Camille Paglia on Cults

Black Mass (small)Cults and Cosmic Consciousness:
Religious Vision in the American 1960s

One of my favorite writers on one of my favorite fascinations. More than just an overview of the various cults and fringe religious/spiritual movements America has seen since the 60s, Paglia argues that Western rationalism’s insistence on ignoring “Dionysus” (religion, spirituality, nature) has left a huge void in our culture and psyche. Thus, until our intellectual and artistic leaders acknowledge and embrace humanity’s need for ritual and mystery, cults and other dubious institutions will thrive. But don’t take my weak summary as a substitute for the essay. It’s long but oh so worth it, if only because Paglia is such a damn good writer.

Hence the religious dissidence and secessionist tendencies of the 1960s were simply a new version of a long American tradition. The decade’s politics loom large partly because demonstrations, unlike inner journeys, were photographable and indeed often staged for the camera. Today’s young people learn about the sixties through a welter of video clips of JFK’s limousine in Dallas, Vietnamese firefights, and hippies draped in buckskin and love beads. Furthermore, the most fervent of the decade’s spiritual questers followed Timothy Leary’s advice to “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” and removed themselves from career tracks and institutions, which they felt were too corrupt to reform. The testimony of those radical explorers of inner space has largely been lost: they ruined their minds and bodies by overrelying on drugs as a shortcut to religious illumination.

The absence of those sixties seekers from the arena of general cultural criticism can be seen in the series of unresolved controversies in the last two decades over the issue of blasphemy in art. With the triumph of avant-garde modernism by the mid-twentieth century, few ambitious young artists would dare to show religious work. Though museum collections are rich with religious masterpieces from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, major American museums and urban art galleries ignore contemporary religious art-thus ensuring, thanks to the absence of strong practitioners, that it remains at the level of kitsch. And the art world itself has suffered: with deeper themes excised, it slid into a shallow, jokey postmodernism that reduced art to ideology and treated art works as vehicles of approved social messages.

The article is not without its flaws of course. Burningman is a glaring omission; a massive celebration of nature, sex, and art that is known for its participation by many really smart people (like the founders of google) in addition to the usual new-age types. And her solution, that universities should make the core of their education comparative religion and culture, seems a bit backwards and Apolloesque. Myths are passed down through storytelling and ritual; the classroom strikes me as an impotent setting for the cultural change Paglia calls for. I want tangible ways to channel Dionysus; active artists, thinkers, and activities to re-inject myth/spirituality/whatever-you-want-to-call-it into our culture. Some people/things who have done that for me in some way already:

  • Francesca Lia Block (author- fairy tales, paganism, magic)
  • David Lynch (filmmaker- transcendental meditation, iconic bizarreness, dreams)
  • Brian Jonestown Massacre (band- psychedelia)
  • Clifford Pickover (author- pop writing on the intersections and wonders of science, religion, consciousness, and art)
  • Rick Strassman & Alexander Shulgin (researchers- psychedelic drugs)
  • Pedro Almodovar (filmmaker- femininity, sexuality, myth, beauty, religion, sensuality)
  • Neal Stephenson (author- east/west dichotomy, collective unconsciousness, past & future, relationship between art & technology)

Who/what is on your list?

Despite Everything, I Still Love America

This is not sarcasm. America is more interesting right now than any piece of fiction on my bookshelf. Frankly, I don’t even care much who wins the election– we’re fucked either way. But I find the whole debacle fascinating: if not a climax (though if Palin has her way, maybe) then certainly a major plot point in American history. So in some ways I’ve detached and am now watching the world like a movie. Every once in a while depression seeps in, but mainly I’m just trying to maintain a sort of bastard love (and understanding) for the disaster that is my homeland. What follows is a collection of what I’ve been reading, and my comments only when I feel like I have something relatively novel to say.

First off, if you read one book during this election season, I so totally enthusiastically recommend Joe Bageant‘s Deer Hunting with Jesus. In fact, unless you have either read this book or spent significant time in a red state, I probably don’t want to discuss the election with you. This sounds harsh, so let me explain: this book offers a perspective on America that is unfortunately super foreign to almost all the liberal Yankees that I know, and yet is arguably more American than we are. I’m well versed in (and largely bored by) coastal liberal thought and supremely ignorant about the rest of the country. This is a primer of sorts. Its also a quick read, both amusing and terrifying. If you want a sample, try his essay Why Rednecks May Rule the World.

Palin was undoubtedly the catalyst for my detachment/amusement towards current events. She represents the glorious union of tabloid celebrity with politics and smirks at the tricky issues of gender that everyone pretends to have figured out (hence the extreme spite most women of my class have for her). Unlike Bush, and is an actual member of the hugely influential, but until now, largely invisible class known as the Scotts Irish/red necks/white working poor, a class that traditionally has been pitted against blacks to ensure the exploitation of both. Palin’s entrance turned the election into this incredible story-within-a-story for all this deep shit bubbling and stewing in our culture. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has probably the best take on Palin that I’ve read yet, though lacking Bageant’s much needed empathy:

In America, it takes about two weeks in the limelight for the whole country to think you’ve been around for years. To a certain extent, this is why Obama is getting a pass on the same issue. He’s been on TV every day for two years, and according to the standards of our instant-ramen culture, that’s a lifetime of hands-on experience. It is worth noting that the same criticisms of Palin also hold true for two other candidates in this race, John McCain and Barack Obama.

As politicians, both men are more narrative than substance, with McCain rising to prominence on the back of his bio as a suffering war hero and Obama mostly playing the part of the long-lost, future embracing liberal dreamboat not seen on the national stage since Bobby Kennedy died. If your stomach turns to read how Palin’s Kawasaki 704 glasses are flying off the shelves in middle America, you have to accept that middle America probably feels the same way when it hears that Donatella Versace dedicated her collection to Obama during Milan Fashion Week. Or sees the throwing-panties-onstage-“I love you, Obama!” ritual at the Democratic nominee’s town-hall appearances.

So, sure, Barack Obama might be every bit as much a slick piece of imageering as Sarah Palin. The difference is in what the image represents. The Obama image represents tolerance, intelligence, education, patience with the notion of compromise and negotiation, and a willingness to stare ugly facts right in the face, all qualities we’re actually going to need in government if we’re going to get out of this huge mess we’re in.

Here’s what Sarah Palin represents: being a fat fucking pig who pins “Country First” buttons on his man titties and chants “U-S-A! U-S-A!” at the top of his lungs while his kids live off credit cards and Saudis buy up all the mortgages in Kansas.

The truly disgusting thing about Sarah Palin isn’t that she’s totally unqualified, or a religious zealot, or married to a secessionist, or unable to educate her own daughter about sex, or a fake conservative who raised taxes and horked up earmark millions every chance she got. No, the most disgusting thing about her is what she says about us: that you can ram us in the ass for eight solid years, and we’ll not only thank you for your trouble, we’ll sign you up for eight more years, if only you promise to stroke us in the right spot for a few hours around election time.

Matt Taibbi – The scariest thing about Sarah Palin isn’t how unqualified she is – it’s what her candidacy says about America

With a figure like Palin I can’t resist Paglia‘s take:

Conservative though she may be, I felt that Palin represented an explosion of a brand new style of muscular American feminism. At her startling debut on that day, she was combining male and female qualities in ways that I have never seen before. And she was somehow able to seem simultaneously reassuringly traditional and gung-ho futurist. In terms of redefining the persona for female authority and leadership, Palin has made the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna channeled the dominatrix persona of high-glam Marlene Dietrich and rammed pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment.

In the U.S., the ultimate glass ceiling has been fiendishly complicated for women by the unique peculiarity that our president must also serve as commander in chief of the armed forces. Women have risen to the top in other countries by securing the leadership of their parties and then being routinely promoted to prime minister when that party won at the polls. But a woman candidate for president of the U.S. must show a potential capacity for military affairs and decision-making. Our president also symbolically represents the entire history of the nation — a half-mystical role often filled elsewhere by a revered if politically powerless monarch.

Camille Paglia – Fresh blood for the vampire

I know this will get me kicked out of the sisterhood of northeastern career women but I do find Palin appealing. I mean, she’s dumb as a doornail and will probably bring about the rapture if McCain dies and she gets her hands on our nukes. I don’t want her in power. I don’t respect her, but I respect her feminine aesthetic and I respect the challenge it poses to the “feminism” I was raised with. Of course I’ve always turned to female villains (not princesses) as models for feminine power. They get to use sex and spells/weapons. So maybe I just have a soft spot for girlie evil. As in, “Yay! We finally have a bad ‘guy’ too! Even if she is just Karl Rove’s puppet….”

But I feel there are things we could learn from Palin’s embrace of motherhood and guns. Not necessarily attitudes to emulate out-of-the-box, but she’s an important data point on the domesticity/ambition scatter-dot graph. While I agree with Taibbi that this election is more about narratives than reality, and that’s partly why America is so fucked up, I do think narratives are important. Life imitates art and all. Palin is too ditzy and evil make a productive archetype. But the mother-warrior image is something that progressives might do well to explore, both politically and personally.

And then there’s Elaine Meinel Supkis. She’s even more insane/prophetic/offensive than Paglia:

For 2,000 years even up to 20th century Germany, the Jews were the main population used by the elites to protect themselves from ‘poor white trash’. They would toss this religious minority to the raging mobs and say, ‘Kill them, not us!’ This worked about 90% of the time. When civil rights were finally and extremely belatedly handed over to religious minorities and former slaves in the USA when LBJ signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the army of arrogant white racists exited the Democratic Party in a group huff. They milled around a while. One pro-white trash racist, Wallace, tried to launch his own racist/fascist party but he was conveniently shot and thus, prevented from interfering with the new Republican program.

After the failure to launch an all-racist-all the time party, this great mass of disaffected, lower class whites flowed like a sea into the Republican Party which embraced them with open arms. This is the ‘Southern Strategy’ which the money interests used to corral a herd of bewildered human cattle into a pen where they could moo and moo and be milked while money could flow into the coffers of Eastern Establishment bankers like the Rockerfellers.

I.e: the Real Rulers latched onto the very same population that normally would be after them with pitchforks when things go bad. When the Real Rulers needed to herd this lowly population into sorting pens so they could be either milked or killed for dinner or skinned for leather, the rulers had to become Cowboys. This is why granddaddy Bush encouraged his spawn to spit food while talking at the dinner table. Ma Bush imitated Ma Kettle by having her spawn run riot, torturing small animals, skipping school, teasing weaker children, bullying the servants, etc. Each generation of the Bushes are cruder and crueler. They are nearly universally cowardly but entice the real trailer trash to strut about arrogantly while killing brown skinned people who are of different cultures or religions. The US Indian Wars have moved to the Middle East and are pretty much identical. The natives there live on top of mineral wealth we want so we go cowboy our way into their lands and ‘tame’ them by killing millions of them.

Warning: This essay is quite politically incorrect, but then so is our country. Elaine Meinel Supkis – Triumph Of The GOP White Trailer Trash

Now, lest all this talk of red necks get you thinking that that’s who we should be blaming, lets just be clear about who are the sheep and who are the herders. Who has already lost their job, their home, and a kid in Iraq? Who just destroyed the economy so they could have their house in the Hamptons?

I wish I knew whether this extravaganza of ruin might settle the question as to whether America goes into hyperinflation or implacable deflation, but the net effect is that money is leaving the system in big gobs. And if not money per se, then the idea of money as represented in certificates, contracts, counter-party positions, and gentlemen’s agreements. This is the day that America finds itself a much poorer nation. The capital we thought was there, is gone.

A lot of it was actually translated over the years into Hamptons villas, Gulfstream jets, and other playthings that will now go up on Ebay or some equivalent as we turn into Yard Sale Nation in a general liquidation of remaining assets. Of course, the trouble in a situation like this, where absolutely everybody is trying to pawn off assets, is that there are very few buyers on the scene, so the prices of all these things go down down down. Everything is for sale and nobody has any money.

This was essentially the state of things in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the only escape from that turned out to be the mobilization for war. And in the aftermath of that terrible war, we were the only industrial nation that hadn’t been bombed to rubble. What’s more, we had a very handsome supply of industrial world’s primary resource, oil, at our disposal. So we spent the next thirty years making oodles of things and selling them to people in other lands (lending them the money to buy), until these nations were back on their own feet and solvent. And after 1975, the industrial club picked up a bunch of new members and they all began to clean our clock.

So, as our industrial base waned, and our factories got old and brittle, and our labor force was steeply under-bid by cheaper labor forces, we embarked on a quest for “the new economy.” This was represented in successive turns as the information economy, the consumer economy, the high-tech economy, et cetera. They were all ruses, aimed at concealing the truth — which was that we had become a society no longer producing things of value, no longer generating real wealth. The final act of this farce has been the so-called “financial industry.”

That “industry” turned out to be most earnestly devoted to the production of complex swindles. They were so finely engineered that it took twenty years for the swindles to stand revealed, and they were cleverly hitched to the primary thing that the American public vested its identity in: house-and-home. Thus, much of the public finds itself in very real danger of becoming homeless and broke.

James Kunstler – The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle

Ideally everyone deserves empathy. But if times like these require you to hate someone, let’s hate the rich, okay? Racism sucks, but its the people who exploit racism for material gain that are evil (edit: not that people who do horrific things like this aren’t, just that I think we’re better off blaming the more powerful puppet masters). Things are clearly going to get really bad in this country. In the culture wars to come, who are the ones with guns? The same ones who don’t believe in birth control. There’s more of them, and they’re armed. So its really in our interest to try to understand the people Palin represents, to have some sort of tolerance and warmth for them. Nothing’s gonna change unless we can unite against the exploiters.

Rebecca R. Rojer