Tag Archives: Jacob

TAZ

This is an extract, provided by the author, from Blame It On Blake: a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr by Jacob Rabinowitz, “a memoir of the Beat generation authors I knew, and my own explorations of Witchcraft, Egyptology, Voodoo, gender confusion and mind-altering drugs, authorized (more or less) by William Blake.” This is part two of chapter six, and is a personal narrative about the author’s acquaintance with Hermetic Library Fellow Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.

VI: Hakim Bey, continued

2: TAZ

Shaken from without as much as he was troubled from within, Peter determined to make no further payments to the immensely overpaid account of contrition for his sexual disposition. He thought out his liberation in terms of the theology and symbolism of mystical Islam. Meanwhile I was trying to think my way to reality with Nietzsche and de Sade. The really important thing we had in common was that we were both poets and were looking for a new poetic vision, one that could express what was meaningful and real in our experience, after having put vast energy into trying to live in archaizing dreams. Whether we blamed Omar Khayyám or Baudelaire, we had both been blinkered by books and wandered blind till we were well lost.

Our conversations were endless. Typically I’d be in his tiny, tobacco-cloudy room, talking to him from seven in the evening till five the next morning. It was a real intellectual romance. I’d never met anyone who knew so much, or was so willing to talk, and also to listen!

We both viewed writing as a tool for psychic exploration, and both wanted to bring it into play as we explored the new world of the physical, and now permissible, in the wake of our respective personal liberations, his from sexual repression, mine from a no less crippling cultural traditionalism, which amounted to the same thing in many ways. Even though I was getting spectacularly laid, I kept that whole side of my life entirely secret from any but my closest friends, and certainly never wrote poetry about any of it.

Peter had censored his sexuality and his drug use from his poems, and narrowed his range of permissible topics to literary and conventional ones. He gave me his book of verse, Winter Calligraphy, which greatly impressed me. I no longer have my copy to refer to, but I recall it as owing a lot to Ezra Pound and Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat Orientalism. Elegant and repressed. I had word-painted myself into a similar corner with the Baudelaireanism that had commanded my energies and for some time provided the pattern for my life.

Now, we both agreed, the only poetry worth writing was that which expressed maters so urgent, important and meaningful that we couldn’t not write it. No more pretty verses and elaborate artistry! We wanted poetry that was as powerful as pornography, and if it in fact was pornography, be it so!
Having set aside my old-fashioned notions of what was properly poetic subject mater, I wanted to do away with all the transitional, framing material that makes up a story, and have it be nothing but “the good parts.” I took as my model Ovid’s Metamorphoses, only instead of just having the characters shift shape, the setting morphed as well. Contexts dissolved and {159} transmuted as each narrative structure was annihilated by its own ever-amplifying content. The hero would be propelled from scene to scene by a series of poetic explosions. The scenes transformed, with dreamlike transitions reminiscent of Buster-Keaton, I would let the content create the form and the order.

The result was Blurred Person Singular, which I thought of as an omnisexual science-fiction epic poem and map of the world. I had meant it to be my Hamlet. It was actually more like Titus Andronicus. It had maximum sexual and violent content, by turns offensive and hilarious, though one would be hard put to say where it was going or why. The best of it was the energy and enthusiasm, the sheer puppy-play of genius released, yipping and barking and chasing its own tail.

Peter began by writing prose poetry that dealt frankly with his gay interests, and though personally significant, this was not a course he long pursued, nor the one that gained him fame under the name Hakim Bey. I will consider his poetico-political writings in some detail, but first the stage must be set.

In our forays around Manhattan Peter would stop at all the shops that carried zines. Usually these were hip music stores that, in addition to CDs and cassettes of obscure punk and indie bands, carried a small selection of books on weird sex, weird politics and weird religion, a taste exemplified by RE/Search magazine, founded by V. Vale in 1980. The writings of William Burroughs and J. G. Ballard, sado-masochism and body modification, anarchism and neo-Paganism, these were the sorts of things that interested hip, aware twenty-somethings in the eighties. Zines were tiny handmade magazines, usually three 8.5×11 xeroxed pages folded over and saddle-stitched to make a booklet, circulating in well under a thousand copies, on whatever curious topic interested the publisher. The genre had developed out of punk rock fanzines. In 1982, Mike Gunderloy began publication of Factsheet Five, which was three-sentence abstracts of all the zines people sent him, listing price and address. Factsheet Five rapidly became the nerve-center of the zine scene, which lasted through the eighties, and was done in, like the rest of independent print, by the rise of the internet.

In the early eighties, real estate was on its way to becoming the speculative commodity it is today, and Manhattan, like all the “destination cities” in America was losing its hip neighborhoods to gentrification, becoming a live-in mall for out-of-town yuppies. I had noted this peripherally. Lucien had picked up his loft on Great Jones Street, a few blocks south of Cooper Square, for a song at the end of the seventies. By the mid eighties, when UPI’s change of headquarters moved him to Washington, he sold it for a huge profit. When I applied to grad schools, I didn’t even {160} consider one in NYC. I couldn’t afford anything there except movies and cheap Cuban-Chinese restaurants. The bohemias of America were disappearing, a process that wouldn’t be completed till around 2010. But even then, forty years ago, you couldn’t just move to NYC, get a part-time job washing dishes, and live in the Village to pursue your art. You needed full work and had to share an apartment with several other people.

But the ever-less-expensive Xerox machines, which every office and most homes now had, and the US mail, which was then dead cheap and still the best in the world, made for a new bohemia by mail.
While print had been the world’s primary entertainment medium, from roughly 1850 to 1950, it had sustained a certain amount of eccentric, literary publishing on its periphery. Grove Press, City Lights and the like, who had made the success of Ginsberg and Burroughs possible. I grew up thinking that this was an institution, a necessary part of society. It was more like a colorful patch of weeds that thrives at the edge of a uniform and cultivated field, which is the actual “cash crop.” As print yielded its market share to TV, avant-garde and small press publishing got starved out, though it did survive, barely, into the nineties, on the last crumbs to fall from the shrinking mainstream table.
In the early nineties, the internet existed, but was accessible only through the old DOS shell, just lines of glowing green type, half of them code, on a dull screen. No easy interface, no mouse to click. You needed a dictionary of commands to use it, so it wasn’t much of a contender.

I watched puzzled as Peter went to those hip stores and dug through cardboard boxes stuffed with tiny, badly produced, blurry illiterate zines. I couldn’t imagine what the interest was. Peter intuited that there was something important happening there. He obviously didn’t understand that this was the last hurrah for literary print: no one did. In those days, the people involved in the zine scene imagined that it was a kind of literary of-of-Broadway, that success here could translate into a contract with a “real” publisher. But however he viewed it, he did view it, while everyone else walked on by.
Peter was buying the zines that had interesting literary and political content. He himself had done considerable reading and maintained a sincere interest in Anarchism and radical politics. Mild political dissatisfaction was the mood of the time among Generation X, the twenty-somethings of the eighties. Twenty-somethings are a particularly significant age group, because they’re old enough to be living independently, but not so old that they realize they have to settle down if they want retirement plans that don’t include suicide. They’re still open to new ideas, full of hope, willing to take risks, and can afford a few experiments and failures. Reagan had been {161} elected president, and would remain so for two terms. Classic punk was over, new wave and other derivatives were on the rise.

I was from the tail of the Baby Boom generation; I was born in 1958 when Eisenhower was president, so I was more of an observer than a participant in Generation X. My childhood was the sixties, not the seventies. From my perspective, it looks as though Gen X came up after the 1960’s party was over, to find they’d been left the fat beer and pizza crusts. The hippies had disappeared, many of them having morphed into yuppie entrepreneurs, adding an additional sting to the sense of betrayal and defrauding. The feeling of malaise expressed itself primarily by various shades of irony, typically retro fashion and mild transgression. Betty Page was in many ways the poster girl for Generation X.

They defined themselves in contrast to the hippies, generally despising the “peace and love” naiveté of their predecessors whose wide eyes (with their THC-dilated pupils) now appeared vacant and cartoonlike. There was of course a good deal of unacknowledged continuity, and the cultural interests of the eighties, sexual, political and spiritual were (in hindsight) recognizably hand-me-downs from 1960s. The enthusiasm for general sexual liberation had turned into a fascination with S&M; communal utopianism had skewed towards anarchism; far-eastern enlightenment and occultism had been replaced with “joke religions” like the Church of the Subgenius and Discordianism, which allowed one all the fun of running around in robes while giving piety a shrewd tweak.

This was the context in which Peter began writing essays, communiqués as he liked to call them, under the pen name Hakim Bey, which he mailed out to friends and the publishers of the zines he liked. Originally it was just a way of joining in the general conversation. His own preoccupations serendipitously matched the Gen X Zine scene tastes, so his mailouts were immediately popular, and regarded as copyright-free syndicated columns ready for anyone to paste into their xeroxed zine for instant cred and content.

Finding an enthusiastic audience for what were then halfway between prose poems and political manifestos, Peter plunged in, and gave them what they wanted, backpedaling the gay content and pushing the anarchism and the jocose religiosity of the Moorish Orthodox Church (of which more below). Soon he had enough for a book. I talked Peter up, and introduced him, to Bret Rutherford, who by then had moved across the Hudson to cheaper Weehauken NJ. Between my recommendation, the interest Peter’s work was starting to generate, Peter’s personal magnetism and the exotic qualities of his writing, Bret was easily persuaded to published a deluxe oversized book of Peter’s Hakim Bey screeds, hand-bound, in opulent William Morris-like style. I suggested the cover illustration, a “chaotic” form {162} sketched by Odilon Redon. Thus Chaos, The Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism first came to print. Bret viewed the whole thing as kind of a brilliant literary hoax. Pseudo-politics dressed up in nineteenth-century Orientalism, a (marijuana) smoke-and-mirrors phantasmagoria, presenting fabulous and false mystical visions tinged with gay decadence, all of it rendered nearly believable by genuine poetry and philosophy jargon shamelessly combined. Bret’s edition was a labor of humor and love: he deliberately crafted a suitably grandiose setting for this dazzling paste gem, which he regarded as a literary jape. Bret’s assessment was not incorrect, though it did not do full justice to Peter’s achievement, nor would it account for the popular success of this work, which in its expanded edition from Autonomedia, TAZ, The Temporary Autonomous Zone, was taken quite seriously by Gen X and to some extent the Millennials.

The main thing Peter pushed was Anarchism, which he made at once wider and shallower than it had ever been. He extended the definition of Anarchism to include everything from Taoism to old-time grog drinking pirates to seventeenth-century religious radicals (Ranters, Diggers) to racial and economic groups in America (like New Jersey’s “Jackson Whites”) who were so marginalized geographically and economically as to fall below the radar of societal control. And Peter defined resistance in such general terms that playing hookey from school or gold-bricking on the job ranked as revolutionary actions. It’s pretty easy to see that this would play well to white middle-class slackers, who Peter thus empowered to imagine themselves as politically engaged and as on an equal footing with fetishized minorities.

Which leads us to Peter’s Moorish Orthodox Church. This was based on the Moorish Science Temple, a fanciful African-American version of Islam founded around the turn of the century. It was a make-pretend religion, with “scriptures” borrowed from Levi Dowling’s 1908 Aquarian Gospel of Jesus, appropriated unaltered, save that every occurrence of the word “God” was replaced by “Allah,” and republished as The Circle Seven Koran. Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam arose from one of the splinter groups that formed when the Moorish Science Temple dissolved with the death of its founder, Noble Drew Ali, in 1929.

Peter had invented the Moorish Orthodox Church as a kind of private joke and pot-smoking club back in the sixties when he was at Columbia. Rents were so cheap back then that he was able to rent a storefront on the Upper West Side, which he dubbed The Moorish Science Reading Room, with facetious reference to the “reading rooms” of Christian Science. Here he and his friends burned their incense, hung their posters, smoked weed, and talked about mysticism and politics. Peter revived the Moorish Orthodox {163} Church when he became a zines celebrity, presenting it as a joke in earnest. It was a win-win-win proposition. It made fun of religion, it allowed the moral “validation” of make-believe identification with impoverished African Americans, and it was a vehicle for Peter’s insights into Islamic mysticism.

Another mater worth noting was Peter’s never-abandoned opposition to the internet. He didn’t foresee any of its actual dangers: the appropriation of private information by governments and corporations, the manipulation of news by the medium that had replaced print journalism, its role in eliminating small “brick and mortar” businesses in favor of monopolistic giants like Amazon, the death-blow it administered to literary publishing.

Peter has never operated so much as a cell phone, so his view of the internet was, in a negative sense, science fiction. He warned that the internet would further the atomization and alienation of people into discrete consumers, everyone experiencing life at second-hand through the screen. The computer age, he claimed, offered a gnostic false heaven, where even sex would be experienced without the messy complication of emotion or physical contact, an afterworld of pure image, rarefied into desire desiring itself! This prophecy bore no relationship to the facts, where the sex and shopping were realized so effectively over the internet as to replace shopping malls and pickup bars. The atomizing effect of the internet on “the social” was no more than that of the xerox machine. If we look for what destroyed the local community, we needn’t hunt further than the automobile and the speculative market in real estate. I mention Peter’s failures of prophecy here because Peter wrote about the digital age with such passionate obscurity that he was viewed by many as an authority on the age of cyberspace. Amazingly few of his admirers realized he was a luddite opponent of the digital. Difficult books, such as Peter wrote, though they may sell, aren’t usually read. Just having them makes people feel smart.

There is much in Peter’s writing that is of very substantial value. His accounts of travel through India and central Asia are mesmerizing. His writing on the mystical byways of Islam are accurate, insightful and explore in depth subjects the academics don’t dare to even discuss. His witty, sophisticated and scathing critiques of popular culture, from cop movies to food fads, are worthy of Mencken. But these things weren’t what put him on the map or gained him a decade of limited fame.
And then came the internet, covering the planet like a shallow sea. Unlike Peter, I view it as an entirely neutral tool. I believe it is our society of capitalism triumphant that has turned the Net into a global shopping mall. In the democracy of the dollar, what sells to the greatest number dominates. The result is a utopia of the utterly ordinary, producing a cultural erosion as
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dramatic as the melting of the ice-caps. The internet speeded things up, but it was old-fashioned greed and stupidity that set the agenda.

Nowadays Peter’s success would be quite unimaginable. Had Peter debut’d his writings in a blog, I doubt he would have been heard from. Today Islam, even mystical Islam, is viewed as anything but cool, and “culturally appropriating” the pathos of an African-American pseudo-religion, would surely be a non-starter. But for the slackers of the eighties, the Moorish Orthodox Church and Peter’s screeds seemed the clever expression of many an unarticulated longing.

It’s no great feat to coldly dissect it now, thirty years later, and to do so gives a misleading impression of how aware anyone, most of all Peter, was of what he was doing. I was impressed and non-plussed; his reading public was awed by the kaleidoscope of his writings. He himself was quite baffled though very pleased by his burgeoning micro-celebrity. Now let’s go back to 1981, to that tiny filled Upper West Side room with the manual typewriter and SF books and fanzines piled high on the floor, where Peter was creating Hakim Bey.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake