“Theatrics” During the Vietnam War

Allen Ginsberg on William Blake continues

AG: “That the Poetic Genius is the true Man. and that the body or outward form of Man is dervied from the Poetic Genius” (William Blake) –  “…it’s just a very simple point that he’s saying, (which) is that anything, any life lived, is lived according to the interpretation of the guy who’s living.  In that sense, “Poetic Genius”.  In that sense, poetic.  Poesis is making.  Actually “poet” means “maker”, interestingly enough. The root, etymologically, of “poetry” is “making”.  So, it’s like the universe is what we make up.  So Blake is pointing that characteristic out.”

In the ‘Sixties everybody understood it in another way.  Let me put it in a slightly other, more vulgar, way.   In the ”Sixties, Abbie Hoffman said, “You have a right to shout ‘Theater!’ at a crowded fire.”  He’s talking about the Vietnam War.  Or he’s talking about the political conventions.  “We have the right to shout ‘Theater!’ at a crowded fire”; reversing the old saw “You have no right to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre.”  You have the right to shout ‘Theatre!’ at a crowded fire.”  And what he was saying is that crowded fire – the Vietnam War  – was the product of the interpretation and imagination or Poetic Genius of the collaborators of John Foster Dulles and others, who conceived of the world as a great terrible sinful area of fight between good and evil and evil was the Red Chinese and good was us capitalist Christian Democrats, and we had to encircle and contain China.  And part of the encirclement and containment of China it was necesssary to have governments friendly to us surrounding China, and so as part of that, when the French left Vietnam and Indochina in 1954, and there were Geneva agreements about the French leaving, we didn’t sign the Geneva convention because we thought that the Communists might take over, and so we put in our own puppet there to contain China, President (Ngo Dinh) Diem. And then we sent hundreds of thousands of people there until it got to be millions of people going back and forth to Vietnam, all to contain China because they were afraid that Vietnam, if it fell to the Commies, would then be allied with China, and they would both fight the United States.  Well, actually, that was all just his imagination.  As it turned out, Vietnam was allied with Russia and would be part of the fight against China.  But Dulles imagined it all wrong, but that was his poem. Sort of a bad poem.  But on the basis of that imagination, he convinced Eisenhower or he convinced whoever he had to convince just by language, talking, late at night over drinks, talking hypnosis: He convinced all his friends that this was really important, and they got together and convinced all the newspaper editors and then they had lunch with Henry Luce, and they all collaborated with their imaginations until they created this big containment policy, in which one of the important things was if you’re not with us you’re against us. If you’re not on our side, it means that you’re enemy, which they laid on (Norodom) Sihanouk, which was a projection of their part.  They thought that he was enemy because he didn’t support them and so the CIA constantly attacked Sihanouk and finally caused him to fall and replaced him with our own puppet government which we imagined would support us, but then nobody liked them, and then they fell, and a worse government came in, and so the whole Cambodian scene degenerated into warring factions and bloodbathing, all because Dulles imagined that Sihanouk was a bad guy because he used to write letters to Time magazine differing with their interpreation of “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”  It’s just about on that level.

But what I’m pointing out is the entire creation of the Cold War, or its exfoliation and conduct, is a product of language – people thinking thoughts, interpreting reality in language – and that’s no different from poetry.  So it’s just another form of poesis  – of language-making –  of thought-forms acting on thought-forms, solidifying thought-forms.

[Abbie Hoffman being arrested in Chicago, in 1968]

And that came to poetic climax in 1968, in Chicago, I think, when the Old Left, which had been relatively materialistic and heavy-handed and thought that everything was run by automatic rules and dialectical moves of material history of which nobody had any choice, that there was no spiritual element involved or no poetic element involved (met) a kind of psychedelic breakthrough in the “Sixties, and everybody realized that the great questions of war, politics or peace were all theatre, actually.  It was like (President Lyndon) Johnson‘s poem versus David Dellinger‘s poem or Robert Lowell’s poem.  But it was all made up, it was all theatre, as it were.  And the notion of theatre Happening, the notion of politics, the notion of theatre going into “Happening”, into the idea of, you don’t have to have a plot but with a living theatre you can go out in the street and communicate with people, maybe make a circle and do communal chanting and “ah“-ing, or burn a flag – that was a “Happening”, that was a political “Happening” –  but at the same time it was theatre.

Do you remember that notion?  Is everybody familiar with that notion of theatre as “Happening”? But then once it got to be “Happening”, then everybody realized, “Well, what is a political convention but a controlled, schemed, orchestrated “Happening” in which you have scriptwriters, to write the speeches, you have lighting experts, you have music bands, you have background music, you have sound systems, you have decor, you have the entire apparatus of theatre?”  And by the time the convention of 1968 came about in Chicago, it was (a) one hundred percent realization that it was all theatre – a theatre written and sort of directed.   The director of the theatre was L.B.J., way back in Texas, whose governer had control of the sound system,  way, way up there in controlling the sound system, and choosing whose speech would be next.  So it was like a John Cage theatre with a certain amount of chance involved. There was a script for the Republican Convention that year that covered every single speech and every single statement, so it was all actors getting up and reading the script.  So there was actually no difference between theatre and politics -theatre and (the) political convention.  And the hip minds of that day began judging public figures by how they behaved as actors, so to speak.  How was their act?  Were they making it with their act or was their act a drag?  Were they actually with it, to some extent, or were they so consumed or identified with their ego-role, in the acting, that they were acting blind, so to speak?  Or were they realizing, slightly impersonally, that the roles that they were playing were just roles? – or were they getting their roles confused with apocalyptic intensity and obsession?  And it seemed apparent that some people, like  (Richard) Nixon or, formerly,  (John Foster) Dulles, got their roles confused and were involved with total obsession.  It was like an apocalyptic theatre, more like (Antonin) Artaud than anything else. And Artaud’s notions of “The Theatre and Its Double” –  the theatre as actually life itself, or life as a theatre, or theatre as life, a theatre identical with life or the poetics and art of that era (“Action Painting”) –  that the thought was identical with the poem, or the poem was identical with the thought, and that you didn’t go back and revise the thought because the actual thought was it. Or my image of the artwork – of the jumper between crevasses, being that one “Happening” – an artwork –  The jumping between crevasses as an artwork.  That was my automatic association before, for a mountain climber…

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