Tue, Nov 06, 2012 - Page 12 News List

Book Review: Growing up absurd

Paul Goodman’s recently reissued book is an assault on US values held sacred in the 1950s, and anticipates the counter-culture of the 1960s

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

In order to look at its belief systems in more detail, it’s useful to go back to an even earlier era. In 1935 Malcolm Cowley published a book about the “lost generation” of American writers and artists who’d gone to Europe, notably Paris, in search of a better life. Called Exile’s Return, it listed eight principles that guided their actions. All of these re-appeared in the 1960s, making them look like a credo for bohemians of all generations.

They were: (1) Salvation by the child, or play rather than the Protestant work ethic; (2) Self-expression rather than social conformity; (3) Paganism rather than Christianity; (4) Living for the moment rather than accumulating wealth; (5) Liberty rather than white-collar conformity; (6) Female equality; (7) Psychological adjustment, meaning sexual liberation; and (8) Changing place, i.e. living abroad in pre-modern societies.

Sex was especially important to Goodman. In his own life he was an open bisexual, and lost several university jobs because of it. He would cruise the New York waterfront propositioning handsome young men, but also married and was devastated when his son died in a hiking accident. But sex “costs nothing, [and] needs only health and affection,” he wrote.

And marriage, he considered, failed people as an institution most of the time. “If many marriages could simply let themselves dissolve after a few years,” he writes, “the partners would suddenly become brighter, rosier, and younger.” This may be true for men, but the situation is surely more problematic for women. And indeed the main criticism leveled at this book has been that it routinely ignores the female perspective.

Another shortcoming involves narcotics. Goodman mentions them in a somewhat embarrassed way, as if they’re a feature of Beat life that he’d rather not have to deal with. But the truth is that marijuana in particular was at the heart of the 1960s revolt as it was shortly to develop. Its use united all the different factions, and it’s arguable that it was responsible for a different way of seeing the world. Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley independently came to the conclusion that psychedelics in general worked by de-conditioning people. You’d been brought up, say, to believe in side-partings and supermarket food, but this sort of conditioning was undermined by marijuana use and you began to see the society you were living in with fresh eyes. The doors of perception were opened, as Huxley wrote, quoting William Blake.

Whether such an optimistic analysis proved true in the long term is another matter. Many would argue that the early feeling of revelation quickly turned into lassitude and the repetition of tired cliches. But this was all still to come. Goodman, meanwhile, wrote an analysis from the viewpoint of 1960 that was perceptive for its time, and is still worth reading.

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