Abbie Hoffman was a countercultural revolutionary, but he was also a comedian, wise and gleeful in his writings and his actions. When the government came after him, he went underground, lived as a fugitive. Perhaps I should teach a course on prison writing: Antonio Gramsci, Martin Luther King Jr., Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson, John Sinclair. But man, that’s a lot of weight to carry. Better to stick with joyous liberatory texts like Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It (written under the alias “FREE”), or direct action Movement manifestos like Jerry Rubin’s DO IT! Rubin, of course, dodged Abbie’s fate — and in a sense, dodged out of the cultural revolution, exploring various West Coast New Age self-help / therapy groups in the 1970s and transforming into a Reagan-era Yuppie by the time of his former comrade’s resurfacing in the 1980s. The two paired up and performed together in a countrywide speaking tour as political sparring partners.
Be that as it may, I remain charmed by Rubin’s 1976 memoir of his time in the human potential movement, Growing (Up) at 37. Point being, LSD was various in its effects, serving at one and the same time as catalyst for, implement of, and impediment to the era’s cultural revolution.
I circle back as in a refrain toward M.C. Richards, her theme “the act of centering” returning again amid radical declarations, revolutionary self-fashionings, “Movement” speeches, street writings, prison writings, books like Abbie Hoffman’s Woodstock Nation and John Sinclair’s Guitar Army. The personal was fused with the political for these authors. They took psychedelic civil disobedience as locally staged stoned action and amplified it via seizure of airwaves, campuses, streets, courts of law. Kesey and the Pranksters did something similar a few years earlier, though without the militant intent. Theirs was more of a traveling roadshow, coast-to-coast trips across America, La Honda to New York and back. Minds changing themselves on the road, and in so doing, changing the minds of others.
The life of ’60s counterculture icon Abbie Hoffman ought to be read not just in light of the Marxism of Herbert Marcuse, whom Hoffman studied under while an undergrad at Brandeis, but also in light of the humanistic psychology of another of Abbie’s mentors at Brandeis, the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow. Abbie was a self-actualizer, a seeker of peak experiences, his writing in books like Woodstock Nation spontaneous prose performances of life lived hopefully in pursuit of revolutionary overthrow of the police state he saw and experienced around him, the “PIG NATION.” There’s a lot of Ego in this performance, but it’s an Ego self-identified with a movement in potentia, like the Whitman of “Song of Myself” or the Ginsberg of “America.” A collective voice coaxing participation in revolutionary transformation of being. Hoffman learned to perform revolution as living theater using the techniques of Artaud and the Diggers. Unlike those precursors, however, Abbie staged his happenings as guerilla seizures of the capitalist opponent’s mass media. The latter became the unwitting narrators and documenters — and to some extent, participants — in Abbie’s dramas. The story continues, carries over, into other books of the era: Ed Sanders’s Shards of God, Jerry Rubin’s DO IT! and We Are Everywhere. Time to visit Peter Coyote for criticism of some of this, and for more on the Diggers. Yet what a riveting performance! Studs Terkel described it as “ebullience and despair rolled into one.” Paul Krassner’s tale of taking acid before taking the witness stand at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial adds another level of anarchic psychedelic zaniness to all of this.
The world can become different in a variety of ways. It needn’t become “Area X” — so why imagine it that way? Picture instead the differences imagined by Samuel R. Delany in books like Dhalgren, The Einstein Intersection, and Heavenly Breakfast. Events occur prompting ontological transformations — changes in the nature of reality — at which point language adjusts accordingly.
Out of dictated necessity one opens portals into alternative realms of possibility. The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu calls out to me, appears to me a book worth reading — though I await a translation that speaks to me as do birds with their songs. F. is now three months old and the world, the totality — it “adjusts” and we adjust with it, hoping through acts of care to re-establish right relations with others.
A neighbor broadcasts at a faint volume a punk song while birds sing in the trees. I sit at an old weather-worn picnic table, out of the center of which grows a cute tuft of fungi. Onto a table of another sort, a virtual turntable, I drop Foodman’s Dokutsu EP and rouse myself to help others. It needn’t be a trial. Yet part of me, stimulated by electronic nervous system, wonders, “Where’s the fun? Where’s the joy?” Roger K. Green’s book lands me into new territory: Leary and Alpert’s Castalia Foundation, named after the society that serves as the fictional setting for Hermann Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game. It also appears to be a town here in North Carolina — though too far from me to be of much use. The Hesse novel is one I wish to read so as to better understand the psychedelic utopianism of Castalia and Millbrook. It seems to have had upon Leary and Alpert an impact as great as Huxley’s Island. Reading it must be like opening a door and going through it and then always going back out again. Intentional passivity as a form of action.
We need to talk about Allegory, don’t we? I go for a walk, through cold and wind, birds above my head. Signs, symbols, myths, images, all arranged in synchrony. An elaborately constructed meaning-system — meaning not just in a structural but in a personal sense. Today, for instance, a student produced a Vietnam-themed reading of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” with the song’s writer Grace Slick finding in Lewis Carroll’s White Knight and Red Queen the superpower protagonists of the Cold War. And here I am this evening, reading Roger K. Green’s A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics. It’s messy stuff — but that’s what happens when one’s mind manifests. Books feed back upon their readers, each person’s expansion of consciousness contributing, in however mediated a fashion, to the education of all.
At a desk covered in objects — stacks of papers and books; horizontal arrays of napkins, paper clips, highlighters markers and pens — I sit and work: teach, meet, read, write, converse with students. Around and behind me, dense stacks of books and records, artifacts that store and transmit stories and histories, recordings of events, theories, philosophies. From these, I build my teachings, dialogical investigations of life through study of literature. The America revealed in this literature is a place filled with stories of injustice and resistance. Conquest, slavery, wage slavery. And like a thread run through it, the revolution, the ongoing one, the perennial one, the fights for freedom, equality, love among all persons and joy to the world. The works we read and discuss implicate us — as victims, as perpetrators, oftentimes as both — in a violent, fascist, capitalist-imperialist, patriarchal settler-colonialist system of domination — a system radically at odds with the future integrity of Earth as biosphere.
What are we to make of Tommy Orange’s There There, with its story of a Powwow interrupted by violence? Why is that the event where the book’s interlinked narratives connect? Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, as is his character Dene Oxendene, a young documentary filmmaker collecting stories from Native people in his hometown. Dene is thus a version of Orange himself, allowing the novelist to comment metafictionally about the politics of representing one’s community, particularly when one is a member of an oppressed people. Can the one allow the many to speak? Can the many speak through the one?
Back to Aldous Huxley’s Island, with its Pacific island utopia, the society of Pala, intact despite the “conspiracy” narrative that weaves through it like Muchalinda, the King of Snakes, whose tree the Buddha is said to have sat under. The lesson, we might say, is that “People who aren’t frightened of snakes, people who don’t approach them with the fixed belief that the only good snake is a dead snake, hardly ever get bitten” (239). For Muchalinda cares for the Buddha, shelters the Tathagatha “from the wind and the rain” (238) for the duration of his sitting. Huxley offers the story as a eupsychian alternative to the West’s Eden narrative. Each of us is an island and a world — like Turtle Island — and our time here can be blissful, saved by the Third Noble Truth if we so allow that there is a cure. The prescription for this easing of suffering is laid out in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Each of us has within our grasp the power to live as do the Palanese — because each of us is the Shipwrecked Westerner washed up on Pala’s shores like Island‘s protagonist Will Farnaby. If Will can be educated and changed by his encounter with Pala, then so can we. So can all of us. Microcosmic resistance can have observable macrocosmic effects. Millennials outnumber boomers. Go, Bernie, go! Let us put our educations to practice and change the world. “War is over, if you want it,” as John and Yoko sang, with backing vocals by the Harlem Community Choir. No more war on Natives, migrants, women, children, workers, planet. No more war on ourselves.