Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Thunder Gods, pt. 1 - work in progress

“ . . . first of all, to go alone.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

We live on the edge of the Dark Forest but we fear to go there. Instead, we have built a way in opposition to the way of the woods which has carried us five hundred years now. With it we see the world as objects, we see ourselves as objects.

Yet somehow it seems appropriate for the first stage of American life. It is a way to organize life without instinct, life away from one’s natural home. The life of a colonist. The way you would organize life on an empty planet.

It seems just as likely that this perspective must appear narrow by any criteria for a culture or civilization, like a boxes and copies sequence, unvaried and utterly predictable row upon row. But it represents only an initial phase, a building matrix like Albrecht Durer used to organize beneath his paintings and drawings, and what it is to contain hasn’t arrived yet. But when it does it will fill the matrix with rich and subtle impressions as the artist did.

The inner life of the North American continent hasn’t hatched yet. The box matrix of the business culture that runs across the city skyline will do for now as base coat. It celebrates the total victory of the Power Principle from Beijing to Kuala Lampur to New York and Bonn. It symbolizes the victory of the Federalist, the Globalist and the Corporation, marked by their singular form, a square without circles.

But it is not enough.

Records show that when the first colonists arrived in Massachusetts they could smell the pitch from the pine trees while they were still 50 miles out to sea. Which was an auspicious beginning. Before they could think it, they had already sensed it. So the pine tree appeared on the colonists first flag. When I was born in Massachusetts the state was 75% deforested. Now it is only 25% deforested.

The trees are coming back. In fact, there are now so many trees that when I recently visited the old Puritan towns just north of Amherst a bear ran in front of my car just five minutes out of Williamsburg.

The outward movement of the Power Principle is still projecting into Indonesia, Malaysia and every corner of the Third World, but here at its source it is yielding.

Unlike most of the Western world, New England has a philosophy of yielding, as ancient China does, born with it as Boston’s power rose in opposition to England’s. The Clipper ships which challenged England’s trade have disappeared (and so has the trade), but the resolving force to the inner life has barely begun.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson, speaking to the seminary students at Harvard, admonished them to go out and start their own religions, he may have started an upheaval that is just beginning to come to the surface. More radical than John Adams’ constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which read in the Declaration of Rights that all men were “born equally free and independent” (changed by committee to read, “born free and equal”), Emerson, in his talks of 1837 and 1838 called for a revolution of the spirit and for psychological independence from Europe.

In The American Scholar, an oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, on August 31, 1837, he said: “ . . . perhaps the time is already come when it ought to be, and will be, something else; when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close . . . .”

The following year in his famous Divinity School Address, delivered before the senior class at Harvard’s Divinity College on July 15, 1838, he attacked the European church as Adams had denounced the European monarchists: “ . . . by this eastern monarchy of a Christianity which indolence and fear have built, the friend of man (Jesus) is made the injurer of man. The manner in which his name is surrounded with expression which were once sallies of admiration and love, but are now petrified into official titles, kills all generous sympathy and liking. . .” And in this, when he admonishes the student, “. . . first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.” And to live as a “newborn bard of the Holy Ghost.”

It was Emerson, Thoreau and Theodore Parker who would inspire Leo Tolstoy to start his own religion and to organize principles of non-violent political action, and subsequently the political destinies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The hippies had much in common with the Transcendentalists. Life at the Old Manse often resembled the hippie days at their very worst. Hawthorne, who spent a year at Brook Farm, George Ripley’s transcendental commune in Roxbury, described by Elisabeth Peabody as “Christ’s idea of society” opined that “a man’s soul may be buried and perish under a dungheap.”

The Transcendentalist movement also resembled the 1960s where the light shined brightest, with Emerson, the “great original thinker” of the age and the celestial poet that guided the generation to the deity in nature and the Brahma mind. Thoreau was the more popular figure during the war in Vietnam, as draft resistors sought a historical context and found it in Civil Disobedience. But it should have been Emerson.

Maybe New England should take Henry Adams’ advice and forget the soldiers and the politicians and start afresh with their own indigenous spirit and declare Emerson god-king. Begin again with the man who wrote this:

“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.”

This is bedrock Yankee religion. These writings and those of Thoreau, are the Yankee Creation Myths and the Original Stories of the tribe.

Nowadays, these and most of Emerson’s texts would easily be understood to be Buddhist and Vedic sentiments (thus, they were called Brahmans). Emerson’s aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, was a key figure in the Transcendentalist movement, the poet’s muse, who taught him about the East as did his friend Bronson Alcott. (It is most interesting that she lives on only as an inward turning profile.) Alcott, of all the Transcendentalists, brought the Eastern texts to the intellectuals of the Boston movement.

Rugged independence was a hallmark of Yankee character but that quality went submissive to the generic federalist state after the Civil War. It remains to be seen whether or not it is possible for Yankee grit to reassert itself and for the rugged, independent natural strength of character for which Yankee she and he were noted to reemerge. But it is a hallmark of organic farming that depleted topsoil can be reconstituted wherever it once existed.

The independence ethic or freedom ethic which grew in New England may be only a regional condition in the first place. It could be that only Massachusetts and a few other of the New England and northern states actually share the freedom ethic where it was hatched and forged in warfare. It was in the hearts and minds of that specific culture that the psychological transformation occurred that resulted in a bill of rights guaranteeing specific freedoms. It was largely on New England, Pennsylvania and New York soil where the initiative was taken and the blood was shed to make the transition from Puritan to Yankee.

Maybe it it only there, and places settled after those dramatic events by the northeastern people, resettled in places like Michigan, that the freedom ethic exists existentially, and can and should be cultivated. The freedom ethic cannot be superimposed on a people by fiat or conquest. It has to be wanted and taken by itself.

I am not totally against the authoritarian principle. It is the dark side of the heart chakra. Countries that have it traditionally, like Thailand and Tibet, are perhaps richer in the heart and its people live fuller psychic lives than we do, but with poor governance, as the heart governs at the expense of the head.

For myself I prefer bonding by secular principles and governance by the head. I have no objections if people want to pray to feel whole as a group before sporting events, but I’d prefer not to pray with them. Which appears to be dissent. But that is the point; it is intended as a collective enterprise to identify those silent as outcasts, because it is a form of animal territoriality. The rise of the Christian Right is essentially the authoritarian ethic reassembling itself and consolidating after 100 years of submission to federalist and Yankee occupation. If this asserts itself and manages to establish itself in national governance, my own feeling is that when pushed, Yankees can’t and won’t live with it, and they will seek independence.

But the appearance of going in opposite directions at once is found throughout the South as it is in the North and in other places in the United States. The Yankee businessman and his money are welcomed and the New Man of the South is onboard, just as W.J. Cash said he would get on board 70 years ago. But along the country road, the old wooden frame houses of the 1880s and the turn of the century tell their own archaeological story. Ten feet away from the white clapboard house of the 19th century yeoman farmer and his sons is a brick ranch house from the 1950s, and a few feet away from that a doublewide, on a plot passed down for four generations. Much wealth has come to the South and with it much progress, but much has passed away that can’t be replaced.

Same with the Yankee who readily yielded his soul up to the Federalists, the Globalists and the Corporation culture.

I grew up in a small, pleasant but provincial New England town in the 1950s when provincialism was the order of the day in post-war America. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose suggests that this new provincialism came from a residual terror that still stalked the base of the American psyche that this post-war peace and prosperity could yet unravel, as it had in the Great Depression and in the devastation of Europe during the two world wars.

With the Depression still a close memory, Optimism was the order of the day and the post-war American Religion, featuring Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham. The Cold War brought a new nuclear threat and the fate of the world seemed to hang tentatively in the balance, hinged on Dwight Eisenhower’s winning smile. (Speaking to Nixon in 1951 on the prospects of European recovery and development, Eisenhower said, “”What we need over here and in the States is more optimism in order to combat the defeatist attitude that too many people seem to have.”)

It was not a time for whiners, that was for sure, especially out there in the heartland, but focus, lest it fall back into the chasm. My own family’s direct trajectory back was not untypical: World War II, the Great Depression, WW I, migration from England and Ireland, starvation. And that was as far back as anyone could remember. Death in war, death by consumption, more war, poverty and a potato famine. Peacetime was more dangerous than war, and sometimes war brought deliverance.

Dobie Gilles, the star of an early sit-com, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, was the hero of the day, even in New England. He was blond and swell, like the prototype of the happy-face button, ever smiling and optimistic. He had a TV buddy named Maynard G. Krebs, starring Bob Denver, before he became famous as Gilligan on Gilligan’s Island.

Maynard G. Krebs is more interesting because he was the prototype for an entire generation 10 years later, as if he were one tired little cutting from a spider plant that had fallen accidentally off a window sill and grew unnoticed into an unkempt jungle, engulfing the suburban track house and the whole neighborhood, and all of Centerville. Maynard G. Krebs was Dobie Giles’ sidekick who never had a date, a beatnik with a little beard on his chin and a Congo drum, perfectly harmless and a good companion at a time when the hip people like Marlon Brando were still doing the mambo in Southern California.

I can remember cows in my yard and even horses running down the street, when they would break through Herman Lavois’s fence – the Frenchman, my father used to call him. But with television it was to enter into the nation’s history, and early. One day, in first grade, coming home from school on the bus, one of my secondary memories of childhood which felt like my first moment of adulthood, I recall my mother acting uncharacteristically short and brisk and ironing earnestly, glued to the television. But what she called, “my shows” – the soaps - wasn’t on. What was on was the nasally, tenor voice of Joe Welch, swaying and dipping, as if in a dance, with the booming, bullying voice of Joe McCarthy.

What’s that? I asked.

The Hearings, she said in earnest, without looking up or missing a stroke with her iron.

What’s it about, I asked.

The Communists, she said. And that’s all she said.

But I knew.

Just the same, New England was a pretty good place to grow up in those days. There were few shrill voices. You could sense even then that these things were waiting for you but for now they were still far away. But the trees were dying, just as we were coming up - the majestic, elegant elms that ringed our property and all of wooded New England. Still, mother was near and there was always a sea breeze at hand.

What was unusual in this nice little town on the Saconnet River was that all of the really big changes in the world that happened when I was a young man seemed to begin right there practically in my back yard.

One day I would be sitting on the ground before I could even talk, pointing up and saying, “woo woo, woo woo,” and being scooped up into my mother’s arms, saved from being stepped on by a cow that had wandered in and was standing in my sand box, next thing it was beatniks, with pointy beards and sun glasses, and dark-haired girls with toreador pants, asking if my friends and I would mind carrying them and their Vespa motor scooters, which they had ridden on down from New York, across the river in our little sail boats, in their attempts to run police blockades that had been set up to stop them from entering the Newport Jazz Festival. Riots had flared between the musical acts. They were the most exotic people we had ever seen and seemed to come down out of the river itself out of nowhere.

That would be about 1958 and we would learn about the Maynard G. Krebs factor. We were interested – I was fascinated – but none of us became particularly attached.

Then the whole world seemed to revolve around us.

First it was an Irish thing, which made it all the more remarkable. We, the submissive Irish, in a passive and provincial corner of New England, would somehow become the center of the world.

I remember my father making us all dress up on a Sunday afternoon. I must have been about eight or nine at the time, and my sister and I sitting in the back of the Chevy on the way to Providence. It was an Irish political occasion, tedious and deadly boring. They would make us go to a political rally every now and again for the Democrats when they needed bodies, and although we had moved to the country, we were still connected through Irish family to Southie, South Boston and Irish politics. And I can still remember my smirking attitude when my father said to us that this was important. This was really important. This new politician he said, could be President some day.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I thought to myself. The vain hopes of the working class Irish, still with the factory mind-set, hoping to make it big. These people will never get out and never get over it, I thought, after shaking Senator John F. Kennedy’s hand at the fund raiser. The South Boston Harp’s great new hope. This guy could never be President, I thought. He’s too happy, for one thing. Too young, too skinny and he doesn’t smoke as much as the other men. And they have been saying this for 100 years. And nothing ever happens with these people.

The Catholics in my town went to high school in Newport, and it just so happened that it was the parish that Jackie Kennedy’s family lived in and it so happened that the Kennedys had gotten married in the parish church for our high school. So there they were again, the pictures of the wedding plastered everywhere, as he was president by then.

By the time I entered high school, one out of our own pocket was actually president of the United States, which seemed so odd, as here we Irish were suddenly real Americans. Americans almost in spite of ourselves.

And that wasn’t the only thing, because the beatniks would continue coming down the river on their motor scooters and now we saw they were coming to our high school.

Before it got big, the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival were held at the football field of our high school.

We were pretty square and most of the kids at the school were from what used to be called the “fifth ward” – the working-class Irish neighborhood in the city of Newport -- but many of us who had progressed, so to speak, to the country, still commuted in because the school was Catholic.

Then it all changed and it changed for everyone and it began to change all in our back yard. Someone once said that technically the Sixties began when Bob Dylan appeared on the stage with an electric guitar and was booed away by aficionados who wanted him to remain with the wooden guitar and the old folksy crowd. It would certainly make for a great story even if it weren’t true. Bob Dylan was the monkey god, the trickster, the Magical Animal anthropologists tell us, who performs the rite of entry at the beginning of an era of transformation. And the electric guitar was the talisman, the artifact with magical qualities, that symbolized the 1960s and the transformation that would take place.

What a short childhood. That’s when it began for us. I say us because that was when I became we and it no longer felt particularly special, or different or important any more to be an Irish person or a Catholic or a Protestant or a Yankee or any other damn thing. It only meant life to be part of your friends, and they and you were all in a group, part of your generation.

I wasn’t at that particular concert but I remember being with my pals and passively going to the Folk Festival in Newport at about that time. We had tickets to see Joan Baez and Johnny Cash, and I didn’t know much about who they even were, we just wanted to go out to be part of the scene and to party. But we did know that Joan Baez was about the most beautiful girl we had ever seen and the kind of girl we would like to know, but none of the girls we knew were like that yet.

When we got there she got up on stage and said she was sorry, but something had happened to Johnny Cash – that was when he had a lot of turmoil in his life – and he couldn’t make it tonight. They said in the crowd he got drunk. They said he was in jail. So instead, she said, her friend Bob Dylan had agreed to sing, and there was a loud cheer.

Bob Dylan was like a sacred animal come out of the North Woods into the Technicolor, sta-press, Le Corbusier-meets-Popular Mechanics modernist suburban track house Pleasantville that grew out of the 1950s. Raw and iconoclastic and not much older than us, he was like nothing we had ever seen or heard before. The two of them sang one of those early, earthy songs where sad became a haunting, a howling like a hammer in the night, and we would first hear the gravelly, wailing voice that would speak to us especially as a group, as a generation, and tell us that it was time. It was time to leave it to fate. It was time to take what we had gathered from coincidence and leave the rest behind. Time to strike another match and start anew. Because it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

Nothing was ever the same after that for us, and for the ones who didn’t enter fate with us, it would never be the same for them either. But for us it was like a passive religious conversion. Like when C.S. Lewis says when he entered the bus he became a Christian. But what we entered was Aquarius.

I suppose it might have been different if you were from people who made things happen in the world, but we were not like that. They were from someplace else and even from another generation. And I couldn’t even after he was president imagine Kennedy to be among the makers. The world would have been prepared for him as it was for us, and it was. Tapes from back in those days show uncertainly. His voice is clear and commanding when he gave his I-am-a-Berliner speech, but thin and weak talking to Mississippi’s segregationist governor Ross Barnett on the phone, like both of them had been sent as agents from a world behind them and they children pushed out before the curtain at the school play by parents, then pulled back behind the curtain.

Jackie understood. “The men would take care of that,” – that being governance – she would say. The men were the East Boston and South Boston people who came up with P.J. Kennedy from the bar he established with John J. Quigley at 81 Border Street a generation after his father came over from Ireland. A bar that became the seed of a political culture that would challenge the Lodges a hundred years after and take them out of power. But they were woefully inadequate at the federal level and bigger dogs had to be brought in.

Back in the old neighborhood, I knew the men behind the men and there were men united seamlessly even behind them. One never got to the secret center.

We were not like the people who truly governed. We entered the world passively (preferably not at all) as it presented itself to us, holding the rope, like Lucky and Pozzo. J.F.K. was not all that much different. It was not until Robert Kennedy rose briefly from the blood and the wreckage a few years later, a kind of sacred figure after his brother’s death that we became something of our own, whole and fully engaged.

Something from which we would not turn back even after he was murdered. Especially after he was murdered. After that, we would turn to no one but ourselves. Not the Irish anymore, but those who had made passage in our own generation. We became our own First People. The First People of Aquarius.

For people my age it started with Bob Dylan.

In hindsight it is surprising how much he spoke of Jesus, in the early days when he and Joan Baez were what was then called “protest singers.” They refused Jesus, he said, and castigated, condemned, and railed against the banality of conventional culture for building Jesus in plastic, a glowing effigy, and holding nothing sacred. He compared them to Judas Iscariot. He had the power of a biblical prophet, the fire of a John Brown, but his sacred Jesus was not of the church or of any church, but the Jesus with rage in his heart who railed against the conventional religionists – a Christ who came not to make peace, but with a Stratocaster. For myself, Dylan’s early song, The Chimes of Freedom, modeled on the Sermon on the Mount, was the most sincere and compassionate folk song I had ever heard and remains so today. It seems ironic, but none of us ever went to church again after that. (These photographs of Dylan and Baez are taken off the web. I have contacted several of the photographers associated with Dylan and with the Newport Folk Festival and have been unable to find the correct photographers. If anyone knows, please email.)

It changed us and it changed us over night as if the entire generation passed through a veil. It was the moment that would begin to divide the generation and the world that followed thereafter into those who left the temple and those who remained to defend it. What Bob Dylan did was to get ordinary white people like us interested and involved in the world around us, particularly in the Freedom Marches and the Civil Rights Movement taking place in the Deep South. Prior to that I think we were generally disinterested, and the one or two people in town who were interested or engaged were considered eccentric, like Maynard G. Krebs, and if they didn’t have a public protector like Dobie Gillis, they eventually left town, as the homosexuals quickly scooted out of town when they came of age.

Bob Dylan reversed the equation, bringing the Maynard G. Krebs factor to life and sending Dobie Gillis into remission. Soon everyone seemed engaged, even the Catholic priests, and down market versions of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were even invited into the church to sing Kumbaya and Joe Hill and their favorite, because it sounded like a church song (but a Protestant one), The Times They Are A’ Changing.

Then they told us we could eat meat on Friday. Which seemed to us humorous. We had already taken off the coat. It was like offering petty yard privileges to prisoners who had already busted out, to try to get them to come back to the prison.

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