September 2009

Elizabeth Bachner


Everybody Knows the Good Guys Lost: Reading The Sixties

Of course I missed the '60s. I was here for the late '70s (scary mustachioed men, long cars, autoharps coming out for uneven renditions of “Motorcycle Mama” or “Kumbaya”), the whole '80s (Brett Easton Ellis, Haagen-Daz, Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, fashion atrocities that would have been unimaginable in another era, nervous-nerd electronica, more than one TV show about white people adopting black midgets, the feeling of being trapped forever in the beach scene on a laminated restaurant placemat), the '90s (wearing pajamas to school for a year, troubled boys with skateboards or guitars who cut themselves and tripped too much and then got famous after the century turned again, a wrong move to Seattle, a right move to the Baltics), and the early 2000s. 

Of course there’s the sense of being alive after history has already ended. We are sharing the world with too many people. The last of the wild Caspian tigers and Cape lions have been killed off. The beloved troupe of baboons in Robert Sapolsky’s brilliant A Primate’s Memoir was lost to tuberculosis-infected meat from the local tourist lodge with no consequence to the meat inspector -- one baboon, Menasseh, died with a crowd of lodge staffers gathered around him, laughing at his writhing movements. Patty Hearst, liberated from her role as the punch-line of the joke of the Symbionese Liberation Army, begat Lydia Hearst-Shaw. A couple of years ago on one of the bridges in New York City, a suicidal woman was stopping up traffic, and people were rolling open their windows and yelling to her to just jump already. She did jump.   

Humans in every recorded era seem to have had that after-the-end feeling. Some of them had special words for it. And at any given moment, there’s usually at least one group of radical utopianists who believe we can turn the world into something beautiful, and a group of fascists who want to cleanse it, and a group of leftists who want an underclass uprising, and a zillion groups of religious fanatics who create weird rituals around food and sex and money and prayer. Yet, it seems like pretty much every time, the bland, unattractive centrists triumph -- the ones who are willing to say, “I don’t make the rules” about the murderous companies they work for. The ones who don’t mind eating vegetables that no longer have a vegetable flavor. The ones buying property in Connecticut, who turn to each other and wrinkle their Maybelline-coated noses in amused disgust as they step over a sick, shaking human being who is trying to sleep on the sidewalk. The ones who honestly think that “health care” is synonymous with “health insurance.”

Occasionally, one of these people becomes a sociologist and declares (accurately) that every bohemian experiment has been funded by bourgeois money, and everybody -- Leonard Cohen’s everybody -- keeps missing the point. There’s a widespread, yet illogical belief that just because every alternative has failed, it’s not okay to criticize the Kafkaesque systems to which the middle and upper classes devote their lives. And there’s a widespread disdain towards people who get all nostalgic about portentous moments in history, utopian experiments, explosive arts movements, and circles of glamorous intellectuals who went AWOL from mainstream society and had briefly successful and exciting stints of rethinking economics and dabbling in free love. The disdain grows when the nostalgic people weren’t even there to see what it was really like -- how it was mostly all about rapes and murders, war and colonialism, settling for disappointment, ridiculing each other’s suffering, and failing to live in a meaningful way. Just like it is now.

Jenny Diski was a teenager in London during the 1960s. She wore black crepe Biba minidresses, protested the War, experimented with drugs, got expelled, got put in mental institutions, had casual sex (some of which she can’t quite remember), read mind-blowing books, listened to incredible music, had friends who also believed that it was possible to reshape the world, and, over one weekend, started an alternative school.

I picked up The Sixties, Diski’s contribution to Picador’s Big Ideas/ Small Books series with a bit of trepidation. A lot of after-the-fact '60s books and movies seem to play the same old tune, and it sounds more like Bryan Adams’ Summer of ’69 than Talkin’ WWII Blues or a great Hendrix riff: we were very young and full of hope. We wanted to “change the world.” We experimented with free love. Then, we grew up and got married and read Hearst-published women’s magazines and bought a lot of groceries, and watched Woodstock and marveled at the floppy-breasted muddiness of our youthful selves. (I am mostly paraphrasing Martha Tod Dudham’s Expecting to Fly: A Sixties Reckoning here, which is more about boys rejecting her for not being pretty enough than about communes or the McCarthy campaign.) Some of the “'60s people” took a weird turn, and you never know when you’re going to come across something embarrassing, like Tom Wolfe’s geriatric musings about “hook-up culture” and teen promiscuity, or Jerry Rubin’s dabblings in Gordon Gekko Reaganomics and EST. Only a few of the radicals kept on doing their thing, and we’ve lost many of them -- Abbie Hoffman ODed on phenobarbitol under dubious circumstances. Huey Newton got shot in the face in 1989 on a street corner in the Oakland projects. Shulamith Firestone (still living) is in and out of mental institutions. Actually, maybe her story, or what we’ve heard of it from Airless Spaces and a smattering of articles, tells us everything we need to know about what happened then, and what is happening now. By 1970, the same year The Dialectic of Sex was published, the most radical of the New York Radical Feminists had pretty much dropped out of politics. Through the '80s and '90s, she struggled with madness and homelessness, moving in and out of psychiatric hospitals, mostly forgotten. In the late 1990s, she wrote Airless Spaces, a keen, wrenching book of autobiographical fiction based on those experiences -- Eileen Myles called it a "radical insider's tale... [that] informs us repeatedly like lightly pelting rain that all of us are vanishing in a century of institutions that take and take until everyone has gone away and there's no one left to shut the door." Unfortunately, not many people have read it.

It seems damn near impossible to write a “'60s reckoning” that’s both fresh and comprehensive, all these tired years later. For one thing, most of what happened during the years loosely associated with this big phenomenon was revivalist -- when I think of the '60s, I think of the mystical quest of Maugham’s Larry Darrell (circa 1929), and of Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley’s Vedic studies with Swami Prabhavananda (1940), and of Turgenev’s Bazarov, giving his Orthodox dad the finger with overgrown hair and nihilism (1860ish), and of revolutions in general, and youth movements in general. There are some terrific Sixties histories out there (including Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo’s new Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture), and some juicy novels and memoirs, but when it comes to writing a concise philosophy of the '60s as a “Big Idea”, the topic itself looks a bit stale -- overgrown, rootless, and terminally misunderstood.  

But, yay! Jenny Diski has managed it. At sixty, she’s a cool and loveable narrator -- smart, funny, low-key, gentle, and kind-hearted. The gentleness is deceptive, because her small book has an almost frightening impact -- profound and radical. Reading it makes you want to rethink the way you live, and the way you see the world. Unbelievably, it’s about an even bigger idea than “the '60s.” It’s not so much about how we understand and experience history, although it takes that on. It’s more about why we, humans, do and think the things we do and think at any given moment, and how that changes the world, or fails to change it.

“The big idea we had --,” writes Diski, “though heaven knows it wasn’t new -- was freedom, liberty, permission, a great enlarging of human possibilities beyond the old politenesses and restrictions. But it was an idea we failed to think through. It was a failure of thought essentially, rather than a failure of imagination.” It seems astonishing to her how little has changed, how little, really, '60s radicalism penetrated into our laws and social structures and into “the assumptions of the great majority of the human race.” The radical ideas tested out included free love (Diski and Lemke-Santangelo both point out that this ended up being just as sexist and crappy for women as the sexual arrangements of the previous four-hundred years), nudism, educational reform, the idea of mass enlightenment, the anti-psychiatry movement (pivoting on R.D. Laing’s idea that madness was a relatively rational response to our sick society), carrying for the needy, living consciously and conscientiously, working to expand our hearts and minds, and celebrating creativity. And of course, there was the eye-opener of Vietnam.

“Wherever you look, over the past forty years, nationalism and capitalism have triumphed… We were guilty, I think, of not imagining the Eighties… We didn’t really believe in the existence of the bad guys… [Most people] weren’t interested in the mental travelers coming back with remarkable tales to tell; they wanted, as people always seem to want, to get on, and getting on meant focusing narrowly on the vital business of getting things (money, success, objects) and not worrying too much about those who didn’t, unless they needed sequestering. Truth (whatever it may be), art (whatever that may be), consideration at a cost to yourself, none of these were priorities compared to a decent standard of living and the promise of ever better, ever more to come. Whether it was our fault, or the fault of those other radicals of the Eighties and Nineties, the current situation seems to be that those who are looking to be in charge of the world next are actually facing the prospect of not much world at all.”

She also describes a feeling, way back during the heady height of New Left protests, of “astonishment, a complete inability to comprehend how those in charge of the world could operate as they did. Not just their building of nuclear weapons, and the creation of fear, but their acceptance of, let alone their complicity in the interrelated wickednesses of social and educational inequality, racism, and poverty. I had the flashing sense that it was kind of a dream world that I inhabited, that I would wake up and, of course, none of those unthinkable ills were permitted by rational, educated, responsible people.” 

My own incomprehension of the “getting on” people is not about their acquisitiveness. I can understand wanting to have a comfortable place to live, a safe place to sleep, delicious food. My incomprehension begins with what the “getting on” people are willing to destroy even after they have plenty of homes and SUVs and furniture and Lululemon yoga clothes. Does the pursuit of security and material comfort really have to involve viral marketing to children, or falsifying data about psychiatric drugs in order to turn a profit, or polluting the groundwater? As a kid who saw Bob Dylan for the first time in London, 1990 (I think those boys slipped something into my 7 Up), as a victim of lifelong dirty marketing, I don’t think the fault lies with the radicals of the '60s or the “Greed is Good” radicals of the '80s and '90s. It lies with the “just following orders” types. Although, what do I know? I keep thinking that we are living in the dystopia from Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time or Huxley’s Brave New World.  I also keep thinking about the ending of A Razor’s Edge -- everyone in the novel, Maugham observes, has gotten exactly what he or she wanted. Including Isabel, who just wants money and possessions. Including Sophie, who just wants to die. 

Was it Jerry Rubin who said never to trust anyone over thirty? I guess he was always kind of an ass. But now I’m thirty-five, and I can’t for the life of me understand why “getting on” would appeal to anybody, of any age, who is not starving in the streets and covered with bites and wounds, if it means a lack of emphasis on art and intellectual exploration and mystical transformations and love. The “getting on” people laugh bitterly when any of those things are mentioned these days, but the thing that always intrigues me is that when someone talks about wishing to get filthy rich and buy four houses (this is something a few of my friends want), the “getting on” people greet that with the same dull, bitter laughter. There is the idea that not just radicalism, but passion or consciousness of any kind, is for the young and stupid, all of whom will be forced to get old and “settle” for boring, disappointing, and meaningless lives of lame compromise -- a prospect that fills the “getting on” people with rare glee.   

In her memoir A Freewheelin’ Time, Suze Rotolo writes that “The new generation causing all the fuss was not driven by the market. We had something to say, not something to sell.” Yet somehow, what she describes as the “inquiry and curiosity and rebelliousness” of that moment was one of the first things to go. Diski concludes:

What alarms me is how little has actually changed… even in the developed nations women are still paid considerably less than men for the same work, millions of people are starving around the world and most of them are black, the wife of the first minister of Northern Ireland felt able to call homosexuality ‘an abomination’ in 2008, the Market, whether it is up or down, controls the lives of individuals, and vast corporations have consolidated their power over elected (and unelected) governments. In addition the planet is frying. Some brave souls are still battling; most of us who had the good fortune to be part of the Sixties are just plain discouraged.

Everybody knows this broken feeling -- those of us who missed the '60s, and those of us who miss the '60s. As Diski is quick to point out, “the '60s” didn’t coincide with the years between 1960 and 1970 -- it was a big idea, and even for those living through it, life was mostly quotidian, just as it is now. The exciting thing about reading Diski’s book is that it makes you question how and why we are living, even though it’s sure as hell not “the '60s” anymore. Even though maybe it never was “the '60s.” The world Diski inherited seemed shocking to her, she believes, because she was “somewhat new to it… Like the young at all times, I imagined that such as us had never happened before, and that nothing was ever going to be the same again once the old had passed into their pottering retirement.  What the young don’t get is that they are young; the old are right, young is a phase the old go through. It’s just as well, I suppose, that the young don’t see it that clearly. Best to leave the disappointment for later.” That’s how it goes. 

It is not clear what to do now, with this after-the-end feeling, in a frying world. Try some new experiment, maybe? Read William James and go to an ashrama and work in a coal mine and give away all of our possessions, like Larry Darrell? Meditate with a guru who is a little bit “too Indian,” in between chain-smoking and sex with hot boys, like Christopher Isherwood? Experiment with entheogens and psychodysleptics and phantasticants? Turn on, tune in, drop out, get sick, get well, hang around the inkwell, get dressed, get blessed, try to be a success? I missed the '60s, but I get 2009, and Jenny Diski’s remarkable book has made me think about what that really means. It’s less a feeling of optimism or defeat than a thrill at the terrible landscape of glittering chaos, the dangerous jumble of known and unknown. I could write about it, now, or forty years from now, but maybe that would be like making a sand mandala and then sweeping it away.