May 23rd, 2005

Dionysus

The Person of a Bead Ho is Sacred to the God

I find it absolutely fascinating that the number of women who flash their breasts in public for beads, or even for less traditional free t-shirts, is larger than at any time in American history, and that the number of such annual events where this is the norm has risen so steadily to almost unbelievable levels, and that the one municipality to try to use the law to crack down on this (Panama City, Florida) has so far lost every court case and was ridiculed in public, and that for the first time in American history not only has the wearing of the mask when engaging in such conduct fallen almost completely into such disuse that hundreds or thousands of women per year cheerfully assume that the right to take digital photographs and post them to the web, or to film the transaction and sell the film online, is taken for granted on both sides. But the reason I find it fascinating is that all of this is happening in the context of rising fundamentalist political power, and at a time when actual sex lives are more and more marked by restraint than ever before. As David Brooks pointed out in an April 17th op-ed in the New York Times entitled "Public Hedonism and Public Restraint," there's this amazing disconnect between overt and continuous sexual display and declining levels of illicit sex.

As a would-be priest of Dionysus, I applaud this disconnect. I think it's a healthy sign for America.

It was one of the first serious Hellenic Reconstructionist pagans, 19th century German philosopher Walter Otto, who coined the maxim, "Dionysus is a god of masks" in his seminal (and almost unreadable) opus, Dionysus: Myth and Cult. This was his way of linking Dionysus' role as god of the theater with festivals of excess such as the Rural Dionysia and the Bacchanal. The way I prefer to present this is to say, "Dionysus is the god of 'this doesn't count.'" Dionysus is the god of "I'm not always like this."

To my taste, the best part of Otto's book is his analysis of Euripides' The Bacchae. Euripides took a fragment of a legend that the cult of Dionysus came into Greece from elsewhere, and fleshed it out by telling the fictional story of how Dionysus first came to Thebes. The women and old men of the town discover they have a powerful urge to follow this new young priest out into the woods, and the respectable men of the community, especially Thebes' puritanical ruler King Pentheus, are having none of it. Pentheus doesn't know what's going to happen when all those women leave their family duties behind and go out into the woods away from male supervision, but whatever it is, he won't have it in his kingdom. So he has Dionysus arrested, thinking him only the priest of the cult and not the God himself. Dionysus consents to being arrested, displays enough miraculous power that it should have given Pentheus pause, and asks him: "Will you oppose this even if it is from a god?" Pentheus says that yes, even if this is the will of a god, he will resist it, because it's not right. What happens next is that all of the women who would have gone off into the woods instead go insane. Some of them, including Pentheus' own wife, murder their own children, and the king himself ends up murdered by the bacchae. So many crimes occur that the gods punish the city by leveling it with an earthquake.

Otto suggested the interpretation that the first bacchanalia came to Thebes because the god knew that these crimes were brewing. That the stresses of living in a puritanical society were slowly and steadily driving people mad. That in particular, if the forcibly cloistered wives weren't given some kind of release from the puritanism of their society, their urge for freedom would seek and find destructive outlets. He says that the social goal of the Rural Dionysia and the Bacchanal is to provide the socially repressed with a harmless outlet for their rebellion, one that takes place far outside the city where there's nothing and no one there to hurt, and in a context where the witnesses won't hold it against them the next day for acting that way.

A couple of years ago, I found a flier for a wet t-shirt contest at a local bar in the parking lot at work, and went on a whim. Afterwards, I went outside for a moment's rest from the loud music, and found one other person out on the patio: an obviously unhappy contestant. She explained to me that when she signed up, it had seemed like a good idea, but now she was having regrets, and not because she didn't win. She was worried what this meant about her, since she was raised to believe that a lady would never do such a thing. What I told her was that a true lady is someone who knows to do the appropriate thing in any situation, and that at a wet t-shirt contest, baring your breasts is the appropriate thing. It doesn't mean that you're the kind of woman who goes around randomly baring her breasts. It means that once in a while, in the appropriate place, at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner, you're the kind of woman who seeks such an opportunity out ... specifically because you're not that kind of person, but this one time or at times like this, you feel a need to be that kind of person and not have the rest of the people in your life hold it against you.

I've heard similar things said about the nudity, and drunkenness, and drugs, and especially the rampant silliness of the Burning Man Festival. Reporters and, more significantly, sociologists and writers who've gone to the Burning Man Festival expected to find it full of hippies and hobos and road dogs, the stoner outcasts of America. Silly people. Hippies and hobos and road dogs can't afford it. The ticket prices are high, the survival camping gear requirements steep, the time investment significant, and for many people there's no point in going if one can't afford to create, and then openly dispose of, hundreds of dollars worth of gift economy or one-time public art installation. Yes, there are scholarships and artist grants, but recipients of such largesse and resourceful road dogs are by no means the majority of the crowd. The majority of the crowd are the investment bankers, and corporate attorneys, and computer programmers of San Francisco and surrounding areas. And as more than one of them has said to more than one writer, those are all very well paid people, very productive members of society, who work insanely long hours under insanely high stress levels. For them, the Burning Man Festival is their bacchanalia, their spring break, their Rural Dionysia -- the exception to the rules that gives them the strength to go back and shoulder their burden again. (I've seen this at other festivals, too, most notably the Starwood Festival.)

And I think that that may be why there are so many young women of the trailing edge of Generation 13 and the leading edge of the Millennial Generation who are completely unafraid to go to specifically defined places and times and while there engage in symbolic acts of prostitution, to "show (their) body" (the traditional Japanese euphemism for prostitution, I'm told) in exchange for a 39¢ strand of plastic beads, and perhaps to do or show more for a $10 strand of elaborate beads or an $8 screen-printed tank top. Those are prices your average crack whore would disdain, but they don't find it shameful and the men who throw them those beads and those shirts don't treat them like crack whores or worse. Why? Because they want to enjoy the raw power of being a paid cock-tease. And more importantly, they feel it's safe and appropriate to do so because both sides of the transaction, and an increasingly large portion of society, have agreed that flashing for beads at Mardi Gras or Lake Havasu spring break or Tampa's Gasparilla festival, or running naked through the Ann Arbor streets for a solid mile stark naked to celebrate impending graduation, or walking around the streets of Key West in broad daylight on Halloween wearing only body paint above the waist, doesn't make them "that kind of person" and won't be held against them for the rest of their lives.

The Dionysian in me would be happier if these designated places and times had kept the tradition of the mask, at least the domino, but then, I'm old-fashioned that way.