Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Worshipers of Dionysius, Who Riot and Destroy and Slaughter

Poor Nietzsche. Half genius, half insane — and after his untreated syphilis advanced far enough, totally insane.

The trigger for his breakdown was when he saw a horse being beaten. He threw his arms around it, sobbing. He never recovered, and ended his days in an insane asylum.

For all of his attempts to portray himself as a bad boy, Nietzsche (a pencil-necked mouse of a man whose one true love, Lou Salome, refused to sleep with him even once), was in real life anything but. For one thing, he was far too sensitive for his own good, even though he tried to pretend he wasn't sensitive at all. As hard as he tried to not to, he identified with victims, and that's why the horse being beaten broke him.

In one of his writings, "Dionysus vs. the Crucified," Nietzsche wrote about two totally different religions — one based on taking the point of view of the victimizer, and the other that takes the point of view of the victim.

The first religion he correctly identified as pagan, and it has nothing to do with the silly "kinder, gentler" faux-paganism that those repulsed by what Christianity has become are today trying to create (or in their minds, recreate).

The second religion Nietzsche identified as Christian. Although an atheist, he was in some ways more Christian than those who today profess to be. He could at least identify with those victimized, something today, many people cannot do.

The pagan god Dionysus, Nietzsche pointed out, was not the god of drinking and partying and having a good time. He was the god of drunken rioting, destruction, and at times tearing people to shreds. And although it sounds counter-intuitive, he was also a fertility god.

We've all seen Dionysus. Every time you see a mob of people rioting and destroying things, and breaking into businesses and carrying off the merchandise and attacking innocent people, that's Dionysus at his worst.

There are many different myths about Dionysus — apparently each Greek town had its own version — but all of them employed the same concept: a god who is slain — in fact dismembered — and then restored to life. That's one of the reasons he was a fertility god — he died and then was reborn, just as the crops were every year.

Some of the ancient Greeks did engage in drunken destructive festivals, which brought the disapproval of the authorities, who feared revolution. A government afraid of revolution? We can use the Dionysian slaughter of the French Revolution as an example of that fear (if you want to understand ancient myths, look for the modern equivalent).

These drunken destructive orgiastic rites were finally tamed by being turned into plays, such as the ones about Oedipus and Agamemnon. In the original communal festivals, people, after their rioting, felt "cleansed" —then later, after the plays took the festivals' place, the same catharsis sent them home rid of what Aristotle famously called "pity and fear."

One of the most ominous things about these festivals is there was always a scapegoat, one onto which the sins and frustrations of the community were projected. Often they were killed. Later, in the theater, the characters were the scapegoats, only this time they were fictional and died imaginary deaths.

Scapegoating is why today in destructive rioting there are always people—the "oppressors"—who are targeted for attack (sometimes these scapegoats have been dead for hundreds of years, such as the infamous "Dead White Males" responsible for every problem in the U.S., and, indeed, the world).

After the rioting and attacks are over, those involved — however temporarily — feel renewed and rejuvenated, because they have "cleansed" themselves, not of their pity and fear, but their resentment and hate.

This scapegoating is the main thing Nietzsche noticed about Dionysus. All pagan religions, he told us, are Dionysian. They take the point of view of the victimizer; the scapegoats are always guilty and were killed for the utilitarian "greater good."

Christianity, on the other hand, for the first time in history took the point of view of the victim. As the Gospels show, Jesus was the innocent victim, although the religious leaders of the time considered him guilty ("It is expedient that one man should die for the sake of the people").

The Russian writer Dmitri Merejkowski saw the same division that Nietzsche did: he believed all religions could be divided into two basic ones: in the first, Man sacrifices Man to Man. In the second, God sacrifices Himself to Man.

Today, the French philosopher and theologian Rene Girard, author of Violence and the Sacred and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, is probably the most well-known writer about scapegoating. Not surprisingly, he has been influenced by Nietzsche, whom he considered a prophet. A crazed one, but still a prophet.

Girard thought the function of a scapegoat was to renew society, however imperfectly, and another theologian, Walter Wink, agreed with him, calling it "the myth of redemptive violence," i.e., the world can be reborn through violence.

Girard has suggested scapegoating should have ended with Jesus' sacrifice, because it was the first time in history the scapegoat was considered innocent. Before that, he tells us, people always thought the scapegoats deserved exactly what they got.

The psychiatrist M. Scott Peck said scapegoating is "the genesis of human evil," because when they do it people ignore their own guilt and other flaws and project them onto other people, whom they believe have to be destroyed to rid the world of whom they have defined as evil.

We have now, and have had for thousands of years, ideologies in which one group is scapegoated, so an attempt is made to sacrifice that group.
Each of those ideologies, as Merejkowski wrote, sacrificed Man to Man. And, as Nietzsche predicted, each were worshipers of Dionysus and his destructive frenzies. His observations allowed him to predict the carnage of the 20th Century — and in his opinion, beyond.

I've read estimates of 177 million to 200 million people in the 20th Century killed in various wars. All, ultimately were scapegoats; all, ultimately, were sacrificed to Dionysus.

Dionysus belongs to what Mircea Eliade called "the myth of the eternal return." This myth has roots in non-Christian classical civilization, and in it the creation of society is followed by the degeneration of it and then by regeneration.

This notion helped the ancients deal with the uncertainty of the future -which is an eternal problem.

The writers I've quoted are telling us when certain groups of people believe society (or the world) is degenerating, a scapegoat must be found and destroyed. There is no pity for the scapegoat, since in the minds of the sacrificers the sacrificed brought it on themselves.

Jacques Barzun, in his book, From Dawn to Decadence, wrote, "When people see futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label. A decadent culture offers opportunities chiefly to the satirist... "

I close with something Girard wrote in Violence and the Sacred: "Men can dispose of their violence more efficiently if they regard the process not as something emanating from within themselves, but as a necessity imposed from without..."


Mindstorm said...

Well, some more to think about. I remember vaguely that Nietzsche wasn't the first to contrast these two.

Mindstorm said...

The Japanese would envision tragedy differently, as a conflict between duty and compassion. Duty meant as obligations belonging to public sphere of life and compassion as an expression of emotions belonging to private sphere of life. For them, if these two stand in irreconcilable opposition, then a suicide becomes the sole honorable path to take.