Barry’s Blog # 408 — Old White Men: Historians as the Gatekeepers of American Myth, Part Eight of Eight

Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them. – Albert Einstein

The visionary is the only true realist. – Federico Fellini

Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. – W.B. Yeats

In remembrance is the beginning of redemption. – The Baal Shem Tov

Poetry is something more scientific and serious than history. – Aristotle

We are at the end of an age. We exist uncomfortably between those years when our historian gatekeepers provided stories about ourselves with a sense of shared meaning, and some unknown future when new stories might arise to express what we might become.

American culture raises sociopaths and psychopaths to the highest levels. As long as we prioritize stories of heroism, innocence, good intentions and exceptionalism (and still refuse to address the darker stories of white supremacy, empire, brutality and alienation below them), we will always have intellectuals who will be willing to police the boundaries of memory and acceptable thinking. Some of them will rise to become primary gatekeepers because they will enjoy manipulating other people; some for the rewards they will receive; and others because they will have been so well educated as to actually share those beliefs. This third group has always been the more persuasive. We need to imagine something better.

Those revisionists (from Beard to Zinn and beyond) who began to tell the truth about American history (from Columbus to Viet Nam and beyond) provided the first necessary step in a long process of waking up. Utah Phillips spoke about the “long memory”. Zinn wrote that it

…can liberate us when the present seems an irrevocable fact of nature. Memory can remind us of possibilities that we have forgotten, and history can suggest to us alternatives that we would never otherwise consider…the past suggests what can be, not what must be. It shows not all of what is necessary, but some of what is possible…The only way to compensate for the bullying nature of history is to behave as if we are freer than our “rational” calculations tell us we are.

So here is something for us to do: we can begin the withdrawal of allegiance from the state and its machines of war, from business and its ferocious  drive for profit, from all states…all dogmas. We can begin to suggest, and to act out, alternative ways of living with one another. It is possible…that we can be a cause of change, that coming generations will have a new history.

Now it is possible, despite all the censoring, de-platforming and marginalizing that still continues and is actually increasing, to read the texts and know the dark truth of who we actually are as a nation and how the story of welcoming the Other into the Polis continues its agonizingly slow process. 125235576_10223803330208267_1288715780457896793_n

But a second step is equally necessary.

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. Although those truths have been corrupted to serve a culture of death, they still remain truths, and they remain accessible through the creative imagination. The methods for doing so are ritual, art and seeing through – de-literalizing. It means 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.

America provides a unique challenge in the study of myth because, except for Native stories, our myths do not arise from this ground, nor do they easily invite us to the work of the 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 are willing to assume the idea 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.

Eduardo Galeano contrasted “idiot memory” – the kind of remembrances that keep us attached to our old self-images – with “lively memory,” a feisty approach to our old stories that impels us to graduate from whom we used to be. “We are the sum of our efforts to change who we are,” wrote Galeano. “Identity is no museum piece sitting stock-still in a display case.”

To speculate on the deeper meaning of our civil religion is to risk falling into a morass of cliché. For 400 years, apologists from preachers and dime novelists to Radio Free Europe and Tucker Carlson have presented an America divinely ordained to defend freedom (or: assassinations and military coups), nurture democracy (repress self-determination), spread prosperity (steal resources) and inspire opportunity (enforce oppression). But this mythic language tugs at our emotions. Even when we know better, we want America to be what it claims to be – we want to believe – or disappointed, we become cynical and disengaged.

But what if America were born so that freedom could spread everywhere some day? What if our uniquely good fortune has been the container for a story that has not yet been told? Why not look at history from the perspective of mythology, archetypal psychology and indigenous wisdom? What if we were to move from history to mystery?

My kind of history tries to seek out the mythic patterns that underlie events and ideas in areas as diverse as Psychology, Literature, Religion, Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, American Studies and Popular Culture. The writers I like proudly admit to being amateurs (Latin: amare, “to love”); we love stories. We aren’t scientists or theologians, but like Heinrich Zimmer, reckless dilettantes (“to take delight”). He writes:

The moment we abandon this dilettante attitude toward the images…to feel certain about their proper interpretation…we deprive ourselves of the quickening contact, the demonic and inspiring assault…What characterizes the dilettante is his delight in the always preliminary nature of his never-to-be-culminated understanding…We can never exhaust the depths – of that we may be certain…a cupped handful of the fresh waters of life is sweeter than a whole reservoir of dogma…

Our American cosmogony begins, as all do, with the original “deities” (the Pilgrims and then the founding fathers) who created a world out of “nothing.” Taking a radical perspective, we acknowledge that from the start, their “city on a hill” functioned to steal, concentrate and perpetuate wealth. 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 insisted that the founding fathers were 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. 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.

An unveiled look at American history reveals an enormous catalogue of injustice. As painful as it is to contemplate, knowing the truth enables us to see how the dominant myths of innocence and good intentions were constructed to serve the privileged few. But we can also use history as a springboard for imagining the story that has yet to manifest. In two profound essays, Psychologist Stephen Diggs and journalist Michael Ventura do that. Diggs (“Alchemy of the Blues”) proposes

…two histories of America: one is conscious and economic, the other unconscious and alchemical. Nowhere is this experienced more than in race. Africans were stolen into American slavery to satisfy the conscious economic desire to create wealth but also to satisfy the unconscious alchemical desire for psychological transformation…saving the Western soul from its psychotic flight from the body.

This story describes and predicts America’s slow process of transformation and descent from the Apollonian heights of the heroic, isolated ego and the abstract, distanced killing of life. It tells of America’s return to its body, to the communal experience of shared joy and suffering – through the unique forms of music created on this continent.

Michael Ventura’s  “Hear That Long Snake Moan” is indispensable to understanding this secret history of America. You can read it here. He writes:

Every true work of culture is a work of resurrection, a work of remembrance that creates the remembered moment anew and blends it with the present moment to create the possibilities of the future…(This) is the story of how the American sense of the body changed and deepened in the twentieth century – how Americans began the slow, painful process, still barely started now, of transcending the mind-body split they’d inherited from European culture.

This was the first necessary step in a process of healing that has been taking place at the deepest levels of our culture ever since, and that continues its difficult way…It is the great strength of this music that it has been able both to reveal the disease and further its healing. And the disease, again and again, whether manifesting itself as racism or an armaments race, is the Western divorce of consciousness from flesh. https___bucketeer-e05bbc84-baa3-437e-9518-adb32be77984.s3.amazonaws.com_public_images_2296a0d8-91a5-4ef6-9e75-59e07bb55b2e_474x607

The history of America is, as much as it is anything, the history of the American body as it sought to unite with its spirit, with its consciousness, to heal itself and to stand against the enormous forces that work to destroy a Westerner’s relationship to his, to her, own flesh. This music, largely unaware of itself; carried forward through the momentum of deeply rooted instinct; contradicting itself in many places; perverting its own purposes in many instances; sinking many times under the weight of its own intensity…and trivializing its own meanings at many a crucial turn – this music yet rushed and rushes through every area of this country’s life in an aural “great awakening” all its own, to quicken the body and excite the spirit, and, quite literally, to waken the dead.

That’s my kind of history.

When geometric diagrams and digits
Are no longer the keys to living things,
When people who go about singing or kissing
Know deeper things than the great scholars,
When society is returned once moreTo unimprisoned life, and to the universe,
And when light and darkness mate
Once more and make something entirely transparent,
And people see in poems and fairy tales
The true history of the world,
Then our entire twisted nature will turn
And run when a single secret word is spoken. –Novalis (Trans. Robert Bly)

This is not the age of information. This is not the age of information. Forget the news, and the radio, and the blurred screen. This is the time of loaves and fishes. People are hungry and one good word is bread for a thousand. — David Whyte

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