But How We Talk Now Together!
by Michael Rossman
November; sun still shining brightly though the year is dying. St. Aquinas, a founding father of humanistic psychology, has moved here from the East, to the hotbed of the human potential movement, to enjoy the leisurely fruits of a long working life. We've had a few intense conversations, we like each other, we're looking for excuses to explore our mutual perceptions of what's going on. He calls to invite me and Karen to his house for a social evening, to meet a few people and talk. Genghis Khan will be there too; we'll hear about his recent trip to China.
I've known Genghis for a long time, though not closely. We were both, crudely speaking, leaders in major New Left political actions in the mid-1960s. I went on to work obscurely in education; he went on to national organizing, government indictment, and media stardom. My books sold limpingly, his made a mint. Perhaps my experience of the evening is only sour grapes.
If so, I still don't expect it as we drive over the bridge toward Aquinas's. I'm looking forward to seeing Genghis again, among others. I've just read an interview in which he'd said very nicely some of the things about politics and consciousness that I'm trying to figure out, and I remember again that I used to admire his perception of some core issues in the generational clash (though not, at times, his ways of putting them). Since Kent State, Genghis has pursued the picaresque odyssey of our generation, and has gotten heavily involved in old and new therapies of mind and body, and with perspectives on inner revolution. More than most of our contemporaries, he has tried to keep the domains of personal and social transformation related to each other, and I wonder what he will make of China.
Well, the evening is interesting and appalling. Soon Aquinas gathers us from our hellos and asks Genghis to tell us a bit about his travels. Genghis wonders aloud whether there's anything special we might like to know, but doesn't actually bother to ask before he launches into what is clearly his standard travelogue, minus only the slides. He does it well: the tour guides, the cities, factories, provinces. He is enthusiastic, humorous, and serious, and quite entertaining. But also I am somewhat bored, for almost everything he says is already familiar from casual reading of newspapers and magazines. The distinction between intellectual and manual labor is being dissolved; the Cultural Revolution was real; an intensive anti-Confucianism campaign is in progress; people are motivated by serving the people rather than by private interest; even the schizophrenics in the mental institution he visited are getting well by reading Mao. It is all tremendously important stuff, reports from the greatest human experiment of our time; I want to hear more, for we've scarcely begun to understand its relevance to our own predicament. But all I'm learning that's new is the fact that Genghis himself has been there, has been told these things and is excited about them; and that he sounds like any other tourist who has been for the whirlwind three-week tour with official guides.
In fact what appalls me, as he rushes from one topic to another, is the quality of mind in his report. It's not just that the things he says are familiar; it's the way he says them that makes them seem already clichés, as if he had absorbed what he saw and heard uncritically, shallowly, and was passing it on with no attempt to look beneath its surface, reduced almost to a series of cheery slogans. I remember his first book, it was like this. Yet we are older now, have been through many kinds of experience, should have complex perceptions. I listen for them, in vain. Of the campaign against Confucianism, Genghis tells us only that it is part of the effort to combat dependence on traditional bourgeois authority. Yet he himself was a leader of the countercultural antiauthoritarianism of the 1960s in America. Has he thought to compare the contradiction of his own role with the paradoxical way the Chinese are using dependence on Mao's word to free themselves from dependence on role-defined authority? He doesn't say
Nor can we ask, since he is going too fast; but we try to stop him when he gets to sex, for there are therapists in the audience. The Chinese all get married at twenty-six, says Genghis; there are no divorces. Marital problems? They work these out with Mao's help; people are not self-serving, but work to please others. But in some ways that's a recipe for sexual dysfunction—what about that? He doesn't know. Presumably they're virgins when they marry; he knows they don't masturbate because he asked and even had to explain the question. So who teaches them not to? No one, he thinks. But surely the young children must touch themselves? Genghis doesn't wonder about that, but goes on instead to talk about industrial decentralization and how the Chinese have a true "higher consciousness." I'm going quietly crazy: how can he use that term so casually, as if we all agreed on what it meant, after he has passed with the rest of us through the consciousness expansion of the psychedelics, the consciousness raising of antiwar work and women's and men's groups, the heightened awareness of Gestalt and bioenergetics, the spiritual striving of the guru supermarket?
Higher consciousness indeed! What I'm hearing is the rudimentary consciousness of sloganizing; it's so one-dimensional that it alienates me completely. I hear a mind without taste for irony or pleasure in the complexity of the real, unwilling to recognize contradictions or tolerate the tension of struggling with them, relentlessly making perceptions simple and safe, and offering us no way to chew on the complex human meanings of what it reports. And I wonder, were we really as brash and superficial as our critics insisted during the 1960s? Granted, Genghis is on stage, or chooses to be so; no place for subtlety. Granted also, we have different styles; I like to see several sides of a matter at once and find paradox fruitful. But where then is the time and place to look beneath the surface of things?
Not here, surely. And what bothers me most, as Genghis goes on, is the tone I recognize beneath his reportage. For he's done it again, he's found another Answer, flat and absolute, to the human problems of the day, and he's urging it on us with all his old enthusiasm. First the antiwar effort, then the youth revolt, then the inner quest, now it's China: the problems, the meaning of what we're doing, everything is to be evaluated in light of the Chinese experiment, not as if it were something more to richen the mix, but as if it were all that mattered.
I already have my own reasons for learning from China; what bothers me is how Genghis shares his revelation. All right, it sounds like a P.R. flack, I'm used to that; but isn't he a bit old to be delivering the same speech with new names in the blanks? And what does it mean about his vision, that it wears a new costume with each popular season? A person should come to a revolution in his or her vision once, perhaps twice, in a lifetime; if he or she keeps going this way and that way, where is the continuity, the development?
Genghis’ travelogue makes no space for such reflections; it rolls on undaunted until Aquinas takes advantage of a pause to say, "Well, that's all very interesting, Genghis," and proceeds to give his own response to the story, opening the space for general conversation.
I find Aquinas's response very interesting too; in fact, I find it stunning, and say so. For what our talks together have been about is the quality of people's belief in systems of Answer: the unquestioning submission, the insulation of the self from contradiction, the giving up of the struggle to achieve a unique perspective and practice in favor of the ready-made. Aquinas has grown troubled by the way the movement he helped to father has come to encourage these tendencies; when I saw him last he was furious at the workings of an organization (EST) which was, oddly enough, the focus of Genghis’ enthusiasm before he went to China.
The Answer it taught set people up to pursue their private interests exclusively, and to reject responsibility toward others as illusory. Now Genghis comes back from China with that Answer turned inside out, still as absolute and unbalanced; and Aquinas hears him as a harbinger of hope, perhaps pointing a way out of this dreadful stew of American selfishness that so many of our efforts to improve seem to make worse. I know how Aquinas feels. But I hear him praising, in Genghis’ account, precisely the same style of approach and qualities of belief that infuriate him on the domestic front. I tell him so, pouncing sharply on the observation as one who has been brooding. Taken aback, he reiterates some of what Genghis has said before addressing the question of whether the style is indeed the same. It might be the start of a real conversation. But before it can go on Genghis says, "Well, getting back to China … " and someone who is content with the previous quality of entertainment says pointedly, "Let's do," and he does. And I am left with a pregnant confusion in my head, feeling silly and boorish.
Genghis goes on, and on and on. The first people leave. He is aware of what he is doing, jokes quickly, "They're not bored, they just have to catch a plane," goes on. There are people here I'd like to talk with: Aquinas himself, the editor or a new journal on consciousness, another one whose writings interest me; I imagine they all have interest in each other; at last I accept that there will be no real interaction among the people present. Karen's ready to go too. The travelogue affords us no graceful exit; finally we rise awkwardly to leave, and Genghis tells us to stay as he hurries to switch on the tape recorder he's brought in lieu of slides. As we go out we hear the tinny voice: it's just as Genghis said, the translator is quoting a factory worker quoting Mao about a problem. So what?
Outside the air is clean, rich with stars, dark mystery. For a moment I forget how violated I feel—until we look back, and through the lit windows we see the others putting on their coats. Clearly our departure made the excuse for all, a stock bit of suburban social drama. Were the others as bored or frustrated as I? No one was impolite enough to say so, or to ask. Yet they are intelligent people, they struggle with many of the same questions and complexities of vision as I do; surely they had thoughts about what was going on.
But what was going on, anyway? Let me look at it again, change perspective, get off Genghis’ back—for this piece is not about him but about us, how we see, how we say, what we do. I sat in a room with a group of people from the human potential movement, sophisticated students of group interaction and transformational psychology. Someone talked at us all evening about group interaction and transformation. There was scarcely a probing question even about that intellectual topic; and no one did a thing to recognize or to transform a stultifying social process which made of us all together much less than we deserve to be—wasted our potential, so to speak. Was everyone else's experience so unlike mine, or did everyone just watch the situation flow by? What does it mean, to know about group process and not to change the processes of groups, to have studied authentic feeling and not to say when one is bored, nor move to do something else?
And wasn't there yet another irony in our paralysis there, perhaps a particular cause for us to hold our tongues? For I was not the only one to face his own ghost in the caricature Genghis offered us. The qualities of mind, of temper, of imagination which he now attaches to China—the uncritical enthusiasm, absolute, programmatic, superpositive, one-dimensional, un-self-reflective, ephemeral, unrooted—rule the day now, attached by the hungry to every item on the New Age table. Change only the names in the blanks; the speech remains the same, and its deeper meanings too. And aren't we in part responsible for this? Weren't half the people in that room at work full-time to generate and distribute the experience and ideas which wind up treated so?
Of course, we ourselves are more complex and balanced in our works and our attitudes (as Genghis may be in private). We ourselves don't come on like cheerleaders or follow like sheep; we often speak our reservations in public, sometimes write a few articles questioning the trends, sometimes publish a few. We are trying to be responsible. Yet does not each of us—from theorist to practitioner to publisher—depend in some vital way upon the consciousness which we helped Genghis model for us there? Isn't the present boom market for our ideas and services based largely on the spread of this consciousness? Don't we owe to it in the end most of our incomes, our local or national prestige, our influence, these crude powers?
I have lived this before. A decade ago I too, in my lesser way, rode my career in part upon those energies of unquestioning hungry fad which Genghis was so deft at arousing and feeding with slogans, and which sapped the vitality of our most serious concerns even while it appeared to amplify their force. And I too fed those energies, that desperate devitalizing consciousness, each time I spoke eloquently of a partial truth as if it were enough, each time I held my tongue to let a half-truth pass unquestioned at home or stand for me in public.
And don't we all now speak half-truths? Aren't we all now mostly heard as Genghis seems to hear, heeded as Genghis clearly still expects to be heeded—despite our deeper desires, or in part because of them? And what is there to do about it? On the drive home I am filled with thoughts like these, too confused, or perhaps too despairing, to untangle here.
An historical note: As some of my peers may have gathered at the time, Aquinas was Rollo May, and Ghenghis was Jerry Rubin.