Be Careful What You Wish For
In 1969, at the peak of the hippie counterculture, Joni Mitchell wrote “Woodstock”, a song whose lyrics epitomize my parent’s generation: “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves, back to the garden”. As the first decade of the new millennium has drawn to a close one is tempted, upon hearing the song, to let loose a snicker. After all, faced with a collapsing ecosystem and squabbling over solutions at climate conferences from Copenhagen to Cancun, we seem to be further from Mitchell’s “garden” than ever. But before snickering at the Edenic optimism of the counterculture, and relegating their dreams to a heady mix of dope and idealism, we should consider whether our increasingly dire ecological situation can be thought of, paradoxically, as the result of their utopic yearning for a return to the “garden”.
What was the counterculture asking for when it joyously sang with Mitchell about returning to stardust and going “back to the garden”? They were wishing for a close (or unalienated) relationship with the natural world. Going “back to the garden” was an expression of the desire to be immersed in the unmediated Real world.
There’s that cliché saying: ‘Be careful what you wish for’. Now that the hippie counterculture owns and commands the natural world, their wish is being granted. The natural world does seem to be getting closer, but uncomfortably so. Human beings are becoming less alienated, albeit not in the way the hippies wished for it.
Some forty years after the hippies at Woodstock happily swam in murky ponds and laughed as they covered their naked bodies in mud, entire coastal nations under threat of rising sea levels are now beginning their own swim through murky waters. But this is a sad and unhappy swim, bereft of the naive laughter and optimism of the counterculture. My parents’ wish is being granted: nature now threatens to engulf us. Their dream of ‘getting back to the garden’ is playing out; however, it is playing out in an unexpected way: The joyful ‘mud people’ of Woodstock find their uncanny doubles in the ‘mud people’ of Bangladesh, and all the other environmental refugees being forced off their lands due to rising sea levels.
All of this we wanted, all of this was buried deep in the wishes of the counterculture who yearned for a better world amidst the collapse of Culture and Nature, West and East, Human and Animal, High and Low Culture, Prohibition and Licentiousness. But, in their utopic idealism, they did not carefully consider the type of world that might emerge once these alienating structural oppositions broke down. “And whatever harm the wicked may do…” Nietzsche’s Zarathurstra exclaimed “… the harm the good do is the most harmful harm”.
After all, upon the collapse of these culturally imposed structural oppositions would we not be in nature, “back to the Garden”, returned to the bosom of the Real? Not only did the counterculture not properly think past the collapse of these structural oppositions, but it expected – in its patricidic, revolutionary fervor – that once things were returned to the Real, our lack of alienation would engender our peaceful communion with the earth ‘mother’, our ‘brothers’ and our ‘sisters’.
And the counterculture succeeded: it did undermine the reigning oppositions, it did puncture a hole in Man’s alienated Ego, it did hasten to bring all creatures together with the natural world.
Yet everyone denied it, and often negated what occurred. While dancing around to mutants like Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga between yoga sessions and CNN updates about the latest international climate change conference, the children of the counterculture tend to forget how successful their parents were. We are in a precarious situation now that the hippies are relegated to tacky Halloween costumes you can buy at Wal-Mart.
The hippie dream is a yearning for the Real, an urge to bypass authority and alienation in order to attempt direct communion with Real brute materiality. Nowadays this is no mere dream, but has come to underlie the whole logic of North American society. And are we ever increasingly finding ourselves mired in the Real: both environmentally and whenever some New Media startup promises to offer the “immediate” ability for you to “express who you really are!”
Entire sections of the market are aimed at managing and routing this excess of the Real: Yoga, aisles of organic foods, New Age courses aimed at helping the student “find his or her real, or true self”. Today’s popular culture floods the mediaether with the message that structural oppositions like Culture and Nature ought to unravel and break down: we howl at television programs like South Park which nihilistically poke fun at ‘eco-fascists’ such as Al Gore and Greenpeace, whose message is that nature is not identical with culture, that nature has its own boundaries which we ought to respect and act in accordance with.
The hippies cried out ‘Bring us closer to the Real, to unrepressed pure-life, to the Dionysian!’ And now that the natural world has arrived at the doorstep waiting to engulf them, they cannot turn it away. It was what, in their dreams, they asked for. It is what they worked so hard all these years to commune with. It explains the transformation of world into a ceaseless orgy-exchange of bodies and natural resources: the Age of the World Stock Ticker. “Back to the Garden” indeed! After dreaming of it for so long who would dare to interrupt this bullet train back to the Real?
Let us not, as the children of counterculture, keep dreaming the same dreams – which we now know are nightmares in disguise– of abolishing structural oppositions and collapsing the gap between ourselves and the world. And you who yearns for immediate satisfaction, hedonistic pleasure, jouissance, and the absence of repression: I say, ‘relax, repression is not necessarilly negative or shameful’. In the words of Herbert Marcuse, it was Sigmund Freud – that great Humanist – who observed “…the reality principle ‘safeguards’ rather than ‘dethrones’, ‘modifies’ rather than denies, the pleasure principle”. Or, consider Canadian novelist Anne Michaels’ reminder in The Winter Vault that “The origin of the word ‘paradise’ is simply ‘enclosure’ ”. In the early ‘60s, Wayland Young explained that in contrast to the monogamous couple for whom love is an all-too-human union of distinct individuals,
[t]he whole point of an orgy is not to know who one’s partner is … At an orgy, their own identity as individuals gets no buttressing from the identity of the unknown other. It therefore begins to weaken, to blur, to dissolve, to fuse. If at a moment of total openness, the other has no identity, one has none oneself. Identity needs reflecting and confirming; when one is fucking an unknown person, there is no reflection, no confirmation, and the identity of each one runs out to meet the identity of each other in a common pool.
– Wayland Young
Love begins at orgy’s end, in the way that culture depends on a gesture of removal from immediacy in nature. The threat nowadays is no longer alienation, but our loss reverence for alienation; it lies not in the number of enclosures, but in our loss of respect for enclosure itself.
All is Loneliness: An Unlearned Lesson
In 1968, Janis Joplin’s band Big Brother and the Holding Company covered the Moondog song “All is Loneliness”. Joplin sang “I come home there’s nothing.
Nothing, man, there’s no animals moving, there’s nothing, man.” These lyrics epitomize the dark shadow that lurks behind the counterculture, a shadow whose contours are now visible. One discerns a longing for quiescence, for homeostasis, for a return to the paradise of the Garden of Eden. Recall Joni Mitchell’s lyrics yearning for “stardust” and returning to the “garden”.
All of this rings with Sigmund Freud’s death drive: the compulsion for all living things to return to an inorganic-inanimate state. Can we not hear Janis and Joni giving voice to this drive when they sing “We are stardust” and “There’s nothing. Nothing, man, there’s no animals moving”? The dream of quietude, stasis, and the obliteration of the human in favor of returning to cosmic, primordial and elemental “golden stardust”…
I cannot help thinking of a comment by Jacques Ellul (drawing on Francois Laplantine) about “the [utopian] desire for absolute stillness and the return of the maternal womb”. The desire behind utopia, Ellul argued, is to obliterate the “…need of a father or a political authority who only cause trouble by interfering between the all-providing mother and her nurslings”.
One lesson that the counterculture never quite learned can be found in Ken Russell’s 1980 film Altered States. We are presented with a scientist who refuses to acknowledge his wife’s ‘human’ emotions and her need for love, regarding them as Symbolic impositions on the more truthful immediacy of the Real world. (Or, as subjective, ‘human’ emotions occluding the objective, ‘inhuman’, truth.) At the climax of the film, the scientist nearly is consumed by the Real itself (represented aptly by fuzzy television snow leftover from the Big Bang) and is saved by uttering the words “I love you” to his neglected wife. But, he is saved because this is not the cosmic “I love x” of the mystic or the hippie, for whom love is the Real primordial condition of all matter, obscured by the impositions of our Symbolic social structures and relationships. Rather, this “I love you” is the exact opposite: it is a love for the impositions that part the primordial Red Sea of the Real, and allows us to pass through unscathed.
The human “I love you” at the conclusion of Altered States saves the scientist from the abyss of the Real, whereas the love of the hippie is the love of the cosmic abyss, or the point where the lover identifies that abyss within his beloved.
Consider the final scene of Richard Wagner’s romance Tristan and Isolde, where Isolde drowns in the Real itself : “In the heaving swell, in the resounding echoes, in the universal stream of the world-breath – to drown, to founder – unconscious – utmost rapture!”
The cosmic-countercultural love may be thought of as a yearning to fuse with the undifferentiated universe before it was coded with human social mores, structures and institutions; the second type of love is precisely the love of the differentiated universe, under the sway of our human social mores, structures and institutions. Put differently, one can either speak of a countercultural, pop-psych, New Agey ‘love’ of their fellow human beings, animals, the planet, the universe, of X, Y and Z or one can speak of ‘love’ as the relationship which overwrites the immediacy of their fellow human beings, animals, the planet, the universe, X, Y and Z.
In summary, cosmic-countercultural love is represented by Joplin’s lyrics about “nothing man, there’s no animals moving, there’s nothing man” and Mitchell’s desire to become “golden stardust”, a love for the most immediate kind of relationship to the Real world, but not love as a gap in the Real that make our culture and our all-too-human relationships possible.
And this is a clue toward understanding the legacy that the Woodstock generation has bequeathed to their dark eyed children, who have but a short time to turn from the nihilistic orgy into which they have been born toward the sober, yet passionate, love capable of engineering a future open to nature and culture.