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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-coverand 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-ChicagoRiotHeadlineinvolving 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-1925indeed, “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-image-lg

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 # 78: Evolution of A Song, Part Two of Two

Part Two – Reframing the Message

Myths change very slowly, but they can transform when enough of us begin to consider (“to be with the stars”) our unconscious attention to the stories we have been telling ourselves about ourselves. This is likely to be a painful process; perhaps that’s why it is called paying attention. And it may require that we counter the voracious god of Time – Kronos – by slowing down our unconscious responses to the parade of both mental (internal) and environmental (external) imagery that constantly bombards us, or in this context, the military parade.

Learning

A piccolo played, then a drum.
Feet began to come – a part of the music.

Here comes a horse, clippety clop, away.

My mother said, “Don’t run –
the army is after someone other than us.

If you stay you’ll learn our enemy.”

Then he came, the speaker.

He stood in the square. He told us who to hate.

I watched my mother’s face, its quiet.

“That’s him,” she said. – William Stafford

The musical examples I’ve used in this essay are instructive. Consider the emotional difference between the up-tempo When Johnny Comes Marching Home and the slow lament Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye. 

Part of the necessary practice of reframing our myths requires deliberately, and perhaps painfully, sorting out the images and imagining how to perceive them as if they were meant to deepen our soul work instead of reinforcing our nationalist prejudices. One songwriter, Robert Emmet Dunlap, has done just that with the Garryowen tune – by slowing it down and adding new lyrics that put Custer and the Seventh Cavalry into a very different perspective. As Native American writer Vine DeLoria wrote, Custer Died For Your Sins. Reframing Garryowen and the entire mythic framework that it evokes means excavating the emotions of pride, aggression and group identity to find the deep grief that underlies them.

Dunlap explains:

“Mick Ryan’s Lament” is a ghost story about two brothers who escape post-famine Ireland for the Land of the Free, and fight for the Union in the War Between the States. Mick stays in the army and ends up dying with Custer at Little Big Horn; forever haunted by, and to, the tune of “The Garryowen.” (official tune of the 7th Cavalry and the fighting 69th, and God knows how many military units full of Irishmen fighting for flags that were not green, and lands that were not Ireland).

Here are two renditions of Mick Ryan’s Lament:

Here are the lyrics:

Well my name is Mick Ryan, I’m lyin still

In a lonely spot near where I was killed

By a red man defending his native land

In the place that they call Little Big Horn

And I swear I did not see the irony

When I rode with the Seventh Cavalry

I thought that we fought for the land of the free

When we rode from Fort Lincoln that morning

And the band they played the Garryowen

Brass was shining, flags a flowin

I swear if I had only known

I’d have wished that I’d died back at Vicksburg

For my brother and me, we had barely escaped

From the hell that was Ireland in forty eight

Two angry young lads who had learned how to hate

But we loved the idea of Amerikay

And we cursed our cousins who fought and bled

In their bloody coats of bloody red

The sun never sets on the bloody dead

Of those who have chosen an empire

But we’d find a better life somehow

In the land where no man has to bow

It seemed right then and it seems right now

That Paddy he died for the union

Ah, but Michael he somehow got turned around

He had stolen the dream that he thought he’d found

Now I never will see that holy ground

For I turned into something I hated

And I’m haunted by the Garryowen

Drums a beating, bugles blowin’

I swear if I had only known

I’d lie with my brother in Vicksburg

And the band they played that Garryowen

Brass was shin, flags a flowin’

I swear if I had only known,

I’d lie with my brother at Vicksburg

The song is so resonant because in changing the cavalry cadence to a dirge of disillusionment and regret it reverses the upward arc of the hero – and the heroic nation. The American Hero expresses radical individualism, potency, production, infinite growth and racist, manifest destiny. But perhaps he conquers the Others of the world because in saving the world he thinks he can save himself.

Garryowen, after all, is a theme for men who boast, drink, brawl and fight in places where they were never invited. They are the kind of men who can (and did) refer to Viet Nam as “Indian country” and its civilians as “gooks.” And in this context, they were the kind of men who proudly flew the Confederate battle flag in World War Two, Viet Nam and Iraq.

From an indigenous perspective, however, they – and the politicians who send them – are uninitiated men, who attempt to find meaning through the most literal of initiations.

But all indigenous mythologies understand that the Hero must die. That is, he must eventually enter the flames of initiation, shed an outmoded sense of himself and return to be in service to the greater collective. This individualizing process requires that he pass through the realms of reconsideration, regret and remorse. He must die symbolically so that he can be reborn. 

Mick Ryan’s Lament does this by turning an anthem of uninitiated men into a cry of regret for having “turned into something I hated” sung by a ghost. It expresses the pain of any veteran of any colonial war who realizes what he has turned into – or of any soul that has come to consciousness and had its innocence or false identity shattered. It carries those emotions, but it also carries potential, the terrible knowledge that only from such deep loss can any new birth arise. The protagonist’s body lies at the Little Big Horn, but his soul resides among the ancestors. The Hero has died to become one of them. The tragedy is that he had to die literally to do so.

Disillusionment and the death of the Hero can lead to cynicism, self-hatred and, for so many veterans, suicide. But mythology leaves open the possibility of transformation into something greater than the Hero – the archetype of the Warrior.  Psychologists such as Ed Tick  and Jonathan Shay have brought such mythological thinking to their work with war veterans, PTSD and the moral injuries they suffer from. For more on this issue see my essay Myth, Memory and the National Mall.

People can change. If enough people change, a culture can change. Reconciliation is possible. We recall Custer’s massacre of the Cheyenne on the Washita River in 1868. On its 100th anniversary in 1968 (while the 7th Air Cavalry was on active duty in Viet Nam), descendants of the Indian survivors met in a ceremony with descendants of the perpetrators, whose leader told the Cheyenne elders: “We are sorry that ‘Garryowen’ was played that day 100 years ago and never again will it be played against your people.’”

And some versions of Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye have an added, final verse:

They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo
They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo
They’re rolling out the guns again
But they won’t take back our sons again!
No they’ll will never take back our sons again
Johnny, I’m swearing to ye.

This is how we can imagine reframing the myth of American innocence – one image, one song at a time.

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Barry’s Blog # 77: Evolution of a Song, Part One of Two

Part 1 – Framing the Message

Most American men above the age of sixty who learned about masculinity by watching John Wayne movies as children are familiar with this melody without knowing its name, let alone its history. Here it is.

Recognize it? The tune is called “Garryowen,” and it has been featured as a military marching song in several movies, including The Fighting 69th, They Died with their Boots On, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Long Gray Line, Little Big Man, Son of the Morning Star, Gangs of New York, Rough Riders and We Were Soldiers Once… And Young.

But it is far older than Hollywood, and it has a fascinating history. The tune is first documented as an Irish jig, Auld Bessy, in 1788. The word Garryowen combines the proper name Eóghan (“born of the yew tree”) and the word for garden garrai – thus “Eóghan’s Garden.” It refers to the neighborhood of Garryowen (first described in the 13th century) near the city of Limerick, a general rendezvous for those with leisure time on their hands and hell to raise. These young gentlemen amused themselves by vandalizing street lamps, harassing passers-by, beating up workingmen and singing Garryowen:

Let Bacchus’ sons be not dismayed,

But join with me, each jovial blade;

Come booze and sing, and lend your aid,

To help me with the chorus.

CHORUS:

Instead of spa we’ll drink down ale,

And pay the reck’ning on the nail;

No man for debt shall go to jail

From Garryowen in glory,

We are the boys that take delight in

Smashing the Limerick lights when lighting,

Through the streets like sporters fighting

And tearing all before us. (Chorus)

We’ll break windows, we’ll break doors,

The watch knock down by threes and fours;

Then let the doctors work their cures,

And tinker up our bruises. (Chorus)

We’ll beat the bailiffs out of fun,

We’ll make the mayor and sheriffs run;

We are the boys no man dares dun,

If he regards a whole skin. (Chorus)

Our hearts so stout have got us fame,

For soon ’tis known from whence we came;

Where’er we go they dread the name

Of Garryowen in glory. (Chorus)

This drinking song – it calls upon Dionysus, or Bacchus – soon became very popular among British soldiers who, along with these Protestant Irish, were engaged in the centuries-long, settler-colonialist suppression of Catholic Ireland.

A quick look at the lyrics might elicit a “boys will be boys” response. Yes, these “boys” brag of their rowdy but good-natured adolescent behavior (known in other contexts as “gang” behavior), but the deeper meaning is that this is the folk music of privilege. These were sons of the Protestant rulers who knew that they could expect few consequences for their destructive actions. At the same time, in America, the sons of Southern planters enjoyed similar privileges, including the right to rape their slaves. For a contemporary comparison, consider the West Bank area of Palestine, where Jewish settlers abuse their Palestinian neighbors, knowing that they are protected by the Israeli military. This is settler colonialism.

Back in Ireland, the Catholics lost their land and most of them became dirt-poor. Because of their impoverished condition, many generations of their young men had little choice but to join the army and become mercenaries for the very empire that had conquered them. They sang Garryowen in the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War. Later, the tune became associated with a number of British military units, as well as theIrish Regiment of Canada.

But this is an American story. It’s about how we frame the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves.

The Protestant Scots-Irish were one of the largest ethnic groups to settle the American South during the 17th and 18th centuries, some as freemen and thousands of others as indentured servants. Some prospered in the atmosphere of white privilege that they encountered, and they participated in the western migration over the mountains. In the 19th century they formed the backbone of the Confederate army. At least half of all American Presidents have Scots-Irish blood.

The Catholic Irish began to come to America in the 1840’s, as refugees from the Great Famine. The failed revolution of 1848 forced many more of them to emigrate, mostly to the large northern cities, where many joined the U.S. army. Some of them deserted during the Mexican war, formed the “St. Patrick’s Battalion”, fought on the Mexican side and inspired their own songs.

In 1851 they formed the first Irish-American regiment, New York’s 69th, the “Fighting Irish,” made famous by the James Cagney film, The Fighting 69thAnd they brought Garryowen with them as their marching tune.

As they continued to arrive in the 1860’s, thousands found themselves impressed into the Union army almost as soon as they disembarked in New York. Once again, as in Ireland (and as in the next century), the Irish found themselves on opposite sides in a Civil War, which was in large part fought between Irish Protestants of the South and Irish Catholics of the North. The 69th saw considerable action, and many others heard them singing Garryowen.

Another tune popular on both sides was When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Soldiers and civilians sang it as they looked forward to the return of the victorious – and healthy – soldiers:

When Johnny comes marching home again
Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then
Hurrah! Hurrah!
Oh, the men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we’ll all feel gay when
Johnny comes marching home

This song eventually entered the canon of universally acceptable and teachable American pop-folk music. I remember singing it in grammar school in the 1950s ninety years after the end of the war. Its melody is so catchy (in its speeded-up form) that it may be more popular now as a silly children’s tune.

Some say that the song, however, was a rewrite of the much older and much darker Irish lament Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,  which describes the true cost of war on one returning and very damaged soldier and his wife (others disagree, arguing that both songs were created in the 1860s). For another example of the evolution of a song associated with the Civil War, see my essay Driving Dixie Down.

There are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry. – George Armstrong Custer

After the war, many Irish veterans of the 69th joined George Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, bringing their song along with them. In the winter of 1868, a mere three years after they had “fought to make men free”,  they became complicit in destroying the freedom of Native Americans so that Euro-Americans could expand across the continent.

On the Washita River in western Oklahoma, the regimental band played Garryowen to signal the attack on a peaceful Cheyenne village that resulted in a massacre of over 100 Indians.  Eight years later, it was the last tune played as they rode out towards the Little Big Horn.

By that time the narrative of Western expansion, in which benevolent and god-fearing men led a new nation that was morally and physically destined to fill a continent and spread freedom everywhere (deterred only by bloodthirsty savages), was already two hundred years old. But the story of “Custer’s Last Stand”, depicted over the years in some 300 books and 1000 paintings, established its mythic status. And 45 movies and TV shows. 

Hollywood connected Garryowen with John Wayne and made it recognizable to millions by including versions of it in every movie it made about Custer. Here, in They Died With Their Boots On, with Errol Flynn in the lead role, is Warner Brothers’ version of how it was adopted as the quintessential Cavalry soundtrack. Watch the whole three-minute clip to get a full sense of its mythmaking power.

unitcrest

Fourteen years after Custer’s defeat the 7th Cavalry achieved its revenge when it massacred over 300 Lakotas at Wounded Knee in 1890. It went on to serve in all the wars of the 20th century, and to this day it sports this regimental crest.

In 1905, the regiment added their own official lyrics:

We are the pride of the Army

And a regiment of great renown.

Our name’s on the pages of history

From sixty-six on down.

If you think we stop or falter

While into the fray we’re going

Just watch our steps with our heads erect

While our band plays Garryowen.

In the Fighting Seventh’s the place for me,

It’s the cream of all the cavalry;

No other regiment can ever claim

Its pride, honor, glory and undying fame…etc

Popular myth uses the evolution of these men from ethnic outcasts to defenders of the westward expansion to liberators of oppressed people everywhere as a metaphor for the nation itself. The 2006 film Rough Riders uses the (by now) stirringly patriotic Garryowen to show how the nation “healed” the wounds of the Civil War (by rejecting Reconstruction’s attempt to mandate racial equality) and became unified.  As the band plays and the soldiers embark to “liberate” Cuba from Spain, a surprised young Southern boy remarks to his grandfather, a former Confederate, “They’re Yankees.” The old vet proudly responds, “No, they’re Americans!”

The Seventh Cavalry traded in its horses for tanks in World War Two and for helicopters when the U.S. invaded Viet Nam. It became the “Air Cavalry” that was depicted re-enacting its Washita massacre by attacking a “hostile” village in Apocalypse Now. And despite that film’s fictional usage of Ride of the Valkyries, the regiment has retained Garryowen as its official tune. (Actually, that scene may not be totally fictional: the 7th had also perpetrated the massacre at No Gun Ri in Korea in 1950, killing between 200 and 400 civilians).

Regardless, by the end of the 20th century Garryowen had become synonymous with patriotic service in the armed forces, and the name was being used in many contexts. There is a Camp Garry Owen in South Korea, and there was a base Garryowen during the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, the fact that the “Air Cav” has used Garryowen as the soundtrack for a recruitment video is evidence of how familiar it is to young men in this country. The phrase is used as a password in combat conditions. Members of the regiment shout “Garryowen!” to each other, in the same way that Marines shout “Hoo-rah!” It is now the soundtrack for a nation of uninitiated, macho men who have dedicated themselves to killing the Others of the world, to maintain a mythology of exceptionalism and innocence. There is a Garryowen Pub in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The culture of death has an appetite for images, even those images that true artists create. Ronald Reagan co-opted Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA; beer and car companies sponsor tours by musicians; loudspeakers play We will rock you as the bombers take off; CIA torturers blast Heavy Metal into prisons to disorient prisoners; and Jimmie Hendrix’s Voodoo Child is played at boot-camp initiations. Skinheads sell racist rock over the Internet, while misogyny drives much Hip Hop. The volume increases as civic involvement declines.

Our myths, including the myth of American Innocence, are conveyed through images. It is easy enough to understand the effect of graphic images – pictures, film, TV and digital – but sound images also contribute to the regular socialization of the young and the internalization of group norms. Some researchers call this process entrainment, and music is integral to its effect. To feel the impact of Garryowen, simply re-play any of the music video links in this essay and imagine yourself marching to it, along with hundreds of young men desperate for initiation, desperate to serve a cause, any cause. Or, in its 19th century context, image yourself astride a stallion, prancing along to the regimental band with Errol Flynn.

Or: imagine the tune slowed way down in tempo, as we will consider it in Part Two.

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Barry’s Blog # 398: An Epiphany Story

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. – Benjamin Franklin

I was married 18 years, two kids, unfulfilling work; alienated from society, heritage, creativity and former spiritual interests; never cried as an adult, rarely felt either joy or anger; had a cynical, judgmental, self-deprecating sense of humor; was more like my father than I knew, needier for maternal for affection than I knew.

Then my wife had an affair with a musician and the marriage fell apart. I was thrown into an intense midlife crisis. Suddenly, I was crying every day for her, for the family’s breakup, for all the wasted years, for my lost sense of purpose, for an inner child I’d neglected.

Has anyone seen the boy who used to come here?

Round-faced troublemaker,

quick to find a joke, slow to be serious.

Red shirt, perfect coordination, sly, strong muscles,

with things always in his back pocket.

Reed flute, ivory pick, polished and ready for his talent.

You know that one. Have you heard stories about him?

Pharoah and the whole Egyptian world

collapsed for such a Joseph.

I would gladly spend years getting word of him,

even third- or fourth-hand.

– Rumi

I began to realize how much of life I’d missed by hiding in an emotional shell; heard that the only heart worth having is a broken one; heard that in some cases, each partner in a toxic relationship secretly desires for the outbreak of something new, but that only one has the courage to initiate it; started therapy, got Rolfed, did breath work; got more comfortable in my body; went to men’s conferences; got interested in ritual, joined a men’s group; heard Robert Bly talk about Iron John and the hand that reaches out from the pool of the underworld and drags down those who refuse the call to do it themselves; heard him recite Antonio Machado’s poem:

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.
‘In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.’
‘I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.’
‘Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.’
the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
‘What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?’

My men’s group included a guy named Fred, who (even I could see) controlled everything with droning, unexpressive talk whenever anyone got close to real emotion. He showed absolutely no emotion, often causing the rest of us to almost leave our own bodies. You know the type.

One night, just before Thanksgiving, the leader suggested we speak about our childhood memories of the holiday. We went around the circle, sharing all kinds of sad, funny and angry memories. We laughed; some men cried.

Then it was Fred’s turn. He droned on in his boring style for perhaps ten minutes, mentioning some memories that were “pleasant” and others that were “unpleasant” – and then he repeated himself, on and on, it seemed forever. I noticed that none of his memories (and, I realized, nothing he ever told us about himself) were more positive than pleasant, and none were more negative than unpleasant. He’d ensconced himself in that safe cave and banished intensity in any form.

Epiphany: from the Greek epiphaneia, “manifestation, striking appearance, festival held in commemoration of the appearance of a god at some particular place”.

Suddenly, I found myself visualizing that chart you may remember from high school physics class of the spectrum of electromagnetic energy, where the tiny range of visible light is bounded on one side by an infinite space of infrared light and on the other by an equally infinite range of ultraviolet light. All the light we cannot see.


I realized — with a shock that brought tears — that I, like Fred, had lived my forty years never ranging outside that same, thin emotional range of “pleasant to unpleasant.” And for the first time, a year after she’d left me, I silently exclaimed, “Thank God for this divorce!”

Coda: Three years later, I was able to thank my ex directly for having divorced me, that I had not been aware enough to realize how I’d needed profound change, how I’d needed to break out (be broken out) of my masculine conditioning. We started talking. One thing led to another. We cried together, did ritual together, made a funeral for the death of the old marriage. Years later, we got re-married. Many years later, I met the man she’d left me for. He apologized to me for breaking up my marriage, but I thanked him for having done so, for having embodied that God of the epiphany.

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Barry’s Blog # 122: Driving Dixie Down, Part Two of Two

In the Bible Cain slew Abel and East of Eden he was cast. You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past. – Bruce Springsteen

Here is the third Verse of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down:

Like my father before me I will work the land

Like my brother above me who took a rebel stand

He was just 18, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave

I swear by the mud below my feet, you can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.

The ambiguity of the earlier stanzas continues: many people have heard the first line of this verse as “Like my father before me I’m a working man.” Still more: as Virgil sings of his dead brother he makes a pun on the small mischief people used to describe as “raising cane.” But the real issue here is that, by repeating his surname (and his brother’s surname), Virgil evokes another Biblical myth, the original war between brothers that we all know as the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), the model for all subsequent wars.

Cain was the first human to be born and Abel was the first human to die. Cain, refusing to be his “brother’s keeper,” murdered Abel out of envy. Cain had offered “some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.” But God favored the shepherd Abel, who offered “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.”

Was it God, as Robertson sings, who had taken the very best? And when he heard of the subsequent murder, he cast the first curse:

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Still, Cain received a mark of protection from God, who allowed him to marry and have children. In pop music lyrics, however, the mark is usually seen as something negative:

The landed aristocracy, exploiting all your enmity,

All your daddies fought in vain,

Leave you with the Mark of Cain. – Amy Ray, the Indigo Girls

Virgil Caine’s land will no longer support his family; he must chop wood to make ends meet. So we ask again, whom is he addressing when he cries, “You take what you need and leave the rest”? Nine years after The Night, Bruce Springsteen recorded Adam Raised a Cainwhich include the lyrics at the top of Part Two Part Two and the ambiguous image of the father possibly raising a cane to strike his son.

394px-Cain_Henri_Vidal_Tuileries
Cain, by Henri Vidal

Ambiguity and our need to resolve it produces the emotional force that drives some songs and some myths. And there is irony here as well. According to Shi’a Muslim belief, Abel (Arabic: “Habeel”) is buried in the Nabi Habeel Mosque west of Damascus, Syria. Here in 2022 the latest war of brothers continues to rage, a war that would not be happening without American money and armaments.

Below the Cain and Abel story lies another one, as I write in Chapter Nine of my book. Our economic myths follow from our historic assumptions about the infinite resources of an “empty” American land. However,

In truth, modernity assumes scarce resources – fuel, food, education, power, freedom, knowledge and especially love. These assumptions begin in our monolithic creation myth, the expulsion from Eden, and lie, along with the compensating belief in progress, at the core of all western thought. The Old Testament provides occasional visions of plenitude (manna from Heaven); but these are followed by laws and restrictions, which, when disobeyed, result in expulsion. It is, writes (historian Regina) Schwartz, a world “where lying, cheating, stealing, adultery and killing are such tempting responses to scarcity that they must be legislated against.”

Biblical stories of fathers and sons are utterly rooted in scarcity assumptions. Isaac cannot bless both of his sons; apparently there isn’t enough to go around. Forced to compete for the blessing, they establish a pattern in which the father rejects the loser. Earlier, Jehovah preferred Abel’s offering to Cain’s. Even God doesn’t have enough blessing to satisfy everyone. Jealousy, rivalry and murder all follow. This core text of monotheism defines identity as something that is won through competition, at someone else’s expense.

More ambiguity: the line “…but a Yankee laid him in his grave” fits the meter of the song, and it certainly sounds authentically archaic. But Robertson could have written it differently and still fit it into the rhyme and meter. In the context of fratricide – death at the hands of one’s own brother – “laid him in his grave” actually sounds like a gentle act of respect and reverence, a holy ritual. Indeed, the phrase doesn’t clearly indicate that the Yankee had actually killed Virgil’s brother, only that this “proud and brave” teenager was dead. Indeed, as we consider the mythic implications, the “band of brothers” on either side of the firing line have much more in common with each other than they do with the plantation owners and industrialists – the fathers and the father gods – who have set them against each other.

To follow the Biblical tone of the stanza, all we really know is that a jealous god, holder of a very limited capacity for blessing, required – repeatedly – that brothers compete with each other. Why? To prove their worth, or simply for his own amusement? What if history and theology didn’t literalize this image? What if we knew the Latin root of “compete” as “to strive together,” or “to supplicate the gods together”? What we do know is this: that even generations later, Abraham, a member of this same family, would be willing to sacrifice his only son to prove his worth before this same god.

Our American myth of (white) brother-against-brother offers us a seemingly happy ending. The nation was torn asunder and then reborn when Reconstruction ended. But it could only do so by colluding in a newer but equally toxic story in which the original wounds of racism were covered over rather than healed. The wounds sat festering for another hundred years, as I write:

Fratricide perfectly describes the impact of the war upon the American soul, which more than that of any other nation is split against itself. The word evokes such emotion precisely because Americans still hope to heal that split in the psyche. Contemporary battle re-enactments express this longing. Because the issue of race went unresolved, however, the nation achieved only a superficial healing.

We are back to the sacrifice of the innocents, and I invite you to consider the first verse once again: In the winter of ’65. The song does not say eighteen-sixty five. Am I seeing too much here? Of course the song is about the American Civil War, and of course it describes the last year of the war. And yet…Robertson wrote it when the Viet Nam war was at its height, when a hundred Yankees were being laid in their graves every week. And yet…for every American death there were hundreds of Vietnamese deaths. His original 1969 version was followed two years later by the Joan Baez version, which, sung by a woman and civil rights activist, added both pathos and more paradox. Martin, Malcolm and the Kennedys were dead; perhaps, writes Jonah Begone, the song could speak to a larger sense of defeat for the left, a feeling of disappointment of early promise that had gone unfulfilled.

Stoneman’s destruction of Virginia’s infrastructure and burning of its crops, resulting in mass starvation of the civilian population, was a war crime. This is known in international law as “collective punishment” for individual actions. It’s what the Nazis did to countless towns such as Lidice. It’s what the Hebrews did to the population of Jericho when “the walls came tumbling down”, and it’s what their descendants do every time they invade Gaza. 

In 1965 Vietnamese peasants were “just barely alive”. Massive aerial bombardment and spraying of toxic herbicides over huge swaths of the country was amounting to genocide. Americans may be the only nation in history to declare the concept of “free fire zones”, and they may have learned it in 1865.

1965 saw resistance in Viet Nam and also in the streets of Watts, California – a century after the fall of Richmond, the Civil War was still raging. A half-century further on, urban police, the descendants of the Southern slave patrols, with few exceptions, can still murder an unarmed Black man with impunity.

In mythological terms, to “drive Dixie (or anyone) down” is cata-strophic, to be turned away from our obsession with the light, with the gods of the sky, with the myths of growth and national purpose, with the flights of the ego and the spirit, and back towards soul. It is to be humiliated, to return to contact with the humus, the earth.  But it is also to be offered the possibility of grieving, reconciliation and healing.

So the song certainly evokes Hebrew myth (Cain & Abel), Greek myth (Kronos) and American myth (progress, scarcity). And now we can see why the narrator’s first name is Virgil. The Roman poet Virgil is best known for having composed the Aeneid, the epic that tells how Rome was founded by the last survivors of Troy, another city that, like Richmond, invaders had destroyed. A thousand years later, Dante, in The Divine Comedy, chose this same Virgil to be his guide in the underworld, the place of soul-retrieval.

Ultimately, Virgil Caine’s helpless lament is not only for the South. It is for America’s soul, and this is why The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down remains such an emotionally powerful piece of art. In a culture that continues to deny death, that condemns a quarter of its children into poverty, that refuses (like the Southern oligarchs) to accept that its time is over, that enacts the old myths of the sky gods at every opportunity, that is (in W.S. Merwin’s words) “up to its chin in shame, living in the stench it has chosen”, that has so few grief songs, we need to hear it and sing it out loud.

We need to think about Joshua Chamberlain, a general in the Union Army and hero of the Gettysburg meatgrinder, wounded six times.  He was present at the awesome spectacle of Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9th, 1865, a week after “Richmond had fell.” He looked closely, perhaps for the first time, at those starving “Jonnie Rebs” who so recently had been on the other side of the firing line:

Before us in proud humiliation stood…men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now…thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond…What visions thronged as we looked into each other’s eyes!…On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer…but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!…How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!…For they were fellow-soldiers as well, suffering the fate of arms…We could not look into those brave, bronzed faces…and think of personal hate and mean revenge…Forgive us, therefore, if from stern, steadfast faces eyes dimmed with tears gazed at each other…

A fine place to end. But one Confederate general refused to join the ritual of reconciliation:

You may forgive us, but we won’t be forgiven. There is a rancor in our hearts which you little dream of. We hate you, sir.

One hundred and fifty-seven years later, we admit that the South really didn’t lose the Civil War and that the Lost Cause myth is still alive. Many Southerners see The Night and other songs such as Sweet Home Alabama and I’m A Good Old Rebel as emblems of regional pride.

However, a study of history and psychology should also remind us that it took – and continues to take – massive amounts of money and continuous, overwhelming marketing to manipulate the white working class into ignoring their own best economic interests and the possibility of solidarity with other oppressed people in favor of the politics of hatred. This fact alone should remind us that people are not inherently biased against each other. We have to be taught to hate.

And not all Southerners are charged by the old myths. One challenge for an artist, especially one born to privilege, is to reframe them, or in this case to re-write song lyrics, as Early James did with The Night. 

In the first verse, he changes a time I remember oh so well to a time to bid farewell. His version of the chorus, instead of mourning that downfall, is Tonight, we drive old Dixie down. 

Most notably, in his final verse, he rejects both the Lost Cause and the myth of the Killing of the Children:

Unlike my father before me, who I will never understand
Unlike the others below me, who took a rebel stand
Depraved and powered to enslave
I think it’s time we laid hate in its grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
That monument won’t stand, no matter how much concrete…

What do we conclude from all this? We need as many grief songs as we can find. We need to constantly interrogate our mythic productions (including popular music) and reframe them for our children. And as for our history of demonizing the “Other”, I like what the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said: “There are no others.”

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Barry’s Blog # 121: Driving Dixie Down, Part One of Two

Na na na nana na, nana na na na nana na na…

Why does  The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down continue to move us over 50 years after The Band first recorded it?

The fact that so many people continue to debate its meaning online (see links here, herehere and here) is a mirror of America’s ongoing uncertainty about the motives of the Civil War’s opposing sides, of its resolution and of its meaning for our time. In other words, the war (and the Viet Nam war during which The Night was composed) is still not over.

Music critic Ralph Gleason wrote:

Nothing I have read…has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is ‘The Red Badge of Courage’. It’s a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon (Helms) and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity.

Even though the lyrics might play a bit loose with the truth, we’re talking about emotional authenticity. And for this reason, The Night has always been particularly challenging for progressive people, because it forces us to consider the internal experience of someone most of us would have considered an enemy. It forces us into a confrontation between our politics and our innate empathy for those who suffer.

In a mere three verses, the song evokes a fundamental aspect of American myth, with all its complexity and ambiguity, the war of brother against brother. And that story in turn directs us to a similar conflict within every soul. Every American is – or should be – struggling with the paradox of identity, between our national ideals and the realities of our actual behavior in the world.

But it condenses its tragic nature into the story of one Confederate veteran, Virgil Caine, who makes no claim for anyone else, a man who is clearly too poor to have ever owned slaves. Indeed, the song never mentions race, slavery, state’s rights or the issue of secession. He simply wants us to understand, writes Greil Marcus, “…that the war has cost him everything he has.”

It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Caine’s, could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can’t get out from under the singer’s truth – not the whole truth, simply his truth – and the little autobiography closes the gap between us. The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our oppositions, every American still shares this old event; because to this day, none of us has escaped its impact. What we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one.

In the first verse we learn:

 Virgil Caine is my name and I served on the Danville train

Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again

In the winter of ’65 we were hungry, just barely alive

By May the 10th Richmond had fell, it was a night I remember oh so well.

Chorus:

 The night they drove old Dixie down and all the bells were ringing

The night they drove old Dixie down and all the people were singing

They went, Na nana…

Caine remembers the winter of 1865, close to the end of the war, when his unit unsuccessfully attempted to stop Union General Stoneman’s scorched earth strategy of destroying all crops and resources (tore up the tracks again) that might have enabled the Confederacy to defend its capital. Historian Bruce Catton writes:

(Ulysses S.) Grant’s instructions were grimly specific. He wanted the rich farmlands so thoroughly despoiled that the place could no longer support a Confederate army; he told (General Phillip) Sheridan to devastate the whole area so thoroughly that a crow flying across the Valley would have to carry its own rations…Few campaigns in the war aroused more bitterness than this one.

David Powell writes:

Even though Stoneman, on the surface, may appear to be just a footnote in the history of the Civil War, in that part of the U.S. where the borders of Tennessee, North Carolina & Virginia meet, his name lives in infamy. The exploits of his plundering cavalry troops in the last days of a defeated Confederacy are still a part of local legend.

The siege of Richmond lasted ten months. Before retreating on April 2nd, the Confederate Army set much of the city on fire to deny Union troops any usable resources. The overcrowded civilian population was starving. (May 10 marked the capture of President Jefferson Davis.)

richmond-virginia

Can we – are we willing to – imagine the suffering? Does it matter that these people had supported a cruel and unjust system? Does it matter that Americans then and now often prefer not to experience grief but rather to turn it into denial, resentment and racialized victimization?

A full assessment of that moment must include the African American voice. Garland White was chaplain to the 28th Indiana Colored Volunteers, the first Federal soldiers to enter the burning city:

A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him…We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis’s mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose…The excitement at this period was unabated, the tumbling of walls, the bursting of shells, could be heard in all directions, dead bodies being found, rebel prisoners being brought in, starving women and children begging…I was with them, and am still with them, and am willing to stay with them until freedom is proclaimed throughout the world.

But suffering is suffering. Back with his wife in Tennessee, Virgil Caine is not concerned with retribution or punishment. He merely asks us to know his despair.

That despair, however, is set within a mythic theme: The Lost Cause. For generations after the war, white Southerners, in an extended but highly selective memory, mourned the destruction of a noble, refined, chivalrous “way of life.” The myth explained their military defeat with a story that only the North’s massive numerical and industrial force could overwhelm the South’s superior military skill, gallantry and courage. The myth, of course, does not care to examine the underlying causes of the war. That’s one reason why it still retains such emotional resiliency.

It had, claimed this myth, not been a fair fight. It had, however, been a four-year slaughter that expressed a different and much older narrative. The armies, predicting the far greater destruction to come in 1914, were enacting the old myth of the sacrifice of the children. As I write in Chapter Eight of my book Madness at the Gates of the City, the Myth of American Innocence:

War became impersonal and industrialized, with the objective of maximizing the killing. But even though technology had changed things irrevocably, tactics didn’t change; old men sent young men marching in closed ranks against massed cannonry and repeating rifles. Six hundred thousand died and 500,000 were wounded, in a country of thirty million. One-fifth of the South’s adult white male population perished.

A hundred and fifty years later, we wonder why several hundred thousand dirt-poor whites who couldn’t afford to own slaves defended this cause so savagely. We must conclude that they fought not to save slavery (which was against their own economic interests), but to perpetuate white privilege. It was all they had.

We could also ask why the descendants of these people continue to vote against their own economic interests, and we have to conclude, as I did here, that the fear of losing their white privilege remains their primary motivation. We could also ask whether the South actually won the war.

The song, however, says nothing of these things. To Virgil’s credit, we can assume that his primary motivation had been simply to defend his family. And he had been unsuccessful. The South was the only American region to ever undergo occupation by an enemy power. Below the glorious myth of the Lost Cause, there remained a deep sense of crushing, humiliating defeat, followed by the Reconstruction period, during which, in many cases, Black men actually governed white men.

Robertson (a Canadian and a Native American) writes of his first visits to the South in the late 1950s – when local White people feared that once again a beautiful system might be disrupted, this time by the Civil Rights movement:

I remember that a quite common expression would be, “Well don’t worry, the South’s gonna rise again.” At one point when I heard it I thought it was kind of a funny statement and then I heard it another time and I was really touched by it. I thought, “God, because I keep hearing this, there’s pain here, there is a sadness here.”

Second Verse:

 Back with my wife in Tennessee when one day she called to me

`Virgil, quick come see, there goes Robert E. Lee’

Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood and I don’t care if the money’s no good

You take what you need and leave the rest, but they should never have taken the very best.

There is deliberate ambiguity here. Does his wife see the fabled General Lee himself riding by their Tennessee farm – or is the steamboat “Robert E. Lee” passing by on the river? It really depends on which record you hear. On The Band’s final recording of the song (the film The Last Waltz), Levon Helm seems to be adding a “the” in front of the General’s name:

In any event, Virgil seems to have a brief, final glimpse or memory of the man who personified the cause, the officer he once would have died for. But the memory soon fades, and he is left with the grim reality of having to chop wood (probably for someone else) for a living, because his Confederate dollars are worthless.

But the vision of the great man has stimulated something else. Exactly whom is Virgil addressing when he laments, “You take what you need and leave the rest”? The Northern soldiers and carpetbaggers? A generalized “you”? Himself? I don’t think so. I think that he’s addressing General Lee and all of his generation on both sides, all of the politicians, industrialists, plantation owners, clergy, newspapermen and anyone else among the  fathers who sat comfortably in their armchairs as their sons marched into the furious cannonades at Gettysburg, where over fifty thousand were killed or injured in three days.

He is addressing the great God Kronos, who heard a prophesy that one of his sons would overthrow him and attempted to eat them all to prevent that from happening.

“…They should never have taken the very best,” wails Virgil, thinking undoubtedly of his brother who will die in the third verse. What Virgil doesn’t understand, however, is that the point, the very essence of human sacrifice is in fact to offer up the very best of the younger generations to the infinite hunger of the gods of the new order. How else to justify the madness of history but through such sacrifice: It must have been worth it! Look what we gave up!

Read Part Two here.

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Barry’s Blog # 397: Do Black Lives Really Matter? Part Two of Two

You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And, furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin

White Americans need to interrogate ourselves and our deepest-held values. We will never begin to find healing until we understand why police everywhere in America apparently feel free to murder POC in broad daylight – knowing full well that their actions are being recorded by bystanders with cell phones. In 2014, as I was considering the terrible possibility of state-sanctioned human sacrifice, people everywhere were chanting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” We don’t hear those words anymore; they’ve been replaced by “Black lives matter!” Why? Because the earlier chant was ironic; it was intended (like the old chants of the Civil Rights movement) to shame the nation into moral action.

But in this dark time, as a third of us still support the con man Trumpus, as the Supreme Court is about to take abortion rights away and as several Republican legislatures are gerrymandering and vote-suppressing their way to taking over Congress, we have become, quite simply, shameless.

And we as a nation appear to have no shame about our institutions of social control. Once, we believed that democratic institutions were intended to encourage our highest potentials. But over our lifetimes, as great holes have appeared in the myth of American innocence, it has become clear that those institutions – politics, education, religion, the courts, entertainment – exist to bring out the worst in us. And in the case of policing, this seems to have been a deliberate process from the beginning.

My article, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: The Sacrifice of American Dionysus” takes a deep dive into the mythological and sociological roots of this question.

We need the mythological dimension for our analysis. When we think in terms of the myths that govern our thinking at the deepest levels and provide a sense of identity in fast-changing times, it is difficult not to conclude that Black lives do matter – but only as the “Other”. To perpetuate the sense of White American innocence, the nation will always need a dark, demonized Other to measure its own lightness by. In religious terms, we need to know, to see exactly who we have deemed unworthy of being saved in order to convince ourselves that we – White folks – are among the elect. This is the essentially religious assumption at the base of American identity that I address in Chapter Seven of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence.

As our own repressed awareness gnaws at us, it gets harder and harder to ignore who we are and what we as a nation have done. So we, like the Aztecs of the 16th century, push away the guilt more and more often by killing more and more Others. We need the Other. Black lives matter. What would America do if it didn’t have them available?

If we have to, let’s reduce this to simple economic terms, supply and demand. What would defense contractors do if all the “terrorists” gave up and went away? What would the security and prison industries do if the government ended the War on Drugs? What would the cancer industry do if it acknowledged the many proven and inexpensive cures that already exist? What would happen to Big Pharma’s stockholders if their drugs actually defeated disease? Or Big Insurance, if we switched to single payer? Or Big Oil, if we got serious about reversing global warming?

What would happen to the American Empire and its generals if young people lost interest in sacrificing themselves for “freedom”?

What would happen to the whole, wasteful, soul-killing edifice of consumerism if, as the 18th-century poet Novalis wrote,

When geometric diagrams and digits

Are no longer the keys to living things,

When people who go about singing or kissing

Know deeper things than the great scholars,

When society is returned once more

To unimprisoned life, and to the universe,

And when light and darkness mate

Once more and make something entirely transparent,

And people see in poems and fairy tales

The true history of the world,

Then our entire twisted nature will turn

And run when a single secret word is spoken.

Cui bono: follow the money. Of course, the “defense” and “security” and “penal” industries are making billions off our fear of Black men. But this goes deeper; it’s about identity, how we define ourselves in terms of the Other. The simple truth is that, to remain “America,” this nation requires a population of people perceived as deservedly suffering, and therefore evil Others within the borders just as it needs an identifiably evil population of terrorist Others lurking outside the borders. I don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that just as we – we – are reducing voting rights for POC, Congress has just given the military an even larger budget than they asked for, even though the occupation of Afghanistan has ended, and that the Biden administration is provoking nuclear confrontation in three separate areas of the world. 

Now we can revisit that question of “All lives matter.” In the relentless, cold logic of late capitalism, no lives matter, unless they can be forced into one of the few square holes of the system: consumer, producer, entertainer (which includes almost all politicians, academics, journalists and news networks), prisoner, scapegoat or killer-enforcer. Life itself is of no value except as a natural resource.

Back in 2015, many progressive people were willing to deny what was right in front of their eyes. The mere existence of a Black president, even one who served Wall Street, Israel and the Pentagon, was enough for them to keep hope alive.  Now no rational person can pretend that the worst proponents of White supremacy have not received permission to burst out of the national unconscious.

So here, sadly, is the ultimate answer to the question of Black lives mattering: of course they matter, in the value they offer to this upsurge of hatred. Every time a cop kills an unarmed Black person – especially when the crime is recorded – and goes unpunished, the message goes out to the haters (those who hate themselves so profoundly that they must transfer that hate onto the Other) that they can go out and do something similar without fear of reprisal or punishment. They know that representatives of the National Security State, from local prosecutors (as in the Arbery case) to the White House, will protect them.

I’d like to offer something positive, and here is the only thing I can think of: societies engage in mass human sacrifice when their mythic worlds are collapsing. Think Aztecs, Nazis, Hawaiians (yes, Hawaiians).  We can’t yet see what the new mythology will look like. But as America turns its violent gaze back upon its old, tried-and-true human scapegoat, we know that the old story no longer works for most of us.

Memorial at Oakland’s Lake Merritt

I won’t live long enough to see the new story emerge fully. Perhaps my grandchildren will. And I know that even that statement is an expression of white privilege.

Meanwhile, seeing young people offering their visions through slam poetry is one of the few things that gives me hope. But to be in their presence requires being present, as they tell their grief in hopes that we are listening. The most emotionally moving poem I heard at the Slam festival was told by a black woman who phones her brother every day – just to find out if he is still alive.

More articles of mine 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 

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 # 145: Do Black Lives Really Matter? Part One of Two

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What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness. The human being, then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats his crimes, and enters a spiritual darkness which no one can describe. – James Baldwin

Back in 2015, before the White public became familiar with the long litany of murdered Black people from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor to Ahmaud Arbery, I attended several performances of the National Poetry Slam in Oakland. Over 400 young people in 72 teams from around the country spilled their guts in highly sensitive, creative, politically-charged, original poetry. No one read their poems; they all recited, often weeping with shamelessly strong emotion. To get a sense of what they were doing, check out www.youtube.com/user/ButtonPoetry or www.YouthSpeaks.com.

Most of the performers were people of color, and many were gender-non-conforming. The most common theme was grief and anger over the continuing police killings of hundreds of unarmed people, and not just of men. This website lists fifty women of color killed by police since 2015.

I want you to know that when one of the poets spoke of “human sacrifice,” everyone in the audience knew exactly what he meant.

Six years later, I suspect that most POC would agree that the situation has not improved but worsened, despite those rare events when justice is served. So perhaps it’s time to ask, “Do Black lives matter?”

For starters, if you are one of those well-meaning but innocent people who has resonated with the phrase “all lives matter,” please read this or this, and subscribe to Tim Wise’s essays.

Every 28 hours, an African-American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American or Latino is shot dead by a police officer, a security guard or a self-appointed vigilante. Year after year, 80% of the victims are unarmed, and almost none of the perpetrators are prosecuted, let alone punished. The Arbery case was an exception that came to light 74 days after his death only because the White murderers freely shared their own snuff video.

When this happens to white people, you can chant “All lives matter”. Until then, please show some respect.

A Google search on this subject finds plenty of posts, all by conservatives, that claim to refute those numbers. Sure, let’s play their game: what if the true figure was only 50% of that claim of 28 hours? Should we be any less ashamed that such police-on-Black homicides occur only every 56 hours?

This is mostly unrelated to the sobering statistics on intra-ethnic violence. Father Gregory Boyle (read his books) writes that in Los Angeles alone there were over a thousand gang-related homicides in the peak year of 1992. Those numbers plummeted for several years, but Oakland and a dozen other cities have seen record increases in the past two years, due primarily to massive job losses caused by the Covid pandemic. This kind of violence has always followed the unemployment statistics. As his Homeboy Industries t-shirts say, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job”.

But we are talking here about the first kind of violence, sanctioned in almost all cases by the state, either by its hired agents “fearing for their lives”,  or as legalized “Stand Your Ground” shootings by White civilians,  but not by Black civilians.

No one with a heart and access to a real education can open him- or herself to the reality of racialized violence in this nation and not agree that Black lives matter – that is, anyone who can still retain the basic human empathy that they were born with. I’d like to think that this category includes the vast majority of Americans, even most of those who have been so dehumanized by the economy, the propaganda machine and the victim-blaming heritage of Protestantism as to support the con men who promise to relieve their anxiety with the rhetoric of hate and gun ownership.

Unfortunately, however, I’m not talking about actual, feeling human beings; I’m talking now about those sociopaths who control the reins of power at the corporate, media and political levels, the ones who authorize and encourage everything from racial profiling policies such as “Stop and Frisk” to organized gangs of White supremacist cops.

I’m talking about advanced capitalism in a world of military madness, tightened budgets, and lowered expectations; a world – or at least a nation – where the population greatly exceeds the number of available jobs.

From this point of view, the American population includes a very large number of essentially useless people. These are people who have no marketable skills in what has become a primarily service economy and – because of an irrelevant education system  and the exporting of production to the Third World – will never have those skills.

In the eyes and schemes of our corporate masters, such people can be allowed to exist mainly as cannon fodder or as consumers. But a person without a job doesn’t qualify as a consumer. So millions of them, primarily POC, have become, quite simply, expendable.

Capitalism no longer needs them as it needed their grandparents who worked the factory jobs that once sustained a middle class. Those jobs still exist, of course, but – since the 1970s – mostly in the Third World.

From the strictly rational point of view of economics, whether liberal or libertarian, it makes no difference whatsoever if people starve or murder each other on the streets, with one exception: they can still fill our prisons. In this sense, they are neither producers nor consumers; they are the raw material, the natural resource (exactly like oil or slave-produced cotton) without which our massive and lucrative prison-industrial complex could not exist.

But please don’t allow yourself to think that these sociopaths act in a vacuum. They are the extreme expression of our American mythology. They act in our name.

They act in our name in other places as well, such as Israel, where those who manage the ongoing blockade of Gaza brag that they have calculated the precise, minimum amount of calories a Palestinian person can be allowed to consume before starvation sets in, and set their import restrictions accordingly.

Do Palestinian lives matter? For thirty years the U.S. government has subsidized a program in which over a thousand police officers and corporate security executives have received training by the Israeli military. Clearly, the aim of cops in both countries is similar: periodically killing large numbers of their minorities, literally keeping their numbers down to manageable levels. The Israelis call this policy “mowing the lawn.” 

In our name.

Read Part Two here.

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Barry’s Blog # 396: The Family Curse, Part Nine of Nine

To be born is to be weighed down with strange gifts of the soul, with enigmas and an inextinguishable sense of exile. – Ben Okri

… wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance, long difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself from the endless repetition of the mistake, which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify. – D. H. Lawrence 

Alternative Stories

Like all the great myths, this story generated countless variants. The Athenians claimed that their ancestors had shunned the tormented Orestes, forcing him to do his drinking alone. Much later, they incorporated this memory into the celebration of their Anthesteria festival, as if to imply that even after the verdict of innocence, the Furies still followed him.

Anthesteria

This aspect of public ritual seems to fit the massive paradox of a civilization – not unlike our own – that praised individual freedom, equality and philosophical enquiry but was in fact a brutal empire that couldn’t function without slave labor.

In another story, Orestes killed Aletes, son of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, took the throne of Mycenae and married their daughter Erigone, who bore a son named Penthilus. Some say the child was killed by wolves, and that his father established a festival of mourning, the Penthilia, in his honor. Others say he (the ninth generation) survived, founded a city and became the ancestor to another dynasty of kings. Others assert that Erigone brought Orestes to another trial for the murder of her mother and hanged herself when he was acquitted.

Still others said that Menelaus and Helen’s daughter Hermione (“Harmony”) had been betrothed to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus. Orestes killed him and married Hermione, who bore him a son, Tisamenus (another member of the ninth generation). Orestes then gave Electra as wife to Pylades, and both couples lived in peace. In this version, Orestes lived to a very old age and died, curiously, of a snakebite (on his heel, like Achilles). Bly notes another tale:

…Orestes, while being pursued by the Furious Invisible Women, after he murdered his mother, bit off a finger and threw it at them; when they saw that, some of them turned white, and left him alone.

Perhaps the finger symbolizes not phallic potency but the brittle masculine armoring that veils the insecurities of those who haven’t cut the maternal chord. Finally, writes Calasso,

…years later, people came to look for his bones, for much the same reason that had prompted other people to look for the bones of his grandfather Pelops.

Grief , Suffering and Redemption

We recall Jung’s statement that all neurosis is but a substitute for legitimate suffering. Cutting past neurotic suffering (our vast arrays of compulsions, addictions, and dysfunctional styles) to legitimate, or authentic suffering, we open to the possibility of attaining knowledge, and we are back to Aeschylus:  “Justice so moves that those only learn who suffer.” And what moves us from neurotic suffering to legitimate suffering to knowledge is the active decision to open up to grief.

Just as there are two forms of suffering, there are two forms of grief. In the first, we grieve what has happened to us, what we have lost, never had or know we will lose in the future. Francis Weller, in The Wild Edge of Sorrowwrites that any of us can enter the great communal hall of grief through any of five gates:

1 – Everything We Love, We Will Lose

2 – The Places That Have Not Known Love

3 – The Sorrows of the World

4 – What We Expected and Did Not Receive

5 – Ancestral Grief

If we can learn to walk the fine line between numbness and acting out, if we can withstand the temptation to pass the energy onward to others, our grief can lead to healing. The emotion associated with this form of grief is shame. Initiation into adulthood offers the possibility of transmuting this shame into self-esteem.

With the one exception of Niobe, none of Orestes’ ancestors grieved their personal losses or pain. No one cried out that their parents “ate” their individuality, abused them, neglected them, or used them as surrogate spouses. Since children believe that their pain was their own fault, perhaps this is the original cause of neurotic suffering.

The second major form of grief rises from guilt for the harm we have done. We grieve the consequences of our (or our group’s, community’s, nation’s, race’s, etc.) actions upon others (exterior or interior). We accept that we did something wrong, not that we are something wrong.  We have acted wrongly, we admit the guilt, and we grieve. Theologically, we have sinned, and hope for redemption through repentance. So, to simplify, we grieve that others have sinned against us, or we grieve because we have sinned against others.  And no one in the Oresteia or any of its preceding generations has accepted the terrible burden of either of these griefs until we meet Orestes and Electra.

These two forms of grief meet in the murder of Clytemnestra. The mother-complex will keep a man from experiencing his original wounds, what happened to him. Ideally, cutting through to that core (work facilitated by the male initiators) releases the bound up energy that leads to both painful knowledge and healing.

But separation from the mother risks separation from the feminine in its positive aspects as well. It really is a choice of the lesser of two evils. The major part of Orestes’ grief is the second kind, an acknowledgement of guilt, a cry of remorse for what he had to do.

Bly taught that there is a component of grief in the male psyche which is not present to the same degree in the female. Perhaps this is what he meant: men, to grow up, must give up their deepest emotional attachment, the most important thing they have. And for this reason, they must endure a guilt, and a grief, that women, for all their sorrows, don’t know, because they generally do identify with their mothers. In time, men may re-establish a relationship to that inner feminine, but that is a different initiation and calls for different stories. Perhaps the fact that Athena is the arbiter of Orestes’ fate indicates that his healing path will ultimately achieve a balance between the feminine and the masculine.

We also note that the Athenians had a word for those who refused to participate in public life: idiota. Perhaps Aeschylus was also describing the condition of those who act in the realm of politics, who must continually compromise between evils, where the perfect too often is the enemy of the good.

I’ve quoted Bly often to emphasize that participants in the men’s conferences that he began have confronted these issues for two generations. He always insisted on the active nature of grief. After spending lifetimes searching for pleasure and avoiding pain, at some point we must decide to go down into grief. Bly distinguished grief from depression using an image from the old story Iron John: if we refuse the imperative to descend, a hand may come up from the water, grab us, and pull us down, perhaps for good. That, said Bly, is depression. If we choose to go down, however, we retain the option of someday choosing to come back up. In this spirit, Orestes chose one kind of death so that his real life could begin. 

Bly emphasized that the development of male consciousness is a spiral movement, as men go through the various stages of initiation incompletely, sometimes embodying several stages at once. In this continual returning, the mother complex is not murdered in a single stroke of a sword:

For Hamlet it meant giving up the immortality or the safe life promised to the faithful mother’s son, and accepting the risk of death always imminent in the father’s realm…When a man has reclaimed his grief and investigated his wound, he may find that they resemble the grief and the wound his father had, and the reclaiming puts him in touch with his father’s soul…Moving to the father’s world does not necessarily mean rejecting the mother or shouting at her – Hamlet is off in that respect – but rather the movement involves convincing the naive boy…to die. Other interior boys remain alive; this one dies…But independence from the mother’s womb world goes in agonizingly slow motion for developing men. One wants to run, but the legs will not move. We wake exhausted.

However, concludes Alice Miller,

That probably greatest of narcissistic wounds – not to have been loved just as one truly was – cannot heal without the work of mourning…When the patient, in the course of his analysis, has consciously repeatedly experienced (and not only learned from the analyst’s interpretations) how the whole process of his bringing-up did manipulate him in his childhood, and what desires for revenge this has left him with, then he will see through manipulation quicker than before and will himself have less need to manipulate others. Such a person will be able to join groups without again becoming helplessly dependent or bound…in less danger of idealizing people or systems…a person who has consciously worked through the whole tragedy of his own fate will recognize another’s suffering more clearly and quickly…He will not be scornful of another’s feelings, whatever their nature, because he can take his own feelings seriously. He surely will not help to keep the vicious circle of contempt turning.

This is our dual condition, as told in the myths: It’s always been this way – and healing is possible. The bad news is that the old initiation rituals are nearly gone. More than ever, the most powerful people are deeply wounded, desperate to deny their pain by passing it on to others, and willing to destroy all life in the process.

The good news is that we have never lost the ability to imagine, and that we have greater access to old wisdom than our parents had. Anthropologist Angeles Arrien used to teach a guided meditation from her Basque tradition:

Imagine seven generations of your male ancestors emerging from the underworld to stand behind your right shoulder. Imagine seven generations of your female ancestors behind your left shoulder. Imagine that as you enter the fire of initiation, they are speaking with great excitement to each other:

Oh, may this be the one who will bring forward the good, true and beautiful in our family lineage. Will this be the one to break the harmful family or cultural patterns? Oh may this be the one to break the curse! May it be so!

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Barry’s Blog # 395: The Family Curse, Part Eight of Nine

Sing sorrow, sorrow, but good wins out in the end – Aeschylus

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. – Richard Rohr

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

The Eumenides

In the final play of the trilogy Orestes, pursued by the Furies, traveled from Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi to Athens. The gods had referred his fate to Athena and a jury of mortal men. When their vote came out even, the Goddess cast the tie-­breaking vote in favor of Orestes, and the Furies were propitiated by a new religious cult.

How do we resolve the conflict between fate and justice? The Furies (or Erinyes in their primitive form) argued that fear consequent on wrongdoing is the basis of law, humility and respect, that without loyalty to kin there is chaos; while Apollo, defending Orestes, appealed to duty. The play also presents a secondary theme, the older, matriarchal order vs. the newer, patriarchal one. The Furies, bloodthirsty in their desire for revenge, insisted on the fact against the idea, ignoring Orestes’ motivations. Apollo responded with arrogance and threats. Richard Lattimore describes the resolution:

Athene, whose nature reconciles female with male, has a wisdom deeper than the intelligence of Apollo. She clears Orestes but concedes to the detested Furies what they had not known they wanted, a place in the affections of a civilized community of men, as well as in the divine hierarchy. There, gracious and transformed though they are, their place in the world is still made potent by the unchanged base of their character…Man cannot obliterate, and should not repress, the unintelligible emotions. Or again, in different terms, man’s nature being what it is and Fury being a part of it, Justice must go armed with Terror before it can work…Thus, through the dilemma of Orestes and its resolution, the drama of the House of Atreus was transformed into a grand parable of progress. Persuasion…has been turned to good by Athene as she wins the Furies to accept of their own free will a new and better place in the world.

But we continue to ask, in which direction does the energy move? Who are these women? “Fury” comes from the Latin “to rage”. They may represent a part of ourselves that rages against other parts of ourselves. The Erinyes, according to Hesiod, were the daughters of Earth and sprang from the blood of the mutilated Ouranos. Aeschylus calls them daughters of Night. In Sophocles, they are daughters of Darkness and Earth. Their names are Alecto (unceasing in anger), Tisiphone (avenger of murder) and Megaera (Jealous). They rise from their home below to punish the worst transgressions.

The underworld is the unconscious. The Erinyes emerge from the deep self, forcing themselves upon ego consciousness with vitally important messages, although the whole history of humans and gods as told in these eight generations describe our infinitely varied attempts to ignore them. The messages are simple: Something is terribly wrong here! You have unfinished business to deal with.

We may experience them variously as guilt or shame, depending on whether we feel, deep inside, that we have done something wrong, or that we are something wrong. All our ego defenses are attempts to avoid these feelings and the pain that arises with them. However, as we have noted, since they present us with the reality of our original childhood wounds, they also offer opportunities for healing.

As above, so below. Orestes’ struggle mirrored the earlier experience of his initiator Apollo, who had also confronted the female principle. He had come to Delphi as a child, where he killed Python, its original guardian, and expiated his crime by serving the mortal Admetus for eight years. Apollo knew a thing or two about restitution, or restorative justice.

But Orestes experienced the symbolic death of his old self and the descent into madness.

Perhaps his grief was not merely for himself but for both his criminal ancestors and his descendants. (We recall the Native American Haudenosaunee /Iroquois tradition that the decisions we make should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.) Yet only after years of atonement would Athena and the elders of Athens judge him as sufficiently transformed to be admitted to the community of mature adults, the polis.

How has time moved?  At the beginning of the play, Apollo’s priestess described the tormented Orestes, surrounded by the sleeping Furies “with blood dripping from his hands and from a new-drawn sword.” But the implication is that much time has passed. In myth, one day can equal many of our years, wrote Edith Hamilton:

When next he came to his country, years had passed. He had been a wanderer in many lands, always pursued by the same terrible shapes. He was worn with suffering, but in his loss of everything men prize there was a gain too. “I have been taught by misery,” he said. He had learned that no crime was beyond atonement, that even he, defiled by a mother’s murder, could be made clean again…the black stain of his guilt had grown fainter and fainter through his years of lonely wandering and pain.

The Erinyes arose from their sleep for one final dispute. Or perhaps if healing occurs in a spiral pattern, they arise periodically as the initiate approaches each new stage. Having directed Orestes to flee to “Pallas’ Citadel” (Athens), Apollo prophesied that suffering will turn intelligence into wisdom:

Thus you will be rid of your afflictions, once for all. For it was I who made you strike your mother down.

Apollo claimed that “the wanderer has rights which Zeus acknowledges.” The movement is from the head-intelligence he symbolizes to the heart-wisdom of Athena.

Orestes was, in a sense, playing with fire, evoking his devils along with his angels. The Erinyes could shift back and forth from guilt-messengers to shame-messengers:

Cursed suppliant, he shall feel against his head another murderer rising out of the same seed.

In the final scene, Orestes came as a suppliant to the statue of Athena on the Acropolis,

…blunted at last, and worn and battered on the outland habitations and the beaten ways of men.

The Furies threatened to drag him down to Hades, but Orestes responded that he had already experienced the most profound suffering:

I have been beaten and been taught. I understand the many rules of absolution, where it is right to speak and where be silent. In this action now speech has been ordered by my teacher, who is wise. The stain of blood dulls now and fades upon my hand. My blot of matricide is being washed away. When it was fresh still, at the hearth of the god, Phoebus (Apollo), this was absolved and driven out by sacrifice of swine, and the list were long if I went back to tell of all I met who were not hurt by being with me. Time in his aging overtakes all things alike.

Orestes had accomplished the initiatory transition from “Hero” to “Warrior”. Robert Moore described these two archetypes:

There is much confusion about the archetype of the Hero…The Hero is, in fact, only an advanced farm of Boy psychology – the most advanced form, the peak, actually, of the masculine energies of the boy, the archetype that characterizes the best in the adolescent stage of development. Yet it is immature, and when it is carried over into adulthood as the governing archetype, it blocks men from full maturity…the Hero is overly tied to the mother (and) has a driving need to overcome her.

By contrast, the Warrior is an aspect of mature, initiated masculinity, capable of protective, restrained, aggressive action in the service of a transpersonal goal:

When the Warrior is connected with the King, he is consciously stewarding the “realm,” and his decisive actions, clarity of thinking, discipline and courage are, in fact, creative and generative.

“The list were long” of those whom Orestes had met and not harmed. Though fully capable of aggressively passing on the energy, he had remained focused on his goal of transformation through grief. By the beginning of the play, Orestes had already achieved his healing. The trial that followed merely confirmed this truth:

lt is the law that the man of the bloody hand must speak no word until, by action of one who can cleanse, blood from a young victim has washed his blood away. Long since, at the homes of others, I have been absolved thus, both by running waters and by victims slain.

The waters were his own tears, and the victims were parts of himself, for, as Bly writes, “Some deaths stand for the naiveté that dies when the son accepts the father’s world.”

The Erinyes grudgingly mirrored lines spoken in Agamemnon:

There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain.

At this point I acknowledge that feminist scholars, for good reasons, have long considered the Oresteia a foundational text of patriarchy and can offer many statements by both Apollo and Athena as proof. But we also need to understand that myth can provide many levels of meaning. I encourage readers to stay focused on the symbolic meaning.

On one level, the verdict of innocence (even if it took Athena’s tie-breaking vote) was certainly a condemnation of the feminine; but on another it was further confirmation of Orestes’ transformation. The sacrifice of his innocence had resulted in the achievement of his father’s blessing, symbolized by his assumption of the throne of Argos:

Among the Hellenes (Greeks) they shall say: “A man of Argos lives again in the estates of his father…”

Finally, Athena persuaded the Erinyes to accept their own initiation into a new role in society and religion.

The focus of events had shifted from Argos, city of conflict, to Athens, city of wisdom. In yet another process of enantiodromia, the Erinyes were transformed into something very much like their opposites. They became the Eumenides, the “kindly, well-disposed ones”. At the end of the play, their rite de passage from Erinyes to Eumenides was symbolized by a grand procession through Athens. Subjectively, this is confirmation that grief fully experienced can lead ultimately to healing. Edith Hamilton concludes:

“…I have been cleansed of my guilt.” These were words never spoken before by any of the House of Atreus. The killers of that race had never suffered from their guilt and sought to be made clean…with the words of acquittal the spirit of evil which had haunted his house for so long was banished. Orestes went forth from Athena’s tribunal a free man. Neither he nor any descendant of his would ever again be driven into evil by the irresistible power of the past. The curse of the House of Atreus was ended.

Read the conclusion, Part Nine here.

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Barry’s Blog # 394: The Family Curse, Part Seven of Nine

…we live in an age of Moms, for the culture is secular and the ordinary mortal must carry archetypal loads without help from the gods. The mothers must support our survival without support themselves, having to become like Goddesses, everything too much, and they sacrifice us to their frustration as we in turn…sacrifice our children to the same civilization. – James Hillman

I am pregnant with murder. The pains are coming faster now, and not all your anesthetics nor even my own screams can stop them. – Robin Morgan 

The Eighth Generation

Sacrifice of Iphigenia

The curse appeared in the form of a tragic dilemma at the port of Aulis. The north wind blew continually, preventing the ships from embarking for Troy and provoking discontent among the troops. Agamemnon learned that he’d offended Artemis by killing one of her favorite animals. There was only one way to appease her and change the winds: his daughter Iphigenia must be sacrificed.

Making the fatal choice for fame and against family, he convinced Clytemnestra to send the girl, believing that she would be married to Achilles. Instead, the men murdered her at the ritual alter. The winds ceased and the fleet – stained by guilt – sailed for Troy. Jean Bolen comments:

They sacrifice the possibility of closeness to their children to their jobs, their roles. And they also sacrifice their own “inner child”, the playful, spontaneous, trusting, emotionally expressive part of themselves…Agamemnon was thus another father (like Abraham) who was rewarded by his willingness to kill his child…the father who violates the trust of a daughter and destroys her innocence, destroys a corresponding part of himself.

Murder of Agamemnon

His reward did not last. During the years that Agamemnon was at Troy, Aegisthus returned and seduced Clytemnestra. They sent Orestes out of the country, neglected Electra and plotted against Agamemnon. When he returned, they killed him and his concubine Cassandra in the narrative we know best from the first play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, Agamemnon.

For lack of time, we limit our attention to three aspects of the play. The first is the repetition of the lament, Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end…Justice so moves that those only learn who suffer, which sums up the necessity of grieving.

The second is how the citizens of Argos waited eagerly for news of the return of the king. Agamemnon was a narcissist and a war criminal and a terrible father. He’d been an Ouranos father to Orestes and Electra, by abandoning them to his heroic quests, and he’d been a Kronos to Iphigenia, literally killing her. But to his people, he represented the Sacred King, a figure that embodies order, fertility and blessing. The longing for the Return of the King is an archetypal theme that appears everywhere, especially in Hebrew and Christian mythology, with significant political implications in modern America.

Despite his personal failings, Agamemnon also represented an initiated, male to Orestes, who desired a positive connection with him in life or death. Joseph Campbell wrote:

The finding of the father has to do with finding your own character and destiny. There’s a notion that the character is inherited from the father, and the body and very often the mind from the mother. But it’s your character that is the mystery, and your character is your destiny. So it is the discovery of your destiny that is symbolized by the father quest.

Third, Clytemnestra had long nursed a mother’s fury for his crimes and, despite her royal privileges, carried the collective resentment of hundreds of generations of oppressed women. She was convinced that she was meant to be the agent of his fate and needed no prodding from any god: “We could not do otherwise than we did.”

Seven years later (in the second play, The Libation Bearers), Electra hated her mother and desired only revenge. She carried the set of emotional obsessions that Freud, searching for a parallel to the Oedipus Complex, would later term the “Electra Complex.”

Orestes secretly returned with his cousin Pylades, having been directed by Apollo to be the agent of vengeance – in contrast to Clytemnestra’s usurping of that role. If this tale were focusing on Electra alone, we might well see continuation of the violence into the next generation. But Orestes, faced with the terrible task of having to kill his mother to avenge his father, appealed to higher powers: Hermes, Zeus and especially Apollo:

For he charged me to win through this hazard, with divination of much, and speech articulate, the winters of disaster under the warm heart were I to fail against my father’s murderers; told me to cut them down in their own fashion, turn to the bull’s fury in the loss of my estates. He said that else I must myself pay penalty with my own life, and suffer much sad punishment…

We can think of Apollo as an inner voice that offers Orestes the means to attain initiation to a new life that will not be predetermined by his family history. He can connect to the king-father’s realm only through a brutal separation from the mother’s realm. The quest for the father, according to Campbell, “…begins not with any initiative of his own but with a call.”

Orestes heard that Clytemnestra had dreamed that she’d given birth to a snake which had torn her nipple and drawn blood along with milk:

…it fellows then, that as she nursed this hideous thing of prophecy, she must be cruelly murdered. I turn snake to kill her.

References to snakes, serpents and vipers appear continually in the trilogy, generally with negative connotations. But here the snake has a positive tone. Campbell wrote:

The wonderful ability of the serpent to slough its skin and so renew its youth has earned for it throughout the world the character of the master of the mystery of rebirth.

Bly adds: “Initiation asks the son to move his love energy away from the attractive mother to the relatively unattractive serpent father.”

Orestes and Pylades quickly killed Aegisthus, but when they came face to face with Clytemnestra, she warned:

Your mother’s curse, like dogs, will drag you down.

At the initiatory moment Orestes was immobilized by indecision. But Pylades reminded him:

What then becomes thereafter of the oracles declared by Loxias (Apollo) at Pytho? What of sworn oaths? Count all men hateful to you rather than the gods.

Orestes fulfilled Apollo’s command and murdered his mother as savagely as she’d killed his father.

But we have to ask, what (rather than whom) did he kill? When the father is absent, with no masculine energy in the household, the archetypal Great Mother can overlap with and get confused with the human mother in a boy’s mind. Jung wrote that the mother archetype can be “terrifying and inescapable like fate.” For men it becomes mixed with projections of the anima, and statements of men about the mother “are always emotionally prejudiced…showing ‘animosity.’” The bad mother in myth or the subconscious is a man’s mother complex: that flawed relationship with the feminine part of his own soul, which, as Robert Johnson wrote:

… would like to return to a dependency on his mother and be a child again…a man’s wish to fail, his defeatist capacity, his subterranean fascination with death or accident, his demand to be taken care of.

This symbolic, inner figure determines how a man sees all relationships. The real tragedy is that if he who cannot “kill” his mother complex, he may turn his depression or misdirected rage onto actual women, perpetuating the conditions of patriarchy. Such a man can’t experience initiatory transformation, can’t realize his purpose and can’t love a real woman, or anyone else. But he will force both nature and women to take the blame that might be better directed at his father.

Still, Clytemnestra’s rage speaks for all women throughout time. Who can blame women who strike back at abusive spouses?  And yet her murder may well have served as a model for men to continue the abuse. We acknowledge the complexity of this issue, and we tread delicately.

But we miss a great opportunity when we take mythic images literally. These are symbolic murders that we perceive as literal only if we have lost the capacity for metaphorical thinking. Hillman wrote: “The way to ‘solve the mother complex’ would be not to cut from Mom, but to cut the antagonism that makes me heroic and her negative.”

And let’s be very clear about this once more: We are not blaming actual, living, human mothers here. If anyone is to blame it is patriarchy itself.

Orestes knew the consequences of his actions, and the appropriate human response:

I grieve for the thing done, the death, and all our race. I have won; but my victory is soiled and has no pride.

By the end, he was alone with the the horrible vision of the dog-faced Furies:

…they come like gorgons, they wear robes of black, and they are wreathed in a tangle of snakes. I can no longer stay…the bloodhounds of my mother’s hate. Ah, Lord Apollo, how they grow and multiply, repulsive for the blood drops of their dripping eyes…You cannot see them, but I see them. I am driven from this place…

The act of separation from the mother does not imply an instantaneous resolution, only the beginning of a long healing process. Orestes had to grieve the loss of both parents and a sister and also face intense guilt, symbolized by the Furies. Pursued by the hideous apparitions, he hoped to find sanctuary at Apollo’s shrine.

But we find the possibility of healing in the differences between Orestes’ actions and Clytemnestra’s. Each committed a horrible crime. The third part of the trilogy involves much legalistic hair-splitting over which crime is worse. But our interest lies in two other areas, motive and response. The difference in response is simple: Orestes lamented and Clytemnestra didn’t. Indeed, none of their ancestors but Niobe had grieved the consequences of their actions.

The difference in response is due to the difference in motive. Orestes acted because of a call from Apollo, whom he couldn’t refuse. She, on the other hand, acted without any call from a god, but purely out of her own rage and hatred. Her excuse had been that she’d been an agent of fate. In reality, she had usurped the role of the god. She was inflated, according to Edinger:

It is a state in which something small (the ego) has arrogated to itself the qualities of something larger (the Self) and hence is blown up beyond the limits of its proper size…We can identify a state of inflation whenever we see someone (including ourselves) living out an attribute of deity, i.e., whenever one is transcending proper human limits…The urge to vengeance is also identification with deity. At such times one might recall the injunction, “’Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord,” i.e., not yours. The whole body of Greek tragedy depicts the fatal consequences when man takes the vengeance of God into his own hands.

We act “shamelessly” (including rage, arrogance, criticism, perfectionism, patronizing and other modes) to deny the felt sense of toxic shame. In contrast, Bradshaw defined natural, “healthy” shame as:

…the emotion which gives us permission to be human…Our shame tells us we are not God. Healthy shame is the psychological foundation of humility. lt is the source of spirituality.

The Furies attacked Orestes and no one else in the long story. The implication is that he was the only person to allow them in. He chose to go down into grief. They didn’t attack Clytemnestra because she felt no remorse. She was shameless. Her story ended with her de-flation.

Orestes’ action, however, was justified by the call from Apollo. Edinger speaks of “necessary crimes” in dreams and mythology:

What is a crime at one stage of psychological development is lawful at another and one cannot reach a new stage…without daring to challenge the code of the old…Hence, every new step is experienced as a crime and is accompanied by guilt, because the old standards, the old way of being, have not yet been transcended…The acquisition of consciousness is a crime, an act of hybris against the powers-that-be; but it is a necessary crime, leading to a necessary alienation from the natural unconscious state of wholeness…in order to emerge at all, the ego is obliged to set itself against the unconscious out of which it came and assert its relative autonomy by an inflated act…Any step in individuation is experienced as a crime against the collective.

Campbell notes that rites of passage

…are distinguished by formal, and usually very severe, exercises of severance, whereby the mind is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.

Orestes had spent most of his youth at the court of his uncle Strophius, king of Phocis. He had been educated along with Pylades, and they had become close friends. Though Strophius does not appear in the play, and Pylades has but one, though crucial, line, the legend may be implying that Orestes’ initiatory process had already begun among the older men at Phocis.

Bly, once again, cautions us not to blame the mother but the absent father:

We must repeat that it isn’t the personal mother who imprisons the son…lt is the possessive or primitive side of the Great Mother that keeps him locked up…One needs to be able to say these truths without laying a lot of blame on the mother, for Freud has already singled her out, wrongly, for the main responsibility. The whole initiatory tradition, of which Freud knew very little, lays the primary responsibility on men, particularly on the older men and the ritual elders. They are to call the boys away. When they don’t do that, the possessive side of the Great Mother will start its imprisonment…

Orestes’ momentous act of cutting the chord between him and his mother was but one step in a lifelong process of grief and reconciliation. However, his path to initiation is not the only one we find in Greek myth. In two other essays, The Spell of the Mother and Male Initiation and the Mother in Greek Myth, I compare him to his cousin Telemachus and other figures, including Dionysus, Herakles, Oedipus, Hephaestus and Pentheus.

Read Part Eight here.