Di Prima was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1934. Her maternal grandfather was an active anarchist — a friend and confidant, in fact, of another author I’m teaching this semester, Emma Goldman. Like her fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg, Di Prima grew and evolved over the course of her long career alongside the leading countercultural movements of her time. She protested the Vietnam War; she experimented with free love and lived communally with others; she promoted mind expansion through use of psychedelics. After editing a newsletter called The Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Di Prima spent much of 1966 with Timothy Leary’s crew of utopian psychonauts and psychedelic spiritualists at Millbrook. Her Poets Press published the first two editions of Leary’s Psychedelic Prayers in Spring 1966.
Hippie modernism was an attempt to eroticize or more broadly sensualize Western modernity. It was a project launched from within the West that drew inspiration from the cultures of native and non-Western people. Within a sensualized landscape replanted and rewilded with minimal reliance on technology, people could relax and admire the barking of dogs, the music of birds. A neighbor operating a chainsaw is all it takes, though, to disrupt the peace of this reverie. I’m reminded of Amiri Baraka’s 1964 poem “A Contract. (For the Destruction and Rebuilding of Paterson,” which begins, “Flesh, and cars, tar, dug holes beneath stone / a rude hierarchy of money, band saws cross out / music, feeling. Even speech, corrodes.” Baraka’s poem reminds us that Paterson’s modernity (like that of the rest of the country) never extended to many of its black residents. To help bear his burden — to absorb the anger forced upon him by the racism of our society — I undergo a cleansing ritual. I absorb, I reprocess, I release.
I lie awake in the middle of the night worried about initiatory paths and forces representing competing alignments. Can I trust new acquaintances, or do they wish to use me for some ulterior end? Perhaps I should read about Buddhist socialism. The current Dalai Lama, for instance, thinks of himself as “half-Marxist, half-Buddhist,” and the heterodox economist E.F. Schumacher used to advocate an approach he called “Buddhist economics.” That’s all fine and good, but waters darken once we venture into “technodelics” and emerging efforts to devise tools to alter consciousness. How do we avoid the dangers of instrumentalization under such circumstances? In lieu of an answer, I decide to pair some texts in the hope that they might speak to one another. Take Sun Ra’s “cheery poem inaugurating the new age,” combine it with the version of Amiri Baraka’s play A Black Mass that he recorded with Ra and the Myth-Science Orchestra in 1968, and add Duke Ellington’s essay “The Race for Space” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.”
“Do you hear a robin?” I overhear my niece asking her sister in the next room. Let us resolve to learn something new. Listen to Lee Konitz’s “Sunflower” and drink a Martini.
“The essential irony here,” wrote LeRoi Jones in response to “cool jazz” players of the 1950s like Konitz, is that “when the term cool could be applied generally to a vague body of music, that music seemed to represent almost exactly the opposite of what cool as a term of social philosophy had been given to mean. The term was never meant to connote the tepid new popular music of the white middle-brow middle class. On the contrary, it was exactly this America that one was supposed to ‘be cool’ in the face of” (Blues People, p. 213). Fair enough — but let us not make “existing to cast judgment on others” our middle name. Get out there, swept up in the joy of common, everyday, familial being with others. ‘Tis the season. Imagine in the circle of an eye a triangle of power. With one’s hands, weigh a series of geodes and prisms. Go for walks in a snow-covered neighborhood. Exchange presents. Sit by a fire. Recognize “modernity” as a trope that signals the emergence of the condition to which it refers. Those who use this term come to occupy an alternative temporality — a “temporal structure,” as Fredric Jameson explains, “distantly related to emotions like joy or eager anticipation,” where time fills with promise (A Singular Modernity, p. 34). The term generates an electrical charge, a feeling of intensity and energy. Think of it as a shock doctrine, a shock to the system, an electrification of consciousness.