Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, published in 1966, tells of the first student protest in an American college in the name of sexual liberation. The figure of Gnossos, rebel and anti-conformist, stands out above it all.
ROMA - University of Athens, United States, 1958. A reactionary president has the brilliant idea of introducing restrictive rules to prevent his students from doing what all young men and women in the world have done since the time of Adam and Eve. The thinking heads of the campus are in ferment. A revolt is underway.
There is need of a leader. The choice falls upon Gnossos Pappadopoulis, the "young fuzzy Pooh Bear, the keeper of the flame." He is the coolest kid at the University. He who seizes life by the just verse, the "fig leaf" par excellence: one who earns the highest grades without opening a book, who goes to bed with all the beautiful girls at the snap of his fingers, uses and deals in all known drugs, even one of his own invention, without getting caught. But Gnossos does not want to know himself. The fact is that to be "cool" means not only to feel oneself to be explicitly apolitical, not to take sides, to shine with one's own light: "cool" is he who has earned Exemption, that is, the capacity to traverse the sea of experience--all experiences--without paying one's dues. One path to Immortality is the Purity that laughs at human misery and can for a brief moment surrender to the illusion of the ultimate gesture: imagine if someone like him is inclined to devote himself to the service of a flock of sharks [war profiteers?] through whom the Student Revolt is only a shortcut towards a brilliant political career.
In order to recruit the mythic Gnossos, the eggheads test him in every way: from involvement in acts of vandalism to threats of improbable mafia operations, even an overdose of a hallucinogen that materializes in a homicidal demon in the form of a monkey. All in vain. Gnossos resists, and the clever manipulators cannot turn him against the most terrible of all demons, the ingenue, the cleancut boarding school student with whom our hero, abandoning his "cool" and his Exemption, falls hopelessly in love.
In 1966, when Richard Fariņa's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me was published, he was already a star of folk-rock. He played the dulcimer and the 12-string guitar, performing as a duo with his wife Mimi, sister of Joan Baez, and more than one critic of the time considered his songs, halfway between blues and celtic folk accompanied by lyrics sometimes angry, sometimes desperate, greater or at least no less worthy than those of Bob Dylan.
From the beginning of the narrative Fariņa was preparing to become both an intellectual and man of spectacle in all fields: but three days after the appearance of the book, on a rainy night in Carmel, he died in an automobile accident. His life had been brief and intense. Half Irish and half Cuban, as an adolescent he had run guns for the IRA. Expelled from the United Kingdom, he was accepted at Cornell University in New York State, becoming close friends with a young man destined to become in a short while the most popular American youth writer since Salinger: Thomas Pynchon. Along the way, meanwhile, he found time to fight with Castro in the first Cuban revolution in 1957. An experience that gained him a summons from the House Un-American Activities Committee, to whom he dedicated a bitter song with verses like, "God bless America without any doubt,/And I figured it was time to get out."
There is more than one reason to rediscover Fariņa the writer today, apart from the undoubtable value of the novel--a comic pastiche, grotesque, postmodern in the noble sense of the term; finally, there is Gnossos, an unforgettable character, archetype and model, with his role of refusal and unbridled vitality, of the John Belushis and Big Lebowskis of the future.
And then there is a not negligible prophetic vein: the passive students of Fariņa are transformed into angry rebels when they become crazy for sex. It is scarcely a matter of remembering that the sixties were not born of a Marxist plot but, far more simply, of men's infiltrating women's dorms, always in the name of the oldest tension in the world.
Finally, this portrait of a young non-conformist sounds truly comforting, capable of living in peace with hormonal urges, in an age in which the "cool" is definitively buried and youth waver between necrophilic urges and an aspiration for a CEO position of a corporation. It means that youth can--and perhaps should--be whatever is different.
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