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Civilization and its Discontents

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.

What’s the point in life?

iStock_000007789001LargeDear Jules,

I have been going through a really rough time lately and it is quite similar to your experience. I was quite a happy go lucky person through life until I had a bad terrifying trip on weed (my first time trying) I took way too much and freaked out and that traumatised me – having very anxious scary thoughts like what if I harm my self, what if I harm others – what is the meaning of life and whats the point of it all.

Like you I thought I ruined my brain chemistry forever. I still have the strange belief that everything in life is so insignificant and now I’m applying this to my daily routine – why bother getting dressed, why bother looking well in-front of people…strange thoughts like that and even when I give myself a sensible answer to this I boil down to WHAT’S THE POINT IN LIFE?

It’s like being told Santa isn’t real again.. Only I’m an adult and I want to be the happy-go-lucky one who got joy out of things instead of having this thought that puts a dampener on them (it is probably the worst thought I have, it makes my heart sink). Anyway I just want to know if you think I can be happy and live a life where I don’t feel like someone is poking me telling me life isn’t worthwhile.

Rachel

Dear Rachel,

Thanks for your email, and I’m sorry you’re having a rough time of it at the moment.

Some basic initial steps. Firstly, if you’re feeling depressed and frightened, it’s worth telling your parents – including telling them about smoking weed. They may react with anger and fear in the short-term, but that’s because they care about you. I didn’t tell my parents – or anyone – for years about my bad trips, and I think this made a difficult situation a lot worse.

Secondly, you might find it helpful to talk to a therapist. I’m not a trained therapist, but these days you can get free therapy on the NHS – find your local IAPT centre (it stands for Improving Access for Psychological Therapies, it’s an NHS talking therapies programme) or ask your GP. I can’t promise the therapist will be helpful, but it’s worth a shot.

The therapist will probably tell you that how you feel isn’t necessarily how things are. Sometimes our emotions become habits – we get habituated to taking a dark view of things, and are sure this view of things is true. So be wary of immediately believing your feelings to be true judgements of reality.

They will also tell you that sometimes we have irrational beliefs that cause us suffering, which we can learn to question and challenge. For example, I used to find it difficult to go to the theatre because I was very worried I would shout something out and everyone in the theatre would look at me. No shit! I honestly was so worried about this I’d put my hand over my mouth throughout the whole play. Then gradually I learned I wasn’t going to shout out, it was an irrational fear and I could call its bluff. Now I can sit through plays without my hand over my mouth. Progress!

Although I’m not a therapist, it doesn’t sound like you have schizophrenia to me, it sounds like you’re having what’s called an existential or spiritual crisis.

This happens when our consciousness sees through some of the constructs and conventions that ordinary life is made up of. We no longer believe in the things we used to believe in, and this makes us unhappy, because we’re not sure there’s anything worth believing in.

There’s a story-line that many of us follow in life. It goes like this.

In the beginning I was a happy-go-lucky innocent, without a care in the world or a distressing thought in my head. I lived in a Happy Valley of childhood. Then something went wrong. Something bad happened to me, and now I’m exiled from Paradise, and I’m stuck in a world where everything seems grey and miserable and somehow lacking in warmth and colour and joy and purpose. And I can’t get back to the Happy Valley. I can’t find my way back home.

Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) wakes up to death and suffering
Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) wakes up to death and suffering

This is exactly what I felt like when I was in late adolescence and early adulthood. And I think it’s a classic psychological journey. It’s the Fall of Genesis. It’s also what happened to the Buddha – happy teenager, then a sudden shock to his world-view, then a period of depression and searching. A lot of us go through the Fall when we’re in our late teens or early 20s. It’s a nasty surprise, not something our parents or teachers told us about, although it’s described in many books.

The Fall is really an awakening. It’s our consciousness realizing that some of the things we believed in are actually a bit of a charade.

When I was 17 or so, I went through one of these awakenings – suddenly, the world seemed a rather sordid and selfish place. Everyone else seemed a bit of an egotistical phony, chasing after their shallow and pointless goals. Getting a career, getting a nice house with a nice lawn and a nice wife, getting a thousand followers on Twitter…what’s the point!

People are like greyhounds chasing after a mechanical rabbit, desperately trying to out-run each other, and if one of the greyhounds stops, scratches his arse and says ‘it’s just a mechanical rabbit’, they call him crazy.

And what lies beneath all the ego, all the desire, all the shadow puppetry? Nothing. The abyss. Human life is a game of charades played over a trapdoor of nothingness, and every now and then the trapdoor opens, one of the actors disappears below, and everyone goes on like nothing happened!

So, you’ve rumbled us. You’ve rumbled adults. You grew up thinking we knew what was going on. We don’t know what’s going on. No one knows why we’re here and we’re all basically winging it and passing the time trying to impress each other before we die.

What's the point?
What’s the point?

When I realized this, it made me feel quite melancholy – although maybe there was a certain pride in my melancholy too (I, the Deep One, have seen through the phoniness. I am the Awakened Greyhound).

I didn’t exactly choose to awaken to the emptiness of constructed reality. It was an accidental awakening – maybe through drugs, which can alter our consciousness and make us see things differently. Some people go through similar accidental awakenings through, say, meditation – suddenly everything seems a bit empty and pointless. Or it might happen to them when they first lose someone they love. They notice the trapdoor beneath their feet and think: ‘what’s the point!’

This kind of awakening to the emptiness of our constructs has been called the Dark Night of the Soul. In truth, it happens occasionally through life. It comes with being human, unfortunately, and with being blessed / cursed with consciousness.

So how do we get out of it? How do we discover a sense of purpose or meaning?

People get out of the darkness two ways. Firstly, some people just fall asleep again. Life changes, and they stop thinking such deep thoughts, and get caught up in the game once more.  Actually, this happens to everyone. You fall in love, you get a great job, you go on holiday, and things are fun again, and you shelve your inner Hamlet and enjoy the festivities.

There is nothing wrong with this at all. Sometimes the game of charades is a really fun game, and it’s fun to get involved, though unfortunately we often forget it’s just a game and end up totally believing in it and taking it very seriously.

Secondly, some people get out of the darkness by discovering a philosophy or an attitude that helps them through it and gives them a sense of meaning. Their old philosophy – ‘be happy-go-lucky’ –  doesn’t quite work anymore, but they discover a new philosophy which works better.

I’ve turned to different philosophies to help me when I’m lost: Buddhism, Stoicism, Sufism, Taoism, Christianity. These are all quite different philosophies, but I think they have a core message to them.

Which is this: We’re here to know ourselves, to discover our nature, and to help other people do the same.

The journey to know ourselves is not an easy one. It involves a lot of wrong turns, a lot of dark forests, steep mountains and sinking swamps. And we meet bad people along the way, fools, liars, egotists, and people who wish us harm. What makes the journey particularly difficult is, when we ask passers-by how to get to our destination, they all give us different directions, and they all seem immensely confident that they’re right.

On this journey, I don’t think you can go backwards. You can’t go back to the Happy Valley of childhood. Frodo and Sam can’t go back to how things were, they’ve got to go forward. You have to go forward. Your consciousness grows – sometimes accidentally, sometimes through education and experience – and then it’s like you don’t fit into the old clothes any more, they feel cramped and ridiculous. That means it’s time to go forward.

Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said: 'If you're going through hell, keep going'
Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’

But what is the point? That question hangs over us like a cloud when we’re starting out on the journey, just as we find ourselves outside the Happy Valley. Why bother going on, when everything looks so dark and gloomy?

You won’t find an answer right now. It’s not like there is a Fortune Cookie slogan I can give you, which tells you The Point. First you need to practice taking care of yourself. Epictetus said: ‘practice, for heaven’s sake, in the little things, and then proceed to greater’.

Practice taking care of yourself. Practice taking care in the little things. Practice not letting your negative thoughts beat you up and cause you suffering. Why be so mean to yourself? Would you let someone be that mean to your sister, or your boyfriend, or your dog? So why be so mean to yourself?

Practice taking care of your body. The health of your consciousness is connected to your physical health – when you’re tired or hungover, you’re more susceptible to the automatic negative thoughts. Practice taking exercise, going for walks or jogs or swims or yoga, practice getting out into parks or the countryside. Feed your body with good things, feed your soul with good things.

Practice being appreciative of little things – a cup of tea, a good book, a beautiful song, a funny film. Practice being appreciative of other people – little moments where people are kind to each other, despite all the hurt and confusion in the world. Practice loving other people. See them in all their beauty and vulnerability, and how much they want to love and be loved.  (I am rubbish at this, I’m usually an utter misanthrope – I need to practice being kinder and softer-hearted.)

I think this practice is easier if you find other people to practice with. That might be a self-help group, or a humanist group, or a Buddhist, Jewish, Christian or Muslim group, or it might be a group of friends that you can be genuinely honest and vulnerable with. Some of these groups might be dodgy, and we always have to be wary of ‘gurus’….but in general I think it helps to practice with other people.

All this practice slowly gets you into good habits. It’s like Mr Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid and getting him into good habits. Wax on, wax off!

And then, one day, perhaps months or years after you started the journey, you realize you’re in a different place, and that your world is full of joy, and colour, and meaning.

What is that place? It’s our inner nature, beneath the flaky conventions and constructions we’ve pasted onto it.

To get a bit mystical, I believe our nature is full of light, and when we practice well, when we get into good habits and out of bad habits, we let that light shine out, and we see the light in others too.And that’s the point. It’s not a sentence or a slogan. It’s an experience of consciousness enjoying itself, and helping other people’s consciousness shine out too.

I no longer feel as lost and scared and confused as I did when I was 21. I never became the happy-go-lucky child again. I never regained the innocence of childhood. I pressed on, and after a while I found something else, a kind of happiness regained, occasionally. I still have days of darkness, confusion, fear and ignorance – and I’m sure I have some bigger challenges ahead of me when I will write to someone and say ‘help!’ But I enjoy life, I’m grateful for it.

This is basically me, just so you know.
This is basically me, just so you know.

It’s difficult to talk about spiritual matters without sounding a pompous git spouting cliches. I’m 36, single, fitfully employed, writing this in my dressing gown. I’m a lazy, boozy, self-satisfied, egotistical idiot, caught up in the charade and wondering how many times his article has been re-tweeted. Just so you know who you asked for help.

Here’s a passage from The Catcher in the Rye which I’ve found helpful over the years:

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many people have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement.

What that means is, when you find a way through the particular forest you’re in at the moment, remember the way, and pass it on.

Jules