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A Review of Death's Dream Kingdom

Couch Time for America

by ROBERT DOTSON, M.D.

Words offer the means to meaning and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. The truth is–there is something terribly wrong with this country–isn’t there? And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance, coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.

V’s address to London, V for Vendetta, film script by Larry and Andy Wachowski

Indeed, most readers of "CounterPunch" would agree that there is "something terribly wrong" with our nation. This reviewer was slow to awaken to that sad fact, but if he can be illumined at such a late date, then maybe there is hope for the country at large. It took nearly fifty years (!) for the alarm bells to begin ringing in my head to the point that they could no longer be ignored. The past decade has seen those alarms only increase in volume and urgency.

As a physician (admittedly a noncognitive one, as all surgeons are considered by their non-surgeon colleagues), I have been concerned with the apparent mass psychosis that increasingly grips our land. We have long since departed the shores of a comfortable corporate neurosis for a full-blown craziness which makes preceding failed states of history appear amazingly normal. The slightly eccentric "uncle" of yore has evolved into a Bundy-esque figure intent on locating his next victim. And, the serial murderer’s charming veneer is wearing thin!

How is it that we permit leaders who, while claiming divine guidance, unapologetically kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people and pass it off as "collateral damage"? How is it that this bastion of Liberty and Justice has more of its citizens incarcerated than any other on the planet? How is it that this nation of Peace spends more on weapons of destruction (and, yes, we are talking mass destruction) than the rest of the planet’s nations combined–and, still we are told that more are needed? How is it that we permit the economic rape and pillage of America (and the entire planet) by unfettered amoral multi-national corporations, under the rubric of Free Trade? How is it that we allow our government to abdicate its role in maintaining America’s infrastructure–from hard assets to social services–while enabling profits to Big Business interests "beyond avarice"? How is it that we tolerate (and fund!) televangelists who publicly call for the murder of another nation’s leader or for the state murder of those deemed "undesirable" pursuant to the religious revelation du jour ?

Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche Since 9/11 is an important key for unlocking some of the answers to these questions. It is an unsettling book in many ways, but is passionately and lovingly crafted by a unique writer and thinker. Walter A. Davis, Professor Emeritus of English, Ohio State University, artfully and skillfully uses his command of language, theater, and philosophy to vivisect the type of persons that we have become in this post-9/11 nation and display for all to see the banality of evil that so marks our domestic and foreign policy.

This is one of those books that–out of all proportion to its size–is packed with disturbing insights into and theories about our uniquely American character. Though, perhaps, it could be equally applied to many different Western nations through modern history, it is particularly attuned to the angst-ridden United States of the early twenty-first century.

Manipulated by fear and by the mindless pursuit of a lifestyle, which can only be sustained at the expense of others, we have collectively empowered an increasingly totalitarian form of neo-fascism. All that matters is expansion and power. Envy and Greed increasingly rule our day. Prof. Davis examines this unhappy state of affairs at length and diagnoses a form of psychosis peculiar to us–individually and collectively–a psychosis which begins with each of us as individuals, but ultimately manifests itself in the corporate body.

Through the use of predominantly psychoanalytical tools–with the application of language; the use of classic literature, theater, and philosophy; and, clinical case studies of mental pathology–Davis proposes a new and radical way of analyzing what ails our spirit in this foundering nation state. From Shakespeare to Pynchon, from Marx to Hegel, from to Kant to Lacan, he collects a wide array of threads and weaves them into a tapestry reflective of contemporary America’s condition by using Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis as loom and shuttle. And, it is not a pretty sight to behold.

Sadly, fewer of us today are even equipped to understand the author’s arguments, as the once vibrant Liberal Arts communities in our colleges and universities seem to have been decimated by political correctness–whether leftist or rightist. Where high school students once graduated with at least some grasp of literature and were taught to think in analytic fashion, now they head out for life un-equipped for even rudimentary thinking about moral or ethical issues. College students are molded into corporate conformity on an unprecedented scale. Teachers at all levels are censored for daring to question the Official Dogma. Serious thinking has been replaced by imprinting with the mores of sit-coms, MTV, and computer gaming or with a distorted New Gospel (which has more to do with self-affirmation through condemnation of others, than with redemption through a Divine Savior).

The author does not hesitate to tear down the totems of our society in the process of constructing his case. From the halls of academia to the seats of government–from the altars of fundamentalist churches to the boardrooms of Amerika, Inc.–no one is spared his scathing, all-too-accurate criticism. Those who would most benefit from Davis’ call to personal introspection and responsibility, of course, would immediately reject any suggestion of their own complicity in our society’s ills. It is doubtful that we will find the President or Vice President curled up with the author’s book in hand! Maybe our Attorney General (now there is a truly scary thought)! Sadly, it is also highly unlikely that many of our fellow Americans will interrupt their "happy" thoughts by attempting to read a book named Death’s Dream Kingdom. Such reading might cause too much psychic discomfort and result in too much guilt. Such reading would be too radical. Such reading would require too much thought.

Though the subject matter of his volume will neither be conducive to financial success nor to receiving the recognition that it deserves, it is worth serious consideration by all of us. Be warned, however: The vast majority of Christians will dismiss Davis as a raving atheist and, thus, while awaiting the Rapture will miss valid criticisms of today’s "feel good", flag-wrapped revivalism. His academic colleagues will attack him as just another retired liberal arts professor and, thus, be content in their insular, self-righteous smugness and political-correctness. Politicians and corporatists alike will excoriate him as one of "those" Marxists and, thus, reject the totalitarian reality of latter-day capitalism that he rightly identifies. Instead of Orwell’s boot "brought down on the human face forever," we are left with the image of a yellow smiley face doing the same.

In spite of the often brutal diagnostics that Davis brings to bear upon each of us, he is at heart a Romantic and, consequently, offers the prospect of redemption. That redemption can only come, however, through self-examination of our own madness–the confrontation of our own inner demons that we strive to hide and deny–the recognition of the truth about ourselves (a painful thing, if rightly done). Whether one primarily holds to a secular or to a religious pre-suppositional base, the concept of psychoanalysis is useful for addressing what lies at the center of our being. Only by starting there with our psyche struggling with itself can change occur and the pathological processes at work in each of us begin to be reversed. In short, that is the message of this book–it is past time for us all to "look into a mirror" and deal with the monster there before us.

Finally, Prof. Davis uses the closing paragraphs of his book to point out how time limited we are in this historical moment and he calls for action by translating "one’s inwardness into the terms of responsibility." With the very real looming crises of environmental catastrophe, of a nuclear holocaust, and of the rise of our own rogue Totalitarian State, our time may indeed be short for introspection and self-correction. Death’s Dream Kingdom, is a much-needed diagnostic and therapeutic tool in correcting the insanity that so grips our land.

How did this happen? Who is to blame? Certainly there are those who are more responsible than others and they will be held accountable, but again, truth be told If you are looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War. Disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you and in your panic you turned to [insert politician of choice]

V’s address to London, V for Vendetta, film script by Larry and Andy Wachowski

Robert S. Dotson, M.D. live in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.