Buddha on the road, Steve! Get’im!
BONUS POST: Thanks to Markku Tuovinen and his April pledge at the Doctor Xaos Patreon! Two Steves actually, one named Englehart and one named Strange, and one was writing the other, but sometimes, I’m not entirely sure which way that ran.
Shall I introduce you to some interacting influences of the 1970s? I shall. Any resemblance to
me in my pre- to mid-teens persons living or dead is probably accurate.
If you don’t recall from prior posts, I was born in 1964 and grew up on the California coast, briefly in San Diego and mostly on the Monterey Peninsula. My family background is both career military and rather hard-core counterculture, and this location, at this time, was a melting pot for both. It was not as visible or developed as it would become in the 1980s. If it matters to you, my ethnic background is Scots-Irish by way of Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl (hence the “Edwards”) + French by way of New Orleans + Basque by way of Mexico (hence the “Yzaguirre”). For a little more perspective, my mom was born in 1931, my dad in 1926, and my stepfather in 1918. So I was dealing with two generations, my parents who were all three Depression-era and had knowledgeable memory of WWII, and my older siblings, who are all classic baby boomers (oldest born 1949, youngest besides me born 1955).
So, three intertwined things I know a lot about.
1. Lysergic acid diethylamide, i.e. LSD, usually consumed in pill form (“microdot”). I’m talking about it as a perceived means of personal transformation, with Leary’s media grandstanding and imprisonment being the most visible version, but the fact is that Leary was kind of a boring asshole, and the idea was way more prevalent in a more recreational and intellectually syncretic version. The comparatively festive analysis in The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience was far more favored. I don’t need to speculate about the most energetic writers at Marvel in the early 70s, who have been frank about their habits along these lines: McGregor, Starlin, Englehart, and others (although not Gerber, which doesn’t surprise me) were enthusiastic trippers, given to running around odd parts of Manhattan together, story-conferencing and speculating about the cosmos.
It’s culturally and scientifically pathetic that we have so little knowledge about the way this stuff works. Is it a serotonin analogue? Does it stimulate or block that neurotransmitter? Seriously, people, nothing known? It’s also fascinating in this present day of musing over religiosity as an identifiable behavior, that this substance consistently produces a conviction, however brief, that one is tuned in to a metaphysical level of meaning about reality. Not as evidence that such meaning exists, but rather, that this strong conviction is a neurological phenomenon.
There’s a bit of personal history there for me. (cough) I might as well confess that if LSD weren’t so long a ride, if it didn’t rag you out so bad for a day or two afterward, and if it were more standardized so you didn’t have to wonder just what the hell was in this one, it’d be my routine recreational substance of choice. I ran around Chicago just like the described activity a bunch of times – the first, we peaked in the Lincoln Park Zoo reptile house, which
has everything can’t possibly have anything to do with my love for snakey women in comics and pulp fantasy. I can’t say for sure, but I’m reasonably certain that I’d been slipped a dose or two as a kid by unscrupulous teens – the later experiences were extremely familiar and non-frightening. Also, the aforementioned book was on my parents’ shelf.
2. Encounter, or encounter therapy, the general name for the onset of gestalt and other group therapy methods which sought, instead of making a deviant individual conform, to encourage a conforming but miserable individual to change-up their life entirely, in a manner to be discovered via the therapy itself. “Correcting a pathology” wasn’t the point, but rather that such a personal investigation/challenge was a good thing to do and anyone could do it, or more accurately, everyone should do it. Terminology like “blocked” and “breakthrough” come right out of these techniques, presuming that the ordinary state is not especially happy or functional, and thus “ordinary” and “normal” are not safely assumed to be healthy.
I know Thomas had done some EST, and a bunch of the others must have been into it or similar: early and mid-70s Marvel prose was riddled, absolutely stuffed with the characteristic phrases, personalities, and shifts in personal lives associated with this movement. There was no shortage available: Transactional Analysis, primal therapy (see left), the Synanon Game, EST itself (“be here now!”), active listening, geez, I’m having flashbacks already. Yes, some of it could be very physical, whether massage, rolfing (oww), acting stuff out, outdoors like hiking … collectively called “bodywork.”
My family had been rearranged to some extent within the encounter culture, in which … let’s see, this would be at Esalen I believe … OK, in 1968-1969, couple 1 split up and the woman married the therapist, and couple 2 split up and the woman married the man from couple 1. Each couple had previously had three kids, and of the six, I’m the youngest (four years old at the time). Both men in the couples happened to bear the surname “Edwards.” Lots of issues of the day and personal problems were involved, but keep in mind, this was when you were still expected to “sue for divorce,” and to their credit, no one did. My stepfather, who’d been an industrial chemist, changed his career to become the mental health supervisor of San Benito county, at Hollister. He ran gestalt therapy sessions as well, at home. So I grew up with this in some detail. My contact with Synanon and the Game can wait for another post.
3. The messy precursor literature to New Age mysticism, for which I must mention Carlos Castaneda’s extremely fictional “non-fiction,” but I’ll focus here on the subset couched in groovy eastern hoo-ha, which to be fair, is at least ethically upgraded from ching-chong orientalist hoo-ha. You got your California Zen, your Buddhism with Zen, your Buddhism without Zen, your Ba’Hai, your yoga, your Tibetan Book of the Dead, your Transcendental Meditation (“tm” in more ways than one), your Taoism, a whole lotta talk about karma, and then there was the range of Christian revivalism that wasn’t right-wing, the “hippie Jesus” notion that’s slipped down the memory hole, and which identified Jesus-talk with eastern roots. Everyone, but everyone, knew his or her Zodiac sign and its rising sign; it was ordinary conversational material. I fully grant that nearly-all or all of this was only dubiously connected to its source material, and that it’s responsible for reducing the word “spiritual” to a brand, but some of it was at least interesting and provocative, unlike such unfortunately widely-read horse shit as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, thank you.
The reason I said precursor above is that this wasn’t about joining any specific group or adopting any designated faith or belief system, but rather the notion that everyone was currently arriving at one’s own personal blend. Coastal California is a chatty place and according to everyone else, has a bad case of TMI, and this reputation probably comes from this time of everyone happily explaining to anyone how they “really respect” Jesus and think he was “very Zen” in some ways. Or whatever. The point is that you blend it up yourself. I got going on this as a teenager, as part of entering the adult culture, but by age 17 or so, both my inclinations and the culture itself hit a point where I realized I was genuinely uninterested. Not after giving it a good try, though.
Now put’em all together, which is exactly what those guys in the 1970-71 bullpen were doing along with everyone else in their demographic. Especially Mr. Englehart. In all those comics I inherited, he was hands-down my writer of choice, and as I started buying comics was still on the Avengers. I’m betting I could go back and identify precisely which mix of substances, reading matter, and therapeutic practice was current for each of his major storylines. But don’t get the wrong idea, this is no “stupid hippies” bashing post. For one thing, a bucketload of useful concepts from all three of the above influences entered the larger culture with the serial numbers scrubbed off, which you, dear reader, use every day. For another, artistically, it generated highly individual, political, creative, and thoughtful work.
Englehart took over the Doctor Strange stories first in Marvel Premiere 9-14 with Frank Brunner, and then for the first five issues of the character’s own title, with Gene Colan. I had the whole thing, and that panel I led with ranks with Adam Warlock’s death in shaping my young mind. It helped that Kopp’s book was right there on my parents’ bookshelf (along with William Hinton’s Fanshen and Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, you get the idea about this bookshelf by now, I trust), and I’ll read anything within reach, then even more so than now. I doubt I delved directly into this one before my teens, but still, the thesis was a topic of conversation in our household more than once and I know I picked it up early. It was an extremely widely-read book – if Englehart never read it, the ideas were clearly important to him by whatever means of exposure.
In a nutshell, the point of the book is not to subordinate yourself to a teacher, even when you are entrusting him or her with personal interior change, or with the path your future may take. The “entrust” is only a phase; it ultimately must become “listen,” and finally, the student is no longer a student when he or she simply judges the issue without relying on the teacher’s approval. Put extremely as in the title, if you were to embrace another person as a truly infallible guide, as more important and significant than other people, then in psychological terms you are a hell of a lot better off killing him than running to kneel at his feet, as by subordinating yourself that way, you’re automatically destroying your own development and your own future. The book is written toward both patient and therapist, in the latter case in hopes that he or she does not expect such subordination or veneration from patients, and can head it off as a very real vocational hazard.
Geek reference, from Babylon 5:
- Religious nut: “I have traveled [umpty-ump] light-years to kneel at your feet!”
- G’Kar (exasperated): “There is nothing you can learn from my feet.”
The book’s pretty harsh in a number of its points – a feature of this body of writing which isn’t retained in the slick, manipulative corresponding literature of today.
So finally, what’s going on in the story, specifically Marvel Premiere #10? As if you didn’t know.
Cthulhu Shuma-Gorath lives in the Ancient One’s mind and is about to devour the cosmos or something, and the obvious solution is to cosmically-consciously locate the Ancient One’s ego and eliminate it, closing the gate. You know how there’s supposed to be this whole thing in comics about “do I save society or save my girlfriend?” Yeah, Strange agonizes just long enough to let us know this is going on, and then kills his mentor to death.
Granted, the Ancient One ascends to a completely abstract and “in everything of everything” state of being, but really, the person is dead and gone. Strange did kill him. And Strange is now acknowledged by the aforementioned “everything” as the Sorcerer Supreme. Don’t misunderstand: this isn’t Klingon promotion by murder. This is pure Kopp, that it is not good for Strange, and was not ever good for him, to call the Ancient One “master” in any sense but a title, to be forever rescuing him or being rescued by him, to define himself as perpetually the receiver of wisdom, and to elevate his teacher to an infallible and sacred font of wisdom. Strange makes the decision alone, responsible for it, choosing what to do. Throughout the story to this point, Shuma-Gorath has effectively, repeatedly asked him throughout this story, “is it worth it to you to lose [X] to defeat me,” where X is Clea, or whoever or whatever. Here, the chaos-god finally puts at risk Strange’s whole structure for being a “master of the mystic arts,” which is to say, being the student of the Ancient One – really, his whole identity and definition as a title character all the way back to 1963. “Is defeating me worth even that to you?” And Strange answers, yet again, yes, it is. This isn’t merely pragmatic, it’s transformative. If he perceives his teacher as The Master, as the Buddha, as guru in any elevated sense – as opposed to merely being a fellow man who knows some stuff and can teach it by example – then he’s forever a caricature … a cartoon … dare I say, merely a comic book character.
Tripping + encounter + eastern mystic hoo-ha may not be actually profound, but it was pretty potent artistic stuff. I’m ambivalent about the cultural loss of that particular three-way, unstructured mix. I am definitely not ambivalent that only scattered and generally crap bits remain, as with the scary self-help industry which does a lot of harm now, with its hyper-commercialized and self-absorbed mystic nonsense published in truckloads. Or a few inarticulate bits cobbled together and dressed up with light-sabres.
The most obviously missing component, psychedelics, continued to show up for a while in Marvel material, if less explicitly (that was in Eclipse!), but by the 80s they were a much less romantic topic, such as getting weaponized in this example:
Links: Steve Englehart’s site, Enter the story
Next: All about the pie
Posted on April 7, 2015, in Heroics, The 70s me, Vulgar speculation and tagged Ancient One, Babylon 5, Carlos Castaneda, cosmic zap, Doctor Strange, encounter therapy, EST, Frank Brunner, G'Kar, Gene Colan, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road Kill Him, LSD, Marvel Premiere, Sheldon B. Kopp, snake fetish, Steve Englehart, Synanon Game, The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, Timothy Leary, Transactional Analysis. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.
One important reference point here, touching on several of these same cultural topics, is Philip K. Dick’s novel VALIS, which is partially about how all of this shit didn’t really work too well when you were having an actual no-foolin’, what-do-I-do-now psychotic break/religious experience. Without giving the plot away, it’s got its own kill-the-Buddha moment toward the end. It’s by far my favorite book of his, and triggered some a weird psychotic break/religious experience of my own when I first read it.
(You cannot imagine how devastated I was to finally see The Man Who Fell to Earth, which is a plot point in that novel, because seriously, WTF.)
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Good call for both of those novels. It probably won’t surprise you that I’d read a dozen Ellison books by age 13.
Not that it *really* matters, but – how do we get from VALIS and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” to Ellison? What connection am I missing?
A rare moment of disconnect between us. My only response, after hours of thought, is, “How can you not?” which unfortunately sounds snarky. I don’t mean it that way. Let’s log this one for future investigation as the blog forges into related material.
Nice essay. A little younger (’68) and much farther removed from the center (Juneau, AK) I remember a similar mix from that era of exposure to different spiritual and religious beliefs, as well as various self-help approaches people were trying. While today, I am quite the disbeliever in most of it, I do think there was something better about an era where many people were asking the big questions that few even contemplate today. As to Dr. Strange, I only had limited exposure (spotty AK distribution) but, every issue I did read had something to it that no other comic then had, nor today. For some reason, the closest I ever got to the Dr. Strange feel was reading Rudy Rucker (in his psychedelic mode) and reading the Whole Earth Catalog (for some reason).
Also, which Ellison are you referring to in your response to the previous comment?
Harlan! I even gave my eighth-grade English teacher a copy of Strange Wine in hopes she’d jazz up the curriculum a little. The 80s would alter, or at least diminish my commitment to this author, but the 70s me felt very strongly about him. In case you didn’t know, Ellison was Synanon-trained in the early 60s and the famous Babylon 5 episode in which Jack the Ripper puts De’Lenn through some heavy therapy is nothing more nor less than a classic Game. H’m … I’m going to have to blog about that stuff sooner or later, aren’t I?
Ah-ha! I thought it must be Harlan (could it possibly be Ralf?)! But, I couldn’t make the connection to Synanon. Yes, Harlan, was huge to me then as well. I can’t remember which teacher it was but, I tried a similar gambit with Deathbird Stories. She just gave me a lot of weird looks later and kept pushing Faulkner on me.
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Continuing the “Meanwhile, on another non-CounterCulture coast” theme of my comments:
1) My mom is reading those Carlos Castaneda books, which become the closest pre-college me gets to psychoactive drugs and mysticism. I’m still not sure why, how or in what context reading those books made sense to my mom’s life. I guess … “it was the 70’s”? Also, I’m not sure why I think this – some sort of reading group my mom went to? – maybe feminism. Given what I understand of Castaneda’s last decade-ish of life, that’d be some irony.
2) One of my (a bit older) main D&D buddies had read/was reading these comic books Ron talks about, roughly when Ron is reading them. After moving to Silicon Valley in the late 80’s, he becomes quite involved with the Forum, follow-on to est. It had never before occurred to me to connect that in any way. I mean, I wouldn’t want to OVER connect, either, but still interesting.
3) “Hippie Jesus.” S’truth. The most potsmoke-filled room I was ever in in High School was also filled with Hippie Jesus devotees.
4) Do not doubt Ron on the ongoing relevance, artistic usefulness and connections. Not just comics – I have some personal experience that what they call the “Disney Renaissance” owes some credit to what Ron’s talking about here. It’s bizarre that *I* should know this, but – so it goes.
5) Less consequential, but also in the “bizarre” category … in the late 90’s, I end up working for/with the son of the guy who wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Interesting dude, with (as I recall) decidedly less than 100% flattering memories of his dad’s “fame”.
I guess I’m imagining this provides some pan-American, beyond Central Coast California context for the relevance of what Ron’s talking about, but … if not, it gives no-comics ME a context to read along with Ron.
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Interesting! I ended up getting into Casteneda at 16, mostly because it was mentioned in the WW Mage RPG.
Although the drug induced spirit journeys didn’t seem very appealing to me, the idea of “You never know when you’re going to die, so try not to live your life feeling crappy and full of regret” hits dead on for my situation at the time – both parents are deeply alcoholic, friends are all ex-Crips, we’ve hit the 1990s second generation of drug wars, and none of us really know if we’re going to see tomorrow.
We all ended up reading and trying to learn about a lot of spirituality, partially because the existing religious groups didn’t really have a place for us, partially as diaspora kids who didn’t fit cultural expectations, partially out of desperation in those circumstances, and of course, the naivete you have as youth. Although that meant we ended up reading a lot of that new age stuff, and conspiracy theory stuff, nothing really stuck for long because none of it really had practical anything to serve our survival – a lot of it was short term crutches or plain sense repackaged.
At the same time, we’re all avid comic book geeks, and roleplayers. The idea of escapism was a huge thing. Roleplaying was a way to make stories with people like us in it, given that media was absent of folks of color much less marginal folks in ways that weren’t horrific stereotypes.
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The Doctor Strange run, Marvel Premiere #9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 into Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts #1, 2, 3, 4, 5 was CO-WRITTEN by Frank Brunner. Please update accordingly. 🙂
Nothing in my post says otherwise. I used the general term “with” for both of the artists I mentioned, which includes the full range of possible interactions.
I’m all for helpful corrections. This wasn’t one of them.
If you comment at the blog again, please provide some evidence you actually read the post and have something substantial to say about the topic. More editorial drive-bys will be junked.
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