Jim Morrison/Dionysus and Some Criticisms of Monotheism (9/09)

Regardless of its merits as an accurate depiction of Jim Morrison, the Oliver Stone movie “The Doors” serves as a useful illustration of the risks and the dangers involved in becoming psychologically identified with a religious archetype—in this case the ancient pagan deity, Dionysus.  At the same time, the film acknowledges and vicariously celebrates the imaginatively vitalizing and enriching effects produced by an influx of such “unauthorized” (by traditional Christianity) archetypal energy.  As the movie progresses, Jim Morrison’s ego becomes increasingly identified with (or subsumed by, depending on the direction from which one approaches the situation) this age-old god of “divine madness,” leading eventually to the breakdown and disintegration of an inflated, Dionysus-and-Jack Daniels-intoxicated ego-personality.  Of course, in chronicling the progressive dissolution and disintegration of his personality, the film unfolds like a cautionary tale.  The rock star’s ego, failing to maintain even a faint toehold within the arenas of practical, moral, and legal responsibility, was decisively overpowered by the compelling presence of the archetypal contents which, in short order, hijacked Morrison, exploiting him as their recklessly enthused oracle and ecstatic priest.  The alcohol and drug abuse appear to have served chiefly as an effective means of keeping a direct channel open to extreme psychological states and perspectives that the crazed, drunken puppet, James Douglas Morrison, could no longer stand to live without.  The alcohol and drugs were, in effect, secondary addictions—acting as neurochemical “lubricants” to ease the insertion of Dionysus through the back door of Morrison’s all too flexible psyche.  The primary addiction or dependency was upon the “inspiring divinity.”  Thus, Jim Morrison became the front man, not just for the Doors, but for Dionysus.  He served as an open door through which the orgiastic, barrier-dissolving energies of Bacchus could break on through to the other side—into a world that no longer had a religiously sanctioned, officially recognized place for this strange, loosening, and disruptive, archaic God.  Ultimately, the movie shows us that it is one thing to establish a kind of psychological relationship with “Dionysus” through the tempering and civilizing agencies of theater, music, dance, and other cultural media, and it’s a very different kettle of fish to identify with the archetype, as Morrison did—dissolving his identity and ultimately his life in the bargain.  Relationship respects the sanctity and value of the ego, while identification recklessly abandons these checks against “possession.”  This is a very important and salutary lesson about how to approach the Gods, it seems to me.  The outré, slightly sinister and darkly alluring quality of the Doors’ music was evident to me even as a boy of eleven years, when I purchased their first two albums, “The Doors” and “Strange Days,” with my religiously hoarded weekly allowance.

Young Jim Morrison appears to have taken an active literary interest in Dionysus and Dionysian phenomena before the Doors really got going.  It is reported that he read Nietzsche, Blake, Rimbaud, and Joseph Campbell—to name a few of his formative influences—and he learned a thing or two about shamanism.  He seems actually to have felt a secret kinship with native American shamanic tradition, saying in an interview that a car wreck incident (involving some American Indians who had been in the back of a truck) that he witnessed as a boy, while traveling with his family, was “the most important event from his childhood.”

The point of all this is simply to establish the biographical fact that  Morrison’s conscious mind was already quite well stocked with ideas, images, and even whole passages of Blakean verse, which would eventually serve as “new-old” skins into which intoxicating Dionysian wine would pour in copious quantities.   And then, having been poured into Morrison, it would henceforth flow out into the bacchanalia of his stoned, captivated audiences—often with less than tidy (read: “Apollonian”) consequences.  Without ever seeing the Doors in live performance, I was nevertheless brought so thoroughly under the hypnotic spell of their creepily enigmatic lyrics and their haunting music that one day, in a wild burst of appropriately maenadic enthusiasm, I smashed into bits all of my albums by the Beach Boys and the Monkees.  Such saccharine and squeaky-clean teen idols, like Pentheus, somehow deserved to be ripped from limb to limb.

Now, it is not crucial here whether the movie was scrupulously accurate in its depiction of the biographical facts of Jim Morrison’s life and behavior.  Its insights are quite detachable from what Jim Morrison actually did or did not do.  The movie’s treatment of Morrison’s messy, intense personal life prompted me to reflect upon the relationship of “Dionysus” with actual human beings—and in this particular case, with an insufficiently grounded and reckless “host.”  But the same fundamental recognition that I had about Morrison might apply to a significant number of examples or occasions.  If Jim Morrison was indeed “possessed” by or somehow conscripted into the service of an archetype that has traditionally been personified as “Dionysus” since ancient times, what does this say about the possibility of an updated, variant form of polytheism today?  Can “Ares” and “Athena” similarly possess or overshadow a modern human being as they did with Achilles and Odysseus in the Iliad?  Was the secret to Marilyn Monroe’s enormous magnetism and her nearly universal appeal as a sex symbol somehow bound up with her being an unconscious vessel for “Aphrodite”—the female archetype of erotic love and passion?  Would this also help us to understand why there was such an enormous and painful gap between the hapless personal life of Norma Jean Baker and the exalted star status of “Marilyn Monroe,” who was worshipped like a goddess around the world?  Eventually, like Morrison, she came to a sad and lonely end because “Marilyn” turned out to be far too great a burden for the wounded and fragile little Norma Jean to bear.  Gods and Goddesses, while occasionally inspiring their human, all-too-human hosts with superhuman strength, magnetism, and insight, just as commonly saddle them with superhuman longings, demands, and tasks that can easily crush them or drive them mad.

This, again, is why a conscious and measured relationship with the archetypal energies tends to be preferable to unconscious identification, which can easily lead to a weakening and disintegration of the ego, as we have seen in our examples.  The ego, then, must be sturdy, intrepid, and unusually resilient in order to withstand periodic eruptions and inundations by the archetypal and religious energies—which pay no more heed to humans or the puny-paltry human scale of values than a tornado or a tsunami does.  When the human ego succumbs to an identification with the archetype, as in the case of Jim Morrison, it appears on the surface that the ego is strengthened, but this is misleading—if not altogether an illusion.  What we are witnessing is merely an inflation of that ego—its precarious and perilous pumping up with borrowed (impersonal and unearned) archetypal energies.  The situation is analogous to that of a man who has taken LSD and believes that he can fly or kill people with a thought if he just concentrates properly—or that he now completely understands the nature of existence as no one before him ever has or ever will.  He has temporarily been released from the limits of his ordinarily torpid and sluggish imagination by the drug and suddenly all things seem within his reach.  But once the effects of the drug begin to wear off everything returns to the way it was before.  No wonder Jim and Norma Jean, James Marshall Hendrix and Frances Ethel Gumm, stayed drunk or drugged much of the time: the crash landing back into the ordinary, emotionally starved and/or confused person who provided a fragile vessel for the non-human daimon was simply too harsh.

If we direct our attention to the cultural forms or containers in which the archetypal energies manifest themselves or “incarnate,” we observe that the personifying necessarily originates on the “human” side of an imaginary line situated somewhere between man and “the Gods.”  Where there are no ideational, mythical, or religious vessels readily present to provide a temple, a sanctioned mask, or an authorized, fully-invested priest or shaman through which the archetypal energies may properly and legitimately pass—or where these are crudely developed—the archetypes do not simply vanish or politely withdraw, just because they are temporarily “homeless.”  They remain unconscious, repressed, and typically emerge as psychopathological symptoms we see in and around ourselves.  The Gods have become diseases, Jung told us.  What on earth did he mean by this?

Since they no longer have culturally authorized channels or masks through which to display themselves, they are obliged to appear as disturbing symptoms.  Symptoms force us to pay attention.  The Gods demand recognition.  When “recognized,” the archetypes are given a place, along with the respect they require and deserve.  Where the temples and priests of the Gods and Goddesses have been demolished, neglected, or forgotten altogether, the archetypal energies have little recourse but to break forth in barbaric and typically destructive forms.  (cf. “Wotan,” Jung, CW, vol. 10)  The barbaric, destructive aspect of archetypal eruptions (of orgiastic lust, of “berserk” aggression, of ruthless ambition, of madness, of possessiveness, of panic, terrifying premonitions, etc.) is the predictable, unsurprising consequence of our modern neglect of the Gods—of our failure to humbly respect and acknowledge their authority over us and their presence within us.  I am not speaking of the pantheon of Greek Gods and Goddesses in a literal sense, of course, but of the archetypal energies they once personified in that pre-Christian, ancient culture: eros, wisdom, battle fury, virginity and purity, poetic inspiration, prophecy, etc.

For those who accept only the idea of a single, benevolent Father-God of the Judeo-Christian heritage—the God whose triumph led, among other things, to the “going under” of the pagan pantheon, along with the sanctioned expression of many of the qualities and energies associated with those Gods and Goddesses who were driven underground (i.e., into what we now refer to as the unconscious)—no genuine solution to this problem has presented itself.  If much good has come from monotheism, alas, much deformity and evil would appear to be bound up with it, as well—as we can see at once from the briefest glance at the last 2,000 years of Western history, with special attention given to the last hundred years.  Monotheism, it would appear, is inherently susceptible to a form of psychological barbarism precisely because of its monopolizing, exclusionary claims upon all who cringe and cower before its tyranny over our insides.  Those for whom this autocratic (but all-forgiving!) Father has died understand—or at least sense—why He had to die.  We realize that His exclusive, imperious rule over the world and over the souls of men was every bit as crippling and maiming to us as it was edifying and strengthening to our forebears.  (Perhaps it is only in the wake of His death that we, here in the West, can at last begin to come to terms with this “double-edged,” psychologically divisive legacy of our Judeo-Christian past.)

I may seem to be venturing out on a limb, here, but can’t we discern some rough parallels between the Procrustean effects of monotheism, on the one hand, and the strict and exacting methods of modern science, on the other?  Doesn’t science strive to represent the physical world in terms of “ultimate particles and their wave forms” within a single, interconnected system (Polanyi)?  Can we not detect a faint resemblance between the effects that empirical science often has upon the phenomena it deals with and the touch of King Midas?  The authority that modern rational-empirical science enjoys in deciding what is real or true was won, in a certain sense, like that of the monocular Judeo-Christian God who seized His throne by forcibly marginalizing, or flatly asserting his authority over, all other rivaling Gods.  Similarly, an initially legitimate quest for comprehensiveness and explanatory thoroughness on the part of science has devolved, at least in its less impressive representatives, into a troubling one-sidedness (scientism) that can rival religious dogmatism in its blinkered rigidity.  More than a few modern empirical scientists have claimed to offer an antidote or an enlightened alternative to monotheistic theology (which many, nowadays, perhaps justly regard as silly and antiquated superstition, at least in its literalistic mode).   Thus, with a little imagination, these scientists can be viewed as present-day exemplars of the monotheistic disfigurement of everything in experience that is not readily reducible to their terms.  One might reasonably claim that God, together with his laws and commandments, has been translated into matter, mass, energy, inertia, gravity.

Life—with all its qualitative richness and its teeming, evolving complexity is falsified and grossly oversimplified by monotheistic presuppositions of any stripe—religious, methodological, ideological, scientistic, moral, economic.  When monolithic or monotheistic presuppositions tyrannize over a man’s thinking and judgment, an exclusionary mode of seeing and assessing is inevitably interposed between him and the world; between the theorist and nature; between the dogmatic moralist and the human soul.  Perhaps in most instances, these acts of organized mental crime are committed in the interests of power, security, and stability.  Violently distorting, reductive, amputating, and imaginatively sterile modes of seeing, thinking, and feeling have—for the time being—triumphed over the more modest, reverential, and imaginatively fertile modes of seeing-feeling-acting that appear to have been embraced by small clusters of artists and thinkers, here and there, during (usually) brief periods when conditions are ripe for such rare and exquisite specimens.  Such men and women seem not to have been obsessed with elevating to supreme lordship some strained or contrived unity—but were capable of enduring and even revering the “divine” play of divergent (but always inter-related) deities, archetypes, modes, genres, styles, moods, “worlds.”  Such an attitude is not only far more sophisticated (psychologically and ethically speaking) than the comparatively constrained and often brutishly simple and “rule-bound” monotheistic attitude: it also requires far more courage, daring, and creative vitality than all forced unities, which tend to deal with “complicating factors” either by ignoring or murdering them.


2 thoughts on “Jim Morrison/Dionysus and Some Criticisms of Monotheism (9/09)

  1. these rites were designed to loosen the crystallized awareness beseeched by the web of worldly life and the structures we pay homage to in a religious fashion…the problem with these rites in our times is the soul that seeks freedom from zealous conformation crosses the line of french and if the lower chakras aren’t evolutionarily acclimated, the dilemma that plaques the children of the northwest seaboard of the US could proliferate to magniminous and uncontrollable proportions……


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