POETRY OF REVOLT: Beware of Dionysians Wearing Masks

Dionysus. . . is the genuine mask god.
──Walter F. Otto
In the case of Dionysus, the mask disguises him as much as it proclaims his
--Jean-Pierre Vernant
The mask is a symbol both of the ‘pure presence’ of Dionysus and of the
elusiveness of that presence.
──Charles Segal
Dionysos is not the God behind the mask. He is the mask.
──Ginette Paris
Whether he walks in smiles or leaps in irritation, Dionysos always appears
in the guise of the stranger. He is the god who comes from outside, who
arrives from Elsewhere.
──Marcel Detienne

"Towards the end of the Sixties, there was a renewed interest in older theater models, a burst of avant-garde performance based in part on the teachings of Jerzy Grotowski and Antonin Artaud's earlier theories. An explosion of drugs, sex and trance-like music invaded Off-Off Broadway, exemplified by Richard Schechner's Euripides adaptation Dionysus in ‘69, played in a converted garage on Wooster Street. This production so impressed Brian De Palma that he invested a lot of his own money trying to make a filmed record of the performance, and he spent two years on the project, mainly because he wanted to utilize split-screens in order to replicate the play’s open-ended freedom."

Lee Bartlett: Reviewing Michael McClure’s Scratching the Beat Surface in 1982, I wrote: In George Oppen’s only review, published in Poetry in August of 1962 and dealing with work by Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Michael McClure, he dismisses McClure’s verse as born of “excitement, intoxication, meaninglessness, a destruction of the sense of oneself among things.” Assuredly, McClure’s poetry is both generated by and celebrative of those Dionysian elements the Apollonian/modernist sensibility finds offensive.

Lee Bartlett: In Function of the Orgasm (1942), Reich argues that the orgasm represents a spontaneous discharge of sexual excitation, that "the involuntary bio-energetic contraction of orgasm and the complete discharge of excitation are the most important criteria for orgastic potency." As the point of orgasm is reached in sexual intercourse, a "clouding of consiousness" ("beclouding of consciousness" -- Kerouac, "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose") occurs, which erupts into the ultimate Dionysian transportation out of the ego. Reich discovers that both male and female patients suffering from a variety of neuroses are unable fully to experience this transport, that they all retain a great degree of intellectual lucidity during orgasm. He concludes that this produces a sexual stasis in the individual, a clogging-up of sexual energy that fuels the neurosis.

In terms of politics, however, Oppen’s dismissal seems curious; while he and his fellow objectivists were in the main high modernists in terms of practice, Oppen himself was a left-wing activist. Further, his own work shifted from the Pound/Williams influence in the objectivist Discrete Series to a more subjective poetry in the mid-fifties. But where Oppen’s leftist politics are occasionally programmatic (Marxist), McClure’s leftist politics are at once more diffuse and more encompassing; it is here, I think, that Oppen feels from McClure a threat which goes beyond the simply aesthetic. McClure considers himself above all a poet of revolt. A 1961 essay: “at all times revolt is the search for health and naturality”; “hysteria is a real animal process”; “revolt is a striving to a regimen that is conceived of as athletic and physical.” And essentially, and probably most disturbing to Oppen, “there is no political revolt. All revolt is personal” (“Revolt”).

… Should we be aware of Greeks bearing bonds? As Wall Street hangs on the question “Will Greece default?,” those Apollonians who couldn’t manage their own store are leaning  on the Greek question; opening up the purse of Dionysus to see whether she has the funds to support the lifestyle she has become accustomed to. Objectively, the country is economic insanity. But this, the home of Apollo and Dionysus and Aphrodite is not a country to judged by the values of northern Europe. It was the cradle of the Byzantine empire:

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
( W.B. Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium)

Michael Lewis : I stood when they stood, and sat when they sat: up and down we went like pogos, for hours. The effect of the whole thing was heightened by the monks’ magnificently wild beards. Even when left to nature, beards do not all grow in the same way. There are types: the hopelessly porous mass of fuzz; the Osama bin Laden/Assyrian-king trowel; the Karl Marx bird’s nest. A surprising number of the monks resembled the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercial. (“His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man’s entire body.”) The Vatopaidi monks have a reputation for knowing a lot more about you than you imagine they do, and for sensing what they do not know.

Oh yes, there is that niggling issue of a $1.2 trillion debt; roughly a quarter-million dollars for each working adult,but  there is also a more frightening deficit. After systematically looting their own treasury, in a breathtaking binge of tax evasion, bribery, and creative accounting

red on by Goldman Sachs, Greeks are sure of one thing: they can’t trust their fellow Greeks. The collapse of Greece should be viewed through the prism of Dinoysus, masks and theatre to comprehend the phenomenon in all its fury and glory. The episode of the debt crisis and the real estate wheeler-dealer religious order is part and parcel of a revision of ancient Greek theatre that had slept many millenium.

One wonders. Swept up like Keats and Byron in pursuit of the classic ideal, Charles Robert Cockerell and three associates stumbled upon the log -buried temple sculptures of Aegina in 1811. These sculptures were disdained for many years as “Archaic”, – the glamor was in the Parthenon. For the connoisseurs and academic artists of the nineteenth century, the classic figures of the Parthenon were the perfect blend of strength and refinement, nature and grace. They were the embodiments, revealed at last, of an ideal beauty never since equaled by the wit or vision of man.

But these “experts”  were mistaken.At least until the aesthetic revolution of the twentieth century. Maybe the Greeks knew well enough to leave these mysterious sculptures alone and not awaken their spirits; a Dionysian onslaught that fermented and expanded with the Romantic rebellion as a naive, vital, volatile and thoroughly incomprehensible life force that may have been buried and hidden for a reason.

Walter Otto’s reflection on the mask of Dionysus in Dionysus: Myth and Cult has exerted a far-reaching influence on the subject of “the god of the mask.” Stressing the large and penetrating eyes of the mask, Otto construes Dionysus as “the god of confrontation.” As Otto writes, “Here there is nothing but encounter, from which there is no withdrawal–an immovable, spell-binding
antipode” . Otto looks upon the mask as “a sacred object”  and “the source of the fascination and confusion” .

Another influential interpreter of the mask of Dionysus is Jean-Pierre Vernant. Like Otto, he stresses the immediacy and fascination of Dionysus’s gaze.  Vernant strongly emphasizes the radical otherness of the mask and its enigmatic and elusive power to disorient those who encounter it . The smiling mask makes known what Dionysus is but its radical otherness evades the truthfulness of his natures and identities.The mask of Dionysus is a simulacrum not a representation.

As Ginette Paris argues, “Dionysus is not the God behind the mask. He is the mask”. The mask of Dionysus is its own double which imitates nothing, a double that nothing anticipates. There is no original mask of Dionysus as such. The mask is always the mask of a mask. It is with this mask that Dionysus enters into the theater and becomes the patron god of the theater, a place which
celebrates the art of miming, of disguise, of illusion, and of role-playing

The western figures from Aegina are late archaic, the eastern are severe- or the transitional between archaic and classic; and in Greek sculpture, the best of the geometric, then of the archaic, then of the severe, exemplify those wonderful moments of a developing art when aboriginal energy begins to know without flagging, but not to know too much.

We may be living in modern times, but some of the ancient practices are with us whether we know it or not. One practice that reaches us on the most archetypal level is the worship of Dionysus. Once practiced by women in ancient Greece and Rome, revelers would run through the hills drinking, partying and eventually tearing an animal to bits all in the name of the god of wine and orgiastic revelry. Sounds a bit extreme to us in the 21st century, but this ritual is unconsciously mimicked in every rock concert and many dramatic venues.

"As Dionysus, we demand nothing less of him, and we expect nothing more than complete service to his own appetites. He lives our fantasies. At one point, he drives a jeep through the window of a car dealership because the salesman made a remark about "fags". He gets away with things we can only dream of."

The problem is that Dionysus has a dark side. Often there is a raw and sometimes vulgar  sensuality mixed with absolute sophistication; key character conflicts that go to the heart of the Dionysian mythos. The beauty aspect is obvious, but the real key is his fear of losing that beauty. Rather than playing this with any sort of insecurity the Dionysian  character often has  an angry edge that makes them more attractive, accentuating  the idea that they will always be young and beautiful. Dionysian men are often contemptuous of their followers and suspicious of their fame.Then there is the death aspect. Dionysus has to die, at least in a figurative sense.

"Who doesn't love Byronic heroes? and for the curious "Heathcliff is a fictional character in the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Owing to the novel's enduring fame and popularity, he is often regarded as an archetype of the tortured Romantic Byronic hero whose all-consuming passions destroy both himself and those around him. Heathcliff can also be viewed as a reflection and product of his psychological past: the abuse, neglect and scorn of those with whom he grows up render him abusive, neglectful and scornful."

The Dionysian element of fame was not lost on Jim Morrison, who consciously acted it out in most aspects of his life, including an early death, whether  staged or not. The essence of Dionysus is irresistibility. His appeal manifests in the obsessive, uncontrolled behavior exhibited such as the reaction of girls seen in the footage of a Beatles concert. He is the eternal youth, always young, always beautiful, notoriously unfaithful even to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. One current example is Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, possibly the most sex-obsessed man since Lord Byron. He lives and breathes it, even sings about it in some of the most popular songs ever written. He’s not alone. Every boy band, every bad-boy actor from James Dean to Russell Crowe, every guy who ever learned to play guitar to get chicks owes his appeal to the Dionysian element of his personae. From Elvis to Prince and beyond Dionysus will not be denied.

"In Venice, Byron produced some of his best work, including Don Juan. He continued in his liasons: mercurial infatuations with both women and men. A Dionysian in theory and in fact, he embodied Kierkegaard's tortured Aesthetic man. When Percy Shelley and his party tragically drowned sailing during a squall off the coast of Italy, Byron and their friends created a pagan pyre on the beach to say farewell."

“When a man does not admit he is an animal, he is less than an animal. . . . Blake was the revolt of one man. He was not a revolutionary but a man in revolt. A creature in revolt can conceive that there is NO solution and that there will be unending construction and destruction. . . . Blake revolted with his being and maintained himself as a visionary mammal as best he might in his circumstances. His creature pride and his vision in works of poetry and painting survive as part of his body. “REVOLT IS A BIOLOGICAL PROCESS” (Michael McClure,”Blake and the Yogin,”).

Lee Bartlett:Robert Bly (News of the Universe) reminds us that Cartesian dualism stands as the bulwork of the "Old Position," solidifying an earlier Augustinian view of nature as evil. "I think, therefore I am," privileging the mind (the city) over the body (nature). For poets like Lessing, Pope, and Arnold, nature becomes the Other, something either to be feared or disdained, while civilization offers salvation. Romanticism provides a general revolt, but Bly finds little use in the English Romantics who (save Blake) remain "primarily in the realm of feeling"; even Keats, Bly suggests, finds it necessary in a poem like "Ode to a Nightingale" to return to the comfort of human society at the last moment, unable to sustain himself in a "twofold consciousness." Bly turns to Nerval, Holderlin, and Novalis as examples of poets who are willing to accept the "dark side" of nature in their praise of the unconscious-night, sexuality, woman-over against Wordsworthian idealization.

…”Father Arsenios looks to be in his late 50s—though who knows, as their beards cause them all to look 20 years older. He’s about as famous as you can get, for a monk: everyone in Athens knows who he is. Mr. Inside, the consummate number two, the C.F.O., the real brains of the operation. “If they put Arsenios in charge of the government real-estate portfolio,” a prominent Greek real-estate agent said to me, “this country would be Dubai. Before the crisis.” If you are kindly disposed to these monks, Father Arsenios is the trusted assistant who makes possible the miraculous abbacy of Father Ephraim. If you are not, he’s Jeff Skilling to Ephraim’s Kenneth Lay. ….The monks eat like fashion models before a shoot. Twice a day four days a week, and once a day for three: 11 meals, all of them more or less like this. Which raises an obvious question: Why are some of them fat? Most of them—maybe 100 out of the 110 now in residence—resemble their diet. Beyond thin: narrow. But a handful, including the two bosses, have an ampleness to them that cannot be explained by 11 helpings of raw onion and cucumber, no matter how much honeycomb they chew through. ( Michael Lewis )

Selena Kuzman

Through the mask, Dionysus introduces “the unpredictable dimension of the ’elsewhere’ into the very heart of daily life” (Vernant ) This “elsewhere” is the “distancing places” (Nietzsche) where Nietzsche the Dionysian piper would like to lure us. This “elsewhere” is also the “outside” where Blanchot would like to lead us; it is a radical outside which has nothing to do with the dialectical struggle of the inside and the outside, and transgresses the limit set by “the idea of a self, of the subject, then of Truth and the One, then finally the idea of the Book and the Work” .

The visage of Dionysus thrusts the experience of the limit, of the unknown, of autrui, of ecstasy, and of madness into the moment of face to face. It seizes us, puts us at risk, and bears us away from ourselves. The experience of the visage, of the mask of Dionysus, cannot be represented by the simple movement of manifestation, or the double movement of concealment and unconcealment. As Blanchot suggests, the experience of the visage is the “presence of the outside itself, is not the presence of a form appearing in light or its simple retreat in the absence of light; neither veiled nor unveiled” .  Blanchot pushes the experiences of epiphany and confrontation to their limits.

Robert Duncan. Bartlett: Faas devotes much of his narrative to Duncan’s homosexuality. Do you feel his homosexuality influenced his work beyond its specific subject matter and imagery? Everson: Absolutely. The Apollonian tension in the work comes directly out of his homosexuality. I used to regard him as a Dionysian because of the dithyrambic sensibility, yet he points to the prophetic side of Apollo as his archetype, at least in conversation with me. He formalizes his homosexuality through the Apollonian/Dionysian equation, identifying Apollo and rejecting Dionysus. This is the basis of his work.

Dionysus is the god of the mask par excellence. The smiling mask makes known what Dionysus is but its radical otherness evades the truthfulness of his natures and identities. It is with this mask that Dionysus enters into the theater and becomes its patron god.
This mask is said to have risen from the depth of the sea. It looks strange and foreign representing an enigma to be deciphered, an unknown power to be identified. In other words, the mask demands an interpretation, a fiction-making enterprise.

Michael Lewis: That changed on October 4 of last year, when the Greek government turned over. A scandal felled the last government and sent Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis packing, which perhaps is not surprising. What’s surprising was the nature of the scandal. In late 2008, news broke that Vatopaidi had somehow acquired a fairly worthless lake and swapped it for far more valuable government-owned land. How the monks did this was unclear—paid some enormous bribe to some government official, it was assumed. No bribe could be found, however. It didn’t matter: the furor that followed drove Greek politics for the next year. The Vatopaidi scandal registered in Greek public opinion like nothing in memory.

…Despite its entry into the European Union, Greece has remained a closed economy; it’s impossible to put one finger on the source of all the country’s troubles, but if you laid a hand on them, one finger would touch its insularity. All sorts of things that might be more efficiently done by other people they do themselves; all sorts of interactions with other countries that they might profitably engage in simply do not occur. In the general picture the Vatopaidi monastery was a stunning exception: it cultivated relations with the outside world. Most famously, until scandal hit, Prince Charles had visited three summers in a row, and stayed for a week each visit. ( Michael Lewis )…

What has happened at the moment of Dionysian epiphany? What have we experienced? We experience the “manifestation” of Dionysus. But what is it that manifests? A fantasy? A phantom? A vision? An image? A mask? The fact that remains with the movement of epiphany is that what “is” has always already in effect disappeared; something was there that is there no longer. The epiphany of Dionysus is nothing but an intimate immediacy, in an aura of the alterity of desire, of passion, and of excess. The immediacy and alterity of the presencing defy the mediation of dialectics.

Jim Morrison

“…Relationships with the rich and famous were essential in Vatopaidi’s pursuit of government grants and reparations for sackings, but also for the third prong of its new management’s strategy: real estate. By far the smartest thing Father Ephraim had done was go rummaging around in an old tower where they kept the Byzantine manuscripts, untouched for decades. Over the centuries Byzantine emperors and other rulers had deeded to Vatopaidi various tracts of land, mainly in modern-day Greece and Turkey. In the years before Ephraim arrived, the Greek government had clawed back much of this property, but there remained a title, bestowed in the 14th century by Emperor John V Palaiologos, to a lake in northern Greece.” ( Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair )…

The epiphany of Dionysus dissuades us from thinking of his coming,presencing, or manifestation, but overflows every spectrum of thought. Neither beginning nor end, neither origin nor destination, the mask god manifests and keeps manifesting in-between. The gratuitousness of the Dionysian epiphany exemplifies the Nietzschean Dionysian “chance-necessity”which defeats every naming but affirms every coming and becoming.

"But the place does not behave as a collective; it lacks the monks’ instincts. It behaves as a collection of atomized particles, each of which has grown accustomed to pursuing its own interest at the expense of the common good. There’s no question that the government is resolved to at least try to re-create Greek civic life. The only question is: Can such a thing, once lost, ever be re-created?"-Michael Lewis

…”Prime Minister Papandreou presented this bill, as he has presented everything since he discovered the hole in the books, not as his own idea but as a non-negotiable demand of the I.M.F. The general idea seems to be that while the Greek people will never listen to any internal call for sacrifice they might listen to calls from outside. That is, they no longer really even want to govern themselves.”…

For Erwin Rhode, the spread of the frenzied Bacchic rite is a “religious epidemic,” similar to the dancing epidemic after the Black Death in Europe . However, Rhode’s view of the Dionysian epidemic is essentially negative. He considers the Dionysian ecstasy “basically pathological, a state of hallucination and alienatio mentis” . In contrast to Rhode’s view, Otto, who follows Nietzsche in observing sickness and frenzy as violent, alternative ways of perceiving the universe, views the epidemic outbreak of the Dionysian in a positive note: “The madness which is called Dionysus is no sickness, no debility in life, but a champion of life at its healthiest. It is the tumult which erupts from its innermost recesses when they mature and force their way to the
surface” .

Artaud’s view of the epidemic is similar to that of Otto. In the essay “The Theater and the Plague,” Artaud gives us an interesting and horrifying account of the plague’s symptoms and effects on civilization. For him, the plague is an acting out of cruelty, the cosmic energy which stirs the body fluids “like lava kneaded by subterranean forces, search for an outlet” .

… “Thousands upon thousands of government employees take to the streets to protest the bill. Here is Greece’s version of the Tea Party: tax collectors on the take, public-school teachers who don’t really teach, well-paid employees of bankrupt state railroads whose trains never run on time, state hospital workers bribed to buy overpriced supplies. Here they are, and here we are: a nation of people looking for anyone to blame but themselves. The Greek public-sector employees assemble themselves into units that resemble army platoons. In the middle of each unit are two or three rows of young men wielding truncheons disguised as flagpoles. Ski masks and gas masks dangle from their belts so that they can still fight after the inevitable tear gas. “The deputy prime minister has told us that they are looking to have at least one death,” a prominent former Greek minister had told me. “They want some blood.” Two months earlier, on May 5, during the first of these protest marches, the mob offered a glimpse of what it was capable of. Seeing people working at a branch of the Marfin Bank, young men hurled Molotov cocktails inside and tossed gasoline on top of the flames, barring the exit. Most of the Marfin Bank’s employees escaped from the roof, but the fire killed three workers, including a young woman four months pregnant. As they died, Greeks in the streets screamed at them that it served them right, for having the audacity to work. The events took place in full view of the Greek police, and yet the police made no arrests…. ( Michael Lewis )

The plague, the victims and survivors, in a condition of mixed panic and delirium, behave crazily in an orgy of “gratuitous absurd”  as though released from all social conventions and sanctions. Thus for Artaud, theater like the plague is the “redeeming epidemic” which is “a superior disease because it is a total crisis after which nothing remains except death or an extreme purification. Similarly the theater is a disease because it is the supreme equilibrium which cannot be achieved without destruction” . In fact, Artaud’s theater of cruelty is a theater of the plague, which tries in various way to evoke the epidemic drive found in the Great Mysteries of Dionysus, Orpheus, and Eleusis.

The gift of wine that Dionysus offers mankind is contagious. It is a pharmakon which cures and infects. For Pentheus, Dionysus is contagious like a pharmakeus: at once a magician who topples the palace and changes forms, a sorcerer who bewitches women and teaches promiscuity, and a prisoner he himself puts in jail. On the other hand, Dionysus is also a pharmakos, a scapegoat whom he wishes to capture as the representative of the evil. By arresting Dionysus, he can establish the distinction between a pure, rational
inside and a corrupt, irrational outside. Even with all of Penthesus’s efforts, Dionysus and his rites, by confounding the outside and the inside, still disseminate like a plague.

“…As on other days, the protesters have effectively shut down the country. The air-traffic controllers have also gone on strike and closed the airport. At the port of Piraeus, the mob prevents cruise-ship passengers from going ashore and shopping. At the height of the tourist season the tourist dollars this place so desperately needs are effectively blocked from getting into the country. Any private-sector employee who does not skip work in sympathy is in danger. All over Athens shops and restaurants close; so, for that matter, does the Acropolis.” …

The epiphany of the mask god is not only a contagious phenomenon, but also a play of uncanny forces–forces that come from without, forces that traverse and cut across the Dionysian mask at the moment of the epiphany. This epiphanic moment is also “the moment of arising” what Foucault designates as “emergence” . As Foucault writes, Emergence is thus the entry of forces; it is their eruption, the leap from the wings to center stage, each in its youthful strength. . . . emergence designates a place of confrontation, but not as a closed field offering the spectacle of a struggle among equals. Rather, as Nietzsche demonstrates in his analysis of good and evil, it is a “non-place,” a pure distance, which indicates that the adversaries do not belong to a common space. Consequently, no one is responsible for an emergence; no one can glory in it, since it always occurs in the interstice.

The emergence of the mask god, which is the most terrible and yet the most gentle, happens in the “non-place” of the confrontation. Not to temper violence,nor to gratify it, the epiphany emerges through the cruel and gratuitous instigation of forces. The epiphany as emergence is constituted by the relation of force with force, by a plurality of irreducible forces.

…The lead group assembles in the middle of a wide boulevard a few yards from the burned and gutted bank branch. That they burned a bank is, under the circumstances, incredible. If there were any justice in the world the Greek bankers would be in the streets marching to protest the morals of the ordinary Greek citizen. The Marfin Bank’s marble stoop has been turned into a sad shrine: a stack of stuffed animals for the unborn child, a few pictures of monks, a sign with a quote from the ancient orator Isocrates: “Democracy destroys itself because it abuses its right to freedom and equality. Because it teaches its citizens to consider audacity as a right, lawlessness as a freedom, abrasive speech as equality, and anarchy as progress.” At the other end of the street a phalanx of riot police stand, shields together, like Spartan warriors. Behind them is the Parliament building; inside, the debate presumably rages, though what is being said and done is a mystery, as the Greek journalists aren’t working, either. The crowd begins to chant and march toward the vastly outnumbered police: the police stiffen. It’s one of those moments when it feels as if anything might happen. Really, it’s just a question of which way people jump…. ( Michael Lewis )

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