Imagine you and a myriad of others are in Tenochtitlan in front of the great pyramid. The Aztec Empire is at its height, and in the latest conquest the army has returned with thousands of captives. One by one the captured prisoners are being sacrificed to the god of war Huitzilopochtli and the goddess of drought or other such similar deities. You are resplendent, wearing many feathers, and for some reason you notice that there are hummingbirds all around the city today. They dart in and out of the scene like a swarm of bees and somewhere the brightly-colored vultures are waiting in the trees around the city. The first sacrifice is in progress. The stone knife has cut through the chest of the conquered warrior, and the priest has pulled his heart out and shown it to everyone and the body is thrown down the magnificent 13-story steps. The body is gathered, the limbs chopped off, and then cooked for consumption by the aristocrats. You, an Aztec, do not domesticate animals to eat, but you will hunt down another man to offer his heart to the gods and you will eat his flesh. You are in ecstasy. You have imagined the most horrible things and you have risked everything to get what you want. Your enemies think that you are an insufferable monster. You and your people are as invincible and as immortal as nature herself. You scream in joy as you have thousands of times before. You always scream in joy, while the god greedily eats the victim’s heart.
We must imagine that when Dionysos enters into the city, he is as out of place as a hippie suddenly entering into a circle of advertising Mad Men from the early 1960s, oily hair or crew cuts, with their suits, ties, and hats, cigarettes, liquor glasses, and burning lust for every woman around. Dionysos demands recognition, but one brash young man, certainly a late-teen, rational, all-knowing as the young are, refuses. It doesn’t matter, for Dionysos is going to take this young man and unman him. He sets his spell, and Dionysos transforms all the women in the city into his Maenads. These bacchantes go into the woods and there they do things that are completely alien to the young man. These women in delirium know no sorrows as they dance and cuddle with animals. Like any of the Mad Men, the young man, Pentheus, believes that it is all about sex out there, but there is no sex out there. There is something else in this frenzy. Of course, the curiosity of Pentheus is too much, and when the god Dionysos offers him a look Pentheus cannot help himself. But to see them, Pentheus must dress as a woman, and it is inevitable. There, in the wood, away from the city where the frenzies take place, there where the women cry evoé! evoé! evoé! ,Pentheus is found by his mother Agave and in her frenzy she rips her son’s head off. This killing is done without desire.
One defeats pity, and one feels alive in doing so, excessively so. The wine of it makes one heady with wakefulness. The Mad Men also know that to drink is great in spirit, but it is never sublime. That sublime one gets from the Dionysos, the Dionysos one cannot identify by speaking his name.
The Indian gods are sublimely excessive, many arms, many legs, many heads. Shiva, the greatest at meditation, at tapas, the heat, also destroys. Shiva’s first wife was Sati, she-who-is, the very concreteness of what we call reality. It was a stormy marriage. Finally, one day Sati was going to her father’s house. Following her was a cloud of birds, garlands, chariots, fans, sunshades, and so on. As she silently crossed the place of sacrifice of her father’s house, a swarm of women, including her mother, flocked around her. For she had been away so long with Shiva that they never thought they would see Sati again. Virini offered her the place of honor. The offerings for the gods were placed side by side, but the one to Shiva was missing. Sati decided to walk over to her father, Daksa, and, for the first time, he interrupted the ceremony. He may have been expecting her.
She whispered to her father: “You and only you may dare to be the censor of that which is. Thus do you condemn me, whom once you called Sati, ‘she-who-is.’ You and only you may list the offenses of he of whom the world is but a breath. You chase off the fullness like some disreputable vagabond. You believe the world is made up your rites. You believe these motions contain the whole. You have excluded wholeness from your invitation list. You offer sacrifice to all, but not to sacrifice itself. The flowers of your rituals are rain falling from Shiva’s feet. When the blue-necked god dallies with me and calls me ‘Daksa’s daughter,’ I am ashamed. For this body of mine is the juice of yours, and all I can do is to expel it, throw it up like vile food. You cannot live without performing sacrifice, but I am the sacrifice.”
She was asked where he would find her again, and she replied that he would be able to find her everywhere and every place at every time. Sati sat down on the altar, and started her tapas, her meditation, and as she did, she burned into a statue of ash. Suddenly, the Ganas, Shiva’s soldiers, invaded, and as they did they killed and destroyed everything and everyone at the sacrifice. Since then, the world seems so much less real and less clear as the ashes of Sati have been blown about the world.
In a remarkable book, The Abyss Above Philosophy and Poetic Madness in Plato, Holderlin, and Nietzsche, by Silke-Maria Weineck, she considers the case of Cassandra, the prophetess who promised Apollo her body if she were given the gift of foresight. She reneged on the body, but the gift had been given and could not be taken back. Thus, Apollo punished her by making sure that no one would believe her prophesies, and she saw it all, the fall of Troy to her last steps into Agamemnon’s house. She was considered mad, because when she prophesied no one believed her. Weinck writes: “I have always thought of Apollo’s revenge as the cruelest of punishments, and of Cassandra’s story as the most profound tale of supreme madness. Supreme madness…denotes any form of madness that generates a knowledge that is not given to those who are not mad, a knowledge, moreover, that—like prophecy—can be neither verified not refuted by the rational operations of the same mind, which must disregard it or accept it on faith.” Weinck works out the implications of this statement rather well, and she is worth reading.
Most of us like to believe that all this frenzy, this madness, lives in a separate and dark world apart from us. This political separation from the most excessive part of our nature just as much renounces the good as it does the bad. It thinks that there are divine limits, but the truth is that the divine limit is most encouraging in certain ways to make one totally excessive, immoderate to the point of frenzy and supreme madness.