Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rediscovering Dionysus

Part 30 of Prisoners of the Real

A small pearl-white sphere bounced before the eyes of the French scientist Marc Mathieu. Within it was the very essence of human life energy. The infinite, encased in a technological package, was about to be put to practical use.

"It so happens," Mathieu explained, "that when we become matter -- all right, when we die --
the energy within us frees itself with a fantastic speed. That's all. We call it speed of ascent. We were able to harness it and to make it work for us. Damning it, so to speak. Locking it in a generator. Or storing it in a tank."

How simple it sounded. Yet even this rational scientist was aware that a strictly realistic strategy for the use of the ultimate power would not suffice. When the approach of science is merely scientific, it often betrays human values. Thus, Mathieu planned to use the captured spirit of humanity -- the Gasp -- to control destructive power. A technological solution would be applied to the arms race and other forms of international hostility. The Gasp, he thought, would serve as a coercive force for peace.

But this final solution also posed a final problem. Since the people who wished to use it hadn't changed, the Gasper became another manipulative tool of negative power. One frightened Pentagon emissary pondered, "What we are faced with here is the possibility -- the probability-of overpull...the living will be emptied of their -- let's say, energy. Instant dehumanization, that is."

"Dehumanization," Mathieu mumbled. "Funny the Pentagon should suddenly start to worry about that."


Despite the dangers, Mathieu continued his research. The only answer to science, he assumed, was more science. And another irony. His purpose was moral awakening, yet his product threatened a genocide of the spirit, formless substance enslaved by form. And control wasn't the end. The next step was fission, the splitting of the Gasp.

"It can be done," thought Mathieu, "therefore it must be done...and I did it...The fission of the gasp has a power of destruction about a billion times stronger than that of the biggest bomb ever built...The gsp is potentially the most dangerous, the most devastating force in all creation, such as it is known and accessible to man. Which is exactly what the world's greatest poets have often said, but now this is no longer mythology, words, philosophical moonshine, this is now a technique...I've never felt so creative in my whole life."

Mathieu built a huge "gasper," called "The Pig." The great nations of the Earth waited nervously to learn in which direction it would be turned. One hundred and seventy thousand Albanian gsp units were captured in the disintegration chamber -- a lot of gas. If an implosion could be triggered, it would create a world of matter twice the size of the solar system.

But rather than inflicting dehumanization and destruction, the Gasper became an instrument of liberation. Its contents were released. The huge pearl-white sphere vanished in a maelstrom of exploding color. "For the first time since creation," thought Mathieu, "living men were looking at their ultimate freedom."

In The Gasp, author Romain Gary's morality tale of science the creator and destroyer of humanness, the "real world" has reached its limit. The forgotten purpose of control is rediscovered -- through the negation of control. Rejection of absolute order and predictability is manifested as the most beautiful light in the world. The dominance of matter and structure gives way to infinite human potential.

Such a force cannot be harnessed, objectified and put to purely operational use without horrendous costs. But when this Apollonian order metamorphoses into the formless life energy of Dionysus, humanity catches a glimpse of its godlike potential.

The association of Dionysus with frenzied dancing and excess is an unfortunate, though not accidental, case of stereotyping. In truth a symbol of the life force itself, Dionysus has been equated instead with dissipation and ruin, and condemned as a threat to certainty and precise organization. Emphasizing the threat of chaos, rationalists through the ages have hidden and denied the dionysian potential: an ability to produce inspiration, ecstatic joy, and blessing.

After initially appearing in the Far East, the cult of Dionysus found its way into Greece around 1000 BC. As the myth evolved, Dionysus, representing the force of life in all growing things, became known as the son of Zeus and Semele, daughter of the King of Thebes. The Lord of the Thunderbolt, according to the best known version of the story, had fallen in love with a human woman. At the same time, however, he had earned the rage of his jealous and vengeful wife, Hera. Learning that Semele was pregnant, Hera disguised herself as an old woman and gained the young mortal's confidence. She urged Semele to demand the truth – that is, to be shown the true identity of her lover, realizing that it would mean Semele's death.

As both Zeus and Hera knew, no human could look at the king of the gods in the full blaze of his divinity and survive. Nevertheless, Zeus eventually submitted to his lover's demand. For a moment, before Semele was consumed by the divine fire, she saw Zeus in his glory. The same fire made the unborn Dionysus immortal.

Despite Hera's continuing efforts to destroy the child, he survived under the care of Hermes. Living on a mountainside, he learned the inspirational properties of the vine and the juice of the grape. Persecuted by those who refused to recognize his divinity, he eventually left for Asia, where he learned to use his power. After collecting many followers, he returned home and joined the company of the Olympians.

Another version of the story makes him the son of Zeus and Persephone, who was herself the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. The achetypal maiden, Persephone was the product of a union between air (Zeus) and soil (Demeter), a force of fertility who was ultimately seduced by Gaia (Earth) at the behest of Hades (the underworld) and became his queen in the land of the dead. Before that, however, she was hidden by her mother in a Sicilian cave and discovered by her father, who had disguised himself as a serpent. Offspring of an incestuous union, Dionysus was born and nurtured in the cave until the jealous Hera sent two Titans to destroy him. Pouncing from behind, they tore him into seven parts, boiled them in a cauldron, roasted them, and ate everything except his heart. Athene saved that single organ. Attracted by the scent, Zeus found and killed the cannibals, and, by swallowing the heart himself, gave birth to his own son.

According to Joseph Campbell, this version mirrors the transformation from child to adult, as well as the puberty rites of many cultures. The child is carried across the threshold from dependency on the mother to participation in the nature of the father through physical transformation, intense psychological experience, and reawakening. In Freudian terms, Oedipal impulses of aggression and will to live have been redirected.

Like most myths and rites, these tales are derived from a common base, a cosmic insight of such force that, at certain times in human history, the formal structuring principle of the universe is caught up in it. Rituals and stories are comparable to the formulae of physics, wrote Campbell, "through which the modes of operation of inscrutable cosmic forces become not only accessible to the mind but also susceptible to control."

Mythology is essentially an organization of images conceived as a rendition of the sense of life. It is seen in two ways – thought and experience. As thought it is a primitive prelude to science. As experience it is art.

Next: Dionysus & Apollo

To read other chapters, go to
Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey
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