Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 1, 2011

Reflections of a baby boomer

Filed under: beatniks,popular culture — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

Baby boomer Louis Proyect

Technically speaking, I am not a baby boomer but feel qualified to say a word or two about the article Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65 that appears in today’s NY Times. It was written by Dan Barry, a character I had a run-in with back in 2006 when he wrote a stupid attack on “squeegee men”, the intrusive beggars that persuaded so many Manhattan liberals like Barry to vote for Giuliani.

The article defines baby boomers as those who turn 65 in January. Born on January 26, 1945 I have my 66th birthday to look forward to. When I was born, my father was over in Belgium dodging Nazi bullets in the Battle of the Bulge. When he returned, I was 6 months old and something of a challenge to him. They say that when a father is not around for a child’s birth, he is likely to feel more remote. Not having more than 15 minutes conversation with dad in my entire life, I imagine that this was true in our case.

The article is focused on how my generation is hitting the brick wall of old age:

This means that the 79 million baby boomers, about 26 percent of this country’s population, will be redefining what it means to be older, and placing greater demands on the social safety net. They are living longer, working longer and, researchers say, nursing some disappointment about how their lives have turned out. The self-aware, or self-absorbed, feel less self-fulfilled, and thus are racked with self-pity.

So, then, to those who once never trusted anyone over 30: Raise that bowl of high-fiber granola, antioxidant-rich blueberries and skim milk and give yourself a Happy Birthday toast.

The article cites Steven Gillon, the author of “Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever and How It Changed America” as some kind of expert. Barry sums up Gillon’s analysis as follows:

Previous generations were raised to speak only when spoken to, and to endure in self-denying silence. But baby boomers were raised on the more nurturing, child-as-individual teachings of Dr. Benjamin Spock, and then placed under the spell of television, whose advertisers marketed their wares directly to children. Parents were cut out of the sale — except, of course, for the actual purchase of that coonskin cap or Barbie doll.

“It created a sense of entitlement that had not existed before,” Mr. Gillon said. “We became more concerned with our own emotional well-being, whereas to older generations that was considered soft and fluffy.”

The boomers may not have created rock ’n’ roll, but they certainly capitalized on its potential to revolt against parents. And they may not have led the civil rights movement, but they embraced it — at least, many of them did — and applied its principles to fighting for the rights of women and gay men and lesbians. They came to expect, even demand, freedom of choice; options in life.

Some of this makes sense but all in all I prefer an analysis that adheres much more closely to the ebb and flow of history. Furthermore, I would not even begin to try to do what Gillon did, namely summarize an entire generation that—after all—includes both George W. Bush and me. Instead I will put my own personal story into the context of what happened in America from my birth date until today in as few words as possible. I am after all writing a blog entry not a book.

When I was around 14 or so, I began to become aware of both class and physical differences between my classmates, most of whom were Jewish like me. Many had parents in the hotel business and could afford to go to Miami Beach in December. They returned with suntans that they wore proudly to school like Gucci bags. Now that I am in my old age, I too enjoy such a distinction! It also mattered a whole lot what kind of car you drove. My father, who owned a fruit and vegetable store, owned a Chevy Biscayne while the kids who went to Miami Beach had parents who drove around in a Cadillac or a Buick. Adding to my resentment was how many got cars as gifts for a sixteenth birthday. They would drive around in a Chevy Impala convertible while I burned in my pedestrian envy.

Even worse, I was cursed to be a shrimp. Too small and too uncoordinated to make the basketball or little league baseball team, I began to feel left out. Although I wanted nothing more than to be in with the in crowd, I began to think in terms of an alternative life-style even at the age of 14.

In 8th grade, we had a social studies class that was taught by Bob Rosenberg, a New Deal liberal whose sister Cissie was an open member of the CP. One day Bob was telling us about a new book called “The Status Seekers” by a guy named Vance Packard that described how America was a land where the pursuit of money and power led people to live empty lives in the suburbs. Indeed, this was the reality that the TV series “Madmen” hones in on. While listening to Bob, I had an epiphany. This was exactly the world that my classmates and their parents lived in and that excluded me, largely out of an accident of birth. Perhaps had I been 6 inches taller and owned a Chevy Impala in which to tool around, none of this would have entered my mind.

All across America, there were people just like Louis Proyect who were feeling like outsiders. Even some tall, wealthy, muscular white kids felt the same way. Not long after Bob had brought “The Status Seekers” to our attention, I came across an article about the Beat Generation in Time Magazine. It began:

In the smoke-filled cellar cafés and cold-water flats of San Francisco’s waterfront and Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the word these days is “beat.” Patriarch and prophet of what he calls “the beat generation” is a 35-year-old writer named Jack Kerouac, whose recent novel On the Road (TIME, Sept. 16) chronicled the cross-country adventures in cars, bars and beds of a bunch of fancy-talking young bums. Last week, in newspaper interviews with TV’s Mike Wallace, Novelist Kerouac and equally beat Poet Philip Lamantia explained that beatness is really a religious movement.

Interrogator Wallace asked San Francisco Poet Lamantia to explain two of his lines: Come Holy Ghost, for we can rise/ Out of this Jazz . . .

Said Lamantia: “You have to be pure. You gotta get through this life without getting hung up. That’s the whole question—not to get hung up …”

W. What is getting “hung up”?

L. Freezing. Freezing from others, from yourself, from the Holy Spirit. If you’re hung up, you can’t love, or care for others.

W. Why are so many members of the Beat Generation bums and tramps?

L. Oh, you see, Christ says go out and find the bums . . .Find the blind and the cripples . . . Christ invites everyone, including the outcasts. So there’s no contradiction at all between Christ and a bebopper and a hipster . . .

It was only when I was in my fifties that I learned that Bob Rosenberg’s sister was a CP’er and that he probably had been some kind of fellow traveler until turning into a liberal and a cynic. As for Lamantia, he was a member in good standing of the Surrealist movement that received much of its impetus from artists with Trotskyist politics, including André Breton. The late Franklin Rosemont, a premature boomer like me who tried to revivify the movement just around the time I was being radicalized by the war in Vietnam drew upon Lamantia’s expertise, as I recounted in a 2002 article:

A few months ago I posted an article about “Surrealism, Freud and Trotsky” that relied heavily on Franklin Rosemont’s collection of Andre Breton’s writings titled “What is Surrealism.”

This Pathfinder book belongs on the shelf of anybody who is interested in the intersection between revolutionary politics and avant-garde art and literature. Now thanks to Autonomedia Press (and especially editor Jim Fleming–a Marxmail subscriber who sent me a review copy), we have a volume that belongs on the same shelf. I refer to “Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings and Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States.” Edited and introduced by Ron Sakolsky, this volume contains articles that originally appeared in the journal of Rosemont’s Chicago Surrealist Group titled “Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion,” and kindred publications.

In my first article, I mentioned that surrealism had taken root in the USA in the 1940s largely through the auspices of a magazine titled VVV. Among the editors was Martinique poet and playwright Aimé Césaire who articulated a surrealist version of Black Nationalism that influenced many black intellectuals, including esteemed contemporary African-American historian Robin D.G. Kelley whose articles can be found in “Surrealist Subversions.”

Another editorial board member at VVV was Philip Lamantia, who was to become best known as a leading figure of the new poetry of the 1940s and 50s that included the beats and the San Francisco Renaissance writers. It would not be much of a stretch to argue that Lamantia represents a link in the chain between the counter-culture of the 1930s and that of the 1960s. He eventually hooked up with Arsenal, along with fellow beat poet and African-American Ted Joans.

It is also not too far of a stretch to see Rosemont’s journal as constituting a link between an important sector of the contemporary radicalization that began in the 1960s with earlier strands going back to the 1930s and earlier, with the left wing of the beat generation constituting an important bridge between the two epochs.

This is a point that can’t be stressed often enough. The values that Gillon described as characteristic of the baby boomers–freedom of choice; options in lifehave nothing to do with being born in 1946. Instead they are the values of the permanent underground in the USA that goes back to the post-Civil War era and that arose as a left-bohemian opposition to the dominant mammon-worshipping culture.

Immediately after WWII there was a rapid expansion of the economy and a fierce repression of left-wing intellectuals that led to a retreat of the left cultural opposition. But it managed to remain intact despite McCarthyism and looked for “fresh blood”. It found support in the folk music revival as well as the post-beat generation movement that had spread across America. By 1961 it was ready to listen to anti-capitalist views about the malaise that affected so many of us, even though it would take the Vietnam War to finally open my eyes.

In my own life, politics has taken priority over personal options. I never considered going to live in a commune in Vermont or seeking enlightenment through one or another religious discipline. However, I do accept that if I had not been radicalized by the war in Vietnam and by working in Harlem for the welfare department, I easily could have gone that route.

I am somewhat at a loss to understand how young people feel nowadays. While there are obvious attempts to defy convention through personal appearances from tattoos to piercing, I wonder how many teenagers feel as alienated from the mainstream culture as I did in 1958.

Perhaps the one advantage we had was coming of age when the country’s economy was running on all eight cylinders. If you graduated college in 1965, you never had to worry about finding a job. The NY Times had 10 pages of classified ads geared to college grads—no experience necessary. Mostly, we didn’t bother looking there because it was so easy to pick up a job as a clerk in a bookstore or a record shop that paid well enough to cover your rent in an East Village tenement. Nowadays, college students must fret over whether a business degree will get them an interview at some disgusting financial institution.

I hold out hopes that a new radicalization will serve as a battering ram against the very forces that Vance Packard wrote about in 1958. As member of a generation now entering wintertime and beyond, my fondest hope is to serve as Lamantia did for my own generation 50 years ago. And, in my fondest hopes there is the possibility that some day we will be in the majority and allow the worshipers of Mammon to fall into the minority where they belonged all along.

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