SEARCHING FOR GOD IN THE SIXTIES: A Review

 

Original Article From: http://prairiemary.blogspot.com/

 

The most lively and theological of correspondents in the earlier and more frisky online days of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment was “Doctor Dave,” an irreverent scholar teaching at George Mason University. His field is early theological and literary history (which are often entwined) of the American northeast, cornerstones of everything else that has has happened since. Few scholars have used R. Crumb as an interpretive text of this arcane material, but the strategy is justified.

Those who had competent high school teachers probably are aware of the American penchant for thinking in dyads: the Apollonian vs. the Dionysian, left-brain vs. right brain, male vs. female, or just “In” vs. “out.” Dave is working with the Arminian (rules and structure for proper living) versus the Antinomian (the essential goodness of humans that makes social impositions unnecessary). More poetically, the Cage versus the Abyss. This topic is manageable because the book is confined to social thought in the Sixties, pinned to American writers: Emily Dickinson for structure, Ken Keseyfor anti-structure, Norman Mailer for mantra: “You never know what vision has been humping you through the night.”Emerson for idealism, Anne Hutchinson for spiritual,Norman O. Brown for the thoughtfully erotic, and Charles Manson as the ultimate Antinomian. Dave is not out to force a choice, but rather to provide a map of the branching and weaving game trails through the wilderness. There is a “soundtrack” which seems vital for boomers. (Dave was born in 1949.)


Here’s the deal. When you’re little, parents, church, school. politicians, and so on tell you what the world is about. As you age and get to approximately adolescence, the edges of the guide come unstuck and begin to peel off. What is under it is Nothing. The most terrifying emptiness of nonexistence. The slow realization that the world is masked by one’s own social constructs which are often controlled by what Dave calls “the combine.” (He lives close to Washington, D.C.) When the Big Earthquake comes, is it better to run outside or stay inside? What you do will probably be determined by what humps you through the night. The outcome is not at all guaranteed. We divide between those who believe there IS a Truth, even if we can’t ever -- as limited human beings -- know what it is, and those who believe that they have the Truth right there in their breast pocket, directions which they are willing to impose on everyone else. (Fascists.) How do you admit there is no truth without entering despair?

Oddly, since Dave didn’t grow up with a father, it is often the “gray-flannel man” with his wage-earner’s lunch bucket, who humps him: the conformity and false security of theEisenhower years after WWII. (Rather dauntingly, he locates Obama with Eisenhower rather than Kennedy.) Our social pendulum swung towards the search for freedom in the Sixties, which proved to be problematic in unpredictable ways, reported with sharp intelligence by such people asJames Baldwin. The problem is that both extreme Antinomianism and extreme Arminianism are intolerable, but we are constantly forgetting, lighting out from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, often enduring hardship and violence, and then finding that’s not where we wanted to be after all.

Dave begins with Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” where the resident fascist is Nurse Ratched. He plays off Randle P. McMurphy, who has become conflated withJack Nicholson’s portrayal in the movie, a figure of the irrepressible Irish energy that has always confounded Brit imperialism. The decade begins with Jack Kennedy, who seemed a figure of energy before his mask came off, but also with the civil rights movement, folk music, and marijuana. There IS a Truth and its name is Freedom! ButJoan Didion was suspicious. What humped her in the California night was disorder, premonitions of murder, and she was right. Martin Luther King and the Kennedys knew that, but they marched out to their assassinations anyway. Is that Freedom? The young of the country thought so: they were Romantic. So romantic that they formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and got to work.

Vietnam was an insurmountable challenge. The underclasses who fought the war were pressed into the most basic human existence and it did not make them “good.” Martin Luther King was replaced by Malcolm X and a kind of counterracism. Marijuana was replaced by LSD, celebrated by intellectuals. Cartoon image: punching one’s way out of boxes. Literary exhibit: Kesey in “real” life, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” lurching across the country with a recording journalist on board. San Francisco was where it was at. Except for Woodstock. And then came Altamont. Hell’s Angels weren’t just symbolic, man. The Diggers, rooted in good works, become Charles Manson, rooted in seductive nothingness, ending in murder again.

By now the “fathers” of the combine were ready to take control. The seventies are beginning, though no one has really come to terms with the Sixties, and thus is this book necessary. Now it is Camille Paglia who says romanticism leads to decadence and anarchy, calling the oligarchs back to fascism in order to restore order. (One third? of the population in prison.) Again startling the reader, Dave seesBush as part of that Dionysian disorder, always going with his gut. What mask, what cage, what pretense or pontificating system will hump us through the night now? Is there any use to this struggle at all?

Kesey’s cynical take on Adam, the natural man, is Chief Bronfman who kills the now lobotomized McMurphy and escapes out the window. It is cynical because earlier the image is planted of a pup frolicking in the moonlight who then heads for a lethal highway and the Chief goes the same way. Kesey knows that the Chief’s home village, where he thinks he’s going, was obliterated by the Columbia Highway. But neither Kesey nor Williams, who forgets his history at the end of the book and says we are all immigrants coming from Egypt (Europe), really knows Indians. I will claim some familiarity with real Indians. This leads me to a third possibility that is not about dyads and outside most previous thought along these lines. I’m pointing at tribal Afghanistan where lessons from Sixties Afghanistan have taught us something about dealing with “fathers.” Seehttp://blog.stevenpressfield.com/2010/01/tribal-engagement-tutorial-mental-models/

Maybe a tent is just another cage. Nevertheless, Dave’s brave mix of scholar’s notes and personal investment is invaluable to those picking their way among the rubble of broken dreams, still scanning for the pole star.

Searching for God in the Sixties: by David R. Williams. University of Delaware Press, 2010.