TO PUT the matter grandly, I would say that a major dislocation of our times is that callous new forms of thinking have been forced upon our fragile, old-fashioned sentiments. As a people, we sound a little desperate trying to reconcile this conflict.
Some people think in bumper stickers. Their whole being is reduced to snappy mass-produced emblems, pasted on their cars, the way Indian braves used to wear identifying feathers. Tribal questions are asked of other motorists. Did you hug your kid today? Have you thanked a tree? Do you brake for Iranians? Would you brake for Jesus?
Others of us think in television cues. We actually talk to one another in the patter of TV commercials. Back to you, Walter. Film at 11. Here's Johnny. Here's Dandy and Howard. Here's Sam Donaldson, our Jeremiah on the White House lawn, with feathers on his smug mouth.
Many children think in electronic sounds, in computer animation or rock 'n roll lyrics, while many parents think nostalgically of obsolete bromides they learned as children. The Father said: A penny saved is a penny earned. Skill at pool is the sign of a misspent youth. Don't tread on me. The Mother said: Consider the lily, it toils not, neither does it spin, etcetera, etcetera.
Hopeless cases think in digits, the language of the future, utterly alienated from the poetry of their past.
Sometimes, I think in headlines. This is not congenial to complicated thoughts, but newspaper work is habit-forming. I cannot alter these chemical reflexes that now and then bark out a snappy headline in my mind any more than I can turn off Sam Donaldson.
Here is my headline for today:
Ghost Dancing in the Melting Pot!
This headline recurs, from time to time, when I observe strange behavior and social tumult. I see something peculiar or read about it and my mind responds with that headline: Ghost Dancing in the Melting Pot.
Everyone knows about the Melting Pot. That's us, the great American stew, stirred by the invisible hand, ever seasoned by new ingredients. On some days, it feels like the Melting Pot has been placed in one of those radar ovens which cook instantly. No fuss, no mess. We all read the same bumper stickers, know the same two-digit jokes. We all must watch Sam Donaldson for our daily gloom. The more we feel homogenized by these media, the more we yearn for something distinctive in ourselves.
Ghost Dancing I borrowed from the Sioux. With the usual apologies for ripping off their poignant history in order to make a pop metaphor. This is an old American tradition and the redskins are used to it.
Ghost Dancing was a short-lived religious fervor among the Sioux in the 1890s when the Dakota tribes were surrounded and doomed by the encroaching new culture. Railroad trains and repeating rifles. Any sensible Indian would have counted the odds and cashed in with the U.S. Cavalry. Instead, the Sioux bands lunged backward, toward revival and resistance, listening to the purifying chants of "ghost dancing" prophets. This new faith was meant to restore all of the lost ancestors, all of the lost land, even the buffalo herds. The magical "ghost dancing" shirts would repel the white man's bullets and the dreaded blue jackets would all perish.
Ghost dancing lost its magic at the Wounded Knee massacre. Faith is powerful and real, the longing for restoration, but it doesn't stop bullets any more than it halts the rush of unsettling news from the media. The cultural anthropologists would observe that "ghost dancing" was a synthetic gesture -- not truly the old Sioux religion, but a new one created to cope with that terrible time of engulfing change. This is a well-known occurence in embattled cultures which the anthropologists call "revivalism."
I call it "ghost dancing" and I see a lot of ghost dancing going on in the melting pot. Some of it seems bizarre and pathetic; some of it sounds brittle and ludicrous. Like those cute bumper stickers. The sentiment is real but the mode of expression seems brittle and desperate.
I am thinking, obviously, of the peculiar religious cults which hold some young people and some old people in thrall. I am thinking of the weird transcendental therapies which flourish among us, translating Thoreau into hot tubs or equating the pain of jogging with religious ecstasy.
But "ghost dancing" is a much broader revival among Americans, one which generates great political energy in conflicting causes. I see it in the ethnic revival sentiments and in the new consciousness of black people. I see it expressed in the moral fevor of the anti-abortion movement and the puritanism of the environmentalists and the consumer crusades for safety and health. Or in the obsessional campaigns against homosexuals. Or in the corroded romanticism of rock 'n roll.
Each, in its way, represents a lunge back toward a simpler and more certain past, a restoration of purity in this messy world. Each of these, in its way, represents a synthetic fervor, created to confront the dizzy future that is already upon us. We will fend off the media gloom by turning up the amplifiers of the electric guitars. We will banish cancer by eating brown rice and living pure and simple in our four-wheel-drive vehicles. We will restore the Bible to its rightful, sacred place by scourging the schools and government of those awful people who call themselves gay.
It sounds loony, much of it. Actually, it sounds often like "Saturday Night Live" parody. Nobody takes the Moonies seriously except Moon children. Nobody listens to Anita Bryant or Ralph Nader except their own flocks. This is the hallmark of messianic religious movements: They promise deliverance for their followers even as they sound ridiculous to everyone else.
Deliverance from what? This is my main point: American "ghost dancing" in its many contradictory forms is united by a common melancholy. A romantic longing for something lost. O Lost, say the electric guitars. Deliver us from melancholy. Make us feel at home in our present lives. Make us feel strong and useful in the face of cancer and sin and Sam Donaldson.
Someday, when the essential absurdities of our prosperous age are sorted out and defined, I expect this will be one of the central paradoxes. In a time of general good health and extraorinary abundance, Americans were united, without knowing it, by an odd sort of subliminal melancholy. When most Americans struggled to find meaningful leisure and worthy visions of apocalypse, we put bumper stickers on our cars which proclaimed our innermost feelings: O Lost.
I think it will seem quaint to those digital poets of the future. I think they will be amused and unsympathetic. And they will likely regard as most strange this age which sought constantly to find political remedies when the public grieving was really religious.
Are we wrong in our melancholy? Not wrong, but surely, by any objective standard, we are less endangered than we pretend to be. The past may seem more certain and secure, but it was also more confining. The Sioux really were surrounded, their way of life was truly doomed. Our lives -- most of us, anyway -- are healthier, freer, possessed of more choices than our lost ancestors could ever have imagined.
Indeed, we are so different that our lost ancestors would hardly recognize us as their own. Perhaps, that is why Americans feel the real need to do a little ghost dancing.