The Rolling Stones' Oedipal cannibalism

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards just admitted that he snorted his father's ashes mixed with cocaine. It is the ultimate sign of cultural primitivism --- a knowing throwback to the emotional barbarism of preliterate times. This is the kind of thing early peoples indulged in, according to psychiatric anthropologists. In her novel, The King Must Die, Mary Renault fictionalized the ancient custom of killing and eating the clan fathers, who were the early "kings." 

Sir James Frazer's classic The Golden Bough is much concerned with the widespread Stone Age custom of killing  the father of the clan. The king might be sacrificed when he became weak, as part of a political coup. Or after death, his body might be "snorted" --- eaten and internalized --- to ward off the guilt of his malevolent spirit and to absorb his powers. Or there might be a crisis --- a famine, a lost battle, an internal rebellion ---- and the father of the tribe would have to go --- just as in Parliamentary systems the Prime Minister must resign after a a no-confidence vote, whether he is really responsible or not. Yet cutting off the head of the tribal chief is a fearful thing, and his spirit must also be propitiated. It is an endless cycle of warding off guilt and fear, followed by bloody taboo slaughter, followed by more guilt and fear. Frazer cites numerous examples among tribal peoples.

But of course we do it in our own way today, when we scapegoat and try to destroy leaders like Presidents Nixon and Bush.  In his Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell takes up that theme, which is routinely taught in schools of art and music. That's where professional rock musicians learn it, as a kind of cliche that everybody is supposed to know. 

These days, people with that kind of fixation become violently enraged at  George W. Bush, (and often about their own fathers, who are never forgiven for being fathers). It is the other side of the feminization and juvenilization of our culture. The basic theme hasn't changed much in the last few millenia. It is of course the common thread of Sophocles' Oedipus the King and of Shakespeare's Hamlet and MacBeth.

The whole business of Freud's Oedipus Complex is hugely controversial, but there is no doubt that there is a universal war between the generations in any society, just as there is between the sexes. It is the struggle between authority and rebellion, between crime and punishment, between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.

Both sides of the generational divide feel deep ambivalence about the other, a point that modern epics use deliberately to evoke vague but powerful emotions. George Lucas consciously appealed to those feelings in the Star Wars trilogy. The evil Darth Vader is of course a deliberate pun on "dark father," masked in sinister black, and it should not surprise your amateur mythologist that Darth Vader is ultimately revealed to be Luke Skywalker's father. It's become a formula.  

So we come back to Keith Richards. Rock music is commercialized rebellion. It hasn't evolved semi-consciously, like ancient myths, but is carefully story-boarded by highly-paid experts who have read their Freud and Jung, their Frazer and Campbell. That is why Madonna has made a career of appealing to the "madonna-whore" complex. Her recent "discovery" of Jewish mysticism is just another iteration on becoming the holy mother again, quickly followed by a new provocative sexual stunt. There is no doubt that Madonna and her handlers do this sort of thing with careful deliberation and forethought. It is always a publicity campaign, and it always works. 

The esthetic of rock and drugs is deliberately Oedipal, a kind of violent oppositional fantasy turned into high-decibel, assaultive sounds and sights. It is also the artistic emanation of the political Left, which pursues a lifelong infantile flight from adult responsibility and realism.

Keith Richards is now 63, but he still seeks out shock headlines. Shock sells, and rock is a business.  Mr. Richards is a "cultural icon." Think about what that means, if our fat and prosperous culture ever runs into a real crisis. Infantile regression can be fun, as long as your world is well-protected by responsible adults. But it's a risky strategy for saving Western civilization in a truly dangerous world.

James Lewis blogs at
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