Reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest again with students, I find us wanting as readers to separate the book’s countercultural critique of the Combine from its racism and its misogyny. On race, as on gender, Kesey maps power-relationality ass-backwards. The novel erupts into an episode of cruel racial violence when black orderlies threaten to hose down the book’s white male patients. When one of the orderlies sprays a germophobic character named George, the book’s redheaded TV-cowboy brawler protagonist Randle Patrick McMurphy lashes out with racial epithets and starts swinging. In reality, of course, it was black children, not white men, who were sprayed with fire hoses on the streets of Birmingham, AL by racist white police officers on May 3, 1963, just one year after the novel’s publication. By teaching the book, the country’s racism lies there exposed: Oregon’s history as a white-only state, with laws forbidding black people from living in its borders upon its entry into the union in the midnineteenth century; the persistence of antiblack sentiment more than a hundred years later even among 1960s counterculturalists like Kesey. These are sobering facts, are they not? Even among those who had found the enlightenment of LSD, these ideas persisted. Granted, in Kesey’s case, enlightenment came courtesy of MK-Ultra. Not the most auspicious set and setting. Yet this, too, is part of the tale’s appeal. Kesey was there, present as a participant in events of world-historical importance, the effects of which are still being felt today.
Looking back at Worldchanging, an online environmentalist magazine that published a “User’s Guide for the 21st Century” back in 2008, I notice the website’s failure to include in its sevenfold structure a section on psychology and consciousness. That didn’t seem odd when I read the book ten years ago. Today it seems an omission of consequence. Change requires change of consciousness. Reinvestigation of language and the forms by which we think. Bruce Sterling imagined something of this sort in the book’s introduction, where consciousness is spoken to as both observer and participant. We as readers find ourselves part of a continuous process, “a kind of rolling, seed-spewing electronic tumbleweed.” To be part of this process is to be one who performs the future in a newly reconstituted Globe Theater, a true multi-species theater-in-the-round. The pieces by which we perform our play are scattered all about us, awaiting a new gestalt. Yet where are we now? To what platforms have the Worldchangers decamped? Some other time zone, no? Some other historical juncture. Put down the book and the tune changes. The world fills with multi-species partners and allies: bluebirds, squirrels, Monarch butterflies. We converge, exchange greetings, celebrate over drinks, departing afterwards to tend to our nests, our homes, our private story-trees, even as we remain all of one nature. Books carry us off into separate constructs only to return us to this shared one, this commons we call History.
Les McCann & Eddie Harris wow a live audience with their cover of Gene McDaniels’s “Compared to What” at the Montreux Jazz Festival in June 1969.
The moment finds itself reproduced, resonating through countless lifeworlds. The single alone sold over a million copies, and appears on several soundtracks. Gene McDaniels was kind of an odd dude, though, referring to McCann as his “degenerate friend” on YouTube and Twitter before passing away in 2011. His work sometimes creeps me out, actually, much of it operating with a mysterious, vaguely esoteric air: puppet master, glint in eye, etc. McDaniels retired soon after the song’s success, spending his final years living as a self-described “hermit” somewhere in Maine. His politically charged albums of the early seventies, however, remain towering achievements. During this brief but potent stint, McDaniels reinvented himself as “the left rev. mc d,” a persona so radical it drew the ire of the Nixon administration, causing Ahmet Ertegun to drop McDaniels from Atlantic Records after the release of his album Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse in 1971. What about me: where am I at, how do I refocus? The command comes, “Go outdoors,” and it is good. Worlds of images, illustrated figures: around one a mix of life, plentiful, joyous, multitudinous.
How might we of the Undercommons avail ourselves in light of Climate Strike? Do we have concepts we could offer, lessons we could share? What is this Magnificence all around us? How do we help it grow? Who do we want to become? Hardt and Negri have told us, in a “script that is by now familiar” (xiii), that for most powerful social movements today, “leadership” is a dirty word. One of us rightly asks, “Is the youthful movement against fossil fuels leaderless? What about Greta Thunberg?” She’s a sort of leader, certainly — but perhaps the leadership she provides is tactical rather than strategic, a distinction favored by Hardt and Negri. By this they mean leadership of an entrepreneurial sort, “limited to short-term action and tied to specific occasions” (Assembly, p. 19). Hardt and Negri craft openings for which we’re grateful. I appreciate their call, too, at the end of Assembly, for a Hephaestus, a three-faced Dionysus, and a Hermes of the common. Why those three, however, as the constituents of their pantheon of the common? And how do we get from there to putting the machines back in the hands of living labor? How do we mute the command of capital? What would it mean, for instance, to make “digital algorithms” common, a form of non-property open to use by the multitude? Perhaps it’s as simple as forging “an instrument endowed with magical powers,” like the shield Hephaestus forged for Achilles. This instrument would “depict in concentric circles the composition of the entire community,” thus giving expression to “a new civilization, new modes of life, a new figure of humanity, and new relations of care among living species and the earth, up to the cosmos” (Assembly, p. 274).
Fiction, with its fabulated particulars, helps us see among these an implicit grammar, communication from a shared unconscious, truths indiscernible elsewhere. Yet here I am reading an intellectual biography, Alison Falby’s Between the Pigeonholes: Gerald Heard, 1889-1971. I respond skeptically to Falby’s characterization of Heard from the late 1940s onward, after the dissolution of Trabuco College — the Heard, in other words, of the psychedelic revolution — as a “counter-cultural conservative.” Ideologically, he was an odd bird, heterodox and hybrid; of that, we can be certain. I guess Falby is right, though. Her argument is as follows. “Heard’s career,” she writes, “reflects the intersection of spiritualized psychology, religion, and conservatism in postwar America. He became a religious counselor to several libertarian businessmen as well as to Clare Booth Luce, the writer, diplomat, and Republican Congresswoman. Although he advocated self-transcendence, he ultimately entrenched individual selfhood with his spiritual prescriptions of yoga, meditation, and LSD. Although he subverted the individual in his theology, he affirmed individualism by putting his spiritual system at the service of libertarianism” (Falby 121). By the early 1960s, she says, Heard was a fan of Barry Goldwater, supporting the latter’s bid for the presidency in the 1964 election. His views had already turned markedly to the right by the late 1940s. A book of his from 1950 advocates reform of criminals through techniques similar to brainwashing. This same book of his (Morals Since 1900) also contains praise for the surveillance work of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. During the same year, Heard also published a bizarro book about UFOs — and this was all several years before he tried psychedelics. By the mid-1950s, Heard joined with libertarians Edmund Opitz (1914-2006) and James C. Ingebretsen (1906-2000) to form an elite spiritual organization called The Wayfarers. Heard convinced several of these right-libertarian patrons and friends of his to try acid during this period. He and Aldous Huxley were both elitists in this regard, thinking it appropriate to share psychedelics only with a select few. Huxley’s elites were often cultural progressives, however, whereas Heard’s were spiritually-minded business executives and captains of industry.
I’m feeling the love tonight. People have been sending me gifts, wishing me a happy birthday. Sarah took me out for Indian for my birthday dinner. The situation in the UK has me alert and attentive. The Left has an opportunity to take power. There’s a doorway here that leads to sweeter states of being. Let’s live hopefully again, a joyful fruiting multitude, allied again with the planet.
If we’re to assemble into a magical, majestic Multitude, we need to cultivate trust — in ourselves, in other beings, in our capacity to care for one another. No more Gnostic suspicion beyond what is needed to spur care, by which I mean the creation of a system of cooperative, universal care for all beings; but also personal care for sentences, life, loved ones. Trust that despite past shortcomings, we can do better here and now.