In those years before the war, a new religion was spreading over the country (from the Village) . . . This new faith was made up of the revolutionaries, anarchists, socialists of all shades, from the ‘pink tea’ intellectual to the dark purple lawbreaker. The term ‘radical’ was used to cover them all. But while all were freethinkers, agnostics, or atheists, they were as fanatical in their faith of the coming revolution as any primitive Christian was for the immediate establishment of the Kingdom of God . . . As in the early Church, most of the members of this order were of the working classes, though there were eccentric millionaires, editors, lawyers, and rich women who had experienced ‘conversions’ and were active in the ‘movement.’
—Margaret Sanger (1920s)
The revolutionary process of changing external conditions is comparatively easy: what is difficult and necessary is the inner change of thought and desire.
—Emma Goldman (1900s)
This is Daddy’s bedtime secret for today:
Man is born broken.
He lives by mending.
The grace of God is glue.
—Eugene O’Neill (1910s)
Greenwich Village—my local neighbourhood in New York City—is all about breaking the rules. It’s a tradition that goes way back, back to Mable Dodge. In the early 1900s, Mable Dodge hosted evenings to which she would invite a guest speaker to give a radical view of some social issue. To the same evening, she would invite others with opposite views, to test the speaker’s convictions.
She provoked debate: “We don’t want to have dogma, we want to provoke debate” (1913). And this: “Many roads are being broken, nearly every thinking person nowadays is in revolt against something because the craving of the individual is for further consciousness and because consciousness is expanding and bursting through the moulds that have held it up till now.” Dodge believed people came to Greenwich Village because they feel the need for release; they came to the Village to break rules.
Max Eastman edited The Masses at 91 Greenwich Avenue in the Village. The Masses was among the magazines that most influenced journalism in 20th-century America. Max Eastman writes about the Village, in his day: “The talk was radical; it was free-thought talk and not just socialism. There was a sense of universal revolt and regeneration of the just-before-dawn of a new day in American art and literature and living-of-life as well as in politics.” Max Eastman said that people broke rules in Greenwich Village for the sake of regeneration, for renovation. The Village was a place that generated the kind of revolution that is supposed to go far beyond just the art form or discipline that the revolutionary person is working in. Consider the two Dylans of Greenwich Village: Bob Dylan, the Midwestern balladeer who lived at 161 West 4th Street, or Dylan Thomas, the bad boy who lived at the Chelsea Hotel that we imported from Wales. Each was both rude and captivating. Here are some lines from the two Dylans of the Village:
Just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity . . .
Any day now, any day now, I shall be released . . .
Come in she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm . . .
For the Dylans, getting some rest meant breaking some rules.
Go through the list of local heroes and they said that Greenwich Village was about breaking rules for release, for regeneration, for rest, for both the individual and for society.
It’s still true. Even amidst the growing affluence, the tourism, and the encroaching New York University dorms, Greenwich Village is still a place where people come to break rules. The forms of rule-breaking have changed but the spirit of rule-breaking is still in the Village. You only need live here in my neighbourhood a little while to recognize that’s true. It’s still true because people are still longing for what Dylan, Eastman, and Dodge talked and wrote about—yearning for regeneration, for release, for rest. So whether you call it “authentic living,” or “being real,” or nonconformist, it amounts to the same thing: challenging the status quo to make things better.
A lot of these revolutionary characters came to Greenwich Village specifically to get away from Christianity. Max Eastman and Eugene O’Neill came here to get away from Christianity. Quoting somebody else, Bob Dylan said, “Greenwich Village is the place to come to escape America.”
What Greenwich Village seeks—what its Bohemians all have striven for . . . a path to authentic living, rest from the rules—is the change we all need. What Mabel Dodge and Max Eastman and Dylan Thomas were talking about—release, regeneration, and rest—is the revolution we need.
Good revolutions get personal
To make a good revolution, you need a good revolutionary. Every revolution needs a leader. Every revolution needs somebody to say, “Hey, follow me and I’m going to show you the way to regeneration, to rejuvenation, to rest and release from the rules.” In the end, every good revolution gets personal. Unfortunately, what we find is that many revolutionaries come to the Village to begin something, but they don’t really bring release to the revolutions that they start.
Think about that. They may enlarge their art forms or introduce a new political idea, but they don’t bring us the real rest that we seek from the rules. Why? Good rule-breaking depends on why you’re breaking the rules. And to have good rule-breaking, you need a good rule breaker. You need someone you want to follow, who has ideals that you want to get behind.
Many Greenwich Villagers who came to break the rules, when you get right down to it, were breaking the rules to bring release to themselves, but not to others. Ross Wetzsteon was a chronicler of Greenwich Village who loved the Village. He wrote for the Village Voice for years and later wrote The Republic of Dreams, a history of Greenwich Village, in which he wrote: “(They) defined a community obsessed with individualism, independence, self-expression, and self-fulfillment far more than with the radicalism and bohemianism for which the Village became famous.” As Emma Goldman put it, “No life is worth anything that does not contain a great ideal.” The Villagers sought to formulate an ideal, and to achieve it, but they failed. Consider . . .
- Jackson Pollock revolutionized painting on 8th Street. He made no bones about it: art was salvation to him. But if we ask what kind of salvation his art brought to Jackson Pollock, we don’t have much of an answer. Nobody drank more than Jackson Pollock. And nobody was meaner than Jackson Pollock. Eventually, he just couldn’t escape. He was beset by paranoia. In the end, he probably killed himself with drink and reckless driving.
- Take Edna St. Vincent Millay of Waverly Place who wanted to bring revolution through poetry: “Thou great offended God of love and kindness, We have denied, we have forgotten Thee!” After a series of mental breakdowns and increasingly emotionally unstable, St. Vincent Millay was eventually reduced to living as an invalid in a haze of alcohol.
- From the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street, Eugene O’Neill revolutionized American theatre. But he could not enter “into a relationship with a woman without rage, without cruelty, without pain.” Finally, he abandoned his wife and two children for another woman.
- Mary Heaton Vorse, a deeply courageous woman who fought for labour rights, was estranged from her children, addicted to morphine.
About the revolutionaries of the Village, Ross Wetzsteon concludes:
But self-expression was an ideal all too easily debased. Its original goal had been the freedom of the individual from political, social, cultural, and moral constraints—which, the Villagers believed, would lead not to the chaos of unrestrained impulse but to justice, social harmony, cultural creativity, and moral honesty. But . . . those noble and naÃ¯ve aspirations deteriorated into self-interest. Cynicism replaced idealism, self-consciousness replaced spontaneity, and the village ideal of self-expression was left without the higher purpose that had given it validity . . . I began this book believing the Village spirit has been characterized by youth and romance and adventure, joy and poetry and rebellion—and while that’s certainly true, by the time I finished, I also realized the Village has been the scene of many disappointed dreams and miserable deaths.
Depending on the Revolutionary
For the revolutionaries of Greenwich Village, their revolutions were elusive—strained toward but beyond their grasps. Their own lives prevented them from realizing the revolution, and turning it into something that others could follow. They were geniuses. Many have tried to excuse their gross character flaws. But in the end, talent is no substitute for the ideal. When the revolutionary leader’s own life doesn’t line up with the ideals of the revolution, it’s hard to follow without being disillusioned. The revolution that could have been, fizzles. The effectiveness of the revolution depends on the life of the revolutionary. Who can make good on the promise of what we’re breaking the rules for, for release, for rest, for regeneration?
The qualities of a revolution can be defined in the quality of the life of the revolutionary.
Whenever you feel the need to break rules for renovation, for release, for rest, what you’re feeling is the need for true revolution. The Ultimate Nonconformist is slowly bringing about a revolution. It may look different than some of the other rule-breaking that we’re familiar with in Greenwich Village. That’s because the one leading the revolution, the one leading the charge is different from the other rule-breakers.
Imagine a revolutionary new type of community. Imagine a community that’s made alive through experience with God, instead of alienation from God.
Imagine a creative people who stand with each other. Who enjoy each other, who are not be driven by a need to be the greatest. Imagine a community where people can be honest, where each can be honest about his moral failures, and receive forgiveness from one another for those failures in a way that precipitates change. Imagine a community’s seeking tolerance toward people who are outside the community, a tolerance of other people’s beliefs because of a great conviction of their own.
Imagine a political movement that does not surrender moral prerogatives nor turn a blind eye to the huge inequalities and injustices that beset us. Imagine a corps of volunteers addressing social problems, without pay, motivated only by the compassion that comes from someone who’s at rest with themselves. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in the New Yorker in which he noticed that “in the past 20 years enthusiasm for publicly supported welfare has waned, churches have quietly and steadily stepped in to fill the gaps.” Malcolm Gladwell looks at this on a national scale, what’s actually happening, and describes the situation as “staggering.”
Imagine this community. Imagine its pioneering impact on the city.
Follow the Revolutionary.