February 16, 2010
sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre
And be the singing masters of my soul;
Sick with desire, and fastened to a dying animal
lt knows not what it is: and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
The West does not know what it is; probably one could say the same of most cultures. But they are not the concern of this study; frankly, they are not of primary importance. What they are matters less than the veiled but omnipresent identity of the West that directs the show of history and in whose troupe all humans, alle menschen, like it or not are actors. The West is the culture that constructs itself, for which life is a game, -- a very serious one with identity and self-image at stake. To this passionate play other cultures belong through their oligarchies that have received positions of pride at the table to which they have more or less willingly been dragooned. These rulers, and the peoples they rule and claim to “represent” (a good aesthetic term) have good billing among the dramatis personae of the grand game; they belong because the west is a universal and proselytizing passion play: no one can be excluded from its circle of joy, -- except those deemed to lack it: they must “creep tearfully away.”
This study will examine what the West is, because too many people in it do not know what it is and, as a result are players in game whose rules and trajectory they do not see or grasp. The tone of the game grows grimmer, it tends toward the Wasteland. When one sees why this is so it becomes possible to step somewhat outside one’s role and perhaps change the trajectory that leads to the Furies, dismemberment and petrifaction. This book will explain how these somber qualities are intrinsic to the identity and dynamics of the West.
But “a good Poet is a kind of Alchymist who can turn the matter he prepares into the purest gold”; thus the traumatic, demonic and magical aspects of Western history are transformed into beautiful imagery that veils their nature, and makes the beholder fall in love with a horror that, when exposed, brings terror which is the climax of many Greek myths.
The key word is identity: the West has a hybrid identity of incongruous elements forced together in a kind of cultural and historical rape when Rome destroyed Israel and then deformed its ethos and way of being, adulterated it with syncretic pantheism and took the resulting synthesis as its own play, glorified and demonstrated as an aesthetic act. The “Ode to Joy” cited above is a perfect example of the dynamic instability of this hybrid. Filled with pagan personifications, starting with “Joy” itself, it speaks repeatedly about “the Creator…far above the stars he must dwell,” “the Unknown,” “the loving Father.” It was Schiller’s nation that sought, in the 1930s and 40s to clarify, definitively, this hybrid, its tensions and ambiguities. The cult of aesthetics drives toward purification that beheads itself and destroys the root that is both essential and alien to it. This paradox is its history.
But the West has even more ancient causes for instability, identity confusion and traumatic dynamism. These reside in the strong impulse of ancient Hellas for shape-changing or metamorphosis which usually is associated with erotic trauma, trespass and pollution. The horrible facts must be veiled in beautiful fictions or sculpture, the more so as the West per se was formed by the forced merger of a moribund Hellenism with an appropriated, transposed and watered down Judaism. The play became the thing wherein everyone would have a part, in which those who peek behind the curtain see the magic and power games that must be sanitized to keep the game purring along.
Because the West knows not that it is a fiction nor that its lust to re-present itself as a fiction, a story or image is an apocalyptic narrative with strong elegiac tones for what is lost by the process of figuration, by the transfiguration of the real into the image, it more and more attains an obsessive drive as it seeks to outrun its deceits, like the joyous ones who are urged to “run” in Schiller’s ode; or like the financial systems whose deficit-spending and inflation seek to outrun the lies and illusions by which it spent its way into power. The economic-financial aspect of the culture is a consequence and facet of the image-factory at its heart, “sick with desire” to be other than what it is: to be gathered into an artifice of eternity of its own design.
The entire culture needs and increasingly is flogged by the media and their ‘experts’ toward an “elixir of life” or “fatigue vaccine” so that it can present the image of youthful vitality, a vision that must increase as the fatigue of the illusion grows and as the entire system atrophies into forms of management and control. If one wants to present an opera, especially of global scope, every aspect of the script, players, timing, advertising, seating and other arrangements must be scrupulously rehearsed and controlled. “The West” is a drama whose run of sixteen – plus centuries is remarkable. Those managing the “circle of stars” and who intend to supplant “the loving Father” intend to sculpt it into a sustainable resource bank whose self-presentation they will mange to be ever more ‘ethical,’ ‘pure’ and dead, as dead as the artist Roderick Usher or the hero, Heracles.
The West is the culture of play and the drama; it is a cult of aesthetics in which all must join and to whose fictions all must give credence, genuine or not, pretence suits the artifice. Cheating is allowed; bending and breaking the rules are taken for granted. But to examine and discredit the game as a fiction, to expose the naked emperors behind the curtain, to say it is of no worth or actually destructive is to be a ‘spoil sport’ and that is verboten. The lie and illusion must be affirmed: the rapture of mass delusion, like the wonders of the Olympics must receive homage or one finds oneself outside the interlaced circles of communicants.
It is no wonder that Schiller’s beautiful ode with its mention of circles of the enraptured who have drunk joy’s fire is the anthem of the European Union and its banner of circling stars. The Ode refers repeatedly to the Creator and “loving Father above the stars” but this view of “the Father,” the Jewish one as opposed to the punitive, ‘judgmental’ father seen by the church must be absorbed by ‘the son’ and the Jews be purged as alien matter, today via the peace process and covert conversion via ‘interfaith initiatives.’ Not upholding a culture of rapture (simply with many occasions of joy) makes the Jewish matter in the West part of its unstable hybrid. Judaism does not worship beauty; what is sacred is beautiful, and life has directives to be sanctified. The Hellenic basis of the West reverses this and makes beauty, accessible through imagery and professions of ‘faith’ the criteria of good.
Schiller’s ideas about beauty as essential to prepare society for justice, joy and self-sacrifice anticipate those of Shelley; sadly, they do not understand the power of beauty to bedazzle, enchant and conduce to trauma which Shelley examined in his last work. These concepts, however, defines the West’s cult of aesthetics and is a rationalization for its drive to re-present and purify its muddied cultural identity. The “play drive,” the synthesis of the sensuous and the formal which Schiller celebrated in fact defines the cult of aesthetics and its backlash of disembodiment and terror. The ideal of art and beauty as “the good” confounds the West.
The fact that the West knows not what it is and that it is sick with desire are two facets of the same gem. First, the West rests uneasily on the transgression, erotic trauma and displacements or metamorphoses that it prompts. Ancient Greek culture consists mainly of its fascination with transmutation and on the representation of all changes in art. Both metamorphosis and art, the thrust of the Muses that work through men, are suffused with Eros. The core of Eros is Aphrodite who is the primary datum of the West as well as the reigning meta-fiction of erotic trauma, possession, displacement and aesthetic veiling: a process that is demonic. Violent, rebellious, perverse, sexually ambiguous, the essence of “the modest lovely goddess” is the ultimate artifice both in the horror and pollution at its core and in the beautiful alluring surface that beguiles the horror. In time, imagery and fictions expose the horrible transfiguration hidden within its secret ‘bed.’ This is part of the terror and dynamism that characterize the West; the startling emergence of horrible Hellenic matter in very vivid form began with the Symbolists in the middle of the 19th century, in what a cultural critic termed, “this strange disease of modern times.”
We will examine the saving if bitter reality that the cult of Beauty undoes itself, exposing its deceits and the horror it suppresses, veils and ‘purifies.’ Of the worship of Aphrodite encouraged by the culture and the oligarchies that are its precipitate, one might say, “a tyrant’s power has a limit.”
While the dismemberment of Orpheus, the perfect, god-taught singer gives its name to this study, the little-known myth of Ixion shows the dual aspect of image work and the bond of art and its Wasteland to Eros. Ixion murdered his father-in-law rather than pay a bride price. Only Zeus could cleanse him of this pollution which, on Mt. Olympus he did. While there, Ixion tried to seduce Hera. Interposing, Zeus fashioned an illusion of Hera which when Ixion embraced it became a cloud he inseminated. From this intercourse, a symbol of frustrated lust and emission in a dream was born the centaurs, symbols of lust, especially homosexual lust. In a play about Heracles, discussed at length below, Heracles is poisoned by the bloody semen of a centaur, Nessus, whom he killed with an arrow while it was trying to rape his wife. The poison of lust, what the Greeks’ clearly saw as the “sickness” of erotic desire is the domain of “the secret handmaiden,” Aphrodite. As in the Ixion story, her power laces together many of the myths of aesthetic- magical transposition of the West.
She still does so in the form of a myriad of cheap, fleeting Aphrodite imitations whirled out by the mass media to enchant the audience in the electronic coliseum. For the West and its purposes of self-purification and immortality as “an artifice of eternity,” “representation is display” and is essentially erotic. But sex as display and aesthetics is surface and reflection, phantoms and shadows; it leads to show and fictions of transfiguration, not to full-bodied sex and life abundant, as the myth of Ixion indicates. It leads to the Wasteland.
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It is to examine this pattern and thus finally to let “the West” know itself (rather than staring enamored at its reflections in its projects) that this book is written before the disembodied shadows of image work wrap everything in a glittering flux from the heart of its immense darkness.
William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” (1923), 17-24
2. Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy” (1785) famous as the chorale finale to Beethoven’s 9th symphony (1824): “all men will be brothers” and share a kiss of communion under the wings of joy, “a spark of the divine.” This great work was often performed during the Third Reich, the irony and the robotic aspect of much of the musical glory quite typical of the West’s cult of aesthetics, the smile of joy and fact of coercion. The dates of Schiller were 1759-1805.
3. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part II, chapter 16
4. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (1938; English edition 1955, Beacon), 10-11
5. Schiller wrote in his Letters that it is possible to elevate the moral character of a people, by first touching their souls with beauty; he repeated the theory in his poem Die Künstler (The Artists): “Only through Beauty's morning-gate, dost thou penetrate the land of knowledge.” Shelley stated the idea in his Preface to Prometheus Unbound in speaking of his “abhorrence of didactic poetry” in preference for “beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; [for] until the mind can love, and hope, and trust and endure, reasoned principles of morals are seeds scattered on the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into the dust…” Shelley’s last work, “the Triumph of Life” analyzes the horror of the beautiful Queen of light and the shadows and phantoms her worship generates.
6. Hesiod, Theogeny (Michigan 1959, Lattimore translation), 1-104 on the Muses; 100-02 on Eros; 147-201 on “the monstrous thing” done by the Titans and Gaia leading to the formation of Aphrodite, the goddess of love constructed of male sexual organs, Philommedea.
7. Matthew Arnold, “The Scholar Gypsy” (1852)
8. Schiller, “Wilhelm Tell”
9. Huizinga 13; Huizinga’s celebration of “play” as the substance of culture is an elaboration on Schiller’s concept of “the play drive” (spieltrieb), the synthesis of the sensuous and the formal; in other words, Hellenism. Schiller’s theories are a vivid example of the ‘cunning of history’ as it found its apotheosis in the Third Reich, hardly the republican utopia of the brotherhood of all human beings he sought. Marcuse also celebrated “the liberating force of the aesthetic function” which is the resurgence of Hellenism that results in virtual reality and a complete draining of the sensuous by the image and fiction. Instead of “a new reality principle” the cult of beauty has led to virtual reality and a culture of deceit and morbidity: to the head of Orpheus presiding over the horror of humans encouraged to be animals so as to more readily treat them as resources
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