Book Review: Madness at the Gates of the City

Regent Press/Courtesy

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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.

Zachary Ritter is the lead literature critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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