Photograph by Loren Bliss copyright 2011 (click on image to view it full frame).
(Part 1 of 7)
He had seen a maid fair as silver apple blossoms...
– Heather Dale, “Hawthorne Tree” (c. 2000)
IMAGINE AN OLD MAN trying to explain how a new song represents a great triumph that nevertheless evokes tearful memories of a long-ago lost love and you'll understand why I can no longer avoid writing this essay. It is a text far more political than its opening chords may seem, a final chapter nearly 29 years in the making, a piece repeatedly delayed because it contains heartbreak I was not healed enough to confront until now, scarcely two months before my 72nd birthday.
Yet beyond its negative elements it is in large measure a story about strong and inspirational women, one of whom was an enormously talented artist named Tawna Pickens. She was the third of my three consecutive lovers, each in her own way fulfillment of the romantic ideal my father taught me in boyhood: “true love is the mate with whom you share your naked soul.”
Though my relationship with Tawna was painfully intermittent and all too abbreviated – its 18 months but a fraction of the decades spanned by my off-and-on involvements with the other two women – our sharing was uniquely intense, often ecstatic, and as long as I have sufficient living braincells, I will cherish it for precisely those qualities. Nor will I ever stop wondering what might have obtained had we been able to stay together. Would our individual works have thrived? Would we have survived as a couple? Would we perhaps have had children? I cannot say; in retrospect it seems above all else we were victims of ideological storm and economic shipwreck, two people lost on the hostile seas of capitalism, castaways soon to be parted by winds and waves over which we had no control. Such was the nature of our era.
Yet it was also much as Charles Dickens had described more than 120 years earlier in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, “the best of times, the worst of times”: our love a joyously liberating microcosm of personal and revolutionary fulfillment amidst the chilling macrocosm of worsening oppression and what I now recognize as its ominous portend of present-day reality: We the People reduced to debt slaves and the American Dream downsized to nothing more than desperate hopes of hand-to-mouth relief in a doomed struggle for survival.
As artists and writers and other cultural workers so often do, Tawna and I each sensed the encroaching darkness, though we lived as if we were no wiser than those who were not blessed – or cursed – with such foresight. We did not doubt our own perceptions; we merely had no idea how to prepare for what we feared was to come. It was the early 1980s; we still lived in that optimistic America of yesteryear, that vanquished nation the mere memories of which are now in 2012 patently subversive – why else the policies that exterminate people my age by looting our pensions and denying us life-sustaining health care? But in the '80s such measures were still unthinkable, a brand of genocide we could not yet imagine. True, the warning signs were all around us, but most of our peers dismissed them as nothing more than symptoms of a momentary backlash, a final blast of winter that would surely give way to the individual and collective triumphs of a newly exuberant spring.
Though the revolution in which we all invested such great hope no longer dared so many public acts of defiance, it continued via the arts and as environmental protest, and its promise ever more obviously transcended capitalism and all its sociological, political and economic norms. Many of us – even those of us too young to have lived through the 1960s – felt we stood witnesses to the dawn of a new but ancient consciousness, a back-to-the-future version of the earth-centered ethos that had sustained our ancestors through their first hundred thousand years only to be violently suppressed beginning perhaps five millennia ago by the conquering legions of patriarchy. With our very planet in jeopardy, we had finally begun to recognize patriarchy as the father of capitalism and thus analogous to some predatory virus with which our species had been maliciously infected. Perhaps – as some of us suggested in more wildly speculative moments – patriarchy was the alien psycho-bacteriological equivalent of the bombardment that precedes an invasion, intended to purge our world of life and reduce it to a trash planet fit only to house and feed an unimaginably predatory intergalactic empire of capitalist cockroaches. Whatever its cause and origin, the plight of our Earth and its beings had awakened a new spirit of resistance, which the Ruling Class predictably sought to crush: hence the Reaganoid Reaction.
But we would yet win – or so we continued to tell ourselves. It seemed ours was the consciousness that by its spontaneous resurrection was proving itself too powerful for patriarchy to exterminate. We would build a new society that would make the old order and its Ruling Class irrelevant. Mother Earth was on our side, and it was easy to believe we would have the last word. As a much-favored bumper sticker said, “Goddess Is Coming and She Is Pissed.”
Clearly we had no notion of patriarchy's arsenal of vastly superior weapons, much less its infinite capability for ruthlessness, treachery and cunning.
Such obvious naivety no doubt explains why the bitterly cynical but technologically favored youth of today so often regard the era in question as a genuine dark age: an abundance of moronic optimism – the mindset that would endure into the next century (lasting until Barack the Betrayer taught us the imbecility of hope) – but no computers or cell phones or other forms of electronic instant gratification, and ourselves thus imagined to be nearly as primitive as those with whom Dickens peopled his novels. But we had dial telephones and bullhorns and typewriters and cameras and mimeograph machines and printing presses and most of all ink and paper, and the 20 years of unrest that characterized the second half of the 1950s, all the '60s and the first half of the 1970s proves we were experts at disseminating our heresies.
Which is precisely what I myself was about, the dissemination of heresy: I wanted desperately to finish two decades of research, writing and photographs that documented the Counterculture as the first wave of this greatest and most life-saving of all revolutions, its form and content portending transformation of depth and magnitude unprecedented since the sack of Knossos 3600 years ago. My collection of data was already more than sufficient to fill a book, its unedited pictures numbering in the thousands, the short form of its title already “Dancer.” But it was trapped in a Sargasso Sea of writerly angst, and my repeated attempts to break it free only seemed to leave it more hopelessly stranded – absolute proof of my dire need for new inspiration. At that point, seemingly by coincidence, Tawna entered my life and navigated the work to the conceptual equivalent of open water – the reason what follows is as much about her as it is about that forever-lost manuscript.
Tawna and I met at the Antique Sandwich Company, a coffee house that endures to this day just outside Tacoma on North Pearl Street in the tiny municipality of Ruston. We were each there to hear a pair of Seattle folk singers, Ginny Reilly and David Maloney. It was 1981, a chilly night, cloudy but without rain, late May as I remember, and Gretchen Mottet, potter and mutual friend, introduced us during the random socializing that preceded the performance.
As it turned out, Tawna's age didn't matter, and of course she did break my heart – no fault of her own.
Moreover the heartbreak was grief times two, an intensity of woe I would not have believed survivable: the first bereavement in the fall of 1982, loss of Tawna to capitalist economic savagery, then the second bereavement almost exactly a year later, the loss of “Dancer” and all the rest of my life's work in a mysterious fire I cannot doubt was government arson.
Because of Tawna's role in bringing “Dancer” to completion, Tawna and the manuscript's final years are inseparable in memory. And though the despair inflicted by the fire long ago solidified into clinical depression and then ever-so-slowly dwindled to the emotional equivalent of windblown ash, even now I cannot think of Tawna without a startlingly painful sense of loss, so hurtful I am again for just an instant momentarily shattered, as wounded as I was when it seemed love and work were gone from my life forever and I reduced to nothing save a cracked-eggshell Humpty Dumpty falling into a darkly bottomless abyss. But such pangs subside quickly, a mercy of time's gift of anesthesia, though I make no apology for the terrible fragility of a smitten male.
Nor will I apologize for the fact Tawna was two decades younger than I. In our months together she was as much colleague and comrade-at-arms as lover, a tiny redhead scarcely five feet tall with the willowy grace of a danseuse, her amber eyes solemn with the quiet wisdom of an old soul, her artistic and intellectual abilities infinitely greater than her diminutive form.
Our friendship began with a six-hour telephone conversation perhaps five days after we met. It solidified when Tawna showed me her portfolio, the most formidably intelligent portfolio I have seen anywhere outside Manhattan and one of the best even by that exalted standard. Our love bloomed a few weeks later, when the chaste hug and quick good-night kiss on the cheek or forehead that customarily concluded our evenings of rare and splendid dialogue became an embrace so unexpectedly passionate it left both of us trembling.
The culmination of Tawna's work – or rather I should say the work with which I am familiar – began in early 1982 when she conceived a series of stunningly evocative sculptures depicting the shattered state of present-day female consciousness: plaster casts of women's bodies – her own and others – presented as shards of vandal-smashed statuary, relics of a thrown-down goddess, any assertion of her divinity reduced to silently screaming fragments bearing mute witness to the violence of misogyny and the malice of persecution, ruin of the sort one finds in demolished temples and desecrated groves: jagged threnodies weathered clean of soot and blood, bone white memorials half concealed by unkempt grass and weeds.
Alas Tawna's enormously promising output, a quantum-leap beyond the aesthetics of Judy Chicago, was terminated late that same year by cancellation of the grant that paid her tuition at the University of Puget Sound, a wrenching wound dealt by the Carter/Reagan Recession, one of the periodic contractions by which the ever-greedy capitalists throw so many of us out of work and thereby force us all to accept lower wages – their radically increased profits the underlying truth of all such so-called “economic crises.”
As I recall, the elimination of Tawna's grant was somehow the result of Reaganoid reductions in federal funding, the first wave of the ongoing cutbacks that have since made even community college the exclusive domain of the privileged. Not only was Tawna forced out of school; because local economic conditions were so hopeless, she was left with no choice but to return to her parents' home 1500 miles away. Nor could I help. The (non-union) newspaper that had been my primary employer for the past five years was nosediving into bankruptcy, and since I was its most controversial reporter – also its best paid (never mind most award-winning) – I was the first to be flung to the proverbial jackals. My two part-time employers, United Press International, the wire service that for several years had rewarded me generously as its Tacoma stringer, and Tacoma Community College, where for the past two quarters I had taught photography, were each so radically downsized my jobs were abolished. The resultant crises – Tawna's and mine – ended our relationship.
Of Tawna's life and whereabouts since then I know nothing.
'Dancer' Resurrected: a Story of Love, Art, Sex and Revolution (Part 2 of 7)
If you tell me a lie I'll cry for you
Tell me of sin and I'll laugh
If you tell me of all the pain you've had
I'll never smile again
– Tim Buckley, “Phantasmagoria in Two” (c. 1967)
THE LOSS OF TAWNA'S grant in 1982 was for both of us an embittering lesson, ironically a debacle of exactly the sort I had described a year earlier in a newly written chapter of “Dancer” entitled “The Artist as Nigger.” Inspired by Tawna's struggles and bitter memories of my own, that essay had grown from our discussion of the obstructions confronting artists in the United States and to a lesser degree in capitalist society everywhere. I had long argued the U.S. hatred and contempt for artists is no accident: artists – here defined in the broadest possible sense (to include writers, musicians, poets, photographers, sculptors, potters, dancers, weavers, choreographers etc.) – are truth-tellers, often inadvertently so, and truth is the one commodity neither patriarchy nor its capitalist subsidiaries can survive. Censorship of the arts, whether by suppression of art or belittlement of anyone who dares make art, is essential to the maintenance of Ruling Class authority. Hence what confronts artists in the United States is not just censorship per se but societal hostility generated by the defamatory portrayal of the artist as a person of bad morals: a “slut”; a “dyke” (often applied to any woman considered too independent for submissive matrimony); a “fag” (or at the very least a male “too feminine” to be counted a “real man”); a “parasite” who is too “lazy” – or “crazy” – to get a “real job.” Such is the multiform bullying – physical, psychological, economic – that begins on the schoolyard and continues relentlessly into adulthood, presumably until we either reshape our visions in submission to Ruling Class dictates or abandon art entirely.
I knew all that; indeed I had lived it, often painfully. I knew how wealth is regarded as proof of aesthetic and political reliability and thus provides the only viable protection against the bullies who prey on artists; I knew how the art world, like capitalist society in general, is structured to favor the rich and exclude all the rest of us. I saw the oppression of artists as yet another example of capitalism's contempt for any activity not directly productive of profit. But Tawna, a feminist as much by instinct as chosen ideology, argued convincingly that capitalism is merely a derivative of patriarchy, and now in 1981 through the accelerated learning process of our conversations, I recognized the artist's struggle as yet another battle in the patriarchal war against women – thus a vital topic for inclusion in “Dancer.”
What the Ruling Class actually fears is not just the artist's penchant for truth-telling; it is above all else the artist's function as conduit between humanity and the wellspring of insight the ancient world defined as the Muse: she who personifies everything symbolized by the term Wisdom.
In the language of Jungian psychology, the Muse is an aspect of the collective subconscious, one of several manifestations of the original divine archetype. This is not the present-day (exclusively male) god; it is the divinity once acknowledged as the Great Goddess, the Great Mother, the prime cosmological symbol for the holy mystery of existence and being. She is the deity of our species' first hundred thousand years, a rational trinity of birth, life and death; of childhood, maturity and old age. Her attributes are the symbiosis of the former harmony between ourselves and Nature. The resultant paradigms of culture and civilization honored woman as the source of life and consciousness. Human societies so derived were matrilinear, matrifocal and almost certainly matriarchal. Though patriarchy has deliberately distorted this last term into a synonym for tyranny, all evidence points to the realms of the goddess as free and democratic in ways we can scarcely imagine. It is no coincidence that even in patriarchal banishment she remains eternally at the edges of our minds, forever seeking readmission to our consciousness.
Artists – regardless of gender or the media in which we work – have been her natural spokespersons since the dawn of human consciousness. Art-makers were officially blessed as cultural leaders in matriarchal times and were often recognized as prophets. Even today we are far more likely to be honored by women than men: for example the instinctive supportiveness of my three significant lovers or the multitudes of women young and old whose energies somehow manage to sustain New York City as the art capital of the planet. But the artists' role is increasingly diminished by patriarchal policy and doctrine, especially here in the United States, where the combination of unapologetically harsh capitalist governance and ever more obvious theocracy is frog-marching us into a new fascism. The resultant society, militarized and Christianized from top to bottom, has no tolerance for either the Muse or the goddess herself and certainly none for those who invoke her.
But as Tawna said so memorably said to me 31 years ago, beneath the wounds so inflicted is potentially healing confirmation of the power of the artist: the fact we threaten patriarchy by our mere existence – that our survival itself is therefore an act of revolutionary defiance. Ruled as we are by what patriarchal dogma dismisses as “the feminine,” even those of us who are male are thus inclined to embrace and channel the collective unconscious – not just its gift of “female intuition” but its entire spectrum of forbidden lunar knowledge. Our unique ability to enter this ever more prohibited dimension and retrieve its messages is what makes us – male and female artists alike – the sole and soul natural allies of the Mother who guided us through our first hundred thousand years, the impassioned revolutionary who now rallies us against patriarchal contempt for the environment and capitalism's deadly greed.
Which is precisely why artists are so despised, why we are so relentlessly obstructed and harassed by today's Ruling Class, why – unless there is genuine revolution – our paintbrushes, cameras and computers may soon be subject to registration-and-permit requirements far more stringent than even the draconian firearms controls of New York City, and we ourselves monitored with Inquisition-like malevolence.
To reach that depth of understanding, I had to acknowledge my own wounds. Though terribly painful, sometimes to the point of tears, the task of acknowledgement was often eased by Tawna's descriptions of her own wrenching experiences and her obvious empathy with mine. In terms of personal growth – since for me the act of writing is invariably also the act of full remembrance – the process that produced “The Artist as Nigger” was as important as the disclosures in the finished work might have been had “Dancer” achieved publication. (I should note here the title was inspired by Patti Smith's piece “Rock and Roll Nigger,” from her 1978 album Easter, which Tawna played for me during one of our first evenings together.) But the anger and hurt that fueled that chapter was entirely our own, the frustrations of two lifetimes condensed into 29 or 30 double-spaced typewritten pages. Much to my surprise, perhaps because I had (deliberately?) forgotten those emotions, it seemed I had to confront them again while writing this essay in 2012 – undoubtedly with more discomfort as this time there was no Tawna to guide me through its labyrinth of scars.
Given such givens – particularly the fact the plight of the artist is today in 2012 many times worse than in 1981 – Smith's inspirational piece remains brutally relevant, perhaps now more than ever.
Meanwhile my own boyhood provides an instructive example of how an artistically inclined male fares under patriarchy:
According to my parents, I came late to speech, but the first word I spoke was “light,” a story I cannot doubt. My earliest memories of contemplative thought are of watching the interplay of light and shadow, then soon thereafter envisioning in my head pictures both figurative and abstract but feeling intense frustration at my age-limited ability to express them: for example the visual reality of a beloved dog as seen by my mind's eye versus the childish muddle I was able to put on paper. Though I never stopped trying to improve my skill, I soon learned my artistic impulses were as much curse as blessing. By the time I was in kindergarten, ages 4 and 5, my fondness for art combined with my slight stature and the physical clumsiness typical of the dyslexic to make me the preferred target of predatory boys. But the same characteristics seemed to make me also the chosen companion of a few surprisingly protective girls, no doubt the origin of my adult preference for strong and independent women.
My first experience with the utter ferocity of female protectiveness predated kindergarten by a year. It was late 1943, I was 3½, the war effort had moved my family from New York City to Jacksonville, Florida. My male companions in the apartment-complex playground despised me because I “talked funny,” and four of these future Southern gentlemen, all 5-year-olds, held me down and buried my head in the sandbox. What saved my life was the furious intervention of a neighbor girl named Mary Alice Shotwell, herself 5, a suntanned green-eyed blonde with whom by some process I no longer remember I had become friends and who now despite her willowy slenderness wielded a child-sized garden-shovel to beat my assailants so severely they fled in terror, at least one of them bleeding. Unable to breathe, I had been on the brink of losing consciousness, but Mary Alice pulled me out of the dirt and somehow cleared my airways. I still remember the awful feel of sand in my eyes and nose and mouth and throat.
After that I preferred the company of girls, a preference confirmed by my early discovery I could share with girls the artistic interests and conversational content for which I would be jeered and sometimes physically attacked by boys. There was also – perhaps because some girls correctly sensed I was not a braggart and therefore would not betray their secrets – the enjoyment of tabooed studies of comparative anatomy, explorations typically initiated by the girls themselves and in retrospect remarkable for their unabashedly mutual sensuality. Long before my teens I had decided females are infinitely better people than males, (generally) more trustworthy and surely our species' superior intellects, a view I have held ever since.
But I was nevertheless always afflicted by the nagging sense of inadequacy that came from being a perennial bully-magnet, though by the time I was a teen, my life now shuttled between my father and his household in East Tennessee and my mother who dwelt with her parents in Michigan, I had acquired a bully-discouraging reputation for unerring skill with firearms and in any case was streetwise enough to fight with sufficient savagery to ruin the day of any bully whose attentions had become intolerably aggressive. Though I did not win every fight, once it was known I would fight, my tormentors quickly retreated. Such childhood experiences – at least from what I know of the lives of other male artists – are probably as typical as they were painful, and by writing “The Artist as Nigger” I exorcised much of that residual hurt. I concluded the piece by suggesting that any artist inclined to deny the reality of the Muse – especially the inspirational beauty of the female psyche and the exquisiteness of the female form – had best heed the grave warning against patriarchal grandiosity contained in a very old ballad:
Cunning and art he did not lack
But aye her whistle it will fetch him back.
During this same intense period of creativity and again thanks to Tawna I also recognized another key element in patriarchy's antagonism toward art and artist: the close parallel between making art and making love, a reality seldom acknowledged partly because we are so thoroughly conditioned to deny the relevance of sex and sexuality and partly because the similarity between art and sex is so difficult to describe. The parallel lies in the fact that art like sex is a verb, a truth that becomes more apparent once we recognize art and sex are not outcomes but processes, sex the intimacy and ecstasy of connection between lovers and sometimes their conception of new life; art the intimacy and ecstasy of connection with the Muse or collective subconscious and sometimes the conception of new ideas and visions.
Conception, whether of life or of art (and especially the latter), often seems a mysterious process no matter how well its biological and electrochemical details are known. We artists, again whether male or female, are thereby veiled with much the same mystery that veils woman per se, and we are loathed for this distinctly female quality, a kind of opacity patriarchy finds impenetrable and thus intolerable.
Not only does patriarchy despise anything beyond its grasp; it is profoundly unnerved by implications of unknown realms, whether biological or psychological, precisely because such places are definitively beyond the reach of conquest and therefore uncontrollable.
Again like sex, art is antidote to alienation. Both, at their purest bests, are acts of love. Each is prohibited or discouraged by patriarchy because each is anathema to it. The poisonous fragmentation that results from the prohibition or belittlement of the love experience is prerequisite to the imposition of hierarchy, the condition essential to patriarchal function. Once we are so divided, hierarchy then locks us into hostile factions: rich/poor, comrade/enemy, warlord/surf, boss/worker, master/slave, the saved/the damned, young/old, male/female. These last two are the most devastating schisms of all, one denying youth the vital tutelage of their elders' experience and maturity, the other denying all of us the love and trust essential to the most basic unions of self and other. Thus our society's constant yearning for solidarity and community – love-based harmonies ironically thrust beyond reach by carefully conditioned antagonism and fear of anyone lacking the signs of approval bestowed through the patriarchal model of godliness: “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt bow down to Me as I command; disobey Me and thou shalt burn forever; defy Me collectively and I shall smite you as I hath smote Sodom and Gomorrah.”
As Barbara Mor says in The Great Cosmic Mother, which with its 432 pages and 219-author bibliography is by far the best most useful revolutionary source book yet written on the metaphysical underpinnings of human society: “(P)atriarchy must maintain, by force, an unnatural system...In fact the very idea of a male Creator God carries within itself the necessity for some kind of tightly controlled class-caste society.” The result is the one-directional momentum of patriarchy, apparent enough in the (implicit) tyranny of capitalism, now increasingly obvious in capitalism's inevitable transition to the (explicit) tyranny of fascism.
Here we clearly see both the legacy and the brain-police function of the father god, the deity who did not exist until the advent of patriarchy: he is the heavenly führer whose defining attributes are murderous envy of woman and nature. His malice is intensified by the all-consuming paranoia he will be exposed by nonbelievers. He so despises female sexuality he claims to have made the universe without female help, a biological absurdity.
In other words, patriarchy is the ultimate unnatural act. Its divorcement from Nature becomes our own alienation from Nature, self and others.
The synergistic result – the ideas-have-consequences dynamic of interaction between concept and reality – is a social order in which women, apart from corporate recognition of their wombs as a kind of sweatshop cottage industry, are defined as nothing more than god's begrudging afterthought, at best inferior beings, irrelevant save as sperm receptacles, at worst vessels of evil – the perpetrating temptresses of the Bible: Eve as the cause of “Original Sin”; Delilah as Samson's nemesis. Meanwhile god's ridiculous claim to parthenogenetic maleness is so threatened by the sexual magnetism of women, he condemns sexuality itself. Then to ensure our subjugation, he afflicts us with the literally unspeakable – the limitless terror of eternal damnation. His fundamentalist priests whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim go even further in their fear-mongering: they denounce the omnipresent Muse as a demon and damn the ever-assertive goddess as the female manifestation of Satan. Such is patriarchal propaganda at its most malicious, all of it a theological chastity belt intended to ensure we never rediscover the original joyful nakedness in which sex is revelation, enlightenment, pure pleasure, confirmation of our oneness with Nature, with the goddess: the holy truth that – like its distillate in art – forever challenges the original patriarchal Big Lie.
Our instinct as artists to join with Woman in refuting that Big Lie is what, from the patriarchal perspective, makes us all such dangerous revolutionaries. When we have experienced art as a verb, we recognize that in art as in orgasm there are no distinctions between self and other, that each is in fact an ecstatic expression of cosmic unity. We then understand the oppression of artists is spawned by the same patriarchal impulse that fosters the taboos against sensuality and sexuality – prohibitions aimed directly at maintaining the oppression of women and thereby ensuring all life remains under the patriarchal jackboot. We see how artistic truth is as dangerous to patriarchy as the biological truths of female sexuality and the declaratory femaleness of all life in the first weeks after conception. Whether disclosed by art or science or lovemaking, this sort of truth forever threatens patriarchy with overthrow. Hence the Burning Times, medieval Christianity's war of extermination against woman and minstrels and heresy; hence too the 20th Century imperial U.S. government's clandestine war against the Counterculture (and heresy), the magnitude of the governmental onslaught never to be publicly admitted; hence finally the ongoing war against pagans and artists and art (and heresy), capitalism's intensifying effort to protect itself by imposing theocracy, declaring us all outlaws and reducing our work to irrelevance – or ashes.
In this context it is significant one of the traditional manifestations of the goddess as Muse is the True Lover, a love so special and profound its sexual fulfillment becomes the ultimate sacrament by which we experience what Alan Watts (The Way of Zen) appropriately labeled “at-one-ment,” our genetic and thus metaphysical oneness with one another and with the universe, its reality – that all being is the substance of the stars and so related in cosmic kinship – proclaimed by the brightly hued galactic swirl so many of us glimpse in the warp-speed travel through inner space that is part of orgasm. The fact such a momentary passage through the cosmos is common to all of us tells us the goddess cosmology is for everyone regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, age or occupation. As within, so without – surely this is the message of the spirals anciently graven on the altars and sacred stones of the goddess.
'Dancer' Resurrected: a Story of Love, Art, Sex and Revolution (Part 3 of 7)
Your body burns away the winter's cold
Stand by me
And shade me from the sun
My eyes are old, but still can see.
– Heather Dale, “Hawthorne Tree” (c. 2000)
FOR MANY DECADES AFTER Tawna and I parted, I assumed the caliber of her talent guaranteed her success – that eventually I would read of her opening in some significant gallery in New York or perhaps in one of the slightly lesser cities – but her silence has become so endless I fear for her well being and even for her survival.
When first I heard Heather Dale sing “Hawthorne Tree” – its unexpected union of archaic Arthurian images and far more ancient Celtic tree-lore with modern jazz/rock somehow a perfect metaphor for the conceptual revolution that continues despite the ongoing Ruling Class campaign to suppress it – I found myself envisioning how Tawna would animate the music with her own spontaneous choreographies, arching her back and swirling the silken waist-length fall of her copper-colored hair. Naked or clothed, awake or asleep, Tawna's every movement was dance.
Dale's source-material added to the recollection's poignancy: Tawna and I were fascinated by the Arthurian legends and spoke of them often; at that point in my life, still foolishly resistant to the dyslexic truth my learning disability denies me the skill to write fiction, I even entertained fantasies of incorporating some of the tales into a novel set in modern times. In one of our earliest all-night conversations I described to Tawna the basis for the would-be novel's plot, my own outlaw theory of Arthurian myth: that what has been handed down the past fifteen hundred years is actually a combination of two stories, one prehistoric, the other post-Roman. Both were transcribed by Christian monks – self-righteous censors who, whether from cultural ignorance, ecclesiastical mandate or both – scrambled the two stories into one, mixing folk memories of a recent tragedy with oral traditions of a triumph already at least two thousand years old.
The older story is genuinely ancient, originally an epic of the accomplishments of a long succession of sacred kings all named Arthur and their advisors, probably priestesses, who were the supervising architects at Stonehenge and whose original title is somehow retained in the uncertain etymology of Myrddin or Merlin. These events concluded about 2000 BCE, a date that astronomically speaking was literally – just as some Arthurian literature still maintains – “at the end of the Age of the Dragon.” But what gets lost in the modern telling is the explanation of the phrase: the fact that for twenty-one centuries, our species had reckoned True North on Alpha Draconis, the Dragon Star in the constellation Draco, but now four thousand years ago the role of pole star was shifting by equinoctal precession to present-day Polaris. For the ancient but learned watchers who raised their sky-calendar megaliths nearly everywhere on our planet, it truly was the waning of one age, the waxing of another. No doubt the glorious memories of the former time – the construction of Stonehenge and the name and feats of its reigning kings – were preserved by the British tribes in their oral archives, among them prophecies of Arthur's triumphant return: part of the knowledge zealously sustained by the Druids, the Celtic order of scholars, judges, priestesses, priests, teachers and bards.
Though only fragments of this material survived the genocidal destruction of Celtic culture imposed by successive Roman, Saxon, Norse and Norman invasions and the subsequent (often forcible) Christianization of the British Isles, the sacred kingship is an institution well known to folklore and literature. (See particularly the works of Robert Graves and Sir James Frazer.) The king is typically an ordinary man of exceptional skill and strength. But after his coronation he is said to be possessed by the variously named Dying God, a universal archetype so described because after a prescribed term, he dies for the wellbeing of his people much as Jesus as said to have done. Indeed Jesus may be the final variant of the archetype. But unlike Jesus, the earlier Dying God is not resurrected as a reanimated corpse; he is instead reincarnated by possessing the body and mind of the earthly king's human successor, again via a coronation ceremony that restarts the repetitive cycle. That the original Arthur was such a figure is strongly suggested by his title: “Once and Future King,” which also explains the prophecies of his return. The modern affirmation – “the king is dead/long live the king” – no doubt originates from the same ancient source.
Which brings us to the the second story. This is about an entirely modern-minded post-Roman British warlord who justified his reign as the fulfillment of the first story's prophecies. He proclaimed himself the new Arthur and for the same strategic reason called his chief advisor Myrddin or Merlin, cleverly merging post-imperial politics with the indigenous British mix of Iron Age, Bronze Age and Neolithic oral traditions. In the popular mind the historic Arthur thus became one with the prehistoric Arthur. Thus too – with the proto-Machiavellian wisdom typical of a well-educated Roman patrician – the post-Roman Arthur co-opted the extant native lore as his own propaganda.
The rest of the second story then seems to fulfill the ancient form of many such epics. Arthur like Jesus willingly sacrifices himself for the common good, with his life's three most significant women amongst the witnesses to his suffering. In Jesus' case these are the Three Marys: Mary his mother, Mary's sister Mary Clopas and Mary Magdalene. In Arthur's story the witnesses are his mother Igraine, his sister Morgana, his lover and wife Guinevere. In the earliest versions of such stories the witnesses would have been clearly identified as the three aspects of the Great Goddess: the hero-king's mother, the maiden who becomes his lover, finally the crone who is not only wisdom but death and resurrection. Whether the post-Roman Arthur actually died in sacrificial battle or lived to old age is unknown; accounts of the former sort of death could either be more scrambling of the two stories or one of many eerie examples that suggest even modern-day assumption of a sacred king's title activates a process that inevitably brings about the title-holder's doom.
Further evidence my two-story hypothesis is the correct solution to the Arthurian riddle is provided not only by the misunderstood “Age of the Dragon” phrase but by the linguistic association of Arthur (for which Google) with the notion of the Star Lord, the eternal consort of the goddess. It is the Star Lord who would have been incarnated in the earthly Arthur by the coronation ritual. Hence the monkish confusion – not to mention the aversion to pagan lore – that combined the two very separate stories into a single tale making the post-Roman Merlin master builder at Stonehenge and the post-Roman Arthur rex quondam, rexque futurus.
A lingering memory of the Star Lord's power and virility appears in the medieval ballad “Jack Orion,” which portrays him as a musician who could “fiddle fish out of water, water from a marble stone” and “drive young women mad with the tunes his fiddle'd sing.”
Discussion of these matters with Tawna was pivotal in our relationship. I remember her quietly astonished comment – “you're the first man I've ever met who thinks about the same things I do” – and my own enormous delight she herself knew enough mythology to follow my reasoning and subsequently critique it point-by-point, the first such woman in my own life. Hence from our very first conversation we often talked for hours on end, sometimes from dusk until dawn.
Perhaps now with this background I can communicate something of the emotions evoked by my first hearing of Dale's hauntingly lovely “Hawthorne Tree.”
I discovered Dale via Dryad Radio at Live365, which I found by searching the Internet for an equivalent to “Soundscapes,” a cable-television channel from which I had been severed by the death of my ancient TV set and the poverty that forbade its replacement.
When “Hawthorne Tree” began playing I was at my desk writing an unrelated piece for this blog, but as I recognized the song's images and the story they told, it seemed for an instant Tawna was standing beside me, her right hand resting lightly on my left shoulder as she read my work, exactly as she had done so many times when the keyboard belonged to an ancient Royal Standard with no monitor save copy-paper, tan pages of newsprint that scrolled upward as, between tokes on a Camel Light, I hammered out my words.
It is an aside, but those who would jeer my nicotine addiction should know I quit smoking on 23 September 1995 and have not smoked since. That date marks the culmination of a ten-year struggle, the most difficult chore of my life, all the more so because as a dyslexic I had become dependent on nicotine for intellectual clarity. Without it I could neither write nor even speak coherently, a disability it took me the next seven years to overcome: another reason this piece was so long in the making.
Even as a smoker I was never sure of my ability to write anything more complex than a straightforward recounting of an event or a scandal, and that only with the dyslexia-nullifying guardianship of a good editor, but I soon had absolute trust in Tawna's judgment of my work. One of the functions that distinguishes the best editors is their ability to articulate a writer's subconscious, and when Tawna said something needed revision, she was invariably verbalizing my own doubts. I respected her sensibilities enough I also learned to accept her praise at face value.
Sometimes if she especially liked a piece of my writing or a new photograph and sometimes too when moved by intense pleasure or delight she would not only smile her curiously tentative and always ephemeral smile but grin so broadly she wrinkled her nose as her eyes simultaneously embraced me with a sudden flare of amber warmth, the most delicious glance I have ever seen – an expression so impossibly beautiful it always seemed to take my breath away and leave me momentarily dizzy, as if I had experienced some new hitherto undiscovered mode of orgasm that took place not between my legs but entirely inside my skull. It was this priceless prize Tawna awarded me the night I told her, weeks before we became lovers, my answer to the Arthurian riddle: “I think you solved it,” she said to me then, granting me for the first time what became the most addicting accolade I have ever known. “Your explanation fills in all the blanks; it makes too much sense to be false.” Her words were praise enough, but I had not imagined a mere look could be so profoundly gratifying; to this day I remain astonished by its potency. And now for just an instant as Heather Dale sang “Hawthorne Tree” over Internet radio it seemed as if Tawna were here in my apartment granting my choice of music that same exquisite praise.
Yet it is one thing to remember someone, quite another to sense her unseen presence as I did in those initial moments. Perhaps it was only the fantasy of an old man. But since then when I listen to Dale's best work and many other examples of this new and wildly pagan literature deliberately censored from conventional radio and broadcast only via the Internet, it is eerily as if it were music Tawna and I had somehow shared in real time, and I again miss her physical presence as if our parting were still a fresh wound, never mind we have neither made love nor even spoken since that dreadful autumn of 1982.
But it cannot be said too often that without Tawna's influence I would not have written “The Artist as Nigger” – and without that, the manuscript initially titled “The Dancer on the Grave of God” might never have escaped the box of self-censorship into which I had jammed it c. 1975-1976 for submission as my Fairhaven College senior thesis. Once I began rewriting “Dancer,” Tawna was the sole and soul audience for whom I worked, all others be damned. She was indeed the Muse, the goddess personified – not just inspiration but raison de vivre, the golden sunlight of my days, the silver moonlight of my nights.
I remember how I laughed when she helped me see me what folly it had been to turn “Dancer” into an academic paper. Though I got credit for my research – just enough to win my bachelor of arts degree – my conclusions were rejected out of hand, ostensibly in an absurd quibble over the nature of ritual but in truth because certain male faculty members believed me a traitor to my gender even as certain of their female counterparts thought I was poaching in a realm from which males should be forever banished. As an axiom of old-time journalism puts it, when you've pissed off everybody connected with your story, you know you're doing a good job. But the rejection of the thesis was nevertheless deeply hurtful. I had imagined academia a sanctuary. I found it instead another battlefield, no doubt why – though I dutifully continued the related photography and research long after graduation – it required Tawna to refocus me on completing the manuscript. First – this too at Tawna's suggestion – I changed the working title from “Dancer on the Grave of God” to “Glimpses of a Pale Dancer.” Next, again at Tawna's prompting, I rewrote the first chapter. Instead of opening with the defiant apology that prefaced the academic paper, I started the text with something more akin to a standard reportorial lead – acknowledgement the Counterculture was exactly what Walter Bowart, founding editor of the East Village Other, had said it was: “Revolution in Consciousness.”
Bowart and I were brought together by my pictures of the 1967 Memorial Day police riot in Tompkins Square Park (Outside Agitator's Notebook 29 May 2011), and in the aftermath of this atrocity we often discussed the revolution's three riddles: why was it so despised even in its apolitical manifestations?; was there a single unifying wellspring beneath its diverse forms?; and if so, what was it?
Though Bowart had surely coined the era's defining phrase, he was never – at least during the time I knew him – satisfied he had answered these three questions about what the Revolution in Consciousness might be. He knew it was multifaceted – aesthetic, political, economic, psychological, spiritual – all of these combined. But was it a single movement with multiple expressions or just the coincidence of simultaneous rebellions against multiple grievances? Bowart was astute enough – and intuitive enough – to have recognized the subsequent developments of second-wave feminism, environmentalism, the back-to-the-land movement and the rise of Gaian paganism as all parts of the Counterculture's revolutionary ferment. He was already open-minded enough in 1967 to acknowledge the power of the Counterculture's spiritual yearnings, which he believed were somehow related to the suppressed and forbidden spiritualities of First Nations peoples – “as if a lot of yesterday's Indians are being reborn as today's cultural revolutionaries.” But what – if anything – might unite each of these parts into a greater whole remained elusively and frustratingly nameless not just to himself but to the vast majority within the Counterculture – in the end ruinously so, especially given the extent to which factionalism was one of the primary factors in its dissolution and apparent defeat.
“Dancer” addressed these issues long before Tawna and I met, but our discussions invariably added new clarity to the text. Tawna was also the first to point out the work's larger potential: if it achieved publication, perhaps it could foster enough Countercultural solidarity to offset Reaganism and its rising tide of Christofascist backlash.
Again it seemed she was giving voice to my subconscious. From 1967 onward – long before I attempted the folly of turning “Dancer” into my BA thesis – my intent was to assemble enough data to prove the Counterculture was indeed the societal beginning of the process Robert Graves (The White Goddess) had foreseen as early as 1944 and described in a chapter entitled “The Return of the Goddess.” Gary Snyder had sensed her comeback too. In “Passage to More Than India,” one of the essays in his Earth House Hold (1969), Snyder cited – albeit without documentation – the spontaneous rebirth of the ethos absent from our planet “since the destruction of Knossos”: in other words, the culture of the goddess. My conclusions were thus obviously shared by others, some of them literary notables. But unlike Graves I was a journalist – equal parts photographer and reporter – and unlike Snyder I was taking detailed notes, documenting my findings as I would for any other investigative project. I was, or so I believed, moving the story a giant step further, out of the misty realm of literature and into the harsh sunlight of politics and class war: here in the resurrection of the goddess was not only the symbolic wellspring of the Revolution in Consciousness, here was also the reason the entire Counterculture was so officially feared and despised.
The evidence I gathered ranged from the lyrics of rock poetry to the new sociological and economic forms the Counterculture sought to develop. To me – as to nearly anyone who read my work – the re-emergence of the goddess archetype was as obvious as it was revolutionary.
Much to my surprise, it was the latter quality that proved so objectionable to the academics – as if they could not abide the notion of such a transformation, never mind the reputation of academia as a sanctuary for radical thinkers. In retrospect, I should have known better. The academics had already dismissed the theories set out by Graves and Snyder as nothing more than poetic fantasy, and even at allegedly avant-garde Fairhaven College, the academic mind remained closed despite the extensive documentation that accompanied my work. The outcome for which I had hoped, publication of my findings in a medium credible enough to withstand the belittling that had marginalized Graves and Snyder, was obviously beyond my reach. The academic door had been permanently slammed in my face, never mind my work on the project already spanned 17 years.
'Dancer' Resurrected: a Story of Love, Art, Sex and Revolution (Part 4 of 7)
Hello, Pleasant Street, don't you know she's back again
– Tim Buckley, “Pleasant Street” (c. 1967)
WHAT BY THE 1970S I believed was the scoop of my lifetime – the great untold news flash of the 20th Century – began in 1959 as a journal entry, a page of notes summarizing my curiosity and speculation about the folk-music renaissance, a topic I would probably have expanded into a sociology paper had I been wealthy enough to remain in college. The entry, the sort of memo I sometimes write to myself even now, was motivated by an impulse I would later recognize as journalistic intuition; my sense there was a huge and significant anomaly in the popular resurrection of our culture's oldest literature at what was presumably the dawn of an era of unprecedented scientific and technological achievement. It was as if a people who had mastered space travel were suddenly reverting to horse-and-buggy surface transport. By examining the form and content of the music and the sensibilities of folk singers and their audiences, I thought perhaps I could discover what the folk renaissance might be telling us about ourselves, our past and our future.
But poverty intervened, forcing me out of college and into a six-year Army enlistment. For a time, recognizing the limitations imposed by my socioeconomic status, I considered becoming a professional soldier, though I quickly awakened to reality: even then the U.S. military was nothing more than the goon squad of capitalism. Meanwhile, though I had no rational hope of ever raising the money essential to return to college – the Vietnam Era G.I. Bill was several years in the future – I remained not just a devotee of traditional folk-songs but a kind of ballad-scholar, hungrily seeking whatever information was available about the sources and history of the medium. I was enchanted by it from the moment I heard Susan Reed's recordings of “My Lagan Love” and “Wraggle Taggle Gypsies,” very early in 1959. The haunting combination of her voice, the lyrics and her harp was more powerfully evocative than any music I had ever encountered.
After I was released from from active duty in 1962, I discovered to my great delight the work I had done as a teenaged sports stringer was sufficient to launch me on a career as a daily newspaper reporter. But despite the huge energy-drain that is so often part of journalism, ballad scholarship remained my most compelling avocation. I soon learned balladry was thought by some academics to be far more ancient than commonly believed – that many (if not most) traditional ballads had probably originated as the seasonal liturgy of goddess-worship, music and lyrics in accompaniment to theater or dance or both to portray the stations of the year, the courtship and love between the goddess and her consort or between herself and a bard. Thus the songs of the folk renaissance may have originated not in medieval times but in the oral cultures of the Neolithic. In their original forms the songs might have been invocations, lays of magic to summon the goddess as Maiden, Mother or Crone – and now today in 2012 I would say without hesitation her resurrection is undeniable proof they had retained their power for 4000 years or more.
Meanwhile by 1965 the folk renaissance was evolving into the Counterculture. Within a few years my quest for answers to its riddles filled several file-folders, each still titled “folk music” but containing a growing collection of clippings and typed or handwritten notes of ever-more-broadly defined relevance. The files also included several pages on the epic Northeast power-outage of 8 November 1965, particularly comments by the surprising number of young women who described the event as “a second Halloween,” a reference to the vaguely orgiastic, sometimes Mardi-Gras-like festivities scheduled throughout Manhattan every 31 October and the wildly joyful celebrations that occurred spontaneously that year when the lights went out eight days later – as if the momentary death of technology had liberated us from hitherto-unrecognized slavery. The intensity of the event was confirmed by an unprecedented spike in the birth rate nine months later. (The first Halloween of 1965 was memorable for the liberation it granted me personally: it was the date honorable discharge from the reserves freed me from the likelihood of recall to active duty for Vietnam.) Though I could not say at the time how the Blackout related to the folk renaissance, I knew it did. “We are all barbarians,” I wrote. “Else why did we dance so gaily in the ruins?”
But it was not until 1967 that circumstance and epiphany began shaping all this material into a book.
The circumstance was the Easter Be-In of 1967, a gathering of at least 10,000 people (some estimates said five times that number) in the Sheep Meadow of Central Park. The date was 30 March, oddly enough also my 27th birthday.
I had gone to the Be-In not as a participant or a reporter but specifically to make my debut as a photographer of significant events, intending to sell my work to United Press International and so become in photography what I had already become in words – one of UPI's many stringers. I lived on East 5th Street in those days, the Lower East Side, and I had caught the the Sixth Avenue Local at Broadway/Lafayette, a station on Houston Street close to the Bowery and rank with the stench of wino-piss. At West 4th I changed to the Eighth Avenue Express, rode it to 59th Street and walked uptown seven or eight blocks on Central Park West to enter the park at about 66th or 67th Street. It was at most a 30-minute journey, but it was memorably unpleasant: I had alarm-clocked myself out of bed at a painfully early hour on an unusually hung-over Sunday morning, and the whole way I had wondered whether the event would prove itself worth enduring a Chianti headache that seemed stubbornly beyond the reach of aspirin. But what I saw in the park astounded me: despite a cloudy, unseasonably warm muggy day and a forecast of intermittent rain, the 15-acre meadow was already filled with people, and it was only about 10 a.m.
Like many New York photographers I carried my equipment in a ratty shoulder bag, military surplus, chosen because it did not proclaim its contents. But now I lifted out my pre-loaded cameras, shrugged into their neck straps, cocked their shutters, strode past the park's wrought iron fence and merged with the crowd.
Where I stood amidst the brightly clad men and women on the higher ground at the meadow's southwest corner was a scatter of hassock-sized gray boulders centered on a much larger block of weathered stone, also gray. The placement of the rocks – whether by nature or design I have never been able to determine – vaguely suggests the megalithic circles that abound in the British Isles and Europe and to a lesser extent throughout the world including North America.
Atop the central stone was the most astonishing sight of all: Joey Skaggs' “Crucifixion,” a mixed-media, mostly wrought-iron sculpture that had achieved Countercultural fame and public notoriety, its ghastly death's-head contortions disturbingly bedecked with red, blue and yellow balloons and celebratory garlands of flowers. Ten feet tall, looming as it did over the entire meadow, the sculpture had turned the largest boulder into an altar, the ring of stones into a prehistoric shrine. The Be-In itself was now the spontaneous reenactment of some ancient rite of spring.
The mingled rhythms of drummers and other musicians, the sullen humidity eased by the sweetness of incense and the burnt-elm-leaves tang of marijuana, the constant motion of the people – all this intensified the aura of ritual that increasingly divorced the meadow from its modern urban surroundings.
In the parlance of the era, it blew my mind. Introduced to apocalyptic potential by the power outage two years earlier – spectral Manhattan dark beneath the merciless full moon, the death of Electric Man, the tombstone glow of the buildings, the cold prophetic wind that snickered like some cosmic hag – I could easily now envision the park as a sanctuary amidst haunted ruins. Here around the cross and beyond, people – especially young women – moved with the same easy sensuality I had first glimpsed amongst the dancers in the bonfire-lit parks of the blackout. The images merged into a collage that ran like an endless film through my mind, evoking repeated chills and goose-flesh despite the morning's humid warmth.
My pictures quickly became an effort to photograph what I sensed rather than saw. I repeatedly focused my cameras on “Crucifixion” and the boulder it crowned, hoping I could frame a telling image combining sculpture, stones and celebrants. But again poverty intervened. I had a pair of Konica single-lens reflexes – I could afford nothing better – and first one body then the other failed after only a few frames of Tri-X, limiting my pictures to the visually exploratory images that typically begin a shoot. Though I kept and later processed the film, I was so furious I hurled the dead SLR bodies at one of the boulders, saying to a group of open-mouthed bystanders “not to worry, they're just fucking junk.” This left me a Yashica 635 in my shoulder bag, a single 12-exposure roll of 120 film and the Yashica's 35mm adapter, which I now reasoned would enable me to use my remaining supply of unexposed Tri-X, probably a dozen 36-exposure rolls. I have no recollection why I brought the twin-lens reflex to the park – a TLR is surely no camera for recording an unfolding story. But after the Konica disaster – the Konicas had died during my first five minutes at the Be-In – the Yashica was all I had.
In only a few minutes more I had shot all 12 frames of the 120 film and still had nothing I regarded as an informative picture. Now I installed the Yashicas's 35mm adapter, loaded a roll of Tri-X and continued photographing, still groping for the visual equivalent of a snappy lead. But fate had other plans; the adapter failed too, just enough of its film-guide breaking off to render it useless, and though I kept the camera, I tossed the broken accessory into one of the park's ubiquitous trash containers, a gray-green wire basket perhaps four feet high.
With the day's work seemingly terminated by disastrous malfunctions, I had at most two dozen frames of the event, none satisfactory, none marketable to UPI, the entire effort a profoundly embittering waste of time. I felt stranded in a boiling swamp of fury and frustration. The Be-In was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but because I had again been betrayed by poverty, a unique opportunity for personal advancement of my photographic prospects was gone forever.
Fuck it: I would return home and take still more aspirin and maybe at last sleep off my relentless headache. I trudged toward Central Park West and the subway.
Then – I'm not sure why, perhaps because I sensed a critical change in what was occurring in the meadow – I turned back toward the park and beheld an event far beyond anything I might have anticipated or imagined. The musicians though spread throughout the 15-acre crowd had somehow synchronized their rhythms and in response first a few young women and then thousands more people of all genders joined hands and danced a huge rapidly expanding circle on the vast green below the little knoll of the cross and stones. Now I stood silently again cursing the fact I could not photograph what I saw.
Then a young woman seized my right hand – “don't be miserable,” she laughed; “join us” – and dragged me into the dance. My mind yet sees her pleasant face, the long swirl of her light brown hair, the cornflower blue of her eyes, their improbable color matched exactly by the fabric of the embroidered medieval-looking felt vest she wore over a plain white dress that reached from her swan-graceful neck to her bare but delicate feet. The garment was loose-fitting, but it's material, probably linen, clung to her body in a way that suggested a comfortable nakedness beneath. Now as we ran and jumped in time to the music another woman took my left hand, though I have no recollection what she looked like beyond an impression of freckles and copper-colored curls, only that she said to me something like “give yourself to it” or maybe “give yourself to her.”
Moments later – as if in response to the dancers' hopes and the invocatory drums that reverberated across the broad meadow and echoed their back-beat off the city's walls – the sun defied the weather forecasters and broke through the clouds like a great golden grinning god demonstrating he was not only real but amenable to invocation. For just an instant every one of us in the meadow was stunned to silence. Then we all cheered – the explosive Yang of a collective “Yes!” – an ejaculation so huge and joyous it was later said to have been heard from the East River all the way across town to the Hudson, and now the circle contracted as if in the Yin of female orgasm and danced toward its own center as many of us, myself included, tumbled spent and laughing to the grass.
By the time my left brain regained command of my consciousness and my inner journalist had switched from disgruntled photographer to energized reporter – surely no more than 10 seconds – the two women had vanished, mingling into the anonymity of the crowd. I would never, alas, have the chance to ask why they had chosen me of all people as their partner in the dance. But at least my headache was now gone and with it any sense of being hung over.
Meanwhile the legacy of those moments had already begun shaping itself into epiphany and text. Midway through the day a journalistic colleague, no doubt groping for the description he would later write, said the event made him think of the “re-enactment of a medieval fair.” But I said “no, it's not medieval, it's a helluva lot older than that – in fact it's older than god,” with chills and gooseflesh as I said the last three words.
“What do you mean,” he said.
“I'm not sure,” I answered. “That's just how it feels: older than god.”
Then another colleague smiled sagely, said “I have a book for you” and two or three days later brought to my East 5th Street apartment a dogeared paperback copy of The White Goddess. When I finally had time to read it, maybe three months later, its contents seemed to answer to Walter Bowart's question: the Counterculture was the spontaneous, mostly unwitting fulfillment of the prediction Graves had written 25 years earlier: “The Return of the Goddess.” Older then god indeed.
'Dancer' Resurrected: a Story of Love, Art, Sex and Revolution (Part 5 of 7)
With earth and water, air and fire
By blade and bowl and circle round
We come to you with our desire
Let all that is hidden now be found
– S.J. Tucker, “Witches Rune” (c. 2007)
ONCE YOU'VE DEFINED A story – or had it defined for you by an associated event as it was for me by the Be-In and its aftermath – the rest is what we reporters used to call legwork: tracking down primary sources, reading documents, seeking clues in related events and – because in vīno verītās is as true now as in the 7th Century BCE – hanging out in relevant saloons listening to what is being said.
My prime source was of course the Counterculture itself, never mind I recognized it was already being transformed into a fad, grown to “Summer of Love” proportions by multitudes who had no notion of the disciplines essential to making photographs, music, poetry and art in general. But I was hooked not just by the story; I was in love with the process of covering it. And long before 1967 ended, it seemed the Muse had added me to her visitation list. I was seized by a sudden and unexpected compulsion to make photographic sandwiches, double-exposure-like images produced by sandwiching two negatives in the enlarger and printing them as one (see “Sandwiches for Mind and Spirit,” upper left). Ironically it was a technique I had hitherto scorned as affectation, but now I was inexplicably enchanted by its potential, though the process was purely spontaneous, the combination of images appearing in my mind as if I were somehow visiting an internal gallery show. The same curious energy-burst produced a spate of journal entries about the metaphysics of photography, a subject to which I had given no prior thought at all. These coalesced as an attempted poem but quickly foundered on my utter lack of poetic talent and remained unfinished until 1974, when I turned the text into an essay. It defined the photographer as a latter-day silversmith, heir to a once-magical occupation that, like the office of bard, was in pre-Christian times sworn to the service of the goddess. Its content linked it to “Dancer,” though I could never quite figure how to fit it in amongst the other chapters. It's most memorable line, the one legacy of its aborted poetics, described photography as “choreographies of light sculpted in alchemical silver.” Not until Tawna entered my life in 1981 would I again experience such an intensely creative interval. Like so much else, it was nearly all lost to the fire.
Meanwhile, though in 1967 I was only a bit less ignorant of myth than my peers, the sandwiches were clearly illustrating the concept of the goddess reborn, as I would slap-myself-on-the-forehead realize maybe two years later as the series of images grew into double digits. The initial content – nude women seemingly emergent from urban walls collaged with layers of posters – had not been consciously related to my Be-In epiphanies. But Adrienne, my second wife, insisted it was, and finally one night in the darkroom I understood the connection: our species' most ancient archetype of divinity transcending the agonies of oppression, casting off the shackles of centuries, emerging from the present via the Counterculture and coming to our rescue – hopefully in time to save us from ourselves.
But I remained skeptical, especially of my own growing conviction the Muse was real, a genuinely powerful, genuinely external entity. Ten years away from my journalistic apprenticeship as a sportswriter, half a decade into hard news, I had already learned that a key requirement of investigative reporting – perhaps its most important requirement – is playing Devil's Advocate with yourself to make sure you're reading the evidence right.
How, I wondered, could the Muse possibly act upon and through people who had neither any notion of her identity nor the slightest connection to any formally defined creative process. Did the Muse – and therefore the goddess – truly exist? Was she so powerful she could influence an entire generation of unbelievers? Could she somehow affect the multitudes who had not the slightest intimation who or what she might be? Could she touch even those of us who rejected all deities, as I so often did?
Almost from the beginning I saw the Revolution in Consciousness as an event unique in U.S. history, not the least because of its origins. Unlike the nation's other transformational movements, it was entirely the legacy of an aesthetic rebellion – itself the offspring of the bohemian subcultures of New York and San Francisco. These in the postwar years had coalesced into the Beat Movement, which spread to many larger cities and onto university and college campuses as well – particularly in the art and English departments.
The Beats were then predictably “discovered” and maliciously targeted by Ruling Class Media in a nationwide campaign of scandal-mongering: the hostility and contempt typically directed at artists was now focused on an entire movement. But – just as “Dancer” would note – the media's hatefulness backfired to an extreme that seemingly has no precedent. Instead of provoking the lynch-mob hysteria of moralistic outrage the One Percent and their propagandists intended, the sensational stories articulated the hitherto-unspoken yearnings of nearly the entire Baby-Boom generation. As always with real revolution, the change was first apparent amongst young women, in this instance the sexual freedom granted by effective birth control combining with their admiration for bohemian foremothers who defiantly asserted their sensuality by rejecting uncomfortable clothing decades before bra-burning became a rite of feminist protest. Suddenly “long-haired beatnik chicks” and the “wild-eyed bearded poets” with whom they openly cohabited while practicing “free love” became national role models. Those who boldly repudiated the capitalist rat race, denounced its puritanical hypocrisies and cast off its shackles of zero-tolerance conformity all in the name of making art were now cultural heroes and heroines, even amongst the Baby Boomers whose aesthetic horizons were hopelessly limited by the anti-artist, anti-art bullying characteristic of U.S. public education.
Of necessity, most of the documentation for “Dancer” came from the Counterculture's own creative output.
The singers of the folk renaissance and their folk-rock successors resurrected not only the antique function of poet as cultural leader but the truly ancient symbols of the Muse as wellspring of artistic inspiration and – though most often only by implication – the goddess as supreme deity. An early example, c. 1962, was Judy Collins' arrangement of “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,” a poem that draws its imagery from goddess-centered Irish myth. Written by William Butler Yeats in 1899, it is surely a credo for every artist who ever drew breath. When I first heard it, at age 22, it pierced all my defensive skepticism and spoke directly to my soul, confirming my own steadfastly denied truth and uttering a prophecy that, even in its later fulfillment, remains so inexpressibly moving my eyes are never dry beyond the conclusion of its second verse:
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Folk singers also brought back the equally ancient literary form of the dialogue between poet and Muse, a liturgy of life and living and protest. This form is implicit in much of the traditional balladry popularized by the folk renaissance, but there is no better illustration of its present-day recurrence than Bob Dylan's “Hard Rain,” in which the Muse asks “O where have you been my blue-eyed son?” and the poet answers “I've been on side of 12 misty mountains...,” a reference the poet himself has never deigned to unriddle.
Probably – given Dylan's subsequent admissions – it was no more than an accidental construct. But perhaps the Muse spoke through the former Robert Zimmerman despite his now-acknowledged cynicism, granting him poetic title to reincarnation in each of the 12 mysterious houses of the Zodiac, which would make his statement thus akin to Taliesin's “there is nothing in which I have not been.”
Such a prelude would explain the dialogue a decade later in Dylan's “Isis” (1975):
She said "Where ya been?"
I said "No place special"
She said "You look different"
I said "Well I guess"
She said "You been gone"
I said "That's only natural"
She said "You gonna stay?"
I said "If you want me to, yes."
In the end though Dylan belittles her:
Isis O Isis you mystical child
What drives me to you is what drives me insane
I still can remember the way that you smiled
On the fifth day of May in the drizzle and rain.
Tim Buckley was a far better poet:
O I never asked to be your mountain
I never asked to fly
Remember when you came to me
And told me of his lies
You didn't understand my love
You don't know why I try
And the rain was falling on that day
And damn the reason why
The anguished protest in “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain” (1966) is unsparingly true to the poetic credo of “one story and one story only” Graves set out in “To Juan at the Winter Solstice” – precisely the coda Dylan always seemed to fear and often, as in the closing lines of “Isis,” appeared to reject. The concluding lines of Buckley's “Phantasmagoria in Two,” again in keeping with the ancient theme, spell out more vividly than any other poem I have read the modern male's relationship to woman:
I can plainly see that our parts have changed
Our sands are shifting around
Need I beg to you for one more day
To find our lonely love
It was a piece Tawna and I both loved – Tawna because she felt the words could easily have been my own, though whether intended for her or the goddess she never specified.
Aspects of the same “one story only” were repeated in much of the era's musical literature, even its more commercial songs, for example Elton John's (accidentally?) exquisite performance of the Bernie Taupin piece “Come Down in Time” (c. 1970):
In the quiet silent seconds I turned off the light switch
And I came down to meet you in the half light the moon left...
Often the era's most moving and therefore most popular lyrics included traditional labels for the goddess: Earth Mother, Mother Nature, Woman with a capital W. Sometimes, as in “Isis,” she was named outright. Shawn Phillips' haunting “Ballad of Casey Deiss” (c. 1971) not only names her but describes the relationship between artist and Muse:
In his life he spoke but rarely
In his mind he cried for light
Painting perceptions trying to capture
That which he saw in his questioning strife
Once in Lisbon twice in London
Traveling round the roads of his time
looking for and finding a goddess
he took Diana to be his wife.
That same year Philip Leitch Donovan performed his own arrangement of Yeats' “Wandering Aengus,” its bardic poignancy almost unbearably lovely.
Later there was Julie Felix's “Clotho's Web” (c. 1972), which invoked the goddess by one of her most ancient titles, the omnipresent Weaver, the product of whose loom is our individual and collective fate:
And Clotho slowly weaves her web
Hearing every word that's said...
Such was the spirit of the Revolution in Consciousness as manifest in music and poetry during the 1960s and 1970s. Though never so clearly articulated as in the era's lyrics, the same pagan consciousness was expressed throughout the Counterculture during the '60s and early '70s. But no single event displayed it more defiantly than rock festivals. These resembled nothing so much as the great orgiastic rituals of poetry and music that characterized the warm-weather holy days of the matriarchal age – the real (if often subconscious) reason such gatherings were banned almost instantaneously by the modern patriarchal authorities. There was also the Counterculture's public embrace of marijuana, mescaline and other such drugs as sacraments – anciently used religious intoxicants that are illegal today precisely because of their power of revelation: the fact that in the (revolutionary) condition of altered consciousness, the notions of a male creator-god and capitalism as progress and of patriarchal beneficence itself are all reduced to absurdity. In the purest forms of such a euphoric state, woman becomes goddess, She Who Is, the source of all being.
Though the Ruling Class repeatedly tried to redefine the Counterculture by shrinking the term to nothing more than a pejorative label for the ineffectual Flower Children, the synchronicity of the Flower Power/Summer of Love episodes with the advent of environmentalism, second-wave feminism and alternative journalism tells a very different story. All these movements were born of the same (hitherto undefined) revolutionary impetus that somehow turned even aesthetically and metaphysically ignorant suburban teenage conformists into avowedly rebellious, often fiercely individualistic hippies. The Counterculture's purposeful efforts to re-create the supportive cohesiveness of tribal society (agricultural communes, non-capitalist business models, alternative schools, alternative communications media) all occurred within the same time-frame. So did the expansion of feminism to include women who deliberately chose single-parent motherhood. Likewise the discovery and assertion of the Gaia Hypothesis: scientific restatement of the ancient core principle of the religions of the goddess: that the earth – and by extension the entire cosmos – is alive, conscious and self-regulating.
Each of these developments, I argued in “Dancer,” were separate manifestations of a single transformation: Bowart's Revolution in Consciousness. Jungians, citing its emergence even amongst suburban teens and others who had none of the relevant knowledge, would explain it as the goddess archetype reasserting itself from the collective and individual subconscious. Pagans called it absolute proof the goddess is real. Artists, regardless of their spirituality or lack thereof, welcomed her return to their vocabularies of useful symbols. Not only was all this ferment occurring simultaneously: each aspect whether sociological, political or scientific unwittingly sought to restore a practice or value traceable to the vanquished religions of the goddess and the cultures they sustained. Such was the belief system lost with the fall of Knossos in 3600 BCE – its thousand-year civilization probably the finest our species will ever achieve – memories of which the patriarchal Ruling Class has been trying to suppress ever since.
As to the potential consequences of the Revolution in Consciousness, a satirical essay I wrote in 1970 summarizes them quite well, another example, like my earliest sandwiches, of truth expressed in art before the artist understands the message so conveyed. It was published under the nom de plume Aengus L. Forsythe in Northwest Passage, an alternative newspaper in Bellingham, Washington. The piece, a tabloid page in length, denounced the notorious Weathermen as no better than anarchistic vandals and claimed to disclose the existence of an organization infinitely more clandestine and therefore devastatingly more effective. The Weathermen, it said, were merely out to change the political climate, but the true revolutionaries – the Secret Seismologists of the “the crypto-radical Seismology Faction” – would “fault the very bedrock of civilization.” Though I did not recognize it at the time, this is precisely the impact full resurrection of the goddess will have on patriarchy, the bedrock of the present socioeconomic order.
There were of course no Secret Seismologists and there was no such group. But from the perspective of the better-educated members of the church and the Ruling Class in general, there might as well have been. The Revolution in Consciousness was viewed as not just the rankest of heresies but the most dangerous subversion imaginable. This is because at its core it was an unprecedented challenge to the supremacy of the male god, the conceptual foundation of patriarchy, hierarchy, property and capitalism itself. The Counterculture's ethos of peace, love and earth-centered living was thus more threatening to the status quo than doctrinaire socialism. Thus too it is no coincidence the Counterculture terrified the One Percent into unprecedented repressive measures. Chief among these was the Central Intelligence Agency's Operation CHAOS, which – though much less publicized than the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Operation COINTELPRO – went far beyond the latter's objective of suppressing the Anti-Vietnam War Movement and targeted the entire Counterculture instead. Meanwhile, as we were repeatedly informed by The Village Voice, we artists were under maximum surveillance regardless of our politics.
Nor – another revelation by The Voice – was this the first time the One Percent had used the national intelligence apparatus to protect capitalism by maliciously reshaping American culture. Employing the cultural management techniques developed by Hitler's Germany and brought to the United States by the Nazi war criminals it embraced after the German defeat, the CIA suppressed the indigenous American social-realist movement as politically dangerous and engineered its replacement by abstract expressionism. While The Voice began in the late 1960s reporting bits and pieces of this atrocity, we did not get the full story until 1999, when Frances Stonor Saunders published The Cultural Cold War – the CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. Obviously the CIA – far more diabolically manipulative than the combined imaginations of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley could ever have conceived – possessed an operational directorate of cultural management long before the advent of the Counterculture. And I cannot doubt the agency's Ivy League-educated analysts – sworn to defend patriarchy, the 2600-year reign of Deuteronomic misogyny decreed by the Abrahamic religions and the capitalist order so derived – recognized the innermost spirit of the Revolution in Consciousness as identical both to the womanspirit decreed by feminism and the earthspirit postulated by the Gaia Hypothesis. If I could see it, so could our foes.
From the perspective of the Ruling Class, womanhood and Nature had (again) became synonymous with revolution.
It is one of the many ironies within goddess-lore she is said to enter our lives via the back door even when she is banished from the front. In this context it is noteworthy the primary symbols of atheistic Marxism – the blood-red star, the sickle of agriculture and the hammer of industry – all have counterparts in the symbolism of the goddess: pentagram, lunar crescent, cosmic smith, which probably explains the unique hatefulness with which the Soviet flag was viewed by U.S. Christians. It is hardly coincidental the rapid growth of Gaian paganism in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Rodina – Mother Russia – was fostered by official restrictions on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Western Europe's more gentle resistance to Abrahamic tyranny, chiefly evidenced by the withdrawal of theocratic protections that formerly sustained Christianity, has the same result: a number of opinion polls indicate the religions of the goddess are the continent's most rapidly growing forms of spiritual practice.
Enraged by these findings, the capitalist inner circle now devotes a huge but unknown percentage of its obscene profits to financing the global imposition of fundamentalist theocracy, the core doctrine of which – whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish – is fanatical hatred of woman and Nature.
'Dancer' Resurrected: a Story of Love, Art, Sex and Revolution (Part 6 of 7)
By the earth that is her body
By the air that is her breath
By the fire that is her bright spirit
By the living waters of her womb
May the peace of the goddess
Be forever in your heart
The circle is open but unbroken
Merry meet and merry part.
– Victor Anderson's lyrics as sung by Elaine Silver, “By the Earth” (c. 1998)
NO WONDER THE ONE Percent is so desperate to censor the Internet. The spirit of the Revolution in Consciousness, ousted by Ruling Class Media and thus presumably banished from our individual minds and collective culture, has nevertheless survived. It waits for us out amidst the virtual galaxies of the Wide World Web, defiantly soaring on the electron flow, bearing bright blessings to us all, the priceless treasures Yeats evocatively described as “the silver apples of the moon/the golden apples of the sun,” gifts from our Cosmic Mother, the goddess of every continent, the goddess who bears an infinity of names some forever lost and many yet remembered and many more still unspoken: Danu, Matka Ziemia. Cerridwen, Demeter, Astarte, Eiru, Britomartis, Athena, Marzanna, Brigit, Rhea, Ngame, Vesna, Kali, Epona, Tara, Guanyin, Zorya...
Though I publicly question the existence of all deities, my agnosticism is in reality a vacillation between atheism and devotion. The more the undeniable murderousness of patriarchy and particularly the absolute evil of capitalism prove to me the human capacity for suicidal and otherwise malevolent self-deception truly has no bottom, the more I am forced into atheism. In this mode I reject all alleged evidence of divinity and the afterlife so implied – visions, revelations, ghosts, so-called near-death experiences, the claims of prophets, indeed the entire psychic miasma – as nothing more than the most extreme forms of delusional behavior. Yes the ghost of my father appeared at the foot of my bed as he was dying suddenly and unexpectedly nearly 3,000 miles away. But how do I know what his appearance meant? Perhaps it was nothing more than a manifestation of momentary insanity afflicting him or me or both of us – utter madness provoked by the terrifying realization death is, for the person who is dying, a genuine microcosm of apocalypse, the end of everything: the termination of consciousness and all that's therein: self, others, world, universe – a reality literally unthinkable until in dying we discover its truth and are thus in limitless terror hurled into the final entropy of terminal madness. If true, this makes life the cruelest of sadistic jokes and reduces religion – all religion – to protective psychosis, R.D. Laing's “sane response to an insane situation.”
What though if the message of my father's appearance was that my atheistic rationality – and his – is the true insanity? What then? Alas it is a conflict that will never be resolved until I am dead and – damnit – unable to report the story of what (if anything) might exist in the hereafter.
My friend Joy Ratcliffe, so helpful in guiding me through the struggle to write this piece and well aware of the story's history of uncanny elements and seemingly inexplicable events, says she can't imagine what more evidence I might need to be convinced it is atheism that defies reason. “To me,” she says, “your disbelief seems more irrational than your belief.”
There is merit to her assertion. “Dancer” – unlike any other story on which I worked – not only seemed to have a life of its own but a strongly argumentative reaction to any doubts on the part of its scribe. Now, 29 years after the fact, the project's curious goads to perseverance seem entirely justified. The “Dancer” hypothesis has been proven by subsequent events, not the least the advent of the new music that prompted me to write this essay. But the point here is not that I was right; it's that every time I began to doubt my findings or my ability to express them, it seemed I was handed proof I was on the correct path. Lucky coincidence, Jungian synchronicity or divine providence, I know not.
Three such episodes were so overwhelmingly eerie I dared not include them in the manuscript, neither in its academic-paper form nor in the draft of the intended book. Now, my journalism career long ago destroyed by the pariahdom of “mental disability” inflicted on me by post-fire depression – in U.S. newsrooms “crazy” is the kiss of death – I have no need for such restraint.
The first of these events, in August 1952, my 12th summer, obviously predated “Dancer” and initially seemed unrelated. But in 1972, as self-doubt was tempting me to abandon the project, an apparently coincidental discovery gave the 1952 incident a new and confidence-restoring significance. The earlier event and its exegesis are described in “Abutments” (Outside Agitator's Notebook, 16 January 2011).
The second and most mind-blowing episode of all – indeed of my entire life – occurred in the Cascade foothills beneath the August full moon of 1970, almost exactly 18 years after the 1952 incident. I had walked alone and lonely into the Innis Creek water meadow, a vast unkempt field beyond the buildings and gardens of the Wickersham, Washington commune where I was then staying, and now I stood amidst Nature's shadowy harbingers of Autumn: blown thistles, bright clumps of pearly everlasting, iridescent cobwebs bejeweled with dew. The communards were meeting in their main building but were ensnared in psychodrama intensified by ideological disputes, and I had left in bitterness and disgust. Now in search of inner peace I sprawled on the ground and gazed at the zenith-high improbably brilliant moon as if it were some mandala of last resort. Then to my astonishment there was a kind of psychic jolt, intangible yet seismic in its intensity, as if some unseen door had burst open, and all in the same breathtaking instant the moon spiraled into a rainbow that expanded to fill the entire sky, contracted to a vortex of spinning colors, plunged tornado-like to earth and shaped a magnificently ageless woman pale and translucent as mist yet undeniably real. She was majestically naked but loosely wrapped in the lunar blonde infinity of her own hair; she smiled, reached out her hands, touched me, perhaps even kissed my brow, then like some impossibly magical dancer swirled her endless mane into rainbow hues that swept her aloft, dissolving herself back into revolving bands of color that expanded once more from horizon to horizon and shrank into the moon again – a millisecond's vision, a mere glimpse so brief and so ephemeral I could scarcely believe I had seen it and yet so vivid it could not be denied. But now as if nothing at all had occurred there was only the commonplace moon again, the midnight sky and its diamond constellations, the fragrant crush of wild chamomile beneath my head, the vast nocturnal stillness of Pacific Northwest woods so unlike the firefly-bright insect-rowdiness of the fields and forests in which I'd spent the summers of my boyhood and adolescence. When the night's chill finally urged me to my feet, I remember there were faint tendrils of fog rising from the creek, and for a moment, just once, it seemed I heard the clear cold water chuckle.
What had happened? The entire vision – if that is what it was – lasted less than a second. Had I seen the goddess? Had she truly shown herself to me as if to prove her reality? Was this instead the one real hallucination of my life? I cannot say. I can only describe what happened – and report that in its aftermath, though I would often doubt my ability to write “Dancer,” I would never again doubt my conclusions about the Counterculture.
The third pivotal moment occurred in 1978 during my exploration of a ruined commune in the same general area: realization I must somehow at all cost persevere in bearing witness to what had happened, not just the events at that particular locale, where violence and fear and the death of a dream had recorded itself upon the land much as events are recorded on film, but the suppression of the entire Back to the Land Movement and the whole Revolution in Consciousness. That epiphany is described in “Doorways: A Portrait Of The Artist – Perhaps As An Old Fool” (Outside Agitator's Notebook, 28 May 2010).
A far more mundane example of this pattern of events was my reading of Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, probably in early 1975. Now working on “Dancer” as the ill-fated academic paper, I had (again) despaired over dyslexic inability to organize the material and was once more contemplating abandonment of the entire effort, not from doubts about its validity but from exasperation and self-hatred provoked by the genetic deficiency with which I was born – the reason, as regular readers know – I am much more comfortable photographing than writing.
Somehow – probably the same seemingly blind impulse that prompted me to dash back into my Chelsea apartment to grab my copy of The White Goddess before flying to Seattle in 1970 (I made the cabbie go around the block so I could retrieve the volume) – I turned to McLuhan as a distraction. I had been repelled by the cult atmosphere that had sprung up around his book after it was published in 1964, and I had never read it from cover to cover. Mine was his second edition, the volume in which McLuhan himself had written the introduction, important for its assertion a primary function of art and artist is providing humanity with cultural radar, a means for tracking and thus (prophetically) anticipating our directions whether positive or negative.
Influenced by Carl Jung (Man and His Symbols) and the art theorist Susanne Langer (Feeling and Form) (Philosophy in a New Key), I had reached a similar conclusion well before 1970. But here was the same premise stated by a recognized scholar, and with it implicit endorsement of my work. I had long been convinced the Counterculture's revolutionary impetus was not just charting an alternative future, but quite possibly offering us the only future that could rescue us from the ecocidal toxins of capitalist greed and Ayn Rand selfishness – the poisons distilled by patriarchy, injected into human consciousness by the Abrahamic religions and sustained by an ever-more-tyrannical Ruling Class. Thus sanctioned by McLuhan's views, I struggled on, completing “Dancer” as a senior thesis in 1976.
That dismal chore behind me, I labored over the project another seven years. Finally in 1981-82 and mostly thanks to Tawna's encouragement, I wrote a draft of probably 75,000 words. Its visual backbone was a collection of my goddess-emergent sandwiches, by then about 25 images (edited from 50-something) plus another maybe three dozen documentary photos edited from several thousand frames showing various aspects of Countercultural life c. 1963-1982. Though I was never pleased with my photographs of the 1967 Be-In, by 1981 or so I had recognized their historical value and planned to include at least one of the square-format pictures among the illustrations for “Dancer.”
Meanwhile my economic circumstances had gone from bad to worse. After the non-union newspaper to which I had given five years laid me off in 1981 at the beginning of its plunge into bankruptcy, I discovered that despite my history of breaking significant stories and winning reportorial awards, I was blacklisted by the region's editors. I was told the sweatshop paper's reputation as a professional dead end – a publication on which editorial staffers existed only to fill the spaces between the advertisements – had nullified my achievements. Potential employers seemed to assume I was a no-talent who had been hired merely because I was available at a time the sweatshop's bosses had desperately needed a warm body. I was also informed Pacific Northwest editors looked askance at my alternative-press endeavors. I had been the founding photographer of The Seattle Sun, which apart from The Village Voice was the only such publication in the United States to be organized and run by professional journalists. We were second (if not equal) to The Voice in overall editorial quality, and our photography – mostly my work – was far superior. But even as a photographer I was locked out of the local workplace, and I sank ever deeper into the despair of self-doubt.
I realize now the truth of my circumstances was somewhat different than I imagined. While my reputation had indeed been damaged by my association with the sweatshop, and the local Ruling Class Media bosses were surely not enamored of The Seattle Sun, the only genuinely insurmountable obstacle was my birth certificate: Brooklyn, N.Y. I was confronted by a classic example of the xenophobic exclusion that has become notorious as “the Seattle freeze” but should more properly be called “Puget Sound hatefulness.” In retrospect, I should have expected it. In the early 1970s, two managing editors – one of them Henry MacLeod at The Seattle Times, the other a man named Fowler at The Bellingham Herald – had told me to my face my New York City origins made me a pariah in the eyes of Washington state's news managers.
“Your experience is all East Coast experience,” MacLeod said in a deceptively gentle voice, “and that doesn't count here. We do things differently; you'd be happier if you went home.” Fowler was more blunt: “we don't like your kind here,” he said; “go back where you belong.”
It is an aside, but typical of Washingtonian ignorance, that MacLeod included Michigan and East Tennessee, the locales of my first five years in journalism, in his pejorative definition of “East Coast.” Meanwhile I never confirmed what Fowler meant by “your kind,” but I suspect he factored my (slight) New York accent, my small stature, my dark eyes, my coal-black mustache and my almost-black hair into a mistaken conclusion I was Jewish – actually my name is English and genetically I am mostly Scots – but it was an error the Puget Sound area's many closet bigots often made.
In any case I had believed – stupidly – that by enduring a few years in the worst most notorious journalistic sweatshop on the West Coast, I would someday be able to get myself back on a reputable newspaper with a unionized editorial department. (Yes, the region's wonderful trout fishing was that important to me.) But by 1982 I knew better. My economic circumstances had become so dire I had moved out of Tacoma and into rural Whatcom County, where I could trade manual labor – mostly clearing land of stumps and brush – for rent. Then by a stroke of amazing good fortune I was able to talk myself into the most spiritually fulfilling job I would ever have: commercial fishing, engineer/deck hand on a 96-foot seiner out of Squalicum Harbor, Bellingham. The sea time and other intimate contacts with the realities of Nature provided the inspiration that, when I was ashore, added additional chapters to “Dancer” and refined its contents to near-poetic intensity.
By the end of the 1982 salmon season I had decided to remain in Washington as a commercial fisherman. The fishing community harbored none of the malicious xenophobes I had encountered everywhere else in the state. But the real reason was my discovery the liberation from journalistic energy-drain plus the constant recharging of my spiritual batteries by Mother Ocean was the greatest boon my writing would ever know. Picture it: the early evening calm, the onset of the lingering blue dusk of the northern latitudes, the most beautiful light you will ever know, and now you're standing wheel watch, inbound through Hale's Pass, the rugged heights of Lummi off starboard, the gentler slopes of Portage a-port, and you're thinking when you get across the bay and ashore and after you've shed your boat clothes and stood in the shower until all the hot water's gone, then maybe you'll phone Tawna and if you're lucky she'll invite you to drive down to Tacoma to visit, and now on the bridge just as you're flowing away on a tide of erotic thoughts – how breathtakingly lovely she is, how you yearn to be with her forever – now suddenly as if by magic a half-dozen dolphin are keeping pace with your vessel, the shining sensuality of their dance a chiaroscuro in the emerald-green water just beyond your bow, their sleek bodies rolling, maybe laughing, their fond eyes turning upward toward the slowly darkening sky as if to embrace your silhouette...
Yes photography is the choreography of light, but writing – at least for me – now seems at least in this instant somehow a gift of the sea and perhaps of the mountains that run down to embrace the water as they so often do around Puget Sound.
But I could not remain here; not then. When the season ended, when the onset of winter storms drove the fleet to its moorings until spring, I was yet owed six months of unemployment compensation I assumed would keep me fed and housed until we began fishing again. My skipper was pleased with my work and told me there was no question I would be part of his crew next year. Fate though had other plans. My stipends were illegally terminated by a vindictive unemployment-office bureaucrat – a fascist-minded woman who had been fired by Western Washington State College for similar lawbreaking: she had maliciously blocked student loans to veterans who were active in the anti-Vietnam War Movement. Now she recognized my name as one of those whose written testimony had cost her that cushy job eleven years earlier. And now, just before Christmas 1982, she retaliated by viciously deleting my entire unemployment file. Without notice – without any warning at all – I was suddenly deprived of all income. Nor was there any work available in the Reagan-wrenched local economy. Two and a half months later, days away from becoming homeless, I telephoned a former colleague, now the managing editor of a major New Jersey daily. His response was instantaneous – and more affectionate than I dared hope: “What da fuck you doing out dere wit all dose crazies,” he said. “ “Get ya ass back home and come to woik fah me.” I was a reporter again. I would live in Manhattan, commute by train across the river to Jersey. Quoth the I Ching: “Work on what has been spoiled has supreme success.”
In preparation for my return (March 1983), I stored all my work – photographic prints, negatives and transparencies; “Dancer” in its final and academic-paper iterations plus its 24 years of research notes; a dozen file-folders of notes, drawings, photographs and maps for a book on Pacific Northwest archaeological mysteries; all my other unpublished manuscripts; my journalism files including notes on several investigative stories and clippings of my significant work; even my award certificates and commendation letters – all this with one of the few dear friends I'd made in Washington state, a woman named Helen Farias, herself en route to becoming an influential writer. Helen, who was also my collaborator on the as-yet-untitled archaeology book, had inherited her pioneer grandparents' two-storey farmhouse, which gave her enough space to accommodate without inconvenience all this material and my other most important belongings too, chiefly books and phonograph records. Because I had already been hired as a reporter, I had no need for job-seeking material and thus carried only the most abbreviated portfolio of photographs and tear sheets with me on my cross-country drive back to the City. As soon as I had a permanent address, I would send for everything my friend had been so kind to store, including of course “Dancer,” on which I was eager to resume work.
'Dancer' Resurrected: a Story of Love, Art, Sex and Revolution (Part 7 of 7)
Sink into your lover's arms
The womb that made you whole
Let her waters slake the thirst you carry in your soul
Let her take you in her arms
Let her take you home
Let her take you home
Let her take you home
Leave to her the dreams you made of honours, steel, and stone
– Heather Dale,“Three Queens” (c. 1998)
ONE OF THE FIRST people with whom I reconnected in Manhattan was Cicely Nichols, a founder of the Editorial Freelancers Association, former editor-in-chief of Grove Press and one of the mothers of second-wave feminism. Cicely and I became friends during the '60s; she was a pivotal influence in my intellectual and aesthetic development. Her tutelage c. 1966-1967 played a substantial role in fostering my recognition that while my writing skills are adequate enough to provide a dependable source of income, photography is both my passion and my poetry: the medium of self-expression to which, in the best of all possible worlds, all my other endeavors would be properly subservient.
My pictures, she always said, captured “the overwhelming ambiguity of human experience.” She often added they did so more truthfully – more poignantly – than any other photography she had seen.
Thus it was entirely appropriate she would offer in 1983 to shepherd the pictures and text of “Glimpses of a Pale Dancer” into mainstream publication. It would be, she said, “one of the most important books of the 20th Century.”
So it was we met on 1 September 1983 in the Lion's Head for drinks, dinner and discussion to formalize our collaboration. I remember I approached our meeting with the strong sense my life was finally achieving fruition, that “Dancer” was to be my passport to the long-sought realm of self-employment as a journalist who did sociologically relevant books of photographs and text.
I remember too I glanced at my watch as Cicely and I walked into the Lion's Head dining room. I try to be punctual about appointments, and as usual I was on schedule; it was exactly 7:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
Eerily and with an undeniable message of malevolence that becomes more crushing with the passage of time, three thousand miles westward on the same day at precisely the same instant – 7:30 p.m. EDT is 4:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time – someone or some thing set Helen Farias' house ablaze, the moment recorded by the melted clock at what investigators said was the fire's point of origin. The flames, so intense they razed the structure to the ground and destroyed all the outbuildings as well, turned “Dancer” to smoke and ash, obliterated all my other work whether visual or verbal and – as I have come to acknowledge via the brutal honesty of advancing age – vaporized my identity, scarred my soul and spirit and burned from my life any potential beyond the reptilian egotism of survival.
All of my black-and-white photography – the work for “Dancer,” my everyday portfolio, my stock picture files, the images I had shown in various galleries, at least a thousand finished prints (and I have no idea how many more work prints) – all this was printed on the now-legendary DuPont Varilure paper. Because of the silver content of its emulsion – the highest ever achieved commercially – Varilure was the best photographic paper ever made. But Varilure and all other DuPont papers were victims of capitalism, forced off the market by the skyrocketing cost of silver imposed by the Nixonoid economic tyrannies of the early 1970s. Indeed I had bought, probably in 1974, the very last Varilure available in Washington state, one thousand sheets as I recall, and I had promptly stored it in my freezer, ensuring its indefinite viability. I had used it all up by 1982. I knew there would never again be an affordable substitute nor any readily available paper capable of even remotely the same tonal qualities, but I had printed and archivally processed all my significant work. Given the ever-more-obvious suppression of the Counterculture, I doubted there would be any more stories needful of Varilure-quality prints – at least not in my lifetime. The fire thus did far worse than destroy my work; it also destroyed all evidence of my darkroom abilities and – given the eternal absence of adequate paper – robbed me of any hope they would ever again be meaningfully useful.
Within a year, post-fire depression had turned me away from Cicely's friendship, and in 1986 it prompted me to leave the City. Manhattan is no place to be crazy. Beyond that, the Manhattan I knew – essentially a community of artists – is only for those with something to offer, and the fire took all that away from me. It wiped out everything worthwhile I had ever done, and my age at the time, 43, combined with the destruction of all the “Dancer” notes and the lack of adequate photographic paper to abolish any possibility I might somehow replace the lost works with new offerings of comparable value or even of any value at all.
The loss of my work was all the more frustrating because – as it turned out – I had not been alone in my discovery of the resurrection of the goddess. All journalists know good stories are seemingly “in the air” – Jung would no doubt say in our collective unconscious – floating about as if waiting for recognition. Thus I was not surprised when I learned the Jungian psychologist Edward Whitmont had unriddled similar disclosures from the dreams of his therapands, for which see The Return of the Goddess, his 1983 book bearing the same title as Graves' concluding chapter in The White Goddess.
Whitmont and I corresponded briefly, and I yet have a handwritten letter in which he lamented the loss of my work and commend its insight. “Dancer,” it seemed, had been accurate to the smallest detail. Not that it mattered. It was not just reduced to ash, dead beyond any possibility of resurrection; it had now been rendered moot.
Then 29 years later Heather Dale's “Hawthorne Tree” prompted this essay.
Much of the credit for “Dancer” and this present-day memoir of its birth, disclosures and untimely death belongs to persons I would have thanked in the 1983 manuscript had it been been published. But there are a few additions as well, people who since 1983 contributed either to the work or to the restoration of my sanity or both, all of whom I hope I have included below.
Tawna Pickens, to whom this entire essay is a loving tribute, is of course at the very top of the thank-you list.
But I owe the largest debt of this lifetime to my Aunt Alecia Durand (1908-1993), who recognized my childhood reading difficulties as dyslexia, and without whose intervention in 1948 I would neither have learned to read nor write. A Midwestern painter and sculptor educated at Columbia University, she was the first woman in the U.S. to head a collegiate art department (Grand Rapids Junior College), but above all else she was the one positive female role model of my childhood – for which I made sure to thank her many times.
My father Donald R. Bliss (1910-1971), bought me my first cameras. He also provided me with political education that becomes more valuable with each new betrayal inflicted on us by capitalism and its ever-more-despotic One Percent. I am sorry we did not become friends until tragically late in his life, and I will always regret we never had the opportunity to discuss “Dancer.”
Cicely, so influential in refining my politics and shaping my personal aesthetics, died of cancer in 2008. Two years later – I was so damnably out of touch I did not learn of her death until 2010 – I published a brief eulogy to her and our friendship.
Helen Farias, who lost her house to the fire but would later found the influential women's quarterly Beltane Papers and its monthly supplement Octava, deserves special mention because after reading the earliest draft of “Dancer” (1971), she paid me what may be the finest compliment I have ever received: “You have given me the vocabulary to describe what I always knew to be true but never had the words to express.” Helen died of cancer in 1994.
Walter Bowart, whose definition of the Counterculture as "Revolution in Consciousness" provided much of the theoretical framework of the original "Dancer" and thus did likewise for this retrospective, died of cancer in 2007.
Special thanks are also due Mary Alice Shotwell, for reasons already described; Stephanie Wilson, the second of my three significant lovers; my friends Jim and Mary Plante, soul-mates always ready to help no matter the challenge; Lynn Partridge, the youth minister at Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids, who in 1956 taught me to question the gender of god; Dorothy Merritt, my 1957-1958 high-school English, speech and drama teacher who convinced me I could be more than an unwanted child; Bonnie Leeds, the first woman in Manhattan to take my talent seriously and therefore, in 1965, teach me most of what I know about writing non-journalistic prose; Melinda Mohn, jazz singer, pianist and Muse personified who in 1974 introduced me to the vital works of Erich Neumann; Joy Ratcliffe, who encouraged my work on “Dancer” from 1975 to 1983, comforted me after the fire and then helped by editing this essay when it grew too long for me to manage.
My second wife, Adrienne Bliss Brown Greenberg, with whom I reconnected in 2007, played a pivotal part in restoring the professional confidence taken from me by the fire and its aftermath. Again a companion of the naked soul, Adrienne was the first of my three significant lovers and was there in 1967 when “Dancer” began to take shape. Our divorce was the result of our mutual inability to cope with the anguish of a stillborn son, a child we had deliberately conceived. The resumption of our friendship is among the greatest blessings of my present years. In nearly every sense of the word she mothered the creation of my blog, Outside Agitator's Notebook, which in turn brought this piece to life as well.
Others on the gratitude list are Ginny Purcell, Nancy Webber, Ruth Silvis, Susan Helton, Thais Smedley, Dina Sampson, Roberta Tyson, John Shuttleworth, Chris Rawlings, Les Peterman, Joan Condolino, Margot Johnston, Joseph Bevando, Melissa Queen, Jerry Burns, William Servais, Rebecca Valrejean, Brian Weaver, Ann Harding, Kathryn Habbestad, Gretchen Mottet, Andy Zanchi, Blanka Eckstein, Ellen Silverberg, Kelly Bates, Barbara Bliss, Barbara Mor, Cate Montana, Traci Kelly, Sheare Bliss, Blue Hesilx, Franetta McMillian, Melanie St. Ours, Katherine Pritchard, Sioux Rose, Elizabeth Bliss, and Eleanor who knows who she is and why I dare not utter her full name.
Any errors or misunderstandings in this work are my responsibility not theirs.
Which brings me back to Internet radio and its pagan repertoire, the haunting invocations of S. J. Tucker, echoes from a lost and future world; the joyfully celebratory music of Mediaeval Baebes (especially the subtle heresies of “Adam Lay Y'Bounden”); the more solemn works by Jenna Greene and Elaine Silver; Faun's interpretive arrangements of songs from Old Europe; the compositions of Omnia so often based on Celtic myth; the dark lyrics of Witherspoon; the breathtakingly sensual performances of Shauna Burns; the traditional or traditional-sounding balladry of Blackmore's Night (especially the timeless voice of Candice Night on the pagan instructional video entitled “Morrigan”); and of course the inimitable Heather Dale whose music and poetry inspired this entire essay – all of these modern-day minstrels and their works continuing the process begun by the folk renaissance and expanded into the Revolution in Consciousness: first the bard as priestess or priest and then the radical visions of rock; next the emergence of the alternative press, the advent of second-wave feminism, environmentalism and the ill-fated efforts to build a new non-exploitative human society typified by the agricultural communes of the back-to-the-land movement. Now today even in the face of relentless censorship the archetypes evoked by the ballad come full circle so that Lord Donner's Wife and Jack Orion's Young Countess and Janet of Tam Lin can again be openly invoked as the Great Goddess in all her infinite wondrousness.
Perhaps, as the folk renaissance was now obviously the first step of the psycho-spiritual process prerequisite to the Revolution in Consciousness, so will the future regard the advent of the Occupy Movement the first step of the revolution's political fulfillment. I have no doubt the Gaian paradigm so fostered will evolve an eco-socialism capable of fulfilling the Seismology Faction dream: faulting the bedrock of patriarchy, toppling the eco-murdering Abrahamic god, undermining his capitalist empire and – just maybe – saving our species from extinction.
Meanwhile I listen to the wondrously pagan music and think of Tawna, in memory hear her voice and watch her dance, see her toss her gorgeous mane and wrinkle her nose in momentary joy. I remember the amber pendant she wore day and night, a silver-encased jewel that perfectly matched the color of her eyes. I remember my astonishment at the libraries of books she had read and understood – an impressive accomplishment for someone twice her age. Mostly I remember how complete I felt when she was part of my life. Perhaps, as Shawn Phillips said of another daughter of the goddess, “If she lives she will yet be kind.”
It saddens me I have almost no mementos of Tawna save a lock of her hair. The finest picture I ever made of her – maybe the finest most iconic photograph I ever made of any woman – was an Ektachrome of her sleeping alone in our bed, her pale slight form a portrait of elfin repose amidst rumpled sheets. She lay on her belly, face toward me, lips slightly parted as if she were about to speak or maybe smile, one bare leg extended as if in gentle reproach I was beyond her reach, her hair a long slow caress of bright new copper against the midnight blue of the pillows. She seemed aglow in the summer light from the bedroom windows and I gazed at her for some time, as always in such moments scarcely believing I had been so blessed. Then I raised the camera, probably a Pentax MX, and released the shutter. When the sound did not disturb her, I shot two more frames, the last on the roll, insurance against color-lab damage. But those chromes were destroyed in the fire with nearly all the other photographs I made of her. Nevertheless I can still see the image in my mind's eye, clear as in real life, as sharply focused as in the viewfinder, its content and visual geometry an exclamation point in my aesthetic and spiritual histories.
And a very few of my pictures of Tawna did survive, a half-dozen informal facial portraits, grab shots all, among them one other color image that last year I impulsively superimposed on a photograph I made in 1979 with a pocket camera, an Olympus RC, as I walked an abandoned road through a grove of tall saplings, seed-children of the large and aged red alders that grow in the more inaccessible valleys of the South Fork of the Nooksack River. The resultant sandwich, which I first used to illustrate “Abutments,” serves its purpose even better in association with this text; it is also a good example of how always in my life, the visual precedes the verbal. I understand now it was no coincidence, that the paring of Tawna with those particular woods and the vanishing road was somehow true despite the fact we never set foot there together, the images combining as if on some deeply subconscious level I knew even a year ago I would finally, finally manage to write this piece – and would of course need a Tawna-version of the same sort of illustration that sustained the original “Dancer.”
After-the-fact left-brain logic also tells me the combination of these two pictures is a uniquely appropriate partnership. I will always associate the South Fork back-country with 1970 because I first fished its troutly streams during the time I spent on the commune, half of a summer and nearly all its curiously golden-lighted autumn. The grove in the photo is only about five crow-miles from the water meadow where vision or hallucination convinced me of the absolute accuracy of the conclusions in “Dancer”; it is part of a realm I would have shared with Tawna had we the opportunity, a wild land I know she would have relished, a locale about which newcomers often exclaimed “unbelievable,” adding – invariably in awed whispers – “it feels like something from The Lord of the Rings.” Above all else it is a place of power, a domain of impossibly dancing shadows and curiously lunar daylight, unnerving, a region the Nooksack people say is traversed by the spirit path, therefore haunted, sometimes dangerously so. I cannot doubt they know of what they speak; their ancestors have lived there three thousand years. But the land seems safe enough if one acknowledges its energies and is careful to be outside its borders before sunset, which Tawna and I would surely have done. Both of us had awakened to the wisdom of folklore; we knew to trust its messages as vital information.
That sensibility – which includes an instinctive respect for First Nations spirituality and indeed all Earth-centered beliefs – was another of our many bonds, all wellsprings of our own Revolution in Consciousness, our Gaian visions made real and deliberately sustained by art and thought and deed and above all else by love. And now at last I understand the most important lesson of my time with Tawna was also the lesson of all the years I spent on “Dancer”: the fact there is nothing on earth more radically transforming or more vital to our survival as a species than love – whether love of a quest or an ideal or a person it matters not. The society that denies the importance of love inflicts on itself the curse of its own destruction – the reason our ability to love is now the ultimate expression of revolutionary defiance, our most decisive rejection of capitalism's implicitly hateful strictures of infinite greed as ultimate virtue.
I did not realize it until this instant, but the seemingly accidental photo-icon that illustrates this essay is a portrait of Tawna as a goddess of young alders, which suggests kinship with Rhiannon – Bran whose companions she blessed with the singing of her birds was the ancient British alder-god – even as Bran's association with ravens affirms a connection too with the shape-changing Morrigan. This is a far more potent acknowledgement of Tawna's Muse-power than ever I could have consciously contrived: again the confirmation of Cicely's long ago judgment the poetry that passes through me is invariably communicated in pictures. Hence too my words here attempt nothing more than to build a conceptual gallery in which to exhibit the work of others whose poetic and musical talents seem noteworthy as examples of the Revolution in Consciousness. The presentation of these compelling poems and arrangements is as much Tawna's legacy as mine, as is whatever bounty such companion-planting yields.
Apropos the Counterculture and its antecedents, it seems Walter Bowart was right about the First Nations connection too. Though the majority of us had never heard its words as more than echoes in our subconscious minds, we had obviously taken to heart the most definitive Ghost-Dance chant of all, this from the Cheyenne:
The white man's god has forsaken him
Let us go and look for our Mother
– We shall live again!
Now as I type these concluding lines, as I look back on the entire “Dancer” odyssey, I am once more reminded of what Graves, writing to his son Juan, explained as a living truth of the goddess: “nothing promised that is not performed.”
– Loren Bliss
18 December 2011-19 February 2012
(Loren Bliss copyright 2012; permission to republish is granted conditional upon giving credit to the author and to the poets, musicians and other sources quoted herein and, as well, providing a link to Outside Agitator's Notebook.)