Barry’s Blog # 242: The Mythic Sources of White Rage, Part Seven of Seven

We can risk psychoanalyzing the mega-wealthy. Why not? After all, they know far more about us than we do of them. Why not return the favor, but adding a mythological perspective?

I think that on one level they really do hate themselves deeply. On another, they desperately, and rightly, desire a profound, inner renewal. And on still another level they are completely constrained by their literal thinking, their inability to think symbolically. They appear to believe that their only option is to maximize their power and privilege to call down the death of the small self upon the entire world. It could be different.

And the angry heroes who serve them? How can we re-imagine a world in which their anger is directed not at the easy targets that the right-wing presents to them, but toward the actual threats to a harmonious and sustainable future? How might we encourage the revival of the true archetype of the Warrior? Chapter Twelve of my book discusses “rituals of conflict:”

What if conflict itself had a completely different function from defending against, converting or eliminating the Other? Tribal people once believed that it existed to bring people together. We see vestiges of this in the Gaelic language. One cannot say, “I am angry at you,” but only, “There is anger between us.” This wisdom is present in the word competition (communally petitioning the gods). Engagement can refer either to martial or to marital affairs. Animosity, with its connections to animal, animate, animation and anima, derives from the Latin for “breath of life.” If we follow animosity to its archetypal source, we find the one breath we all share.

Greek myth provides a surprising image in the war god, Ares. Homer calls him “killer of men,” and he is “most hateful” To Zeus. But the Greeks saw him as an immortal god; so to us he is an image of the divine, and thus of the psyche. .

S9.3Ares

Ares

This tells us first that Greek culture understood that martial values are fundamentally human, not to be demonized and certainly not to be ignored. Second, consider what it implies that Ares was taught to dance before he was taught the arts of war.

Third, he was Aphrodite’s lover. This most masculine god and this most feminine goddess birthed a daughter known as Harmonia (Harmony). So in pagan thinking the war god had a “harmonious” relationship with the feminine that balanced his destructiveness. There is sublime beauty in war, wrote Hillman, and there is conflict in love. Harmonia is the product of the Warrior in a balanced relationship with its complementary archetype, the Lover. Love and war beget harmony, as Psyche and Eros beget their daughter Voluptos, or voluptuousness.

Soldiers entering battle invoked Ares, asking for strength and courage. But they also called upon him to prevent unavoidable conflict from degenerating into uncontrollable violence, as in this 7th-century B.C.E. hymn:

Hear me, helper of mankind, dispenser of youth’s sweet courage, beam down…your gentle light on our lives…diminish that deceptive rush of my spirit, and restrain that shrill voice in my heart that provokes me to enter the chilling din of battle…let me linger in the safe laws of peace…

This poetry invites us to imagine a consciousness that loves conflict as a form of relationship, seeking restoration of harmony rather than domination. “Who would have imagined,” wrote Hillman, “that restraint is what Ares offers?”

An initiated warrior exhausts non-violent forms of persuasion (the realms of Athena and Hermes) before resorting to the most minimal level of violence. This is standard hero ideology, of course (the American Hero never strikes the first blow).

But here is the difference: the archetypal warrior sees violence as the failure of symbolic conflict. If he is forced into combat, he goes sadly. If he survives and returns, he grieves for all the dead, not just his compatriots, because he knows that his enemy was a part of himself. Even so, he may require deep and protracted immersion in the feminine waters of atonement before returning to normal life.

In “primitive societies” when violence ended, much ritual activity was intended to expiate guilt, including various kinds of ritual penance after killing. Often the returning warrior was considered sacredly polluted and had to undergo additional purification rituals. A Pima warrior withdrew from battle the moment he killed his opponent to begin his rites of purification. Any Papago man who had killed an enemy underwent a difficult, sixteen-day ordeal of purification before being readmitted to society.

Mythic Irish warriors had to be purified of their battle frenzy. After a great battle Cuchulain was still red-hot with war fury and remained extremely dangerous to his own people. The women solved the crisis by marching out naked to greet him. When the sight momentarily stunned him, men grabbed him and plunged him into a vat of icy water. His heat caused it – and a second vat – to evaporate and explode into steam. Only on the third dunking did he cool down enough; the city was saved.

The archetypal warrior stands vigilant, aware of his own dark potential and watching for external danger. In serving the Divine King of the psyche, he is charged with protecting boundaries. This doesn’t imply rigid armoring. He determines which outside elements to welcome and which are dangerous.

An example from biology is the immune system. The skin and lining of the small intestine are semi-permeable membranes that know what to allow inside (such as air and nutrients) and what to keep out (including microbes and toxins). When intruders cross the boundaries, certain white blood cells sound the alarm, others neutralize the invaders and still others curtail the immune response when the danger is over. Then the body creates anti-bodies to remember – memorialize (!) – the event and protect against future ones. The system discriminates between the two aspects of the Greek word xenos – stranger and guest. Similarly, in Irish myth the Fianna warriors  guarded the borders of the realm and asked all strangers: “Would you like a poem or a sword?”

Ares loves conflict, but he is first and foremost a protector. And remember, he comes from the Pagan world, not the Judeo-Christian tradition of the renunciate warrior-monk. He retains his amorous relationship to Aphrodite

ares-disarmed

Ares and Aphrodite

and has many consorts and children. He is comfortable in relationship. Unlike the American redemption hero, he does not leave the feminine community.

But Christianity, despite its historic dynamism and centuries of belligerence, cast him out. Like Dionysus, Ares found expression only in images of the Other. War was – and remains – always the fault of the Other. In this polarized world, when every conflicting party has “god on our side,” then every enemy is irrevocably tarred with the mark of the Beast and deserves nothing more than complete annihilation.

So from the pagan perspective, just as Aphrodite’s exile leads to pornography,  the absence of the war god causes literal violence that might otherwise be expressed symbolically.

Why, in the most competitive society in history, do “proper,” middle-class people avoid actual confrontation, restricting it to spectator sports? Perhaps we intuitively know that normal social interactions cannot contain conflict and prevent it from turning into literal violence; it simply isn’t safe. Our myth of redemption through violence polarizes us into one of the two most easily assumed stances: the path of denial and/or retreat, or the path of extermination. We inevitably resort to either fight or flight. And if we choose the former, we reflexively evoke our long heritage of total warfare, as we evolved it on the frontier. 

Indigenous people understood that ritual provides a third alternative: staying in relationship without being violent. It requires, however, that participants acknowledge the reality of the Other. Traditional West African Dagara married couples engage in conflict rituals every five days. Certain that there will be no physical violence, each person simultaneously vents all accumulated emotions. If necessary, the entire village witnesses and affirms this ritual. Long experience has shown them that conflict causes damage to the entire community if it is removed from a bounded ritual container and brought out into the profane openness of daily life.

A second example is the kecak dance performances of Bali that convert aggression into art. The entire male population of a village (including boys) may enact battle scenes from the Hindu epics, with neither physical harm nor easy resolution of light over dark.

Kecak dance

Another is the bertsolariak, the Basque poetry competitions, in which each participant improvises in accordance with a given meter, taking his cue from his rival’s poem.

Urban African-American culture abounds in the ritualized conversion of aggression into creativity. Examples include break dancing, poetry slams and “the dozens,” verbal jousting in which antagonists poetically insult each other’s mothers. Mythologist Lewis Hyde writes that the loser is “the player who breaks the form and starts a physical fight…who chooses a single side of the contradiction” between attachment and non-attachment to mother. To become a winner at this game (and remain non-violent), one learns to artfully hold the tension of the opposites.

Aphrodite’s sensual fury, said Hillman, is hardly different from that of Ares. In their union of sames rather than of opposites, passionate aesthetic engagement can restrain violence. Long-term discipline of an art – any art – tames hasty emotional expression and the urge for vengeance, but not its passion. Violence is beyond reason; what counters it must be equally unreasonable. “Imagine a civilization,” mused Hillman, “whose first line of defense is each citizen’s aesthetic investment in some cultural form.” You can see many essays on reciting poetry here.

For a profoundly moving experience of this possibility, I recommend the penultimate scene in the recent film Blindspotting, when an aggrieved African-American man, having the opportunity to shoot a killer cop, chooses instead to improvise poetry, thereby establishing his aesthetic and moral superiority.

Mythopoetic men’s conferences have evolved effective conflict rituals that allow men to engage with each other on subjects as frightening as race and sex without either leaving or getting violent. In this context, safety means feeling secure enough within the ritual container to take risks. If men remain in this heat of confrontation long enough, they may get past anger to the underlying grief, to suffer together and to cleanse their souls.

Suffering together: Joshua Chamberlain was a general in the Union Army who recorded the awesome spectacle of Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9th, 1865:

Before us in proud humiliation stood…men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve…thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond…On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer…but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!…How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!

Now, as then, we are at the end of an age. The difference, however, may be that the cracks in the myth of American innocence will prove to be too large to re-seal. The same is true for cracks in the veneer of white, masculine identity. When the dams break, there will be much grief. Hopefully, if there are enough of us to contain it, we’ll say, like George Bush, “Bring it on!”

The same principle holds for both individuals and large groups. Tragic Drama could be the model for future conflict rituals, which might enact our greatest moral conflicts before the citizens and challenge them to hold the tension of the opposites without succumbing to the temptation of quick resolution. Such rituals could lead to a long-term reframing of the meaning of the hero/warrior. We might learn to value this archetype’s protective and healing capacity, including the power of non-violence. Questioning the myth of violent redemption would lead to considering that initiated masculinity has a great variety of expressions. Women might acknowledge that patriarchy is caused not by men but by the lack of initiated men. The roles of the military and the police could shift from controlling the Other to – artfully – protecting the borders of the realm. The entire military could become the Coast Guard, real Homeland Security.

Pentheus, no longer fearing his dark mirror-opposite, no longer needing to vent his self-hatred and his grief for never having been initiated, might just invite Dionysus into the city for a competition of dance and poetry, fueled by the deep wine of the Soul.

We conclude by returning to the question of the Apocalypse, so ardently desired by fundamentalist Christians, drunks, suicides and warmongers. But we recall that the word means “to lift the veil.” No one needs to die (or kill) to be reborn; one only needs to wake up, to see and to acknowledge what D. H. Lawrence saw:

…only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

There is yet another meaning to “endings.” Seen from the detached perspective of the mystic, from the inspired eye of the poet and even from the cyclic movements of our lungs, each moment expresses both birth and death, each of which is an essential aspect of life…breathe out the end of time, breathe in rebirth. Start again, continue. As Victory Lee Schouten writes: Waking up groggy is still waking up.

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