There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will ACT like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now. – Daniel Quinn, “Ishmael”
Earlier, I mentioned two events that seemed very significant to me. The first was the news of Roberto Calasso’s death, which provoked this essay. The second occurred only four days later, in Auckland, New Zealand.
Chapter Twelve of my book considers how we can rebuild the mesocosm through a return to authentic ritual, and I’ll try not to be too redundant.
Imagine that we are called to remember things we have never personally known, to remember what the land itself knows, that which has been concealed from us by our own mythologies. The challenge is to remember who we are, and how our ancestors remembered, through art and ritual. Their most profound myths arose in the inconceivably distant past, as the communal dreams of their cultures, directly out of the lands they inhabited. Except for the indigenous people, Americans don’t have that luxury. But we have to start, even if it means risking cultural appropriation.
Our task is unique: inviting something new, yet familiar, to re-enter the soul of the world. We can do this invocation in two ways. The first is to restore memory and imagination. We can replicate the original process of mythmaking and dreaming – by telling as many alternative stories, as often as possible, for as long as necessary, until they coalesce into the world’s story.
The second thing is to engage in the rituals and do the arts that bypass the predatory and paranoid imaginations and stimulate the creativity that makes new myths. Can we imagine a society like Bali – where from childhood everyone practices dance, music, painting or sculpture so universally that they have no word for “art?” We need to use sacred language, in the subjunctive mode: let’s pretend, perhaps, suppose, maybe, make believe, may it be so, what if – and play. The imagination, engaged by the restoration of memory, moves toward inspiration, where new life comes not from us but through us.
In the tribal world, art (as ritual) serves as a mesocosm, enacted by true “gatekeepers” who work to balance the worlds of the human community and the unseen. The same thing can happen among modern people. Healing comes through memory, both in purging grief and guilt and in creatively re-framing one’s story – what Hillman called “healing fictions.”
Mythology tells of art’s ancient connection to memory: it was Memory herself, Mnemosyne, who mated with Zeus and birthed the Muses.
Perhaps all art, as Plato said, is remembering something that already exists. Artful reconnection to memory reverses the work of Kronos, the god who ate his children, countering Time’s linear progress with the cyclic imagination of Memory, who knows both past and future. Myth, which provides the basic pattern, connects to story or memoir, which provides the details. Jung said that myth offers us two gifts: a story to live by, and the opportunity to disengage from outmoded patterns and thus re-engage in a different way with the archetypal energies from which our stories arise.
Ultimately, both individuals and cultures heal by re-membering what we came here to do. What has been dismembered gets put back together. The Stranger becomes the Guest, and his darkness becomes our blessing. It is said that Memory’s daughters, the Muses, collected the scattered limbs of dismembered bodies; it was they – art – who reassemble what the madness of the world rips apart.
Americans have always participated in all kinds of rituals – generally quite unconsciously. These include: rituals that confirm our status as gendered adults; rituals that exclude the Other from the polis; and rituals that reaffirm our competitive values, our consumer appetites and the means by which we appear to select our leaders. Most importantly, we participate in rituals that seal our complicity in the great secret – that we periodically need to sacrifice large numbers of our own children so that a system that satisfies fewer and fewer of us may survive. But now we can no longer afford the luxury of unconsciously colluding in our own innocence. We must choose to deliberately involve ourselves in the sacred technologies that indigenous people still offer us.
Participation in the evolving forms of ritual will facilitate emergence of the new myths. The purpose of authentic ritual is to re-establish balance, clarify intention and recover the memory in our bones. The old knowledge has never completely left us, but the spirits need to know that we are “interested” once again. Engaging in radical ritual with the intention of aligning one’s purpose with spirit is to conjure (“with the law”), or to invoke aid from the other world. This invites us into unpredictable, chaotic, creative space, into communitas. Here is where new images, insights and metaphors are born, just as adults are born in initiation.
To some extent, this happened in the 1960s, when millions of people used psychedelics precisely because they found conventional religion irrelevant. The drug/music scene was (generally) non-violent, non-hierarchical, inclusive, communal, mystical and playful. But the experience dissipated, partially because the youth movement was age-specific and not a true community. Although the times themselves remained chaotic, most participants moved on to more stable, conventional identities, even though (or perhaps because) their initiations were incomplete. “The sixties,” writes Camille Paglia, “never completed its search for new structures of social affiliation…‘do your own thing’ encouraged individualism but produced fragmentation.”
But the forms – the group ecstasy of rock music, the environmental, gay and feminist movements, the image of the Whole Earth, and the revival of Goddess-oriented paganism – remain. In addition to the thousands of practicing Buddhists in America, there are now considerable populations of neo-pagans in all urban areas, especially New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans, where large influxes of immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia have brought their own polytheistic forms. By one estimate, the wider population of “cultural creatives” in Europe and America has grown to a quarter of the population.
But we need something more than small-group spiritual exercises or ecstatic festivals, necessary as they are. Ultimately, the collapse of our modern sense of meaning will require large-scale rituals of atonement and reconciliation.