Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I’m sitting here with several blog posts trying to get out at once. Open up, sphincter, here they come!

One post is a review of Eleanor Agnew’s Back from the Land: How young Americans went to nature in the 1970s, and why they came back.

Another one is called “Kali and the May Queen.” It’s about how, when presented with a pair of opposites, humans try to choose one over the other without realizing they are actually two sides of the same coin.

But the one that wants to come out first is about zeitgeist, “the spirit of the times,” and how for all practical purposes zeitgeist is a living entity. Just like the Earth, for all practical purposes is a living entity. Maybe not “living” in the same sense as a plant or animal, but still... sharing enough characteristics of life to give one pause. These things are actually alive in some way? What does that imply?

Way back when, 45 years ago, at the peak of American prosperity and post-World War 2 optimism, there was a zeitgeist burst in San Francisco that we still talk about today. This burst gave birth to the hippies, and contributed heavy impetus to the back-to-the-land movement and the environmental movement. There were other, later, epicenters – any major college town in America, for example – anyplace where there was a critical mass of young people searching for a better way. Or at least, searching for a better way to get high.

But the big kahuna of them all was San Francisco, and it was over almost before it happened. But like a supernova that briefly outshines an entire galaxy, we are still studying the aftermath.

Hunter S. Thompson eloquently described this zeitgeist spasm in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which he wrote in 1971. I’ve edited it down to its essence here. The full version is available by googling “hunter thompson + wave.”

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something.

It seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . . And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Our energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

I take away a couple of things from this quote. For one, mid-60s San Francisco, if you ran with the right crowd, was a creative time of almost unbearable intensity. For another, any “hip scene” I ever partook of was merely the reflected glow, in the same way that star clouds are illuminated by a supernova lightyears away. And a third thing: The supernova aftermath was fading away even as we were living it. This explains why – for me, at least – nothing ever matched the intensity of 1968-69, when it was all fresh, new, and exciting.

This is not to say that the aftermath wasn’t real, and didn’t last for a long time. The back-to-the-land movement lasted until the early 80s. Environmentalism is still lurching ineffectively along. The spiritual impulse, especially now that the boomers are getting older, still persists. But there were no other supernova explosions. The wave broke and rolled back. The golden moment was lost, and lost forever. The conditions suitable for such an explosion will never happen again.

Americans, for the most part, live in the perpetual now, like an Alzheimer’s sufferer. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact that’s what the mystics recommend, but humans are at least theoretically capable of remembering the past, of learning from past successes and mistakes, and projecting this knowledge into an imagined future. “Forewarned is forearmed” and all that.

Perhaps the mid-60s zeitgeist explosion was Gaia’s best shot, given the human limitations of what She had to work with. It sure looks that way, if you look at history through that set of filters. Rather than just living in the perpetual now, and always assuming that things will magically get better just because, an alternative perspective is possible. It’s possible to look at how things have played out for 45 years now and see that this country -- and by extension the entire planet – has been moving at full speed in exactly the wrong direction all this time. And for this there will be no consequences? Hmmm, a curious lack of logic here, Sherlock!

I hear a crashing and tinkling outside my window, which must mean that dawn is starting to break. A final thought: I indulge in this line of thinking because brutal honesty is the only integrity I have left after all these years. The bright promise of a bygone era has given way to a life that is still most excellent in most ways, but lacks the sure knowledge of a common good that I can contribute to. It’s not a bad place to be, actually. What did I call it the last time I mentioned it? “The blessed zero state?” “The blessed neutral state?” Something like that.  Neither high nor low, existence as a steady hum.