On the revolutionary impulse, and what happens to it. At least with respect to my generation, in the United States.
Now I wish to speak about the moment when we realize that most everything is bullshit, during a period of life when we have the ability to communicate this perception to a community of peers, but before the moment when we accept that the bullshit is perpetual, that it accepts some natural state of affairs, and that the sooner we get over our hatred of it, the faster we will advance. This second moment, the moment of acceptance, is known as “maturity.” It marks our entrance into adulthood, when we immerse ourselves so fully into the bullshit that we can longer see it for what it is.
Teen Sex Energy is the amoral erotic-revolutionary force. It is the principal threat to society-as-we-know it. To “grow up” is to lose contact with this force by accepting the notion that the way we first saw things was naïve. It was not naïve. It was clear-eyed. It was correct. And it was not knowledge that compelled us to give up what we knew to be true but greed and fear. We submitted to Land Money Power, to its carrots and its sticks. This second force seemed stronger, at the time, or at least strong enough to cull each of us from the herd and break us, one by one. Today, in January 2012, it does not seem so strong.
Teen Sex Energy is pure present-tense action. Action with no orientation towards traditions or prospects. Profligate, decadent, orgiastic, inexcusable behavior; action without any conscious awareness of appearances, or respectability, or the law. If the young gave full throttle to Teen Sex Energy, there would not be much left of the adult world. All the accounts and traditions would burn to the ground in a single night. The will to destroy comes from seeing things as they are, in all of their institutionalized deficiency, as opposed to accepting them as some inevitable compromise. It is not rebellion against the existing order so much as the natural drive to create meaning and community in a world whose existing structures do not offer much of either. There is a moment early on when we realize that there is no particular reason for things to be the way they are. We could start over. We would probably do just as well, or better.
Maybe I am trying to pin down something that I know I have already lost before I forgot that I ever had it. The parties happening now are not as wild as the wildest parties that I once went to. Maybe I wish I knew where the wild parties of today are. I am trying to think my way back to emotions too strong to admit of any thinking. Maybe there is no way back.
The child sees the world as it is, the phoniness and the stupidity, the tragedy of conventions like the seven-day week, conventions that adults have learned to take for granted. Revolution is an act that begins with imagination, and this is the child’s special power, imagining. The body of teens, clean adult bodies torqueing up to full power, crisp as freshly minted coins, looking for a way in, an object to act on, a window to smash. The sound of glass breaking is actually three sounds: “the crack of the initial concussion, the plump, vegetal pop of the disintegration, and the gossip of settling fragments.” That is what it sounded like to John Updike, in 1956.
The desire to make revolution does not come from leaders, or from arguments, or from the bloodthirsty mob. It comes anew with the birth of each generation. The task of the older generation is to put it down, to lock it into the tightest possible frame so that it dissipates like curved smoke passing through a straight grid. Failure means throwing out the maps and the clocks. No one will know the old names of the cities and states, the old colors drawn within the old lines, not unless they are forced to sit down in a chair and recite them.
The staying power of the bullshit comes from the way it harnesses the world-destroying forces of Youth and Sex, to control the sites where they are released, and to use their latent energy to perpetuate the bullshit. Youth and Sex are like two elements held in suspension within a battery: A reaction that would ordinarily result in an explosion can yield a steady charge of appliance-powering juice if the ratios are kept under strict control. Teen Sex Energy is thus woven back into the existing framework of the three inherited forces—Land Money Power—which are weaker in their moment but distinguished by a castle-like resiliency tested by wave after wave of fierce assaults.
Sites of controlled release: The battlefield, where the bodies and riot-energies of the teens are smashed against opposing bodies, and opposing energies, for the taking of land. The billboard, where hyperreal images of Teen Sex Energy are projected into older minds to produce increased consumer demand within the money economy. The factory, where energy is drawn down and converted to measurable output. The screen, where the field of action narrows to a choice of where to click. The theater. The disco. The stadium. Any enclosed space where tickets are sold.
It sounds grotesque, this drive to neutralize new powers so they bear interest on old powers, which are then spent in arbitrary and self-exalting and life-sucking ways. Really, the drive is not so bad. There is a sweetness to it. What looks like a desire to conquer is driven by a blind hunger, to push outward, further and further, far enough to restore contact with what’s been lost. Like Charles Kane’s memory of Rosebud, it is nostalgia for what real power felt like. It felt like riding a fast sled down a steep hill.
Land Money Power is held in place not by armies or policemen or bad ideology but by hundreds of daily acts of voluntary submission. The phone rings; we answer. A promise is made to pay the rent; every month the check moves and the contract stays in the drawer.
One could imagine a revolution beginning with words if the act of calling bullshit on the bullshit did not pay so well. From an old dueling code:
Words used in retort, although more violent and disrespectful than those first used, will not satisfy,—words being no satisfaction for words. When words are used, and a blow given in return, the insult is avenged…
A revolution beginning with blows is the project of serious men, the bearded men in the mountains worshipping old books and trying to keep their old rifles in order. Victory is too absurd to speak of, so they talk about the paradise that follows a glorious death. They hold down the last redoubt against Land Money Power—a few hearts and minds buried in the mountains.
When your cave is found and the prevailing reasons become your reasons and your body becomes a machine the psychologists have a word for what you feel. The word is “depersonalization,” the live inner experience of being dead matter. (There are pills to help with this.) They call its opposite “mindfulness,” when the experience of the present blossoms under one’s full attention. Mindfulness is the feeling during the walk to the guillotine. Depersonalization is what it feels like to become a guillotine.
But this is too stark. I would like to think of some other alternatives.
The costs of not going along are high. Maybe this is the moment when Teen Sex Energy ends, the moment when we begin to calculate these costs. If I were trying to imagine what action without calculation might look like, I would begin with the
faces of teens dancing on American Bandstand.
Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion—and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion… while truth again reverts to a new minority.
And so on through the generations. Land Money Power absorbs each charismatic burst of Teen Sex Energy into the web of insincerity. The maps and clocks get handed down; the schools teach what is worth counting. There is a moment when we realize the reasons that things are the way that they are. They may not be the best reasons, but they will hold the field until you or I can offer some better ones.
This essay was first published in Megawords #13. Revised January 5, 2012.