Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quinton Tarantino’s latest film, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton – an irascible, hard-drinking actor whose career is slipping through his fingers. It is the summer of 1969; on the other side of America, pensive under a red headband, Jimi Hendrix is giving Woodstock a fractured rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” But Rick Dalton isn’t the Woodstock sort. He hates the “flower children” wandering barefoot around Los Angeles, and his scorn is amusing. At the screening I attended, each time Dalton cursed the “fuckin’ hippies,” a chuckle rippled through the seats.
Tarantino’s movie plays on a cultural truth: it is acceptable to disdain hippies. Why? In one of the first literary passages I really loved, the protagonist of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas looks back on the sixties: “There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil.” Right-wing contempt for this hippie vision is easy to understand; to a conservative, forces of old are not evil but the very bedrock of a liveable society, and an Age of Aquarius defined by love and harmony sounds like a mix of going soft and going insane. But what about those whose souls are a little stirred by the idea of Thompson’s inevitable victory? To this day, thousands of people flock to sun-washed San Francisco craving a glimpse of whatever it was that briefly bloomed there. In 2006, I was one of them. And so why are we – why am I – laughing along with Rick Dalton’s contempt? Why do people who, born a generation or two earlier, might have been hippies, now feel such compunction to shoo the dreamers away?
It’s easy to write off the hippie movement as essentially unserious. Most of them were young; few of them were sober; they said things like “groovy” and “far out.” And in part, the hippies were animated by psychic impulses that weren’t new: the youthful rejection of the apparent mundanity of adulthood, and good old hedonism.
But lurking beneath the shallow motifs – flowers in the hair, acid on the tongue – was a serious philosophical protest. “At the deepest level,” writes W. J. Rorabaugh, in one of the few good histories of the movement, the hippies expressed “a crisis of belief.”
What the hippies were unable or unwilling to believe in was pretty much every norm of mainstream culture. Like their philosophical antecedents – the Transcendentalists, the Bohemians, the Beats – the hippies regarded modern life as a soulless, runaway machine, a vast conglomeration of bureaucracies that rendered people shrunken, sexless, and mean. To the hippies, each of society’s ills was symptom, not disease. The soul death of the cubicle farm; the heat death of the planet; slaughter in Vietnam; slaughter in the factory farms – these were all the result of a society which had prioritised all the wrong elements of the human spirit. Instead of love, there was ego. Instead of creativity, conformity. Instead of joy, shame.
There is always an element of technological determinism to history. The sixties witnessed the widespread dissemination of oral contraceptives, proper antibiotic treatment for STIs, and the emergence of places to have sex that weren’t your parent’s house (namely the car). There was a boom in the availability of marijuana and LSD, and the invention of properly loud guitar amplifiers. These historical novelties made the sixties a decade in which opportunities to drown in sensation reached unprecedented levels. The moralists didn’t stand a chance.
"Hippies were generally uninterested in leftist collectivism not only because having sex is, ultimately, more fun than reading Das Kapital – but also because they saw their interests as reaching deeper than the means of production. Hippies were interested in the soul."
Sex, drugs and rock music became the means through which hippies processed their crisis of belief, and pursued what Rorabaugh calls “the big hippie idea”: “self-emancipation from the larger culture.” The hippies believed that mainstream social conditioning was producing quashed, bottled-up human beings. The way to escape this coercion was to venerate those things that modern society, steeped in centuries of dour Christianity, had suppressed: emotion, intuition, and the body. The hippie commitment to pleasure was a way of pushing back against what they saw as a pervasive cultural lifelessness; a societal pressure to simply measure out one’s life with coffee spoons and then die. The commitment to congregating and sharing was a way to replace isolated egotism with unshackled compassion. Hence music festivals were, as the historian Timothy Miller puts is, “as important to the hippie world as any pilgrimages, crusades, or revivals have ever been to their own constituencies.”
The parallel with pilgrims is illuminating. Though they were slammed as unpatriotic, American hippies embodied something old in the national spirit. The US was founded by spiritually disgruntled people who fled authority and struck out in search of a pristine wilderness in which to perform acts of spiritual regeneration. The hippies fit neatly within this lineage. What differentiated them from what was broadly the other half of the counterculture – the New Left – was that their protest was not political, but spiritual. Hippies were generally uninterested in leftist collectivism not only because having sex is, ultimately, more fun than reading Das Kapital – but also because they saw their interests as reaching deeper than the means of production. Hippies were interested in the soul.
The movement’s back-to-the-land aspect – the communes, the cultivating of tribes, the flocking to rural rag-and-bone shops at the precise moment that America was putting a man on the moon – represented a sort of metaphysical primitivism. Louder than the Romantics, louder even than Thoreau, the hippies declared that something essential and vivid in the human spirit was being occluded by the stifling paraphernalia of modern life. Those that fled the cities were animated by a sort of mythic pastoralism. They dreamt one of urban life’s old dreams: a healing return to the earth. Seemingly frivolous elements of the hippie lifestyle – such as nudity, embracing and not overthinking lust, and subscribing wholesale to the idea of the noble savage – were all aimed at re-embracing humans as something whose core was wild, earthy and animal.
The embrace of Eastern belief systems (as popularised by Alan Watts) was another part of the smorgasbord search for a spiritual centre. Buddhist and Yogic theologies presented human consciousness as mysterious, but open to all manner of wild investigations, and imbued with potentially transformative powers. This dovetailed nicely with psychedelics, which were seen as a way to smash down the doors of perception and glimpse limitless, numinous possibilities. As Tom Wolfe recorded in his The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, for the hippies there were “those who had the experience of being vessels of the divine” and then the “unaware” masses, a “great jellyfish blob of straight souls.” What Timothy Leary called the “ontological confrontation” with psychedelic drugs was meant to expose reality as a ruse that could be rewritten. The more enthusiastic hippies were convinced that any day now the scales would fall from everyone’s eyes.
"I once consumed a large amount of psilocybin mushrooms and visited Amsterdam zoo, where I stared a giant tortoise in his bright black eyes for what felt like an eon. The older, more jaded me cringes to write it, but the truth is the truth: that tortoise saw right through my twitchy vanities and advised that I learn to cultivate his total submarine placidity."
I once consumed a large amount of psilocybin mushrooms and visited Amsterdam zoo, where I stared a giant tortoise in his bright black eyes for what felt like an eon. The older, more jaded me cringes to write it, but the truth is the truth: that tortoise saw right through my twitchy vanities and advised that I learn to cultivate his total submarine placidity. It was one of the few truly spiritual experiences of my life. This was this sort of impression, and the sort of subjective encounter, that the hippies were after: something magic, something extra, the perception of something beyond the con of habitual perception that whispers of a vastness at the edges. The hippie crisis of belief held that modern life had become fundamentally unsacred. The search was always a little muddled, and always resistant to analysis by “typeheads” like me. Hippies were always biased toward practices that were basically exciting; it was always about eros, not logos. (Midrash was out, ecstatic dancing was in.) But what the movement craved above all was a spiritual centre. “We got to get ourselves back to the garden,” sang Joni Mitchell.
The primitivism, the yoga, the trips, all that cosmic yearning in the song lyrics – it was all an attempt to conjure a world and future that had cast off the constraints of history. Some of these constraints were ostensibly shallow: Men not growing their hair, women not showing too much flesh. But even the surface gestures were part of calling into question every shibboleth of mainstream society: Patriotism, capitalism, industry, aspiration, technological advancement, urbanism, private property, the nation state, the work ethic, sexual modesty, anthropocentrism, rationalism, the written word, and other things that I won’t go on listing. These cold forces – forces that categorised us, made us a puppet of the great grey machine – were to be banished so that we might make room for a future in which positive feeling and positive intent would reign supreme. And this future was to be brought on with a great planetary tsunami of that thing which, on good days, all spiritual systems claim to be about. In 1967, TIME reported that “the key ethical element in the hippie movement is love – indiscriminate and all-embracing, fluid and changeable, directed at friend and foe alike.” Against those forces of Old and Evil: love.
Modern-day right-wingers regard modernity as fundamentally fallen – awash in godlessness, drug use, cheap sex, and disrespected authority. They pin much of this on the delirium of the sixties. You don’t have to subscribe to this view to concede that it wasn’t all pretty. As amphetamines and heroin replaced weed and acid, many hippie neighborhoods descended into addiction and homelessness. STDs exploded, and free love was frequently but a cover for male sexual predation. Some of the communes turned rotten. Hippies really were (and are) frequently unwashed and unkempt, which is a guaranteed way to send respectable folk into paroxysms of disgust. At a sociological level, almost everyone pulled by the hippie tide was middle-class, and their desires had the grass-is-greener entitlement of the comfortable. A character in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice – probably the best novel about the hippie dream – laments “that endless middle-class cycle of choices that are no choices at all.” And yet a great swathe of humankind, mired in real impoverishment, would do anything for this cycle of choices. It is the westerners I know, rather than my family and close friends in India and the Philippines, that talk to me about nurturing their inner self or finding their true purpose.
None of this, though, is enough to explain the hippie movement’s profoundly mixed legacy, in which despite a quietly inexhaustible anemoia it is roundly and rapidly disparaged. The 20th-century was host to a multitude of mass movements, most of which made a human wasteland and called it politics, and only one of which produced Led Zeppelin. Middle-class entitlement, patches of social decay; these are hardly grave moral crimes. They can’t explain why no sensible modern-day person would call themselves a hippie without a hint of trepidation or self-deprecation. The rejection of the hippie ideal runs much deeper, and speaks to the culture’s view of how it regards its own present-day possibilities.
"Nested in the bemused condescension is a broader assessment: the story of the hippies is the story of overestimating the human spirit, and failing to live up to a whole set of utopias."
You can tell a lot about things by how they function as an insult. Just as, used disparagingly, socialist means workshy authoritarian drone, or capitalist means greedy vampire squid, when wielded disparagingly, hippie means naïve, credulous, hopelessly starry-eyed. Even if used without conservative contempt, hippie always carries a hint of gentle head-patting, of smiling condescension. This often feels like the only polite reaction to that distinctly hippie blend of earnest inquisitiveness and total credulity – the ability to offer a verbose summary of the double-slit experiment, and then spend a day’s wages on a reiki healer. But nested in the bemused condescension is a broader assessment: the story of the hippies is the story of overestimating the human spirit, and failing to live up to a whole set of utopias. Stop it, the condescension says; it wasn’t real, none of it was real. At the deepest level, the hippie movement is regarded as a sort of psychic carnival that was powered by radical optimism – an optimism that, half a century on, it is not only difficult but a little embarrassing to believe anyone ever possessed.
The optimism took a multitude of forms. In all of them lurked high, high hopes for the human psyche. The hippies proclaimed, for example, that it was possible to combine an all-embracing, selfless compassion with a focus on one’s individual, inner evolution. This was always a nagging flaw at the heart of the hippie vision. They were in revolt against a mainstream society that they saw as corrupted by selfishness and egotism, but they also dedicated ample energy toward elaborate forms of self-expression. The hippies might have wanted in some abstract way to be selfless, but they also wanted to be noticed, otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered with the tie-die.
These are tricky lines to walk, and you can hardly blame a stoned teenager for struggling with them. But even as the hippies were searching for a new sacredness, they reiterated an old spiritual truth: the ego will keep finding you. Half a century on, if someone declares themselves to be dedicated to boundless compassion, we don’t believe they have really thought things through. As an insult, hippie also carries this: oblivious, probably preachy. Perhaps you know some latter-day hippies, and have observed that they struggle to look beyond the boundaries of their own nice feelings. We don’t really buy it anymore, do we, that a spiritual journey can ever be absent a dash of narcissism? That expanding the psyche isn’t at bottom a sort of comfort-seeking? Hence modern-day California is ground zero for what David Foster Wallace called an “odd ambient blend of New Age gooeyness and rightwing financial acumen.”
The same goes for the hallucinogens. Psychedelics are having a renaissance, but it is a slow and sensible one. Few people now believe a tsunami of trips are a sort of physic superhighway to solving life’s mysteries. It makes me a little sheepish, telling my story about the tortoise. In Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he describes the failure of Timothy Leary’s vision, “the old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody... or at least some force – is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.” Another burnt-out optimism that the hippies took with them: that it is easy to port the psychedelic experience into the muck and boredom of everyday life. As it turns out, it is possible to get the message, hang up the phone, and then not know what to do with the message. As it turns out, no single chemical can help you negotiate the reality of life as a ticking clock.
A similar sheen went off the Zen and the Yoga; these grand old systems, it turns out, are just as circumspect about pleasure as any other discipline of the human mind. They offered no shortcuts. In their native religious setting, they too are gatekeepers.
"The other optimisms that died with the hippies are all downstream of this basic failure to bring about a revolution in the nature of human consciousness; the failure to shed the ego, embrace the spirit, glimpse salvation in another dimension."
The other optimisms that died with the hippies are all downstream of this basic failure to bring about a revolution in the nature of human consciousness; the failure to shed the ego, embrace the spirit, glimpse salvation in another dimension. They were all there, they were all apparently subscribed to by thousands, but now they elude us: The belief that love possesses a purity that never invites complications; that really loving people isn’t in reality difficult and painstaking work. The belief that peace won’t be eaten alive by people who don’t care for it; that aggression and a taste for cruelty aren’t every bit as baked into Homo sapiens as love; that human history isn’t the history of physical force, and probably always will be. Sober, older, we understand the strange and muddy truth that you can love and loathe a person in equal measure. We understand that not one of us would stay a pacifist if it really came to it.
They keep unspooling, the things that the hippies really did believe. That simply through a bit of philosophy, and without a heroic effort of the will, sexual appetites can be stripped of covetousness or envy. That the Dionysian urge can be endlessly nurturing, not run the very real risk of burning itself out and leaving a hollow and joyless thing in its wake. That pleasure can be made entirely pure, and never drag us into little webs of psychic enslavement. The belief that soft old humans, desiring of comfort above all, might truly want to wind back the clock to a time that was tougher but perhaps rawer; that they might trade hot showers and television for the cosmic relief of laying eyes on the sun god at the end of a long winter, back before Galileo revealed him to be wearing no clothes, to be the inert play of chemistry and physics. We know now that it isn’t coming back, the mortal companionship of the tribe; that WhatsApp groups will have to suffice. We know too that it was never pure, human conduct: Hunter-gatherers might have had strong communities, but they could also murder, all the way to wiping out every other hominid line. The comfort of cherry-picking: The hippies wanted to roll back the clock, but from our tribal days they wanted organic leafy greens and fresh air, without the infant mortality; from our Victorian days they wanted the communal living, without the cholera or the civil war.
And here’s the thing: even where the hippies have come out on the right side of history, it is generally with the idealism stripped away. Miller writes that “the most enduring legacy of the counterculture is the role that it played in awakening public concern about the environmental crisis.” He may well be right. We are presiding over the sixth extinction event in earth’s history, and long before it was mainstream, the hippies were putting solar panels on their geodesic domes. But fifty years later, if we do turn the ship around, it won’t be because of the spread of hippie neo-paganism. Then and now, “straight” people feel obscurely threatened by hippies’ ability to seemingly, via some pungent blend of New Age hokum and self-imposed delirium, quite literally love the earth. If we do slow down the planetary vomit of carbon, it will not be because we have resurrected a vivid and elemental love for Gaia. It will be down to a begrudging self-preservation, the balance sheets of nations, the desperation of survival.
The hippie vision of technology also embarrasses with its hopefulness. The hippies’ intellectual heroes – people like Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan – were futurists with a wild and visionary streak, describing a future in which the digital realm would liberate individuals to unleash the full, heaven-making powers of human creativity. The hippies were right that computers would transform everything. But would many people today describe the information age as a cybernetic meadow where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony? More likely they will reference election rigging, smartphone addiction, echo chambers.
"This, at the highest level, was the hippie optimism: that human consciousness could be freed from its limitations and its imperfect patterns, and that through such freedom a new era could be built. Today, no significant section of the culture dares dream anything so big."
This, at the highest level, was the hippie optimism: that human consciousness could be freed from its limitations and its imperfect patterns, and that through such freedom a new era could be built. Today, no significant section of the culture dares dream anything so big. No-one really believes we can escape the runaway bulldozer of history. The 20th century is frequently read as one where the mirage of various political utopias – communist, nationalist, imperialist – evaporated. With the hippies, it was also one where a strange, briefly blinding cultural mirage vanished. By the time I was a teenager, the peace and love dream was already sepia layered on sepia. To millennials, the whole hippie thing has the embarrassing hue of your parents talking about sex, wrapped in a haze of basic unreality. (Were these adults, with their mortgages and their bad knees, really trying to reinvent society?) To Generation Z, the hippies’ ideas seem simply arcane – a hangover from a time when people could perceive the future as a blank canvas, a last stoned hurrah of western culture before the rococo, paranoid inertia of post-everything.
Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – in which we all laugh along at those fuckin’ hippies – features one distant and twisted branch of the movement: the Manson Family. In the cultural memory, the Family functions as a warning about the dark and rotten ends of hippie mind-expansion. (At the murder trial, brains soured by hundreds of acid trips, the female killers explained that stabbing someone to death was an act of love because it liberated them from the limits of their physical being.)
It is oddly comforting, to believe that such unhinged horror is the eventual terminus of hippie idealism and hippie credulity. Even though it’s a cop-out – the vast, vast majority of hippies were not members of a murderous cult – it provides a convenient coda: well, we tried all that for a couple of years, but ultimately these ideas are too wild to be trusted. Okay, the culture will absorb some of it: one-night stands, yoga, weed, vegetarianism, wearing jeans to the office, reading books by people with “Rinpoche” in their name. But love conquering the world, a whole new age of the human spirit? Come on now. Believing in such things is, at bottom, a sort of Promethean madness. Back to the real.
The hippie movement is best seen as a sort of mass hallucination, in which people’s view of human nature was fleetingly expanded to include what we now, decades of jadedness later, regard as forms of magical thinking. Perhaps you believe it was all a ruse, a pose, stoned claptrap. For some it probably was. But there were real believers there, plenty of them. Briefly, briefly, the hippies had grand designs, and the generations that followed them felt their failed overreaching idealism as a wound. In youth culture, what followed the hippies was the brash and cynical anger of punk. What had been promised as a new future of love and harmony instead saw hippieness repackaged as a consumer good. (Health food stores and yoga retreats and VW campers, you might have noticed, come with a price tag.) The hippies grew up and became the baby boomers, now vilified as neoliberalism’s willing children.
"This is why we are so acutely embarrassed by the hippies: because for some weird reason it is harder to forgive sweet naivety than shrewd malevolence. We are angry at the plain-facedness of hippie utopianism."
This is why the culture is so embarrassed by the hippies: because for some weird reason it is harder to forgive sweet naivety than shrewd malevolence. We are angry at the plain-facedness of hippie utopianism. It embarrasses with its simplicity. Peace and love. Right, okay. We are angry at how it reminds us of the limits of the untranscendent, of life as it actually has to be lived, down here in the dirt and the never-enough. In their spiritual casting out, hippies often really did resemble a sort of intoxicated Jesus – long-haired, full of colourful prophecy, imploring us to love our neighbours, resisting treasures upon earth where moth and rust doth corrupt. And the distaste for hippies is the same as our distaste for the bible-basher, the doe-eyed believer who appears at your door to tell you that God loves you. Christ’s forgiving gaze; John Lennon’s sappy imaginarium. They both confirm in us the humility of our hopes, the smallness of what we can believe. This is the secret heart of hippie hatred: shock. Shock that anyone would seriously try to gather up the crooked timber of humanity, and build a world in which every heart is free of hate.
And yet. I drifted there too, dumb and raw, at nineteen. Like all voyages of male teenage self-discovery, mine was overheated, with more than a dash of narcissism. Partly I just loved the music, loved the way Hendrix said “with the edge of my hand”; partly I just wanted the sun-kissed, headlong lust that California promised from afar. But I was also trying to force upon myself the right kind of eyes. With a vulnerable sincerity that I largely concealed, I really did feel that in this land of the golden dream some aftershock of the sixties rumbled on, putting a quiver into the air which, once inhaled, would make me see clearer, feel sweeter, get bigger than myself. On a high hill in Sausalito, morning sun blasting the mist off the Golden Gate, nerves blissful and raw from whatever hijinks had made up the night before, I read Jack Kerouac declare “I raise a fist to High Heaven promising that I shall bull whip the first bastard who makes fun of human hopelessness” and cried for the first time in years. Only later did I discover Kerouac’s ossified scepticism, and then my own.
"Hippies will be hypocrites. The stories they tell will be the stories of the coddled, the oblivious, the cloud-headed. But for all the poseury and hypocrisy and veiled narcissism, they never wanted to do harm, and they wanted to remind us of instincts and insights that we pour cold water over at our peril."
Might we, despite it all, hold on to the pure kernel of that golden dream? Perhaps. Perhaps we can laugh at the hippies’ naïvety, loathe their fecklessness, and yet still admit there was something about the mass hallucination worth gazing on. All creations of the fragile creature that is the human will let you down in the end. Hippies will be hypocrites. The stories they tell will be the stories of the coddled, the oblivious, the cloud-headed. But for all the poseury and hypocrisy and veiled narcissism, they never wanted to do harm, and they wanted to remind us of instincts and insights that we pour cold water over at our peril.
You don’t have to drop out of society to declare that to be spoon-fed the beliefs and behaviours of your era is a sort of quiet death. You don’t have to want to hug a tree to think there are forces of Old and Evil conspiring to make you dull and cramped and joyless, and that they will prevail if you don’t open your eyes. We are wise to stay aware of moments where we can be less uptight, less ashamed of our animal being, more willing to call out the hollow and monkey-brained pull of status games and ego. Modernity is a meat grinder, and we should forgive hippies their mysticism of the gaps. All philosophy is a preparation for death, said Socrates; well, so is the solo at the end of “Comfortably Numb”. It is good, isn’t it, to love as hard as you can? Wouldn’t we do well to put mother Earth ahead of shopping? Don’t those glimpses of a life with a tribe you’d die for, out under the stars, stir something old and real in you? Even as an adult it’s good to stamp your feet now and again. Most jobs do kind of suck, don’t they? Is there not something a little overthought, overwrought, about life as you find it? Should we really trust anyone who didn’t at least for one summer explore whether the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom?
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” wrote Joan Didion, “Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.” My older, shrewder self enjoys rolling his eyes at the 19-year-old I used to be; and yet more often than seems appropriate there he is, skinnier and braver, demanding to know: Why did I slow down, stop pushing after new vistas? Why did I come to obey the older, greyer people, with their restrictions and their prescriptions and their restraint? Weren’t we having a great time? I tell him that yes, we were, but the chemicals boiled my brain for a while; and anyway it turns out I enjoy putting the ego to honest work. I tell him that life, in the end, requires that you have your head screwed on.
But that boy I used to be wasn’t all wrong, and we strive to stay on nodding terms. Because the truth is the truth: Nothing better than to get out of the river of history for a while, strum a few chords, pass a little wine, watch someone you love cover her mouth as she laughs. Leave the brain behind for a bit; beyond the seriousness of our days it’s all a vast and birdless silence anyhow – unless... What did I see in that tortoise’s eyes? Something very blank, but given words something like: this is all a stage show, boy, all a dance, don’t get crimped up over it, all that matters is how much you love. Most rainy Tuesdays I won’t love everyone, won’t love hardly anyone, even though sometimes the sight of a certain stranger will break my heart, even though I do believe that is what the saints were capable of, and should be worshipped for. I’ll keep losing the naïvety, because in this life that is what it takes. But try and stay elastic, Matt. Think wild things; try wild things. You never know. The lingering hippie hope: There is something otherworldly, soon to be born. The future unbound. In this corner of the multiverse, you’ll have to keep stamping on your own naïvety, if you want to make it. But out on the California coast there is the echo of a dream: something extra, a combination of song and substance and touch that can lift you out of this earthbound skin, for a while.