Thursday, November 12, 2009

Seductively Satirizing Hollywood's Seduction: Woody Allen's Anti-Genre Films

Genre films are Hollywood’s staple. Many genres exist among contemporary film categories. The plots are consistently copies of previous successes and the actors are typecast in nearly identical roles in movie after movie. The endings are so predictable that every teenager knows what to expect every time they go to the show. The experience breeds conformity and provides a fundamental, subconscious confirmation that all is right with the world.

Genre films continue to enrich actors, directors and producers with huge incomes from their shares of the ever-increasing box office receipts. These salaries translate into obscene, self-indulgent lifestyles which captivate the impressionable minds of the young, encouraging them to buy into the system and determine their self-worth from the degree of financial net worth they are able to obtain. Those impressionable young minds learn to adulate that which they want to emulate. They invest their fascination in wealth and celebrity, neither of which accrues from talent, but stems from shallow, fleeting commodities such as physical attributes, current fads determining momentary hipness, and incomes which would be better spent feeding and housing the hungry and homeless of the world.

Woody Allen, as a screenwriter and filmmaker, knew the trend to genre films took over Hollywood early in his career. He realized the reason for this was because formula movies are so successful and their sameness makes them easy to produce, like cars on an assembly line. So, Woody made a series of parodies of the genre film early in his career. Woody’s, anti-establishment movies, like Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death, stand out as a genre of their own, an anti-genre which I call the “Woody Allen anti-authoritarian comedy” genre. Sleeper is both the best known and most viewed from this group. Consequently, it is the prime example of the “Woody Allen anti-authoritarian comedy” genre, epitomizing his movies which parody and satirize genre films.

Thomas Sobchack, Ph.D. has experience as the Director of Graduate Study for Film and Theater at the University of Utah. Sobchack is also the author of books on film and film criticism. Those undertakings provide him with excellent credentials and qualify him as an expert on genre films.

Sobchack’s article, “Genre Film: A Classical Experience,” which appears in the second edition of the book Writing As Revision, edited by Beth Alvarado and Michael Robinson, offers a brief, but poignant discussion of genre films. The essence of Sobchack’s criteria is that “in the genre film, the plot is fixed, the characters defined, the ending satisfyingly predictable” (72). He also informs us, “The subject matter of a genre film is story. Its sole justification for existence is to make concrete and perceivable the configurations inherent in its ideal form” (73). Sobchack relates to us that genre films, with respect to other movies from the same genre, faithfully maintain “a consistency of basic content; the motifs, plots, settings, and characters remain the same” (73). He also explains, “To further speed comprehension of the plot, genre films employ visual codes, called iconographies, in order to eliminate the need for excessive verbal or pictorial exposition” (76).

Another valuable tool in genre films, Sobchack suggests, is typecasting because, as he discusses, “It is just one more way of establishing character quickly and efficiently” (77). Sobchack tells us that an audience’s experience of emotional release through a catharsis at the end of the film is another significant element common among genre films. He writes, “Any brief rundown of the basic plots should serve to demonstrate that the catharsis engendered in genre films is a basic element of their structure” (80). Sobchack goes on to say, “The internal tension between the opposing impulses of personal individuation and submission to the group, which normally is held in check by the real pressures of everyday living, is released in the course of a genre film as the audience vicariously lives out its individual dreams of glory and terror, as it identifies with the stereotyped characters of fantasy life.” (80)

It is exactly this sociological response, conditioned in the viewer by exposure to genre films which, I suggest, Woody Allen found so unnerving and potentially dangerous. He provides us with examples of automaton-like, subservient conformists who result from too great of exposure to the Hollywood formula movie (what Sobchack calls genre films) in the three movies which most typify the “Woody Allen anti-authoritarian comedy.” This provides a partial explanation for why his early films were anti-authoritarian and parodied the genre film. His desire not to be boxed in by Hollywood’s box office, bottom-line fixation and his anathema for being forced to make formula films with no redeeming value beyond the size of the return on the investment provide what I consider to be likely additional reasons. Woody is a highly creative individual who always aspires to create something of lasting value with meaning, depth and artistic integrity. So, his aspiration to create art also provided motivation.

Some examples of the automaton-like conformist as presented in Woody’s films follow, showing the similarities in the characters from movie to movie and establishing why they constitute a genre.

In Bananas, we find the followers of the leader fomenting revolution in the fictitious Latin American “banana republic,” San Marcos, are blind adherents to the cause, just as are the sycophantic assistants to the dictator, and the FBI agents who later, on trumped up charges, arrest Woody’s character, Fielding Mellish, who ascended to Presidency of San Marcos. In Sleeper, the entire society is presented as being brainwashed, mind-controlled conformists. Likewise, the rebels are depicted as being conditioned to respond in their roles as revolutionaries. In Love and Death, Napoleon Bonaparte is depicted in his role of taking over Europe. Napoleon’s followers are automaton soldiers obeying orders just as are the Russian soldiers fighting him. The Russian society is presented as a parody of the society Tolstoy depicted in his novel War and Peace. It is portrayed by Woody as a stereotype of Tolstoy’s in a manner in which any familiar with Tolstoy's work would expect the characters to act. In each of these Woody Allen movies, the only character not an automaton is Woody’s character. The female lead characters (Louise Lasser in Bananas and Diane Keaton in Sleeper and Love and Death) start out as robots, but Woody’s character leads his love interest in each film to see beyond her conformist programming and discover her own individuality. This occurs at the end of each movie and provides the satirized, faux catharsis.

In each of the movies, the use of iconographic imagery is satirized. In Bananas, released in 1971, the movie opens with ABC's Wide World of Sports (a popular television show from the 60s) broadcasting the assassination of San Marcos’ dictator to viewers in the US. Howard Cosell calls the action and parodies his own performances from when he announced Muhammad Ali’s fights on the same show. Right away, the movie makes light of serious matters. In another scene, J. Edgar Hoover appears in court to testify at Woody Allen’s trial disguised as a black woman. All the characters in positions of power, in uniform and in respectable positions represent the bad guys. Even the rebels, who initially seem to be the good guys, turn out in the end just being more bad guys wearing different uniforms but aspiring to the same power wielded by the existing government and also demanding conformity from their cadre of followers. The one area where traditional iconography holds true is is evidenced through the lead character, portrayed by Woody Allen, and his representation of the good guy. In Love and Death, a similar approach is taken. All the authority figures are the bad guys and only Woody and Diane Keaton’s characters represent the forces of good.

In Sleeper, Woody goes to greater lengths in shattering iconographic stereotypes. Nearly everyone in the movie wears white. Yet, all the people wearing white are robotic, brainwashed conformists. Even the rebels wear white, or actually “off white.” Woody and the androids are the primary characters who wear other than white clothing (with a few minor exceptions like the characters during the party scene at Luna’s house who are not clad exclusively in white). Later in the movie, Woody is abducted by the government and his brain is reprogrammed. While Woody portrays a conforming automaton (after his abduction), he also wears white. When Woody and Diane Keaton infiltrate the conformist world in order to carry out the rebel’s subversive plan, they wear white (as they would have to in order to be effective as infiltrators). White, normally the symbol of purity, in Sleeper, denotes the impure through both conscious actions and mindless complicity. It is also important that all the automaton, white wearing characters always have a hint of color just barely exposed at the edges of the white garments dominating their attire. This is to symbolize the barest traces of individual personality which must, in any human, remain laying dormant, even amid the most repressively enforced conformity, ready to be brought to the surface as soon as individuality reawakens to self-awareness.

Typecasting is used in all these films. Woody always plays himself, in the same way that John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, Humphrey Bogart and so many other traditional genre film actors always play themselves. Diane Keaton’s character in Sleeper is very much like Louise Lasser’s character in Bananas. The women are feminists who are college educated but don’t seem to use their whole minds. These female characters are portrayed in the films as having had several male sex partners and the idea of sex for sex’s sake is insinuated by Woody as the expression of women’s newly evolving sexual liberation. In Love and Death, Diane portrays an intelligent woman, more self-determined and more self-aware. However, many of the elements from the female leads in the earlier movies are still present in Keaton’s character in Love and Death: sexual promiscuity, erudition and feminist spirit are all present. In all these films, Woody is like Groucho in a Marx Brothers’ film, playing himself while Louise/Diane are like Margaret Dumont, presenting stereotypes of women of their times but, unlike Dumont’s characters, with the ability to grow beyond the stereotype, thus symbolizing society’s ability to overcome its conformist programming.

The motifs of each of these movies are the same. They are about assassination and revolution. In Bananas, there are a series of assassinations and revolutions. In Love and Death, Woody and Diane hatch a plot to assassinate Napoleon which would be a revolutionary action. The similarity to Bananas can be seen thrrough both leaders’ assassination. In Sleeper, Woody was awakened from cryostasis in order to be forced to join the underground and assist with a revolution which also involves assassinating the leader. Another motif regards Woody's depiction of all authority figures as the butts of jokes (paying homage to Marx Brothers’ movies). Another motif in each movie occurs when Woody’s character and the female lead have a philosophical discussion which, in each instance, leads to an awkward moment with the characters regarding one anther as intellectually inferior (another of Woody’s commentaries on the evolving male-female relationship during the era of feminism’s emergence and men’s difficulty in learning how to deal with the evolution occurring in the male-female relationship). Each movie has a love story incorporated as Woody meets the woman of his dreams (Louise in Bananas, Diane in Sleeper and Love and Death). They initially fail in an effort to establish a viable relationship, but in the end of both Sleeper and Bananas, they fall in love. In Love and Death, they don’t fall in love and Woody’s character actually dies.

The catharsis occurs in each movie as the female lead awakens from her automaton-like mentality to become a whole person who has grown into self-awareness, incorporating a new view of the world which Woody imparts: be your own person, an individual who thinks for yourself, and don’t follow leaders because they are all the same. As Pete Townsend wrote in his song, Won’t get Fooled Again, “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.”

These Woody Allen films also all pay homage to Marx Brothers movies. Woody often acts like Groucho and mimics many of Groucho’s movements and mannerisms in each film. The movies continue in the Marx Brothers vein of satirizing all things to do with authority, authority figures and conformity. Creating the title, Bananas, was a play on Coconuts, a Marx Brother’s title. Woody has commented that Bananas was inspired by Duck Soup (a movie which also makes fun of governments, dictators and politics). Sleeper also allowed Woody to reprise Keystone Kops’ chase scenes on multiple occasions.

The plot of Sleeper reveals the essence of “Woody Allen anti-authoritarian comedies.” Woody Allen’s character is named Miles Monroe. Miles ran a health food store in Greenwich Village before being put to sleep. He was also a clarinet player in a ragtime band. Miles went into the hospital in 1973 with peptic ulcer complaints. Complications arose, so his sister had him put to sleep cryogenically. He was awoken 200 years later by scientists in league with the underground.

The world in which Miles arises (from his long sleep - a symbolic representation of the pre-birth state) to find himself (to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre) is sterile and bland. It is also very clean, in the derogatory sense of the word used by The Beatles in their movie, A Hard Day’s Night which, along with the movie Help!, are two additional movies which pay homage to Marx Brothers’ films. Robots do the cooking and household chores. People own huge screen monitors. They also own machines called orgasmatrons for having sex because people don’t have sex manually anymore. The society also has “the orb,” a metallic ball which people rub to get high. The result appears like a marijuana experience.

Because Miles was from the past, he has no ID and hasn’t been fingerprinted, scanned, etc. by the government. He has no identity. This makes him a perfect candidate to be used by the underground to infiltrate the government and help with the revolution. Miles is a coward and doesn’t want any part in the plot. However, the police arrive. He has to run in order to avoid having his brain reprogrammed. The scientists are caught but Miles escapes in one of those Keystone Kop moments.

Miles hides in the back of a van which is transporting robots to their new owners. He is taken to the home of Luna (Diane Keaton). Miles dresses up like a robot and tries to act the part. He doesn’t know how to use any of the equipment and comically destroys guests coats and does battle with an overgrown pudding he made and which came to life. Luna is a poetess and a celebrity. Her poetry is influenced by the bad poet of the late 60s and early 70s, Rod McKuen, but her verse is far worse.

The next day, Luna takes Miles (he is called Milo as a robot) into the repair station for a head replacement. Miles has to engineer another Keystone Kop-like, comedic escape. He ends up finding Luna and forces her to drive him to the Western District to find the underground and help stop the Aires Project. They don’t hit it off at all. She turns him in to the police. However, because Luna has spent too much time in the presence of the alien, Miles, she must have her brain reprogrammed, too. Luna and Miles end up escaping yet again in still another reprise of Keystone Kop physical comedy. It isn’t long before they are discovered again. This time, Miles is captured.

Luna finds her way to the underground where she joins the rebels and becomes Erno’s (the leader of the rebels) lover. She learns the harsh and difficult ways of the underground, and we see her eat raw meat thrown to her and left in the dirt as if she is an animal. Miles is sent to a reprogramming center where he is brainwashed, dreams he is crowned Miss America, and learns to conform. These are juxtaposed as two different versions of the same result, mind reprogramming. One day, Luna shows up at Miles new home with Erno and some of the rebels. They kidnap Miles and abduct him. Once back at the rebel camp, Miles is deprogrammed from the conformist mentality conditioned on him by the government.

Miles and Luna end up infiltrating a government building because Aires Day has arrived and they must stop whatever it may be (they don’t know). It turns out that the government’s leader, who is depicted to resemble FDR in a wheelchair with a dog at his side, actually died. All they have left of the leader is his nose. The Aires Project intends to clone the leader from his nose. Miles and Luna are mistaken for the scientists who will conduct the cloning. Neither of them has a clue how to clone, of course. So, they are exposed as rebels. Miles steals the nose. He and Luna hold the nose at gunpoint to escape in the final Keystone Kop moment in the movie. As if depicting an animated cartoon scene, or something out of the silent era comedies, Miles throws the nose under a steamroller and it is flattened.

Once in safety after having escaped, Miles and Luna have a discussion. There had been some difficulty stemming from Miles’ jealousy toward Erno and Miles’ inability to accept Erno as an authority figure. Luna comments that Erno is a great man who will lead the revolution and bring a new and better world. Miles explains to Luna, as they simultaneously admit their love for one another, that there are no political solutions, and someday they’ll likely be trying to kill Erno’s nose. At this point we all experience the faux catharsis from Diane’s understanding gained from hearing and accepting the truth in Woody’s revelation. 

As we see, a mockery is made of all things representing authority, tradition and the established norm. Conformist behavior is painted in even the merest of actions and activities. These qualities are disparaged and individualism is extolled. In this manner, Sleeper rises to the epitome of the “Woody Allen anti-authoritarian comedy” and conveys this anti-genre genre most successfully.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Understanding Classical Greek Mythology and Its Avenues for Enlightenment

The ancient religion of Classical Greece is one of a culture which based its religion more on reality than the unreachable paragon dictated by an autocratic god embraced by contemporary monotheistic nations and cultures. The Greek gods and goddesses not only exhibited human traits, but often to excessive degrees. The immortals can be more accurately understood as personifications of essential or basic energies extant throughout time which infuse and influence the lives of humans (or so the Greeks of the Classical period believed). The gods and goddesses, at their best, exemplify traits of excellence - arêtes to be emulated. However, they also offered foreboding omens to mortals as warnings against allowing these essential energies or potencies to run amok, beyond or outside the degree of excellence or arête.

The Greeks accomplished another feat with their religion. They reconfigured the world from a place full of danger, terror and dread which one should fear into a world of beauty, joy and opportunity. One of the ways that was accomplished was through heroic tales, great men performing great deeds. Another manner by which this transformation was elucidated came through the writing of poets and teaching of philosophers. Rationality and order placed chaos and the terrors of fate’s whims into perspective, allowing the minds of the Greeks to gain a sense of harmony with nature and a growing ability to use nature for human benefit.

Apollo’s mythic nature and attributes, along with the tales, myths and legends about him, offer insight through self-analysis for facilitating healing in today’s world. Apollo’s roles as God of Shamans, a healer, poet, musician and entertainer to the Olympians, and the God of Prophecy, provide glimpses into avenues for healing. Significant individuals, who pushed and prodded the world of the 1960s into social consciousness, helping to spark and enflame the peace movement, embodied those qualities. Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young represent a few examples of people whose Apollonian traits inculcated the ideas of peace, love, understanding, cooperation and nonviolence as a force for societal healing.

A central requirement for imparting a healing message to the world, and having it heard, accepted and acted upon by others, arises from charisma. Physical attractiveness is a part of charisma. The qualities of the gift of speech, an exciting air and aura, charm, wittiness and intense energy each play additional roles in presenting a magnetic personality. For a figure in today’s world to reach a mass audience and be able to excite, energize and galvanize them into a healing force for change, that person must exude ample quantities of charisma.

Apollo is a god whose allure includes magnetic charm. For instance, in the book Classical Myth, written by Barry B. Powell, the author reveals from the “Homeric Hymn to Apollo” the following lines to describe the favor and esteem in which Apollo was held. “How can I challenge the songs already sung to your glory? / Everywhere, Phoebus, the strains of music resound in your honor,” (160). Powell offers this explanation, “Apollo fulfills in the divine community the same function as the oral poet in the human, playing for choral dance and singing and entertaining at the banquet” (162). Hermes gave Apollo the lyre as a gift. It was said in verse of Apollo that he skillfully strummed the lyre (190). Apollo’s charisma was sufficient to command the attention and interest necessary for imparting a message through his gifts as poet and musician.

Apollo’s legend encompasses slaying the serpent, Python. Slaying the serpent represents a leg of the hero’s journey – meeting and slaying a dragon in combat. The serpent or dragon symbolizes evil, both within and without. A study of Apollo would lead individuals and societies to comprehend that evil should not be projected onto others. The projection outward of evil is not a valid excuse for war, interpersonal disputes or violence. Evil is a state of imbalance, sometimes between two or more people or groups and other times within the souls, psyches and collective consciousness of individuals and groups. Healing imbalance is best accomplished by looking within, not making scapegoats of others. Through studying this aspect of Apollo, illuminated as part of the hero’s journey, individuals and societies can learn to practice self-healing. Self-healing will aid them to climb out of their money-wealth-possession accumulation induced narcissism.

In his guise as the God of Prophecy, Apollo assists us to see beyond the veneer of our selfish interests and desires. Prophecy offers warnings concerning the impending cataclysm from Climate Change as well as the degradation, death and destruction awaiting massive populations on the planet from war. If humanity studied Apollo, its collective ear might be attuned to the warnings all around. Then, the disasters which await the planet might be averted. Comprehending Apollo’s nature could assist humanity to heed the signs nature posts instead of ignoring them so they can delude themselves into thinking it will continue to be fine to pursue business as usual: greedily amassing possessions from a fixation with narcissistic consumerism and its resulting perpetuation of corporate excess, the mass production of needless products and the waste of the planet's resources, all contributing to the overheating of the planetary ecosystem.

Apollo, in his guise as the God of Shamans, combines all these elements in one persona. The shaman was a healer and seer for societies in antiquity. “He can read the inner meaning in signs and omens. He can summon the spirits of the dead, and dreams reveal to him what will come to pass. Through his superior knowledge he controls the invisible and dangerous forces that interfere constantly in the lives of human beings, including the most dangerous and puzzling of them all, disease” (Powell 171-72). This is the guise of the doctor, the healer, and the magician. This form of Apollo offers the opportunity for healing to individuals, societies, cultures and the planet, bringing necessary medicine to cure us of soul-sickness while leading us forward into a brighter, happier and more naturally balanced future.

One of the more interesting facets of the Greek myths can be seen in how the myths themselves matured as the Greek societies grew more sophisticated. The natures of the gods and goddesses themselves were altered over time as the Greeks grew in their understanding of ethics, morals and philosophical ideas. Some attributes of the gods seem to reflect a looser morality than other legends and myths reveal. The myths surrounding Zeus offer a case in point. Perhaps this has more to do 1) with the ethics and morals of the contemporary world which judges the actions contained in the myths by contemporary standards and which may have little or nothing to do with the standards held by the societies in the time when the myths were popular, and 2) with the various moral and ethical standards which might have been present at different times while the myths came into being.

As an example, Zeus possessed a dual nature which offers a glimpse at this phenomenon.

One side of Zeus depicted in the tales about him evidences aberrant behavior by contemporary standards. Although he was married to Hera, Zeus had many female consorts, lovers and conquests. He sired children out of wedlock with his sexual partners, some of whom were mortal, others were divine. These tales were popular at a time when kings had concubines, consorts and harems in addition to other sexual adventures. Maybe these kingly prerogatives arose because the kings mimicked the behavior of their gods. However, it is more likely the gods were depicted with these kinds of human moral failings because men conceived of their gods in their own image, especially with regard to the practices of the societies in existence when the myths were created.

Another side of Zeus is as the warrior, leader, ruler and father figure. He is the patriarch. He is also the mightiest and most feared of all the gods and his thunderbolts were the greatest of the gods’ weapons. He was a general who rallied his forces to his side to overthrow the old order as he also protected himself and liberated his siblings from the fate Cronus had in store for them.

Zeus is said to have ruled over Olympus with an iron hand. However, the Olympians lived sumptuously and elegantly. All seemed to enjoy great freedom to do as they pleased as long as they did not interfere with Zeus’ order. Nonetheless, Olympus was always full of intrigue and plots. During the Trojan War, Zeus wasn’t able to control the actions of the other Olympians or prevent them from meddling in human affairs.

There is still another side to Zeus, a very important one for the matters being discussed. He is said to have been an arbiter of fairness and justice and represented the Greek ideal of justice called dike. He is also emblematic of the Greek principle called xenia, which was the custom or formal institution of friendship and reciprocity. A relationship exists between the tarot card The Emperor, the Greek god Zeus (the Roman god Jupiter), the Kabbalistic sephiroth called Chesed and the energies of mercy, justice and the balancing of scales. Zeus is father of the Seasons (Horae), Fates (Morae), Graces and Muses. So, it is from him and his essence that each of those governing and inspiring forces emanate.

“The name Zeus is said to derive from the Indo-European root di- meaning ‘shine’ or ‘sky’” (Powell 137), and which is associated with a luminous heaven and a numinous quality. Transcendence may be found in this description: the luminous, numinous sense of Zeus, his sky/heaven association, his representation of xenia and dike, and his embodiment of justice and fairness. In these qualities, we see something beyond the laws of man and start to discover “the light of the higher laws of the universe” of which Emerson wrote.

One more facet to Zeus’ nature assists in realizing perhaps the most important approach to contemplating his relationship to transcendence. Zeus rose above his human-like frailties and his baser nature. Sometimes he was rooted in the world, seeking pleasure and opulence. At other times, he rose above and beyond that mundane realm of existence and those earthy, earthly qualities to shine luminously, to transcend his nature and enter into communion with his numinous essence and highest nature. Thus, Zeus embodies the ideal of man perfected as a god (also the alchemists' search for the Philosopher's Stone, the Knights of the Round Table's quest for the Grail, the Zen Buddists' desire for Satori, and the Kabbalists' efforts to rise up through the ten sephirah along the 22 paths through the four worlds and attain oneness in Kether).

In this aspect of his story, Zeus shines like a beacon to all of us as we live out our own quests to find the source of personal enlightenment. After all, enlightenment does shine luminously from within, and its glow both induces and reveals transcendence.

In her book The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton, explained, “The power wine has to uplift a man, to give him an exultant sense of mastery, to carry him out of himself, was finally transformed into the idea of the god of wine freeing men from themselves and revealing to them that they too could become divine, an idea really implicit in Homer’s picture of human gods and godlike men, but never developed until Dionysus came.” (213-14). Shortly later, Ms. Hamilton imparts, “’He who is not being inspired,’ Plato says, ‘and having no touch of madness in his soul, comes to the door and thinks he will get into the temple by the help of art – he, I say, and his poetry are not admitted’” (216).

Let us consider the effects of wine on an individual. The first notable effect that wine produces on an individual is a loosening of one’s inhibitions. The senses are also affected, and the individual is prone to errors in perceptions with regard to both time and space. One’s motor coordination is impaired, as well, when under the influence of alcohol. Finally, wine provides a heightened sense of self as well as of self-importance.

Next, as one inquires into the ancient Greek approaches to transcendence, one may seek the perspective of what the Greek mysteries were about. The Greek mystery schools sought to separate the individual from mundane reality, exalt the individual to a level conducive to allowing him or her to identify with an archetype, or a god or goddess from the Greek pantheon. In so doing, the individual was enabled to transcend everyday regularity, move beyond normal perception, and see through perceptual reality to find a deeper meaning in life and connection to and with the universe.

Plato’s point is that the normal, everyday kind of mind, even when that mind is heightened to the degree that one might be an artist or poet, is insufficient to carry the individual past normal perception into the kind of deep trance which can yield transcendence. Furthermore, transcendence is required for the individual to undergo the transformation of the mind and soul necessary to experience the true mysteries. However, by loosening the control which society exerts over us all through the mechanisms of induced conformity and peer pressure, and by loosening the control our minds exert over us to see and perceive reality as based solely on our unaltered sense perceptions, the individual can find an approach or doorway into the temple to discover meaning and connection of the deeper nature offered by the Greek mysteries.

Indeed, in contemporary culture, humans are even more limited in their apprehension of the scope of reality by their senses and perceptual input. Science has reduced the mysterious into a small box it calls by one of the names from among superstition, illusion and delusion, or science demystifies the mysterious with explanations alluding to the intercession of natural processes. The entire culture suffers from severe doses of induced conformity imposed by schools, churches, television commercials and peer pressure requiring adherence to the latest, academically accepted ideas, commercial fads and current moral values while contemporary cultures debase the use of any and all forms of intoxicants as being evidence of aberrant behavior. It is naturally the case that contemporary cultures seek to breed conformity to social, cultural, moral and economic values bred by that culture as a means of perpetuating the system in place and the class of people entrusted with governing that system. The consequence is witnessed in contemporary cultures’ ties to economic models in which the only acceptable values can be reduced to income: the amassing of wealth, proving the individual’s relative power within the culture through the amount and quantity of expenditures as witnessed in the things one acquires, and dedication to productive work which is really only guaranteed to amass greater sums for the already wealthy while reducing the free time and enjoyment of the worker classes. All of these modes of economically induced conformity engage with sense perception in a way as to create a cycle of reinforcement. Consequently, the mind is more and more attached to sense perceived reality as being all there is.

One’s only avenues to loosening the controls – that culture, the economy, contemporary religion, societal mores currently applied and the training and influences of parents, teachers, preachers and television commercials exert on the individual from birth – can be found by relaxing those controls, at least temporarily and to some degree. Hence, the use of intoxicants and psychedelics provide the most approachable mediators (at least in Western civilization, whereas in the East, Sufism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Transcendental Meditation all offer additional paths to loosening the strings of convention and physical reality) for deconstructing the societal and cultural edifice long enough and deeply enough to at least investigate alternate insights into reality. These (both the use of intoxicants and Eastern meditation techniques) are the only contemporary avenues for seeking transcendence which can lead to personal transformation and an apprehension of the mysteries the ancient Greeks held so dear.

The most transcendental experience of the ancient Greek religion had to do with the rites of Eleusis. Very little is actually known for certain regarding what occurred in those rites. They were shrouded in secrecy and mystery. Few actual details have been preserved to enlighten us about the Eleusinian Mysteries. However, one can construct some gist of what must have been going on from the details known.

The rites lasted for days. There were two different events staged: one for the Greater Mysteries and one for the Lesser Mysteries. Sacred objects were brought to Athens where they were housed in Demeter's sanctuary beneath the Acropolis. The festival began in the agora when the official announcement of its commencement was given.

Maria Mavromataki, in her book Greek Mythology and Religion, relates that, on the next four days, sacrifices were made and the initiates washed and purified themselves by the sea. On the morning of the fifth day, a splendid procession headed for Eleusis along the Sacred Way made up of mystes (initiates), priests, the hierophant and torch-bearer among the procession. The initiates wore laurel wreaths. Along the Sacred Way, from time to time, the procession stopped to perform mini-rites at appropriate sanctuaries which had been built to other gods and goddesses situated along that path. That evening, they reached Eleusis. Two initiates (to be symbolically, ritually sacrificed to Demeter and Persephone) fasted and drank a barley water potion (74-5). It is from this point forward that little is known.

In The Road to Eleusis, R. Gordon Wasson (the founder of ethnomycology), Albert Hoffman (the discoverer of LSD), and classicist Carl A. P. Ruck collaborated on a thesis which proposed that the secret ingredient in the barley water drink was ergot. Hoffman explains that the ergot of wheat and of barley analyzed in his lab were found to contain basically the same alkaloids as ergot of rye, including traces of lysergic acidamide.

The authors provide the following description of the mysteries within the temple. "As he performed the service, the hierophant intoned ancient chants in a falsetto voice, for his role in the Mystery was asexual, a male who had sacrificed his gender to the Great Goddess... Finally, in acknowledgement of their readiness, they all chanted that they had drunk the potion and had handled the sacred objects... Then, seated on the tiers of steps that lined the walls of the cavernous hall, in darkness, they waited. From the potion, they gradually entered ecstasy" (58-9).

The next portion of the description sounds like something right out of one of Ken Kesey's acid tests with the Merry Pranksters. "This potion - an hallucinogen - under the right set and setting, disturbs man's inner ear and trips astonishing ventriloquistic effects. We can rest assured that the hierophants, with generations of experience [these rites were performed for a period lasting over 2000 years], knew all the secrets of set and setting. I am sure that there was music, probably both vocal and instrumental, not loud but with authority, coming from hither and yon, now from the depths of the earth, now from outside, now a mere whisper infiltrating the ear, flitting from place to place unaccountably. The hierophants may well have known the art of releasing into the air various perfumes [incense scents] in succession, and they must have contrived the music for a crescendo of expectation, until suddenly, the inner chamber was flung open and spirits of light entered the room, subdued lights I think, not blinding, and among them the spirit of Persephone with her new-born son just returned from Hades. She would arrive just as the hierophant raised his voice in ancient measures reserved for the Mystery: 'The Terrible Queen has given birth to her son, the Terrible One'. This divine birth of the Lord of the Nether world was accompanied by the bellowing of a gong-like instrument that outdid, for the ecstatic audience, the mightiest thunderclap coming from the bowels of the earth" (59). Here's how they described the experience that people who dropped acid in the 60s and 70s called peaking, "Then, suddenly, there was light and the boundaries on this world burst their bounds as spiritual presences were felt in their midst and the hall was flooded with glowing mystery" (63).

This rite reveals exactly what is missing from the contemporary world. There's no mystery. There's no glorious apprehension and communion with the mystical. We're too busy anesthetizing ourselves with toys and television and movies and virtual reality games and beer and body shots and sporting events and music videos of glamorous pop stars exuding sex and seducing each new generation with deeper excursions into decadence and the suggested thrills of a tawdry narcissistic infatuation with wealth, celebrity, possessions, and the pleasures of the flesh to actually live life and enjoy the interconnection, companionship and communion with all that is natural and beautiful which life offers. Because we disrupt the flow of current which otherwise should be present in interconnection, we lose respect and appreciation for everything of real value. Acid tests actually sparked a movement back to nature and to reconnection among like-minded "brothers and sisters."

Unfortunately, in today's world of bland conformity, there is no place left for mystery outside the movie theater, and even there, it is only witnessed through brief, vicarious encounters never through direct, experiential interaction.

I wonder sometimes if there are any people left who remember what it was like to roll in the grass on a warm summer day, or fly a kite, or run through the surf. Few bother to recall the joy of playing tag at dusk or recollect the sensation of running fingers over the rough bark of an oak tree and contrasting it with the slippery smoothness of river rocks. The scent of tomorrow is plastic and metallic and antiseptic. The colors are all ecru. But most sadly, the experiences only occur indoors on computers and gaming consoles and lack infusion with one's own imagination.

Without an absurd theater of sublime ecstasy, life itself becomes absurd and meaningless. Without mystery, nature's only value lies in what new commodity can be made from the planet's natural resources. When there is no longer a real connection with the planet and all value for nature ebbs, we bring Climate Change upon ourselves. Laws to limit the amount of carbon emissions will not save humanity from itself. Mystery and reconnection with nature and with each other are the only avenues to a satisfying and rewarding future.