Historian Milton Viorst writes that the theme of the 1950s was “security: internal security (McCarthy), international security (massive retaliation), personal security (careerism). And yet no one felt secure.” Other factors would come later: Civil Rights and Viet Nam, which provided the focus for dissent; and the birth control pill, which allowed women independent sex lives.
Another factor had always existed: the need to identify as an initiatory group, to go through the rites of passage not as individuals but together. America was poised unstably between its Puritan heritage and the hedonism of the consumer lifestyles.
Imagine America entering the liminal period of 1953-1955. Imagine it as a time during which the empire reached its apogee (the current madness being merely a last gasp), when the seeds of its collapse first sprouted. The U.S. had a position of security unparalleled in history, controlling the Western Hemisphere and both oceans. Its economy and culture dominated the world. And yet anticommunist hysteria was running wild.
In April 1953, President Eisenhower barred gays from all federal jobs. In June, the government executed the Rosenbergs. The Korean War ended in July, just as the Cuban revolution began. In August, the C.I.A. overthrew Iran’s government. Kinsey’s book on female sexuality appeared in the fall. The film War of the Worlds left viewers staring fearfully at the stars, while Shane presented the lone Hero literally riding off into the sunset. In December Playboy’s first issue, featuring Marilyn Monroe, arrived.
In May 1954, the French surrendered at Dien Bien Phu in northern Viet Nam. Ten days later, the Supreme Court decided Brown vs Board of Education. In June, Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and the C.I.A. overthrew the Guatemalan government. Three days later, Viet Nam was officially divided. In August, as the C.I.A. defeated the insurrection in the Philippines, Congress banned membership in the Communist Party.
Rebel Without A Cause opened in early 1955. In July, “In God We Trust” became mandatory on all currency. The Soviets detonated their first H-bomb in August. Allen Ginsburg first recited Howl in October. In December, shortly after Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person.
And one other thing: in July 1954, Elvis Presley released his first record.
America was entering a period of continuous change from which it has never recovered. The spark that set things off occurred when southern whites first blended country music and blues, just as the civil rights movement was making its move and all Americans were scrambling to acquire televisions. Most critically, Elvis emerged from the darkness of the deep South.
Soon, television was showing white men performing like blacks, men who were comfortable in their bodies and defiantly, humorously, ambiguously sexual, men who challenged John Wayne’s code of masculinity. Stephen Diggs calls this the blues revolution: “Dionysus is inciting the instinctual maenads to pull Pentheus from the treetop back down to earth and then tear his detached vision to bits.” To Michael Ventura this was “… one of the most important moments in modern history.” Eldridge Cleaver wrote,
… contact, however fleeting, had been made with the lost sovereignty – the Body had made contact with its mind – and the shock…sent an electric current throughout this nation.
It was the incursion of the Dionysian mode into a culture that had long been ruled by a poor version of the Apollonian. In contrast to “containment,” the theme that dominated so much of public life, youth became enthusiastic (“en-theos,” taken over by the god of ecstasy). Quickly, the nature of western dance and performance changed. And along with the released energies came much more.
The music sparked a collective flame; within a very few months the youth market exploded. More importantly, a youth movement began to spread across the world. For perhaps the first time, an entire generation saw the world in fundamentally different terms from its parents and chose to define itself as separate. Unknown to them, the only models for this phenomenon in all of history had been the groups of young men going into the liminal madness of initiation together. There are accounts of African boys dancing before the elders’ huts, demanding to be initiated. Now white girls (who individually might have been timid and obedient) were forming mobs, breaking through police lines to approach their Dionysian priests, trying to “dismember” them as the Maenads had done with Pentheus. One of Elvis’s musicians recalled:
I heard feet like a thundering herd, and the next thing I knew I heard this voice from the shower area…several hundred (girls) must have crawled in…Elvis was on top of one of the showers…his shirt was shredded and his coat was torn to pieces…he was up there with nothing but his pants on and they were trying to pull at them up on the shower.
Chapter Four of my book takes a long look at the idea known as the “return of the repressed,” from both psychological and mythological perspectives, and it projects it outwardly toward the cultural and the political. By now, you shouldn’t be surprised that the mythic figure who mediated this process for hundreds if not thousands of years was Dionysus. Every night, in taverns across the world, people (mostly men) participate in a certain kind of eucharist, taking the god into their bodies in the form of Lusios, the Loosener, often with the conscious intention that he will facilitate conviviality (from convivere “to carouse together, live together”) and honest conversation (to turn together).
But the god, they all know, is fickle. Imbibing too much may provoke a deeper, unintentional honesty and even the violence we normally associate only with the Other. But in America, Dionysus is the Other, and when he returns from long years in the realm of the repressed, he may not be so convivial.
In the 1950s the madness broke out as the return of both erotic excitement as well as (in a few years) profound rage, signaling the opening of the gates through which all of the culture’s repressed energies would flow. But there were few elders to guide and welcome the young bacchants, because now it was the elders themselves against whom the youth were rebelling. The result was – for fifteen years, and perhaps for the first time in history – an international community more or less in agreement about a broad number of issues, the most central of which was a mythological insight. This world was no longer being ruled by Ouranos, but by his son Kronos. This was a world of fathers who were killing their children.
In 1960, well before the antiwar protests began, 50,000 Americans demonstrated for civil rights, with 3,600 arrests. For white students, this activism marked their first connection to the Other as well as the direct (if temporary) experience of otherness. Many felt more commonality with young black and brown people than with their parents. Children of the slaves were mixing with children of the masters.
That summer “the Twist” burst upon the scene, “a guided missile,” wrote Cleaver, “launched from the ghetto into the very heart of suburbia,” succeeding as politics couldn’t do in helping whites reclaim their bodies. Getting up and dancing individually or in groups broke down the traditional Western barrier between performer and immobile audience. It meant a revival of a participatory process rooted ultimately in ecstatic, pagan religion that had been repressed for centuries. And, since dancers stopped holding hands, it meant that girls didn’t have to follow anymore.
The same collective urge that gave rise to the Twist also propelled John Kennedy into office and evoked new idealism for millions. Consequently, youth took his death particularly hard. It is no coincidence that a new form of maenadism – “Beatlemania” – erupted only two months later. Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “At no time during their U.S. tours was the group audible above the shrieking.” Susan Douglas argues that the resonance between Kennedy and the Beatles allowed for “a powerful and collective transfer of hope.”