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Back to the garden

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, April 14, 2005

At the heart of the campus of Princeton University – where I once spent a year working on my celebrated impression of a graduate student – there is a courtyard, and at its center there is a sculpture donated by the Class of 1969 in honor of its 25th Reunion.

A little taller than a table and cylindrical in shape, it is carved so that its top surface displays a Yin and Yang symbol. Inscribed on the surface are the final lines from the Joni Mitchell song “Woodstock”:

“We are stardust / Billion year-old carbon / We are golden / Caught in the Devil’s bargain / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the Garden.”

When I first came across the sculpture, it was something of a shock. What surprised me was not that the class of 1969 had been caught up in the spirit of the counterculture, with its fascination with Eastern mysticism and its longing to shrug off society and return to lives of prelapsarian simplicity.

The surprise was rather the fact that 25 years later, that same class, at an age at which many of them had children in college, had chosen a monument that was such an unequivocal endorsement of that spirit.

The year of the class of 1969’s 25th reunion was also the year of the second Woodstock. With Arlo Guthrie and Janis Joplin replaced by Metallica and Nine Inch Nails, it was unclear in just what sense this could be regarded as the successor to the original “Aquarian exposition” of peace and music.

Many were appalled by its commercialism, which they felt was a betrayal of the Woodstock legacy.

Those of a more cynical disposition pointed out that the original Woodstock had itself been a commercial venture, funded by young venture capitalists, including John Roberts, heir to a drug store and toothpaste fortune.

Many of the bands who came were paid well above their usual fee, and thus the festival was far from the spontaneous concert as which it had been heavily promoted throughout the previous year.

These critiques were all true, but they missed the point. What made the original Woodstock festival different from its titular sequel wasn’t that it was untouched by commercialism, but that those who were present were really able to believe themselves part of a revolution that would change the world.

When the number of gatecrashers became overwhelming, Woodstock was declared a “free concert,” and it felt like an act of communal grace. When the same thing happened at the second Woodstock, it was impossible not to recognize this as a mere simulation of spontaneity.

When I think of the hippie movement, I always remember a particular moment from the Woodstock festival. It is Sunday, and a storm has kicked up. On the main stage, one of the organizers grabs a microphone and tells all the concert-goers to keep on one side of the stage so that if the enormous speaker towers are blown over, no one will be hurt. But maybe, he continues, if everyone wishes for it hard enough, the rain will stop.

Immediately, we see the view from the stage and there are hippies as far as the eye can see. They all begin to chant in unison “No rain, no rain.”

My fascination with the sixties began when I saw this moment, preserved on the concert film. Partly, I liked it because it made me laugh, perfectly encapsulating the ridiculousness of the movement.

But, less obviously, it was moving to see people who really believed that they could not only turn society upside down but also suspend the laws of nature through the sheer force of their good will.

I envy their extraordinary capacity for belief. I can’t believe what they believed; sometimes I find it hard to believe that they believed it – but they really did. They believed incredible, absurd, and wildly incomprehensible things.

But above all, they believed in love. Name your problem, and love would solve it. Do you think there can be no community without rules? No my friend, all you need is love.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Richard Gere publicly opined that he was worried about the terrorists because of “the negativity of this karma” and the bad consequences it would have on the hijackers’ future lives. Shirley MacLaine offered the prescription, “Melt their weapons, melt their hearts, melt their anger with love.” And Alice Walker rejoined, “I firmly believe the only punishment that works is love.”

Many found these remarks obscene, but I thought they were merely pitiable: the politics of Eden, starkly revealed in their absolute inadequacy.

A popular myth of our time is that it is the prerogative of artists to speak truth to power.

But what Gere, MacLaine and Walker revealed is that artists (I use the term loosely), lacking both power and the responsibilities that accompany it, more frequently become refugees from reality.

Far from being prophetic, their pronouncements are merely glib statements of whatever it is that they currently find agreeable to believe.

The hippies’ mistake – one they share with other, apparently very different movements – is that they could never acknowledge Original Sin (which Chesterton said was the only part of Christian theology that can be proved). The politics of Eden are workable only for those untainted by selfishness and pride; they are politics for angels, not men.

There is no getting back to garden. We don’t belong there.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. He can be contacted at [email protected] Tonight Peter will be performing in the final student stand-up comedy show of the academic year at Legends.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.