We need our vacations in chaos that might temporarily relieve the crushing burden of life under late capitalism.
Even now (March 2020), as authorities ask millions of us to “social distance” or “shelter in place”, a “stay-cation” in chaos may be the antidote to the pandemic of fear that sweeps over us. As always, follow the money to understand what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.”
But let’s get back to our broader theme, and to a broader and older imagination. Below our fear and contempt for the Other lies envy and the desire to achieve authentic psychological integration. Ancient cultures knew this. For much more, see Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent book, Dancing in the Streets. This is why many Greek seasonal festivals, especially those of winter solstice and early spring, were celebrations of Dionysus. He was the god who presided over the great competitions of tragic drama, as well as the Anthesteria.
The Athenians were deeply aware of the seduction of the irrational. Every February, for over a thousand years, this all-soul’s festival welcomed the spirits of the dead – and Dionysus, who brought with him the new wine – for three days of drinking, processions, insults and merry-making. But it was also a period of deep solemnity, because many knew that they couldn’t go to one extreme without invoking its opposite.
Impersonated by a priest wearing a two-faced mask, Dionysus returned from Hades on a wheeled ship crowned with vine tendrils and pulled by panthers. People masked themselves as (sometimes angry) ancestral spirits who had emerged from the wine casks and were roaming the city. “Wild laughter,” writes Walter Burkett, “is acted out against the backdrop of terror…”
In similar Egyptian, Babylonian and Roman New Year’s festivals ritual purification announced the end of one cosmic cycle and the beginning of another. Later, Christian Europe celebrated Carnival at this time, and the King and Queen still arrive on a wheeled ship. Dionysian revels are followed by the austerities of Lent, the grieving of Good Friday and Easter.
Carnival was characterized by temporary inversion of the social order and breaking of taboos. Entire communities participated as temporary equals, with little distinction between performers and audience. In the “Feast of Fools” pent-up repression exploded in mock rituals and wild excess within churches, sometimes with clergy participating. Amid the merriment, we still observe the ancient theme of welcoming the masked spirits of the dead.
The Anthesteria was all this and more. The Basilinna, wife of the religious leader, ritually copulated with Dionysus. While scholars consider this a fertility ritual that ensured good crops, she was also re-enacting the ancient hieros gamos marriage of goddess and consort, of the inner queen and king meeting in the sea – a universal symbol for the deep Self. It recalled and evoked the unity behind all dualities. Indigenous knowledge was still alive: the proximity of decomposition and fertility, of pollution and the sacred, of death and new life.
We will never know exactly what occurred, or how people interpreted it. Who the Basillina slept with, or whether they consummated literally, doesn’t matter. This does: the Other symbolically invaded the royal household and claimed her. Then the Athenians donned masks, got drunk, and ignored all the rules, with master and slave, men and women briefly exchanging roles. Next morning, however, they symbolically fed the spirits, swept through the streets and chased them away for another year.
We have here a partial record of how an advanced urban civilization acknowledges the irrational. The rich certainly hoped these rituals would minimize the eruption of energies that could topple their palaces, that because of the attention they paid to the Lord of the Darkness there might not be a catastrophic return of the repressed, in the city or in their souls.
Clearly, the deep tensions in Athenian life could only be partially resolved by such festivals as the Anthesteria. Dionysus inhabited the center of this paradox, representing the return of the repressed needs of women and slaves, return of the non-rational part of the self, and return of the ancient connection to the living unity of nature.
The Anthesteria gradually transformed into both Carnival and Holy Week. Similarly, the Romans celebrated the winter Saturnalia, which clearly influenced Christmas traditions.
Can we sophisticated, modern people even conceive of a rational culture with an annual event in which the entire population simultaneously partied to excess and grieved their dead? Mexico, perhaps – another Catholic, non-Puritan country. It is comforting to know that our ancestors understood that these liminal periods offered ideal opportunities for symbolic re-integration of repressed aspects of both person (derived etymologically from persona, or mask) and culture.
African slaves, Haitians and other Catholics brought this dark knowledge to New Orleans. Even now we can observe vestigial aspects of the old ways, including the tradition of the “Second Line.” Other aspects include the devils and ghosts (not the cute and harmless figures of Halloween) appearing everywhere as Mardi Gras masks; the processions with their large floats that recreate the ship on wheels of Dionysus; and the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians.
Those devils and ghosts once reminded us that the potential of reintegration calls forth the necessity of confronting all that we have repressed and condemned to the underworld of the unconscious. As Mahatma Gandi wrote, one of the modern world’s “seven deadly sins” was religion without sacrifice.
This is precisely what is lacking in our safe, contemporary vacations in chaos. To paraphrase the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, a culture that begins by denying death will end up denying life. Or as Michael Meade puts it, those who deny death will end up inflicting it upon others. Without an intentional approach to sacrifice, loss and grief, our vacations in chaos amount to nothing more than entertainment.
Entertain means “to hold together.” Novelist Michael Chabon suggests that this implies “…mutual support through intertwining, like a pair of trees grown together, interwoven, each sustaining and bearing up the other.” He insists that the transmission from writer to reader must involve pleasure, a notion that clearly remains suspect to all Puritans. Indeed, James Hillman taught that the mythical daughter of Psyche (Soul) and Eros is Voluptas, or Pleasure incarnate. The end of soul work is pleasure, not escape from the body.
…entertainment – as I define it, pleasure and all – remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else.
But reading is an active behavior. It requires people to create images in the mind that are suggested by the words they are reading. I’m thinking of something far more common, and far more passive.
The American middle class traditionally divides the day into eight hours of sleep, eight of work and eight of rest. Of course, it doesn’t work out quite so simply. But once we’ve returned home from work, had dinner, washed the dishes and put the kids to bed, the primary activity (or inactivity) we anticipate is entertainment, especially on weekends. Typically, this implies the experience of sitting back, snacking and being passively entertained by someone else, usually by the electronic image of someone else. It implies machines that create images and inject them directly into our minds. Certainly, we deserve to relax and restore ourselves. But why does it seem so unrewarding; and despite this, why do we constantly repeat the experience, as if something might change and our longing be fulfilled?
To go deeper, let’s go back to this idea of “holding together”. What does “together” refer to, subject or object? I see three possibilities. Two or more subjects can agree to hold one object, objective or idea in common, as people commonly do in Church, or in Trumpus rallies. Or one subject can hold two or more objects.
Finally, two or more subjects – a community – could hold mutually exclusive concepts. Jung argued that this ability to “hold the tension of the opposites” is a characteristic of someone who is comfortable with metaphor, poetry and myth. Our world of either-or thinking rarely rewards this. But our ancestors understood that communities needed ritual containers for such deep introspection and debate. Athenians had the Anthesteria, and they had tragic drama, as I explain in Chapter Three.
So I’m imagining that the original meaning of entertainment was ritual renewal of the community though shared suffering. Audiences in the Theater of Dionysus did exactly that. Yes, they sat passively while people on stage enacted their oldest – and most confounding – myths. But these stories forced them to contemplate the clash of unbearable contradictions, to hold that tension without resolving it, and ultimately to weep together. They emerged spent but renewed, purged of their anxieties for a while.
The lack of such ritual containers explains why the satisfaction of passive entertainment is so fleeting. Certainly, we hold some things together, such as hero-worship, villain-hatred, team identification or lust for the commodities constantly tempting us. But since we (in our darkened rooms) rarely encounter authentic paradox or nuance, we miss the shared grief and joy that can actually unite people. Instead of embracing the mysterious and tragic coexistence of opposites, we release the tension by watching it being resolved, either violently or comically.
Because America demands or only receives Disneyfied versions of Carnival, where Death is scrubbed away (or projected, literally, with projectiles, onto targets throughout the Third World), we remain insulated from unvarnished reality. So we force it upon those people who must live – not temporarily – within the “inner cities” of our imagination. Even before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was known as the murder capital of America. For its African American inhabitants, life there partook of the bittersweet totality of life, but it was and is no vacation.
I write extensively about rituals of grief in Chapter Twelve. The Dagara people of Burkina Faso in East Africa are particularly known for having kept alive the tradition of lengthy and cathartic funerals (which survive in a different form in New Orleans). One American I know who has spent much time in that country recalls a woman he met there. Asked why she seemed so happy, she responded, “…because I cry so often.”
In recent years we’ve seen the rise of many new types of Carnival, from Burning Man to the countless Yogafests and Bhaktifests that attract large New Age crowds every summer.
Although I haven’t attended any of these events, I’m glad to hear that Burning Man does feature an annual Temple, an all-purpose sacred space that is generally but not exclusively used for remembering the departed. (Note: As of 2019, the Burning Man organizers are honoring the requests of the local Native Americans, the North/South Paiute and Goshutes, that no human remains be brought to the playa.) But I doubt if any of the New Age events acknowledge the dark side of existence (except as something to rise above), and I’d be happy to hear from any readers who have been to them.
Sociologist Nicholas Powers suggests that there are three types of modern Carnival:
— Status Quo: Living in hierarchy – the vacation in chaos is essentially a public ritual that by carefully containing transgression within time and place actually confirms the status of its participants.
— Reactionary: Breaking the rules to re-assert old hierarchies. Think of Trumpus rallies and white supremacist events.
— Revolutionary: Such events, especially when they are spontaneous and not sanctioned by the state, have the potential of transforming and even abolishing the hierarchy.
But even if most participants in the vacation in chaos do not expect or even consciously desire any real transformation, their indigenous souls understand the potential that exists in such spaces.
Thousands come to Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival for their vacations. But some local people remember its dark roots. Here is the translation of Sergio Mendes’ popular song Samba of the Blessing:
It’s better to be happy than sad
Happiness is the best thing there is
It is like a light in the heart
But to make a samba with beauty
A bit of sadness is needed
If not the samba can’t be made
To make a samba is not like telling a joke
And who makes samba like this is worth nothing
The good samba is a kind of prayer
Because samba is the sadness that sways
And sadness is always hopeful
Of one day not being sad any more
Put a little love in the cadence
And you’ll see that in this world nobody wins
The beauty that a samba have
Because samba was born in Bahia
And if today it is white in it’s poetry
It is very black in its heart.
In 1956 Allen Ginsberg asked:
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
Someday, American culture – may it be so – will open itself up to this kind of indigenous wisdom. Until then, we have Comic Con, where “…an aspiring psychotherapist…gesturing to the crowds” told Michael Schulman:
“There are three needs that all people have: they want to be seen, they want to be heard, and they want to be valued.” That he was dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants did not dilute the insight.