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mystical mad ecstatic
March 14, 2015, 3:30 pm
Filed under: departure lounge, the sweet life, unseen world | Tags: , , ,


What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

– Ode on a Grecian Urn

Keats asked all the right questions, while we – some of anyway, most of us?-  focus on the deathless symmetry of the vase. Keats saw wild ecstasy, Nietzsche the same – release by ecstasy from ourselves to mystical life.

Far more so than most of his fellow deities, Dionysus was an accessible and democratic god, whose thiasos, or sacred band, stood open to the humble as well as the mighty.22 As Nietzsche envisioned his rites: “Now the slave emerges as a freeman; all the rigid, hostile walls which either necessity or despotism has erected between men are shattered.”23 It was Nietzsche, of all the European classical scholars, who emphasized the Dionysian roots of ancient Greek drama, who saw the mad, ecstatic inspiration behind the Greeks’ stately art — who, metaphorically speaking, dared consider not just the deathless symmetry of the vase but the wild dancing figures painted on its surface. What the god demanded, according to Nietzsche, was nothing less than the human soul, released by ecstatic ritual from the “horror of individual existence” into the “mystical Oneness” of rhythmic unity in the dance.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets, p34

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when God’s not looking

Here is a description of bait and switch on the macro scale.  The worshipers of Dionysus experienced ecstasy – a feeling of communion and immortality – through rites of wine and dancing.  One can argue – as this author does – that this joyful rite was replaced in the Middle Ages with the relatively sober Christian rite of the eucharist.  The church tamed – neutered? – the rite of communion with God and drove drinking and celebration out into the secular world.

Through secularization, the potential for ecstasy was dialed back drastically and the sacred act of ecstasy became mere drunkenness and fights.

What would it take to reinduct a sense of the sacred into the art of drinking heavily?  In our current mindset, a drunk drinks to forget.  To drink alone is taboo.  Drink is measured out, like pills at a pharmacy table:  more than one or two and we have a word for people like you. In the pre Medieval view, on the other hand, a woman drank to commune with god and to feel her immortality.

Here is Ehrenreich:

Inevitably, something was lost in the transition from ecstatic ritual to secularized festivities — something we might call meaning or transcendent insight.  In ancient Dionysian forms of worship the moment of maximum “madness” and revelry was also the sacred climax of the rite at which the individual achieved communion with the divinity and a glimpse of personal immortality.  Medieval Christianity, in contrast, offered “communion” in the form of a morsel of bread and sip of wine soberly consumed at the altar — and usually saw only devilry in the festivities that followed.  True, the entire late medieval calendar of festivities was to some degree sanctioned by the Church, but the uplifting religious experience, if any was supposed to be found within the Church-controlled rites of mass and procession not within the drinking and dancing.  While ancient worshippers of Dionysus expected the god to manifest himself when the music reached an irresistible tempo and the wine was flowing freely, medieval Christians could only hope that God, or at least his earthly representatives, was looking the other way when the flutes and drums came out and the tankards were passed around.

The result of the Church’s distancing itself from the festivities that marked its own holidays was a certain “secularization” of communal pleasure.

[…]

Without a built-in religious climax to the celebrations — the achievement, for example, of a trancelike state of unity with the divinity — they readily spilled over into brawling and insensate drunkenness.

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Public Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich, p 93.



madness and glory

A wallflower sits and sweats and watches the dance, all the pretty girls, the well socialized having fun.  There’s a mountain the size of life itself between the chairs ringing the hall and the throbbing boards and hearts in the center.  And any puny will that climbs it and makes it to the happy center is indeed triumphant.

Watching the religiously convicted is similar.  Something huge separates the ordinary person from the convicted.  Of course, the ordinary are convicted too, by rationality and superior processes.  Is it two camps staring with unbelief – and maybe contempt – across an unnavigable void?

Believing is an effort of the imagination; knowing is to directly experience, says Ehrenreich in her book Dancing in the Streets.  The rational believer apprehends the deity backing up and advancing in a flux of faith, doubt and negotiation.  The ritual dancer entwines with the deity in a profound and intimate embrace.

Objectivists, rationalists, inculcators of Calvanistic dread, 20th century ideologues, scientists, free marketeers, fundamentalists, social engineers, are the rational believers.  And the knowing dancers are sufis and dervishes, ritual dancers, Hindu kavadi, ascetics, mortificators of the flesh, peyote takers, speakers of tongues, the voudou possessed and Koolaid drinkers.

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deluded optimists
August 22, 2010, 8:38 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

We’re addicted to optimism and it’s causing crashes.  Name it and claim it and golden parachute out.  We haven’t always been this way:  early American culture was dour and strict.  The fantasy optimism evolved much later as a reaction to all the lack of fun.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s article How Positive Thinking Wrecked the Economy describes the endgame of the pursuit of happiness:  a fantasy of unbridled optimism that took over our banks and markets and led to delusion and failure.

Here is an excerpt from her article:

Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendents, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily “visualizing” success. Calvinists thought “negatively” as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh ethos that positive thinking arose– among mystics, lay healers, and transcendentalists – in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough.

When it comes to how we think, “negative” is not the only alternative to “positive.” As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism – seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news, and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. Now, with our savings, our homes and our livelihoods on the line, we ought to give it a try.

— Barbara Ehrenreich, How Positive Thinking Wrecked the Economy, 2008



the family is all we need
December 30, 2009, 12:15 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

Here’s an excerpt from Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.  She says the prehistoric hominid related inwardly to themselves and their kin while the later, evolved human related outwardly to others.  And that, under the direction of the evangelical in America, we have taken on the aspect of the prehuman once again.  Shame.  I guess life isn’t for the living after all.  I might just throw out this bone for some extra chewing:  the Bible rarely if ever talks about family; it is outspoken on the other, often called your neighbor.

Here is the excerpt:

The family is all we need, America’s ostensibly Christian evangelicists tell us — a fit container for all our social loyalties and yearnings.  But if anything represents a kind of evolutionary regression, it is this.  Insofar as we compress our sociality into the limits of the family, we do not so much resemble our Paleolithic human ancestors as we do those far earlier prehuman primates who had not yet discovered the danced ritual as a ‘biotechnology’ for the formation of larger groups.  Humans had the wit and generosity to reach out to unrelated others; hominids huddled with their kin.

Dancing in the Street: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich, Metropolitan Books, New York



rites performed in the forest at night
August 25, 2009, 1:21 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , , ,

Here is a list of the many incarnations of the god Dionysus who presided over “rites performed in the forest at night,” as described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.  She describes the particular allure of this god for women who leave their children and duties and husbands to take up the ritualized dance.

In the description below, Shiva, the Indian Dionysus, is an outsider in extremis:  he steals our women, tramples our codes, engages the outcast, communes with the dead, he is obscene.

From Dancing in the Streets —

Dionysus was no respecter of ethnic boundaries.  According to the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, the worship of gods resembling Dionysus ranged over five thousand miles, from Portugal through North Africa to India, with the god appearing under various names, including “Bakkhos, Pan, Eleuthereus, Minotaur, Sabazios, Inuus, Faunus, Priapus, Liber, Ammon, Osiris, Shiva, Cerenunnus,” and, we might add, the delightfully named Etruscan analog of Dionysus:  Fufluns.  In his brilliant rendition of the Indian epics, for example, Roberto Calasso describes the Hindu god Shiva as “this stranger, this woman-stealer, this enemy of our rules and ties, this wanderer who loves the ashes of the dead, who speaks of things divine to the lowest of the low, this man who sometimes seems crazy, who has something obscene about him, who grows his hair long as a girl’s.”  Like Dionysus, Shiva bore an association with wine, his cult being “particularly widespread in the mountains where the vine is cultivated,” according to a Greek who lived in India in the fourth century BCE.