Years after the 1960s had blessedly passed, novelist Tom Wolfe, that great chronicler of the American Scene, recalled how the hippie movement, inchoate and zoned-out as it may have been, wanted to redo Western civilization by “starting from zero.” That meant, of course, sweeping away all folkways, customs, traditions, and even such societal restraints as not sharing toothbrushes, bed clothes — or each other.
In a seminal December 1987 essay for The American Spectator titled “The Great Relearning,” Mr. Wolfe recalled Ken Kesey’s organizing a pilgrimage to Stonehenge — which the anti-establishment gadfly viewed as “civilization’s point zero” — to begin the process. Civilization resisted. The forces of nature were none too kind to Mr. Kesey and his scattered ilk. Hippie havens, particularly those in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, soon became laden with diseases so basic they knew no Latin names. Instead, they were known merely as the mange, the rot, the grunge, the thrush, and the itch. Eventually, a desire for simple hygiene returned, though the learning curve was noted to be steep.
Hence, these questions: Given our current predilections — though not on matters quite so elementary as hygienic habits — are we, as a nation and a society, in for a similar reawakening? Do we, less than 50 years removed from Haight-Ashbury, face a “great relearning” of the sort perennially required after Kipling’s “Gods of the Copybook Headings” in “terror and slaughter return”?
We could be.
Whether it is Tom Wolfe writing about the hippies of San Francisco or Kipling pondering a more generalized — and oft-repeated — descent of man, the premise is the same: Wisdom accumulates over time, habit yields to custom which yields to tradition, and certain truths become so universal they are best not violated ... though civilizations down through the eras continue to do so — that is, until a “great relearning” kicks into gear.
America’s current “violations,” which some people for some reason construe as “progress,” are myriad. As is often the case, they are the product of unfathomed success and great material comfort, to which any society can easily become accustomed. Americans — like the Greeks and Romans and British before them — have apparently concluded nothing can impede the march of Progress. Not even profligacy or license — or, more accurately, licentiousness.
But as Kipling observed, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” never leave our sides. The truths they espouse in those “headings” are eternal. They “limp up to explain it once more.” To wit:
“In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
“By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
“But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
“And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: ‘If you don’t work you die.’”
Wisdom in this age of the “fiscal cliff”? You bet. Because the bill, sooner or later, always comes due, particularly for civilizations so hubristic as to ignore Shakespeare’s admonition: What is past is prologue. Again, Kipling:
“As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
“There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
“That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
“And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
“And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
“When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
“As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
“The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!”
Only then, it seems, can the “great relearning” begin. Lessons eagerly dispensed by those ubiquitous “gods.”