Masonic Dissonance

Michael Jarzabek recently guest-edited an issue of the Masonic magazine Fraternal Review. Unusually, Jarzabek wanted it to have the look and feel of a punk zine. Notably, the cover has an illustration by Bob Gorman of the heavy metal band GWAR (though he’s not a Freemason) and the theme is on dissonance. Below is an interview with Jarzabek on why he decided to do this.

The Spiritual Survival:

Why were you inspired to write about dissonance and to give the magazine a punk-look?

Michael:

Freemasons tend to compartmentalize “the Craft” into neat little boxes. We obsessively labor to make it safe and comfortable. Every step we take in this direction makes the true teachings of Freemasonry harder to access. Inadvertently, we strip it of its meaning and effectively reduce it to a mere hollow fetish. I think in a way this mirrors society in which humans are reduced to serve as robotic consumers.

We buy Masonic books, paintings, and other ephemera that, instead of challenging us, only serves to solidify our safe world view. When that isn’t enough, we join another [Masonic] body and take another position [in the lodge]. We restart the cycle. We descend down the winding stairs into empty materialism. We get caught up in a rat race of what Angel Millar calls in his new book of the “Iron Age.” We consume until it consumes us, and we burn out or fade away. We never find that answer we’re looking for.

That’s because Freemasonry isn’t an answer it’s a system of questions. We could debate what those questions are but ultimately, I think there are a few essential ones:

Who are we?
Why are we here?
Will anyone care when we’re gone?
Do we have free-will?
Most importantly, however, do we have the courage to exercise our free-will?

In each moment of our lives do we have what it takes to be free-born? The antithesis of rampant consumerism, mindless groupthink, and the status quo in Ancient Greece was Socrates, Plato, and Pythagoras. In the Renaissance, it was Michelangelo, DaVinci, and Pico della Mirandola. In colonial times it was Thomas Paine, Joseph Warren, and Thomas Jefferson. In modern times it was the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash.

These men all chose to be builders. They chose to cast off their chains and live as free men. They chose to create rather than consume.

They were philosophers, Renaissance men, Revolutionaries, and punks. They all shared a do-it-yourself attitude. As the adage goes, all you need is “three chords and the truth.”

I truly believe in that and I wanted to inspire other Masons to stop listening to other people’s “music” and pick up their “guitar,” grab a couple of friends and create their own. I could think of no better vehicle for this than a punk zine.

The Spiritual Survival:

Yes, well, during the 18th century (and even into the 19th century), many Freemasons made their own regalia, painting Masonic symbols on it themselves or getting their wives to embroider them. If you look at most of this hand-made regalia, it looks quite naive, but there’s something really cool about it too. It reminds me a lot of punks who used to paint their own leather jackets with band images and emblems.

Of course, during the 18th century, as well, sometimes Freemasons made up their own rituals and compiled their own Masonic rites. And so you end up with competing factions, especially in France and Germany — the Strict Observance, the Egyptian Rite, the Asiatic Brethren, etc. — but you also have this really wild, confusing, vibrant mix, with these rites and rituals being influenced by alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Christian chivalry and mysticism, etc.

So, with all this symbolism, how does dissonance fit in? Or does it?

Michael:

Heavily alluded to in Freemasonry is Aristotle’s Golden Mean. However, we are only shown virtue and almost never vice. This puts us at a disadvantage. The Golden Mean is about finding balance or harmony between opposites, but we’re only given one side of the story.

Take the Four Cardinal Virtues. If I have too much fortitude, I am not being harmonious. I’ll rush foolishly into danger rather than finding a logical strategy or tactic where I may avoid it. Likewise, if I had too little fortitude I’ll cower in fear and anxiety, crippled by inaction. Harmony is not found in the extreme polar edges of virtue. This is where dissonance lives. Since true harmony in an examined life is a moving target, it would be prudent for the true student of the craft to examine what harmony is not. I think by understanding dissonance we can find true harmony or that Golden Mean.

The Spiritual Survival:

Right. Symbolically, you have the two columns at the inner door of the lodge, with one signifying the earth and the other the celestial or the heavenly, and there are the symbols of the rough ashlar or stone and the perfect ashlar or the building block, for example. And the initiate of Freemasonry is supposed to chip away at his bad habits and bad thoughts, etc., to become perfectly himself or to embody his higher consciousness, we might say. So the emphasis there is on the higher aspects. But do you propose exploring the negative aspects? For example, a Freemason isn’t supposed to eat or drink alcohol to excess. Should he understand drunkenness and losing self-control, maybe in a psychotherapeutic way, looking at his own vices? Or are you suggesting something else?

Michael:

That’s a really good example. I’m not saying that people should act like Nicholas Cage in the movie Leaving Las Vegas. They should definitely know the effects of drunkenness to understand what drinking to excess is. They should also understand that the same amount of alcohol may affect them differently in different situations. For instance, the Bowling Green State University document, “Factors That Affect Intoxication,” states that, “If you get five or fewer hours of sleep for four nights in a row two drinks will start to feel like six drinks. Another way to describe this: lack of sleep reduces tolerance, so impairment will be experienced at lower BAC levels than normal.” That’s a pretty big swing and one that could end up affecting your life forever. Other factors on intoxication include medication use, amount of food intake, illness, and mood. That’s a lot to understand but if you’re going to drink responsibly it’s pretty important knowledge.

We can take this line of thinking and apply it to any number of morals, virtues and character traits with the same results. Most things aren’t simply black and white like the mosaic pavement. We should also understand what emotional triggers may affect our desire to drink. If we can identify them we can work on understanding them. If we can understand them we can work on truly healing ourselves.

The Spiritual Survival:

Yes, well, if you’re going to drink alcohol, you should be conscious of how it’s affecting you, and not drink to excess. There’s a line from the Hávamál of the medieval Icelandic text the Poetic Edda: “Shun not the mead, but drink in measure.” Drinking alcohol, within measure, has been a part of Western social culture for thousands of years. But, nevertheless, I think some people would say just don’t drink at all. Former alcoholics won’t drink a glass of wine because they know that they will end up binge drinking if they do. But, I know the issue of Fraternal Review isn’t about alcohol per se. So perhaps tell us what practical steps you’re envisioning, either in a lodge or group setting or as an individual practice. And how is dissonance a part of that?

Michael:

I hope this issue in some way inspires individuals to realize that Freemasonry isn’t a fetish or Golden Calf that exists simply to be admired. It isn’t a costume that we wear to go to a party. It is a collection of some of the world’s most beautiful and useful philosophy, literature, and mythology. Freemasonry isn’t something you are; it’s something you do and it’s time that we started doing it.

In his article, Dissonance as Transformation Towards Harmony, Eric Marks writes, “Dissonance is a clue, a symbol, a signpost, that an internal problem exists and therefore, an invitation to transform.” Erik goes on to share three strategies from Leon Festinger on how to accept this invitation.: One, “reduce the importance of the cognitions, attitudes, or beliefs.” Two, “acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs.” And, three, “change one or more of the attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors to make the relationship between the elements a consonant one.”

I hope Lodges, Districts, and Grand Lodges will work to create and to sustain a living culture (whether that’s launching a Masonic event, Masonic podcast, creating a Masonic education program in the lodge, etc.). All this starts by identifying the dissonant beliefs we hold as individuals and institutions and to be courageous in resolving those beliefs in healthy and constructive ways. It starts in this moment and each successive moment for the rest of our lives.

Greg Kaminsky’s article, “Dissonance: A Late Night Revelation,” provides an example. He discusses “the clash between older brethren who essentially ran and administered the fraternity and believed their institution was a bastion of fraternal camaraderie and outlet for philanthropic and charitable endeavors and younger brethren who joined Freemasonry to learn about the esoteric symbolism.” This is nothing new as Jedidiah French states in the introduction to the book that he co-edited, The Art and Science of Initiation. If I’m not mistaken, the harmonization of these polar factions was one of the main goals of this project. The Ancients and the Moderns, the academics and the esotericists, the pancake makers and the Kabbalists are all thought to be diametrically opposed. We would do well to apply Festinger’s three strategies to these divisions in order to foster harmony in the craft where we find dissonance. If we could find ways to do this in the microcosm of the Craft I have no doubt that we could also use these same tools to heal similar divisions in the macrocosm of the greater world.

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One thought on “Masonic Dissonance

  1. All too true. “Inadvertently, we strip it of its meaning and effectively reduce it to a mere hollow fetish.” One sees exactly the same phenomenon in most church-goers these days.

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