Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Sex, Drugs & Magick: while the worst are full of passionate intensity

 

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt

Sex, Drugs & Magick: Slouching Towards Bethlehem: The Story of Leonard 

Is there any way to read the Story of Leonard as anything more than a warning? Perhaps we can look at it as a funny anecdote, but that seems cruel- so a warning it must be, since Wilson doesn't paint a very positive picture of "Leonard." 

From the beginning of the chapter, where Leonard asks to masturbate in front of the others, the average reader would be inclined to see this person as an extreme abnormality. Even if Wilson wasn't personally offended by the request, he surely would have known that even his open-minded readership would, for the most part, find this to be a shocking incident. Wilson, who was obviously uncomfortable with the request, is more even-handed in his actions than most people would be. Perhaps, in Wilson's mind, this is meant to be a psychological profile, similar to the story of Jane, but it is far removed from the clinical setting. Thus it becomes something of a curiosity, a grim invitation to see where being too malleable and adaptable to new ideas and phases can lead. 

I knew a couple of people who resembled Leonard greatly in my youth. Around the time I first read the story I was immediate reminded of a pair of particular acquaintances. Both were bright, for as Wilson points out "dimwits do not acquire such remarkable notions," but I didn't think too highly of either of them. Both came from a fundamentalist/evangelical background which they divorced from more-or-less violently during the blossoming of late adolescence. One went on to obsessively follow atheism and then Ayn Rand libertarianism, came out as gay, had a brief dalliance with drug-inspired spirituality, became a drag enthusiast and then a punk anarchist (still can't quite wrap my head around what that even was) and last I heard had settled into a new type of religion: the insufferable modern academic. The other was the more irritatingly Christian of the two, who went to NYC, became a fashion model, came out as gay, became a cocaine and nightlife enthusiast and last I heard was back home, an enthusiastic fundamentalist lay-preacher who publicly renounced his "evil" ways. It is truly bizarre where life leads you when you become an operative of ideas instead of making ideas work for you. 

In college I witnessed many friends try psychedelics or marijuana for the first time and experience periods of LSD-evangelism or spiritual dabbling that faded as quickly as it came on. By the time I tried LSD, I was so fully influenced by watching others that the trip wasn't particularly revolutionary- I was painfully aware that all of the "revelations," while fun in the moment, would fade when faced with the harsh light of day(s). Indeed, one of my favorite parts of Mad Men is Roger Sterling's brief acid enlightenment that is referenced a few episodes later when he has resumed his capitalist, shallow ways: "I guess it wore off." This isn't to say that my LSD experiences weren't enjoyable or had no effect, but by that time in my life, filled with the history of acid's ups and downs, the glamour wasn't quite as convincing. 

I can think of a few reasons I didn't go down a similar path: my endemic cynicism makes me resistant to groupthink or finding other people's lifestyles enviable, I have kept a few obsessive interests which align outside experiences firmly within my lenses, and I was deathly afraid of ever appearing foolish or impressionable. (And unlike the two aforementioned "Leonard-types," while I was raised in a Christian family, they weren't fundamentalists.) These tendencies have their downsides as well, but I personally consider avoiding fundamentalist Christianity and public masturbation as wins. I don't think much of dabblers and am somewhat of the belief that a too-open mind lets in a lot of trash. Our intellectual discrimination is a valuable, essential tool in navigating the forests (and weeds) of ideas we encounter in life. 

Stray Thoughts

  • It is somewhat obvious that Leonard, or at least Sandra, were students at Antioch while Bob and Arlen lived in Yellow Springs, OH. Wilson was fond of writing about how Antioch was filled with strange, ahead of the curve ideas in other pieces; I imagine that Leonard/Sandra were part of his inspiration for that belief. Concerning Sandra, I think it is interesting how contemptuously Wilson describes her- if anything, the brief sentences given to her are perhaps more unflattering than the entire portrait of her wayward beau. 
  • Another bit of history in this chapter is how Wilson describes himself as following a radical right-wing libertarian philosophy. This notion of a superior "right-wing" libertarianism is presented in Illuminatus in the form of Hagbard Celine and his crew of merry submariners. A reader could notice that Wilson does not describe himself as "right-wing" in his writings from the eighties onward. (This isn't to say that Wilson ever paid lip-service to being left-wing.) One can imagine (presume?) that the rise of the Moral Majority and the Reagan Revolution made the notion of being a right-wing anything distasteful to Wilson. 

Keep your head on your shoulders, not between your legs. Enjoy the scenery, but don't become a part of it. 



5 comments:

  1. I find it interesting that in this chapter Bob left a good job in the city, and the start of the next chapter finds him rolling on the river with Finnegans Wake.

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  2. I agree with both of your stray thoughts, as well as your suspiscion that this chapter looks like "a grim invitation to see where being too malleable and adaptable to new ideas and phases can lead."

    As shallow as Sandra appears in here, she seems to be the equivalent of the equally empty figures of Jane's lovers in the Prelude.

    I also raised eyebrows at RAW self description as a right-wing libertarian, but that makes this book all the more interesting in light of his later ones. We can see him evolve as a writer, a thinker and a person. As he writes in the Preface to the 2000 edition, "ten years later, as Ronald Reagan sat in the White House, Wilson reached 50 and, looking back, felt astonished at how much folly had persisted even in his 40s."
    Given all his support for ideas such as National Health Care or universal income, I find it hard to classify him as a right wing person. I tend to connect "right-wing libertarian" with ferocious Objectivists. But as a non-american, I admittedly still have troubles understanding some of those subtleties.

    Regarding the discussion from last week about alcohol, I find it very sad that still today, a proper understanding of substances, their safe use, and an overall mature attitude towards them would only be found in the safe space tent/harm reduction team of the most progressive thinking events or festivals. I wish this could be considered common sense rather than radical.

    Great pic choice this week, by the way.

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  3. Apuleius writes: "... when you become an operative of ideas instead of making ideas work for you." This resonates with the project of reversing Platonism.

    "By the time I tried LSD, I was so fully influenced by watching others that the trip wasn't particularly revolutionary- I was painfully aware that all of the "revelations," while fun in the moment, would fade when faced with the harsh light of day(s)" This recalls the line from Mr. Tambourine Man: "Though I know the evenings empire has returned into sand."

    RAW implies Leonard = a beast with the chapter title snippet from the famous Yeats poem. Also alludes to Leonard turning to Jesus.

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  4. In this chapter Bob recommends looking something up in a medical book. Today he might say to google it. I wonder what happened to Leonard in the last fifty years.

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  5. Like Spookah, I was puzzled by RAW's self description as an extreme right wing libertarian. For me, "right wing libertarian" means someone who is libertarian in many ways, but socially conservative. I don't know how RAW meant the term.

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Sex, Drugs & Magick: while the worst are full of passionate intensity

  The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt Sex, Drugs & Magick: Slouching Towards Bethlehem: The Story of Leonard  Is there any way to read ...