Eulogy for My Self & William F. Buckley's thoughts on Jerry Garcia
by Mari A Gomez
I’m thinking about writing a eulogy for my self.
Naturally, the first step when one is trying to kill one self -- not the whole self of course, that is something else entirely -- but part of the self, that bastard cowardly part, the thing to do is to study ways to go about it.
So I set out to study eulogies, to see how I might write about my dead self and I picked up a copy of A Torch Kept Lit, the collection of William F. Buckley’s eulogies. They were written for people from Martin Luther King, to Barry Goldwater, to Buckley’s wife and father. And in this search for a proper good bye to part of myself, I stumbled, if there is such a thing, into some curious thoughts about what it means to die.
All of these eulogies have flickers of light, all with that artful monotone wit so distinctly Buckley. The first one I read was for Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. Because what would William F. Buckley have to say about him? Buckley, a self admitted non-fan or follower of the band, one who had spoken about the hippie phenomenon with some apprehension, is remembering a young intern, a Harvard graduate mind you, at the National Review who one day started wearing sandals and raving about the Grateful Dead. Buckley seems perturbed by the power Garcia, or his message, had over what seemed to be perfectly aligned and formidable minds.
This intern, he writes, after the initial introduction to The Dead “Did his work, but with progressive listlessness. His editorial paragraphs had never been razor sharp but they had been trenchant and readable, and now they were murky.”
He describes that everyone at the office noticed the changes. After the sandals came the piercings and then, “he [the intern] suddenly demanded that his generation be represented, so I told him to go ahead and write what he thought would be a useful essay. I don’t remember seeing it myself,” he writes, “but I was told not that it was unsuitable or unfinished or unprofessional, but that its meaning was impenetrable.”
What a funny line. I had to put the book down for a second, a rather bizarre first reaction, it occurred to me, to reading a book of eulogies. I laughed because I could see this kid. He discovers the music and drugs precisely at the right (or wrong) moment in his life and he’s hooked, like a stunned fish, by the romance of absolute freedom and the promise of a life of pleasure without the burden of responsibility and consequence.
At this point in the story the staff of the National Review got the sense that this young intern was indeed going “off the deep end.” I saw him clearly; my generation (decades later) has its own iterations of this. They can be seen now like ghosts (maybe I'm one), yammering about this or that, still talking about getting high in the same mischievous tones and adolescent giddiness they did in high school, their wild dreams reduced to conversations. Or perhaps worse, they are seen in Universities, teaching on intersectionality, or crying over election results, fighting over pronouns, wearing pussy hats and arguing that white privilege is why their life sucks.
Buckley traces what he saw then of the intern’s life and what was seemingly this young man’s slow decline into some untraceable reality that disappeared him. He was only heard from every five years when he announced a new wife in South America. The suggestion is he spiraled into some unrecognizable place where one can simply remove their watch and with it strip reality of its timely constraints.
“Is Jerry Garcia in some way responsible for this?” Buckley asks. I think Buckley recognized that it would be impossible to know with absolute certainty what “caused” the interns apparent destruction, if indeed that's what it was. However, the question is about culture and its influence.
Many Grateful Dead fans out there might take offense to this suggestion, for surely the majority of them made it through the other side, came back down from whatever trip, went to work, had kids and raised them as properly as any regular person could.
Jerry Garcia was one to bring happiness to people, as Buckley wrote, and how do you criticize that? Buckley admits that most of the Grateful Dead folk made it out alive, without having their lives derailed into some perpetual acid trip that left them stumbling in the dark corridors of the unexplored subconscious, but he wonders about those few that took the elixir and never came back.
It was this very aspect that Allen Ginsberg railed against, even a decade before, in the opening of Howl when he saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness. In one Firing Line interview with Ginsberg, (since we're talking about Buckley) the poet pontificated on the “moral problem” presented him when the producer of the show requested he not say any "dirty words." A young me would have seen Ginsberg as rebellious, poetic, perhaps brave. However, as I watch it today, in my thirties, Ginsberg looked a bit goofy.
The poet seemed truly bothered by the idea that he would have to “censor his thought process” so as to omit these dirty words and this, according to him, was not only a hindrance, but part of a bigger societal problem that presented him with a moral question.
To which W.F.B replied, “but you can overcome this with the process of love, can’t you?”
A typical Buckley jab. Ginsberg goes on to say that the hippie movement suggested, first and foremost, an alteration of consciousness. This sounds very enticing. Of course, these alterations were often taken by unsuspecting or perhaps ill equipped teenagers as absolute intoxication or a complete disregard for values, honesty, and character. It reminds me of George Harrison describing his feelings after walking through Haight Ashbury, seeing all these spotty kids and bums caught in a fit of tarantism handing him random gifts, treating him like the Messiah. This was not what he imagined the drug culture to be. This might have been the casualties that fell victim to the promise of a life of pleasure and promiscuity: the perpetual high. One of which could have been the intern Buckley describes in this eulogy.
Buckley writes, “[Jerry Garcia] is said to have died with a smile on his face, no doubt because he was a happy man but also because he made so many others happy. But he also killed, if that’s the right word for such as our intern, a lot of people.”
Culture is a powerful arbiter of ideas, especially to the misguided young, sometimes gripping them in the midst of their pulsating vulnerability; the message might be misunderstood, or perhaps, taken literally.
In his eulogy of John Lennon, Buckley offered his observation of the visceral and at times overhauling influence these people had on the youth. He seems not to understand Lennon as an artist, but Buckley writes admiringly at the fact that John Lennon grew out of his erratic at times ego-maniacal tendencies into what seemed like a calmer more complete version of himself. Unlike many others of his generation, John Lennon made it through, grew out of his madness fueled by the peculiarly intoxicating adoration of his fans, into someone with true insight. The greater tragedy for Buckley was not only that John Lennon fell victim to these sorts of “grotesqueries” that were all too common in that era of America, but that he was taken out at this somewhat matured point in his life, when he’d achieved a “nobility of feature” and stood tall amongst the rest of his peers.
It’s quite possible that intern was driven to his death by Jerry Garcia’s music and influence, by one too many alterations of consciousness. I think the question applies today. How many kids will be killed by Facebook? How many destroyed by their mobile devices? What happens to the young when the culture tells them nothing or when what it does tell them is vacant and empty?
All of this is to say, surely something has killed me along the way. I might have died when I was seventeen. Then at 21. And then just the other day. You can be killed ten thousand ways and come back from it, slowly, year after year, learn to breathe again. But then something might come along that does away with you forever and you may not even know it. You may be walking around as dead as that intern, thinking you’ve found truth, when really your meaning is impenetrable.
On Dying is about things I read here and there, but it is also about dying, not completely dying, rather the little deaths we suffer throughout the days. Those short little deaths, some bigger than others, and the tiny little awakenings that might follow.