A few cultural notes. I was saddened to hear of the death of Les Paul the other day, an inventive musician in more than one sense, and hearing him gig at Sweet Basil’s or the Iridium was for many years one of life’s little pleasures available only to New Yorkers. And a few days before that was the death of Merce Cunningham, and with his passing, the era of high modernism in New York artistic culture, dating back to Alfred Stieglitz and the 1911 Armory Show, has finally run its century long course. Cunningham’s modernism (along with that of his life partner, John Cage) was so high and elevated that it encompassed and anticipated every type of post-modernism and post-post modernism that has or will yet be invented. But the cultural event of the week is, certainly, memories of the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, and I might as well share mine.
As frequent readers of this blog know, in the summer of 1969 I was at a socialist-Zionist summer camp in the Catskills, where, on July 20th, I listened to the moon landing. Well, about a month later, camp was about to wind up and we were to head back on Route 17 to NYC, but we kept hearing stories of this gigantic music festival about five miles away, that was attracting hundreds of thousands of ardent acolytes, and some of us figured, on the last night of camp, when staying up all night was more or less mandatory, that we would endeavor to check things out. So we tried, but we got no further than the far edge of the soggy mass of humanity that was Woodstock, and I don’t think we heard a single note of music.
The following day, the last day of camp and the last day of Woodstock, there was a monumental traffic jam, with all sorts of cool dudes sort of hanging out on the utterly congested highways, with the spirit of Woodstock pervading all, so that rather than road rage there was road joy, all of these people in and out of their cars. I guess Dylan’s song, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” hadn’t been released, but if it had been, it would have been what everyone was singing. I think a trip that usually took two and half hours was at least twice as long, and we loved every minute, vicariously absorbing some of the last lingering vibes of Woodstock.
But, what, as cultural commentators asked insistently at the time, and really haven’t stopped asking since, what did it all mean? Was it a rock concert, or was it a harbinger of a new way of life, the dawn of a new form of culture, or whatever? It is easy, I suppose, to mock the pretensions of the Woodstock nation, and in many ways, Woodstock was, as Debussy once said of Wagner’s Parsifal, the dusk that thought itself a dawn. Was it a utopian moment, one that passed in the very act of perceiving it?
As long as we doing an obituary thing in this post, I don’t think that Greater New York has acknowledged the passing of the great Polish philosopher Leslek Kolakowski, and I have been rereading some of his essays recently. He was a Marxist who became a very fierce one–time Marxist. His essay “the death of utopia reconsidered” is a rather scathing look at utopianism, which he saw as one of the underlying sources of corruption in the entire Marxist tradition. I think he is mistaken, along with many other writers,to view totalitarianism as a part of the utopian tradition, because any real utopianism doesn’t consist of fitting people into a preset procrustean blue print, but has nothing to be with coercion or the state. All true utopias are free standing moments of anarchy, small glimpses of human possibility and transformation.
But I agree with Kolakowski, in what he says is a useful banality. “The idea of human fraternity is disastrous as a political program but is indispensible as a guiding sign.” Like all utopias worthy of the name, what is enduring about Woodstock is its very evanescence.