“We have been accustomed to thinking of religious ecstacy as the thing found in only primitive societies, though it frequently occurs in the most cultiviated peoples. The Greeks, you know, really weren’t very different from us. They were a very formal people, extraordinarily civilized, rather repressed. And yet they were frequently swept away en masse by the wildest enthusiasms—dancing, frenzies, slaughter, visions—which for us, I suppose, would seem clinical madness, irreversible. Yet the Greeks—some of them, anyway—could go in and out of it as they pleased. We cannot dismiss these accounts entirely as myth. They are quite well documented, though ancient commentators were as mystified by them as we are. Some say they were the results of paryer and fasting, others say they were brought about by drink. Certianly the group nature of the hysteria had something to do with it as well. Even so, it is hard to account for the extremism into a non-rational, pre-intellectual state, where the personality was replaced by something completely different—and by ‘different’ I mean something to all appearances not mortal. Inhuman.”
I thought of Bacchae, a play whose violence and savagery made me uneasy, as did the sadism of its bloodthirsty god. Compared to the other tragedies, which were as dominated by recognizable principles of justice no matter how harsh, it was a triumph of barbarism over reason: dark chaotic, inexplicable.
“We don’t like to admit it,” said Julian, “but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more then almost anything. All truly civilized people—the ancients no less then us—have civilized themselves through the willful repressions of the old, animal self. Are we, in this room, really very different from the Greeks or the Romans? Obsessed with duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice? All those things which are to modern tastes so chilling?”
I looked around the table at the six faces. To modern tastes they were somewhat chilling. I imagine any other teacher would’ve been on the phone to Psychological Councseling in about five minutes had he heard what Henry said about arming the Greek class and marching into Hampden town.
“And it’s a temptation for any intelligent person, and especially for perfectionists such as the ancients and ourselves, to try to murder the primitive, emotive, appetitive self. But that is a mistake.”
“Why?” said Francis, leaning slightly forward.
Julian arched an eyebrow; his long, wise nose gave his profile a forward tilt, like an Etruscan in a bas-relief. “Because it’s dangerous to ignore the existence of the irrational. The more cultivated a person is, the more intelligent, the more repressed, then the more he needs some method of channeling the primitive impulses he’s worked so hard to subdue. Otherwise those powerful old forces will mass and strengthen until they are violent enough to break free, more violent for the delay, often strong enough to sweep the will away entirely. For a warning of what happens in the absence of such a pressure valve, we have the example of the Romans. The emperors. Think for example, of Tiberius, the ugly stepson, trying to live up to the command of his stepfather Augustus. Think of the tremenedous, impossible strain he must have undergone, following in the footsteps of a savior, a god. The people hated him. No matter how hard he tried he was never good enough, could never be rid of the hateful self, and finally the floodgates broke. He was swept away on his perversions and he died , old and mad, lost in the pleasure gardens of Capri: not even happy there, as one might hope, but miserable. Before he died he wrote a letter home to the Senate. ‘May all the Gods and Goddesses visit me with more utter destruction then I feel I am daily suffering.’ Think of those who came after him. Caligula. Nero.”
He paused. “The Roman genius, and perhaps the Roman flaw,” he said, “was an obsession with order. One sees it in their architecture, their literature, their laws—this fierce denial of darkness, unreason, chaos.” He laughed. “easy to see why the Romans, usually so tolerant of foreign religions, persecuted the Christians mercilessly—how absurd to think a common criminal had risen from the dead, how appalling that his followers celebrated him by drinking his blood. The illogic of it frightened them and they did everything they could to crush it. In fact, I think the reason they took such drastic steps was because they were not only frightened but also terribly attracted to it. Pragmatists are often strangely superstitious. For all their logic, who lived in more abject terror of the supernaturural then the Romans?
“The Greeks were different. They had a passion for order and symmetry, much like the Romans, but they knew how foolish it was to deny the unseen world, the old gods. Emotion, darkness, barbarism.” He looked at the ceiling for a moment, his face almost troubled. “Do you remember what we were speaking of earlier, how bloody, terrible things are sometimes the most beautiful?” he said. “ “It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, then to lose control completely? To throw off the chans of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown back, throat to the stars, ‘more like deer then human being.’ To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality then an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of huney bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look tat naked, terrible beauty right in the fac; let God consume us, devour us, unstring or bones. Then spit us out reborn.”
We were all leaning forward, motionless. My mouth had fallen open; I was aware of every breath I took.
“And that, to me, is the terrible seduction of Dionysiac ritual. Hard for us to imagine. That fire of pure being.”
She has something here. I think the abstraction to god is perhaps ill described, however the essence of this seems true.
To create an effective society (or even for a single person) one must realize that while humans can be rational, logical, reasonable creatures, we are born of survival who’s reason and logic is not always the logic, reason, and ration we’ve come to believe is human. We must be creative in addressing the primitive urges we have, as they can be the bedrock of our foundation and allow us continued survival, or if repressed they can be the sand of our destruction.