The teacher/student relationship has been a strong bond throughout history. So strong that many administrations have enforced rules about their private conduct. Not so in the late 1960s, where the deans encouraged their teachers to hit on the young impressionable students looking for modes of rebellion, and at Sarah Lawrence, when it was still an all-women school, that was the place to be for an avant-garde novelist and budding professor like Ronald Sukenick.
Interview by Christian Ettinger & Alexander Laurence
Ronald Sukenick is the author of numerous works of innovative fiction including Up, Out, 98.6, The Endless Short Story, Blown Away, and Long Talking Bad Condition Blues. His book of non-fiction, Down and In, recreated the New York underground scene from the fifties to the present. His most recent book of fiction, Doggy Bag (Black Ice Books), has been given an enormous welcome through many reviews in newspapers and large audiences on two recent reading tours of the United States. In a recent panel discussion on Fiction into the 21st Century, Marjorie Perloff mentioned Sukenick as one of the most interesting writers now working.
ALT-X: Tell us about your role in the 1960s sexual revolution?
RS: We grew up in the Eisenhower Era -- all of this was like the Garden of Eden.
ALT-X: So talk a little bit about 1968 at Sarah Lawrence College and about the young women who wanted to have sex with their teachers?
RS: I suspect everybody was screwing one other. Teachers were screwing students in their dorm rooms.
ALT-X: Were there any girls you wanted to have sex with and they rejected you?
RS: No. Absolutely not.
ALT-X: How many did you have sex with?
RS: Fifteen or so.
ALT-X: Did you ever achieve the status of a Wilt Chamberlain who claimed he slept with 20,000 women in the 70s?
RS: How did he schedule them in. Intellectuals can't do that. They need some time to think. It's not like going to the basketball court. You have to think before going into the classroom, so that takes up most of the day. You have to have to write, to eat, to sleep. You add it all up and I don't think there is time for three women a day. Now screwing students is very risky for teachers because they could get fired.
ALT-X: You've stopped doing it?
RS: Oh yeah, it's too much trouble. But it still goes on. No professor can have any relation with a student now. That rule hit graduate students especially hard because students were their only source of dating. A lot of good relations, a lot of marriages come out of those relationships.
ALT-X: So the experience with all these women, the political aspects and the sex in 1968 inspired you artistically?
RS: I think the whole ferment was intellectually very energizing, and inspired me. Sex becomes turbulent and highly energized at times when other things become highly energized. It is a Reichian point of view.
ALT-X: Orgone energy. We have to release our orgone energy?
RS: Not particular to Reich. D.H. Lawrence has the same path. It's all one flow, if you suppress it at one place the whole culture is affected. I think the people in charge of the culture know that. Sex can be used as a control mechanism.
ALT-X: Do you think sexual repression can stimulate cultural activity in the same way releasing sexual inhibitions can?
RS: I think it can work both ways because the sex became consumerized at that point and so you have to look at further boundaries of repression because the excitement is in breaking the taboos. A lot of people are pushing S/M these days while back in 1968 just to get laid was a huge revolution.
ALT-X: The excitement is gone?
RS: I wouldn't say it is gone but it doesn't carry any weight of cultural revolution. It was a quasi-political act to get laid in those days which was a nice coming together you might say.
ALT-X: These young women thought it was very political to sleep with their professors and you reaped the benefits?
RS: We were all reaping benefits in those days. By the way it wasn't only college girls, but it was high school students. I have a story in Death of The Novel and Other Stories about going out with a 13-year-old for example which was kind of instructive.
ALT-X: A sexual relationship?
ALT-X: Did you know the girl's parents?
RS: No. I met her the day my first novel was accepted. I went to see these underground films in the Village and started talking to this girl in line next to me for a ticket. It was very dark in there and we started making out during the movie. When we got out I was astonished to see this girl was actually a kid. We started going out. I liked going around with her in public because everyone would look shocked. Making out in public and people would look appalled.
ALT-X: How about your wife? Was she cool with you going out with a 13 year old?
RS: We were trying to be cool in those days.
ALT-X: It's better than incest. I hear all these stories about fathers who sleep with their daughters?
RS: It is a syndrome of powerful men they can't stop. They have to have everything. Polanski was really into this. Like that movie Chinatown.
ALT-X: What were some of the roots of the sexual revolution?
RS: I remember in 1968 I was living in the lower east side and there were hipsters and beatniks and all of the sudden in 67, 68 and 69 there was this immense publicity in Life Magazine etc. I asked myself, why did the media suddenly pick up on these weird outsiders who were advocating a huge change in the culture? I took a look to see when Marcuse's first books about politics and culture were out and sure enough they were early and mid 60s. They explained how capitalist culture needs to, instead of repressing the pleasure instinct to make people good workers and very puritan, they needed to harness the pleasure instinct to make them good consumers. Marcuse's books were being taught at the good schools and the good schools are where rich kids from big families who will run big corporations go. These kids are telling their bosses, "Now we got to harness the sex instinct to sell more newspapers and other kinds of merchandise. It seems like a good idea lets try it." They look around and see there's these rock singers and beatniks and say that's just what we need.
ALT-X: The social revolution in the sixties came from the top?
RS: Just like the cultural revolution in China.
ALT-X: The Hippies were a new cultural thing that was happening.
RS: What happened with the hippies is that they were the result of this transition of the popularization of the beat movement. Beatniks became hippies and then what happened on the lower east side was violent. While the beatniks could blend in with local culture because we dressed like them, suddenly there are these guys in beads and sexy clothes and the Puerto Ricans hated them. There were all these fights and violence and drugs.
ALT-X: Hippies were these rich kids?
RS: They were consumers. The people before were cultural workers or dropouts. The hippies came in as consumers of the kind cultural capital that was built up by the underground for a long time. And the summer of love in 1967 was when everything got violent.
ALT-X: The Hippies drove up the rent.
RS: Yeah. That is when the lower east side became The East Village. They drove up the rent indeed.