…our fire, our elemental fire
so that it rushes up in a huge blaze like a phallus into hollow space
and fecundates the zenith and the nadir
and sends off millions of sparks of new atoms
and singes us, and burns the house down. – D. H. Lawrence (“Fire”)
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance stirs in the buried life.
One season only, and it’s done. – Stanley Kunitz (“Touch Me”)
Yes, their – our – parents had plenty of needs and wants, which they believed they were satisfying by buying, accumulating, getting ahead (that most characteristic description of the American ideal of progress) – and moving up: from the assembly line to the corner office, from the Baptists to the Episcopalians, and of course from the apartments to the split-level houses, where they could show off (in those huge, energy-leaking, suburban front windows, with those new gas-guzzler cars freshly washed, parked in the driveways rather than the garages).
But desires? The culture of consumption was displacing the Puritan heritage and the Paranoid Imagination, but only in the most superficial manor. What they had and were repressing was destined to emerge among their children.
Someone dancing inside us has learned only a few steps:
The “Do-Your-Work” in 4/4 time, the “What-Do-You-Expect” Waltz.
He hasn’t noticed yet the woman standing away from the lamp.
The one with black eyes who knows the rumba
And strange steps in jumpy rhythms
From the mountains of Bulgaria.
If they dance together, something unexpected will happen;
if they don’t, the next world will be a lot like this one.
– Bill Holm (“Advice”)
The ecstatic experience of dancing to rock music, with or without chemical stimulation, evoked a desire for other non-material ways of knowing. It helped to define this community of initiates, who soon shared a fascination with both the introspection offered by psychedelics and the easy, if fleeting, access that drugs provided to communitas. For a few years, millions of young people commonly distinguished between those who opposed the war, got high, listened to rock, wore long hair and rejected the Puritan Ethic, and those who didn’t. Or: between Dionysian ecstasy and Apollonian rationality. Or: between authentic and contrived innocence.
Many attempted to reclaim that innocence in rural communes. Whether it was in those pastoral images or in urban circuses like Haight-Ashbury, the rebellion drew its power from its negation of the bland conformism of suburbia. But the phrase, “Don’t trust anyone over the age of thirty!” revealed a profound grief about the loss of elderhood. Adults could not initiate youth into a meaningful world because they had never been initiated themselves.
But, said Bob Dylan, the sensation of first hearing Elvis as a teenager was “like busting out of jail.” All the issues repressed by the culture for so long erupted into the open. Millions marched against the war, not merely because it was a mistake bred of good intentions (as even liberal apologists still contend), but because it was nothing other than mad, imperialist genocide.
The parents, blinded by their mythologies, could not see what was obvious to their children. The generation that had survived the Depression, saved Europe from the Nazis and gratefully consumed the myth of American innocence could only sputter, “My country, right or wrong!” The youth, however, who always see the mythic issues more clearly, responded: “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”
Civil rights agitation sparked movements for the liberation of women, Latinos, farm workers, Indians, gays, prisoners, the disabled, the environment, the body – and the soul. Thousands discovered that psychedelics hinted at spiritual realms that conventional religious leaders could never understand and indeed were staunchly opposed to. Eventually, millions would investigate natural foods, the human potential movement and Eastern religion.
Then the reaction set in, as I write in Chapter Eight of my book:
By 1970, the white middle class was exhausted, disenchanted and vulnerable to backlash. Hollywood responded with vigilante movies starring Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood in which lone redeemer-heroes cleaned up the urban chaos.
Working-class whites had struggled so hard to achieve their Dream, only to hear radicals condemning their patriotism and materialistic lifestyles. They retreated into willful ignorance and innocence. Forty-nine percent of the public simply refused to believe that the shameful massacre at My Lai (not to mention dozens of other such events) had occurred. If American boys actually acted in this manner, then once again America was no different from any other nation.
…When the National Guard exploded at Kent State in 1970, writes (Milton) Viorst, many local people were outraged at the students, not the killers, and rejoiced that, “…the act had been done at last… the students deserved what they got.”
“The act” was mythic, ritual sacrifice of the children. So many youth had rejected American values so completely that they had seemingly become Other. Although America had been slaughtering children in Viet Nam and in the ghettoes for years, the message was unmistakable: You will be like the fathers or die. Shortly after Kent State, as students struck on 450 campuses, thugs attacked demonstrators and police watched approvingly. Years later, after exonerating the students, Kent State commissioned a monument. However, it rejected sculptor George Segal’s model of Abraham poised with a knife over Isaac. It would not accept the mythic implications of the murders.
The myth of American innocence had weathered many shocks, but its stereotype of the internal Other had survived. By this point, the paranoid white imagination no longer saw African Americans as long-suffering, non-violent citizen-saints. They were now dashiki-wearing, afro-haired, foul-mouthed terrorists, “black panthers” who ruled the city at night (curiously, in Greek iconography, the panther was one of Dionysus’ animals).
The projection of American Dionysus was nearly back where whites needed it, but not quite. In the next ten years, the F.B.I. would make sure that most black, red and brown activists were discredited, imprisoned or (in over two dozen cases) dead. Black rage turned inward, in drug addiction and gang violence. In 1981, Hollywood bestowed its cultural approval by releasing Fort Apache the Bronx. The film’s title acknowledged a hideous mix of mythic and racial stereotypes. A beleaguered police station stood as a small outpost of civilized values within a wilderness of black and brown savagery.
With the end of the Viet Nam War, the central focus for activism disappeared. “The music died,” as Don McLean sang. Culturally and politically, the tenuous connection between rebellion and pleasure began to open up. Perhaps, since rock (unlike its parent, the blues) is the musical expression of uninitiated young men, this was inevitable. The coalition broke up into its constituent parts: a few violent revolutionaries; apolitical mystics; and minority activists.
As idealism collapsed into consumerism, the youth movement receded back into the youth market. Critics now debate whether commercial youth culture is deliberately created in order to separate youth from their families, recreating them as vulnerable consumers, or whether, as Simon Frith writes, their real needs “– to make sense of their situation, to overcome their isolation – are dissolved in a transitory emotional moment.”
From a pagan or indigenous perspective, youth do indeed have innate needs. Each generation needs to briefly separate out and endure the initiatory fires under the capable guidance of elders, to return, to be welcomed back, and then to re-imagine the world. But as they aged, millions succumbed to narcissistic self-absorption, cynicism or fundamentalism. The youth market, now controlled almost completely by a few mega-corporations, exists only to exploit and channel the occasional eruptions of Dionysian energy. The counterculture ended, writes Ehrenreich, “by affirming the… materialistic culture it had set out to refute.” Rock and its descendants are now little more than the background music to new frenzies of consumerism — and nationalism. “The sixties,” writes Camille Paglia, “never completed its search for new structures of social affiliation…‘do your own thing’ encouraged individualism but produced fragmentation.”
Decades later, musical preference still expresses identity. But now it distinguishes between youth populations, rather than defining a community separated from their parents by a generation gap. Ronald Reagan co-opted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Beer and car companies sponsor tours by musicians; loudspeakers in Afghanistan played “We will rock you!” as the bombers took off; CIA torturers blasted Heavy Metal into prisons to disorient prisoners; Jimmie Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” is played at boot-camp initiations; skinheads sell racist rock over the Internet; and misogyny drives much of Hip Hop. The volume increases as civic involvement declines.
Meanwhile, observes sociologist Orlando Patterson, America’s image of the Other has expanded to include aspects of which whites are now admittedly, nervously envious: “The Afro-American male body – as superathlete, as irresistible entertainer…as sexual outlaw, as gangster.” Black athletes and entertainers attract a mainstream culture that is over-balanced toward Apollonian demands. In this context, he says that African-American images have become a “Dionysian counterweight” unstably balanced with the discipline required of those who must tolerate the conditions of the modern workplace. Dionysus has free reign in the inner cities, where he remains safely contained, “…until the instinctual need for release from the Apollonian pressures…calls for its tethered, darkened presence.”
Blacks now provide much of the cultural container that allows white, male youth (who purchase seventy percent of Hip-Hop) to act out some mild rebellion between their suburban school years and the corporate life they must eventually submit to. All learn to suppress their innate grandiosity of soul and project it onto celebrities. Instead of living creative lives as involved citizens, we consume the cultural products, including Dionysus, that the media offer us.
Generally, however, we watch the Dionysian experience, like Pentheus in his tree spying on the maenads. Popular culture apparently assumes that blacks have a certain license to behave in ways the culture as a whole chooses to repress. Some blacks play along for profit while others, writes historian Gerald Early, resent “the entrapment of sensuality we are forced to wear as a mask for the white imagination.”
Meanwhile, Hip-Hop subculture reflects our most fundamental myth, the sacrifice of the children, back toward the wider culture. It displays anger and self-confidence in the lyrics, but grief and depression in the imagery: baggy pants, drooping below the waste; everything collapsed. Adolescents, especially minorities, are well aware of being forced to carry the weight of the world that their parents will not.
However, the memory of that tentative healing of the mind-body split survives, and Americans now commonly acknowledge a desire for authenticity that was birthed in the 1960s. Whether they search for it in rock or gospel music, meditation, hiking, gardening or cocaine is, to an extent, irrelevant. The genie is out of the bottle; even commercials commonly hint that we are capable of so much more. Despite their implication that only “stuff” will satisfy their longing, many baby boomers and their children still carry an idealism that counters the prevailing cynicism and fear. And the energy, the desperate, if unconscious craving for initiation, is as strong as ever. The creative imagination openly opposes the culture of innocent violence and violent innocence.
Whether through the calm attention of Yoga, natural foods and body therapies or through the ecstatic release of popular music and the discipline of fitness programs, Americans have begun the long pilgrimage back into the body. It is no coincidence that these revolutions have occurred simultaneously with the emergence of blacks and gays out of the national underworld. Slowly, painfully and generously, people of color and unconventional sexuality have offered white America the opportunity to pull back its projections from the Other. Coming down out of our heads and remembering the body’s demands, we encounter the needs of the soul. We encounter desire.
The madness is still at the gates. Michael Ventura, in another essay, argues that, for better or for worse, successive generations of youth have spontaneously produced “…forms – music, fashions, behaviors – that prolong the initiatory moment.” A period that in the tribal world lasted only a few weeks has now been extended into decades. The pace of change has kept millions in a state of ongoing liminality throughout our entire lives.
But if we reduce such phenomena to psychology or see only eternal adolescents duped by consumer culture, we are missing the point. We have all become initiates, without being welcomed home, stuck in the middle of a great transition. In some parts of the Third World, literally half the population is composed of teenagers, crying out to be seen. This is tragic, but it is also our best hope for renewal. “Hence their demand – inchoate, unreasonable and irresistible – is that history initiate them.”
Yes, but what about Elvis?