You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star. – Friedrich Nietzsche
Re-reading this essay seven years after I first posted it, it occurs to me that Trumpus (Trump = Us) was barely a blip on the national political radar screen, a comic, low-taste character on reality TV and World-Wide Wrestling. Even two years later, the notion of him running for President would evoke laughter among us sophisticated, bi-coastal types. More or less where the idea of Hitler becoming savior of Germany was in 1919, when, in his first recorded speech, he accused the Jews of producing “a racial tuberculosis among nations.”
Just prior to that year, as Max shows us, Hitler had been in crisis (crisis: decisive point in the progress of a disease…the point at which change must come, for better or worse). He’d been wavering on the cusp of an initiatory moment, potentially open to any direction or influence. More or less where we are right now.
Hitler gave that speech just months after the end of the war, but also in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which he and other right-wingers blamed, predictably, on the Jews – exactly as their ancestors had done in the late fifteenth century during the Black Plague. Soon, Right-wing extremists won a greater share of the votes in those parts of Germany that suffered larger numbers of flu deaths. Researchers have found a correlation between flu deaths and right-wing extremist voting “in regions that had historically blamed minorities, particularly Jews, for medieval plagues.”
So let’s be clear about these parallels. Times of intense social change and economic uncertainty can potentially bring out the best in us. But this requires a personal courage (as Black Swan’s Nina musters) and a collective willingness to evoke, acknowledge, accept and perhaps even forgive that darkness. But the confrontation with the shadow is terrifying, and American history has provided far too many examples of precisely the opposite behavior. As I write in Chapter Eight of my book:
Between 1890 and 1920, the migration of eleven million rural people to the cities and the influx of twenty million immigrants resulted in new fears that the spiritual and physical Apollonian essence of America would be cheapened by this Dionysian element. Nativists responded by cranking up the machinery of propaganda once again. Scientists and intellectuals (including David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford) argued that moral character was inherited, that “inferior” southern and eastern Europeans polluted Anglo-Saxon racial purity. Woodrow Wilson, then President of Princeton, contrasted “the men of the sturdy stocks of the north” with “the more sordid and hopeless elements” of southern Europe, who had “neither skill nor quick intelligence.”
As a result, 27 states passed eugenics laws to sterilize “undesirables.” A 1911 Carnegie Foundation “Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” recommended euthanasia of the mentally retarded through the use of gas chambers. The solution was too controversial, but in 1927 the Supreme Court, in a ruling written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, allowed coercive sterilization, ultimately of 60,000 Americans. The last of these laws were not struck down until the 1970s.
Two years before that ruling, in Mein Kampf, Hitler praised American eugenic ideology and situated himself directly in that Anglo-Saxon (Saxony is a state in eastern Germany) tradition: “Neither Spain nor Britain should be models of German expansionism, but the Nordics of North America, who…ruthlessly pushed aside an inferior race…” After he took absolute power in 1934, Germany copied American racial and sterilization laws. After the war, at the Nuremberg trials, the surviving Nazis would quote Holmes’s words in their own defense.
I’ve speculated about the mythic and emotionally traumatic forces that created the Nazis in three other essays, The Two Great Myths of 20th Century, To Sacrifice Everything — A Hidden Life and Redeeming the world, where I write:
We don’t choose to “other” other people or groups. Othering chooses us. The need to do so seems to enter us quite early on, as parents and society gradually persuade us to identify as part of the larger tribe – to know ourselves, as the ancient Greeks implied – (but) only as we gain the absolute knowledge that we are not one of them, the others. In this modern world we are established in the first knowledge only because of the second.
I always try to make these parallels clear between mythic or historical themes and our current conditions, but it’s hard to keep up with Trumpus, who is constantly upping the ante of hate and ignorance. As I finish this re-write, he praises the “bloodline” of the eugenicist and racist Henry Ford, threatens to enact absolute power against the media and encourages police violence against anti-racist protestors.
Circular craziness: American racists influenced Hitler’s thinking in 1920, and his life, despite what happened to Europe, became a model for our American fascists of 2020. For a clear summary of early eugenicist rantings and their influence on the “alt-right” Trumpus supporters and political provocateurs of today, read here.
Black swans and white vultures: I originally titled this essay, “A Black Swan and a White Madmen.” But it now seems that I need a more poetic counterpoint to “black swan” that includes all the fascist madmen of the past hundred years. Neither “eagle” nor “wolf” fits. So I settled on “vultures”, which circle above, out of danger, around dying animals – or cultures – and swoop down to eat them once they can no longer defend themselves.
Actual vultures may not be white, but their metaphorical human equals certainly were and are. It is the time of disaster capitalism, in which financial elites exploit national and international crises to further centralize wealth while citizens are too weak or distracted to resist. It’s the time of vulture funds, which prey on debtors in financial distress by purchasing cheap credit on secondary markets to make a large monetary gains and leave the debtors in a worse state. It’s the time of housing vultures, which sucker millions out of their homes for quick profit. It’s the time of hedge fund managers like Martin Shkreli — the “Pharma Bro” — who buy the patents of critical drugs and raise their prices by factors of over fifty. It’s the time of the second Gilded Age, as I write here.
The year 2020 is not yet half finished. In three months, forty million have lost jobs and medical insurance (on top of those millions who had already given up searching for jobs and the forty million who already had no health insurance), and the nation’s billionaires have seen their collective wealth increase by nearly half a trillion dollars.
But we mythologists are always searching for the reframe. Otherwise, there is no point in studying myth. We’re always trying to imagine how a soul – or the soul of a culture – might behave in a world that provided real mythic narratives, genuine ritual containers and elders or mentors who could see the potential that can’t be seen on the ordinary surface of things. The poet Theodore Roethke wrote: “In a dark time the eye begins to see.” Nina’s struggle to become who she is supposed to be – and in the process, to integrate her shadow and make her art – offers us hope in this dark time. Toward the end of my book I write:
Now we are called to remember things we have never personally known, to remember what the land itself knows, that which has been concealed from us by our own mythologies. We have the opportunity to remember who we are, and how our ancestors remembered, through art and ritual…Our task is unique: inviting something new, yet familiar, to re-enter the soul of the world…
“Hope is reborn each time someone awakens to the genuine imagination of their own heart,” says Michael Meade…imagination builds a bridge between fate and destiny. We need to use sacred language, in the subjunctive mode: let’s pretend, perhaps, suppose, maybe, make believe, may it be so, what if – and play. This “willing suspension of disbelief” is what Coleridge called “poetic faith.”
What if Hitler had successfully channeled his trauma into art, as Nina does? What if some form of communitarian, egalitarian or anarchist organization of society had prevailed in 1920s Germany? What if such a society had provided a non-authoritarian alternative to Soviet collectivism? What if Americans had seen such activity as a positive model and rejected their heritage of fear of the Other, brutality toward the weak and hatred of their own bodies?
What if you were to add your own prayers for the possible right here and now?
What if we were to consider (consider: “with the stars”) the stories that the mega-rich have been telling themselves about themselves and invite them to re-imagine those stories? What if we remembered that actual vultures and similar scavenger birds are necessary for healthy ecosystems, doing the dirty work of cleaning up after death, helping to keep ecosystems healthy and preventing the spread of disease, all so that new, healthy life may emerge?
What if we imagined a culture that perceived every single human being in terms of what innate gifts they came into the world to offer? What if, despite the traumas of racism and gender stereotyping, all of us could become who we were meant to be?
To close, I invite you to watch an interview with an extraordinary person I briefly knew years ago. His Name? Gryphon Blackswan.