Summer Of Love
Mahesh's innovation was to translate the Hindu religious rite of Yogic meditation into a minimal format that could easily fit into the busy lives of 20th Century humans around the world. Transcendental Meditation, which became the brand name for his particular approach, involved no spiritual mysticism, and was compatible with any religious or even non-religious viewpoint. Each person was given a "mantra", a secret word, which they would focus their minds upon for 20 minutes at a time, approximately twice a day. This practice became popular around the world in the 1960's, especially in late 1967 and early 1968 when the Beatles briefly declared themselves members of the Mahirishi's movement.
Whether following the "TM" technique or not, meditation has become a part of American culture, and Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi is largely to thank for this undeniably positive development. People meditate in many different ways, but Mahesh's organization is still highly active. The great film director David Lynch wrote a book two years ago called Catching the Big Fish that explains how the practice of TM has made his career possible. Here he talks about his first experience with the technique:
So in July 1973 I went to the TM center in Los Angeles and met an instructor, and I liked her. She looked like Doris Day. And she taught me this technique. She gave me a mantra, which is a sound-vibration-thought. You don't meditate on he meaning of it, but it's a very specific sound-vibration-thought.
She took me into a little room to have my first meditation. I sat down, closed my eyes, started this mantra, and it was as if I were in an elevator and the cable had been cut. Boom! I fell into bliss -- pure bliss.
According to Jonathan Gould in Can't Buy Me Love, the Beatles had a more complex ongoing relationship with the Mahirishi's philosophy than is commonly known. John Lennon and George Harrison were the two who took it seriously, and according to Gould the song "Across the Universe" was originally written as a description of the experience of meditation:
restless wind inside a letter box
they tumble blindly as
they make their way across the universe
Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
I am not a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation or any other specific approach, but I have been very influenced by this practice because I was introduced to it by my grandparents many years ago. My grandmother Jeannette Schwartz had attended one of the Mahirishi's introductions to meditation in the early 1970's, and became a lifelong convert. My grandfather Sidney enjoyed meditating too, and all of us grandchildren were given mantras and instructed to do our twenty minutes at a time together, twice a day, whenever we visited. I wrote some more about this when Grandma Jeannette died on Valentine's Day, 2002.
My grandparents never stopped meditating, and I have occasionally kept up the practice myself, though truly I'm a mediocre meditator at best. It seems to me that David Lynch or other enthusiastic followers of TM may alienate people with this "elevator drop pure bliss" stuff, since I've meditated a lot and find that it's usually nowhere near that exciting. Still, meditation does feel good, and it does help you expand the way you are thinking about the things in your life.
The Mahirishi has taken much criticism for his sometimes simplistic teachings, not to mention his often outrageous style. He giggles a lot and has been criticized for avoiding serious real-world politics and basking in luxury while the world suffers. He has generally worked as a peace activist, and as a sardonic, good-natured critic of Western materialism. Unlike other "modern mystics", there is nothing remotely cultish or megalomaniacal about the Mahirishi, or about his Transcendental Meditation movement.
It's too simple to be a cult. TM is all about this: 20 minutes at a time, twice a day. That's the whole thing. That's what the Mahirishi says you should do, and who thinks it's not worth a try?
Here are some other articles worth a look.
Neal Cassady, the real-life model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On The Road, died forty years ago today, on February 4, 1968. There was recently much celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of On The Road, and it provides a sad perspective to put these anniversaries together and realize that On The Road gave Neal Cassady exactly one decade of literary "fame" before he died at the age of 42.
This anniversary seemed like a good occasion for me to email Carolyn Cassady a few wide-ranging questions, which she was kind enough to answer from her home in London:
Levi: So much has changed in the world since February 4th, 1968. Or has it? If Neal has been looking down on us all for all these years, what do you think he would say about the state of the world in 2008?
Carolyn: If Neal were watching us since the time he departed this planet, I think he would feel as I do that it is in a very sad state. He was such a loving person, and there is so little evidence of that in the affairs of the world. Acquiring money and/or power at any cost appears to be the religion and goal. Every time there's an "improvement" in products, they're much worse. Selfishness.
Levi: I know that you and Neal were interested together in the teachings of spiritual leader Edgar Cayce (by the way, I had a piano teacher as a kid who was a Caycean, so I know a little about it). Have you remained involved with this movement, and what do you think about it today?
Carolyn:Neal and I used the Cayce connection as the springboard for further studies in occult lore. We didn't continue after the first few years with just that. We explored all the scriptures from early Eastern systems, the Theosophists, Max Heindel, etc etc., and I became interested in Astrology. I am poor at interpretation, but I get a little. Otherwise, the teachings of that accumulated search and the present-day Truth movements, like Unity satisfy my needs nicely, and I try to live by the wisdom of the ages as best I can.
Levi: How do you feel about today's literature? What books have you recently enjoyed reading, and are there any newer writers you like, or any newer or older writers you can't stand?
Carolyn: I'm not an authority on today's literature. I read very few novels; I like biographies, documentaries and maybe historical novels. I have read more English writers since moving here, and I havaen't read any more American ones. I have enjoyed Julian Barnes, Jude Morgan, Roddy Doyle, Peter Ackroyd to name a few. I do read reviews in literary magazines so remain interested in trends.
Levi: Can you think of any surprising truth or fact about Neal Cassady (or about the times you spent with Neal and Jack Kerouac and the rest of the gang) that the world does not yet know?
Carolyn: My dear, my book is full of surprising truths about the lads, but not enough people read it or read it carefully. So there are still masses of myths and misinformation everywhere.
Levi: Is the date of February 4, 2008 going to be an especially significant one for you and your children? And do you have any thoughts you'd like to share on this 40th anniversary?
Carolyn: I remember February 4 with affection both for Neal and for Anne Murphy, who's birthday it is. I understand the Beat Museum in San Francisco is celebrating Neal's birthday on the 8th, but I am not included in that in any way -- except Neal's children will be there. I always think of Neal with gratitude for teaching me so much wisdom about life; I feel privileged to have known him, and I miss him always. He was a unique individual in spades.
Carolyn also told me: "You know how tired I am of living in the past, but I guess it's what makes the present." I don't like living in the past either, but I'll make an exception for Neal Cassady, because he has always been one of my very favorite Beat Generation figures. Some of the very first articles published on Literary Kicks were about the connected careers of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey, and probably the very first exciting and impressive thing that happened to me after launching LitKicks was that I was put into contact with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who had circulated a short article about the origin of the Grateful Dead song "Cassidy" online. I asked if I could give the piece a home on LitKicks, he happily agreed, and you can still read his excellent piece about "Cassidy" and Cassady here.
The following year I got a chance to interview John Allen Cassady, Neal's son, which was a very special event because John had not spoken out in public about his experiences as a child among Neal, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the rest of the Beat crowd before. This interview meant a lot to me (and also helped put LitKicks "on the map", which I appreciated very much). I always sensed a deep, earthy warmth emanating from the members of Neal Cassady's family (and if you've ever dealt with literary estates or families, you know that deep, earthy warmth is not often what emanates from these sources). This seemed to speak, as did many other indicators, for an essential simple human goodness at the heart of Neal Cassady's legacy in this world.
"Did You Hear Neal Cassady Died?"
-- The Washington Squares
Did you hear Neal Cassady died?
Lying on the tracks down in Mexico
Did you hear Neal Cassady died, last night?
Can you see Neal Cassady drive?
An old car and a girl in heaven alive
Can you see Neal Cassady drive, last night?
He was a-lying on the tracks down in Mexico
What a sad, sad, lonely way to go
for the king of the hipster daddy-0's ...
Two years after On The Road became a smash success, Neal was arrested and convicted for selling a small amount of marijuana and spent two years separated from Carolyn and his children as a prisoner in San Quentin. Jack Kerouac never stopped blaming himself for ruining a hard-working family man's life by making him a celebrity lawbreaker and a target for law enforcement. After returning home following two years in jail, Neal juggled his job and large family precariously along with his crazy wanderings among Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and various crazy hipsters coalescing around the growing San Francisco music scene.
Neal was found dead by the side of a railroad track in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where he'd been staying with friends. According to Carolyn Cassady's Off The Road, he had walked a quarter mile south towards the nearby town of Celaya when he seemed to have stopped walking. The manner of his death has always seemed significant -- of what? I'm not sure. But I tried to estimate where exactly this might have been on Google Maps, and this satellite image may show the spot:
Best wishes to the Cassady family. Of course, the spirit lives on.
I just read on Sarah Weinman's site that Ira Levin has died. Ira Levin was the author of Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, two bestselling novels I enjoyed greatly when I was a kid in the 70's reading under the influence of my Grandma, my mom and my sister. These books were both made into excellent movies, of course (Roman Polanksi's chic spin on Rosemary's Baby was especially good) but the books were fun to read too. Ira Levin specialized in conspiracy theories: Rosemary's Baby presented a Satanic conspiracy and Stepford Wives a male chauvinist conspiracy. But Ira Levin wrote another conspiracy novel, This Perfect Day, which I also read as a teenager and liked perhaps even better than the other two.
Why did teenage me read this strange and even then little-known book, which depicts a rebel named Li RM35M4419 (nickname: Chip) who takes on a totalitarian government managed by a giant computer named UniComp? I guess I had a lot of time on my hands, but this often paid off, and This Perfect Day was a very exciting and rewarding read. I don't want to give away the core secret conspiracy that is revealed during the course of This Perfect Day, but perhaps I can suggest that some readers may want to honor this author's death not by rereading the familiar bestsellers but by finding copies of this one instead. You can read the Wikipedia page above if you don't mind a spoiler (no, UniComp is not gay) and I'll just say that the book does come up with a good payoff and stands up to 1984, Animal Farm, Slapstick, Brave New World and other totalitarian fables. Like these novels, it touches upon fascism, Stalinism and Maoism, but Ira Levin has more fun with these concepts than any of the others (except maybe Slapstick, since nobody ever had more fun with a concept than Kurt Vonnegut).
The book also offers a highly original message that has something to do with co-optation of the underground. Dana Spiotto's recent Eat The Document tells a similar story in a very different way.
I'll update this page with more links about Ira Levin as I find them. Farewell to a highly original author, Ira Levin of New York City, 78 years old.
I interviewed Philomene here on LitKicks last year. I was fascinated by the fact that she was a nun before she was a beat poet, and we talked a lot about religion during this interview. Philomene was also a filmmaker, as well as a close friend and creative partner of Charles Bukowski. You can read more about here at this Empty Mirror Books page or this other Empty Mirror Books page. Here's an interview with the Santa Monica Mirror, and here's an early LitKicks review of her movie, The Beats: An Existential Comedy.
But for the best link of all, check out Philomene and her husband John Thomas Philomene reading the great poem "Marriage" by Gregory Corso on YouTube.
A friend of mine literally screamed -- a spontaneous burst of horror -- when she spotted the new edition of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a once-popular book from the 1970's, on a bookstore shelf. Richard Bach's slightly corny fable about a bird who wants to fly faster and better was the "Da Vinci Code" of its age, and people usually either like it or violently hate it. I read it when I was a kid and thought it was pretty good. Whether it deserves a comeback or not, I'm really not sure.
This book was a classic of the late hippie age, the early 70's, and as a kid I remember it showing up on the same bookshelves that would house Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I'm O.K. You're O.K. I sat down and read the whole book at one point -- you could read it in a single sitting -- but it didn't make a gigantic impression on me. I liked the positive message, but it all felt a little humorless and simplistic. But then, what did I expect? It's a book about a seagull who thinks in English.
I always felt the triumph of Jonathan Livingston Seagull was partly the triumph of great book design. The cover is as much a work of pop art as anything Andy Warhol ever did, transforming a seagull's body and spread wings into a cool, perfect white curve. The arrangement also neatly echoes the book's basic theme: the pursuit of white-light perfection. The deep blue background is bold yet calming, the typography modest and modern. I sometimes think the book designer Chip Kidd is overrated; he still hasn't done a cover as good as Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And I'm happy to report that the new paperback edition leaves the design mostly intact, though the book is slightly wider and larger.
The aesthetic didn't survive the transition to film, though. The film was supposed to have been really bad, and I have never met anybody who's seen it. I don't even know if Neil Diamond ever saw it, and he did the music. If you've seen it, please tell us everything you remember.
Richard Bach's follow-up novel Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah also suffered from a mediocre cover design, with a feather motif that unfortunately foretold the coming horrors of "Forrest Gump".
Richard Bach is still writing, and commands a loyal audience to this day.
PS: Hey, I'm a heartthrob.
Kurt Vonnegut, whose enjoyably experimental novels vastly increased my appetite for literature when I was a kid, has died at the age of 84.
A thoroughly political and philosophical writer, Kurt Vonnegut argued zealously for the place of human kindness amid the crushing tumult of modern life. His literary expressions of this messsage were sometimes simple, sometimes repetitive -- not because his intellect was limited, but because his conviction on this point was massive. "There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"
Who knows whether or not the Vonnegut Message was crystallized during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II, which he witnessed and wrote about in Slaughterhouse-Five? This coincidence of history gave him a personal vision of all-consuming hell on earth. The surreal horror of Dresden must have been magnified by the fact that Vonnegut was a German-American held as prisoner by enemy Germans underneath the city as it burned (he worked out many of his contradictory feelings about war, about violence, about human stupidity in novels like Mother Night, Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater).
My first favorite Vonnegut novel was Breakfast of Champions, in which a cloddish car dealer named Dwayne Hoover becomes convinced that other humans have no feelings, that he is the only sentient being on earth. This book exemplifies Vonnegut's freewheeling and highly personal prose style, complete (in this case) with childish illustrations designed to puncture any sense of pretension or grandeur regarding the novel form.
Another early favorite of mine was Welcome to the Monkey House, a highly accessible collection of stories. The title story involves a monkey in a zoo whose scandalous sexual behavior shocks a prudish parent.
Slapstick is considered "late-period" Vonnegut and is often not listed among his best books, but this sad apocalyptic satire has always stuck with me. In a decimated future Earth, survivors desperately try to reconnect with the distant human capacity for love by forming into arbitrary "tribes" with names like Oyster, Hollyhock, Daffodil, Amoeba, Beryllium, Watermelon, Chickadee, Helium and Strawberry. If you meet someone who belongs to the same tribe, you're supposed to be nice to that person.
Close Slapstick, and we're back in reality, where humanity divides itself into tribes called American, Mexican, French, Russian, Chinese, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sunni, Shiite, Liberal, Conservative. The slapstick is all around us. The master satirist is gone, and the player piano plays on.
The industry is buzzing about chick-lit again. I don't know much about this whole phenomenon, except in a strange way I do, because I was raised on chick-lit. As a kid in the 1970s, the first grownup books I read (and really enjoyed) were the racy, funny and wise novels that my grandmother, my mother and my older sister left lying around the house. These books had a big influence on me, and I wonder if the chick-lit of today could possibly be as good.
But that was then. This is now. I'm very happy about the news that hippie/Vietnam-era novelist Robert Stone has written a memoir called Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, and I would normally have been happy about the news that the Book Review assigned one of its better critics, Walter Kirn, to review it. Alas, Kirn's article is uncharacteristically bad. Here's his terrible opening paragraph, which seems to be a generic meditation upon the art of memoir-writing that bears no relation to Stone's actual book:
Time passes, and what it passes through is people - though people believe that they are passing through time, and even, at certain euphoric moments, directing time. It's a delusion, but it's where memoirs come from, or at least the very best ones. They tell how destiny presses on desire and how desire pushes back, sometimes heroically, always poignantly, but never quite victoriously. Life is an upstream, not an uphill, battle, and it results in just one story: how, and alongside whom, one used his paddle.
Kirn: who cares about this crap? Tell us about the book you're reviewing. I'd appreciate this unsolicited burst of metaphysics better if it actually said something, but Ludwig Wittgenstein would rightly choke on a formula like "Time passes, and what it passes through is people -- though people believe that they are passing through time." I'd like to invoke William James and ask Kirn exactly how we can tell the difference between people passing through time and time passing through people (if we can't tell the difference, according to either James or Wittgenstein or any other worthwhile modern philosopher, then the writer is simply playing with words).
Kirn starts to recover from the bad beginning with a funny riff about a thick mass of penguins representing "Stone's own generation sailing chaotically into view". But he proves too eager to mock and minimize the idealism of the 1960's, which he says "disappointed us" and gave us Timothy Leary and Charles Manson. Personally, I'd rather remember Martin Luther King, Abbie Hoffman and John Lennon, and I'd like to point out that most other decades (certainly including our current one) have disappointed us worse. Oh yeah, and what about Stone's book? I'll have to pick up a copy to get a clue what's in it, since Kirn's article is more concerned with other things.
On the positive side, Paul Gray's review of Vikram Chandra's 916-page Sacred Games is a worthy performance, and since I don't have time to read 916 pages of Vikram Chandra anytime soon, it's as close to the actual novel as I will probably ever get. Dave Itzkoff produces a lively consideration of Michael Crichton's Next, and Elissa Schappel is amusing on the subject of Neal Pollack's Alternadad.
I'm very happy (as is Ed) to see an endpaper by Richard Powers, How to Speak a Book, in which the superb novelist argues that computer-based dictation provides a more natural way to write than typing. Powers buttresses his argument with an impressive sweep of references from Milton to Dostoevsky to Beckett and Joyce, and it's an enjoyable piece, but the novelist strains credibility with this passage:
What could be less conducive to thought's cadences than stopping every time your short term memory fills to pass those large-scale musical phrases through your fingers, one tedious letter at a time? You'd be hard-pressed to invent a greater barrier to cognitive flow.
This is surprisingly weak stuff. The author of Galatea 2.2 certainly knows that the human brain is capable of allowing output processes to send repititive motion impulses to the fingers without disrupting the flow of imagination or cognition. I am typing right now, and I am also thinking; there is no conflict at all. Also, I wouldn't be the slightest bit hard-pressed to invent a greater barrier to cognitive flow than typing. Here are just a few: crying babies, day jobs, broken limbs, noisy friends, that horrible "My Humps" song by the Black-Eyed Peas. I could go on if you'd like.
If I seem to be complaining a lot, I'll try to be nicer next week, but I also must point out an amazing coincidence of two (2) factual errors in this week's issue both relating to Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac's On The Road. George Johnson, opens his review of Freeman Dyson's The Scientist as Rebel thus:
In June 1948, as Jack Kerouac was recovering from another of the amphetamine-fueled joy rides immortalized in "On The Road", Freeman Dyson, a young British physicist studying at Cornell, set off on a road trip of a different kind.
WRONG. Jack Kerouac was on speed when he wrote On The Road years later (typing on a scroll, Richard Powers would like to know), but the Cassady-Kerouac On The Road adventures were mostly fueled by marijuana and alcohol. Walter Kirn then tells us, speaking of Robert Stone's partner-in-crime Ken Kesey, who was briefly a fugitive in Mexico:
In time, Kesey's hideout from the narcs up north becomes a Gilligan's Island for shipwrecked beatniks, including Jack Kerouac's old sidekick, Neal Cassady ...
WRONG. Neal Cassady had been escaping to Mexico long before Ken Kesey showed up there. If anything, Ken Kesey was playing Gilligan to Cassady's Skipper when he crossed the border.
I'm back, NYTBR fact-checkers. Did you think you got rid of me for good?
The blogosphere would seem an ideal forum for literary feuding, but more often than not Web feuds devolve into baroque strings of sub-literate name-calling.
Yeah, we're so sub-literate here. We can barely form sentences. HALP US RAYCHL WE AR STUK IN THE BLOGISPHEAR.
Fortunately, the rest of this week's Book Review takes a surprising turn for the better. It's a theme issue devoted to "Bad Boys, Mean Girls, Revolutionaries, Outlaws and Beautiful Losers". The occasion is the appearance of several new books about Neal Cassady (a biography by David Sandison and Graham Vickers), Hunter S. Thompson (a memoir by Hunter's artist/collaborator Ralph Steadman), Allen Ginsberg (a biography by Bill Morgan), Al Goldstein (an autobiography), Edward Abbey (a volume of correspondence, edited by David Petersen), Charles Bukowski (a biography by Barry Miles), Courtney Love (an autobiography), Tennessee Williams (a reissued autobiography) and lit-groupie/short-story writer Alice Denham (a memoir of sexual encounters with the likes of James Jones, Philip Roth, Nelson Algren and Joseph Heller).
It's odd to see the NYTBR paying so much attention to the writers I love best, and in fact I feel so over-familiar with much of the material discussed in these books that I have trouble reading about it fresh (I could write a biography of Allen Ginsberg or Neal Cassady). But I found Walter Kirn's piece on Allen Ginsberg the most exciting to read. Kirn works himself up into a Ginsberg-ian state of exstasis, which is really the only appropriate way to approach the work of Allen. I like stuff like this:
Ginsberg, the hang-loose anti-Ike. Ginsberg, the organization man unzipped. The vulnerable obverse of the Bomb. He had the belly of a Buddha, the facial hair of a Walt Whitman ...
And I like Kirn's closer paragraph:
Silence -- the one mistake Ginsberg never made. And because of the work he left, the life he led and the care that's been taken preserving them, it's one that he probably never will.
John Waters' passionate tribute to his idol Tennessee Williams is a good read (and I like the well-chosen accompanying photo that shows Tennessee in exactly the clipped moustache and slick suit that would become John Waters' uniform; so that's where he got it).
Jonathan Miles does a good job of explaining why we should care about Edward Abbey, a maddened environmentalist usually at odds with the flower-power 1960's. Ron Powers has some interesting things to say about Barry Miles' book on Charles Bukowski, though Powers dismisses the biographer as "a British bookstore owner in the late 1960's". Actually, Barry Miles was a founding member of the International Times and an important creative force in the London underground scene whose life and encounters with the likes of Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, John Lennon and Yoko One could be the subject of an interesting book all its own (and if Barry's out there, I hope he'll take the hint and write this book next).
Emily Nussbaum is amusing on the topic of Courtney Love, though she focuses more on Courtney's naughty mothering habits than on her talents as a songwriter and musician (I've always been a Hole fan and I'm looking forward to Courtney's new CD). Will Blythe does a decent job of summaring Steadman's book on Hunter, which I plan to read if I can find the time. James Campbell on the new Neal Cassady biography left me a bit cold, but maybe that's only because I've always wanted to write this biography myself (and never got started).
Despite all this coverage of our outlaw favorites, my favorite literary reading in today's New York Times was a superb piece on Irish poet Paul Muldoon by Charles McGrath in the New York Times Magazine.
We may have to sic the Katie Couric police on Farrar Straus Giroux, because the book in this ad is at least 200 pages thinner than the actual book, which I took a quick snapshot of here:
A scandal? Hardly. The most likely explanation is a lazy temp in the FSG art department who pasted the cover and spine on a stock photo and took an early lunch. But, shouldn't an advertised image look like the object it is representing? And could there possibly be a marketing strategy behind the not-so-subtle transformation?
The Echo Maker is a hefty 451-page book about brain injury, spoilation of nature and sibling bonds. It's a great book, but it doesn't have "blockbuster" written all over it, and the National Book Award nomination probably won't help. But it does have a bird on the cover, and maybe somebody in sales was reminiscing about a slender little 128-pager called Jonathan Livingston Seagull that once sold four gazillion copies. This has been your conspiracy theory of the day; thank you for tuning in.
2. I haven't read much by William Styron, who has passed away, though I was impressed with the film version of Sophie's Choice and I've always wanted to read Darkness Visible. Some good William Styron links can be found at The Elegant Variation.
3. The Elegant Variation also offers a fascinating personal glance at the literature of the Hungarian revolution exactly fifty years ago.
4. Edges, a novel by Leora Skolkin-Smith about a teenage girl growing up on the borders between Jewish and Arab communities in Israel and Palestine, will be the basis of an audio performance by acclaimed actress Tovah Feldshuh. She should be a good match for this intriguing material.
5. I love this video, a massive group interpretive dance of protein synthesis (via Boing Boing). Ahh, the 70's, when people did stuff like this.