President Mars

Craig Chalquist, MS PhD

Any absolutist attitude is always a religious attitude, and in whatever respect a man becomes absolute, there you see his religion.
-- C. G. Jung

Fanaticism consists of doubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.
-- G. Santayana

It may be that a culture's level of comfort with the realm of story and myth provides an accurate gauge of its honesty with itself. In the U.S. "myth" means either "lie" or "false explanation for something science knows all about"; but the hard science so useful elsewhere has shown itself powerless to depose the contemporary stand-ins for King Erisichthon, hubristic logger of the harvest goddess's sacred groves. For this he was cursed to eat everything in his kingdom, including his family and eventually himself. A more accurate snapshot of what lays the ecosphere open to desecration could scarcely be imagined.

What would happen if we examined the wartime White House through the eye of mythology?

Myths unregarded have a way of coming back to life. In this they react like unheeded psychological symptoms pulsating around unhealed wounds. In our "no child left behind" curriculums students seldom hear about Saturn, authoritarian eater of children; instead, he resurfaces in rote learning, schools that look like prisons, tests that rank students against each other, and entrance exams aptly named SAT. (The SAT was an evolution of early IQ tests promulgated by men openly in favor of eugenically improving the gene pool.) A myth is a story, and story is a statement of interiority, of psyche, of what makes us who we are. At its best the study of mythology seeks to reclaim the ancient role of the Storyteller known in all times and places but displaced by the TV and the computer which squat where the bard once stood.

Myths work as the social and psychic and spiritual repositories of culture. They contain wisdoms and intuitions all mixed up with the driftwood of history, gender, artwork, and politics. A myth is to culture as a dream is to an individual: a symbol-scintillating mirror of the time. When the lessons of history go unlearned, the mirror returns to reflect yet again. As mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out, figures like Oedipus and Beauty and the Beast are not gone or stuck in old mythology books: they stand at some contemporary intersection waiting for the light to change.

Ancient Roman mythology knew all about power plays such as we see in our day. Where George W. Bush and his advisers occupy the stage, the Romans would have seen Mars with his ten-gallon helmet: Mars, the most reckless and impulsive of all old Jupiter's sons. Mars, who pursued battle for its own sake even when it clearly made no sense to. Terrible, tempestuous, inflexible Mars, whose companions were Phobos ("Fear"), Deimos ("Terror"), and their grim sister Eris ("Strife"). From a mythological perspective, this frenzied god and his fearful administrators have returned to life to loose the terrible dogs of war once again.

Early in his career Mars was a rancher of a sorts. Horses were raced in his presence. Known as a protector of cattle, he eventually presided as an image in the Roman Capitol. One of his temples named him Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger). The Greeks knew him as Ares, the restless son of Zeus and Hera. Sometimes he was followed by Enyo, "Horror," destroyer of cities.

It makes mythological sense, then, that Bush Decider would delusionally ignore all prevalent good advice and insist on a troop "surge" in Iraq--"surge" being the operative word in "insurgency." Trust Mars to fight fire with gasoline, or in this case raw petroleum, in order to promote the general warfare. Mars never negotiates and cannot be reasoned with. He would smile at the sight of positions of power grabbed by ecocidal patriots waiting for the world to die, that they might sprout wings from their shoulders (as H.L. Mencken wrote with nervous humor) and "leap into interstellar space with roars of joy."

How could such a destructive story be reborn like this? In the case of Mars all it takes is a combustible mixture of hubris, indifference, bread-and-circuses distractibability, widespread denial ("It could never happen here!"), a bit of enthusiastic flag-waving, and what Samuel Clemens referred to as moral cowardice. All of these, but the last in particular, now afflict those pledged to protect and enliven what remains of democracy's twitchings in our world-consuming plutocracy--as in Pluto, or Hades, no longer needed in the skies above as Earth below overheats into an underworld. (What is a tank but an extraverted SUV whose engine of internal combustion has been mobilized into outward conflagrations?) One spark from "just a goddamned piece of paper" formerly known as the U.S. Constitution and the embers of violence reignite.

Mars even peers forth in Freudian slips such as "weapons of mass destruction." When a hawkish president thanks the troops "who wear the uniform for your sacrifice," the helmet lifts just enough to reveal the rocket's red glare within.

Being dreamlike and metaphoric rather than linear or logical, myths do not tell us what to do and cannot recommend a course of action. But they can hint at where not to go and what not to ignore. Mars was famous throughout the ancient world for slaughtering everyone in his path. To ignore him and persist in cheerful denial was to come under the shadow of his lance. Anyone who wears his armored visage while occupying a position of political power can either be removed from office firmly and peaceably (impeach means "to impede, prevent") or be counted upon to continue living out a resurrected mythology to its fullest and bloodiest self-literalizing extent. Forget the old myths we might for a time, but the old myths never forget us.


© 2007

West of the West