At three and a half months, the baby is all smiles, dressed in a jumper with bright yellow sneakers, chatty with a speech of sounds, sighs, efforts toward words. Sarah plays her “Bulletproof” by La Roux. I scoot next door and dip into Design for Utopia: Selected Writings of Charles Fourier. In his 1971 Foreword, Frank E. Manuel says Fourier’s ideal “calls to mind the ‘synergic’ society originated by Ruth Benedict and expounded by Abraham H. Maslow, who found it consonant with his own doctrine of self-actualization. In synergy, as Maslow defined it, the individual acting in his own behalf at the same time furthers social ends, fulfilling simultaneously and harmoniously his obligations to himself and his responsibilities to society” (4-5). Manuel maintains an attitude of bemused skepticism, maybe even a haughty distance, with regard to all such doctrines and ideals, his imagination far too stingy and conservative for my taste.
How might the insights of West Coast humanistic psychologists of the 60s and 70s inform our work today as educators? How do we grow together? How do we help each other self-actualize? By that term, the humanists of the 60s and 70s meant a variety of things: realizing hopes and aspirations, exercising full potential, living joyfully, gratefully, lovingly, practicing therapy, repairing the traumas we carry with us as personal and collective bodies, finding happiness, living well. Those who report having achieved peak-experiences, those who seem to have begun to self-actualize, don’t shrivel up into themselves, claimed theorists like Maslow. Rather, they become better adjusted, less begrudging comrades. They join together with companions, forming co-evolving communities committed to giving and receiving care. Look at the support networks that form among mothers. Friends and acquaintances near and far have come to our aid of late, passing along boxloads of hand-me-downs: maternity wear, baby gear, short-sleeve onesies, long-sleeve onesies, pajamas, burp cloths, the works. We feel like characters from the Equals song, “Michael and the Slipper Tree,” or Olu Dara’s “Okra.”
Let us hold this experience near to us as we return to our classrooms. Carl Rogers suggested one model for applying the principles of humanistic psychology to education in his 1969 essay “Freedom to Learn.” And some of these principles informed experiments with encounter groups and sensitivity training sessions at places like Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I sit on the top step of my front stoop after dark, diffusing momentarily into imaginative union with the sounds of the night, a lush chorus of locusts and crickets. Afterwards I feel recharged, replenished, senses open, receptive. I thumb through Ali Smith’s introduction to Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet astounded. Hardt and Negri’s Assembly takes shape soon thereafter, pages propped open, their words released into consciousness with another sturdy thumbs up.
Such rich and various object- and person-oriented ontologies represented in the opening shots of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Class and racism are woven into the sights and sounds of the film’s riveting black-and-white portrait of a domestic worker in 1970s Mexico City. Social reproduction is an immense labor — and I worry that because of late-capitalist melancholia, I’ve failed in the past to adequately perform my share. History always felt distant, elsewhere than the level of personal destiny. And yet here we are, working to transform life into a source of poetry, a space of plenty, each day’s activity dealt with imaginatively. As Denis Donoghue says in his book on Yeats, “The idea of self-transformation is implicit in any Romanticism that takes itself seriously, where imagination is deemed a creative faculty and the self its final concern” (8). What is the alternative? The eternalism of the block universe, wherein “the Empire never ended”? Donoghue’s “penury of the given”? In that case, one might as well just announce oneself the Owl of Minerva, or the anima mundi, evoking via hindsight a universe of narrative “hospitable to miracle, the occult, and magic” (16-17). Of course, in the block universe, a thing matters only inasmuch as it must. Worlds ought instead to be listened for, their revealing sung. I aspire to serve not as an “erotic poet” like Yeats, but as what R.P. Blackmur called a “sacramental poet” — one who “respects the object for itself but even more for the spirit which, however mysteriously, it contains” (24). And to respect the object is not simply to belabor it, but to aid and await its realization.
A restless night: a symptom, perhaps, of deteriorating living conditions, with basement rendered unusable due to flooding, arm rashed over, breathing erratic. Should I refrain from meat, alcohol, and soda? I’ve tried to limit my intake with each of these alleged “vices,” but amid days and weeks of grading mid-semester, I tend to backslide. I buckle, I fold. I get in arguments with Trump supporters in places like Burger King and Goodwill, onlookers crying, “Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair!” Have my “Electric Ant”-style investigations led me astray? Or is this simply a time in the desert, a patch of romantic turbulence along an otherwise still admirable path of self-reform?
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.
Those who interrogate Being come upon days of self-questioning. “What potentials, what hidden latencies, what secret understandings,” we wonder, “lie unactivated by our current life-practices?” Our inertness, our passivity might under these circumstances begin to alarm us. We might become angry with ourselves for certain of our behaviors. We attach labels to these behaviors, we regard them as symptoms of newly-developed neurotic or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. By then, it’s too late. Interpellated. Game over. Once we accept the terms of the Other’s discourse, we’ve agreed to our own subjection, we’ve signed away our future labor-hours, our lives become the dumbest and most ordinary of tragedies: Wilhelm Reich’s The Murder of Christ. If instead we wore the crown of eternity and possessed free rein in creation of a self-determined rather than custom-built environment, in what ways and with what materials would we fashion our days? Purple majesties, where we sing to ourselves? Of course not! It would be more like yesterday. Let 4/20 serve as our guide. Play hooky, call in sick. Announce oneself a refusenik. In this one small step, glimpse the giant leap. Having expropriated the expropriators, we stand equipped with our labor-hours free of the usual impositions. Let us use them now as we see fit.
My teachings, I decide, draw heavily on Freud, though mainly by way of the Freudo-Marxists and their rebellious late-60s successors, combined with touches of Psychedelic Utopianism and Jungian Gnosticism. Worlds are always readied for one by presumptuous church fathers. For fear of some savagery, they say — just as local ecosystems have been modified, subdivided into units of practico-inert matter, a socially-constructed objectivity, leaving one little space by which to live. By which I mean something like “self-actualize,” so long as that also entails recognition of a coherent narrative or at least arrival into a meditative garden, a temple of sound, in companionship with others. Whereas everywhere under capitalism, the land unadorned awaits the fall. Neither happy nor splendid. At which point His Master’s Voice (by which I mean the Stanislaw Lem novel) begins to speak to me. “What can be done,” asks the novel’s narrator, “when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors, and the voice of truth becomes drowned out in an ungodly din? When that voice, though freely resounding, cannot be heard, because the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest, even when mostly false?” (22). This is our predicament in that moment in the history of capitalism known as the era of Trump, is it not?