The Darkness of This World
The Pursuit of Evil in
Our Gnostic Age
The Fun Revolutionaries
Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)
Louis Althusser (1918-1990)
Guy Debord (1931-1944)
The New Left arose in the Western world in the late 1960s. Its name was not intended to distinguish it from the Leftist regimes of Russia and China, and its philosophers and activists did not become famous for criticizing Stalin and Mao Zedong. What made it “new” was chiefly a momentous change in a central Marxist doctrine, forced upon it by History herself: the working class was no longer the bearer of “revolutionary consciousness”.
What had happened? The workers in the capitalist West had simply let the side down by becoming prosperous, and – what was worse – happy in their prosperity. They could not, would not, be persuaded it was in their interest to overthrow a system that provided them copiously with the good things of life.
It was a disappointing and downright treacherous development, and Communists found it hard to get their heads round it. While the revolution was still inevitable, who would become the dictator of the new order if not the proletariat? Some theorists reached in desperation for the Lumpenproletariat, the underclass of vagabonds, beggars, low-life criminals, which Marx himself had rejected as revolutionary material. But most shifted their hopes to the underdeveloped Third World with its vast reserve of underdogs, the “victims” of “imperialism” and “colonialism”.
One of the most prominent theorists of the New Left, Herbert Marcuse – considered by many to be its progenitor – reached for both the underclass and the Third World. He wrote: “The people [ie. the workers] recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment … [But] underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process. … Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not.”
He recognized, however, that the revolution needed to be led by persons who could understand what he was talking about. Who could those be but the young educated sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie?
They represented, Marcuse said, “the most advanced consciousness of humanity”. It was their mission to lead the exploited but ignorant “substratum” against the established order. They could understand that while the capitalist order might look good, really it was bad. Its material abundance lulled people into an illusion of contentment. Its tolerance was really a form of repression. By leading the revolution, they could liberate the free from freedom and rescue the well-provided-for from plenty. And they did not actually have to give up anything, or go anywhere to do it. They must only “give themselves to the Great Refusal”; say “no” to liberal democracy and capitalism, and with their advanced consciousness, feel at one with distant victims.
The thousands of young rebels who marched down the streets of West European university cities on Sundays and fine spring evenings in 1967 and 1968, did not have to read the works of Sartre, Foucault, Lukács, Marcuse … to know what they thought and taught. The intellectual atmosphere of the West was saturated with their ideas. Rising generations had only to breathe to be intoxicated with a passionate hatred of freedom and everything else the West stood for.
They knew Marcuse’s flattering description of them; and they knew that not every Marxist professor agreed with it. Louis Althusser did not think the student protestors could or should lead the revolution which he continued confidently to expect the workers to bring about. But he did allow them to consider themselves working class; to “identify with” the proletariat. Louis’s wife Hélène told him that she saw no proletariat – or none likely to make revolution and establish a dictatorship in fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy. In Louis’s eyes, that was sin and apostasy. So he strangled her to death.
What did the student protestors say it was all for, the anger, the tumult and the shouting? Gently-reared, well-nourished in safe and comfortable homes, educated in lavishly equipped academies, these beneficiaries of Western Europe’s post-war economic recovery (greatly assisted by America’s Marshall Plan) had no cause of their own. But Marcuse told them they were oppressed by plenty and repressed by tolerance. And Althusser told them they could be let off being bourgeois as long as they felt they were working class. They did not have to be for anything, only against their country, class, and civil order: against capitalism; against the bourgeois; against “authoritarianism”; against having to taking exams; against the “military-industrial complex”; against nuclear arms in the hands of Western powers (but not in the hands of the Soviet Union); against war in general, and the current war in Vietnam in particular, where America was supporting the South in conflict with the Communist North. America embodied almost everything they were against. America was “imperialism” itself.
Released by Marxist philosophy from the bonds of conventional morality, and being well supported materially by their compatriots whose labor allowed the country to afford the luxury of gesture politics, they joined together fiercely and joyfully in the marches, the sit-ins and teach-ins, the interruptions of public events in lecture rooms and concert halls, the abuse of figures in authority, and sometimes in actual physical clashes with the police – those ready representatives of “authoritarianism”. They felt brave, while knowing that the police would not hurt them. When, occasionally and without intention, in the midst of a skuffle, the police did hurt one of them, they were blissfully outraged, and claimed they had “brought the fascist out of the policeman” so everyone could see how right they were to protest.
Most of the demonstrators were satisfied after a while with making angry gestures and shouting for revolution. Many were to say that in retrospect the days of loud mass anger had been “fun”. In Germany, there were some who went to great lengths to make them tremendous fun. A group of “anarchist” communards chose to protest by performing satirical “happenings”. Led, amusingly enough, by a young man genuinely named Fritz Teufel (Teufel is German for the Devil), they put on public performances such as: setting fire to a huge papier mâché figure of President Lyndon Johnson and the American flag draped over a Christmas tree on West Berlin’s busiest shopping street; throwing mock “bombs” made of flour and eggs at important persons; sprinkling confetti and candy over police officers on patrol; hurling colored Easter eggs and bags full of paint at the façade of the US embassy. Teufel himself, gowned as a university Rector, rode a small clown’s bicycle with a klaxon into the Auditorium Maximum of Berlin’s Free University while a solemn ceremony was taking place. He rode, klaxing, all the way down the hall to the podium, dismounted, and climbed up to join the officiating bigwigs. From there he threw cigars to the applauding audience, while the real Rector, from whose office the gown and cigars had been lifted, stood helplessly by. Teufel got away with his clowning on that occasion, but was arrested and tried several times for other pranks. He made a joke of the legal process by letting off firecrackers in court. He acquired a large appreciative following.
Before the decade was over, most of the students had had enough, and the street and university protests petered out. But there were a few who could not bear to give up the fun, the excitement, the romantic pretence that they were leaders of a revolution. So it happened that small gangs of terrorists emerged out of the student protest movement. Some of the “happenings” protestors, including Fritz Teufel, formed themselves into an “anarchist” group called the Movement Second June. They were jokers still, but serious jokers. They would use terrorism, but “wittily”. They took a huge bunch of flowers, concealing a gun, to a judge on his birthday, and when he came to answer their ring at his front door, they shot him dead with real bullets.
The world had to be changed by force. To prove their worthiness for that task and show themselves to be more dedicated, more daring, more active, more heroic, more self-sacrificing, more angry in the cause of pacifism than all the rest., the jokers and then others resolved to use violence in the cause of anti-violence. The others were self-declared Communists. They would kill for peace. They would bomb for the revolution and the Communist paradise that lay on the other side of it.
One of the first world-changing bombs maimed a child for life, and destroyed the livelihood of a painter who was working through the night on the walls of a newspaper office, by blowing off his hand.
The most notorious Communist group called itself the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion). It was better known by the name the media gave it: Baader-Meinhof, after one of the men, Andreas Baader, and one of the women, Ulrike Meinhof, who led it.
“There is nothing I would not do, however base, to change the world,” Ulrike Meinhof said. And to that end she and her merry band did abominable things: kidnapped, killed, burnt, shot, and bombed.
For a while they felt quite safe. Their parents were professors, politicians, lawyers, teachers, doctors, clergymen, journalists, businessmen, some even movers and shakers of the Federal Republic of Germany, and most of them had been sympathetic to the protest movement. Many of them were impressed – as their children expected them to be – by the lengths the “absolutists” were prepared to go to for the higher good and their own liberation from bourgeois values. The older wiser heads opined, “Their hearts are in the right place, only their methods are wrong.” Only maiming and slaughtering their neighbors; only putting fear of injury, agony, and death into all who went about their business in public places.
As a result of this indulgence, the terrorists were genuinely astonished by the punishment meted out to them when they were arrested, tried, and found guilty of grave crimes. The fun was over for them then. They finally had to believe that they would actually be imprisoned for a very long time, perhaps for the rest of their lives; they, “the most advanced consciousness of humanity”, who had only done what the best minds of their parents’ generation had urged them to do! The courts did not appreciate that what they had done was necessary for the establishment of heaven on earth. The Judges did not share the opinion the status quo had to be swept away so that the inevitable new world could be born. They and the general public had only to peer over the Berlin Wall at that part of Germany which had been flung – along with the other east European countries – under the jackboot of Soviet Russia after World War II, to be sure that they would rather be repressed by tolerance and enslaved by plenty than live over there with scarcity and fear.
Some of the terrorists, including Ulrike Meinhof, who passed through Communist Germany on their way to and from terrorist training camps in the Middle East, did not like what they glimpsed. The glimpse told them that a life there would not do for them. Although they had voluntarily taken the lampshades off the lamps in their West Berlin communes to demonstrate their scorn for luxury, they had never had to go without central heating, ample food and good quality clothes; and they who had chosen to drive to the scenes of their robberies, arsons and murders whenever possible in a (stolen) Mercedez Benz, laughed and shuddered at the cheap plastic-bodied Trabants with their noisy two-stroke engines and their smelly exhaust which they sighted and smelt in sparse numbers on the strangely empty and ill-kept roads of East Berlin.
In truth the entire student protest movement was frivolous. It was all posture and gesture. All fake, the pity and the indignation – everything except the conceit. Worse, it was mockery. For such as they, the most fortunate of the human race, to claim to be fellow sufferers with selected victims of oppression and poverty, was to make mock of them and their plight. The charade of insurgency was performance art on a grand scale. But neither they nor their hooray-chorus of philosophers and professors saw it for what it was. Despite their “advanced consciousness”, they were oblivious to the cruel sarcasm of their masquerade.
But nothing – not a personal encounter with Communist shabbiness and dreariness, or news of the Russian gulags through the smuggled-out works of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn – made them suspect for a moment that they might be wrong. Had not the most acclaimed thinkers of the age told them how right they were, how brave and noble? Besides, they felt they were right. They knew it instinctively, and their philosophers told them to trust their instincts.
In France, it looked for a moment as if Marcuse had given up hope of the European working-class too soon. In May of 1968, the trade unions called millions of workers out on strike, and the protesting students declared themselves “in solidarity” with them. The excitement on the streets reached feverpitch as protestors, strikers and most of the nation held their breath, in hope or dread that this might be the beginning of a real revolution. But the government propitiated the unions with concessions, and the police hardened their opposition to the students, and the horrible or delightful possibility of another French revolution receded and died.
The French students’ protest movement had, until the briefly sobering climax of May ’68, been more openly and intentionally frivolous than anywhere else in Europe. The mood is exhibited on every page of a 1968 manifesto issued by a group within the movement who called themselves the Situationists: The Revolution of Everyday Life, written by Raoul Vaneigem. For all its glee, it reeks of sulfur fumes from the French pandemonium. One of its founders was Guy Debord, writer and film-maker.
Although Debord himself is regularly classed as a Marxist theorist, there was one surprising difference between his coven and all the other demons under discussion: Debord and his followers declared themselves to be against the Communist Party – or at least against the French Communist Party. The Situationists were a strong influence on the French protestors, whose ranks were largely composed of Trotskyites, along with a sizable coterie of Maoists and other Marxist factions. The exuberant style of the demonstrations, the merry clashes with the police, were examples of Situationist “revolutionary art”. Except in the month of the strikes, when issues mattered to the strikers less than spectacle. Debord, who composed a “theory of the spectacle”, was credited with being one of the chief intellectual inspirers of the French movement. His personal itch to make rubbish out of everything he could reach was applied to the cover of his first book, Mémoires. It was made of sandpaper, so it would damage the cover of any other book it touched.
The Revolution of Everyday Life, by Debord’s disciple, told its readers that acting together in rebellion against the status quo made them all artists; that the greatest and only valid art now is revolution, and revolution will bring about a transformation of the human species; that revolution is a poetry that can be made by all; that “we” are taking nothing less than the stuff of history itself and turning it into an artifact of perfection as perpetual revolution; that ‘we ourselves” are the artists and the art; that “radical art” ceaselessly creates and recreates itself; that there can never again be anything so ridiculous as “a work of art”; that poetry is in the situation you create in everyday life, that it lives in acts, in a life-style, and in the search for that style; that this poetry blossoms everywhere: “brutally repressed, it remerges in violence; it blesses uprisings, weds revolt”; it is in crime; for spontaneity alone makes art; it is the only creativity, and is a collective effort: “it bursts out fresh, uncorrupted, and the creations are the life situations worth living”.
Ingredients of the life situations that were true art included marijuana, heroin, promiscuous sexual intercourse, and destruction. “Shit on the society of middle age and taboos. Become wild and do beautiful things. Smoke a joint. Whatever you see that you don’t like, destroy.”
The artists of situations must bring equipment to the acts of revolutionary creation. “Bring musical instruments, fabric, records, blankets, tape recorders, and whatever else is fun.”
“Turn your hate into revolutionary energy. Go out and fight in the streets. Create terror at every street corner on Friday nights, and fight (with the police and anyone else who is not with you) on Saturday nights. Attack the institutions that make a man a slave, such as banks and American businesses.”
The ghost of Rousseau guided Vaneigem’s pen. “Be natural, wild, savage. Act on intuition, which alone is to be trusted. Do only and whatever you feel like doing. Be cruel.”
Defy and destroy the rotten world you were born into, treating whatever it holds to be good as bad, and whatever it holds to be bad, as good.
Jillian Becker July 26, 2015
1. One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, 1964. Marcuse was one of the Marxist group known as the Frankfurt School. They had come together initially to oppose the Austrian School of free market economists. Marcuse himself did very well out of the capitalist system that he deplored, and was hospitably received and respectfully honored by capitalist America as a New Left advocate of its downfall.
2. There were precedents for proposing that a select group of intellectuals should take such a lead. Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881), a contemporary of Karl Marx, believed that a small elite should carry out a socialist revolution and when it had succeeded, hand over power to “the people”. And Antonio Gramsci (1881-1937), a founder of the Italian Communist Party, believed that a “hegemonic” group of intellectuals would be necessary for the success of the revolution and the new Communist order, preferring that such a group should arise out of the revolutionary working class. While Marxist orthodoxy ordained that the workers were the “revolutionary class” and would inevitably rise in revolution and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, in practice all the Communist revolutions of the twentieth century were led by bourgeois intellectuals, including the Russian revolution of 1917.
3. The opacity of Althusser’s writing earns him a place among the most incomprehensible of his contemporary leftist theorists, “post-modernists” and “Structuralists”. He called himself a “structural Marxist”. Occasionally he comes near to matching the formidable unintelligibility of the “deconstructionist” Jacques Derrida. Eg.:- Althusser: “If Logic is nothing but the concept of the Idea (of the process of alienation without a subject), it is then the concept of this strategic subject we are looking for. But the fact that this concept is of the process of alienation itself, in other words, this subject is the dialectic, i.e. the very movement of the negation of the negation, reveals the extraordinary paradox of Hegel. The process of alienation without a subject (or the dialectic) is the only subject recognized by Hegel. There is no subject to the process: it is the process itself which is a subject in so far as it does not have a subject.” (Emphasis in the original. Context – or even acquaintance with the works of Hegel – will probably not help understanding.) Source: Politics and History trans. Ben Brewster, Verso 2007, p.184. Now here’s Derrida: “If the trace, arche-phenomenon of ‘memory’, which must be thought before the opposition of nature and culture, animality and humanity, etc., belongs to the very movement of signification, then signification is a priori written, whether inscribed or not, in one form or another, in a ‘sensible’ and ‘spatial’ element that is called ‘exterior’. Arche-writing, the first possibility of the spoken word, then of the ‘graphi’ in the narrow sense, the birthplace of ‘usurpation’, denounced from Plato to Saussure, this trace is the opening of the first exteriority in general, the enigmatic relationship of the living to its other and of an inside to an outside: spacing. The outside, ‘spatial’ and ‘objective’ exteriority which we believe we know as the most familiar thing in the world, as familiarity itself, would not appear without the grammè, without difference as temporalization, without the nonpresence of the other inscribed within the sense of the present, without the relationship to death as the concrete structure of the living present.” Source: A Derrida Reader ed. Peggy Kamuf, Columbia University press, New York, 1991, pp. 42-43.
4. Althusser confessed to killing his wife. It is credible gossip that he did it because “she no longer believed in the dictatorship of the proletariat”. He was not only a murderer who got away with murder (being put into a mental hospital instead of a prison), he was also a charlatan who got away with claiming expert knowledge which he did not possess. His career as a Marxist philosopher was launched with his book Reading Capital; but in a memoir published after his death he confessed that he had not actually read Marx’s book when he wrote about it. Professor Roger Scruton writes (p.88) in Thinkers of the New Left (p.88): “In examining the writings of Alhusser, we shall be exploring one of the most important expressions of revolutionary language, in which no question can be posed, and no answer offered, except in terms that are barely intelligible to those who have not renounced their capacity to think outside them. In short, we shall be confronting a kind of mental disease … Lest the reader should doubt the need for this confrontation, it is worth mentioning that Althusser’s influence in contemporary Marxist circles is unrivalled, [and] that his mantic writings remain standard university texts in many departments of philosophy and politics …”
5. Full substantiation of what I say here about the protest movement and terrorist groups in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, with notes on sources and a bibliography, may be found in my book Hitler’s Children: the Story of the Baader-Meinhof Terrorist Gang.
6. In the light of his own preference for immorality and surprise, Debord might be expected to have laughed when, in May 1989, he was exposed as an agent of the CIA, paid through the American intelligence agency’s Paris office ever since he had started the Situationist International. But he simply denied it. In any case, it was probably not true. It’s hard to see what motive the CIA could have had for promoting insurgency and chaos in General De Gaulle’s France.
7. The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem was republished in 2012, in English, when the resemblance of the “Occupy” movement in America to the Situationists was noticed by an enterprising publisher.
The Orgiasts (One)
Peter Weibel (1944- ): Riot as Art
Otto Mühl (1925-2013): Crime as Art
When the tumult and the shouting of the “sixty-eighters” died down in Western Europe, and the terrorists were dealt with by the law courts, and the shallow ideas of the New Left had crystallized into an orthodoxy as “political correctness”, the shocking of the bourgeois – the chief impetus of the movement – was carried on for years in “Action Art”.
In Austria, which claimed to be its home, the political dimension of Action Art (Aktionismus) was inspired by the satirical “happenings” which anarchist groups performed as part of the sixty-eight fun-revolutionary protests.
Though at first the movement was just as dedicated to the defiance and denigration of the civil authorities as the student protests, Austrian Aktionismus actually came to be sponsored for a time by the state. By the late 1970s, exhibitions of Action Art were funded by the government, and even opened ceremoniously by ministers of culture. The artists were celebrities: acclaimed by the media, honored in the universities, given awards and generous grants. Many Austrians were proud of them.
But at the start, when the artists first performed their obscene acts, and painfully assaulted their audiences, they were arrested. Even then they were not held for long. There was an outcry from the progressive intelligentsia: “This is ART. Couldn’t the official barbarians understand that?” The official barbarians hung their heads in shame. This was an age when almost anything was allowed to ART. Criminal violence it may be, but it may not count as crime when it was ART.
In the summer of 1968, a group of Austrian Actionists toured Germany – Munich, Essen, Cologne – with a repertoire of performances in support of the student rebellion. They appeared in sports-halls and amphitheaters “before audiences of 2,000 and more”. They built a water cannon “with extra strong pressure” to turn on to the audience. One of them, Peter Weibel, explained to me (some years later):”The idea of the gathering was rebelling for Vietnam, and the audience had come to demonstrate that they were in solidarity with the Vietnamese who were suffering from American aggression. We believed that solidarity only counts if you are suffering too. But there the audience was, just sitting and not suffering at all. They were there to protest for Vietnam, but they were eating, drinking, doing nothing but waiting to be entertained, exhibiting the typical schizophrenic condition of this society. So we turned water on them.”
The audience did not accept the assault passively, not even for the sake of Art or Vietnam. They threw bottles back at the artists, and then the artists whipped them.
“But first I hurt myself. I worked with fire. Before turning the water on them or whipping them I burnt my own arm. I put chemicals on my skin and set fire to it. This was to show that I earned the right to make them suffer by suffering myself. It was saying to them, ‘Look, I’m in pain so I have the right to be taken seriously.’ In Cologne I had to go to hospital afterwards, and there they didn’t believe me that this was an art action. They called the police and the police thought I had been experimenting with explosives. But my intention was to make rituals. No masochism was intended. While I was burning I was smiling all the time, to say, ‘Look, you can trust me, I won’t lose my nerve.’ ”
He had to work hard on his whipping technique because, he said, “I used a very long whip and I couldn’t make it move fast enough at first, and people in the audience used to catch hold of it and pull me towards them, or jerk it out of my hands, until I learnt how to do it properly so that I cut their faces before they could do anything. The end was always a riot. The police came to stop it, we were arrested, and then we were fined. But that was part of the Action. ‘WAR, ART, RIOT’ the show was called. It was a campaign. Like a military campaign, only with Art.”
In that same momentous summer, one of the founders of the Action Art movement, Otto Mühl, along with other Actionists, put on a performance in the auditorium of the University of Vienna titled ART AND REVOLUTION. They announced that it was for the victims of the Vietnam war. Mühl described it to me as “pissing, shitting, beating, and masturbating while singing hymns”. He and the other artists were arrested and imprisoned.
By the later 1970s, Mühl had stopped giving public performances, preferring to concentrate on “self-expression psychoanalysis and therapy through sexual activity and all other natural functions”. His theories on psychotherapy, he said, were “derived from those of Wilhelm Reich – and also of course from Sigmund Freud, our Viennese Urvater of psychoanalysis.”
Otto Mühl had founded two communes: one in Vienna, and one on a farm, Friedrichshof, in the Burgenland near the border with Hungary (which was then, and for another two decades, under an oppressive Communist regime obedient to the Kremlin). He named the country commune “The European Center of the Action-Analysis (AA) Organization of Conscious Life-Praxis”. Followers of his movement formed “branches” in Berlin, Hamburg, Kiel, Bremen, Oslo, Geneva, and Paris. At the start of his campaign Mühl visualized a “world commune organization, a global society made up of communes”, all of them following the pattern set at Friedrichshof, for the better health and happiness of mankind. In 1976, membership of his organization peaked at a little over 500.
Central to Mühl’s “praxis” was Selbstdarstellung, or “SD”, meaning self-expression, carried out in groups under a Self-Expression Leader whose aim was “to exorcise the small-family person” – der Kleinfamilienmensch – from the communard-patient. The process, Mühl maintained, was “Action Analytical Art”. His Selbstdarsteller had to become a performance artist. Before an audience of fellow communard-patients, he/she “wanders through childhood and corrects the damage that was done” to him/her. “The audience will be deeply moved when the patient recreates the scenes of his childhood damage, lets himself fall into a birth-experience and demonstrates the meaning of health as a new-born baby. From the re-enacted birth-experience – often accompanied by an enactment of ‘the killing of Mummy and Daddy’ – the final self emerges in the Selbstdarstellung, which is also called ‘dissolving the genital armoring’.” Beyond that, he’d explain, “lies not only cure but true liberation”; that is to say, an ability to experience “psychophysical orgasm” by which the patient/artist is liberated to enjoy “full sexual and social freedom”. The person has “found his/her identity in orgasm”.
What actually happened in the performance ending with a rebirth? What was Otto Mühl’s work as an artist-therapist? Simply sexual activity in public. “Free sexuality is an integral part of commune-society. The exclusive two-person relationship is a sickness of the small-family person” Mühl told me. (He also, in an unguarded moment, confided to me that he was “surprised to find that many of the male patient-artists developed impotence in the course of the treatment”.)
Although the achievement of personal liberation from authority was one of the chief aims of the therapy, the commune had strict rules. Both men and women, for instance, had to have their heads shorn of all hair and to dress in uniform trousers with a flap in front “to facilitate work” – namely, copulation-masturbation-therapy. The enterprise was dedicated to the defiance and destruction of “authoritarianism”, and the method was regulated in a sternly authoritarian manner.
It was a life-style of enforced asceticism, combined with extreme libertinism. All bodily functions were on display; the bathrooms and toilets had no doors. No member was allowed privacy, or money, or any personal property. “The commune rejects commercial and profit thinking.” On joining, a member made over all his property and wealth to the organization, including real estate and income from any source, even student grants. Members were discouraged from making contact with their “small family” (more commonly called, in English, the “nuclear family”) or anyone in the outside world, because “society predetermines their emotional misery, as if the world were ruled by an evil spirit”.
The communal life itself, according to Mühl, was “an art form”. So was every performance of “direct art actions”, which consisted of persons – often, if not always, drugged – performing sexual activities before the rest of the assembled group, “with objects, animals, excreta” and fellow communards of either sex and every imaginable erotic desire. Photographs of the actions were taken, collected, edited, and published in professionally printed and bound volumes.
Children were admitted to the Mühl communes with their mothers. Some were born in them. “Children”, Mühl said, “grow up in the commune without sexual repression, so they will be healthy and socially well adjusted. The sexual activity of the parent is not concealed because nobody is made to feel that it’s forbidden.”
But adjusted to what society?
And what did the Austrian establishment have to say about all this? Did its post-war tolerance of free expression, its awe of art, its respect for psychoanalysis, extend to permitting drugged orgies?
Did the civil authorities ever see behind the walls of a Mühl commune? I asked. And was taken to see the schoolroom. It was light and airy. The national flag and a photograph of the president of Austria hung on the wall as in all schoolrooms throughout the republic. There were desks in straight rows, conventional textbooks and carefully marked exercise books. The official inspectors, I was told, came often, to make sure that the schooling conformed to state requirements, and up to that time no objections had been made to the circumstances in which the children were being raised and educated, and not a single child had been taken away.
But did the inspectors ever watch a “Direct Art Action”, one of the therapeutic performances that the children watched every day – and took part in? That question, and my next question about the age at which they started participating, went unanswered.
Originally, Mühl told me, the idea had been that the farm would supply all the food needed by the two Austrian communes. Ideally, the Organization of Conscious Life-Praxis would be self-sufficient. But the communards’ own efforts at farming turned out to be disappointingly unproductive. So they had handed over the cultivation of the land to a neighbor who gave them a small percentage of what he grew on it. The rest of their food they had delivered by retail suppliers. Ideally, they were vegetarians, but most of them did eat “some poultry and fish”. No factory-processed foods were allowed. And food deprivation was one of the forms of punishment for disobeying the rules or “not consenting to sexual demands”. Copulate or starve.
The anti-consumerist commune philosophy was also applied to cars. Mühl did not approve of private cars. “Buses for people and trucks for freight, ” he said, “should satisfy the need for transport.” In any case, the communards were not permitted to go anywhere without a very good reason (and , in practice though not in theory, without Mühl’s permission). The commune members seldom left the farm. “Coffee-houses, restaurants, hotels, the whole catering industry that satisfies the need for a social life of the small-family-man, are redundant to the people of the commune.”
There were, however, forty cars “belonging to the commune” on the day I was there. They were not used much, I gathered, except by Mühl and come of his close associates. And there were other cars belonging to day or weekend visitors. For not everyone who sought Mühl’s help to express and liberate himself had to become a member of the commune. Guest courses in Selbstdarstellung were provided, for which fees were paid in cash or labor. Those who could not pay cash, “would do some cleaning jobs”. But, Mühl assured me, “it’s well worth it to them because they’re allowed to join in the therapy and communicate socially and genitally with the group”.
Mühl was against mass-production and consumer choice. The farm commune was, he said, a model of how “real” human needs should be satisfied: a few textiles from which “the simplest clothing, mainly work-clothes, were made on the farm” [by whom he did not say]. A few practical types of shoes were supplied: ‘No fashion, just comfort and sturdiness”. Very few electrical gadgets were allowed because the commune “could do without canned music, television and radio”. “Commercial movies” (feature films) were “unthinkable in the commune” – being the ”pathetic substitutes for the fulfillment of emotional and erotic desires of the small-family-man”. In other words, the only joy should come from sex and bodily functions in surroundings kept puritanically bleak.
Except for the volumes of photographs of the commune activities, the only books allowed were “non-fiction”. Novels, magazines, and “written theatre and music” were not acceptable. The only newspapers were their own newssheets, which were “for conveying information and not for entertainment”.
One of Mühl’s books of photos of the Art Action Self-Expression Therapy was titled Mama and Papa. Conventional citizens would class it as extreme pornography – even if allowances were made for the relaxed standards of the post-1968 permissive age. (An age in which the young were permitted more than any generation before them, but complained that they were not permitted enough.) It shows scantily dressed or naked men, women, teenage boys and girls, and young children. The text confirmed that some of the patients/artists were performing “with the equipment of surgeries and gynecological clinics”. But Mühl denied that it was pornography. He said he despised pornography as being a resource of the small-family-man, driven to it by “sexual poverty”, his “need” being “exploited by the entertainment, amusement and recreation industries”.
In Mama and Papa Mühl wrote (despising capital letters): “i’m for lewdness, for the demythologizing of sexuality. for intercourse not as a state-preserving sacrament, but as a mere physical function. i’m against the philistine porno-film, against the pornography of the business-man, of the fruit-dealer and confectioner. when i make a film [of sexual activity], i do not do it for my own enjoyment, but to provoke scandals. I don’t make them for my own pleasure, but for the audience, the masses stuck in mental stagnation and conformism, perverted by tradition and conformity.”
The practice of any conventional form of art was discouraged (though Mühl himself painted in a private studio standing apart from the main buildings of the commune). “It is enough that the commune life is itself an art-form,” he said.
And so, in his theory, was death: “killing people is an element of art to come.”
“to make art – you do not need a piano – detergent and jam and urine will do – art may slip into every material and out of every hole – everybody can do art if he can find the pepper – boycott the pigs controlling the mass media – do not buy newspapers or tv-sets or cinema tickets – blast the opera houses – from now on all there is will be presented directly, coitus, torture, medical operations, destruction of people and animals and other objects is the only theater worth seeing – the rest is nonsense! – the inner life will be reduced to bodily acts – religious and political pigs can only be stopped by brutal use of all means – pornography [contrary to other statements] is a suitable means for curing society of genital-panic – the elements of art to me are eating, drinking, shitting and pissing, fucking and killing people. – these are the hot irons of our times – murder as art.”
So “Direct Art” – combining psychotherapy, “action therapy”, revolutionary politics, performance art, assault on conventional values, and deliberate scandal-making – was prescribed as the cure for all the ills of humankind, for all that made modern life a hell on earth in the prosperous late twentieth-century western world. Until the ordinary man was transformed by Mühl’s Direct Art therapy, the ordinary man was a mere “Wichtel”, a manikin.
In plain fact, life at Friedrichshof was one long orgy – under the whip of Otto Mühl the ringmaster, who grew rich as he indulged his lust and his prurience.
And it was much the same in the Vienna commune, where Mühl’s stern presence was only intermittent. But there painting was still allowed, and even encouraged as an additional therapy if it was done as a group activity. One day the communards decided to paint a mural on a large unbroken stretch of interior wall. It would depict Heaven and Hell. Hell would be the here and now of Western civilization. Heaven would be the paradise that would soon come to cover this earth after the Revolution, which was being hastened on its way by the artists/patients/communards of the Action-Analysis (AA) Organization of Conscious Life-Praxis “breaking through sexual barriers”.
They halved the space to be painted with a vertical line. They all thought it good to start with Hell. After many hours of therapeutic labor during which nothing worthy of their talents appeared on the wall, they admitted they were unable to work together on the project, and no one among them felt confident enough to proceed alone. On no account would they consider abandoning the project, yet they seemed to have come up against an insurmountable difficulty – until it was proposed by one of them that they commission a professional artist to execute the work to their specifications. At first the idea was dismissed by most of them, with scorn for the sullying of art with commerce; but after a while they all came round to conceding that it wasn’t too bad an idea. Would they dare put it to the chief therapist? He – Mühl – would have to release the necessary funds. Somehow they got his consent.
They found an artist who was willing to accept the commission. An American. Over a few weeks he produced a mural of Hell in accordance with their instructions. Everything they hated about their world was there: authoritarian parent and teacher figures, police arresting protestors, American soldiers bayoneting Vietnamese peasants, inhibited and furtive sexual couplings, shops, banks, cars, movie theaters, St. Stephen’s Cathedral … and a row of little zeppelins, each labeled AA (for Action Analysis) in which the communards themselves, liberated through sexual Selbstdarstellung, would escape to Heaven.
When Hell was finished, they told the artist to take a break while they thought about what Heaven should look like, what its contents ideally were. For days they talked about it among themselves. The days stretched into weeks. The muralist pocketed his fee and went home to America. Heaven remained an empty blank.
In time the Austrian police did catch on to what was happening in Mühl’s communes. Perhaps they paid an unannounced visit to Friedrichshof, and their report of what they came upon reached some philistine or skeptic who was deaf to the superior claims of art or psychoanalysis; for in 1999, Otto Mühl was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment for supplying illegal drugs to minors, and sexually abusing them.
Jillian Becker September 27, 2015
1. Of their art they have said: It is to entertain /it is not to entertain. It carries a moral message by being deliberately immoral/ it does not carry a moral message/ it is entirely amoral. It needs an audience/ it does not need an audience/ the audience deserves to be punished. I suffer for them/ I do no suffer even when I cut or beat or mutilate myself because I keep a distance from my suffering/ I suffer from and for the pains of mankind which I represent in art. It is religion/ it is not religion. It is ritual/ it is not ritual. It is not art but reality/ it is not reality but art/ it is reality mediated by art/ it is direct art because it is what is really happening although it is deliberately staged. It is political/ it is not political. It is intentionally obscene/ it is not obscene at all. Its virtue is that it is ephemeral/ it needs to be recorded for posterity.
2. Deep in the consciousness of all these rebels lies Christian example. I quote from a Wikipedia entry on Junípero Serra (1713-1784), a Franciscan missionary in Spanish California (canonized by Pope Francis on his visit to the United States in 2015), who used this method to stir the consciences of others: “In one of his sermons in Mexico City, while exhorting his listeners to repent their sins, Serra took out his chain, bared his shoulders and started whipping himself. Many parishioners, roused by the spectacle, began sobbing. Finally, a man climbed to the pulpit, took the chain from Serra’s hand and began whipping himself, declaring: ‘I am the sinner who is ungrateful to God who ought to do penance for my many sins, and not the padre [Serra], who is a saint.’ The man kept whipping himself until he collapsed. After receiving the last sacraments, he later died from the ordeal. During other sermons on the theme of repentance, Serra would hoist a large stone in one hand and, while clutching a crucifix in the other, smash the stone against his chest. While preaching of hell and damnation, Serra would sear his flesh with a four-pronged candle flame.”
3. Though the arm-burning face-whipper insisted that “no masochism was intended”, his actions were of course sado-masochistic. Almost every artist in the Aktionismus movement was obsessed with pain, blood, torture, mutilation, violent death – in Hitler’s native land, less than thirty years after the Holocaust. Along with De Sade and Sigmund Freud, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895) was a patron spirits of Viennese Actionism. He was an Austrian whose name gave Europe its word for the perverse pleasure of seeking pain. He found exquisite joy in being whipped by women wearing furs.
4. One of Mühl’s most notorious Actions was titled “The Death of Sharon Tate”. His performers would enact the murders of the film actress and her friends by the Charles Manson gang, revelling especially in the killers’ act of plunging a dinner fork into her pregnant belly. Like leftists everywhere, they praised Manson because they thought he was an “anti-bourgeois, anti-sexist, anti-racist” rebel like themselves. Later, when they (along with the Left in general) found out that he kept women as his “slaves”, hated black people and hoped to start a race war against them, they dropped him from their pantheon – and “The Death of Sharon Tate” from their repertoire.
5. Fathers were not even identified, because to recognize paternity was to grant legitimacy to the “sick” convention of the “small-family”.
6. The children watched all the “therapeutic” sexual activities of the adults. Sons and daughters saw their mothers joining in the “work” of the commune. I did not find out at what age they began to participate. As for their growing up “healthy” because they would have no sexual repression, I have been told that the opposite is the case: children – even some of those who spent only a short time in an “AA” commune – have been diagnosed with severe mental disorders in later life. I can’t vouch for it, but I wouldn’t be in the least surprised. And what remedies could they seek? What Vienna offered them was what Vienna had already given them. Were the Freudians, Reichians, Jungians, Adlerians … all the professional progeny of the great Sigmund himself, confident they could cure the likely shame, and guilt, and post-rape stress, of AA Selbsdarstellung, and Aktionismus in general? If so, what could it be, that cure? Living through it all again in memory? Relating their nightmares? More drugs?
7. The day I visited Friedrichshof, someone’s granny was visiting too. She and I were both onlookers at a therapeutic session when there was discussion only. The topic was “How to deal with authorities”. It was a performance of a kind, in that it was laid on for me (and perhaps for the old lady) to see “what went on”. For her, it was just a visit to the farm where her granddaughter came for psychotherapy. She sat in the background calmly knitting. I doubt she had any notion of what they did when she – and I – were not there. I was soon to find out what they did from Mühl himself. I wonder if she ever knew.
8. I did not see the mural itself; only a black-and-white photograph of part if it; and the details of the image have become blurred in my recollection with time. To refresh my memory, I had it described to me by a pair of ex-communards, so while my account of it is approximate only, I believe the impression I give of it is fair.
The Orgiasts (Two)
Hermann Nitsch (1938 – ): Hell’s bells and buckets of blood
Hermann Nitsch, one of the founders of the Action Art movement in Austria, publicly performed rituals with animal carcasses and their viscera, and naked human bodies deluged with blood, to the accompaniment of cacophonous music.
He also performed his rituals at private “festivals “ in the courtyard of his home, a baroque castle standing secluded near the Austrian-Czech border. His wife, a Jungian psychoanalyst, had bought it to provide the perfect venue for Hermann’s “Orgy Mystery Theater”. There, Nitsch intended his performances to rouse audiences to such excitement that an orgy would spontaneously erupt.
I witnessed a performance in an art gallery (where I was introduced to Nitsch as “the international press”, having credentials from a British newspaper), and was invited to the castle a few days later.
In preparation for his Action, the flayed and eviscerated carcasses of sheep, goats, oxen and pigs were hung by the stumps of their hind legs from rails and hooks, each against a backdrop of a stretched white sheet, their heads dangling, open-jawed, a few feet from the ground. (In a theater or gallery there would be up to three; but at the castle, ten or more.) Their viscera were heaped near their heads on a plastic sheet covering the ground.
The action began with Nitsch’s assistants bearing in a naked, blindfolded youth (in public these participants were more often boys, but sometimes girls took part too), lying supine on a white stretcher or a wooden cross, and setting him down with his face directly beneath the gaping mouth of a skinned beast beside the viscera.
Recorded music – mostly organ and brass – started plangent and reverberating but not loud. Then Nitsch entered, and strode purposefully towards the carcass in black rubber boots: a thick-set man of medium height with tonsured black hair, dressed all in black but for yellow rubber gloves. At the same time his assistants brought plastic buckets, blue, yellow, black and red, and set them down near the naked body. Nitsch took up a bucket and ladled red wine into the open rear of the dead beast so that it trickled down through its mouth on to the face below. The trickle was followed by a splash, and another, and another, until Nitsch flung the ladle aside and – the music growing louder – sent all that was left gushing through the carcass. He seized another bucket, and poured all it contained through the carcass on to the body. The next bucket that he emptied in the same way was full of blood. Bucket after bucket was brought and emptied, faster and faster. A bucket of wine alternated with a bucket of blood. The downpour became a deluge, now the shining wine, now the viscous blood. The music grew very loud. Whistles and rattles, pipes and drums were distributed to members of the audience so they could swell the noise. Many of the watchers began to stamp, clap, shout as the spirit moved them. Nitsch heaved up the buckets in a kind of frenzy, and flung their contents randomly at the carcass, the backdrop sheet, and the boy below. Bits of raw flesh were now in the blood. The music rose to a deafening pitch, and could be felt rumbling underfoot. The naked body was so drenched that not an inch of white flesh showed through the red. A slippery pool formed on the ground, with the bits of flesh floating in the mess, and as Nitsch continued to swing the buckets, gouts and gobs spattered the spectators. Some of them slithered in the pool of blood and wine. At last Nitsch gathered the slimy viscera in his arms, and reaching up, struggled to stuff them into the stiff cadaver, poking, punching, wrestling with them as they bulged out of his grasp. Some long pieces of intestines tore away and fell over his face while he struggled on blindly. He slipped and fell, letting go the guts to flop where they may. The recorded music stopped abruptly. The whistles and rattles, pipes and drums, clapping and stamping subsided. When Nitsch rose and gestured to his assistants, the blood-dyed, gore-smeared body was taken up and borne away. In the sudden silence, the spectators contemplated for a moment the bloodstained white sheet and the dripping carcass, and then another naked white blindfolded youth was carried in and set down beneath the next beast, the music started again, and the ritual was repeated.
Originally Nitsch slaughtered the animals himself as part of his Action, but the Authorities had objected that his method was cruel. They permitted him to carry on with his performances, but only if he bought dead beasts from licensed wholesale butchers. At the castle, the rites would go on for hours, sometimes through the greater part of a day or night. The spectator-participants would be intoxicated with drugs and wine – some of it from the castle’s own vineyard. (Nitsch told me that he himself preferred wine to the drugs his acolytes brought to the castle – the cannabis, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and hallucinogens – because he found that drugs “discouraged eroticism”.) They would be further entranced by the corybantic music. Their nostrils would be filled with the raw fetor of blood and guts, augmented by both incense and its counter-smell of animal excreta sprayed from cans. They were expected to be participants in the rite “like any congregation at a religious ceremony”, Nitsch explained to me. “But participating more intimately than co-worshipers. More even than communicants. Like the members of ecstatic cults, they should achieve a kind of trance – which is a proof of therapeutic response.” The ceremonies would be brought to a climax with “copulation, all kinds of sex, including sado-masochistic interactions”. (But, he assured me, my presence at the castle as “the international press” precluded an orgy.)
His performances, he said, were “catharsis-therapy, comparable to psychoanalysis”. He gave me a book, a very thick volume, in which he describes dozens of his actual and imaginary Actions. An example: “Hundreds of Popes, crucified, having a poem read to them while the Emperor Nero, 40 castrated boys, and 3,200 pigs help make up the orchestration.”
And this also is in the book: “Classical psychoanalysis is replaced by sensations which disinhibit and intoxicate: actions with raw meat, damp body-heated guts, bloody excreta, blood warm from slaughter, tepid water, the pleasure of splashing, squirting, pouring, sullying is heightened to intense joy by tearing raw flesh, stamping into guts. The shredded abreactions-god drops into the association-field. The dramatic burrows its way into the excitement of cruelty. Chaos, orgiastic drunkenness, breaks upon us. The intensity of the experience allows a mysticism of aggression and cruelty to develop.”
“The ultimate purpose of the artist,” Nitsch said, “is self-liberation. He needs to break through to the essential, strongly felt experience of existence. Calls to bliss are mixed with the pain of overcoming. That is why it is a form of therapy.”
In many chambers of his castle, crosses were displayed, upside-down or draped in used menstrual bandages. There were monstrances and censers. Blood-stained priestly vestments were hung in rows along a wall. In a long shed, rows of meathooks dangled from overhead rails. And there was a once-consecrated chapel, painted white and gold, with wooden pews carved and polished, and an altar. On the ceiling were frescoes of chubby cherubs with rosy flesh among diaphanous white veils and whipped-cream clouds, holding Christian symbols. Blasphemous rites, Nitsch said, were celebrated there.
Yet Nitsch vigorously denied that Catholicism had anything worth mentioning to do with his work for self-liberation. “My art is Dionysian”, he said. “There is both creation and destruction in our existence. All flows together in the River of Life. So in one festival I must represent all aspects of existence. My work contains cruelty but the opposite of cruelty too. People come here to eat, drink, wander in my garden, my orchard, my vineyards, and enjoy it all. That is important. But the shock of the performances is important. Cathartic, like the old Greek tragedies.”
Nitsch himself seemed a generous and even gentle person, not cruel. He denied that to stage performances with carcasses, guts, and blood-drenched people, was to feed an appetite for the sight of suffering. “On the contrary,” he said, “it channels such desires into art actions which might otherwise require sadistic expression in real life. Here the Opfers [the ‘victims” or “sacrificies” – the German word has both meanings) are all volunteers and none of them is ever hurt.” Not even psychologically? None had said so. “They understood that this too was part of the Heraclitean river of Life containing all things good and evil.”
Jillian Becker October 11, 2015
1. I was commissioned by the Sunday Times Magazine to write about a festival of Performance Art held in Vienna from the 21st to the 30th April, 1978. A Magnum photographer was sent with me. My story was duly printed, with photographs. The cover of the magazine displayed one of the pictures of a Nitsch ritual. Two days before it was to be distributed with the newspaper, the editor became anxious about the pictures. He submitted the whole issue to the editor-in-chief, who apparently said: “You cannot put a picture of all that blood on the Sunday morning breakfast tables of the nation.” So the whole thing was spiked.
2. Nitsch’s performances were indeed modeled on the rituals of the cult of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine. In those rituals, bulls and goats were sacrificed, both beasts being held sacred to him. Celebrants became intensely inebriated and danced wildly to the loud music of pipes, drums and cymbals, until the “god entered into them”, a mystic condition for which the Greek word was Enthusiasm. With the god inside them they were freed from all restrictions of law and reason and, transcending even the supposed limits set by nature, would tear an animal or human being apart with their bare hands and feast on the raw flesh. Bands of drunken men and woman (but in The Bacchae by Euripides, only bands of women called the Maenads), ran and danced, naked or partially clad in the skins of fawns, and smeared with the blood of the animal or human prey, night-long, in wild places, leaping over earth and grass and stone, and indulging every erotic desire. The name for this sacrament was an “orgion” – an orgy. See the Appendix for a description of the cult, and its reformed version in the cult of Orpheus; and how the Orphic Mysteries contributed to the dogma and rites of both Christianity and Christian Gnosticism.
3. The (3rd century?) Greek biographer, Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, summarizes the philosophy of Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) thus: “All things come into being by conflict of opposites, and the sum of things flows like a stream.” And: “Of the opposites, that which tends to birth or creation is called war and strife, and that which tends to destruction by fire is called concord and peace.” An echo of these ideas is sounded in the “dialectical idealism” of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), one of the most culpable philosophers in the flowing stream of European – especially German – thought, right up to the thinkers of the New Left.
America the Last Best Hope?
A multitude of enlightened Europeans cultivated reason, and built a culture that was innovative, prosperous, powerful, and humane. Other Europeans wanted to destroy all that, and succeeded. Rebels from and against the prosperous educated classes – philosophers and poets, artists and politicians – taught generations to intoxicate themselves with fantasies of destruction, spoliation, and atrocity that could, and at times did, inspire real events of vast horror, suffering, and death. From each of them Europe seemed to recover for a while. But at the time of this writing, the rebels have triumphed. The dark vision prevails. Europe is rotten. Multitudes of Europeans, seeing nothing in their culture worth preserving and no point in its survival, reluctant even to beget children, are yielding to immigrant hordes of aliens from the Third World who lust for conquest and are governed by laws devised in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula in the Dark Ages.
So must the greatness of Europe be altogether lost? Surely not! Surely in the states of America, united on Enlightenment principles of liberty, reason, tolerance, and participatory government, European civilization will be preserved and enhanced? There where every citizen is free to pursue his own happiness, to hold property securely, to have his say in a government of limited powers, the United States will continue to prosper and advance? America, it is said, is a forward-looking “can do” society – innovative, prosperous, powerful and humane. “The last best hope of earth.”
And for a while yet it may continue to be so. But the seed of the evil flowers of the culture – Marxism, political sadism, and most potently poisonous of all, the political philosophies of the New Left – have found as fertile soil in America as in Europe.
The mainly bourgeois “anti-bourgeois” terrorist groups that rose with the “sixty-eight” protest movement in America, did evil just as intentionally as their European counterparts. And went in for the same posturing and frivolity. The US was at war in Vietnam, and the anti-draft demonstrations on university campuses gave a serious aspect to the American rebellion, but the war and the draft were pretexts rather reasons for it, as two leaders of the young radicals, Peter Collier and David Horowitz, confessed years later in their book – the best I have found on the subject – Destructive Generation. “The war in Vietnam was a gift of chance that allowed radical leaders to convince others of a need for a social apocalypse and of the necessity for their destructive strategies.” 
These authors, long since cured of the romantic radicalism of their youth, look back and “wince” at the “homemade hankerings for Armageddon”. The Sixties, they write, was a time of “monumental idealism”, when “dewy-eyed young people in the throes of a moral passion … sought only to remake the world”. They would do this by destroying “the evil empire of ‘Amerika’” and freeing “the captive peoples of the world”. It was a time, they say, “when innocence quickly became cynical “ and “when a gang of ghetto thugs like the Black Panthers might be anointed as political visionaries”, and “Merry Pranksters of all stripes could credibly set up shop as social evangelists spreading a chemical [ie drug] gospel”. 
The Black Panthers, the “Merry Pranksters”, and many of the “dewy-eyed” rebels intended to do what they fully recognized as evil in pursuit of their ideals. For instance, a man known as J. J. – a member of the white middle-class group that became the terrorist organization called Weatherman and later Weather Underground – was notable for “his [drug augmented] high energy, his nonstop, almost demonic chatter, his ability to carry listeners with him by the sheer force of his words rather than their depth”. And J. J.’s idea “was not to create a perfect state operating by the clockwork principles of Marxist law but to promote a chaos that would cripple America and ultimately cast it into a receivership that would be administered by the morally superior Third World. Unafraid to pursue his theme to its logical end, J. J. would add that people shouldn’t expect the revolution to achieve a Kingdom of Freedom ; more likely, it would produce a Dark Ages.”  J. J. “[laid] out the ‘White Devil’ theory of world history. ‘We’re against everything that’s “good and decent” in honky America. … We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmares!’”
Like the Europeans, they intended some of their actions to be satirical ‘’spectacles”, or “theater”. One group “disrupted a speech by [sometime secretary of state] Dean Acheson by showing up in Vietcong dress and snapping off rounds from concealed squirt guns”. And “the Action Faction [practiced] disruption and dirty tricks … [such as] terminating a lengthy debate over military recruiting at Columbia [University] by walking up to the U.S. Army colonel presenting the government’s case, smooshing a pie in his face, and running away. “
And as in West Germany, France and Italy, the terrorist bombers of America demanded their rights under the law that they broke, mocked, and abominated. “Despite their incessant complaints of police brutality, Sixties radicals lived for the most part in a no-fault system, demanding their constitutional rights at the same time as they were abusing and denouncing the Constitution. They knew they had the option, which many of them ultimately used, of diving back into the System [and their comfy bourgeois lives] when they tired of being extrinsic. (For this reason New Leftism, although discredited in politics, continues to thrive in the ‘academic work’ of former radicals who returned for postgraduate degrees to the universities they had earlier tried to destroy.) It was an example of the cynicism that marked the decade – counting on the fact that America was exactly the sort of flexible and forgiving society they were condemning it for failing to be.”
The evil was done not only to shock their bourgeois parents, as their drugs, promiscuous sex, and bombs were meant to do and did, but for a very much higher good, of course. The very much higher good: “social justice”; “ending oppression” in the forms of “ racism”, “sexism”, “homophobia”, “classism”, “imperialism”, “colonialism”; all of which required the destruction of “the capitalist system”.
Most of them did not, however, describe themselves as Communists. Without reading the works of Marx, or of Marxists, Trotskyites, or New Left political philosophers, they all – in harmony with their European counterparts – looked forward to a political apocalypse; a revolution that they considered themselves to be hastening, that would change everything and replace the earthly Hell of oppression and social injustice with a Heaven of … something yet to be defined.
Collier and Horowitz write of “the decade’s transcendental conviction that there was something apocalyptic lurking behind the veil of the ordinary, and that just a little more pressure was needed to pierce the last remaining membrane – of civility, bourgeois consciousness, corporate liberalism, sexual uptightness, or whatever else prevented us all from breaking through to the other side”. And: “Again it was that hunger to reach the apocalypse just beyond, the essential act that would make them real revolutionaries.” And “the Weatherpeople, like all parvenus, spent considerable time working on a genealogy that would connect them with noble [sic] forbears: Russian narodniki and European anarchists, Cuban fidelistas and Vietnamese guerrillas.” 
American rebels planned to firebomb a department store; the Europeans did it. Both attacked judges in their homes – in America, a judge who had presided over a trial of Black Panther terrorists. The emotion, the pretexts, the plans, the actions, the slogans were much the same on either side of the Atlantic.
The gurus of the New Left themselves crossed the water. Marcuse, Foucault, Genet, among others, came and addressed their fans in American universities. Jean Genet, Sartre’s “St. Genet”, came to Stanford University. The Black Panthers were invited to meet him. “The Panthers arrived early … in their uniforms of black leather jackets and sunglasses, looking like some lost Nazi legion whose skin color had changed … The small Frenchman with bad teeth and shabby clothes … praised the Panther’s authenticity (a characteristic he said he also admired in the Marquis de Sade, whom he called ‘the greatest revolutionary of all, greater even than Marx’).“  If to Genet, “authenticity” was a synonym for menace, violence, cruelty, there was this difference in the particular case of the Black Panthers: they were dedicated to menace, violence, and cruelty, but they didn’t give a toss for “authenticity”.
A work of fiction that impressively conveys the real evil of the 60s rebels is American Pastoral by Philip Roth. A percipient discussion of it and the issues it raised was published in Commentary magazine by Carol Iannone. I summarize the plot and quote her most illuminating comments relevant to my theme:
An only child – cheerful, affectionate, charming as a little girl – of a business man who in his youth had been an athlete and a Marine, and his beauty queen wife, grows up to be “overtaken by the 60s”, sets a bomb in a post office and kills a local doctor. She goes underground and kills three more people in another bombing.
“In his manly way” (Carol Iannone writes) the father “ tries to see where his own responsibility lies for what has happened to his much loved daughter … only to be forced again and again to confront the blazing chaotic irrationality of it all. What he cannot understand … is her hatred of America. ‘How could she “hate” this country when she had no conception of this country? How could a child of his be so blind as to revile the “rotten system” that had given her own family every opportunity to succeed? To revile her “capitalist” parents as though their wealth were the product of anything other than the unstinting industry of three generations …’”
“The 60s, in brief, are not just about the bomber young and their war with ‘Amerika’; in the 60s, ‘the indigenous American berserk’, have entered the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, touching everything and everyone with their ‘mockery of human integrity, every ethical obligation destroyed’.”
It entered the academies, and through them the mind of the nation, until the counter-culture has become The Culture. Collier and Horowitz write: “[N]owhere is the entrenchment of the Sixties mentality more complete or more destructive than in the university. That the Left should now dominate the academy involves a savage irony, of course. It was only after failing in their intent to burn down the university in the Sixties that radicals decided to get on the tenure track in the Seventies. Unimpeded in their long march through these institutions by fair-minded centrists of the sort they themselves now refuse to hire, these Leftists have brought a postmodern Dark Age to higher education – “deconstructing” objective truths to pave the way for chic academic nihilism: creating a curriculum of contempt for American history and culture; and transforming many classrooms into chambers of inquisition and indoctrination.”
As did the Gnostics of old, the New Left rebels reversed conventional values. And so many Americans have accepted the reversal that what convention once held to be immoral and criminal, is now widely, even predominantly believed to be good and normal.
“How does the Left maintain its belief against the crushing weight of its failures in the past?” Collier and Horowitz ask; and they reply: “By recycling its innocence, which allows it to be born again in its utopian faith. The utopianism of the Left is a secular religion (as the vogue of ‘liberation theology’ attests), its promise an earthly kingdom of heaven.” And they note: ”[T]he Right seeks to conserve (and the Left to undermine) workaday democracy; the left seeks to defend (and the Right to defeat) the destructive fantasy of heaven on earth. This is why American Leftists in their ‘innocence’ embrace political evil in a way that American conservatives in their realism do not.”
The demonic achievements of the rebels were crowned by the election, in 2008, to the presidency of the United States of one of their own: Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a 60s counter-culturist mother and an African father who was both a Communist and a Muslim; and was associated eventually in the son’s mind with “colonial and imperial oppression” of his ancestral land, Kenya, when it was under British rule.
President Obama acceded to the White House with all his ideological baggage intact: the credo of the New Left plus admiration of Islam. And this at a time when Islam was becoming the main enemy of the Western world, practicing terrorism on a large scale, waging open warfare in the Middle East, and launching a migrant invasion of Europe that European governments allowed, encouraged, and all too willingly submitted to. Obama’s policies facilitated the European calamity, and he took steps to help Islamic Iran, which constantly reiterates its intention to destroy America and conquer the non-Muslim world, to become a nuclear power. He has lowered America in the eyes of the world. He and his minions treat the Constitution with contempt.
In the universities the counter-culture has become the orthodoxy. A majority of instructors indoctrinate students rather than educate them, teaching them what to think rather than how to think. Some Leftist representatives in Congress have passed a resolution to curb free speech. And the spirit of free enterprise, which made America rich and mighty, has been all but crushed by tyrannical regulation. Wealth has been taken from those who have earned it and given to those who have not. In short, the New Left has triumphed – though without attaining its heaven on earth.
Can the harm it has done be undone? At present the dark stream of unreason flows strongly. The resistance to it should be the vigorous self-interest inherent in human nature, the desire in most of us to succeed; and the lure of science, technology, all they give us for the betterment of our lives. Only as long as free personal endeavor and innovation continue to characterize America, will there be hope – if not the last, certainly the best – for our splendid civilization to survive in this, our only world.
Jillian Becker January 3, 2016
1. President Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862, in a message to Congress.
2. Destructive Generation by Peter Collier and David Horowitz. For only two of the chapters in the book is the individual author’s name given, one by each of them, so quotations are here ascribed to their dual authorship.
3. Collier and Horowitz pp.143-144.
4. Collier and Horowitz p.18.
5. Collier and Horowitz p.76-77. This description of J. J. is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s portrait of Pyotr Stepanovitch Verhovensky in The Possessed (or The Devils), from which, incidentally, the epigraph of Destructive Generation is taken. I quote from the Constance Garnett translation: “He talked quickly, hurriedly, but at the same time with assurance, and was never at a loss for a word. In spite of his hurried manner his ideas were in perfect order, distinct and definite – and this was particularly striking. His articulation was wonderfully clear. His words pattered out like smooth, big grains, always well chosen, and at your service. At first this attracted one, but afterwards it became repulsive, just because of this over-distinct articulation, this string of ever-ready words. One somehow began to imagine that he must have a tongue of special shape, somehow exceptionally long and thin, extremely red with a very sharp everlastingly active little tip.”
6. Collier and Horowitz p.94.
7. Collier and Horowitz pp.69-70.
8. Collier and Horowitz p.144.
9. Collier and Horowitz. “They did not read the works of Marx, or of Marxists, Trotskyites, or New Left political philosophers.” p. 107. And: “[T]he New Left, to put it charitably, was not a thinking movement. It was vaunt and braggadocio. Despite all the ‘struggle sessions’, the intellectual nattering, and endless talk, the New Left always had an allergic reaction to ideas, and this is what has made it incapable, retrospectively, of grand disillusion.” p.295.
10. Collier and Horowitz pp.17-18.
11. Collier and Horowitz p.69.
12. Collier and Horowitz p.97.
13. Collier and Horowitz p.16.
14. An American Tragedy by Carol Iannone, Commentary Vol. 104 No. 2, August 1997.
15. Collier and Horowitz p.7.
16. Collier and Horowitz p.265.
17. Professor Eric Voegelin, in his book The New Science of Politics (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987), discusses the Gnosticism that characterizes our age in a chapter titled Gnosticism – The Nature of Modernity. He discusses the gnosis of the Left; its true believers’ apodictic certainty that they view as “a special gift of a spiritual and cognitive elite”. He writes that the Gnostic belief in a better world beyond this one is shared by Marxists: that the only difference between the two is that the older belief (not confined to the Gnostic cults) was that the better world would dawn after an Apocalypse as a new spiritual existence in a heavenly afterlife, whereas the Marxists hold that it will come after a Revolution on this earth. He writes from a Christian viewpoint, and considers the Marxist view, which he calls “immanentizing the Eschaton”, to be wrong. The “immanentizers” would hasten history towards the Revolution that will change everything and make the earthly hell of “social injustice” transform into an earthly paradise yet to be described. Professor Voegelin rightly sees this vision to be erroneous – but only because he has faith in a different eschatology. The aspect of Gnosticism which he does not deal with is the reversal of values. He does not observe that because the modern Gnostics, like the old, want to spite this hateful world (or status quo), they defy it by actively pursuing what they themselves call evil.
Dionysos and Orpheus
The worship of the Greek god Dionysos was a primitive mystery religion. He was the god of wine. He had many names, one of them Bacchus – the name the Romans used for him. Because the celebrants at Dionysian festivals performed passionate choral “dithyrambic” hymns out of which Greek drama developed, he became also the god of drama, music, and poetry.
“Dionysos” means twice born. In a Thracian and Theban myth, he is first born when Zeus begets him upon a mortal maiden named Semele. In a Cretan myth, Zeus, in the form of a snake, impregnates his own daughter Persephone – born to him by Demeter, the goddess of agriculture – and Persephone begets Dionysus-Zagreus, who has the horns of a bull. In both, he is abducted soon after his birth by the Titans, the sons of Earth. (In the Semele myth, they are prompted to do so by Hera, Zeus’s consort, the Queen of Heaven, because she is jealous of Semele.) They tear the babe limb from limb, and eat him. But the goddess Athene retrieves his heart in the nick of time and brings it to Zeus, who swallows it whole. Then Dionysos is born again from his father’s thigh. Zeus punished the Titans by burning them up in a flash of lightning. From their ashes, humankind arose.
In the rituals of the worship of Dionysos, bulls and goats were sacrificed, both beasts being held sacred to him. Celebrants became intensely inebriated and danced wildly to the loud music of pipes, drums and cymbals, until the “god entered into them”, a mystic condition for which the Greek word was Enthusiasm. With the god inside them, they were freed from all restrictions of law and reason and, transcending even the supposed limits set by nature, would tear an animal or human being apart with their bare hands and feast on the raw flesh. Bands of drunken men and woman (but in The Bacchae by Euripides, only bands of women called the Maenads), ran and danced, naked or partially clad in the skins of fawns, and smeared with the blood of the animal or human prey, night-long, in wild places, leaping over earth and grass and stone, and indulging every erotic desire.
The story clearly signals that the Dionysian Mysteries involved human sacrifice.
To be initiated into the Mysteries, a man would perform a “re-enactment” of the god’s birth, death and re-birth in order to “become one with the god”. The rite included a simulated Descent into the Underworld (the Katabasis) – the initiate probably going into deep dark caves – to seek the God; or perhaps to find Persephone who spent six months of the year down there; and symbolically bring him or her back up from Hades to the light. The initiate would then be let into the secret of the Liknon, or Arc – that it contained a goat’s penis, or (most likely when the ceremony was performed in temples rather than in the wild), a wooden phallus. He would then be invested with an oak or ash wand, the Thyrsus, and bear it in procession to a celebration with his fellow initiates, all of them communing with the god by imbibing lavish quantities of his good wine.
A woman too could be inducted into the religion. She would be called “an Ariadne”. Adorned as a bride of Dionysos, she would first undergo ceremonial flagellation, and be hanged on a tree, possibly to the point of near asphyxiation. She would then “descend into the Underworld to meet the god”, and on her return the Liknon would be opened, and she would publicly consummate her union with Dionysos by using the sacred phallus as his representative. She would then join the god’s love-fest with the drinking of wine.
The Dionysos cult was already somewhat tamed by the time – no one knows when, but certainly not later than the early 6th century BCE – when Orpheus came along and reformed it. He may have been a living man, a priest of Thrace (modern European Turkey), or a Cretan. But then again, he could be entirely mythical. Man or myth, legends surround his name. He was the musician who (Shakespeare wrote in Henry VIII) “with his lute made trees/ And the mountain tops that freeze/ Bow themselves when he did sing”; and who, by his musical charms, gained passage into the underworld of the dead to fetch back his wife, Eurydice – a mission which tragically failed when he looked back at her before they regained the land of the living.
Whether he was man or myth, to him is attributed a development that did happen – the transformation of the savage cult of Dionysos into a moral religion. (By no means the first – both Zoroastrianism and Judaism preceded it – but the first among the Greeks.)
The Orphics taught that human beings had a double nature, of earth and of heaven, mundane and divine, as did Dionysos, child of the King of Heaven and a mortal woman. Thus man was mortal, but had an immortal soul. He could liberate his soul from his base earthly nature through moral practices, so that when he died, it would rise to its real home in heaven where it would live eternally. A good soul would rise immediately upon the death of the body. A bad soul would be punished by being confined in another body, again and again until it learnt to be good.
For men and women to purify their souls (the Orphic religion held that women were equal to men in the eyes of the gods), they had first to be ritually cleansed in the blood of beasts. After that ceremony, he or she wore only white garments and abstained from drinking wine or eating meat, except as a sacrament. Many pleasures of the flesh were renounced. Right living was commanded, and the continual observance of the Orphic religious rules. The ideal way of everyday life for the Orphic was ascetic. Only by following this path would they find spiritual redemption, and their souls, rescued from all earthly strife and pain, be united eternally with the divine.
Did the Orphics perform the sacrament of Enthusiasm as the Dionysian celebrants had done? That is to say, did they gather in crowds for the drinking of wine, for blood-sacrifice, and the devouring of freshly killed raw meat; did they run naked through the countryside and dance wildly and have violent sexual intercourse? Were willing “victims” flagellated, and hung on a tree until they were near death, then “reborn” in imitation of the god? In a word, did the Orphics indulge in a Dionysian “orgion” – an orgy? The word was the name of this sacrament. But it has come to mean a wild party of many intoxicated people abandoning themselves promiscuously to the pleasures of the flesh.
Or was the Orphic orgion less savage than the older Dionysian rite? One might expect so, but we do not know. Legend has it that their ideal was, yes, to become enthused and steadily augment the divine element in them as the Dionysians had done, only not with wine, but by striving for a profound understanding of esoteric Orphic teaching – which could hardly have been done in the course of one wild night. They drank wine only as a sacrament (as later the Christians did in the ceremony of the Eucharist).
One might suppose that the Orphics, with their morality and respect for all life, would balk at the sacrifice of human beings. But it’s not known if they did. And the legend of Orpheus’s death suggests that human sacrifice retained a place in their mythology if not also in their rites. For in the story Orpheus himself, the good priest, the beautiful enchanting musician, was torn to pieces and devoured by orthodox worshipers of Dionysos.
His innovations, however, survived him. The Orphic bloodwashing ritual was carried over into the Roman cult of Mithras, the majority religion of the Roman army. The initiate would stand naked under a grid, upon which a bull was slain, so that its blood poured over him. More significantly, Orphism introduced the idea of an immortal soul into Greek religion and philosophy. For the Greeks, that idea had its beginnings in the Enthusiasm of the Dionysian Mysteries. (In the Hebrew scriptures, the belief that the individual soul rises to God after the body dies may be far older. In the book of Ecclesiastes, attributed to King Solomon who died in 931 BCE, “the Preacher” writes: “The earth shall return to the earth as it was, and the spirit unto God who gave it.” And even older, by perhaps as much as five centuries, are the Zoroastrian tales of the individual soul’s adventures immediately after escaping from its dead body.)
Pythagoras (born 571 BCE) embraced Orphism, and his school of thought held that the individual soul, though it migrated from body to body, had knowledge of the god. Plato (5th into 4th century BCE) believed that the soul, or spirit, was immortal. Plotinus (204-270 CE), and his followers the Neoplatonists, believed that the soul was eternal and indestructible, not born with any particular person it may inhabit, and not ending with him either, only moving on forever into bodies new.
Christianity, which may have initially derived the idea of the individual soul or spirit either from Judaism or Orphic-influenced Greek philosophy (or possibly both), teaches several contradictory doctrines about the individual soul: that it bears the record of the person’s life, is responsible for what that person did, and will be judged by God according to its record; but also that regardless of what the soul made the body do in life, whatever good and whatever evil, it was predestined for heaven or hell before it was born in a body. And whether the saving or condemning to its eternal fate will occur immediately after the death of the body or at the end of time, when all souls will convene before the divine Judgement Seat, remains unsettled. Parts of Christian mysticism and some of its ritual could plausibly be traced to the Orphics (though for most of them other sources cannot be ruled out). Obvious examples are: the idea of the immortal soul; the infant god being the son of a divine father and a mortal woman; the infant god being hunted by men who would kill him; a dying and resurrecting god; the god’s descent into an underworld and his return from it; his performance of miracles (notably the turning of water into wine which was also told of Dionysos); the ideal of spiritual purity, to attain which morally clean living is commanded; the rite of baptism (though in water not blood); the sacrament of the Eucharist.
The religions most evidently descended from the Orphics were the Gnostic cults. Their theogonies and rituals – but not morality – were closely similar. All the Gnostic sects that arose and proliferated from the 1st to the 13th century CE, taught that the inner self, or soul, had what one might call “godness” – a spark from the true godhead. Those who were gifted with the gnosis – ie. with intuitive knowledge of the divine spark within and of the deity who bestowed it – would rise in the spirit to become one with that deity, who dwelt in the highest heaven, far above the Creator god who made this base world of filthy matter.
Although the Orphics did not regard this world as entirely evil, their idea that the soul should be purified so as to rise to the absolutely clean spiritual sphere could easily be understood to imply that this world is filthy and bad. And the Orphics taught that the earthly body is the tomb of the heavenly soul. This was also a Gnostic doctrine, almost certainly derived from the Orphic Mysteries.
But there was a difference between Orphic and Gnostic doctrines about the destiny of the soul. In Orphic doctrine, death does not often release a soul to start its ascension to heaven immediately, but more often traps it in body after body that lives and suffers and dies on this earth, unless and until its redemption is won (an idea probably drawn from far eastern religions, such as Buddhism). In most Gnostic teachings, those who know they have divinity within them, rise in the divine spirit from the dead base filthy body immediately after death, and soar upward to the highest height. They know the passwords to speak to the powers and principalities that guard the way to the godhead, so they might be allowed to proceed on their upward way, until they reach the Pleroma, there to dwell eternally with the mystic godhead, the source of all existence. *
Finally – and most infamously in the judgment of the Catholic Church Fathers – the Gnostics kept the Orphic sacrament, the orgion. They kept it in the Dionysian tradition: drugged, drunk, naked and lewd. But not as a summoning of the God to enter their bodies, take over their will, and force them to indulge their appetites and lusts. The Gnostic orgy was a rite of deliberate sinning. Because they believed that this world was entirely bad, anything that was done in opposition to it was good. Because Christian and Jewish morality forbade adulterous sex, homosexuality, sodomy, pederasty and bestiality, those were the very acts that it was incumbent on the Gnostics to perform – for what they held to be the immeasurably Higher Good.
Jillian Becker January 10, 2015