Doesn’t everyone know that old literary distinction between Dionysian and Apollonian? I mean, they don’t name rocket ships the “Dionysus,” do they? But the astronauts who were so Apollonian when they were in their pressurized suits and strapped down were pretty Dionysiac once they got on the ground again -- hot cars, easy women, booze -- taking chances they never would have taken in space. How did they make the transition between one mode and the other?
The other night I watched a movie about “The Cockettes” (meant to rhyme with “Rockettes”) which was a sort of stage revue “disorganized” by an extravagant man called “Hibiscus” in San Francisco at the turn of the Sixties into the Seventies. The shows were about as wild and heartfelt as they could be and rose in a great crescendo of sequin-encrusted passion and ecstatic outrageous love for a few years. The echoes persist.
Tonight my movie was “Everyman’s War,” an Indie movie based on the WWII experiences of Don Smith, the father of the writer and director. Just about as sober and focused as a movie can be. It’s much like the black and white movies about “ordinary heroes” I saw as a small child. Most of the cast and crew were local people rather than seasoned professionals, so there wasn’t so much artifice as just straightforward “doin’ it.” But very carefully and respectfully. That’s not quite what Apollonian is, but certainly a major contrast. It is the mode in which much of my life has been lived because that was the first world I knew. (Born 1939.) My maiden name is Strachan; the motto is “Non Timeo, Sed Caveo.” Not timid, but cautious. I go along very observant and wary, with a knife clenched in my teeth, all the time pretending it’s a smile. Most people accept that deceit at face value, but in fact they should not. It is an echo of that war. Tim nailed it when he said I was an underground partisan in France bicycling desperately in a driving rainstorm to deliver the crucial message gripped in my teeth.
But what I really wanted to be all along was a Dionysiac. The trouble was that I had been convinced as a child -- I guess by my mother who recognized that knife in my mouth (she had one, too) -- that I was a time bomb, a land mine, that I must always be very careful or I would explode and kill people. (Don’t tell this to anyone. Most will laugh and that always irritates me. A few will move closer to the door. Those are the ones I’ll make friends with.) Or worse than killing someone would be literally creating someone by getting pregnant and then being chained to them and marriage. She thought sex was very, very dangerous. I guess she’s right. All those neglected or abused children.
So I don’t drink, because then I might do almost anything. In a short time period after Bob divorced me, I experimented, but made sure I was going out of control with people who would take care of me and they did. But what use was going out of control on a Saturday night? If you’re a walking time bomb, why waste it ? A life should not just be, but mean something. I mean, first one should “be” and as well as possible, but then what?
Heavy, man. When those WWII guys got home, knowing they had done terrible things but that it HAD to be done and that they were mostly heroes -- if only for obeying orders -- they just didn’t want trouble. Bob’s brother had been with Patton, maybe alongside the men in this movie. Nightly he got quietly drunk at home because his wife was afraid he’d get killed in a bar fight otherwise. His life was bookkeeping and waiting on customers with a smile. And he was grateful for that.
Vietnam was the Dionysian war and it came home with the soldiers. Go outta yer mind. Nothing really matters. Yer jist bein’ used, man. Life is short and desperate. So many people felt like that on the rez that it seemed excessive for me to come apart that way -- but I did, a little. This Blackfeet rez is more like Korea -- cold, sometimes bleak and crazy-making. I recovered from the end of everything, an explosion, on the little ranch on Two Medicine with the horses and cats. Then the two-story yellow house in East Glacier. It was Third Force Psychology that brought a lot of people back: Maslow, Perls, Hillman, Ericson, and then the theologians who followed that trail: Tillich, Eliade, Campbell. All that stuff has not saved the world but it probably saved me. My head. I am protected against greed, except not necessarily greeds of the heart. Passion. Intensity. Triumphant collision.
The quote posted over my computer is “Be regular and orderly in your life so you may be violent and original in your work.” It’s Flaubert. Apollo is the chalice, Dionysius is the flame. Both are essential. It is a synergy.
It used to be that I thought this trope of chalice/flame (the Unitarian Universalist logo but it goes back much farther to the time where heretics were burned at the stake -- a kind of alternative to the cross) would turn out to be a book, but now that books have exploded in a disorderly Dionysian way -- accusations, lies, rage, despair -- I’ll have to just wait to see what happens. We’re living in a time of embers, regret, re-thinking. So far, long-form blogging is what they call this. I’m glad I “preached” for ten years, because I could see everyone’s faces, but it was really long-form blogging out loud. Probably more “religious” than the therapy or self-congratulation of many pulpits. Probably just as arrogant and not as useful as the “we’re the best” refrain of Sunday mornings. Our Middle Eastern wars have been humiliating, ineffective, and draining, unsupported by anything but fear and greed. The Apollonian era of space travel has ended and on earth the wives of astronauts are shot in the head by madmen.
I was reading about tuberculosis, the 19th century equivalent of AIDS. The first effective meds were so harsh that people woke up with their mouths sealed shut by their own blood. Now the medicines are more effective but the society itself will not support their use for the people who need them most. TB is a disease of poverty and crowding. Now people who have AIDS often have TB as well. It is time to make a knife of words. Quietly. Sitting here at my keyboard in the dark on a chilly September morning. Under the original sky. What is the message I clench in my teeth?