the languages of mythology and psychology. Perhaps renewal will come when enough of us discover that we have projected too much of ourselves onto public figures. It is time, as Robert Bly has said, to withdraw our projections. The archetypal King that Kennedy attempted to embody – that we wished he’d embodied – will not return until enough of us realize that the King lies within each of us.