[NB] Esalen, George Leonard, Liberation, and Potential

Still slowly moving through Kripal’s Esalen. It isn’t a difficult read, but I find myself putting it down a lot to chew over this or that discussion. I’ll admit to finding Esalen itself less interesting than the cultural networks in which it partakes and I think that makes me a little grumpy about some of Kripal’s approach. The central place he gives Esalen strikes me as excessive–it isn’t just that Esalen takes center stage because it is the topic of the book, but it seems like Kripal really believes it is the central stage.

Anyway. That isn’t what I want to jot down here. I have finally gotten to the point where he gives George Leonard direct attention. Leonard plays a big role at Esalen but what really catches my attention is the role of events outside of Esalen play in shaping George Leonard. Leonard’s conception of a ‘human potential movement’ is so much deeper & broader than the Esalen material, and I want to just make a note of how.

Leonard sits at the crossroads of mid-century educational reform, the civil rights movement, and what we would now call ‘modern media.’ He served in the Air Force, wrote prominent pieces for Look magazine, ran Look‘s California offices, and published several widely read books (he received a $50,000 advance for his book, The Transformation, in 1972).

Educational reform, World War II, civil rights, California, national media. Whew—this is way bigger than Esalen.

First, though, I want to note what Kripal calls Leonard’s defining moment:

“The turning point came for him at thirteen [ca. 1936], when he looked into the eyes of a chained black man on the courthouse square of Monroe, Georgia: ‘What I experienced was a sense of utter horror, a sickness and despair that stayed with me for several days. I emerged with one unshakable certainty. They were all wrong—my father and my grandfather and all the ministers and doctors and teachers and politicians. My whole society was terribly, tragically wrong on a matter of immense importance.'” (204)

Now, let’s get to the scene where Leonard and Michael Murphy settle on the term ‘human potential movement’ to name what they are after:

“At some point [during a brainstorming session], surrounded by a kind of paper snow, Leonard kept coming back to a set of associations hovering around the civil rights movement. Certainly this set well with his own fierce memories of the South….There had been a civil rights movement and a free speech movement. Why not, then, also a human potential movement?” (207)

There is missed opportunity in Kripal’s text and I can’t tell whether it repeats a missed opportunity that was going on in the story he recounts or whether Kripal’s reportage obscures the opportunity being taken here.

Whichever the case, let’s notice the problem: in 1965 when Leonard had this epiphany, no one could pretend that the civil rights movement and the free speech movement were anything but ongoing struggles and that these ongoing struggles were intertwined with each other. There weren’t distinct movements, just wings of the same movement. That Kripal can write, apparently without too much thought, “there had been a civil rights movement and a free speech movement” baffles me. Had been? Still are, more like it.

Remember the color line? Leonard could sense that the human potential movement wasn’t separate from the civil rights or free speech movements, that they are dimensions of a common movement. That many of the civil rights battles occurred around the question of education? That Leonard was deeply concerned with the power relations embedded in U.S. education? That Leonard’s first major book was concerned precisely with transforming education and with it the children participating in it?

Big deal. Oh, and let’s note that in 1968, Leonard was already predicting how the computer was going to be a battleground, and that “radical technologists” would play an important role. Too bad that so many of the radicals ending up going imperial, huh?

That is what Kripal’s text seems to elide, taking without serious criticism ideas promulgated within Esalen, like the idea that consciousness had replaced class as the primary concern for the future. Right now, Esalen doesn’t strike me as one of the forefronts of liberation, it strikes me as one of the points where liberation stalled out, where it got entangled and lost itself. Lotus eaters.

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