Eating, Not Eating, Downing Pills — On the Need for Ecstasy

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Jesus went into the desert and ate nothing for 40 days and nights. He fasted to cleanse himself for what lay ahead. He was purifying himself for the Holy Spirit, and just as he had completely divested himself, ready for the Sermon on the Mount, he crossed paths with the Devil. He seemed to have been biding his time to lure Jesus to him and put an end to the eternal game of good and evil once and for all, yet Jesus stayed strong and delivered the people from their sins. Given one matter in particular, this was also absolutely necessary.

Rome, approximately 200 years before the Sermon on the Mount: The city was astir with excitement. The bacchants had struck again. It was the beginning of March and they were celebrating their bacchanalia, known in Greece as Dionysia. The cult came from the Greeks and was devoted to Dionysius, the god of intoxication and ecstasy. What had always been a wild time was taken to new heights by the Italians. They had been feeling the moral heat from the harsh Roman Empire and loved transgression. Dionysius answered their wet prayers, sending their way intoxicated Greeks who brought a celebration in the guise of a religious pretext, and this in turn enabled them to expand their ecstatic practices into unimaginable realms. It didn’t stop at wine: Hallucinogenic herbs were shared and theatrical plays became role plays in which any and all combinations were possible. Everyone with everyone all together, and whoever didn’t want to participate played the role of the victim. People were torn apart and eaten alive just as Dionysius’s mother once did with her son. Meat galore, exhausting dances, wild herbs — with the bacchants, complete and utter ecstatic frenzy prevailed.

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Back to Jesus: “And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry” (Matthew 1:2). At the time he encountered the Devil his brain was full of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and is responsible for harmonization in the central nervous system. Irregular food intake produces more serotonin but hardly any serotonin transporters, resulting in the serotonin floating around in the extracellular space between synapses. This causes what it can’t help but cause: elation, hallucination, euphoria, transcendence. When Jesus met the Devil, he was high, in a state of total ecstasy.

About 2000 years later a group of people dance to repetitive music. Most of them have taken a devilish substance, MDMA, a.k.a. ecstasy. They dance until dawn and beyond, much longer. In any case the sun is shining and who knows how many times it has risen at this point. The music is stripped of any frills and consists only of the essence everyone carries within or perhaps the One Thing everyone is made of. Everybody. Everything. Sweating and dancing in in an endless flow, everyone for herself, yet together. In the hours and days and seconds on the dance floor speaking or other communicating is rare. Everyone knows that nobody needs that. William James describes being so conjoined as knowing of things together, when your own consciousness melts into that of another. The club is its own pool of serotonin, the release of which is triggered by fasting or intoxicants such as LSD or MDMA, often enhanced by EDM.

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EDM is the abbreviation of Electronic Dance Music and is not a particularly palatable concept. It developed in the last few years and seems to combine a series of other concepts, such as house, trance, rave and techno. Yet in reality, it appropriated those and digested them for so long that even a “David Guetta with two iPods and a mixer can stand on stage.” Nevertheless, the crowd is going wild and it’s huge. Electronic Dance Music is a catch-all that includes much more than just music. When speaking of EDM, there’s much talk of MDMA, and the question inevitably arises as to what actually enhances what: the dance music, the drugs or the drugs, music and dancing all together.

The effect is, in fact, reciprocal. And people are addicted to it. “Many respondents [on MDMA] found various forms of movements to be extremely pleasurable. This is particularly true for dancing.” Pearson et al. hypothesize that wild dance moves trigger a chemical reaction with the MDMA in the brain, enabling a new kind of musical perception. But the music itself, with its repetitive character and without any substances, can transform the listener, which Simon Reynolds has termed “future now”: “The music itself drugs the listener, looping consciousness then derailing it, stranding it in a nowhere/nowhen where there is only sensation, where now lasts longer.”

So it is the combination of music, dancing and substances that turned late-80s club-goers into ravers. They continue as such today in the EDM era. “Rave” has its roots in the French, raver, which means “to show signs of insanity and delirium.” To outsiders the raver appears like a “human machine, a convulsing nervous system.” Outsiders must wonder what causes ravers to deplete their bodily resources every weekend. Ravers themselves, of course, aren’t likely to pose such a question. They sweat and dance, ignore bodily signals and dip into the bag or take another pill shortly before passing out.

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The ravers dreamed of PLUR: peace, love, unity, respect. They searched for it in their nonverbal dancing. Word has it that PLUR has since become SEEP: selfishness, ego, escape, profit. How much of the “knowing of things together” is left? And how much of the ecstasy pills is still MDMA? Much seems to have changed from the warehouse parties back in the day to the spring break-like festivals of today. Serotonin release has become a mass event. It’s easy to get. It’s commercialized. And it is perhaps a bit like being among the bacchants. The ecstasy that was part of a spiritual celebration becomes an end in itself, a state into which one can flee — from Roman cavalrymen or from the daily grind of a world spinning ever faster.

The Catholic priest and Zen master, Nikolaus Brantschen, says the feeling of fasting made religion possible. It activates a potential, an openness for transcendence. Jesus’s fasting does not have anything to do with EDM dancing except for the release of the same neurotransmitter in the brain. His quiet introspection stands in opposition to the thoughtless (bacchanalian) devotion of ravers. But perhaps raving has something to do with the desire for precisely this feeling, with the moment that presents the prospect of transcendence and spirituality. They let themselves go and don’t realize that they could take the moment a step further. High, their faces look forward to the Messiah, the DJ.

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Science has dispelled many illusions. And here again it helps us question what we are prone to accept as truth. We ask cautiously: Did Jesus meet the Devil or not? Maybe the Devil was just a hallucination. And maybe we can breathe a sigh of relief because there really is no division between good and evil, just the being that the writer Aldous Huxley perceives as “is-ness” while on mescaline. Unfortunately, we do not know the truth because Huxley and Jesus were overflowing with serotonin.

Images: jesus.chskd-online-collectionresidantadvisorgiphyyoutube

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