The Second Reich

I’m writing for posterity this month, since posterity is the best customer for the book at hand. The book is a fascinating document—fascinating as a document: its worth seems in a way inadvertent, and its value will increase as the era it records slips out of mind. The book won’t be long remembered, but it will rest in the library and it will greatly please some researcher seventyfive years from now; will provide useful data for a dissertation called, say, “Powder and Paralysis: American Character from 1950 to 1975.” The book itself is called THE SORCERER OF BOLINAS REEF (Random House, $8.95) and it’s the autobiography of one Charles Reich, who is the author of another, nearly forgotten book.
Charles Reich. Does the mind need a half-second to remember? Ah yes. The Greening of America. Consciousness I, II, and III. There was a time—just five years ago—when any literate American would have been embarrassed not to be able to define those terms. But I found that memory had failed, and I had to look them up.
Consciousness I: the mentality of the archetypical American, the eighteenthcentury farmer, the small businessman; fiercely independent; at war with nature or the marketplace but at peace with himself; a well-integrated though desperately limited personality. Consciousness II: the mind of the modern corporate man; a figure whose role as citizen or careerist is deeply at odds with his inner needs; an alienated man. Consciousness I and II were familiar stuff; what mattered was III. Consciousness III began in the awareness that alienation—and a great many other things—were simply not necessary; that it was possible to be true to one’s self, to serve desire and not the machine, to free one’s self from such modern views as fear, competitiveness, excessive rationality. Consciousness III was little less than a revolutionary force, but it was a revolution not of violence or strife, but of vibrations. It was a revolution of youth and of those who had understood what youth was trying to say; the movement’s representative figure was not a worker loosening his chains, but a student with flowers in his hair.
There were a lot of students with flowers in their hair in those far-off days, and part of the book’s appeal was to them, and to those who sought to attune themselves to their message. At this distance the book’s power to charm is easier to understand than its capacity to outrage readers. The Greening of America had one quality that could account for both reactions: a seeming serenity, a simplicity, an almost religious willingness to brush aside politics and economics as insubstantial barriers to the salvation that was appearing as effortlessly and universally as the foliage of spring.
A writer in this magazine—the late L. E. Sissman -pointed out at the time that The Greening of America omitted one word. The word was “I.” The book’s argument floated serenely on a sea of “we’s” and “one’s.” Its authority seemed to come in some measure from the absence of an author. Whoever he was, he fancied himself the bearer of a truth too heavy to be carried by a single writer. In The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef, Reich has supplied the missing first person, with an account of his life before and after The Greening of America. It is an extraordinary and instructive story.
On its surface, Reich’s life is a straightforward history of what can be done, in the way of worldly accomplishment, by a person born with considerable natural gifts into a privileged part of America.
Reich was born in 1928, in New York; his father was a doctor, his mother a school administrator. They were “progressive” sorts, and Charles went to progressive schools. He was timid on the playground but a shy whiz in the classroom. He remembers loneliness, and secret fantasies of grandiosity: he would be the leader of his nation, or he would be “Captain Charles,”ruler of a mythical land. Though his boyhood was spent in Depression years, he recalls of New York its skyscrapers, and the chic modernism of Art Deco trimmings. He remembers the “Futurama” display at the 1939 World’s Fair, depicting a truly prosperous never-never land, and his own confidence in the future.
He was too young for the war—just seventeen as it ended. He has little to say of his high school and college (Oberlin) years; our next glimpse of him is at Yale Law School, where he shone—he was editor in chief of the Law Review. His record won him a clerkship in the Supreme Court with Justice Hugo Black; he soon joined one of Washington’s most powerful law firms, Arnold, Fortas & Porter. He left to become professor of law at Yale. He wrote The Greening of America. It sold more than a million copies.
And now? Now he lives in California. His achievements are spiritual. You can find him of an evening standing on the beach in Bolinas. And he will be wearing his “magic robe, black and purple with gold and silver stars and moons and zodiac signs.” He will be wearing his “tall pointed sorcerer’s hat.” He will be moving “on the current of the universe.”
The crucial event in this journey would seem to have been the publication of The Greening of America. and so in a way it was. But there were other, less public occurrences—Reich inhabited a private world whose bleakness and desperation one could not have imagined.
As The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef is at pains to make clear, Reich, despite the varieties of his success, has led a life of extreme emotional deprivation. The emblematic fact is that until he was fortythree—after the publication of The Greening of America—he had never had a sexual relationship. He had suffered through years of efforts to suppress homosexual desire, years of wistful longing after a heterosexual life. He was attractive to women, but their interest in him only made his timidity curdle into repugnance. At the same time he loathed what he imagined to be the homosexual world of lisps and perfumes. His friendships with women ended in flight; his friendships with men were practical and barren. He felt acutely uncomfortable in the masculine world he inhabited (even as he survived and prospered). He bridled against the limits of its stylized toughness and jocularity, and felt that the family life he saw around him—much as he envied it—was a charade. During his Washington years, his closest companionship came from the teen-aged son of a friend. Reich covertly spent his evenings as a pseudo-adolescent of the fifties, driving around, stopping at the Hot Shoppe, going bowling.
It was young friends at Yale who made his life bearable and who, during the late sixties, inspired him to write the book that celebrates their life-style. A visit to the leading edge of the new culture, Berkeley, in 1967, also helped. The sight of people declining their society-given roles overwhelmed him. To be briefly barefoot was to be daring and free. “I who sweated until my shirts were drenched and smelly, who shook and trembled, who lived each moment by a titanic effort of the will, I could lie back and life would come to me.”
As for his sexual awakening, it happened without spontaneity or friendship. Reich was introduced to homosexual love when he hired a male “model”; though he expresses believable gratitude to the boy, the story doesn’t escape sordidness. More prostitutes followed, pickups, a couple of longer-lasting homosexual alliances, eventually a brief heterosexual relationship.
What followed these various acts of liberation was not the happiness Reich had hoped for. He suffered for the first time the complexities and disappointments of intimacy, and he faced anew the loneliness that had always stalked him. At the same time—though he is oddly more reticent on this point—he was suffering disillusion with his world: Yale, whose students had nurtured him into awareness, seemed to have reverted to Consciousness II. And one gathers that he was regarded there no longer as a prophet but as a has-been.
Much of Reich’s account of his recent years is delivered in a tone not far removed from a primal scream. He reenacts on the page the anguish of reliving the forgotten traumas of his past (“Don’t make me big, I want to be little ... I want to be a small boy . . . I want to stay in my own little bed”). He often speaks in the cloying language of Transactional Analysis, about honoring the “child” within him and repressing the “parent.”
Reich plainly presents himself a far more compromised, vulnerable, woeful man than the imagined author of The Greening of America, and yet the movement of the two books is similarfront despair to faith. He still holds out hope for social change, though the revolution is no longer expected to happen naturally, effortlessly, inevitably. “I have come to the conclusion that personal growth represents the one and only adequate means of bringing about fundamental political change in this country.”
We see him on the beach at the close of the book in a state of transport, lyrical, ludicrous—the magic robe! the sorcerer’s hat!—delivering an incantation to liberation, mingling lines from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” with his own cries of hope: “. . . we can experience wonder and magic and love.
. . . You too shall wear a sorcerer’s cloak.”
Strange. No more strange, though, than the barren candor that is this book’s most distinctive quality. What to make of it? One’s instinctive sympathy is complicated by uneasiness. Free as Reich is with the facts of his life, there are limits to his introspection. There is much that he seems (or chooses) not to realize: that his ability to speak to us in intimate, artless privacy is directly a function of his previous celebrity . . . that even more today than he was as a tailored young lawyer, he’s the world’s creature. And yet, it’s the sheer force of the emotional data that prevails—only a very chilly reader will withhold his compassion from the man who reveals himself here.
One can read works of Charles Reich in a way that accords nicely with fashionable views of what has happened to the country in just half a decade: its retreat from activism, its boredom with politics. “The Me Decade” is Tom Wolfe’s epithet for the seventies. And in a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, Christopher Lasch laments this narcissistic, apolitical time: “The ideology of personal growth, superficially optimistic . . . radiates pessimism. It is the world view of the resigned.” Charles Reich’s antiprogress from seer to navel-gazer fits in handily with this thesis. But I think to treat the books in this way would miss a point.
I found rereading The Greening of America, after reading the autobiography, to be an odd and illuminating experience. Reich’s self-revelation somehow makes the earlier book a more attractive piece of work than it was before. Much of what puzzled, enchanted, moved, and angered readers of The Greening of America seems clearer now. The voice of the book was only ostensibly placid and impersonal; what the shrewd reader would have heard was the feverish, desperate, private voice within. Reich imposed the map of his own pain and longing on the contours of American culture. (Even his categories of consciousness correspond to the stages of his personal growth as he then imagined them. Consciousness I: his childhood state of security purchased at the price of repression. II: his young adult’s awareness of the disparity between his inner and outer selves. Ill: the autonomy he dreamed of and tried to create by describing it.) To point out that the earlier book was itself a form of autobiography is not to deprecate it. In my view, its highly personal content serves not only to explain but to enhance it. At last we see the source of the book’s strength: we were listening to a genuine innocent.
And what of that imagined scholar of the future? What will she (for some reason I picture a woman in a sundrenched megaversity in the Southwest) make of Charles Reich when she comes upon his books in the library? I hope she is not too eager to discount him, too ready to use him as charming marginalia—this bizarre fellow, his sorcerer’s robe, his best-sellerdom. I hope she recognizes that although both his ideas and the facts of his life were hyperbolic, they were in their way true to the turmoil in the psyche of their time.
—Richard Todd