Notes from the New Underground: An Anthology.
by Jesse Kornbluth.
Viking Press. 302 pp. $7.50.
The news from the New Underground is this: Square America drinks too much and fornicates too little. We are hung up and strung out. We are hypocrites about our professed values and we exploit our fellows. We make war.
The source of this indictment is the Underground Press, which can be found in New York (East Village Other, New York Free Press, Rat), California (Berkeley Barb, San Francisco Oracle, Los Angeles Free Press), and a few other dropped-out-tuned-in-turned-on centers. Although Notes from the New Underground, put together by Jesse Kornbluth, Harvard '68, contains a leavening of Paul Goodman from Ramparts and Richard Poirier's tribute to the Beatles from Partisan Review as well as a few pieces from the Village Voice and Evergreen Review, the book is mainly given over to the real thing. It thus represents a service to those of us on the outside who have wanted to know what the Underground papers are all about but have had trouble mastering their graphics.
The present collection indicates that they are mainly about their graphics. The Underground writers have a way of setting down whatever pops into their heads, a technique that would work better if anything much were popping there. Their exulting over the joys of turning on, for example, is more than sufficient to turn one off. LSD, one man notifies us, “can break old habits, especially ‘possession syndrome’ left over from the old environment of ideologies, and integrate them into a superior political situation where people recognize allegiance to a power higher than their own or Caesar's and not one of improving their own personal power.” Style being an ornament of the middle class, the sentences are helter-skelter, leaving an impression that the writers were impatient to get back to their real business of not writing. The fashion in hip circles seems to be toward brief paragraphs, unusual arrangements of type, and a refusal to discriminate against italics and capital letters. The last are used mainly to give a boost to harmless sentiments that the reader's eye might otherwise forgo. Here, from a poem by Michael McClure:
I am innocent and free!
I am a mammal!
I am a warm blooded sensory
creature capable of love and
hate and action and inaction!
capable of guilt and
capable of speech and striving!
In a loose way, this collection chronicles the rise and fall of hippiedom, which seems to have reached its critical phase in the summer of 1967, when the lunacy and violence that always played about the movement took over. Beginning at an exhilarating high point of Love and Freedom—free stores, free pads, freedom of dress and hairdo, and free love—the whole thing collapsed in sordid exploitation of the Love Children by square society and, more painfully, by hippiebums. Just as the residents of Resurrection City had to suffer both the gawking of white tourists and the thieving, beatings, and rapes of tough big-city blacks, so the hippies found themselves first on-camera and then victims of predators attracted by their celebrated vulnerability. All those experience-seeking girls away from home were just too tempting. As for the cameras, when they rolled off to more faddish scenes, they drained away a kind of excitement that the media-hipped young, so desperate to be in, needed if they were to carry on.
But even if the hippies—most of them in Haight-Ashbury or the East Village on a brief spree away from home—had been spared the attentions of rapists, magazine writers, and the fuzz, it is difficult to see how they could have lasted more than a season or two. They rejected this society only to make a cult of one of its shoddiest promises—instant satisfaction. The drugs which magically opened the doors of perception; the quick-frozen Zen; the zany slogans about revolution—all promised fast delivery on easy terms. The quest for spontaneity seemed to rule out even moderate discipline, and sustained mental effort was set aside as an affront to the free spirit. The rebels were thus rebelling against their own potentialities in much the same way as those despised elders who give themselves to the corporation. It is an expensive solution to life, a bankrupting one.
If the hippie phenomenon is seen as the latest engagement in the ongoing war between the generations, then it must be rated a great success for the young. Never have the forms of youthful rebellion been so effectively flaunted or so exquisitely designed to cause distress to the old folks. In response to parental concern for clear sexual roles, the hippie girls wore pants and the hippie boys let their hair grow and decked themselves out in beads. In response to the American concern for health and cleanliness, they painted their bodies with Day-Glo, took to drugs, and lived in filth. In response to the pride of their emancipated parents in religious enlightenment, they turned to Zen. In response to middle-class cultural aspirations, they went mad over rock: one fellow reports that rock is “a regenerative and revolutionary art, offering us our first real hope for the future (indeed for the present) since August 6, 1945.” In response to upward-bound careerism, they left school, and in response to the lure of public recognition, they turned inward. Quite enough here to give a parent heartburn and cause a cop to grip his nightstick a little tighter and look for an excuse to slug the dirty little things.
The longest item in this book is a tape-recorded conversation among four intellectual and spiritual eminences of the hip world: Allen Ginsberg, poet-guru; Timothy Leary, LSD-meister and entrepreneur of psychedelica; Gary Snyder, Zen poet; and Alan Watts, Zen existentialist. Though they differ considerably in manner, emphasis, and intelligence, they agree that the hippie life into which they have helped to draw some thousands of young people (a responsibility that does not seem to weigh very heavily upon them) is to be understood as a rebellion against neckties, IBM, and all the rest of it. The hippie view of America is severely skewed—but then they do not pretend to know much about the country and remain charmingly indifferent to argument or evidence. Yet only the unflappably smug reader is likely to come away from these pages feeling that they add up to nothing more than a put-on. There was plenty of fakery in hippiedom, but the passion was real—and so are the constraint and purposelessness that the hippies sensed in our society.
Bigness, though the hippie philosophers cannot admit it, has brought us enormous benefits, as has careful organization. But bigness and organization demand a price, and the hippie protest may be taken as one more sign that the price, always too high for a few, is now getting to be unbearable for many more. Their kooky, self-destructive courage couldn't get them very far, but we don't have to take the hippies and their gurus at their own estimate to feel that they ought not altogether to be laughed off (though a few chuckles or tears are indispensable). They may not have cornered the market on Love and Freedom, but they have raised questions, in their press and in their existence, for which the square world has no ready answers.