OPIUM FOR THE MIND

6 Dec

Gin Lane
“Gin Lane”, 1751
William Hogarth (1697-1764)

As I understand it, and I don’t much, the standard effect upon indigenous peoples of economic usurpation by modern states is nihilism and substance addiction. Marx argues that culture is built on economic foundations. And the style of these foundations will determine the culture of the people who work at them. This includes religion which Marx described infamously as opium.

Opium for the mind? Well many adherents to religious faith speak of its comforts. Scanning the rags a while back I remember Kylie Kwong saying that being Buddhist had helped her cope with the death of her father. Faith is a comfort but you cannot get there by knowing that it is a comfort and deciding henceforth that it’s a good idea to believe. You can act as if you believe, you can want to believe. But it will persist as an elusive orgasm. Prayer may help. Meditation may serve also, somewhat differently. But should you seek faith it will very possibly elude you. You must feel it.

The faith of Aboriginal people was wholly integrated into the wild landscape. Until Europeans arrived there was very little cultivated land in Australia. Survival was a harsh business, the place didn’t allow you much breathing space. To understand their faith one must understand the Dreaming. Perhaps best described to denizens of the modern world as the Collective Unconscious. Behind all these words lies the notion that when we sleep, when we dream we are all somehow connected. That to dream is to visit places all creatures who dream visit as well. That everything is connected. How to maintain this simple and beautiful style of faith when the hegemon of the world comes calling with agricultural farming, botanical science, firearms, architecture and iron tools? Imagine please the effect on the psyche of Victorian England if, say, the Klingons came down for a visit and decided to stay?

Faith can be shattered by circumstance. It’s a well worn story, the lifelong pious man who lost faith when his teenage daughter dies in a car crash. This failure of faith can destructive enough on an individual but what if your entire people sustain a mindfuck on a much larger scale? Surely if there is a cancer making you stumble from the path this is it. Or, more accurately, a sandstorm forever burying the path forever?

Many will do the knee jerk ‘like I give a shit thing’ and turn off, but every Saturday night there are people living like there’s no tomorrow. Well-adjusted people (or at least law abiding enough to avoid the penal system) who’re adept at the use of modern cosmetics and have the discipline and brains it takes to earn not much in a service industry or better. People without criminal records, bad credit histories, backgrounds of mental ill-health – normal people. Everywhere people, normal and otherwise, live to get high. Some choose esoteric highs like adrenaline. Some take ‘delight in the carriage gently rolling’ but that’s it. Some take refuge in organized religion and a precious few live quite naturally according to the dictates of generations of tradition. But even here there’s erosion. Nowadays, the Amish send their children out to live among ‘the English’ for a while and they can choose to stay.

But how many among us here would choose the Amish way of life: to live as 17th century Dutch villagers did, free of the interferences of entrenched, hereditary hierarchies but always and forever according to the dictates of old men? We live and work and love among, around the steel and glass towers that’ve surpassed the pyramids with a new democratic magnificence. (How often do we stand still to appreciate the beauty of a skyscraper?) And many of us are only able to push daily thru a cacophony of harsh noise, artificial and otherwise because dreaming of their holidays in a land where humans live as we all did before the rise of the skyscrapers: we crave community and fearing cancer huddle in cities, crowding in on “one another like a flock of sheep that spies a hungry wolf.”

We can’t go back. Modern life has changed our bodies. We just can’t hack the life of a peasant let alone that of a tribal traveller on the Earth. We don’t know the Earth well enough. We have forgotten that Earth and will never remember. This is our Earth now. We are no longer in the condition to face Nature daily stark naked. And we wouldn’t want to. Not really. But we’ve lost something. I think the crack appeared immediately. We began to insist on the primacy of science and the stories and rituals that had helped us cope with a certain way of life became pale shadows, photocopies of photocopies. From the beginning of the modern age artists became almost immediately disobedient and hostile to logic. There were eras – the realism of the 1870s, the Pop Art of the 1960s – when artists loved science certainly but only to misunderstand it, to bury it under layers of pure shit. Artists went whacko c.1800 and’ve remained so ever since. There’s a reason for that.

We have benefited grandly from this adjustment but we have suffered too. And this suffering resembles the misery of the poor little rich boys and girls. Free of the outrageous whims of the economy manifest as scarce jobs or failed crops yet the unhappiness is genuine, compounded and complicated both by society’s dismissal of it and its submergence under all the oblivion money can buy.

Take Christmas: the year’s most significant holiday season. It’s importance is now primarily economic: it drives the retail cycle. After that it’s social. Christmas is the time when most of the family get a few days break from the rat race that plays havoc with schedules. Family? or friends – do they still call it an orphan’s Christmas? But by midday the streets are full of people. Having spent a month scrambling like seagulls all over the malls they’re here a couple hours after the presents under the tree have exploded in a tempest of paper, ribbon and stuff. And they’re shopping!!! Midnight these same streets will be full of drunken people, ba-boom-boom crack, ba boom-boom crack! It’s party time! The honeys and the homies are cruising for action.

That’s the way it is. That’s what we’re doing. Hardly the solemn, sombre contemplation of the birth of He who would die for our sins. What small percentage of households mention Jesus once on Christmas morning? Why should they? If Jesus holds no meaning what virtue is there in pretending that he does? Perhaps we no longer remember Jesus in our hearts because the culture he (arguably) helped kick off has rendered the nightmare of his Passion and all such distant. The crucifixion stands not for our bodily torments anymore, it stands for the brutal and remote past. For how far we’ve come. But having gone forward and higher we’ve tripped too, we’ve stumbled.

The rituals and artefacts of a culture are those things that keep us in check, keep us grounded in a life that means something. They inspire us to the virtues expected by civilization. Christmas used to be a feast. Peasants need a good reason to party because they couldn’t really afford to. That is why, in places where these type cultures are still intact, backpackers are so often surprised by the generosity born from such poverty. They slaughtered a pig for me! Ah but they slaughtered the pig also for themselves, their rare chance to gorge on pork. You merely provide the occasion.

Because of this guests are always served first. It’s a refinement born of repressing that very urge to gorge. A way of keeping your venal gluttony in check and thus converting it to something beautiful. Deep down the whole point is that this is a chance to have fun for those who don’t get much. But to do this without suffering deprivation later it must be strictly occasional. Some sort of reason is required and the reason must have nothing to do with its underlying raw animal motivations. The reason must be something to do with that part of us that is not of the material world. If everyone acknowledges that it’s just a pig-fest why bother with the guest? Why? Because the guest is the Reason and raising children who will put a stranger first without question makes this actually so.

The culture and the economy come together, harmonious. If such harmonious civilizations be happy marriages, ours is two lives spent in different wings of the mansion. The bar and the medicine cabinet well-stocked and always handy.

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