In my teachings, I praise the Haudenosaunee — the “People of the Longhouse,” the “Iroquois Confederacy.” They’re a matriarchal decentralized democracy. Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels wrote favorably of the Iroquois in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, though his account relies heavily upon the work of Rochester-based American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. (Morgan, by the way, is buried in Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery.) Along with his work as an ethnographer of the Iroquois, Morgan served as a Republican assemblyman and senator in the 1860s. Time to dig in and study this history. Shango’s double-headed battle-axe appears, though, on the cover of Mary Daly’s book Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. That, too, is a book to study. The ordinary is itself the uncanny.
Julius Lester’s version of “Stagolee” adds to the musical tradition a voluntary descent into and subsequent takeover of the Christian Lord’s Hell. This is a powerful act of resignification. The story’s hero or antihero protagonist — a figure “beyond good and evil,” in a sense — is returned to his beloved community. Stagolee remains his own man, surrounded by people he loves. Hell is made a Heaven after Heaven was discovered to be a racist white country club. Hell is the “other side of town,” we might say — free of the Lord’s judgment. Cecil Brown wrote a book on Stagolee called Stagolee Shot Billy. He devotes a chapter to Black Power — yet neglects to mention Lester, author of Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!, one of the first books on the subject. Brown claims that “The Stagolee paradigm has produced political figures such as Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, H. ‘Rap’ Brown, Robert Williams, and Bobby Seale” (Brown 14). Seale’s relationship to the Stagolee narrative is especially intriguing. When James Baldwin wrote a foreword to Seale’s autobiography, he titled the piece “Stagolee.” As Brown notes, “Seale not only named his son Stagolee but used the narrative toast version as a recruiting device to get young black men into the Black Panther party. It is also the paradigm for such literary figures as Bigger Thomas, the protagonist in Richard Wright’s Native Son” (Brown 14). Brown also hints at some connection between Stagolee and the Yoruba god Shango. (The latter also figures centrally in Santaria.) Yet Brown only hints at a connection, never elaborates. I suppose Shango and Stagolee both teach through their example the importance of a well-rounded life, one that achieves balance between reality and pleasure. Both are passionate warriors who love love. One wields thunder; the other wields a gun. Both command respect.
Drafting a series of notes on Julius Lester’s telling of the “Stagolee” narrative, I ask myself: What can we say of the tale’s protagonist? Is Stagolee a hero, a superhero, a deity, an antihero, a villain? In what way is he a “rebel”? He’s not just a murderer. He’s a community hero. He cares for his victim’s wife and kids. Others love him and celebrate him at his funeral. He is what I think Ishmael Reed would call an “Osiris” figure, given his magical capacity for self-resurrection. Osiris both is and is not the same as Christ. He likes to party and dance and have a good time. He shares his love with others. Cecil Brown, however, recognizes in Stagolee Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder (Brown 3). He claims that there were field hollers and field blues that predate the 1895 shooting of William Lyons by Lee Shelton. The songs precede, foretell — prophetically conjure into being, we might say — the characters in the newspapers. The vibrational form of the song dreams the world into being. Religion is once again the site of battle. It is against one religion, a certain kind of Christianity, and in practice of another that Stagolee’s rebellion is staged. He rejects all higher authority, including that of the Lord of what Frederick Douglass called “the slaveholder’s religion.” Stagolee is a man who can say, as Douglass did, that he is his own master.
A book called Realizing the Impossible called out to me the other day, the title resonating with a phrase I’d recalled in an email the day prior. A friend had recommended an article commending the importance of utopian visionary thinking in times of crisis. I replied with a line of Che Guevara’s spraypainted on the walls on the streets of Paris during May ’68: “Be realistic — demand the impossible.” Opening the book, I came upon an interview with late 60s acid anarchist Ben Morea, central figure in New York freak-left political-art groups Black Mask and Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, as well as — to my surprise — a later, short-lived collective called International Werewolf Conspiracy. The name pricks up one’s ears, does it not? For a short time in the late 60s and early 70s the group made and printed posters and manifestos. They’d pass out leaflets to fellow heads on the streets. Morea was friends with Valerie Solanas, author of The SCUM Manifesto. Morea wrote a pamphlet in support of Solanas when she shot Andy Warhol, an act shunned and disowned by the rest of the left and the art world. There’s a character based on Morea in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol. By 1969, he was heading the International Werewolf Conspiracy. The group’s broadsheets amplify the gothic element in Marx and Engels. The specter evoked in the first sentences of The Communist Manifesto has given way to a pack of werewolves birthed when American youth drink the era’s “magic potion,” LSD. These werewolves are thus in origin a bit like Frankenstein’s monster — one of capitalist science’s Faustian lab experiments gone awry. The pose strikes me as pure Attentat. Then again, maybe it’s just an American “horror-show” version of épater la bourgeoisie: an attempt to shock the middle class out of its complacency as the country transforms into Nixonland.
Students in my classes produced presentations on Beats, Hippies, and Millbrook. The third class was more comprehensive in its coverage — though none of the groups mentioned the new religions and religious organizations formed at Millbrook: the Neo-American Church, for instance, and the League for Spiritual Discovery. Practitioners of religion were targeted by government. These were utopian communities of love and peace: open, welcoming communities founded not through settlement but through sacramental use of psychoactive substances. They modeled for the civilization the Alternative, the solution to the economic and environmental crises. They also modeled, however imperfectly, an attempt at alliance with anti-racist, anti-colonial groups like the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement — a point neglected in the histories presented by my students. Is there more I could say to help them vote? Or is the action we must take vaster than that? Let us trust that the texts will lead the way, permitting us to say what needs saying.
Some car drama this afternoon — but we take care of it, we swap out the flat tire, replace it with the spare, drive it over to the auto shop for repair. I remember the last time I changed a tire: the flush afterwards, the sense of accomplishment. Upon discovering today’s flat, I responded initially with flashes of anger and resentment. These, however, I channeled, transmuted into energy that I made work for me as I performed the physicality of what the circumstance of the day demanded: a series of arm wrestles with lug nuts and tires. Afterwards my shoulders went numb a bit as after an intense session of weightlifting. Yet there’s work to be done, so I do it. Up next in the course, Ginsberg and Di Prima.
Here I am once again reading Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” a poem I’ve been reading for most of my adulthood. Today, though, is the first time I see the supermarket through which the poet wanders as both sacred and profane: a supermarket of neon and concrete, certainly, but also a supermarket of the spirit. Ginsberg wanders amid Whitman’s “enumerations” and “penumbras,” the catalogued universe of American consumerism — but he dwells there with his ancestors, in an afterlife like the one imagined by the ancient Greeks. Whitman is addressed and invoked throughout the poem. Ginsberg questions him as if Whitman were an American Virgil leading Ginsberg through the inferno of the American Century. The poem travels from the bright light of the new postwar supermarket to a lonely American night. The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca shops here, too, apparently. Ginsberg wonders what Lorca was doing there “down by the watermelons.” Lorca was executed by fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Ginsberg follows these figures, though he also imagines in a somewhat paranoid manner that he himself is being followed or trailed by “the store detective,” as if the poet were a character in one of the era’s films noir. All of this thinking occurs on the night of a full moon. It’s a “weird” poem, is it not? Weird as in the way Erik Davis uses the term in his book High Weirdness. The supermarket is as much in Hades as it is in California. I read it now while tending a small fire in a fire-pit in my backyard. Whitman seems dismayed by the country’s development in the half-century since his passing. The “lonely old grubber,” who always said he was immortal, appears in the poem eyeing and questioning the grocery boys. “Who killed the pork chops?” he asks. “What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” The questions suggest confusion, suspicion, bewilderment, and indignation. Why do we find ourselves in this world, he seems to be asking, rather than “the lost America of love,” the one we dream? Why, though, does the poem end beside the waters of Lethe? Perhaps that is where the poet locates America spiritually and psychogeographically.
Gnosticism is a theology with which I was already grappling before I’d heard the term — for there was a “gnostic current” in the culture of my youth. One receives gnostic teachings, for instance, in the works of Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and Jean Baudrillard. Similar teachings appear in the “edge-of-the-construct” films of the late 1990s — movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show. These works spoke from a period of political paranoia — the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, with widespread fears of conspiracy around the turn of the millennium mixed with anxieties about technological transformations, “New Economy” dot-com bubble newly burst. Computers were suddenly “virtual places” to which many of us migrated for many hours each day. Computers housed places we showed up to for work and play. And of course, all of this seemed interlinked with prior screen cultures like TV and cinema. One spent a lot of one’s time in what Situationist Guy Debord called “The Society of the Spectacle.” It’s not a fun place to be. The Spectacle intervenes in one’s relationship to one’s body. Marxism says all of this is happening within an economy. Workers must unite and seize control of the means of production, wrest them from the clutches of the capitalists. And so I believed — as I do today. But Eric Voegelin reminds us that Marxism is itself a brand of Gnosticism. One can’t escape one’s latin roots.
I sort through boxes of books, selecting several a day to add to shelves of bookcases around the house. Each room with its books operates thus around me as ever-expanding memory palace and cognitive map. The angel of the library arrives, or as Erik Davis says in an interview for a recent episode of Michael Taft’s Deconstructing Yourself podcast, “The archive wakes up and starts to show you patterns.” I’ve experienced and continue to experience “visits” from these “intelligences from the other side.” These are for the most part joyful occasions — growth games. One feels sized-up like Mario under the influence of flower power. Imbued with a kind of grace.
What happens when we enter the imaginative space of Walt Whitman’s America? The country widens. Through it strides the Spirit of Hope — “in the Mannahatta and in every city of these States inland and seaboard…Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument, / The institution of the dear love of comrades” (128). But Whitman’s also a poet of settler-colonial Westward expansion, is he not? Rather than referring to indigenous people as “Indians,” Whitman called them “the red aborigines.” They appear in Leaves of Grass only as people who have “vanished” — as if there was no violence involved in this “melting” and “departing.” In “Starting From Paumanok,” they’re mentioned in a single stanza, remembered only for “charging the water and the land with names” (26). Whitman’s epic whitewashes American history. During the years of Whitman’s production of Leaves of Grass, Indian Wars were fought by the United States government everywhere west of the Mississippi. The first edition appeared in the wake of the Trail of Tears. The Wounded Knee Massacre occurred at the end of 1890, the year before Whitman’s death. Whitman seems to have thought little about his complicity with the evils of a government that wages war on Indians. This despite the fact that he spent the year of 1865 working in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior. So, it wasn’t like he was unaware of indigenous people — he just regarded them as “savages,” doomed to demise by the settler-state’s imagined “manifest destiny.” Beyond just casually dismissing indigenous struggles, however, Whitman was also an appropriationist, his English decorated with words poached from native languages, particularly names of tribes and names of places. How do we make Whitman and the past he represents “useful,” as Frederick Douglass said, “to the present and the future”?