Thursday, February 07, 2013

Flowers in the Dustbin by James Miller (Book Review)

This book raises the question of the relationship of rock and roll to American values. Does it represent the zenith or the nadir of American culture? Miller tends to portray rock and roll as “all about disorder, aggression, and sex: a fantasy of human nature running wild to a savage beat.” (Miller, 88) Miller contends that what was unruly was not rock and roll as a cultural form, but rather the central fantasy it was exploiting. . .the fantasy of renouncing the pleasures of the mind for the pleasures of the body. (Miller, 336, 51) In the nineteenth century technology exalted human reason, but by the end of the twentieth century technologies had become so complex and inhuman that they made a mockery of the individual. The creation of the atomic bomb made technology terrifying without being uplifting. Miller hypothesizes that rock and roll represented a youth movement impulse to seek “redemption through Dionysian revelry.” (Miller, 354)

Miller’s view could be accused of lacking historical perspective. One could argue that rock and roll, with its anti-establishment impulses, represents nothing more than the most recent example of the long debate over the nature of freedom in America. For example, Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne and other nineteenth century writers perceived “the opposing forces of civilization and nature” in American culture. One of the traditional exemplars of American freedom has always been the rugged individual on the fringes of society (e.g. the lone hunter of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, Natty Bumpo) who finds fulfillment in the wilderness free from any compulsion exercised by a superior authority. The wilderness allowed the individual to “step out of ordinary time and into the sacred time of an eternal present.” In this view, man finds highest freedom as he steps “out of historical time into the eternal now” (David Nye, American Technological Sublime,25). This sounds very much like the drug culture of the 1960s that was bent on changing American life and creating a new way of being through drugs and “psychedelic music that expands your consciousness.” The rugged individual reappears in a new guise, as a psychedelic musician, but continues to reflect Jean Jacques Rousseau’s notion of the “noble savage”, finding freedom in a state of nature, uncorrupted by society.

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