“Mercury, Argos and Io” by Abraham Bloemaert, circa 1592. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Argos Panoptes, the many-eyed giant of Greek mythology, is invoked by Josiah Ober to warn a slumbering citizenry of the danger of tyranny. “Vigilance and readiness to respond,” Ober warns, are the duties of a participating citizenry if they wish to preserve their democracy from the ever-present risk of elite capture. Argos “was bewitched into slumber and then killed in his sleep by the trickster-god Hermes at the behest of tyrannical Zeus.” A vigilant citizenry, Ober cautions, “must not be lulled into sleepy inattention by rhetorical incantations.”[i]
In times of crisis, paternalistic demagogues promise salvation in the name of the people. Mercury—Rome’s patron god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, and trickery—stands in for Hermes in many depictions of Argos’ slumber and demise.
What happens when the delegated authority of elected representatives—delegation being a necessity of a large and complex modern state—is captured by elites to legislate in their own interests and against the common interests of the people? What happens when the sovereignty of the people is co-opted and democracy is corrupted? (more…)
“Archangel Raphael and Tobit and the dog” by David Ghirlandaio, circa 1484-1486. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
According to Jorge Luis Borges in his History of Angels (1926), “primitive angels were stars.” In the Book of Job (Borges continues), the Lord speaks out from the whirlwind about the genesis of creation: “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (KJV, Job 38:7). The “German speculative theologian” Richard Rothe (1799-1867) affirms that angels have the attributes of intellectual force and free will. They are also capable of “working wonders, but not miracles. They cannot create from nothing or raise the dead.”(more…)
“The finding of Don Juan by Haidée” by Ford Madox Brown, 1870, watercolor and gouache over pencil. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the early twentieth century, George Bernard Shaw took on the “frightful responsibility” of composing a Don Juan play. His immediate sources were “a very great play” (Moliere’s Dom Juan), and “a very great opera” (Mozart’s Don Giovanni). But he understood that the spirit of the Spanish hero is that of a mythological trickster.
In a brief exegesis of the first Don Juan play (El burlador de Sevilla by Tirso de Molina, 1583-1648), Shaw explained:
The prototypic Don Juan … was presented, according to the ideas of that time, as the enemy of God, the approach of whose vengeance is felt throughout the drama, growing in menace from minute to minute. 
Shaw rejects the notion of Don Juan as a vulgar “libertine,” and makes clear in Man and Superman that his John Tanner (Juan Tenorio) is one “in the philosophic sense”:
Don Juan is a man who, though gifted enough to be exceptionally capable of distinguishing between good and evil, follows his own instincts without regard to the common, statute, or canon law; and therefore, whilst gaining the ardent sympathy of our rebellious instincts … finds himself in mortal conflict with existing institutions.
Donald Trump Laconia Rally, Laconia, NH on July 16, 2015. (Credit: Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons)
The attitude of war is so deeply ingrained in US political culture that rhetorical combativeness itself is considered to be praiseworthy. Donald Trump is an icon of combativeness. His run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination is downright militaristic. He boasts that he is the “most militaristic guy ever.” To back it up, he labels China an “enemy,” who is “destroying your children’s and grandchildren’s future,” and he professes his love for America by saying that “when you love something, you protect it passionately—fiercely, even.”
War culture has progressed to the point, as Tom Engelhardt notes, that there is no longer a significant American antiwar movement. It has been demobilized in the endless war on terrorism: “Since 9/11, this country has engaged in a military-first foreign policy across much of the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, launching an unending string of failed wars, conflicts, raids, kidnappings, acts of torture, and drone assassination programs.” The war state has been privatized, the general public has been removed from the actual fighting, and the citizenry has been reduced to a “surveilled and protected populace.” Americans, who have been “inoculated . . . against serious protest,” are content to tune in to a spectacle of slaughter. “Don’t consider it a fluke,” Engelhardt says, “that the war culture hero of the period—on the bestseller lists and in Hollywood—was an American sniper.” (more…)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in September of 2014. (Credit: Andrew Campbell / Wikimedia Commons)
The country will not be brought down by the Islamic State or by Arab extremists; it will not be toppled by abortion or by same-sex marriages. In the future, history will tell that the U.S. defeated communism, avoided the wiles of Satan, but could not transcend its own internal contradictions.
The country will decline and fall because it observes the Roman policy of panem et circenses regarding its citizens, keeping them satiated with bread and games while its plutocrats enrich their miserable selves—even at the expense of the destruction of the planet. We no longer worship—if we ever did—at the Church of Jesus Christ. On Sundays during the season we worship at the Church of Football, and the rest of the year we follow the vagaries of football teams and their players as if we were watching the war of the final days between angelic hosts. (more…)
“The Three Archangels and Tobias” (tempera on panel) by Francesco Botticini, 1470.
There are Black Angels, Warrior Angels, Healing Angels; Angels who announce a New Beginning and Archangels. The Trickster Angel of Temperance, who is the Archangel Raphael, stands between the deep waters of the self and the shores of our persona.
In his chalice he mixes the blood of the martyrs and the clear streams of eternal life. He announces a New Dawn in the distant mountains. This is the Trickster who made Abraham change his God rather than sacrifice his son; this is the Angel who stood on the banks of the river and caught the fish that returned Tobit’s eyesight. This is the same Angel who drove the Devil to the far regions of Egypt, and cleansed the world from his influence.
Mark that he did not kill the Devil, for the Devil too is part of all things, but only bound him in chains in a mountain. (more…)
Movie poster for “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987). Credit Touchstone Pictures.
Sobre una tumba, una rumba. With these words, Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante wrote the epitaph for his friend, Spanish-Cuban cinematographer Néstor Almendros on the occasion of his death. (Almendros was cinematographer for many of the films of Francois Truffaut; he won an Oscar for his camera work in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.) Cabrera Infante was making reference to the title of the song made popular by legendary Cuban singer María Teresa Vera early in the twentieth century, which in turn captured the essence of a varied number of Caribbean funerary rituals.
When ancient Taíno caciques died, the bands of the tribe would gather at the gravesite to sing and dance areítos about the chief’s past deeds. In the coastal areas of Puerto Rico, when black children passed away, a feast with dance and song (the baquiné) would be celebrated, to remind family members that the child had moved on to a better life. The great Beny Moré paid homage to drummer Chano Pozo (who originated Afro-Cuban jazz with Dizzy Gillespie in 1947) in one of his plaintive songs. And at the funeral of Rafael Cortijo (one of the early progenitors of Puerto Rican salsa), a host of drummers convened to play in his honor. (more…)
Patriotic Christmas light display in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA (Pezow / Wikimedia Commons).
The rush of patriotism. We’ve all seen it, perhaps even gotten caught up in it. It is a ritual of nationalism that enacts the story of America and the mythic vision of its special calling.
For many (perhaps most) who are U.S. citizens, there is something vital and irresistible, even right, about this public celebration of national identity, especially in times of crisis. Expressing pride of country brings us together, suggests a common past and shared purpose, reassures us that we will overcome adversity, that we are not alone in the face of danger.
Yet, the price we pay for this prideful rite is high. It makes us combative in our assertion of national identity. We define who we are as a people in opposition to an enemy. The rush of patriotism becomes an act of righteous indignation and polarization. It’s US against THEM—the United States vs. the World. It constitutes an attitude of war.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Alan Boyce from the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division participates in a dismounted presence patrol through the Beida neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, on Feb. 29, 2008. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Adrian Cadiz, U.S. Air Force.
“Terrorist networks currently pose the greatest national security threat to the United States . . . [Al-Qaida] aims to overthrow the existing world order and replace it with a reactionary, authoritarian, transnational entity. This threat will be sustained over a protracted period (decades not years) and will require a global response” (U.S. Department of State).
Terrorism is the scourge of our era. We want to remove the menace. So we resort to war. The logic of war is founded on a lethal concoction of fear, loathing, revenge, and redemption. These are the emotions and desires that make war feel righteous and seem rational, necessary, and even natural in the course of human affairs. They inhibit any inclination to place our trust in less deadly and destructive options. They sustain the war state by operating below the threshold of awareness and self-critique.
The language and imagery of myth can give us access to the emotional foundations of rationalized war. Yet, we relegate myth to past and primitive cultures. Myth, by this way of thinking, is misleading in the contemporary world of reason, science, and technology. (more…)
“Lady Liberty Cracked” (2001). Oil on canvas by Julio Aguilera.
An eye-catching headline about dueling public figures got me thinking about how everyday language reflects and rehearses the attitudes on which the war state thrives. Our domestic habits of communication, including talk by and about political opponents, carry over into our perception of foreign enemies. The headlined dispute between Charles Koch and Harry Reid illustrates how we engage in devil talk to make antinomies.
Antinomy defined: “a fundamental and apparently unresolvable conflict or contradiction (antimonies of beauty and evil, freedom and slavery—Steven Holden).” Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10 ed.
This definition alludes to antinomy as a problem of language related to the construction of social and political realities, or what Joshua Gunn calls a “productive mistake” (Modern Occult Rhetoric, p. 49). The perception of irresolvable conflicts is produced and sustained by rhetorical rituals. (more…)