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The Sixties Redux
Since reading Robert Stone’s first novel A Hall of Mirrors (1967), I’ve been a passionate admirer of his large-scale, dark, often apocalyptic fiction. Most of his works, like the brilliant National Book Award-winning Dog Soldiers (1973) and the Conradian Flag Over Sunrise (1977), center on strung-out loners beset by personal and existential demons and caught up in the legacy of
Stone’s protagonists led edgy lives that lay outside the American mainstream, lives not too different from his own. His most recent work, his first work of non-fiction, Prime Green, is a sixties’ memoir that takes him (a high school drop out) from his discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1958—through riding with charismatic novelist, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on their celebrated 1964 bus tour across America— to becoming a stringer for a London alternative paper in the drug-ridden, racially-divided, anarchic charnel house that was Vietnam.
The memoir is much less an examination in depth of Stone’s inner self and torment, than an engagingly written evocation of a decade through a group of often revelatory stories. Stone’s sixties were peripatetic—he seems to have gone everywhere, and gotten to know a number of the period’s counterculture icons—like Beat legend, Neal Cassady and homegrown guru and LSD advocate Baba Ram Dass. Accompanied by his wife Janice, Stone spent time in the hills near
The ‘60s were a period of great optimism where, in Stone’s words, people were “drunk on possibility” and believed that the world, relationships, and their selves could easily be altered. Stone indulged heavily in pot and LSD, and adopted much of the counterculture life style, but politically he held to a belief in decent liberalism—rejecting “any kind of transforming ideology” or left wing movement. But in retrospect he writes, “Things were speeding out of control before we could define them.” He saw himself, and others who cared deeply about the changes of the ’60s, as embracing a multi-colored dreamscape, and ultimately discovering they were deceived, that “the prank was on us.”
In the memoir’s concluding pages Stone eloquently gets to the heart of the decade’s mixture of hopefulness and desperation. He understands just how vain and arrogant much of the ‘60s romantic rebellion was, and how “self-destructiveness” was often confused with “virtue.”
But Stone felt that the 60s left the country a better place in some ways, and most of the mistakes that the counterculture made were self-victimizing rather than the kind that wrecked havoc on the rest of the world. “Measuring ourselves against the masters of the present, we regret nothing except our failure to prevail.”
Stone’s memoir has special meaning for me, because the sixties were the incandescent era in my life. It was a time I felt truly alive— when the dreams of self and social transformation became one with my job as a college teacher. Some of the less radical innovative educational programs we created worked—like multidisciplinary courses encompassing literature, political and social criticism, and film. But much of what we did, like our attempt to run an academic program as a participatory democracy, seemed more infantile and absurd than meaningful. There was just too much posturing, both political and personal—more an indulgence in narcissistic performance art than serious teaching.
But I found it exhilarating—this messy attempt to put our half-baked vision of a more imaginative and liberated education into practice. It was the kind of ambitious failure that taught me there were no quick fixes in education—that educating students needed much more thought than we ever gave to it. It also taught me how much people needed some semblance of authority and hierarchy so that chaos would not rule institutional life. Being radical was just not the same as being effective.
My ‘60s were not quite Robert Stone’s. I stayed with a single job, lived permanently in one city, and had little interest in drugs. But if externally my life was a relatively tame one, my inner world was turbulent. I found the volatility of the ‘60s stirring me to explore all sorts of questions and emotions that a more moribund time would have left untouched. On the job, I succeeded in breaking down the emotional distance between the students and myself. And in and out of the college I engaged in politically committed (though always with a tinge of skepticism) teaching and action— giving speeches, taking part in anti-war demonstrations and marches.
My ‘60s were never as dramatic, reckless, or free as Stone’s. But in my domesticated fashion, like Stone I “demanded more of the world than it could reasonably provide.” And my attempt to live out some of that hunger made for the headiest time in my life.