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Sins of the ego prevent us from being as good as we want to be.

by James Leroy Wilson
December 8, 2005

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Art critic Camille Paglia is disappointed in Madonna's new album, Confession on a Dance Floor. Paglia loves Madonna because she practically saved disco all by herself in the 80's and early 90's (though, as I recall, it was no longer called disco), and because "[s]he revolutionized feminism by giving enormous momentum to the pro-sex wing." But today, "Madonna has invited and courted the comparison to her younger self by going ostentatiously retro," and came up with just "a good album ... not a great one."

And this raises a larger complaint against Madonna. Yes, "[s]he is a model of prodigious productivity without any affectations of avant-garde self-destructiveness or anomie." But "[t]oo hungry to connect to the youth market, Madonna goes on childishly using naughty words and flipping the finger (as onstage at Live 8 last summer)." "She is confusing her banal, real-life personality with her higher, artistic self." And, "we have yet to see signs that Madonna's powers are ripening toward, let us say, Judy Garland's supreme expressiveness and acute responsiveness to a live audience in her marathon 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall."

"Madonna should beware of the unhappy precedent of Diana, who also became addicted to the flash of paparazzi cameras."

Paglia asks,

Is Madonna suffering Mick Jagger syndrome? Jagger, like Madonna, has tremendous managerial and business aptitude. It is he who single-handedly saved the Rolling Stones during Keith Richards' reclusive period of heroin addiction in the 1970s. But the end result was that the once-Dionysian Jagger became trapped in the crisp, precise Apollonian realm and was no longer capable of producing lyrics that match Richards' thunderous, blues-based inventions. (Full disclosure: Keith Richards has been my idol and role model for over 40 years.) As a lyricist, Jagger has fallen very far indeed from his glorious zenith in "Sympathy for the Devil"-- the greatest of all rock songs."

What I find fascinating is Paglia's double standard, a double standard I believe many of us hold. Paglia worships Keith Richards, even though he nearly destroyed the Rolling Stones because of his heroin addiction. Paglia says that Madonna has yet to match the famously drug-addicted Judy Garland in live performance. But then Paglia criticizes Madonna because, like Jagger who likewise managed to avoid "avant-garde self-destructiveness," she has declined sharply from her creative peak. And also because Madonna is "addicted" to paparazzi cameras.

Which is worse, addiction to heroin, or tabloids?

I wonder Paglia would love Madonna more today if she had stayed in a detox center or two.  Maybe just a little bit of self-destructiveness would've done her good. She would be more human to us, and not, as Cinta Wilson told Paglia, a "Robo-Celebrity, calcified with discipline -- religiously saintly, physically superhuman, in all ways faultless. She represents the unspoken desires of America -- to be good at everything!"

The artist who treats his tortured soul by over-medicating his brain in his pursuit of truth and beauty, comes out as a hero, if often a tragic one. But the artist addicted to sales charts, awards, and seeing his name in lights is often respected and well-liked, but not loved. I suspect the same can be asked of Madonna's new album and the Rolling Stones' latest tour: the dedication to put on a good show is there, but where's the heart? And perhaps the same could be said of Madonna and Mick Jagger throughout their careers, even at their creative peaks. All well and good, but where is the "it" that the Beatles had?

That's the bitter irony that afflicts not just artists and celebrities, but all of us. Those who succumb to "sins of the flesh," often sex- or drug-related, are said to be weak and of poor character, unless and until those demons are conquered or at least controlled. But we are often put off by those who are driven and get the job done, but who are often guilty of what I'd call sins of the ego, such as arrogance and greed -- not necessarily the greed of wanting more, but the greed of viewing the dollar as a sign of affirmation. Keith Richards is loved the way Johnny Cash was loved, whereas Jagger is not loved so much as he is respected and envied. Kind of like Hugh Hefner.

It is these two sides, flesh and ego, or fortune and fame, that conspire against what Paglia calls the "higher artistic self." Which is another way of saying the higher "spiritual" self. It's the difference between producing art out of personal effort to achieve rewards and awards, and connecting to the spiritual, creative force that produces art through the self. We want our entertainers to love their craft first and view their performance as an end in itself. Money and fame should be tangential.

We all have these three sides to ourselves: flesh, ego, and the "higher" or spiritual self. This higher self is grounded in love -- love for others and love of what we do. The ego essentially sabotages this higher self because it pursues the feeling of being respected, admired, and loved without respecting, admiring, and loving others first. And the flesh can sabotage this higher self through indulgences which become addictions, and by narrowing one's world to instant gratification without regard for others.

Which are worse, sins of the flesh or sins of the ego? Or are they the same? Jesus befriended prostitutes and money-grubbing tax collectors, and sternly rebuked the two parties, the Pharisees and the Sadduccees, who dominated the Hebrew religion. The pride of boasting obedience to the law seemed to be worse then not following the law at all.

If pride is the greatest sin, it is because of where it leads. At the end of the chain, pride is the view that public office and public affirmation gives one the right to use force.

Think of the difference between the "sinful" man and the "prideful man." When I mean the sinful man, I'm thinking of the kind of guy Claire Wolfe describes here:

Poor slobs from the inner cities or the rural trailer parks of America go to prison or to the graveyard for a few ounces of dope or a little meth or for beating up some other guy on a drunken Saturday night. They're held fully, painfully, miserably, personally responsible for every tiny act they commit. "Mistakes aren't made" by high-school dropouts or people with incomes under $20k. No, the justice system always considers those folks to be bright and knowledgeable enough to be fully aware of and fully accountable for their every deed. And woe unto you, Tyrone. And woe unto you, Billy-Bob. Your pleas for mercy, and your family's pleas for mercy fall on deaf ears. And you and yours fall on the spikes of mandatory minimums and asset forfeiture laws and the ever-more voracious prison industry.

"Prideful" men, however, don't commit crimes. Instead, they build the prisons. Prideful men aren't emotional and violent, they just start wars. Prideful men aren't drug addicts, they just cause political and economic mayhem in large parts of Latin America. Prideful men don't gamble, they just hand out casino licenses while they prosecute kitchen table poker players. Sinful men do things that, if enough people did them, will cause theoretical harm to society sometime in the future. Prideful men, as Wolfe points out, "make mistakes" that devastate millions, but aren't held accountable.

In today's political environment, the lone defense that many have for President Bush is that he isn't Bill Clinton. And the essence of that argument is, Clinton was unfaithful to his wife, thereby lacking the "character" to invade and bomb foreign countries in the name of Democracy, whereas Bush appears to have been faithful, and therefore does have the right to terrorize the rest of the world in the name of Democracy. If you have good "character," you get to indulge the sin of pride and consolidate power regardless of the cost in dollars or human life.

Crimes of the flesh, of passion, have devastating but localized effects. Crimes of the ego, of pride, of knowing what's best for everyone, have far-reaching devastating effects.

No wonder we are ambivalent toward politicians. It's much like Paglia's ambivalence toward Madonna. Of course, this is a matter of scale. It is better to be addicted to paparazzi cameras than it is to trample on the rights of Americans and the lives of foreigners just so that monuments will be built in one's honor. No matter how much damage some people claim Madonna has done to our culture, it is nowhere near what the Bushes and Clintons have done.   But there is indeed a similarity: it's all about me. It's not about the music, it's about Madonna. It's not about liberty and justice, it's about George Bush, it's about Bill Clinton.

Why is it that self-destructive celebrities can win our affection in the way that "little Miss [or Mr.] Perfect" acts of politicians and zillionaire entertainers do not? It is because we are better able to indentify with them. We can sympathize because we can empathize. To fail because of lust, addiction, or some other weakness seems more, well, human, than to succeed through false piety or an extraordinary work ethic.

I have probably not been fair to Madonna here. Paglia probably hasn't either. But if, as Paglia says, Madonna isn't as good as she could be, it is because Madonna's ego got in the way of producing the great album that could have been produced. Perhaps it was trying too hard.

But in the end, the ego that craves public adoration is superior to the pride that starts unprovoked wars. The worst that can be said of Madonna is that she isn't as good as she used to be. And that's far better than being a war criminal.

Comments (3)

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Everett Wilson writes:
December 8, 2005
Rick Wilson's piece and James Leroy's piece coming up at the same time gives TPO an embarrassment of riches today. Very different from each other, both excellent, a model of what this journal does.

larry white from Iowa writes:
February 1, 2006
Your credentials do not say doctor, but you do have your finger on the pulse of America.

Shane from Carmel Valley, CA writes:
December 26, 2009
Are you like completely insane? Confessions on a Dance Floor was one of Madonna's absolute best albums, if not THE best. Hands down! Have you listened to it? Wow. I am so shocked to have just read those words. This is surreal. Why on earth would you ever say something like that, let alone think it, or print it? Aren't you embarrassed for doing that? I think you're lying about it. You truly feel the opposite about the album but you wanted attention. I don't care though, Madonna doesn't care, and you don't care about what I have to say to you, so, good-bye, and good night, crazy person. But just for the record: You're wrong.

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