CULTURE - MEMOIR - Sex and the Commune
Toward the end of the second millennium anno domini, the sexual liberation of elite literary modernism was transformed into cable TV populism. The HBO series Sex and the City explored the subject of the state of female sexuality in Mayor Giuliani’s idealized New York in which a free-lance columnist could afford an apartment in Manhattan, a large wardrobe of designer clothes, and a collection of Manolo Blhanik designer high heel shoes.
The pathbreakers of artistic freedom like James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, and Henry Miller had been followed on rollerblades by Erica Jong and the zipless fuck in the seventies, and then by another wave in the nineties when the streets became loud with the crack and stomp of the skateboarders of sex--Bill and Monica—to the wild surmise of older pedestrians who were startled to see the streets and airwaves taken over in such an assertive and public display.
In Sex and the City an archetypal quartet of four women—reminding me of my own archetypal four of Hunter, Headman, Shaman, and Fool from my 1971 book At the Edge of History—met in restaurants regularly to discuss such delicate subjects as how they felt about cunnilingus when their lover rose to kiss them with the still fresh taste of their own vulvas on his lips, or what they thought of anal intercourse when reminded by the impact of another taxi bumping their taxi from behind.
Although the TV series presented itself as a celebration of women’s freedom, it was in its deep structure incredibly sexist. The women are portrayed as shallow airheads who never talk about anything other than shopping and relationships: no serious politics, no science, no philosophy, and no poetry or art except when it presents an occasion for a fashionable opening at a gallery that provides another kind of catwalk for their new designer clothes.
Carries’s story is a teenage Harlequin Romance in which Mr. Big rescues her from exile in Paris. Samantha the slut
is punished for her sexual excesses--such as giving a gratuitous blowjob to the UPS delivery man in his sexy shorts--by being struck down with cancer of the breast. Miranda the lawyer, whose last name is Hobbes, suggests to me the screenwriters were stoned when they had the naming session in which they came up with the Miranda law requiring the police to read the suspect his rights and the grouchy old man of political theory, Thomas Hobbes. But Miranda, the professional woman, is also brought low, as she falls for a working class bartender, is exiled from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and is forced to tend her mother-in-law who suffers from dementia. And the WASPY girl, Charlotte of York, is mated to a short, bald, hairy-shouldered Jewish lawyer with the name of Harry Greenblatt. All four women are brought down as reality bites them in the ass and the values of patriarchy are reasserted in a plot that is both sexist and filled with the clichés of anti-semitism.
From the perspective of literature, the four ladies had it coming, for they celebrated a shallow life of freedom through shopping, so they all end up with their souls enshrouded in the black burqas of fin de siècle Mr. Big American capitalism.
In this Weberian process of the shift from charisma to routine, the persecutions of Joyce and Lawrence in the twenties were followed by the celebration and celebritization of Candace Bushnell/Carrie Bradshaw in the nineties. But the last third of the twentieth century was not limited to television in the cities and wife-swapping in the suburbs, for the Zeitgeist that overlighted the cities also hovered over the alternative rural communes with their Earth Shoes and Birkenstocks “return to nature.”
The palpable feeling of a group soul or angelic mind overlighting our Lindisfarne conferences transported us with the sense of a new kairos, but it also introduced a fault line in our commune at Fishcove, as if tectonic plates were separating into two different continents. The real community was this Lindisfarne Fellowship, this noetic polity; the intentional community did not carry this sense of presence, except at moments in times of silent group meditation when it felt as if an angel had entered the room.
Our intentional community, like many of the others I visited, seemed to become possessed by a matristic neolithic archetype--the shadow of the Great Mother--and was pulled down into a kind of collective neurosis, or psychodrama, in which individuals played out the pain of having been damaged by alcoholic and abusive parents in their childhood. On one side, the young men in the community wanted to assume an alpha male leadership in our primate band and resented my alpha role as founder and fund-raiser; and on the other side, the women in the community resented the pushiness of the alpha and subdominant males in the community meetings and wished to assert a new feminist sisterhood. It would seem that the intentional community, in trying to go forward into the future, was turning on the spiral in a process that McLuhan called cultural retrieval and was retrieving both the primate band of leadership through dominance, and the matristic neolithic village of collective leadership through "the old Ma's."
Community Meeting, Lewis Balamuth and Linda Leeds 1976
Part of what contributed to the emotional confusion of communal living in the seventies was, of course, sex. Sex was a complex dynamical system in which a new strange attractor appeared out of the blue and began to draw people away from the traditional monogamous relationship.
After the period of World War II when so many families had been separated, the upbeat optimism expressed in the advertisements of the fifties portrayed the new world of the suburbs in which the ideal family was a nuclear one of Dad, Mom, one boy, one girl, a dog, a new car for Dad, and a kitchen full of GE labor-saving appliances for Mom. The restlessness of the wife swapping seventies—as portrayed in films like Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, or The Ice Storm—was a generation to come.
Over the years since I put down the reductionism of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in my book, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality, and the Origins of Culture, I have come to believe that I was too quickly dismissive of Harvard’s Grand Old Man of Science, E. O. Wilson. Scientists like Wilson and Julian Jaynes were trying to look in new ways at human culture, and they needed some time and a lot of research to work things out and outgrow the facile reductionism that energized their start-up enterprizes. Forty years later, I have to admit that we in the humanities have learned a great deal from primatology, evolutionary psychology, ethology, and the brain sciences.
For example, we now appreciate that the development of the primate brain owes much to the shift in environments from savannah and lacustrean ecologies. When the primates descended from the trees and had to live in complex groups on the ground, they had to deal with new challenges of the group dynamics expressed in sex and power. In a more vulnerable environment, females and their offspring had to be dependent upon a ring of males to protect them, as well as learn how to navigate around multiplied occasions for copulation. Facial recognition and the ability to read the mood of mate and dominant male became critical for the survival of both female and offspring. A gibbon male is among primates the most monogamous, but he also lives in a dense forest canopy in which the sight lines are highly restricted. No roving eye there.
If one considers the sex life of chimps and bonobos, one can see that there is no such simple thing as “natural” for primates or humans--no matter what fundamentalist Catholic Rick Santorum says about the need to outlaw consensual adult sodomy and police the bedrooms of the nation. Sex has been inseparable from culture for us all for millions of years.
So when a new evolutionary human species descended from the dense canopy of the postwar suburbs, moved from Kansas to California, and started meditating and doing kundalini yoga or Zen, the brain and its embodied hormones also took a quantum step forward into cultural complexity in the planetization of humanity. Suddenly the dyadic simplicity of Mom and Dad, or female and male, no longer was at one with the evolution of consciousness. Gays began to come out of the closet with the Stonewall riots, and the hitherto repressed sexuality confessed to by President Jimmy Carter in his famous Playboy interview began to be expressed.
Catholic celibacy and monogamy had always been more honored in the breach than the observance, and even popes had had mistresses, but the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were more deeply invested in this artificial cultural construct of monogamy-- except of course, when even they couldn’t take it and experimented with Mormon polygamy. Nevertheless, when TV Evangelical ministers were caught cheating on their wives, it was never an occasion for love or beauty, but for a slumming attraction to truly trashy homely prostitutes on the tacky side of life.
The author and Peter Caddy, Co-Founder of Findhorn, 1974
Usually, the seventies commune had an alpha male as its leader. Think of Baker-roshi at San Francisco Zen Center, Steve Gaskin and the Farm, Peter Caddy at Findhorn, or me at Lindisfarne. In most of these cases, the marriage of the founder did not survive the unfolding development of the community. As was the case with the early utopian kibbutzim of Israel, the psychic glue that held the commune together was stolen from the nuclear family. A diffused Eros began to manifest as part of this sensitivity to an overlighting presence or an experience of a group-soul, and often this diffuse feeling concretized itself in group sex, or at least fantasies and desires for group sex.
Peter Marin wrote a cover article for Harper’s Magazine in February of 1979 in which he described an incident at Naropa in Boulder in which the poet W. S. Merwin tried to defend himself when the goon/bodyguards of Chogyam Trungpa rinpoche dragged him into a drunken public meeting in which all were to be stripped naked in front of the great lecherous guru.[i]
When Lindisfarne moved into the abandoned Holy Communion Church in Manhattan in 1976, we were picketed on the occasion of a public lecture by David Spangler by a cult from Greenwich Village called No Secrets in which all the members were to be open and exposed and to have sex with the cult’s leader. The cult members felt that since they were already in the neighborhood, the church should have been given to them and not to Lindisfarne.
What was going on in all these examples of seventies communes is what, following Whitehead’s philosophy, could be called a phenomenon of “misplaced concreteness.” There was a new Eros of attachment manifesting itself, and in even more conservative communities like Findhorn, San Francisco Zen Center, and Lindisfarne, marriages were dissolving and new partnerships were appearing. These formations of shared Eros were not always couples, but triangles and quadrangles. Consciousness was no longer dyadic, except for the fundamentalists of the Abrahamic religions.
It was all very confusing at the time, but now with the benefit of hindsight and the perspective of old age, I can see that this period was one in which “noise” was drawing us from one basin of attraction to another. Columns now in newspapers like the Guardian discuss polyamorous relationships in which men and women maintain their marriages, but also maintain other loving sexual relationships, straight and gay.[ii]
A psychic quadrangle might express itself as the four women in Sex and the City, or, in Sex and the Commune, as a constellation of Man, Wife, Tantric Shakti, and Mistress. The latter quadrangle is unstable because its emotional stress can distort it into a collapsing parallelogram, or it can collapse entirely into a flattened line in which the three women abandon the man to seek other more stable relations. But if the quadrangle is truly a Tantric process of transformation and not a state of being, each one of the four will have had their lives changed in this process of ”stretching”—the root meaning of the Sanscrit word tantra—and will enter into their new relationships as new beings.
The quadrangle is also highly unstable because it is the “right structure, but the wrong content.” An initiatic quadrangle, or what I have described elsewhere as an evolutionary Entelechy,[iii] is one in which the practioner of yoga nidra becomes a “Fantastic Four” of the yogi, the spiritual guide or post-incarnate graduated human being, the angel, and the elemental, or chthonic spirit. As the Eros of connection shifts from being projected into karmic relations in the physical world, it becomes more settled and stable in the psychic and spiritual worlds.
Another version of this esoteric quaternity can be seen in the esoteric parable masquerading as a children’s book, Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy’s companions on the road to the Emerald City are the subtle bodies. As the great Sufi scholar Henri Corbin explained this intermediate realm of Hurqalya:
So, to become aware of it is to see the world of Soul, to see all things as they are in the Earth of Hurqalya, the Earth of emerald cities, it is the visio smaragdina, which is the surrection and the resurrection of the world of the soul.[iv]
And still another version of this esoteric quaternity can be seen in Japanese Bunraku—the puppetry theatre in which the puppet (the ego in time) is manipulated by three figures clothed in black, suggesting their invisibility.
In the seventies, women--against their better rational judgment-- were attracted to the alpha male figure at the head of one of these communes, because he stood figured against this larger horizon of the evolution of consciousness, but then they became furious at the man and themselves for allowing their unconscious evolutionary biology to swamp their conscious wills. Feminism began to assert itself both to balance and challenge this atavistic Übermensch horizon of dominance. (Recall that Superman as a movie came out in 1978; the antidote, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil did not appear until 1985.) This new Feminism—as opposed to the Suffragette movement of Britain and America from 1910 to 1920—first appeared in the revolutionary sixties with Betty Friedan’s bestseller The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and then with the radical Black Panthers. Revolutionary as the Black Power movement claimed to be, the leaders were male and tended to look at black women as servants who could work as secretaries and handmaidens. “Stepandfetchit” shifted from racism to sexism.
Leaders like Joan Baez and Angela Davis helped to break this mold, but the leaders of the alternative movement were still overwhelmingly male. Think of Stewart Brand, Gary Snyder, Baker-roshi, and Michael Murphy on the West Coast, and Allen Ginsberg, Baba Ram Das, Eido-roshi, and Pir Villayat Khan on the East Coast, and Chogyam Trungpa rinpoche in the middle in Boulder. As the aresteias of the males began to display themselves at the Lindisfarne conferences, the women were attracted to these males, and at the same time furious that there were so many men speaking and so few women.
The elderly feminist sociologist and Quaker Elise Boulding was not comfortable with this new alternative counterculture of the seventies and with Lindisfarne, so she resigned as a Fellow, and Michaela Walsh, who came from the alpha male world of Wall Street and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, took me in hand and tried to re-educate me. Michaela introduced me to Hazel Henderson, and I invited both of them to become Lindisfarne Fellows and began to work toward achieving a better balance by inviting Alice Tepper Marlin and Elaine Pagels to lecture at Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan.
Claire Schweickart, Rusty Schweickart, astronaut, Elise Boulding, sociologist, fiilmaker Andre
Gregory, and community members June Cobb and Leon Leeds, 1977
But my efforts towards gender balance were not considered sufficient to staunch the wound of centuries and millennia, and my deconstruction of the myth of patriarchy in my 1977 lectures at Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan that became my 1981 book The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light also did not still the collective rage. Charlene Spretnak reviewed the book for a West Coast journal and claimed I did not take women’s scholarship into account. I felt that such a knee-jerk ideological reaction was absurd, since the whole book was constructed on the science and scholarship of Jane Goodall, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Marija Gimbutas, Elaine Pagels, Martha McClintock, and Elise Boulding.
As Feminism really began to pick up steam in the eighties, the anger directed at me continued to vent itself at our Lindisfarne Fellows meetings in Crestone. I remember one particularly explosive occasion at the 1992 meeting when Michaela Walsh and Joan Halifax—both Lindisfarne Fellows—joined in a heated attack. I was deeply hurt, repressed my feelings so as not to derail the meeting, but felt that after all I had done to listen to their criticisms and correct the gender balance at Lindisfarne, they were being unfair and acting like ideological zealots.
But gender cannot be balanced, because sexuality is an evolutionary force and not simply a static weight of cultural baggage. Women were enraged, I think, because they were both attracted to and repelled by charismatic males like Baker-roshi and Francisco Varela. Baker-roshi was expelled from the abbotship of San Francisco Zen Center for buying an expensive white BMW for his personal use and for having sexual relations with his students, and Francisco Varela was a classic example of the Don Juan archetype. I saw women line up outside his apartment in Boulder to have their time with him, and at Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan there was a continuing procession of different women admirers who came to visit him. Varela was both charismatically attractive, and aloof and detached, and his friend and teacher in Boulder, Chogyam Trungpa rinpoche, was turning Buddhist detachment into a rationale for a “Crazy Wisdom” in which sex without commitment was a path to Enlightenment.
When the women came forth in the eighties to denounce the fallen leader in his disgrace, I always wondered why they had had sex with the man in the first place. I can’t help thinking that this rage at men was also a rage at themselves for letting their biology dictate their behavior. “Anatomy is destiny,” as Freud said.
I was not the Don Juan archetype, for I am much more the Romantic and generally fall in love and project my soul onto the woman. In my seventy odd years, there have only been less than a dozen women in my life, and that would simply be a quiet summer for a New Age Don Juan. But even as a more old-fashioned Romantic, I did notice that when I was giving public lectures around the country that women were attracted to power, whether it was economic, political, or psychic. In New York at cocktail parties no woman took notice of me, or if they were stuck with me, their eyes would look over my shoulder to see if some celebrity had just arrived at the party so that they could move on and up. But after my lecture when I would speak without notes to a very large audience in a large hall and constellate a psychic sense of the presence of an invisible back-up band, I suddenly had a girlfriend for the night.
Once when I was describing some pop New Age figure as a charismatic mind-fucker, the woman with whom I was talking—a very pretty brunette—stopped me and said: “Listen, I was at your lecture at the Jung Foundation in New York. You had every woman in the audience hot, including me, so you’re no one to talk.” The remark was memorable, but I still behaved with decorum and my relations with the pretty young woman in question remained limited to words, not because of any scruples, but because I realized she was not really interested in me. She was looking at me as an object in a power game of the witch vs. the wizard—Morgan le Fay vs. Merlin.
The reason I am going into these matters so frankly now as a paunchy and infirm old man is to provide some explanation for the contradictory behavior of sex and spirituality in the seventies in which numerous gurus were exposed and expelled for their sexual relations with their students. The seventies were about sexual and spiritual exploration, and even for the unspiritual life of the suburbs, it was an era of wife-swapping and newspaper scandals about adulterous politicians. Recall that Nelson Rockefeller died in the arms of his mistress.
But Zeitgeists are temporary attractors that excite and destabilize the old adaptive landscape of peaks and valleys. Now we are in a different era, women have gained much more power, and so the attention to liberation has shifted to issues like gay marriage and transgender acceptance. And now within the Lindisfarne Fellowship, the alpha male seems an old evolutionary dinosaur, as a creative sisterhood has come forth to replace the Freudian Bruderbund of Totem and Taboo. The New Left movements like Occupy Wall Street are no longer led by the Jerry Rubins and Tom Haydens of the sixties, but by a horizontal democracy in which the sound bites, slogans, and fast food for thought take-out of the media are replaced by slow thought and consensus.
[i] Peter Marin, “Spiritual Obedience: the Transcendental Game of Follow the Leader, Harper’s Magazine, February, 1979.
[iv] Henri Corbin, Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: from Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Iran (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 1977), p.81