To really understand our stubborn attachment to the myth of American Innocence, we must become familiar with our heritage of the paranoid imagination. It combines eternal vigilance, literalistic religion and constant anxiety with contempt for the erotic and a highly creative style of sadism. Why these last two features? Because what we will not allow ourselves to desire becomes a vector of judgment, fear and hatred of those whom we perceive as being willing to enact those desires. This results in obsessive voyeurism, as I write here. American life, politics and culture reveal an endless litany of fascination with the so-called violent and sexually unrestrained behavior of “the Other.” I describe the paranoid imagination in much greater detail in Chapter Seven of my book, Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence.
It may be that every curse has a corresponding blessing. Below our fear and contempt for the Other lies envy, and even deeper below is the universal drive to achieve authentic psychological integration. This is both the great longing and the worst terror of those millions of white Americans who still carry the formidable burden of our Puritan heritage.
To cover up their unacceptable fantasies – to condemn them, mythologically speaking, to the underworld – those white people who still prefer to see themselves as Apollonian, cultured, hardworking, peaceful, rational and progressive (not to mention innocent) are likely to project those desires onto people of color across the world, whom they still see as primitive, Dionysian, dangerously irrational and (this is the core of the projection) unable or unwilling to restrain their impulses.
Another fundamental aspect of American Innocence is the myth of progress (which I address in Chapter Nine). We believe that we must keep moving upwards and onwards, or risk re-gressing. Hence the appeal of periodically – if safely – trans-gressing conventional moral and behavioral standards. We see this theme in the common film trope (think Marx Brothers) of sticking it to our stuffed-up social superiors. This is clearly one of the attractions, by the way, of Trump rallies.
But the terrible personal and cultural strain of repressing one’s emotions and fantasies for an entire lifetime always threatens to burst out past our internal censors into consciousness and wreck havoc with our convention hopes and dreams. This is one reason why many traditional societies have institutionalized occasional periods of carnival, so as to literally blow off the excess steam before it causes an explosive “return of the repressed.” Chapter Ten goes into greater detail.
As I wrote here, for at least 250 years in New Orleans (one of the very few American cities, along with Santa Fe and San Francisco, that was originally settled by Catholics), Mardi Gras has served this function for an America whose 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 achieves even temporary satisfaction, except through fundamentalist religion – and vicarious violence.
This longing for intensity drives gambling fever, which is also an alternative expression of the drive to achieve salvation by attaining wealth. In this case, the Opportunist’s greed trumps the Puritan’s 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. But the Puritan heritage remains robust among Trump’s most reliable supporters, those who insist on a strictly literal interpretation of a two-thousand-year old myth from the Middle East.
Many of those people are quite desperate for an escape, if only brief, from their constricted lifestyles. In the last sixty 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 and moralities to safely enact the shadow of Puritanism. This has been described as a “vacation in chaos.” So a week in Las Vegas, America’s fastest growing city, has taken 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” – overeating, sleeping till noon, watching light-porn stage shows, whoring and throwing money away. How often do we hear a recent returnee bragging not about how much he won at the tables, but how much he lost?
The entire city is a shrine to the goddess of luck, Fortuna, and the god of intensity, Dionysus. Gambling corporations know this very well, and their casinos are designed to enhance the effects (total environments, constant sounds and flashing lights, no clocks, etc) of what are, in actuality, large public rituals,
or more accurately, spectacles that attempt to blur the distinction between Heaven and Hell.
Now we have, in a superficial sense, more choices. We can have our safe 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 a weekend at the Superbowl, or a memorable but confidential staff Christmas or New Year’s party. Or we can go any time of the year to Vegas.
But the vast majority of us still prefer to do it the easy way: we watch other people getting out of control on our electronic devices, and allow the fantasies to parade – briefly, safely and respectfully – across our minds, while we simultaneously condemn those who seem to be acting them out. I address this “vicarious intensity,” one of the ways that we unconsciously invite Dionysus into our lives, in Chapter Ten.
We think we can have it both ways, but in doing so, we have neither.
Part Two of this essay is here.