What Do the DSM, Elvis Presley, and Dionysus Have in Common?

Michael Fontaine, PhD
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To a classicist (a professor of Greek and Latin, like me), the psychotic illnesses detailed in the pages of the DSM look like nothing but the main characters of the classical tragedies of ancient Greece, only born anew under medicalized names. Medea is the distraught and desperate mother who kills her children, Hercules the loving father who shoots his wife and kids, and Orestes the resentful and dependent son who murders his mother and claims God told him to do it. And since the ancient tragedians do their utmost to make us sympathize with these characters, reading a tragedy or two—such as Euripides’ Bacchae—might go a long way toward helping us understand—truly understand, on existential grounds—when and why an individual elects to engage in odd behaviors.

Last week I spent a day reading Euripides’ Bacchae with alumni and adult students at Cornell’s Adult University. We used the Hackett Classics edition and for the first half hour, we didn’t make it past the book’s cover.

The Hackett Classics edition of <em>Euripides’ Bacchae</em>. Cover design by Brian Rak and John Pershing.
The Hackett Classics edition of Euripides’ Bacchae. Cover design by Brian Rak and John Pershing.

That’s Elvis Presley. Why is he on the cover?, several asked. I’ve been reading this ancient Greek tragedy for years and assumed it was obvious, but it was only when I began rooting around YouTube that I came to appreciate just how truly ingenious that cover is.

It all becomes clear when Pentheus, the authority figure who dislikes Dionysus, enters for the first time. Sizing up the situation — and not happy about it — he announces (215–220, in Paul Woodruff’s translation, which we used in class):

I happened to hear, when I was out of town, there’s trouble in the city — a revolution: These women of ours have left their homes and run away to the dark mountains, pretending to be Bacchants. It’s this brand-new god, Dionysus, whoever that is; they’re dancing for him!

Got it? Now watch this clip of Elvis singing Hound Dog back in 1957:

Dancing for him, indeed! And a little later, Pentheus goes on (233–9):

Also, I hear there’s a foreigner come to town, a wizard with magic spells from Lydia, who has long blond curls — perfumed! — upon his head, and the bloom of wine, the grace of Aphrodite, on his cheeks. Day and night he plays around with young girls, showing off his “VoHe” mysteries.

VoHe! is the ancient Greek equivalent of Hallelujah! (it’s an ecstatic cry of joy), and though Elvis dyed his blond locks black, everything else fits pretty well. This Dionysus is hot, and he’s driving the girls crazy — not so different from the King in his prime, as this 1956 clip makes clear:

By the way, Dionysus is about the same age as Pentheus, who seems jealous of all that female attention. Watch that clip again (specifically, from 00:25–00:33) and as you do, contemplate the sparagmos — the ritual mutilation—of Pentheus at the end of Euripides’ play, starting at line 1075.

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However we explain them, the quasi-magical effects that Elvis Presley wrought on America’s women in the middle of the last century may yet have something to teach us. They help us better appreciate the tensions at work in Euripides’ play and, in so doing, they help us better understand some mysterious aspects of the human condition.

Why don’t young women in America today imitate the behavior of their grandmothers in these clips? And what ever happened to the hysteria that so plagued the young women of upper-class Vienna a hundred years ago? Thomas Szasz maintained that psychosis, like all other mental illnesses, could be explained on purely existential grounds; for him, there was no need to invoke infectious agents, faulty genetics, or cellular lesions in the brain. These clips suggest he was right. When society changes, and freedoms for women expanded, these behaviors went away.

* * * * *

This blog is adapted for MIA from
Michael Fontaine’s post on Medium.com

40 COMMENTS

  1. Why don’t young women in America today imitate the behavior of their grandmothers in these clips?

    They do. Conduct a search for Justin Bieber on youtube. Interestingly, what’s changed is the behaviour has not so much gone away as panned out. Now do a search for Miley Cyrus fans.

  2. Also, I suppose group expressions of joy with nascent sexual undertones — or is it overtones? — were repressed. So it was with a sense of relief that many of these women would let rip at the old pelvis-thruster.

    Young men too can now get in on the act. Screaming out their joy and so forth at some narcissist.

    Most men would not be jealous at hundreds of adolescent girls chasing after a grown man. I think, by and large, it would unsettle them. Worry them.

    Also, I don’t think what we are seeing here is madness. It is joy. Group joy.

    Madness is not a choice. Despite what grizzled cynics like Szasz might have you believe. But then he is the Polonius of our times, after all.

    • But this is what the Bacchanalian rites induced in people; a madness where supposedly women under the influence of the god and whatever else was used, literally would tear men caught attending their rites apart limb from limb because men were not supposed to attend their rites. It was a group frenzied madness.

      And the gatherings where men were allowed to attend ended up in frenzied sexual activity more involved than what the Spartacus HBO program could even begin to capture. All this Bacchanalian stuff was frenzied group madness. The women supposedly drank human blood at their rituals. This was not some cute namby pamby little party where everyone got together for a little fun. This was serious stuff the like of which modern society has probably never entered into very much.

  3. These are some pretty “loose associations” to say the least.

    Elvis was screwed up, but to link him and the Greek gods with psychotic states is a little bit out there. The latter are usually based on long-term stress, trauma, and neglect, and involve real and severe suffering and inability to function. By contrast, there’s going to a concert and going wild about some hot guy…

    As the commenter above said, just look at videos of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus today. Human nature doesn’t change that much over a few decades.

  4. I think what the Mr Fontaine is getting at is that repressed needs and freedoms lead to outbreaks of crazy behaviors. That too much state or family or relational control, too much repression, often ends with some mythical and/or tragic figure arising onto whom people will overcompensate with wild and hedonistic projections. Or violence.

    And that in many ways those individuals that offer themselves up as the vessels unto which people may spew their libidinal needs into becomes an enemy of the state.

    Or something like that.

    So Elvis Presley comes along after many years of ultraconsersative repressions and oppressions, including mccarthyism, and invites people — particularly young adolescent girls — to let rip with their natural-born hysteria and that that in some way freed the american psyche.

    I think that is what he is getting at. I’m struggling.

    The bit I struggle most with is the idea he has that mad people choose odd behaviours and non-mad people choose non-odd behaviours, by and large.

    I’m not sure what to make of that either.

    From Elvis to Miley Cyrus. Is that truly the end of hysteria and the emancipation of female sexuality? I may have this wrong but isn’t the demographic of Miley Cyrus’ audience largely pre-teen? Is that emancipation? Is that sanity? You tell me.

    The problem with saying that people choose psychosis is that it is effectively victim-blaming. Which I think is one of the fundamental flaws of Szasz. Like Polonius, Szasz is convinced that all mad people are ultimately malingering, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

    • Put in that way it got me thinking about the Punk Revolution in London during the late 70s. State repression as a result of garbage strikes and IRA bombings, along comes Johnny Rotten (and reggae in the West Indian community) and before they knew it police were defending themselves with garbage bin lids from a barrage of bricks. Of course, Johnny Rotten was all a big swindle by some capitalists, the police militarized, and the ‘youth’ all work in public sector jobs these days. I only listened to the Pistols to drive my parents nutz, I preferred Floyd really, but they liked it too lol.

      So are we talking about culture heroes to ease the rite of passage? And if so, how effective could psychiatry be?

      • I think that if psychiatrists were true healers that they could help a great deal with the rites of passage, of which our society has very few of these days. But of course, all most psychiatrists want to do is push pills on people and this only stifles and bungles the problems that rites of passage are supposed to help with.

    • Polonius was clearly written as a fool, made more humorous by blathering out ‘wisdom.’ He pushes the notion of Hamlet’s madness (not malingering) on Claudius. Szasz depicts madness not as malingering, but as rational, nay even productive behavior. Perhaps I missed something seminal in both Hamlet and in several of Szasz’s works; I’d welcome cites of works and locations which support your contention.

  5. My first answer to the riddle embedded in title of your piece was: Druugs! The DSM prescribes ’em, Elvis Presley took ’em, and Dionysis was the god of theater and wine, that’s vino, inebriation. Then, well, since Dionysis was also the god of theater, maybe it’s about entertainment, theater is entertaining, Elvis was a performer–singer, actor, leading lady’s man, etc. , and the DSM is full of drama queens. I guess in a sense I was right on all counts.

    Yes, the classics are relevant to today’s world.

  6. “The bit I struggle most with is the idea he has that mad people choose odd behaviours and non-mad people choose non-odd behaviours, by and large.”

    Rasselas,

    I know the idea of choice in mad or non-man behaviors is a bit unconventional for most people, but I did in fact find it to be real my own case. When strange ideas first erupted in my brain, I went to a psychiatrist for advice on how to handle them. To my surprise (and shock) he seemed to consider me already mad for even having such ideas and talking about them. I asked him how he knew when somebody was crazy, and he said “By their behavior” — which again surprised me, because I always thought they had a scientific test or something. Anyway, what I took away from the interview was the knowledge that I had to behave myself and not act crazy if I wanted to stay out of a mental hospital — which I most certainly did, since I had two small children. So even when the going got very rough — which it did — I never lost sight of the fact that how I reacted to the strange ideas erupting in my brain was my choice. I could ether talk about them and get locked up, or keep my mouth shut and stay home. And since the whole point of “treatment” seemed to be to convince the “patient” to shut up, then I might as well shut up from the beginning and not be saddled with a stigmatizing “diagnosis” and “treatment.”

    So I kept my mouth shut, though I certainly won’t say it was easy. Now, after 50 years, I can finally talk about the whole experience without losing my cool.

    So I might change your words a little and say that people who choose odd behaviors are mad and people who choose non-odd behaviors are non-mad. And I really don’t think this is victim-blaming. On the contrary, I think this points up the responsibility of the therapist to stop telling people they are “schizophrenic” (or whatever) simply because they have odd thoughts or powerful inner experiences, and instead give them lessons on how to endure these thoughts and experiences without acting them out and perhaps even turn them into something beneficial. This is certainly what happened in my case. I ended up going back to school and becoming a psychologist.

    Best regards,
    Mary Newton

    So I kept my mouth shut, though I certainly won’t say it was easy. Now, after 50 years, I can finally talk about the whole experience without losing my cool.

    So I might change your words a little and say that

  7. Thanks for taking the time to reply, Mary. I take what you say. It wouldn’t have been easy to have lived so long in silence, but you did well to endure the pain and the isolation for so long.

    You were lucky to have succeeded in your plan as you did.

    The objection I have to odd versus non-odd is likely stemming from my interest in Absurdism and Dadaism. Particularly the former. In both there is no final distinction between madness and sanity. It only ever boils down to who is holding the most power. And whoever is holding the most power, is driven mad by it.

    Mr Fontaine’s essay, in a different context, say contemporary North Korea, or the Soviet Union, would land him in a lot of trouble. Quite possibly ending with his admission to a psychiatric hospital. And if he presented the essay to wahabi islamicists, they’d also consider him to be a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. Go further and parachute him in to an Amazonian tribe, running around gleefully with their reddened asses on display, and all sorts of strange objects protruding from their faces, and they too wouldn’t be able to make head nor tail of it.

    And, so much of what we do, and consider to be non-odd, is very odd indeed if you stop to think about it.

    The problem of madness in many ways is often not the madness itself, but how other people react to it. How it can isolate.

    There was a man who jumped out of a plane without a parachute and landed on a trampoline. That is very odd behaviour. It is rationalised as ‘inspiriational’, which is also odd.

    But yes you’re right, Finding a niche in which you can gain some credence, even as a person that has or does experience less than common (or commonly admitted to) phenomena, is probably the key to living a life you value.

    • I tell people that sane people are like Muggles. They will do anything to keep from admitting that “we all go a little mad sometimes.” Joan of Arc was certainly not centered. In fact, there’s a list of saints that were certainly not quite aware of reality or heavily under the influence. Society seems to define mental illness as behaviors that they are uncomfortable with. You can hear the voice of God, but any other voices are simply improper. Currently, most of the populace seems to think that any behavior that they can’t understand is insanity…

      • An important question never asked (I’ve not seen or heard it asked) of people that claim to have heard the voice of God, is what does God’s voice sound like?

        The usual reply is: you’ll know it when you hear it…

        which is out and out trickery and avoidance.

        It’s a serious question. What does God sound like? Does he have an accent. Is his voice deep or shrill? Does he sound like Brian Blessed or Charlton Heston?

        It’s not true though as the cliche goes that’s it is acceptable to hear the voice of God. It’s generally a social frightener in secular circles. Or worst, amongst the religious, enough to have you rounded on as an a blasphemer or apostate.

        I expect you probably mean well but I don’t think society defines ‘mental illness’ in such simplistic ways. There are just too man examples of people living crazy lives doing crazy things that don’t get singled out as ill. They might be called mad or eccentric but as a general rule of thumb that is because they are directing their crazy energies into things which is generally taken as legitimately mad (whether that is because it is entertaining, or, often these days, the act of madness is considered inspirational in some peculiar way).

  8. Just to add because I understand I have some kind of skill of making people uncertain…

    I value the kind of work Mr Fontaine does. Even the oddest professions, I value them. Like, for instance, taxidermy. One of the oddest of the professions. I value that.

    Just to add, before my return to acting out my daily identity crisis, this:

    I take great pleasure in encountering cultural slogans and one which I have a lot of time for (it’s been around a while) is this one:

    fake it until you make it

    Now I’ve witnessed first hand people saying this and it’s a wonderfully absurdist slogan, despite that hardly anyone seems to know how absurd it really is.

    fake it until you make it.

  9. I really don’t see why this is posted on Mad in America. It really has nothing to do with either science or psychiatry. For those of us who struggle daily with mental illness it is disappointing to see more and more posts here that do not address the many problems faced by the mentally ill and their loved ones. Instead we see more and more posts that seem to trivialize mental illness as just some different ways of thinking or behaving. I am becoming more and more hesitant in recommending this site to persons suffering from mental illness.

    • Trivialize mental wha-a-at?

      I disagree. It has to do with madness, that is, mental what-cha-ma-call-it, and culture. Psychiatry would treat mental what-cha-ma-call-it, and so there you go. It’s relevant because people were going bonkers thousands of years ago, and people still don’t know squat about what going bonkers is all about. Still, theories abound.

    • I go with Peter Breggin, “Beyond Conflict”, on this. Underneath the supposed symptoms of “mental illness”, there is conflict. The issue is always social injustice.

      And then going further than Breggin was willing to, it is almost always about familial child abuse.

      So if people can organize and fight back, so called mental illness evaporates. There is no such thing as mental illness, just injustice which has not be redressed.

      Nomadic
      http://freedomtoexpress.freeforums.org/index.php

    • Actually, it does in some ways. Elvis grew up poor. As such, he grew up listening to the blues… He didn’t just usher in the first embracing of female sexuality, he also shook the country’s view of race. Mentally ill, I don’t know… But Elvis created a persona that he just couldn’t live up to leading to his death. Everything he did, he did to excess… A drug induced coma from an overdose occurred only days before his death… He took roughly 25 pills a day by then. and the script written the day before included 680 pills Dilaudid. Valium, Placidyl, Valmid, Morphine, pentobarbital, quaalude, and codeine were all in his system at time of death. He needed to be “Elvis” and that became his fatal flaw. Boys had blatantly chased girls for eons, but for the first time, girls could openly chase boys. Maybe not real boys, but Elvis and the Beatles were safe and too mythical to be obtained. Elvis was certainly not stable, but the girls were the result of years of being told that sex was dirty and good girls didn’t like it. Most were still too afraid to act on it, and this constant suppression… forced to be the good girls who didn’t have opinions or dirty minds or dreams of their own finally culminated in a sort of mob hysteria which allowed the behavior to be acceptable.

  10. it’s a pity you would prefer a more fuller focus on misery and not the kind of material like this article which is a little bit more provocative than usual

    psychiatry has very little to do with science either. it’s quackery, like crystal healing, or the power of the AUM

  11. Nice pictures!

    I agree with Thomas Satz that most ‘psychosis’ can be explained in normal terms. But ‘psychosis’ a lot of the time is used to describe someone that is disturbed, not mad (and that can benefit anyway from talking).

    The person that’s mad will calm down anyway once they run out of energy so there’s no need to get too excited – once everything is safe.

    • My worst psychosis lasted nearly 18 months. It got progresively worse. I didn’t get any help. I came very close to at point being killed, and during the latter stages, dying of malnutrition. I think you are naive, as so many are, about the severe end of the scale. It isn’t a little jumpy clappy silly party — though I accept it is for some, and really the main problem they had, was their histrionic overreaction.

        • Hi Fiachra. You can’t possibly belittle my experience because you don’t know what it entailed. I was psychotic for about 18 months. By psychotic I mean I was beset by unremitting hallucinations, mostly of a tactile nature. By unremitting I mean that they were ongoing from the moment I awoke to the moment I fell asleep.

          You’ll have to help me about a bit by what you mean by “disturbed”. Are you using this word as an adjective or a noun?

          In either case, generally speaking, the effect of unremitting psychosis (for people such as I at the time, making my first plod around the block of unfamiliar turf) is to be somewhat emotionally disturbed (or freaked out) by the experience, as well as disturbed by it (eg to have the rug pulled from under my feet).

          I struggled to hold true to my (at the time) atheistic and existential underpinnings under the onsluaght of what at the time felt increasingly like some kind of supernatural curse, and took some contradictory comfort in the Book of Job and Maupasaant’s The Horla, both of which took on new significance during the experience.

          I am in no doubt now that this was a psychosis. After the fact numerous people of various biases have attempted to remould the narrative I have shared about it to their own agenda, and none of them have made any sensible meaning, other than psychiatrists. When psychiatrists first put it to me that I had suffered a psychosis it was only really my sense of pride, my ego, that caused me to resist that interpretation. Because in all honesty it was something I had feared throughout it, even though, as it endured, my grasp on my own madness increasingly failed, until in the closing months, I was ‘coping’ in very strange and self-defeating ways.

      • What do you mean by “help”? Are “drugs” “help”? Is imprisonment in a psychiatric prison AKA “hospital” “help”? I can’t say I wasn’t delusional and confused at one time, but any “help” I received I could have done without, and I would have been better off. In my case, I don’t think there was anybody around to allow one, let alone 18 months, of psychosis on my part. People reacted, and I ended up in the La-la-land Loony Bin, not receiving any “help”, unless custodial “care” is you’re idea of “help”. You’ve got only yours truly to conclude their reactions overreactions while coming down was a matter of tiring of Planet X, and figuring there must be some sort of an exit. Finally, I got it. Forget yourself, and give them what they want. Play the game, and eventually it leads to freedom. I was more grounded at home, and it took a little while to take, but once I had it figured out, well, the clock was ticking again.

  12. “psychotic illnesses detailed in the pages of the DSM look like nothing but the main characters of the classical tragedies of ancient Greece”

    Very true! Okay, but the corrective for Psychiatry and Medications, cannot be Psychotherapy or Recovery. Can’t be Motivationalism or Life Coaching either.

    Psychotherapy, Psychiatry, and even Scientology, are in competition with each other because they run on similar premises. This is why Psychotherapists advertise here on Mad In America.

    The remedy has to be legal and political activism. These are the ways you change the social and civil standing of those who have been abused and marginalized.

    Nomadic
    http://freedomtoexpress.freeforums.org/survivors-of-the-middle-class-family-t243.html