An excerpt from
America and the Religion of No Religion
Jeffrey J. Kripal
“Totally on Fire”
The Experience of Founding Esalen
There is reason to suppose that in man, and in him alone, there lies the possibility of further evolution: that this further stage must be through evolution of new faculties; that man is offered the possibility of emerging on to a new level of conscious being, as much above his present powers and apprehensions as they transcend an amphibian’s; that the symptoms of this latent creative energy, pent within him, are the peculiar intensities and persistencies of both his pain and his lust.
I want to tell you about Big Sur Hot Springs. The operative word is hot. This place is hot.
In 1960 Richard Price went to hear Aldous Huxley deliver a lecture called “Human Potentialities” at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. Although “we are pretty much the same as we were twenty thousand years ago,” said Huxley, we have “in the course of these twenty thousand years actualized an immense number of things which at that time for many, many centuries thereafter were wholly potential and latent in man.” He went on to suggest that other potentialities remain hidden in us, and he called on his audience to develop methods and means to actualize them. “The neurologists have shown us,” said Huxley, “that no human being has ever made use of as much as ten percent of all the neurons in his brain. And perhaps, if we set about it in the right way, we might be able to produce extraordinary things out of this strange piece of work that a man is.”
Price was listening. Michael Murphy would soon write Huxley asking for advice on how to go about doing something about that other ninety percent. Murphy and Price asked to visit Huxley in his Hollywood Hills home on their way down to Mexico to return a pick-up truck they had borrowed from one of Price’s friends. Huxley apologized for being away at that time but strongly encouraged them to visit his old friend, Gerald Heard, who lived in Santa Monica. He also suggested that they visit Rancho La Puerta, a burgeoning growth center in Mexico that featured health food, yoga, and various and sundry alternative lifestyles that Huxley thought they would find conducive to their own developing worldviews.
In June of 1961, Murphy and Price drove down to Santa Monica to visit Gerald Heard, a reclusive visionary British intellectual who had arrived in the States with his partner, Christopher Wood, as well as with Aldous and Maria Huxley, and their son Matthew on April 12, 1937. Hollywood screen writer and novelist Christopher Isherwood would follow not long after. Huxley, Heard, and Isherwood would eventually have a major impact on the American countercultural appropriation of Hinduism. All three would be influenced by the Vedanta philosophy of Swami Prabhavananda, the charismatic head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California. All three finally would spend much of their mature years reflecting on what this Indian philosophy could offer the West in a long series of essays, books, and lectures. Quite appropriately, Alan Watts and Felix Greene called them “the British Mystical Expatriates of Southern California.” It was Huxley and Heard, however, who would have the most influence on the founding of Esalen.
Aldous Huxley, the Perennial Philosophy, and the Tantric Paradise of Pala
Although Murphy and Price actually met Aldous Huxley only once, in January of 1962 when the author visited them briefly in Big Sur shortly before his death on November 22, 1963 (the same day, it turns out, that JFK was assassinated), his intellectual and personal influence on the place was immense. His second wife, Laura, would become a long-time friend of Esalen, where she would fill any number of roles, including acting as a sitter for one of Murphy’s psychedelic sessions.
Aldous Huxley’s writings on the mystical dimensions of psychedelics and on what he called the perennial philosophy were foundational. Moreover, his call for an institution that could teach the “nonverbal humanities” and the development of the “human potentialities” functioned as the working mission statement of early Esalen. Indeed, the very first Esalen brochures actually bore the Huxley-inspired title, “the human potentiality.” This same phrase would later morph in a midnight brainstorming session between Michael Murphy and George Leonard into the now well-known “human potential movement.” When developing the early brochures for Esalen, Murphy was searching for a language that could mediate between his own Aurobindonian evolutionary mysticism and the more secular and psychological language of American culture. It was Huxley who helped him to create such a new hybrid language. This should not surprise us, as Huxley had been experimenting for decades on how to translate Indian ideas into Western literary and intellectual culture.
One of the ways he did this was through his notion of perennialism put forward in his 1944 work The Perennial Philosophy. Perennialism referred to a set of mystical experiences and doctrines that he believed lay at the core of all great religions, hence it is a philosophy that “perennially” returns in the history of religions. The book laid the intellectual and comparative foundations for much that would come after it, including Esalen and, a bit later, the American New Age movement. By the 1980s and ’90s, Esalen intellectuals were growing quite weary and deeply suspicious of what was looking more and more like facile ecumenism and an ideological refusal to acknowledge real and important differences among the world’s cultures and religions. But this would take decades of hard thinking and multiple disillusionments. In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, it was still a radical and deeply subversive thing to assert the deep unity of the world’s religions.
And this is precisely what Huxley was doing. After mistakenly attributing the Latin phrase philosophia perennis to Leibniz, Huxley defines the key concept this way in his very first lines: “PHILOSOPHIA PERENNIS . . . the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being—the thing is immemorial and universal.”
In essence, Huxley’s perennial philosophy was a form of what historians of Indian religion call neo-Vedanta, a modern religious movement inspired by the ecstatic visionary experiences of Sri Ramakrishna (1836û1886) and the preaching and writing of Swami Vivekananda (1863û1902), Ramakrishna’s beloved disciple who brought his master’s message about the unity of all religions to the States in the last decade of the nineteenth century. It was Huxley who wrote the foreword to this same tradition’s central text in translation, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (1942). It was within this same spiritual lineage again that Huxley, Heard, and Isherwood found much of their own inspiration and through which a general Hindu perennialism was passed on to early Esalen and American culture.
Such cultural combinations, of course, did not always work. As with all intellectual systems, there were gaps, stress-points, contradictions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the realm of ethics. Thus, for example, Huxley seems personally puzzled over the strange moral conditions of his hybrid vision, that is, the suppression or destruction of the personality, which the perennial philosophy understands as the “original sin.” But he accepts the textual facts for what they in fact seem to be and then illustrates them with a telling chemical metaphor that we might now recognize as an early traumatic model for the mystical, perhaps best expressed in this story in the mystical life and psychological sufferings of Dick Price. Here is how Huxley put it in 1944:
Nothing in our everyday experience gives us any reason for supposing that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen; and yet when we subject water to certain rather drastic treatments, the nature of its constituent elements becomes manifest. Similarly, nothing in our everyday experience gives us much reason for supposing that the mind of the average sensual man has, as one of its constituents, something resembling, or identical with, the Reality substantial to the manifold world; and yet, when that mind is subjected to drastic treatments, the divine element, of which it is in part at least composed, becomes manifest.
But it was not quite these mystical-ethical dilemmas or this psychology of trauma that Huxley would pass on to Esalen. It was, first, his Hindu-inspired notion of the perennial philosophy; second, his firm belief that psychedelic substances can grant genuine metaphysical insight; and, third, his central notion of the latent and manifest “potentialities.” We will get to the psychedelic soon enough. Here is how Huxley introduced the concept of potentialities, with a little help from an unacknowledged Freud, in The Perennial Philosophy: “It is only by making physical experiments that we can discover the intimate nature of matter and its potentialities. And it is only by making psychological and moral experiments that we can discover the intimate nature of mind and its potentialities. In the ordinary circumstances of average sensual life these potentialities of the mind remain latent and unmanifested.” A few pages later, Huxley’s writes of “the almost endless potentialities of the human mind” that have “remained for so long unactualized,” foreshadowing the later language and psychology of Abraham Maslow’s notion of self-actualization, another major conceptual influence on the founding of Esalen.
Even more relevant to the history of Esalen—indeed, prophetic of that future story—was Huxley’s very last novel, Island, which appeared in March of 1962, just one month after he had introduced a still unknown Timothy Leary to “the ultimate yoga” of Tantra, and just two months after he met Michael Murphy and Richard Price in Big Sur. The novel’s pragmatic celebration of Tantric eroticism and its harsh criticism of ascetic forms of spirituality (which the novel links to sexual repression, a guilt-ridden homosexuality, and aggressive militarism) marks a significant shift in Huxley’s spiritual worldview, at least as he was expressing it in print. After all, if in 1942 he could write a carefully diplomatic foreword to a book about a Hindu saint who considered all women to be aspects of the Mother Goddess and so would have sex with none of them (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna), now he was suggesting openly in 1962 that “to think of Woman as essentially Holy” was an expression of a conflicted male homosexuality anxious to avoid any and all heterosexual contact. It is much better, the novel now suggests, to think of the erotic union of man and woman as holy, that is, to see the sacred in the sexual and the sexual in the sacred. Hence “the cosmic love-making of Shiva and the Goddess.” Late in life Huxley appears to have been moving away from his earlier ascetic Vedanta, so prominently featured in The Perennial Philosophy, toward a new psychologically inflected Tantra.
Laura Huxley considers Island to be her husband’s final legacy, the place where he put everything he had learned. When I asked her about the novel’s obvious focus on Tantra, she was quick to point out that Aldous was not particularly friendly to traditional religion, and that he considered Tantra to be a technique, not a religion. Everything written in Island, she insisted, had been tried somewhere. The novel thus laid down a real and practical path to follow, not just a dream or another impossible religious claim. The novel was Aldous’s blueprint for a good society, even, Laura pointed out, if that “island” is one’s own home or private inner world. It can be done. That is the point.
The story itself involves a jaded journalist, Will Farnaby, who lands by accident on a forbidden island called Pala. Pala culture had been formed a few generations earlier by two men—a pious Indian adept in Tantric forms of Buddhism and Hinduism and by a scientifically enlightened Scottish doctor. The culture thus embodied both a literal friendship between and a consequent synthesis of Tantric Asia, with its lingams, deities, and yogas, and Western rationalism, with its humanism, psychology and science.
Farnaby quickly learns that Pala’s two principle educational practices involve a contemplative form of sexuality called maithuna (the Tantric term for sexual intercourse) and the ingestion of a psychedelic mushroom the inhabitants called moksha (the traditional Sanskrit word for “spiritual liberation”). The sexual practice, which was also consciously modeled on the Oneida community of nineteenth-century America and its ideal of male continence (a form of extended sexual intercourse without ejaculation), functioned as both a contemplative technique and as an effective means of birth control. The psychedelic practice initiated the young islanders into metaphysical wisdom, that is, into the empirical realization that their true selves could not be identified with their little social egos, which were understood to be necessary but temporary “filters” of a greater cosmic consciousness.
The novel meanders lovingly through and around both this maithuna and this moksha—which are manifestly the real point and deepest story of the novel—as the Rani or Queen Mother of Pala and her sexually repressed homosexual son, Murugan, take the utopian island further and further toward Westernization, industrialization, capitalism, and a finally violent fundamentalism organized around notions of “the Ideal of Purity,” “the Crusade of the Spirit,” and “God’s Avatars” (the Queen liked to capitalize things). The ending is as predictable as it is depressing: the forces of righteousness and religion win out over those of natural sensuality, pantheism, and erotic wisdom.
Strikingly, virtually all the markers of the later Esalen gnosis are present on Huxley’s “imagined” utopian island. Laura Huxley’s observation about her late husband’s rejection of organized religion, for example, are played out in full. “We have no established church,” one of the islanders explains, “and our religion stresses immediate experience and deplores belief in unverifiable dogmas and the emotions which that belief inspires.” Hence the humorous prayer of Pala: “Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief.” The islanders even integrated this religion of no religion into their agricultural affairs: the scarecrows in the fields were thus made to look like a Future Buddha and a God the Father, so that the children who manipulated the scarecrow-puppets with strings to scare off the birds could learn that “all gods are homemade, and that it’s we who pull their strings and so give them the power to pull ours.” Altered states, of course, were also central to Pala’s culture through the moksha-medicine, and the techniques of Tantra were omnipresent in their sexual lives. Perhaps most strikingly, Huxley saw very clearly that Zen, Taoism, and Tantra were all related expressions of a deeper transcultural gnosis or supertradition—what he called “the new conscious Wisdom.” More astonishingly still, he even linked this supertradition to the scientific insights of Darwinian evolution and proposed that the latter should now be realized through conscious contemplative practice in a way that uncannily foreshadows Murphy’s own “evolutionary Tantra.”
Somehow, Aldous knew what Esalen would come to know. And then he died. An earthquake struck Big Sur that day.
Gerald Heard and the Evolutionary Energies of Lust
Gerald Heard also played a significant role in the founding of Esalen. It was his charismatic presence and advice that finally tipped the scales for Murphy and Price and pushed them to jump in. Heard would also go on to give no less than four separate seminars in the early years. Appropriately, Anderson actually begins his Upstart Spring with Heard and has this to say about the writer’s influence on the two young men: “Huxley had so diffidently advocated a research project, had so hesitantly suggested its revolutionary possibilities. He thought something of that sort might happen. Heard thought it had to happen.”
Murphy has reminisced about his and Price’s first four-hour visit with Heard and its profound effects on him in both a brief essay titled “Totally on Fire” and in various personal communications with me. He described Heard as “archetypally Irish, like a big leprechaun, with red hair and flashing eyes,” and as “tremendously charismatic.” He also spoke of that original meeting with Heard as a real “tipping point” in his life, comparable to those first few class lectures with Spiegelberg. In the essay, moreover, he mentions Heard’s institutional presence in California, particularly his founding of Trabuco College, a small quasi-monastic educational experiment that lasted five years (1942û47) before Heard turned it over to the Vedanta Society of Southern California in 1949, as well as his strong presence in the Sequoia Seminars on the San Francisco peninsula. Both Trabuco and the Sequoia Seminars were clear precedents for Esalen.
So were a number of Heard’s ideas. Murphy was reading Heard’s Pain, Sex and Time and The Human Venture just before he and Price met him in 1961. Murphy is clear that Heard was not a significant intellectual influence on his own thought, but he also points out that the connections were real ones. Hence the Fire. Heard, for example, was very conversant in psychical research. Indeed, he had spent ten years working closely with the Society for Psychical Research in London (1932û42). Like Murphy, he had also lost his Christian faith over the convincing truths of science. Indeed, in his late twenties, he appears to have experienced a nervous breakdown over this intellectual revolution. But like Murphy again, Heard returned to a transformed faith refashioned around a new evolutionary mysticism. Physical evolution of the human species, Heard believes, has ceased, but human consciousness is still evolving; indeed, with the advent of the human species and the awakening of the human psyche through civilization, the evolutionary process has actually quickened and, perhaps most importantly, become conscious of itself. And here Murphy finds connection with Heard’s thought: “Part of his vision that appealed to me was seeing the mystical life in an evolutionary context, which put him squarely on par with Aurobindo.”
Heard had also written about the spiritual potentials of mind-altering drugs (like Huxley), about the complementarity of science and religion, even about UFO phenomena—all topics that would reappear at Esalen. And indeed, his books, rather like the UFOs, seem to swarm with strange and charming speculations, like the utterly preposterous and yet oddly attractive idea that the European witchcraft trials had eliminated a large gene pool of real psychical faculties, but that the centuries had since replaced the pool and we are now on the verge of a new “rare stock” of gifted souls endowed with evolutionary powers. All we need now is a small community, an esoteric subculture, to nurture and protect the gifted. In a talk at Esalen in 1963, he wondered out loud whether Esalen might become such an occult school. Another X-Men scenario.
Whatever one makes of such a claim, one thing seems clear enough: Heard knew what he was saying was heretical. He was aligning himself and his friends, after all, with the genes of witches. He was certainly as hard on religious orthodoxy as Spiegelberg had been. Heard could thus admit that humanity may have once needed its gods to keep in touch with the subconscious (and it was this same subconscious that supplied “the basis and force of the religious conviction” for him). Still, such anthropomorphic religions have now taken on largely “degenerative forms” that are hopelessly out of date with our science and psychology. It is time to move on, to evolve.
Finally, Heard, like his fellow British expatriate and brother Vedantist, Christopher Isherwood, was quite clear about his homosexuality. In other words, two of the three British expatriates (Huxley, Heard, and Isherwood) were self-described homosexuals, even if they chose to express this sexual-spiritual orientation in very different ways. Isherwood wrote openly about his own active homosexuality, his (failed) attempts at celibacy, and his sexuality’s defining effect on his devotional relationship to the tradition’s founding saint, Sri Ramakrishna, who he suspected (correctly) was also homoerotic in both his spiritual and sexual orientations.
Heard chose a different path. In Pain, Sex and Time he wrote about the oddly abundant energies of pain and lust in the human species as reservoirs of evolutionary energy and explored the possibilities of consciously controlling, channeling, and using this energy to cooperate with evolution and so enlarge the aperture of consciousness, to implode through space-time. Interestingly, when Heard turned to a historical sketch of these energetic techniques in the West, he began with Asia and various Tantric techniques of arresting the orgasm to alter consciousness and transcend time. Tantric Asia, in other words, functioned as something of an archetypal model for Heard in his search for a type of asceticism that was not life-denying but consciously erotic, a lifestyle that could embrace the evolutionary energies sparkling in sex, build them up through discipline, and then ride their spontaneous combustions into higher and higher states of consciousness and energy.
These Tantric moments reappear repeatedly throughout his writings. In one of his last books, for example, The Five Ages of Man (his forty-seventh book), he included an appendix: “On the Evidence for an Esoteric Mystery Tradition in the West and Its Postponement of Social Despair.” Once again, he begins a Western historical sketch not with the West, but with Tantra. Tantra, he tells us here, is the esoteric tradition of India that was subsequently persecuted and censored by both a puritan Islam and a prudish Brahmanism. Such a persecution of the mystical as the erotic was even more extreme in the West, where the esoteric often functioned as a kind of spiritual-sexual underground. Hence Heard’s reflections on an already familiar painting, Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights as explored by Wilhelm Fränger. Much like Henry Miller before him, Heard celebrates Fränger. Not that he does not have his own contribution to make: “Here, too,” he writes with reference to the same painting, “are unmistakable Tantra pictures of the rousing of Kundalini.”
He was even more explicit in his private letters. In one letter to W. J. H. Sprott (a gay friend loosely involved with the Bloomsbury group), Heard playfully describes the yogic practices of drawing water up through the anus and penis. He recounts in rather flip terms how the kundalini comes out “through the top of your sutures” (that is, the top of the skull), and then jokes of Tantra’s use of sexual-spiritual double meanings: “Or on the other hand you may take the left hand path and continue talking through your hat instead of getting out of your head.” And that was not all. “You realize,” Heard goes on, “that nearly every Tibetan Saint is a homosexual.” As for Heard himself, his own “pretty theory,” “rather wilder than any before” involved fetishism as the “true way to sublimation.” It was a version of this that he promised Sprott to read someday at the Hares Strip and Fuck Society. Bawdy laughter and real insight are impossible to distinguish in such moments, and it is the private letter, the secret talk, not the published text, that most reveals.
In midlife, probably around 1935, Heard seems to have followed his own speculations about the evolutionary sublimation of erotic energies (just after he began “turning East,” around 1932û33). He quite intentionally chose a celibate lifestyle and lived with his Platonic life-partner and personal secretary Michael Barrie. But he certainly never gave up his belief in the evolutionary potentials of sexual desire and the mystical privileges of homosexuality. Thus in the mid to late 1950s, he wrote, under the pseudonymn of D. B. Vest, about homosexuality as a potent spiritual force that might have some important role in the evolution of human consciousness. Two such essays appeared in One: The Homosexual Magazine as “A Future for the Isophyl” and “Evolution’s Next Step,” and a third would appear in Homophile Studies: One Institute Quarterly as “Is the Isophyl a Biological Variant?” Both the former magazine’s title (“One”) and its Carlyle motto (“a mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one”) strongly suggest Heard’s own Vedantic monistic metaphysics and mystical reading of homosexuality.
Heard’s mature homosexuality, however, was also “made sublime,” a kind of homoeroticism alchemically transmuted into a metaphysical force. Those who knew Heard often commented on these related ascetic and charismatic qualities of his personal presence (though seldom on the erotic dimensions that he himself consistently identified). His austerity was as palpable as his charisma. Indeed, Heard’s major differences with Swami Prabhavananda of the Hollywood Vedanta Society involved his strong criticisms of the Swami’s “moral lapses,” such as enjoying an occasional smoke and a nightly drink. Scandalous indeed.
Enter Hunter Thompson (1961)
Murphy and Price had already arrived at Big Sur Hot Springs before they met Heard and decided to found a new institution. When they arrived in their red Jeep pick-up in April of 1961, they found what can only be called a surreal mixture of people and worldviews. Murphy and Price pulled in late, well after dark. It was not a terribly auspicious first night. Murphy reports waking up in the middle of the night in the Big House to an angry young man pointing a gun at him: “Who the hell are you, and what are ya’ doing here?”
Enter Hunter Thompson. Bunny Murphy, Michael Murphy’s grandmother, had hired a young, billy-club-toting Thompson to guard the property and keep order. Unfortunately, she had neglected to tell her zealous guard that her grandson and friend were coming down to stay that night. Thompson, a young aspiring writer still finding his voice, had arrived to seek out the presence and inspiration of Dennis Murphy, Mike’s younger brother, whose literary work he deeply admired. Dennis had published a very successful novel in 1958, The Sergeant (about a homosexual affair in the U.S. Army), which had won the acclaim of John Steinbeck and would eventually be made into a Hollywood movie starring Rod Steiger, for which he would write the screenplay.
In 1967 Hunter Thompson published his first book, Hell’s Angels, and went on to create Gonzo journalism, a new style of American literature. Gary Trudeau immortalized his place in American literary culture as Duke in his Doonesbury series, but this would all happen later. At this point in 1961, Thompson was a young man of twenty-two living in the Big House and making copious notes in the margins of Dennis Murphy’s The Sergeant, learning the art of the pen, the sentence, and the turn of the phrase.
Thompson was hardly the only colorful character on the Murphy property, though. The folksinger Joan Baez lived in one of the cabins, where she often gave small concerts. The guest hotel on the grounds, moreover, was being managed by a certain Mrs. Webb, a fervent Evangelical Christian who had hired her fellow church members from the First Church of God of Prophecy to help her manage the day-to-day running of the place, which they leased from Bunny on a month-to-month basis. The bar, on the other hand, was patronized by what Price and Murphy called the Big Sur Heavies, locals known for their rough manners, their penchant for marijuana (which they grew in the mountains), and their quasi-criminal (or just criminal) tendencies. Then there were the baths, frequented on most weekends by homosexual men who would drive down from San Francisco or up from Los Angeles to gather in the hot waters and explore the limits of sensual pleasure. These men had even developed a kind of simple Morse code to help them manage their sexual activities: on the path leading down to the baths they would post a guard, who would switch on a blinking light at the baths to signal to the bathing lovers the approach of straight people coming down the path. Anderson paints the following humorous picture with his usual verve: “And so it went through the spring and summer of 1961: sodomy in the baths, glossolalia in the lodge, fistfights in the parking lot, folk music in the cabins, meditation in the Big House.”
Bunny had long turned down her grandson’s repeated requests to hand the grounds over to him. She was particularly concerned that Michael would “give it away to the Hindoos.” But things were getting out of hand at Big Sur Hot Springs, and she would soon change her mind after events that have since become legendary. Much of it, unsurprisingly with hindsight, revolved around Hunter Thompson.
Thompson, it turns out, sometimes picked verbal fights with the homosexual bathers. One night, he returned to the property with his girlfriend and two hitchhiking soldiers from Fort Ord (a base just north of Monterey). Thinking it was safe to go down to the baths in such a crowd, Thompson ventured down the dark path. But some of the bathers jumped him, the soldiers and his girlfriend ran away, and Thompson was left alone to slug it out. As the story goes, most of the slugging was done by the bathers. The men beat Thompson up and came very close to throwing him off the cliff that night. Bloodied and bruised, he got back to his room in the Big House, where he spent the next day sulking and shooting his gun out a window, which he never bothered to open.
Not long after this incident, Bunny would read one of Thompson’s early published essays in Rogue magazine, “Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller,” in which he described the folks of Big Sur as “expatriates, ranchers, out-and-out bastards, and genuine deviates.” Such language did not go down well with Bunny. She may have been in her eighties, but she was also tough. According to Anderson, she then “made one of her rare trips down to Big Sur, in her black Cadillac with her Filipino chauffeur, for the specific purpose of firing Thompson.” Exit Hunter Thompson.
The Night of the Dobermans
Then in October came what is known in Esalen legend as the Night of the Dobermans. Thompson may have been gone, but the baths remained in the control of the gay men. Things had gotten so out of control that even Dennis Murphy’s friend Jack Kerouac looked askance. If this veritable archetype of the American Beat scene, so immune to the pettiness and damning comforts of middle-America, could visit and leave the Hot Spring baths disgusted with their moral and fluid state (he saw a dead otter bobbing in the waves and sperm floating in his bath), clearly, something had to be done.
It was not always like this. When Henry Miller wrote about Esalen’s homosexual bathers in the late 1950s, it was with real affection and a certain playful humor. For Miller at least, these were elegant artists and dancers who belonged to that “ancient order of hermaphrodites.” They reminded him of “the valiant Spartans—just before the battle of Thermopylae.” He doubted, though, that “the Slade’s Springs type would be ready to die to the last man. (æIt’s sort of silly, don’t you think?’)” That was in 1957. Things were different now. These men were acting much more like Miller’s imagined Spartans. They were ready to fight.
Murphy and Price began by erecting a gated steel fence around the baths and announcing that they would be closed from now on at 8:00 p.m.—not exactly a popular move. One night they walked down the path to close the gate and encountered a group of men who simply refused to leave. Everyone knew what had happened to Hunter. Murphy and Price returned to the lodge to gather the troops, which in the end amounted to five people, including Joan Baez and three Doberman pinschers. The dogs, it turns out, were the key. As the small band walked down the path, the three dogs began to bark viciously at each other as the owner yelled, “Choke him! Choke him!” It was all the group could do to keep the dogs apart. When the growling and snarling group finally arrived at the baths, the place was completely empty. Cars were starting and lights could be seen in the parking lot as the men made their anxious retreat. Later that evening, as Murphy walked around the property, he noticed a young couple kissing in the moonlight up on the highway. For Murphy, Anderson reports, the young couple synchronistically signaled a shift in the atmosphere and a new day (and night) at Esalen.
The proverbial guard had now literally changed. Mrs. Webb and the charismatic Christians would soon leave. The baths were no longer synonymous with the rowdy gay men of the cities. There was a meditating American yogi and an aspiring Buddhist shaman-healer on the grounds. And Joan was still singing in her cabin. Big Sur Hot Springs was on its way to becoming, as the white wooden sign still says, “Esalen Institute by Reservation Only.”
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