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On Cult and Culture

cult and cultureCult is sacred, secret and always the same. Culture is public, irreverent, and strives for originality and innovation. Yet the two are intimately connected. Culture feeds on cult, and cult feeds off culture. Our society today lacks a cult, and as a result our culture wearies itself in empty innovation. 

In ancient Athens, in the fifth century BC, you had two main festivals. In March-April, you had the Dionysia, where playwrights like Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes competed for the prize of best tragedy and best comedy. For about 30 years, Athenians were treated to new performances of some of the greatest plays that would ever be written. In 431 BC, for example, Euripides’ Medea only came third, behind tragedies by Sophocles and Euphorion. The plays were mirrors held up to Athenian society, reflecting and exploring its deepest fears, desires and foibles.

Then, in September-October, people from all over Greece made a pilgrimage to Eleusis, outside Athens, to take part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient fertility rite in which participants apparently took some kind of hallucinogenic, and felt they journeyed to the underworld and were reborn as immortal children of Demeter. Cicero considerd the Mysteries the greatest of all the gifts bestowed by Greek culture. They were practiced for over 2000 years, until they were banned by the Christian emperor Theodosius in 392 AD, who thereby banished psychedelics from western culture for the next 1500 years, the spoil-sport.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were the central cult of Greek society. And the Dionysia was the central cultural or artistic event. Cult and culture were intimately connected. Both the Mysteries and the Dionysiac festival of theatre performed an important therapeutic role for Athenian culture. According to Aristotle, both were cathartic – they helped to ‘cure’ Athenians of emotional problems and make them whole. Both cult and culture helped people to remove their social masks, forget external reality and enter trance states, and there explore and heal the emotions, tensions and conflicts within their psyches, ultimately connecting them with the deepest part of their nature – the divine. At their best, both cult and culture cultivate the god within us.

So both cult and culture performed a similar therapeutic role. And culture also fed off cult for ideas, symbols and characters. The great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides often ‘riffed’ on the sacred (and secret) rites of the Mysteries. The final scene of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, for example, is soaked in the symbolism and ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries. So is the final scene of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Euripides’ Bacchae, meanwhile, explores and reflects on the rites of the maenads, the female worshippers of Dionysus.

But culture, while it draws on the ideas, characters and symbols of cult, is very different to it. The nature of cult is that it is secret, sacred, and ritualized – the ritual must stay the same for centuries and millennia. Any sudden innovation is fervently resisted. Culture, by contrast, is a public performance. It strives for originality and innovation. It mixes the grand and solemn with the humorous and irreverent. It is created by an artist, who seeks fame and success and is not bound by the same moral taboos as a priest. Culture draws from cult, but in a way that is somewhat risky and transgressive – Aeschylus supposedly died in a freak accident as a punishment from the gods for revealing the secrets of the Mysteries in his Eumenides.

Cult, then, is sacred, secret and always the same. Culture is public, irreverent, and strives for originality and innovation. Yet the two are intimately connected. Culture feeds off cult.

Consider how much rock & roll feeds off religion, from band names (The Cult, Jesus And Mary Chain, Nirvana, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Reverend Black Grape, Young Disciples, Judas Priest) to song names (I am the Resurrection, The Cross, Jesus Walks, Take Me To The River, Great Balls of Fire, Hallelujah, Congregation, Take Me To Church etc etc). Rock tunes also rip off church tunes – the first great R&B song, Ray Charles’ ‘I gotta woman’ was a riff on the church anthem ‘It must be Jesus’ , starting a trend for secular gospel that continued through Elvis, U2 and Pharrell Williams. Think how often house music has sampled revivalist preachers, ever since Brian Eno and David Byrne started the craze in 1981 with their pioneering sampler album, My Time In the Bush of Ghosts (have a listen).

But cult also feeds off culture – it slowly incorporates some of the cultural innovations introduced by culture. Look, for example, at how western churches in the 1950s and 1960s began by condemning rock & roll as the Devil’s music, and then began to incorporate it, until now many of the biggest churches have in-house rock bands.

The problem with western society since around 1900, I would suggest, is we have lost our central cult – Christianity – and it hasn’t been replaced by any new cult which grips our emotions and imagination. All we have is a culture that has, particularly since Modernism, been gripped by restless innovation and transgression. But, in the absence of cult, this innovation and transgression feels increasingly empty and meaningless.

For culture to regain its vitality, we need to re-establish cult. I don’t know how to do this, but until that happens our culture will be trivial and diminished, distracting itself from its own exhaustion with cars and explosions.

On Mad Men and the impossibility of transcending capitalism

Mad-men-season-6-dante-inferno-theoriesThe documentary maker Adam Curtis wrote in 2010: ‘In Mad Men we watch a group of people who live in a prosperous society that offers happiness and order like never before in history and yet are full of anxiety and unease. They feel there is something more, something beyond. And they feel stuck.’

The system in which the characters are stuck forces them to live divided lives in divided selves. Don Draper, in particular, has learned to put on a mask in order to get ahead and leave behind his background of shame and poverty. But the cost of this pact with American capitalism – I will put on a mask if you let me become successful – is a gnawing loneliness and restlessness. In the first scene of the sixth series, we see him on a beach, next to his beautiful wife, reading in the sun. He’s reading Dante’s Inferno:

Midway through the journey of our life
I found myself within a dark forest,
For the straight path had been lost.

Of course, Dante gets out of the Inferno. How about Don? Is there any transcendence? Any redemption? Any escape from the system? This is one of the great questions which shows during TV’s Golden Age has asked us – from The Wire (no escape), to The Sopranos (no escape), to Six Feet Under and Twin Peaks (some escape maybe), to Breaking Bad (definitely no escape).

Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, used to write for The Sopranos, and both these shows excel at exploring some of the ways people try and escape from late capitalism through therapy or New Age spirituality, and yet somehow remain stuck in the system, just as confused and egotistical as ever.

Janice Soprano seeking escape through yoga
Janice Soprano seeking escape through yoga

In fact, as Mad Men explored, late capitalism rapidly co-opted the insights of therapy, sexual liberation, the arts and New Age spirituality, and used them to sell us things (this is the main point of Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self, which aired three years before Mad Men began).

So, on the one hand, Don Draper has a sharp artistic insight into the human condition. Some of the key moments of the show are moments during a high-stakes pitch, where he seems to have run out of ideas, and then suddenly he has a brilliant epiphany, and everyone is wowed by his creative power. He’s a Michelangelo of Madison Avenue.

And yet what are these epiphanies? Revelations from God? Glimpses of a better world? No, they’re catchphrases to sell cars or cigarettes. That’s what the idea of epiphany has been reduced to in late capitalism: the magical creation of a new product or ad slogan. That’s what all those innovation companies and creativity gurus are selling: more imaginative ways to sell us things. It’s the least innovative definition of innovation in human history.

So is there no escape?

Certainly, various characters seek various forms of escape. The most common form of escape is booze. The show is swimming in it, the male characters keep their pain and frustration sedated with the bottle.

Paul seeks escape through the Hari Krishnas
Paul seeks escape through the Hari Krishnas

Others seek more radical forms of escape as the Sixties counterculture gains momentum: Paul the copy-writer joins the Hari Krishnas, though it seems pretty phony. Roger Sterling’s daughter joins a hippy commune, again it seems phonier than the capitalism it rejects. Roger himself spends a few seasons experimenting with LSD and group sex – it doesn’t really make him any less selfish, though he is perhaps the most likable and content character in the show. Don also finds an escape of sorts through his constant affairs and one slightly weird S&M dalliance. Ken Cosgrove has the option of escape into bohemian creativity by becoming a novelist, though he doesn’t take it.  Ginsberg the eccentric copy-writer takes the escape of psychosis. And Lane Pryce takes the escape of suicide.

Don, meanwhile, often takes the escape of going on the road. That old American dream: let’s get lost. Let’s disappear. But this is not a long-term solution. By the final episode, after months of traveling, he feels truly lost, and washes up in a New Age retreat on the coast of California.

This retreat is clearly based on Esalen, which was the spiritual centre of the Human Potential Movement in the 1960s, the place where unhappy middle-class people came to learn yoga, give each other massages, and seek through endless workshops and encounter sessions for ‘the real me’, the pure me, the me stripped of all baggage. Here’s a clip on it from Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self:

As Curtis explored, the Human Potential Movement rapidly became absorbed by late capitalism. Today, there is a booming industry of business coaches who use the ideas and techniques of Human Potential in companies and weekend courses, to help people find their authentic selves within late capitalism. The system proved flexible enough to absorb all the radical experiments of the 60s counter-culture, and turn them into commodified experiences.

We see the apparent impossibility of genuine transcendence in the show’s final scene. Don is meditating and chanting ‘om’ – a very unlikely scene. Eyes closed, a quiet smile curls upon his face. A bell chimes. Has he finally found the answer? Has he unlocked the mystery of his self? The scene cuts, and its a famous 70s advert for Coca Cola, ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’. The implication is that Don’s epiphany at Esalen is merely another idea for an advert, another way to sell things. (Perhaps the ‘merely’ here is mine rather than Weiner’s – he says he thinks the Coke advert is genuinely beautiful).


This might make Mad Men sound a very dark and cynical show, and it certainly has its dark edges. But for some reason it’s not a dark show. I think that’s because the characters and stories are drawn with such love, such deft words and gestures. None of them are all bad or all good. We care about them, want them to be OK, are interested in their progress. The writers respect our intelligence, and know they can tell a story through a word, a look or a gesture, and we’ll pick up a subtle reference to something earlier in the show. A point doesn’t have to be obvious: ‘subtext is pleasure’, Weiner says. Characters’ motivations are both revealed, and also mysterious – as in the Sopranos, motivation is never a simple cause-effect equation.

And, unlike every other Golden Age hit, this is a show where no one gets murdered. Think of the body-count in the Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Deadwood, Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead. Mad Men instead captures our attention with what Weiner calls ‘the quotidian’, with the details of office and domestic life in the maelstrom of the 60s. Office life can feel stale, flat, dull, but it never feels boring at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (particularly when half the office is on amphetamines). Like 30 Rock, it has a rosy view of the humour, creative anarchy and occasional love to be found in the office. Whatever late capitalism is, it’s interesting.

Even if there is no great transcendence from the system, we do see better life-opportunities open up for female and coloured characters as the civil rights movement progresses. Compare the autonomy and power of Joan and Peggy at the end of the show with the simpering bimbos they were at its beginning.

So, in the words of the Peggy Lee song that begins the final season, ‘Is that all there is?’ The show seems to agree with Sigmund Freud – the only transcendence we can hope for are the consolations of work and love.