Anything dead coming back to life hurts. – Toni Morrison
Breakdown is breakthrough. – Marshal McLuhan
The visionary is the only true realist. – Federico Fellini
Remember, and failing that, invent. – Monique Wittig
Our task is to do more than simply deconstruct outmoded belief systems. They hold us not merely because of generations of indoctrination, but because of their mythic content. They grab us, as all myths do, because they refer to profound truths at the core of things. If those truths have been corrupted to serve a culture of death, they still remain truths, and they remain accessible through the creative imagination.
We cannot simply drop myths by virtue of realizing that they are myths; perhaps we must go further into them. The methods for doing so are ritual, art and seeing through – de-literalizing – the predatory and paranoid imaginations back to their source in the creative imagination. It may mean telling the same stories but reframing them until we discover their essence. In Native American terms, we will need to search for our original medicine.
Americans have some advantages in our worship of change and our characteristic assumption that newer is better. Our fascination with the new masks our anxiety about the present, our grief at how diminished our lives have become and our fear of being erased in a demythologized future. But it also awakens the archetypal drive to slough off old skin and be reborn into a deeper (not higher) identity. We can cook down the cliché, “We want a better future for our children” to: “We want to be remembered as ancestors by those who come after us.” We can use this fascination with change to escape the myth of progress. As ceremonies of the status quo evolve into authentic ritual, change can become transformation.
New myths are attempting to manifest. The other world is offering help, but indigenous wisdom insists upon our full participation. As Caroline Casey says, ritual etiquette requires that we ask for help – “Cooperators are standing by!” We will develop that capacity as we build our willingness to imagine. This is why the renewal of the oral tradition is so important; poetry enables us to go beyond the literal and think metaphorically.
Re-imagining America’s Purpose
So myths, even deceitful political myths, stick with us for good reason. They grab us because their potency rests on a core of truth. America provides a unique challenge in the study of myth because, except for Native stories, none of our myths arise from this ground, nor do they offer us a path to the archetypal soul. Still, they have no less a hold on us because they are only ten or fifteen generations old. Understanding their contradictions will not make them go away. But if we assume the existence of telos – purpose – we must imagine that even the myths of American innocence and violent redemption can lead us to the universal archetypes. If we can hold the tension of these opposites (the myths and the realities) perhaps we can begin to re-articulate meaning in a world that is descending alternately into chaos and fascism. If we cannot disengage from our myths, then we need to look deeper into them.
To speculate on the deeper meaning of our civil religion is to risk falling into a morass of cliché. For 400 years, apologists, from evangelists and penny novelists to Radio Free Europe, Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, have presented an America divinely ordained to defend freedom (read as: military coups), nurture democracy (repress self-determination), spread prosperity (steal resources) and inspire opportunity (enforce racial oppression). The purpose of this mythic language, however, is to tug at our emotions, and it remains surprisingly effective. Even when we know better, we want America to be what it claims to be – we want to believe – or disappointed, we go to the other extreme, give in to cynicism and disengage from public involvement. Indeed, cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy; as fewer vote, the rest are more easily manipulated.
But – stay with me for a moment – what if America really was born so that freedom could spread everywhere? What if our uniquely good fortune has been the container for a story that has not yet been told? As James Hillman would have asked, what does the symptom want from us? What if the lies of four centuries have been waiting for us to transform them into truths?
Our American cosmogony begins, as all do, with the original “deities” (the Pilgrims and, eventually the founding fathers) who created a world out of “nothing.” If we take a radical perspective, we acknowledge that from the start, their new world functioned to concentrate and perpetuate wealth through any means, including genocide. American history becomes a series of conquests, painful expansions of freedom and counter-measures to protect privilege, culminating in today’s bleak realities. The rich vs. the poor, or the predatory and paranoid imaginations vs. the return of the repressed.
Alternatively, we can take a philosophical approach. Jacob Needleman insists that the founding fathers were spiritual men, adherents of a timeless wisdom, who created a system to “allow men and women to seek their own higher principles within themselves.” The nation was formed of unique ideals and potentials, not from ethnicity; and this explains its universal appeal, even if those ideals have been perverted into their opposites by men far less mature than those founding fathers. The American Dream vs. the nightmare of dreams deferred.
Or we can muse poetically about what is approaching, if we could only recognize its song. Time/Kronos vs. Memory/Mnemosyne. From this perspective, we could read our history as a baffling, painful, contraction- and contradiction-filled birth passage in which the literal has always hinted at the symbolic. Or, as I wrote in Chapter Seven of my book: We must understand their genocidal projections on another level entirely, as a blundering and childish search for healing through re-connection to the Other. This process has occurred specifically through the influence of African-American music. Stephen Diggs has called it “America’s Alchemical history.” Also see Michael Ventura’s great essay, Hear That Long Snake Moan.
If America remembered its song as This Land Is Your Land rather than through “bombs bursting in air,” perhaps we would understand freedom as willing submission to the soul’s purpose. Woody Guthrie vs Francis Scott Key. Perhaps we would understand liberty as the social conditions that allow that inner, spiritual listening to happen. Acceptance of diversity and multiculturalism might reflect back to us the vast spaces of the polytheistic soul, and conflict would be about holding the tension of the opposites to create a third thing, something entirely new. We might remember that the purpose of “self-improvement” is service to the communal good, and that individualism points us toward our unique individuality. May it be so.
Remembering its true song, America would remember its body – Mother Earth – and this would mean the end of both Puritanism and its predatory shadow, those twin beasts that have ravaged the bodies of actual women. Connecting in this sacred manner to the land would naturally lead to rituals of atonement for the way we have treated her, and to a revival of the festivals that celebrate the decline of the old and birth of the new. New Year’s Day could become a national day of atonement – a Yom Kippur – to acknowledge our transgressions and our willingness to start anew. On Independence Day (now Interdependence Day), we would reaffirm that such a start requires the support of the larger community of spirits and ancestors.
Remembering America’s song would allow us to overcome our shameful and brutal contempt for our own children and to see them for who they are, rather than as projection screens for adult fantasies of innocence or retribution. Our national narratives with their deadly subtexts of child sacrifice would become stories of initiation, renewal and reunion with the Other. Then, unlike Pentheus (“Man of suffering”) in The Bacchae, America would have no need to taunt the immense force of repressed otherness by bellowing, as did George W. Bush, “Bring it on!”
And now the Other, in all its colors and genders, will have emerged from the darkness and responded, asking us to join the rest of humanity as a “nation of suffering.” If we saw ourselves in this light – not the direct sunshine of innocence, but the dim glow of an old campfire – we would understand our addiction to violence as a projection of that initiatory death (that we secretly desire) onto the world, and onto our children. We would withdraw those projections, putting them back where they belong, into the ritual containers of the community and the self. There we would meet the Stranger who has been inviting white America to dance; and we would know him as our self. This would open our imagination further; we would define ourselves in terms of what we are and not by what we aren’t.
It would be obvious that democracy is meaningless when restricted to a small elite who force scapegoats to suffer. Shared suffering is the great gift otherness offers us. We would realize that if we suffered together in a ritual container, democracy would invite a higher (in Christian terms, the Holy Spirit) or deeper (in pagan terms, the spirit of the land) intelligence that could resolve conflict. We would realize that an appropriate metaphor has already arisen out of this land: the spirit of Jazz improvisation. Here is what Wynton Marsalis told Ken Burns in the TV series Jazz:
… to play Jazz, you’ve got to listen (to each other). The music forces you at all times to address what other people are thinking, and for you to interact with them with empathy …it gives us a glimpse into what America is going to be when it becomes itself.
Comfortable with nuance, complexity and the vast gradations between black and white, we would realize that we had already dropped our fascination with evil. As in the Aramaic language, we would view destructive behavior as unripe, as a cry for help, and we would know compassion.
Finally, as an initiated nation, we could cook “innocence” down to its essence. Our own light would no longer blind us. We would drop our grandiosity and arrogance. We would no longer wonder, “Why do they hate us so?” Innocence would signify the most basic of all mythic ideas: the new start. Then America could offer the song that the world has always seen in us: not that of a consumer paradise, a destructive adolescent or a wrathful father, but of the ancient story about what makes us human, the rare and lucky opportunity to accomplish what we came here to do. The new start.
The new has been starting for some time already. In 2004, even as America was laying waste to Iraq and Afghanistan, the National Museum of the American Indian
opened on Washington’s National Mall. Richard West, its first Director, proclaimed at its dedication ceremony, “Welcome to Native America!…The Great Mystery…walks beside your work and touches all the good you attempt.”
Ultimately, we heal ourselves and the culture by re-membering what we came here to do. This is how we dream new myths, one person at a time. The old knowledge has never completely left us. The spirits could meet us halfway, but they need to know that we’re willing to work with them. Indeed, the point may not be the content of the new stories, but how we arrive at them. There is a great hunger, and a great opportunity. Long ago, the Persian poet Hafiz wrote:
The great religions are ships; poets are the lifeboats.
Every sane person I know has jumped overboard.
This is good for business, isn’t it, Hafiz?
Dionysus invites us to drop our outdated identities, emerge from the initiatory fires, announce our purpose and dance our way home, welcomed by people who have never forgotten our song. It’s a hell of a story. As Rumi says, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”