Not long ago, as I was shuffling my way through the local used bookshop, I saw a pristine copy of the November 1968 issue of Evergreen Review. William Burroughs! Céline! Nat Hentoff before he slid rightwards! The Chicago police riot! Something called “Tania: Ché’s Woman in Bolivia,” for which the only appropriate response is to shout “how was this not turned into a movie with Dennis Hopper in heavy makeup and Jane Fonda with a brunette dye-job?” And speaking of Jane Fonda: an ad for Barbarella on the back. Hell yes I bought it. For a fiver, too.
Reading around in the thing—the articles and letters, but also all the ads and paratext—made one thing absolutely clear to me: the revolution was eroticized. I mean, half of the ads for books are for sex-themed reading, the ad for the Village Voice is a kind of callipygian parade, and you’ll see headings like “How about those kookie nudists?” Of course it’s nothing new to note that the revolution that stuck, from those heady days of wide bandwidth rebellion, was the sexual revolution. It is striking, though, to see how hooked into other forms of rebellion it was. Revolution—the word, the concept, the display on the street.
What’s amazing about this element of the 1960s is how it sits vis-a-vis some of what that great guru of the sixties, Herbert Marcuse, had to say in One-Dimensional Man. One of his better inventions was the notion of repressive desublimation. One element of the theory of repressive desublimation takes the form of a contention about libidinal energy. Once upon a time, when we were all jammed up Victorians in tight corsets and high collars, goes the story, we couldn’t simply follow our erotic urges, so we attached them to higher ideals of one kind or another. Think Tristan and Isolde yearning for one another—the idea of erotic fulfillment becomes attached to something grand, something set in an imagined historical elsewhere, where passions are immense, where actions are significant, where we are heroic. It’s all very Madame Bovary, isn’t it—this sense of a better literary elsewhere as criticism of this world, and of that elsewhere being charged with eros? (Bovary is, in fact, one of Marcuse’s examples). From our perspective, of course, this kind of celebration of tragic and romantic love, “appears,” as Marcuse said, “to be the ideal of a backward stage” of development. Good riddance to whalebone corsets and virginity-until-marriage!
But wait. That better or idealized world we’d suffused with eros functions as a kind of critique of the world we live in: Marcuse calls it “The Great Refusal”—and it’s desirable, juiced up, because we’ve made it the sexy place. It’s where our sublimated sexual energies went. When we stop sublimating, and decouple the erotic from the ideal, those other worlds lose their drawing power, and we miss the force of their implicit critique of our own world. Instead, we all just fuck—or, as Marcuse put it, we find our satisfactions “rigidly reduced” to “a localization and contraction of libido, the reduction of erotic to sexual experience and satisfaction.” We’re not freer and more happy than those Victorians who sublimated their erotic energy into dreams of other, better worlds. “The Pleasure principle,” Marcuse writes, “is reduced—deprived of the claims which are irreconcilable with the established society. Pleasure, thus adjusted, generates submission.” And that’s why desublimation—which sounds so liberating—is, in Marcuse’s view, repressive.
So what to make of the attachment of eros to the idea of social and political revolution, as we see it in the Evergreen Review? What to make of Tania, Ché’s woman in Bolivia? It’s a remarkable combination of desublimated eroticism, and an attachment of the erotic to an ideal that refuses the world as it is. Some of it, of course, is just marketing: there’s that ad for Barbarella to consider. And the overwhelming majority of it, in the November 1968 Evergreen Review, caters to heterosexual men, and doesn’t seem to have any second thoughts about the male gaze and the objectification of women and a host of other things we have—slowly, falteringly, inadequately—begun to criticize. But it’s also something that seems to have smashed Marcuse’s binary of a liberating sublimation and a repressive desublimation.
It’s been a while since revolution has seemed sexy. But the way our politics has gone, it’s looking more attractive all the time.