Ecstasy and Revolution
By Sean Donahue
“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” — Che Guevara
The first of May felt like summer here on the island.
Emerging from the forest, I found myself at the edge of a hidden lake that bears the same name as the lake where my ancestors lived — given that name by colonizers here from the very same culture that had colonized that other island that also once had forests fertilized by salmon bears dragged from rivers and streams. The same forest and the same lake where I had lost my athame exactly a year earlier.
I stopped to admire and caress the strong, smooth, supple, curving trunk of an Arbutus, and soak in the sun shining on the tree’s body and mine.
Then I dove into the cold waters of the lake as an Eagle flew just a few feet above my head.
The land and the forest and the water and the sky had become my lovers.
Beltane had arrived.
I arrived home to the news that Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby had filled charges of murder, manslaughter, assault, and false imprisonment against the police who killed Freddie Gray.
Speaking to the people who rose up and took to the streets to demand justice in an uprising that brought the world’s attention to the brutal repression Baltimore’s police force has been visiting on the Black community for decades, Mosby said “I heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace.'”
Many modern Pagans speak of Beltane as a fertility festival, but to me Beltane’s erotic charge is about ecstasy, rather than fertility. The distinction is at the core of my praxis — the tradition I am initiated into is an ecstatic tradition, and the experience of the erotic as ecstatic is the root of the magic I work with.
Concepts that identify the erotic drive with fertility link sex to reproduction, and with the rise of capitalism, reproduction became inextricably linked with production, as women’s bodies became the source of the “resource” of labor. They also reinforce, and are one of the reasons for the enforcement of essentialist notions around sex, gender, and sexuality. The US Supreme Court is currently debating whether the state has enough of a compelling interest in furthering reproduction to justify the legal privileging of monogamous heterosexual marriage.
Ecstasy can give rise to fertility or make love to fertility but is not bound to it, or to anything, for that matter, ecstasy by nature and definition is unbound and unrestrained, and serves to liberate eros — the drive for life. Ecstasy can be experienced by two or three or many of any sexes or genders, and can even arise in solitude (as it does in the Feri creation story, where the universe is born of the orgasm of God Hirself when ze falls in love and lust with hir own reflection.)
Because it unbinds us, ecstasy is also a force of liberation. It liberates eros from the bonds of production and reproduction. In doing so it threatens the political and economic order.
The Marxist psychoanalyst and philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, wrote:
Sigmund Freud’s proposition that civilization is based on the permanent subjugation of the human instincts has been taken for granted. His question whether the suffering thereby inflicted upon individuals has been worth the benefits of culture has not been taken too seriously — the less so since Freud himself considered the process to be inevitable and irreversible. Free gratification of man’s instinctual needs is incompatible with civilized society: renunciation and delay in satisfaction are the prerequisites of progress.
“Happiness,” said Freud, “is no cultural value.” Happiness must be subordinated to the discipline of work as fulltime occupation, to the discipline of monogamic reproduction, to the established system of law and order. The methodical sacrifice of libido, its rigidly enforced deflection to socially useful activities and expressions, is culture.
The sacrifice has paid off well: in the technically advanced areas of civilization, the conquest of nature is practically complete, and more needs of a greater number of people are fulfilled than ever before. Neither the mechanization and standardization of life, nor the mental impoverishment, nor the growing destructiveness of present-day progress provides sufficient ground for questioning the “principle” which has governed the progress of Western civilization. The continual increase of productivity makes constantly more realistic the promise of an even better life for all.
However, intensified progress seems to be bound up with intensified unfreedom. Throughout the world of industrial civilization, the domination of man by man is growing in scope and efficiency. Nor does this trend appear as an incidental, transitory regression on the road to progress. Concentration camps, mass exterminations, world wars, and atom bombs are no “relapse into barbarism,” but the unrepressed implementation of the achievements of modern science, technology, and domination. And the most effective subjugation and destruction of man by man takes place at the height of civilization, when the material and intellectual attainments of mankind seem to allow the creation of a truly free world.
Part of the subversive nature of eros, is the way in which it bridges and heals the alienation that are at the root of capitalist subjugation of freedom and desire. In order to get us to sell our bodies’ labor, capitalism requires the Cartesian mind-body split that allows us see our physical form as merely a vehicle for doing work that generates value. In order to get us to sell and exploit the land, capitalism requires us to forget our connection to the living world.
Even in its solitary forms, ecstasy opens into connection with all things as it dissolves the boundaries of our experience of ourselves (just as death does, Beltane is the festival of le petit mort as the ultimate expression of eros, and Samhain is the festival of le grand mort as the ultimate expression of thanatos.) As Mormon mystic and eco-feminist, Terry Tempest Williams, says:
[Erotic] means ‘in relation.’ Erotic is what those deep relations are and can be that engage the whole body – our heart, our mind, our spirit, our flesh. It is that moment of being exquisitely present.
That quality of exquisite presence dissolves social categories and brings a radical identification with life. This is what underlies the unity Marcuse saw between counter-cultural attempts to break free from the forms of repression capitalism inflicts even on those who economically benefit from it and more politically and economically based liberation movements — both reflected a refusal to accept as inevitable conditions that robbed life of meaning and pleasure and a boisterous assertion of the drive to live and the right to live free of repression. Marcuse wrote:
Revolt against the false fathers, teachers, and heroes, solidarity with the wretched of the earth: is there any “organic” connection between the two facets of the protest? There seems to be an all but instinctual solidarity. The revolt at home against home seems largely impulsive, its targets hard to define: nausea caused by “the way of life,” revolt as a matter of physical and mental hygiene. The body against “the machine” — not against the mechanism constructed to make life safer and milder, to attenuate the cruelty of nature, but against the machine which has taken over the mechanism: the political machine, the corporate machine, the cultural and educational machine which has welded blessing and curse into one rational whole. The whole has become too big, its cohesion too strong, its functioning too efficient — does the power of the negative concentrate in still partly unconquered, primitive, elemental forces? The body against the machine: men, women, and children fighting, with the most primitive tools, the most brutal and destructive machine of all times and keeping it in check [ . . .]
That kind of revolt arises only when we viscerally feel connected with those we would liberate and defend. The uprising in Baltimore happened because people loved Black men too much to stand by while the police continued to cut them down. The Stonewall insurrection occurred because Queer people loved themselves and each other too much to tolerate violence against their community. Tree sits and logging road blockades happen because people are in love with the forest. While not inherently sexual, every one of these loves is an expression of eros in its truest sense as the affinity for and drive to protect and free life itself.
Beltane, for me, is the celebration of that most radical and liberating of all drives.