Commentary Magazine


Sex and Armaggedon

We are clearly caught up, and rather violently, in one of our periodic attempts to force the rhetoric of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” into the remotest corners of our national life. Almost daily some group or other—blacks, women, students, homosexuals, the silent majority, nuns, seminarians, professional athletes, Indians, topless dancers, or marijuana mystics—announces its angry discovery that it is a “nigger” with respect to an established tyranny and that it intends to liberate itself with the least possible delay in order to pursue that happiness which is its birthright. As Tom Hayden declared at the University of Washington this spring, “Everybody is beginning to rise up at once.” There is even a male liberation movement headed by a retired steamfitter. Only the foetus (nature’s last silent nigger) is having trouble mounting, or persuading others to mount for it, a substantial liberation movement, its niggerhood being apparently too essential to the liberation of others. It is a time to recall lines from that great liberation poem, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/ Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”

In the meantime, those who can find no other way to take down a door can always join the sexual liberation movement—which at least in a symbolic way includes all the others. Americans have been conditioned to equate liberation with an assault on a frontier, and as David Riesman pointed out back in the 50’s, sex is the last frontier. Specifically, the frontier of sex is that outermost verge of Victorian prudery beyond which, for those with sufficient derring-do, lies an ultimate enhancement of life. The appropriate myth here is that of Sleeping Beauty, who holds out the promise of an erotic Utopia for those hardy enough to force their way through the barrier of repression that encloses her. In her American version, Sleeping Beauty represents the promise of the super orgasm, the supreme liberation, the grand terminus of the pursuit of happiness. Kinsey and Masters and Johnson (intrepid pioneers) have helped to clear the wilderness of her outer domain. Henry Miller tells the story of her heroic conquest. Playboy key clubs, nude Los Angeles waitresses, and bare-breasted entertainers swollen with silicone repeat her promise on the level of farce, while Prince Charming, American-style (let us now praise famous men), is defined in all his liberated hyperbole in the advertisements of the Berkeley Barb: “Anything Anyplace Bi-Male stud model athlete, muscular bod, yng, good looks, really hung and versatile. . . .”

Overawed as we are by the vision of such polymorphous virility, it is no wonder that we consume vast quantities of sexual liberation literature and drama. Rumors of sex-swinging clubs in Southern California tantalize us the way rumors of the Fountain of Youth tantalized Ponce de Leon, and at the same time tap deep-seated fears that we would not be able to make it in such a redskin world. Dr. David Reuben’s book could not help being a best-seller in a society more than half convinced that when it has been told everything it has always wanted to know about sex it will know everything worth knowing about everything. The supercharged erotic atmosphere of our times can induce even in reasonably mature and contented married couples the anxieties of a too-sheltered puberty. Have they missed what the film Man and Wife guarantees to those who see it now: “Marital bliss and total fulfillment for a lifetime”? If, as Grove Press reminds us, de Sade has been called “the freest spirit that ever lived,” how could one any longer tolerate the bondage from which, presumably, Sixty Erotic Engravings from Juliette will release him? Could there be a better, or more acrobatic, way both to discover and be delivered from the prison of erotic routine than by reading Holger Benson’s One Hundred Love Positions (illustrated with “tasteful and discreet photographs”) or L. P. O’Connor’s Photographic Manual of Sexual Intercourse (a book that has been purchased by “many reputable institutions”)? And then there is the unsettling possibility—suggested by films like Sex in Denmark, and I Am Curious (Yellow)—that the last frontier is being assaulted most vigorously not in America but in that old repressive Europe from which, bemused with liberation dreams, we once so gladly departed. America may have been first on the moon, concedes a full-page ad for The Pictorial Guide to Sexual Intercourse (original title, Eimmaleins für Zwei), but Europe “has always and probably will always lead the world in sexual knowledge and enlightenment.” There is little comfort for us in Jonathan Edwards’s very American conviction that the Sun of Righteousness now rises in the west if we suspect that the ecstasy is still back where we came from.

I note in a review of Edward M. Brecher’s The Sex Researchers that our convalescence from “sexually debilitating Victorianism” is progressing nicely. I haven’t read this “first history of sexology” but I hope that it gives some credit for the recovery to Hugh Hefner. According to Tom Wolfe, Hefner is little more than halfway through his magnum opus, a solemn dissertation being published piecemeal in Playboy “on the absurdity of Victorian sex codes in the modern world.” Wolfe recognizes that the real absurdity may be in the enterprise itself, that it is “a tedious set-to with a colossus that somebody or other must have killed off about 40 years ago.” But Wolfe misses something important, even heroic, in Hefner’s commitment to this task. If you want to experience sexual liberation as symbolic of liberation itself you must have Victorian repression constantly available to define it against—even if you have to make up your Victorianism as you go along. To let Victorianism go is to let sexual liberation go. This is why Playboy is really a Victorian publication, as well as a prime example of the law that the over-reaction from hang-up is hang-up.

In The Pump House Gang Wolfe tells us that Hefner, working the gadgets in his fabulous house, made him think of Jay Gatsby: “Both were scramblers who came up from out of nowhere to make their fortunes and build their palaces and ended up in regal isolation.” After conceding the obvious differences between the two figures, Wolfe drops the subject, but it is worth pursuing, not least because The Great Gatsby passes a disquieting judgment on the Playboy enterprise and the great American innocence about sex-as-liberation that it represents.

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As many readers have no doubt discovered, The Great Gatsby is a very erotic novel, however discreet it may seem when compared with Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or Mailer’s An American Dream. Its vision of American possibility as well as its vision of American disillusion is highly eroticized; one might say that it dramatizes in terms of a sexual analogue the very vulnerability of the American effort. This is especially clear at the end, and would have been clearer still if Fitzgerald had had his way entirely. In all editions the penultimate paragraph begins: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Fitzgerald’s preferred word in this sentence, to judge from his letter to Maxwell Perkins, was “orgastic,” the adjective for “orgasm,” which, wrote Fitzgerald, ‘expresses exactly the intended ecstasy.” Certainly it is the appropriate word given the terms with which, two paragraphs earlier, the New World is presented to the Dutch sailors: “fresh green breast,” “pandered in whispers,” “transitory enchanted moment.”

In this great passage the Dutch sailors are assigned an evaluation of the New World that historically anticipates, and at the same time gives both mythic and ironic resonance to, Jay Gatsby’s evaluation of Daisy Buchanan, the girl with whom five years before he had had a passionate wartime romance. In that evaluation money, too, is eroticized, for, as he comes to realize, Daisy’s voice “is full of money.” But what is most poignantly eroticized is Gatsby’s last moments floating on the air mattress, when, the phone call from Daisy not having come, “he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.” For in the erotic terms of the novel, Gatsby drifting in his swimming pool is experiencing the disenchanted aftermath of an orgasm that has fallen disastrously short of expectations. So he sees “an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves,” finds the rose grotesque and the sunlight raw in a “new world, material without being real,” and is murdered by an “ashen, fantastic figure” who had drifted toward him “through the amorphous trees.” This figure—George Wilson who mistakenly believes that Gatsby was the driver of the car that killed his wife the night before—brings with him the image of the ashheaps beside which his garage is located. And it is the ashheaps, the refuse of a technological society, that represent the rape of that virgin land before which the Dutch sailors had once stood entranced.

But if Gatsby’s aspiration to a godlike liberation of his capacity for life is expressed in sexual terms, he is nevertheless far from the sexual athletes who, past masters perhaps of the one hundred love positions, come after him. Gatsby the erotic transcendentalist is, like Thoreau the celibate transcendentalist, an impulse-inhibiting man, having gone from rags to riches by means of the ascetic practices prescribed by Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger. In committing himself to Daisy “he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail” and to the ascetic disciplines that grail-followers must accept; and indeed, one finds him everywhere in the chapter “The Knight Goes Forth” in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. The goings-on in Hefner’s Playboy mansion would surely scandalize him no less than Hefner’s Playboy philosophy. Nevertheless, Gatsby is a Puritan, and it is his puritanism that relates him to the mystique of the orgasm as supreme liberation.

The kind of puritanism I have in mind is delineated by Rollo May in Love and Will “as a state of alienation from the body, separation of emotion and reason and the use of the body as a machine,” whether to deny it or indulge it. The indulgent new Puritan aspires to let himself go in passion without “unseemly commitment” to a person; he wants to have sex without falling into love, as the Victorian sought to have love without falling into sex. “And like all genuine Puritans (very passionate men underneath) the new sophisticate does it [cultivates the tool of his body] by devoting himself passionately to the moral principle of dispersing all passion, loving everybody until love has no power left to scare anyone. He is deathly afraid of his passions unless they are kept under leash, and the theory of total expression is precisely his leash.”

In most respects Gatsby is obviously not a sophisticated new Puritan, but he is a Puritan, and even a new Puritan, in his impersonality, his unawareness of human personhood, whether his own or others. He is separated from an awareness of personhood by his godhead; he has sprung from his “Platonic conception of himself”; he is a “son of God.” There is no more effective (and glamorous) way to alienate oneself from his body, to put his own and all other bodies at the “service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” He is, of course, alienated from the personhood and body of Daisy Buchanan, as well, for the Daisy in his head, the Daisy of the symbolic green dock light, is no more a mortal woman than the white whale is a mortal fish for that other Puritan, Ahab, in Melville’s Moby Dick.

Gatsby’s impersonality, his alienation from his body, goes along with his alienation from time. Gods do not live in time, only persons with bodies do. Hence, when Nick Carraway observes that “You can’t repeat the past,” Gatsby cries incredulously, “Why of course you can!” This is also why later, during the confrontation in the Plaza hotel suite, Gatsby is bewildered when Daisy tries to explain that she can’t help what’s past, that though she loved her husband once she loved Gatsby too. This is the time-bound, flesh-and-blood Daisy speaking, and about this pathetic creature Gatsby knows and cares as little as Othello knows and cares about the historical flesh-and-blood Desdemona.

The inability to understand and accept the flesh-and-blood, time-bound Daisy expresses Gatsby’s conviction that time is evil and thus expresses, too, the Manicheism that romanticism carries like a virus. It is important to remember that Manicheism was itself a liberation movement, that it yearned to free the soul from the time-and-matter-bound body. It could also tolerate a great deal of sexual liberation, so long as it did not terminate in generation. No doubt, as with some other “liberation” heresies, it was understood by many of its adherents as primarily a sexual liberation movement, but its real aim was to escape from the evil of time and matter—that is, human bodies and human loving. Rollo May’s new puritanism, which uses bodies to transcend time in orgasm, is at heart similarly Manichean in its conviction about the evil of time and matter. It repeats in a sexual context the American’s traditional conviction that he is by some kind of divine fiat liberated from the prison of the corrupt time-order of the Old World. Hefner is closer than his critics realize to the great Puritan visionaries who saw the American enterprise as a convenanted journey toward the east. He would, I suspect, understand the sense of mission that led Governor Winthrop to exclaim: “For wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us.” For Hefner is no less embarked on a quest for paradise than Winthrop was in 17th-century Puritan New England.

But the quest for the paradise of sexual liberation being a Puritan thing can have some of the disturbing Puritan consequences, one of the worst of which is the separation of orders, so that an unqualified and undeviating commitment on the theological, ideological, or visionary level is accompanied by ruthlessness or cynical exploitation on the level of everyday living. For Gatsby this is the combination of his dreams with the foul dust that floats in their wake. In contemporary American life it is the combination of a liberation mystique with a dehumanizing subordination of persons to orgasm—an erotic repetition of the combination in European fascism of the mystique of state with a murderous depersonalization.

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In human sexuality the separation of orders is favorable to the production and sale of pornography—which, the President’s (repudiated) Commission on Obscenity and Pornography seems to have discovered, represents a respectable percentage of the gross national product. Militant anti-pornographers are horrified with the amount of it they see around them. No doubt faulty definition, over-susceptibility, and the confusion of sex with other issues are factors in the militancy: sex is as likely to be a symbolic thing for crusading censors as for crusading libertarians. However, one does not have to be a crusading, and perhaps emotionally askew, prude to be struck with the abundance of what has conventionally been called pornography. Americans, nevertheless, are still to a striking degree too moralistic and too idealistic for the grim masturbatory concentration that the experience of pornography demands. If the orders have separated, they aspire to rejoin them. Hence, the potentially pornographic is put into an idealizing or moralizing context in which the familiar villains that oppose an honest, courageous, and liberating assault on the frontier of sex are prudery, hypocrisy, and censorship.

Similarly, wife-swappings, orgies, and the various kinds of erotic basic encounters fit easily into the all-purpose euphemistic formulas always available to those who need to see their current preoccupations in crusading or salvational terms: they salvage stale marriages, they promote group solidarity, they provide alternate models for togetherness, they give honest expression to a need for deeper intimacy, they expand sexual consciousness, they make possible the exploration of new life styles, they are powerful forms of sex education, they are means for discovering the true basis of love—or, to borrow the language of a sex swinger whom Richard Warren Lewis quotes in a Playboy article, they afford the experience of “a strange sensation of omniscience, a godlike quality, a sense of power.” If some enterprising American, having learned from the Johnson and Masters Human Sexual Response that the most intense orgasms “were achieved by self-regulated mechanical or automanipulative technique,” should ever develop an electronic masturbation machine for the home (“his” and “hers” versions in matching colors, perhaps to be located near the sauna bath), it will surely be advertised and used in the spirit that led Roger Williams to defy the theocratic Massachusetts Bay Establishment.

The youthful sexual swaggerers in the Berkeley Barb must be read in this spirit. Their ads, if taken by themselves, may strike many readers as “sexual perversions that would make de Sade blush,” to use the rather heated language of a Liberty Lobby pamphlet. In context, however, the ads are caught up into the helter-skelter liberation mystique of the paper, where they are part of a fantasy in which (contrary to considerable evidence in both psychology and history) total impulse-release prepares for total political revolution. In this heady environment, to be “Bi Male Tall Slim and Hung-Hung-Hung Original” is to be a potent force in sexual politics: to place one’s faith in vote by genitals rather than vote by ballot. As Ronald McGuire once put it in a City College of New York publication, “Our politics is the politics of youth. We are cultural revolutionaries, LSD is our textbook, Day-Glo our weapon and orgasm our victory.”

The likely thing, in short, is that even the most ardent swingers will in the interest of peace of mind attempt to see their swinging in terms of some morally endorsing framework or some larger integrating vision. (Mr. Lewis reports that most swingers think of themselves as “nonpromiscuous and their activities highly moral”). Hence the importance of Hefner’s philosophy; it may amuse Tom Wolfe and bore many others, but it is indispensable to the Playboy effort to keep the orders from separating. It is quite properly a “solemn dissertation,” for Playboy is basically a solemn magazine, as the letters-to-the-editor section helps to make clear. I can believe that the editors were quite honestly shocked to find their publication satirically attacked not too long ago in an underground newspaper that featured a cartoon in which a man was represented masturbating while looking at pictures of Play-girls of the month. Playboy is as anxious to avoid the label of pornography as the early Wordsworth was to avoid poetic diction. Its line of development passes through the old-fashioned true-confession magazine, in which a moralistic framework functioned to protect publisher, editor, writer, and reader from a sense of dangerous over-commitment to subversive passional experience. In matters erotic, its public image, like that of the late Marilyn Monroe, contains the promise of total sexual fulfillment with the assurance of total innocence.

In view of the traditional close association of hard liquor and the release of sexual inhibitions, it is interesting to learn that Hefner drinks a dozen or so bottles of Pepsi-Cola a day. Gatsby the bootlegger is also an abstemious man. The novel in which he appears, however, is as boozy as it is erotic; in it the metaphors of orgasm and intoxication are as inseparable as they were for the temperance crusaders who believed that the paintings of naked women in saloons were as much a menace as the alcohol. The Dutch sailors have an intoxicating vision of the New World, ironic anticipations of which occur throughout the novel. The light in The Great Gatsby comes filtered through cocktail glasses and is projected back as glamorous but deceptive vision: the movie star staged beneath the plum tree at Gatsby’s party; New York as seen from the Queensboro bridge; Gatsby as seen by his guests; Daisy as seen by Gatsby; Tom Buchanan’s world as seen by his mistress, Myrtle Wilson. Gatsby the non-drinker is, of course, the most intoxicated man in the story (is it technology that intoxicates Hefner?); therefore, for him more than for any other character, “the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.” The recurring pattern in the novel is that of drunkenness and hangover and the repeated experience is that of the discovery of illusion. The most painful hangover is the one experienced by Gatsby on the air mattress: that quintessential American moment which is the traumatic aftermath of innocence. The vision of hangover is the vision of the ashheaps, the experience of that possibility which always haunts the American innocent and leads him in moods of disillusionment to define reality, in Lionel Trilling’s words, as “hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant.”

The entire novel is troubled with this possibility, just as the whole Playboy effort is troubled with the possibility that in the hard cold light of the morning after, the erotic Utopia of its aspiration will be reduced to a kitchen midden of silicone injectors, contraceptive pills, empty cosmetic vials, and broken Pepsi-Cola bottles. The power of the novel derives in great part from its ability to contemplate this possibility without being innocently over-whelmed by it. The same thing is true to an even greater extent about Moby Dick, which is able to avoid the innocence of identifying ultimate reality with a Newtonian universe in which “all deified nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel house within.” Melville’s great book, as this passage from “The Whiteness of the Whale” suggests, has its own erotic tone. Analogously considered, Ahab aspires passionately to the supreme orgasm that will get him beyond all orgasms, but which when he achieves it turns out to be only the love-death. The whale to which he is lashed when we last see him is his air mattress, and one may imagine that at the end he had his own vision of the ashheaps.

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The interdependence of sexual liberation and drug liberation is apparent enough; indeed, sexual liberation is not so much the consequence of drugs as it is a way in which they validate themselves as authentic liberators of the time-and flesh-bound subject into the experience of the ecstatic NOW. There is no better place to see this manifestation of the great American innocence than in the saga of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters as narrated by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. This lengthy experiment in drug-induced ecstasy, in which a privileged and god-intoxicated elite aspires to release the square world from its imprisonment in the old time-bound and life-denying order, is a caricature of the American effort to free itself from the prison of European history. Its hero, Kesey, has clear affinities with Thoreau, Melville’s Ahab, and Jay Gatsby. Each expresses a radical discontent with the limitations of the human condition and aspires to transcend it: Thoreau by a basically ascetic triumph over that “inferior and brutish nature to which he is allied”; Ahab by killing Moby Dick and therefore achieving a total and god-like triumph over evil, and therefore over time; Gatsby by possessing the goddess Daisy and thereby achieving a time-defying godhead himself; Kesey by overcoming the one-thirtieth of a second sensory lag that stands between him and the experience of NOW, the ultimate kairos.

The sexual liberation in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test happens in an atmosphere of total innocence, as befits an American effort to remove doors from jambs. Indeed, the uninhibited sexuality in it is represented as a kind of sacrament, both a sign and cause of blessedness, for Wolfe is convinced that the Pranksters had a true religious experience. He was helped to this conviction by his readings in Joachim Wach’s Sociology of Religion. It is interesting to imagine how his view of his subject might have been modified if instead he had approached it through a book like Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, a powerful study of heretical liberation movements in the Middle Ages. Here he might have found the true progenitors of the Pranksters in the Brethren of the Free Spirit (or Spiritual Libertines) and in the Ranters who surfaced later in 17th-century England—an elite of amoral supermen, as Cohn calls them. This heresy was characterized by “a system of self-exaltation often amounting to self-deification; a pursuit of total emancipation which in practice could result in antinomianism and particularly in anarchic eroticism, often also a revolutionary social doctrine which denounced the institution of private property and aimed at its abolition.” Between it and authentic Christian mysticism, Cohn points out, the gulf was immense. The amoral supermen routinely claimed to possess prodigious thaumaturgic powers, believed their acts to be performed “not in time but in eternity,” rejected normal social relations, and abandoned all vigils, fasts, and ascetic practices. Significantly, the sexual act was given a quasi-mystical value; indeed, says Cohn, “one of the surest marks of the ‘subtle in spirit’ was precisely the ability to indulge in promiscuity without fear of God or qualm of conscience.”

They sound, in short, a good deal like those American antinomians whose errors, “like strong wine,” as a 17th-century divine put it, “make men’s judgements reel and stagger, who are drunken therewith.” It is conceivable that if Wolfe had approached the Pranksters armed with Cohn’s book he would have been less inclined to take them at their own euphoric evaluation—might indeed have approached them with some of the jaunty irreverence that is a distinctive feature of The Pump House Gang. Wolfe has a sharp eye for some of the absurdities, even the horrors, of American innocence. Surely the frenetic aspiration for a total technological control in the interest of an ultimate orgastic breakthrough is at least as fair a target with the Pranksters as with Hugh Hefner.

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Liberation movements in America have a strong bias for antinomianism, that conviction of an innocent elevation above the law because of an irresistible and sanctifying grace. It is useful to remember that antinomianism historically was the subversive underside of puritanism and a much more present menace to it than the old Roman church. Indeed, the two existed together in a symbiotic relationship quite similar to that of Victorianism and Hugh Hefner’s philosophy—a fact that Governor Winthrop makes clear in his account of the trial and banishment of antinomian Anne Hutchinson, “a woman of ready wit and bold spirit.” Sexual liberation in the Berkeley Barb, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and in Playboy is in the antinomian tradition, though Anne Hutchinson would have a hard time recognizing its version of the Holy Ghost. It even has its own experience of irresistible grace: the implied beneficent force that works through impulse and honors with beatification those who give themselves generously to it. Antinomian sex, being limitless in its aspirations, must be depersonalized sex, or “consumer sex” as the psychiatrist Karl Stern calls it. Personalized sex is limited by commitments; its aim is not so much liberation as it is a deepening of love between persons and a strengthening of commitment. From the innocent antinomian point of view this kind of loving is simply a picture of the imprisoned spirit denied its birthright by malign, perhaps even diabolic, forces, while from the Puritan point of view it represents a state of affairs moving dangerously toward idolatry. In America, love is the scarred victim of the furious dialectic between these two views.

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The old Puritan impulse in American life was grounded on the assumption that sexual antinomianism is a sign of a moral economy that leads to a dangerous dissipation of energies vital to personal and national survival. In this view, intemperance in sex and the use of alcohol is followed by the corruption of that prime national resource, the American character. Even Thoreau, who had in most respects cut himself loose from Puritan orthodoxy, was in agreement with this impulse, convinced as he was that the wise man would prefer water to wine and continence (“it invigorates and inspires us”) to looseness (it “dissipates and makes us unclean”) in the use of “generative energy.” In such an impulse-inhibiting economy, to cultivate sexual passion for its own sake is to submit oneself to a wilderness in which, since she is only the disguise for destructive elemental forces, Sleeping Beauty had better be kept in-temperately in chains.

The fact that this traditional moral economy is not dead can be seen in the force it exerts as a negative image in the minds of its opponents, as though it were an order imposed by an evil god who must be propitiated even as he is rejected. Undeniably, however, it gets a bad press. At the present time our practice is to identify it with the political Right—with the likes of the John Birch Society, the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, and the Liberty Lobby—for which sex education in the schools, sensitivity training, and pornography in the media tend to get bound together in a familiar package with Communist subversion. The Right in this manifestation has come a long way from the Puritan movement, which, before it deteriorated into the rigidities of Victorianism, was in its best representatives, says Rollo May, “characterized by admirable qualities of dedication to integrity and truth.” Nevertheless, even in its present state of exacerbation it gives voice to an ancient American fear that the intoxication of a happiness-oriented freedom will be followed by the demoralization of hangover and by the political despair that is always being nurtured in the womb of innocence. In contemporary terms this is the fear that Hugh Hefner is trying to put us all on Jay Gatsby’s air mattress (if not lash us with Ahab to the back of Moby Dick). It is also, I suspect, the sign of an inchoate realization that the sinister model lurking behind the dream of the super-orgasm is that of the hydrogen bomb itself, that overwhelming experience of elemental force in which one “dies” in a peace that surpasses understanding.

Indeed, the anxieties of the Right might help one to see that the excesses of sexual liberation are intimately allied with the squandering and pollution that characterizes our sensate and impulse-releasing culture. In his powerful New York Review essay, “Ecological Armageddon,” Robert L. Heilbroner asks:

Can we really persuade the citizens of the Western world, who are just now entering the heady atmosphere of a high consumption way of life, that conservation, stability, frugality, and a deep concern for the distant future must now take priority over the personal indulgence for which they have been culturally prepared and which they are now about to experience for the first time?

Conservation, stability, frugality, a deep concern for the future: characteristics no more likely to be admired in Playboy than in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Heilbroner is writing about the Spaceship Earth as it concerns all its occupants, but America, the most affluent passenger, is clearly very much on his mind, and the conclusion of his essay is pregnant with the traditional American anxiety: will the American character be equal to a demand at least as great as any ever placed upon it, or will “the increasingly visible approach of Armageddon . . . bring not repentance but Saturnalia”?

Seen in this perspective, the dream of sensate affluence for which orgastic liberation is a persuasive symbol may be as irrelevant to our present needs as Norman O. Brown’s dream of salvation through the holy madness of an elite, or Ken Kesey’s closely related dream of whole civilizations experiencing an acid-induced (and centrally-controlled) satori. It is not a question of whether certain heroic individuals can manage to combine a cult of orgastic ecstasy with an active ecological concern for Spaceship Earth. Nor is it a question of whether ultimately a sensate or an ascetic cultural orientation promises more for personal growth. Rather, it is a question of how much concerted long-term support for an ecological effort one can expect from a culture in which a significant and compelling factor is a new puritanism and all that it implies about the urgencies of self-indulgence.

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For Mr. Heilbroner, the effort necessary to arrest ecological decay presumes a political awakening. It is hard to imagine such an awakening, in effect a conversion, that is not grounded in loving concern, however much it may depend upon enlightened selfishness or simple fear of extinction. For Rollo May, loving concern at its best is agape, “esteem for the other, the concern for the other’s welfare beyond any gain that one can get out of it.” In the innocent sexual wilderness that so compels our culture there is little agapé and a frightening potential for that apathy that May identifies as the opposite of love. Love and the capacity for willed imaginative action that cannot be separated from it are what make the world go round for May. No doubt Heilbroner would agree with him. Together they suggest the ironic possibility that an innocent pursuit of freedom and personal gratification may, in Heilbroner’s words, result in a “gradual worsening and coarsening of our style of life.”

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