An American God

I agree with the flag-waving patriots that America is God’s own land – I just happen to believe that that God is Dionysos.

This thought occurred to me a couple weeks back while the rest of the country was celebrating the birth of freedom in our land with fireworks and alcohol. We have always intuitively understood that this is the way it happens. The ancient Greeks said that Dionysos came into the world out of the wreckage of his mother’s womb amid thunder and fire and savage celebration. He, the youngest of the Gods, an outcast and stranger with all the imperfections of a human, earned his way onto Mount Olympos after accomplishing a host of noble deeds. He fought to put down tyrannies and establish peace and civilization throughout the world, he freed slaves, exalted women and taught his mysteries to Greek and barbarian alike.

America, at its best, has often followed the mythical pattern of Dionysos. She was the youngest of the great nations, formed of the cast-off and despised dregs of the old world. Though originally looked down upon she came to lead the way through industry and the arts until World War II cemented her position as the dominant global super power. Most of the wars she fought over the last two centuries have been to ensure the freedom and stability of other countries and she’s been in the forefront of the civil rights and equality movements. Refugees from all parts of the globe have sought dreams of freedom and prosperity on her shores and though she has often strayed from her own noble principles – shamefully so at times – America still stands as a shining beacon to many, inspiring their own highest aspirations.

From the beginning there has been something Dionysian about this land. When the first Viking settlers came here centuries before Columbus they called it Vinland after the lush vegetation they found. The vine is, of course, the supreme symbol of Dionysos, but it’s interesting to note that there are only a few indigenous species of wild grape on the continent, the rest having been transplanted from the old world. Dionysos’ myths are all about the bringing of the grape to new lands, so our country is a part of that grand process.

Along with the grape Dionysos brought many other gifts to this continent. America is a democratic republic founded on the principle that the common man is capable of governing himself without recourse to King or Pope. All men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights that are not dependent on wealth, race, creed, gender, etc. When these rights are threatened the American will defend them with the savagery of a maenad. These very ideas emerged out of the orgiastic worship of Dionysos back in Greece. Through his sacred art of drama men challenged the power structures and traditional notions of their society and argued for the fundamental dignity and common brotherhood of man. It was Spartacus, a Thracian devotee of Dionysos, who led the famous slave revolt in Rome and later served as a great inspiration to our founding fathers when they cast off the oppressive yoke of England. This same spirit was at work during the Civil War and again during Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington. America doesn’t have a perfect political system by any stretch of the imagination. But what it does have within it are the tools necessary to remedy problems when they arise.

That we live in a fundamentally Dionysian country can be seen in much more than just our political system. It is perhaps most evident in the art-forms that our hallowed shores have given birth to. We have bequeathed to the world three completely new types of music, each of them bearing a strong Dionysian imprint.

Jazz is our modern version of the ancient dithyramb: wild, improvisational, breaking boundaries and even challenging our conventional notions of what constitutes “music”. These days it’s difficult to imagine what kind of impact jazz had when it burst onto the scene in the early decades of the 20th century. People thought it was crazy, decadent and dangerously revolutionary – and it was! To ears who had only ever heard Mozart and Mahler, folk-ballads and work-songs, ballroom dances and polka, jazz was like the gates of hell blasting open, a pandemonium of jungle rhythms and primal screams capable of shattering the very foundations of society. It’s no wonder that the Nazis banned this “deranged Negro music” and had they been around they’d have done the same for its brother rock ‘n’ roll.

Born out of the South with deep roots extending through Blues and Negro spirituals all the way back to the traditional music of the African continent, rock ‘n’ roll only gained popularity in the 1950s once it was adapted by White musicians for suburban-dwelling bobby-socksers. But no matter how much they tried to white-wash it and make it safe and palatable, there has always been something dangerous and revolutionary about rock. The danger comes primarily from its obsession with sex. Rock is saturated in the stuff. Rock is the sound of violent lovemaking, of deep, subconscious drives bursting through the walls of repressed inhibition. Rock stars are sex-gods, from Elvis’ writhing hips to Jim Morrison whipping out the king snake on stage in Miami to Prince strutting around in assless chaps. All the screaming little girls knew it and so did their fathers who tried to shut the concerts down and ban those records from ever being played on the radio. But you can’t control the spirit of Dionysos once he’s been unleashed, as Pentheus so painfully discovered.

Rock isn’t just about sex, of course, any more than Dionysos’ ancient worship was. And that’s what scares people the most about it. Rock is about giving vent to all those dark, primal drives, about destroying the old world in order to create a new one. It’s about freedom and self-expression and the best rock has always been visionary, transcendent, a violent confrontation with societal norms. This is something that it shares with that other great American music style, rap.

In the early days rap was the music of the streets, a way for people who had grown up in abject poverty and the hopelessness that it breeds to give voice to their dreams and aspirations, to tell their stories and ask why things are the way they are. Early rap had a strong political conscience, infused with the activism and community consciousness of the Black Panthers and similar liberation movements. Rap was an outgrowth of the poets of the street like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. It’s hard to tell that these days since it’s all commercialized and over produced, would-be gangstas talking about their shiny bling and bundles of cash, their hot hoes and smoking rides. But even the most derivative and cliched of the bunch still represent the dream of a better life and a challenge to the lie that urban Black youth can’t accomplish anything.

In the same vein, dream plays an important role in the other American arts that we either pioneered or came to dominate. And it’s no accident that these American arts are also Dionysian arts.

The whole world looks to America for its entertainment, especially when it comes to movies and television. Even when they’ve got burgeoning industries of their own they still go mad for big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Many of these industries, in fact, are dedicated to making cheap imitations of our movies or translate the basic concepts into styles more suitable to their own audiences as we see in India and Nigeria, the second and third largest film-producing countries in the world. For better or worse – and I’m inclined to see it as a negative – American actors and actresses are treated like royalty the world over. We’ve turned them into Gods and people are mad to know even the most mundane details of their lives. Can you imagine actors – actors! – being treated like this at any other time in history? They may have been highly esteemed in ancient Rome or Shakespeare’s England, but nothing like they are today. We stand in awe of their ability to take on different personae chameleon-like, to give our hopes and dreams living flesh, to tell the stories of our hearts – and we lavish unimaginable wealth and power on them for it. There are actors who earn the equivalent of a small nation’s GNP for a single film! But there is also something primitive and sinister about our relationship with these idols. We elevate them beyond the bounds of ordinary humanity and then wait, hungry, for the inevitable fall. We know that no one can sustain that kind of life for long: it distorts and consumes them, then spits them out broken and bloody for us to gloat over as we sift through the wreckage of their lives. We don’t just want people to take up the craft of Dionysos: we want them to impersonate him, to become him, the victim on the altar who suffers terribly for our amusement. No other nation treats its celebrities in this way, at least not to the extent that we do, because no other nation is as thoroughly Dionysian in its soul as we Americans are.

Nor is it just actors and musicians that we do this to (though we do seem to have a special fondness for them). Any politician or public figure will do, so long as they squirm and squeal and bleed and put on a good show for us. Why do we worship Lincoln and Kennedy but forget most of their contemporaries? Nixon and Clinton got off light; their death and dismemberment was symbolic but real enough to etch them into our collective memory. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X weren’t the most important men in the Civil Rights movement, but their assassinations earned them eternal fame.

Of course America isn’t just about sex and dream and death, though it might seem that way sometimes. There’s another part of us that is equally Dionysian, and that’s our love of nature. Early in our nation’s history we recognized the importance of wilderness and the divinity that is manifest in forest and streams, mountains and caves and all the rest. And when we are too timid to call it “divinity” we instead name the thing that stirs these intense emotions within us “beauty” which, as any Greek will tell you, is pretty much the same thing anyway. Our greatest poets – Emerson and Whitman, Longfellow and Thoreau – sang the praises of Nature and reminded us that it was something worth cherishing and preserving for future generations. Even though this was a time of great expansion and conquest we set aside huge swaths of land as pristine and protected nature preserves. This we counted as our greatest national treasure and unlike previous countries we ensured that this was something that all of us could enjoy and use instead of keeping it for the wealthy and elite alone. That is a huge and important thing that makes me proud to be an American every time I visit our public lands. I feel pride, too, when I read our environmental laws and see the steps we’re taking to care for this land, to make sure that it doesn’t all become polluted and over-used. Yes, absolutely, we’ve got a long way to go in this regard. We aren’t perfect and the planet has suffered intolerably for the mistakes of the past. But so much worse could have happened if our forebears hadn’t been as far-sighted as they were. We mustn’t stop there. We should take that example and carry it forward into the future, make the hard, tough choices that are necessary if life on this planet is going to continue.

But it’s not just our preservation of wilderness that’s Dionysian – much of how we think about the land and relate to it honors his spirit. Americans have always had a profound love for the land and an inherent distrust of sedentary city life and the evils of civilization. Our forefathers and -mothers were pilgrims, pioneers, explorers, mountain men, homesteaders and the like. People who left behind the safety of the big cities to travel beyond the horizon and carve out a new life for themselves in strange places. People who shunned the company of others in favor of wild beasts and unspoiled forest, people who wanted their own parcel of land and the freedom to do with it as they pleased.

The legends that arose on the frontier reflect this love of wide open spaces and the men it calls to: Paul Bunyon and his giant blue ox roaming the wilderness; John Henry the steel-driving man that couldn’t be beat by technology and spirit-less progress; the heroes of the Alamo who died for freedom’s sake and good old Johnny Appleseed who traveled the country planting trees. Though all of these men in different ways can be seen as heroes of a Dionysian mould, none comes as close as Johnny. Especially when you consider that all those orchards he planted were for the sole purpose of brewing alcoholic applejack. Johnny was a real man, a disciple of Swedenborg who held strongly mystical and pantheistic beliefs and felt an abhorrence for modern civilization. He disliked the company of other people, preferring animals and trees and as soon as settlements encroached on his territory he’d pick up and move on to the next site, leaving his orchards behind for the settlers. A fascinating and unjustly neglected figure of American history – but one that shows how Dionysian our collective spirit can be.

Another important Dionysian “saint” that shows just how far back his presence can be felt in our country is the early colonist Thomas Morton. He arrived in New England in 1622 and created his own colony called Merry-mount but it shared little in common with the other grey and dour settlements. Puritan governor William Bradford wrote concerning the curious religious practices of his neighbors: “They set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many fairies, or furies rather) and worse practices. As if they had anew revived & celebrated the feasts of ye Roman Goddess Flora, or ye beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians.” (History Of Plymouth Plantation)

You can probably guess the fate of Thomas Morton and the Merry-mount colonists but the spirit of Dionysos has been much harder to drive from the land, resisting every effort of the latter-day puritans to extinguish the flame of liberty. Every time the bastards think they’ve crushed the heart of America in their iron glove it has come back again, reborn and stronger. Slavery gave rise to the Civil War. Prohibition birthed the flappers and the jazz age. McCarthyism begat the psychedelic sixties. Vietnam was met with the Civil Rights and Anti-war movements. Stonewall created gay liberation. The “Me” generation of Reagan’s 80s gave way to environmentalism and anti-globalization. The resurgence of the Moral Majority was beaten back by the optimism and prosperity of the Clinton years. And though Bush and Cheney tried to remake America in their distorted, imperialist image freedom-loving patriotic souls fought against them every step of the way. We’ve come close to losing sight of the American Dream, of what makes us unique and special many times now. And when that happens we let ourselves do some truly horrible things. But the great thing about us is that eventually we always remember and find our way back. And that gives me great hope for the future. May Dionysos continue to guide and bless us as we stumble along the path to greatness.