Season of the Witch redux: “What’s Left?” July 2013, MRR #362

If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.

Originally, Mickey Mantle
and often repeated by Wavy Gravy, Peter Coyote, et al

And who should I say is calling?

Leonard Cohen, “Who by Fire”

I’ve just read Season of the Witch by David Talbot. In large part, Talbot’s style might be called nonfiction picaresque. Season of the Witch is a portrait of San Francisco, of the city’s outlaw social elements that became mainstream over two decades. For all of Talbot’s attempts to be hip and groovy, in deference to his subject matter, he often comes across as glib and pretentious. Had the book been a thousand pages, over twice its published length, still it would have been far from comprehensive or inclusive. Nor could Talbot have managed otherwise, despite his intent. Nevertheless, the work’s omissions are sometimes glaring. I snickered long and hard at the credulous psychedelic spirituality that the hippie counterculture trumpeted back in the day. Yet to fail to mention, even in passing, either Stephen Levine or the San Francisco Oracle, the newspaper that he helped to found, is negligent in the extreme. Most sobering is to go through the book’s index and realize that, no matter how abbreviated the history presented, the roster of obituaries is daunting.

Talbot’s book is a case history of “live fast, die young”—death by drugs, violence, crime, war, disease, accident, natural or human made disaster, and rarely, old age. Season of the Witch follows the decline and fall of the counterculture with a litany of death and destruction. Corpses mounted throughout the two decades from 1965 to 1985: the FBI decimation of the Black Panther Party through Cointelpro operations, the violent spasms of New Left urban guerrilla warfare via the Symbionese Liberation Army and New World Liberation Front, the terror of the Zodiac serial murders, the racial butchery of the Zebra killings, the horrific Peoples Temple mass suicide, the assassination of Moscone and Milk that inaugurated the AIDS pandemic. It is sometimes difficult to remember, first and foremost, that the era was epitomized by efforts at liberation, from the hippie effort to free one’s mind to women’s liberation, black liberation, chicano liberation, Asian liberation, gay liberation. I have a dog in this fight, no less than the producers and readers of this magazine, in criticizing Talbot’s almost complete exclusion of punk at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s from this compendium. (Jello Biafra and The Dead Kennedys are mentioned in passing) However, punk hasn’t been immune from premature death and wanton destruction either. Or, to quote Talbot: “There was always a brutal toughness in the beat and hippie” and punk “cultures, a shrugging awareness that casualties were inevitable when you challenged life’s limits. […] It takes a reckless kind of soul to tear down monuments and torch bridges, to shake the dead grip of the past. But by the end of the sixties, the revolution was entering its Jacobin phase, and the wreckage was growing wanton. If the revolution liberated the human imagination, it also unleashed humanity’s demons.”

Actually, I consider myself a late hippie and an early punk, having grown up at the tail end of the one counterculture and almost too old for the start of the other. I admired the Diggers; those “heavy hippies” like Emmett Grogan, Peter Coyote, and Peter Berg who sneered at the counterculture for believing that peace and love were sufficient, who helped conduct the brief-lived Free City experiment, and who resorted to arming themselves to defend their community, their politics and themselves. Of course, there was plenty to criticize about them as well, which takes us beyond a jejune book report of Season of the Witch. The Diggers free communalism was a precursor to the communization efforts and debates of Tiqqun/Invisible Committee on the one hand, and End Notes/Théorie Communiste on the other hand. Yet the insurrectionary anarchism and left communism of this current milieu suffers from the same problem that plagued the Diggers’ 60s hip anarchism, that of an inability to sustain itself over time, against the assaults of state and capital. At least Makhno managed to field a guerrilla anarchist army in the Ukraine capable of defeating Russia’s counterrevolutionary White Armies as well as of giving the Bolsheviks a run for their money. And Spain’s anarchists attempted a true social revolution on the ground while defending the Spanish Republic from Franco’s fascist hordes. Post 1950s anarchism, and its left communist sidekick with avant-garde delusions, have always been fugacious, unable to sustain a capacity for self-organization, self-activity and self-discipline, incapable of standing the tests of history and power. But this was so last column.

More to the point, both Peter Coyote and Emmett Grogan were strung out on heroin by 1969, a habit that in Grogan’s case killed him on a NYC subway car on April 1, 1978. The tendency to cite and mourn for those famous and influential who died too young, so conspicuous in Season of the Witch, is my inclination as well. There were untold unknown dead from the excesses of the Haight in particular and of the hippie counterculture in general. A well-respected columnist in the pages of this magazine on occasion writes an obituary of a well-known punk rocker who has met his untimely end. But who grieves for the numerous nameless punks who have also lived fast and died young, without amounting to anything in the process? Neil Young’s lyric that “[i]t’s better to burn out/than to fade away/than it is to rust” doesn’t speak to the anonymity and universality of death as most of us experience it. And for those who have survived their youth, despite all their excesses, there are the lingering aches and pains, injuries and traumas, damages and diseases to remind them each and every day. Whether or not they regretted their youthful indiscretions is beside the point. Coming to terms with their mortality in light of their experiences is. Complications arise when they don’t die, when they continue to grow old and continue to harm themselves.

I raged through my youthful excesses, then settled into decades of slow, measured, incremental drug abuse. I’ve stopped, but the destruction to my body and brain are irreparable, no matter what science currently says about neuroplasticity, or the capacity of human physiology to heal itself. As I said last column, there’s nothing with regard to socialism even remotely on the horizon that is capable of reversing humanity’s or the planet’s downhill slide into slow-motion apocalypse. Without the potentiality for socialist politics to materially change things, only two possibilities remain. On the one hand, taking political action amounts to symbolic acts and gestures, of which I’m not a big fan. On the other hand, engaging in political action is an expression of personal commitment or individual desire, or simply because, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit once put it, it’s a better way to live. That leaves little of the political that is not solely personal. In turn, I’m left with the three things that Siddhartha Gautama described as inevitable; old age, sickness, and death. And that’s if I’m extremely lucky. Old age, sickness, death; three aspects of life that are undeniably personal, but at the same time universal, experienced by every human being sooner or later.

Between the eternal Buddhist verities concerning human experience and the universalities of leftist politics downgraded to the merely personal, there is much that I still enjoy. The love for my wife, the affection for friends, my writing, compelling music, literature, film, art and food, New York and Paris in the fall, mindful meditation, scintillating company, a good laugh. Yet the movement of my life over the past six decades has been a process of telescoping down, of reverting from the macro to the micro, of focusing from the big picture to the mundane. David Talbot’s Season of the Witch starts in 1965 with a generation attempting the promethean, the creation of a counterculture as the first step toward achieving a revolutionary, universal consciousness. It ends in 1985 with one subculture of another generation coming to terms with its own inevitable mortality through the widespread death of many of its members in the AIDS pandemic. Talbot does his best to couch his history as some sort of ultimate triumph of the human spirit, some sort of “deliverance” attained through perseverance and despite tremendous odds. Nevertheless, Season of the Witch is a profoundly pessimistic chronicle, of a constriction of human hope and possibility. This demoralized narrowing of vision, of focus, of scope is what speaks to me at this point in my life.

That’s more than enough doom and gloom.

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1 Comment

  1. […] of the Haight, starting with David Talbot‘s Season of the Witch, which I critiqued on my other blog. For other histories, and some primary sources, consider the Diggers Papers site, including the […]


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