Youth and the Great Refusal (1968)
Youth and the Great Refusal
by Theodore Roszak
Published herewith is Theodore Roszak’s introductory essay to a four-part series on what he calls the counter culture, or by allusion, the invasion of centaurs. In this impressive work of synthesis he brings together, organizes and evaluates the many aspects of a phenomenon now generally if inadequately perceived and variously referred to by such terms as the New Left, flower power, mind explosion, psychedelia, pot and Zen. Subsequent essays will focus on religiosity, dope and the sense of community, specifying the aspects of the counter culture that spring from these sources and examining the ideas and influence of leaders associated with them. However, the counter culture does not readily compartmentalize and these essays both overlap and reinforce one another. Together they constitute a clear-eyed, occasionally ironic, but basically appreciative estimate of a movement which the author compares, at least in potential, with Christianity under the Roman Empire.
Mr. Roszak, an associate professor of history, is chairman of the History of Western Culture Program at California State College, Hayward. He edited and contributed to The Dissenting Academy (Pantheon Books).
The struggle of the generations is one of the obvious constants of history. One stands in peril of great presumption, therefore, to suggest that the rivalry between young and adult in America of the 1960s is uniquely critical. And yet one must risk that presumption in order to grasp the full significance of what is happening to our contemporary culture. For the fact is that cultural innovation in America is becoming more and more the captive of youth who are profoundly alienated from the adult society. For better or worse, most of what is happening that is new, provocative and engaging in the arts, in politics, in education, in social relations (love, courtship, family), in journalism, in fashions and entertainment, is very largely the creation either of the discontented young or of those who address themselves primarily to the young. It is at the level of youth that many of our best minds-as well as our worst-look to find a responsive hearing as, more and more, it becomes the common expectation that the young should be those who act, who make things happen, who take the risks. Until, at last, the adults of the society begin to settle back .into the role of amused or disgruntled but mainly passive observers. Adolescent-watching is fast becoming our greatest national spectator sport.
Some simple economic and demographic facts of life help explain this peculiar state of affairs. A bit more than 50 per cent of our population is now under 25 years old. Even if one grants that people in their mid-20s have no business claiming (or letting themselves be claimed for) the status of youth, there is still, among the authentically young-the 13-to-19 age bracket-a small nation of 25 million people. I will, however, argue below that there is good reason to group the mid-20s with their adolescent juniors.
But numbers alone don’t account for the aggressive prominence of youth in our society. More important, the young seem to feel the potential power of their numbers as never before. No doubt this occurs to a great extent because the market apparatus of our consumer society has invested a deal of wit into cultivating the age consciousness of old and young alike. Teen-agers alone control a stupendous amount of money and enjoy much leisure; so inevitably, they have been turned into a selfconscious market. Whatever the young have fashioned for themselves has rapidly been rendered grist for the commercial mill and merchandised by admass-inc1uding the ethos of dissent, a fact that has created an agonizing kind of disorientation for the dissenting young (and their critics) and to which we shall return in a moment.
But the force of the market has not been the only factor in intensifying age consciousness. The expansion of higher education has, I suspect, done even more. Just as early industrialism concentrated labor and helped create class consciousness, so the university campus, where up to 25,000 students may be gathered, has served to crystallize the group identity of the young-with the important effect of mingling freshmen of 17 and 18 with graduate students in their mid-20s. On the major campuses, it is often the graduates who assume positions of leadership, contributing a degree of competence that the younger students could not muster. When one includes in this alliance that significant new entity, the non-student-the campus roustabout who may be well along in his late 20s–one sees why youth has become such a long-term career. The grads and the non-students easily come to identify their interests and allegiance with a very young population which, in previous generations, they would long since have left behind.
These campus elders play a role, particularly crucial for they tend to be those who have the most vivid realization of the new economic role of the university. Being closer to the organization-man careers for which higher education is supposed to be grooming them, they have both a stronger sensitivity to the social regimentation that imminently confronts them, and a stronger sense of the potential power with which the society’s economic needs invest them. They know how great is society’s demand for their skills and they soon see that making trouble on the campus is making trouble in one of the economy’s vital sectors. And once the grad students-many of whom may be serving as low-level teaching assistants-have been infected with qualms and aggressive discontents, the junior faculty, with whom they overlap, may soon catch the fever and find themselves drawn into the orbit of dissenting youth.
The troubles at Berkeley in late 1966 illustrate the expansiveness of youthful protest. First a group of undergraduates stages a sit-in against naval recruiters at the student union. They are soon joined by a contingent of non-students (whom the administration then martyrs by selective arrest) and a non-student of nearly 30-Mario Savio, already married and a father-is quickly adopted as spokesman for the protest. Finally the teaching assistants call a strike in support of the demonstration. When at last the agitation comes to its ambiguous conclusion, a rally of thousands gathers outside Sproul Hall to sing the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine-which happens to be the current hit on all the local high school campuses., If youth is not the word we are going to use to cover this obstreperous population, then we may have to coin another. But undeniably the social grouping exists with a self-conscious solidarity.
Pleasure, Freedom & the Reality Principle
A particular plight of the senior and graduate students offers still another reason for the remarkable volatility of the young. The current generation of students is the beneficiary of the permissive child-rearing habits that have been a feature of our postwar society. Dr. Spock’s endearing latitudinarianism is much more a reflection than a cause of this new (and wise) conception of proper parent-child relations that has prevailed for some time in the middle class.
A high-consumption, leisure-wealthy society doesn’t need rigidly trained. responsible young workers. The middle class can afford to prolong the ease and drift of childhood, and so it does. It spoils its kids, meaning it influences them to believe that being human has something to do with pleasure and freedom. But as life in the multiversity wears on, the reality principle begins to demand its price. The students get told they are now officially grown up, b1]t they have been given no taste for the rigidities and self-denials that adulthood is supposed to be all about. General Motors all of a sudden wants barbered hair, punctuality, and an appropriate reverence for the conformities of the organizational hierarchy. Washington wants patriotic cannon fodder. Some kids summon up the square-jawed responsibility to adjust to the prescribed pattern of adulthood (though even the Young Americans for Freedom, who champion the virtues of the corporate structure, have decided, with the vigorous endorsement of Ayn Rand, that conscription is a species of selective slavery).
Others, being incorrigibly childish, continue to assert pleasure and freedom as human rights and begin to ask aggressive questions about the meaning of adulthood. Perhaps at last they drop out, restless and bewildered and hungry for better ideas about grownupness than GM or IBM or LBI seem able to offer. This often places them in the position of nostalgically cultivating the styles of the teen-age world, like the rock music and dance which now unites the whole 13-to-30 population.
The dropouts stall in a protracted adolescence out of which they are eager to break, but not as their parents did. Some become ne’er-do-well dependents; others resort to flight. The FBI reports the arrest of more than 90,000 juvenile runaways in 1966; most of those who flee welloff, middle-class homes get picked up – by the thousands each current year – in the big city bohemias, fending off malnutrition and venereal disease. The immigration departments of Europe record a constant level, over the past few years, of something like 10,000 disheveled flower children (mostly American, British, German and Scandinavian) migrating across to the Near East and India. The influx has been sufficient to force Iran and Afghanistan to boost substantially their cash in hand requirements for prospective tourists. And the British Consul General in Istanbul officially requested Parliament in late 1967 to grant him increased accommodations for the swarm of penniless young Englishmen who have been showing up at his consulate, seeking temporary lodgings or perhaps shelter from Turkish narcotics authorities.
One may flippantly construe this exodus as the contemporary version of running off with the circus, but the more apt parallel might be with the quest of 3rd-century Christians (a scruffy, uncouth, and often half-mad lot) for escape from the corruptions of Hellenistic society: it is much more a flight from than toward. Certainly for a youth of 17, clearing out of the comfortable bosom of the middle-class family to become a beggar is a formidable gesture of dissent. One makes light of it at the expense of ignoring a significant measure of our social health.
The Only Audience
The final ingredient that goes into this ebullient culture of youthful dissent is the adult radical who finds himself in a fix that much resembles that of the bourgeois intellectual in Marxist theory. Despairing for the timidity and lethargy of his own class, Marx’s middle-class revolutionary at last turns renegade and defects to the proletariat.
In postwar America, the adult radical, confronted with a diminishing public among the cheerful robots of his own generation, gravitates to the restless middle-class young. Where else is he to find an audience? The working class, which provided the traditional following for radical ideology, now for the most part neither leads nor follows but bogs down to become the heaviest ballast of the established order. If the adult radical is white, black power progressively seals off his entree to Negro organizations. As for the exploited masses of the Third World, they have as little use for white Western ideologues as do our native blacks-and in any case they are far distant. Unless he follows the strenuous example of a Regis Debray, the white American radical can do little more than sympathize from afar with the revolutionary movements of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
On the other hand, the disaffected middle-class young are at hand, suffering the immiserization that comes of being stranded between a permissive childhood and an obnoxiously conformist adulthood, experimenting desperately with new ways of growing with self-respect into a world they despise, calling for help. So the radical adults offer to become gurus to the alienated young, or perhaps the young draft them into that service.
I take the hyper-dynamism of the young to be a thoroughly unhealthy state of affairs. It is not properly youth’s role to bear so great a responsibility for inventing or initiating for their society as a whole. It is too big a job for them to do gracefully. The rise of our youth culture to a position of such prominence is a symptom of grave default on the part of adults. Trapped in the frozen posture of befuddled passivity which has been characteristic of our society since the end of World War II (what Paul Goodman has called the nothing can be done disease) the mature generations have divested themselves of their adulthood-if the term means anything besides being tall and debt-worried and capable of buying liquor without showing a driver’s license. It has surrendered its responsibility to make morally demanding decisions, to generate ideals, to control public authority, to safeguard the life of the community against its despoilers. It has been scared off and bought off its proper function in a variety of ways that need not be reviewed here, until it has become, not a catalyst to the growth of its more sensitive children but a barrier of paralyzed complacency, deservedly inviting contempt.
This is the America whose god Allen Ginsberg, somewhere back in the middle fifties, identified as the sterile and omnivorous Moloch, the America whose premature senility President Eisenhower so marvelously incarnated, and the disease of whose soul shone so lugubriously through the public obscenities that men like John Foster Dulles, Herman Kahn and Edward Teller were prepared to call policy. There are never many clear landmarks in the affairs of the spirit, but Ginsberg’s Howl may serve as the first public report announcing the war of the generations. It can be coupled, chronologically, with the appearance of C. Wright Mills’s aggressively activist sociology-with the publication of Mills’s Causes of World War II I (1957). Mills was by no means the first postwar figure who sought to tell it like it is about the state of American public life-nor was he necessarily all that right in what he said. But his tone was angrier and his rhetoric catchier. He wanted his sociology to function as part of a public dialogue. Above all, he insisted more urgently than any before him that he wanted action, and wanted it now. He was prepared to step forth and brazenly pin his indictment like a target to the enemy’s chest. And, most important, Mills was lucky enough to reach ears that would hear: his indignation found an audience.
When Mills died in 1961, the New Left he was searching for but had despaired of finding among the forces and institutions controlled by his peers was beginning to emerge–of course, from among the students. If he were alive today he would be into his 50s; but his following would still be primarily among the under 30s. Just as Ginsberg, now more than 40, remains the bard of the young.
Admittedly, the dissent that began to simmer in the mid-fifties was not confined to the young. At the adult level of resistance, SANE was created in 1957, and later Turn Toward Peace. But precisely what do groups like SANE and TTP reveal about adult America, even about the politically conscious types? Looking back, one is struck by their absurd shallowness and conformism, their total unwillingness to raise fundamental issues about the quality of American life, their fastidious anti-communism, and, above all, their incapacity to sustain any significant initiative on the political field. Even the Committee of Correspondence, a promising effort formed around 1961 by senior academics, quickly settled for publishing a new journal. I can remember attending meetings of the West Coast committee at which Seymour Martin Upset, who was the sort of responsible, anti-Communist liberal everybody felt certain had to be included, put the damper on any radical action by arguing without significant opposition that the cold war was entirely the fault of the Russians, and there was nothing to do but leave things to the government, which was in excellent hands, and so why were we all meeting anyway . . . .
At present, the remnants of SANE and TTP have been reduced to the role of carping (often with a good deal of justice) at the impetuous extremes and leftist flirtations of far more dynamic youth groups like SDS or the Berkeley VDC or the Spring Mobilization. But avuncular carping is not initiative. And it is a bore, even if a well-intentioned bore, when it becomes a major preoccupation. Similarly, it is the younger Negro groups that have begun to steal the fire of adult organizations-but in that case with results that I feel are bound to be disastrous.
The fact is, it is the young who have-gropingly, haltingly, amateurishly, even grotesquely-gotten dissent off the adult drawing board. They have torn it out of the books and journals that an older generation of radicals wrote, and they have fashioned it into a style of life. They have turned the hypotheses of disgruntled elders into experiments, though often without the willingness to admit that one may have to concede failure at the end of any true experiment.
This readiness to experiment with a variety of dissenting life styles is what has made the youth culture of the day so prominent and fruitfully provocative, despite its frequent lapses into the absurd. But, inevitably, the kids have run into criticism, often from no quarter so severe as that of the older radicals. For generations now, radical intellectuals have lambasted the bad habits of bourgeois society: the bourgeoisie, they have insisted, is obsessed by greed; its sex life is insipid and prudish; its family patterns are debased; its slavish conformities of dress and cosmetics are degrading; its mercenary routinization of existence is intolerable; its vision of life is drab and joyless, etc., etc. So the kids try this and that, and one by one they discard the vices of their parents, preferring the less structured ways of their own childhood and adolescence -only to discover that many an old-line radical, embarrassed by the brazen sexuality and unwashed feet, gladrags and playful ways, is taking up the chorus: No that is not what I meant, that is not what I meant at all.
Critics and Publicists
Thus, a good liberal like Hans Toch (writing in The Nation for December 4, 1967) invokes the Protestant work ethic to give the hippies a fatherly tongue-lashing for their consuming but noncontributing ways. They are being parasitic, Professor Toch observes, for the hippies, after all, accept–even demand-social services, while rejecting the desirability of making a contribution to the economy. But of course they do: because we have an economy of cybernated abundance that does not need their labor, that is rapidly severing the tie between work and wages, that suffers from hard-core poverty caused by maldistribution, not by scarcity. From this point of view, why is their voluntary dropping out any more parasitic than the enforced dropping out of impoverished ghetto dwellers? Is it perhaps because the hippies seem to enjoy their mendicant idleness, do not feel appropriately gnilty and frustrated? There are criticisms I shall want to make of the beat-hip bohemian fringe of our youth culture-but this is surely not one of them.
It would be a better general criticism to make of the young that they have done a miserably bad job of dealing with the distortive publicity with which admass has burdened their embryonic experiments. Too often they fall into the trap of reacting narcissistically or defensively to their own image in the fun-house mirror of the media. Whatever these things called beatniks and hippies originally were, or still are, may have nothing to do with what Time, Esquire, C.B.S.-N.B.C.-A.B.C., Broadway comedy and Hollywood surf operas have decided to make of them. If anything, the media tend to isolate the weirdest aberrations and to attract to the movement many extroverted poseurs.
But what can bohemia do when it finds itself massively infiltrated by well-intentioned sociologists (and now, all of a sudden, we have specialized sociologists of adolescence), sensationalizing journalists, curious tourists, and weekend fellow travelers? What doors does one close on them? The problem is new and tough–‘R cynical dilution of dissent by saturation coverage-and it begins to look like a far more formidable weapon in the hands of the established culture than outright suppression would be. The situation seems to call for strategies of dignified secrecy which the young have not yet developed.
But to grant the fact of admass distortion is not the same as saying that the young have evolved no life style of their own, or that they are unserious about it. It would be surrendering to admass an absolutely destructive potential if one took the tack that whatever it touches is automatically debased, or perhaps has no reality at all. Commercial vulgarization is one of the endemic pests of 2Othcentury America, like the flies that swarm to the sweets of summer. But the flies don’t create the sweets (though they may make them less palatable), nor do they bring in the summer. It will be my contention that despite the fraudulence and folly that collect around its edges, a significant new culture is being. born among our youth, and that this culture deserves careful understanding, if for no other reason than the sheer size of the population it potentially involves.
I think there is another reason, namely the intrinsic value of what the young are making happen. But I would insist that in order to understand it one must avoid, as far as possible, relying on the exotic tidbits, the sensational case histories, admass provides. And that would include the superficial snooping that comes of cruising bohemia for a few exciting days in search of local color and the inside dope. Rather, one should look for major trends that seem to outlast current fashions, and seek out the most articulate public statements of belief and value the young have made or given ear to: the thoughtful formulation, rather than the offhand gossip. Above all, I think the older generations must be willing, in a spirit of critical helpfulness, to sort out what seems valuable and promising, as if indeed it mattered whether or not the alienated young succeeded in their project.
Culture or Counter Culture?
Again, it must be granted that it is an old story that the young should have to scrap or remodel in some degree the culture they inherit. Indeed, the Spanish philosopher, Ortega, has elaborated a theory of history (in Man and Crisis), based on the fitful transition of the generations. What is special about the present case is the scale on which the cultural revision is taking place and the depth to which it is reaching. I have referred to the culture of the young; but would it be an exaggeration to call what is arising among them a counter culture? That is, a culture which so radically rejects the mainstream assumptions of Western society that it is scarcely recognizable to many as a culture at all, but looks, instead, like a barbaric intrusion. One thinks of the invasion of centaurs on the the pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Apollo, as guardian of the orthodox culture, steps forward to admonish. Apollo, being older than 30, could hardly expect his authority to be trusted now. And, besides, these latter-day centaurs, while high, are not drunken, and most likely come bearing flowers.
Major cultural disjunctures have happened before, though not with the same high acceleration. Toynbee identified them as the work of a disinherited proletariat and used as his paradigm the role of the early Christians within the Roman Empire. Hopelessly alienated by ethos and social class from the official culture, the primitive Christian community fashioned of Judaism and the mystery cults a culture that could not fail to seem absurd to GrecoRoman orthodoxy. But the absurdity, far from being felt a disgrace, became a banner of the community.
For it is written [St. Paul boasted] I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent . . . . For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom . . . . But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.
Once such a cultural disjuncture opens out in society, nothing is guaranteed. What happens among the minority that finds itself isolated by the rift is as apt to be ugly or pathetic as it is to be noble. The primitive Christian absurdity can be credited at least with the potentiality of saintly service and visionary poetry. The alienated stock clerks and wallpaper hangers of post-World War I Germany sullenly withdrew to their beer halls to talk imbecile anthropology and prepare the horrors of Buchenwald. So too, contemporary America’s isolated minorities in-elude the Hell’s Angels and the Minutemen from whom nothing beautiful or interesting can be expected.
And the alienated young: how to characterize the counter culture they are in the way of haphazardly assembling?
A heroic generalization about this still embryonic culture is to say that what the young are up to is nothing less than a reorganization of the prevailing state of personal and social consciousness. From a culture that has a longstanding, entrenched commitment to an egocentric and intellective mode of consciousness, the young are moving toward a sense of identity that is communal and nonintellective. I think the disjuncture is just that great-as great in its implications (though obviously not as yet in historical influence) as the disjuncture between Greco-Roman rationality and Christian mystery. Against the traditional Cartesian cogito, with its blunt, initial assertion of individuality and logicality, the counter culture opposes the community and visionary inspiration. This really amounts to an assault on the reality of the ego as an isolable and purely cerebral unit of identity.
Hippies and Leftists
At first glance, it may seem that this counter culture, shading off as rapidly as it does into the mind-blown bohemianism of the beats and hippies, diverges radically from the hard-headed political activism of the student New Left. Are there perhaps two separate and antithetical developments; one (tracing back to Ginsberg and company) which seeks to abscond from American political life, and the other (tracing back to Mills and the remnants of the old Socialist Left, which seeks to penetrate and rechannel the mainstream of American society? I think not. At a deeper level, there is a theme that unites these two variations. It is revealed among the activists by the personalism that characterized the beginnings of New Left dissent. [See Young Radicals & the Fear of Power by Kenneth Keniston, The Nation, March 18.]
New Left groups like SDS have always taken strong exception to the thesis that we have reached the end of ideology in the Great Society. But there is a sense in which ideology is a thing of the past among most politically involved, left-wing students. By and large, most New Left groups have refused to allow doctrinal logic to obscure or displace an irreducible element of personal tenderness. What has distinguished SDS, at least in its early years, from old-line radical youth groups (say, like the Progressive Labor Movement) is the unwillingness of the former to deify doctrine, granting it more importance than flesh and blood. For most of the New Left, there has ultimately been no more worth or cogency in any ideology than a man infuses it with by his own action: personal commitments, not abstract ideas, are the stuff of politics. Alienation has been the root problem of New Left politics. But not alienation in the sheerly institutional sense, in which capitalism (or for that matter any advanced industrial economy) tends to alienate the worker from the rewards of production; but rather alienation as a deadening of man’s sensitivity to man: a deadening that can creep into even those revolutionary efforts that seek to eliminate institutional forms of alienation.
Wherever nonhuman elements-whether revolutionary doctrine or material goods-assume greater importance than human life or well-being, man becomes alienated from man and the way is open to the self-righteous use of others as objects. Thus, revolutionary terrorism is the mirror image of capitalist exploitation.
The flavor is caught by the SDS Port Huron statement of 1962:
We are aware that to avoid platitudes we must analyze the concrete conditions of social order. But to direct such an analysis we must use the guideposts of basic principles. Our own social values involve conceptions of human beings, human relationships, and social systems.
We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love.
. . . We oppose the depersonalization that reduces human beings to the status of things. If anything, the brutalities of the twentieth century teach that means and ends are intimately related, that vague appeals to posterity cannot justify the mutilations of the present. . . .
Loneliness. estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personal management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man.
In his recent work The Politics of Experience, the British psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, a leading figure in Britain’s visionary Left, catches much the same spirit: No one can begin to think, feel or act now except from the starting-point of his or her own alienation. . . . We do not need theories so much as the experience that is the source of the theory.
‘Scrupulosity’ of the Young.
Once upon a time Harry Pollitt, the leader of the British Communist Party, could, with a clear conscience, tell the poet Stephen Spender that he ought to go to Spain and get himself killed-the party needed more martyred artists to bolster its public image. Nor have such perversions been confined to the Stalinist Left. It was an adamant antiStalinist, Sidney Hook, who in his famous exchange with Bertrand Russell during the early fifties, logic-chopped his way to the conclusion that thwarting the ambitions of the world’s Harry Pollitts was worth wiping out the entire human species: anti-Stalinist militancy required 2 billion martyrs, willy or nilly. This is precisely the sort of corrupted human relations, the sort of subordination of the person to doctrinal logic, that has been pretty much absent from the best New Left politics. If the New Left draws upon the Marxist tradition, its Marxism has been significantly mediated by Camus and the postwar existentialists. Or, in the American radical tradition, it is a humanist Socialist text like Dwight MacDonald’s eloquent The Root Is Man that one discerns behind a document like the Port Huron statement. (As I write, however, I am bleakly aware that an ideological drift toward righteous violence is on the increase among the young as an adjunct of black power and a romantic infatuation with guerrilla warfare.
Despite Camus’ wise admonition, the search may be on again among left-wing dissenters to make murder legitimate, and the New Left may be about to lose its original soulfulness.)
Colin MacInnes, discussing the difference between the youthful radicals of the thirties and the sixties (Encounter, November, 1967), observed that the contemporary young hold themselves more personally responsible than the young used to. Not in the sense of their ‘duties’ to the state or even society, but to themselves. I think they examine themselves more closely and their motives and their own behavior. Anyone who has spent much time with New Left students knows what Macinnes is talking about. They show a quality of somber introspection that almost amounts to what the Catholic Church calls scrupulosity. It is a refusal to allow theories or rhetoric to get in the way of intensive self-awareness. Honesty to the inner motive must be kept paramount and so the final appeal is to the person, never to the doctrine.
But then the question arises: what is the person? What, most essentially, is this elusive, often erratic, human some~ thing which underlies social systems and ideologies, and which now must serve as the ultimate point of moral reference? No sooner does one raise the question than the politics of the social system yields to what Alan Watts has called the politics of the nervous system. Class consciousness gives way as a generative principle to Consciousness consciousness. And it is at this juncture that New Left and beat-hip bohemianism join hands. The transition from the one to the other shows up in the pattern that has come to govern many of the free universities. These dissenting academies usually get their send-off from campus New Leftists and initially emphasize heavy politics. But more and more the curricula tend to become hip in content and teaching methods: psychedelics, light shows, multi-media, McLuhan, exotic religion. (See The Free Universities, by Ralph Keyes, The Nation, October 2, 1967.)
The same transition can be traced in the career of Bob Dylan, who commands respect among all segments of the dissenting youth culture. Dylan’s early songs are traditional folk protests, laying forth obvious issues of social justice: anti-boss, anti-war, anti-exploitation. Then, quite suddenly, rather as if Dylan had come to the conclusion that the conventional Woody Guthrie ballad didn’t reach deep enough, the songs turn surrealistic and psychedelic.
All at once one is thrust somewhere beneath the rationalizing cerebrum of social discourse, and is probing the nightmare deeps, trying, it would seem, to get at the tangled roots of conduct and opinion. It is at that point that the project which the beats of the early fifties had taken up the task of remodeling themselves, their way of life, their perceptions and sensitivities-takes precedence over the task of changing institutions or policies.
Priorities of Liberation
One can discern, then, a continuum of thought and experience among the young which shades off from the New Leftist sociology of Mills, through the Freudian-Marxism of Herbert Marcuse, through the Gestalt-therapy anarchism of Paul Goodman, through the apocalyptic body mysticism of Norman Brown, through the Zen-based psychotherapy of Alan Watts where political involvement seems to begin evaporating rapidly, and finally into Timothy Leary’s impenetrably occult and quietist narcissism where the world and its woes may shrink at last to the size of. a mote in one’s private psychedelic void. The different schools of thought become an integrated series as soon as one surrenders the notion that institutional patterns are the basis of social reality, and substitutes instead psychic patterns.
Unrelated as the extremes of this spectrum may seem at first, one would not be surprised if the men just named, were to turn up at the same teach-in. The Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, held in London during the summer of 1967, was pretty much that kind of affair: an effort to work out the priorities of psychic and social liberation within a group of participants that included New Left revolutionaries and existential psychiatrists. Allen Ginsberg was also on hand to chant the Hare Krishna. As one would expect, the priorities were never established. And, significantly, it proved impossible for the congress to maintain more than minimal rapport with black power spokesmen like Stokely Carmichael for whom, tragically if understandably, real social power has, despite all that history teaches us to the contrary, once more begun to look like something that flows from the muzzle of a gun. Still, for the most part, the common cause was there: the same insistence on revolutionary change that must at last embrace psyche and society. So it is that when New Left groups organize an anti-war demonstration, the mistyminded hippies are certain to join in, though they may tune out the heavy political speechifying in favor of launching a yellow submarine or exorcizing the Pentagon.
The underlying unity of youthful dissent consists, then, in the effort of beat-hip bohemianism to work out the personality structure, the total life style that follows from New Left social criticism. At their best, the beats and hips are the utopian experimenters of the social system that lies beyond the intellectual rejection of the Great Society. The counter culture is the embryonic cultural base of New Left politics, the effort to discover new types of community, new family patterns, new sexual mores, new kinds of livelihood, new aesthetic forms, new personal identities on the far side of power politics, the bourgeois home, and the Protestant work ethic. If the experiments are raw and often abortive, it must be remembered that the experimenters have been on the scene only for a dozen years and are picking their way through customs and institutions that have had more than a few centuries to entrench themselves. To criticize the experiments is legitimate and necessary; to despair of what are no more than beginnings is premature.
Decadence & Innocence
The counter culture described here is but the latest stage in a major tradition of Western social -and intellectual history. The parallels with Romanticism, that first great assault on the scientific world view and the conception of personality that flowed from it, are striking. Goethe, describing his generation’s rejection (almost 200 years ago) of Baron Holbach’s mechanistic System oj Nature, hits an unmistakably contemporary note:
How hollow and empty did we feel in this melancholy, atheistical half-night, in which earth vanished with all its images, heaven with all its stars. There was to be matter in motion from all eternity; and by this motion, right and left in every direction, without anything further, it was to produce the infinite phenomena of existence . . . . If, after all, this book had done us some harm, it was this-that we took a hearty dislike of all philosophy, and especially metaphysics, and remained in that dislike; while, on the other hand, we threw ourselves into living knowledge, experience, action, and poetizing, with all the more liveliness and passion.
Even more striking is the overtap between the contemporary counter culture and the late-Romantic decadents of France and England, whose favorite constellation of luscious vices-drugs, eclectic mysticism, and outre sexuality-is an obvious prototype of beat-hip bohemianism. It is no coincidence then that the art nouveau of the sickly sweet jin de siecle should now be revived as the official expression of the psychedelic vision. So the English art critic Lawrence Gowing speaks of Aubrey Beardsley as the prophet of the heightened hallucinatory rhythm . . .the forerunner of the psychedelic flux and its liberated bisexual languor .
But there is an important difference. The style of the decadents was brazenly to court damnation by aspiring to satanic wickedness. Today’s young assert the innocence, indeed the holiness, of their forbidden pleasures-which is all the more exasperating. The difference stems, I think, from the fact that the bohemianism of the younger generation has been able to claim unashamedly the sanctions of Oriental religion for its erotic and psychedelic adventures. The decadents, caught in a less debilitated Christian ethos, had to take !!heir joys at the expense of grace.
The counter culture’s tie-in with Romanticism is important for one particular reason. In its latest stages, Romantic culture degenerated into one of the central ingredients of fascism: Feeling is all, Goethe’s Faust proclaimed:
and a little more than a century later Hitler, almost paraphrasing D. H. Lawrence, provided a distorted echo:
Think with your blood. Murderers and maniacs can, of course, seize upon any body of thought and twist it to serve their debased purposes, a fact which too many intellectual historians overlook in working out intricate genealogies of ideas. But still, the vulnerability of certain ideas to such abuse is the more reason for artists and intellectuals to give the greatest thought to the human potentialities their thought and imagery may release-especially when the audience for their work becomes as young as that of the counter culture. Make Love Not War is still the banner most of the dissenting young are rallying to-and those who cannot see the difference between that sentiment and any banners the Hitlerjugend carried are plain perverse. So too, one of the most remarkable aspects of the counter culture is its cultivation of feminine softness among the males, a deliberate effort to undercut the crude and compulsive he-manliness of our political life. Beathip bohemianism is quite simply and unashamedly feminine-centered in its ideal of personality. At the same time, one perceives, still at the fringe of the counter culture, a worrisome fascination with violence-minded phenomena like the Hell’s Angels and James Bond movies, or with the chichi sado-masochism of Phoebe Zeitgeist and Barbarella.
Saviors of Santa Claus
Despite all the counter culture owes to previous generations, however, one comes back finally to the striking fact that it is a youth culture. What was in the past a bohemian frontier populated by a marginal few-an elite of effete gentlemen, outcast revolutionaries, risque artists-has been staked out and democratized by a mass movement of the young, and mainly the white, middle-class young. So where the decadents specialized, as old rogues, in corrupting little boys and girls, now the little boys and girls have gone into business on their own, but refusing to yield their claim to innocence.
The result is dissenting thought and culture at the adolescent level, if not on the part of its creators, then on the part of much of its audience. And these tastes now reach surprisingly far back into the early years of adolescence. I offer one illuminating example. In December of 1967, I watched a group of 13-year-olds from a London settlement house perform an improvised Christmas play as part of a therapeutic theatre program run by the International Theatre Club. The kids had concocted a show in which Santa Claus had been imprisoned by the Immigration authorities for entering the country without proper permission. The knock ‘at official society was especially stinging, coming instinctively from some very ordinary youngsters, who had scarcely been exposed to any terribly advanced intellectual influences. And whom did the 13year-olds decide to bring on as Santa’s liberators? An exotic species of being known to them as the hippies, who Shiva-danced to the jail house and magically released Father Christmas, accompanied by strobe lights and jangling sitars.
However lacking older radicals may find the hippies in authenticity or revolutionary potential, they have succeeded in embodying what Herbert Marcuse calls the Great Refusal in a form that captures tile need of the young for unrestricted joy. The hippie, real or as imagined, now seems to stand as one of the few images toward which the very young can grow without having to give up the sense of enchantment or playfulness. Hippies who may be pushing 30 wear buttons that read Fredo lives (in Elvish yet) and decorate their pads with maps of Middle Earth (which is also the name of one of London’s current rock clubs). Is it any wonder that the best and brightest kids at Berkeley High School (to choose a school that I happens to be in my neighborhood) are already coming to class barefoot, with flowers in their hair, and ringing with cowbells?
When radical intellectuals must deal with a dissenting public this young, all kinds of problems accrue. Adolescent dissent is certainly as far from ideal as the proletarian dissent that bedeviled radical intellectuals over the last three or four generations when it was the working class they had to ally themselves with in their effort to reclaim culture for the good, the true and the beautiful. Then the hornyhanded virtues of the beer hall and the trade union had to serve as the medium of radical thought. Now it is the youthful exuberance’ of the rock club, the love-in, the teach-in.
The kids, miserably educated as they are, bring with them almost nothing but healthy instincts. And the project of building a sophisticated framework of thought atop those instincts is rather like trying to graft an oak tree upon a wild flower. How to sustain the oak? More important, how to avoid crushing the wild flower? But that is the project, for dissent has very few other social levers with which to work. This is the significant soil in which the Great Refusal has begun to take root. If we reject it, frustrated by the youthful follies that also sprout there, where then do we turn?
Posted by: skip