This is the fifth installment of my series, The Mysteria. Usually these are for paid subscribers only, but this one felt too important to put behind a paywall. If you’d like to support my work with a paid subscription—or if you’d like to sign up for free—you can do so below.
Also, the video above is of a nearby village’s Buergbrennen ritual. It’s explained in detail further down in this essay.
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New Testament Who Dis?
A few days ago, I was speaking with a friend much younger than I am. I’m old enough to be his dad, a point he often jokes about. Rarely do such things make me feel old, merely bemused, but occasionally something in our conversations will give me a feeling of deep generational disorientation.
More often than not, the moments which trigger these conversations involve some way of looking at the world within co-ordinates I do not recognize, and without references I’d assumed were foundational. Most often, it’s got something to do with a new phone app, or some kind of technological framework that makes little sense to me.
At those points, I start to think maybe “old enough to be his father” would be better stated as “grandfather.”
I don’t think there’s a word for this feeling, though there’s a neologism that describes a similar state: “solastalgia.” It’s a word I first encountered while editing Melinda Reidinger’s rather fantastic book, The White Deer. Solastalgia is the pain or sorrow one feels when an environment which once felt familiar and was a source of solace becomes suddenly strange:
… Solastalgia is pain or distress related to an ongoing or increasing lack of solace, as well as a sense of desolation connected to deterioration of a place one considers to be their home or territory. It is chronic, and arises from an existential lived experience of witnessing ongoing negative changes, changes which feel like attacks on one’s sense of belonging to a place.
That sense is beautifully articulated in a breathtaking essay I have the honor of publishing this month at Another World. It’s called “Old Haunts,” a dual-voiced lament by two startling writers,and :
Wintertime frays at both ends while summer gorges herself, now staging opening salvos in May, holding late October in her droughted grasp. Mid-season, you can look the sun right in the eye: the heat is stifling but the glare is baffled by smoke. Blood-red skies and parched Decembers, Himalayan blackberries and brown marmorated stink bugs—at least you can still make a killing in real estate. Inch by inch the forests and the small towns are swallowed and excreted in one long smooth suburb.
Driving now along the crumbling highways—Binghamton to Utica to Buffalo and back, the triangle of interstates into which my family’s whole history has somehow disappeared—the thing that haunts me the most isn’t some rattling, Gothic vision of death. Instead, it’s the specters of happiness that still linger in the ruins—not whispering one day you will be like me, but you will never be like this again.
Solastalgia doesn’t quite fit my own experience in those conversations with my friend, though, since what suddenly seems unfamiliar is a kind of shared set of references, a shared cosmology, and especially a shared sense of history. By this last bit I don’t mean a common history. The problem isn’t so much that we’ve not seen or experienced the same events, but rather that we don’t have the same sense of how what is now springs from what was.
I encountered this thus-far unnamed feeling when I mentioned the Book of Revelations to him a few days ago. I don’t quite remember how’d we gotten on the subject, but his response to some point I’d made was a blank stare and a shrug, followed by, “What’s that?”
“You know,” I answered, thinking for a moment he’d been joking. “The last book of the Bible? Lakes of fire and the four horsemen and plagues?”
“Why should I know about that?” he asked.
That’s when I felt that feeling, that disorientation. My friend’s of a generation highly-saturated with media, the sort for whom eight hours of screen time is just below average. He’s European, but knows American media culture better than I do, knows American music, American television, and American film like it’s his own personal history.
Hegemony and “Mimetic Desire”
His situation is something you’ll find quite often in Europe. When I lived in France, each new person I’d encounter who’d divined I was from the US (an obvious fact once they heard my accented French) inevitably would pepper their speech with references to American mass culture. This was always awkward, and quickly tiring. I’d left the United States for many reasons, “escaped” it, yet here it always was, possessing and channeling itself through the colonized French.
At the same time as many here know more about American media culture than I do, they know surprisingly little about the really-existing material conditions in America. The assumptions of so many that I’d had a big house, or that there’s no poor on American city streets, or that we all made enough money that we didn’t need socialized health care were often quite maddening. Even my husband, a deeply intelligent and cosmopolitan man, still often has trouble reconciling what he’d learned about America from Hollywood with what I recount to him.
The term “hegemony” was thrown around quite casually in the US for a while, though it rarely seemed as if those using the word—mostly young, internet activists—ever understood what they were saying. Nor did they ever show any sign they’d read or had even heard of Antonio Gramcsi, who was the first political philosopher to use the term to reference cultural power. Instead, it just seemed like they were using the word to make everything else they were complaining about sound scarier.
The principle is actually quite simple, but to understand it you must first know the political arrangement to which it primarily refers. In a hegemony, a state exerts indirect control over other states by virtue of its unchallenged dominance, as if by gravity. Picture the way a moon might be caught into orbit around a large planet, or the way that planets orbit the sun, and you begin to understand hegemony.
What happens in a political hegemony is that people outside the dominant state start to internalize its values and will. Whether consciously or unconsciously, and equally out of fear and desire, all other states act as satellites for the primary power.
Importantly, while these satellites absorb the cultural and social forms of the dominant power, the exchange is only one-sided. This is best seen now in the uni-directional power that American media exerts over the rest of the world. Here in Europe, it’s rare to find someone who hasn’t seen Breaking Bad or The Simpsons, or knows who Madonna or Tom Cruise are, or can name a minimum of twenty American films. But in the US, how many people know Serge Gainsbourg, Stromae, or a German music act besides Nena or Rammstein, or any popular television series or more than a few films from Spain, France, Germany, or Belgium?
We might try to dismiss the one-sided spread of such cultural products as only a matter of curiosity—I mean, after all, how important are television, film, or music really? The problem here is that cultural products transmit cultural values, values which are often quite subtle yet nevertheless deeply powerful in shaping the way we think about ourselves, others, and the world.
It’s quite difficult to talk about these values and the way they shape our way of thinking directly. They operate in what we might call an unconscious realm of thought, the same realm where “memes,” myth, and religion operate. It’s also the same realm in which poetry functions as something more than just metaphor.
A simple (and a bit too simplistic) way of understanding these values is that they become the frames around which we build the meaning of our world. Or, put another way, they become the windows or lenses through which we view experiences and make our decisions about what matters and what doesn’t.
René Girard’s idea of “mimetic desire,” which I personally find too reductionist,1 somewhat describes how this works. Girard’s idea is that our desire is shaped by imitation of others. We see other people “modeling” a desire, and because we seek to be like them, we adapt or mimic their desires. This is the basis of most advertising: we see depictions of people we'd like to be like (happy, wealthy, carefree, confident, healthy, etc) driving a certain car, using a certain shampoo, eating certain foods, or wearing certain bits of clothing, and then we find ourselves desiring those things, too.
The values transmitted through hegemonic cultural production are much more complex than just desire for products, however. The way people act towards each other, the way they seem themselves, the way they situate themselves in families, communities, history, and society, and the way they react to stress, or love, or misfortune, or anger—these are all subtle cultural forms transmitted through music, film, television, and other media.
Again, this all happens in a very subtle realm of meaning-making which we Westerners long ago stopped knowing how to comprehend. It’s similar to the imaginal, the esoteric sphere which we no longer recognize because we now believe the “imaginary” means “fake.” It’s not completely lost to us, but to access it again requires shutting out (and shutting off) what is forced-fed to us through social media algorithms and capitalist cultural production.
Miley Cyrus, the Missionary
Another way of looking at what happens is the rather over-used—but regardless useful—idea of “colonization.” American cultural forms colonize the cultures of others, transforming these other cultures into something more easily exploited or controlled by American economic and political interests.
Here, though, the missionary is a better symbol of this process than the colonist. It’s the missionary who arrives first to an uncolonized culture or “uncontacted” tribe and begins seeding the dominant cultural forms into foreign soil.
Here we must remember: the missionary unavoidably brings with them much more than just the “good news” of their religion. An American missionary trying to convert uncontacted tribes in the Amazon doesn’t just bring Jesus, he also brings America, just as the Spanish missionaries to South America centuries ago brought not just Catholicism but also European political and social forms.
This is where the political aspect of hegemony is crucial to understand. There’s no equal exchange occurring, because the dominance of hegemonic culture is backed up by political and economic dominance. There were no Aymara shamans preaching in the streets of Madrid while Spanish missionaries converted Andean villages, nor could there have been. Besides the fact that animism isn’t an evangelical religion, Catholicism spread so well because the Catholics had fleets of ships, and heavily-armed soldiers, and more than enough wealth to train and fund those missionaries.
Similarly, the dominance of American cultural forms is made possible through the power of the American politics and finance. As I write this, Miley Cyrus is hovering at the top of French pop charts. Without the massive American capitalist investment in music production, marketing, and distribution—as well as the political power the United States wields over French and European markets and government policies—it’s unlikely she’d even be known to the French.
On the other hand, not a single one of the top French-produced songs in those charts appear in the US charts. That’s how hegemony works. The satellite cultures can usually only receive the dominant cultural forms, except in the rare cases when they produce something which successfully fits the cultural criteria of the dominant culture. Here, taking a page from the rather hilarious BBC series, “Krunk on Earth,” I’d mention one of the most successful Belgian artists to ever break into the American media consciousness: Technotronic.
Technotronic’s song, “Pump Up The Jam,” was everywhere on American radio in 1990, back before Spotify, YouTube, and Pandora replaced radio as the primary distribution methods of music transmission.
The funny thing about this song2—and why it was able to pass so easily into American consciousness from the outside in—was that everyone thought it was American, including my European friends here. I didn’t realise they were Belgian until just last year, and my husband didn’t know this until a few weeks ago. The reason for this is the affected Bronx accent3 of the Congolese-Belgian lead singer, Manuella "Ya Kid K" Komosi. Incidentally, she isn’t even the person featured in the video: a more “American-looking" model was chosen to lip-sync it.
So, yes, sometimes the cultural exchange can appear to be mutual. But this only happens either when the foreign cultural product successfully imitates the forms of the dominant power, or when the “foreign” traits of the product can be renarrated as caricature. For examples of this latter category, consider Rammstein’s “Du Hast,” or Los Del Rio’s “Macarena.” For films in this category, two obvious examples are Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie and Tom Twyker’s Run, Lola, Run.
The works I’ve just cited are useful for understanding another aspect of how cultural hegemony works. Take, for example, the way life in the city of Paris is portrayed in the brilliant film Amélie, which in French bears the much longer title, Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain. Not having been to Paris when I first watched it (and then subsequently watched it quite a few more times), I was deeply taken in by its vision of the city. I found myself often daydreaming about how wonderful life must be there.
And then, well, I eventually went to Paris…and it’s really not quite like that at all.
That isn’t to say the vision it portrays is false, but rather that the Paris it depicts is illuminated through narrative in a way a French viewer easily recognizes but a foreigner cannot. Without the physical context of what Paris is actually like, it’s difficult to detect where the filter blurs things and where it merely sharpens them.
This also happens for music, but in a more subtle way. Rammstein was popular in Germany, sure, but the sense of German-ness their songs convey is very widely recognized as amusing caricatures there. On the other hand, an American teenager hearing “Du Hast” when it first came out wouldn’t have known this, nor could he have.
The same thing happens in reverse here in Europe. However, instead of just an occasional foreign cultural product making its way into their own culture, European minds are constantly flooded with American films, songs, television series, and many other cultural forms. It’s everywhere in the European cultural fabric now and impossible to avoid.
On the other hand, you can go months in the United States without ever getting exposed to European culture. I cannot go to a supermarket here without hearing American music every time, but when’s the last time an American has heard a French, German, Spanish, or Italian song in such a place?
Thus, it’s not difficult to understand why my young friend knows so much about American music, television, film, and even commercials. It’s everywhere for him, and has been since the day he was born. More so, being well-versed in American cultural products is a mark of an important kind of social intelligence. Without that knowledge, a person is unable to communicate effectively with his or her peers, lacks shared references, and can become completely shut out from conversations
To be clear, it’s not that these American cultural forms are any more valuable or even more interesting than native ones. They’re only important because they’re dominant. Homer Simpson and Beyoncé matter here only because they matter to so many others. They’ve become “cultural currency.” As with monetary currency, having little or none of it means you are locked out of many of the exchanges occurring around you. You can still participate in social interactions, of course, but only in limited ways unless you find a subcultural group which has agreed to other currencies instead.
The Tragedy of the Villages
A little over a week ago, my sister, her husband, and her children drove to our home from their house in the city. We’d decided to have dinner together: she’d made lasagne for everyone, and I made salad and garlic bread. Before dinner, she and my husband (who is a brilliant interior designer, along with his other passions) discussed plans for the house she is building in our village.
She’ll be our neighbor next year, just a four minute walk down the main village road from my front door to hers. This brings endless joy to me. It’s no small matter to be an American émigré in the Ardennes, having left all I knew and loved, to then find love and a home in a tiny village, and then soon after to find your little sister will be just a few steps away.
After they finished their planning, and before dinner, the six of us went to a neighboring village for its Buergbrennen rite. That’s the video included at the top of this essay, one I recorded hastily (but successfully, I think) so the rest of the world can see this. Buergbrennen is an ancient Celtic and Germanic fire ritual, a night to burn away the winter and to welcome spring, practiced continuously here in the Ardennes and in areas further east long before Christianity was born. It has a clear cognate with Beltane in the British Isles, as well as with Walpurgisnacht and other similar events in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.
Such fire festivals were too difficult for the Christian missionaries and bishops to suppress. However, they were quite easy to repurpose, since already in the Catholic mass there’s the lighting of the Paschal flame during the Easter cycle. Though the fire rituals here were likely originally timed either to the first of February or the first of May, it wasn’t too difficult for the Church to adjust the date once the druids were displaced.
Buergbrennen is a pagan ritual, but it’s also a Christian ritual, and this dual-nature cannot be divided any longer, nor need it be. If anything, it’s one of the few clear places where we can see what a co-existence of apparently oppositional cosmologies can look like without conflict. Devout Christians participating in the ritual were probably actually a minority, since church attendance and membership here has been plummeting sharply for the last two decades. While I’m sure I wasn’t the only “devout” pagan there, it would be very untrue to say those like me outnumbered the devout Christians. Both groups were a scant minority in comparison to the much more numerous attendees who were there just because they were part of the village.
Buergbrennen is one of many festivals which once defined the life of every village in the Ardennes for centuries and millenia. I’ve written recently of another one, Liichtmessdeg, which is celebrated still in many places. Another important one, however, has mostly fallen away except in a few cities. That’s the Kiermes (pronounced kyer-mess), which means literally “church mass.” Kiermes was a week-long (and for the towns, month-long) village festival, timed—after Christianization—to the birthdate of the local church.
Kiermes had several social and ritual aspects to it. One of those was homecoming, meaning that children and even distant relatives of village members returned to the village for the festival. All the women of the village got together to cook for several days, making their best desserts and showing off their home-cured hams. People drank, and then ate, and then drank more. Single men and women traveled from their own villages to meet potential mates, while older folks caught up on the lives of distant family and friends.
The only thing that changed about these fairs once Christianity became dominant is that there was also a short mass during all the eating, flirting, and drunkeness. From tales I’ve heard, though, these masses were kept very short and performed quite fast, otherwise no one would attend them.
The last Kiermes to occur in the village where I live, Rodenbourg, happened in 2005. That was also the last year there was a Buergbrennen here, and it was also the last year regular mass was performed in the village church.
Christianity is “dying” here, because the Christians are dying. Each year at All-Saints, villagers gather at the graves of their ancestors in the small church cemetery for a brief blessing by a priest. Each year, there are fewer people standing at those graves and more people inside them. There are also fewer priests to perform these rituals. The priest for our village has to perform that same blessing for many other villages that day, and by the time he arrives to ours, he looks completely frazzled.
Christianity isn’t declining everywhere in the world, but it’s definitely declining here. You’d be wrong to think this gives me any joy, because what’s dying with Christianity are all the village rituals and rites, all the festivals and feasts, and all the pre-capitalist social relations Christianity absorbed, preserved, and perpetuated.
The village festivals now called Kiermes, Liichtmesdeg, and Buergbrennen survived in Luxembourg both despite and also because of Christianity. As the social dominance of Christianity starts to crumble and fade, so too do these older social forms unless some other cultural framework arises to help them persist.
This is where my young friend’s admission that he knew nothing of the Book of Revelations rather terrified me. It’s not that I think John of Patmos’s mad ravings and condemnations of anyone enjoying themselves should form any important part of his—or anyone’s—cultural consciousness. Instead, what’s horrifying is that the Book of Life now just has the lyrics to Cardi B’s “WAP.”
That is, what’s replacing Christianity is American commercial culture, American cultural values, and American political co-ordinates. Sure, we might remember that America is still a very Christian place, but the Protestant version dominant there is much more amenable to global capitalist expansion. Protestantism has always had at its very core a deep desire—and imperative—to destroy preceding cultural forms. Catholics tended to adapt and syncretize older forms whenever they could not be easily displaced. On the other hand, Calvinists (including the English versions, especially the Puritans) destroyed everything associated with the older order—icons, statues, and altars in churches, as well as pagan sacred wells and neolithic stone circles—in order to make space for their new framework.
The hegemonic cultural power of the United States carries on this process and this legacy, even if it no longer transmits the religious beliefs underpinning Protestant Christianity. That’s how my friend can know so much about American media but have no idea what’s in the religion that shaped America itself.
That’s also how all these older cultural forms—and the villages themselves—are dying here. But it’s not a population issue. The population of this village, and of Luxembourg itself, is constantly growing. However, the people moving here mostly do so because of capitalist imperatives, often working for European subsidiaries of US corporations like Amazon or for European financial or legal corporations servicing American capitalists. Almost half of the population here (47%) was born elsewhere (as I was), and this figure keeps growing.
The villages aren’t dying because there are fewer people, but rather because the people who come have little or no connection to the people who were here before. It’s not that they’re replacing older cultural forms with newer ones, either. This would be fine, because at least there’d still be some sort of cultural cohesion. Unfortunately, the population replacing the dying one is drowning in the same vapid cultural forms as my young Luxembourgish friend is.
We’re all Americanized here, and as long as the United States maintains its hegemonic dominance, this process will only continue.
However, this isn’t the end of the story. Catholic Christianity is not really “dying,” only receding in power. It cannot compete against American hegemony any longer, but it can still keep faithful enough to what it (often inadvertantly) preserved of village life and pre-capitalist social forms.
In a conversation I had in Paris a few weeks ago, shivering in the cold outside a bar with, I found myself saying something whose truth surprised me. We’d been talking about 's idea of “wild Christianity,” one I’m rather fond of. At some point, in light of my recognition of Christianity’s receding power, I’d said to Dougald: “if the Christians ever went back to the wilds, I’d defend them with my life.”
Those words haunted me as I walked back to my hotel that night, and then when I traveled back to Luxembourg, and then all the days since then. I’d been trying to understand why I’d said it, what I’d meant, and how—with everything I know about Christian history—I’d still want to see Christianity do well.
But it’s not Christianity per se I want to see do well, but rather the vision Paul Kingsnorth and a small handful of others seem to have of it. In other words, not the moralistic power-hungry Christianity that has defined the history of Europe for millennia and of the United States from its very inception, but rather the contemplative Christianity of the remote cave and the cloistered abbey.
Christianity was once in the very same position that the United States is in now: dominant, ruthless, destructive, and near-infinitely hegemonic. It no longer is, nor will it ever be again. That’s something some Christians might try to fight against and others might deny, but one need only look at all the empty churches dotting the lands to see the truth of this.
Unfortunately, while Christianity itself may be in decline, the political and economic structures birthed from its theology—including the nation state and capitalism—continue to ravish the earth.
This diminished state of Christianity, however, is something that can be a boon for Christians themselves, as well as the rest of us. No longer burdened with the delusion they are responsible for shining their light into the bedrooms of the faithless, they can instead just learn to see what that light illuminates for them. No longer feeling compelled to shape the moral actions and private behaviors of strangers, they can now focus on the divine work of cultivating their own souls.
This is not only possible, but desperately needed. We need this as a bulwark against the constant destruction of life that capitalist and American cultural hegemony causes. We need this, also, because Europe especially has nothing else yet to carry on its ancient, pre-capitalist ways of being. We need this, because the capitalists will turn the cathedrals into condos and the pilgrimage sites into parking lots.
Most of all, we need this sort of Christianity—the “wild” Christianity—to succeed because we need to learn how to see the world enchanted again. Chapels, churches, and cathedrals were all built where they were because those places were already sacred. The caves of the Orthodox monastics—including most likely even the cave of John of Patmos—were sites of sacred devotion to nymphs long before Jesus was born. Christians continued these venerations under different names and with different prayers, but regardless they continued them.
Since moving to Europe, I’ve met a suprising number of occultists, druids, and other similar sorts who’ve converted to Catholicism. Some, to my initial shock, even took holy orders, though of course their real beliefs remain undiscussed with Church authorities. While such will never be my own path (I’ve already done the Christian thing, and once is enough), I now understand what they’re doing—and why they’re doing it. They see the same need as I do, and they have decided to guide it as well as they can.
For me, there’s another path. It starts here in this village and with its inhabitants, the aging devout catholics and the young married couples from foreign lands. It starts with the wealth of stories told by my mother-in-law, the youthful memories of my husband, the tales of my neighbors. It starts also from what is, the village rituals and social forms not fully forgotten, waiting only for others to take them up again.
I’ll soon have my sister to help with this, and my nephews. Maybe others, too: newcomers like me who see the deep wealth and joy of local tradition and village life. Perhaps even one day we’ll host our own Buergbrennen and Kiermes in this village again. And hopefully, we’ll be able to do it soon enough that those still living now—who celebrated those festivals for the “last” time in this village two decades ago—might be there to teach us how it’s done.
Perhaps I’ll write more about this some day, but in brief, Girard’s ideas never actually account for why we desire, only how our desires are shaped by others. Also, his theory on the development of religion is very inadequate, shaped more by his limiting experience as a secularist French intellectual than any broader historical knowledge.
(Besides the fact that I fucking love it).
Evident in the way she sings the word “pump” as “pwuhmp.”