When their idealism collapsed, so did their lives. Finally realizing that the C.I.A. was intent only on destroying all he had believed in, Frank resigned – and quickly drank himself to death. Similarly, after Stalin’s crimes came to light, Al, whose own idealism had kept him from acknowledging what had been obvious for years, experienced a similar loss of innocence. He quit the party, but he struggled for the rest of his life with a cocaine habit.
These are deeply mythic issues that point back to the betrayal on the cross at Calvary and even further back, to what I consider Western culture’s foundational myth, the willingness of Father Abraham to sacrifice his son in order to glorify his God.
But Frank, Al, Ron and Danny are real people; only their names have been changed. Still, their stories are real mysteries. It appears that one son took on his father’s curse and the other didn’t. Ron became a clinical psychologist, taught at Stanford and raised a family, while Danny became a talented but emotionally troubled poet. The two men never met but they were undoubtedly present together at many of the iconic events of the 1960s and 1970s. Danny, however, like his father, descended into drug addiction. In later years he was a well-known participant in San Francisco’s poetry scene, before dying of an overdose. He is still highly regarded among the post-Beat poetry generation. Ron has spent most of his career working in veterans’ hospitals, serving survivors of America’s tragic crusade in Viet Nam.
I relate these stories because they illustrate some of the themes of my book. Our cultural evolution has primed us to come to awareness of our identity through two forms of experience. The first is the gradual process of learning the stories that tell us who we are. The second is abrupt breaks in that self-knowledge. Those breaks can be accidental; or older representatives of culture may deliberately create them in order to propel the initiates into new identities, to challenge them to step up and accept more mature rolls in the community. The first form of experience we used to call myth, and the second we called initiation ritual. For much more on this topic, see Chapter Five of my book.
Modern life, however, is characterized by the absence of both of these traditional patterns. Consequently, whether we know it or not, we all exist close to a line beyond which is the terrifying suspicion that we have no solid identity, that anything goes, while life lacks all meaning. As a result, much of what we do and believe and tell each other about ourselves amounts to unconscious efforts to cling to a sense of meaning, thin though it may be.
Modernity compensates for its loss of myth and initiation rituals with consumerism and the culture of celebrity, as well as through deep, emotional commitment to an ideology, whether it is religious, nationalistic or political – and finally, through substance abuse. Thus, when Frank and Al lost their faiths and couldn’t find other ones to replace them with, they each searched for it in substances that may have temporarily recreated the joy of singing some identity-confirming anthem among their brothers-in-arms.
My book argues that these are all forms of addiction, as well as attempts to re-establish our sense of innocence, and that the crusading impulse toward re-making the world is a specifically American version, formed by our Puritan heritage. But, as Hillman taught, when that innocence (or if you prefer, grandiosity) is punctured, a cavernous well of meaninglessness may open up.
In a mythologically literate culture, where real elders are capable of guiding one through the suffering of authentic initiation, a young person’s experience of the loss of innocence can be – is intended to be – an opportunity for deepening into the sorrowful knowledge of maturity. Few modern people, however, can endure that disillusionment without succumbing to the overwhelming impulse to replace one addiction (ideology) with another (a substance). After all, it is no accident that our word for strong alcohol is spirits (“inspiration; breath of life”).
Tribal people knew that the only way the world can be re-made is when individuals are willing to experience loss (even the loss of identity), to look into the abyss and to return to their communities with a deeper sense of their own gifts, with the dark knowledge of both their own wounds and their unique blessings. But this requires real community and real ritual.
Perhaps there may be no loss of innocence – personal or national – and no deepening into maturity without the experience of some form of betrayal. In Chapter Twelve I write:
Now, all creative acts have political implications. Poet Dianne Di Prima writes, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” Another poet, Frances Ponge, says that genuine hope lies in “…a poetry through which the world so invades the spirit of man that he becomes almost speechless and later reinvents a language.” We are required to collapse so deeply into the mournful realization of how much we have lost that we become speechless. Only from that position can new forms of art and language arise that might break the spell of our amnesia. Then it is possible for us to speak and act without being throttled by belief systems riddled with unconscious forms of violence…
Like the Hindu deities, the actors in the new myths…will ask not for belief, but to be entertained…The world would still be a “vale of soul-making,” as Keats wrote, but we would no longer believe that is fallen. Indeed, we wouldn’t believe anything, in the religious sense of something being unalterably true…Imagine millions of Americans no longer needing to interpret Biblical poetry as literal fact. “Belief” would return to its German roots where it is connected to love and cherish, something closer to “entertaining possibilities.” Christ himself could join those suffering gods who preceded him. Without the model of and belief in a god who sacrifices himself to redeem others, we would begin to redeem ourselves.
Neither Frank Adams nor Al Zelig grew up in such a world. Neither one could have known, as Rumi wrote in the 13th century:
When school or mosque, tower or minaret get torn down,
Then dervishes can begin their community.
For it is not until faithfulness turns to betrayal
And betrayal into trust
That any human being can become a part of the truth.