|Journeying the Sixties: A Counterculture Tarot|
“…a steamy, scriptless tableau of writhing bodies, exhorting and stamping. Limbs disentangle themselves and figures leap from stage to chairs and berate the audience…Driven from their seats, most of the audience roamed the floor in confusion. Many either shake their fists at the cast or run for the exits. Others join in, kiss their neighbors, even strip off their clothes…”
--Richard Neville, editor of the British underground newspaper OZ describing a 1969 London performance of the Living Theater
However stabilizing the bright equipoise of Temperance, it cannot repress the urges that linger in the shadows. The Devil brings these immediately to life. The Devil stands as the Counterculture’s reigning compulsion, the designer of its extremes and the artistic director of its blatant temptations. In music, theater, visual art, poetry, literature, and film, the Devil’s shadowy truths were illuminated and honored by a vigorously curious post-war generation. If, as British therapist, war veteran, and writer Alan McGlashan wrote, that war is the punishment for man’s disbelief in the shadowy forces within himself, then—following the holocaust of world war—the Devil was welcomed out of the shadows and probably just in the nick of time.
What Georges Bataille described before the war as “erotism,” a curious enmeshment of sex and death that ignited life’s fundamental contradictions, became a compelling focus of Counterculture exploration. Long held taboos fell in a furious celebration of all humanity’s shadows. And the central subject of this upheaval was the human body and its hitherto repressed functions and yearnings that were now to be mapped in excruciatingly rich detail across the spectrum of expressive arts.
Literature, theater, art and film also carried The Devil’s water for the new generation’s voracious and transgressive interests. A flurry of surprising and favorable court decisions in England and the US pushed back censorship laws and allowed readers in those countries finally to own unexpurgated classics by D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover), Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn), and William Burroughs (Naked Lunch). Following years of tedious obscenity challenges, writers could confidently publish novels, stories, and essays without limiting their language to euphemisms for sex acts or profanities. Nudity, and eventually sexual portrayals in theater, art and photography became increasingly acceptable. Polemics and research into the physical and psychological issues of sexuality became more graphic and more accessible to the public. When in 1968 the US Supreme Court ruled that Americans were free to enjoy any publication or film in the privacy of their homes, the nation’s underground pornography industry became a legal, and profitable, business producing annual profits in the billions of dollars.
The brutish devil on this card, endowed with a formidable phallic prop, rages at his small 1966 Berkeley audience to abandon all taboos, to follow him as he dances out of his shadow and into ours. And if we ignore him he will, like an irascible child, purposely commit ever more outrageous acts to attract our attention. Whether they are acts of war or works of art depends largely on how far we are willing to be pushed out of paradise and, while exiting, summon our own from within.