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Reviews of Madness at the Gates of the City

 

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When was the last time you looked at current events through the lens of Jungian archetypes, or perhaps looked for clues and meaning to history through the lens of mythology? Never? Same here, which is why I found Barry Spector’s Madness at the Gates of the City so fascinating…Mr. Spector is an historian who approaches the field “from the perspectives of myth, indigenous traditions and archetypal psychology” and by doing so attempts to illuminate our current society through Greek mythology revealing our nation’s unhealthy obsession with innocence and its shadows: ignorance, violence and greed. Spector’s argument is that American culture, a descendent of Greek culture, has become so abstracted that the people who live in it find themselves cut off from “authentic” living. The repression of a vast part of human behavior (the feminine, the creative, the uncontrollable, transitions for life stages, social interactions and institutions) has complicated the matter of our existence and perpetuated our shallow worship of both war and greed. Spector diagnoses America with madness, one which can only be treated by an acceptance of guilt. Vastly different from anything I’ve ever read, puzzling and persuasive at the same.

San Francisco Book Review, 11/8/10

 

Although Spector’s book demonstrates a prodigious amount of work and research, it reads like a polemic because it is highly personal and censorious. Essentially, it is an indictment of US society. The long, encyclopedic book’s impressive range of topics add up to what the author argues is the “madness” of American society. Spector holds the Puritans responsible for all ills in the US, railing against them from the formation of America to the present. He denounces US foreign policy in general as one that looks for enemies, negating that so often in US history, beginning with the American Revolution, American armies have been armies of liberation. Many of the serious issues in the US that Spector raises are valid, but presented in their totality amount to a potpourri of condemnations. Actually, Spector is not radical; rather, he is cynical. He describes well and conventionally what happened rather than why it happened, despite his denunciations of corporate America and its Puritan background. Spector argues for reconciliation and national atonement, for this would bring an end “of both Puritanism and its predatory shadow.” In spite of its shortcomings, this work has merits in being informative, and alarming, about the grave current social issues confronting the US. Summing Up: Recommended.

Choice Reviews/Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, 8/2011

 

Through the classics, one can gain an intriguing look at the status of modern America. Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence uses the lens of Greek Mythology to analyze America and its history. From the mythology created in the modern day about the past to the truth of the same past, America has much in common with the ancient Greek mythology that Western culture draws so much from…an excellent read with very much to think about.

Midwest Book Review, 11/1/10

 

Apocalypse-mongering has always been a popular activity in the U.S. We’re a paranoid lot, and it doesn’t take much to spook us into donning sackcloth and ashes and hoisting “The End is Near” signs. Because of this, it’s always prudent to be skeptical of doomsayers. At the same time, though, when you take stock of today’s political climate, it’s hard to think of any other post-Cold War period when a feeling of impending doom – or at least precipitous national decline – was so universal. People across the political spectrum – from tea partiers to centrists to neo-Maoists – all seem to realize that we’ve entered our Late Roman Phase. These are the conditions that produce a book like Barry Spector’s Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence, and the only environment in which anyone would care to read it. 

”Madness” is a difficult book to describe succinctly, mainly because it attempts a task of impossible enormity. Essentially, it’s a 400-page Jungian psychoanalysis of the American mind, an attempt to diagnose the deeply repressed origins of the national psychoses that Spector says are leading us to ruin. In style and in content, the book’s most obvious influences are Howard Zinn and Joseph Campbell. It combines the long litany of American sins found in A People’s History of the United States with the mytho-historical analysis of The Hero with a Thousand Faces to create a text that’s sprawling and ambitious, often frustrating but occasionally revelatory. 

Here’s Spector’s thesis: The American psyche has, for four centuries, been haunted by two demons. He identifies these as the Puritan (or the paranoid) and the Opportunist (or the predatory). The Puritan is our inheritance from European monotheism, and Spector says that the persistence of this archetype has cursed us with a hatred of the body and a terrified obsession with the Dionysan “Other.” The Opportunist is the source of our capitalist killer instinct, and to Spector, its roots in the joint-stock companies of the Southern colonies have grown into the 20th century phenomena of soul-crushing consumerism and rapacious imperial greed. Using Euripides’ The Bacchae as an extended metaphor, Spector warns that American civilization will collapse under the weight of these two malign influences unless it accepts its inner Dionysus and embraces anti-materialism and communal initiation. 

As you can imagine, it’s quite tempting to dismiss all this as new-age hooey. Spector’s reverse-dialectic – where history is driven not by material forces but by incorporeal mythic archetypes – can seem a bit silly, particularly when he’s condemning the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution as destructive departures from a nurturing pagan ethos. He can also be maddeningly reductive, especially when he’s addressing art and pop culture. To Spector, nearly all 20th-century media – from John Ford to Spider-Man – are manifestations of the Puritan / Opportunist archetypes, reflecting American obsessions with redemptive violence and irredeemable Others. This is distasteful on an aesthetic level, since it denies the achievements of modern media, and on a human level, since it grants Americans little agency. To Spector, most of us are cultural robots, piloted by crews of tiny Cotton Mathers and Andrew Carnegies. 

Irritating elements aside, though, you can’t help but be impressed by the scope of Spector’s vision and the consistency of his scholarship. “Grand narratives” of history can be dangerous, but Spector manages to construct one that is both coherent and convincing. Even if you can’t get on board with his romanticized portrayal of pre-Christian traditions, it’s hard to argue with his claim that America is a country built upon myths which have had some seriously dark consequences. Is a reclamation of the Pagan imagination really the key to our national salvation? I’m not convinced, but before reading “Madness”, I would have thought the idea straight-up laughable. Books that can change minds – even a little bit – are a damn rare thing, which is more than enough to make “Madness” worthwhile.

Daily Californian Online, 11/22/10

 

One of the comments most often heard after the 9/11 attacks in the US was that “America has lost its innocence.” In this book, Spector argues that the country never was innocent, and that this myth of innocence helps keep Americans from understanding themselves or acknowledging the underside of the American dream. Drawing on Greek mythology, the author makes a powerful argument for why America does the same self-defeating things over and over, and how confronting the myths that have made America may lead to a better future.

Reference and Research Book News

 

As voices from America’s different political camps vie for supremacy, explanations about why our society contains the imbalances and injustices that it does often rely on unspoken assumptions about the relationship between the self and the state. The far left and far right both participate in the fray, and to many, it seems as though Tea Partiers and their ilk use far more ink and bandwidth than the voices of Amy Goodman or Thomas Friedman. Barry Spector’s first book goes a long way towards redressing that imbalance with a Jungian-based analysis of the perpetual American “myth of innocence.” His starting point is Euripides’ last play, The Bacchae, which concerns the fall of the House of Thebes, and whose king rejects the god of wine, Bacchus/Dionysus, because he represents blurred boundaries, ecstasy, and “matricentric” celebrations of birth, growth, and death. As Spector uses myth to explore how order suppresses disorder and power relies on disempowerment, readers will appreciate how seamlessly the guilt and repressed anxieties of Athens were transferred to the New World even as our Constitution’s framers sought to reproduce its best contributions to American political life. Spector argues that Euripides’ audience of male Athenian citizens knew that “psychological repression was the price they paid for relative stability.” The king in The Bacchae inherits his throne from his grandfather instead of his father, and many Americans now see fatherlessness as an endemic weakness within our society. They are beginning to connect these individual failures to the stunning failures of our (male) leaders to uphold the tenets of democracy. Spector theorizes that boys need initiation ceremonies because they lack the physical proof of adulthood that girls have when they first menstruate. By separating the male initiate from society until his biologically programmed violent tendencies are channeled into an acceptable pathway, ancient goddess-worshipping societies prevented the rape and carnage that now envelop much of the world. Although mythic and therefore idealized, Spector’s argument is persuasive against America’s backdrop of fathering deficits: before boys are emotionally developed enough to become responsible husbands and fathers, their capacity to inflict damage can overtake their “feminine” impulses to nurture and build if they are not appropriately guided. Spector references Freud’s argument that “culture obtains much of its mental energy ‘by subtracting it from sexuality.'” The Puritans denied this “feminized” aspect of themselves and projected it onto the racial “others” they encountered in the “New World.” Using the “demonic” redness of Native American skin, they rationalized their genocidal actions by assuring themselves of their own purity. As an illustration, Spector reminds us of the wildly popular captivity narratives that insisted that “red” men lusted for the pure skin and undefiled bodies of white women. In reality, more than half of the women captured by Native Americans chose to remain with the tribes because more fluid gender roles offered greater validation and satisfaction. However, our country’s myth of innocence omits such records, and perpetual surprise that the natives (in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan) don’t intuitively recognize our benign intent negates historical reality and absolves the national conscience. Recalling the “fathers” who sent a previous generation of mostly “other” sons to war, Spector’s readers will recognize that it simply is not possible to atone for destroying the village in order to save it: “the most dysfunctional among us enact our national myths most clearly.” National guilt for unforgivable crimes leads Spector to deplore how well-timed outbursts of patriotic fervor distract the poor and disempowered from glaring evidence that they are not equal members of the polis. From Hurricane Katrina to Hollywood’s popularization of “wily, shifty, turbaned, bearded” terrorists who “almost invariably” have “dark skin,” Spector has ample evidence with which to support his claims that American equality continues to be a sham and that our government remains intent on enriching itself at the world’s cost. Spector’s rhetoric is a persuasive reminder that there is still no consensus about how to construct a polis comprised of different racial and sexual bodies: “Over the years, the image of the external Other has shifted from the Indians, resting briefly on Mexicans, Spanish, Germans, and Japanese before finding its home among the Communists.” Today, of course, terrorists and illegal immigrants vie for equal space in the darkness of America’s subconscious. As we move towards the seemingly ever-elusive goal of true inclusiveness in the “land of the free,” this book will challenge, motivate, and inspire readers to continue working for the day when it becomes reality.

ForeWord, 12/17/10

 

Barry Spector’s book Madness at the Gates of the City is one of the richest collections of insights and provocations I know of. It’s a book that mines ancient mythology and indigenous customs for paths out of a culture of consumerism, isolation, sexual repression, fear of death, animosity and projection, and disrespect for the young and the old. One of the more disturbing habits of this book is that of identifying in current life the continuation of practices we think of as barbaric, including the sacrificing of children…A major theme of Spector’s book is the lack of a suitable initiation ritual for adolescent men in our culture. He calls us adults the uninitiated. “How,” he asks, can we “transform those raging hormones from anti-social expression into something positive? This cannot be stated too strongly: uninitiated men cause universal suffering. Either they burn with creativity or they burn everything down. This biological issue transcends debates over gender socialization. Although patriarchal conditioning legitimates and perpetuates it, their nature drives young men to violent excess. Rites of passage provide metaphor and symbol so that boys don’t have to act their inner urges out.” Why do we allow a system to continue that discriminates against children? Are we oblivious, distracted, misguided, short-sighted, selfish? Spector suggests that we are in fact carrying on a long history. “There is considerable evidence of the literal killing of both illegitimate children (at least as late as the nineteenth century) and legitimate ones, especially girls, in Europe. As a result, there was a large imbalance of males over females well into the Middle Ages. Physical and sexual abuse was so common that most children born prior to the eighteenth century were what would today be termed ‘battered children.’ However, the medical syndrome itself didn’t arise among doctors until 1962, when regular use of x-rays revealed widespread multiple fractures in the limbs of small children who were too young to complain verbally.” But Spector and experts he cites, and many others, believe that one way to make all varieties of violence, including war, less likely is to raise children lovingly and nonviolently. Such children do not tend to develop the thought patterns of the supporter of war. Do we love our children? Of course we do. But why do less wealthy countries guarantee free education through college, parental leave time, vacation time, retirement, healthcare, etc, while we guarantee only war after war after war? Here’s one basic place we might start. Only three nations have refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They are Sudan, Somalia, and the United States of America, and two of those three are moving forward with ratification. My fellow Americans, WTF?

David Swanson, www.warisacrime.org