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Dionysus in Zion

By Assaf Sagiv

The new Israeli youth culture dances to an ancient tune.


Western civilization, which drew heavily on the culture of Hellenic Greece, nonetheless rejected the Greeks’ relatively permissive attitude towards the Dionysian. The Romans, who saw themselves as heirs of the Greek tradition, were far less tolerant of the Bacchanalia, and in 186 B.C.E. the Senate banned them altogether.18 But it was Christianity—which inherited its enmity towards the ancient fertility religions from Judaism—that declared all-out war on the Dionysian spirit. It launched continual and bloody persecutions which did not reach their peak until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when intensive witch-hunts almost completely eradicated the shamanistic culture that had survived in Europe for nearly two thousand years.19
The secular religion of reason, which in later centuries sought to displace the doctrines of the Catholic Church, nevertheless shared the latter’s revulsion towards the ecstatic. That which had been seen by the Catholic inquisitors as the worship of Satan came to be seen by the devotees of reason as a psychopathology that had to be expunged from civilized society. Yet the revulsion harbored by the Western intellect toward the institutionalized expressions of the ecstatic impulse did not make Western culture impervious to the seductive power of the longing for self-obliteration. A century ago, Nietzsche foresaw the end of reason’s hegemony and the resurrection of the Dionysian spirit.20 As he wrote, “The disaster slumbering in the womb of theoretical culture gradually begins to frighten modern man.... the most certain auspices guarantee... the gradual awakening of the Dionysian spirit in our modern world!”21 And indeed, that same Western civilization, which for centuries had denied the Dionysian urge, has, in the second half of the twentieth century, witnessed the eruption of the enormous energies associated with this primal force. Today the Dionysian has returned with an intensity unknown since the end of the classical period—and it is directed against the cultural and social order that had suppressed it for so long.
The vanguard of the Dionysian revival was of course the youth counterculture of the 1960s, which again raised the triple banner of sexual license, mind-altering drugs and powerful, rhythmic music—“sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.” This movement was inspired by an overtly neo-pagan vision: The liberation of man from the moralistic shackles in which the Judeo-Christian tradition had chained him, and the return of mankind to a blessed, primordial state of unity with nature. In the attempt to achieve harmony with the cosmos, psychedelic drugs played a decisive role in removing the barriers between individual consciousness and absolute reality. Timothy Leary, one of the central figures in the drug culture of the 1960s, was among the first to preach the ecstatic gospel as the path toward individual and collective redemption: “All the harsh, dry, brittle angularity of game life is melted,” he reported enthusiastically concerning his experiments with LSD. “You drift off—soft, rounded, moist, warm. Merged with all life.... Your control is surrendered to the total organism. Blissful passivity. Ecstatic, orgiastic, undulating unity.... All is gained as everything is given up.”22
In their rediscovery of the Dionysian impulse, the hippies and flower children were drawn towards shamanistic cultures and their millennia-old ecstatic rites. At the same time, however, this movement adopted a very modern mission, one quite alien to the Dionysian spirit. It saw itself as a revolutionary force, bringing about the creation of a wondrous new world. Its worldview was idealistic, optimistic and naive. In many respects, the flower children embodied the same romantic ideal cultivated within Western culture since the eighteenth century—that of youth revolting against the rigid social arrangements and injustice prevalent in the world. As Martin Buber, one of the foremost spokesmen of this ideal in the first decades of the twentieth century, put it: “Youth is the eternal opportunity of mankind. There is constantly emerging on the scene a new generation of twenty-year-olds, filled with passionate longings for the absolute, unlimited devotion to an ideal, and the will to break the locked gate of Paradise.”23 But the real audacity of the 1960s counterculture was in its ambitious aims: In many respects, it opposed Western civilization itself, with its political, social, cultural and psychological traditions. For many of those who participated, the results were disastrous. In the words of Camille Paglia:
We put the myth of Dionysus into action, and we hit the wall of reality. The Sixties revolutionized consciousness, but on the road of excess by which we sought the palace of wisdom, many of us lost our minds, lives, or careers through drugs, sexual orgy, or... constant challenges to authority.24
Today’s ecstatic youth culture is in many ways a direct consequence of the revolution of the 1960s and the new legitimacy it afforded the Dionysian impulse. The innovation of the new movement is found in what might be called the technologizing of Dionysus: The transfiguration of the ecstatic craze into a pre-packaged, commercially available product, involving a now-standard combination of frenetic lighting, overwhelming electronic sound and the proper dose of mind-bending chemicals. It was the discovery of this formula that spawned the new Dionysian wave of the global youth culture in the late 1980s. The “revolution” began in the summer of 1988 on the Spanish island of Ibiza, a center of the world nightclub scene, when a number of young socialites from Britain discovered the overpowering effect of combining the new generation of synthesized music with the influence of the drug ecstasy. The result, according to Yaron Tan-Brink of the weekly Tel Aviv, was nothing less than the “great cultural explosion of the end of the twentieth century”:
The synchronicity between the new drug and the new music was perfect. The music sounded so good under the influence that it was simply impossible to stop dancing. And this did not stop with a few good parties. The Summer of Love of 1988 hearkened, for the first time since the hippies swallowed their psychedelic sugar cubes, the birth of a new youth culture....25
The drug that gave birth to this “new youth culture” did not get its name for nothing. Ecstasy (or methyl-endioxy-methamphetamine, as it has been known to the scientific community for eighty years) is a stimulant that causes feelings of elevation and euphoria.26 At the parties where it is taken, its effects are amplified by electronic music (of which the popular trance music is the most prominent example), based on rapid, pounding rhythms played at high volume. According to Tel Aviv’s description of the drug’s effect:
It begins in the stomach, and from there it slowly spreads through the entire body, like a bursting stream of energy. Every region reached by this stream immediately feels a greater vitality. At first everything is confused. “Undefined” is the only word people manage to utter under its growing influence. The dancing sweeps you up more. The beat too. The more you are drawn into the music, the more you forget—everything. The ecstasy reaches higher and higher, becomes more intense. The feeling of time is lost, together with all inhibitions.27
The pagan element of the ecstasy movement has been pronounced from the beginning, finding its most explicit expression in the stupefying mass parties—“raves”—that are held in remote locations under open skies, on the beach, in the forest or desert. The religious aspect of “raves” has been noted by Russell Newcombe, who has studied the phenomenon in detail: “The DJs are the priests of the rave ceremony, responding to the mood of the crowd, with their mixing desks symbolizing the altar.... Dancing at raves may be constructed as the method by which ravers ‘worship’ the god of altered consciousness.”28 Indeed, the feelings expressed by participants in the raves carry a decidedly spiritual and mystical overtone. As Ronald Tzvi Trotush relates in Tel Aviv:
You connect to the life energy of the galaxy and become a part of it. You feel, you love, you are open, liberated and happy—this is the peak.... [Ecstasy] definitely causes everybody to become attached to everyone else without regard to religion, race and sex, and it definitely causes you to love until death.29
The total experience of ecstasy, the feeling of union with nature, the effacement of individual identity, and the sensation of overwhelming love constitute the most important parallel between the “raves” and trance parties of today, on the one hand, and the ancient Bacchanalia on the other. As Nietzsche put it when describing the latter: “Under the charm of the Dionysian, not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature, which has become alienated, hostile or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man.... Now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice or ‘impudent convention’ have fixed between man and man are broken. Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him....”30


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