Do I sometimes feel like a spy or an alien in a foreign land, and do I sometimes behave so? Indeed, I do. Joy is contraband for members of my class. Debtors are expected to work constantly to prove their right to live. And yet, once we deprogram ourselves, joy is easy to come by, easily ours. As easy as raising our arms to accept the light of the sun — a gesture I learn from the branches of bushes beside my office window on an uncharacteristically breezy 77° August afternoon. Self-actualizers, as Maslow says, “sometimes find emotions bubbling up from within them that are so pleasant or even ecstatic that it seems almost sacrilegious to suppress them” (Motivation and Personality, p. 158). With appropriate tools, one can expand into a sense of self empathetically absorbed into the nonhuman environment. Trying to place the brand of “techno-thriller” to which Ingo Swann’s Star Fire belongs, my mind lights upon the early works of Michael Crichton. Seeking info about the latter, I discover Dealing: or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues, a 1970 novel Crichton co-wrote with his younger brother Douglas under the pen name “Michael Douglas.” The book was adapted into a movie in 1972 featuring Barbara Hershey and John Lithgow in his screen debut as a campus drug dealer. Imagine Easy Rider set among the Boston and Berkeley freak left.
The “rise and fall” framework informing Jessica Grogan’s book Encountering America leaves much to be desired, not least because it imposes onto history an imaginary moral economy, one that equates moderation with virtue and radicalism with vice. I found this unexamined framework to be particularly intrusive, for instance, in the chapters of the book dealing with Esalen and LSD. Throughout these chapters, Grogan pins the blame for humanistic psychology’s alleged downfall on what she repeatedly refers to as the chaotic “excesses” of the counterculture — by which she seems to mean some combination of romanticism, hedonism, popular withdrawal of support for institutional authority, and unsupervised experimentation with mind-altering substances. Figures linked with these tendencies include Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Frederick Perls, and William C. Schutz.
Children, playgrounds, beautiful spaces of plenty. There are poles we exist between: abstraction and embodiment. I am at my best as a person, as a companion, when I relax and get loose. These are words I’ve been whispering to myself of late. Sam Binkley shows in his book Getting Loose that this narrative of self-loosening was one of the main working assumptions of the 1970s counterculture. That culture’s “hip jargon,” he argues, “relates a moral universe organized around the opposing values of self-constraint and self-release” (2). Do those of us on the Left who pit ourselves against neoliberalism think ourselves free of the above, in denial of the selves posited by the sentence-form, the master’s grammar? Of course not. We need these to live in community with our friends, our families, our loved ones. Those upon whom we depend at all moments of existence. The single organic and inorganic body with its ever-proliferating, ever-multiplying nested sets of minds. Yet the body that produces garden beds of nigella also produces the Israeli atrocities in Gaza during Monday’s massacre. At which point the high fades and one is left to dwell with one’s anger.
A singsong routine occurs, a beckoning. Guided by voices, I advance, dreaming up games to be played, video-streaming services stocked with programs. Netflix takes the chill out of my basement with its new series Wild Wild Country, about the Rajneesh movement and its leader, the Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, later known as Osho. With crowns come guillotines, says a woman onscreen. Seek instead gentle, meditative gardens, oases amid seas of people. Unless those people are white christian practitioners of settler colonialism, who “settle” with bombs and guns and then defend their stolen land with same, heaven forbid others achieve ecstatic union with other deities. The conservative christians are the life-haters, the pleasure-deniers of history. The ultimate invasive species — over the planet they lay their rule.
Reviewing past trance-scripts, I find in them a portrait of a divided self. I find myself caught in these moments struggling to maintain a shaky détente between two personas representing two competing political orientations: the peaceful, happy-go-lucky hippie and the thwarted, indignant Marxist. This self-discovery of sorts puts me in mind of two books from the early 1970s that washed up yesterday at Goodwill: Gil Green’s The New Radicalism: Anarchist or Marxist? and Adam Curle’s Mystics and Militants: A Study of Awareness, Identity, and Social Action.
Despite their differences (more pronounced, I think, in the excitement of the sixties and seventies), I persist in thinking the necessity of both of these personas (and other, more minor ones besides). They grow from the same soil. Their utopias reply to the same intolerable contradiction at the foundation of my existence: land to be lived upon is beautiful and bountiful, yet I lack it. All habits, all ways of living, take this immiserating lack as their premise. But enough with the tragedy, I tell myself. Dwell instead on that which gives joy, no apologies. Let it just be said: so long as the above, the public will remain equal parts rational and deluded, owing always to its positioning with respect to property. Whenever a society compels people of diverse potential to act as apathetic and accepting subjects, a violence is done to consciousness. Such a relationship, as Curle observes, “cannot be termed peaceful.” It leaves all parties disgraced, able to persist under the illusion of separation from open warfare only because lack of parity between combatants is too great. Given these conditions, I find it hard to think and write other than in kinship with twilight, even amid blaze of day. I recommend, though, as a way of conditioning this condition, freeing one’s head through a listen of Roland Kirk’s Volunteered Slavery, by which I mean “I Say a Little Prayer.” Such sonic outpourings have the power to transform social relations, if at least in the instant.
Sarah pulls up a new Netflix original series based on the Margaret Atwood novel, Alias Grace.
The series begins with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson: “One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted / One need not be a House / The brain has Corridors — surpassing / Material Place.” How are we, each of us, so many different things at once? Stories within stories — but common to all, a fiery red anger, which keeps us wide-eyed, awake, and watchful. In Atwood’s world, characters do little but advance plot, their hard lives shortly the ends of them. Character is a device for the transmission of historical circumstance. Eyes open, little time to pretend. Systems that employ persons as servants or slaves are things to despise. Stars blink down at me. An acorn falls from a tree. I am seeing as if montaged across my forehead a cloud of imagery. We are headed toward the bad future: hierarchical, inauthentic. “Where any view of Money exists, Art cannot be carried on, but War only. […]. Art Degraded, Imagination Denied, War Governed the Nations.” So reads Blake’s engraving of the Laocoon. I find in this work words uttered as if by a prophet. Light and shadow. Eyelid movies all my own. Voices, too, telling stories of things not visible. One of these days I should try to design a course on either Noble Savagery or the idea of the wild. The failure of the hippie counterculture over the course of the 1970s signaled the decline of these ideas as significant components of American identity. Wildness is no longer a major trope in the American national-political unconscious — and I regard this as a great tragedy, a decline we ought to mourn. Atwood’s character says, “God is everywhere. He can’t be caged as men can.” Yet the world is all predators and prey. When the weather is like that, one’s heart pounds in one’s ears, make of that what one may.
I watch as contour lines on a topographic map transform into rings of paint. Whatever the Monopoly Man once meant, it’s over now, he’s cashed in his cards. Say hello to Jr., dead by March of 1943. For my students, a capitalist is, like, a tech nerd, tinsel on a Christmas tree, not Rich Uncle Pennybags. Bye-bye iconography of yore. A book of personhood would have to be a psychic bible, its voice able to bear a politics of authenticity while portraying a mind at play. Tall order. But no worries: I’ve the power to throw fireballs. Flower power. With it, I can reverse the smoothing-out effect of the law of large numbers. I don’t want the world to remain stuck behaving in ways ordained by mere actuaries. When I’m stuck, I end up at Taco Bell ordering Beefy Nacho Loaded Grillers, my mind unable to posit a desirable alternative. The world clutches my heart and squeezes, blood running out betwixt the fingers of a shrugging Atlas. Roll and light a magic wand, though, and the life narrative turns silly. E.T. waves down at me, poised atop a bookcase like an imp of the perverse. The eye sees the Word and the mind assimilates its meaning. There needn’t be a lack of correspondence between wonder and focus, but for the fact that concentration so often spurs anger about parts mistaken for what in truth remains ungraspable, the whole. The reason for consciousness of Being. Or so I tell myself, as if to perform a kind of programming. Better, then, to just relax while time allows. Psychedelics are for those in the know. Imagine a world that makes one happy, I tell myself. Life is and should be ecstasy. Collective mass experimentation with consciousness-expansion. But Christian cultures are unable to tolerate freedom: they stamp out the Hippie-Dionysian. They inject poisons into the body politic. It is as if some secret power steps in around 1969 or so and corrects the statistical anomaly. Some covert force intervenes, and redesigns the narrative.