The Dionysian element

23 07 2009

above: a penitente crucifixion in New Mexico in the 1930’s

The Dionysian element has to do with emotions and affects which have found no suitable religious outlets in the predominantly Apollonian cult and ethos of Christianity. The medieval carnivals and jeux de paume in the Church were abolished relatively early; consequently the carnival became secularized and with it divine intoxication vanished from the sacred precincts… intoxication, that most direct form of possession, turned away from the gods and enveloped the human world with its exuberance and pathos. The pagan religions met this danger by giving drunken ecstasy a place within their cult. Heraclitus doubtless saw what was at the back of it when he said, “But Hades is that same Dionysios in whose honour they go mad and keep the feast of the vat.” For this very reason orgies were granted religious license, so as to exorcise the danger that threatened from Hades. Our solution, however, has served to throw the gates of hell wide open.

– Carl Jung, Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy

When I read this, I thought, not quite, at least on the periphery of the Catholic world. The phenomenon of tarantismo, now extinct, went on for long enough in southern Italy to be filmed, as I have linked to before. There is also the question of the Jansenist convulsionaries of Saint Medard, who gave the Hindu sadhus a run for their money in their day. But less exotically, there seems to have always been a “Dinoysian” element to Catholicism that modern Catholics of all stripes now seem to detest. From the bloody Spanish crucifix to the eyeballs of St. Lucy on a platter, from the mock battles between angels and demons in my mother’s village in Mexico to an ox crapping on the floor of a church in Italy, the riotous religious sub-consciousness is an endangered species in the Catholic world. When Vatican II came, it was the first to go. One wonders if there are any teeth to Jung’s dire prophecy.



4 responses

24 07 2009
Daniel A.

I’m wondering how exactly traditionalism is an attempt to yank the folk element out of religion. It seems to me that of the Catholics I have met, the traditionalists are the ones most open to old-fashioned folk practices. For instance, if I were to talk about the practices of some older members of the branch of my family that stayed in Ireland (things like refusing to cut branches from fairy mounds, carefully avoiding anything that traditionally might bring ghosts, absolute belief that there’s “something to” the old stories, etc.) to most Catholics, I would get a few different results.

The liberal Catholics I knew at Santa Clara University thought such things were interesting, but completely separate from the Catholic religion, that they were pagan survivals that showed that the “common people” had persevered despite Catholic oppression of their real religion. The regular, uneducated Catholics at most parishes don’t know what to say about such things, but usually think of them as cool old things whose time has past. The “over-catechized” neo-con Catholics would say they are superstitions (probably “pagan survivals” again, only here its a bad thing). Only among traditionalists have I ever heard sympathy for these kinds of practices within a Catholic context. Now, I don’t think the other people at the Latin Mass I attend are going to start fearing the banshee, but they at least do not see such practices as being thoroughly at odds with the Catholic faith, like everyone else seems to.

23 07 2009

“I find that Catholic traditionalism is an attempt to yank the “folk” element out of the heart of the “old religion”.”

This reminds me of an incident that I read about in a book that I recently finished on haredi Jews in Israel. The author describes how he was on a bus trip with some haredim to the tomb of Rabbi Simon bar Yohai for the traditional first hair cutting ceremony of three-year old boys. The group of haredim that he was with are of Eastern European ancestry. Also present at the tomb were a large number of Sephardic Jews, mostly from Morocco. The latter group was engaged in a number of folk religious practices at the tomb that the former found to be heretical and blasphemous, including women bathing nude in a nearby pool for its supposed healing properties. The irony of the story, at least for me, was that hasidism originally began as a mystical movement to counteract the sterile academic approach to Judaism that was characteristic of the Lithuanian yeshiva movement of the 18th century. Modern hasidism, having left behind the Dionysian element that distinguished it in its formative period, now seems to have more in common with their Lithuanian counterparts than their freewheeling 18th century counterparts. In both cases you have groups of people engaged in traditional religious practices that nonetheless seem to conflict.

I’m beginning to wonder if the effects of modernism typically led to a loss of folk religion, regardless of the belief system in question. Once modernism arises, traditional religious authorities are forced to create a list of “fundamentals” that the faithful must abide by to be a member in good standing. Since folk practices are extraneous, they must be discarded or somehow remolded to fit the new parameters of accepted belief.

23 07 2009

“On a related, related note: The secret of getting through life is knowing how to live with your own hypocrisy WITHOUT trying to justify it.”

Oh, yeah.

Is there perhaps a connection between the loss of the Dionysian elements of folk Catholicism and the rise of neo-Pentecostalism in Roman Catholic circles?

23 07 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I hate to comment on my own post, but…

I find that Catholic traditionalism is an attempt to yank the “folk” element out of the heart of the “old religion”. And as for all the other talk of the “holiness of the laity”, supposedly the point of Vatican II, I don’t see anyone getting any holier. The holiest people I have known either grew up before Vatican II or had a pretty “old school” approach to how they saw their Faith. The attempt to make Catholicism more “G-rated” has not made people any holier, it has merely made them indifferent. This is because Faith no longer reflects, and thus no longer speaks to, real life. (And no, I really don’t care what the present Pope is or isn’t doing.)

On a related note: Pre-Vatican II Catholicism exhorted the best and expected the worst. Post-Vatican II Catholicism sets the bar low, calls it holiness, and doesn’t even get there. (Again, I include the so-called “traditionalists” in this category).

On a related, related note: The secret of getting through life is knowing how to live with your own hypocrisy WITHOUT trying to justify it.

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