A Phenomenon of the Seventies
by Michael Rossman
I first became aware of something called EST -- an organization, a process -- through enthusiastic rumors, which called it unique, as rumor did every enterprise of consciousness transformation that sprang up during the decade. Few, however, had the taste to name themselves explicitly after the charismatic leader/organizer at their core, as Erhard Seminar Training did when Werner Erhard began it in 1971.
Soon enough, EST touched my life more directly, at first through coy messages in my newspaper, EST's only purchased publicity, to announce that its latest mass "guest seminar" was sold out well in advance -- which it regularly was -- announcing also a unique sophistication at least of advertising style. (This coyness was consistent: to advertise its modesty, EST insisted on the lower-case "est" as its name, a convention ignored here -- though I dwell below on EST's general dependence on paradoxical intention.) Then our connection grew more intimate, as a friend came back transformed from the basic EST immersion process.
Jason had been a somewhat troubled man before, like so many of us. His change seemed sudden and remarkable. He became unfailingly cheery and optimistic, stopped snapping at his kids and the wife he finally left, abandoned various crutches. Radiant and intense, he had taken himself and his life in hand as his own responsibility, and seemed altogether improved. And he gave me the creeps, or, as he would say, I chose to feel them -- as I did, rather than wish them away. It wasn't because he spoke with the smugness of one who has just discovered Jesus but is too polite to proselytize; nor because his eyes shone, since everyone's do when they're on fire, whatever the spark. There was instead some rigid and mechanical quality to his way of conceiving and dealing with everything -- ideas, others, himself, it made no difference -- always there seemed something cold, desperate, tightly controlled within the appearance of warm ease and calm which he wore so pleasantly and used to such genuine good effect.
Moreover, there was the matter of anger. It was no business of mine if Jason had suddenly, against former inclination, ceased to get angry about anything whatsoever for any reason, as one presumes adults are responsible for experimenting with themselves (though as a friend I could not help but cock an eyebrow). But when the kids in the play group Jason helped run -- a normal, squabbling pack of late two-year-olds -- started telling each other in childish mouthing of the adult formulas that they shouldn't ever get angry, and that whatever pissed anyone off was his or her own fault in the first place, I grew uneasy.
All in all, the dissonance was extreme, and put me on edge every time. Whatever Jason had been through was potent and complex. Wanting to know more about its spirit than he could tell me by describing its process, I went as his guest to an early mass EST seminar -- like any, an evening with Werner.
All I remember is the totalitarian chill I felt as I sat in Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, watching 3,000 people lap up Erhard as he rapped it all down to them, and wondering why I felt more terrified there than in any violent demonstration of the 1960s. Erhard's overt message was that reality is not what we take it to be; and everything he said, from his use of quantum physics metaphors to his peppy recaps of what all the high teachings teach, seemed to me true enough, if hardly news, and even rather well put. But this truth and clarity were beside the point, for the medium was the active message: a theater of degradation, lit harshly by the condescension and scorn of Erhard's attitude and words. It wasn't just that he told us repeatedly what stupid fools we were for thinking and handling our lives as we did, for even such language may serve a didactic purpose. His scorn for our stupidity was more than didactic: it seemed real, sincere, superior, complete. Look at me, he was saying in essence, prancing on the stage, I'm the model of how you should be, I'm with It and a winner, and you're jerks and losers because you're not like me. And 3,000 heads nodded yes, and 6,000 hands clapped at his bons mots of general cruelty, convinced that they were grace.
What chilled me was not simply the glad subscription to insult, but the spectacle within it of relatively intelligent people handing over their minds en masse, if only for this while, for someone to tell them what was and who they were. It seemed a deep debasement. Yet Erhard clearly had a terrific sales pitch; the rafters rang each time he paused for effect. Whatever was being sold there was more precise and powerful emotionally than intellectually, and people were hungry to buy it: the waiting lists for the EST "experience" were stacked up months in advance.
Given that our evening's tone was a foretaste of the experience itself, I could see why Jason and the other EST "graduates" I knew by then so often sounded as if they had been miserable, wrong, lost, and now were saved, healed, redeemed, right. And I could see why even people who hated Erhard for his arrogance of judgment, but paid their money anyway because some friend had genuinely benefited from the experience, so often came out adoring him. For how, if you learned something positive that was indeed of the nature he claimed, could you not at some deep level be grateful to, and internalize the broader judgment of, the man who did it to you so intimately and against your former will? Especially if he taught you that you did it to yourself?
As the 1970s advanced, EST and Erhard prospered, becoming for several years the hottest, or at least the most-discussed, operation in the new consciousness industry. By 1975, their reknown had spread from its San Francisco hotbed origin; journalists in national magazines were variously pumping Erhard up as the most remarkable man on earth, or singling EST out as a prime example of the psychic boot camps of the day, and a prime purveyor of the narcissistic ideas and attitudes that led Tom Wolfe and others to name this "the Me decade." Lord knows, the attention was justified, both for the weight of the issues involved, and because the EST/Erhard operation was indeed, in every aspect of its working, such a paradigm. Some of these aspects seem to me still to be worth discussing, less as reportage on EST itself than because they suggest how an organization more overt in its social goals than EST, and more effective at mobilizing broadly the energies I witnessed in that auditorium, might proceed in times to come.
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The EST "experience" received much attention as a paragon of aggressive pedagogy. Two hundred people were herded together through two weekends of marathon sessions, endured hours of superamplified harangue, were kept from eating, peeing, moving, sleeping; sometimes the doors were locked to keep them in. It was a process of deprivation, discomfort, assault from above and from peers; of isolation, fatigue, and depersonalization -- except for the many hours of guided meditations and visualizations, per the leader's instructions, in a state of light hypnagogic trance deepened by all these factors.
These features of the process seemed adequately to account for its impact, and few critics questioned it further. You can teach almost anyone almost anything by such methods, and many people were disturbed by their sheer macho character and seemingly fascistic tone. Yet the righteous indignation of outsiders was betrayed by the righteous fact that EST enthusiasts appeared to know quite well what they were getting into, voluntarily; and on the whole to be quite happy with what they learned, which in its application to their lives seemed more often than not benign and powerful, at least in immediate consequence. Given this, critics were mostly reduced to carping about the pernicious social ideas which people seemed to absorb in their EST training (which I shall describe below). And all that most could say, in response to EST supporters who claimed that the process was unique and that it was impossible to judge it (and EST) without going through it, was "I think I know what you mean, and no thanks, no way."
The less polite said, "The smell is enough, I don't have to step in it to know what it is;" but I think they were mistaken. For there was indeed something more special about the EST process, some precise trick intimately connected with the experiential knowledge which EST claimed to teach, which neither friend nor foe ever discussed in public so far as I could tell. By an unlikely accident, I had a modestly unique perspective on what it was -- or so I think still, as I myself had run a consciousness game somewhat like EST for several years, in quite a different context, and had already described in print some of its remarkable character. (*)
We called it the Totalitarian Classroom Game. (Cherishers of irony will note that these details are genuine.) It was developed by a young professor, Neil Kleinman, who was deeply involved both in the study of reflexive theater and in developing a brilliant analysis of the social-iconographic processes, the manipulations of aesthetic reality, which underlay the rise of fascism in Hitler's Germany. Moved by the spirit of educational reform then blooming on the campuses (1968), Neil brought these themes together into a game which he played with the English class he taught, to try to decondition the students from their accustomed roles of learning; and I developed the game a bit further as I took it out from Neil's campus into the broader network of educational reform, where it spread and perhaps is still played here and there.
The TCG's gimmick, its key technique, is simple and profound. It begins as a general discussion, led by the teacher, of how people conduct themselves as "good learners" in the social space of the classroom and alone. Then it turns reflexive (i.e., self-descriptive) as the teacher begins to point out the ways in which each person is playing out the detailed social roles of "good learner" that he or she has been conditioned (and has conditioned him- or herself) to play, even in the very act of describing his or her own conditioning. The game becomes excruciating as the teacher -- by now aided by a wolf-pack of willing critics who have got the (first) idea, good students all -- rubs everyone's face in the fact that they still can't stop playing their conditioned roles, even knowing what they're doing. The dissonance, pain, and confusion mount, sometimes to incredible heights; the players' senses of reality and self begin to come apart; and then there is a snap, a leap of consciousness, as first one in detached amazement or angry rebellion and then many realize that not only their own acts but the entire social situation which these support, this present theater of authoritarian pedagogy, are only voluntary constructs, limited and limiting, which they may then begin to recreate, both alone and together.
Like the TCG, the EST process depended upon such a cognitive and psychic jujitsu, working consciousness against itself to "raise" it to a "higher" level. Using the literal metaphor of its participants' discomfort, subjugation, etc., EST drove them to realize that their general senses of frustration, impotence, oppression, etc., and the ways they went about acting these out in the world, were vitally ("totally") of their own creation -- old programs, so to speak, which, once recognized, could be discarded and replaced with new programs.
EST made a big deal of the process, as if it were a trade secret; Erhard's coy formula was that the idea of EST was to get "It," but that there was no It to get, only the truth that "what Is, Is"; and sure enough, EST graduates agreed. But this is surely true, and every high teaching that has taught it experientially has depended on leading its students by some version of this key process, this jujitsu, to encounter and transcend their own habits of shaping their consciousness -- though most teachings, through their own uses of koans, meditations, etc., have chosen gentler and often less authoritarian ways of preparing this encounter.
The thrust of such traditional practices is spiritual; but Erhard and EST turned this psychic technology to secular use, to inspire people to recreate their personal lives as they experienced them in the world. As for Neil and I and our friends, we were not so spiritually hip in those earlier days. But we were secular with a vengeance, as the TCG was created just before we went to the '68 Democratic convention, in that ambiance of commitments. And though we never "processed" more than a handful of people compared to EST's hundreds of thousands, and affected quite more modestly the lives of those we touched, the differences between our uses of this potent technology and Erhard's (and tradition's generally) are worth remarking.
The key difference was that in our games, the roles examined and the consciousness transcended were both personal and social, simultaneously and inseparably; and our goal likewise was both personal and social, to recreate not only our private learning styles, but the modes of learning we pursued together, and ultimately the institutions of learning through which we pursued them. In this "holistic" operation, the leader of our game was not insulated from either its cognitive or its social processes of transformation. Instead, he was on stage and vulnerable as an agent and player of the game himself or herself; and was led by self and others to confront his own construction of self, his own tricks and reasons for playing the classroom tyrant (the "good teacher") so harshly or so softly but always so well. And after the agony had broken and been discussed, all its players, the leader included, were left as peers in an existential democracy of consciousness, faced with the challenge of constructing a new way of being in learning, alone and together -- with little in pedagogical or cultural tradition to guide them, beyond their choice not to recreate the selves and processes of the traditional authoritarian learning-game that they had just experienced driven to a special extreme.
By contrast, EST's emphasis was purely personal and privatizing. Not simply its brutal process, but the way its thoughts were phrased, the particular ideas that were hammered home incessantly while people were vulnerable to them, led people not only to a transcendent leap of consciousness recognizing their own part in constructing and interpreting their reality, but simultaneously to the absolute denial of anyone else's responsibility -- parents, mate, boss, politicians, the CIA, whoever -- for affecting their "ultimate" reality or their comprehension of it. Of course, even their most private interpretations and responsibilities remained also intrinsically mutual, if only because the very terms of private understanding were even there being mutually forged and validated. But given EST's one-sided, subtle mystification, and the incautious solipsism it encouraged, there was no ground for EST recruits to grasp even their own roles there, let alone Erhard's and his lieutenants', as being social, mutually self-creating; and as being in this regard quite as arbitrary, as unnecessarily limited and limiting, and as reformable, as their "simply personal" ways and games appeared to be.
In sum, many people seemed to emerge from the EST experience with their "private” mystifications about self-construction somewhat broken, and thus freed; yet with the social mystification, and the social processes of self-construction, perfectly intact and indeed placed beyond question -- and moreover with the dazed conviction, guaranteed by the punch of the process whenever it took, that they had the whole answer in what they had been led to understand. As EST graduates unscrambled their brains afterward and set about vigorously applying their lessons to life, it occurred to few that after realizing that they could reprogram themselves through solipsistic will alone, they had nonetheless set about this by using the ideas, the jargons, the programs for self-programming which told just how to do it and what it meant -- which EST had so conveniently developed, and provided not only as part of the basic experience but in an endless chain of subsequent EST seminars, which offered guidance in their application to every major realm of private life (sex, family, health, money, etc.) to the 80 percent of EST graduates who pursued them; and which were offered (get this) for free, or at a cost so nominal it hardly mattered.
All in all, it was a tremendous coup, pedagogically speaking, at least if social schizophrenia were the object, a dazzlingly effective operation. I met no one who'd been through EST, read no one's analysis, with a language sufficiently subtle and precise to describe the mystifying meta-game which EST depended upon and comprised. Instead, I witnessed the spectacle of many interpretations of reality and self being reduced to one, to a stock set of formulas, with no one involved seeming to wonder at this, or indeed quite able to; and no one outside quite naming the powerful magic by which it happened. As for Erhard, I don't know what he felt; but as efficiently as if the outcome were so designed, he, and beneath him his entourage, were left in overall control, mapping out a set of processes and meanings for others to learn And I imagined Erhard in the center, lord of the enterprise, beaming each time an EST recruit said with conviction that he or she made his or her own reality, was totally responsible for himself or herself.
This account of EST's key psychic technique and mystification is awkward and dry, too technical yet too vague and sketchy. But some such accounting needs be made, for it was no accident that EST was, overall, the most potent short-term mass consciousness-changing technology to go public during the 1970s. This represented a specific art and science at work; and there is no assurance that a future EST and Erhard will not be able to use such tools, manipulating not simply personal but social consciousness, to more powerful and massive effect, moving for social power in the style of EST and Erhard (which I shall come to presently) but more efficiently. For indeed, as ancient lore tells, such tools open the doors of many powers, and not only the highest; and we should not underestimate the raw forces of will and consciousness involved, nor the social convolutions their development may entail.
In particular, I remember what it felt like to run the Totalitarian Classroom Game. It was like driving an all-powerful machine; it was like standing on a hill and kicking people down each time they tried to climb it, and throwing rocks at those who would not try. I didn't have to call the students jerks or bark at them through microphones or starve them. It was enough to point out sweetly, in terms which they themselves had supplied, what conditioned jerks they were each time they spoke, or to get someone else to do this for me to win my approval; and I could screw the pain and dissonance up to quite remarkable heights before someone would finally move to comfort another person in tears, and refuse to be chopped apart for doing so. In all this, I had to face my own pleasure in power and in putting people through pain for (of course!) their own good. By the time I had played the game twenty times or so, it took me a long way inwardly, and (with other influences, notably from women) through some reconstruction of my male self. But that is another story. In the groups themselves, I and the other leaders expiated our tyrannical excess not only by a full confession of our own experiences following the revolt, but by explicitly discussing the means we had used to drive people to it, the peculiar reflexive game we had exploited -- opening our tools and selves to the "students," now our peers; sharing the power, to confront fully together the mystery of our regeneration
By contrast, the EST process, by emphasizing the leader's solipsistic right to be/do as he was (and that it influenced no one), precluded any questioning or change of his role; nor did he move to share its workings or his feelings, beyond those of utter purpose and triumph. Erhard's way and his lieutenants' ways were simply Right, and many chose freely to model their own upon these, leaving the question of peership or significant reciprocity quite out of bounds. Nor was the trick -- the psychic technique they used -- ever fully revealed; its power was never shared as a tool for general purpose. Instead, the impression was preserved that it took two years to train an EST trainer, through a process so exacting that Erhard himself had to conduct it personally, and so stiff in its various requirements that he could train in five years only the handful of genuine, industrious EST trainers who took 160,000 people through the process. Myself, I thought this bottleneck was due less to the art involved -- for we had taught people to work the TCG's basic deconditioning magic in a session or two -- than to the demands of indoctrinating trainers deeply in the world view they were to impart along with their magic, and to the necessity of ensuring their fidelity by complex personal and social means (in which even Erhard could not succeed completely, as in time a couple of trusted aides broke away and set up competing operations).
But most of all, I wondered what Erhard felt each time he ran the game not to the completion and sharing I had known, but incompletely, to produce an atomized social mass through whose subsequent reassembly Erhard's own stature and power were quite mysteriously and quite rapidly enhanced. When I heard the tale of how my old New Left friend Michael Lerner. leaped up at the special seminar to which he was invited and challenged Erhard about the totalitarian process he was running, and got shown up for several kinds of stupid fool, enough to himself to collapse in cowed confusion, I winced as I remembered what it was like to kick people in the face from a higher rung in the consciousness ladder; wondered whether Erhard winced too as he felt his boot connect and heard the general applause, or whether he just took it as the day's work; and vowed some day to tell Michael what I could of how he had been had.
In sum, it was no wonder that people came out dazed, and promptly started hustling their friends to taste EST's magic at two hundred bucks a shot. For most, the complex tides of ordinary life in time dissolved the magic spell, and they came to see both Erhard and the patented ways they had adopted in more perspective, as not being quite the answer to all; but enough were properly in love with Erhard and awed by the whole enterprise to commit great chunks of their energies and time, and even their entire selves, to staffing and implementing Erhard's ambitious organization and plans.
Myself, I had still enough machismo left -- it was more than just scientific curiosity, though this was quite precise and strong -- to want to take Erhard on at his own game. The context and two hundred credulous subjects might give him overwhelming dominance; yet still I wondered whether it were possible to confront him on the metalevel during the EST process, armed with the same tools as he, and engage him in a genuine dialogue of peers, with his own role as agent and subject of social conditioning and responsibility made manifest and up for grabs. Indeed, I would have jumped at the chance to try, had Erhard seen fit to offer, as he and EST did to those they were courting. But I was damned if I was going to pay half a month's income for the privilege of checking it out, as I explained again and again to the cheery women who called me from EST headquarters to invite me to follow up on my guest seminar, until I finally thanked them for their courtesy, and asked them to knock it off.
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Liberals tended to admire EST, because (in contrast to much of their own work) it was slick, purposeful, and efficient. To remind them that their ilk in Germany had applauded the rise of Hitler's National Socialism for the same reason was a cheap shot, though not entirely unfair. Innocent of political nuance or foreboding, their reverence was All-American, of the sort we accord to the prime team on the field, or to corporate enterprise in high gear. And indeed this last comparison was irresistible; for the purpose and efficiency of EST marked not only its inner "experience" but its organization.
EST kept in touch with potential customers and its graduates more persistently even than Scientology did, with the ample aid of volunteers, not satisfied to spread the gospel among their friends, who put in long hours at the central offices. The style of their calls was first-rate: personal, but not chummy. Unlike Scientology's crude hustle, the EST tone was dignified, as if they were doing you a service by notifying you of unusual opportunities available; they were quick to cease calling at the slightest demurrer.
The same sense of with-it efficiency marked their offices when I visited, from the modern furniture and arrangement on up, though EST had not yet gotten a Telex network linking centers in a hundred cities, as the Divine Light Mission claimed to have. It was no place for idle hangers-on to hang-out; for unlike some other consciousness enterprises, EST recruiting was strictly a field operation. The phoners, busy with their files, ignored the casual visitor, who was quickly screened by higher functionaries and dispatched to the appropriate appointment, or simply dispatched.
All in all, EST's public face was skillful and appropriate, just what one would expect from an entrepreneurial operation which had discovered a hot proprietary process, built an organization to produce it, and set out to market it in earnest. By 1976, EST was grossing over $6 million annually, not bad for a four-year start from scratch and a tiny clique of trainers. It was still dwarfed by Scientology and Transcendental Meditation, but was a more together operation (at least until this year, when EST seems to have run into the capitalization problems so common to rapidly expanding industries and businesses).
Nor was EST's business efficiency simply a superficial front. Instead, it extended intimately to the organization's management of itself. EST staff and volunteers, all adepts of the EST experience, applied their learning to transform themselves as workers, focusing their refurbished responsibilities and psychic powers upon the tasks to be done with no uncertainty of motive or useless waste of energy in the frustration game, engaging each other in diligent conversations about making and keeping their agreements and realizing their own responsibilities. Though their jargon was easy to mock, what they were doing in all this was precise and admirable. As in the "bootstrapping" of computer programs, or the heavy capitalization of basic machine-tool production, they were applying a technology to its own generation, using it to transform its own productive base -- a move of great potential power, which may concern us more vitally in the future development of enterprises exploiting basic mysteries of consciousness.
Still, as I saw it, EST and Erhard were most slickly efficient in the sphere of political operation, where -- somewhat the bumbling liberal myself -- I did admire their work, however little they advertised it as such. While the fad for Indian gurus was still growing, Erhard imported one generally acknowledged to be absolutely top-notch; and himself served as road-manager for Muktananda's first American tour, impeccably deferential, noblesse oblige. Of the many new physical therapies in the field, the one best-reputed and most in vogue received EST's blessing, as Ida Rolf's institute found itself with a twenty-grand grant for research, no strings attached. The leading maverick among the new crop of theoretical physicists probing the mysteries of psychic phenomena, Jack Sarfatti, was similarly blessed. EST sponsored a Western comeback tour for Bucky Fuller, his cachet a bit stale but still definitely a class act; and Erhard got the Karmapa Buddha himself to give a private tip of the transcendental hat for an all-EST audience. Not all such ventures prospered: the International Movement Center, launched in part with an EST grant as the fitness and martial-arts wave was cresting, was promising but ill-fated. But the broader relation Erhard cultivated with the Center’s Esalen founders survived this, establishing EST in a friendly and active alliance with this center of influence in the human potential movement throughout the later 1970s.
Such are the examples I recall; there were many more. Few if any involved crude hustling; as I heard it, more often the mountains came to Mohammed, at least within the growth movement/New Age ambit. Farther afield, in the more social sphere, Erhard had necessarily to reach out, with spottier success. By the time he came actively to court the Association for Humanistic Psychology -- the large collection of human-services professionals most influenced by Growth culture -- that organization had begun to ask itself questions about the social meanings of such teachings as EST's. Opinions were as sharply divided about Erhard's public presentations as about his private, and EST never did make a firm AHP connection -- though the AHP retained devoted ESTians in strong positions, as what ecumenical and democratic group would not?
By then, the first effort to organize a political movement extending the principles of the human potential/growth movement to society's management, and organized among the latter movement's followers, was getting under way, in the form of Self-Determination, a networking effort inspired by California Assemblyman John Vasconcellos. Erhard courted alliance, as Self-Determination sure did seem a comer at first and the stakes were clearly major; but he met with even less favor here than at the AHP. Later, when I learned that EST monies had gone to fund Groundswell, a venture somewhat akin to Self-Determination, I recalled how Groundswell's organizers had dodged the question of where their money came from, at the early meeting I attended; and wondered whether the grant would have been made if Self-Determination had proved more receptive, and whether the semi-secrecy were due only to embarrassment at how mediocre the funded organizers were (or so they seemed, from my brief take).
Nor were the moves of Erhard and EST to establish their influence limited to such efforts to ally with particular organizations and noted persons. While their star was rising, they were handing out freebies right and left, and arranging special inductions in the EST experience for special groups of people. One concentrated on adventurous practitioners drawn from the excitement of new psychotherapies flourishing in the Bay area. In another, pitched to media types in New York, EST transformed the consciousness of much of the staff of the New Age Journal, arguably the most influential in the New Age community. The journal promptly declared its allegiance in print and dedicated an issue to EST, presenting for a few issues a remarkable political spectacle before the spell wore down.
Other special inductions were rich with invitees from the aging New Left and with current (nice) community activists, curious to encounter what they'd damned from afar; with mainline psychiatrists; with doctors and with alternative health people, though not necessarily together; with Esalen and AHP staffers; and so on. Erhard ventured increasingly afield to present his ideas and charisma to general and specialized audiences; EST organized special colloquia and presentations for businessmen, sexuality counselors, hip c1ergypersons, whatnot. Had the EST experience been as centrally biophysical as Transcendental Meditation's, EST no doubt would have outdone TM's aggressive enterprise in pursuing scientific foundation for its technique's many lesser claims of health. As it was, the EST Foundation sponsored long-term psychiatric research on the outcome of EST training, through a clinic of high repute.
This whole pattern of funding, sponsorship, courtship, alliance, special event, media reknown -- or rather this enterprise, for it was continuous, energy-intensive and systematic -- was in itself neither ominous nor reassuring. It seemed natural, organic, at each step appropriate to an enterprise aggressively advancing its broad claims broadly in the field, beginning near home base, winning a reputation not only for polish but for the ecumenical support of worthy ventures, in the fine tradition of Carnegie and Rockefeller. Yet were commerce and conversion only the intent, a far simpler and more strictly "domestic" EST engine might have done just as well -- indeed, perhaps better, had Erhard put his magical time into training more trainers instead of into foreign diplomacy, given that EST's best salesperson continued to be its satisfied and energized customer.
Whatever its intent and conscious strategy, this enterprise was remarkable, and quite without peer among the competition, the foreign relations of TM and Scientology being not half so thorough nor a tenth so broad. From the face of things, at least as seen from outside, Erhard and EST seemed embarked on an ambitious, systematic program whose effect was to outflank and out-ally potential competition; to co-opt potential critics and neutralize potential salients of critique, professional and political; to extend organizational alliance to groups that might in turn give EST and Erhard further leverage and influence in society; and more, to establish base camps of ideological operation within these groups, bringing light to their persons and policies (though never pushily, of course, as how non-ESTniks received them was their own responsibility).
All this is to speak phenomenologically, without assuming intent. Had this whole pattern of enterprise been acted out among community groups and agencies in some city on a more usual political stage, questions of intent and personal power could scarcely have been avoided. But not even the hipper elements of the scattered Left of the 1970s, who criticized EST for its ideology, let alone the mass of ordinary growth-seekers and human-service professionals who absorbed this, were used to tracing these familiar elements of political organizing, of the development of political power, upon the unfamiliar ground of the New Age; and EST's sophistication in this (though not its consequence) passed unremarked.
Myself, I was powerfully impressed both by the pattern and by the diligence of its pursuit by Erhard and crew. It led me to imagine that in some future, from this or another edge domain of personal and social change, some Erhard and EST of even more polish and power might begin a more purposeful and potent effort to influence society by some such scenario as sketched above.
As for Werner Erhard himself, there was no sign that he had any purpose particularly pernicious or exemplary, or personally ambitious, in mind, at least until 1977, when he kicked off his grand campaign to end world hunger. Indeed, I fancy that the potential political power he accumulated was at most an idle fantasy when he started EST; and that he went after it almost automatically, as one would if one turned up gold in virgin country and rushed about staking claims here and there with little thought of how to spend it and little need to wonder at the time (though it is perhaps ironic to suggest that Erhard could be so programmed).
Still, his power accumulated, as fast as had he sought it willfully. The taut character and hierarchical spirit of EST's organization survived the desertion of Erhard's first trainer and then others going independent, and provided Erhard with an increasingly prominent platform. EST's recruitment rates dropped during the Bicentennial, and Erhard himself grew both less visible and less presumptuous in public, working hard to secure professional recognitions that would offset the damage; but all in all they came through quite well, considering that Erhard and EST had served as the main target for the massive and quite nasty wave of criticism of the entire Growth syndrome that broke nationally with Peter Marin's seminal essay "The New Narcissism" (Harper's, October 1975).
By 1977, a hundred thousand people in California, EST's most advanced province, had (presumably) intimate reason to stump for Erhard as a magical candidate for almost any job within the growth movement or beyond it. Tolerated as well anywhere within it as a controversial figure can be, he had established a wide and varied network of alliance, respect, and influence, extending not only throughout his amorphous "field" -- in which there was not a public figure to compare with him in terms of organizational talent, broad interests, and charisma -- but into such unrelated professions as law and social welfare, and into at least the lower fringes of Democratic grassroots organization and the "hip" Jerry Brown administration of the State.
All in all, I thought Erhard was going through a phase of accumulating power which would in time cycle on to a phase of appropriate effort -- for so power's potentials invoke its applications, in dialectic with our guidance. After he shrugged off the mid-decade attacks, I figured it was even odds he'd wind up running for public office, if he couldn't find a way to be appointed to the right one as a first, called-to-duty, step. When he set out to rid the world of hunger, I felt as disappointed as a bettor who has followed a horse throughout his career and then blown a bundle on him in the stakes finale. Granted, the accomplishment would make Erhard irresistible presidential timber; but twenty years seemed a while to wait, and the chance of immediate progress slim.
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On one sunny weekend in the mid-1970s, well after this innocent political pattern had become well-established, EST invited a bunch of old New Lefties, my erstwhile comrades in the 1960s Movement, to partake of its potent experience. I suppose it was my own responsibility that I was not invited to the party, as I was too proud or too foolish to ask, and I'm sorry now that I missed such an archetypal show. Instead, I sat down to the reflections in this section and the two that follow, concerned with more subjective issues than those discussed above -- trying to sort out my own impressions of EST's ideology and style, and Erhard's display of these in action, and to pin down my distrust.
Another special induction. Good lord, the man's efficient; he's covering all the bases. So why do I feel so paranoid, wondering about his intentions while he says so consistently that he's not out for personal power? And what is it about his whole style and message that so puts me off?
To begin with, the style is crassly commercial, for good reason. Before he got into secular-mystical frontiersmanship, Erhard was sales manager for an encyclopedia firm (Grolier’s), and also for many years a trainer in a franchise operation -- Personal and Company Effectiveness, PACE -- training businessmen in self-improvement to be more effective human beings, i.e., businessmen. I assume that this was his first extended work in the world. I may too easily presume the depth of its cultural imprint in the plastic material of his younger self, but Erhard is a winner and no doubt was at least quite talented in mastering the techniques, strategies, and perspectives of his former trade.
This trade included not only the enterprise of developing clients' positive mental attitudes, through particular pedagogic techniques and ideologies, but also the trade of salesmanship itself, with its sub--disciplines of product definition, packaging, and marketing. Moreover, the marketing process, as practiced by such entrepreneurships as PACE, was a double competition, being directed both against competitive commercial agencies (and noncommercial operations which might undermine the market itself) and against the consumer himself, to penetrate his defenses and create desire.
All this is reflected in Erhard's present operation: hot product, slick package, aggressive sell, under-pricing the competition at first until the brand-name market gets established. And beyond this, given the way he's moving on the broader political front, Erhard is clearly talented on a higher plane of strategy than normal low-level commerce involves -- a plane proper to major forces in core industries, which must eventually control and manipulate public policy and reality to secure an expanding empire. But this is of course appropriate, since the shaping of consciousness -- through education, therapy, etc. -- is now perhaps our largest industry and certainly our most core, and EST is the hottest operation in a rapidly expanding sector of this industry.
But why be hard on Erhard? Can't people change, grow, become humanized, democratized, radicalized? Can't the attitudes and practices of capitalist commerce be usefully adapted to serve the highest ends? I don't know. I am concerned here with myth and metaphor, with archetypes; and I wince, I feel paranoid and mean-spirited, each time I think about EST's antecedents and style, because I can't helping thinking about Scientology as a model -- if only because Erhard spent some time exploring and digesting Scientology (I don't know how deeply, but he's a quick study).
Every report I have read or heard about Scientology's workings portrays a certain spirit resonant throughout the whole enterprise, mystified and rank with top-down power, rigidly hierarchical, programmatic and authority-centered. The authoritarianism goes hand-in-hand with an overt ideology of personal liberation and empowerment, of autonomy through personal responsibility -- a distinctive, contradictory, confusing blend, which seems to appeal to many people nowadays, perhaps because it satisfies the mind in one way and certain blind emotions in quite another. In any case, it is disturbing to recognize each of these spiritual qualities reflected again in the EST operation (which was equally apt to inherit them also from Erhard's previous commercial milieu), albeit somewhat softened -- pastel instead of garish.
My own impressions of Scientology derive in part from the science fiction novels which L. Ron Hubbard wrote in the late 1940s while he was pulling together the Dianetics therapy and franchising system that evolved into Scientology. Since reading such books as a lad helped predispose me to the essay on parapsychological technologies that follows here, exploring the edge where science-fiction turns real, it is appropriate that in the context of that essay Scientology may be seen as the first serious civilian venture -- therapeutic and religious in guise yet deeply political in character -- to apply bioelectronic feedback technologies not simply to exploit altered states of consciousness and psychic powers, but to help socialize people to an authoritarian enterprise and world view.
At any rate, imaginative literature strikes deep, and I believe it comes from deep places as well. I took Hubbard's novels, with their themes of power, intrigue, domination, violent adventure and the Ubermensch or superman, to reflect his ideas about self and society; and ever since, I have been predisposed to entertain certain rumors I keep hearing about Hubbard and Scientology.
It would match his fiction if Hubbard, perhaps himself at the uneasy border where fantasy turns fact, had indeed conceived a design for domination of the whole world in the course of founding Scientology, with himself as Numero Uno; and if this gross fantasy had continued to inspire him and Scientology's inner power circle into the 1970s. That the fleet they accumulated was ever in fact the largest private navy in the world seems unlikely; and perhaps it was not even a navy in the strict military sense, as any fleet with some old military vessels and taut discipline might merit the metaphorical description. That on this fleet's flagship contingency plans were prepared for the executive seizure and administration of several countries, in the event of their governments' disruption by social turmoil, I credit as a fantasy more consistent with Hubbardian fiction than with the capabilities of his organization, as I can't believe that it has the skills and forces necessary to plan adequately -- let alone to carry out such plans, unless Hubbard and crew have indeed developed powerful psychic technologies fit for such use.
Whose fantasy it is, I cannot tell. It is no more than might, in a time when governments shake and paramilitary organizations rehearse such plans within various countries, be imagined by many about any organization claiming millions of members in many countries and conducting its tightly-ordered affairs in close secret from a floating base beyond the effective reach of any government. But it is a fantasy that might just as easily originate from within such an organization if it also encourages belief that it has the best process of all for developing people's consciousness in ways that make them not simply better but superior beings; and that its leaders are the most highly developed, i.e., superior, people of all. Such beliefs have throughout history been a fertile breeding ground for social actions in harmony with their presumption, and with ill consequence. Nazism is the most abominable example; it bears citing in this and in any connection in which such beliefs are systematically nurtured, and such circumstances must bear special scrutiny and comparison, because we have no more resolved the vital moral conundrum Nazism posed than we have understood the psychological and social means that brought such atrocity to humankind and, in our ignorance, can again.
In any case, that the "contingency plan" rumor reflected at least Hubbard's fantasy if not actual planning seems likely, given its literary and ideological consonances. And I tend to credit reports that some of the defectors from Scientology's inner circles who spread such rumors were subject to abduction, beating, and perhaps worse. Similar ways of dealing with defection and critical description have already been documented for such kindred enterprises as the Mel Lyman Family and the Divine Light Mission; and I have no reason to believe that my acquaintances who have borne such reports about Scientology, purportedly from the people in question, have been making them up.
Indeed, stranger things are potentially credible in the weird atmosphere of the mid-1970s. Not only of Scientology, but of Arica, the Divine Light Mission, the Manson and Lyman crews, and other more benign spiritual enclaves, rumors and direct accounts have reported that certain deviants and dissidents have experienced themselves as subject to strange psychic pressures and controls, frightening and powerful. Given the beliefs about psychic phenomena current in such circles, I see little reason to doubt that such reports indeed reflect the subjective experiences of their originators. Whether they reflect objective "psychic technologies" at work, I simply do not know. My own psychic experiences have mostly been benign enough; but they have left me open to believing that such technologies may be possible, and that on our earthly plane they need not always work for good, nor by mutual consent.
Indeed, I have wondered about the many people formerly or actively engaged with Scientology who turned out to be working in so many of the important centers of inquiry into psychic and paranormal phenomena. No doubt, the coincidence was natural and benign, since Scientology's process of "clearing" can indeed sometimes open psychic and perhaps transcendent doors; and since interest in these domains has brought many to Scientology, and Scientology many to these domains, whose learnings subsequently spun them off quite naturally toward such centers. But for the purpose of fantasy worthy of the science fiction greats of my youth, I did for a time imagine the trace of a Scientological thumb in so many research pies in a more lively way -- as if Hubbard had come upon the rudiments of some psychic technology with great potential power over persons, and were exploiting it as best he could while exploring its mysteries further, both through his own minions and through contacts in other centers of research-and-development.
All this is paranoia's play, the direct consequence of taking others (here Hubbard) seriously in terms of their own background metaphors. In this sense, it is more a literary exercise than a journalistic account, an interpretation and projection upon a likely ground of certain themes pondered throughout this book. I try above to say what grounds I have for believing what. But beyond whether the shoe these rumors form fits Hubbard and Scientology perfectly -- though its style, from all I hear, fits the case -- my concern is with the shoe itself. The shoe is not just a random collection of nasty surmises specific to Scientology. Rather, the rumors, taken together, are a collective creation, a collective work of imaginative literature borne in the oral tradition, encoding a coherent myth, and rephrased by a diverse chorus at each likely occasion. Were there no Scientology or EST, the myth would be retold around any other organizations whose semblances provided occasion -- for it has independent standing now as part of our culture's lore.
What it says, it seems to me, is roughly this. If we birth catastrophe upon ourselves in a way predictable from the past, rather than by outdoing ourselves altogether, the way will most likely involve these elements: Hubris, a blind arrogance of spirit. The belief that some persons are innately superior to others; and a way to justify whatever happens to the inferior as their own responsibility or fault. A rigid ideology and world view, passionately and narrowly held by many people. An efficient, disciplined, hierarchical organization with greatly centralized power (and perhaps a key charismatic leader). Its access to economic and political power. Superior technology at its disposal.
This is the form the bad dream of warning takes, its elements our distillation of millennia of experience; we wake and seek its image in the world, as well we may. Many are now coming to recognize its elements in the entire condition of Western, rational civilization, tyrant to the life-web of Earth. Recognizing them in certain practices of communism has provided such core of sanity as there has been in the anti-Communist hysterias of our age, without saving them from reproducing this image again. Nor has the United States as a nation quite escaped this image recently. And so it goes, down the line, to such smaller occasions as Scientology or EST to spin the tale around again.
Together we are like children out at night, fearfully eager to recognize a shape of dread within each shadow, as our animal heritage from before the time humans made the night safe -- except that our fear is not so delicious as theirs, as the nights we inhabit are not safe. In particular, given such early models as Scientology and EST at hand, we should not be sanguine about what further developments of technologies and processes integrating psychic and social manipulation may bring.
It may be unfair to lay all this weight on Werner Erhard, or on those others who have passed through Scientology to lead such independent enterprises as Silva mind control and Abilitism; for their stories are their own. Yet I view with respect and caution the complex processes by which people pick up imprints of character and spirit (outside psychic circles as within them) and adapt others' models to their own uses. Given the many strong parallels between the internal social characters and ideologies of EST and Scientology (which direct their employments of the psychic technologies both cultivate), and given that the themes of grand power adventure, based in intensive psychic-technological development and shaping society as a whole, seem as much potentiated in EST's present flourishing as in Hubbardian fantasy, Erhard as an influence seems to me at times somewhat like Hubbard slicked up for public consumption, professional and respectable and bidding for more of both, but still one hell of a rouser.
But why tar Erhard with Scientology's brush? Perhaps these qualities and styles just arise naturally in any organization filling EST's particular psycho-spiritual-economic niche. Perhaps there is a nicer way to view them. Even if there is not, Erhard may have subscribed to them quite innocently, in the virtuous, selfless pursuit of the highest good. I hope so. It might mean that he might yet make a start at undoing some of what he has done -- which, at its least, is to have etched the charged iconography of the charismatic leader and the dominant social ideology of our time (as discussed below) deeper in people's imagi nations.
Yet why do I keep talking about Erhard, anyway, reinforcing the disastrous personalismo of the whole EST affair? Lots of other people are responsible for helping to create and maintain the collective theater and belief-system of EST. I suppose I'm as responsible for this myself as is any simple singer of Erhard's praises, in the way I focus here on EST as Erhard('s) Seminar Training. Yet if the concept of personal responsibility means anything at all, it must apply to Erhard himself in his context; and we may ask what he is responsible for.
Surely he has been responsible for catalyzing a social process that has put some quite useful tools of psychic self-management and perspective into many people's employ, however confused the larger frames of meaning in which their use is interpreted. But he is also responsible for his social act -- for being at the center of EST in the way he has chosen to be; and for casting, as the presiding secular and spiritual leader, the decisive vote of approval, active or tacit, for every major move, strategy, policy, and element of style practiced by his organization. (EST may have found another way to run a humble company of the elect; if so, no word of this has come to my attention.) And since Erhard has also centered in himself the role of prime model for EST's product -- often in the very process of denying this -- he casts a long shadow.
It's no accident that when EST holds a major public shindig, its form is "an evening with Werner," to hear him give the Word. If EST has developed any internal power figures of even secondary stature, they have yet to be mentioned by any article or EST graduate I've consulted. This doesn't mean that ESTniks leap when Erhard whistles, at least not all the time; being the main man gets exercised in much subtler ways even in ward politics, let alone in modern corporate endeavors. Yet what goes on in EST's public presentations, where style is as much a calculated artifice as in any other EST activity, is not subtle at all, and is certainly not the proud presentation by a vital community of the varied richness of its growth and persons. Rather, it is Spotlight on Superstar, preaching in his inimitable over-amped style. The social theater of all this is too blatant to ignore. Though my interpretation of it is of course my own responsibility (or projection), this theater is also an objective reality, which Erhard has chosen to create in preference to any other.
Is this simply a wise strategy to advance the good, pitched to the cultural sensibilities or silly superstitions of the natives? Is it a subtler teaching, to lead us to recognize how much personal garbage we project upon such authority symbols? Or is there also some less-selfless profit involved in Erhard's choice? EST's finances are obscure: some think its rapid growth means somebody's making a mint, though EST claims top salaries are "only" $30,000. EST says the money's all plowed back into deepening and extending the enterprise, in the best tradition of selfless spiritual endeavor, as well as of industry. I myself have heard no EST rumors like the one about the Arica official who kept his mistress in a $l,200-a-month apartment with company funds. Anyway, this material plane, though not to be despised, is not the most important site of profit here.
Instead, I think, the EST profit economy involves not money but ego, even in this intimate school where people learn to transcend it. I'm told that Erhard is a very nice fellow, doesn't particularly want all this semblance of power that somehow keeps accidentally accruing to him, listens very respectfully to everyone, meets you person-to-person. It all may be true, or mostly so. But the impression I have from my few direct contacts with Erhard is visceral, and leads me to imagine that he also likes the power, likes being in soft command, likes being Number One -- especially when he manages it all in paradoxical fashion, denying his responsibility for the role and power as prime mover that others are responsible for granting him.
So what's wrong with liking yourself and liking everyone to like you and getting them to do so? Isn't positive self-concept a positive good in itself, and doesn't it bring health to the world if you act it out, as EST and so many current positive disciplines teach? I do suppose so, actually, on the whole. But surely there are some finer discriminations to be made, since saints, tyrants, and businessmen alike can move about their typical enterprises aglow in positive self-appreciation. All I know is that when I watched Erhard prance and strut so scornfully upon the Masonic stage, I had some childhood button punched for sure, and was again on the recess ground of grade school where this dance of arrogance and all the others are first practiced, watching the kid who wanted to be seen as hot shit strut his stuff. And even as a somewhat more neutral adult, I find it hard to conceive that Erhard could have radiated such a healthy relish in his act there, unless some vital fulfillment of his private self were being accomplished through his social role and show.
When I met Erhard at closer range, during our panel in the Esalen-sponsored Symposium on Therapeutic and Spiritual Tyranny in 1975, we were, beneath the humanistic facades, on an ancient stage of public performance, hustling, and competition -- for so this star-studded symposium was organized, despite its healthier intents. Erhard was of course simply a human person there, responsible for no one but himself; but he was also on this stage, inescapably, as the main spokesman of an ideological-commercial-political enterprise, and he was much too much the professional to act carelessly. He was totally personable, sincere and charming; truly rather than arrogantly modest; sparing and reasonable in his comments, rather than didactic, scornful, and lengthy as of yore (before the recent questionings of social meanings in the Growth orbit, which had provoked this symposium); responsive to the context rather than taking it over; and super super careful.
All in all, it was a totally different style from his Masonic performance, and also from the one by which he had tried to charm the AHP Annual Conference that summer -- testifying to much practice in putting on the right show in the right context, and to a certain polished chameleonship which made it hard to trust his presentation as entirely authentic. Neither the main speaker nor the target of sharp questioning, he easily avoided any real engagement with the question of how the issues raised there applied within EST itself, and instead contented himself with a few broad remarks about the precious need for individual responsibility in our society. He came out smelling like a rose; and EST had passed one early public test, not by being put on trial but instead by being vaguely enrolled on the side of Good.
But what got me most, I do confess, was when Erhard ate me. For so it seemed, slick and quick as a frog's flick of the tongue at a fly within reach. I had raised some moderately passioned questions about the strange current phenomenon of people seeming suddenly to drop out of sight into deep holes all around me, one by one, appearing to surrender their own wills to a number of outside agencies. Echoes of these questions still hung in the hall a while later when Erhard took care to make three separate references to me and (apparently) to some of what I had said. He was gracious and serious, and took no personal offense, my questions clearly having nothing to do with him. The personal quality instead ran the other way round, for he was so responsible in crediting me as the source of the questions that it seemed that he had dealt with them, rather than only rephrased them and acknowledged that yes, they were real questions, without really engaging them..
Well, I've spent too long in group political contexts not to know when I've been had. In the fields of marketing strategy and intracorporate power where Erhard learned to play, such trivial maneuvers are well practiced, and Erhard handled this one automatically and as quickly as was seemly. But what made it feel like being eaten, rather than outflanked, was his particular style. In effect he constructed a charade, to say: "Watch me: I am heeding this person/issue; I am learning; see, I have learned, I have taken what was valid and made it shine more brightly in a fuller frame." As I recall, he even said something explicit to this effect the third time around, which I thought a slight lapse of polish in his act.
I do wish he had digested my ideas, which were not mine alone. But to my ears, Erhard's paraphrases lacked not only content but feeling. If he himself were troubled by the troubling issues in the air (let alone by the question of his role in them), one could not tell it from his voice. Instead there was a calm, rote quality to the way he ate me, which suggested less that he was struggling to integrate a new or foreign bit of thought, than that he was involved in performing an automatic and necessary routine.
Erhard seems to be quite an eater; it is by no means a bad characteristic in itself. In any public, I am told, he makes a practice of recalling and reusing every name he can of persons present, a polite and politic habit despite its overuse by salespersons. Better yet, he has made a long practice of seeking out people and groups who are doing important or worthwhile things, and learning efficiently from them. Seldom, I imagine, has his own practice been as crass as when some over-eager ESTnik, acting independently, Xeroxed some of the Arica staff manuals, and bits of undigested Arica routines appeared under changed names in EST's training programs (but then, Arica was a direct competitor, and there may have been no reason to be polite, nor not to use the fruits of what was. in effect, industrial espionage). Yet more often one function of such eating, beyond pure nourishment, is to neutralize or make friendly the agency fed from, by incorporating some of its substance and seeming to stand somewhat in its debt or as its relative, if not precisely within its sphere of influence. Such wide feeding on bits from many sources also offers protection against being outflanked by the competition; the marketer's dream is to have a product incorporating a plausible facsimile of every positive feature offered by any competing product.
But this merges into an admirable objective: to make the best construct that can be made. Another way to see Erhard-the-universal-gourmet is as synthesizer. Erhard as a person, EST as a practice, bring together not simply a packrat hodgepodge of old saws and tricks, as the snippier critics suggest and have suggested of every complex consciousness-transformation package now on the road, but a fairly coherent package and even a synthesis. It is perhaps not quite the triumphant distillation of the essences of all the world's great teachings that Erhard and his more enchanted disciples claim; but surely it is synthesis enough to have great power in people's imaginations, and often in their lives, at least for a while. Erhard has drawn on great texts, traditions, people, groups, and on consciousness itself; and it is much too simple to say that he has drawn superficially as he did with me. His style of eating is undoubtedly characterological, if he still has an ego structure (as I think he does); yet even with such human limits it is a style, particular, potent, and usefuI.
Every synergist takes what will fit; but the wonder of the world is that so many things may fit together in so many different ways. So of course Erhard and EST must be selective, and there is as much order in what they ignore or avoid as in what they accept. Their negative and positive choices together define a set of lessons -- not onIy about private consciousness, but about society and social conduct -- which constitute the EST teaching. This in turn is but a part of the general teaching of the whole human potential/growth/New Age movement. I mean to explore the social issues and potentials involved in this movement and its teachings in another book, for they are too broad and complex to illustrate through EST's example. Yet as enterprises dealing directly with consciousness and its control are so central to this movement, and as EST itself is widely acclaimed as a paragon (or, by some, a caricature) not only of such enterprises but of the whole movement's social style and teachings, some first simple thoughts about the social character of EST's simplistic ideology of "personal responsibility" are appropriate here.
(*) A brief account of the TCG appears in Change, January 1970, reprinted in Inside Academe: Culture in Crisis, by the editors of Change Magazine (Change Magazine Press, 1972); fuller accounts appear in Glamour, August 1970, and as the first chapter of my On Learning and Social Change, Random House, 1972. See also Neil Kleinman and Bill Kinser. The Dream That Was No More a Dream: A Search for Aesthetic Reality in Germany; 1890-1945, Schenkmian Publishing, 1969. Return to text.