This is an homage to this writing by Michael Ventura.
I hope that doesn't infringe any copyright(s).
I believe this piece of writing should be read by
just about everybody in western society,
so I'm making it more public.
Michael Ventura has much more wonderful writing,
available in a number of books.
The bold face denoting important main points is added.
If you read nothing else, read the last section.
From: WHOLE EARTH REVIEW Winter 1989, page 44
(which is no longer being published)
THE AGE OF ENDARKENMENT
BY MICHAEL VENTURA
PART I: THE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF DATA WE HAVE
"ADOLESCENCE" is a cruel word — all the more because it hides
its cruelty behind its vaguely official, diagnostic air. The word
sounds as if it was invented by somebody part professor, part cop.
It condescends, puts "adolescents" in their place. To say someone is an "ado-
lescent," "going through adolescence," "being an adolescent," is usually to
dismiss their feelings, minimize their troubles, and (especially if you're trying
to be their parent) protect yourself from their uncompromising rage. The
words "teenager" and "teen" are worse. They reek of cuteness — and hypo-
crisy. For we all know that, whatever else is true of being a "teen," it doesn't
You will almost never hear them use these words. In my experience, they
tend to call themselves "kids" when pushed, as in "What makes you think
you know so much about kids, how many kids do you know, you sure don't
know much about me!" Or they dress up and act out as though to give them-
selves other words: "punk," "gothic," "rapper," "gang-banger," "low-rider,"
"homeboy," "skinhead," "soc," "greaser," "hippie," "freak" — words to remind
us just how volatile, how dangerous, how "freaked out," "radical," "bum-
mered," "bitchin'," "groovy," "wasted," "awesome," "bad" those years really are.
When we don't have apt words for something it's because of an unspoken,
forceful collective demand to avoid thinking about it. That's how scary "ado-
lescence" is. Which is also to say: that's how scary our very own, private,
unspeakable adolescence was. And when we finally are
past it (in America that often doesn't happen until we
near 40) then we turn around and see the young and
pretend that they are foreign to us, we don't know
what they're going through, we don't understand their
music, their fashions, their words, their codes. As some-
body who has felt and said this (only yesterday!) I am
writing to tell you that I think we are lying.
James Baldwin's line comes back to haunt: "One can
only face in others what one can face in oneself."
What we cannot face, when we cannot face the young,
is, plainly, ourselves. (And this is the song of families.)
We cannot, do not want to, face our secrets, our com-
promises, our needs, our lacks, our past failures and
the unspoken certainty (for we're old enough to know,
now) that we're going to fail again. And that's only the
stuff we know about ourselves, consciously — what
about what we don't know, and don't want to know?
All of it, especially what we don't want to know, stirs
and starts to growl somewhere deep inside when adole-
scents look hard into a parent's eyes. It's as though, in
some dark way, they are privy to all our secrets, they
sense where it all is, and when the young so much as
glance toward those parts of us, oh, then all our old
panics resurrect, all the demons we thought we'd dealt
with, grown out of, transcended, escaped — it only
takes this goddamn kid, and the beasts awake. And we
may measure our fear of them by the extent of our
distance from that very kid.
But perhaps, when we love them, our greatest fear is:
That we cannot help them, cannot protect them, and
we have nothing real to give them. And their greatest
rage is: That we cannot help them, cannot protect
them, and we have nothing useful to give them.
When something is true of virtually everyone, it's un-
likely that the fault is individual; but we feel and fear
this mess as individuals, kids and grown-ups both, and
they can't help but judge us for it as we can't help but
flee their judgment.
All that we share with them, then, is an inner scream:
This isn't fair! We do have useful things to give, if they
would only take them — but they can't seem to. Indi-
vidually, their refusal to take what we have to give, no
matter how we try to give it, seems pernicious and will-
ful; but when you look at them collectively, you see
that they're obviously not in control of their refusal,
they have to refuse us, no one knows why, even when
their own refusal makes them secretly ashamed, which
in turn makes them worse, which makes us worse. It
seems that no matter what anybody does in America,
the very act of raising the kids seems, at the onset of
adolescence, to throw kids and parents into negative
In fact we've reached a point where we take this
"How old's your kid?"
"Oh my God."
It's as though the kids have a fundamental craving for
negative extremes in their dealings with their parents
especially and with adults in general — and will stop
at practically nothing to invoke that negativity. And
everyone has come (unofficially) to accept this fact.
All our models for dealing with these issues are psycho-
logical. Which is, frankly, absurd. You can't reduce a
collective phenomenon, a phenomenon that cuts across
every class and most countries, that has fundamentally
the same elements in Harlem and Beverly Hills, at
Woodstock and Tien An Men Square, in English soccer
matches and Palestinian villages — you can't reduce a
phenomenon like that to individual and family causes.
To try to do so goes far beyond not making sense —
it's to ignore the most important piece of data we have,
which is the very fact that the same basic thing is hap-
pening everywhere to everyone.
As the mid-1990s come and go, and kids become the
dominant population of most of the world, there'll
be no way to ignore that data anymore.
PART II: THE INITIATORY MOMENT
Two writers, from very different disciplines, have
described "adolescence" most tellingly for me.
Educator Mike Rose in his crucial, though as yet criti-
cally ignored. Lives on the Boundary (The Free Press,
Macmillan, 1989); "Kids have no choice but to talk in
extremes; they're being wrenched and buffeted, rabbit-
punched from the inside by systemic thugs."
A thought elaborated by rock critic Michael Corcoran,
writing in The Austin Chronicle a year or so ago: "...
rap and its polar opposite, but sometime bedfellow,
heavy metal, is the '80s counterpart to '50s rock and
roll and '70s punk. It's rebel music, soul music, kids'
music. It understands what parents and teachers don't,
that puberty is not about hair or pimples or cracking
voices; it's a beast, a demon. It's a beautiful rage that
wants to belong and sometimes only can through dumb,
simple angry music. Rap doesn't incite violence, nor
does metal. It stirs deep emotions, that sometimes get
out of hand. It ignites the same spirit that makes us fall
in love, have children and believe in God."
We tend to think of this extremism in the young as rela-
tively new, peculiar to our time. The history of the race
doesn't bear this out. Robert Bly and Michael Meade,
among others, teach that tribal people everywhere
greeted the onset of puberty, especially in males, with
elaborate and excruciating initiations — a practice that
plainly wouldn't have been necessary unless their young
were as extreme as ours. But, unlike us, tribal people
met the extremism of their young (and I'm using "ex-
tremism" as a catch-all word for the intense inner caco-
phony of adolescence) with an equal but focused and
instructive extremism from the adults.
The tribal adults didn't run from this moment in their
children as we do;'they celebrated it. They would as-
sault their adolescents with, quite literally, holy terror;
rituals that had been kept secret from the young till
that moment — a secrecy kept by threat of death, so
important was this "adolescent moment" to the ancients;
rituals that focused upon the young all the light and
darkness of their tribe's collective psyche, all its sense
of mystery, all its questions and all the stories told to
both harbor and answer those questions. Their "meth-
odology," if you like, deserves looking at, since these
societies lasted with fair stability for at least 50,000 years.
The crucial word here is "focus." The adults had some-
thing to teach: stories, skills, magic, dances, visions,
rituals. In fact, if these things were not learned well
and completely, the tribe could not survive. But the
adults did not splatter this material all over the young
from the time of their birth, as we do. They focused
and were as selective as possible in what they told and
taught, and when. They waited until their children
reached the intensity of adolescence, and then they
used that very intensity's capacity for absorption, its
hunger, its need to act out, its craving for dark things,
dark knowledge, dark acts, all the qualities we fear
most in our kids - the ancients used these very
qualities as teaching tools.
Through what the kids craved, they were given what
they needed. Kids of that age crave extremes of ex-
perience — they crave this suddenly and utterly, and
are possessed by their craving. They can't be talked out
of it or conditioned out of it. It's in our genetic coding,
if you like, to crave extremes at that age. (So they must
certainly feel rage if, as in our culture, adults tell them
that these cravings are wrong, disruptive, and/or don't
really exist — which New Agers do as surely as Vic-
torians.) At the same time, these kids need the cosmology
and skills apt for survival in their world. The kids can
create the extremes for themselves — they're quite good
at it; but not the cosmology, not the skills. And
without those elements, given at the proper time
through the dark-energy channels that have suddenly
opened in the young and go clear down to their souls,
the need for extremes is never really satisfied in its pur-
pose, and hence it goes on and on.
Tribal cultures satisfied the craving while supplying the
need, and we call that "initiation." This practice was so
effective that usually by the age of fifteen a tribal
youth was able to take his/her place as a fully respon-
sible adult. Because our culture denies the craving, we
can't possibly meet the need — so most of us never
truly grow up or feel, in our heart of hearts, adult. Of
course, we have an infinitely more complex, fragmented
world to pass on to our young — a world that can't, in
fact, be 'passed on" because it's still in the process of
inventing itself, furiously, mercilessly, every day, every
hour. So how have the young responded? For about
forty years, now, they have generated forms — music,
fashions, behaviors — that prolong the initiatory mo-
ment, i.e., that cherish and elongate adolescence — as
though hoping to be somehow initiated by chance
somewhere along the way.
For tribal people the initiatory moment was by far the
most intense period of life, and lasted usually no more
than weeks, at most about a year. For us, it now can
stretch into a couple of decades. And, in a kind of
negative feedback system, the pressure to make it last
decades makes it more and more violent at the outset.
This very extension of the initiatory moment is helping
to drive everybody mad.
PART III: OUR INITIATORY ENVIRONMENT
For tribal people, initiations were the most crucial,
pivotal ceremonies of life. Ceremonies into which all
other tribal life was compressed, and, at the same time,
from which the life of the tribe was derived. The seed-
time. The fact that we've prolonged that initiatory
moment for decades is a psycho-active element in our
era that is hard to underestimate.
But why is this a late-twentieth-century phenomenon?
Tribal life ended in Europe a thousand years ago. Why
hasn't this been going on, then, for at least a thou-
Before the Second World War, it was as though we
were between worlds. The pre-war world, going back
at least several hundred years, was deeply repressive
and viciously exploitive — but orderly. At least, order-
ly enough (certainly when compared to today) —
orderly enough so that the repression upon which it
was based could be enforced; Initiation didn't happen,
hadn't happened in the West for a long time; the dark
craving-period in the young was most often utterly
squashed, such that it turned in on itself, creating in
individuals a kind of deadness, a stiffness that became
adulthood, maturity. By the age of 17 or so the effects
of a repression from which there was virtually no re-
lease or escape had made most people rigid enough to
assume the responsibilities society demanded. It was a
rigidfty that passed (and, in our nostalgia, still passes)
for strength, a sort of lifeless life, where one did one's
duties and made a virtue of stoicism. Whether or not
people felt particularly alive, they got things done.
And certainly there was something to be said for that.
Every now and again there would be a burst of revolu-
tion against this, usually expressed politically — but
that was nothing new, there'd been such bursts for
hundreds of years. They were short-lived and things
returned to "normal" quickly. Even the French Revo-
lution made comparatively small headway (small in
relation to its scope and violence) against the general
America was a special case — till roughly 1900 it had
a frontier where the rules didn't apply, which in turn
kept its more "civilized" sectors agitated. That's why
most of the innovations that became the twentieth cen-
tury — cars, lightbulbs, radios, motion pictures, radio-
activity, even democracy itself — became institutions
here first, no matter where they originated. By con-
trast, the European countries had their frontiers, their
colonies, safely distant from their centers. Those coun-
tries could exploit their artificial frontiers economically
without changing as much socially. America, organically
connected to its wild places, couldn't do that.
But somehow the Second World War unleashed new
energies. (The real collective reason for the war, Thomas
Pynchon suggests in Gravity's Rainbow, was precisely
for the final burst of these slowly pent-up energies.)
The energies were expressed technologically, but we
forget that technology is an expression — it's an effect
before it's a cause. In any case, those unleashed energies
made enforcement far less of a sure thing. On a family
level, enforced repression soon became impossible in
the West — as it is now becoming everywhere. But we
know now that enforcement became problematic even
in the most repressive countries. What, for instance,
would have happened to Mao if he hadn't managed to
harness that energy in the young for his own ends in
China — if, that is, they were his own ends, if he wasn't
just making the best, his best, of a critical situation.
Mao perhaps directed the energy of the "Cultural Revo-
lution," but it is not within human capacity for one
person to create such energy.
The fact is that all over the world, the children bom
during and just after the Second World War hit "ado-
lescence," the initiatory moment, with a vengeance,
in virtually the same way, with negative and positive
poles of the same phenomenon, virtually everywhere.
Please don't try to explain that to me with the psy-
chology of individuals or the economics and politics of
what were then still separate societies. Something far
more mysterious, laws of human behavior we haven't
begun to differentiate, appear to have been in play.
So the effect of the Second World War on the young
was that the craving-period, the initiatory moment,
could no longer be squashed. Adults could hardly keep
up with the changes in their own lives, much less po-
lice their children's. What had happened only among
the very privileged (rich whites) or the disenfranchised
(blacks) in the twenties, was now going on everywhere:
the young were generating forms — music, fashions,
and customs — that had the effect of prolonging the
initiatory craving-period. Just because that result wasn't
conscious doesn't mean it wasn't intended. Instinct isn't
conscious, but it has definite, specific purposes.
This phenomenon, or complex of phenomena, multi-
plied geometrically every year, it seemed, until now the
dark-tinged craving-period we choose to call "ado-
lescence" has literally become the cultural air we
breathe. And while it's true that most of these forms
are now corporately controlled, they originated from
the bottom up, they were spontaneously generated by
young people — and the corporations that now control
many of them are run by people of that first generation
of these unleashed young. The result is that, under the
guise of entertainment (music, movies, television), a
sense of adolescent volatility is now enforced the way
the image of "mature" rigidity once was.
Of course, this has gone hand-in-hand with the pop-
ulation explosion. Cause and effect get awfully muddled
here. (The very notion of cause and effect probably won't
be with us much longer.) The population explosion
and the prolonged craving-time seem causes and effects
of each other. And the situation, with all its causes and
effects marinating each other, has become this:
The world has become adolescent. Chaotic "teenage"
intensity, dark-tinged extreme experience, is business
as usual, the stuff of everyday life. (Something once
tolerated only in artists — for what has being an "artist"
meant, in the West, but prolonging the initiatory mo-
ment? Filtered through the disciplines of art, artists
deal with much the same material that the ancients
taught in their rituals — and that is no coincidence).
The way that tribal people treated this period in their
young was to expose them, through precise ritual, to
what the Australians call "the dreamtime" — the psyche's
mysteries in their rawest form. And that is what this
world cultural environment, structured by the priorities
of adolescence minus the in-struc-tion of fully initiated
elders, is doing; it's exposing everybody to the mys-
teries of the psyche in their most raw acted-out forms.
By the mid-1990s half the world will be "teens." Half
the world will be in that natural, unavoidable state of
craving extreme and dark experience while, at the same
time, demanding the structure of instruction — instruc-
tion that no one can give on such a scale. And if it
can't be done by the family or the community, where
can they turn but to the larger collective? Hence their
demand — inchoate, unreasonable, and irresistable
— is that history initiate them.
What a ride.
For we've already seen what happens when this non-
verbal and unconscious demand of youth is acted out
in the sphere that we usually call history. It was at-
tempted briefly in America during that time we label
"the sixties." And in France, in '68; in Czechoslovakia
during the "Prague Spring"; in China during the Cul-
tural Revolution and, more recently, in Tian An Men
Square. It's still going on in Palestine, while in Europe
the impulse has birthed the Greens, in Russia "pere-
stroika." (You can't credit mass events to one man, as
Tolstoy so brilliantly diagrammed in War and Peace —
even if he's Gorbachev.) It happened in Cambodia —
where what mostly happened, if you strip the political
lingo from it, was that the kids murdered the grown-
ups. And the prolongation of the initiatory moment
has everything to do with why there's such a massive
drug market in the United States. And it will keep on
happening, more and more, eveywhere, until —
Until what? That is the question, and nothing but
history can answer it. There's no going back. In many
tribal initiations, if you don't pass you die. We don't
know what will satisfy the demands of this massive,
unprecedented attempt at initiation, or if it can be sat-
isfied. But we can guess the consequences if it can't.
And yes, of course: no one phenomenon can supply
the entire context of what's happening to us all. But I
have no doubt that this unconscious, compulsive pro-
longing of the initiatory moment into decades — is at
the crux of our fate.
PART IV: NEW YEAR'S EVE
We live in a culture where individuals and institutions
behave as though convinced that, even though they're
acting much like everybody else, the source of their
behavior is confined to their psyches, their families,
their confined personal worlds. (I am not saying that
to peer into your personal psychology is a worthless
activity; it can be crucial for growth. But it's not the
whole story and it may not even be the half.) We have
no coherent way to think collectively — at least no way
that's not reductive, and, therefore, personally insult-
ing. Our inner darkness is something to be processed,
"shrunk," transcended, individuated, got rid of; while
our inner light is diluted into Christian or New Age
platitudes. This renders incomprehensible such words
as these of the Greek poet George Seferis: "1 watched
you with all the light and darkness 1 have." Instead our
light and darkness tend to come out in their most stri-
dent forms — drugs, guns, cults, and brutal (punk)
or sickly sweet (New Age) sounds.
Still, we all have moments that escape these strictures.
For me, one of those moments happened a while ago,
when I was living with a woman and her thirteen-year-
old son. Later I would lose them both, through all the
reasons that you lose people these days. But there was
this one night, and it's worth telling as a coda to this
web of thoughts.
It was New Year's Eve. They had gone to a party. I
hadn't felt like it. They got back well past midnight. I
had waited up for them. They were telling me about
their evening — when the boy suddenly (and this wasn't
"like" him) started to sob. When we asked him why he
burst out with, "Everything is so fucked, it's all so
fucked, what's the point, it's all so fucking fucked."
I loved — and love — that boy. So I wanted to comfort
him, to tell him things weren't that bad, it would all
be all right — but it was no time to lie. What I said to
him, straight into his eyes — and he seemed to get it,
that one night, and I pray often, often, that he'll
remember it — was this:
That we are living through a dark age. An age, if you
like, of "endarkenment" — and I don't necessarily mean
that negatively. The world is aflood with dark psychic
fluid, everything's stained with it. 'We all say we hate
the stuff, but we don't act that way, we splash in it.
It's an age in which, for reasons we can't comprehend,
everything's being turned inside out, everything's im-
ploding and exploding at once, and we can't stop it.
And it's going to continue, it'll go on for a long, long
time, longer than we're going to be alive. So we can't
find peace, we can't "win," it's not going to be all right.
Not for us. But that doesn't have to rob us of purpose;
in fact it's the opposite, it implies a great purpose: That
what each of us must do is cleave to what we find most
beautiful in the human heritage — and pass it on. So
that one day, one day when this endarkenment exhausts
itself, those precious things we've passed on will still
be alive, stained perhaps but functional, still present in
some form, and it will be possible for the people of
that day to make use of them to construct a life that is
a life — the life of freedom and variety and order and
light and dark, in their proper proportions (whatever
they may be). The life that we'd choose now if we could.
And that to pass these precious fragments on is our
mission, a dangerous mission — that if you were going
to volunteer for crucial, hazardous work, work of great
importance and risk, this might be the job you drew.
And it isn't a bad job at all. Actually, it's the best job.
And his mother, and me, and our friends — "And you
too, man," I said, "I can see it in your eyes" — that's
what we're doing here. Trying to do. And it's no small
thing, it's the best, man, it's one of the few things left
to be proud of.
Later everything went wrong — we have to expect
that. now; we imploded and exploded too, like every-
one and everything else, and sure, sure, it was because
of our childhoods, but it was also because that's what's
happening to everyone right now, that's the initiation
— or that's part of it, the worst part. Still — I know he
got it that night, because it was all in him in the first
place, I just put words to it (which is all writers do
anyway, it's all there in the first place). Maybe, at the
end of his long, long, and, as it must be when things
are this way, incomplete initiation, incomplete as mine
or yours — then maybe it'll still be there in him, and
he'll find his part of the work too.
Maybe the most important thing to remember right
now is that many people are doing this work. It's more
public in a writer or an artist or an environmentalist,
but anyone who loves something life-giving and tends
it — to garden, or to read, or to brew beer, or (even
this is becoming lost) to take long walks — is, as Pas-
ternak put it, keeping life alive, and passing it on.
For the reality is that we don't have to wait till 1993,
we have been in a teenage initiatory state for a while
now, and it'll go on for a long while more, far beyond
anyone's ability to predict or control, and the best that
we can do is to try to endure its cacophony and de-
cipher its purpose while we tend what we love. •
WHOLE EARTH REVIEW WINTER 1989