Old Stories, News Stories

Once upon a time, King Pentheus of the Greek city of Thebes worked himself into a froth, because a new god named Dionysus had called the city’s women into the hills for drinking, dancing, and love-making. Pentheus could not abide this, especially the female revelers.

Dionysos © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
Dionysos © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

“When women get to celebrate with gleaming wine,” he fumed, “there’s a ritual that’s gone rotten.” He jailed all the truant wives he could find, swore to hunt down the others, to “capture them in iron traps,” then to sell them or enslave them himself. But first he felt oddly compelled to find a stranger who had arrived in town, a man with flowing, perfumed, golden curls and “rosy, wine-flushed cheeks.”

The thought of this effeminate stranger filled Pentheus with rage. He had to find him, would find him, did find him. He handcuffed and interrogated the stranger, then, shaken by the stranger’s uncanny replies and otherworldly gaze, threw him in the palace jail. But the stranger was Dionysus in disguise. And Dionysus is the life force personified, along with all his women — his maenad companions. Pentheus, in his fury, forcibly suppressed the life force. He tried to contain, control, and silence that elemental power.

This story is 2400 years old, written by Euripides in a play called The Bacchae, but Pentheus still stalks among us. He goes by different names these days, but lately his face has been all over the news:

  • On June 2, Judge Aaron Persky and a rapist named Brock Turner colluded in a Penthean attempt to silence a woman known as Emily Doe who had indulged in Dionysian drink and dancing. A jury convicted Turner on three felony accounts for assaulting Emily while she was unconscious — he seized control over her helpless body — but the judge sentenced Turner to only six months in jail.
  • On June 10, Kevin James Loibl equipped himself with two handguns, a hunting knife, and two extra magazines of ammunition to kill the unarmed, twenty-two year-old singer Christina Grimmie. Grimmie’s voice sounded like Burgundy wine before Loibl silenced her.
  • On June 12, Omar Mateen, armed with an assault rifle and a handgun, slaughtered 49 people at the LGBTQ nightclub Pulse, which is basically a temple to Dionysus. Mateen stilled those dancing bodies.
  • On June 16, Thomas Mair shot and stabbed to death Jo Cox, a 41-year-old, unarmed British MP who had stepped out into the world, into the halls of Parliament, where she wore a bright red maenad dress and raised her voice in support of refugees and of Britain remaining in the EU.

Pentheus Being Torn by Maenads, By WolfgangRieger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pentheus Being Torn by Maenads, By WolfgangRieger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
See how easy it is to put these events into a nice, neat list? As though each crime were just-the-facts-ma’am, and not a nexus of collective heartbreak radiating out from the scenes of violence. After the news about Jo Cox, I reached a point of numbness, right in the center of my chest. I couldn’t process more pain, I couldn’t feel, not so soon on the heels of Pulse. So much brutality, targeted at so many beautiful, defenseless people. These victims defied repressive rules that dictate proper behavior, so Pentheus attacked them. He controlled their aliveness by ending it.

The life force will not stand for this. The life force demands to live. It demands connection, expression, release. Back in Thebes, Dionysus wasn’t in prison for five minutes before an earthquake shook the palace down and lightning struck, burning all the timbers. Dionysus strode out untouched, stepping easily over the rubble and through the smoke, summoning the women back to his side.

The spirit of Dionysus also broke out of jail when Emily Doe released her victim statement from the trial. Her life force burst free in her evocative words, and America roared in outrage. Dionysus escaped when tributes to Christina Grimmie flooded the internet, and her voice reached millions who might not otherwise have heard her. Dionysus roared after the tragedy at Pulse, when Democrats in the Senate lifted their voices in a 14-hour filibuster and then those in House staged an overnight sit-in, demanding sanity in gun regulations.

Dionysus shook the UK after Jo Cox’s murder, too. But Pentheus marched back, goose-stepping across Britain and bellowing lies about independence and refugees. Really he wanted independence from refugees, freedom from having to help people in need. Pentheus scorns interdependence. He got his way, for now. Britain voted for rigid borders, for going it alone, for severing a life-giving connection.

In the story, Pentheus thinks that the life force he wants to kill is outside himself, outside his whole city. In reality, Dionysus is within the city walls, within the palace, within Pentheus himself, even though Pentheus savagely represses his own capacity for connection and expression. He is terrified of and disconnected from his own life force. His aggression is his self-hatred. And sure enough, his violence boomerangs right back home.

Bacchus, by Hendrick Goltzius, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bacchus, by Hendrick Goltzius, Metropolitan Museum of Art

After Dionysus left the jail, he lured the king to the forest to spy on the women’s revels. The women ripped Pentheus limb from limb, then they tore his limbs to shreds. He got his wish for disconnection. The maenads disconnected him, part by part by part.

It’s a chilling end to a chilling tale, like the headline news this month. Pentheus is what happens when anyone acts out their fear, fury, frustration. Dionysus, on the other hand, stands ready to assist with the creative expression of those big feelings, or to help come up with innovative ideas for changing the situation. Emily, Christina, everyone at Pulse, and Jo all demonstrate how to express and address feelings, rather than act them out.

Dionysus is the life force personified. The life force creates. Pentheus is fear. Fear blocks, stops, controls, contains. As surely as Dionysus lives within us all, so does the tyrant king. May the maenads do their grisly work every time he rises.

 

“But there are neither maps nor exercises…”

“But there are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned, that he smashes styles….
The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.”

— Federico Garcia Lorca, “Play and Theory of the Duende”

48 Days Without Facebook

February 11: Day 0

Tonight Stephanie and I were moaning about how busy the next month and a half will be, and as we talked, we asked the tarot cards what they thought of the busy schedules. I was particularly keen to get their opinion on a new writing project I wanted to start even though I had no idea where to find the time. The cards cleared their collective throat, then said:

From the Awakening Aeon Tarot Deck, by Marcia O'Hara, AwakeningAeonTarot.com
From the Awakening Aeon Tarot Deck, by Marcia O'Hara, AwakeningAeon.com
Talk about loud and clear! Fortune muses, “Yeah, this could be cool.” Death chimes in, “But something’s got to give, you have to let something go if you’re going to make room for a new project. You’ve got to shed the outworn skin in order to grow.” The Oracle Within: “Fill pages, fill pages, fill pages. See how I’m a full page? Do like that.” Ok. Right. Yes. I get it. Thank you, cards!

So something had to give. I immediately thought of Facebook, and the time I spend every day scrolling through that endless distraction. I thought of the new journal I bought for the project. A scheme formed all at once: I’ll give up Facebook for 40 days, and in the first hour of each of those days, I’ll freewrite for the project in the new journal. After 40 days of writing, or a full journal, whichever comes first, I’ll go back to Facebook. Lent started this week anyway, right? The project begins sort of around Lent, and ends sort of around Easter.

February 12: Day 1

This morning, chatting with Adrianna, I mentioned that today is my first day of a Facebook fast. She said, “Mm-hmm… wait, what?? Did you say Facebook fast? Oh my God, you just blew my mind!” I told her I’d woken up in the middle of the night and reached for my phone before remembering. She gasped and said, “What did you do??”

“I put the phone back down.”

“And then what??”

“I just lay there.”

She gave another gasp, shuddery and shivery, like at the end of a spooky story.

February 13: Day 2

Impulse: Reach for the phone.
Response: Pull your hand back.

February 14: Day 3

Wahh! I feel lost, lonely, cut off — but cut off from what? From voyeuristic eavesdropping, from the desperate hope for a puppy video.

It’s like I hauled myself up out of a river — maybe the River of Time — exhausted, soaking wet, panting in a heap on the bank. And isn’t time one of Facebook’s main metaphors? Facebook generates a time-line for each “user”– meaning each addict, each of us junkies. A Facebook addiction feeds a larger addiction to the conceit of time. And I do mean “feeds.” Facebook provides everyone their very own feed — but what’s the food? Distraction, diversion, outrage. Am I not calling this a Facebook fast?

But still, wah!

February 15: Day 4

Facebook who? It’s fading. Feels less like a fast and more like waking up.

February 16: Day 5

When I pick up my phone to call or text someone, my thumb still feels the muscle-impulse to press the Facebook icon. I only feel cut off anymore when other people in the room pore over their phones and I sit there, twiddling my idle thumbs and watching everyone else having their out-of-body experiences.

Narcissus by @dancretu
Narcissus by @dancretu
Because that’s what it does: it pulls your life energy out of your body through your eyeballs and holds it hostage in the 2-D world of The Screen. There’s a shrinking of awareness, a confining, a narrowing of the horizon down to the size of the responses made possible by whatever the interface allows — Like, Share, Type Something Here.

Facebook is a modern-day deity, a member of the tyrannical pantheon of social media gods and goddesses. Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, all the billions of dating sites, they all feed (that word again) off the attention of their acolytes. They reward that attention by bestowing attention — the more active you are, the more people see your activity. The currency of the exchange is attention. If that’s what we value, ok, that’s what we value. Is that what we value?

Like all gods and tyrants, the media deities are best approached with alert awareness. They misbehave when their privileges go unchecked.

Like all gods and tyrants, they can be deposed.

March 5: Day 23

There’s more space. The horizon extends further, in every one of those three-hundred-and-sixty degrees. Is Facebook a horizon blocker? It’s certainly a drain. It siphons energy I could use for other purposes.

Instead of looking at Facebook in the middle of the night when I wake up, I’ve started texting myself thoughts, notes, ideas. In the morning I read them and think, “Where on earth did that come from?”

March 29: Day 47

One more day to go. Three empty pages left in the journal. They will fill tomorrow morning. I didn’t write every day, but as of tomorrow, I’ll have written for 40 of the last 48 days. Not that the project is done. It’s a journal full of raw material. Soon it will be time to find out what it would like to become next.

March 30: Day 48

I broke the fast today. Facebook Breakfast, I guess. I knew I had to do it, in order to post an announcement for the Luna Review, but I kept putting it off. In the morning, I thought, “I’ll wait until the afternoon.” After lunch, I thought, “Just a few more minutes.” Finally, in mid-afternoon, I opened a tab on my browser. I typed an f. Autofill took care of the rest of the URL. I posted the announcement I needed to, looked around for maybe five minutes, and closed the tab. It felt oddly boring after all this time. Anticlimactic.

March 31

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night, too sleepy to get up but too awake to sleep. I picked up my phone. 3:17 AM. I glanced at email then thought, “Hey, I’m allowed to look at Facebook again.” My thumb was already moving toward the icon as the idea rolled around, but then I stopped. All at once, all in a rush, I realized what had really changed in the last month and a half.

In the past, unwelcome visitors like anxiety and hypochondria had often haunted my middle-of-the-night wake-ups. But since the Facebook fast, my nights had become quieter, more spacious, more peaceful. They had become the place where I text myself ideas whispered by the sparkling dark, the stillness where I can watch Michael, my bbf (beloved boyfriend), sleeping in the dim light like an archangel at rest. With my thumb hovering over the Facebook icon, I knew I was about to give up that magic. I was about to give my nights back to the low-level madness of the feed. I set the phone down.

The dark blue body of the Egyptian goddess Nut (pronounced noot) arches over the world, feet on one side of the horizon and hands on the other. Her skin is covered with stars. Then there are the Norse goddess Nott and the Greek goddess Nyx, both of whose names mean “night.” Both dress in black, both ride across the starry night sky, drawn in a black chariot or on the back of a magnificent black horse. To imagine any of them is to imagine night as Night, a being whose quiet, dark company can refresh and restore. They dilate the pupils, widening the eyes the better to admit wonder, starlight, and shadows.

Picture-11Night goddesses don’t ask for much, but they do insist on visiting. Actually, we visit them, every evening when our zip code rolls away from the sun and out to face the reaches of space. Night holds the dark half of the planet in the palms of Her cupped hands, at all times. She’s always there as we move into, through, and out of Her domain. When in Night, we’re in all the way, and Night is all the way in us. It’s Night outside, Night in the kitchen, Night in the bedroom. Night within blood vessels, in the synapses between neurons, inside every cell membrane in all of our bodies.

Impulse: Reach for the phone.
Response: Pull your hand back.
Then What: Bask. Relax.

“Mammy had told me…”

“And anyway, I thought, sipping my home-made wine and squinting up at the night sky for sputniks, Mammy had told me there were as many different beliefs as there were scattered stars. And I knew the stars were without number.”

— Graham Joyce, The Limits of Enchantment

Major Tom’s Magic Tricks

Of all the celebrities who died this month, David Bowie left the stage with the greatest eloquence. The collective outpouring of emotion at the news when he died surprised me at first. I mean, I remember liking “Modern Love” back in 1980-whatever, but that’s all I knew of him until a week ago, when I watched his two last and latest videos, “Lazarus” and “Blackstar.” Then I said, Oh.

“Lazarus,” intensely personal and inward, shows a mortal human, a desperate man facing his own death. It’s set indoors, much of it with the main character (played by Bowie) lying in a hospital bed. Let’s call this figure Bed Bowie. Sometimes an alternate version of this character (also played by Bowie) appears, standing or sitting, wearing a dark blue shirt and pants with parallel white slashes painted across the front of the clothes, much like Bowie wore on the cover of one of his old albums where he drew a Kabbalah — a magical Tree-of-Life schematic from Jewish mysticism. We could call this figure in the video Old Bowie, because he’s clearly not young anymore and because he represents the Bowie of old. Old Bowie, the aging magician, is Bed Bowie’s image of himself as an artist.

Old Bowie dances and writes in the video, but his dancing seems desperate, defiant, probably painful. He writes at a desk maniacally, a pathetic figure with an exaggerated sense of his own importance. He’s a shape-shifter whose illusions don’t dazzle the way they once did, a trickster whose jokes everyone knows. But at least he can see. Bed Bowie half-floats beneath his blanket, his arms straining to swim through the air, mummy-like bandages over his eyes. Beady black buttons sewn to the bandaging make a hideous parody of vision. Bed Bowie is blind, immobilized, terrified, trapped in a failing body.

The video ends with a chilling image of Old Bowie, wide-eyed and unblinking, shuffling backward with palsied, jerky movements, into the shadows of an empty wardrobe like the one that leads to Narnia. He pulls the door closed behind him. Then he’s gone, even though he was imaginary and unreal to start with. It’s over, it’s all over, and you cry for a stranger you suddenly feel you know so well who doesn’t even actually exist.

But the song is called “Lazarus,” after a man Jesus raises from the dead in the Christian Bible. Lazarus is a man Jesus loves (John 11: 3). A man Jesus says has merely fallen asleep, metaphorically speaking (John 11:11). When Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, Lazarus walks out with a cloth around his face, reminiscent of the bandages Bed Bowie wears in the video (John 11:44). Lazarus is a creepy, ironic, yet hopeful name to claim.

“Blackstar,” on the other hand, opens wide — as vast and cosmic as “Lazarus” is introspective. If “Lazarus” asks the question, “What goes on inside of me?”, “Blackstar” asks, “What goes on out there?” “Blackstar” is set in outer space, on at least one alien planet, with rocky moonscapes, fields of tall turquoise grasses, a distant silhouetted city of stone. The video takes place after the death of an astronaut, obviously Major Tom, whose body is now reduced to a gem-encrusted skull and a headless skeleton that drifts toward a black star. A star that died. A star whose light shines no more. Just like Bowie.

The otherworldly vocals engage cosmic issues, too: “I’m the Great I Am (I’m a blackstar).” This video is about that which is ever vaster, greater, more unfathomable, that which many people refer to as God. When Bowie appears here, in this mysterious place after and outside earthly life, he wears an old-fashioned black suit coat like a charismatic nineteenth-century preacher-prophet. He holds high an old, worn-out (like him) book of scripture, with of course a black star on the cover, but he’s looking past the book — his expression searches the distance. Once Bowie the Body is gone, what’s left is Bowie the Eternal, Bowie the Prophet. Sometimes, though, this figure also wears the eye bandages with button eyes, like Bed Bowie in “Lazarus.” He alternates between blindness and vision.

“Blackstar” ends with three braided events. A circle of women in plain dresses, led by a priestess with amulets, conducts a ceremony around the gem-encrusted skull, perhaps a ritual to ease the soul’s passage. At the same time, a shamanic figure in a costume of bells, horns, and long ropy hair seems to attack three tortured scarecrows on crosses in the turquoise field, all while Bowie the Prophet, blind behind the bandages again, slowly sinks toward the ground.

So “Lazarus” emphasizes the secular and psychological, “Blackstar,” the religious and spiritual, but really the two intertwine and talk to each other constantly, inextricably, like psychology and spirituality do in real life.

This barely brushes the layers of meaning and detail in these videos. The point is Bowie made them, then he died. His star went out. But when I watch the videos, he seems so present, so alive in all his many guises, in every single scene, that it’s difficult to comprehend he’s actually dead. Reality’s edges blur, in part thanks to the videos’ surreal imagery. Women with cat tails seem real, ghoulish scarecrows writhing on crosses seem real, but Bowie’s death seems impossible, make-believe. That makes death itself seem make-believe, preposterous. At the same time, Bowie truly is dead, so imaginary death feels real too, which makes imagination feel real!

See the rabbit that popped out of the hat? Persuasive images of the unreal drain the persuasive power out of the spell of reality. This phenomenon is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of marketers, politicians, and religious figures, who constantly try to convince us that the things they make up are literally true. But it’s also a tool in the artist’s and metaphysician’s bag of metaphor tricks, suggesting that there’s more to the universe than meets the eye, that reality is bigger and more mysterious that our physical senses admit.

Bowie could not have created these astonishing videos without the company of his own imminent mortality. Their poignancy and urgency draw energy directly from his own process of dissolution and death. I love how Bowie engages with those ferocious forces. His parting gift to the world isn’t so much the music or the images as it is his demonstration of how to express one’s longing, desperation, imagination. By giving voice and form to all that powerful emotion, Bowie had to have loosened some of its hold on him. More importantly, his art introduces a radical, new form of energy into what would otherwise be the quintessential draining of energy. His creativity energizes his death, making what would otherwise seem senseless pregnant with meaning.

In “Lazarus,” Bowie sings, “This way or no way / You know, I’ll be free.” He didn’t know how he’d be free, but he knew that he would. He released the album Blackstar on his birth-day, two days before his death-day. The album was born, its maker died. The cover even looks like a stylized headstone, with the big black star and the name “Bowie” spelled out graphically in star parts below. The work and the timing certainly suggest that he wondered how death might also function as a birth, or as in the Lazarus story, a prelude to being woken, in who knows what way, by powers unfathomably vaster than his temporal self.

Blackstar_album_cover (1)