From Hysterical to Hysteria: Bill Cosby, Lena Dunham and Woody Allen

Witch TrialAnyone read or remember Hollywood Babylon? The reality is those were different times with very askewed values. What would we do to JFK or Bobby if they were alive today? Certainly, no one can condone Cosby’s alleged offenses, but there is such a thing as perspective.

As head of 20th Century Fox, Zanuck shut the entire studio down every day at 4PM when he would order a young starlet up to his plush boudoir neatly tucked behind his studio office. Today, we have glimpse of the dark side of Hollywood through the Bryan SInger Tigerheat scandals ( the subject of Amy Berg’s new documentary “Open Secret”. ) While I don’t think we should further victimize Barbara Bowman or Janice Dickinson for coming forward, we should not so readily expunge and excoriate Cosby’s entire career either. Knowing full well the excesses and licenses of the 80’s in Hollywood, as in other eras, it’s important to keep them in perspective. It’s very easy to judge him by contemporary standards without at least taking some consideration for what was socially prevalent, and in some circles even “acceptable” at that time.

Rape is always reprehensible, but there were times in our not too distant past when the lines between aggressive seduction and what we now understand as rape were not so clear. We can be grateful for the progress, but we should be equally reticent about fanning the flames of hysteria as well.

Notice the terminology: Dickinson states, “he gave me a pill.” She doesn’t admit to taking the pill, thus shifting all responsibility to Cosby alone. There was a time, thankfully long gone, when taking a pill was considered tacit consent. Boomers (and Cosby is of that era) grew up in the age of James Bond, Jack Kennedy and Hugh Hefner when men were given license to be aggressive and to seduce women. With today’s changing mores, what college man out there today hasn’t had pause to consider if they ever went too far, or never seductively enticed a girl with alcohol or drugs?

In the current hysterical climate though we risk completely going over the edge. Lena Dunham is being excoriated in the press for having confessed to exploring her sister’s private parts. She is being called a rapist and a child molester — by fellow feminists! Likewise with Woody Allen, there are many who would throw him into jail just on Dylan Farrow’s charges alone. There is a hysteria out there and one that is far more virulent and dangerous than the perceived monsters and bogeymen we are so willing to burn at the stake.

Imagination, Storytelling and Belief: Delusion or Reality?

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It strikes me that the words “delusion” and “delusional”, while appropriate and certainly well-founded in many cases, do not entirely describe the religious faith experience. To dismiss the phenomenon of religion and faith as mere hallucinatory or illusionary undercuts something much deeper in the human psyche and universal, if not, evolutionary experience i.e., the innate propensity to tell stories, celebrate, play, create art, music, theater and dance.  And while most religions end up doing the exact opposite (especially to those who don’t share their parochial worldview) to discount and exclude their myriad other expressions and cultural contributions as delusional is a little too dismissive and short-sighted. Konrad Lorenz hinted at this in his brilliant observations of human nature.

“Every study undertaken by Man was the genuine outcome of curiosity, a kind of game. All the data of natural science, which are responsible for Man’s domination of the world, originated in activities that were indulged in exclusively for the sake of amusement.

One can just as easily assign this basic human capacity to religion, ritual, mythology and faith. In essence, and what is almost certainly irrefutable, humans make shit up. And in that marvelous world of the imagination they find inspiration to dance, experience awe, play music, paint on walls and canvasses, build magnificent structures and cathedrals, come together, as well as unleash unspeakable atrocities upon the world. While the latter behaviors should never be forgotten, diminished or revised, neither should the former.

So, where does that leave us? Once we expose the cruelties and excesses of a particular belief system, we are still left with the essential human attribute to imagine, create and manifest those marvelous, terrible, and wondrous things into our beings, families, community and life experience. Why do so many religions have a dress code, tell you how much hair you should grow on your face, dictate the foods you should eat, and build mini fairy tale kingdoms: churches, synagogues, temples,  mosques and festivals that concretize those beliefs through community, hymn, ritual, liturgy and prayer? Because we want to believe they’re not just imagination, but real!

If we are to more accurately deal with the excesses and extremes of archaic beliefs, we might stop describing them as delusional, but rather, mass-manufactured “realities” instead.

The Disney Version in the Soccer Mom Age

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The other day in a heated thread someone who should know better referred to Joseph Campbell as a “fiction writer”. I immediately sunk into despair about the state of our cultural amnesia ( see Clive Barnes) when the wikification of our reference base degrades to ever new lows. I had to draw on considerable time and energy to correct this, if for no other reason than to salvage some semblance of dignity for a man I regard as one of the greatest pioneers of the 20th Century and the intrepid founder and trailblazer for what he called: “the lineaments of a new science” ie. the scientific investigation of mythology, cultural anthropology and evolutionary psychology.

As a storyteller myself this particular field has been a lifelong area of dedication, research and study. In poring through the volumes of Campbell’s corpus I became intrigued by his regard for the Grimm Brothers not as writers of children’s books, but along with the ilk of Fraser, Edwardes, Frobenius, Levi-Strauss as great contributors to this burgeoning science. They were not writing children’s books, they were collecting oral traditions and folkloric memes passed down through generations of ethnic, regional and developing peoples. It is yet another deep disappointment that they too, like Campbell, have been relegated to pseudo history as “authors of books for children” with stories too barbaric for the gentle, if not, ever coddled minds of the soccer mom age.

While this is a whole other discussion, and as IIdy suggests, “a topic of heated debated” I would say we first have to establish solid ground for who the Grimm Brothers were, what they intended to do, and place in perspective the time in which they were excavating, archiving and recording these ancient folk traditions. The next thing I would suggest is a quick read of Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment for another perspective on the “paideumatic” and psychological values of these tales — they are not mere relics of the past, not simply cautionary old wives tales, but powerful doors into the human psyche, past and present, child and adult alike. To homogenize, abridge and sanitize them out of some misguided need to shelter the poor defenseless children is to discredit the Grimm Brothers, our children, our own psychology, and thusly cheat society of voices and memes deep within our human past.

As Thomas Mann wrote in Joseph and his Brothers: “Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless? The deeper we sound, the further down into the lower world of the past we probe and press, the more do we find that the earliest foundations of humanity, its future history and culture reveal themselves unfathomable.”

I suspect the ingenious raconteur, ‘Uncle Walt’ , as opposed to Corporate Disney, knew this intrinsically to be so.

“And So It Is Revealed…”

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    Let’s face it, the whole concept of divine revelation is a fanciful religious construct to begin with. Having just read My Failed Atheism by Mark Bauerlein in First Things — he relates how he began his bout with atheism through revelation, only to leave it years later when, through yet another spontaneous realization, he finds bliss in a renewed examination of Christianity. ( At a megachurch no less.) So what’s the common denominator here?

    Religion fosters this primitive old meme of miracles, wonders and instantaneous conversions — and we humans, atheists and theists alike, cleave to it as a real thing — even sometimes subconsciously seeking it out during our more ontologically vulnerable moments. The reality is atheism and theism require vigorous intellectual investigation and study. There is as much nonsense out there for the faithful to wade through as there is for the atheist. How often do we see these miraculous Saul-like conversions lapse into backsliding nostalgia or hardened cynicism in our waning years?

    Humans are revelation junkies. We exalt in lottery stories and miraculous interventions, when it is more likely how Thomas Edison describes genius “… one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

    Atheism and theism require hard work. The former by sifting through the mountains of mythological mindset to understand the psychology of humankind, and the latter, to break through the fairy tale promise that Superman, miracles and wonders provide an actual model for living in the modern world.

    If your faith, or lack thereof, is based on spontaneous revelation it would be best to remain extremely skeptical and pay due diligence. There is no doubt it will one day swing around the other way, and if you’re blindsided by it once more, you should not blame nihilism, disillusionment, or god, for this recent up or down turn on the epiphanic see-saw.

Now Playing At Your Local House Of Worship

Exodus Poster

I certainly understand why some people hate religion, but to want to do away with it is a bit extreme. It’s like wanting to do away with movies because there are some really bad ones out there, and some people insist on believing and imitating what they see on screen.

What were these stories anyway? They were our ancestors’ entertainment and escape just as much as movies are for us today. They were better than escape, because you could immerse yourself in them and pretend they answered all your questions.  When I was young I wanted to be James Bond. I dressed up, bought myself a gun cigarette lighter and stalked the hallways in my apartment building shooting villains and seducing gorgeous women. I had a blast playing in that alternate reality. The problem was not in playing him, but believing it was real.

We’re never going to rid humankind of religion nor should we want to. Religion is mythology. The best way to teach mythology is to study it. All of them. Behind their mysteries, violence, bigotry, miracles, wonders, wars and atrocities is the story of the human imagination with all of its terror, injustice, fears, heroes and villains. Is it a mere coincidence all the Bronze age heroes THOR, NOAH, and SUPERMAN (Moses) and EXODUS (coming soon) are still big hits at the local cineplex, or that Ishus (Jesus), Yahweh, Krishna, Moses, Mohammed and Buddha are still packing them in worldwide? The problem is not in the stories, but in believing they are any more true or real than James Bond.

God of the Gaps: Where the Wilde Things Are

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    We seem to be looking for answers in all the wrong places and thus perennially caught in the ‘god between the gaps’ argument. Theists demand that science cannot answer the question definitively, then pull their collective hairs out applying bad science to prove otherwise.

    We argue complicated theories of evolution, cosmology, physics, gravity, thermodynamics, singularity and in doing so parse interminably about their implications, for, or against, when, perhaps, these scientific disciplines are not, should not, and cannot bother themselves with such an impossible inquiry in the first place. In lieu of scientific evidence, the argument switches over to philosophy, religion, morality and theology. Unfortunately, these disciplines can only satisfy one side of the argument as they are not legitimate fields of inquiry for their detractors. For the atheist, dredging religion, morality and theology for answers is tantamount to using the Lord of the Rings to prove the existence of elves.

    We argue under vague terms of science and reason and constantly arrive at an impasse, when there is a whole other branch of scientific inquiry with volumes and volumes of hard evidence, confirming historical and cultural artifacts, hundreds of years of research by hundreds of concurring and contributing scholars and scientists who answer all these mysteries with an impressive body of information.

    The problem is most people, theist and atheist alike, are astonishingly unaware of how comprehensive it is. No doubt religionists will reject it because they are hard wired against describing the dogma and canon of their faith as myth. And, most atheists mistakenly assign mythology to a quaint system of collecting fairy tales and ethnic eccentricities. The reality is that Mythology is the study of both the science and art of storytelling and human evolution exactly where the search for that elusive Wild One can be vigorously investigated, gloriously revealed, and ultimately resolved.

    “Let us ask, therefore: What can the value or meaning be of a mythological notion which, in the light of modern science, must be said to be erroneous, philosophically false, absurd, or even formally insane? The first answer suggested will no doubt be the one that, in the course of the past century, has been offered many times by our leading thinkers. The value, namely, is to be studied rather as a function of psychology and sociology than as a refuted system of positivistic science, rather in terms of certain effects worked by the symbols on the character of the individual and the structure of society than in terms of their obvious incongruity as an image of the cosmos. Their value, in other words, is not that of science but of art: and just as art may be studied psychologically, as symbolic or symptomatic of the strains and structures of the psyche, so may the archetypes of myth, fairy tale, archaic philosophy, cosmology, and metaphysics.”

    Joseph Campbell, “The Symbol without Meaning,” Flight of the Wild Gander, p.98-99