The Death of a Myth and Birth of the Lie
And I don't know where I am now
Or where I'm gonna go
I just keep going round and round on the circle line
Like some demented kinda commuter
Trying to avoid paying for my ticket
I'm a lost soul
I read about myself in the newspapers
I'm a pig
I'm a thug
I've got nowhere to go but down
From "English Boy"
Hunter Thompson once wrote that the "myth of the road" was dead – the belief
someone could hit the pavement in search of themselves, the American Dream,
wisdom, adventure, pure and wild and high insanity. God. Yes, even the Beat
Writers, the people most closely associated in contemporary times with the
myth, have passed on into that mystery where the road runs in one direction,
namely Away From Here. Names like Kerouac, Ginsburg, Burroughs no longer have
earthly addresses; and, besides that, they wouldn’t be getting much mail these
We are far too moral for the folks who tried to walk the path of myth – it’s a
crooked path that leads through the flesh tearing thorns of life, it leads
unto temptations, it baptizes in filth and degradation and misery; in the end,
it sets one firmly and face to face with the Devil who, it just so happens,
looks just like oneself.
The path is narrow enough, hellish enough, but we all know about the "crooked
way" and them that follow it – it is the way of sin, the way of craziness, and
to walk it a person has to step out of line and follow the motive that killed
the cat: curiosity.
Curiosity is not the commodity of the day. We spend a nice sum of money each
year, evidently, for the public school system to wring curiosity right out of
a child. Yes, there are teachers resisting this who still insist on
encouraging such quaint "virtues" as curiosity, but we are replacing them with
computers and standardized tests; very soon, a child will never even have to
know how to ask a question – she will just memorize the answers. And for that
a teacher is a superfluity.
Curiosity is a poison – it leads to doubt; it leads to a search; it leads to
experimentation; it leads to experience. Yes, it could lead to
self-destruction; but it can also lead to that strange state of being called
"heroism" in which the afflicted manages to stand out from the crowd and
radiate an example that will only anger and depress those without the desire
A person without curiosity and without need for adventures or appreciation for
adventurers is someone who lacks a direction of his own. Such people lack even
the capacity to imagine a direction other than the one they are provided and
can hardly even imagine that they’re being given directions – or if it
does occur to them to notice, they either accept it as inevitable and
unavoidable, "the way things have always been," or, accepting it, they
fantasize, one day, they will be the one to hand out orders.
And the people who hand out directions hand out the directions that have
always been handed out; they do not question the rightness of the rules, their
justice; whether they might be improved or not – that would require curiosity,
audacity, imagination, artistic ability, genuine experience, and the last
thing we want are these terrible things infecting our citizens.
All directions by authorities are moral by definition. In our age, rules are
moral, all of them, even if they are inconsistent. "Give an honest day’s work
for an honest day’s pay" we tell the worker. "The sole object of business is
to make money and workers are the highest expense – minimize labor’s pay if
you want to maximize profits" – that’s the one we tell management. Of course,
this situation gives birth to a lie: we’re all in this together, workers and
managers, and everyone is financially getting what they deserve.
But it’s OK, we’re all comfortable with this because we’ve had the curiosity
pressed out of us; to question the situation would mean stepping out of line
and up a crooked trail that leads only to immoral questions, family trouble,
black marks on your permanent record, discontent with what one has been
blessed to receive, pessimism, the advent of Armageddon – in short, sin.
It will also lead to unemployment and unemployability. You don’t play by the
rules (surprise, surprise, surprise), you don’t benefit from the system that
the rules exist to support.
But that’s an example of a fairly minor lie. Our society seems held together
by more than one, by more than one set of entirely inconsistent pair of rules
– which are moral, too, remember. "You must trust your leaders, they will
always do the right thing" versus "You’re in power now, and if doing the wrong
thing gets the job done, feel free to go at it that way." "Quality is our goal
in all things" versus "Mass production is our way." "Everyone has a right to
life" versus "No one has a right to insurance, food, shelter, clothing, or an
education and a job." "Love thy neighbor as thyself" versus "If you think real
hard you can come up with all sorts of reasons why people you don’t like
aren’t your neighbor."
And so on.
To follow the mythic route means begging for trouble. But it also means
suppressing any real fear of trouble that might gnaw at your soul, waking or
sleeping. Why? The poison is in you and is causing you to look around and see
that the rules might make no sense and those enforcing them may not really
know what they are doing. "Normalcy" may look as false and badly rigged as a
game of Three Card Monte run by a sloppy con artist with ten felony
convictions; he walks around with a ratty folder bearing his court records and
proudly shows them off if you ask. A person who develops such cynicism needs
to be caught and reeducated before they flee, looking for Something Better.
Yet, many take to the road anyway – or, at least, they used to. Our morality
has put a high, barbed wire fence around the entrance; we have guards in
machine gun nests; we have roaming rabid boars, wild-eyed and mad for flesh;
we have minefields to disengage legs from bodies.
Mainly, we don’t encourage people to read beyond the level of grasping the
alphabet, skimming a newspaper, and sitting in slack-jawed awe in front of a
contract. We absolutely don’t educate our people to look at art or try to
understand it beyond memorizing the Right Answer, which is: "If I like it,
it’s good; if I don’t, it’s not." American Idol and Fear Factor
are about as close as most Americans voluntarily get to art.
Philosophy? Forget it. Religion is enough, especially the kind where you say
the magic formulae and don’t have to take a lot of personal responsibility for
what you believe. Say what "God Says"; then anyone who disagrees with what you
say can be accused of disagreeing with God, not you.
Consequently, most never see or try to understand the historical record of
those terrible hellions who went on the road, physically or spiritually. They
got tired of riding the train on its polished circular steel rail of rules,
hopped off, and decided the dangerous trail into the unknown darkness was
better than the well-lit, well-known, sleep inducing stations society had
planned for them to visit repeatedly.
For most of these people, this was caused by an intense crisis of some sort
and the choice to step out of line was followed by more turmoil. For many,
their lives became tumultuous for reasons our 21st century moral
perfection frowns upon – yes, there was drug use and abuse and problems with
"sanity" for many and the writings of someone like a Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
a Lord Byron, a Thomas Wolfe, a William S. Burroughs, a Charles Bukowski, a
Hunter S. Thompson cannot be fully appreciated without making truce with these
aspects of their existence.
But the first lesson to be learned on the outlaw trail is that one must
develop the skill of tolerance if one is to see the value of and learn from
those who went before. Everyone who even associates with outlaws has already
committed grave sin, has at least one foot off the train pointed away from the
monotonous circle toward change and questions and wonder and doubt; you
already don’t fit in with most people and The Master Plan Which Has No Need
For Your Input with which most are comfortable. You may as well be
tolerant – you’ve no reason to feel superior to anyone else who stepped out of
line before you.
But not everyone on the road is or was guilty of the sin of extreme drink and
drug. Albert Camus, existentialist and atheist, was an existentialist and
atheist because he loved the True and the Good while the "believers" of his
time and place demonstrated they valued safety, lies, and injustice. William
Faulkner was about as far up the outcast trail as a person could be, guilty of
lacking the racial prejudices of his community and bearing witness to the
struggle of being a human. Kathe Kollwitz was guilty of hating war and loving
the lives of children and the poor. The last sane act of Friederich Nietzsche,
for all his talk of the coming of the Overman and destruction of Christian
"slave morality," was to stop a man from mercilessly beating a horse in the
streets of Turin.
The mark of the outlaw can be found in all periods of history, at all levels
where people went their own way and usually paid the price one way or another.
So controversial were they, that the Bishop of Paris, banned the study of St.
Thomas Aquinas’ works not long after Thomas’ death. As Umberto Eco once said,
the Catholic Church, naming St. Thomas their official philosopher, was a
little like a town naming its biggest arsonist fire chief.
St. Augustine, wrestling with the flesh and with the meaning of the Christ
literally divorced himself from the world. The world, for him, only had
meaning inasmuch as it revealed something of the Word and pointed away from
itself to the Word.
The Epistle of St. James is a document that draws a sharp line between
what is demanded of a follower of "The Way" and "the world," and what is
expected is not "normal,"
And, for the Christian, the archetypal outlaw is not Satan, but God deciding
to do things no one would have expected, not playing by the rules: God the Son
becomes a man, gives the example Himself of how to live The Law (which society
always eventually replaces with following "rules" – rules are easier to
memorize). He repeats and demonstrates the lessons of the great Jewish sages
accenting the necessity of love in all things, and then, in payment for His
troubles, allows Himself to be murdered in obedience to God the Father – to
leave the final lesson, that one must serve the Good despite the consequences,
whether there is any "positive payoff" or not, whether it leads to a life of
ease or one of misery.
Not the idea most have of "salvation," but the one the Outlaw God seems to
have left for us to ponder. To be freed from the real life of sin,
which is a life lived unconsciously, as irrationally as a sleepwalker or a
blacked out drunk – to be freed from that Hell and to choose to fully live as
humans, we must awaken to our vocation to live authentically, rationally, with
a sincere love. And love, for the ancients, was a strange thing – Plato called
it a "divine madness." One in love appears insane to those whose hearts are
"Intellectum valde ama," said St. Augustine: "Love the intellect
intensely." At the core of our soul, in the tiny spark of our intellect we
will find a reflection of the Divine Fire if we look, if we turn away from the
brightly-lit world and go into the darkness where a small, live coal shines
best and shows the way.
Yes, there have been many outside Christianity who followed the same trail or
who, in fact, blazed it, each in their own unique way. My mind ranges from
Socrates and the Stoics to the Prophets, back to Abraham and the sages of the
East such as Zoroaster, and the great saints of the Far East and the
But we don’t like the crooked road and the dark unknown and the dis-ease that
inevitably results when we do something unpopular and dangerous that may even
make us poor, ruin our credit, or get us killed – or cause us to spend
inordinate amounts of time worrying about the meaning and rightness of things
no one cares about. But that’s OK. That’s why we have rules and regularity and
that’s why the train runs on time here. That’s why there are four angels with
flaming swords standing at the entrance to the road – to seal off that myth
there’s a better state of being we should seek out. No need for us to
worry. It’s not as if we’re going anywhere we aren’t supposed to go.