Cultural reversion

Culture | Dumping religion was supposed to make us more advanced, so why are we becoming more primitive?

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

What's the attraction of body piercing, fantasy murder games, and suicidally depressing music? Some of our high artists are making sculptures out of excrement and carving up cadavers, all in an attempt to shock their ever more jaded viewers. Even our popular entertainment seeks out lines to cross, so that videogames become ever grosser and sadomasochism is shown on cable.

What is happening to our culture?

A classic work of anthropology by Ruth Benedict, written over six decades ago, contains a clue. In her book Patterns of Culture, Ms. Benedict describes two different American Indian societies, the Pueblo and the Plains.

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The Pueblo live in permanent homes and exhibit a high degree of order, self-control, and community solidarity. They tend to be conformist, favoring the group over the individual. They distrust extreme emotion and even have an aversion to alcohol.

Their neighboring tribes, the Plains Indians, were almost the opposite. They valued extreme experiences. They sought places of danger. They loved war. They sought intensely subjective and individualized spiritual visions.

"On the western plains," she writes, "men sought these visions with hideous tortures. They cut strips from the skin of their arms, they struck off fingers, they swung themselves from tall poles by straps inserted under the muscle of their shoulders."

They used peyote and other hallucinogens-and above all, alcohol-to experience a feeling of transcendence. In at least one tribe, the word for "religion" is a synonym for "getting drunk."

Ms. Benedict explained the difference between the order-loving Pueblo and the wildness-loving Plains tribes by applying Nietzsche's distinction between those who worshipped Apollo and those who worshipped Dionysus.

Apollo was the Greek god of the sun, and, by extension, the god of enlightenment, reason, order, and science. Dionysus was the god of wine and, by extension, the god of intoxication, madness, and ecstasy.

Nietzsche, the anti-Christian German philosopher, said that these two pagan gods represent two radically different approaches to the values of existence. Apollonians seek meaning in order, control, knowledge, and rationality. Dionysians seek "the annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of existence," pursuing meaning through intense experience, excess, and transgression against every restriction.

According to Ms. Benedict, the Pueblo are the classic example of an Apollonian culture. The Plains Indians, on the other hand, "were passionately Dionysian. They valued all violent experience, all means by which human beings may break through the usual sensory routine."

In American culture, the scientific rationalism of most of the century could be described as Apollonian. Modernists were convinced they could control nature and even reshape society by their rationalistic ideologies and scientific knowledge. Today, though, now that we have gone postmodern, the culture has swung to Dionysus.

Many people today try to give themselves a meaningful life by trying to break out of all restrictions, including those of the moral law. They seek the thrill of transgression. They cultivate every extreme. They even embrace pain--mutilating themselves to make a fashion statement-and purposefully cultivate despair. At the same time, they seek intoxication-through drugs, sexual pleasures, violence, or even a particular kind of mystical or occult religion.

This is the mindset of much of Hollywood and the recording industry. It's the way of "creative" folks in the art world and academia. It can be found everywhere in the mass-produced youth culture-the goths, punks, death metalheads, and Colorado's trenchcoat mafia.

If this worship of Dionysus accelerates, what will the next century bring? Some think that the Dionysian violence of our entertainment culture is a way to sublimate our violent emotions, expressing them in games and fantasies rather than real life. But we need to remember that, for true Dionysians, the boundary between fantasy and reality is only another line to break. Although the pioneering Dionysians of the 1960s proclaimed peace and love, Dionysian tribes historically have practiced warfare for the sheer pleasure of it. If America keeps going in this direction, the next century will see even more wars and rumors of wars than the last--but people will enjoy them more.

Christ, of course, is neither Apollo nor Dionysus. Christianity inspires neither the bloodless rationalism of the Apollonians nor the irrational bloodthirstiness of the Dionysians. Christianity values both the group and the individual, offering both form and freedom, truth and joy.

Many people assume that cutting Christianity out of our culture makes us more advanced. The irony is that instead we become more primitive. We are back to wearing bones in our noses, supplicating magic crystals, cowering before sun gods, or throwing ourselves into frenzies.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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