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Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-culture.

End-of-year stock-taking time. One way or another, hundreds of books make their way through the offices of The Progressive in the course of a year. Only a fraction find space for mention, but the staff includes an avid bunch of readers. Herewith, our second annual set of idiosyncratic reports from the Editors and the Publisher on their best reading of 1993.

I didn't know when I met Paul Krassner that he was responsible for the "meat-grinder" issue of Hustler magazine - the one with a quote on the cover from Larry Flynt, "We will no longer hang women up like pieces of meat," accompanied by a picture of a woman's body stuffed head-first into a grinder, and coming out the other end as hamburger.

It's just as well.

I enjoyed meeting Krassner. I found him funny and sweet. And I read more than halfway through his autobiography, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut. Misadventures in the Counter-culture (Simon & Schuster) before I came to the chapter on his tenure as publisher of Hustler.

Krassner's conscious life, as he tells it, began when he was performing a solo violin concerto at the age of six, the youngest musician ever to give a concert at Carnegie Hall: "I was wearing a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit - ruffled white silk shirt with puffy sleeves, black velvet short pants with ivory buttons and matching vest - white socks and black patent-leather shoes. My hair was platinum blond and wavy.... But all I knew was that I was being taunted by an itch." After a few moments of torment, the six-year-old Krassner had a revelation - instead of stopping to scratch, or merely enduring the itch, he decided to balance on one foot and scratch himself with the other, while he continued to play. The audience erupted with laughter. It was a transformative moment.

"I opened my eyes. There were rows upon rows of people sitting out there in the dark, and they were all laughing together. They had understood my plight. It was easier for them to identify with the urge to scratch than with a little freak playing the violin. And I could identify with them identifying with me."

A satirist was born.

Krassner's book often made me laugh out loud. And he has great stories to tell about his adventures with Lenny Bruce, Groucho Marx, Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, John Lennon, and other who's-whos of the 1960s counterculture. Despite his genius and his status as a counterculture icon, most of Krassner's stories have a way of turning back on the author, like a boomerang. Generally, he ends up being the fall guy in his own jokes. So while there's probably no one on the planet Krassner hasn't managed to offend, there's nothing mean-spirited or arrogant about his sense of humor. He is charmingly humble, genuinely interested in other people's points of view, and willing to admit when he's been wrong (and boy has he been wrong).

Still, it's difficult to sort out how someone I found so sympathetic and charming - both in person and in his book - could be responsible for that picture on the cover of Hustler, which struck me (and a lot of other women) right in the solar plexus, as an ugly, vicious attack.

When Krassner visited our office on his book tour, he tossed off a theory that I found interesting and helpful. It had to do with categories of humor. Krassner was talking about how dismayed he was to see little kids wearing Beavis and Butt-Head T-shirts. An incongruous sentiment, I thought, for a man who prides himself on having warped the minds of a generation of youth as publisher of The Realist.

When I asked him about it, he produced the following distinction between reactionary, low-brow humor - a la Beavis and Butt-Head, Andrew Dice Clay, and Howard Stern - and countercultural humor as embodied (presumably) in The Realist and in the late Lenny Bruce: Bruce's humor was about breaking taboos and opening things up, Krassner offered, whereas Stern and other "shock-jocks" reinforce taboos and stereotypes. That's a great distinction, I think.

Of course, Krassner himself has not always come down on the progressive end of the continuum. It's one thing to publish an obscene parody of Lyndon Johnson, for example (a stunt that made The Realist in-famous and set a new standard for tasteless journalism), and another, to my mind, to put women in their place when they object to being treated as subhuman pieces of meat.

The excuses Krassner offers in his book for the Hustler cover (deadline pressure, it was someone else's idea, it was just a joke) are quite lame.

What I find redeeming is the extenuating absurdity of his point of view, and the way he tells the story of his whole weird life - including his detour through the porn industry. (Krassner was appointed Hustler's publisher by Larry Flynt while Flynt was flying around in his private jet with Jimmy Carter's evangelist sister, being converted to born-again Christianity. A year later, after he was shot and paralyzed, Flynt fired Krassner from his hospital bed, renounced Christ, and resumed his old post.)

From what I can tell, Krassner has remained true to his ideal of satire and irreverence as liberating forces, resisting becoming self-important and continuing to make fun of himself, even now. Here, thank God, is a hilarious person on the Left.

Krassner's "openness" as a parent, on the other hand, isn't very funny to me. It is both poignant and appalling that his thirteen-year-old daughter is the one to set him straight when he argues against prohibiting statutory rape. As a child of the counterculture era myself, I don't find it very liberating to contemplate going through the pain and confusion of adolescence with a parent who doesn't seem to have come out the other side yet.

It's interesting how much things have changed since the counterculture was actually countering a well-defined set of cultural values and institutions in American life. If there never was a time when families were perfectly stable and "normal," no one even pretends as much now. In an era of corporate-packaged rock-n-roll, sex, and "shocking" art, the distinction between repression and rebellion (or "opening up" the culture versus reinforcing established power) is blurrier than ever.

Wendell Berry talks about exactly that in Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community: Eight ESsays (Pantheon). While Krassner celebrates irreverence as his "only sacred cow," Berry argues passionately for more reverence, dignity, and respect.

"To destroy the dignity of the body - the dignity of any and every body - is to prepare the way for the enslaver, the rapist, the torturer, the user of cannon fodder," he writes.

I tend to agree with Berry that three decades of counterculture individualism and irreverence have merged neatly with the capitalist, consumer principle of uncontrolled appetite. Along the way, "youth rebellion" has devolved into a valueless, fashionable complacency.

Take another book I've been reading - Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland (St. Martin's Press). This is a shameless attempt to cash in on the market for definitions of a "twenty-something generation." (A number of people my age have apparently been moved by the title of a dopey TV sitcom to a desperate desire to establish their identity as a demographic group.) By virtue of being first out of the blocks, this book is edging out the competition. According to it, we're all underemployed, tragically hip college graduates wandering in a wasteland of despair while wearing cool "retro" fashions, tossing out French phrases, and making witty references to television shows. Who cares?

Marketing has taken the spirit and spontaneous joy out of the counterculture Krassner helped create.

So what do we do now, if culture and counterculture have merged into grist for the same big, capitalist mill (or meat-grinder)?

"The indepensable form that can intervene between public and private interests is that of community," Berry writes. A public made up of monadic consumers all competing with each other is not a community - it is free-market culture. he argues:

"We try to be 'emotionally self-sufficient' at the same time that we are entirely and helplessly dependent for our |happiness' on an economy that abuses us along with everything else."

Like free-market economics, "free-market culture" neglects the needs of human beings as part of a complex economic and ecological pattern of communal life. Until we begin to respect our interdependence and the values involved in mutual care, rather than just promoting open competition and noninterference among individuals, we will not live full human lives, Berry says.

"If we have equality and nothing else - no compassion, no magnanimity, no courtesy, no sense of mutual obligation and dependence, no imagination - then power and wealth will have their way; brutality will rule."

Sue Halpern, in her lovely book of essays Migrations to Solitude: The Quest for Privacy in a Crowded World (Vintage) makes a related point.

"It is a fundamentally American belief, this belief in rights; it is what becomes of a nation with a written, amendable constitution and a philosophical affection for individualism. Yet it will not do.... In the language that we share, the language of rights and duties, there is no word for giving people what they need. The words we do have, like benefits and entitlements, are about giving people what they are owed.... We are lacking the vocabulary to think in broader, more generous terms."

That the concept of individual rights is limited, and that individuals, feeling alienated, are searching for a new sense of reverence, meaning, and community, seems to be a common theme in all the books I read, except for Krassner's. There is a definite, poetic truth to this idea. What the political ramifications are is another question.

Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought, by Derek L. Phillips (Princeton University Press) takes a careful look at the work of communitarian political philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Robert Bellah, and others, and writes a compelling defense of liberal politics and individual rights. Phillips shows the ways in which communitarians romanticize and distort the societies of the past.

Besides having an inaccurate and idealized view of history, Phillips says, communitarians make a big mistake when they talk about the redeeming values of culture. "Culture is assumed not only to penetrate all aspects of social life, but to do so in the same way for everyone," he writes. In fact, he says, culture affects various members of a community in decidedly different ways. The one thing societies of the past held up as models by communitarians seem to have in common is an oppressive, hierarchical structure, in which some people make much greater sacrifices than others for the "common good" of the community.

I can't fairly evaluate Phillips's criticisms without studying more closely the philosophers he talks about. But I recommend this book to anyone interested in getting into the subject. Certainly, I agree with Phillips that it's a good idea to be cautious about any political program that aims to throw the whole concept of individual rights over the side.

Nonetheless, I wouldn't dismiss the "yearning for organic wholeness" and for the "shared values and spiritual bond" of community, which, as Phillips points out, are nothing new. We all seem to need these things in our lives - even Paul Krassner. After all, Berry, the moralist, and Krassner, the libertine, are not merely opposites. Both are fundamentally interested in the transformative power of art and culture. Maybe there's a way of reconciling their two points of view.

Then again, I'm trying to imagine Krassner leading the reverent, church-going, hard-working life on Berry's small Kentucky farm. It's an absurd picture. No doubt Krassner would have to do something to stir things up. Maybe he would make Berry laugh. Now that would be a transformative moment.
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Author:Conniff, Ruth
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Previous Article:What is to be done?
Next Article:Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.

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