Barry’s Blog # 329: Black Swans and White Vultures, Part Three of Seven

Whoever isn’t busy being born is busy dying. – Bob Dylan

In mythology, swans (which we naturally assume to be white) are linked to Aphrodite, Artemis, Apollo, Brigid and the Virgin Mary. Solar gods such as Zeus and Brahma, White Buffalo Calf woman and the Celtic deities Belanus and Lugh descend from Heaven disguised as swans. Saraswati rides a swan. Various sources claim that swans symbolize purity, grace, beauty, loyalty (they mate for life), unity, love, hope and transformation (they migrate, and the Ugly Duckling transforms into one). As such, they are popular images on jewelry, T-shirts, tattoos, coffee mugs and every kind of souvenir. Above all, the white swan embodies the attributes of spirit.

In Chapter Two of my book I discuss the differences between spirit and soul:

Concepts, like Apollo, are detached; they neutralize our direct participation in the world, distancing us by relying on the eye’s passivity, assessing from safe distances. Percepts are involved, relying on the “secondary” senses (olfactory, tactile, acoustic.) We are “perceptive” when we penetrate to the core. However, each requires the other – what we might also call soul and spirit – for completion, since life will not be confined to a single mode of knowing. Spirit is transcendent and soul is immanent. Zen teacher John Tarrant writes:

“…where spirit is too dominant, we are greedy for pure things: clarity, certainty, and serenity… (but) soul in itself does not have enough of a center…If soul gives taste, touch, and habitation to the spirit, spirit’s contribution is to make soul lighter, able to escape its swampy authenticity, to enjoy the world without being gravely wounded by it.”

Historians portray Greek civilization as extremely rational. But the Greeks themselves imagined a balance between the brothers, which they enshrined at Delphi, their religious center. Apollo relinquished it to Dionysus for three months each year.

The history of religion is an unstable relationship between these opposites, with rebellious impulses periodically threatening patriarchal control. Perhaps all history oscillates between Apollonian order and Dionysian energy. Cultural stability, however, requires a dynamic, ever-shifting balance. Too much sunshine dries us up, while excess moisture rots us and drives us crazy. Extreme order leads to stagnation, dogma and authoritarianism; too much reliance on the intuitive soul brings chaos, anarchy and collapse. Emphasizing one extreme, we eventually endure the other as a correction. When society literalizes Apollo’s spiritual beauty into formal religion, correct behavior and rational science, then literalized – and potentially violent – Dionysian subcultures arise.

The black swan is a highly evocative image in its own right and often seems to invite the internal movement into the dark spaces of soul.

Well before this film appeared in 2010, we find many references in popular culture. The Black Swan was a 1942 Tyrone Power swashbuckler pirate film based on a 1932 novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini. At least eleven other writers (including Thomas Mann) have published short stories or novels with Black Swan as title. There are at least three independent Black Swan bookstores, in California, Kentucky and Virginia. There’s a Black Swan brand of barbeque sauce, and a Black Swan home décor store in Connecticut. Black Swan Green is the name of an English village in the novel of the same name by David Mitchell. Singers and rock bands have recorded at least twelve separate songs, albums – and an opera – with Black Swan in the titles.

Black Swan Theory is a metaphor used by economists and financiers. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, their severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight. The term is based on an ancient assumption that actual black swans did not exist – until they were discovered in the wild.

The phrase “black swan” itself derives from the 2nd-century Roman poet Juvenal‘s characterization of something being “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno” (“a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan”). Philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper have used the metaphor to describe the fragility of any system of thought. A set of conclusions is potentially undone once any of its fundamental postulates is disproved.

But by far the most common use of the term is in Australia, where “swan” almost always implies black swan. It is Australia’s Coat_of_arms_of_Western_Australia.svg only native swan and is an official symbol for the state of Western Australia, as depicted on its flag and coat-of-arms. The symbol appears on Australian coins, postage stamps, Australianstamp_1623 logos, mascots, sports teams, businesses, corporations, railways, universities, hospitals, mines, religious heraldic emblems, a literary magazine and several dozen place names including streets, towns, districts, rivers and islands. 600px-Flag_of_Western_Australia.svg


So much for the swan as symbol of national pride, or as gang color, if you prefer. But more to our purposes, it seems that “black swan” may also indicate a grudging acceptance of the nation’s own dark side, its indigenous, Aboriginal people who long before had named most of those places with terms that translate as black swan. Indeed, in the 1920s anthropologists recorded a man known as the “last of the black swan group” of the Nyungar people, who claimed that their ancestors were once black swans who became men.

Read Part Four here.

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Barry’s Blog # 328: Black Swans and White Vultures, Part Two of Seven

A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free! – Nikos Kazantzakis

What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? – Theodore Roethke

 The quest to be perfect may well represent the quest to be whole, even if wholeness includes imperfection. See Marion Woodman’s book Addiction to Perfection. Beyond that, I can’t speculate on the feminine mysteries of escaping the grasp of the mother, partially because, traditionally, most women have had to wrestle with the reality of ultimately becoming mothers themselves. And, since the Greek myths were written down within a deeply patriarchal culture, the great majority of them describe the quests of the masculine, solar, heroic nature. Jungians have tended to resolve this tricky issue by arguing that these are stories of the individuation of the masculine principle within all people, regardless of gender. I don’t know if all women would agree.

We can interpret some of them as initiation stories that involve breaking out of the localized realm of the mother so as to emerge and return, acknowledged as adult men by the broader realm of the community. My essay “Initiation and the Mother” describes several distinct strategies described in myth. Some of these routes to the father are more successful than others, but it’s worth noting that the name of the hero Heracles means “the glory of Hera.” In another essay I consider “The Spell of the Mother.” 

Does Nina kill her dark twin or completely accept her in order to fully embody the dual roles of white and black swans? S3IB1Ph Does she go mad? Must she descend into madness in order to achieve the perfection of her art? Does she heal from the madness? What, after all, is madness? From the soul’s perspective, can madness have a purpose? In an earlier essay I address madness in America: Why are Americans so Freaking Crazy? 

Let’s not forget that Black Swan, like any great work of art, is not only about the personal or internal; it’s also about society and the external. QmrG1Hq

Misogynists and imperialists though they were, scientists that they would eventually become, the Greek mythmakers understood very well that this world contains a basic element beyond rationality. Their holy pantheon included a place for Dionysus, the god of madness. The classicist Walter Otto wrote, “A mad god exists only if there is a mad world which reveals itself through him.” And the Greeks also understood that madness could very well be a necessary stage in knowing oneself, as I write here and here.

Does Nina literally stab (and perhaps) kill herself, or is film action symbolic? What really matters, as in all listening to stories throughout time, is what is evoked in us. “Reality” – for both her and us – shifts regularly as she alternately conflicts with, makes love with and then kills her shadow double. Is it herself she kills, that she makes love with? In the end, does she die physically, or is this a symbol of initiation? As her life slips away from the fatal wound, Nina mutters, “I felt it. Perfect. I was perfect.” The final shot, rather than the traditional fade-to-black, is a fade-to-white, as if the white swan / childish / innocent / uninitiated “niña” has died, to be replaced by the black swan of experience.

Dan Ross concludes that

…her death is the price we pay when we give ourselves over to the archetypal completely without maintaining hold on the totality of our personality and its roots in the outer world…The risk in integration of the shadow is one can be consumed by it and overidentify with it and become psychotic. So Nina goes from one Swan to another but remains a swan, inflated, disconnected from the outer world, relationships, and in the end dies…She was unable to keep the two realms in tension, the swan realm and the human realm.

I disagree (although his assessment may well be more relevant in my discussion of a second film, in Part Six of this essay). In tragic drama, as in any dream, death is symbolic of what needs to die so that something greater, or deeper, may be born. Readers of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence may recall that there has been an ongoing academic dispute over the ending of Euripides’ play The Bacchae and its meaning. Do Cadmus and Agape make Pentheus whole again by reconstituting his dismembered body? Is that play about a successful initiation or a failed initiation? The rational mind may struggle with such questions, but the soul lives them, and does not require the easy escape of answers. As the director character in Black Swan says, Swan Lake’s Odette “…in death finds freedom.”

Read Part Three here.

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Barry’s Blog # 327: Black Swans and White Vultures, Part One of Seven

A dancer dies twice – once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful. – Martha Graham

The 2010 film Black Swan is a deeply wise and convincing psychological account of the inner journey required of the ballerina protagonist in order to fully embody the dual female lead roles in a production of Swan Lake.

In Tchaikovsky’s original 1877 ballet, an evil sorcerer has condemned Princess Odette to live as a white swan during the day. Only at night, by the side of an enchanted lake created from her mother’s tears, can she return to human form. The spell can only be broken if one who has never loved before swears to love her forever, and Prince Siegfried does just that. But at a costume ball in which Siegfried must choose a wife, the sorcerer arrives with his daughter, Odile (the black swan), whom he has transformed to look like Odette, and Siegfried chooses her. Realizing his mistake, Siegfried hurries back to the lake and apologizes. She forgives him, but his betrayal cannot be undone. Rather than remain a swan forever, Odette chooses to leap into the lake and die, as does Siegfried. Ascending to Heaven, they remain united in love.

Since the original performance there have been dozens of productions, with all kinds of different conclusions, from tragic to happy. A lake created from her mother’s tears! Doesn’t that image speak to us all in this time of pandemic and environmental collapse? The binary opposition of Odette-Odile / black-white evokes the polarity of conscious-unconscious, or persona-shadow. black-swan-natalie-portman On the sociological level, it also evokes issues of race in America. (We find the dark or even projected other in many films. Gershon Reiter’s book The Shadow Self in Film addresses this theme. )

These opposites are in a dynamic tension in the form of extreme control of the body and its opposite, the need to abandon the ego and lose one’s self (mythologically, Apollo vs Dionysus, or perhaps Athena vs Aphrodite).

This is the psychic territory that Black Swan invites the viewer into. The plot revolves around a production of Swan Lake by a prestigious ballet company. It requires a ballerina to play the innocent and fragile White Swan, for which the emotionally cold Nina is a perfect fit, as well as the dark and sensual Black Swan, which are qualities better embodied by her earthy rival, Lily. While her delicate innocence and demeanor combined with technique and discipline are perfect for the White Swan, her challenge is to go beyond herself and undergo the metamorphosis into the Black Swan. She must be both/and rather than either/or.

Her quest is complicated by her relationship with her domineering mother, who long ago abandoned her own dreams of being a great ballerina, only to live her obsession through her daughter. Nina is 28 years old, the same age at which her mother had retired, but she lives emotionally as an innocent young girl, in a pink bedroom full of stuffed animals. “Nina” means “little girl” in Spanish. Her last name is Sayer (from which the story may well take us through “Say-er,” “Say her,” “Say her name,” and possibly all the way to “See-er” or “Seer.” We’ll see. Her mother seems to play the role of the sorcerer who keeps Nina trapped in the mother realm and unable to become whole.

Meanwhile, the name Lilly (rhyming with “Odile”) evokes the lily flower, which represents both chastity and the purity achieved through death. Dan Ross writes that Lilly

…is the familiar form of Lillith, the first woman who rejected Adam because she would not submit to a man. Lillith was considered evil because she was uninhibited and unrestrained, so she was banished (to shadow). This is a perfect description of Lilly who is all that Nina is not. It is not surprising that Nina fantasizes making love with Lilly.

The intense, competitive pressure and her obsessive perfectionism, combined with Nina’s desire to escape her mother’s spell causes her to lose her tenuous grip on reality and descend into hallucinations, suspicion, betrayal and apparent violence. Many reviewers focus on Black Swan’s depiction of madness. Yes, but to only perceive the film on this level is to miss its deeper significance for the viewer. Jadranka Skorin-Kapov writes,

…the film can be perceived as a poetic metaphor for the birth of an artist, that is, as a visual representation of Nina’s psychic odyssey toward achieving artistic perfection and of the price to be paid for it.

As progressives in 2020, nearly twenty years since the beginning of the “War on Terror”, when we are assaulted daily by the latest pronouncements of our pathologically narcissist leadership, we remember the words of Blaise Pascal: Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. As archetypal psychologists, we know that that society prefers to label anyone who questions our consensus reality as mad. And as mythologists, we remember that the original meaning of the word “competition” is petitioning the gods together. In a Jungian fantasy of individuation (or better, as James Hillman would have argued, Psyche and Eros), there is no binary opposition between Nina and Lilly. They are co-conspirators (“conspiracy” – to breathe together) in the opus, or great work, the soul work of the loss of innocence.

Nina is constantly looking into or reflected by mirrors in rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, bathrooms and train windows. natalie-portman-black-swan-mirror-image1 Clearly, she is encountering shadow aspects of herself, especially when Lilly appears as friend, rival and lover. black-swan-natalie-portman-3 This psychological challenge mirrors Tchaikovsky’s own enchanted lake, which was created from the tears of Odette’s mother. Ultimately, as part of this dance of self-knowing, the two begin to battle in a dressing room during a break in the performance. Nina throws Lilly into the mirror and breaks it before (in her hallucination) stabbing her.

From a psychiatric point of view, Nina is “cracking up.” Black-Swan But traditional wisdom would see this as an essential, if dangerous step in the breakdown of an ego, a constricted sense of identity, a fall out of the familiar into the liminal. Only then, as if she has incorporated Lilly’s essence, as if this scene was a metaphorical Eucharist, can she embody the black swan, which she does fully in the following act. Hillman places the movement toward black in an alchemical context:

Therefore, each moment of blackening is a harbinger of alteration, of invisible discovery, and of dissolution and of attachments to whatever has been taken as dogmatic truth and reality, solid fact, or dogmatic virtue. It darkens and sophisticates the eye so it can see through.

Nina’s soul opus moves in two seemingly opposite directions: towards incorporating her dark twin, and away from the suffocating grasp of her mother. But neither movement can happen without the simultaneous work of the other. Nina fully inhabits or embodies the Black Swan in performance, thus achieving her goal of perfection, only after she has broken from her mother, broken her dressing room mirror and broken Lilly’s (or perhaps her own) body.

Read Part Two here.

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Barry’s Blog # 326: All Shook Up, the American Dionysus, Part Seven of Seven

Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. – Leonard Bernstein

But what about Elvis? How do we understand that 32 years after his death (when I did the research for my book), 44 countries were hosting some 525 fan clubs, and an Elvis search engine had 330 sites with over 500 books, or that fans continue to refer, humorously or not, to an “Elvis religion”? We cannot explain this away, because we are in the realm of mystery, where images are our only guides and questions are more important than answers.

Would someone else have created the same reactions? Of course, there had been and were countless talented black performers, and later, many whites. Some of these artists were and are carriers – channelers – of the most profound energies of the Earth, of duende. But it was Elvis. All we can say is that the soul of the world needed someone like him at that particular moment, an “animus man,” in Pinkola-Estes’ words, “one who acts out the unrealized soulfulness of others.” Anthesteria The collective consciousness dreamed up his image to carry a positive projection of Dionysus to counter the long centuries of marginalization. As in the ancient Athenian festival of the Anthesteria, the god was finally being invited to enter the gates of the city.

His art had roots in Africa, where everything originates in ritual. Although colonialism and oppression had broken down and denatured those forms, a physical energy and a wisdom that questioned the assumptions of western culture still came through. Segregationists rightly perceived that this “Devil’s music” would corrupt their children. What were they so afraid of? The simple answer is the threat of miscegenation.

On a deeper level, Elvis was questioning the image of the black American Dionysus, first among Americans and then, via television and movies, across the world. If a white man could carry such archetypal energy, then anyone could. Now consider what a threat he was. If anyone could claim this heritage of our “indigenous mind” – a mind that has reconciled with the body – then America no longer needed to demonize that mind, no longer needed to project it upon black people. And if that were to happen, then the whole edifice of American myth and American capitalism might collapse of its own foul mass of contradictions.

But the work of the soul is to move past contradiction into true paradox, to hold the tension of the opposites. Elvis reveled in paradox. His images, writes Erika Doss, were “a tangled hybrid of fact and desire.” His voice dissolved racial boundaries, and his obvious bodily comfort questioned gender norms. He was, wrote critic Marc Feeney, “astonishingly beautiful.” He had charisma (“favor, divine gift” Charis was the name of one of the three attendants of Aphrodite).

Perhaps more importantly, a man (at least a white man) had never seemed so loose. He wore mascara and wild clothes in wilder colors to exaggerate this ambiguity, and he drove a pink Cadillac. elvis-pink-cadillac One critic described his onscreen persona as “aggressively bisexual in appeal.” Another placed the “orgasmic gyrations” of the title dance sequence in (the film) Jailhouse Rock within a lineage of cinematic musical numbers that offer a “spectacular eroticization, if not homoeroticization, of the male image.” A third wrote that he was “an ambivalent figure who articulated a peculiar feminized, objectifying version of white working-class masculinity as aggressive sexual display.”

Offstage he was exceedingly polite; onstage he was sullen, defiant and self-mocking. Singing both rock and gospel, he straddled the boundaries of sacred and profane music. He combined small-town values and an astonishing, urban energy. In a sense, he was both mortal and immortal, like Dionysus and the other suffering gods before him. Tim Riley writes that compared with John Wayne’s image of masculinity, Elvis was “…more complex, more open to change, less fixed on a single idea or attitude.” He personified liberation and transgression, and his clear affront to the bourgeois world gave teenagers permission to follow. Like Johnny Appleseed, wrote Cleaver, he “sow[ed] seeds…in the white souls of the white youth.”

But he also embodied transformation. As such, from his position at the border between the worlds, he beckoned especially to women, inviting them into Dionysian ritual – the madness, the pharmakon – that is both cause and cure of itself. This archetypal energy has the potential to transform the individual, the community and the nation into who or what we actually came into this world to be – but only, as in his myths, by dismembering one’s entire conception of what or who one is. As Karl Marx said, “all solid melts into air.” Elvis was the first to propose the great transformation.

1_WSjLy9jcweSWHf6AHsqqxQ The publishers of a 1998 translation of The Bacchae made this insight abundantly clear by putting Elvis’ photo, rather than a classical image, on the cover. And it wasn’t just any picture of him; it was his army induction photo. As in the play, Dionysus was (temporarily) in prison.

What are the other mythic images here? James Hillman taught that in classical myth, the gods rarely appear alone; their stories interweave:

Each cosmos which each god brings does not exclude another; neither the archetypal structures of consciousness nor their ways of being in the world are mutually exclusive. Rather, they require one another, as the gods call upon one another for help.

Commentators in the 1960s insisted on the Oedipal sources of the generation gap. But if young people dreamed of patricide, it was directed against Kronos’ insatiable appetite for his own children, and it was driven by a sense of betrayal. After all, hadn’t oracles warned Ouranos, Kronos and Zeus that their children would overthrow them? Isn’t that fear at the root of the patriarch’s reign of terror? Two myths intersected in the 1960s. The universal dream of the hero’s journey collided with a nightmare, the refusal to anoint the new kings and queens of the world. Youths demanded initiation and meaning, while elders offered the false choice of either stultifying conformity or literal sacrifice.

Americans were enacting other myths as well. In one story, the craftsman god Hephaestus vented his rage against Hera by imprisoning her in a golden chair. Perhaps he had been confining women on the “pedestal” of patriarchy? Only Dionysus could loosen him up, getting the lame god drunk and teaching him to dance, after which Hephaestus released Hera and married Aphrodite. Aphrodite! The madness of Dionysus brought the cure. Pentheus, by contrast, retreated into a masculinity so brittle that Dionysus could effortlessly crack it and release the repressed feminine energies that eventually overwhelmed him. For more on this theme, see my blog series “Male Initiation and the Mother in Greek Myth.”

This is Elvis’ mythic significance. A unique combination of talent, ambition and overdue cultural changes waiting to be sparked created an icon. He became both a gatekeeper and a role model who loosened the boundaries of the American ego. Perhaps it would be better to speak of “the” Elvis – like “the” Christ – since his personal life is far less important than the role he embodied. One writer has argued that Jim Morrison was a conscious, thus more appropriate, carrier of the Dionysian role in America. But he appeared ten years after Elvis had already broken down the walls.

Archetypes demand to appear in their fullness, especially when we avert our gaze from their darker sides. Perhaps without Christ’s advent as a pure god of love, there would have been little need for the Western world to imagine Satan. Similarly, because millions projected only the savior image upon Elvis, he had to live out both sides of the old story. Within the Christian framework of American myth, many saw his death as a sacrifice for the world rather than as enacting renewal of the world. As with the Catholic saints, his devotees give ritual attention to his death date, not to his birthday.

Elvis, writes Pinkola-Estes, became the focus of the cultus of the dying god, “a drama in which a dried out culture requires the blood sacrifice of the king in order to…rebuild itself.” In the symbolic world, he joined the eternal scapegoats Osiris, Dionysus and Jesus. s-l1600 Another book cover shows a man wearing an Elvis tattoo with the words “He Died For Our Sins.”

(Religious literalists please take note: the pagan imagination encourages humor. It makes absolutely no difference to his fans if such gestures are serious or tongue-in-cheek.) In this context, his suffering, his drug-addict death and his failure to find happiness made him even more attractive to his fans. He was, so to speak, one of us.

Many of his fellow “looseners” (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Morrison, Janis Joplin) died before Elvis; yet the mold had been cast in his image in 1955. Since then, many others who couldn’t hold the fullness of the archetype have followed him to the underworld. Allen Ginzburg, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey played the loosener role with somewhat more balance. Still others (Jim Jones, Charles Manson and David Koresh) literalized the darkest of Dionysus’s masked roles, leading crazed maenads on murderous rampages.

Nevertheless, Elvis has achieved immortality; in 2007 his estate earned $40 million. He remains as popular in death as in life because he served in a very real sense as America’s initiator. Ventura concludes, “It is not too much to say that, for a short time, Elvis was our ‘Teacher’ in the most profound, Eastern sense of that word.”

Religion is much more complex than we can imagine. Humorous “Elvis churches” thinly mask the inarticulate but broad conviction that some god descended and resided briefly among us. Doss argues that Americans mix and match their beliefs and practices, that his veneration is a “strong historical form of American religiosity.” Consider the vast array of relics at and pilgrimages to his sacred shrine. After the White House, Graceland remains the most popular house tour in the country, drawing over 750,000 visitors yearly. In 1997, on the twentieth anniversary of his death, 60,000 fans came, and 10,000 stood all night at his grave. Consider the many Elvis “sightings,” as if he never died — or that he had returned.

Finally, consider the thousands of impersonators who, as in the Imitatio Christi, 800px-Elvis_impersonators_recorddevote their lives to him every night in nightclubs (his ritual containers) in almost every country.  According to Gael Sweeney, “true” impersonators believe that they are “chosen” by The King himself to continue his work and judge themselves and each other by their “authenticity” and ability to “channel” his essence. Several radio stations feature Elvis impersonator material exclusively. In 2014, 37 years after his death, 895 impersonators gathered at a North Carolina resort to pay tribute.

Let’s take this one step deeper and imagine a story that begins to move an entire culture. The Bacchae tells us that Dionysus descended to Hades and raised his mother Semele to the divine community of Heaven. Similarly, let’s imagine that while the spirit of feminism was veiled in America, young Elvis descended to its underworld, Memphis’s black ghetto, where he discovered the blues.

The blues had power (and danger) because it tapped into the soul’s depth, where extremes of joy and grief meet each other. Hillman writes:

In Dionysus, borders join that which we usually believe to be separated by borders…He rules the borderlands of our psychic geography. There, the Dionysian dance take place; neither this nor that, an ambivalence – which also suggests that, wherever ambivalence appears, there is a possibility for Dionysian consciousness.

Elvis become a conduit for that terrible beauty. Was there some kind of terrible initiation? What did the black musicians of Memphis see in him? (We recall that Jerry Lee Lewis and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart are cousins). Then he emerged into the light (the spotlight) precisely at America’s initiatory moment.

And unknowingly, he brought guests with him – the Goddess, and the beginning of the long memory. His eroticism, writes Doss, encouraged girls “to cross the line from voyeur to participant…from gazing at a body they desired to being that body.” Abandoning control – screaming and fainting, and eventually choosing to be sexual on their own terms – was the beginning of their revolution, long before feminism became a political movement. She quotes one woman: Elvis “…made it OK for women of my generation to be sexual beings.”

This was not the first time that American girls had gone crazy about a male singer. Ten years before Elvis, thousands of them, according to Time Magazine, had been in “a squealing ecstasy” at a Frank Sinatra concert.  But Sinatra was not one to swivel his hips; he was a crooner, not a rocker. And besides, the war was still raging. The time simply hadn’t been right.

Ten years later, it became apparent that millions of girls had both deep longings and deep pockets. Quickly, the music industry responded with “girl groups.” By the early sixties, this was the one area in popular culture that gave voice to their contradictory experiences of oppression and possibility. It encouraged girls to become active agents in their own love lives. By allying themselves romantically and morally with rebel heroes, they could proclaim their independence from society’s expectations about their inevitable domestication. And even when the lyrics spoke of heartbreak and victimization, the beat and euphoria of the music contradicted them.

And the music was made by groups of girls. It was, writes Susan Douglas, “a pop culture harbinger in which girl groups, however innocent and commercial, anticipate women’s groups, and girl talk anticipates a future kind of women’s talk.” If young women could define their own sexual sensibility through popular music, couldn’t they define themselves in other areas of life? Another woman claims, “Rock provided…women with a channel for saying ‘want’…that was a useful step for liberation.” Douglas argues that “…singing certain songs with a group of friends at the top of your lungs sometimes helps you say things, later, at the top of your heart.”

The limping Hepheastus released Hera from the golden chair, with the help of Dionysus. One might argue that in the 1970s, men (unaware of their own limps) released women from the pedestal of ideal womanhood. In fact, women destroyed that golden prison themselves. Clearly, feminist demands for autonomy, equality, safety and choice were long overdue. But American women were also the first to elucidate the new (or remember the old) thinking that may inspire fundamental change at the mythic level, even if such changes happen with glacial slowness.

Cynthia Eller writes that feminism began asking why little girls had to wear pink and big girls had to wear high heels, but it “…segued naturally into one that asked why God was a man and women’s religious experiences went unnoticed.”

The women’s spirituality and pagan movements – and later, the men’s mythopoetic movement – were all outgrowths of secular feminism, which in turn had been catalyzed in that 1954 initiatory moment. Catalyze: from cata (downward) + lyein (to loosen, also the root of Lusios, Dionysus the Loosener).

Is it a stretch to suggest that this moment — some 437 years after Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of a German Cathedral and began the Protestant Reformation, some 213 years after Jonathan Edwards proclaimed the First Great Awakening — was the beginning of a religious movement that might eventually usher in a new story to replace the Myth of American Innocence? Leonard Bernstein claimed that Elvis was the greatest cultural force of the twentieth century. Did Elvis lead us to the re-awakening that may re-animate and re-sacralize the world?

Perhaps that is a bit grandiose. But Dionysus asks us just how much reasonable, dispassionate discourse has achieved. “You have tried prudent planning for long enough,” says Rumi. “This is not the age of information,” writes poet David Whyte,

This is the age of loaves and fishes,

People are hungry,

And one good word is bread

For a thousand.

Here are my other essays on race in America:

The Mythic Sources of White Rage

— Privilege

Affirmative Action for Whites 

— The Race Card

The Sandy Hook Murders, Innocence and Race in America 

Hands up, Don’t shoot – The Sacrifice of American Dionysus

Do Black Lives Really Matter? 

— Did the South Win the Civil War? 

— The Election of 2016

The Dionysian Moment – Trump Lets the Dogs Out


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Barry’s Blog # 325: All Shook Up, the American Dionysus, Part Six of Seven

…our fire, our elemental fire

so that it rushes up in a huge blaze like a phallus into hollow space

and fecundates the zenith and the nadir

and sends off millions of sparks of new atoms

and singes us, and burns the house down. – D. H. Lawrence (“Fire”)


What makes the engine go?

Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance stirs in the buried life.

One season only, and it’s done. – Stanley Kunitz (“Touch Me”)

Yes, their – our – parents had plenty of needs and wants, which they believed they were satisfying by buying, accumulating, getting ahead (that most characteristic description of the American ideal of progress) – and moving up: 16437186859_8981bd2d7c_z from the assembly line to the corner office, from the Baptists to the Episcopalians, and of course from the apartments to the split-level houses, where they could show off (in those huge, energy-leaking, suburban front windows, with those new gas-guzzler cars freshly washed, parked in the driveways rather than the garages).

But desires? The culture of consumption was displacing the Puritan heritage and the Paranoid Imagination, but only in the most superficial manor. What they had and were repressing was destined to emerge among their children.

Someone dancing inside us has learned only a few steps:
The “Do-Your-Work” in 4/4 time, the “What-Do-You-Expect” Waltz.
He hasn’t noticed yet the woman standing away from the lamp.
The one with black eyes who knows the rumba
And strange steps in jumpy rhythms
From the mountains of Bulgaria.
If they dance together, something unexpected will happen;
if they don’t, the next world will be a lot like this one.
– Bill Holm (“Advice”)

The ecstatic experience of dancing to rock music, with or without chemical stimulation, evoked a desire for other non-material ways of knowing. It helped to define this community of initiates, Holy Man Jam, Boulder, CO  Aug. 1970 who soon shared a fascination with both the introspection offered by psychedelics and the easy, if fleeting, access that drugs provided to communitas. For a few years, millions of young people commonly distinguished between those who opposed the war, got high, listened to rock, wore long hair and rejected the Puritan Ethic, and those who didn’t. Or: between Dionysian ecstasy and Apollonian rationality. Or: between authentic and contrived innocence.

Many attempted to reclaim that innocence in rural communes. Whether it was in those pastoral images or in urban circuses like Haight-Ashbury, the rebellion drew its power from its negation of the bland conformism of suburbia. But the phrase, “Don’t trust anyone over the age of thirty!” revealed a profound grief about the loss of elderhood. Adults could not initiate youth into a meaningful world because they had never been initiated themselves.

But, said Bob Dylan, the sensation of first hearing Elvis as a teenager was “like busting out of jail.” All the issues repressed by the culture for so long erupted into the open. Millions marched against the war, not merely because it was a mistake bred of good intentions (as even liberal apologists still contend), but because it was nothing other than mad, imperialist genocide.

The parents, blinded by their mythologies, could not see what was obvious to their children. Vietnam War protest The generation that had survived the Depression, saved Europe from the Nazis and gratefully consumed the myth of American innocence could only sputter, “My country, right or wrong!” The youth, however, who always see the mythic issues more clearly, responded: “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”

Civil rights agitation sparked movements for the liberation of women, Latinos, farm workers, Indians, gays, prisoners, the disabled, the environment, the body – and the soul. Thousands discovered that psychedelics hinted at spiritual realms that conventional religious leaders could never understand and indeed were staunchly opposed to. Eventually, millions would investigate natural foods, the human potential movement and Eastern religion.

Then the reaction set in, as I write in Chapter Eight of my book:

By 1970, the white middle class was exhausted, disenchanted and vulnerable to backlash. Hollywood responded with vigilante movies starring Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood in which lone redeemer-heroes cleaned up the urban chaos.

Working-class whites had struggled so hard to achieve their Dream, only to hear radicals condemning their patriotism and materialistic lifestyles. They retreated into willful ignorance and innocence. Forty-nine percent of the public simply refused to believe that the shameful massacre at My Lai (not to mention dozens of other such events) had occurred. If American boys actually acted in this manner, then once again America was no different from any other nation.

…When the National Guard exploded at Kent State in 1970, writes (Milton) Viorst, many local people were outraged at the students, not the killers, and rejoiced that, “…the act had been done at last… the students deserved what they got.”

“The act” was mythic, ritual sacrifice of the children. So many youth had rejected American values so completely that they had seemingly become Other. Although America had been slaughtering children in Viet Nam and in the ghettoes for years, the message was unmistakable: You will be like the fathers or die. 212 Shortly after Kent State, as students struck on 450 campuses, thugs attacked demonstrators and police watched approvingly. Years later, after exonerating the students, Kent State commissioned a monument. However, it rejected sculptor George Segal’s model of Abraham poised with a knife over Isaac. It would not accept the mythic implications of the murders.

The myth of American innocence had weathered many shocks, but its stereotype of the internal Other had survived. By this point, the paranoid white imagination no longer saw African Americans as long-suffering, non-violent citizen-saints. They were now dashiki-wearing, afro-haired, foul-mouthed terrorists, “black panthers” who ruled the city at night (curiously, in Greek iconography, the panther was one of Dionysus’ animals).

The projection of American Dionysus was nearly back where whites needed it, but not quite. In the next ten years, the F.B.I. would make sure that most black, red and brown activists were discredited, imprisoned or (in over two dozen cases) dead. Black rage turned inward, in drug addiction and gang violence. In 1981, Hollywood bestowed its cultural approval by releasing Fort Apache the Bronx. The film’s title acknowledged a hideous mix of mythic and racial stereotypes. A beleaguered police station stood as a small outpost of civilized values within a wilderness of black and brown savagery.

With the end of the Viet Nam War, the central focus for activism disappeared. “The music died,” as Don McLean sang. Culturally and politically, the tenuous connection between rebellion and pleasure began to open up. Perhaps, since rock (unlike its parent, the blues) is the musical expression of uninitiated young men, this was inevitable. The coalition broke up into its constituent parts: a few violent revolutionaries; apolitical mystics; and minority activists.

As idealism collapsed into consumerism, the youth movement receded back into the youth market. Critics now debate whether commercial youth culture is deliberately created in order to separate youth from their families, recreating them as vulnerable consumers, or whether, as Simon Frith writes, their real needs “– to make sense of their situation, to overcome their isolation – are dissolved in a transitory emotional moment.”

From a pagan or indigenous perspective, youth do indeed have innate needs. Each generation needs to briefly separate out and endure the initiatory fires under the capable guidance of elders, to return, to be welcomed back, and then to re-imagine the world. But as they aged, millions succumbed to narcissistic self-absorption, cynicism or fundamentalism. The youth market, now controlled almost completely by a few mega-corporations, exists only to exploit and channel the occasional eruptions of Dionysian energy. The counterculture ended, writes Ehrenreich, “by affirming the… materialistic culture it had set out to refute.” Rock and its descendants are now little more than the background music to new frenzies of consumerism — and nationalism. “The sixties,” writes Camille Paglia, “never completed its search for new structures of social affiliation…‘do your own thing’ encouraged individualism but produced fragmentation.”

Decades later, musical preference still expresses identity. But now it distinguishes between youth populations, rather than defining a community separated from their parents by a generation gap. Ronald Reagan co-opted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Beer and car companies sponsor tours by musicians; loudspeakers in Afghanistan played “We will rock you!” as the bombers took off; CIA torturers blasted Heavy Metal into prisons to disorient prisoners; Jimmie Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” is played at boot-camp initiations; skinheads sell racist rock over the Internet; and misogyny drives much of Hip Hop. The volume increases as civic involvement declines.

Meanwhile, observes sociologist Orlando Patterson, America’s image of the Other has expanded to include aspects of which whites are now admittedly, nervously envious: “The Afro-American male body – as superathlete, as irresistible entertainer…as sexual outlaw, as gangster.” Black athletes and entertainers attract a mainstream culture that is over-balanced toward Apollonian demands. In this context, he says that African-American images have become a “Dionysian counterweight” unstably balanced with the discipline required of those who must tolerate the conditions of the modern workplace. Dionysus has free reign in the inner cities, where he remains safely contained, “…until the instinctual need for release from the Apollonian pressures…calls for its tethered, darkened presence.”

Blacks now provide much of the cultural container that allows white, male youth (who purchase seventy percent of Hip-Hop) to act out some mild rebellion between their suburban school years and the corporate life they must eventually submit to. All learn to suppress their innate grandiosity of soul and project it onto celebrities. Instead of living creative lives as involved citizens, we consume the cultural products, including Dionysus, that the media offer us.

Generally, however, we watch the Dionysian experience, like Pentheus in his tree spying on the maenads.  Popular culture apparently assumes that blacks have a certain license to behave in ways the culture as a whole chooses to repress. Some blacks play along for profit while others, writes historian Gerald Early, resent “the entrapment of sensuality we are forced to wear as a mask for the white imagination.”

Meanwhile, Hip-Hop subculture reflects our most fundamental myth, the sacrifice of the children, back toward the wider culture. pants12n-1-web It displays anger and self-confidence in the lyrics, but grief and depression in the imagery: baggy pants, drooping below the waste; everything collapsed. Adolescents, especially minorities, are well aware of being forced to carry the weight of the world that their parents will not.

However, the memory of that tentative healing of the mind-body split survives, and Americans now commonly acknowledge a desire for authenticity that was birthed in the 1960s. Whether they search for it in rock or gospel music, meditation, hiking, gardening or cocaine is, to an extent, irrelevant. The genie is out of the bottle; even commercials commonly hint that we are capable of so much more. Despite their implication that only “stuff” will satisfy their longing, many baby boomers and their children still carry an idealism that counters the prevailing cynicism and fear. And the energy, the desperate, if unconscious craving for initiation, is as strong as ever. The creative imagination openly opposes the culture of innocent violence and violent innocence.

Whether through the calm attention of Yoga, natural foods and body therapies or through the ecstatic release of popular music and the discipline of fitness programs, Americans have begun the long pilgrimage back into the body. It is no coincidence that these revolutions have occurred simultaneously with the emergence of blacks and gays out of the national underworld. Slowly, painfully and generously, people of color and unconventional sexuality have offered white America the opportunity to pull back its projections from the Other. Coming down out of our heads and remembering the body’s demands, we encounter the needs of the soul. We encounter desire.

The madness is still at the gates. Michael Ventura, in another essay, argues that, for better or for worse, successive generations of youth have spontaneously produced “…forms – music, fashions, behaviors – that prolong the initiatory moment.” A period that in the tribal world lasted only a few weeks has now been extended into decades. The pace of change has kept millions in a state of ongoing liminality throughout our entire lives.

But if we reduce such phenomena to psychology or see only eternal adolescents duped by consumer culture, we are missing the point. We have all become initiates, without being welcomed home, stuck in the middle of a great transition. In some parts of the Third World, literally half the population is composed of teenagers, crying out to be seen. This is tragic, but it is also our best hope for renewal. “Hence their demand – inchoate, unreasonable and irresistible – is that history initiate them.”

Yes, but what about Elvis?

Read Part Seven, the Conclusion, here.

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Barry’s Blog # 324: All Shook Up, the American Dionysus, Part Five of Seven

Historian Milton Viorst writes that the theme of the 1950s was “security: internal security (McCarthy), international security (massive retaliation), personal security (careerism). And yet no one felt secure.”mccarthy_cohn_ap_img Other factors would come later: Civil Rights and Viet Nam, which provided the focus for dissent; and the birth control pill, which allowed women independent sex lives.

Another factor had always existed: the need to identify as an initiatory group, to go through the rites of passage not as individuals but together. America was poised unstably between its Puritan heritage and the hedonism of the consumer lifestyles.

Imagine America entering the liminal period of 1953-1955. Imagine it as a time during which the empire reached its apogee (the current madness being merely a last gasp), when the seeds of its collapse first sprouted. The U.S. had a position of security unparalleled in history, controlling the Western Hemisphere and both oceans. Its economy and culture dominated the world. And yet anticommunist hysteria was running wild.

In April 1953, President Eisenhower barred gays from all federal jobs. In June, the government executed the Rosenbergs. The Korean War ended in July, just as the Cuban revolution began. 301px-Waroftheworlds_Poster In August, the C.I.A. overthrew Iran’s government. Kinsey’s book on female sexuality appeared in the fall. The film War of the Worlds left viewers staring fearfully at the stars, while Shane presented the lone Hero literally riding off into the sunset. In December Playboy’s first issue, featuring Marilyn Monroe, arrived.

In May 1954, the French surrendered at Dien Bien Phu in northern Viet Nam. Ten days later, the Supreme Court decided Brown vs Board of Education. In June, Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and the C.I.A. overthrew the Guatemalan government. Three days later, Viet Nam was officially divided. In August, as the C.I.A. defeated the insurrection in the Philippines, Congress banned membership in the Communist Party.

Rebel Without A Cause opened in early 1955. In July, “In God We Trust” became mandatory on all currency. The Soviets detonated their first H-bomb in August. Allen Ginsburg first recited Howl in October. In December, shortly after Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person.

And one other thing: in July 1954, Elvis Presley released his first record.

America was entering a period of continuous change from which it has never recovered. The spark that set things off occurred when southern whites first blended country music and blues, just as the civil rights movement was making its move and all Americans were scrambling to acquire televisions. Most critically, Elvis emerged from the darkness of the deep South.

Soon, television was showing white men performing like blacks, men who were comfortable in their bodies and defiantly, humorously, ambiguously sexual, men who challenged John Wayne’s code of masculinity. Stephen Diggs calls this the blues revolution: “Dionysus is inciting the instinctual maenads to pull Pentheus from the treetop back down to earth and then tear his detached vision to bits.” To Michael Ventura this was “… one of the most important moments in modern history.” Eldridge Cleaver wrote,

… contact, however fleeting, had been made with the lost sovereignty – the Body had made contact with its mind – and the shock…sent an electric current throughout this nation.

It was the incursion of the Dionysian mode into a culture that had long been ruled by a poor version of the Apollonian. In contrast to “containment,” the theme that dominated so much of public life, youth became enthusiastic (“en-theos,” taken over by the god of ecstasy). Quickly, the nature of western dance and performance changed. And along with the released energies came much more.

The music sparked a collective flame; within a very few months the youth market exploded. More importantly, a youth movement began to spread across the world. For perhaps the first time, an entire generation saw the world in fundamentally different terms from its parents and chose to define itself as separate. Unknown to them, the only models for this phenomenon in all of history had been the groups of young men going into the liminal madness of initiation together. There are accounts of African boys dancing before the elders’ huts, demanding to be initiated. Now white girls (who individually might have been timid and obedient) were forming mobs, breaking through police lines to approach their Dionysian priests, trying to “dismember” them as the Maenads had done with Pentheus. One of Elvis’s musicians recalled:

I heard feet like a thundering herd, and the next thing I knew I heard this voice from the shower area…several hundred (girls) must have crawled in…Elvis was on top of one of the showers…his shirt was shredded and his coat was torn to pieces…he was up there with nothing but his pants on and they were trying to pull at them up on the shower.

Chapter Four of my book takes a long look at the idea known as the “return of the repressed,” from both psychological and mythological perspectives, and it projects it outwardly toward the cultural and the political. By now, you shouldn’t be surprised that the mythic figure who mediated this process for hundreds if not thousands of years was Dionysus. Every night, in taverns across the world, people (mostly men) participate in a certain kind of eucharist, taking the god into their bodies in the form of Lusios, the Loosener, often with the conscious intention that he will facilitate conviviality (from convivere “to carouse together, live together”) and honest conversation (to turn together).

But the god, they all know, is fickle. Imbibing too much may provoke a deeper, unintentional honesty and even the violence we normally associate only with the Other. But in America, Dionysus is the Other, and when he returns from long years in the realm of the repressed, he may not be so convivial.

In the 1950s the madness broke out as the return of both erotic excitement as well as (in a few years) profound rage, signaling the opening of the gates through which all of the culture’s repressed energies would flow. But there were few elders to guide and welcome the young bacchants, because now it was the elders themselves against whom the youth were rebelling. The result was – for fifteen years, and perhaps for the first time in history – an international community more or less in agreement about a broad number of issues, the most central of which was a mythological insight. This world was no longer being ruled by Ouranos, but by his son Kronos. This was a world of fathers who were killing their children.

In 1960, well before the antiwar protests began, 50,000 Americans demonstrated for civil rights, with 3,600 arrests. For white students, this activism marked their first connection to the Other as well as the direct (if temporary) experience of otherness. Many felt more commonality with young black and brown people than with their parents. Children of the slaves were mixing with children of the masters.

That summer “the Twist” burst upon the scene, “a guided missile,” wrote Cleaver, “launched from the ghetto into the very heart of suburbia,” succeeding as politics couldn’t do in helping whites reclaim their bodies. 50s-youth Getting up and dancing individually or in groups broke down the traditional Western barrier between performer and immobile audience. It meant a revival of a participatory process rooted ultimately in ecstatic, pagan religion that had been repressed for centuries. And, since dancers stopped holding hands, it meant that girls didn’t have to follow anymore. 

The same collective urge that gave rise to the Twist also propelled John Kennedy into office and evoked new idealism for millions. Consequently, youth took his death particularly hard. It is no coincidence that a new form of maenadism – “Beatlemania” – erupted only two months later. Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “At no time during their U.S. tours was the group audible above the shrieking.” 16716741_304 Susan Douglas argues that the resonance between Kennedy and the Beatles allowed for “a powerful and collective transfer of hope.”

Read Part Six here.

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Barry’s Blog # 323: All Shook Up, the American Dionysus, Part Four of Seven

Despite the anxiety of the nuclear age, peacetime unleashed a torrent of energy and domestic production. Large-scale government programs such as the G.I. Bill lifted millions out of poverty and into the suburbs. Yet something was missing. Television hinted at what it might be with its low-key sexualization of commodities. Advertisers discovered that nothing sells so well as when it is subtly associated with the female body, even if it has no individual essence.

Ownership of mass-produced products created a placeless community of consumers. mass-production-3415078 “Men who never saw or knew one another,” wrote Daniel Boorstin,  “were held together by their common use of objects so similar that they could not be distinguished even by their owners.” Never before had so many people determined their identity in such a thin and artificial way.

White children born after the war were the first in history to grow up in such relative affluence, the first to be raised under Dr. Spock’s permissive ideas, the first to expect an extended adolescence in college — and the first to deeply question the values and motives of their parents.

Circumstances were preparing the ground for the emergence of the youth culture. The early 1950s witnessed a convergence of unique factors, starting with the baby boom. From 1947 until 1980, the population of thirteen to thirty-year-olds would increase every year. By 1956, thirteen million teens would be spending $7 billion/year. They had no memory of the Depression or the war. But they were aware that nuclear war might instantly negate everything, and they had no instinct to save money. At a deeper level, however, their bodies were about to explode in the universal, if inchoate, cry for initiation. By 1960, three-quarters of movie audiences would be teenagers, prompting a Hollywood executive to complain, “It’s getting so show business is one big puberty rite.”

Rural America’s population declined steeply. Between 1945 and 1970, 25 million people would leave the farms forever. Advertising and cheap mortgages (for whites) made possible by the G.I. Bill convinced everyone that cars were a necessity. But the new mobility contributed to the breakdown of urban, ethnic communities. In previous migrations, large, multi-generational groups had moved together, following two persistent themes of American myth: cities were no good; and one could always make a new start by settling the wilderness. the_honeymooners Indeed, by the mid-1950s, city life in the popular imagination was encapsulated by Ralph Kramden’s cramped apartment in The Honeymooners TV show. Meanwhile, Father Knows Best, Ozzie And Harriet, etc, presented suburbia as the Promised Land.

Suburban whites attempted to live within cocoons of unexamined privilege, rarely encountering an African- or Mexican-American except as a servant. b8bc70ee14a69656cab9bf74d1b3d5cfThis isolation perpetuated racist beliefs and kept white cultural norms invisible. In 1963, two out of three whites would tell pollsters that blacks were treated equally, and ninety percent believed that black children had equal educational opportunity.

But this escape from the inner cities had a different intention and a different result. Countless young couples left the ethnic accents and recipes of their parents behind. They were no longer “hyphenated Americans,” but simply Americans. As this happened, a generation of children grew up missing the experience of living with extended families. They lost connection to elders, who were being exiled to retirement communities or nursing homes. The nuclear family was essentially little more than an isolated consuming unit. And yet the new emphasis on individualism was negated by relentless advertising pressure that channeled most personal choices toward conformism.

“Organization men” gave their allegiance to corporations and uprooted their families from one suburb to another whenever their jobs changed. William Whyte wrote that they “left home spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life.” IBM executives would joke that the initials of their company stood for “I’ve been moved.”

Something else was disappearing – the oral tradition. Previous generations had learned their myths (and their history, which were often the same thing) by listening repeatedly to storytellers. And as the unmediated, oral transmission of culture was dying out, technology was making it easier for white youths to encounter the cultural creations of the Other. By 1955, three-quarters of households would have TV. Sales of transistor radios would rise from 100,000 units in 1955 to 5,000,000 by the end of 1958. By 1960, American companies would sell ten million portable record players a year.

As for their parents, the images in their heads had been delivered in two main ways: over the radio, into their private living rooms (at least radio allowed them to imagine); or from watching movies, the one experience that most Americans now had in common. Movies, writes Ventura, had “usurped the public’s interest in the arts as a whole and in literature especially”. Whereas indigenous people had participated in their entertainment, Americans (except for dancing) were passive consumers of culture. The Western mind-body split comes to its extreme in the concept of an audience. It “… has no body… all attention, all in its heads, while something on a screen or a stage enacts its body.”

Television added a new dimension; it portrayed events far away as they happened. By showing how others lived, especially the contented middle class, it raised expectations among the poor and had an immediate impact on politics. And it showed teenagers dancing. Ultimately, though, TV turned Americans into “couch potatoes.” When they were not in their cars, enjoying the freedom of the open road, they were generally at home, glued to the tube.

Soon, the tube would be on six to eight hours per day, as millions ritually asked, “What’s on tonight?” consumerism Consuming their junk-food snacks along with the myths of post-war America, they witnessed happy, white, suburban families, with either benevolent patriarchs (Robert Young) or irrelevant but lovable Dads (William Bendix). And they observed, over and over, the righteous hero confronting the Other, who appeared as commie, gangster, redskin or space alien. But all dilemmas, comic or serious, resolved themselves just before the final commercial.

Commercials. Americans came to expect regular interruptions to hear that redemption could be achieved through purchasing the latest products. hqdefault  The 300-year-old Puritan heritage of delayed gratification was being pushed underground, like the pagan gods themselves, not to re-emerge for thirty years. Even before the end of the war, economist Victor Lebow had pronounced without irony that the economy

…demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals…We need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.

Having endured a generation of depression and war, adults were claiming their reward. But they also sacrificed something. Instead of ancestors and spirits, they worshipped entertainers, athletes and name brands. Remnants of ancient clan competition still existed, but now it was between Ford and Chevy, Budweiser and Miller or Cheer and Tide. And few asked the old questions anymore: What is my purpose in this life? Whom do I serve? What do I owe to those who came before me and those who come after me?

One could certainly make a case against this last statement. Millions of Americans who had survived depression and war scrimped and saved so their children might have the material advantages they had never had themselves. Yet, when the baby boomers articulated their rebellion, they commonly lamented the commercialized, dangerous, polluted, banal and meaningless world of their parents. The fathers, especially, were simply not present. Psychologist Joseph Pleck notes that Freud and Jung had seen the father as critically important in the child’s psychological development, but now he was “a dominating figure, not by his presence, but by his absence.”

Students of myth may recognize this figure as a modern version of the ancient Greek Ouranos, as I write here:

The Titan Ouranos, first ruler of the universe, heard a prophecy that a son would overthrow him. So he pushed his children back into the body of Mother Earth. One son, Kronos, escaped and then castrated and deposed him. Fearing a similar prophecy, Kronos ate his children. His Roman equivalent Saturn eventually came to personify Father Time, which devours all things…For 4000 years, or 200 generations, Ouranos and Kronos, the original patriarchs, have been our models for two extreme patterns of fathering. Ouranos is the classic absent father: gone, drunk, uninvolved, hidden behind the newspaper, brushing off needy children with, “Ask your mother.” By contrast, Kronos is overly involved: tyrannical, judgmental, abusive. Ouranos neglects the children, but Kronos kills them with his unreasonable and unquestionable expectations.

By the mid-1960s, American youth would intuitively understand that Kronos had overthrown his father and was eating his children. But for now, Dad and his values were simply irrelevant.

Read Part Five here.

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Barry’s Blog # 322: All Shook Up, the American Dionysus, Part Three of Seven

Just as Prohibition ended, Hollywood agreed to censor itself and suppress the erotic. Walt Disney attained huge popularity with his sanitized, asexual cartoons. In his movies, write Robert Jewett and John Lawrence, “Sex had become sufficiently innocent, trivial…that every family knew it could trust itself to go to the movies.”  It was a kind of mass compromise between Puritanism and opportunism. America traded away one mild manifestation of the Pagan sensibility (Aphrodite in the movies) to get another (Dionysus) back in his literalized form as alcohol.

The period before World War Two marked the transition to the consumer culture. After the war, the bulk of industrial activity became the manufacture of “goods.” Rather suddenly, as youth became an ideal, advertising suggested that things people bought would make and keep them young. Prior to this time, elders almost everywhere had enjoyed the highest respect, while adolescence had been a brief period of intense preparation for adulthood.

A society that was in some ways diminishing the possibilities of life for millions of young people declared that it was best, like Peter Pan, 3 to never grow up. Maturity implies transcending innocence and confronting memory. Family_of_African_American_slaves_on_Smiths_Plantation_Beaufort_South_Carolina-crop-473x375 In 1930, former slaves and survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre were still alive. There was much to remember and much to deny. Staying young is a way of “killing time” (the god Kronos). But in doing so, we leave little to the next generation. We trade experience for innocence.

And we fall back upon one-dimensional images of what it means to be a man. After the war, John Wayne modeled a powerful yet restrained and sexually detached masculinity. As a primary figure in the cult of celebrity, Wayne’s stereotyped roles merged with his public persona and his political statements. His image would be overwhelmingly present in the psyches of three generations of American men. Robert Bly once joked that the only images of masculinity available to young men in the 1960s were Wayne and his reverse-image, the “wimpy” Woody Allen.

In many of his films (Sands of Iwo Jima, Red River, The Searchers, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Horse Soldiers), his characters are widowed, unrequited in love, divorced or loners who reject any erotic relationships. They symbolize the man who has failed or never even attempted the initiatory confrontation with the feminine depths of his own soul.

The classic heroes of myth often find beautiful maidens, enact the sacred wedding (hieros gamos) and produce many children. But many heroes of popular culture (with exceptions such as James Bond and comic antiheroes) don’t get or even want the girl. Even Bond remains a bachelor. Often the hero must choose between an attractive sexual partner and duty to his mission. Some (Batman, the Lone Ranger, etc) prefer male “sidekicks.” Hawkeye, the Virginian, Superman, Green Lantern, Spiderman, Rambo, Sam Spade, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon, John Shaft, Captains Kirk, America and Marvel: all are single. Their sexual purity (or at least their avoidance of committed relationship) seems to ensure their moral infallibility, but it also denies both complexity and the possibility of healing.

This hero has inherited an immensely long process of abstraction, alienation and splitting of the western psyche. He exemplifies, wrote Hillman, “…that peculiar process upon which our civilization rests: dissociation.” He refuses any relationship with the Other, demonizing it into his mirror opposite, the irredeemably evil. He requires no nurturance, doesn’t grow in wisdom, creates nothing, and teaches only violent resolution of disputes, which reinforces our own denial of death. His renunciation justifies his furious vengeance upon those who cannot control their appetites for power or sex. He defends democracy through fascist means. He offers, write Jewett and Lawrence, “vigilantism without lawlessness, sexual repression without resultant perversion, and moral infallibility without… intellect.”

Post-war optimism created a large shadow that Noir films expressed. Men had won the war; shouldn’t they be happy? Wayne’s cowboy movies were allegories with clear social overtones. Tim Riley writes, “It was as if the cold-war curtain came down both across Europe and across some imaginary field in the American male psyche…” To Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, the war created “a culture turned back on itself… one that had become dry from much loss of blood.”  In On The Road, Jack Kerouac spoke for many men: “…wishing I were Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.”

Women, millions of whom lost their jobs to the returning soldiers, were also in a bind. Betty Friedan described a deep sense of depression, frustration and resentment. Magazines that had encouraged women to go to work before the war now praised “homemakers,” with “a single purpose… to sell a vast array of new products…”

Here is where we have to take a step or two away from history or even psychology into a more poetic imagination. Both resisting and longing to heal the mind-body split so perfectly represented by John Wayne, America dreamed up a moistening archetypal presence, at least one living soul who might enact the needed mysteries. Years later, John Lennon would sum up the situation: “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

Read Part Four here.

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Barry’s Blog # 321: All Shook Up, the American Dionysus, Part Two of Seven

In the previous quote James Baldwin was describing what I call the myth of American innocence, the collection of narratives and images that have allowed most of us to live with the realities of race and empire and yet believe that America has a divinely inspired mission to bring freedom and opportunity to the whole world. Yet, strangely, it is possible that the unforgivable enslavement of millions of black people actually initiated a profound, if exceedingly slow, healing process. Compounding this colossal irony, the individuals most responsible came from America’s most bigoted region.

Southern whites reacted with extraordinary violence (committing well over 4,000 lynchings between 1890 and 1930) when blacks attempted to move into the mainstream of life. Shameful as this period was, however, it brought out both our most feared contradictions as well as the seeds of renewal. For all its sorrows, the twentieth century saw several brief periods when forms of Dionysian madness seized the Apollonian mind in its flight from the body and pulled it back to Earth. These periods fundamentally altered America and began to clean out the festering wounds underlying Puritanism, materialism and our national obsession with violence. What did this? African American music.

Throughout the Jim Crow era, the spirit of Africa survived in such folk traditions as Hoodoo hoodoo-shrines-and-altars-cover and the Haitian influence in New Orleans, but primarily in the black church. Even though many of its members absorbed the conservative social values of their former masters, there was no mind-body split in the practice of their religion. But this created a bind that Southerners, both white and black, have been in for generations, writes Michael Ventura: “A doctrine that denied the body, preached by a practice that excited the body, would eventually drive the body into fulfilling itself elsewhere.” The call-and-response chanting and rhythmic bodily movement typical of southern preachers absolutely contradict their moralistic sermons. This contributes to “the terrible tension that drives their unchecked paranoias” (to which I would add their unchecked sex scandals).

Music, whether sacred or secular, held rural communities together by providing a safety valve from the stifling pressure of rigid conformism. Those who most exemplified this paradox were the traveling singers who mediated between the community’s sentimentalized idea of itself and the forbidden temptations of the outside world.

Were these men mere entertainers, or did they serve a necessary role as messengers from the unknown? In The Spell of the Sensuous, Philosopher David Abram observes that in tribal cultures, shamans rarely dwell within their communities. They live at the periphery, the boundary between the village and the “larger community of beings upon which the village depends for its…sustenance.” In terms of indigenous spirituality, these intermediaries ensure an appropriate energy flow between humans on the one hand, and ancestors, spirits, plants and animals, or (to reduce things to psychology) unconscious aspects of the personality, on the other.

The Greeks imagined that the boundaries were the realms of Hermes — and of Dionysus. Hillman writes,

In Dionysus, borders join that which we usually believe to be separated by borders…He rules the borderlands of our psychic geography.

In 1920, the South was still a primarily rural society with a living folklore that extended back to Ireland, Scotland, Haiti, Jamaica and especially Africa. For this reason, and despite all its feudal horrors, its people retained a vestigial memory of the permeable boundaries between the worlds; and it was the singers, preachers and storytellers who mediated the edge.

By contrast, the urban North was characterized by the crowded, dirty, noisy, mechanized life of factories and tenements (for the poor) and the unrelenting drive for money and status powered by the Protestant Ethic (for the middle-class and rich), and they paid a considerable price in alienation from the natural world. Modern life, writes Greil Marcus, “…had set men free by making them strangers.” Existence in the urban factories had diminished human passions in favor of a reserved, cynical, blasé attitude. This had created a compensatory craving for excitement and sensation, which for some was partially satisfied by city life. But others needed something more extreme, more Dionysian, to make them feel alive.

This damage to the soul occurred along with the most rapid technological changes in history. The all-encompassing verities and authority of religion had been, to a great extent, replaced by nationalism. One Frenchman fated to die in the first weeks of the Great War observed that the world had changed more since he had been in school than it had since the Romans. In the thirty years between 1884 and 1914, humanity had encountered mass electrification, automobiles, radio, movies, airplanes, submarines, elevators, refrigeration, radioactivity, feminism, Darwin, Marx (who wrote, “All that is solid melts into air”), Picasso – and Freud.

What irony: just as the modern world was learning of the unconscious, it was about to embody the ancient myths of the sacrifice of the children. The pace of technological change simply exceeded humanity’s capacity to understand it, and the pressure upon the soul of the world exploded into world war. For four years in Europe, between seven and ten thousand people, mostly young men, were killed or died of starvation, every single day. And then the Spanish Flu decimated millions. Even though the violence did not reach American soil, the pandemic and the grief certainly did. We can never know the extent of trauma this generation experienced.

After the Great War, the anxieties and economic pressures of the new century threatened to overwhelm the small-town values of self-denial, strict moral conduct and racial exclusion in the South. Great political rifts were growing that would eventually explode in the 1960s. Thousands of black veterans returned, mostly to the South, and women were about to achieve the right to vote, just as city dwellers were becoming the majority of the population. 1919 – “Red Summer” – saw 3,600 strikes Red-Summer-ChicagoRiotHeadline involving over four million workers. But it also saw over 25 race riots (all of them white-on-black), the Palmer Raids (dedicated to destroying the Red “Outer Other”) and the resurgent Klan (obsessed with the black “inner Other”).

And something completely new arose. The average age of the onset of puberty was decreasing while the average age at marriage was increasing.  Adolescents began to find themselves in a prolonged period of dependence upon their parents, who first used the word “teenage” around 1920.

As the pace of change led to drinking rates that have not been equaled since, religious reactionaries compelled the government to declare Prohibition. Until 1933, it would be illegal to sell or transport intoxicating beverages. America, alone among industrialized nations, declared that the celebration of Dionysus (whom the Greeks knew as Lusios, “the Loosener”) in even this most literal form was unacceptable. But the repressed quickly returned; sixty percent of the public continuously violated the law. “Dionysus,” wrote psychologist Raphael Lopez-Pedraza, “took his revenge in bootlegging, gangsters and violence.” The word  “underworld” now referred to organized crime, rather than the abode of the ancestors. It still served as a mirror of the upper world, but now of its rapacious capitalism. Instead of a revival of Protestant asceticism, America experienced the “roaring twenties.”

Politically and economically, African Americans remained on the periphery of the American story. But something else new – and critical – arose. New technology brought their culture into the mainstream. In a sense, technology, easily accessible (in the form of records and sheet music) and even free (in the form of radio), gave American culture a permission it had not had before, except through alcohol and violence. Soon, everyone was dancing; tfc3-042-3_charleston-competition_st-louis-1925 indeed, “the Charleston” dance craze was actually a West African ancestor dance. People (at least urban people) began to speak openly about sex, gender and the body’s demands for pleasure. And everyone watched movie images of other people’s bodies experiencing pleasure in this period before the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code.

There were signs that the white ego was loosening up. Psychologist Stephen Diggs writes that this “alchemical process” melded western individual consciousness with tribal orality: “Where the Northern soul, from shaman to Christian priest, operates dissociatively, leaving the body to travel the spirit world, the African priest, the Hoodoo conjurer, and the bluesman ask the loa to enter bodies and possess them”.

Still, the Klan claimed four million members. In 1921, whites destroyed the black section of Tulsa, killing 300 blacks. In 1923, they destroyed the black town of Rosewood, Florida, killing dozens. It was a particularly cruel irony. Even as whites were experimenting with tentative rejection of their ancient hatred of the body, they were – savagely – punishing people who (to them) seemed to exemplify natural comfort in that body. But Blacks were now in a uniquely influential position. Even as they suffered continued segregation and repression, their music (at least watered-down versions of it) was challenging the white majority’s most fundamental beliefs.

Students of myth will recall that (in The Bacchae, by Euripides) the young King Pentheus was both revolted by and attracted to his cousin Dionysus. This story reminds us that fascination always lies just beneath hatred of the Other, because the Other is an unrecognized part of the Self. America played out much of its love-hate relationship with its Dionysian shadow throughout the twentieth century on the field of popular music.

This process has moved in a dialectical series of cultural statements, an insight first proposed by LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) in his seminal book Blues People: Negro Music in White America.  To simplify: blacks merge western techniques with indigenous African traditions to create new musical styles. Whites (such as Paul Whiteman) copy it, dilute its intensity and proceed to reap  most of the profits. Then younger blacks create a revitalized


Paul Whiteman

musical expression, but this time with the intention of restoring black identity, as a conscious choice to remain outside.

The message, “We are not like you” is a statement about otherness, for once, by the Other, which prefers exclusion if the result is the survival of authenticity. In a culture that elevates the dry, masculine, Apollonian virtues of spirit over the wet, feminine and Dionysian, blacks would begin to use the word soul in 1946 to define their music in contrast to the dominant national values. Eventually other terms – soul brother (1957), soul patch (1950s), soul food (1957) soul music (1961) and soul sister (1967) – would arise in proud contrast to the dominant national values.

Again, white adults copy the new forms, removing their most Dionysian elements to make them more acceptable. But white youth typically prefer the real thing, inviting xenos, the stranger, to become the guest. From Dixieland to Hip-Hop, the cycle has repeated itself for nearly a century.

Xenos. In this twisted yet profoundly important dialogue, whites have consistently feared contamination by the stranger (black people), yet they desperately long for the emotional and bodily freedom offered by the guest (black culture). This is an essential aspect of whiteness itself. “The white itch to affect blackness,” writes Kevin Phinney, “is an ineffable part of the American experience.” Mistrels-A-poster-from-1907-shows-the-Al-G.-Field-Minstrels-caucasian-men-who-performed-in-blackface-653x1024Indeed, blackface minstrelsy had been America’s primary form of entertainment throughout much of the nineteenth century. Forms of it (Amos ‘n Andy, originally voiced for radio by two white actors) would survive into the 1950s, tutoring millions in racist stereotyping. But it provided something else: by watching other whites impersonating blacks, whites could briefly inhabit their own bodies.


But popular thinking still remains polarized along racial lines: civilized vs. primitive, abstinence vs. promiscuity and sobriety vs. intoxication, all forming the opposition between composure and impulsivity (mythologically, Apollo and Dionysus). For generations, power elites have manipulated the fear that those who cannot control their desires will tempt the majority to follow them, that no one might resist temptation. In the white collective unconscious, the black man is America’s Dionysus, coming to liberate the women, to lead them to the mountains so that they might dance, free of patriarchal control.

And in this liberating, loosening, archetypal (yet terrifying) role, the mad god offers men two choices. The first is to accept these changes, drop your own stiff, heroic, detached consciousness and dance with us.

Every child has known God,
Not the God of names, not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does anything weird,
But the God who knows only four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
“Come Dance with Me.” Come Dance. — Hafiz

Or, like King Pentheus, who refuses the invitation, be torn apart.

Read Part Three here.



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Barry’s Blog # 320: All Shook Up, the American Dionysus, Part One of Seven

For where there is dance, there also is the Devil.  – St. John Chrysostom

Bobo-malay, shushu maya (Lord, make this body dance!) – Dagara, West Africa

The Greek word xenos means both “stranger” (as in xenophobia) and “guest.” This etymological twist lies at the root of a profound mystery. As Carl Jung taught us, the repressed or marginalized parts of our souls and our culture desire to return home – and they warn of the long-term consequences of not being welcomed back out of the shadows into the light. This is Depth Psychology’s most fundamental insight, and it invites us into the mystery of healing, both personal and collective: unconsciously, those within the pale also long for that moment of completion, because the body understands what the mind represses.

Xenos appears in the fifth century B.C. as the word that the tragic playwrights, especially Euripides dionysus-11 in his play The Bacchae, used to describe Dionysus – the god of wine, of madness, of drumming and ecstatic dance, the ultimate outsider from the mountains, the Other. Throughout Greek myth, Dionysus is contrasted with his rational, heroic half-brother Apollo, K5.9Apollon related to the sun, counsellor to Zeus, god of the ruling elites, of calming music, the ultimate insider. Apollo could send healing from the sky, but he could also send death on his heavenly arrows. And unlike Dionysus, he never married.

These ancient stories are neither untruths, in our conventional use of the word “myth,” nor, by being very old, are they irrelevant to modern culture and politics. We are talking about race relations in America.

All white people who take their sense of identity from the myth of American innocence know deep in their bones, below their prejudices and naïve idealisms, that the road to healing involves transforming xenos from stranger to guest. After visiting the United States, Jung observed,

When the (white) American opens a…door in his psychology, there is a dangerous open gap, dropping hundreds of feet…he will then be faced with an Indian or Negro shadow.

Our American narratives – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – have inherited the European divorce of consciousness from flesh that began in Biblical times and metastasized in the Protestant Reformation and the industrial revolution. They maximize individualism, conflict, materialism and competition, while minimizing aesthetic, sensual and ecological interrelationships. They speak of a god (with no wife) and his son who love humanity yet remain aloof, except for their furious judgement of our limitations.

Whether they appear to originate in religion, economics, science, nationalism, consumerism or the culture of celebrity, these stories of detached, rational, progressive, productive, masculine, heroic consciousness arise from a mind that has discarded large parts of itself and condemned them to the shadow worlds. Psychologist James Hillman called this thinking Apollonic:…like its name sake…it kills from a distance (its distance kills).” Claiming objectivity, “it never merges with or ‘marries’ its material…” It defines our “very notion of consciousness itself.”

Since Colonial times, white Americans, like the ancient Athenians they modeled themselves upon, have seen themselves as Apollonian, hardworking, rational, competitive, progressive, individualistic lovers of freedom. Below the dominant stories, however, our Dionysian shadow, the “Other,” appeared in a form the Greeks would have recognized but burdened with a Christian sinfulness that would have been unfamiliar to them.

The descendants of African slaves, in both their stereotyped, earthy physicality and the implied threat of their vengeance, have always been America’s dark incarnation of Dionysus, its collectively repressed memory and imagination. Since, however, whites desperately needed to project him, to see him, they created exactly those conditions – segregation and discrimination – that dehumanized him and fostered behavior that whites could then proceed to demonize without guilt. And their Puritan heritage justified this process by turning the old beliefs about original sin into an explanation of the causes of suffering. One suffered because one deserved to suffer.


The process of projection through which the ego or the dominant elements in a society create their image of the Other is not logical. As with archetypes, when we constellate one pole of a stereotype, we also conjure its opposite. Since whites needed to believe that blacks were slow, dumb and happy, many blacks learned to act that way. Whites created fictional characters – from Jim Crow to Gone With the Wind’s Mammy: loveable and loyal, yet lacking any concern for intellect or freedom.

A second aspect of the Other in the racist mind contradicted the first. Even as many whites perceived blacks as lazy (a terrible offense to our Puritan heritage), they also perceived them as unable to control their desires (an even worse transgression). Again, since whites needed to see their projection of this intensely sexual and aggressive Other in the world, their gatekeepers in business, religion and government created precisely the conditions that would manifest it: a segregated, hierarchical economy, highly limited opportunities for employment, proliferation of both guns and drugs, and a school-to-prison pipeline.

Since the beginning of large-scale (this is to say, mandatory) public education in the 1890’s, all Americans have learned to be unquestioning cogs in capitalism’s machine. And simultaneously, our religious instructors have presented images of both a meek and desexualized Christ and his furiously vengeful father. Quite naturally, the mind desires to revolt against such a diminished imagination. But when such thoughts are unacceptable, they fall back into the personal and collective unconscious. And when opportunistic politicians offer whites such polar-opposite stereotypes of blacks as laziness and aggressiveness, they find fertile – and familiar – soil in the American imagination. As I write in Chapter Four of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence:

Othering is inconsistent. Europeans projected opposing images upon Jews: “id” figures who would sexually pollute Christian blood, and stingy, “superego” bankers, unwilling to assimilate…Richard Nixon warned of both “the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy…” During the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Clarence Thomas, right-wing senators alternatively accused Anita Hill as being either a spurned woman – or a lesbian. Such discourse doesn’t care whether the terms of othering are logical or not. Any demonizing narrative will do.

The psychological truth that fear, hatred and envy are very close to each other is most evident in the gruesome rituals that Southern racists perpetrated for 200 years. In 1966 African American sociologist Calvin Hernton wrote that the image of the black sexual beast was so extreme in their minds that they had to eradicate it, yet so powerful that they worshipped it:

In taking the Black man’s genitals, the hooded men in white are amputating that portion of themselves which they secretly consider vile, filthy, and most of all, inadequate…(they) hope to acquire the grotesque powers they have assigned to the Negro phallus, which they symbolically extol by the act of destroying it.

These attitudes have never characterized only the lower classes. Those being vetted to become their managers and those born into even higher privilege also had to be indoctrinated. It was necessary for everyone’s innate social conscience and human solidarity to be eradicated, and gatekeepers in higher education made sure of this.

William Dunning, founder of the American Historical Association, taught Columbia students that blacks were incapable of self-government. Yale’s Ulrich Phillips claimed that slaveholders did much to civilize the slaves. Henry Commager and (Harvard’s) Samuel Morison’s The Growth of the American Republic, read by generations of college freshmen, claimed that slaves “suffered less than any other class in the South…The majority…were apparently happy.” In 1915 Woodrow Wilson, formerly President of Princeton, showed Birth of a Nation at the White House, giving semi-official sanction to the movies’ first mega-hit. By depicting heroic white men saving young women from their drooling black abductors, it led immediately to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

In America, the mind/body division coincided with the racial gulf, and this distinction became so sacred, if unnatural, that it required the construction and perpetuation of an elaborate myth of white innocence and national exceptionalism. The Puritan heritage determined that whites were repulsed by the body’s needs and feared that they might be judged by how well they controlled them. Their hatred of the black Other revealed the envy that lay just below the surface, and their unconscious desire to be healed of this deadly burden. Here is a clue to slavery’s appeal that extends beyond economics. This terror, writes journalist Michael Ventura in his brilliant essay Hear That Long Snake Moan, “…was compacted into a tension that gave Western man the need to control every body he found.” In slavery, “the body could be both reviled and controlled.” James Baldwin concluded,

We would never, never allow Negroes to starve, to grow bitter, and to die in ghettos all over the country if we were not driven by some nameless fear that has nothing to do with Negroes…most white people imagine that (what) they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence.

Read Part Two here.

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