Read part two here.
What is a New History? And why do the young seek one? I raise these questions to introduce the idea of a particular New History—ours—and to suggest certain ways in which we can begin to understand it.
We may speak of a New History as a period of radical re-creation of the forms of human culture-biological, institutional, technological, experiential, aesthetic, and interpretive. New cultural forms are not produced by spontaneous generation; they are extensions and transformations of what already exists. That which is most genuinely revolutionary makes psychological use of the past for its plunge into the future. Of special importance is the extent to which the new forms can contribute to the symbolic sense of immortality man requires as he struggles to perpetuate himself through family, race, and community, through his works, in his tie to nature, and via transcendent forms of psychic experience.
The shapers of a New History—political revolutionaries, revolutionary thinkers, extreme holocausts, and technological breakthroughs—also express the death of the old. This has been true of the American, French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions; the ideas of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud; the mutilations of the two world wars; and, most pertinent to us, the technological revolution which produced Auschwitz and Hiroshima as well as the postmodern automated and electronic society. Each of these has been associated with “the end of an era,” with the devitalization, or symbolic death, of forms and images defining the world view and life patterns of large numbers of people over long periods of time.
Great events and new ideas can thus, in different ways, cause, reflect, or symbolize historical shifts. The combination of Nazi genocide and the American atomic bombing of two Japanese cities terminated man’s sense of limits concerning his selfdestructive potential, and thereby inaugurated an era in which he is devoid of assurance of living on eternally as a species. It has taken almost twenty-five years for formulations of the significance of these events to begin to emerge, formulations which cannot be separated from the technological developments of this same quarter century, or from the increasing sense of a universal world society that has accompanied them.
The New History, then, is built upon the ultimate paradox of two competing and closely related images: that of the extinction of history by technology, and that of man’s evolving awareness of himself as a single species. It may be more correct to speak of just one image, extraordinarily divided. And whatever the difficulties in evaluating the human consequences of this image, psychologists and historians who ignore it cease to relate themselves to contemporary experience.
The celebrated 1962 “Port Huron Statement” of the Students for a Democratic Society, which is still something of a manifesto for the American New Left, contains the assertion: “Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living.” I think we should take this seriously, just as many of us took seriously Albert Camus’s declaration that, in contrast with every generation’s tendency to see itself as “charged with remaking the world,” his own had a task “perhaps even greater, for it consists in keeping the world from destroying itself.” What I wish to stress is the overriding significance for each generation after Hiroshima (and the SDS leaders, though twenty-five years younger than Camus, made their statement just five years after he made his) of precisely this threat of historical extinction. In seeking new beginnings, men are now haunted by an image of the end of everything.
Do the young feel this most strongly? They often say just the opposite. When I discuss Hiroshima with students, they are likely to point to a disparity between my (and Camus’s) specific concern about nuclear weapons and their generation’s feeling that these weapons are just another among the horrors of the world bequeathed to them. Our two “histories” contrast significantly: my (over forty) generation’s shocked “survival” of Hiroshima and continuing need to differentiate the pre-Hiroshima world we knew from the world of nuclear weapons in which we now live; their (under twenty-five) generation’s experience of growing up in a world in which nuclear weapons have always been part of the landscape. This gradual adaptation, as opposed to original shock, is of great importance. Man is psychologically flexible enough to come to terms with almost anything, so long as it is presented to him as an ordained element of his environment.
But such adaptation is achieved at a price, and only partially at that. The inner knowledge on the part of the young that their world has always been capable of exterminating itself creates an undercurrent of anxiety against which they must constantly defend themselves, anxiety related not so much to death itself as to a fundamental terror of premature death and unfulfilled life, and to high uncertainty about all forms of human continuity. Their frequent insistence that nuclear weapons are “nothing special” is their particular form of emotional desensitization, or what I call psychic numbing. But the young must do a great deal of continuous psychological work to maintain their nuclear “cool.” And this in turn may make them unusually responsive to possibilities of breaking out of such numbing, and of altering the world which has imposed it upon them.
All perceptions of threatening historical developments must occur through what Ernst Cassirer called the “symbolic net”—that special area of psychic re-creation characteristic of man, the only creature who “instead of dealing with . . . things themselves . . . constantly converses . . . with himself.” In these internal (and often unconscious) dialogues, anxieties about technological annihilation merge with various perceptions of more symbolic forms of death. That is, Hiroshima and Auschwitz become inwardly associated with the worldwide sense of profound historical dislocation: with the disintegration of formerly vital and nourishing symbols revolving around family, religion, principles of community, and the life cycle in general; and with the inability of the massive and impersonal postmodern institutions (of government, education, and finance) to replace psychologically that which has been lost. They become associated also with the confusions of the knowledge revolution, and the unprecedented dissemination of half-knowledge through media whose psychological impact has barely begun to be discerned. There is a very real sense in which the world itself has become a “total environment”—a closed psychic chamber with continuous reverberations, bouncing about chaotically and dangerously. The symbolic death perceived, then, is this combination of formlessness and totality, of the inadequacy of existing forms and imprisonment within them. And the young are exquisitely sensitive to such “historical death,” whatever their capacity for resisting an awareness of the biological kind.
The young are struck by the fact that most of mankind simply goes about its business as if these extreme dislocations did not exist, as if there were no such thing as ultimate technological violence or existence rendered absurd. The war in Vietnam did not create these murderous incongruities, but it does epitomize them, and it consumes American youth in them. No wonder, then, that so many of the young seem to be asking, How can we bring the world—and ourselves—back to life?
In referring to the young and their quests, my examples are drawn mostly from the more radical among them; and what I say refers more to those who are white, educated, and of middle-class origin than to blacks, uneducated youth, or those of working-class backgrounds. The same is true concerning my references to my own generation. In neither case can the people I describe be anything more than a very small minority within their age group, their country, or for that matter, their university. But in both cases they seem to me to exemplify certain shared themes, psychological and historical, that in one way or another affect all people in our era and are likely to take on increasing importance over the next few decades and beyond.
Students of revolution and rebellion have recognized the close relationship of both to death symbolism, and to visions of transcending death by achieving an external historical imprint. Hannah Arendt speaks of revolution as containing an “all-pervasive preoccupation with permanence, with a ‘perpetual state . . . for . . . posterity.’ ‘ And Albert Camus describes insurrection, “in its exalted and tragic forms,”as “a prolonged protest against death, a violent accusation against the universal death penalty,”and as “the desire for immortality and for clarity.” But Camus also stresses the rebel’s “appeal to the essence ol being, his quest “not . . . for life, but for reasons for living.”And this brings us to an all-important question concerning mental participation in revolution: what is the place of ideology, and of images and ideas, and of the self in relationship to all three?
Men have always pursued immortalizing visions. But most of the revolutionary ideologies of the past two centuries have provided elaborate blueprints for individual and collective immortality—specifications of ultimate cause and ultimate effect, theological in tone and scientific in claim. When presentday revolutionaries reject these Cartesian litanies, they are taking seriously some of the important psychological and historical insights of the last few decades. For they are rejecting an oppressive ideological totalism, with its demand for control of all communication within a milieu, its imposed guilt and cult of purity and confession, its loading of the language, and its principles ol doctrine over person and even of the dispensing of existence (in the sense that sharp lines are drawn between those whose right to exist can he recognized and those who possess no such right) . This rejection represents, at its best, a quest by the young for a new kind of revolution—one perhaps no less enduring in historical impact, but devoid of the claim to omniscience, and of the catastrophic chain of human manipulations stemming from that claim.
It is, of course, quite possible that the antiideological stance of today’s young will turn out to be a transitory phenomenon, a version of the euphoric denial of dogma that so frequently appears during the early moments of revolution, only to be overwhelmed by absolutist doctrine and suffocating organization in the name of revolutionary discipline. Yet there is reason to believe that the present antipathy to ideology is something more, that it is an expression of a powerful and highly appropriate contemporary style. The shift we are witnessing from fixed, all-encompassing forms of ideology to more fluid ideological fragments approaches Camus’s inspiring vision of continuously decongealing rebellion, as opposed to dogmatically congealed, all-or-none revolution. 1 would also see it as an expression of contemporary, or what 1 call “protean,” psychological style— post-Freudian and postmodern, characterized by interminable exploration and flux, and by relatively easy shifts in identification and belief. Protean man as rebel, then, seeks to remain open, while in the midst of rebellion, to the extraordinarily rich, conlusing, liberating, and threatening array ol contemporary historical possibilities.
His specific talent for fluidity greatly enhances his tactical leverage. For instance, Daniel CohnBendit, a leader of the French student uprising of May, 1968, in an interesting dialogue with JeanPaul Sartre, insisted that the classical MarxistLeninist principle of the omniscient revolutionary vanguard (the working class, as represented by the Communist Party) be replaced with “a much simpler and more honorable one: the theory of an active minority acting, you might say, as a permanent ferment, pushing forward without trying to control events.” Cohn-Bendit went on to characterize this process as “uncontrollable spontaneity’ and as “disorder which allows people to speak freely and will later result in some form of ‘self-organization.’ ” He rejected as “the wrong solution” an alternate approach (urged upon him by many among the Old Teft) of formulating an attainable program and drawing up realizable demands. While this was “bound to happen at some point,” he was convinced it would “have a crippling effect.” In the same spirit are the warnings of Tom Hayden, a key figure in the American New Left, to his SI)S colleagues and followers, against “fixed leaders”; and his insistence upon “participatory democracy,” as well as upon ideology of a kind that is secondary to, and largely achieved through, revolutionary action. So widespread has this approach been that the American New Left has been characterized as more a process than a program.
I would suggest that the general principle of “uncontrollable spontaneity” represents a meeting ground between tactic and deeper psychological inclination. The underlying inclination consists precisely of the protean style of multiple identifications, shifting beliefs, and constant search for new combinations. Whatever its pitfalls, this style of revolutionary behavior is an attempt on the part of the young to mobilize the fluidity of the twentieth century as a weapon against what they perceive to be two kinds of stagnation: the old, unresponsive institutions (universities, governments, families) and newly emerging but fixed technological visions (people “programmed” by computers in a “technetronic society”) . A central feature of this attempt is the stress upon the communal spirit and the creation of actual new communities. And here too we observe an alternation between conservative images of stable and intimate group ties, and images of transforming society in order to make such ties more possible than is now the case.
The process, and the underlying psychological tendencies, moreover, seem to be universal. Observing the nearly simultaneous student uprisings in America, France, Japan, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Mexico, South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Chile, Yugoslavia, and Spain, one can view them all as parts of a large single tendency, occurring within a single worldwide human and technical system. Here the planet’s instant communications network is of enormous importance, as is the process of psychological contagion. To recognize the striking congruence in these rebellions, one need not deny the great differences in, say, Czech students rebelling against Stalinism, Spanish students against Falangism, and American, French, and Italian students against the Vietnam War, the consumer society, and academic injustices. In every case the young seek active involvement in the institutional decisions governing their lives, new alternatives to consuming and being consumed, and liberated styles of individual and community existence. Unspecific and ephemeral as these goals may seem, they are early expressions of a quest for historical rebirth, for reattachment to the Great Chain of Being, for reassertion of symbolic immortality.
The French example is again revealing (though not unique), especially in its extraordinary flowering of graffiti. Here one must take note of the prominence of the genre—of the informal slogan-on-thewall virtually replacing formal revolutionary doctrine, no less than the content. But one is struck by the stress of many of the slogans, sometimes to the point of intentional absurdity, upon enlarging the individual life space, on saying “yes” to more and “no” to less. Characteristic were “Think of your desires as realities,” “Prohibiting is forbidden,” and, of course, the two most famous: “Imagination is power” and “Imagination is revolution.” Sartre was referring to the overall spirit of these graffiti, but perhaps most to the revolutionary acts themselves, when he commented: “I would like to describe what you have done as extending the field of possibilities.”
Precisely such “extending [of] the field of possibilities” is at the heart of the worldwide youth rebellion—for hippies no less than political radicals— and at the heart of the protean insistence upon continuous psychic re-creation of the self. Around this image of unlimited extension and perpetual recreation, as projected into a dimly imagined future, the young seek to create a new mode of revolutionary immortality.
Of enormous importance for these rebellions is another basic component of the protean style, the spirit of mockery. While young rebels are by no means immune from the most pedantic and humorless discourse, they come alive to others and themselves only when giving way to, or seizing upon, their very strong inclination toward mockery. The mocking political rebel merges with the hippie and with a variety of exponents of pop culture to “put on”—that is, mislead or deceive by means of some form of mockery or absurdity—his uncomprehending cohorts, his elders, or anyone in authority. (Despite important differences, there has always been a fundamental unity in the rebellions of hippies and young radicals which is perhaps just now becoming fully manifest.) In dress, hair, and general social and sexual style, the mocking rebel is not only “extending the field of possibilities,” but making telling commentary-teasing, ironic, contemptuous—on the absurd folkways of “the others.”
A classic example of the mocking put-on was Yippie leader Jerry Rubin’s appearance at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearing on possible Communist involvement in the Chicago street demonstrations during the Democratic National Convention. The New York Times reporter, noting that Rubin wore a “bandolier of live cartridges,” painted a vivid scene: “Bearded, beaded, barefooted and barechested, Mr. Rubin waved aloft what he called ‘an M-16 rifle.’ It turned out to be a toy. Later, stripped of his bullets, but still carrying his toy weapon, he was allowed into the hearingroom where he spent much of the day jingling bells attached, to his wrists, popping bubble gum and burning tiny sticks of incense.” Here the put-on includes a dramatization of the most lurid fantasies of the adversary, together with little rituals so radically “out of place” in the particular setting that either they or the setting itself must be viewed as absurd. In contrast, the testimony of a staff investigator for the subcommittee that (again as reported by the Times) “the demonstrations were in line with ‘the policies of Hanoi, Peking and Moscow,’ ” was a straight form of accusation and not, at least by intention, a put-on.
The mockery can be gentle and even loving, or it can be bitter and provocative in the extreme. Here the Columbia rebellion is illuminating. What it lacked in graffiti it more than made up for in its already classic slogan, “Up against the wall, motherfucker!” I make no claim to full understanding of the complete psychological and cultural journey this phrase has undergone. But let me at least sketch in a few steps along the way:
1. The emergence of the word “motherfucker” to designate a form of extreme transgression. The word might well have originated with the black American subculture, and certainly has been given fullest expression there and used with great nuance to express not only contempt but also awe or even admiration (though an equivalent can probably be found in virtually every culture) .
2. The use of the word in contemptuous command by white policemen when ordering black (and perhaps other) suspects to take their place in the police lineup, thereby creating the full phrase, “Up against the wall, motherfucker! The mockery here was that of dehumanization, and use of the phrase was at times accompanied by beatings and other forms of humiliation.
3. LeRoi Jones’s reclaiming of the phrase for black victims—and, in the process, achieving a classic victimizer-victim turnabout—by means of the simple expedient of adding to it, in a poem, the line, “This is a stick-up.”
4. The appearance of an East Village Yippie (Youth International Party)-style group (now becoming national) which embraced Jones s reversal to the point of naming themselves the “Up-AgainstThe-Wall-Motherfuckers.”
5. The attraction of Columbia SDS leaders to this East Village group (“mostly because we liked their style,” Mark Rudd said on one occasion) ; and the use of part of the phrase (“Up against the wall”) for the title of a pre-uprising one-issue newspaper, and all of the phrase, including Jones’s addition, to express contempt for Grayson Kirk in Mark Rudd’s open letter to him published in that same newspaper. (The threatening chant “To the wall!” or “Up against the wall!” borrowed by young American radicals from the Cuban Revolution might also have figured in this sequence.)
6. The slogan’s full flowering during the course of the Columbia strike, both in abbreviated and complete form, in shouted student chorus, for confronting just about all representatives of what was considered negative authority—police, city officials, administrators, and faculty. Rudd has claimed that his group adopted the slogan “in order to demonstrate our solidarity with the blacks and our understanding of the oppression they have been subjected to.” But other student-strikers told me this was “a public explanation.” They attributed the slogan’s popularity to the students’ general mood and feelings about their adversaries; and also to the presence of a few members of the East Village group. One, known as John Motherfucker, was constantly in view, wearing his “club jacket” with the organization’s name lettered on it, and advocating even greater militancy. He became an object of both humor (other students thought his ideas “crazy”) and affection.
7. The arrested students’ renewed encounter with the police version of the shorter phrase (“Up against the wall!”) when they were called to the police lineup.
8. Finally, Lionel Trilling’s pun, in characterizing the striking students (not without affection) as “Alma-Mater-fuckers,” a witty example of an important principle: the mocking of mockery.
In evaluating the significance of the phrase and its vicissitudes, the classical psychoanalytic approach would, immediately and definitively, stress the Oedipus complex. After all, who but fathers are motherfuckers? And who but sons yearn to replace them in this activity? Moreover, the authorities at whom the Columbia students aimed the phrase could certainly qualify, in one way or another, as father-substitutes. And there was much additional evidence throughout the student rebellions of a totem-and-taboo-like attack upon the father—as exemplified, mockingly and playfully, by another bit of French graffiti, “Daddy stinks" (Papa pue) ; and, mockingly and nastily, by Columbia students reported to have shouted at their faculty elders, “Why don’t you go and die!”
But one does well to move beyond this kind of psychoanalytic explanation, to take it as at most a beginning of, rather than an end to, understanding. For if we assume that the mother in question is, so to speak, the fucker’s own, we are dealing with an image of the ultimate violation of the ultimate incest taboo. Now, it has been said that this taboo is society’s last inviolate principle—the only psychomoral barricade which contemporary rebels have not yet stormed. Whether or not this is true, the bandying about of the phrase “Up against the wall, motherfuckers!” is a way of playing with an image of ultimate violation, and of retribution for that violation. The tone could be menacing and hateful, but on the whole (at least among the students) less one of irreconcilable rage than of taunting ridicule and mimicry. And the continuous reversals characterizing the whole sequence—the switches between victimizer and victim, accuser and accused —ultimately mock not only the whole social order and its linguistic and sexual taboos; like Trilling’s pun, they mock the mocking phrase itself.
The tone of mockery can be a source of great unifying power. One could argue, for instance, that mockery provided the necessary continuity in the evolution, metaphorically speaking, from hippie (socially withdrawn experiments in feeling) to Yippie (activist assaults upon social institutions) ; as well as the psychological style around which elements of student-radical and hippie cultures could come to coexist within individual minds. In the Columbia rebellion the spirit of mockery was able to unite, if not in political action, at least in a measure of shared feeling, such disparate groups as hippies, Yippies, white student radicals, moderates, and some blacks (the police could also be included, but from across the barricades). And one can add to the list the distinguished professor whose pun I quoted, many of his faculty colleagues, a large number of Columbia students not involved in the strike, the writer of this essay, and probably most of its readers. For mockery is central to the contemporary style, confronting as it does the sense of absurd incongruity in the relationship of self to society, and ultimately of death to life, which we all share. There arc moments when this incongruity can be dealt with only by the combinations of humor, taunt, mimicry, derision, and ridicule contained within the style of mockery. For when historical dislocation is sufficiently profound, mockery can become the only inwardly authentic tone for expressing what people feel about their relationships to the institutions of their world. And in this sense young rebels express what a great many other people—from conservative Wall Street broker to liberal college professor to black militant to antiblack Wallaceite—inwardly experience.
On the border of mockery are such slogans of the French students as “We are all undesirables!” and the much more powerfid “We are all German Jews!” The slogans refer directly to the origins of Cohn-Bendit, the student leader, but their significance extends much further. They mock not only anti-Semitism and national-racial chauvinism, but the overall process of victimization, and the “old history” for harboring such victimization. The method by which this was done is worth noting: a vast open-air charade with thousands of students who, by shouting in unison “We are all German Jews!”, momentarily became classical European victims, thereby rendering ridiculous the very categories of victim and victimizer. At this affirmative border of mockery, then, and at the far reaches of the protean style, is a call for man to cease his folly in dividing himself into what Erik Erikson has called pseudo-species, and to see himself as the single species he is.
One can observe a related if much more confusing impulse toward inclusiveness in the diversity of ideological fragments young rebels embrace. Thus hippies, for their experiments with the self, draw upon Eastern and Western mysticism, chemically induced ecstasy, and various traditions, new and old, of polymorphous sexuality. Young radicals may incorporate any of these aspects of hippie culture, and combine them with ideas and images drawn from many different revolutionary experiences (pre-Marxist utopians, anarchists, Marx, Trotsky, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Mao, Castro, Guevara, Debray, Ho, Gandhi, Fanon, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown) ; from recent psychological and social theorists (Sartre, Camus, C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, Erik Erikson, Abraham Maslow, and Paul Goodman) ; and from just about any kind of evolving cultural style (derived from jazz or black power or “sold,” from the smallgroup movement and the Esalen-type stress upon Joy, or from camp mockery of Victorian or other retrospectively amusing periods).
Moreover, the emphasis upon the experiential— upon the way a man and his ideas feel to one right now, rather than upon precise theory—encourages inclusiveness and fits in with the focus upon images and fragments. Details of intellectual history may be neglected, and even revered figures are often greatly misunderstood. But the overall process can be seen as a revolutionary equivalent to the artist’s inclination to borrow freely, selectively, impressionistically, and distortingly from predecessors and contemporaries as a means of finding his own way.
Of enormous importance as models are heroic images of men whose lives can be viewed as continuously revolutionary. The extraordinary lives of Mao, Castro, and especially Guevara can combine with romantic mythology of many kinds, including that of perpetual revolution. In a sense Castro and Guevara are transitional figures between the total ideologies of the past and the more fragmentary and experiential ones of the New History. But heroes and models tend to be easily discarded and replaced, or else retained with a looseness and flexibility that permit the strangest of revolutionary bedfellows. In lives as in ideologies, the young seek not the entire package but those fragments which contribute to their own struggle to formulate and change their world, to their own sense of wholeness. Their constant search for new forms becomes a form in itself.
To dismiss all this as a “style revolution” is to miss the point—unless one is aware of the sense in which style is everything. One does better to speak of a revolution of forms, of a quest for images of rebirth which reassert feelings of connection and re-establish the sense of immortality; and of a process revolution, consistent with the principles of action painting and kinetic sculpture, in which active rebelling both expresses and creates the basic images of rebellion. The novelist Donald Barthelme’s statement that “fragments are the only form I trust” has ramifications far beyond the literary. However severe the problems posed by such a principle for social and especially political revolution, we deceive ourselves unless we learn to focus upon these shifting forms—to recognize new styles of life and new relations to institutions and to ideas. Indeed, we require a little revolutionizing of our psychological assumptions, so that both the young and the old can be understood, not as bound by static behavioral categories, but as in continuous historical motion.
Let us, for instance, turn to the extremely important symbolism surrounding fathers and sons. Here the theme of fatherlessness is prominent, but it does not necessarily include a search for a “substitute father.”
In addition to his biological and familial relationship to his children, we may speak of the father as one who mediates between prevailing social images on the one hand and the developmental thrusts of his children (biological or symbolic) on the other. Because the father is clearly not a simple conduit, and imposes a strong personal imprint (his “personality”) upon the child, we tend to fall into the lazy psychoanalytic habit of seeing every authoritative man or group coming into subsequent contact with the child from the larger society as a “substitute” for the father, as a “father figure.”
Yet considering the enormous part played by general historical forces in shaping what the father transmits (or fails to transmit), one might just as well say that he is a “substitute” for history, a “history figure.” The analogy is admittedly a bit farfetched—a flesh-and-blood father, and not history,” conceives the child, teaches him things, and tells him off—but so is the tendency toward indiscriminate labeling of one person as a “substitute for another. We do better, especially during periods of rapid change, to see fathers and sons as bound up in a shifting psychological equilibrium, each influencing the other, both enmeshed in foims specific to their family and their historical epoch. (Mothers and daughters are, of course, very much part of all this. But the mother’s “mediation,” for biological and cultural reasons, tends to be more heavily infused with nurturing; her way of representing terms of social authority tends to be more indirect, complex, and organically rooted. And revolutionary daughters, like their mothers, desei\c an evaluation of their own, quite beyond the scope ot this essay.) A son’s developing image of the world should not be attributed to a single cause, nor considered a replacement for an earlier imprint.
Nor is the father by any means a pure representative of the past. Rather he is a molder ot compromise between the history he has known and the newer one, in which the life of his famity is immersed. During periods like the present he is, psychologically speaking, by no means a clear spokesman for stability and “order.” He is more a troubled negotiator, caught between the relatively orderly images lie can retain (or reach back for) from his own experience and the relatively disorderly ones anticipating the new shape of things. While likely to be more on the side of the former than the latter, in the midst of a revolution of forms his allegiances may not be too clear. He finds himself suspended in time, weakened by the diminishing power of old forms, and by his inability to relate himself significantly to (or even comprehend) the new.
During earlier revolutions (the French Revolution or the social revolution of the Renaissance) the old history under attack, however vulnerable, was still part of a coherent formulation of the world—theological, political, and social. One suspects that this formulation provided the fathers of the time with psychic ammunition sufficient to confront their rebellious sons. But the old history now being attacked, reflecting as it does more than two hundred years of erosion of traditional forms of every kind, permits fathers no such symbolic strength, no such capacity for confrontation. Instead we find a characteristic father-son pattern emerging in families in various parts of the world— among young American radicals (as reported by Kenneth Keniston), Japanese Zengakuren studentactivists (whom I interviewed), and, very likely, mam young French student rebels. The pattern is this: the son, fortified and recurrently exhilarated by his radical convictions, and by his sense of being ethically and historically right, pities rather than hates his father for the latter’s “sellout” to evil social forces. He views his father as one who has erred and been misled, as a man in need of patient reeducation rather than total denunciation. And the father himself, inwardly, cannot help sharing many of these judgments, however he may try to attribute them to his sou’s immaturity and youthful excess. This is the sense in which fathers no longer exercise ethical, or formative, authority over their sons. They have lost their capacity to guide their offspring through the shifting forms of their common world. They can be fathers but not mentors.
This loss of mentorship is what we generally call “the absence of male authority. Its large-scale occurrence reflects the historical absence of a meaningful set of inner images of what one should value, how one should live. But it is experienced by the individual as a profound sense of fatherlessness. Sons feel abandoned by their fathers and perceive the world as devoid of strong men who know how things are and how they should be.
But precisely this kind of symbolic fatherlessness makes possible every variety of experiment and innovation, just as the young lack the nurturing comfort of fixed social forms, so are they free of the restricting demands ot these forms. Since nothing is psychologically certain, everything is possible. And there emerges what might be called an “unencumbered generation.” in politics as well as in everyday life.
Unencumbered rebellion can include every variety of tactical and ideological foray into presentday existence—as expressed in this country’s “new politics” (the young radicals’ politics of confrontation, the Yippies “politics of ecstasy,” and the more staid but still politically unconventional and youthinfluenced campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy), and especially in contemporary novels (such as the nightmare version depicted by Sol Yurick in The Bag). This potential for innovation is perhaps the least understood dimension of the new rebels. It particularly confuses members of the Old Left, and provokes them either to reassert older judgments about how radicals should behave, or to attempt (often with considerable sympathy) to subsume the new rebellion under a traditional ideological label. “Anarchism” is the most tempting, because of its stress upon human relations in autonomous communities and opposition to centralized power, and because of what George Woodcock has referred to as “its cult of the spontaneous . . . [and] striking protean fluidity in adapting its approach and methods to special historical circumstances.” But even Woodcock speaks of “a new manifestation of the idea”; and the young themselves tend to alternate between accepting the anarchist label as one of their ideological fragments, and expressing wariness toward it as still another potential ideological trap. Perhaps Sartre was wiser in his characterization of the phenomenon to Cohn-Bendit: “You have many more ideas than your fathers had. . . . Your imagination is far richer.”
The formative fathers of the young rebels are the middle-aged members of the intellectual left. (I recently heard one articulate young rebel say as much to an audience made up mostly of university professors: “We are your children. You taught us what American society is like.”) And the encounter between formative fathers and sons takes on special importance. On the one hand the young rebels seize upon their innovative freedom and seek to live out both the classical revolutionary myth of making all things new, and the contemporary protean myth of infinite shapeshifting to the point of rendering the past totally “irrelevant.” They may thus view their formative fathers as no more than rickety impediments. But on the other hand, they give the impression of constantly seeking something from this group of their elders: confirmation in radicalism, adult-dispensed legitimation (psychological and ethical), authoritative support, and at times even guidance (but never direction), concerning theory and tactics. (One must keep in mind the origins of many of the ideological fragments of the young rebels in older-generation thought, such as that of Herbert Marcuse and C. Wright Mills, without viewing these origins as determining everything.) The young, then, do seek connection, but a connection that does not suffocate or even restrict. The connection may be essentially negative—the young may contrast (heir own activism, flexibility, and moral intensity with their elders’ passivity, fixity, and shameful compromise—but even this can be a form of connection.
The “fathers” involved also crave connection. As long-standing advocates of liberal or radical programs, now puzzled or even terrified by their intellectual offspring, they too ask themselves where they can link up with what is happening. But nothing for these formative fathers is clear-cut. They do not live in a time (Confucian or biblical) in which sons are expected to honor, and seek to become like, their fathers. Nor do the young bring to them the kind of total negation expressed in a three-sentence commentary by a member of Hell’s Angels: “I don’t like nothin’. I don’t like nobody. Fuck everything.” Instead, the middle-aged left-intellectual finds the encounter to be replete with ambiguity. He is likely to be alternately attracted, repulsed, impressed, bedazzled, jarred, and bemused by young rebels and their behavior—his historical sense and paternal impulse combining to tell him he should do something, but what?
He at times responds by reviving his own radicalism, which can in turn take the form of either a serious re-examination of his world or of an uncritical psychological identification with the young. Or he may have the opposite response of angry and unyielding dissociation from the young, sometimes with searching criticism of their programs, but all too often with a petulant and willfully uncomprehending declaration of generational warfare. A third response, a favorite of postmodern intellectuals in times of crisis, is that of escape into technical and professionalized preoccupations—though the allergy of the young to this stance is making it more and more difficult to maintain. There are, of course, other kinds of responses, but here I want to stress the very real psychological, actually psychohistorical, problems faced by these members of the “older generation.”
For instance, they experience severe feelings of guilt over reminders of never-quite-abandoned ideals and never-quite-comfortable accommodations; over not doing more to embrace the young and their movement, or if they do embrace them, over the possibility of repeating their own past political mistakes in response to a new call to revolution. They feel rage toward the young because of the severe threat they represent (sometimes accompanied by envy of the strength and conviction behind that threat), as well as rage toward themselves because of their own sense of impotence. Most of all, they perceive a fundamental threat to overall integrity, to whatever degree of wholeness they have been able to achieve in their own blend of individual and historical forms, in their decent liberalism, ordered radicalism, professional autonomy, and personal privacy—that is, a threat to the entire structure of their lives. And even those who, like Sartre, wish to acknowledge the superior imagination of their “sons” must sense that, as older models, they are likely to be rather quickly “used up,” and either discarded or retained condescendingly in order to make way for new imaginative forays. It could be argued that the young have bypassed fathers for formative grandfathers, such as the seventy-year-old Marcuse and the seventy-five-yearold Mao, a pattern frequently resorted to when rapid historical change weakens the former and renders the latter in various ways more heroic. But I would see this as only one among many patterns, and point to younger models such as Guevara and Castro, as well as to such “old” young radicals as Tom Hayden. In any case, formative fathers risk inner agreement with the young’s accusatory chant of “irrelevance” until they can discover their own relationship to unprecedented events.