I just finished Ted Morgan’s rather long biography of William Burroughs. For a guy who shot his wife dead and was a heroin addict most of his life, not to mention a weird sort of homosexual avatar, Burroughs had many glittering friends and a remarkably dull life. I like literary biography as a genre and will read lit bios more or less to fill in the missing pieces of the English literary enterprise in the 20th century. Burroughs’ own work I have found unreadable and now that I know, in excruciating detail, from whence it came, I should not be surprised. Give me Gore Vidal anytime.
On eBay, I found a stash of Tom Wolfe’s early work. Four dilapidated pocket books chronicling the end of the Beats and the birth of the Hippies. The shorter form journalism of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby remains a pleasure with Wolfe getting the rise of American prole/teen culture in the early sixties exactly right. From Junior Johnson and stock car racing to slot cars to Hot Rods and demolition derbies – plus Las Vegas – he demonstrates the sheer power of the underclass with a bit of World War II money. It’s a bit dated now – “style of life” for “lifestyle” – but Wolfe’s journalism says a lot about America in an age of optimism.
The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test – all about the delights of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters is very nearly unreadable. Not because Wolfe writes badly, rather because he writes far too well and the sheer tedium of these people is repeated page after page after page. Hippies do not age well – as the drooling 65-year-old beggars who dot our streets attest. But reading about these people in their prime, when the world was new and they were taking LSD before everyone took LSD suggests very strongly that these people were pretty damned boring to begin with. Kesey himself, with One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, established a bit of a reputation and (link between the Beats and Hippies) Neal Cassady (lightly disguised as Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road) apparently was quite a good driver. But that was about it. Hallucinations distort reality, they don’t change it.
They got a school bus, painted it in Day-Glo, took lots of drugs and drove around America surprising and outraging the “citizens”. Perhaps material for a 10,000 word Esquire article but a book…no. Other people’s drug trips, like other people’s dreams, should be written of lightly, if at all.
I was just a bit young to embrace the hippies, I enjoyed the drugs and a bit of the sex, but the actual life was five or even ten years ahead of me. When the Merry Pranksters were annoying Americans from coast to coast I would have been about eight.
Various of my rightie friends suggest that the right finds itself losing culture wars. They are correct to a degree. The generation of 1968, having imbued a melange of Marcuse, Leary, Fanon and, in the deep background, Gramsci, the Frankfurt School and Rudi Dutschke, take as a given their right to define the hip, the politically correct, the fashionable and the unspeakable. The grand march through the institutions – Dutschke’s phase not Gramsci’s – has left us with universities, media and corporations largely incapable of saying “no” to the ever-escalating demands of whichever identity group happens along.
But the roots, the root causes if you will, go back well before 1968 to the toxic culture of the beats and the echo of that culture in the Merry Pranksters. At its core, that world is about unspeakable selfishness, a deep sense of entitlement and a profound solipsism.
The enervation of the West began on hot afternoons in Tangier, redolent of hash and the delights afforded aging homosexuals by desperate Arab boys. Is there such a thing as a counter plinth? The very opposite of a platform upon which to erect a work of art or a society?
Oddly enough, Wolfe’s description of a California in which grown men made baroque objects in the shape of cars, or the South where equally grown men raced “stock” cars at 180 miles per hour, suggests the road not taken. And, indeed, Wolfe’s subsequent books, The Right Stuff and then the dark, Bonfire of the Vanities, show the paths diverging.
Winning the culture war is about defending a culture and, more importantly, developing that culture. Oddly, this has nothing to do with #hashtags or the right cocktail parties; or perhaps it does. Perhaps it is about our own #hashtags and our own cocktail parties and learning a little from the pomo left.
The modern left is perfectly delighted to direct a two minute hate at a scientist’s shirt or a scientist’s light remarks or someone who shows up consensus science as a fraud. It hates facts and it hates humour. Facts and humour and a sense of camaraderie can go a very long way in deconstructing the flailing left wing consensus. Rather than railing about the idiocy of identity politics, it is much more fun to arrange cage matches such as happened at the Chicago Gay Pride Parade when the #blacklivesmatter people showed up. Lobbing the 18 year global warming pause into unctuous discussions of model predicted end times is always fun. Remembering the Islam in Islamic terrorism is worthwhile.
Most of all, remembering just how boring hippies were and just what dreadful people the Beats celebrated will keep spirits up and humour front and center.