The Free Speech Movement as an Altered State

By Michael Rossman

         I return again to the Free Speech Movement, that mysterious watershed. For nine years I read its significance mainly in social terms, seeing it as the first major revolt of the young against their parent institutions, in which simultaneously was born(e) in action an early image of a more just and fulfilling society. The years since have revealed the spotty progress of our efforts to translate these themes into the everyday reality of America. They have also hidden our retreat from another, more fundamental, aspect of the FSM experience.

        What can I call it: the existential amazement of being at the Edge, where reality breaks open into the true Chaos before it is reformed? I always felt awkward and frightened when I tried to speak of it to others, and soon stopped trying. I felt like a crazy man alone with an unverifiable reality. I knew people shared my political passions; we retreated to this safe mutual ground, constructing the interpretations of our lives. I could even talk quite sanely and clearly about the experience of transcending ego and becoming the Light, confident that some others shared it. But I never found words to describe what is still my most vivid feeling from the FSM, beyond even the intense surprises of fraternity, community, and power over my citizen life -- the sense that the surface of reality had somehow fallen away altogether.

        Nothing was any longer what it had seemed. Objects, encounters, events, all became mysterious, pregnant with unnameable implications, capable of astounding metamorphosis. I looked at the wall: yes, it was a wall, but I would not have been surprised to see it revealed in the next instant as a sheet of white ants cascading to the floor. The night throbbed with power, strange flows of energy; during the days and weeks, as we imagined an unprecedented movement into being, I felt us carried along by those flows, as if each tactical decision or chance dramatic incident were preordained, the precise inevitable consequence of a play of forces vast beyond our comprehension, which used us even as we acted in radically awakened will. There was no avoiding that sense. I know it gave many people the creeps: we hardly ever mentioned it and no one understood it, but we felt like audience and actors in a classic Greek drama, playing our free parts in an inexorable script we already knew by heart.

        We had no words for that mind-wrenching simultaneity of free will and destiny; we tried to thrust it out of awareness. Yet I could not escape the strangeness of consciousness that remained. All quarter long I felt like I was on a low dose of acid, the only experience in my past I could compare at all, watching the reality game. For two months, while events unrolled by the calendar, beneath them time seemed to stop; some ordinary progress felt suspended even while its appearances continued, and we entered a space whose properties were expanded, where chance and simultaneity and causation were one and eternal in a moment. Yet all we could see that had stopped was the university, and all we could say was that crisis politics had suspended the normal course of our lives.

        I saw us all doing something then that I wrote about later in Ramparts (January 1966) and understand more clearly now. What appeared to be our action supporting was also our reaction against what had opened through us in those transcendent hours around the police car during which a new consciousness had crystallized among us. In the following weeks we built a movement, an organized form to carry out the small fraction of our shared aim that we could name. Certainly this was a practical political necessity. But we were accomplishing something else by this also: we were creating an entity, a thing distinct from our selves, "the FSM," to relieve ourselves of some terrible and naked responsibility -- as if to say, "it's not me doing this, it's the FSM." It was not the responsibility for making something happen in society that we refused, but the responsibility for facing, alone and then together, an unsought and terrifyingly wild field of choice of actions and ways of being, in a universe in which somehow anything had become possible. To create the limited and external vehicle of the FSM was all we knew to do; but as much as affirm our collectivity, to name it so diminished it invisibly, rendered it safe to venture.

        We became understandable to ourselves, in terms almost familiar. Whatever sense of reduced authenticity we might have felt was lost in our solidarity before a hostile world that still found us incomprehensible. There was comfort in defining ourselves as passionate political actors, with an unexpected edge of joy and humor. And not even this eccentricity is preserved now, save in a few memories. All that has been recorded as history of "the FSM" are various descriptions of external political events and organizational meetings; our motivations as seen by sociologists, educators, etc.; and some longitudinal psychological profiles. Our own few writings about it are mostly of the same caste, as we came from the Academy. Beyond my cryptic note in Ramparts and one of Ralph Gleason's columns, not one public word about that inexplicable strangeness exists.

        Years later, I see that in some partial way -- yet a way broader and perhaps deeper, humanly speaking -- we succeeded together for more than a moment in what Castaneda's don Juan calls "stopping the world"; and that the strange second consciousness which haunted me was at least akin to what he calls "seeing." The key was not so much our action ("the FSM") as the awareness it evoked. In confronting social authority as directly and totally as we did, saying NO and YES in an integral act, we broke suddenly beyond the frames that bound our perceptions and our definitions of our identity, into a primal inchoate space. Here the frames were overtly psychosocial (as all cultural frames are in essence): our mystifications about power, our cultivated competitive isolation, our sense of moral decorum and civic impotence, all cracked open. The reality we saw, the possibilities, who we were -- we could scarcely avoid phrasing these in political terms. Yet even as we comforted ourselves with the busyness of organizing a brief amazing democratic cooperation, I think we were staring into the same space that opened for an instant to Castanada when don Genaro stood on his head -- the space that opens whenever we let go deep frames or have them jolted from us, in which we are in the presence of reality before interpretation. Even less prepared than Castanada to endure it, and as terrified at heart, we shut it out before realizing it, turning our energies familiar.

        No sorcerer tended or prepared us or brought us to that place; we came alone and together, amazed at what burst through us. I think sheer simultaneous commitment (multiplied by the felt imminence of death) was the force that briefly broke our collective frames, on this level as on the political plane, and led us to a collective exaltation of consciousness which, however partial and quickly suppressed, we could not have achieved as untutored individuals. All the literature and lore known to me concerning such states of awareness speak of them as being achieved in solitude or as a careful pupil, in small groups under long disciplined practice in some evolved spiritual tradition. Nothing prepares me even to recognize, let alone to understand, the phenomenon when it appears as a natural product of secular action on a mass scale.

        Yet when I turn to history I find our odd experience echoed in accounts of the Paris Commune of 1871, in legends from the syndicalist towns of the Spanish Civil War, from the early days of the French and Russian revolutions. I imagine careful search through memoirs of revolutionary incandescence would uncover many more examples (and versions) of this strange consciousness engendered and masked in the crucibles of anarchy, where in heat and under pressure people take direct responsibility for the production of their world, its social forms, their selves.

        Mostly I think of all this as my imagination, or my solitary experience. For surely I was unusually prepared to recognize weirdness in our venture, since I had had my world jolted out of familiar aspect by seminal political events before, was fresh from my first frame-breaking experiences with acid, and had a crazy pantheistic mind to begin with. But equally I can argue that many shared similar backgrounds, which served as a diffuse collective training. If I suppose that many others also felt those mysterious intimations of vision and power, but were even less able to speak them than I -- a poet and the FSM's chief mystical propagandist, who could not speak them at all -- if I suppose my reality shared, then awesome questions open.

        Suppose the frameworks of individual perception can be broken so deeply by willfully and collectively changing social reality. Can this be accomplished in many different contexts and ways? What preparations of consciousness are necessary for people collectively to "stop the world," and how can they be prepared to endure what Castanada calls "seeing'' and use the powers it opens? If "stopping the world" is at times a natural concomitant of group action in society, what is its place in the scheme of things, in the social economy; what are its potentials for our conscious evolution? I have written elsewhere about the cascade of personal changes that followed the FSM in the lives of its participants. Now I understand those individual empowerments of choice in a deeper light, and imagine that they were our isolated, ignorant, attenuated realizations of the sight thrust upon us and the transformative power that opened within us. What would be possible in fuller consciousness, alone and together? Could we change our very way of constructing and maintaining social reality -- not for historical instants but continuously, entering a higher order of culture?

        Only in the past decade has a meta-revolutionary vision begun to form. Now we speak of revolution in the revolution, of Mao's attempt to renew the "permanent revolution"; we grasp at the concept of education as a continuous unmetered process of growing beyond old frames and integrating new ones, and try to imagine an institutional vessel for this universal solvent. We fumble to express our intimation that there is a different order of transacting change in society possible to us, an integral Way transcending the praxis we now understand, mysteriously and radiantly life-giving. Dimly we are aware that to live in the permanent revolution is to live as different beings, in a different consciousness; but I think that even in the developments in Cuba and China we have not begun to grasp the true strangeness of that consciousness.

        Is all this merely my arcane fantasy, or has it some practical relevance? It is easy to write off the FSM as a chance, unique event, and its precise historical circumstance is indeed unrepeatable. But do I only imagine I have felt those distinctive energies open in the early Fillmore, the Haight, People's Park, my wedding, a dozen other gatherings of encounter and conflict? It may indeed be that we verge on breaking through into another plane of reality each time we act together to make the world strange and new, however modestly. And the occasions of our consciousness of this may be multiplying, and that consciousness itself evolving.

        For at play in our culture now on a mass scale are many influences that may prepare us, diffusely but collectively, for the consciousness of "stopping the world." Encounter, Gestalt, existential psychologies, meditative disciplines, body awareness -- all lead people to live in present time, let go some frames, grow used to the process of breaking frame. Mass psychedelic use conditions us similarly (though it seems to be waning). Cybernetics, linguistic philosophy, kinesics, physics, all the edge cognitive disciplines now lead us to recognize the world as a process of interpretation. Art and literature too move us in these ways; lord knows what the electronic media do.

        We do not even recognize mass vergings on transcendental consciousness as historical phenomena, as constructive social force; how then can we predict their preconditions? Could it be that the collective basis of our customary interpretation of reality is being undermined far more widely and dramatically than we can yet appreciate, and that it will begin to collapse in patches here and there, under less explosive impetus than the FSM, eventually almost at will, opening the door of many realities, on Earth as beyond it? We are aware that blind and deathly currents of repression gather in our culture and in us; we strive to make some integral sense of them. Can we understand them as reaction against a coming transformation of consciousness, not to this definite form or that one, but to the solvent state I cannot name?

        In this year of our lord 1973, with Nixon in power and Watergate reassuring us that the world is in cold order, all this may seem absurd. Yet already it is clear that the attempt to turn the clock back to the 1950s, before the advent of the threateningly strange, has failed. All the forces opened in the past decade continue to tear the fabric of our consciousness, in a time of re-evaluation of America's international position and the nature of man. Do I only imagine that an impulse ten years ago confined to small and mostly political vanguards continues to diffuse through our culture, and that more people than before, albeit in less public ways, are making sharp breaks of frame? And that almost all are quickly clothing the naked Edge they encounter in some limited and static interpretive orthodoxy?

        It is this tendency most of all that concerns me -- or frightens me, if you will, in some ways even more than the naked Void. During the FSM we were graced by the sympathetic ministry of a young Protestant theologian, T. Walter Herbert -- a man unmentioned in its histories, but important to some of us who, even then, were struggling in ostensibly political ways against this urge to tie reality down in authoritative and limited form. Walt saw this as the working in the world of Original Sin. His frame was foreign to me then, and still is largely so. But I know no sharper way to describe this binding, and what we close ourselves from by it, than as our refusal of our godhood. Secular, spiritual, the struggle is the same as it always was: against deathly static orthodoxies that threaten to devour our consciousness, hold our being incomplete.


April 1973

Return to: Top | FSM Contents | New Age Blues | Home