When Mario Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, I was surprised to see conservative commentators giving his selection approving nods. I’d only read his entertaining, soap-opera-esque Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and hadn’t considered its politics at the time. But if his novels have conservative themes, I’d sure like to read them. So I’ve begun to progress through his oeuvre.
Somewhere in some review, I read that his characters are secondary to the socioeconomic, political backdrops of the historical events of the period in which the characters are immersed. I don’t agree that they are secondary, but the real histories do add a sense of vibrancy and tension to the stories.
In Vargas Llosa’s novel The Bad Girl, which spans several decades and countries, his protagonist Ricardo finds himself amid the hippie scene in 1960s London, and it struck me as a contrast with today:
I liked Earl’s Court very much and fell in love with its fauna. The district breathed youth, music, lives lived without caution or calculation, great doses of ingenuousness, the desire to live for the day, removed from conventional morality and values, a search for pleasure that rejected the old bourgeois myths of happiness—money, power, family, position, social success—and found it in simple, passive forms of existence: music, artificial paradises, promiscuity, and an absolute lack of interest in the other problems that were shaking society. With their tranquil, peaceable hedonism, the hippies harmed no one, and they didn’t proselytize, didn’t want to convince or recruit people they had broken with in order to live their alternative lives: they wanted to be left in peace, absorbed in their frugal egotism and their psychedelic dream.
Reading that passage, my mind fast-forwarded to New York City, lower Manhattan, 2011, and the swarm of wannabe hippies at the Occupy Wall Street “protest,” proselytizing utter ignorance about the financial system and the economy, demanding handouts, defecating in the doorsteps of the surrounding good citizens, and drumming incessantly, noisily keeping the neighborhood children awake all night and distracted in school all day.
If only these hipsters “wanted to be left in peace, absorbed in their frugal egotism and their psychedelic dream.” But that’s the difference between these hipsters and old-school hippies. These people also reject conventional morality and values—but only because it’s too hard. They want stuff that others have, but don’t want to work for it, don’t want to start at the bottom and climb as they build experience and skill. They want the bourgeois money, power, position, social success; they just don’t see the need to earn it. It’s simply unfair if others have it, so they’re gonna pout and stamp their feet about it, and tweet their outrage from their iPads.
Another Vargas Llosa description pointed out, however, that the types of people drawn to 1960s London hippieville and 2011 NYC hipsterville are essentially the same:
Many hippies, perhaps the majority, came from the middle or upper class, and their rebellion was familial, directed against the well-regulated lives of their parents and what they considered the hypocrisy of puritanical customs and social façades behind which they hid their egotism, insular spirit, and lack of imagination. Their pacifism, naturism, vegetarianism, their eager search for a spiritual life that would give transcendence to their rejection of a materialist world corroded by class, social, and sexual prejudices, a world they wanted nothing to do with—this was sympathetic. But all of it was anarchic, thoughtless, without a center or direction, even without ideas, because the hippies—at least the ones I knew and observed up close—though they claimed to identify with the poetry of the beatniks (Allen Ginsberg gave a reading of his poems in Trafalgar Square in which he sang and performed Indian dances, and thousands of young people attended), in fact read very little or nothing at all. Their philosophy wasn’t based on thought and reason but on sentiment, on feeling.
All that dopey folly was tolerable enough, by virtue of being so inane it could be ignored. However, it came with a very dark side back then:
One morning I was in Juan’s pied-à-terre, dedicated to the prosaic task of ironing some shirts and undershorts I had just washed in the Earl’s Court Laundromat, when someone rang the doorbell. I opened and saw half a dozen boys with shaved heads, commando boots, short trousers, leather jackets with a military cut, some wearing crosses and combat medals on their chests. They asked about the Swag and Tails pub, which was just around the corner. They were the first skinheads I had seen. After that, these gangs would appear in the neighborhood from time to time, sometimes armed with clubs, and the benign hippies who spread their blankets on the sidewalks to sell handcrafted trinkets had to run, some with their babies in their arms, because the skinheads professed an obstinate hatred for them. It wasn’t only hatred for the way they lived but also class hatred, because these hoodlums, playing at being SS, came from working-class and marginal areas and embodied their own kind of rebellion. They became the shock troops of a tiny party, the racist National Front, which demanded the expulsion of blacks from England. Their idol was Enoch Powell, a conservative parliamentarian who, in a speech that caused an uproar, had prophesied in an apocalyptic manner that “rivers of blood would run in Great Britain” if there wasn’t a halt to immigration. The appearance of the skinheads had created a certain tension, and there were some acts of violence in the district, but they were isolated….
Is the reemergence of a skinhead movement likely to occur in 21st-century America with the Democratic Party and President Obama’s constant stoking of class warfare? Our top levels of government and media and entertainment now tell people they should look to scapegoat others for their lack of success instead of picking themselves up and attempting to succeed on their own. I fear this will not end well.
A revival of skinheads is only one group to worry about. The organizers and propellers of Occupy Wall Street are not dopey hippies. They are hard-core Marxists, communists, socials, anarchists. They don’t want to be left alone. They want to coopt our American way of life, our American dream. They want to finish the job that Barack Obama has so successfully begun. They don’t intend to fade away peacefully in a haze of pot smoke.
The neighborhood had filled with small cafes, vegetarian restaurants and houses where all the varieties of Indian tea were offered, staffed by hippie girls and boys who prepared the perfumed infusions in front of the patron. The hippies’ scorn for the industrial world had led them to revive handicrafts of every kind and to mythologize manual labor: they wove bags and made sandals, earrings, necklaces, tunics, headscarves, and pendants.
I’ll take hippies over hipsters and union thugs. We’ll know they’re winning the battle for control over Occupy Wall Street if there starts being more tables selling macrame potholders and tie-dye t-shirts than copies of the Daily Worker and the Communist Manifesto.