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On Being Busted at Fifty

Az m’lebt, m’ lebt alles,” my grandfather began telling me when he was fifty and presumably thought me old enough to understand, “if you live long enough, you live through everything.” And, I suppose, justice being as imperfectly practiced as it is in our world, one could consider getting arrested as inevitable a function of aging as getting cancer. But some people I know would have to reach 150 at least before falling afoul of the law, and others have sat in their first cell by sixteen or seventeen: so there must be some other, more specific reason why I find myself charged with a misdemeanor just past the half-century mark of my life.

Where did it all begin, I keep asking myself, where did it really start—back beyond the moment those six or eight or ten improbable cops came charging into my house, without having knocked, of course, but screaming as they came (for the record, the first of their endless lies), “We knocked! We knocked!”; and producing only five minutes later, after considerable altercation, the warrant sworn out by a homeless, lost girl on whom my wife and daughter had been wasting concern and advice for over a year. It seems to me that the actual beginning must have been, was the moment I got up before the Women’s Club (an organization of faculty wives and other females variously connected with the State University of New York at Buffalo) to speak to them of the freedom and responsibility of the teacher.

I have no record of the occasion (was it a year ago, two?), can remember no precise dates or names or faces—but I do recall the horrified hush with which my not very daring but, I hope, elegantly turned common-places were received. I spoke of the ironies of our current situation in which a broad range of political dissent is tolerated from teachers, but in which no similar latitude is granted them in expressing opinions about changing standards in respect to sex and drugs. I invoked, I think, the names of Leo Koch (fired out of the University of Illinois) and Timothy Leary (dropped from the faculty at Harvard, I reminded my ladies) and ended by insisting that the primary responsibility of the teacher is to be free, to provide a model of freedom for the young.

Needless to say, tea and cakes were served afterward, and one or two members of the Program Committee tried hard to make conversation with me as I gallantly sipped at the former and politely refused the latter. But there was a growing space around me no matter how hard they tried, a kind of opening cordon sanitaire, that kept reminding me of a picture which used to hang in my grade-school classrooms, of Cataline left alone on the benches of the Roman Senate after his exposure by Cicero. That evening there were phone calls rather drastically reinterpreting my remarks (I had it was asserted by one especially agitated source, advocated free love and “pot” for fourteen-year-olds), as well as—for the very first time—voices suggesting that maybe there was something anomalous about permitting one with my opinions to teach in the State University.

It was then, I suspect, that my departmental chairman as well as some officials in the loftier reaches of Administration began receiving hostile letters about me—not many in number, I would judge, but impassioned in tone. Still, though this constituted a kind of prelude, it all might have come to nothing had I not then accepted an invitation to speak to the High School Teachers of English in Arlington, Virginia, at the end of January of this year. It was an intelligent and responsive group to whom I tried to talk as candidly as I could about the absurdity of teaching literature, i.e., teaching a special kind of pleasure under conditions of mutual distrust and according to an outmoded curriculum.

I said many things both in my initial presentation and in response to a considerable stack of written questions about what students should be asked to read in high school (essentially, I said, mythological material from Homer to Shakespeare, and similar stuff from the twentieth century, which they themselves prefer, e.g., J. R. R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring); what they should not be asked to read (such old standards as Silas Marner and Ivanhoe, such splendid but currently irrelevant poets as Spenser and Milton, plus the stuffier verse entertainers of the nineteenth century like, say, Tennyson); and what the teachers themselves ought to be reading to have some sense of the group they are theoretically addressing (the obvious New Gurus: Buckminster Fuller, N. O. Brown, Marshall McLuhan, Timothy Leary, etc.).

A reporter for the Washington Post was present and moved enough to do a feature piece (marred by minor inaccuracies and odd conjunctions born in his mind rather than in mine) headed: COOL IT ON MILTON, TEACHERS ADVISED, which became, as the article was reprinted throughout the country: AUTHOR: STUDY LEARY, NOT MILTON. And under an even more misleading rubric (ENGLISH TEACHERS TOLD TO STUDY LEARY) the story appeared on the front page of Buffalo’s morning newspaper, a journal dedicated to scaring itself and its readers about where the modern world is going, largely—I would gather—to keep mail from the Far Right. Such readers may not ever have read either Milton or Leary, but they know which is the honorific and which the dirty word. It was at this point, at any rate, that the notion of me as a “corrupter of the young” seems to have taken hold in Western New York at least—spreading as far as the State Legislature, in which a member arose within a couple of weeks (representing as I recall the Hornell District) to ask why my presence was being tolerated in a publicly supported institution of higher learning.

I did not at first pay much attention to all this, nor to the fact that in a pamphlet on pornography, prepared by the same body of New York lawmakers, the cover of a Nudist magazine advertising the reprint of a review I had once done of that unexpectedly amusing movie, The Immoral Mr. Tease, had been given a prominent position. On the one hand, the small local furor had got lost in the overwhelming response the garbled version of what I had said in Arlington brought from all over the country—offers to publish my remarks in publications ranging from Fact to the Catholic World, invitations to run seminars for grade-school teachers, and pleas to join such organizations as America’s Rugged Individualists Spiritualistic Entity (ARISE) and the Friends of Meher Baba. On the other hand, I had come more and more to think of what I had to say about young people and where they were (all that had begun with my immensely ambivalent and much misunderstood article on “The New Mutants” in Partisan Review) as being directed not to the young at all.

To be sure, in spite of their publicly announced contempt for the opinions of the aging, those under thirty desperately desire reassurance and confirmation from those beyond that magical boundary; but it is weakness in them which makes them ask it—and I had resolved not to respond. No, it seemed to me that it was to my own peers that I had to speak, to explain, to interpret—translating for the benefit of teachers what their students were saying in an incomprehensible tongue, deciphering for parents what their children were muttering in a code they trusted their parents to break. What did I have to tell the young about themselves (about Shakespeare or Dante or even Melville and Faulkner I could talk with special authority, but that is quite another matter) which I had not learned from them? One of the things I had learned—something I might have remembered from the Apology but did not—is that the young cannot, will not, be “corrupted” or “saved” by anyone except themselves. Out of my own ambivalence, my own fear, my own hopes and misgivings before a generation more generous and desperate and religious than my own, it seemed to me I could make a kind of sense—at least what might be made to seem “sense” to those in whose definition of that term I myself had been brainwashed.

But I found an adult community more terrified than myself, more terrified even than I had then guessed, of the gap between themselves and the young; and therefore pitifully eager to find some simple explanation of it all, something with which they could deal, if not by themselves, at least with the aid of courts and cops. “Dope” was the simple explanation, the simple word they had found (meaning by “dope” the currently fashionable psychedelics, especially marijuana); and once that was licked, the gap would be closed, the misunderstandings solved, the mutual offense mitigated. For such a utopian solution, a few arrests on charges of possession and selling, a few not-quite-kosher searches and seizures would be a small enough price to pay.

MEANWHILE, however, some among the young (and a few out of the older generations as well) had begun to propagandize in favor of changing the laws against marijuana, or at least of investigating the facts with a view toward changing those laws; and this seemed to the simple-minded enemies of the young a new and even greater cause for consternation. To legalize pot would be, it appeared to them, to legalize long hair and scraggly beards for young men, new sexual mores for young women, Indian headbands and beads and incense for everyone: to sanction indiscriminate love in place of regulated aggression, hedonism in place of puritanism, the contemplative life in place of the active one. And everyone knew what that meant! At this point, the fight against marijuana with the aid of the police and strategic lies began to be transformed into a fight against the freedom of expression (though only in the case of those interested in changing the marijuana laws, to be sure) employing the same weapons.

At this point precisely—it was in March of this year—I became Faculty Adviser to LEMAR, an officially recognized student organization on the campus at Buffalo, dedicated to employing all possible legal means to make the regulations on the consumption of marijuana no more stringent than those on alcohol—and which, incidentally, asked all of its members to sign a pledge not to possess or use pot. I was asked to assume the job, I gather, in large part because I was notoriously “clean,” i.e., it was widely known that I (and my wife as well) did not and had never smoked marijuana. Though this may have been in the minds of some of the students who approached me a purely strategic reason for their choice, it seemed to me a principled reason for accepting the position. I would, given the circumstances, be able to fight for the legalization of “grass” not in order to indulge a private pleasure, but in order to extend freedom for everyone. Besides, the situation struck me as intolerable, with exactly the same discrepancy between the actual practice of a community (in this case the subsociety of those under thirty) and the laws which presumably regulated it, as had prevailed in respect to alcohol during the late Twenties.

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