Monday, January 30, 2017

Dance-off with Dionysus

The Dionysiac sacrifice is the voice of the mob, and the Christian solution – the victim is innocent – is the truth of a very small minority. The aristocrats are there. They happen to be, socially, a fisherman here, a good-for-nothing there – what does it matter – they turn into aristocrats at the moment when they oppose the mob around them, according to Nietzsche. But Dionysus is obviously the mob. There is not one episode of his myth that is not decided by the mob. Christianity is the exception, saying no to the mob, and Dionysus is the acceptance of the mob. - René Girardi
When I attended my first Pride Parade in June 2013, I saw Winnipeg’s streets full of same-sex couples walking hand in hand, relaxed, smiling, laughing at the antics of some of their more flamboyant peers. Many of them sported T-shirts with slogans supporting the right to same-sex marriage.

I was there with my friends and neighbours, Heidi and Irina. When I first met Heidi and Irina, they introduced themselves as one another’s wives, and I loved them for claiming a covenantal definition for their relationship. I dislike the generic term “partner” because of the costly, unique relationship I have with my wife. Partners are for tennis, business, or crime. I appreciate how the gay rights movement has spent much of their political capital (which was slender enough in the beginning) pursuing marriage, while so many heterosexuals seem to be giving up on it.

But I wrestled with the mix of signals in the Pride Parade. While there were strong signals rallying support for covenantal sex, there were equally strong signals suggesting casual sex. The atmosphere was charged with bacchanalia, those riotous, intoxicating behaviours named for Bacchus, Dionysus’ Roman counterpart, the “man-womanish” god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, theatre and religious ecstasy.

When we passed an athletic young man wearing a Speedo, running shoes and body glitter, he danced and gyrated provocatively, his slender body shining and glistening in the bright sunlight. Heidi and Irina laughed: “He can’t help himself. He’s just gotta dance.”

My reaction to his open eroticism was more mixed. Of course, part of that came from my remaining homophobia and my Mennonite discomfort with any kind of open sexual display. I realized that the young man was challenging me to get over my puritanical fears of sex, for as Sebastian Moore observes, “Homophobia is at root erophobia.”ii And yet, while I had to accept that an essential element of the Pride movement was to celebrate unapologetically a form of sexuality that for so long has been shunned and shamed in this society, I also had to wonder how the sight of this young man was affecting the gay male couples walking arm in arm down Broadway Avenue. For if the sight of a scantily clad young man moving his body suggestively would have the same effect on a gay man as a similar young woman would have on me, such a presence would be very distracting at a public celebration of my marriage—if not outright offensive.

In the myths and orgiastic rites of Dionysus, the wine, dance and revelry ultimately climaxes with the devotees tearing a young person limb from limb with their bare hands, sometimes quite literally consuming him. The lines between bacchanalian ecstasy and madness are fluidly ambiguous, as in, “You Say Party! We Say Die!”iii At the Pride Parade, I saw many of the participants playing with this ancient, real and ultimately murderous fire as they mixed the message of grace and acceptance with the pressure release valve of a Dionysian carnival.

Of course, I was not worried that the young man would actually be torn limb from limb by the end of the night, though I’m pretty sure he aroused in a number of potential assailants an animal hunger to get their hands on him. But what I saw on parade under the rainbow flag was not only a banquet of justice where all are welcome, but also a dramatic rehearsal of a particular story about sex—a hedonistic tale where, by the end, somebody is going to get hurt. This story is not unique to the gay rights movement by any means. Take any romantic comedy: you don’t want to be the main character’s fiancée or spouse at the beginning of the show, for the same reason you don’t want to be the cowboy with the black hat at the beginning of an old-fashioned western. Your elimination is essential to the climax of the plot.iv

At the Pride Parade, I witnessed a “two-spiritedness,” by which I do not mean the mix of masculine and feminine spirits, which Aboriginal communities have discerned and affirmed in queer folk. I am talking about two spiritual powers, two competing meta-narratives, each with a truth claim that is ultimately unreconcilable with the other. One spirit was telling a story about human culture from the perspective of those it has marginalized and hurt while also seeking healing. This spirit was pursuing what Martin Luther King Jr. called “The Beloved Community,” a togetherness compassionate and conscious of “all God’s children,” as MLK proclaimed in soaring voice at similar marches for similar rights. The other spirit was holding out a narrative about a kind of freedom that is the opposite of community, the opposite of coming home to one another: the freedom for me to pursue what I want and for you to pursue what you want and in our pursuits to be left alone. That somewhere in this striving is the inevitable category of the unwanted is something we don’t talk about. Both meta-narratives turn on sacrifice: the first on its unveiling, the second on its veiling. . .

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Life at the End of Us Versus Them: Cross, Culture, Stories. To reserve a copy, email me at

i“The Scapegoat: The Ideas of René Girard, Part 5” on CBC Ideas. Podcast available at

iiCommendation for James Alison's Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, iv.

iiiThis is the former name of a Canadian dance punk act—ironically employed, as far as I can tell. Their lyrics are impenetrable to me, but they seem like nice people. They recently dropped the “We Say Die!” part of their name after their drummer died of a brain hemorrhage on stage.

ivThat’s a funny word, by the way: plot, which is a simple and ancient word that can mean either the place for a garden or a cemetery, the act of marking out a line on a map, the central narrative of a story, or a secret plan for murder. For a fascinating exegesis of how these meanings all cohere in the sacrificial Roman rite of marking the boundaries of a family field, see Gil Bailie,


  1. Write on, Marcus! You have a brave and intelligent voice that needs to be heard.

  2. Marcus I'm so glad to know of your upcoming book and this post in particular really nails it! Looking forward to more.