Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Bowen

Levitating the Pentagon

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On October 21, 1967, over fifty thousand activists marched on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam. The participants included Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, Ed Sanders, and Norman Mailer, who describes one of the day’s most memorable episodes in The Armies of the Night:

This was the beginning of the exorcism of the Pentagon, yes the papers had made much of the permit requested by a hippie leader named Abbie Hoffman to encircle the Pentagon with twelve hundred men in order to form a ring of exorcism sufficiently powerful to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet. In the air the Pentagon would then, went the presumption, turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled this levitation. At that point the war in Vietnam would end.

The notion of levitating the Pentagon—an occult symbol that had been corrupted into an emblem of war—was the brainchild of Michael Bowen, a San Francisco artist and political organizer whose friends included Timothy Leary and Gary Snyder. As the ceremony proceeded, a flyer was circulated that encouraged the attendees to concentrate their minds on casting out evil: “A billion stars in a billion galaxies of space and time is the form of your power, and limitless is your name.” Rubin and Ginsberg led the crowd in invocations and mantras, and Bowen distributed flowers to the protesters, who inserted daisies into the gun barrels of the military police. Watching the scene unfold, Mailer marveled: “On which acidic journeys had the hippies met the witches and the devils and the cutting edge of all primitive awe?”

It was a rhetorical question, but the real answer is genuinely surprising. Bowen credited the basic idea for the ceremony to his guru, an occultist living in Mexico named John Starr Cooke. As a recent article in Smithsonian recounts:

Cooke had sent his protégé as a missionary of sorts in search of fellow travelers in New York, London, and most recently San Francisco, where he had found his greatest success rallying people to the cause…Following the Be-In [in January 1967]…Bowen returned to Mexico to be with his teacher. They worked on extrasensory perception, ancient Mayan shamanic rituals, and the metaphysical symbology that informed the artist’s paintings. Then the guru dispatched his student back to the United States—arming him this time with an outlandish idea that found a surprisingly receptive audience.

Attentive readers of this blog might remember that Cooke was also an associate of L. Ron Hubbard, an early proponent of dianetics, and allegedly the first “clear” in America. As I’ve noted here before, Cooke spent time with Hubbard in London and Tangier, and it was through him that Byron Gysin and William S. Burroughs were introduced to Scientology. But if the idea of levitating the Pentagon truly came from Cooke, it may well have been influenced in turn by Hubbard, who described the individual who has reached the stage beyond clear: “A thetan who is completely rehabilitated and can do everything a thetan should do, such as move MEST [matter, energy, space, and time] and control others from a distance, or create his own universe; a person who is able to create his own universe or, living in the MEST universe is able to create illusions perceivable by others at will, to handle MEST universe objects without mechanical means.” And Hubbard himself was rumored to be able to move objects with his mind, as one of his former followers later recalled: “People thought he could levitate things.”

In my original post on the subject, I wrote of Cooke: “It may have been through him that aspects of dianetics entered the counterculture—another important story that has yet to be told.” When I wrote those words, I didn’t know the half of it. For now, though, I’d like to focus on the mysterious way in which one of Hubbard’s wild promises was transmuted, as in a game of telephone, into something genuinely moving and memorable. It didn’t succeed in levitating the Pentagon, but only in the sense that Sgt. Pepper didn’t end the Vietnam War. As none other than Daniel Ellsberg notes in an oral history of the event by Arthur magazine:

I was working on the Pentagon Papers that fall in a room which happened to be right next to MacNamara’s office. I’d come back from Vietnam very anxious to see the war end and to do whatever I could to help that. So I was very sympathetic to the anti-war movement, what I knew of it. The idea of levitating the Pentagon struck me as a great idea because the idea of removing deference from any of these institutions is very, very important, and this is of course the kind of thing that Abbie understood very instinctively. It was not just a matter of clowning and a way to get the attention of the media, or to make people smile. And the idea that you would jointly piss on the Pentagon as part of a pagan ceremony raises so many associations. One might think of the Pentagon as pagan in itself, but that’s a slander of pagan religion.

Or as Ginsberg says in the same article: “The levitation of the Pentagon was a happening that demystified the authority of the military. The Pentagon was symbolically levitated in people’s minds in the sense that it lost its authority which had been unquestioned and unchallenged until then…Once the kid put his flower in the barrel of the kid looking just like himself but tense and nervous, the authority of the Pentagon psychologically was dissolved.”

And this kind of demystification is exactly the kind of thing that the confidence trickster is born to do. It’s a vital form of protest, and the fact that it may have indirectly drawn inspiration from Hubbard, of all people, is revealing in itself. These impulses can go in any number of directions. Abbie Hoffman himself had a lot in common with the denizens of the pool halls that also filled David Mamet with nostalgia, as John Escow told Arthur: “Abbie’s political program was just a hastily thrown together amalgamation of some things he had read, certain life lessons that he had picked up in pool halls and on the street.” Writing in his introduction to Hoffman’s autobiography, Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, Mailer intuitively makes the connection to an even older archetype:

Abbie was one of the most incredible-looking people I ever met. In fact, he wasn’t twentieth century, but nineteenth. Might just as well have emerged out of Oliver Twist. You could say he used to look like a chimney sweep. In fact, I don’t know what chimney sweeps looked like, but I always imagined them as having a manic integrity that glared out of their eyes through all the soot and darked-up skin. It was the knowledge that they were doing an essential job that no one else would do. Without them, everybody in the house would slowly, over the years, suffocate from the smoke.

These skills are far older than modern politics, and they’re ideologically neutral, which can frustrate more “serious” activists—but which also makes them even more effective at certain kinds of mobilization. (As Paul Krassner recalls in the same oral history: “[Abbie] saw that people who could be organized to go to a smoke-in, could be organized to go to an antiwar rally.) Jerry Rubin once pointed out in the Berkeley Barb: “The worst thing you can say about a demonstration is that it is boring, and one of the reasons that the peace movement has not grown into a mass movement is that the peace movement—its literature and its events—is a bore. Good theatre is needed to communicate revolutionary content.” That’s as true today as it ever was. And the show is just getting started.

The Magic People

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As I wrap up work on Astounding, I’m more aware than ever of the book that I didn’t write, and all the great stories that I was forced to leave out of the finished version for reasons of time or space. One figure whom I wasn’t able to mention was John Cooke, an occultist whose fascinating life brought him into contact with many of the players about whom I’ve written here in the past. Cooke, who was born into an affluent family in Hawaii in 1920, developed an interest at an early age in tarot cards and the Ouija board. His first wife, Millen Cooke, wrote for such magazines as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Other Worlds Science Stories, and along with many other authors and fans in the early fifties, she was fascinated by dianetics, to the extent that she impulsively flew from California to New York to visit the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation. (This was evidently in 1951, when the foundation relocated from New Jersey to a new headquarters on 55 East 82nd Street in Manhattan to head off potential legal trouble, as early collaborator Don Rogers reveals in the letters that were recently posted on Tony Ortega’s blog.) Cooke was annoyed by her abrupt departure, but after driving across the country, he became equally involved. In the book Acid Dreams, the authors Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain claim that Cooke became “the first ‘clear’ in America,” which seems unlikely—although it speaks to the intensity of his connection to Hubbard’s ideas, as well as the way in which dianetics tended to take root in existing communities where science fiction and the occult intersected.

After his divorce from Millen, Cooke married a woman named Mary Oser, whom he met through their mutual interest in dianetics. In One Nation, Under Gods, Peter Manseau writes of the couple, who settled in England:

While in London, they were known to wear flowing African robes they had acquired throughout their travels, and passed the days often in the company of L. Ron Hubbard himself. During their meetings, they discussed John’s magical abilities and memories of past life experiences, and Hubbard’s “science of the mind” began to take on a cosmic dimension.

From there, they moved to Morocco, where they served, in Manseu’s account, as “missionaries of Hubbard’s increasingly supernatural notions.” What happened next is a matter of dispute. According to an article by Mark Walker, who hopes to write a biography of Cooke in collaboration with the occultist’s son Chamba:

L. Ron Hubbard reportedly tracked down Cooke in Tangier. Hubbard made a trip to London in 1952 to set up a dianetics center, and it may have been on this trip that he met with Cooke. The meeting was not propitious and in the space of a single afternoon, Cooke grew disillusioned with Hubbard and his teachings. According to Michael Bowen, Hubbard came to Cooke with a tale of woe at how the dianetics business had failed, and Cooke advised him to relaunch it as a religion. This was precisely what Hubbard did after moving to Phoenix, Arizona in March 1952.

The notion that Cooke advised Hubbard to convert Scientology into a religion is undoubtedly apocryphal—John W. Campbell, among others, also took credit for the idea, which was really the product of a complex confluence of factors. And there are competing accounts of Cooke’s “disillusionment.” In Tangier, after the alleged meeting with Hubbard took place, Cooke developed a case of polio that cost him the use of his legs, which he claimed was the result of a magical attack. Manseau writes:

When news of the diagnosis—paralytic poliomyelitis—reached London, L. Ron Hubbard likely supposed that an engram must have been the true cause of Cooke’s affliction…The Cookes hoped the top Scientologist himself would materialize in Tangier to tend to his friend, but Hubbard instead dispatched one of his highest-ranking auditors to see what “the process” could do for one of its earliest adherents.

The auditor was an Australian named Jim Skelton, who, according to Chamba Cooke, “was able to push the polio paralysis back down John’s trunk from his heart, but was unable to make it go any further. Skelton told Hubbard that the method Hubbard taught him was not fully effective; Hubbard countered that Skelton was not performing the method correctly. This contributed to Skelton splitting from Hubbard.” Manseau states that this incident was the real reason that Cooke fell out with Hubbard, although he continued to practice certain aspects of dianetics on his own.

So far, this story resembles many other anecdotes from this period, with unusual personalities—like A.E. van Vogt—being drawn into Hubbard’s circle and then becoming disillusioned or worse. Yet it’s the sequel that intrigues me the most. While in Morocco, the Cookes met Brion Gysin, who was running a restaurant in Tangier. In the biography Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted, John Geiger writes of their first meeting:

[John and Mary Cooke] were early adherents of the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard…Cooke had shaved his head and wore a closely cropped beard. His first words to Gysin were “Guess where we came from and guess who we are?” Gysin could not possibly have guessed. The couple had traveled from Algeria, and claimed they were directed to him by their Ouija board. “They just came flooding in giving me the impression that they were really Magic People, and they had all of these things at their fingertips…most particularly money.”

Through Gysin, they met William S. Burroughs, whom the Cookes introduced to Scientology. In Rub Out the Words, a collection of the author’s correspondence, there are several fascinating letters between Burroughs and Cooke, including one in which the latter writes: “It would seem that Hubbard is putting down his third-rate science fiction as the one and only cosmos.” (This is the same letter that reveals that Burroughs was familiar with the OT III material, complete with a reference to “galactic federations and Zmus [sic].”) After Cooke returned to America, he became involved with such countercultural icons as Bowen and Timothy Leary, who referred to him as “the great crippled wizard.” Cooke was one of those indispensable connectors who pass ideas between communities of outsiders, and it may have been through him that aspects of dianetics entered the counterculture—another important story that has yet to be told. As Cooke allegedly once said to Burroughs: “I hope I am there to help [Hubbard] over the hump, even though he failed me when I needed him.”

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