(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

Reflection 160: Of Two Minds

November 23, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Like mocha, human consciousness is a blend of two different flavors, natural consciousness and cultural consciousness. Our biological values, drives, and motives are inherently natural; our language, music, art, learning, and skill sets are largely cultural. Human behavior is an expression of natural values as shaped and calibrated by the cultural affiliations of the actors who perform it. We don’t generally distinguish between the two flavors contributing to consciousness—one the base, the other the medium through which it appears—making the study of consciousness more difficult than necessary because the coffee and chocolate that lend it character are so easily confounded.

Every culture has sex, reproduction, caring, and nurture at its core. Without them, cultures wouldn’t exist. Any more than they would without food, drink, shelter, clothing, social companions, health, and personal wellbeing. These are integral parts of the base in any culture because they are of vital importance to every member, male and female, young and old. That’s the coffee.

The chocolate appears in the way individual cultures establish norms for expressing these vital drives so to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of their members (within the framework of social and natural conditions they all share in common). Such norms are intended to enable a diverse population to live in relative harmony by adopting particular ways of expressing their native values, drives, and motives as are deemed to be proper—that is, boosting the probability of individual survival in a socially acceptable manner.

Add cultural chocolate to a natural base of coffee—you get human consciousness with the overall character of mocha. Which some people like more than others. In some cultures women appear in public with their charms draped in dark cloth, while in others they strut their stuff in full view. Some cultures promote hospitality to strangers, others think it wiser to be suspicious of those you don’t know (which is one way of keeping other cultures at a distance).

On the Maine coast, there are a great many subcultures within, say, the fishing industry. Wormers talk to wormers, mussel draggers to mussel draggers, ground fishers to ground fishers, fish farmers to fish farmers, and so on, each staying much closer to the in-group than to outsiders. If you listen to representatives from the various groups speak out in public meetings, you keep hearing each group’s jargon backed by the same-old attitudes, everybody barking, nobody listening to anybody but himself. The problem is always the other guy—the guy you bark at but don’t speak with. It’s the same story up and down the coast as it is between isolated groups everywhere. Could be wormers and draggers, Israelis and Palestinians, Democrats and Republicans. Once the differences between their respective cultures set into stereotypes, everybody poses as a paragon of the tribe, nobody says anything meaningful, nobody listens. Attitude becomes the whole story, communication is made impossible.

One way around the impasse is to adopt a symbolic medium of exchange to bridge between tribes. I may not like you, but I’ll take your money because money is neutral. I’ll scan your propaganda as long as I have a right to my own opinion. We may even attend the same movies, which our respective outlooks turn into very different movies in our minds.

In our broader American culture, because our currency is the accepted medium of exchange in every corner of the land, everything has a price on the same monetary scale. This speeds and simplifies financial transactions, but makes it easy to believe that money is the prime value in our culture—the only thing that counts—to the point that something without monetary value doesn’t really exist. If you can’t peg its dollar value, what good is it? Thus money becomes not only a medium of exchange but the only culturally acceptable one. That is, it discriminates between what is a socially expedient value and what has true value from the standpoint of personal survival and wellbeing. If clean air or water don’t have a price, they aren’t part of our value system. If ecosystem integrity doesn’t have a price, we needn’t consider it. If honesty or character can’t be priced, do they serve any demonstrable public good? That is, anything existing outside our system of exchange—that is, anything priceless—has no meaning for us. With the result that money becomes the sole scale of value by which we decide what’s important in our culture, and what isn’t.

Which is the root of the national tragedy we are playing out on the world stage. If it doesn’t have a price tag, it can be safely overlooked. Everything can be put on the auction block to see what price it will fetch. If no bids come in, by our scheme it is trash. That is, in settling the differences between us by resorting to the common denominator of cash value—in putting a price on our personal values—we create a system that overlooks what cannot be bought—the truly priceless. Instead of our values running the economy, the economy is now running our values.

Mountains in Kentucky and West Virginia have no value other than as open-pit coal mines. Oceans are to fish, trees to cut down, skies and streams to pollute. That’s the level of value the economy’s bottom line has dragged us down to. In a culture where everything has its price, that price is the only thing we share in common, making every other value not only expendable but a possible obstacle to progress. The end is certain: Earth reduced to a forlorn cue ball orbiting in space, no mocha, no chocolate, no coffee—no life at all. Even now we mistake Earth for a globe, a manmade sphere—as if it met our specifications and not the other way around. We speak of the global economy, not the Earth economy, which would be closer to the truth.

In effect, by reducing their personal survival values to the one dominant cultural value represented by the economy, people are acting as if their culture is everything, their personhood nothing. Imagine a culture entire in itself with members so homogeneous you can’t tell them apart to determine if they even exist. All people reduced to consumers, all else reduced to goods. Only money is real. To settle our differences, that’s the world we have created for ourselves, the global economy in which we all play our role.

In that scheme, ecosystem services have a price. Fish have a price. Trees have a price. Bald eagles have a price. Energy has a price. Sex has a price. Mountaintops have a price. Music has a price. Art has a price. Yes, individual human beings have a net worth or a price. Everything is a resource to somebody, somewhere, so has its price. The highest bidder wins all. In the process, stripping the ultimate value—life itself—from the world household or economy.

Writing these words, I cling to the conceit that I am still of two minds. That my consciousness has not been wholly tamed, domesticated, or taken over by my culture, allowing me to stand apart as a wild-eyed observer capable of independent judgment, thought, and speech. If so, we indies are fast disappearing from the scene, along with newspapers, independent media, regulatory governments, mystics, disbelievers, oddballs, heretics, and skeptics of all sorts.

Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall was breached, leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the re-emergence of some twenty states in Eastern Europe and beyond as independent nations. America claimed at the time to have won the Cold War, and welcomed those revitalized nations into its sphere of influence known as the global economy. Now China, India, and Brazil are joining the club of our kind of thinkers—those driven by dreams of wealth and power based on free-market exchange of every world resource at a favorable price. With one economic system triumphant over its rivals, human differences are seen as irrelevant. We form a global community of exploiters having equal opportunity to mine Earth’s so-called resources. Along with businesses, pension funds depend on profits from those resources, as do art and religious institutions, universities, and every kind of “non-profit” organization.

Instead of seeing it desirable to achieve a balance between our two minds as in the past, we are fast becoming a single-minded world culture bent on converting the Earth into personal profit. Like Ayn Rand and other prophets of capitalism, we have dollar signs on our minds—and little else. No one seems to think it strange that everyone pictures himself on the owning side of the deal rather than on the working or laboring side. Few, indeed, side with the Earth, even though every benefit we claim flows from the integrity of its biological functioning. From, that is, the mountains and streams of Kentucky and West Virginia before we stripped and leveled them for coal to burn in our power plants, producing cinders, ash, and carbon dioxide as by-products.

Repent, the end is near! Or is it too late to come to our senses and restore humanity to full consciousness? That is, can we still discriminate values that are convenient and cultural from those that are biological and personal? In sacrificing all for our culture, we stand to surrender our individual livelihoods to an economic ideology dressed as the only way to live, forgetting that capitalism works best for the very few who are on top. The rest of us are workers in the vineyard who can’t afford to buy the wines we ourselves produce.

One thing I am sure of, even though I can’t prove it, is that there are no techno-fixes for what ails us because every one of them merely passes our current burden to the Earth in a form future generations will have to deal with. In its day, the internal combustion engine was a boon to mankind; now it is a curse. Before that, three-fourths of arable land was devoted to producing hay for horses, cows, and oxen. Think of the manmade chemicals in mothers’ milk around the Earth, the plastic bottles and can liners that diffuse into almost everything we eat and drink. Hydropower turns running rivers and streams into standing ponds, blocking fish passage and the downstream flow of silt. What do we do with all these electronic wonders full of toxic metals and chemicals when we no longer want them? Are we to assume the technological solutions of tomorrow will not have a downside? There will be no more radioactive wastes, superfund sites, G.E.-ified Hudson Rivers? They won’t appear on the planning board; once in place, the toxic flaws we choose to overlook will appear in due order.

Start to finish, it is better to be of two minds than exclusively one or the other. Having both cultural and personal aspects of consciousness is the original checks and balances scheme. Individuals need to counterbalance corporations lest they become all-powerful (as, in fact, they are now). Cultures need to instill communal values in the common man to remind him he is not alone and can’t justify using others for his personal gain. If I want respect, so does my neighbor. Extending it mutually to each other, we’ll get along just fine. If I lord it over him, he’s apt to set fire to my barn.

The truth is, when I act, I act for all as a representative of humankind. There’s no escaping the fact we are all denizens of the one planet Earth. What I do, I do for all and to all. We are responsible for and to one another. That I can horde wealth for my benefit alone is pure fiction. That I can borrow from others and have a third party pay my debt is a fantasy. That I can leverage other people’s assets to make a profit for myself is nonsense. We keep trying these ploys, but in the end we all pay. And in the last analysis, Earth pays. If we think we can get away with it, we are too clever by half for our own good. As surely as we are born, we will die. Period. End of our little universe. The ultimate sign of respect is to hold positive regard for all those other universes that will come after us, whether of our genetic line or not. And to live on their behalf as if they mattered—which as Earthlings they surely do. They are one of us, of our planet, the only one we know of where life exists.

The mocha image I began this post with is too light to bear the load I freighted it with. I wanted to ease into my topic, so presented it in terms of flavors I thought people could relate to. My personal attachment is through serving mocha sundaes in the Schrafft’s Restaurant on 81st Street in New York back in 1953 and 1954. But neither chocolate nor coffee is essential to life. Water and oxygen, however, are the basis of photo-synthesis, the process that, in feeding plant and animal metabolisms, sponsors most living things. Water stands for the culture we are immersed in, oxygen for the biological values that spark consciousness to life. Consciousness requires a steady diet of both. I offer them here at the end of this post as more relevant to biological systems than the flavors of coffee and chocolate I offered at the start. In combination, they are the beginning, not only of consciousness, but of everything, including life itself.

Air, Water, Sunlight