Shards of God: An Epinician to the Heroes of the Peace-Swarm
Boddy, Kasia, The Review of Contemporary Fiction
It was like a flying saucer landed.... That's what the sixties were like. Everybody heard about it, but only a few really saw it.
--Bob Dylan, qtd. Crowe 21
Forty years from now the Yippies and those who took part in the Peace-swarm of 1967-68 will be recognized for what they are, the most important cultural political force in the last 150 years of American civilization.
--Ed Sanders, Shards of God ix
Writing in 1970, Ed Sanders predicted that it would take some time for the true impact of"the peace-swarm" to enter into the American consciousness. Thirty years on, one is struck, however, by the fact that the writing about the antiwar protests of 1967 and 1968 that has endured was contemporary and written by participants themselves. The best known accounts are probably still Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1967) and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968) and pieces by Jean Genet, Terry Southern, and William Burroughs published in Esquire in November 1968. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin presented their versions of events in Revolution for the Hell of It (1968) and Do It (1970) respectively. Other responses include Allen Ginsberg's Planet News (1967) and The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971 (1972) and, lesser known, Ed Sanders's novel Shards of God.
Looking at these works together, shared preoccupations and images are evident--notably contemporary events presented in relation to traditional American myths about heroism. Indeed, a tendency to look back to an idealized past occurred in writings by opponents and supporters of the war alike. Supporters represented Vietnam in terms of a mythology of pastoral retreat and the New Frontier--a wilderness in need of taming, a symbolic landscape in which Americans could once again act out their special destiny. Opponents of the war retained the idea of Vietnam as a symbolic garden but conceived of American involvement there not as the civilizing mission of the pioneer, but as a mass technological and bureaucratic violation--inappropriate behavior for the true American, who instead must "bring the war back home." But all identified a desire or even a need for heroic action as part of the American psyche. Abbie Hoffman, for example, writes in Revolution for the Hell of It: "America lost its balls in the frontier and since then there have been no mighty myths and now we hunt for them in lonely balconies watching Bonnie and Clyde" (53). Quoting this passage, Todd Gitlin argues that Arthur Penn's 1967 film launched "a kind of hero cult, a stylized great plains myth version of Huey Newton and Che Guevara, in gripping color" (65). Certainly both Hoffman and Rubin styled themselves as latter-day Western heroes. And in their accounts of the antiwar protests of the late sixties, Ginsberg, Mailer, and Sanders are also, in ways very different from each other and from Penn, interested in exploring the relationship between heroism and Americanness. While Ginsberg and Mailer found heroism in the Emersonian view of the writer as (heroic, American) Representative Man, Sanders went back to a preromantic view of the writer as someone who was there, observed, and recorded but who was not himself the hero.(1) Ironically, however, Sanders was more deeply involved in the antiwar movement than either Ginsberg or Mailer. Active in pacifist protests since the early sixties, he was a key figure in the Pentagon exorcism--with his group the Fugs, he led the chanting of"Out, Demons, Out!"--and in the day-to-day organization of Yippie. It was Sanders who proposed the idea of a free music festival in Chicago during the Democratic Convention (Farber 4).
Although the works mentioned above shared a fascination with notions of heroism in war, they differed considerably in their location and interpretation of that heroism. These differences emerge primarily from the positioning of the author relative to the events described and from the framework (in other words, the genre) in which the events are described. Although postmodern writing is often characterized as happily abandoning generic conventions, even a cursory glance at the titles of the works I have listed reveals how frequently generic considerations are foregrounded. The title of Ginsberg's poem alludes both to Milton (the story of a Fall) and to Whitman (being "Poems of These States"). It is furthermore an epic that includes elegies, litanies, and "ecologues" (sic). Mailer's The Armies of the Night describes itself as consisting of both history as a novel" and "the novel as history," while Miami and the Siege of Chicago is subtitled "an informal history." Sanders is perhaps the most self-conscious manipulator of a range of generic conventions. He describes Shards as "a magic rite to make us proud once more of America" and "a hymn of salvation thru smut" (Shards ix, 9), but the novel also draws on the conventions of science fiction and the Homeric epic, the histories of Herodotus, and the movies of Sam Peckinpah. This essay will argue that ultimately Shards of God should be read as an epinician--a song of triumph celebrating the achievements of the Yippie heroes.
In his Paris Review interview (1966), Allen Ginsberg spoke of his desire to write an epic poem:
The epic would be a poem including history, as it's defined. So that it would be one about present-day politics, using the methods of the Blake French Revolution.... Epic--there has to be totally different organization, it might be simple free association on political themes--in fact I think an epic poem including history, at this stage. I've got a lot of it written, but it would have to be Burroughs' sort of epic--in other words, it would have to be dissociated thought stream which includes politics and history. I don't think you could do it in narrative form, I mean what would you be narrating, the history of the Korean War or something? (Clark 317)(2)
Ginsberg went on to distinguish "Burroughs' sort of epic" from Pound's sort, which he describes as fabricated "out of his reading and out of the museum of literature": "the thing would be to take all of contemporary history, newspaper headlines and all the pop art of Stalinism and Hitler and Johnson and Kennedy and Viet Nam and Congo and Lumumba and the South and Sacco and Vanzetti--whatever floated into one's personal field of consciousness and contact. And then to compose like a basket--like weave a basket, basketweaving out of those materials" (Clark 317-18).
If"Howl" was Ginsberg's rewriting of the lyric and "Kaddish" his version of narrative poetry, his epic is "The Fall of America"--a collection of poems written between 1965 and 1971. Although eschewing the notion of a single "narrative" poem, Ginsberg divided the collection into five sections which were arranged in chronological order. The title itself implies progress, and all the poems are precisely dated so the reader can trace Ginsberg's movement across America in his Volkswagen bus and America's movement toward its fall. For example, section 2, "Zigzag Back thru These States," covers the period 1966-67 and ends with a poem on the "Pentagon Exorcism," an "Elegy for Che Guevara," and "War Profit Litany." Section 3 is entitled "Elegies for Neal Cassidy," and elegies for Ginsberg's friend and lover, who died in February 1968, frame the section. In between Ginsberg "weaves" together his feelings about Cassidy's death with responses to the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement. So, for example, "Crossing Nation" is dated 19 June 1968 and is an elegy for others dead and lost and for the nation in its fall: "whatever floated into one's personal field of consciousness and contact."
Jerry Rubin arrested! Beaten, jailed, coccyx broken-- Leary out of action--"a public menace ... persons of tender years ... immature judgment ... psychiatric examination ..." i.e. Shut up or Else Loonybin or Slam LeRoi in bum gun rap, $7,000 lawyer fees, years' negotiations-- SPOCK GUILTY headlined temporary, Joan Baez' paramour husband Dave Harris to Gaol Dylan silent on politics, & safe-- having a baby, man-- Cleaver shot at, jail'd, maddened, parole revoked, Vietnam War flesh-heap grows higher, blood splashing down the mountains of bodies on to Cholon's sidewalks-- Blond boys in airplane seats fed technicolor Murderers advance w/Death-chords thru photo basement, Earplugs in, steak on plastic served--Eyes up to the Image-- What do I have to lose if America falls? my body? my neck? my personality? (Ginsberg 499-500)
"The Fall of America" is dedicated to Walt Whitman (the epigraph is an extended quotation from Democratic Vistas), and like his mentor, Ginsberg saw the fate of America as intimately connected to his own. His journey through "these states" therefore refers both to the United States of America and to his own physical and psychological states when writing the poems (many are followed by both date and the drug of their composition). But if nation can affect self to the extent that America's fall is Ginsberg's fall, then self can also affect nation. Ginsberg presents himself as "the Shaman with his beard / in full strength, / the longhaired Crank with subtle humorous voice" ("Kansas City. to,, Saint Louis," Collected Poems 417). This "subtle humorous voice, he asserts, not only can counter but can overcome the "black magic language" of the State:
I lift my voice aloud, make Mantra of American language now, pronounce the words beginning my own millennium, I here declare the end of the War! Ancient days' Illusion! ("Wichita Vortex Sutra," Collected Poems 407)
Like Ginsberg, Norman Mailer asserted the power of the individual speaker of the American language, the heroism latent in one's own voice. Indeed, he commented at the beginning of The Armies of the Night that "one's own literary work was the only answer to the war in Vietnam" (19). How that work could provide an answer, and how powerful that answer could be, however, were less straightforward for Mailer. One of his central preoccupations in both The Armies and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, therefore, was whether the man of letters could be reconciled with the man of action and whether the man of letters could really ever be a hero. In Miami and the Siege of Chicago particularly he was tormented by the idea that he was growing "too old for orgies on the green" and that his success as a writer had tamed his revolutionary spirit (216). Moreover, he questioned the power of the writing itself. In Cannibals and Christians Mailer had argued that the American novel had given up "any desire to be a creation equal to the country itself." Rather, "it settled for being a metaphor." The author, therefore, "would no longer try to capture America. He would merely try to give life to some microcosm in American life" ("The Argument Reinvigorated," Cannibals 84). So while Ginsberg traveled all over trying to give voice to the state of all states, Mailer settled for finding microcosms and metaphors of America in particular situations.
In The Armies of the Night Mailer found such metaphors in both the Pentagon and the protest march, which he argued was designed "to wound symbolically" (65). By comparing the march with the "rites of passage" undertaken in "the forest of the Alleghenies and the Adriondacks, at Valley Forge, at New Orleans in 1812, with Rogers and Clark or at Sutter's Mill, at Gettysburg, the Alamo, the Klondike, the Argonne, Normandy, Pusan," Mailer attempted to place the march in the context of a long tradition of American heroic confrontations. But ultimately he conceded that while the demonstrators' heroism carried "the echo" of these other conflicts, "the engagement at the Pentagon was a pale right of passage compared with these" (Armies 292).
A similar pattern of disillusionment occurs in Siege of Chicago. The essay starts by finding another metaphor for America in Chicago itself since "Chicago is the great American city." The first paragraph ends, however, with the thought that "perhaps it is the last of the great American cities" for it is the city which "gave America its last chance at straight-out drama" (Miami 85, 90). Mailer's account, then, we learn from the start of his essay, is to be an elegy--for Chicago, for America, for drama, and, as the book progresses, for Mailer, the veteran-war-novelist-hero.(3)
The Civil War imagery that dominates Armies is here transformed into a more fundamental struggle of opposites. If Chicago is a microcosm of America, its stockyards become, for Mailer, as they had for Upton Sinclair in The Jungle (1906), a microcosm of Chicago. Mailer finds an "animal imperative" in their business: "Watching the animals to be slaughtered, one knows the human case--no matter how close to the angel one may come, the butcher is equally there" (Miami 89).
In The Armies of the Night Mailer saw the struggle between the peace movement and the State as echoing the battles of the Civil War; in Siege of Chicago, he finds the struggle between angel and butcher within the peace movement itself. So whereas in Washington he had played an active role in the march against the Pentagon--participating in the symbolic attack as well as creating its symbols--in Chicago his response remains largely within the realm of language.
When the police brutally beat the "children" of the protest, Mailer, "the reporter," retreated to the nineteenth floor of the Hilton where the view was quite different.(4) The metaphors no longer suggest war but a battle of the elements:
Seen from overhead, from the nineteenth floor, it was like a wind blowing dust, or the edge of waves riding foam on the shore.... The action went on for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, with the absolute ferocity of a tropical storm, and watching it from a window, on the nineteenth floor, there was something of the detachment of studying a storm at evening through a glass, the light was a lovely gray-blue, the police had uniforms of sky-blue, even the ferocity has an abstract elemental play of forces of nature at battle with other forces, as if sheets of tropical rain were driving across the street in patterns, in curving patterns which curved upon each other again. (Miami 169)
Chicago, the naturalist city of Sinclair and Dreiser, is once again subjected to "an abstract elemental play of forces of nature at battle with other forces," an abstract play which the individual cannot hope to control. The sense of fate at work continues as Mailer announces the arrival of the gods on the scene:
children, and youths, and middle-aged men and women were being pounded and clubbed and gassed and beaten, hunted and driven, sent scattering in all directions by teams of policemen who had exploded out of their restraints like a bursting of a boil, and nonetheless he felt a sense of calm and beauty, void even of the desire to be down there, as if in years to come there would be beatings enough, some chosen, some from nowhere, but it was as if the war had finally begun, and this was therefore a great and solemn moment, as if indeed even the gods of history had come together from each side to choose the very front of the Hilton Hotel before the television cameras of the world and the eyes of the campaign workers and the delegates' wives, yes, there before the eyes of half the principals at the convention was this drama played, as if the military spine of a great liberal party had finally separated itself from the skin, as if, no metaphor large enough to suffice, the Democratic Party had here broken in two before the eyes of a nation like Melville's whale charging right out of the sea. (Miami 172)
Having ended The Armies of the Night with the image of America as "a beauty with a leprous skin" and pregnant with an unknown future (Armies 300), he here delivered the monstrous offspring. No apocalyptic metaphor may be "large enough to suffice," but with his evocations of bursting boils, skin-shedding lizards, and sea-shedding whales, Mailer certainly succeeded in "giving life" to his microcosm.
In 1979 in an essay introducing John Clarke's The End of This Side, Ed Sanders suggested that "the establishment of mythic poetry and National Epic in the `God-is-Dead' mythless bureaucratic era of money-grubbers operating mines in the asteroid-belt, will be difficult" ("The Clarke-Boat" ix). Yet like Ginsberg, he remained committed to the view that "poetry should again assume responsibility for the description of history" (Sanders, Investigative Poetry 3). And although Mailer dismissed Sanders's description of the events of the Chicago convention, an extract from which he quoted in Siege, as "Hippie prose" (135), Sanders's approach to the relationship between poetry and history is in some ways the most conservative of those considered here. In an interview he has said, "I was trained in classical Greek and Latin and knew Mycenaen and some other languages, as well as being trained as a mathematician and a scientist, so I had a really cold analytical mind, despite my being a space cadet" (Sturgeon 275). Shards of God exemplifies both sides of Sanders's imagination. On the one hand, it is a story of flying saucers, pornographic fantasies, and cultural icons such as Merle Haggard and Cassius Clay--an anarchic Ginsbergesque "basketweaving" of contemporary pop culture. On the other hand, it is carefully modeled on a range of classical sources. While Ginsberg felt that the contemporary writer had to choose between these two traditions, Sanders makes free use of both to assist him in what he called his "total assault on the culture" (the motto under which he published Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts). As he writes in Investigative Poetry, "No one owns the modes. Ahh the modes. Do not hesitate to use every mode that anyone ever devised. The modes of poetry are more powerful than any so-called magic, for they are proven input. Do not hesitate. Thank you for listening" (38).
When asked about his influences, Sanders replied, "I grew up on Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, Hesiod, and my final form is governed by those great men, Pindar, Herodotus, and Charles Olson" (qtd. in Wiloch 448). I'll come to Pindar in a moment, but first, it's worth considering the importance of Olson and Herodotus (they come as a pair for late twentieth-century American poets) to Sanders's work. The first thing to note is the difference between Ginsberg's and Mailer's emphasis on the individual's perception and shaping of events and what Charles Olson, in "Projective Verse," called "objectivism." Ojectivism, he maintained, is "the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the `subject' and his soul" (24). Instead of the poet as "ego," "subject," or "soul," Olson argued, we need the poet as "an historian as Herodotus was, looking / for the evidence of/what is said" (Olson, "Letter 23," Maximus Poems 100-01). Sanders quoted these lines in Investigative Poetry, the 1976 "essay manifesto" in which he asserted a version of Olson's rhetoric of objectivity, accuracy, and performance. Investigative Poetry speaks continually of "data"--"data clusters," "data grids," "data forage"--and looks forward to the day when we will see "RELENTLESS / PURSUIT OF DATA!" (23).
The investigative method has its dangers, Sanders admits--"data-midden boredom" being the primary one--but its advantage is that one escapes one's own "garbage grids" or prejudices (Investigative Poetry 29). Sanders's first research project or "saturation job" was The Family, a detailed study of Charles Manson and his followers, and the book that remains his best-known work. Shards of God, however, is clearly written in his "pre-saturation phase," and it is interesting to note that Sanders does not list the book among his other works on recent dust jackets (Sturgeon 275). Shards presents a very particular view of the Peace-swarm--one whose prejudices and "garbage grinds" are clear. The book steers clear of data, ignoring, for example, the participation of groups other than Yippie in the events of August 1968, the divisions within Yippie, and the aftermath of the action. As a historical resource its uses are limited because Shards of God is less a "data-forage" than a utopian fantasy of how things should have been.
"This is the age," Sanders announced in a 1975 poem, "of left-wing epics with happy endings!" (Thirsting for Peace 137). It was also the age of space exploration and sexual revolution, and Sanders's version of utopia draws on both. Indeed, the plot of Shards of God could have come straight from a late sixties science-fiction fantasy such as Roger Vadim's Barbarella (1968). The flying-saucer Zagreus-90 approaches earth, and "the Council of Eye Forms" sends forth its heroes, characters called Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and an unnamed narrator. They form an alliance called Yippie whose mission is "enforced sharing, communal sharing, sharing of bodies, and sharing by law": "We stand together, all of us, shards of Ra and embers of God, to create an era of justice and sharing" (16-17). The novel details the myriad sexual adventures of those heroes (at least one orgasm per page) and their battles against the baddies--the "vampires" and "total vomit" of a place called the Pentagon. After a great "Battle of the Hilton," they return to Zagreus-90 to celebrate their victories with orgies and pray to the "Computer of Computers."
If poetry was to be an answer to the war, so too was sex. In 1956 Ginsberg had asked, "America when will you be angelic? / When will you take off your clothes?" ("America," Collected Poems 146). And, James Miller points out, "as the war ... [became] more violent, more demanding of more and more bodies, Ginsberg's [poetry became] ... more counter-ecstatic in its description of homosexual love" (302). Sanders too was a long-standing "erotic provocateur"(5) In his Poem from Jail (1961), he described a "new Now culture/ ... balling its / way toward / pluperfection" (Thirsting 16). Since then he has pro-rooted this culture in everything he did, not just in his poetry and prose, but also by publishing banned works in his "magazine of the arts," Fuck You, by staging a "Fuck-in" for peace in the Peace Eye bookstore in 1965, and by singing, among other songs, "Group Grope" with the Fugs. The Yippie Manifesto, written by Sanders, Kressner, Rubin, and Hoffman in 1968, was simply another step along the way: "The life force of the American spirit is being torn asunder by the forces of violence, decay and napalm, cancer fiend. We demand the politics of ecstasy" (qtd. in Farber 176).(6)
The politics of ecstasy is certainly ever-present in Shards of God, as we shall see. Usually, however, sex in Shards is less erotic or ecstatic than athletic and competitive: "Physical prowess was worshipped! The ability to spend hours in cabinets of ice, the ability to control oneself under torture, the ability to endure exhausting schedules, these were the qualities reverenced by the Yippies. Esteemed above all, however, was communal sex, and the wheatfield-in-the-wind beauty of a mobfuck" (Shards 35). About to participate in "The Great Pentagon Hunching Contest" with which the book begins, Abbie Hoffman chants Pindar's first Olympian ode.(7)
I'll return to the importance of the Olympian Odes for Sanders in a moment, but first I'd like to consider the use he makes of Homer's epics. Mailer had alluded to the Iliad and the Trojan War in his description of the "siege" of Chicago, but Sanders develops the Homeric links more fully. Several key episodes of the novel are closely modeled on episodes in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin are portrayed as successors to Achilles and Odysseus in their anger, cunning, and bravery. The context of Homer's poems is in the ten-year Trojan War, but Homer's emphasis is restricted to an episode from its final year in the case of the Iliad and to a single soldier's homecoming in the case of the Odyssey. Sanders likewise assumes his reader knows the wider story. He makes no attempt to fill readers in on the previous history of the Vietnam War or the antiwar movement. He mentions the march on the Pentagon and the "worldfamous exorcism" only in passing, and in order to comment, "As we all know, the position of the United States in the world balance of power has declined accordingly" (13, my emphasis). The central battles of the Chicago Convention occupy only a chapter of the novel. Instead, Sanders's emphasis, like Homer's, is on events on the sidelines--the rituals and preparations, the delays and the celebrations.
In the introduction to Shards Sanders tells the reader that "You may read this novel at random" because "Every page is a magic rite" (ix). Although he here addresses an anarchic reader, elsewhere he tends to assume that the book will be read in the order given. Phrases such as "you will remember" (133) or "if you got thru that chapter" (157) suggest that the effect is cumulative. Nevertheless, Shards does not number its chapters but gives each its own title. In comparing Homer and Sanders then I'll refer to the sections of both as "books."
The Iliad begins by announcing that its subject will be the anger of Achilles and its consequences. Achilles is angry because of a quarrel with Agamemnon over their trophy women. Agamemnon has lost his concubine, Chryseis, and takes as compensation Achilles' "prize of honour," Briseis. A conflict over a woman causes more trouble in book 3. Fighting between the Greek and Trojan armies is checked by a proposal from the Trojan side that Paris and Menelaus are to fight a duel for Helen. If Paris wins, he is to keep Helen and the Greeks are to go away; if Menelaus wins, then Helen and all her property are to be returned and peace made. Menelaus is the victor and Paris is rescued by Aphrodite. But in book 4, the truce is broken by the gods, and the war intensifies.
Shards begins by setting up its action as the result of a similar conflict. The scene is a Pentagon yacht rather than a Greek ship, but Abbie Hoffman is also angry. He challenges the Pentagon's robot to a fucking contest. If he wins "the hunch match," the air force will disclose their information about "the I-mouthed saucer people"; if he loses, he will leave the Movement. Abbie wins, with some cunning, but he too is then duped. He is "sorely wroth" and Sanders comments that "This act, an act of bad faith by the military, was the beginning of the dissolution of western civilization" (12-13).
Parallels can also be drawn between the endings of the two stories. The Iliad ends with the funerals of Patroclus and finally Hector, while the penultimate chapter of Shards includes the funeral of Dean Johnson, the only fatality of the convention protests. "The dead person was a beautiful young man, eighteen or nineteen, his face stomped in by an oink.... How many hours the dead hero had spent in the N.Y. Yippie office mimeoing, conning paper companies on the phone for credit, leafleting, writing ... and now to see him bricked into the Tarn brought tears to our eyes" (162). The "dead hero" is placed on a "boat of death" with copies of "Howl, The Red Book and The New Testament," while the "silver haired lover and partner of the slain Achilles" weeps (162, 164). Following the singing and lamentations, the "festival of love" and the "Battle of the Hilton" begins.
Despite these similarities, however, the tones of the two books are quite different. The ending of the Iliad is ultimately tragic in emphasis, with Homer pitying the fathers who have lost their sons to battle and commenting that the fate that the gods "have spun for poor mortal men" is that "we should live in misery, but they themselves have no sorrow" (401). Sanders, however, retains a consistently optimistic and comic tone. His novel ends with an "orgy of triumph" and with direct allusions instead to the homecoming plot of the Odyssey: "just like the mammals of the Odyssey after danger and recent accomplishment, the princes of the Aeon made banquet" (176). Of course here the celebrations are less about eating than sex. The saucer is transformed into "a vast labyrinth of pleasure rooms.... Even something called the James Joyce Museum of Panties ..." (176). There is no conflict between the desires of the gods and the mortals. And the mortals too are in harmony. There is no mention of the arrests and trials of the Chicago Eight, of disputes between Hoffman and Rubin, of Sanders's own disputes with Rubin and Hoffman.(8) There is no fact-foraging going on.
Many other episodes in Shards of God are modeled on incidents from the Odyssey. In book 8, for example, Homer tells us of Demodocus whom "the Muse had loved greatly.... She reft him of his eyes, but she gave him the sweet singing art" (122-23). And in book 9 of Shards, "The Freedomright Vale of Detention," we encounter Sanders's "blind poet from the Hudson Institute," who, "fed intravenous food and kept awake by cocaine, perforce sang twenty-four hours a day a continuous epic tale of the life and manners of the concentration camp.... The poet's epic was taped and analyzed for slang and double- and triple-meaning language patterns, which were so complex that several computers were needed to keep track of the constantly changing language of the inmates" (84-85). As a foil to the blind poet we find "the reporter," "determined not to join the list of those who became sick at the sight" of the rot (87). He finally breaks down in "the Graveyard of Disgrace" and screams that he will tell the world what he has seen. While the poet's "doubleand triple-meaning language patterns" protect him, the reporter's blunt outcry brings about his death--a dig at "the reporter" Mailer perhaps?
Shards also contains its own version of the journey to the underworld. In book 10 of the Odyssey wandering Odysseus comes to the island of Circe. Before he can leave, Circe tells him that he must visit the underworld and get instructions from the prophet Tiresias. In book 11 Odysseus calls the ghosts of the dead to come to the world of the living. Tiresias comes forth and tells him of the travels he must still make before returning home. Odysseus then goes down to Hades and mingles with the dead, including the ghosts of Agamemnon, Achilles, and Hercules, each of whom gives him advice. In book 10 of Shards Jerry Rubin summons the spirit not of Tiresias but of Che Guevara. As is the case in the Odyssey, many other ghostly figures first appear:
It was a grim crew, shades of former czars, centurions, and warlords crowded together holding out their arms to those below like drunken penny pitchers. General MacArthur was there begging to see another army-navy game, also J. Edgar Hoover with a boy scout, Cardinal Spellman, Hitler, Barnacle Bill the Sailor, millennia of ug-blobs. One spirit stood out from the rest of the snarling knot of creatures, Winston Churchill holding under each arm a Mesopotamian vampire-corpse. (94-95)
After Rubin has fought off Churchill, "glorious Che" approaches: "Holy was his step and fresh grass sprouted at each point where the spirit touched the ground." After having sex with an acolyte, Che gives Rubin advice, which we are not party to, and then addresses all the Yippies, telling them that they should not be afraid to die because "God and Jesus, Buddha and all the Angels are with you" (98). As the ghost disappears, the Yippies chant, "On to Chicago! On to Chicago! On to Chicago!" (98).
Finally book 13, "Nighttime in Lincoln Park," refers to Joyce's "Nightown" but also directly to book 13 of the Odyssey where Athena disguises Odysseus as an old man: "let me make you so that no mortal can recognize you. For I will wither the handsome flesh that is on your flexible limbs, and ruin the brown hair on your head, and about you out on such clout of cloth any man will loathe when he sees you wearing it" (Odyssey 208). In book 15 of Shards the Homeric allusion becomes explicit as "the cunning much-enduring Abbie" is beaten up by the cops: "The sky was aware--for lo, Pallas Athena, the daughter of Zeus who rules over the immortal gods who hold broad heaven, took pity on Abbie. `How just is the lordly Abbie!' she exclaimed, and she bound around her feet her winged sandals of gold. She drew upon her shoulders a fresh-washed cloak and she, Nike Athenas resplendent in her helmet embossed with the pomegranates of wisdom, ventured forth from broad heaven onto the plain of Yippie" (144-45). Touching Abbie with "her wand of gold," she transforms his appearance: "She increased with her godlike power his stature and his youthful bloom and the vigor of his body." Abbie, of course, wants to "plank her" but Zeus has provided a chastity belt (145).
I've already noted two allusions to what must be the most famous twentieth-century adaptation of Homer, James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), and Sanders shares much of Joyce's delight in linguistic wordplay and invention. Where the two books differ, however, is in their conception of heroism. Leopold Bloom is not elevated or "god" but an ordinary and rather limited man. He does no great deeds, and his adventures are small and domestic, their impact local. Joyce is not merely writing mockare-heroic, however. Rather, he is seeking to redefine heroism for modern urban life. Writing nearly fifty years later, Sanders has no time for the quiet endurance of a Bloom-like character. He wants heroes on a grand scale and uses Homeric allusions specifically to suggest that his heroes, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, like Achilles and Odysseus, are far greater than ordinary men. But while Homer sets the events of his two poems in a distant past where he claimed things were very different, Sanders is writing of recent events in which he too played a part. He has the additional problem of having two heroes--Hoffman and Rubin. Abbie then is "so rely wroth" (like Achilles in the Iliad) at the beginning of the book but becomes "the cunning much-enduring Abbie" (like Odysseus) at the end (2,144). Jerry, however, is also godlike, and it is often difficult to distinguish between the two heroes--certainly their disagreements are never mentioned.
If, as Jasper Griffin points out, "Odysseus is always talking about his belly and its imperious demands" (Griffin 56), and Abbie, Jerry, and the narrator himself are always talking about their sexual appetites, Bloom is interested in both food and sex. He even puts forward his own version of the politics of ecstasy when he interrupts the political wrangling in Barney Kiernan's pub by declaring, "But it's no use ... force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life." He is asked what that is. "Love," he replies, "I mean the opposite of hatred" (Joyce 273). But whereas Joyce and Homer create a wide variety of vivid women characters--Molly and Gerty; Calypso, Circe, Nausica, and Penelop--and give these women voices, Sanders's women are invariably "sex-slaves." And if one of Odysseus' defining features is his self-mastery, this is certainly lacking in any of Sanders's heroes. For example, the narrator says of Jerry Rubin, "I have never seen a man more disrespectful of pantyhose and outer garments as he rips, before raping, the layers preventing immediate insertion of the steak" (43).
Moreover, whereas Joyce eschews all the cosmic in favor of the commonplace, Sanders is keen to evoke the supernatural paraphernalia of the traditional epic. His view of the genre is therefore closer to Thomas Greene's than to modernist or postmodernist revisions: "The subject of all epic poetry might be said to be politics, but a politics not limited to society, a politics embracing the natural and fabulous worlds, embracing even the moral and spiritual worlds they sometimes shadow forth, and involving ultimately the divine. The implications expand to suggest if not frankly assert, a cosmic power struggle" (Greene 17-18). Sanders's heroes are not simply brave men but "shards of god." The god in question is the Egyptian sun god Ra, who installed kings and heroes on earth to act as his successors--they were "not mortal human being[s] but ... mortal god[s] sharing in the same substance of the sun god" and fighting the same aeon-old battles as have always been fought (Quirke 23).(9) The ready move from historical to cosmic power struggle, however, like Mailer's evocation of the gods, simply serves to dehistoricize the tale further.
Looking at a range of writing about the Yippies and the Chicago Convention, one is struck by the difficulty of commentators or participants to decide on their ultimate significance. Irwin Unger, for example, concludes his discussion of the events of August 1968 by acknowledging that "it is hard to decide whether Chicago was a festival of life or a festival of death after all" (144), while Todd Gitlin, participant-turned-historian, writes in 1987: "The collective euphoria about Chicago masked a tremendous confusion about the nature of the American reality and our own impact on it. Were we on the way to The Revolution or to concentration camps? Was it Revolutionary Year Zero or fascism's Last Days? The movement's metaphors were pulling in contrary directions" (Gitlin, The Sixties 335). Mailer sees the events of Chicago as struggle between the angel and the butcher and concludes his essay with a prediction and a plea: "We may yet win, the others are so stupid. Heaven help us when we do" (Miami 223). Even Ginsberg can only wonder whether "Grant Park: August 1968" is "Miserable picnic, Police State or Garden of Eden?" (507). For historian David Zane Mairowitz, Chicago was simply another episode of the "radical soap opera." But Sanders is unequivocal. The introduction to Shards of God announces that what follows will be "a tale of triumph; the intimate story of a successful caper" (ix). His job as a poet is neither to judge nor to interpret but to memorialize in the great tradition of Homer, Herodotus, Pindar, and Horace. Herodotus begins his Histories by proclaiming that "Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds ... may not be without their glory" (31), while Horace noted:
Many brave men have lived before Agamemnon, but, unwept and unknown, they are all crushed under eternal night because they have no sacred poet. (4.9.25-28)
And in book 9 of the Iliad Achilles sings "tales of men's glory," which Sanders describes as
Sort of open poetry readings after / before the gore. (Investigative Poetry 37)
Although Sanders draws on episodes from Homeric epic to create his left-wing epic with a happy ending, perhaps the closest model for what he is doing can be found in the Pindarian victory ode. Pindar's odes, known as epinicians, were composed to celebrate the victors in the athletic games of Greece: the Olympics, the Pythians, Isthmion, and Nemean. Deborah Steiner defines their aim as "to give lasting form to the deed of a moment" and says that "the poet achieves this aim by bringing the weight of mythological example and the self-proclaimed power of his song to bear on the individual experience" (111). The victories of the athletes were seen as imitative (although in reduced way) of the victories of heroes such as Achilles or Odysseus, whose victories were themselves compared to those of the gods. In Investigative Poetry Sanders evokes Pindar's practice as a model for the investigative poet:
At the great religious festivals of antiquity the poets sang/chanted for prizes-- and in the era of the Investigative Poet the Diogenes Troubador Data Squads will chew their way into the gory dressing room of Richard Helms. (19)
Pindar's methods, however, seem closer to the method of Shards than does something like The Family. As I noted earlier, Abbie Hoffman chants Pindar's first Olympian Ode before entering the hunching contest. Hoffman's and Rubin's sexual athleticism is in turn praised by Sanders and compared to the heroic actions of men such as Odysseus and Achilles and to gods such as Ra. At the bottom of the Pindarian hierarchy of heroism (but still firmly attached) was the poet himself, whose storytelling skill was itself worthy of praise (and medals). "But what is the prize?" Sanders asks, and answers,
The prize is for the poets to assume their rightful positions as chroniclers of the Time Track, of the historical moment whether century, aeon, hour or microsecond to weaken, to lessen, and to bring down into the vale of Ha Ha Hee the North American CIA Police State, and for poets never again to internalize grovelness. (Investigative Poetry 19)
The Pindarian poet is not only a chronicler, according to Sanders, but someone whose work serves to defy and to weaken the State. Poetic defiance may ultimately be as useless as athletic triumph, but as Richard Lattimore notes, it was the "very uselessness of ... [the athletic] triumphs which ... attracted Pindar": A victory meant that time, expense, and hard work had been lavished on an achievement that brought no calculable advantage, only honor and beauty. This may sound somewhat romantic, but competition symbolized an idea of nobility which meant much to Pindar; and in the exaltation of victory he seems sometimes to see a kind of transfiguration, briefly making radiant a world which most of the time seemed, to him as to his contemporaries, dark and brutal. (viii)
Writing while the war still raged, four years after Ginsberg's Mantra declared its end, Sanders too could do little more than to sing an epinician to the heroes of the Peace-swarm in order "briefly ... to [make] radiant a world which most of the time seemed ... dark and brutal."
(1) Emerson's valorization of"Representative Men" (1850) draws in turn upon Carlyle's 1841 series of lectures Of Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History in which he argues that "Hero-gods, Prophets, Poets, Priests are forms of Heroism that belong to the Old Ages.... The Hero as Man of Letters ... is altogether a product of these new ages" (235).
(2) Ginsberg is quoting Pound's definition of epic as "a poem including history" (Pound, ABC of Reading 46).
(3) In his foreword to The Best ofAbbie Hoffman, Mailer wrote in 1989 that "reading this work, I came to decide that my piece of the sixties wasn't as large as I thought. If we were going to get into comparisons, Abbie lived it, I observed it; Abbie committed his life, I merely loved the sixties because they gave life to my work" (viii).
(4) To add a further irony, the hotel suite to which Mailer retreats turned out, according to the boxer Jose Torres, to be "a Republican hideout--Bob Dole's suite, in fact" (qtd. in Manso 492).
(5) The phrase is Ronald Sukenick's (Down and In 176).
(6) For other accounts of the politics of ecstasy, see Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, and Wilhelm Reich. Studies of radical Freudianism include Theodore Roszak and Richard King. See also Eric Mottram for an account of the various types of Dionysian rituals in sixties America with particular emphasis on rock festivals. In his article for Esquire on the Chicago demonstrations, Jean Genet wrote that the demonstrators stretched out in the park were "very gentle" and "very chaste." Sexuality and violence resided rather in the thighs and bellies of the Chicago policemen. This was felt by some, however, to be an inappropriate sexual response.
(7) See Sanders's poem "Pindar's Revenge" in Thirsting for Peace 43-44.
(8) For example, David Farber notes Hoffman and Rubin, working with the SDS, supported confrontation whereas Sanders and Ginsberg sought to calm the protesters by chanting (174). In his account of events Sanders acknowledges no conflict of opinion and writes only that "Anyone who doesn't love and respect Allen Ginsberg is a dipshit" (Shards 137).
(9) "The Council of Eye Forms, which runs things in Shards of God, is also featured in Sanders's poem "20,000 A.D.," which he describes in turn as bringing "a science-fiction aspect" to his earlier poem "Egyptian Hieroglyphics" (Thirsting for Peace 121-25). "Almost everything I do has a version in poetry," Sanders has said (Sturgeon 277).
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KASIA BODDY teaches American literature at University College, London. She has published articles on a range of American writers and is currently completing a book of interviews and a book about boxing in American fiction and film.…