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The path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
— William Blake, Proverbs of Hell
Outcasts are gifted, DuBois wrote, with a “second-sight” or what he called a “double-consciousness.”… Those blinded by privilege and the myth of whiteness cannot fathom reality, or understand themselves, without [the] outcasts. The more the voices of these outcasts are shut out, the more collective insanity grips the country.
— Chris Hedges, The Second Sight of W.E.B. DuBois
The first issue (of Ed Sanders’ Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts)was dedicated to “pacifism, unilateral disarmament, national defense thru (sic) nonviolent resistance, multilateral indiscriminate apertural conjugation, anarchism, world federalism, civil disobedience…”
— quoted by Jennie Skerl, Sappho Comes to the Lower East Side…”
It wasn’t just the work, though the work was clearly blessed. Nor the rewards which were none, as far as we knew. It was the life itself – a vocation like a hermit or a samurai. A calling. The holiest life that was offered in our world: artist.”
— Diane di Prima, quoted in Jennie Skerl’s Sappho, etc.
To prepare for poet/60s activist/Fug Ed Sanders’ coming to Utica to speak on his friend Allen Ginsberg at The Other Side on May 30, I read an article about Sanders and the 60’s Lower East Side counterculture by Beats scholar Jennie Skerl. In pointing out Sanders’ centrality in the avant garde scene that burned so brightly in that decade, she brings out the distinctive features of the aesthetic behind that famous iconoclastic milieu. Although Skerl’s lens is mainly aestheticIgained from her a better understanding of 60’s counterculture in terms of its anarchist motives.
As her evidence shows, the East Village subculture promoted – and practiced – all the hallmarks of anarchism; i.e., in their determination to keep the arts a democratic undertaking, those 60’s bohemians did their best to encourage art-making by everyone; they defied hierarchies that encouraged the ‘geniuses’ and discouraged those whose art didn’t match an officially sanctioned standard, and so on. Protests and demonstrations against war-making, imperialism, racism, etc. were woven naturally into the fabric of their culture.
Ms. Skerl’s essay, and then Ed Sanders’ visit, brought my imagination back to that time when Bohemia was in ascendance down in that “other world” that Manhattan always was/is for us upstate New Yorkers. Anarchism (and radical politics generally) was an unknown concept in my youth; the freedom of the 60s, exemplified in the cultural explosion happening just 4 hours to the south, even when I was in my own youthful period of “hippie freedom,” remained for me an area of ambivalence. Whereas today I fully admire the anarchist spirit of that time, iconically summed up in the person of Allen Ginsberg, then I was as much afraid of its outrageous boundary-crossing as attracted to it. Whereas as a youth my fears were part of my accepted self-definition, inevitable-seeming, today I understand that such fear was caused – even encouraged – by my protected middle class social environment, and by the anger implicit in much of the counterculture’s outrageous and taunting behavior. My own anger thoroughly repressed, I had no way to defend myself against anger coming from others, and feared it.
I write about this because fear of freedom in America maintains a powerful grip on many people, perhaps nowhere so disastrously, for those of us longing for the reign of peace and justice, as on the liberal progressive and bourgeois left. Many of them former hippies, Acid droppers, Grateful Dead idolaters, “scene-makers,” they have, over the years, disappeared from the scene of radical activism without a trace. In contrast, my life, with its peculiar “before” and “after” parts, has an after-story to those early years of ambivalence that has me now, though embedded in upstate bourgeois reality, embodying anarchist principles. I know “where I stand” vis-a-vis the corporate capitalist system that grinds up our lives in its voracious maw. A prolonged and intense psycho-spiritual crisis during the 1990’s put me inside a different “mouth” – maybe the mythic “tooth mother” – a crisis from which – after “being chewed up” in Nature’s process – I was spat out, a different kind of human being and a kind of outcast.
Today I understand it was not the freedom of those lower East Side poets and artists that frightened me, not their mind-altering drug experimentation, wild clothes, zany happenings, passionate protests, their spaced out kind of talk that suggested a reality spookily outside the only one I knew, nor even their anger;it was the prospect of my own freedom that terrified me. Surely it was not the job of those who were enjoying the headiness of creative freedom to construct their message in such a way as to reassure a timid naif like me. Dependent as I was for explanations of the world outside Utica on Life, Look and Time magazines, all of them intent on maximizing their profit margins, I could not know there was something equally, and to someone like me reassuringly “conservative” about this freedom. That is, there was history behind it old as human history, its long roots and many inspirational flowerings in previous ages something that I, along with everybody else I knew, was ignorant of. I had no idea that the fascinating, strangely alluring and definitely “hipper” reality was as near to me, as reassuringly familiar and natural, as my own soul.
If I was afraid to follow Tim Leary’s bizarre advice to turn on, tune in, drop out, I could, had I known it then, follow the path opened to me by my own inherent, intuitively wise, blood bequeathed wanting. But I did not know it; the social world I grew up in was perfectly constructed to dissuade me from ever tuning in to the voice of my soul, and as well, it confirmed my badness in any area related to desire. People are mistaken who place the blame for repression on puritanical beliefs or Catholic upbringings. Desire is only superficially about attraction to the “bad” behaviors, drugs, sex and rock & roll. The true function of erotic instinct – after biology’s drive to reproduce the species – is a spiritual one; it is to lead to the ecstatic experience of connecting with the soul and becoming the instrument for its expression. That is, the path of eros leads to the individual’s finding her creativity, her intelligence, her capacity to think as well as know, her art, which is the singular expression of her authentic genius. It is for her the meaningof freedom and the necessary pre-condition for the struggle for social freedom. Herein lies the key to the real usefulness of repression for the dominant economic order: i.e., no one will fight for his freedom who has no clue what freedom is for.
Given our American roots in libertarianism and revolution, one might have thought the Anarchist Age of freedom-and-unity would have arrived by now. In fact, the challenge is now more daunting than at any other time. Never has the effort to keep human beings from knowing their essential creative and anarchist nature had so much technology at its disposal, 24-7 propaganda through corporate-owned media with its supra-worldly and numinous electronic screen images. Never have the institutions been so devilishly effective at keeping people afraid of their true freedom, and instead, cooperative and servile. Speaking of the Devil, it finally appears the Evil One has completely out-maneuvered, outflanked, out-smarted us. Never, perhaps, have so many, given the freedom and the material well-being that could allow them to be allies of revolutionary change, been so unwilling to identify with the brothers and sisters in chains, or, more to my point, with their own abandoned creative souls. We who enjoy the means to live above the mere struggle for existence, now prefer a shallow existence without principles. We prefer to live the life made available to us by our salaries and benefits and in a sense dictated by what we can afford to buy, even as these “goods” are unattainable for the majority and in our own cases extremely threatened.
Bourgeois reality is maintained and supported by people like the one I was (and am still I confess), unable to discern just why there is a difference between themselves and those who’ve dared to be outcasts, who are admirable and disturbing at the same time. Rather than merely reflect back to us flatteringly our consensus liberal ethics, or our Catholic- sanctioned charitable hearts, the outcasts’ public lives challengingly exemplify freedom. Those who, by following that other drum, become outcasts, suggest to the rest of us the uncertainty of human life as a never-finished process rather than a fixed stasis – a terrifying prospect to those who’ve learned to be alienated from their own eccentric souls.
The 60s is remembered popularly and dismissed officially as a time of excess, toward which the proper attitude is chastisement. With counterculture so muted in our times, it’s clear that many of the former 60’s activists and avant garde artists, in some way, maybe implicitly, support this attitude that matches the prevalent fearful, fitness-nutrition-and-longevity-obsessed, carb-watching, steps-monitoring xanax-gobbling, iphone fixated, insatiable air-travel consuming behaviors I see around me. The young people present at Ed Sander’s talk in Utica heard, many likely for the first time, serious references to mind-altering drugs in a tone neither wink-wink nor disapproving. One could almost detect a cracking sound as unquestioned assumptions were strained to the max by the influx of contradictory information delivered not in a hortatory fashion, but calmly, as matters of fact from a plain-spoken old man’s personal experience.
The facts tell us something different than that the 60s was a time of misbehavior for which there must be everlasting penance. More significantly, it was a time of great public challenge to just that inevitable tendency to excess of power and profiteering that our government serves, with its excessive war-making, plundering, empire-and-inequality-building. That challenge was rooted in peoples’ souls, which were in that time and place enthusiastically serving the Muses and defying the established authority, souls that were happy, even ecstatic.
Though the majority of 60s bohemians have long accepted their chastisement, I can think of no way in which they – including their multitude of followers – in their wild excess, their ongoing all-day all-night party, were morally wrong, except for one. I refer not to “the damage they were doing to their bodies,” nor to the risk they took of being drug casualties. Their error, if it can be called one, was a too-one-sided rejection of authority. Without the sense of obedience, their rebellious attitude was insufficient to authorize the priceless knowledge they’d gained, about following a calling, about the alive soul as the true basis for living. Their duty was to serve and defend this truth they’d been privileged to be witness to into the “long haul” of their lives; their unique service to the oppressed was to begin with each one’s self. It was their duty to exemplify this darker, maturer knowledge for the next generation as being fundamental to their knowing their own freedom. In that failure, the consensus attitude toward those years of explosive creativity and enthusiasm became chastisement; out of that failure, neoliberalism is born.
Having been unready for that 60’s revolution when it was happening, I have ended up embracing its ideals in my “second half” of life. Because of the delay, my embrace of the counterculture has a more vintaged quality than that of those youthful bohemians in the 60’s East Village. Its perspective merges trust-no-one-over-thirty anti-authoritarianism with a sense of duty, it suffuses individual freedom with conscious obedience to the soul and its incalculably slower process. This perspective understands the process of becoming human as the anarchist project. The process is transmitted poetically in religious mythic tradition, to be improvised on by each soul; undergoing it, one is sure to be an outcast with “second sight” that can help her/him fathom reality and cast out fear.