This week, Macy’s in New York began a series of what it describes as several ‘unannounced’ Fourth of July firework displays. To counteract the infection risk of pre-announced fireworks drawing mass crowds, the department store wasn’t running its usual huge fireworks display but something more like a series of flash mobs.
This led one wag to remark on Twitter that ‘this isn’t fireworks, it’s high-level mortar fire’. Doubtless Macy’s will do everything possible to ensure the fireworks take place without injuring anyone, but the story left me with a sense of a boundaries collapsing, between fun and something darker, that feels important in what Ed West last week called the ‘age of unreality’.
Concurrent with Macy’s flash-mob fireworks, the Bronx is conducting its own user-generated pyrotechnic displays. Fireworks have recently been let off so loudly and frequently that conspiracy theories are emerging about how it’s a government psyop. Meanwhile, disturbing footage emerged in Baltimore showing young men shooting fireworks into a car to flush out the man hiding inside it, who was then pelted at short range with Roman candles.
There’s been much discussion in recent weeks of the political demands emerging from worldwide protests. Less has been said, though, about their primal wildness: the sense that, politics and justice aside, some of the chaos is happening because smashing things is fun.
In Euripedes’ play The Bacchae, written in 405 BC, the Theban king Pentheus is visited by Dionysus, the god of drunkenness, insanity, and desire. Because Pentheus has denied the divinity of Dionysus, in punishment the god drives all the women of the city mad. The king attempts to have the god executed, so in retaliation Dionysus first razes the palace, and then finally tempts Pentheus to disguise himself as a woman and join the throng of Bacchae — Dionysus-worshippers — celebrating his rites in the mountain. Dionysus then causes the Bacchae to turn on Pentheus, who tear him to pieces. His own mother returns to Thebes triumphantly bearing his bloody, severed head.
We’re watching something analogous take place in real time in our public square this summer. The line between entertainment, politics and violence no longer seems clear-cut, as rioters bring sound systems, raves turn violent, and both merge seamlessly under the banner of political protest. In this sobering video, a Somali-American from Minneapolis describes fearing for his children’s lives as they faced several thousand chaos-maddened rioters ‘there was no way of controlling’. The destruction, he reports, died down every day and began again at sunset. It’s hard not to see something Dionysiac in the rioting: an exuberance that’s impossible to separate from the horror, suffering and destruction that comes with it.
The irony is that this primal wildness is emerging at the heart of the progressive project, the core of which is that human nature is infinitely amenable to improvement by the application of reason. The idea that madness, violence, chaos and brutality can be eliminated from the world by reorganising society along rational lines is central to the contemporary call to ‘defund the police’ in favour of better social support and therapeutic mechanisms.
The Ancient Greeks understood, though, that this amounts to denying the divinity of Dionysus. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the pursuit of rational heaven on earth is ground zero for the re-emergence of everything repressed by the forces of reason.