Confessions of a Mild-Mannered
Enemy of the State
Part 1 (1945-1969)
If the world reproaches me for talking too much about myself,
I reproach the world for not even thinking about itself. (Montaigne)
I was born in 1945 in Louisiana, where my mother had gone to be with my father at an army camp. While he was overseas we lived on her parents farm in Minnesota. When he returned a couple years later, we moved to his home town in the Missouri Ozarks.
Moving at a somewhat slower pace than most of the country, Plainstown still maintained much of that small-town, early-twentieth-century, pre-television American life idealized by Norman Rockwell the world of porch swings and lazy afternoons, Boy Scouts and vacant-lot baseball, square dances and church picnics, county fairs, summer camps, autumn leaves, white Christmases. That way of life has often been disparaged, but it did have some advantages over the plastic suburban lifestyle that was already beginning to replace it. Despite their naïveté in many regards, the inhabitants of the Show-Me State retained some vestiges of Mark Twainian skepticism and common sense. Even the poorest people often owned their own home or farm. Extended families provided a social cushion if anyone fell on hard times. Things were quiet and safe. A kid could grow up without much awareness of the problems in the outside world.
Yearly visits to the Minnesota farm maintained another link with earlier traditions. I still remember burrowing in the huge hayloft in the old barn; exploring the Victorian house, with its old-fashioned furniture and intriguing things like a clothes chute that ran from the second floor all the way down to the musty basement full of strange curios and contraptions left over from the previous century; or traipsing after my grandfather, a spry old guy still working vigorously in the fields in his late eighties.
My father was one of the last of the old-fashioned family doctors the kind who used to deliver successive generations of babies and who charged $5 for a house call, even if it was in the middle of the night or sometimes nothing at all if the family was in difficult circumstances. Like his father before him, he combined full-time doctoring with part-time farming; he still does a little of the latter, though he retired from medical practice a couple years ago. My mother was trained as a physical therapist, but spent most of her time as a homemaker taking care of me and my two sisters.
My earliest and best friend, Sam Thomas, was two years older and lived just around the corner. We played all the typical games baseball, basketball, football, badminton, ping pong, kick the can, marbles, cards, Monopoly, Scrabble; but what I remember enjoying most of all were the activities that we created for ourselves elaborate constructions with Lincoln Logs or erector sets, deployment of little metal cowboys and Indians among forts and tunnels in a sandbox, building our own club house and tree house, putting on shows and carnivals for the other kids in the neighborhood.
I also have fond memories of grade school. Although the educational system was not particularly progressive, it was very flexible and encouraging for me. Once I had demonstrated that the usual lessons were a breeze, the teachers allowed me, and to a lesser extent a few of my more intelligent classmates, to skip some of the routine tasks and pursue independently chosen projects researching geography, history, astronomy or atomic physics in the encyclopedias, compiling lists and charts, conducting experiments, constructing science exhibits.
Outside class I read voraciously science, history and Pogo comics being my main favorites and learned some new games: tennis, pool, chess, and above all, bridge (a fascinating game I still enjoy reading books on bridge strategy, though Ive rarely played it since I left home). But here again, I remember with particular fondness the activities my friends and I devised for ourselves. Three of us created a little imaginary island world with extended families of characters cut out of foam, about whom we composed elaborate genealogies and stories. Another friend and I invented a game inspired by our fascination with the history of exploration. (Politically correct types will have a field day with this one.) He was England and I was France, each out to explore and colonize the rest of the world during the sixteenth century. We would close our eyes and point to a spot on a spinning globe, then throw three coins: the combination of heads and tails would determine how far we could travel from that spot (the distance depending on whether we traveled by sea, river or land) and how much territory we could claim. I think there were additional rules governing fortifications and battles in disputed territory. Everything was marked in different colors on a blank world map. On weekends we would often spend the night together and play all evening (until our parents made us go to bed) and much of the next day until the game came to an end through exhaustion or because the whole map was finally divided up between us.
I also had a lot of fun in Boy Scouts, as well as picking up some useful skills lifesaving, first aid, crafts, nature lore, camping, canoeing (sublime combination of quietude and graceful motion, silently gliding along a winding stream past ancient weathered bluffs, looking down through the crystal clear water at the fish swimming and the crawdads and other critters scrambling on the gravel bottom). Despite its objectionable patriotic and semi-militaristic aspects, scouting put an exemplary stress on ecological principles and fostered what was for the time an unusual respect for the American Indian. My initiation into the Order of the Arrow included an entire day of total silence in the woods, modeled loosely on Indian initiatory practices and not all that different from some Zen practices I later went through.
Looking back, I realize how fortunate I was to have all these experiences. Thanks to caring parents and encouraging teachers, I was able to explore things for myself and learn the delights of independent, self-organized activity. I feel sorry for kids nowadays who get so hooked on television and video games that they never realize how much more fun it is to read or to create your own projects. I enjoyed some of the early TV programs, but we got our first set late enough that I had already had a chance to discover that books were a gateway to far richer and more interesting worlds.
The only sore point in my early memories is religion. Like most people in Plainstown, I had a fairly conservative (though not fundamentalist) Protestant upbringing. As a young child I painlessly absorbed the Sunday school version of Christianity; but as I became older and began to understand what the Bible actually said, I became haunted by the possibility of going to hell. Even if I managed to escape this doom, I was horrified at the idea that anyone, no matter how sinful, might be consigned to torture for all eternity. It was hard to understand how a supposedly loving God could be infinitely more cruel than the most sadistic dictator; but it was difficult to question the Biblical dogma when everyone I knew, including presumably intelligent adults, seemed to accept it. Except for vague mentions of atheistic Communists on the other side of the world, I had never heard of anyone seriously professing any other perspective.
One day when I was thirteen, I was browsing through James Newmans anthology The World of Mathematics and started reading an autobiographical piece by Bertrand Russell. A little ways into it, I came upon a passage where he mentioned how as a teenager he had become an agnostic upon realizing the fallaciousness of one of the classic arguments for the existence of God. I was stunned. Russell only mentioned this in passing, but the mere discovery that an intelligent person could disbelieve in religion was enough to set me thinking. A couple days later I was on the point of saying my usual bedtime prayers when I thought to myself, What am I doing? I dont believe this stuff anymore!
Surrounded by virtually unanimous religious belief (at least as far as I could tell), I didnt dare breathe a word about this for over a year. To all appearances I remained a polite, conventional, churchgoing boy, completing my Eagle Scout requirements and going through all the expected social motions. But all the while, I was quietly observing and reconsidering everything I had formerly taken for granted.
When I went to high school a year later, I met some older students who openly questioned religion. That was all it took to bring me out of the closet. The result was a mild scandal. That the boy whom fond teachers had for years praised as the smartest kid in town had suddenly come forth as an outspoken atheist was a shock to everyone. Students would point at me and whisper that I was doomed to hell; teachers hardly knew how to deal with my wise-ass comments; and my poor parents, at an utter loss to understand how such a thing could have happened, sent me to a psychoanalyst.
Once I had seen the absurdity of Christianity, I began to question other commonly accepted beliefs. It was obvious, for example, that capitalistic Americanism was also riddled with absurdities. But I had no interest in politics because the amoral, hedonistic philosophy I had adopted made me dismiss any concern with the general welfare unless it happened to bear on my own interests. I was on principle against any morality, although in practice I did scarcely anything more immoral than being obnoxiously sarcastic. I no longer hesitated to express my contempt for every aspect of conventional life, whether popular culture, social mores, or the content of my high school classes.
My real education was already coming from all the outside reading I was doing, and from discussions with a few friends who were reading some of the same books. Though I still enjoyed science and history, I had since junior high become increasingly interested in literature. Over the next two or three years I went through quite a few classic works Homer, Greek mythology, The Golden Ass, Arabian Nights, Omar Khayyam, The Decameron, Chaucer, Rabelais, Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, Poe, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, Durrells Alexandria Quartet, to mention some of my favorites. Given my limited experience of life, I missed many of the nuances of these works, but they at least gave me some idea of the variety of ways people had lived and thought out in the great world. I was of course particularly drawn to those writers who were most radically unconventional. Nietzsche was a special favorite I delighted in scandalizing teachers and classmates with quotes from his scathing critiques of Christianity. But my supreme idol was James Joyce. I havent been especially interested in Joyce in a long time, but when I first discovered him I was awed by all his stylistic innovations and multicultural references, and devoured all his works, even Finnegans Wake, as well as numerous books about him. I was also already becoming a bit of a francophile: I found Stendhal and Flaubert more interesting than the Victorian novelists, and was fascinated with Baudelaire and Rimbaud before I ever read much British or American poetry.
I learned about more recent literary rebels from J.R. Wunderle, an older student who had grown up in St. Louis and thus had a little more cosmopolitan savvy than my other friends. I had heard vague rumors about the Beats, but J.R. turned me on to the actual writings of Ginsberg and Kerouac, and even affected a certain bohemianism himself, to the very limited degree that this was possible for a high school student in a very square Midwestern town. A year later he and another guy went out to Venice West (near Los Angeles) and actually lived in the thick of the Beat scene for a while.
I doubt if I would have been ready to handle something like that myself. Except for a few family vacations, I had never been out of the Ozarks, nor held any job apart from a little neighborhood lawn mowing. But I sure did want to get out of Plainstown. The prospect of enduring it for two more years until I finished high school was extremely depressing, especially when I saw several of my older friends already going off to college.
A lucky solution turned up. A high school counselor, to whom I will be forever grateful, came across a catalog for Shimer College, a small experimental liberal arts college that accepted exceptional students before they had graduated from high school, and immediately thought of me. It seemed ideal. I would be able to get out of Plainstown and into an intellectually interesting scene without being abruptly thrown on my own; my teachers were no doubt relieved to get me out of their hair; and my parents rightly saw this as the best chance to resolve a situation they had no idea of how to deal with.
Shimer College and first independent adventures
I entered Shimer in fall 1961, and I loved it. Located in a small town in northwestern Illinois, Shimer carried on the great books discussion program developed at the University of Chicago in the thirties by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. The total student body was around three hundred. Average class size was ten. There were no textbooks and virtually no lectures. Factual knowledge was not neglected, but the emphasis was on learning how to think, to question, to test and articulate ideas by participating in round-table discussions of seminal classic texts. The teachers role was simply to facilitate the discussion with pertinent questions. Unorthodox viewpoints were welcome but you had to defend them competently; unfounded opinion was not enough.
Shimer was not socially radical, nor was it particularly freeform in ways that some other experimental schools have been before and since. The administration was fairly conventional and the regulations were fairly conservative. The curriculum was Eurocentric and tended perhaps to overemphasize works of systematic philosophical discourse such as those Adler-Hutchins favorites, Aristotle and Aquinas. (Someone quipped that Hutchinss University of Chicago was a Baptist university where Jewish professors teach Catholic philosophy to atheist students.)
But whatever the flaws of the Shimer system, it was a pretty coherent one. Three out of the four years were taken up with an intricately interrelated course sequence that everyone was required to take, covering humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, history and philosophy, leaving room for only a few electives. (With this basic grounding, most students had little trouble catching up on their eventual subject of specialization in grad school.) Moreover, in contrast to conservative advocates of classical curricula, Adler and Hutchins did not envision their program as destined only for an elite minority: they insisted that the basic issues dealt with in the great books could and should be grappled with by everyone as the foundation of a lifelong education. If they were rather naïve in accepting Western democratic society on its own terms, they at least challenged that society to live up to its own pretensions, pointing out that if it was to work it required a citizenry capable of participating in it knowledgeably and critically, and that what presently passes for education does not begin to accomplish this.
While these courses were pretty interesting, I actually learned a lot more from some of my fellow students. My roommate, Michael Beardsley, had a somewhat similar background he came from a small town in Texas and like me had skipped the last two years of high school. But most of my new friends were Chicago Jews, with a radical, skeptical, humanistic, cosmopolitan culture that was refreshingly new to me. There were also some more apolitical characters, one of the most memorable being a plump, goateed chess prodigy and classical music connoisseur with the manner of an Oriental potentate, who successfully ran for student government with the single campaign promise that if he was elected, it would be gratifying for his ego! There were a few ordinary fraternity/sorority types, but they were definitely in the minority, and even they, like all the rest of us, took a perverse pride in the fact that in its one intercollegiate sport, basketball, Shimer held the national record for number of consecutive losses.
At Shimer, and during breaks in Chicago, my new friends introduced me to booze, jazz, folk and classical music, foreign films, ethnic cuisines, leftist politics, and a lively interracial scene. Although Plainstown was not flagrantly racist like the deep South, it was de facto segregated by neighborhoods, so I had scarcely so much as met a black person there. Shimer itself had only a few blacks, but at my friends parties in Chicago I met lots of them. It was the heyday of the early civil rights movement and there was a warm, genuine, enthusiastic camaraderie, unlike the uneasy interracial suspicion that was to develop in radical circles a few years later. Though I was still apolitical on principle, I was beginning to discard my stilted amoralism; my new friends and surroundings were helping me to loosen up, to become more human and more humanistic.
Another big influence in this direction was the folk music revival, which was just getting under way. The simplicity and directness of folk music was a refreshing contrast to the inane pop music of the time. Joan Baezs first album was the most popular one on campus; but some of my friends had grown up on Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and had already developed more puristic tastes, and they turned me on to earlier, earthier and even more exciting artists above all the great Leadbelly. I was also inspired by the first folksinger I ever saw in person, Ramblin Jack Elliott, a performer in the Guthrie tradition who traveled around the country in an old pickup. I wanted nothing better than to play guitar like that. Moreover, such an aspiration was not totally unrealistic. Folk music lent itself to participation you could easily sing along with it and almost as easily learn to play it, at least at a simple level. Many of my friends were already doing so. I started to learn guitar, and also eventually learned to fiddle some simple tunes.
That winter, after a few amorous relations that had never got beyond the heavy petting stage, I finally found a young woman who said yes. The blessed event took place in the Folklore Society office, which happened to have a convenient couch. (Finding a place for lovemaking was a perennial problem at Shimer until dorm regulations were liberalized several years later. In spring and fall we resorted to the campus golf course, which was never used for anything else, or to the nearby town cemetery; but during winter it was too cold, and all sorts of precarious alternatives were attempted.)
A few weeks later I also lost what you might call my spiritual virginity. This was just 1962 and, outside of a few marginal urban scenes, drugs were still practically unknown. Very few college students had even tried marijuana. As for psychedelics, scarcely anyone had so much as heard of them. They werent even illegal yet. Mike Beardsley and I ordered a large box of peyote buttons from the Smith Cactus Ranch in Texas, which were duly delivered without the postal service or the school authorities taking the slightest notice. A few days later, without much idea of what we were in for, we ingested some of them.
For an hour or so we endured the peyote nausea, then, as that faded, we began feeling something strange and extremely unsettling happening. At first I thought I was going insane. Finally I managed to relax and settle into it. We spent most of the day in our room, lying down with our eyes closed, watching the shifting patterns evoked by different kinds of music most unforgettably Prokofievs first three piano concertos, which we savored for their unique combination of classical lucidity, romantic extravagance and zany trippiness. Everything was fresh, like returning to early childhood or waking up in the Garden of Eden; as if things were suddenly in 3-D color that we had previously seen only in flat black and white. But what really made the experience so overwhelming was not the sensory effects, but the way the whole sense of self was shaken. We were not just looking on from outside; we ourselves were part of this vibrant, pulsating world.
With visions of Rimbaud and Kerouac dancing in our heads, we neglected our classes and began dreaming of quitting school and heading out on our own to explore the great world. That spring we both did so. Mike and his girlfriend Nancy went to Berkeley, where she had some friends. I decided to check out Venice West since J.R.s friend was still out there.
Venice was full of Beat poets, abstract expressionist painters, jazz musicians, sexual nonconformists, junkies, bums, hustlers, petty crooks and lots of undercover cops. Very exciting, but also very paranoid; far from the relaxed openness and joyousness of the later hippie scene. Without the hippies economic cushion of easy panhandling, it was also much more down and out. Never knowing where my next meal was coming from or where I might end up spending the night, I scraped by one way and another. . . .
Eventually I was busted for petty theft. Since I was a minor and it was my first offense, I was only in for three days before being shipped back to the custody of my parents in Plainstown.
That, fortunately, has been my only experience of prison. Being confined is bad enough, but what makes it really nauseating is the mean, sick, inhuman ambience. As a white middle-class kid, I was of course just screwing around and was always free to return to more comfortable circumstances; but I never forget those who havent been so lucky. Thinking of people being locked in there for years makes me angrier than just about anything.
For the next few months I lived with my parents, working at a local bookstore and doing a lot of reading Blake, Thoreau, Lautréamont, Breton, Céline, Hesse, D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and above all Henry Miller, by then my favorite author. After decades of censorship his two Tropic books had just become available in America, and they hit me like a bombshell. Here, I thought, is a real person, talking about real life, beyond all the artifices of literature. I no longer take Miller seriously as a thinker, but I still love the humor and gusto of his autobiographical novels.
Another healthy and even more enduring influence was Gary Snyder. I already knew about him as Japhy Ryder, the hero of Kerouacs The Dharma Bums. Its a wonderful book, but certain aspects of Snyder were utterly beyond Kerouacs comprehension. Snyders own writings were more lucid and his life was more inspiring. I had been intrigued by what I had read about Zen Buddhism, but here was someone who had actually studied Oriental languages and gone to Japan for years of rigorous Zen training. I couldnt have been farther from that sort of self-discipline, but I started reading more books on Zen, with the idea that Id like to explore it in practice if I got a chance.
In addition to Snyder’s poetry, I was also struck by his essay Buddhist Anarchism (later reprinted in Earth House Hold under the title Buddhism and the Coming Revolution). Despite my sympathy for civil rights and other dissident causes espoused by some of my Shimer friends, I had until then remained apolitical on principle, feeling (like Henry Miller) that all politics was superficial bullshit and that if any fundamental change was to come about it would have to be through some sort of revolution of the heart. Instinctively detesting what Rexroth calls the Social Lie, I could never get very excited about the goal of enabling people to have a normal life when present-day normal life was precisely what I had despised since I was 13. Snyders essay did not alter this view, but it showed me how a radical social perspective could be related to spiritual insight. I still didnt pay much attention to political matters, but the way was opened for eventual social engagement when I later confronted issues that seemed meaningful to me.
By January 1963 I had accumulated enough bookstore earnings (supplemented by some winnings from a local poker game) to quit my job and begin venturing out of town again. To begin with, I hitched up to see J.R., now back in St. Louis, hanging out in a biker scene and working, of all things, as an attendant in a state mental hospital. J.R. himself, if not exactly insane, was always a pretty eccentric character. In later years he successively adopted so many intentionally outrageous personas, from W.C. Fieldsian con man to old-time frontiersman to cantankerous reactionary, that Im not sure even he himself always distinguished the irony from the reality. He died a few years ago of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 46.
Then I made a second California trip, this time with Sam. I hadnt seen him much since childhood days we had gone to different schools, and he had remained a rather conventional, popular, outgoing guy while I was already in fervent intellectual revolt. But he got hip once he went to college; by the time I saw him again he had discovered jazz, grown a beard and started writing freeform poetry. During his semester break we picked up a driveaway car from a Missouri dealer, drove to Berkeley, then down to Los Angeles, where we looked up my Venice West buddies and delivered the car, and bussed back to Missouri, all in the space of ten days.
Next, I went down to Texas, where Mike and Nancy Beardsley had moved while she had their baby. This whole period still remains magical for me, though I can dimly recall only a few of our ventures hopping on a moving freight train just to see what it felt like; trying the poisonous witch drug, belladonna, and finding ourselves in a psychotic nightmare world. . . . Even if some of our escapades were pretty foolish, we were exploring things for ourselves; there were as yet no media-propagated models to imitate. Isolated in Mid-America, occasionally encountering some kindred spirit with whom we would passionately share this or that discovery or aspiration or premonition, groping for the sort of perspective that took shape a few years later in the hip counterculture, we sensed that something new was in the air, but the only thing we knew for certain was that the world in which we found ourselves was fundamentally absurd. That world itself was still utterly oblivious to what was brewing. (Bear in mind that most of the things the sixties are known for didnt really get under way, or at least come to public notice, until around 1965-66.)
That spring we all moved to Chicago and got an apartment together in Hyde Park. When I wasnt working at odd jobs (first in a warehouse, then, rather more congenially, in a folk music store) I babysat their baby while they worked, and hung out with a few other old Shimer friends. I also discovered a small Zen center and got my first taste of formal meditation.
This experience, plus the fact that I was getting tired of the hassles of poverty, got me in the mood to get my life organized and move on to other things. As a first step, I decided to go back and finish up my Shimer degree, with the tentative idea (Snyders example in mind) of going on to Oriental studies in grad school, and then conceivably even going to Japan for Zen monastic training.
Back at Shimer I had two main extracurricular activities. One was making love with my beautiful girlfriend Aili. The other was folk music. Several friends and I played every chance we got, modeling our styles on the oldest and most authentic recordings Appalachian ballads and fiddle tunes, old-timey string bands (Charlie Poole, Gid Tanner, Clarence Ashley, the Carolina Tar Heels), field hollers, jug bands, country blues (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sleepy John Estes, Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson).
The golden age was the 1920s, when locally popular musicians all over the country were more or less indiscriminately recorded by small commercial companies searching for potential hit material. There was an immense variety of styles those in one region were often quite different from those in the neighboring state or even county. In the 1930s the Depression wiped out the regional rural markets just as recordings and radio were leading to increasing homogenization, with local performers being influenced by new nationwide stars like Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and the first bluegrass and country-western groups (or analogously in black music, by more citified blues and jazz).
I enjoyed some of the Rodgers and Carter Family songs, but thats about as modern as my tastes ever got. The slickness of bluegrass (to say nothing of the sappiness of country-western) left me cold; it had lost the haunting quality I loved in the old mountain ballads and tunes. For really vintage music, my friends and I turned to reissues of the 1920s recordings, to the field recordings made for the Library of Congress in the 1930s, and to live performances by the few surviving old-time greats who had been rediscovered and brought to play before entranced urban audiences. For purists like ourselves, the annual University of Chicago Folk Festival was the best in the country. I still remember the after-concert parties at my friends apartments hundreds of people playing in every room and overflowing into the stairwells from midnight till dawn, then, after a few hours of sleep, excitedly returning to the campus for the next days concerts and workshops. Considering its far smaller size, Shimer didnt do so badly either: during my two years as president of the Folklore Society, I managed to arrange concerts by Dock Boggs, Son House, Sleepy John Estes and Big Joe Williams, as well as the granddaddy of modern old-timey groups, the New Lost City Ramblers, whose yearly appearances had become a Shimer tradition. J.R. and I also made a sort of field trip of our own, hitching from St. Louis to Memphis to record Gus Cannon and Will Shade, the last surviving members of the great jug bands of the twenties.
I think most real education is self-education, and I have a very low opinion of most educational institutions. But I do want to say that, far from interfering with my education as most schools would have, Shimer actually fostered it in many ways. One of my senior-year courses introduced me to two of my biggest influences. We were examining a number of different philosophies of life (Kierkegaard, Buber, Camus, etc.). For me, Bubers I and Thou stood out from all the other readings. Martin Buber was a real man of wisdom, one of the few Western religious thinkers I can stomach. During one of our discussions a classmate pulled out a copy of Kenneth Rexroths Bird in the Bush and read some passages from his essay on Buber. I immediately borrowed it, devoured it, and was never quite the same again.
When I graduated from Shimer (1965) there was no question about where I would go next. Everything I had heard about the Bay Area sounded great, from the San Francisco poetry renaissance of the fifties to the recent Free Speech Movement at the University of California in Berkeley. Adding to the appeal, Sam (now with a wife and baby) had already moved there to do graduate study in poetry. One of his teachers had been none other than Gary Snyder, just back from several years of Zen study in Japan; and that fall he would be taking a class from Kenneth Rexroth! After working that summer at a steel mill in East Chicago, I moved to Berkeley. Ive lived here ever since.
It was a wonderful time to arrive. You could still feel the invigorating reverberations from the FSM; there were lively, ongoing conversations on campus, on street corners, in cafés, everywhere you went and not just among hippies and radicals; ordinary liberals and even young conservatives were vividly aware that everything was being called into question and were drawn into debates about every aspect of life.
Over the next year, I took graduate classes at the small and now defunct American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco. Apart from that, I spent most of the time tripping around with Sam. Through him, I got in on the lively Bay Area poetry scene, meeting lots of other young poets and going to scads of readings by some of the most vital figures of the previous generation Rexroth, Snyder, William Everson, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch. Though I never wrote much poetry myself, I was immersed in it. Sam and I would read Whitman or Patchen or William Carlos Williams aloud, sometimes with jazz background, or improvise chain poems with each other while driving over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, where I tagged along with him to Lew Welchs night-school poetry class and to the open-ended discussion class given by Rexroth at SF State.
Much as I liked Rexroth, I was at first more excited by Welch. He was a lot younger, more like a peer, sharing our zany sense of humor and youthful enthusiasms for psychedelics and the new rock music. What I remember most was his stress on finding the right word. Feeling that poets had a shamanic vocation to express the crucial realities in the most incisive way, he always denounced any cheating in a poem, any sloppy, sentimental, inaccurate phrasing.
Rexroth, though also sympathetic to our enthusiasms, was more detached and ironic about them. He pooh-poohed psychedelics, for example. At first I thought this was because he didnt know what he was talking about; but after reading some of his mystical poems I realized that he knew these experiences deeply, whether or not he had used any chemical means to arrive at them. Little by little I came to appreciate his subtle, low-key wisdom and magnanimity.
During my first couple years in Berkeley I took around a dozen psychedelic trips with Sam and other friends. Usually three or four of us would get together in some quiet place where we would not be disturbed, preferably with an experienced nonparticipant on hand who could take care of any necessary errands. Most often we simply listened to music, letting the opening of an Indian raga take us back to the timeless beginning of the universe, or feeling the notes of a Bach harpsichord partita pour through us like a shower of jewels. Sometimes we got into a humor zone in which a sense of universal sacredness was inseparable from a sense of the fundamental zaniness of everything our cheeks would still be sore the next day from the multiple orgasms of laughter. Sometimes we went out into the woods: I remember two especially lovely psilocybin trips in a tiny cabin in a nearby canyon in the afterglow I almost felt like founding a nature religion. I found psychedelics overwhelming enough without adding the noise and confusion of large crowds, but I made an exception for a rare Berkeley appearance of Bob Dylan. On another occasion, Sam and I took some acid and went to one of the first major marches against the Vietnam war (October 1965). We knew, of course, that this would hardly be an ideal environment for a calm trip, but we thought that it might be interesting to see how the two realms would go together. (Not that badly. Some of the straight politicos speechmaking seemed rather jarring, but I enjoyed the general sense of engaged community.)
In fall of 1966 I quit school. There were too many more exciting things going on. The underground hip counterculture, which had just begun to surface a year or so before, was now spreading like wildfire. Haight-Ashbury was overflowing into the streets in virtually a nonstop party. Tens of thousands of young people were coming out to see what was happening, including dozens of my friends from Shimer, Chicago and Missouri.
My little cottage (two 10 × 10 rooms plus kitchen and bath for $35 a month) served as a halfway house, sometimes accommodating as many as seven or eight people at once. Now that Im so used to quietly living alone, its hard to imagine how I put up with it. But we were all young, sharing many of the same enthusiasms, and when we werent out at concerts, or cavorting around Telegraph Avenue or Haight-Ashbury or Chinatown or Golden Gate Park, or off camping somewhere, we happily hung around the house reading, rapping, jamming, listening to records and scarfing the delicious homemade bread we baked fresh every day, without minding too much that we hardly had room enough to put down our sleeping bags. And of course being turned on most of the time helped keep everything mellow.
My parents had supported me while I was in school, but after I dropped out I was back on my own. Like so many others during the sixties, I got by quite well on practically nothing, getting food stamps, sharing cheap rent among several people, selling underground papers, picking up very occasional odd jobs. Within a few minutes I could hitch a ride anywhere in Berkeley or across the bay to San Francisco, and often get turned on to boot. If necessary, I could easily panhandle the price of a meal or a concert ticket.
After half a year of this pleasant but somewhat precarious lifestyle, I got a job as a mail carrier, worked six months, then quit and lived on my savings for the next couple years. Just as that was about to run out, I discovered a weekly poker game, and the $100 or so per month which this netted me, supplemented by driving one day a week for a hippie taxi co-op, enabled me to get by for the next few years.
If the heart of the counterculture was psychedelics, its most visible, or rather audible, manifestation was of course the new rock music. When the increasingly sophisticated music of the Beatles and other groups converged with the increasingly sophisticated lyrics of Bob Dylan, who was bringing folk music beyond corny protest songs and rigid attachment to traditional forms, we finally had a popular music that we could relate to, which served as our own folk music. As Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were becoming more openly psychedelic, the first totally psychedelic bands were taking shape in the Bay Area. Long before they made any records, we could see the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Big Brother and the Holding Company and dozens of other exciting groups almost any day we wanted at the Fillmore or the Avalon or free in the parks.
When they did get around to recording, none of their records came close to conveying what they were like live, as an integral part of a flourishing counterculture. Those early concerts, Trips Festivals, Acid Tests and Be-Ins, corny as such terms may now sound, included lots of improvisation and interaction, off stage as well as on. The music and light shows were clearly subordinate to the tripping within the audience, less a spectacle than an accompaniment to ecstatic celebration. If there were a few famous people on stage Leary, Ginsberg, Kesey they were not inaccessible stars; we knew they were as tripped out as the rest of us, fellow travelers on a journey whose destination none of us could predict, but which was already fantastic.
And those large public gatherings were only the tip of the iceberg. The most significant experiences were personal and interpersonal. There was considerably more intellectual substance to the counterculture than appeared to superficial observers. While there were indeed lots of stereotypically naïve and passive flower children (particularly among the second wave of teenagers, who adopted the trappings of an already existing hip lifestyle without ever having to have gone through any independent ventures), many hip people had broader experiences and more critical sense, and were engaged in a variety of creative and radical pursuits.
Some people may be surprised at the contrast between the scathing critiques I made of the counterculture in some of my previous writings and the more favorable picture presented here. Its the context that has changed, not my views. In the early seventies, when everyone was still quite aware of the countercultures radical aspects, I felt it was necessary to challenge its complacency, to point out its limits and illusions. Now that the radical aspects have been practically forgotten, it seems equally important to recall just how wild and liberating it was. Alongside all the spectacular hype, millions of people were making drastic changes in their own lives, carrying out daring and outrageous experiments they could hardly have dreamed of a few years before.
I dont deny that the counterculture contained a lot of passivity and foolishness. I only want to stress that we were aiming at and to some extent already experiencing a fundamental transformation of all aspects of life. We knew how profoundly psychedelics had altered our own outlook. In the early sixties, only a few thousand people had had the experience; five years later the number was over a million. Who was to say that this trend would not continue and finally undermine the whole system?
While it lasted it was remarkably trusting and good-natured. Id think nothing of hitching with anyone, offering total strangers a joint, or inviting them over to crash at my place if they were new in town. This trust was almost never abused. True, Haight-Ashbury itself didnt last very long. (The turning point was around 1967, when the Summer of Love publicity brought a huge influx of less experienced teenagers who were more susceptible to exploitation by the parallel influx of ripoff artists and hard-drug dealers.) But elsewhere the counterculture continued to flourish and spread for several more years.
Personally, I was interested in mind-expanding experiences; mere mind-numbing escapist kicks had little appeal for me, and most of the people I hung out with felt the same way. Apart from an occasional beer, we scarcely even drank alcohol we had a hard time imagining how anyone, unless extremely repressed, could prefer the crude and often obnoxious effects of booze to the benign aesthetic effects of grass. As for hard drugs, we scarcely ever heard of them with the one notable exception of speed (amphetamine). In moderate doses, speed isnt much different than drinking a lot of coffee, and most of us had occasionally used it to stay up all night to write a school paper or to drive across the country. But it doesnt take much to become dangerous. It ended up killing Sam.
In 1966 he had begun taking a lot of speed, and by 1967 he was becoming increasingly manic and paranoid. This paranoia found expression in his discovery of the Hollow Earth cult, which holds that the inside of the earth is inhabited by some sort of mysterious beings and that (as in the rather similar flying saucer cults) the powers that be are keeping this information secret from the general public. At any mention, say, of the word underground Sam would give a sly, knowing nod; in fact, just about anything, whether a line in a poem or a phrase in an advertising jingle, could, with appropriate wordplay, be interpreted as a hint that the author was among those in the know about the Hollow Earth.
One of the most painful experiences of my life was seeing my best friend slowly become more and more insane without any of my attempts to reason with him having the slightest effect. One time he slipped out of the house naked in the middle of the night, and his wife and I ran around the neighborhood for hours before we found him. Another time he was found hitching down the highway so out of it that the Highway Patrol took him to the state mental hospital at Napa. Eventually his wife took him back to Missouri.
Over the next couple years his condition varied considerably. Sometimes his general exuberance and good humor made people think that perhaps his verbal ramblings were not really meant seriously, but were just playful poetic improvisations. At other times he slipped into severe depressions and was hospitalized. When I last saw him, he was calm but pretty wasted looking (probably on tranquilizers); he didnt seem like the Sam I had known since earliest childhood. A couple weeks later I got a call informing me that he had hung himself. He had just turned 27.
Rexroth often remarked that an astonishingly high proportion of twentieth-century American poets have committed suicide. The presumption is that their creative efforts led them to become unbearably sensitive to the ugliness of the society, as well as laying them open to extremes of frustration and disillusionment in their personal life. The fact remains that the Rimbaudian notion of seeking visions through the systematic derangement of all the senses has often inspired behavior that is simply foolish and self-destructive. Whatever social or personal factors may have contributed to Sams insanity, the immediate cause was certainly all the speed he was taking.
Psychedelics may also have been a factor, but I doubt if they were a significant one. Despite a few widely publicized and usually exaggerated instances of people going insane during trips, millions of people took psychedelics during the sixties without suffering the slightest harm. To put things into perspective, the total number of deaths attributable to psychedelics during the entire decade was far smaller than those due to alcohol or tobacco on any single day. In some cases psychedelics may have brought latent mental problems into the open, but even this was probably more often for the better than for the worse. I suspect that far more people were saved from going insane by psychedelics, insofar as the experience loosened them up, opened them up to wider perspectives, made them aware of other possibilities besides blind acceptance of the insane values of the conventional world.
I certainly feel that psychedelics were beneficial for me. I had one truly hellish trip (on DMT), but just about all the others were wonderful, among the most cherished experiences of my life. If I stopped taking them in 1967, it was because I came to realize that they are erratic and that the salutary effects dont last. They just give you a glimpse, a hint of whats there. This is why so many of us eventually went on to Oriental meditational practices, in order to explore such experiences more systematically and try to learn how to integrate them more enduringly into our everyday life.
The practice that continued to appeal to me was Zen Buddhism. I had already discovered the San Francisco Zen Center and occasionally went over there to do zazen or listen to talks by the genial little Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki. When a small branch center opened up in Berkeley in 1967, I started going a little more regularly. But I didnt keep it up partly because I had some reservations about the traditional religious forms, but mostly because it required getting up at four oclock in the morning, which was hard to fit in with the lifestyle I was leading at the time. I was into so many different, overlapping trips that its difficult to narrate them chronologically.
One of the most enthusiastic ones was film. At some point in early 1968 the wonder of the whole medium suddenly hit me and I went through a period of total fascination with it. Over the next couple years I saw close to a thousand films practically every one of any interest that showed in the Bay Area, including eight or ten a week at the Telegraph Repertory Cinema (I convinced them to let me in free in exchange for distributing their calendars, and would often return for second or third viewings of those I especially liked). Stan Brakhages experimental films inspired me to play around with an 8mm camera; but mostly I was simply an ecstatic spectator. My favorites were the early European classics Carl Dreyer, the German and Russian silents, the French films of the thirties (Pagnol, Vigo, Renoir, Carné) along with a few postwar Japanese films. Apart from the early comics (Chaplin, Keaton, Fields, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy), who more than made up for their corniness with the sublime moments of poetic hilarity they sometimes achieved, I never cared for most American films. Hollywood has always vulgarized everything it touches, regardless of the quality of the actors and directors or the literary works on which its films are supposedly based; but until its influence came to dominate the whole planet, some of the foreign film industries allowed at least a few creative efforts to slip through.
Eventually, after having seen most of the classics, as well as a pretty wide sampling of modern styles, I got burned out. Ive seen very few post-1970 films, and Im almost invariably disappointed when I do. Practically all of them, including reputedly sophisticated masterpieces, are all to obviously designed for audiences of emotionally disturbed illiterates. About the only recent filmmaker Ive found of slightly more than routine interest is Alain Tanner. No doubt there are a few other works of some merit out there, but you have to wade through too much garbage to find them. Id rather read a good book any day.
The most interesting ones I was reading at the time were by Rexroth or by other authors he had turned me on to. I had liked him very much on first reading him and then meeting him; but it was only gradually, as I myself matured (somewhat) over the next few years, that I really came to appreciate him, to the point that he came to be my dominant influence, eclipsing earlier hero-mentors like Miller, Watts, Ginsberg, Welch, and finally even Buber and Snyder.
At once mystical and radical, earthy and urbane, Rexroth had a breadth of vision Ive never seen in anyone else before or since. Oriental philosophy, Amerindian songs, Chinese opera, medieval theology, avant-garde art, classical languages, underground slang, tantric yoga, utopian communities, natural history, jazz, science, architecture, mountaineering he seemed to know lots of interesting things about just about everything and how it all fit together. Following up his hints for further reading (above all in those incredibly pithy little Classics Revisited essays) was a liberal education in itself. Besides giving me illuminating new takes on Homer, Lao Tze, Blake, Baudelaire, Lawrence and Miller, he turned me on to a variety of other gems I might otherwise never have discovered the modest, meditative journal of the antislavery Quaker John Woolman; the immodest but engrossing autobiography of Restif de la Bretonne (a sort of ultrasentimental eighteenth-century Henry Miller); the subtle magnanimity of Ford Madox Fords Parades End; the hard-boiled down-and-out narrative of B. Travens The Death Ship; the delightful Finnish folk-epic, The Kalevala (get the literal Magoun translation); Finley Peter Dunnes Mr. Dooley (a turn-of-the-century Chicago Irish bartender whose monologues are as worldly-wise as Mark Twain, and to my taste even funnier). . . .
I reread two of his essays so often I practically knew them by heart. The Hasidism of Martin Buber, by presenting a mysticism whose ultimate expression is in dialogue and communion, challenged those countercultural tendencies that saw mysticism primarily in terms of individual experience while tending to play down the social and ethical aspects of life. The Chinese Classic Novel introduced me to Rexroths notion of magnanimity, which I consider the central theme of his work. The notion goes back to Aristotles ideal of the great-souled man (the literal sense of the term), but Rexroth enrichens it by linking it with the traditional Chinese ideal of the human-hearted sage. His contrasting of magnanimity with various forms of self-indulgence was a revelation to me. It deflated a whole range of self-consciously profound, wearing-their-soul-on-their-sleeve writers who were fashionable at the time Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Proust, Joyce, Pound, the surrealists, the existentialists, the Beats. . . . The list could go on and on: once you grasp Rexroths perspective its hard to find any modern writer whose self-indulgence doesnt stick out like a sore thumb.
As always in Rexroth, what might seem to be a mere aesthetic discussion is actually a way of talking about basic approaches to life. That magnanimity/self-indulgence distinction became one of my main touchstones from then on. An autobiographer can hardly claim not to be self-indulgent; but if you think Im self-indulgent now, imagine what I would have been without Rexroths tempering influence!
After dropping out of school and losing my student deferment, I avoided the draft for the next couple years on the basis of a letter from the psychoanalyst my parents had sent me to, which stated that I would not make good army material due to my extreme resentment of authority. By the late sixties, however, the army was getting desperate for more bodies to send to Vietnam and that sort of excuse no longer cut it. When I was called in to the Oakland induction center, the examining psychologist scarcely glanced at the letter, then to my horror checked me off as fit for military service.
I had no intention of going into the army, but I didnt relish the idea of going to jail or going through all the conscientious-objector hassles. Probably I would have gone to Canada if necessary; but I was really annoyed at the idea of having to drop everything and leave the Bay Area. I vowed not to leave the building before I had settled the matter once and for all.
I considered hurling a chair through a window, but concluded that that might be a little too extreme (I didnt want to end up in a straitjacket). Instead, I decided to concentrate on the psychologist who had passed me. Gearing up for the most crucial acting role of my life, I went back and barged into his office, where he was interviewing another guy, and started screaming at him: You dumb jerk you think you understand me listen when I get in the army just wait till I get a gun in my hand you think I wont shoot the first fucking officer who gives me an order ha ha and when I do Id like to see your face when your bosses ask you why you passed me ha ha . . . (all this was accentuated with infantile grimaces and twitches and shrieks, so I looked and sounded like a kid having a tantrum). Then I slammed the door and sat down outside his office.
When he came out I silently followed him down the hall, determined to stick with him no matter what. He went into another room and soon emerged with an officer, who came over to me and said, Whats the idea of threatening Dr. So-and-So? I went off on another tirade. The officer told me to come into his office. After a few more minutes of my ranting, he said that he was rejecting me for the army. But he couldnt just let it go at that, he had to save face: Now, thats probably just what you want to hear. But let me tell you this. Ive seen a lot of guys in this business. Some of them were conscientious objectors. I didnt agree with them, but I could respect them. But you! Judging from your disgusting violent behavior we havent come very far since the cave men! Youre not good enough for the army!
Resisting the impulse to grin, I just sat there glowering at him and gripping the edge of the desk as if I might go into a spasm at any moment, while he filled out and signed the form. I took it without a word, stomped out the door, delivered the form to the appropriate desk, walked out of the building, rounded the corner . . . and went skipping down the street!
Although I had showed up at a few civil rights and antiwar demonstrations during my first couple years in Berkeley, it wasnt until late 1967 that the intensification of the Vietnam war led me to become seriously involved in New Left politics. My first step was joining the newly formed Peace and Freedom Party, which tentatively proposed a Martin Luther King-Benjamin Spock presidential ticket for the following year. Most of the PFPs hundred thousand California members were probably no more politically knowledgeable than I, but had simply registered in it in order to make sure that some antiwar choice was on the ballet. But though the PFP was primarily an electoral party, it did make some effort to get people to participate beyond merely voting. I went to several neighborhood meetings and attended all three days of its March 1968 convention.
There was a lot of good will and enthusiasm among the delegates, but it was also my first experience of witnessing political maneuvers from close up. Totally open and eclectic, the PFP naturally attracted most of the leftist organizations, each jockeying to promote their own lines and candidates. Some of the politicos seemed rather obnoxious, but in general I admired those who had taken part in civil rights struggles or the FSM, and was quite willing to defer to their more experienced and presumably more knowledgeable views. While I might claim to have been an early and fairly independent participant in the counterculture, in the political movement I was nothing but a belated run-of-the-mill follower.
As I became more active in the PFP (though never more than in banal subordinate capacities: attending rallies, stuffing envelopes, handing out leaflets) I was progressively radicalized by the more experienced politicos, especially the Black Panthers. Looking back, its embarrassing to realize how easily I was duped by such crude manipulation, in which a handful of individuals appointed themselves the sole authentic representatives of the black community, then claimed the right to veto power, and in practice to virtual domination, over the PFP and any other groups with which they condescended to form coalitions. But they were obviously courageous, and unlike the black separatist tendencies they were at least willing to work with whites; so most of us naïvely swallowed the old con: Theyre black, and are being jailed, beaten and killed; since we are none of the above, we have no right to criticize them. Practically no one, not even supposedly antiauthoritarian groups like the Diggers, the Motherfuckers and the Yippies, raised any serious objections to this racist double standard, which among other things amounted to relegating all other blacks to the choice of supporting their self-appointed supreme servants or being intimidated into silence.
Meanwhile the healthy participatory-democracy tendencies of the early New Left were being smothered by browbeating, spectacularization and ideological delirium. Calls for terrorism and picking up the gun were echoed in much of the underground press. Activists who disdained theoretical nitpicking were caught unprepared when SDS was taken over by asinine sects debating which combination of Stalinist regimes to support (China, Cuba, Vietnam, Albania, North Korea). The vast majority of us were certainly not Stalinists (to speak for myself, even as a child, reading about the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, I had enough sense to know that Stalinism was total bullshit); but in our ignorance of political history it was easy to identify with martyrized heroes like Che Guevara or the Vietcong as long as they were exotic enough that we didnt really know much about them. Fixating on the spectacle of Third World struggles, we had little awareness of the real issues at play in modern society. One of the most militant Berkeley confrontations did indeed begin as a demonstration of solidarity with the May 1968 revolt in France, but we had no conception of what the latter was really about we were under the vague impression that it was some sort of student protest against de Gaulle along the narrow lines we were familiar with.
It is common nowadays to blame the collapse of the movement on the FBIs COINTELPRO operation, which included planting disinformation designed to sow suspicion between various radical groups, use of provocateurs to discredit them, and frameups of certain individuals. The fact remains that the authoritarian structure of the Panthers and other hierarchical groups lent itself to this sort of operation. For the most part all the provocateurs had to do was encourage already delirious ideological tendencies or inflame already existing power rivalries.
For me the last straw was the Panthers United Front Against Fascism conference (July 1969). I dutifully attended all three days. But the conferences militaristic orchestration; the frenzied adulation of hero-martyrs; the Pavlovian chanting of mean-spirited slogans; the ranting about correct lines and correct leadership; the cynical lies and maneuvers of temporarily allied bureaucratic groups; the violent threats against rival groups who had not accepted the current Panther line; the fraternal telegram from the North Korean Politburo; the framed picture of Stalin on the Panthers office wall all this finally made me sick, and led me to look for a perspective that was more in line with my own feelings.
I thought I knew where to look. One of my Shimer friends who had moved out here was an anarchist, and his occasional wry comments on the movements bureaucratic tendencies had helped save me from getting too carried away. I went over to his place and borrowed a whole sackful of anarchist literature classic writings by Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, pamphlets on Kronstadt, the Spanish revolution, Hungary 1956, France 1968, current journals such as Solidarity (London), Anarchy (London), Anarchos (New York), Black and Red (Michigan).
It was a revelation. I had intuitively sympathized with what little I knew about anarchism, but like most people I had assumed that it was not really practicable, that without some government everything would fall apart into chaos. The anarchist texts demolished this misconception, revealing the creative potentials of popular self-organization and showing how societies could function and in certain situations or in certain respects already had functioned quite well without authoritarian structures. From this perspective it became easy to see that hierarchical forms of opposition tend to reproduce the dominant hierarchy (the Bolshevik Partys rapid devolution into Stalinism being the most obvious example) and that reliance on any leaders, even supposedly radical ones, tends to reinforce peoples passivity instead of encouraging their creativity and autonomy.
Anarchism turned out to encompass a wide variety of tactics and tendencies individualist, syndicalist, collectivist, pacifist, terrorist, reformist, revolutionary. About the only thing on which most anarchists were in agreement was in opposing the state and encouraging popular initiative and control. But this was at least a good beginning. Here was a perspective I could wholeheartedly espouse, that made sense of the current failings of the movement and gave some idea of the right direction to move in. For me it tied in perfectly with the Rexroth-Buber goal of genuine interpersonal community as opposed to impersonal collectivities. Some of Rexroths recent articles had pointed out the Kropotkin-ecology connection. Rexroth and Snyder had also referred to a Great Subculture encompassing various nonauthoritarian currents throughout history, and had expressed the hope that with the current counterculture these tendencies might be on the point of finally becoming fulfilled in a liberated global community. Anarchism seemed to be the political component of such a movement.
Ron Rothbart (a close Shimer friend who had recently moved to Berkeley) soon became an equally enthusiastic convert. We began looking at the movement more critically, and started taking some modest initiatives on our own talking up anarchism among our friends, ordering anarchist literature for local distribution, carrying black flags at demonstrations. We soon discovered some other local anarchists, with whom we took part in a discussion group, planned to reprint certain anarchist texts, and considered the possibility of opening an anarchist bookstore in Berkeley. My first ever public writing was a mimeo leaflet (a few dozen copies circulated among friends and acquaintances) in which I tried to convey the anarchist relevance of Rexroth and Snyder.
End of Part 1 of Confessions of a Mild-Mannered Enemy of the State, from Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb (1997).