The Guru Without All The Bullshit

Journalism and Recommendations


I've been polishing up my literary journalist skills for some years now. Fact is, I'm getting to be quite good and could fool the casual reader into mistaking me for a real writer. You know, the kind with all the big words and long, complicated paragraphs where you keep having to stop for a breath and rereading bits you didn't quite get. Recently I've been contributing to the Canadian journal Books In Canada ( In the dim past I've also chalked up a few notches at Paragraph and Word and some others I'd rather you didn't know about.

Only a few pieces are relevant to the mystic mumbo-jumbo of this site, but I'm right proud of it all and "will now proceed to bore you for four or five minutes" (Jimi) with the products of my fabulous and furious critical intelligence. Of course, having top notch books to review certainly raises the bar, and I'm certainly obliged to Olga Stein for (mostly) making sure I'm regularly supplied with them. Here's one of her picks right here:

The Road of Excess By Marcus Boon (Harvard 2002) ISBN 0-674-00914-2

You might not know it, as you go about your daily business as an honest and upstanding citizen of the state, but indulging in and singing the praises of intoxicating plants, herbs and liquors has been one of mankind's favourite occupations. While it is only in the last twenty decades or so that our educated scribes have been furiously scribbling their schematics of bliss, the tribes down through the ages have rarely refrained from their holy frenzies. Whether partaking of some Bacchic or Dionysian agitation, absorbing the mysteries either Eleusian or Rosicrucian, or journeying shamanically throught the nether regions of nature and spirit, men and women from every era have pushed at the envelope of normal consciousness with an uncommon zest.

Ancient cave scrapings in southern Algeria depict numbers of dancing fools, hands clasping mushrooms, and that unmistakable shimmy of ecstasy in the eyes. The nomadic peoples credited with this late neolithic artwork lived in the area, it is estimated, between seven and twenty thousand years ago. Whether the fungi pictured are the forerunners of Soma, the fabled concoction of the 3,000+ year old Hindu Vedas, is a matter for the scholars, but the Rig Veda, a collection of a hundred or so hymns to Soma, is undoubtedly the first written peaen to intoxicated transcendence to survive: "Thy juices, purified Soma, all-pervading, swift as thought, go of themselves like the offspring of swift mares, the celestial well-winged sweet flavoured juices, great exciters of exhiliration, alight upon the receptacle."

Connoisseurs of high society will immediately recognise a certain tone, one that is often tolled by writers on, what Marcus Boon likes to call, The Road Of Excess. That was certainly the path of one Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose literary achievements can, it would appear, only be equalled by his relentless quest for drugged adventure. On top of his noted dependence on various over-the-counter opiated beverages, the poet of Kubla Khan was not unfamiliar with bhang, hashish, or nitrous oxide, some of which were consumed in an atmosphere of jovial experimentation with friends and colleagues, both scientific and literary. These were not doomed romantics, gamely flailing against soulless modern society in dingy damp rooms, but brave explorer boys, trying to map the antipodes of consciousness to see where reigning philosopher kings like Kant could be followed and maybe faulted.

Invited by letter, with his friend Robert Southey, to try out the new gas at Humphrey Davy's research facility just outside Bristol, the writers duly arrived, ready to party. Surprisingly, it's the discoverer's impressions which remain the most vivid: "I felt a sense of tangible extension, highly pleasurable in every limb, my visible impressions were dazzling...I heard distinctly every sound in the degrees I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind, and were connected with words in such a manner, as to produce perceptions perfectly novel...I exclaimed to Dr. Kingslake 'Nothing exists but thoughts! The universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!'" Even more remarkable experiences are detailed in his unpublished notebooks of the period, but we'll get to that later.

For now we'll wonder who would have guessed that such ecstatic reverberations would have linked the worlds of 18th century science and 20th century urban shamanism? I had my suspicions, but when I discovered here that a group of 19th century French psychiatrists had taken a lively interest in the therapeutic uses of hashish, probably eased into the country by Napoleon's famous swipe at Egypt, thinking it capable of mimicing the altered states experienced by the chaotically unstable citizens under their command I was taken aback, for this is precisely what Tomothy Leary and his merry men attempted in the early messianic days of LSD therapy. Of such fascinating additions to the patchwork quilt of fringe cultural history is Mr. Boon's work made up. With seemingly encyclopaedic and virtually impeccable research, not to mention a bibliography to die for, he conveys the reader delightedly through the labyrinths of phantasmagoria and elaborate paranoia digested and duly noted by that seemingly inexhaustible team of high flyers that populate our literary pantheon.

Boon's suggestion that "the transcendental impulse, the desire to go beyond matter and mind and experience the whole, forms one of the principal reasons that people take drugs" is well taken. We are always trying to get out of ourselves, it would seem. And in our efforts we will use every conceivable concoction to do so. We will smoke, sniff, swallow, rub and inject. We will dabble and deal and wallow. We will do everything, it seems, but stop. The projected palace of wisdom, ever the haven in our paths of dutiful overindulgence, continues to stretch, mirage like, slightly above and ahead of its seekers. And if they arrive, they find their blissful visit almost indescribable and usually, despite the requisite immersion in eternity, soon over, their fuel soon depleted and their carcass complaining. Some drugs quicken, some deaden; some expand the consciousness, some contract; some lead to an experience of luxurious profusion, others to a desolate emptiness. Perhaps all are versions of the same palace, modeled on different assumptions and constructed from the variable economies of language.

Who's really to know, when you're out there in space cadet munchkinland, with everything glowing and vibrating and talking at the same time? Some would say that to speak of the ineffable is to profane it. The mysteries, they say, are for the few not the many. And perhaps they are right, transcendence is not for the common man, especially if we are to keep him kicking in the economy, but writers and artists, slackers to the max, have always been adepts at skipping the queue and becoming the select who explore and map the scintillating chaos ingestion releases. They will neither take no for an answer nor moderation as an operating manual. Of the rugged explorers Boon quotes, and there are many, there are few who did not flood themselves with fabulous sensation.

Jean Paul Sartre, lord of the post war undergraduate growing pains, gobbled amphetamines for breakfast, lunch and dinner as he carved his many weighty titles, cramming in downers to relax and sleeping pills to escape, yet few would call the Critique of Dialectical Reason the ravings of a stoner. But addicted he was, as deep in the rush as Kerouac and Ginsberg across the pond. As he said to Simone de Beauvoir, "While I was working, after taking ten corydanes in the morning, my stae was one of complete bodily surrender. I perceived myself through the motion of my pen, my forming images and ideas." The down side, as Boon notes, of excessive stimulant use, is an infatuation with the very speed and flow of words which leads to loss of control "over the size and scope of his later projects, which are often large but incomplete (ie the five volume life of Flaubert), with ideas proliferating without reaching closure or conclusion." Certainly all the Beats suffered from this type of hyper-ventilating: they may have justified it as a fusion of "jazz and Buddhist aesthetics" but the jam sessions end up as often in the emptiness of boredom as the void of bliss.

Of course, in such ecstatic dissolutions of identity, it is often difficult, if not well nigh impossible, to differentiate one from another. As Paul Simon once memorably sang "One man's ceiling is another man's floor". If heaven can indeed be discovered in a grain of sand and all eternity in one hour, it would appear that the base camp of rationality is the morse code of those condemned to three dimensions. Such morose speculations would seem inevitable in this world of self medicating mysticism, and as each class of drug spawns its own brand of awareness, it boasts of yet another brave new world to be infiltrated, and secretes new metaphors as models of system management.

The metaphor of technology: Employing Heidegger's definition of the word, Boon suggests that all drugs are "technologies" because "they posit ends and procure and utilize the means to them." Thus we can speak of the opiates as "technologies of pleasure, cannabis as a technology of dreaming, and anesthetics as technologies of transcendence". The metaphor of speed, quoting Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: "All drugs fundamentally concern speeds, and modifications of speed". The metaphor of disembodied dictation, where with a variety of stimulants, including opium, which was thus considered until De Quincy, "the writer's body disappears as his mental faculties accelerate and the paper covers itself with ink." The metaphor of need/control, defined by William Burroughs as the "algebra of need", centred in the human body inside, where desire is birthed and baited by the economic structure outside, which thrives on control. The metaphor of excess, which Boon works over as a kind of uber-metaphor, a psychic umbrella which keeps the cosmic miscreants safe from the rain of boredom and restraint.
The author explores each of these models with what can only be described as exhaustive aplomb. No stone is left unturned in his quest as to "why literature and drugs came to be associated". As an ethnographer "studying how a society came came to believe certain things" he sees that "the histories of religion, literature and science all intersect in the production of the artifact of the writer on drugs." From Sir Walter Scott to Michel Foucault the pantheon expands and contracts, depending on mood and its concomitant modifiers.

One feels a bond of gratitude to Mr. Boon for carefully composing what is tantamount to a reviewer's dream: a scrupulously researched and splendidly written tome that is a joy to read and a challenge to digest, and leaving just enough loose ends for the amazed commentator to be critically constructive.

While it might have ballooned this trim exercise in source and exposition into the kind of unwieldy door stopper professors are justly famous for, his extrapolations of the altered state repeatedly abutt onto two other areas of anomalous experience, those of channeling and out-of- body experience. As he notes,"Kubla Khan gave first expression to one of the fundamental tropes of literary drug use, that of dictation: the sense that thoughts are being dictated by some unknown agency without conscious effort". Although he is far from the first commentator to ignore the vast literature of automatic writing on the customary grounds that it is more inspirational than literary, he could be the first to acknowledge and explore that the two share an identical compositional mechanism.

Perhaps Jon Klimo's Channeling could be added to his already bulging bibliography. He also notes that because "the ultimate reference point for transcendence within modern paradigms is death" then the literature that "most resembles the literature of anasthetics is that of near death experiences". To this he might have added out-of- body travel. If this sounds like reaching, consider for a moment the notebooks of Humphrey Davy, the discoverer of nitrous oxide, edited by Molly Lefebure, where he describes "experiences of interplanetary space travel, in the course of which, as he flew or floated amongst heavenly universes, he encountered all manner of incredibly strange beings".

Hallucination one might be tempted to harrumph, but as Boon elsewhere comments on the phenomenological problems posed by psychedelics, "In the hallucination the only thing that is not supposed to happen to materialist consciousness happens: one sees that for which there is no sensory data." And although this exemplary study employs that same sensory data to illustrate the exquisite traumas of writerly transcendence, it provokes the reader to realms where such data are superfluous. Only this world is limned in language.

gordon phinn is a writer whose works are vivified, in the main, by the convivial cult of caffeine.

Bonking books are always fun, but the bonus is usually in what taboos they reveal. God knows, as a society we 've sure got plenty. As is obvious from below, they're pretty much like any other genre: it can be done well and it can be done badly. I'm reminded of a quote from Lorne Michaels, "Guy comes home from college to find his mum sleeping with his uncle and a ghost banging about the house. Do it well and you've got Hamlet, do it badly and you've got Gilligan's Island".

Exploring The Erotic Memoir

Risking It All by Heather Ingram, (Douglas & McIntyre 2003) ISBN 1-55054-980-4
A Round Heeled Woman by Jane Juska, (Villard 2003)ISBN1-4000-6011-7
The Sexual Life Of Catherine M. By Catherine Millet, (Grove 2003)ISBN0-8021-392-8
The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, (Random House 1997) ISBN 0-697-44999-x

Sometime around 1971, that long ago era of literary nationalism and government largesse, when Leonard Cohen was the only Canadian writer with an international reputation, an Englishman not long in Montreal published a fictional portrayal of a love affair between a high school teacher and one of his brighter female students. Beneath what was to become known in later years as his standard quota of holier-than-thou aestheticism and scads of Evelyn Waugh-ish satire, John Metcalf's first novel presented a tender retelling of an ancient tale: the battle weary and cynical adult revitalised by the beauteous and imbibable energies of youth.

Though far from successful, the book did establish Metcalf, especially amongst the few cognoscenti not seduced by the nationalist fervours then sweeping CanLitland, as a name to watch. People seemed not only charmed by his then-remarkable sophistication of style, but also the daring choice of subject matter. In the wake of the perversely surreal Beautiful Losers, it was actually rather tame, but in the wake of our current enslavement to political correctness, it now seems positively risque.

The frisson of such liasons is, these days, so shamefully charged one suspects the archtype has been forced to migrate to the memoir form, where any outrage is embraced as long as the trash culture esthetic of transgression/confession/redemption is rigorously obeyed. The sinner must sin and the guilty grovel, before a public, well oiled in sanctimonious shock, will attend to the psychic flogging ahead of the pardon administered.

This ineluctable glamour of scandal seems to be why the brisk trade in confessional memoir continues unabated. For some reason, which may one day be unveiled by psychiatry, militant feminism, or aliens with a kinder, gentler agenda, the female of the species is especially keen on kissing and telling. Transgression, it would seem, remains ever so tempting, the season of indulgence it generates quite irresistible, while the lure of hard won redemption vies with public acclaim for the big prize. While guys, when not boozily unemployed or dreaming of fly-fishing, seem keener on the debilitating effects of war on the testosterone charged psyche and the paranoid phallocentric cultures it upholds, gals still much prefer to gore that virgin/madonna ideal with the kind of carefree sluttishness previously the preserve of the indolent rich. It sure looks like brazeness has supplanted modesty in the panoply of desirable attributes. And apparently discretion, decorum and restraint have been a cheesy sham all along. Carefree immediate indulging of desire is definitely what the doctor ordered. Perhaps even stuffed shirts will soon be in short supply.

If the current deluge of mediocre fiction shows us how to sport our skeptical umbrellas even on sky blue sunny days, then the relentless barrage of memoirs reminds us that souls with an overwhelming urge to put their searing stories on paper are not necessarily artists with even the dimmest of visions. Witness Heather Ingram, a high school teacher in small town B.C., seething with impotent rage at a society that dare place her under house arrest for sexual improprieties with a minor under her scholastic jurisdiction. Jeez, she coulda lied and gotten away with it! Heck, he was nearly eighteen and had his own car! And boy did he have a nice set of buns! And let's not forget, she's a paragon of virtue compared to that Mary Kay Letourneau, who had two babies with a thirteen year old, not to mention all those scummy men teachers laying seige to innocent girls.

The relentless tackiness of the whole enterprise wearies even the casual reader. Twenty pages after "We kiss, and I think my heart will break with longing" she's pouring herself into a one night stand with the love of her life's best buddy, also verging on jail bait. Her assessment: "I will use this night as a piece of the puzzle in finding myself." And on it goes, psychic damage magnified by deafeningly poor prose. Ingram is not the first woman to carry her mewling inner child into the wretched complexities of adult society, and of course she will not be the last, but her insistence upon the oh-poor-me syndrome, with its recipe book of tawdry arias from the soap opera repertoire effectively insulate her very high school drama from the serious consideration afforded the more thoughtful entries in the field, such as Jane Juska's A Round Heeled Woman and Catherine Millet's The Sexual Life Of Catherine M.

Juska, a retired school reacher of 67 from Ohio, for whom you'll be pleased to hear, "Art compensates for life," had the cojones to place a personal in The New York Review Of Books, advising of her love of Trollope and her imminent need of some serious rolling in the hay. Her memoir, which comprises the cross country adventures resulting from the most appealing replies, is living proof that bonking books need be neither brassy nor boring. Displaying as deft a touch with the psyches of her respondents as the tangles of her own childhood and failed marriage, she brings to the genre a refreshing breath of refinement and culture. When she submits that "participating in art and sex allows us to transcend the certainty of our own death and the destruction of all that is beautiful and good," one feels like cheering: In praise of older women indeed.

After the white trash dramatics of Ingram's Sunshine Coast, where illicit sex, drugs and home renovations are the major pastimes as mortgages get paid and families unravel, one arrives at Juska's round heeled pilgrimage with a palpable sense of relief. She is the possessor of not only a soft heart, but a sharp eye and fine wit, not to mention a vocabulary blessedly beyond the functional. She too oogled the rear ends of boys in high school hallways, but had the great good sense to unhitch her fantasy from her hands and hover until her anticipation ripened into daring exploits on the right side of the law.

And when she emerges from the wistful shadows into the light of erotic committment, later in life than most perhaps, she is able to usher her readers into the secret empires of sex and culture with equal facility, proving once again that the life of the mind can and should be the life of the body, and that all experience is conjoined by the energies of eternal delight. This unfettered and cosmically tinged joy is shared by Catherine Millet, a middle aged Frenchwoman of quite singular enthusiasm and enterprise, who manages to push the envelope of erotic abandon quite beyond all previous estimates. The editor of the Paris journal Art Press and the author of eight books of art criticism, her disturbingly eloquent disquisition encompasses the most energetic romp through the life libidinous yet encountered by this reviewer.

From langorous afternoons in sunny back gardens with old friends, through less than fussy mate swapping, threesomes with new acquaintances culled from club and bar, innumerable quickies in orchard and forest with car engines idling nearby, to full blown orgies in private homes in the blessedly anonymous acreage of sweat slicked flesh, Millet turns her memoir into a liberine's manifesto, thankfully minus the sadism of the renowned Marquis. She envisions "an easing of human relations, an easing facilitated by an acceptance and tolerance of sexual desire" which her tales recount in a "clearly utopic, fantastical way", and she encourages us to take pleasure as "we rejoice in the vision" That this vision includes spontaneous eruptions of intercourse against the walls of busy railroad termini while commuters cast their eyes elsewhere seems not to trouble Ms. Millet one whit. I guess you just have to be French. It is one thing to be in societal denial of sex trade workers and their continued travails, but bringing the grab-ass esthetic of the bordello into the street reeks of the usual anarchic overkill to me. Let's keep the orgasm safely tucked up in bed, shall we?

While these three memoirs undoubtedly go the distance in matters erotic and literary, charmed and damned by both pleasure and discontent, I felt more than a twinge of regret that none could equal what for me was the crowning achievement of the genre, if not so far then at least recently, Kathryn Harrison's 1997 The Kiss. An almost pefectly pitched meditation on the psychic bondage engendered by her minister father's erotic obsession with his daughter, the writer, whose finely wrought and disciplined prose exposed the weighty normality of neurosis, denial and justification, shorn of the pleading Freudianisms and frantic finger pointing which tabloid psychologising provokes. Exquisitely literary, with nary a trace of an extracurricular agenda she gave the reader the crux of the matter, free of pathos and full of radiance, the glory of the moment, whether gruesome, righteous or generic.

gordon phinn, of course, is chock full of dirty secrets just aching to be exposed.

You might have noticed a small handsome volume in your local big box bookstore lately with the disarming title "On Bullshit". I did and was rewarded for my curiosity. And what a fine little exploration of what your grandad called humbug it is too. Splendid bit of clear thinking there Harry, and so glad it garnered the appropriate praise (and sales). Around the same time, a young turk named Laura Penny put in her two cents worth, subtitling her book 'the truth about bullshit'. I couldn't resist the obvious comparison, nor the remarkable, and little known, volume "Truth, a History", which seemed to tie up every loose end available at the time. Had fun with this one, I tell ya.


The Persistence Of Humbug:

a review of On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt (Princeton 2005, ISBN 0-691-12294-6) and Your Call Is Important To Us by Laura Penny (M&S 2005, ISBN 0-7710-7042-x

Surprising as it may seem, a seventy page essay by a moral philosopher from Princeton has become something of a best seller. Originally a paper presented at a Yale faculty seminar twenty years ago, Harry G. Frankfurt's "On Bullshit", eventually made its appearance in a journal, then in a 1988 collection of Frankfurt's work, "The Importance Of What We Care About", along such sober entries as "Coercion And Moral Responsibility", and now, as a handsomely bound pamphlet, it can be found almost anywhere the printed word is held in high regard.

>As a brief reprieve from the endless reams of ChickLit, Harry Potterisms, DaVinci Code-itis and this week's masterful dissection of militant Islam, its calm, clear-headed deconstruction of everyday deceit is without parallel, unless you'd care to throw in my uncle Jim's all-purpose "an acute case 'o nae brains" as a counter balance. The perfect antidote to our culture's daily dose of garish scandal and scatterbrained ideology, it can be happily devoured in an hour or so and its insights mulled over for weeks.

>For a western intellectual, a clan not often noted for clear diction and direct thought, Frankfurt performs small miracles of deft deliberation, moving smoothly from the notion that bullshit is basically what folks used to call humbug, through the understanding that the bullshitter is not, per se, a liar, seeking to deceive us about "the facts", but is concerned about "concealing the nature of his enterprise", towards a radically smart denouement concerning the modern world's loss of faith in any absolutes and the resultant retreat from achieving correctness to achieving sincerity. But for Frankfurt, since our natures are "elusively insubstantial", we cannot actually come up with honest representations of ourselves, and thus our ideal of sincerity "itself is bullshit". And a lovely tour-de-force it is, despite the uncredited dependence on dear old David Hume. And Bravo! say I.

Almost as incisive as Frankfurt's tiny diamond is Jim Holt's recent New Yorker essay on the whole shebang, "Say Anything", which not only includes a discussion of a little known critique by G.A. Cohen of Oxford, "Deeper Into Bullshit", but also a slew of historically relevant chatter, from St Augustine to Wittgenstein, and an admiring reference to Laura Penny's "Your Call Is Important To Us - the truth about bullshit". To share such hallowed halls with a cast like that in the venerable New Yorker is no mean feat for a first time Canadian author and one wonders how she will ever top it.

Although she claims to admire Frankfurt's work, Penny displays the one quality he ultimately derides, sincerity. Her version is the usual earnest lefty conviction of outrage, striking blows against the omnipotent and uncaring empire. Through the book she faces down her Goliath with a canny admixture of slander, righteous anger and satire. Throw in a few ad hominem insults, the trash talk of tabloid journalism, unseemly lapses into barbarism (recommending the Enron execs for "stoning in lieu of jail time") and the by-now standard chorus of anti-capitalist anti-globalist rhetoric, and by golly you've got a book.

The bearer of several degrees from institutions of higher learning, Ms Penny has also, fortunately, been seconded into the labour pool from time to time, and it would appear that this aspect of her existence has powered both attitude and argument. What those poor schmoes have to put up with really is beyond the pale. She never actually thumbs her nose at the hoi polloi, but one does get the unmistakable flavour of relief at the prospect of college and publishing placing her safely beyond their grubby reach.

Penny is a sharp and effective stylist, whose slash and jab technique deflates many a pompous and pretentious target in public life, but who, like several of her Gen X culture critic comrades-in-arms, retains a dreary ability to parrot the obvious and pander to cliches. That politicians prevaricate, corporations connive, and the military make waves only they can control, is nothing new. Everyone, from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, through Greenpeace, CSIS, McDonalds and the Anglican Synod, propagandises to prop up their agenda, impress their superiors, and to keep, if not increase, their market share. Being committed to your cause does not obviate the need for a paycheck - or a rationale.
Ms Penny, like her colleagues, and many a child still shiny from kindergarten, has duly noted that the Emperor hath no raiment, and that his standard bearers themselves are somewhat threadbare. In this she is spot on, and often charmingly so. But to advance beyond her romantic cri de coeur, she must see over the wall of anti-establishment cliches, personal prejudice and high priced education to that formal, and perhaps stuffy, garden of eternal verities in which it is apparent that little has changed during the last several thousand years.

The marketplace has always been the stage for lewd trade and sharp practise, power has always, without exception, corrupted, greed never fails to tempt and fear has always, without warning, invaded. And the most useful tool arising from such exchanges has usually been wilful deceit. Fortunately, during the same span, for all us keen adherents to systemic checks and balances, sympathy and the charitable impulse have gained a sizable toehold. Of course, personal acts of empathy and kindness tend to lack the wicked thrill of the seven deadly sins and doubtless go undereported in the media.

Penny's vague but tempestuous sloganeering ("Most of what passes for news is bullshit") is initially tempting as a joyously anarchic meltdown of all things pompous, pretentious and imperious, but it eventually wears down the attentive reader as it turns inexorably toward the demonising of all public utterance, an endgame as determinedly nihilistic and self-defeating as the onslaught of bullshit it attempts to disarm.

Now while the tear away success of such works as the DaVinci Code has allowed the world view of gnosticism a return through the back door, where it can easily cavort with the puritanism of fundamentalists of every persuasion, I suggest we should remain firm in our reluctance to will-nilly embrace its vision of demons behind every earthly manifestation. Even the occasional practise of a well-tempered rationalism can show that there is more to public life than political maneovering and public relations, although one who daily immerses herself, as Ms Penny repeatedly confesses, in the murky melodramatics of the media, may lose the ability to make that distinction.

But being full, as they used to say, of piss and vinegar, at least as much as her sixties forebears, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman (Penny tags John Ashcroft as "that loon", Hoffman wrote "President Johnson is a bastard") and certainly not reluctant to sprinkle in a goodly share of insult and cuss word to her brew, she's pretty well guaranteed a warm and uncritical reception on the youthful left. But for those of us who have already sat through cycles of disgust, rebellion, denial and sullen acquiesence and have tired of hair dye and painfully fashionable footwear, the parade of usual suspects (Multinationals, Agribusiness, Big Pharma, Banks, and pretty much anything American) seems all too predictable and overly familiar to generate much more than a slightly shameful world-weary shrug. Yet despite our shame we recognise that piss and vinegar only go so far, and after all that chirpy vaudeville the critic must offer guidelines for reconstruction. But Ms Penny fails on that count, cheerfully admitting she has zilch to offer, "I've got nothing. I'm not a problem solver. I'm a crank." Such frank confession, I'm afraid, does not constitute a defense of any credibility. Finally she is little more than ironic observer of her own futility.

One returns from her vehement irritations to Frankfurt's calm deliberations with a palpable self of relief. Her itch of perpetual annoyance is contagious and the afflicted reader reaches for the balm of philosophical reflection. I found mine in Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's 1997 "Truth - A History", for I realised at some point in Penny's frenzied assault on the bastions of bullshit, that there exists for her, and indeed anyone of her righteous ilk, an assumption that there exists a shared vision, a community reality, which is regularly and rigorously filleted for all indications of untruth and misrepresentation.

Unfortunately for idealists of the sincerity school, there is no actual ground floor agreement amongst all participants on the parameters of honest and ethical banter. To successfully detach the false from the true (or the wilful exaggeration from the plain spoken) is a planetary wide project with a predictably sad history of temporary consensus salvaged from the wrecks of last year's much vaunted paradigms.

Fernandez-Armesto does as fine a job (terms like "marvellously compact" and "brilliantly incisive" come to mind) as I've seen tracking this endless enigma through the fields of anthropology, theology, philosophy, history and science, yet he can come no closer to his grail than suggesting that despite all language being caught in some self-referential trap, the subjective limitations of perspectives can be overcome in the craft of rigorous compilation, the result bringing us at least "a little closer to the truth". Only a little closer? Perhaps the compilation of all partial viewpoints is a task fit only for a non-sectarian god and those who would subsume themselves in his speechless being.

gordon phinn

Now here's one that tapped all my hidden depths of passion and self-righteous articulation. Book was written by a couple of canadian academics who seemed suspicuously GenX to me, and by that point I'd seen more than my fair share of that generation's post-punk spoilt brat whining. Even when they managed to get themselves a life and indulge their lust for expensive trainers/racing bikes/ratatuoille in Paris, all they could really do was moan about society in a manner reminiscent of ten year olds moaning about the weather. There's something about that cappucino/cellphone/blackleather/ecstasy platform that seems to perfect the trendy nihilism of the post-punk no-future nod-out they sucked up from the late seventies and forgot to spit out. Poison's like that, it gets in your system and stays there until forcibly ejected or consciously transmuted.

They likely see me as some kind of burnt-out RamDass granola-yogi, wafting incense over brown rice, but actually I'm a Scottish malt whiskey and roast-lamb loving sixties graduate, who actually saw the Beatles sing "All You Need Is Love" live on that first world-wide simulcast in 67 and carried that seed in his heart through the decades of Vietnam, Cambodia, the collapse of communism, the imperially funded slaughters in Africa and Central America, and the rise of religious fundalmentalist intolerance on all fronts, to have it blossom into a garden lovely multidimensional flowers which can, and do, inspire on several of the planes of form where souls explore the limits of their paradigms, and gordon and others like him lend a hand in the pushing of envelopes.


The Rebel Sell By Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter (Harper Collins: 2004: ISBN0-00-200790-8)

Finishing The Rebel Sell, possibly the most overwraught bit of cultural handringing encountered this past decade, the perplexed reader looks about, in the stupefaction reserved for the suddenly contrite, for the raison d'etre, the joie de vivre, the lost tab of lsd, the memoirs of Tomothy Leary, the original vinyl of Sergeant Pepper, the great poem your buddy wrote when he was really cooked, that lovely piece on Jimi Hendrix by Germaine Greer in The MadWoman's Underclothes, Grace Slick singing "You, you are the crown of creation/and you've got no place to go", anything really, anything that will remind you that the Sixties really did lay seige to the death and authority worshipping culture, replacing its grey James Bond phallocentrism with a diffuse cacophany of colour, joysounds and aimless sensuality.

But since I'm fifty-two, and can remember both the Russian tanks rolling into Prague, Paris paralysed by riots, and the Beatles singing Hey Jude for the first time live on the BBC, I would be doubtlessly considered a prime example of the debilitating counterculture myth that inhibits all attempts at constructive change by Messrs. Heath And Potter, whose sole mission in life seems to be a ravaging desire to debunk every cultural theory other than their own, which after three hundred odd pages of piteous bleating, post-punk irasibility and bald assertion masquerading as argument, seems to ammount to not much more than Three Cheers For Capitalism! Yipee!

These lads have done their homework, well, about seventy-five percent of it, the rest they fake with that sniffy aplomb polished in the glare of anxious undergraduates, the kind of haircut philosophising that Mark Kingwell and Hal Niedzvieki figure they've got under wraps, where you emboss the magasine cliches of any topic under the sun with a smorgasbord of ideas pinched hither and thither, - the Economist, Foreign Policy Review, McSweeneys - it matters little, spice it up with quotes from the canon, something along the lines of Homer, Kant, Aristotle or Wittgenstein, you know, just enough to smarmily include yourself in the supposed inner circle, dethrone the main players with some refurbished Freud and dish out another feast of prattle and pose.

You have to wonder, you really do, about chaps who'll readily admit to wearing trendy but useless and uncomfortable shoes for the duration of high school, all for the holy grail of being cool, and then insist that "everyone has a story of this type". Well I don't, and I've got plenty of friends that don't either. Maybe I should squeeze out a tome called The Myth of Peer Pressure. I'm sure if I look the right evidence will follow my lead.
I guess we must have been just stupid hippies who didn't know any better, playing frisbee in the sunshine and laughing. And for a few years it looked as though the joy of fun might replace the grinds of guilt and fear. But the self-inflicted genocide of Cambodia soon overtook the imperial slaughter of Vietnam just as efficiently as the enslavement of cocaine replaced the liberation of pot, and we were back at square one with our ideals in tatters. Then came Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney, officiating at the funeral.

Not it's not as if the will to intelligence and the urge to research have not been put to some use in the positioning of opinions: leading thinkers in the field have been surveyed and absorbed, with more than a few of their conclusions carefully grafted on, but far too often an academically respectable section is followed by a contemptuous dismissal of some person or movement the authors find beyond the pale. Abbie Hoffman and John Perry Barlow in particular suffer this fate. While one might effectively argue that the anarchic clowning of Hoffman's Yippies was a more than appropriate response to the grim political deadlock of their day, and that Barlow's poetic, eloquent "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" will come to be lauded as a founding testament to the new era of personal sovereinty in cultural and political expression, the body politic pronouncing rather than merely reacting, each is summarily dismissed as little more than deviants "reeking of bongwater". In fact a virulent strain of anti-counterculturalism runs through the entire text, contaminating the project with a pugnacious vengefulness which sours even the few original conjectures in a welter of 'insights' as cliched as yesterday's columnists.

So the counterculture promoted "self-discovery through the arduous search for the other",
And though "we all want diversity, it is often our own consumer preferences that are driving homogenization", and "the cool job has become the holy grail of the modern economy"? Well, those beachheads have already been well established, guys, lets move on. Let's be finished with hacking away at Marx and Marcuse, that's so five minutes ago. Let's not be satisfied with glib analysis, cribbed from a melange of contemporaries. Let us see that chuckling at alternative medicine is not critiquing it. Let us not slip in unsupported anecdote as verifyable fact. Let us not invoke such inane standards as "What if everyone did that, would the world be a better place?", sounding like anyone's impossibly square parents. And let us please not put forward "the business trip" as the "only true authentic and non-exploitive form of travel." So the mainstream actually does not "co-opt the counterculture, it merely adapts", and corporations will actually sell anything to anyone once a profit is perceived? Well, no shit Sherlocks, but was it worth the 350 odd pages you devoted to it? All that tortuous wrangling to say let's "plug the loopholes in the system, not abolish the system"?

"Cool has become the central ideology of consumer capitalism" they insist, reminding the reader of "the last time you bought something you couldn't quite afford". I balked at the first two items on their confessional list: a raincoat at $800:00, and a silk jacket at $500:00., but I could've gone on to the two leather chairs at $2,200 each or the Mini Cooper at $32,000. Ah, the ineluctable pleasures of tenure! If only I could afford the bicycles so bravely waved overhead by Heath and his chums at the Eaton Center during their annual "Buy Nothing!" Fest. Most folk don't actually require the theatre of "Buy Nothing!" days, because they've got plenty of them already, plenty of tense debate over new boots or groceries, the oil bill or the brake job. Hey lads, come down to Tim's sometime and I'll do the introductions. No problem.

But alas, I'm no Gen-X er, I can't afford the price of admission. In my status anxiety- free cocoon I happily cruise their sea of cultural theories and contemplate the cascade of other's ideas, while chomping at the bit for any sign of intelligence beyond the usual Douglas Coupland- with-a-college-diploma attitudinising. Oh, they can quote Debord and Baudrillard with ease, throw in enough references to Mailer, Kerouac, Huxley and Watts to make you think they've actually digested them, but they keep coming up with such incredible clunkers (like, in reference to the film American Beauty, - "Why would the American Government want to genetically engineer dope?") that terminal naivete seems to be the only reasonable answer, for that statement alone encodes perhaps the most potent symbol of post-war political history, drug running to support covert operations, - covert operations which ensure the continuation of corrupt oligharcies, repressed workers and hassle-free money laundering - that the term 'neo-con naivete' falls remakably short of the mark. David Frum was not a reseach assistant on this project, although it sure as heck looks like it sometimes. The three of them could make a nice axis of idiocy together.
Oh, I could go on and on, their analysis of Theodore Roszak's The Making Of A Counter Culture, Charles Reich's The Greening Of America or Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, their support or otherwise of Thorstein Veblen and a dozen other critics of various hues, but it will never cut to the chase because these guys are so basically clued out I can hardly believe it. It's like they never recovered from Kurt Cobain's suicide (or Adbusters' launch of their own runners), freighting it with such absurd levels of symbolism it collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. Lotta folk were upset when Rudolf Valentino died too. It's such a pivotal drama for them they have to begin the book with it, concluding in a few lines that he was a victim of a false idea, - the idea of a counterculture. That he had absorbed the anti-hippie ethic of his generation and saw himself becoming the sell-out he so despised. If he was merely the victim of a psychotic, money- grubbing girlfriend, as some suggest, that's too bad, because it just doesn't fit the Heath and Potter mold. When you're torching idealism, dumb-ass junkie slaughter just doesn't make the grade.

What's really going on here is the guilt-tripping drama of two post-punk adolescents buying into the rage-against-the-machine ethos of their generation but finding their career-struck selves as well placed profs with money to burn on real estate and world travel and only their burnished intellects to separate them from the hoi-polloi who actually live out the trends they so peremtorily dismiss ("Ever notice that the masses have incredibly bad taste?"). Maybe what Heath and Potter really need to do is quit their jobs and get a life. Or, as Frank Zappa once so memorably sang, "Gonna move to Montana and raise me some dental floss". There, maybe they can find the time to discover what the rest of us old hippies know: the dream lives on, with a smile, in your heart, and not in the analysis of transactions.

Gordon Phinn faked his death decades ago, denounced all ideology in his suicide note, got his chick to collect the insurance dough, and lives out his lie quietly in Hawaii.


( to be continued...)