Reflection 161: Civil Consciousness

November 27, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

I trace the fall of natural religion to the removal of the rites of Dionysus from the Greek countryside to Athens early in the sixth century B.C.E. (before current era) when the tyrant Peisistratus founded an official Dionysiac feast. After that, the wisdom of synchronizing human activities with seasonal cycles of dieback and regeneration was replaced by effete, urban reenactments, many echoed in various liturgical calendars of today. Religious rituals persisted, but no longer moored to favorable growing conditions and the cycles of nature, they became matters more of superstition and convention than survival.

In the case of rural Dionysian rituals as transplanted to Athens, earlier ceremonies promoted human sensitivity to fertility and reproductive vigor of crops and soils through the flow of vital juices symbolized in the person of Dionysus himself. He was the embodiment, as W.K.C. Guthrie points out in The Greeks and Their Gods, “of not only wine, but the life-blood of animals, the male semen which fertilizes the female, the juicy sap of plants.” Earlier orgiastic rites mimicking the high drama of the year were replaced in the city by occasions for staging new tragedies, originally in honor of Dionysus, but soon deflecting his creative genius onto mere mortals who were awarded prizes for the fecundity—not of their juices—but their dramatic poetry.

Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides certainly deserved the acclaim, and every mortal should aspire to their level of creative achievement. But when people are content to serve as spectators of rather than participants in events, we run the risk of passively living through other people’s trials and adventures, which is not the same as forging lives of our own. If we do not live on the forefront of our lives, can we claim to be alive anywhere at all?

Migration of the human mind and spirit to urban centers led to a huge change in consciousness as emphasis shifted from the personal to the cultural. Citified human understanding wanted to housebreak the creative enthusiasm exhibited everywhere in nature as a kind of bad habit, so disciplined it to conform with culturally acceptable symbols and ideas. The former personifications of ritual energy released at appropriate seasons (in the guise of Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Osiris, et al.), became characters in myths and stories rather than forces to be dealt with in everyday life. They served as cultural metaphors for what everyone might feel if they felt anything at all. As Guthrie writes, “The authorities of the Greek states . . . did not accept the barbaric stranger [Dionysus] without, in some cases at least, emptying his worship of its most characteristic content.” You could honor his antics from a safe distance without risking ecstasy, muddy feet, or mussed hair. Guthrie characterizes the result as “emasculation of his worship” by civil authorities in Athens.

In Seasonal Feasts and Festivals, E. O. James writes:

Greek tragedy or comedy began . . . as a religious service held at the festivals of Dionysus, in the country in December, in the city in March, and at the Lenaia in January. . . . But as it lost its seasonal character, by the third century B.C., the drama became secularized, very much as the medieval Mystery and Miracle plays were dissociated from the Church and lost their sacred significance and character when in the secularized versions they were enacted in the marketplace by strolling players.

My point is that when a culture’s practices control the minds of its members rather than the other way around—innate, natural consciousness expressing itself through cultural practices—then the primary purpose of membership in a tribe or larger group striving to live in harmony with its place on Earth has been subverted by top-down authority for the sake of its own power, wealth, influence, and position. We dress this transformation in positive guise as a means of becoming civilized, forgetting the price we pay in putting fetters on personal consciousness. The difference is similar to that between true democracy in opposition to self-serving monarchy, oligarchy, plutocracy, or other schemes by which the consciousness of the many is shaped by the will of a privileged elite.

Speaking of which, consider the case of Jack Welch. In keeping with the violence done to natural values by adoption of a medium of exchange in the form of a particular currency accepted throughout a culture (topic of my last post, Reflection 160: Of Two Minds), David Owen writes of Nell Minow’s realizing the import of the retirement agreement C.E.O. Jack Welch worked out with General Electric:

The agreement gave Welch not only millions of dollars but also free lifetime use of a company Boeing 737 and a helicopter; floor-level tickets for the Knicks; box seats for the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Metropolitan Opera; exclusive use of a company Manhattan apartment; fresh flowers for the apartment; dry-cleaning and Internet service; tips for his doormen; home security systems for four residences that he owned; numerous golf-club memberships; and dozens of other perks and amenities. . . . Whereas less extravagantly compensated people often take pride in being able to make purchases from their earnings, [Minow] said, ‘If you are super-rich, that thrill is gone’ (“The Pay Problem,” The New Yorker, Oct. 12, 2009).

That’s what spectatorship leads to—a wholly cultural life. Welch’s perks kick-in only upon his leaving the company, proving, for the elite at least, there is life in the hereafter. The very model of a modern tycoon, Welch was gaming his company, his culture, and his planet for all they were worth, playing by city rules the whole time, supporting a lifestyle based not on personal, biological needs and values, but on money (the one value officially sponsored by his culture) to an extravagant degree of degeneracy. Such a life is a caricature of civilized man—all take and no give. With no respect shown the environment (here the Hudson River Valley) that makes life itself possible in the region, the river in this instance receiving G.E.’s waste stream laced with PCBs.

Speaking of cultural devils, members of Congress cease to represent their constituencies when they become members of political parties which intercede between them and their supporters. Here again, the cost of living a cultural existence is the cause, which renders the sound judgment of mere mortals null and void. Every Democrat in the Senate voted to move the healthcare debate to the floor, every Republican voted to keep it safely hidden where it was. As if humans came in two colors—red and blue—with no shades of purple in between. This is a crude example of lock-step consciousness, all members of each party hiding behind the same grimacing masks. Forcing the nuanced values of the people who elected them into either of two molds—pro or con—go or no-go.

In rural areas, people are generally taken as they are; in cities, they spend much of their time posing because, with their individual values stripped from them, they can only go through the motions of trying to make themselves attractive. Now over half of America lives in cities removed from the land, removed from personal values, removed from the mental acumen they began acquiring at birth. There are few self-made men or women left. It is easier to open yourself to your culture and let it take your soul. That is, let the aggressive, arrogant, and over-confident elite—the Jack Welches of the world—take over your mind so you come to believe in them and the values they serve. Where Dionysus stood for getting with nature’s program because human life depended on it, demigod Welch tells G.E., “Get with my program because my lifestyle depends on it!” and G.E. sees its duty and goes along, paying Welch by picking the pockets of its customers, shareholders, and workers.

Whatever your price, buy in to the system and let the magic happen. Pledge proper allegiance, sing the proper national anthem, pray to the proper gods and celebrities, buy the right clothes, mumble the right slogans, go to the right schools, root for the right teams, see the right films, vote the right ticket—you are one of Us! All it will cost is a lifetime of your personal earnings, originality, and self-respect. The main thing is to pay your dues to your culture. To be its creature so you don’t have to deal with the anxiety of thinking for yourself. If you live up to others’ expectations, your culture will see to it that Jack Welch gets his retirement package, leaving you free to live vicariously the rest of your days.

The alternative is to raze the corporations and cities where culture rules every thought and gesture. Visualize the scene. Smell the lust. Savor the greed. Then send everyone back to the country to become bumpkins again—fallible human beings who have to discover who they are the hard way without being sold the answer in advance. Ease back on culture, strive for individual integrity and personhood. Define your own projects and challenges for yourself. Come up with your own answers and solutions. Live your own life. Don’t subscribe to the same old views, don’t keep sending the same checks; forget paying your dues. Aspire to be more than just another member; be your own person. Become conscious again.

That way, when you die, it will be your own life you lose, not someone’s whose mind you have paid for, stolen, or enslaved.

Solitary Oarsman

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2 Responses to “Reflection 161: Civil Consciousness”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Power by Carleton and Stefano Martinelli, Heavenly Home . Heavenly Home said: Reflection 161: Civil Consciousness « CONSCIOUSNESS the inside story http://bit.ly/82q3bC […]

  2. David Abram, in his “The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World,” traces the development of language from the sounds of nature to the alphabet as a similar process of alienation. See: http://www.amazon.com/Spell-Sensuous-Perception-Language-More-Than-Human/dp/0679776397/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1355551154&sr=1-1&keywords=spell+of+the+sensuous+by+david+abram

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