Monday, March 08, 2010

War In the Closed World 6: A Spring Day in 1967

Sunday Night Journal — March 7, 2010

Sometimes I sympathize with the people who have little use for poetry, who believe (or at least seem to wish) that each word should correspond to one and only one thing, whether a physical object or an idea. Music and visual art produce their effects directly. It is the sound or the sight in itself that reaches the heart and mind through the senses, and one either does or does not respond. Language is far less immediate, and far less amenable to control. There may be a certain pleasure in the sound of it alone, but that’s pretty limited, and almost entirely inseparable from its meaning. The word points somewhere else, away from itself, and the writer can never be entirely sure that it points to the same thing for the reader that it does for him.

I want to tell you what a certain experience was like, and just as importantly to communicate to you what it feels like to remember that experience. I can’t expect to do that simply by describing it. And I can’t expect to be able to put the feeling itself into words. I can only try to describe it in such a way that it will cause you to recall a time when you felt something similar. I’ll put the words on paper, and it almost seems that it will be no more than a happy accident if they produce in you the sensations that the memory produces in me.

What I want to describe is what Peter de Vries calls in one of his novels (and I can’t remember which one so that I can quote it exactly) “the most poignant emotion: the memory of expectation.” It’s an emotion that occurs frequently in maturity, when one looks back at one’s youth. I have always been prone to melancholy and have never seen youth as a time of golden happiness; in fact I was quite unhappy for much of it. But I still feel painfully nostalgic for it at times, and what I’m remembering when I feel that way is not happiness, but rather the hope and expectation of happiness: the sense that the future was open and that something mysterious and good and exciting was coming.

I think many people felt that some great thing was happening in the early and middle ‘60s, not just in themselves but in the world, and if that is true then it was doubly powerful to be young then, because the sense of possibility involved not only one’s own life but a whole community—perhaps the whole of humanity, perhaps just some group with which one was associated. (I’ve heard theologians who were present at Vatican II describe that experience in very similar terms.) At any rate it’s certainly an historical fact that big changes happened then. Among other things, much of the world was entering a state of unprecedented material prosperity, and although the anxiety about nuclear war was intense in those prosperous societies, they were mostly at peace. It was easy for the young to believe that this was the natural state of things, and that rather than preparing for a life of work and struggle we should expect ease and contentment, with enough excitement to keep things interesting.

When I think of the spring of 1967, the first memory that occurs to me is of listening to Donovan’s Mellow Yellow album on a bright fresh day, in my dorm room with the windows open. If you know that album, you may think of it as a silly period piece. If you didn’t experience it when it was new, as it was in the spring of ’67, you may or may not like it as a piece of music, but you probably won’t sense its connection with that memory of expectation which it calls up in me.

Earlier today, thinking about this piece, I listened to the first few songs of Mellow Yellow. I can’t remember when I last heard it. Perhaps it was not since the late ‘60s, or perhaps I listened to it a few times in the ‘70s. At any rate I can’t recall having heard it more recently than that; the title song may have popped up on the radio here and there, but not the rest of the album. It’s been sitting quietly on my shelves all these years, the same LP that I noticed with happy surprise on the shelves of a record store in downtown Tuscaloosa, one day early in 1967, and immediately purchased. In those days there was no pop music press, and a kid in an out-of-the-way place like Tuscaloosa, Alabama, generally learned of a new release only when he saw it in the stores.

I was not surprised to find today that the album is really very good; Donovan at his best was an extremely gifted artist, and much of his work holds up well in spite of its association with the sillier aspects of the time: flower power, the Maharishi, etc. This is not my favorite of his albums—I think that would be Sunshine Superman—but much of it is about as good as pop music gets.

But even if you agree with me about that, how can you feel what I felt, listening to it on that sunny day, with the cool spring air filling my room? It wasn’t only or purely the music, but the sense that it pointed to another realm. Superficially the music itself is part folk, part jazz, part pop. But there is a romantic haze about it that suggests mystery. I suppose the haze was partly an effort to capture the feeling of certain drug experiences, and probably also a product of them, but I knew nothing of that, and my experience of the music both then and now proves that you don’t have to have the drugs to have the feeling; indeed I would say that what I felt was better than what the drugs gave: sweeter and more real, if less immediately potent.

The memory of this music is quickly followed by others: Richard and Mimi Fariña’s Reflections in a Crystal Wind, with its silvery dulcimer and poetic imagery; the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday; Dylan, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Simon and Garfunkel. Some of it hinted, or more than hinted, at the sleazy side of the revolution, the drugs-and-sex side that, along with radical politics, would soon come to more or less define it. But either I didn’t notice or I didn’t fully understand those implications. I didn’t, for instance, realize that when Donovan sang, in “Mellow Yellow,” “I’m just mad about foh-teen,” he meant fourteen-year-old girls (I thought he was referring to some obscure color that I’d never heard of; after all, I wasn’t entirely sure what “saffron” was, either.)

What I took from this music—and I don’t mean a message I heard consciously, but what it caused to happen in my mind and heart—was something like this: Life had another dimension. It was not the flat and drab and constricted thing we experienced daily, the world of tiresome work that seemed intended to lead nowhere but to more of the same. There was beauty, and the promise of love, and other emotions so sweet and so fleeting that they weren’t even named or spoken of, but rather felt when they swept by like unseen wings, not apprehended directly but known by their passing. These last have been named for me now: the yearning that the Germans call sehnsucht and C.S. Lewis called joy.

I thought none, or little, of this consciously. It was simply present in me, and it seemed to lead somewhere, and I wanted to follow. The road to which it pointed led me much closer to hell than to heaven, but if I do get to heaven it will become part of the road by which I got there, and so I will bless it along with the rest. At present I can’t help wishing I had taken another.

It was in that spring of 1967 that the wizard and I actually encountered the thing that would soon be referred to as the counter-culture. Even on this unsophisticated university campus in the deep south, where George Wallace had attempted to prevent racial integration only a few years earlier, there were a few visibly bohemian types. There was one little group in particular we had noticed, because its leader was a graduate student in the English department: a very tall, very thin, dramatic looking fellow who wore sunglasses night and day and, at least in my memory, always dressed in a white shirt and blue jeans (jeans were not yet the universal uniform). He was the center of a little circle of much younger people (one of whom became the “friend from Atlanta” I mentioned a couple of installments ago).

Our dorm was at the northwest corner of the campus, and just to the west of us was an open vacant space, and then a patch of woods and a creek. On one of these bright fresh afternoons the little band of proto-hippies came walking by the dorm, heading for the woods. We talked about joining them; here was our chance to meet them, it seemed. After a bit of hesitation the wizard ran downstairs, caught up with them, and went off into the woods with them. But I was too shy and diffident to inflict myself on people who might not want me there, and stayed in my room.