Strange oaths

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles
and by the hinds of the fields

— Song of Songs 2:7

By the fig and the olive,
and by Mount Sinai,
and by this secure city

— Qur’an 95:1-3

What’s up with this? Are the authors just swearing to emphasize/enshrine these particular mundane images, or is swearing by such things a classical Near Eastern convention? Curious to know if there are similar examples out there (Hebrew, Islamic, Hurrian, Hittite, or otherwise…)

Nihilism, serotonin, and sacrament

Only in 2017 could a conservative mag run a thoughtful Burning Man decompression essay—that it’s The American Conservative is no surprise.

Robert Mariani’s lead claim—Burning Man staves off nihilism, if only temporarily—is a biting jab that happy-go-lucky San Franciscans would do well to take. He highlights all the usual pros and cons of the Burn with an older, conservative audience in mind—and in a few cases does it quite tenderly.

But to the point of how effective Burning Man is at staving off nihilism, he misses one huge factor.

While you’d think the high churchies at TAC (I say this affectionately) would be the first to acknowledge the power of sacrament, Mariani completely leaves the Playa’s serotonergic host out of his account. This is like talking about The Beatles without mentioning that their entire post-1964 oeuvre was directly shaped by psychedelic molecules. Which serious people do all the time.

Ritual, community, aesthetics, and alcoholic drink all have the bittersweet effect of staving off nihilism until they leave the bloodstream—moving the needle incrementally, at best. Psychedelics are a different story. Not a panacea, but a reliable, indelible means of getting enchanted. Of allowing meaning itself to get up in your face.

Psychedelics (and their cousins, empathogen/entactogens) are the sacrament that animates much of Burning Man’s post-post-modern, transparently “made-up” ritual and spirituality.

Except that unlike wafers and sweet wine, psychedelics are neurochemically guaranteed to get you somewhere. Where you take it from there is largely up to you.

This is not to say I’ve found the cure for secular, post-postmodern nihilism. But I’m less pessimistic than Mariani.

The work of restoring meaning and duende for this age—in the form of what David Chapman calls “the fluid mode“—starts on the level of the brain’s serotonin system, something everyone has. By some crazy grace, we have the tools to probe it.

America, Israel, and the curse of “special providence”

At The Atlantic, a nice, if occasionally pat survey of how the collision of America’s propensity for fantasy with postmodernism led to our (explicitly) post-truth present.

At Ha’aretz, and straight from Bibi Netanyahu’s mouth, a reminder that Israel, for somewhat different reasons, has reached the same place (before November 8, 2016, I was convinced that Israel had it much worse, actually).

As Netanyahu pivots from Cruzism to self-conscious Trumpism, one important difference in the left-baiting, media-baiting rhetoric is clear.

It’s in Trump’s interest to paint the recent past in apocalyptic colors—with the black devil with the funny name hard at work for the last eight years, how can you expect Dear Leader to undo it all in one day?

Whereas Bibi’s line—those leftists are all doom-and-gloom, but where’s the doom and gloom?—has been the Israeli right’s hobby-horse ever since the start-up nation dodged recession and intifada, against all odds. In the cynical logic of grandmaster Bibi, this means that all you need is to believe him, and the ax will never fall.

It’s a strange thing to have roots in, and to love, the 2 countries whose belief in a special providence is driving them off a cliff. Neither Trump nor Netanyahu—both consummate cynics—is a theist. But their power bases are full of true believers who really do think that God will deliver in a pinch for America and Israel, no matter how deep a hole they’ve dug for themselves.

Perhaps this is why inequality and the collapse of social cohesion—careening toward emergency levels in both countries—are nowhere to be found on the agenda. With God mounted on the wall in a glass cabinet, figuring out the nature of the crisis just doesn’t matter much.