Part One of Two
I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe. But at least I’m enjoying the ride.
– The Grateful Dead
Denied access to our cultural consciousness, the goddess Aphrodite has cast a spell over the diminished imagination of Western culture, reappearing in images of the female body. Since we can no longer find her in ourselves, since we can no longer embody her in art and ritual, we search for her in one of the few places she is allowed: images of the erotic.
And she calls us to another of her “toxic mimics.” The Great Mother – Mater – returns in the appeal of material goods, although she is ultimately unattainable through them. Consumerism, for all its marketing of free choice, actually constricts our modes of encountering the world.
But we all are born with an exuberant, pagan imagination, and we carry the innate expectation that family, community and culture will all mirror and welcome our wild minds. Sadly, this creative imagination has long been almost entirely lost. This is the fundamental substrate of the deep sense of ancestral loss and grief we feel, if we allow ourselves to feel. Sociologist Max Weber called this condition the “disenchantment of the world.”
With the rise of patriarchy and large, urban states the creative imagination polarized into the paranoid imagination and the predatory imagination. The first is based on irrational fear, the second on an insatiable drive for control, domination and accumulation. Both express a narcissism that objectifies and negates other perspectives. Radical individualism, secular materialism and the culture of consumerism express the predatory imagination, while fundamentalism is the primary voice of the paranoid imagination.
Since the very beginning American history has been caught between the grim, paranoid nightmares of the Puritans and the greedy fantasies of the predatory opportunists. Both shared a restless zeal, what psychologist Joel Kovel calls “…that singular transformation of body into spirit and spirit into action that is the hallmark of our civilization.”
The paranoid imagination combines eternal vigilance, constant anxiety, obsessive voyeurism, creative sadism, contempt for the erotic and an impenetrable wall of innocence. Its practitioners put a fundamental – and fundamentalist – stamp on American consciousness: human nature was utterly corrupt, and the only escape was through grace. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination declared that from the beginning of time all persons had been either condemned or saved.
Never certain of salvation, however, early American Puritans experienced constant anxiety. They were at war with the self yet unable to escape it. Their only respite from the weight of original sin was to project their guilt onto others. So they defined loss of self-control as the basis for all sins, and their answer to the perceived disorder in the world was unrelenting discipline. Christianity’s hatred of the body (and the rage it engendered) reached its extreme in Puritanism. Unlike Catholics, who had assurance of salvation through works and prayer, Puritans loathed sensuality. They mistrusted (and – this is crucial – envied) those who didn’t “crucify their lusts.”
And they displayed another aspect of the Paranoid Imagination: the fear and hatred of images. Propriety and cleanliness were external indications of a clean soul, and bodily needs continually reminded them of their original, corrupt nature. Since they experienced constant fear – and fantasies – of pollution, they rigidly enforced moral standards. Calvinism’s “most urgent task,” wrote sociologist Max Weber, was “the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment.”
From the start, New England Puritanism attempted to regulate the internal fantasies of all members of the community. But the more images are controlled, the more we are obsessed with them and the more they demand recognition (“to think about again”).
So it should be no surprise that one of the shadow aspects of puritanism has always been the obsession with those same images. The paranoid imagination seeks itself: it constantly projects its fantasies outward onto the Other and then proceeds to demonize it. It is not simply desire, but detailed images of desire, that they project upon the Other.
“Puritanical” prudishness set the tone for a reserved, middle-class decorum that still endures, leading to H.L. Mencken’s sarcastic definition of Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Certainly, religious puritans exist everywhere and in all cultures. But what made America’s attitude toward sensual enjoyment truly exceptional was the clash of the paranoid imagination with – and its ultimate merger with – the predatory imagination. The Protestant Ethic of unending labor grew strongest in Northern Europe and America where men were most at war with the flesh. America became and remains the nation that most exemplifies the worst excesses of unregulated capitalism. And at the same time, we became and remain the most religious of all industrialized nations.
Just as American Protestants were condemning the body and its lusts, they were also embodying the most radical form of individualism the world has ever seen. Even as they hated those “Others” upon whom they had projected the inability to control themselves, they were working out the details of a mythology that still speaks of unlimited opportunity and freedom, including the freedom to ignore centralized authority and all restrictions on personal behavior.
This is crazy-making. Stop for a second and consider that Americans value freedom of choice above all, while often hating those who appear to be making choices that we disapprove of. Often that hatred is based in envy.
As generations passed and the strictly religious fervor dissipated, the competitive quest for efficiency, productivity, wealth and the self-validation they symbolized became established as our most fundamental values. This “American Dream” is so durable because, like no other myth, it promises fulfillment both in this world and the next: suppress lust, work hard, get rich, die, go to Heaven.
The obsession with self-improvement (as evidenced by material wealth) soon became the most recognizable aspect of American national character. By the 1830s the Frenchman Alexis De Toqueville wrote, “I know of no country…where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men.” Another visitor, the Englishman Charles Latrobe, claimed that, “…dollar is the word most frequently in their mouths.”
Capitalism’s relentless logic eventually transformed a religious, if flawed, impulse into the drive for conspicuous consumption. Over three centuries, Americans gradually shifted from being primarily producers to being primarily consumers. They began by enshrining gain without pleasure and ended with addiction to “stuff.” And the con men of advertising were there every step of the way to assist the process.
Long before, civilization had invented artificial scarcity by restricting the availability of something that theoretically isn’t scarce – sexual gratification. Although most societies do this to some extent, capitalism takes it further. Advertising attaches sexual interest to inaccessible, nonexistent or irrelevant objects and motivates people to work endlessly for rewards that may never come. Throughout the 20th century, the American genius of marketing has been to associate images of the unattainable female body with consumer products. Crazy-making. Phillip Slater writes,
…there is no way to gratify a desire with a symbol… an emotional long shot that will never pay off. They will work their lives away to achieve a love that is unattainable.
But well into the 21st century, many Americans remain stuck. We are proud consumers, yet a strong, ineradicable feeling of guilt lies just below and constantly undermines that sense of being entitled to pursue happiness. We “lust” for its symbols even as some part of us insists that we are falling back into sin and perdition. The proof of this condition is the fact that we joke about it so much. I call this “consumer porn,” and it is embodied in words like “sacrilicious.”
Part Two of this essay will investigate the meaning(s) of this word and others like it. Think “sinfully delicious.”