“His disciples said to him, ‘When will the kingdom come?’
‘It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.'”
From The Gospel of Thomas
While visiting a Swiss exhibition dedicated to women’s right to vote, which here in Switzerland was granted to women on the federal level in 1971, I was fascinated to have a closer look at the tumultuous Swiss Sixties, which had paved the way to such a historic change. Without the eruption of the unconscious material, without all the chaos, madness and destruction of the 60s, we would be in a very different place now – with less personal freedom and much lower level of collective and individual awareness. In his book The Spiritual Meaning of the Sixties, Tobias Churton compares the decade to the magnificent magic show that Prospero conjures up at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is perhaps easy to dismiss the collective longing for freedom from social constraints and suffocating social roles, which characterized the 60s, as “such stuff as dreams are made on” but it is also important to note that all seismic changes start as dreams and ideas germinating in the unconscious and slowly pushing up to the light of day. The more inevitable the change is, the stronger opposition and reaction it encounters, but in the final outcome the force of human evolution is unstoppable.
Perhaps the real magic of the 60s consisted in the mythical dimension that was sparked into existence in that decade. Though I believe the mythical dimension is “spread upon the earth” for all to see, there are unique moments in time when the fabric of the universe is torn, a sort of spiritual quickening takes place and our lives become saturated with myth. This is why we tend to glamorize that decade, which is clearly visible in shows sumakes for some wonderful television such as the inimitable Mad Men.
In a scholarly study of the show (see Sources), a critic writes this about the main character:
“Don’s brilliance as an ad man and his interest as a character lie in his ability to turn matter into metaphor, objects of consumption into dreams (or here, memories), the vulgar exteriority of the commodity world into the interior realm of the psyche. Don, in short, turns surface into depth, and this alchemical quality recurs as both visual cue and narrative trope for his character throughout the show.”
There was the depth pf the psyche we collectively encountered in the Sixties. What exactly was the archetypal substratum of the decade? According to Richard Tarnas, the most important astrological alignment of the time was the conjunction of Uranus and Pluto. Oppositions and conjunctions of these planets happen only once per century. Tarnas summarizes the archetypal meaning behind these two planetary bodies in the following way:
“The planet Uranus appears to be correlated with events and biographical phenomena suggestive of an archetypal principle whose essential character is Promethean: emancipatory, rebellious, progressive and innovative, awakening, disruptive and destabilizing, unpredictable, serving to catalyze new beginnings and sudden unexpected change. The planet Pluto, by contrast, is associated with an archetypal principle whose character is Dionysian: elemental, instinctual, powerfully compelling, extreme in its intensity, arising from the depths, both libidinal and destructive, overwhelming and transformative, ever-evolving.”
When Uranus and Pluto are in axial alignment we witness “massive empowerment of revolutionary and rebellious impulses, and intensified artistic and intellectual creativity.” The two planets were in opposition in the decade of the French revolution, which shared with the sixties the strong anti-Establishment sentiments. The first Uranus Pluto conjunction of the modern era occurred between 1450-61, when Gutenberg’s printing press made history.
Throughout history, mass emotion was at its peak each time the two planets aligned. Tarnas thus summarizes the meaning of the decade while simultaneously explaining the backlash against it:
“The unmistakable cultural ambiance which pervaded the decade of the Sixties, a zeitgeist whose prevailing quality combined a mass awakening of emancipatory and creative impulses with a titanic eruption of elemental and libidinal forces, was talked about, celebrated, criticized, feared. Attempts were made to suppress it, attempts were made to sustain it indefinitely. It dominated people’s experience at the time, just as it now dominates retrospective views of that era. In a sense, the 1960s seemed to unleash the force of a great collective Oedipal impulse, catalyzing a vast wave of erotically motivated rebellion against the repressive structures of established authority.”
In September 2018 The New York Review of Books published a marvellous article related to the numinous qualities of the 1960s and the relevance of the decade to the present. Its author Jackson Lears claims that the 60s were about the “longing for a more direct, authentic experience of the world” rather then being confined to to “a hamster cage of earning and spending” on both individual and collective level with wars understood as “a product of the same corporate technostructure.” He also suggests that the members of the 60s counterculture were ridiculed and demonized by the establishment with active participation of FBI and CIA agents and the mainstream media. Trapped in the rational scientific paradigm of the era, more and more people felt starved for spiritual meaning. Richard Alpert, better known as Ram Dass, left his Harvard professorship to look for deeper meaning in the East. And so did thousands more. Ram Dass’s message of the necessity of introspection and being here now is now more relevant than ever.
It was Theodore Roszak who in the 1960s coined the term “counterculture.” Lears summarizes his message in the following way:
“At its most profound, Roszak argued, the counterculture arose from a Romantic and existentialist tradition preoccupied with sustaining authentic existence in an inauthentic society—a tradition stretching from Blake and Wordsworth to Martin Buber and Paul Goodman.”
The 60s brought about undeniable changes related to ecology, sexuality, race, feminism and personal freedom. However, it seems that the evolution promised by the magical decade has been stunted in many areas. Lears finishes in a lamenting tone:
“But the core of resistance never disappeared entirely, and the countercultural search for alternatives to technocratic rationality remains more necessary than ever. The corporate technostructure survives, increasingly deregulated, no longer even pretending to provide the job security that was available to more fortunate workers at mid-century. Police brutality toward black people has been militarized, facilitated by the use of sophisticated weapons and riot gear, while the legal rights of defendants have receded with the rise of mass incarceration. Serious debate on foreign and military policy has largely retreated to the margins of public life, experts continue to justify endless wars abroad, and our nuclear arsenal awaits a trillion-dollar modernization. Revisiting the Sixties leads to a sobering conclusion: everything has changed, and nothing has changed.”
Tobias Churton is more hopeful for the eventual dawning of the age of Aquarius:
“The Sixties was the Herald, the kerux, the main show has not yet begun but book me a seat when it does! I’m in for the ride, how about you?”
Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (e-Duke books scholarly collection.), Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert A. Rushing, Kindle edition
Tobias Churton, The Spiritual Meaning of the Sixties: The Magic, Myth and Music of the Decade that Changed the World, Inner Traditions: Rochester, Vermont 2018
Jackson Lears, “Aquarius Rising,” The New York Review of Books, September 27 2018 issue
Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, Kindle edition