Magical Contamination and Playing it Straight

I just read Stephen Kessler's The Mental Traveler, a pellucid fictionalization of a mental breakdown during the late 1960s -- the time of the moon landing and Charlie Manson, when as Kessler writes, “the air itself carried invisible streams of hallucinogenic potential.”

Since that era's still the stereotypic moment in twentieth-century Californian cultural history, it's curious how little our culture's general interpretation of it has changed over the last forty-odd years. For example, Joan Didion's essay “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” was written while the summer of love was still in progress, yet as an account of those events has yet to be surpassed in cynicism.

How do the late 1960s appear now, retrospectively, to those who were there and have since matured? Since the hero of The Mental Traveler is alienated, Jewish, fairly well-off, and working at UC Berkeley, his involvement in the counterculture seems over-determined. Yet he feels alienated from the counterculture too. His friends are very conscious of the moment's historic potential, but unclear how to seize it. The hero's paranoid schizophrenia feels like a recapitulation, on the level of the individual, of what his subculture and generation are undergoing.

“This is the way the world was spinning, intricate swirls of interconnection, no individual detail without its web of associations, a natural continuity yet dangerous too in its revolutionary resonance, multiple waves of implication spreading with every beat, with every note, with every word and image, and we were in and of it, riding this wild world's allusive waves, up to our wits in history, in fiction. Everything burned with meaning, glowed, radiated risk and urgency, a kind of magical contamination.”

I remember feeling the same way when I was twenty, but in late 1980s England there wasn't much encouragement for this attitude. Perhaps I got off lightly.

Kessler – now a distinguished poet, translator, and essayist – reports on how it was to feel intensely alive and intensely lost.

“Ever since Altamont I'd felt my life was being guided by superior powers, that gods of the revolution were secretly directing my trip through this mythic dimension suffused with meaning most people were forced to ignore because they couldn't use the information, they'd be overwhelmed, but I had been selected and was acting out for the collective welfare some model scenario of new consciousness.”

The songs titles on a Mose Allison album are a series of instructions from the cosmos. After reading Robert Bly's poem “Anarchists Fainting,” the mental traveler hits on the tactic of being crazy on the inside, rather than on the outside.

He learns to play it straight, while continuing his trip in the realm of creativity. This part, he almost makes sound easy...

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