Banal Retentive: Andy Warhol’s Romance of the Pose

Edited by Pat Hackett
Warner Books, $29.95

Like his best art, Andy Warhol’s diaries are full of surface information and tough to figure. They dare you to find them deep. After a life spent hustling for the spotlight with close personal friends like Liza and Liz and Halston and Mick, Warhol thoughtful­ly remembered them all from Beyond. The artist’s bequest to his boldface buddies is a record of his innermost thoughts and theirs. The result is a thick, newsy volume that’s either celebrity wallpaper or a Pop Goncourt Journals. Maybe both. Who else, as Suzy says, would have thought to record the man-keeping secrets of our major thinkers? “If you only have two minutes, drop everything and give him a blow job,” Jerry Hall told Andy. “Keep a diary,” Mae West once advised, “and someday it might keep you.”

Without question The Andy Warhol Dia­ries is this summer’s heavy reading. I weighed the book myself and it’s over four pounds. In fact, the diary is a two-writer effort. Edited (or “redacted,” to use an old Interview term) by Warhol’s phone confi­dante Pat Hackett, it’s a monument to the Blavatsky style — part dictation, part re­creation. Hackett was Warhol’s secretary/stylus, skittering over the board while he telephonically gave her the words. As every People reader knows, the diaries were be­gun as a daily telephone account of the artist’s activities, made to satisfy the IRS. With their constant notations of taxi fares and dinner tabs, they also satisfy Harold Nicolson’s advice to the thorough diarist to remember what everything cost. Warhol re­members it all. The diaries started out as accountings and evolved into reckonings, but nobody expected that at the start.

Hackett met Warhol when she drifted down to the Factory from Barnard looking for part-time work. He hired her, sort of, by pointing to a desk. Warhol employees couldn’t always count on remuneration: “volunteers” was the office word for trust-fund menials with no pressing need for a paycheck. Hackett stumbled into a relation­ship with Warhol the way most of his em­ployees, stars, and friends did. Warhol seemed to have some powerful gravitational pull, a personal force field. One of the many unwholesome delights of The Andy Warhol Diaries is watching cosmic detritus get sucked into his strange orbit.

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Early ads for the book have suggested that behind Warhol’s platinum-wigged va­cancy lay a knuckle-whacking moralist: he only looked as if no one was home. The artist is portrayed as a churchgoing Big Brother, always watching. The creepy im­plication is that the Pop jester never took his world seriously. While his companions snorted and screwed themselves to oblivion, he sneaked off to light votive candles and annihilate everyone on paper. If the mar­keting’s too patly convenient — suggesting that what we secretly desire is a repudiation of the sex-drugs-and-disco decades — it’s also pitched right for the times. The tease on The Andy Warhol Diaries is that the book offers the sin and the penance in one stop. It’s a trendy notion, but Warhol’s Weltanschauung makes things a trifle more complex.

In a nice, and possibly random, touch the photo section of the book opens with a picture of the Zavackys, the Czechoslova­kian family of Julia Warhola, Andy’s mom. Posed in their kerchiefs, mustaches, and rube finery, the Zavackys appear ready to set off on the great adventure: “Up from Steerage.” They remind the reader what Warhol came from, more accurately than the usual inventions about his “coal miner” father (actually a construction worker) from McKeesport (actually Pittsburgh). In the whopping 807-page volume Warhol cites the Zavackys just once, and not by name, reminded of them by the onion dome churches in The Deer Hunter. But he doesn’t need to dwell on his forebears since they hover like shades, embodied in the moralizing, shrewd, and unforgiving peas­ant who lopped the final vowel from his surname and hit it big.

Warhol’s hardworking, penny-wise (and generous by turns) nature had deep Old Country roots. Even when he became the most famous artist in the world, he re­mained the child of immigrants and a first-­generation working-class American. This helps explain his infatuation with surface and his success in Society: he lent himself as a kooky ornament to people who valued his tactful understanding that he’d never belong.

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One of the enduring Warhol fictions casts him as a mooch. And it’s true he loved a freebie. Like a crazed conventioneer, the diary Warhol swipes silver from the Con­corde — working toward a complete set — ac­cepts ludicrous invitations, even attends the opening of an escalator. With his tape recorder or Polaroid he brings back souve­nirs. But Warhol paid his own way. Even in the druggy days of Max’s Kansas City (not covered by the diary), it was Andy who picked up the check. Which doesn’t mean he expected less than full value. He was a big tipper who got a kick out of handing employees pink slips. He had a solid prole sense of quid pro quo.

The ’60s Warhol recorded in his earlier books — among the most accurate records of the time — starred the gargantuan, drugged personalities of his superstar friends: Viva, Brigid Berlin, Ondine, Jackie Curtis. His novel a and The Philosophy of Andy War­hol (From A to B and Back Again) are all slick finish or amphetamine rant. He left the tape running on a cast of talking heads who played themselves with manic, dam­aged brilliance. But by the time The Andy Warhol Diaries begin, the superstars have faded (most aren’t dead yet), his films are in a vault, and the cast has changed.

From 1976 until his death, Warhol pre­ferred to surround himself with consorts and gold diggers. There are really two dia­ries. One is thronged with celebrities. But beneath that glittering text lies a subsidiary world, populated by Warhol’s steadies, a passel of attractive and ambitious vagrants without portfolio or evident talent — “art­ists” like Victor Hugo, the window dresser who kept Halston company; “models” like Barbara Allen, a beauty whose staggering romantic successes were accomplished de­spite mental limitations impossible to overstate. And Bianca Jagger, of course.

Jagger is one of the few characters who survives all the Diary years: she’s a tena­cious scenemaker. Over time, Jagger devel­ops as something more than a cartoon ce­lebrity in a marathon name-drop. There’s a strange quality about her, pouting with Halston, pouting with Mick, pouting for the cameras, pneumatic mouth on labial cruise control. She’s no Lily Bart, but somehow Bianca seems … better than her fate as a groupie/girlfriend/wife-of-fading-rockstar.

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Warhol has no taste for the pathos of Jagger’s trajectory from Nicaraguan nobody to celebrity nobody. He has no taste for pathos at all. He gets off on showing his friends with their pants around their ankles. He prefers that their embarrassments take place in public, as in this entry from December of 1978: “Marisa [Berenson] looked beautiful in silver, and Paul Jasmin was with her. She’s finally leaving town. She’s mad at Barbara Allen because Barbara was seeing her husband, Jim Randall, out in California, so Barbara wasn’t invited. Steve [Rubell] told us that Warren [Beatty] had fucked Jackie O., that he talked about it. Bianca said that Warren had probably just made it up, that he made it up that he slept with her, Bianca, and that when she saw him in the Beverly Wilshire she screamed, ‘Warren, I hear you say you’re fucking me. How can you say that when it’s not true?’ ”

There’s an anecdote a minute in the dia­ries. They’re thick on the ground. And if they don’t render whole, authentic-sound­ing people, it’s worth remembering that Warhol’s friends were not entirely real. The famous “stars” he cultivated have egos so strained and distended they’re like special-­effects contraptions lurching from page to page. Baryshnikov as the Little Engine That Could. Attack of the Fifty Foot Liza.

Anyway, diaries aren’t under obligation to render whole people. It’s a miniaturist’s skill, made for the slash, the wicked aside, the unflattering silhouette. Warhol becomes seductive the way Pepys or Henry (Chips) Channon or Cecil Beaton do, on the strength of his own greedy curiosity and sanguine optimism. Not to mention his gaga syntax, which becomes a form of ad­dictive baby talk. “Oh, I read a great col­umn in the Times!” he tells the diary in December of 1978. “It was something like ‘Funky, Punky, and Junky,’ and they had been talking about it at Tom Armstrong’s — ­it was about ‘silly people’ and it (laughs) had me in it a lot. No mention of Steve Rubell, no Halston — just me, Marisa, Bianca, Truman, Lorna Luft — the silly peo­ple and the silly places. And later, at Hal­ston’s, Halston said he’s glad he wasn’t mentioned because he said (imitates) ‘I’m! Not! Silly!’ And then everyone started call­ing Bianca ‘silly pussy, silly pussy.’ And Marisa came over and when she heard about the ‘silly’ column she was upset to be ‘silly.’ ” Maybe you had to be there.

Pat Hackett tells us that Warhol “mel­lowed” over the years. He outgrew “a cruel maddening way he had of provoking people to near hysteria.” Still, he kept all the barbed conversational quirks of a ’50s queen. In Warhol’s “camp” lexicon gay men were “fairies,” any “loud” woman could be a dyke, and hyperbole was the rule (especially when describing the male organ: Warhol’s diary is the Home of the Whopper). In the early days of his fame, he trained himself to talk in unintellectual monosyllables because it made for a more “butch” presentation. When he slipped with a five-dollar word (never in public), he inevitably used the occasion to mock himself.

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It was in Warhol’s Pop nature to fetishize movie stars and objects and puppies, then exploit his woozy compulsion in art. He kept a tight rein on sentimentality, or ex­posed it to gamma rays that made it larger than life. Warhol’s modus operandi, his “philosophy” was a stew of aesthetics and Czechoslovakian home truths. He disguised his politics (actively Democratic, although he only voted once in his life) and real opinions as credulous blather. He acted dumb. “Victor [Hugo] came by with his brother who’s so good looking,” he remarks one August Monday in 1983. “And Victor says his brother’s cock is so big he used to hit the table with it at breakfast. I guess they were naked at breakfast, you know these South Americans. It takes years to get nervous and live in an uptight situation like civilization.” How did people ever swallow the supposition that the real Warhol was a white-wigged idiot standing around saying, “Great”?

One of Warhols’s better card tricks was to make it all look easy: he was careful to maintain his cool. And that wasn’t always for the public’s benefit. He worked hard to conceal creepy feelings like hurt and long­ing from himself. “[Producer] Jon [Gould] told me the other night that he liked Pop­ism, but to Chris he said he didn’t think Paramount could do it,” Warhol writes in March of 1981. “But maybe eventually something will happen with it. Maybe it’s too soon. Oh, and Jon said to me that he thought it was ‘badly edited’ so I don’t know if he’s good at reading.”

This unexciting entry captures an essen­tial Warhol. It replays one of his ancient ambitions, to be taken seriously (in Holly­wood, of all places). And it displays his ego at work. Warhol knew the value of his tal­ents, and could spot his own ephemeral gar­bage faster than anyone. Just as surely he knew what would last. Although he was a literary dunce (Joan Crawford’s bio was a heavy tome), Warhol was “good at read­ing.” And writing. With the exception of a, which was written and should be read on amphetamines, his books are skillful, com­posed in his own reedy ruthless voice. By the time he came to write them, his persona had achieved fictional proportions. Having invented Andy, there was little need to manufacture stories about him. Andy could follow Andy around and record Andy’s ad­ventures and Andy’s nutty thoughts.

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One problem with the diaries is their postmortem polish. (Another is the casual proofreading: names are misspelled, luggage comes down a “shoot.”) As the reader slogs through the years with Warhol, it becomes tougher to sustain belief in the method of straight dictation. Hackett has said the book was distilled from 20,000 pages and that she used a light editing hand. But an­ecdotes drift toward the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as sentences start, “This was the day of … ” Dialogue tags (“she groaned”) stand out from the page. Hackett intrudes.

Still the book is great social history, with its lip-smacking tales of loveless, sexless marriages, its gimlet-eyed view of other people’s success, and its rampant uncloset­ings (when he mentions how Tony Perkins once hired hustlers to come through his window and pretend to rob him, you can see the libel lawyers twist and squirm). And it’s studded with gems of pure Warhol: “She was the nurse and he was Kaiser alumi­num,” he remarks. Or, “It was a Paloma Picasso day. Went to breakfast at Tiffany’s for her.” Or: “Ran into Rene Ricard who’s the George Sanders of the Lower East Side, the Rex Reed of the art world — he was with some Puerto Rican boyfriend with a name like a cigarette.”

The mellow Warhol was, if anything, even sharper in his ability to skewer with few words. “Decided to go to Peter Beard’s party at Heartbreak,” he writes of the so­cialite cocksman/photographer. “Peter was at the door showing slides. The usual. Afri­ca. Cheryl [Tiegs] on a turkey. Barbara Al­len on a turkey. Bloodstains. (Laughs.) You know.”

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By the mid-’80s, the diary Warhol has absorbed many of his rich friends’ daffy eccentricities. He becomes an unwitting caricature, extravagant and yet convinced he’s being taken (often true), obsessed with his pets, with unreturned favors, social gaffes and horrors. (When his wig is snatched during a book-signing at Rizzoli, he can’t even say the words; his editor does it for him.) He’s increasingly snookered by crystal healers, acupuncturists, and pimple experts. And, as always, he pines for affec­tion and sex — even after Jon Gould has moved into his 66th Street townhouse. New art stars have begun to upstage him, and Pop colleagues are selling higher at auction, a fact that obsesses a man whose lifelong fear was “going broke.” Scarier still, he oc­casionally goes unrecognized on the street.

The drug scene dries up as his adventur­ess friends revert to type and scramble for the altar. And the “fairies” mysteriously begin to die off. Betrayal, disappointment, and the banality of aging erode the fun quotient. Always phobic about hospitals and illness, Warhol is nastily remote when friends contract “the gay cancer.” These entries — almost any entry involving the physical difficulties of a friend — have a bald, ugly texture. Warhol was more sympa­thetic to animal distress than human. In one early entry he rails against his assistant Ronnie Cutrone for assassinating an ex­-girlfriend’s cats. Yet, later, when friends contract AIDS, Warhol refuses to sit near them at parties or share seats in a car. He begins to avoid restaurants where “fairies” prepare the food.

After 1983, the peppy atmosphere of Warhol World darkens. His long relation­ship with the decorator Jed Johnson fizzles out and his emotional shortcomings begin to redound nastily on himself. Johnson’s desertion begins a string of “divorces.” Bob Colacello (né Colaciello, as Warhol né War­hola likes to point out) quits the editorship of Interview to pursue moneyed Republi­cans. Halston sells his name to J.C. Penney. Steve Rubell is imprisoned for tax evasion. And with each cast change Warhol’s life and the book become more banal. His schedule is still frenetic but the diary rhythm flattens. There’s more time to kill.

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Part of the problem is Warhol’s new com­panions. Where he used to attract the most outlandish and beautiful people, he now settled for salaried companions and Social Register dregs like Cornelia Guest. These (sometimes titled) dullards had none of the crackling edge of his old drag queens or even his high-level hustlers. Warhol’s “stu­pid” pose was no help with this crowd, who couldn’t tell the difference. And the diary is forced to work harder on their behalf. Ca­pering from party to party with the newly anointed “celebutantes” and “millionettes,” Warhol found himself mentally slumming. It’s in these sections that you begin to notice what’s left out.

There are few entries about shopping or collecting, two of his major obsessions. And scant mention of work. Throughout the 11 years the book covers, Warhol was con­stantly turning out portraits, portfolios, new projects. But when “inspiration” crops up, the word seems like a sop tossed to the tax man, a joke.

The aging Warhol was still in demand, but he was less fun, more inward and cranky. “Cabbed up to 63rd Street ($8) … And Halston handed me a piece of pa­per in the shape of a boat and I was so thrilled. I knew it was the rent check for $40,000 [for Warhol’s Montauk house]. So that made my evening. And since it was so rainy I didn’t have any gifts with me so I wrote an I.O.U. to Halston and Victor and the niece: ‘I.O.U. One Art.’ … So anyway I went home and I opened up the paper boat and instead of a check, it was just noth­ing — like ‘Happy Birthday’ or something. It wasn’t a check and it should have been a check. All done up like a boat. It should have been a check.” The reader cringes.

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Like most people’s, Warhol’s holidays were anything but celebrations. For years, he celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas at Halston’s East 63rd Street house. The attempts at recreating family are land­marks amid seasonless loops of fun. They arrest the narrative in a way that few other events seem to do. Perhaps it’s because the touching gifts (often a dress for Andy), the Christmas trees, the roast turkey are the last thing you’d expect from a group of drugged publicity junkies. And somehow this makes them dear. The book doesn’t end until Warhol’s death in February of 1987, and the giddy pace never slackens. But for this reader, the diary hit an inad­vertent conclusion when Halston called off all tomorrow’s parties, leaving Andy with­out his little band. “Got up and it was Sun­day,” Warhol tells the diary on December 25, 1983. “Tried to dye my eyebrows and hair. I wasn’t in the mood. Went to church. Got not too many phone calls. Actually none, I guess.” ■


Yo Hermeneutics! Hiphopping Toward Poststructuralism

If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance then baffle them with your bullshit.

— Afro-American folk wisdom

In a war against symbols which have been wrongly titled, only the letter can fight.

— Ramm-El-Zee

Word, word. Word up: Thelonious X. Thrashfunk sez, yo Greg, black people need our own Roland Barthes, man. Black deconstruction in Ameri­ca? I’m way ahead of the brother, or so I think when I tell him about my dream magazine: I Signify — The Journal of Afro-American Semiotics. We talking a black Barthesian variation on Jet, itself the forerunner of black poststructuralist activity, given its synchronic mythification and dia­chronic deconstruction (“Soul singer James Brown pulled up to court in Baltimore in a limousine and wearing a full-length fur coat, but convinced a federal magistrate he is too poor to pay creditors $170,000. Brown testi­fied that although he performs regularly, he has no money … U.S. Magistrate Frederick N. Smalkin agreed. ‘It appears Mr. Brown’s financial and legal advisors have surrounded him with a network of corporations and trusts that serves as a moat to defend him from the incursion of creditors,’ Smalkin said”), not to mention its contribution to the black tradition of the encyclopedic narrative (cf. Ellison, Reed, Delany, Clinton, and Ramm-El-Zee).

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Merely conceiving a poststructural­ist version of this deuteronomic tribal scroll is enough to make me feel like a one-man Harlem Renaissance — at least until Thelonious asks if I’m hip to Henry Louis Gates Jr., blood up at Yale (Cornell by the time you read this) who guest-edited two issues of Black American Literature Forum on the subject of semiotics and the signi­fyin’ monkey. Turns out I vaguely re­call hearing about an appearance the brother made at a Howard University Third World Writers’ Conference a few years back. Rumor has it Gates shook up the joint talking about the relationship of structuralism to Book­er T. Washington’s Up From Slavery: folk wanted to know what all this formalism had to do with the struggle. Now, unless I’m mistaken that was the same year Barbara Smith nearly got run outta town on a rail behind delivering a radical lesbian-feminist reading of Toni Morrison’s Sula (one sister proclaimed Smith had ruined a beautiful book by bringing her sexual per­version into it) and the same conference where Addison Gayle went off on Ishmael Reed for not being a social realist (Bo Schmo meets the Lour Garoo Kid live and in living color like a mother-fer-ya).

Reason I bring all this up is Gates has now published Black Literature and Liter­ary Theory, 14 ground-breaking essays by an assorted lot of literary academics­ — black, white, African, Afro-American, femi­nist, structuralist, poststructuralist. The contributor notes confirm that these furth­ermuckers here are off into some brand new funk. Jay Edwards, for example, is author of a forthcoming two-volume Vernacular Architecture of French Louisiana. Barbara Johnson, professor of romance languages and literatures at Harvard, has written Dé­figurations du Langage poétique, translat­ed Derrida’s Dissemination, and is working on a book about Zora Neale Hurston. An­thony Appiah, formerly of the University of Ghana and Clare College, Cambridge, now at Yale, is editing and analyzing 7000 Twi proverbs and doing a book on those aspects of philosophy of mind most relevant to the interpretation of language.

In his introductory essay, “Criticism in the Jungle,” Gates rhetorically asks, “Who would deny us our complexity?” and de­fends rigorous formal (as opposed to polemical) readings of black texts. Which isn’t to say his program lacks sociopolitical bag­gage: “The essays collected in Black Litera­ture and Literary Theory share a concern with the nature of the figure, with the dis­tinctively ‘black’ uses of our English and French language and literature … How ‘black’ is figuration? Given the obvious po­litical intent of so much of our literary tra­ditions, is it not somewhat wistful to be concerned with the intricacies of the figure? The Afro-American tradition has been figu­rative from its beginnings. How could it have survived otherwise? I need not here trace the elaborate modes of signification implicit in black mythic and religious tradi­tions, in ritual rhetorical structures such as ‘signifying’ and ‘the dozens.’ Black people have always been masters of the figurative: saying one thing to mean something quite other has been basic to black survival in oppressive Western cultures … ‘Reading,’ in this sense, was not play; it was an essen­tial aspect of the ‘literacy’ training of a child. This sort of metaphorical literacy, the learning to decipher complex codes, is just about the blackest aspect of the black tradition.”

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And white folks thought black people only had the edge on them in primitivism; uh-huh, brothers and sisters got decon­struction racing through their veins too. Matter of fact, one of the hippest essays in the collection, James Snead’s “Repetition as a figure of black culture,” gives the granddaddy of dialectics (that’s Hegel, y’all) a run for his modernism, demolishing G.W.’s racist belief that European history is progressive and African history “primitive” by demonstrating that Western modern­ism’s debts to The Continent are conceptu­al as well as formal. Roll over Picasso, tell William Rubin the news. Whole lot of signi­fyin’ of that order goes down in this book; polysyllabic Western theories got to throw­down to the beat of polyphonous black aes­thetic discourse. Says Gates: “The chal­lenge of black literary criticism is to derive principles of literary criticism from the black tradition itself, as defined in the idi­om of critical theory but also in the idiom which constitutes the ‘language of black­ness,’ the signifyin(g) difference which makes the black tradition our very own. To borrow mindlessly, or to vulgarize, a critical theory from another tradition is to satisfy de Gaultier’s definition of ‘bovaryism’; but it is also to satisfy, in the black idiom, Ish­mael Reed’s definition of ‘The Talking An­droid.’ ” Gates’s notion of a black tradition built only on figurative language seems a bit text-bound and bookwormish to me, but this tropism can probably be read as a rhe­torical ploy in pursuit of academic equality for the study of Afro-American literature. While we all know who really bears the burden of proof of “civilization,” survival often bids us act otherwise.

Maybe the most admirable (and subver­sive) thing about the essays in BLALT is that they explain, question, argue down, re­vise, signify on the theories they consort with in the interest of integrating black cul­ture into the postmodern world. Could be black culture been there and gone, consid­ering the Art Ensemble of Chicago and es­pecially Miles Davis (his schizzy public statements on jazz seem to epitomize the canon-rearing and canon-razing that lie at the heart of the entire postmodern decon­struction project), but who would deny these professors their shot at contributing to the state of the race? Black culture doesn’t lack for modernist and postmoder­nist artists, just their critical equivalents. And now that, like Spielberg’s Poltergeist, they’re here, might as well face up to the fact that there’s no avoiding the recondite little suckers.

Although if, like every other liberal arts­-damaged bibliophile I know, you bring to the semiotics enterprise more than latent hostility, you may get into this book purely on account of the lucidity these interlocu­tors break the shit on down with. Take, for example, Anthony Appiah’s “Strictures on structures: the prospects for a structuralist poetics of African fiction,” which manages, against the odds, a droll exegesis of Saus­sure and Lévi-Strauss. Believe it or not, Appiah actually makes fun reading out of his deadpan definitions of Saussure’s langue and parole, not to mention Chomsky’s ideas about linguistic perfor­mance and competence: “… how is it that we are able to find in the inchoate mass of ordinary utterances which Saussare called parole, that abstract system of rules he called the langue? It is because the Chom­skyan notions of performance and compe­tence provide an answer to this question that they are often mentioned in the same breath as the langue/parole distinction. Chomsky’s claim is that speakers have an implicit grasp of the rules of the abstract system of langue, which grasp constitutes competence and guides their actual perfor­mance in parole. Differences between what the langue prescribes and the raw stuff of ordinary speech are to be explained in terms of the failure of psychological pro­cesses which actually apply the rules. Anal­ogously, we can claim that driving is gov­erned (in Britain) by the rule ‘Drive on the left in two way traffic,’ while allowing that some people drive on the right when they aren’t concentrating.”

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Appiah is damn near sidesplitting taking Lévi-Strauss and Saussure to task for claiming that a langue for decoding myth structure and literary structure exists in the collective unconscious: “I think that Lévi­-Strauss’s view is that the decoding does occur, but that it is unconscious: this is an interesting thought, for which, if I may speak for myself and the myths of Asante, there does not seem to be much evidence … For a breed so given to drawing on a linguistics whose privileged status seems to derive only from the scientism of our cul­ture and times, literary theorists seem pecu­liarly resistant to even the most modest form of empiricism. We can acknowledge that all theory is underdetermined by the evidence, that a flourishing undergrowth of theory can subsist on the most meagre evi­dential terrain and still require of ourselves that we root our theorizing in the dry earth of experience.”

Signifyin’ on the signifiers is a running theme of this collection, but those whose butts get signified on aren’t just Hegel and the formalist frogs. Barbara Johnson’s ”Metaphor and metonymy and voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God” makes strange bedfellows of black male activists and white feminists (both are culpable, Johnson believes, for denying black wom­en’s inner voices) in a remarkable essay that widens the significance of Jakobson’s fam­ous study on aphasia by appreciating Hur­ston’s synthesis of public and private voices in the rendering of Janie Starks. Ostensibly, Appiah’s essay is a debunking of the fore­most African structuralist Sunday O. Anonzie; Houston Baker’s “To Move Without moving: creativity and commerce in Ralph Ellison’s Trueblood episode” manages to be equally Oedipal albeit more genuflectively. Baker produces a dialectical parallel be­tween trickster Trueblood’s exploitation of American racial myth for personal gain and Ellison’s own careerist use of same: “… the ‘critical pronouncements’ in Ellison’s canon that imply his devaluing of Afro-American folklore hardly seem consistent with the meanings implicit in his Trueblood episode. Such utterances may be regarded, I believe, as public statements by Ellison ‘the merchant’ rather than as incisive, affective re­marks by Ralph Ellison the creative genius. Trueblood’s duality is, finally, also that of his creator. For Ellison knows that his work as an Afro-American artist derives from those ‘economics of slavery’ which provided conditions for Afro-American folklore … Joyce and Eliot taught Ellison that, if he was a skillful enough strategist and spokes­man, he could market his own folklore. What is bracketed, of course, are the eco­nomics that dictated that if Ellison wished to be an Afro-American artist he could only turn to Afro-American folklore as a tradi­tional, authenticating source for his art. Like his sharecropper, Ellison is wont to make ‘literary value’ out of socioeconomic necessity.”

In this assessment of Ellison, Baker could of course be remarking on the peculiar tau­tologies of slanguage and formal language black academics like him and Gates have to deploy to keep up a good front. I mean this is a slick game the bloods are running here; making with all the right poststructuralist references and verbiage to translate black folk’s linguistic thang into some doodah dem buckra can relate to while at the same time being true to black culture’s version of semiotics, namely signifyin’. Gates’s closing essay, “The blackness of blackness: a cri­tique of the sign and the Signifying Mon­key” is a masterpiece of such duplicity. Through an appreciation of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo Gates manages to viciously signify on all of black and Western dis­course. (By the way, Henry, we got to figure out some other distinction besides this black and Western stuff, being as how blackness is a Western category in itself, and all that’s black ain’t purely African or non-Western even, semantic convenience notwithstanding. Robert Farris Thomp­son’s notion of a Black Atlantic tradition is one solution, but you know, you start bring­ing bodies of water into it and folk get to signifyin’ Negroes can’t swim. Anthony Braxton’s riff on the Trans-African tradi­tion is another possibility but that could get confused with the antiapartheid organiza­tion. Hmm, mebbe semantic convenience will have to stand.)

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Gates reads Reed’s satire on all Sacred Texts as a parody of received ideas about “blackness” in the Great Black Novels of the past. He traces the incestuous intertex­tuality of the black literary tradition, citing Hurston’s revisions of Toomer and DuBois; Ellison’s of Wright, Toomer, and DuBois; Reed’s of Hurston, Wright, and Ellison. Then he pronounces them all examples of black literary signifying. What Gates finds in Reed’s pastiche of definitively “black” texts (somewhat akin to writing the Great American Novel) is a highhanded version of that peculiar form of signification known to black folks as signifyin’ — which to us does not imply merely decoding the symbolism of a thing but calling it out of its name and talking bad about its mama. (One of Gates’s colleagues, Kimberly Benston, has coined a phrase for such literary versions of playin’ the dozens as Reed’s: tropes-a-dope.) In the final analysis what Gates’s essay seems out to provoke is an acknowledgment of black folks’ capacity to deconstruct and refashion Western culture in our own image. As proof, Gates draws on Ellison, Reed, and Richard Pryor and does some fine signifyin’ of his own, taking examples from the black tradi­tion to explicate Big Ideas — so what if he betrays a need to show off a little ed-ja-mi­ca-shun to cover his ass in the process. To wit: “Another kind of formal parody sug­gests a given structure precisely by failing to coincide with it — that is, suggests it by dissemblance. Repeating a form and then inverting it through a process of variation is central to jazz — a stellar example is John Coltrane’s rendition of ‘My Favorite Things,’ compared to Julie Andrews’s vapid version. Resemblance thus can be evoked cleverly by dissemblance. Aristophanes’ Frogs, which parodies the styles of both Aeschylus and Euripides … Lewis Carroll’s double parody in ‘Hiawatha’s Photograph­ing,’ which draws upon Longfellow’s rhythms to parody the convention of the family photograph, all come readily to mind.” (Yessuh, I just snaps my fingers and dere dey is.)

I’m not the only one who has a few bones to pick with Gates — as I found out when I read Houston Baker’s Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature. You wouldn’t know they had any differences at all from reading Black Literature and Literary Theory — where, excepting Appiah’s spat with Anonzie, the critics don’t signify on each other. Baker’s disagreements with Gates are certainly as substantial as the Africans’. Seems that back in 1979 Gates appeared in a tome titled Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruc­tion, which sought to dictate formalist ground rules for the teaching of Afro-Amer­ican writing. In his essay, Gates attacks the critics of the ’60s Black Aesthetic move­ment. (Baker was a constituent, alongside such good brothers as Stephen Henderson, Larry Neal, and Lorenzo Thomas, whose absence from discussion in BLALT almost gives you the feeling Gates thinks black literary criticism began with him and his crew. Shee, as a colleague reminded me, wouldn’t be no Afro-American studies at Yale or anywhere else if it hadn’t been for these Aesthetic types and the black student rebellions of the ’60s.) Gates thinks you shouldn’t read black texts with regard for such extraliterary concerns as race politics and culture; he argues instead for a semiotic reading of the literature, with texts seen as a closed system of signs and black folk culture, like the blues say, allotted value rela­tive to use by black writers. In rebuttal Baker writes, “When, therefore, Gates pro­poses metaphysical and behavioral models that suggest that literature, or even a single text exists as a structured ‘world’ (a system of signs’) that can be comprehended with­out reference to ‘social institutions,’ he is misguided in his claims, appearing only vaguely aware of recent developments in literary study, symbolic anthropology, linguistics, the psychology of perception, and other related areas of inquiry. He seems, in fact, to have adopted, without qualification, a theory of the literary signs … that pre­supposes a privileged status for the creative writer.” Baker records that by the time Gates wrote The Signifying Monkey: To­wards a Theory of Afro-American Litera­ture, he’d realized his debts to the Black Aestheticians for exploring the social and vernacular resources of black literary lan­guage but that the apolitical nature of his acknowledgments betrayed “overly profes­sional or careerist” anxieties.

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Only Lord knows Baker ought to be the last one to talk about overly professional anxiety, given his own relentless use of paragraph-length quotes from Foucault, Barthes, White (Hayden, not Bukka), and the like. Not to mention treacly passages that read like so: “Rather than a rigidly personalized form, the blues offer a phylo-­genetic recapitulation — a nonlinear, freely associative, nonsequential meditation — of species experience. What emerges is not a filled subject but an anonymous (nameless) voice issuing from the black (w)hole. The blues singer’s signatory coda is always atop­ic, placeless.” Besides the fact that this leaves me wondering what to do with blues verses about going to Kansas City and that Sweet Home Chicago, Baker seems to be underrating the contribution of the colorful personas (and nicknames) of the bluesmen — in pursuit, it appears, of an ontogenetic and hermeneutical langue for decoding black folks’ blues consciousness, but what the hey. Baker actually becomes worth his weight in jargon by emphasizing the impact of economics on the blues and black litera­ture. This emphasis in fact serves as the linchpin of Baker’s formalist critical inqui­ries and race-man politics. His study of Richard Wright is especially provocative. Not only does it rescue Wright from the social realist stigma put on him by heirs apparent Ellison and Baldwin, it locates in his language a liberating critique of bour­geois Western literary practices (akin to Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero project, ac­cording to Baker), which finds them impov­erished when confronted with expressing black oppression and desire.

Gates’s failure to select Baker’s Wright essay over the one on Ellison is lamentable; apparently the author of Shadow and Act is deemed more worthy of membership in the Gates canon than the author of Twelve Million Black Voices. In this lapse Gates nearly condones the inability of the white body politic to conceive of differences between black people. On the other hand Baker seems equally nearsighted when he cites the blues (and the Southern rural form at that) as the only definitive arena for conjugating black economics and aesthetics.

Perhaps the supreme irony of black American existence is how broadly black people debate the question of cultural iden­tity among themselves while getting brand­ed as a cultural monolith by those who would deny us the complexity and complex­ion of a community, let alone a nation: If Afro-Americans have never settled for the racist reductions imposed upon them­ — from chattel slaves to cinematic stereotype to sociological myth — it’s because the black collective conscious not only knew better but also knew more than enough ethnic di­versity to subsume these fictions. As Amiri Baraka writes in his autobiography, we might laugh at Amos and Andy without losing sight of the fact that that aberration on the screen was not us. The line between individual identity and ethnic identification explodes the black community into factions of opposing race phffosophers. Sadly enough, in these times, what sense of com­munity there is derives more from the col­lective sense of a racist societal surround than from the ethnic affirmations available through black cultural communion.

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Per Harold Cruse I believe there may be remedial and revolutionary implications to black cultural nationalism considered as a political strategy. These derive from black culture’s proven capacity to re-invert capi­talism’s cannibalization and commodifica­tion of revolutionary ideas. By necessity our radical aesthetic tendencies have evolved within a context where commercial exploi­tation and excommunication from the mainstream went hand in hand. Afro-Amer­ican music provides the paradigmatic model for this analysis: Consider that the four­-year period when George Clinton’s Parlia­ment-Funkadelic Thang accrued estimated profits of $40 million (roughly between 1975’s apocalyptic Up for the Down Stroke and 1979’s Gloryhallastoopid: Pin the Tole on the Funky, a synthesis of Genesis and the Big Bang Theory) was not only their most creatively fertile but one in which they could not get played on white radio. On black radio they functioned as active oppo­sition to a form of record industry sabotage dubbed “disco” — or as I like to pun it, dis­COINTELPRO, since it destroyed the self-­supporting black band movement which P­-Funk (jes) grew out of.

Obviously, the advent of hiphop can be said to have contributed even more radical acts of counterinsurgency, turning a com­munity of passive pop consumers into one of procreative pop producers. (Consider the way freewheeling deejays put their signa­ture to mixes composed from industrial ma­terials, approximating in music Duchamp’s notion of the readymade.) Hiphop’s seizure of the means of reproduction has now led us to a Human Beat Box, who replicates the automated banging of the drum machine with his hamboning mouth, converting a tool of disCOINTELPRO oppression into a new form of black vernacular expression. (It can be said that when the film Wildstyle leads us to believe Queen MC Lisa Lee of the Zulu Nation left the scene because of impregnation by rapper Lovebug Starski, reproductive rights of a whole other kind were brought into play — but these belong to another discussion.)

Gates’s and Baker’s advocacy of black signification echoes but does not exceed that of the Human Beat Box. Primarily be­cause their sense of critical play operates out of a more static sense of black expres­sion than the Fat Boys’ — not to mention graffiti and hiphop theoretician Ramm-El­-Zee, whose formulations on the juncture be­tween black and Western sign systems make the extrapolations of Baker and Gates seem elementary by comparison. Asked why he spelled Ikonoklast with a ‘k’ when he named his practice of armored graffiti writ­ing “Ikonoklast Panzerism” (after the tank), Zee said: “Because the letter ‘c’ in its formation is an incomplete cipher: 60 de­grees are missing. A ‘k’ is a formation based on the foki of it; a certain kind of science based on the knowledge of formation mechanics … ”

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In an Artforum feature, Zee added: “The infinity sign with the fusion symbol (x) in its middle has been wrongly titled Christian (+) and thus it has to be assassinated or the x has to be removed. The infinity sign is a mathematical, scientific, military symbol. It is the highest symbol that we have and you know there isn’t even a key on the typewriter for it. ‘Ikonoklast’ means symbol destroy­er, it’s a very, very high word militarily, because the two Ks are the only two letters that can assassinate the infinity sign, re­move the X … I’m going to finish the war. I’m going to assassinate the infinity sign. You have the gladiators, the freestyle danc­ers, warring on the ground, you have the graffiti writers warring in the air or in space. You have the translators, the DJs, the MCs. The DJs make the sounds of the pistons inside the graffiti element, or the tank. Their sound is the perfect tuning of the engines, the engines in the tank that go bambambam. That is beat culture.”

Since beat culture née hiphop derives from a more visceral rap-prochement with the tradition of black signification than that possessed by the brothers from the acade­my, it’s not surprising streetwise semioticians would offer more thought-provoking theories than those slaving away in Ebony Towers. David Toop’s new book The Rap Attack: African Jive t0 New York Hip­-Hop, works up a detailed history of the culture which produced the Fat Boys and Ramm-El-Zee, documenting rap’s origins in Gulla abusive poems, Yoruba song contests, and the vocal virtuosity of those West Afri­can verbal assassins known as griots — as well as in such Afro-American language rit­uals as the dozens:

“The dozens contests were generally be­tween boys and men from the ages of 16 to 26 — a semi-ritualized battle of words which batted insults back and forth between the players until one or the other found the going too heavy. The insults could be a direct personal attack but were more fre­quently aimed at the opponent’s family and in particular at his mother. According to linguist William Labov, who studied these verbal shoot-outs in Harlem in the 1960s … the dozens seem to be even more specialized, referring to rhymed couplets of the form: I don’t play the dozens, the doz­ens ain’t my game, but the way I fucked your mama is a god damn shame … The distance between talking rough with the dozens on the streets and moving it inside a roots club like Disco Fever with some beats for dancing is very small. It leads to the contradictions of Melle Mel, lyricist for the Furious Five, onstage in his ultra-macho metal warrior outfit trying to preach con­vincingly for an end to machismo and a beginning to peaceful co-existence.”

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From there Toop proceeds with a copious account of word-gaming in Afro-American music, citing Cab Calloway, “Bubbles” Whitman, Slim Gaillard, Eddie Jefferson, Babs Gonzalez, the black radio deejays of the ’50s and ’60s, Daddy O Daylie, Poppa Stoppa, and especially Douglas “Jocko” Henderson, the Ace from Space, whose in­fluence on Jamaican sound system pioneer Coxsone Dodd would make possible the work of Jamaican-born Bronx immigrant Kool DJ Herc, usually credited as the father of hiphop deejaying and rapping. In be­tween, Toop gives some play to black com­ics like Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley, and scores of black pop recordings with raps of one kind or another in them; from those of Barry White, Isaac Hayes, and James Brown, to others more obscure or forgotten, like Richard “Dimples” Field’s “She’s Got Papers on Me” and Barbara Mason’s re­sponse, “She’s Got the Papers but I’ve Got the Man.”

All of which effluvia only makes for in­triguing sidebars to Toop’s principal inter­est here, namely telling the tale of hiphop’s genesis in fertile uptown environs like the Audubon Ballroom and Broadway Interna­tional where Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, the Teller and Truman of hip­hop’s Manhattan Project (inasmuch as they engineered and advocated war and peace­time use of the fusion funkbomb Einstein Clinton’s theorems made possible) began bringing the black masses into the Informa­tion Age by performing feats of digital com­putation on the wheels of steel. Says deejay Flash: “Bob James was like 102 beats-per­minute and I would like go from 102 beats­-per-minute to 118, so from there it was like Bob James, James Brown, Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers to John Davis and the Monster Orchestra, ‘I Can’t Stop,’ and that’s like the ultimate you know … I would like break the shit down eighth, sixteenth notes. It amazed me sometimes.”

Unfortunately, at these urban Los Ala­mos affairs, pure research in pursuit of crit­ical mass-ass appeal could be overwhelmed by initiatives favoring mob rule. Toop re­cords Flash on how the Audubon became an inhospitable environment for black techno­logical innovation, once overtaken, like the Island of Dr. Moreau, by atavistic direct-­action ‘advocates: “… other b-boy groups were going in there and tearing the place up, breaking out the windows and then the news media and the cops started talking bad about it … We was doing it with just us and other DJ. Other groups that didn’t have the heart to go in by themselves were going in there with six or seven DJ groups. Seven or eight different sound systems — it was too confusing. This person was taking too long to turn on or this person’s system was fucking up and once you’ve got that big mass of people you have to keep them en­tertained. So after a while motherfuckers was getting shot and this and that, so by the time we went back after the third time our clientele was getting kind of scared so we gave it up.”

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Toop historicizes hiphop culture, con­stantly referring it back to its antecedents in the wider black tradition: “According to Afrika Bambaataa, Breaking started as a dance to James Brown’s ‘Get on the Good Foot.’ … The word break or breaking is a music and dance term (as well as a proverb) that goes back a long way. Some tunes like ‘Buck Dancers Lament’ from early this cen­tury featured a two-bar silence in every eight bars for the break — a quick showcase of improvised dance steps … Many of the dances used in current freestyle hark back to American dances from the past. In Mar­shall and Jean Stearns’s Jazz Dance, Pig­meat Markham recalls the dancing of Jim Green in A.G. Allen’s Mighty Minstrels tent show during the early 1920s: ‘Green had a specialty I’ll never forget. He’d dance awhile and then fall on the floor and spin around on his backside in time with the music.’ ” Elsewhere, on graffiti: “Herbert Kohl’s essay ‘Names, Graffiti and Culture’ is an analysis of both the reasons behind graffiti and the tags used by artists in place of their legal names. Kohl noted the changes taking place in graffiti as anti-pov­erty programmes in the late ’60s legitimised wall writing by bringing together the youth­ful black and Puerto Rican artists with so­cially motivated painters. This sanctioned outdoor art led to more elaborate forms growing out of basic chalk or Magic Marker scribbling.”

Because Gates’s and Baker’s works be­tray insufficient interest in these futuristic black contemporary variants on the blues and signifying tradition, there’s a sense of cultural closure to them voided by the vertiginously metamorphic nature of Afro­-American culture as recorded in Toop’s book. Leading one to concur, in the final analysis, with Afro-American folk wisdom that the half ain’t yet been told. ■

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Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr

Methuen, $29.95; $10.95 paper

By Houston A. Baker Jr.
University of Chicago Press, $19.95

THE RAP ATTACK: African Jive to New York Hip-Hop
By David Toop
South End Press, $8 paper


The Long Walk of the Situationist International

How Extreme Was It

— 1 —

I first became intrigued with the Situ­ationist International in 1979, when I strug­gled through “Le Bruit et la Fureur,” one of the anonymous lead articles in the first issue of the journal Internationale Situationniste. The writer reviewed the exploits of artistic rebels in the postwar West as if such matters had real political consequences, and then said this: “The rotten egg smell exuded by the idea of God envelops the mystical cretins of the American ‘Beat Generation,’ and is not even entirely absent from the declarations of the Angry Young Men… They have simply come to change their opinions about a few social conventions without even noticing the whole change of terrain of all cultural activ­ity so evident in every avant-garde tendency of this century. The Angry Young Men are in fact particularly reactionary in their attribution of a privileged, redemptive value to the practice of literature: they are defending a mystification that was denounced in Europe around 1920 and whose survival today is of greater counterrevolutionary significance than that of the British Crown.”

Mystical cretins… finally, I thought (for­getting the date of the publication before me), someone has cut through the suburban cul-de-sac that passed for cultural rebellion in the 1950s. But this wasn’t “finally” — it was 1958, in a sober, carefully printed magazine (oddly illustrated with captionless photos of women in bathing suits), in an article that concluded: “If we are not surrealists it is because we don’t want to be bored… Decrepit surrealism, raging and ill-informed youth, well-off adolescent rebels lacking perspective but far from lacking a cause — boredom is what they all have in common. The situationists will execute the judgment contemporary leisure is pronouncing against itself.”

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Strange stuff — almost mystifying for an American — but there was a power in the prose that was even more seductive than the hard-nosed dismissal of the Beat generation. This was the situationist style — what one commentator called “a rather irritating form of hermetic terrorism,” a judgment situ­ationist Raoul Vaneigem would quote with approval. Over the next decade it never really changed, but only became more seductive and more hard-nosed, because it discovered more seductive and hard-nosed opponents. Beginning with the notion that modern life was boring and therefore wrong, the situationists sought out every manifestation of alienation and domination and every man­ifestation of the opposition produced by al­ienation and domination. They turned out original analyses of the former (whether it was the Kennedy-era fallout shelter program in “The Geopolitics of Hibernation” — what a title! — or the Chinese cultural revolution in “The Explosion Point of Ideology in China”) and mercilessly criticized the timidity and limits of the latter. In every case they tried to link specifics to a totality — why was the world struggling to turn itself inside out, and how could it be made to do so? What were the real sources of revolution in postwar society, and how were they different from any that had come before?

The Situationist International Antho­logy contains pre-SI documents, 250 pages of material from the situationist journal, May 1968 documents, two filmscripts, and far more, stretching from 1953, four years before the Situationist International was formed, to 1971, a year before its formal dissolution. It is exhilarating to read this book — to confront a group that was determined to make enemies, burn bridges, deny itself the rewards of cele­brity, to find and maintain its own voice in a world where, it seemed, all other voices of cultural or political resistance were either cravenly compromised or so lacking in consciousness they did not even recognize their compromises.

— 2 —

The attack on the Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men — in 1958, it is worth remembering, considered in the English-­speaking world the very summa of “anti­-Establishment” negation — was an opening round in a struggle the situationists thought was already going on, and a move toward a situation they meant to construct. “Our ideas are in everyone’s mind,” they would say more than once over the next 10 years. They meant that their ideas for a different world were in everyone’s mind as desires, but not yet as ideas. Their project was to expose the empti­ness of everyday life in the modern world and to make the link between desire and idea real. They meant to make that link so real it would be acted upon by almost everyone, since in the modern world, in the affluent capitalist West and the bureaucratic state-capitalist East, the split between desire and idea was part of almost everyone’s life.

Throughout the next decade, the situationists argued that the alienation which in the 19th century was rooted in production had, in the 20th century, become rooted in consumption. Consumption had come to de­fine happiness and to suppress all other pos­sibilities of freedom and selfhood. Lenin had written that under communism everyone would become an employee of the state; that was no less capitalism than the Western ver­sion, in which everyone was first and fore­most a member of an economy based in com­modities. The cutting edge of the present-day contradiction — that place where the way of life almost everyone took for granted grated most harshly against what life promised and what it delivered — was as much leisure as work. This meant the concepts behind “cul­ture” were as much at stake as the ideas behind industry.

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Culture, the situationists thought, was “the Northwest Passage” to a superseding of the dominant society. This was where they started; this was the significance of their attack on the Beat generation. It was a means to a far more powerful attack on the nature of modern society itself: on the division of labor, the fragmentation of work and thought, the manner in which the material success of mod­ern life had leaped over all questions of the quality of life, in which “the struggle against poverty… [had] overshot its ultimate goal, the liberation of man from material cares,” and produced a world in which, “faced with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.”

I have presented a bare outline of the situationist perspective, but perhaps more important for a reader in 1982 is the use the situationists made of that perspective. Un­like many with whom they shared certain notions — Norman Mailer, the Marxist soci­ologist Henri Lefebvre, the gauchiste review Socialisme ou Barbarie — the situationists were bent on discovering the absolute ability to criticize anyone, anywhere — without re­straint, without the pull of alliances, and without self-satisfaction. And they were bent on turning that criticism into events.

— 3 — 

The situationists thought of themselves as avant-garde revolutionaries, linked as clearly to dada as to Marx. One could trace them back to Saint-Just — the 22-year-old who ar­rived in Paris in 1789 with a blasphemous epic poem, Organt (an account of the raping of nuns and of endless sexual adventures), and became the coldest, most romantic, most brilliant, most tragic administrator of the Terror. Prosecutor of Louis XVI, he gave his head to the same guillotine a year later.

More directly, situationist thinking began in Paris in the early 1950s, when Guy Debord and a few other members of the Lettrist International — a group, known mostly to itself, which had split off from the Lettrists, a tiny, postwar neodada movement of anti-­art intellectuals and students — devoted themselves to dérives: to drifting through the city for days, weeks, even months at a time, looking for what they called the city’s psychogeography. They meant to find signs of what lettrist Ivan Chtcheglov called “forgot­ten desires” — images of play, eccentricity, secret rebellion, creativity, and negation. That led them into the Paris catacombs, where they sometimes spent the night. They looked for images of refusal, or for images society had itself refused, hidden, sup­pressed, or “recuperated” — images of refusal, nihilism, or freedom that society had taken back into itself, co-opted or rehabilitated, isolated or discredited. Rooted in similar but intellectually (and physically!) far more lim­ited surrealist expeditions of the 1920s, the dérives were a search, Guy Debord would write many years later, for the “supersession of art.” They were an attempt to fashion a new version of daily life — a new version of how people organized their wishes, pains, fears, hopes, ambitions, limits, social rela­tionships, and identities, a process that ordi­narily took place without consciousness.

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The few members of the grandiosely named Lettrist International wanted to re­shape daily life according to the desires dis­covered and affirmed by modern art. Dada, at the Cabaret Voltaire “a laboratory for the rehabilitation of everyday life” in which art as art was denounced and scattered, “wanted to suppress art without realizing it,” Debord wrote in 1967, in his book The Society of the Spectacle. “Surrealism wanted to realize art without suppressing it.” In other words, dada wanted to kill off the claim that art was superior to life and leave art for dead. Sur­realism wanted to turn the impulses that led one to create art into a recreation of life, but it also wanted to maintain the production of art works. Thus surrealism ended up as just another debilitated, gallery-bound art move­ment, a fate dada avoided at the price of being almost completely ignored. The Let­trist International thought art had to be both suppressed as separate, special activity, and turned into life. That was the meaning of supersession, and that was the meaning of a group giving itself up to the pull of the city. It was also the meaning of the LI’s attack on art as art. Debord produced a film without images; with the Danish painter Asger Jorn, he created a book “ ‘composed entirely of prefabricated elements,’ in which the writing on each page runs in all directions and the reciprocal relations of the phrases are in­variably uncompleted.” Not only was the book impossible to “read,” it featured a sand­paper jacket, so that when placed in a book­shelf it would eat other books.

In 1952, at the Ritz, the LI broke up a Charlie Chaplin press conference, part of the huge publicity campaign for Limelight. “We believe that the most urgent expression of freedom is the destruction of idols, especially when they present themselves in the name of freedom,” they explained. “The provocative tone of our leaflet was an attack against a unanimous, servile enthusiasm.” (Pro­vocative was perhaps not the word. “No More Flat Feet,” the leaflet Debord and others scattered in the Ritz, read: “Because you [Chaplin] identified yourself with the weak and the oppressed, to attack you was to strike the weak and the oppressed, but in the shadow of your rattan cane some could al­ready discern the policeman’s night­stick…”) The lettrist radicals practiced graffiti on the walls of Paris (one of their favorite mottoes, “Never work!,” would show up 15 years later during May 1968, and 13 years after that in Bow Wow Wow’s “W.O.R.K.,” written by Malcolm McLaren). They painted slogans on their ties, shoes, and pants, hoping to walk the streets as living examples of détournement — the diversion of an element of culture or everyday life (in this case, simply clothes) to a new and displacing purpose. The band “lived on the margins of the economy. It tended toward a role of pure consumption” — not of commodities, but “of time.”

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From On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Period of Time, Debord’s 1959 film on the group:

Voice 1: That which was directly lived reappears frozen in the distance, fit into the tastes and illusions of an era carried away with it.

Voice 2: The appearance of events we have not made, that others have made against us, obliges us from now on to be aware of the passage of time, its results, the trans­formation of our own desires into events. What differentiates the past from the present is precisely its out-of-reach objectivity; there is no more should-be; being is so consumed that it has ceased to exist. The details are already lost in the dust of time. Who was afraid of life, afraid of the night, afraid of being taken, afraid of being kept?

Voice 3: That which should be abolished continues, and we continue to wear away with it. Once again the fatigue of so many nights passed in the same way. It is a walk that has lasted a long time.

Voice 1: Really hard to drink more.

This was the search for that Northwest Passage, that unmarked alleyway from the world as it appeared to the world as it had never been, but which the art of the 20th century had promised it could be: a promise shaped in countless images of freedom to experiment with life and of freedom from the banality and tyranny of bourgeois order and bureaucratic rule. Debord and the others tried to practice, he said, “a systematic ques­tioning of all the diversions and works of a society, a total critique of its idea of happiness.” “Our movement was not a literary school, a revitalization of expression, a mod­ernism,” a Lettrist International publication stated in 1955, after some years of the pure consumption of time, various manifestos, numerous jail sentences for drug possession and drunk driving, suicide attempts, and all­-night arguments. “We have the advantage of no longer expecting anything from known activities, known individuals, and known in­stitutions.”

They tried to practice a radical decondi­tioning: to demystify their environment and the expectations they had brought to it, to escape the possibility that they would them­selves recuperate their own gestures of re­fusal. The formation of the Situationist In­ternational — at first, in 1957, including 15 or 20 painters, writers, and architects from Eng­land, France, Algeria, Denmark, Holland, It­aly, and Germany — was based on the recog­nition that such a project, no matter bow poorly defined or mysterious, was either a revolutionary project or it was nothing. It was a recognition that the experiments of the dérives, the attempts to discover lost intima­tions of real life behind the perfectly com­posed face of modern society, had to be trans­formed into a general contestation of that society, or else dissolve in bohemian solipsism.

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— 4 —

Born in Paris in 1931, Guy Debord was from beginning to end at the center of the Situationist International, and the editor of its journal. The Society of the Spectacle, the concise and remarkably cant-free (or cant­-destroying, for that seems to be its effect) book of theory he published after 10 years of situationist activity, begins with these lines: “In societies where modern conditions of pro­duction prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Every­thing that was lived has moved away into a representation.” Determined to destroy the claims of 20th-century social organization, Debord was echoing the first sentence of Capital: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails ap­pears as an ‘immense collection of com­modities.’ ” To complain, as French Marxist critics did, that Debord misses Marx’s quali­fication, “appears as,” is to miss Debord’s own apparent qualification, “presents itself as” — and to miss the point of situationist writing altogether. Debord’s qualification turned out not to be a qualification at all, but rather the basis of a theory in which a society organized as appearance can be disrupted on the field of appearance.

Debord argued that the commodity — now transmuted into “spectacle,” or seemingly natural, autonomous images communicated as the facts of life — had taken over the social function once fulfilled by religion and myth, and that appearances were now inseparable from the essential processes of alienation and domination in modern society. In 1651, the cover of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan presented the manifestation of a nascent bour­geois domination: a picture of a gigantic sov­ereign being, whose body — the body politic­ — was made up of countless faceless citizens. This was presented as an entirely positive image, as a utopia. In 1967, International Situationniste #11 printed an almost identical image, “Portrait of Alienation”: countless Chinese performing a card trick which pro­duced the gigantic face of Mao Zedong.

If society is organized around consump­tion, one participates in social life as a con­sumer; the spectacle produces spectators, and thus protects itself from questioning. It induces passivity rather than action, con­templation rather than thinking, and a deg­radation of life into materialism. It is no matter that in advanced societies, material survival is not at issue (except for those who are kept poor in order to represent poverty and reassure the rest of the population that they should be satisfied). The “standard of survival,” like its twin, the “standard of boredom,” is raised but the nature of the standard does not change. Desires are de­graded or displaced into needs and maintained as needs. A project precisely the op­posite of that of modern art, from Lautréa­mont and Rimbaud to dada and surrealism, is fulfilled.

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The spectacle is not merely advertising, or propaganda, or television. It is a world. The spectacle as we experience it, but fail to perceive it, “is not a collection of images, but a social relationship between people, mediated by images.” In 1928 in One-Way Street, writing about German inflation, Walter Benjamin anticipated the argument: “The free­dom of conversation is being lost. If it was earlier a matter of course to take interest in one’s partner, this is now replaced by inquiry into the price of his shoes or his umbrella. Irresistibly intruding upon any convivial ex­change is the theme of the conditions of life, of money. What this theme involves is not so much the concerns and sorrows of individu­als, in which they might be able to help one another, as the overall picture. It is as if one were trapped in a theater and had to follow the events on the stage whether one wanted to or not, had to make them again and again, willingly or unwillingly, the subject of one’s thought and speech.” Raoul Vaneigem de­fined the terrain of values such a situation produced: “Rozanov’s definition of nihilism is the best: ‘The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn around… No more coats and no more home.’ ” “The spectator feels at home nowhere,” Debord wrote, “because the spectacle is everywhere.”

The spectacle is “the diplomatic represen­tation of hierarchic society to itself, where all other expression is banned” — which is to say where all other expression makes no sense, appears as babble (this may be the ironic, protesting meaning of dada phonetic poems, in which words were reduced to sounds, and of lettrist poetry, in which sounds were re­duced to letters). The spectacle says “nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.’ ” (In a crisis, or when the “standard of survival” falls, as in our own day, hierarchic society retreats, but main­tains its hegemony, the closing of questions. The spectacle “no longer promises any­thing,” Debord wrote in 1979, in a new pref­ace to the fourth Italian edition of his book. “It simply says, ‘It is so.’ ”) The spectacle organizes ordinary life (consider the following in terms of making love): “The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the con­templated object is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him.”

Debord summed it up this way: “The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy” — by spectacle­ — “leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing.” We are twice removed from where we want to be, the situationists argued — yet each day still seems like a natu­ral fact.

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 — 5 —

This was the situationists’ account of what they, and everyone else, were up against. It was an argument from Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, an argument that the “spectacle-commodity society,” within which one could make only meaningless choices and against which one could seemingly not intervene, had suc­ceeded in producing fundamental contradic­tions between what people accepted and what, in ways they could not understand, they wanted.

This was the precise opposite of social science, developed at precisely the time when the ideology of the end of ideology was con­quering the universities of the West. It was an argument about consciousness and false consciousness, not as the primary cause of domination but as its primary battleground.

If capitalism had shifted the terms of its organization from production to consump­tion, and its means of control from economic misery to false consciousness, then the task of would-be revolutionaries was to bring about a recognition of the life already lived by almost everyone. Foreclosing the construc­tion of one’s own life, advanced capitalism had made almost everyone a member of a new proletariat, and thus a potential revolutionary. Here again, the discovery of the source of revolution in what “modern art [had] sought and promise” served as the axis of the argument. Modern art, one could read in Internationale Situationniste #8, in January of 1963, had “made a clean sweep of all the values and rules of everyday behav­ior,” of unquestioned order and the “unani­mous, servile enthusiasm” Debord and his friends had thrown up at Chaplin; but that clean sweep had been isolated in museums. Modern revolutionary impulses had been separated from the world, but “just as in the nineteenth century revolutionary theory arose out of philosophy” — out of Marx’s dic­tum that philosophy, having interpreted the world, must set about changing it — now one had to look to the demands of art.

At the time of the Paris Commune in 1871, workers discussed matters that had previously been the exclusive province of philosophers — suggesting the possibility that philosophy could be realized in daily life. In the 20th century, with “survival” conquered as fact but maintained as ideology, the same logic meant that just as artists constructed a version of life in words, paint, or stone, men and women could themselves begin to con­struct their own lives out of desire. This desire, in scattered and barely noticed ways, was shaping the 20th century, or the super­seding of it (“Ours is the best effort so far toward getting out of the twentieth century,” an anonymous situationist wrote in 1963, in one of the most striking lines in the 12 issues of Internationale Situationniste). It was the desire more hidden, more overwhelmed and confused by spectacle, than any other. It had shaped the lettrist adventures. It was the Northwest Passage. If the spectacle was “both the result and the project of the exist­ing mode of production,” then the construc­tion of life as artists constructed art — in terms of what one made of friendship, love, sex, work, play, and suffering — was under­stood by the situationists as both the result and the project of revolution.

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— 6 —

To pursue this revolution, it was neces­sary to take all the partial and isolated inci­dents of resistance and refusal of things as they were, and then link them. It was neces­sary to discover and speak the language of these incidents, to do for signs of life what the Lettrist International had tried to do for the city’s signs of “forgotten desires.” This de­manded a theory of exemplary acts. Society was organized as appearance, and could be contested on the field of appearance; what mattered was the puncturing of ap­pearance — speech and action against the spectacle that was, suddenly, not babble, but understood. The situationist project, in this sense, was a quest for a new language of action. That quest resulted in the urgent, daring tone of even the lengthiest, most sol­emn essays in Internationale Situationniste — the sense of minds engaged, quickened be­yond rhetoric, by emerging social contradic­tions — and it resulted in such outrages as a six-word analysis of a leading French soci­ologist. (“M. GEORGES LAPASSADE,” announced almost a full page of I.S. #9, “EST UN CON.”) It led as well to a style of absurdity and play, and to an affirmation that contestation was fun: a good way to live. The situationists delighted in the discovery that dialectics caused society to produce not just contradictions but also endless self parodies. Their journal was filled with them — my favorite is a reproduction of an ad for the Peace o’ Mind Fallout Shelter Com­pany. And the comics that illustrated I.S. led to détournement of the putative heroes of everyday life. Characters out of Steve Canyon and True Romance were given new balloons, and made to speak passionately of revolution, alienation, and the lie of culture — as if even the most unlikely people actually cared about such things. In the pages of I.S., a kiss suggested not marriage but fantasies of liberation: a sigh for the Paris Commune.

The theory of exemplary acts and the quest for a new language of action also brought the situationists’ pursuit of ex­tremism into play. I.S #10, March 1966, on the Watts riots: “…all those who went so far as to recognize the ‘apparent justifications’ of the rage of the Los Angeles blacks… all those ‘theorists’ and ‘spokesmen’ of interna­tional Left, or rather of its nothingness, deplored the irresponsibility, the disorder, the looting (especially the fact that arms and alcohol were the first targets for plunder)… But who has defended the rioters of Los Angeles in the terms they deserve? We will.” The article continued: “The looting of the Watts district was the most direct realization of the distorted principle, ‘To each according to his false needs’… [but] real desires begin to be expressed in festival, in the potlatch of destruction… For the first time it is not poverty but material abundance which must be dominated [and of course it was the rela­tive “affluence” of the Watts rioters, at least as compared to black Americans in Harlem, that so mystified the observers of this first outbreak of violent black rage]… Comfort will never be comfortable enough for those who seek what is not on the market.”

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“The task of being more extremist than the SI falls to the SI itself,” the situationists said; that was the basis of the group’s con­tinuation. The situationists looked for ex­emplary acts which might reveal to spec­tators that that was all they were. They cited, celebrated, and analyzed incidents which dramatized the contradictions of modern so­ciety, and contained suggestions of what forms a real contestation of that society might take. Such acts included the Watts riots; the resistance of students and workers to the Chinese cultural revolution (a struggle, the situationists wrote, of “the official owners of the ideology against the majority of the owners of the apparatus of the economy and the state”); the burning of the Koran in the streets of Baghdad in 1959; the exposure of a site meant to house part of the British government in the event of nuclear war; the “kidnapping” of art works by Caracas stu­dents, who used them to demand the release of political prisoners; the Free Speech Move­ment in Berkeley in 1964; the situationist-­inspired disruption of classes taught by French cyberneticians in 1966 at Strasbourg, and by sociologists at Nanterre in 1967 and 1968; and the subversion of Berlin actor Wolfgang Neuss, who in 1963 “perpetrated a most suggestive act of sabotage… by placing a notice in the paper Der Abend giving away the identity of the killer in a television serial that had been keeping the masses in suspense for weeks.”

Some of these actions led nowhere; some, like the assaults on the cyberneticians and sociologists, led to May 1968, where the idea of general contestation on the plane of ap­pearances was realized.

The situationist idea was to prevent the recuperation of such incidents by making theory out of them. Once the speech of the spectacle no longer held a monopoly, it would be heard as babble — as mystification ex­posed. Those who took part in wildcat strikes or practiced cultural sabotage, the situationists argued, acted out of boredom, rage, disgust — out of an inchoate but inescapable perception that they were not free and, worse, could not form a real image of free­dom. Yet there were tentative images of free­dom being shaped, which, if made into theory, could allow people to understand and maintain their own actions. Out of this, a real image of freedom would appear, and it would dominate: the state and society would begin to dissolve. Resistance to that dissolution would be stillborn, because workers, soldiers, and bureaucrats would act on new possi­bilities of freedom no less than anyone else­ — they would join in a general wildcat strike that would end only when society was reconstructed on new terms. When the theory matched the pieces of practice from which the theory was derived, the world would change.

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— 7 — 

The situationist program — as opposed to the situationist project, the situationist practice — came down to Lautréamont and work­ers’ councils. On one side, the avant-garde saint of negation, who had written that poetry “must be made by all”; on the other, the self-starting, self-managing organs of di­rect democracy that had appeared in almost every revolutionary moment of the 20th cen­tury, bypassing the state and allowing for complete participation (the soviets of Petro­grad in 1905 and 1917, the German Räte of 1919, the anarchist collectives of Barcelona in 1936, the Hungarian councils of 1956). Be­tween those poles, the situationists thought, one would find the liberation of everyday life, the part of experience that was omitted from the history books.

These were the situationist touchstones — and, oddly, they were left unexamined. The situationists’ use of workers’ councils re­minds me of those moments in D.W. Grif­fith’s Abraham Lincoln when, stumped by how to get out of a scene, he simply had Walter Huston gaze heavenward and utter the magic words, “The Union!” It is true that the direct democracy of workers’ councils — ­where anyone was allowed to speak, where representation was kept to a minimum and delegates were recallable at any moment — was anathema both to the Bolsheviks and to the Right. It may also have been only the crisis of a revolutionary situation that pro­duced the energy necessary to sustain council politics. The situationists wrote that no one had tried to find out how people had actually lived during those brief moments when revo­lutionary contestation had found its form — a form that would shape the new society — but they did not try either. They spoke endlessly about “everyday life,” but ignored work that examined it both politically and in its smallest details (James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, the books of the Annale school, Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street and A Berlin Chronicle, the writing of Larissa Reissner, a Pravda correspondent who covered Weimar Germany), and pro­duced nothing to match it.

But if Lautréamont, workers’ councils, and everyday life were more signposts than true elements of a theory, they worked as signposts. The very distance of such images from the world as it was conventionally un­derstood helped expose what that the world con­cealed. What appeared between the signposts of Lautréamont and workers’ councils was the possibility of critique.

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Pursued without compromise or self-censorship, that critique liberated the situ­ationists from the reassurances of ideology as surely as the experiments of the Lettrist In­ternational had liberated its members from the seductions of the bourgeois art world. It opened up a space of freedom, and was a necessary preface to the new language of action the situationists were after. A single example will do: the situationist analysis of Vietnam, published in I.S. #11 in March 1967 — almost frightening in its prescience, and perhaps even more frightening in its clarity.

“It is obviously impossible to seek, at the moment, a revolutionary solution to the Vietnam war,” said the anonymous writer. “It is first of all necessary to put an end to the American aggression in order to allow the real social struggle in Vietnam to develop in a natural way; that is to say, to allow the Vietnamese workers and peasants to re­discover their enemies at home; the bureau­cracy of the North and all the propertied and ruling strata of the South. The withdrawal of the Americans will mean that the Stalinist bureaucracy will immediately seize control of the whole country: this is the unavoidable conclusion. Because the invaders cannot in­definitely sustain their aggression; ever since Talleyrand it has been a commonplace that one can do anything with a bayonet except sit on it. The point, therefore, is not to give unconditional (or even conditional) support to the Vietcong, but to struggle consistently and without any concessions against Ameri­can imperialism… The Vietnam war is rooted in America and it is from there that it must be rooted out.” This was a long way from the situationists’ rejection of the Beat generation, but the road had been a straight one.

If the situationists were fooled, it was only by themselves; they were not fooled by the world. They understood, as no one else of their time did, why major events — May 1968, the Free Speech Movement, or, for that mat­ter, Malcolm McLaren’s experiment with what Simon Frith has called the politiciza­tion of consumption — arise out of what are, seemingly, the most trivial provocations and the most banal repressions. They understood why the smallest incidents can lead, with astonishing speed, to a reopening of all ques­tions. Specific, localized explanations tied to economic crises and political contexts never work, because the reason such events de­veloped as they did was what the situationists said it was: people were bored, they were not free, they did not know how to say so. Given the chance, they would say so. People could not form a real image of freedom, and they would seize any opportunity that made the construction of such an image possible.

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— 8 — 

Leaving the 20th Century, edited and translated by former British situationist Christopher Gray, published only in the UK and long out of print, was until Ken Knabb’s book the best representation of situationist writing in English, and it was not good. Translations were messy and inaccurate, the selection of articles erratic and confusing, the commentary often mushy.

With the exception of a good edition of The Society of the Spectacle put out by Black & Red of Detroit in 1977, other situ­ationist work in English was far worse. A few pieces — “The Decline and Fall of the Specta­cle-Commodity Society” (on Watts), “On the Poverty of Student Life” (the SI’s most fa­mous publication, which caused a scandal in France in 1966 and prefigured the May 1968 revolt), “The Beginning of an Era” (on May 1968) — appeared as smudgy, sometimes gruesomely typeset and translated pamphlets. Most were put out by the short­-lived British or American sections of the SI, or by small situationist-inspired groups in New York or Berkeley.

The situationist journal, and the situ­ationist books as they were originally pub­lished in Paris, could not have been more different. Wonderfully illustrated with photos, comics, reproductions of advertise­ments, drawings, and maps, Internationale Situationniste had an elegant, straight­forward design: flat, cool, and direct. It made a simple point: what we have written is meant seriously and should be read seriously.

The Situationist International Anthology does not present the complete text of the situationist journal, and it has no illustrations. But the translations are clear and readable — sometimes too literal, sometimes inspired. Entirely self-published, the anthology is a better job of book-making than most of the books published today by com­mercial houses. There are virtually no typos; it is well indexed, briefly but usefully an­notated, and the design, binding, and print­ing are all first class.

In other words, Knabb has, unlike most other publishers of situationist material in English, taken the material seriously, and allowed it to speak with something like its original authority. One can follow the devel­opment of a group of writers which devoted itself to living up to one of its original prescriptions: “The task of an avant-garde is to keep abreast of reality.”

The situationist journal was never copyrighted. Rather, it bore this legend: “All the texts published in International Situationniste may be freely reproduced, trans­lated, or adapted, even without indication of origin.” Knabb’s book carries an equivalent notation.

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— 9 — 

The role of the Situationist International, its members wrote, was not to act as any sort of vanguard party. The situationists “had to know how to wait,” and to be ready to disap­pear in a common festival of revolt. Their job was not to “build” the SI, as the job of a Trotskyist or Bolshevik militant is to build his or her organization, trimming all thoughts and all pronouncements to that goal, careful not to offend anyone who might be seduced or recruited. Their job was to think and speak as clearly as possible — not to get people to listen to speeches, they said, but to get people to think for themselves.

Rather than expanding their group, the situationists worked to make it smaller, ex­pelling careerist, backsliding, or art-as-poli­tics (as opposed to politics-as-art) members almost from the day the group was formed. By the time of the May 1968 revolt, the Situationist International was composed mostly of Parisians hardly more numerous­ — perhaps less numerous — than those who walked the streets as the Lettrist Interna­tional. Behind them they had 11 numbers of their journal, more than a decade of fitting theory to fragments of practice, and the scan­dals of Strasbourg and Nanterre, both of which gained them a far wider audience than they had ever had before. And so, in May, they made a difference. They defined the mood and the spirit of the event: almost all of the most memorable graffiti from that explosion came, as inspiration or simply quota­tion, from situationist books and essays. “Those who talk about revolution and class struggle, without understanding what is subversive about love and positive in the refusal of constraints,” ran one apparently spontaneous slogan, in fact a quote from Raoul Vaneigem, “such people have corpses in their mouths.”

At the liberated Sorbonne and later in their own Council for Maintaining the Oc­cupations, the situationists struggled against reformism, working to define the most radi­cal possibilities of the May revolt — “[This] is now a revolutionary movement,” read their “Address to All Workers” of May 30, 1968, “a movement which lacks nothing but the con­sciousness of what it has already done in order to triumph” — which meant, in the end, that the situationists would leave behind the most radical definition of the failure of that revolt. It was an event the situationists had constructed, in the pages of their journal, long before it took place. One can look back to January 1963 and read in I.S. #8: “We will only organize the detonation.

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— 10 — 

What to make of this strange mix of post-surrealist ideas about art, Marxian concepts of alienation, an attempt to recover a forgot­ten revolutionary tradition, millenarianism, and plain refusal of the world combined with a desire to smash it? Nothing, perhaps. The Situationist International cannot even be justified by piggy-backing it onto official his­tory, onto May 1968, not because that revolt failed, but because it disappeared. If 300 books on May 1968 were published within a year of the event, as I.S. #12 trumpeted, how many were published in the years to follow? If the situationist idea of general contestation was realized in May 1968, the idea also re­alized its limits. The theory of the exemplary act — and May was one great, complex, momentarily controlling exemplary act —­ may have gone as far as such a theory or such an act can go.

What one can make of the material in the Situationist International Anthology is perhaps this: out of the goals and the perspectives the situationists defined for themselves came a critique so strong it forces one to try to understand its sources and its shape, no matter how much of it one might see through. In an attack on the Situationist International published in 1978, Jean Barrot wrote that it had wound up “being used as literature.” This is undoubtedly true, and it is as well a rather bizarre dismissal of the way in which people might use literature. “An author who teaches a writer nothing,” Walter Benjamin wrote in “The Author as Pro­ducer,” “teaches nobody anything. The de­termining factor is the exemplary character of a production that enables it, first, to lead other producers to this production, and secondly to present them with an improved apparatus for their use. And this apparatus is better to the degree that it leads consumers to production, in short that it is capable of making co-workers out of readers or spectators.” The fact is that the writing in the Situationist International Anthology makes almost all present-day political and aesthetic thinking seem cowardly, self-protecting, careerist, and satisfied. The book is a means to the recovery of ambition. ❖


Visitation Rites: The Elusive Tradition of Plague Lit

AIDSspeak: A Plague of Words

“Epidemics have often been more influen­tial than statesmen and soldiers in shaping the course of political history, and diseases may also color the moods of civilizations… [Yet] their role is rarely emphasized by his­torians.” So wrote René and Jean Dubos in their landmark study of tuberculosis, The White Plague (1952). They might as well have included novelists among the oblivious. With the notable exception of TB, whose association with creativity inspired reams of inspirational verse and fiction, some of our favorite operas, and one certified literary masterpiece (The Magic Mountain), the lit­erature of epidemics is as scant — or at least scantly remembered — as those tomes on phrenology that once graced transcenden­talist coffee tables.

Do we need a Visitation Lit? In the cur­rent crisis, it hardly seems like a priority: Give us a vaccine, a cure; give us condoms that work and laws that protect. But our failure to devise an effective response to AIDS is partly a product of the silence of our culture. We are raised to regard epidem­ics as relics of distant lands and ancient eras; when an outbreak does occur, it seems unprecedented, unnatural. We cast about for a strategy, ceding the task to medicine and politics (though we don’t really trust either profession), because we have no alter­native. There is no cultural tradition that gives meaning and order to the chaos of an epidemic. There is only religion, with its mechanisms of suppression and control. Art has abdicated its authority to counsel us in time of plague. And this absence of an aesthetic is part of our helplessness.

Why are there so many novels about World War I and so few about the influenza epidemic that followed it, killing many more people? Why doesn’t plague inspire litera­ture the way war does? Perhaps because, at least until the specter of nuclear annihila­tion, combat never threatened our hegemo­ny over the environment. War is something men declare, but epidemics are a force of nature, and until we unravel their codes and learn how to repel them, they subject us to assault on their own, inhuman, terms. War is politics by other means, but epidemics have no purpose or intention; they happen, often as an unintended consequence of social mobility, sometimes by chance. War is, in some sense, as deliberate as fiction. But plague is accidental history.

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The Grim Reaper notwithstanding, epi­demics are hard to personify. An invisible enemy versus a small band of crusaders, reeking more of disinfectant than manly sweat, is hardly the stuff of heroic fantasy. War is butch; it is the strange fruit of mas­culinity. To die in combat is a confirmation of gender, but epidemics are androgynous, and the loss of control they induce is usually represented as emasculating. Men who fall victim to disease are champions brought low, given to heroic speechifying; women just lie there in paler and paler makeup. They are the ones who whisper about love and memory; men weep over their loss of mastery. (Think of Sly Stallone as the leu­kemia victim in Love Story.) And real men die of some inner defect, not an infectious disease. Long before AIDS, we believed that epidemics strike — indeed, signify — the ef­fete. Thomas Mann’s social critique pro­ceeds from this assumption, and his apprehension about sexuality finds a ready emblem in diseases like cholera and tuberculosis. Aschenbach and even Hans Castorp enter into the state of illness almost by consent, as a logical expression of character. Susceptibility is fate.

Mann’s message takes a Nietzschean twist in America, where health is your own business and you’d better take care of your­self. The self-help cults that have arisen in response to AIDS reflect our assumption that illness is a character flaw made mani­fest, and usually preventable by good behav­ior. The process of “freeing ourselves from the bonds of karma, disease, problem rela­tionships” (as an ad for those New Age na­bobs, the Ascended Masters, puts it) sug­gests that not just desire, but nature itself, can be consciously controlled. The Eastern jargon is purely decorative; this view of the environment as a “peaceable kingdom” is central to American culture, and it persists — partly because literature has failed to deconstruct it — in direct denial of our actual history.


Pestilence may have an old-world ring, but epidemics were, until quite recently, a recurring feature of urban life in America, as well as a force in such emblematic events as the Civil War and the great westward trek. Congress could not be convened in 1793 until George Washington rode through the streets of Philadelphia to assure himself that an outbreak of yellow fever, which had decimated the city, was under control. As J.H. Powell’s riveting account of that outbreak, Bring Out Your Dead, reveals, the barbaric responses we associate with AIDS were commonplace in 1793: Refugees were stoned, shot, or left to starve as they wandered the countryside; newspapers from the capital were boiled in vinegar before anyone would read them; and the task of caring for the afflicted and burying the dead fell largely to impoverished blacks. This is an America you will not read about in fiction. There are no epics about the epidemics that struck New Orleans with such regularity that the death rate in that city remained higher than the birthrate for the entire 19th century; no chronicles of the devastation that disease wrought upon the ’49ers as they headed west. You can read all about cannibalism on the Donner Pass, but not about diarrhea.

When we aren’t discreet about the sub­ject, we leave it to the likes of Bette Davis to set the tone of American rhetoric about epi­demics — turgid and romantic. In Jezebel, she plays the ultimate coquette, all taffeta and eyelashes, who’s brought to her senses by a bout of “yellowjack” that strikes her jilted beau. The film ends with the essential American image of vanity chastened by pes­tilence: Davis on a crowded wagon, rolling through the shuttered streets of Charleston, nursing her love in quarantine. There’s a similar epiphany in Arrowsmith; when the young doctor’s wife dies during a Caribbean outbreak of the same disease, and he breaks the rules of his profession by providing ex­perimental serum to the natives without a control group. Though Sinclair Lewis meant his novel to be both a critique of scientism and a testament to its rigors, in the movie, such ambiguities are lost to the epidemic as otherworldly spectacle, complete with dark­ies chanting among the fronds.

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The fabricator of pestilential rhetoric in America is Poe, whose interest in the sub­ject confirms its disreputability. “The Masque of the Red Death” is a paradigm of the dread epidemics arouse in us: Their ter­rible swift sword seems aimed directly at our hubris and hedonism — two sins Americans simultaneously celebrate and excoriate each other for. If the Red Death resembles any known disease, it is influenza of the sort that killed 20 million people in 1918. But in Poe, it comes on preternaturally, with pro­fuse bleeding from every pore that kills in half an hour. What better setting for this Visitation than a primordial kingdom with a party-hearty sensibility too splendid to sur­vive? When plague strikes, the royals retreat in a vain attempt to banish death. He enters anyway, dressed like the rogue in The Des­ert Song. “And one by one dropped the rev­elers in the blood-bedewed halls of their rev­el.” In other words, the party’s over.

Poe’s maunderings could only have mean­ing in a culture so phobic about disease that the subject must be addressed in terms of retribution. We get the fate we deserve for living like Vincent Price. At the core of Poe’s masque are guilt and denial, the very evasiveness our literature stands accused of displaying toward love and death. An epi­demic calls up the same response, since it forces us to confront both the intensity of human need and the fragility of all relation­ships. As a culture whose optimism is its most enduring trait, we cannot bear to look directly at this experience, except through the lurid refracting lens of moral causality.

Compare Poe’s Red Death with the de­scription of influenza that opens Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. It ­occupies less than a page, yet this account, as seen through a child’s eyes, says more about the grotesque incongruity of an epidemic than any allegory. Traveling from Se­attle to Minneapolis in a closed compartment, the entire family was stricken as the train proceeded east.

We children did not understand whether the chattering of our teeth and Mama’s lying torpid in the berth were not somehow a part of the trip… and we began to be sure that it was all an adventure when we saw our fa­ther draw a revolver on the conductor who was trying to put us off the train at a small wooden station in the middle of the North Dakota prairie. On the platform at Minne­apolis, there were stretchers, a wheel chair, redcaps distraught officials, and, beyond them, in the crowd, my grandfather’s rosy face, cigar and cane, my grandmother’s feathered hat, imparting an air of festivity to this strange and confused picture, making us children certain that our illness was the beginning of a delightful holiday.

McCarthy’s perspective belongs to anoth­er, far more naturalistic, tradition of Visita­tion Lit. It is not to be found in fiction, but in the less hallowed venues of journalism and memoir. From Pepys, we get the sense of pestilence as an ordinary experience — ­one of life’s elemental indignities. From De­foe, we get the larger picture of a social organism convulsing under bacterial siege. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is the first example of that paradoxical form we now call the nonfiction novel: It is “report­ed” as fact, but constructed as fiction, and all the more potent for its formal confusion. Defoe invented the “plot” we still impose on epidemics, and he intended it not just to convey but also to shape reality as a tangible expression of his ideology.

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As a Dissenter, Defoe was subject to pro­fessional and personal harassment by the Anglican authorities. The stance of a rebel­lious rationalist informs his tone, perhaps even his choice of subject matter. The extre­mis of plague gave Defoe a chance to rail at irrational “tradition” — in everything from quack cures to the futile quarantining of whole families when one member took sick. And nothing revealed the sanctimonious­ness of his peers like the high, theocentric prose in which epidemics were customarily described: “Now Death rides triumphantly on his pale horse through our streets,” read one typical account of the bubonic plague that ravaged London in 1665. “Now people fall as thick as the leaves in autumn, when they are shaken by a mighty wind.” Defoe, in contrast, is blunt, sensory, reportorial: “It came at last to such violence that people sat still looking at one another, and seemed quite abandoned to despair; whole streets seemed to be desolated… windows stood shattering with the wind in empty houses for want of people to shut them.”

What comes handed down to us as “objec­tivity” was actually a rhetoric of rebellion against the political and religious institu­tions that put Defoe at personal risk. His response must have seemed like the prover­bial shoe-that-fits to Albert Camus, the Communist/resister who set out in 1947 to construct a metaphor for the German occu­pation and all it evoked in the French. Ca­mus intended plague to universalize the cir­cumstances of his own oppression, but so did Defoe. From the old Dissenter, Camus borrowed not just the specter of a city stricken by bubonic disease, but the per­spective of a rationalist in extremis, the anti-literary style, and the very form of The Plague. The subject attracts the alienated, perhaps because they sense the power of an epidemic to shatter social orthodoxy.

Both Defoe and Camus set out to instruct us about life beyond the boundaries of personal control. Both call up the impotence and isolation — even in fellowship — of those who must inhabit “a victim world secluded and apart,” as Camus describes Oran under quarantine. Camus could not have con­structed his deliberately modern paradigm of “death in a happy city” without Defoe’s radical vision of plague as a landscape where virtue and survival do not follow as the night the day. And though their subject is bubonic plague, with its ancient rhythm of explosive death, the dry rage and mordant irony Camus and Defoe share, their abiding sense of life’s precariousness, are the per­sonality traits of an AIDS survivor.

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There was no plague in Oran during the years Camus wrote, and as far as is known, he never actually experienced an epidemic. Rather, he assembled his description from secondary sources — as did Defoe, a child of five when the outbreak he describes took place. So the “plot” these journalists impose on epidemics is a fictional contrivance. More to the point, it is a contrivance that we inherit as reality. We still trot out Defoe and Camus to class up think pieces about AIDS because we trust their reporting, even though its authenticity is an illusion. The model they created gives meaning to the meaningless; it shapes an event that is terri­fying precisely because it seems chaotic. Can anyone who has never experienced an epi­demic imagine, in purely naturalistic terms, the terror of an invisible entity, not to men­tion the ghastly, often abrupt, changes an afflicted body undergoes? In a literary work, no matter how grim, there is order, progres­sion, response; when you add journalism’s claim to objectivity, and its obsession with good and bad behavior, an epidemic can be fitted with a tangible structure of cause and effect. This — and not just verisimilitude — is the power of reportage.

As for the plot: It is a tale without a protagonist. The “hero” is a collective — the suffering multitudes, called up in a thousand images of mortification of the flesh. At first, they refuse to acknowledge anything out of the ordinary, and the narrative feeds on this denial (we know why the rats are dying). But there comes a moment when, as Defoe describes it, “the aspect of the city itself was frightful.” Denial gives way to terror, and the suspense is not just who will live and die, but whether society will endure. Pestilence brings the collective into high relief. It must protect the uninfected, care for the stricken, and dispose of the dead. That it does function is — for both Camus and De­foe — a source of chastened optimism. Plague, the despoiler of civilization, has be­come an agent of social cohesion.


This existential saga is the shape we still give to epidemics. And in America, where the subject is seldom approached straight-­on, it is also the point of countless horror movies, in which the monster is like a scourge raining death out of Camus’s indif­ferent blue sky. The first victim is always an emblem of normality — a carefree bather yanked under the waves, or a baby-sitter ambushed by something in the closet. Then comes the warning — “They’re here!” — but to no avail. It’s too weird to be credible, and anyway, no one wants to frighten the citi­zenry. Finally, the system is brought to its senses — in the nick of time.

The horror movies of my youth in the ’50s were a plug for scientific progressivism, and a none-too-subtle plea for civic vigilance. But in recent years, the fatalism that underlies those tales of transformation we inherited from Europe has crept back into horror­-consciousness. In The Fly and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to mention two post­-modern remakes, the alien intrudes almost like a bacterium out of Mann, with the victim’s tacit consent; and the afflicted pass through all of Kübler-Ross’s stages, from denial to rage to resignation. In The An­dromeda Strain, the denial stage becomes a premise: Can the doctors stop an alien or­ganism before it kills so many people that the government will have to acknowledge its existence? In Jaws, an implacable force of nature has “vetoed pleasure” in Amity, just as it did in Camus’s Oran. Except for the rugged individualist (a/k/a crusty old shark hunter) who holds the key to survival, it is easy to imagine the author of The Plague set those on his terrain.

Randy Shilts’s history of the AIDS epi­demic, And the Band Played On, draws its power from precisely this tradition: It is a journalistic work with a fictional form. Its plot, as constructed by Defoe, renovated by Camus, and apotheosized by journalistic thrillmongers like Robin Cook and Stephen King, is the unexpected appearance of a deadly microbe; its stealthy progression, fostered by obliviousness and indifference; and the gradual emergence of a collective response. Shilts writes of death and denial with all the lurid energy of the Old Dissent­er. His alienation from (gay and straight) orthodoxy is entirely true to form, and so is his judgment on all the players — from gov­ernment to media, from the afflicted to the immune. The journalist shapes the event — ­has done so ever since Defoe.

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Of course, the model of Visitation Lit doesn’t entirely fit the reality of AIDS. Shilts’s fiercest rage is directed at the break­down of community when pestilence strikes. In Camus and Defoe, everyone is equally at risk, and therefore everyone must overcome indifference. But in Shilts, the collective that emerges consists of isolated groups­ — the infected and their doctors. The larger society is insulated by contempt for the afflicted and an illusion of immunity. The pariah experience that AIDS creates cannot be found in Visitation Lit (except perhaps in a didactic potboiler like The Nun’s Story, with its doting on leprosy as a test of godli­ness). There are ample accounts of shun­ning those who show the “tokens” of bubonic plague or yellow fever, but AIDS is a lifelong condition that leaves no visible mark until it becomes activated; shunning is decreed by the technology of diagnosis and, often, by the presumption of belonging to a group at risk. We can monitor the develop­ment of AIDS in both the afflicted and the infected, but we cannot improve their prog­nosis. The psychic and social bind generated by our helpless efficiency is also an unprece­dented product of this disease.

The precedent for AIDS in our culture is the “slow plague” of tuberculosis, which has shifted in its iconography from a disease of the artistic to a scourge of the impoverished. In the late 19th century, as word of its con­tagiousness spread (and before there was conclusive evidence that exposure does not usually result in infection), the image of the afflicted changed as well. Once they had been held in such esteem that the problem for epidemiologists was convincing the fam­ilies of consumptives to stay away. But by the turn of the century, TB patients were thought to be dissolute, if not degenerate; later still, Mann’s elegant mountaintop re­treat became a state-run sanatorium to which they could be committed against their will. The parallels with AIDS are striking but not exact. Sexually transmitted diseases carry a distinct stigma, and so do homosex­uals and intravenous drug users, the main groups at risk for AIDS. In the culture at large, there is no gay or junkie equivalent of the virtuous poor.

The AIDS epidemic, which is a highly literary event (the death of people in their prime always is), cannot be written about in traditional literary terms; because it shat­ters the social contract, it forces us to break with form. Those who live through this Visi­tation will have to invent not only their own communitas but a new system of represen­tation to make that process meaningful. So far, only the rudiments of such a system are in place. The AIDS plays that drew so much attention to the epidemic are all traditional in form: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart leans heavily on Ibsen’s ideology of the he­roic outsider (“The strongest man … is he who stands most alone”); William Hoffman’s As Is make a comforting melange of, Maxwell Anderson and William Inge; even Jerker, the controversial (because it is homoerotic) series of blackouts by Robert Chesley, veers toward the familiar modern­ism of Ionesco via Menotti. Only Beirut at­tempts to project AIDS into the dreamlife of our culture, but unfortunately it achieves its nightmare edge by misrepresenting the transmissibility of the disease.

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In fiction, it was mostly the gay presses that produced the first responses to AIDS. But these novels, like the plays, have been either didactic tracts or domestic dramas. Both are important themes — the danger of social violence is real enough, and the bond of love between men is rare enough, in or outside the context of sexuality, to be worth expressing. But, so far, these good inten­tions don’t achieve the power and range of literature, in part because the subject (ho­mosexuality) is still so culturally arcane, and in part because it takes more than a sea­son — or five — for the best authors to trans­form trauma into art.

Epitaphs for the Plague Dead, a small volume of formal, traditional verse, is a semi-breakthrough. Robert Boucheron has turned to Tennyson for a formal framework that is both strikingly antique and oddly abstract — giving his subject matter, the his­tories of gay men dead of AIDS, a timeless, entombed air. The content is often trite, sometimes clumsy; but these epitaphs, in a colloquial discourse rendered stately by iam­bics and rhyme, have the effect of ennobling not just the ordinary but the shunned. This is form in the service of a new idea, something the literature of any epidemic must achieve if it is to matter in the long run.

It may be too much to hope for parody as a weapon in the fight against AIDS, al­though the satiric edge in Boucheron’s poet­ry, Shilts’s journalism, and Kramer’s play is what most sets these gay writers apart from other chroniclers of plague. It is almost as if the rich vein of camp has been tempered into a mordant comedy of manners. What this promises for the future of both gay culture and Visitation Lit is anyone’s guess, but the spirit of Thackeray (not to mention Mann) must hover at the shoulder of any reasonably acute homosexual who thinks about AIDS. It certainly informs the pica­resque fiction of Armistead Maupin, whose work is a model of what the epidemic has done to gay sensibility. By the latest install­ment, Significant Others, AIDS has become a recurring motif that grounds the narra­tive. The characters we’ve been following through volume after volume haven’t so much changed their ways as their perspec­tive — on each other, on mortality. And Maupin’s tone has grown softer and fuller, as if to acknowledge the “feminine” emo­tions that gay rage suppresses right now.


Melancholy is the literary legacy of AIDS, for all of us. It informs the texture of more and more popular fiction, if only in its fasci­nation with pathology. A glance through Publishers Weekly reveals these plot prem­ises, all from books due out this fall: A wom­an engaged to be married discovers that she is a carrier of’ Tay-Sachs disease, raising painful questions about her true paternity and changing her life … A crotchety old truck driver, watching his wife die of cancer, reverts to wetting his bed. His anguish is heightened when she reveals the details of an extramarital affair that spawned their late son, a teenage victim of meningitis … A young cancer patient, withdrawn from chemotherapy by his mother, is placed in a halfway house for “roomers with tumors.” But when the boy’s estranged father tries to put him back in chemo, mom, son, and a handsome hospice worker run away to a hideaway in the redwoods, where …

Then there is Leslie Horvitz’s The Dying, a just-published novel of “biological horror” (actually another of those pesky Poe-like flus that kill in the flip of a page) complete with a dust jacket admonition that THE PLAGUE YEARS ARE HERE. And Shar­on Mayes’s Immune, whose protagonist, “at once a highly professional doctor and re­searcher, and a wild, erotic woman, addicted to cocaine,” must confront the threat of AIDS. That it “leads her to a rediscovery of responsibility and a nostalgia for a more stable and structured past” makes Immune “a tragedy of our time.” Or so the blurb insists.

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As a culture, we are losing our sense of immunity to disease and our confidence in sexuality as a route to self-discovery. These may have been constructions in the first place, but they were crucial to my genera­tion, and now they have been shattered. The assumption that AIDS will compel us to remake the libido in more “mature” terms is as cockeyed as any belief in human perfect­ibility, as utopian as the sexual revolution we are now exhorted to forsake. Only in a TV movie will this epidemic teach hetero­sexuals to value commitment and homosexuals to find their identity in rodeos and Proust. More likely, we will pull the wool over each other’s eyes in erotic masques of safety and salubrity. The gap between pub­lic morality and private behavior will pro­mote the very passions it suppresses. Those who can’t or won’t be locked in place will exude a faint aroma of mortality whenever they have sex. And if the epidemic is not contained, we will come to inhabit a land­scape where death and desire go hand in hand.

This is a very ancient landscape, but also the thoroughly modem setting of Valerie Martin’s novel A Recent Martyr, which takes place in a contemporary New Orleans mired in corruption, civil chaos, and a bur­geoning epidemic of bubonic disease. Sainthood and sexual obsession vie for women’s souls, while men hover, in their passion, between brutality and helplessness. It has nothing to do with the current health crisis, but a great deal to do with the emotional climate AIDS is generating. Martin’s model suggests that any epidemic — whether or not the disease is sexually transmitted — affects the libido, if only because it places ecstasy and imminent death on the same chaotic primal plain.

“The plague continues, neither in nor out of control,” Martin writes at the conclusion of her reverie, “but we have been promised a vaccine that will solve all our problems. We go on without it, and life is not intolerable. Our city is an island, physically and psycho­logically; we are tied to the rest of the coun­try only by our own endeavor … The fu­ture holds a simple promise. We are well below sea level, and inundation is inevitable. We are content, for now, to have our heads above water.”

This is the looking glass fiction can fabricate. Gazing into it, we confront what jour­nalism cannot imagine: the possibilities. ❖


Jack Kerouac’s Long and Winding Road

April 1995

“Yes boy got your big letter and in the midst of big wild mad events too so that I haven’t had time to answer it as immediate­ly as I’d might want to (sic)… a good great raving letter full of snowballs snowbells flowers, boles of flowers, love, life, Charley Parker, you’re alright.”
— To John Clellon Holmes, October 1955

And so strange it is to finally be reading these letters, even attempting to write about them, almost four decades after I first tried imitating them without even hav­ing read them, inspired wholly by that first reception of On the Road 1957. Reading Kerouac it’s easy to imagine you’re in the writing chair. In that racing Road book there are these guys writing long letters full of detail to their friends in the night (“fam­ous of self,” as Kerouac once said). Up late to cop the scoop on what just happened, was still to happen, jumping through all the embroiled participants. Made sense to me. I was hooked on the mutual jazz connection. Little did I know what kind of new being I was becoming, exactly how he was hatching me as a writer. And sometime later a bass player friend would always say before the gig, “Let’s go into that Great American Bop Night!” and howl with maniacal glee. Yes.

Kerouac’s books are so close to letter form anyway, even if not usually expressed in the I-to-you mode of Vanity of Duluoz. The first person seems already a form of address, the I needing a you, if only imagi­nary, to tell it all out to, complete the ener­gy jump. Letters, novels, poems, all of a piece in the fairly seamless pattern, a pro­cessing of the daily jot. In a letter to John Clellon Holmes (1952) he says, “don’t you ever dare think I would ‘put off’ writing to you when what I actually do is practice… my letters to you.” We now know that he kept carbons of many of his letters, use­ful later as memory banks for his writings.

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Kerouac’s is not a style. It is a practice. So it has to do with, and must be discussed in terms of, the momentary. Fleets of the passing, speed and its velocities, Thelonious Monk’s “I laid it down, you got to pick it up,” the use of peripheries and the parenthetical in its leaps. He made me realize how fully temporal the act of writing must be. Kerouac is a go-for-it writer, not a puz­zle-paster. He’s from the wrong class, too working-folk to be smoothly admitted to the elites of academy and prize, no careerist of any planned or practical sort. He doesn’t fit and he never will. Here (U.S.A.) he’s thought of, if at all, as a sort of naive con­fessor or sociological curiosity, elsewhere (say, France) he’s not even taken seriously as an artist (a sort of latter-day “Red Indi­an”). To me, he contains or at least suggests everything I would ever want of, or think to do in, a book. For, isn’t it all about freedom finally anyway?

Over 600 pages one has the pleasure of stretching out through all the broodings, reactions, angers, and glees of those years, the embodied meditations and exaspera­tions of bared spirit, mind-flashes there’s no time to say any other way. Book access at such length now places Kerouac in the company of those writers whose volumes of letters may be read straight through with profit as complete works in themselves. Flaubert, Rilke, Beckett (as will no doubt be shown when his letters to Thomas McGreevey are published at last), H.P. Lovecraft, and most recently William Burroughs come easily to mind.

The bulk of the letters in this first of two volumes comes from the period: late ’40s to mid ’50s, his most intense writing years, about three-fourths of his major books com­posed then. The main correspondents here being Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Carolyn Cassady, his edi­tor Malcolm Cowley and literary agent Ster­ling Lord. Unfortunately missing are the let­ters to Ed White, his Denver architect friend (only one, previously published, is includ­ed), a correspondence starting in the late ’40s and continuing to the end of Kerouac’s life. I recall White saying, at the On the Road Conference in Boulder, 1982, that he had a big book of letters from Jack all ready to go but so far couldn’t get the nod from Jack’s widow to proceed (a 50-page selec­tion of these letters has just appeared in the current issue of The Missouri Review).

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Here he is in some of the earliest letters (1941) arguing his serious youngman self of idealism and plan, his steadfast lifelong holding to youthful dreams (later, in 1955, to Ginsberg, “Don’t you remember your babyhood concerns any more?”). “I’m hitch­hiking home Thursday (6th) casually and poetically” with “no trees to sing for me.” And in 1943, “I have devised new plans for my life” (so many plans throughout these writings). And already, “I have grown to hate rhetoric — or attempts at it — why don’t men devise new ways of communication?”

In the summer of 1949 (after finishing his Wolfean investigations of The Town and the City) he writes from Denver the full­-blown letter to Holmes which ranges from reports on how cowboy families view all the class-C westerns and “in their conversations they continually make allusions to ‘Roy’ and ‘Dale Evans’… just as we make allusions to Dostoevsky and Whittaker Chambers,” to his belief in the “Rattling Trucks, where I don’t have to explain any­thing, and where nothing is explained, only real, REAL REAL, see?,” eventually com­ing to the buddyhood Lowell staging of a kiddie boxing match where a voice imitation (B-a-a-a-a-a!) of the preround buzzer proves the complete irrationality of every­thing from Shakespeare and Celine to “all my serious passages in On the Road.” This is essential text time here! In fact there’s a Melvillean elaboration of On the Road (one of his many Road versions) quoted in a letter to his New School professor Elbert Lenrow, same year, full of lines like “of course men in bed do grow tender and full of wonder, some child-comprehension steals their hammered iron wits,” “quiver­ing with the quivering motion of the earth they could feel spite of steel and shelved suspension” (the men are in jail). And all throughout the late red afternoon light “al­ways a symbol to me of my childhood soli­tariness” and of his very birth, which even­tuates into the red neons of saturday citynight source of mystery and maturity, so central to his visions.

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From November 1950 to January 1951 there’s a run of letters to Neal Cassady which comprise almost a whole 60-page no­vella wherein you see him rehearsing out of childhood memory in Lowell time, and of course with extensions to the present religious and sexual, so much of the writing to come. The book is worthwhile just for the ur-workings of these.

Through all these letters he’s battling out just what is “Fiction” and what it might be simply to “tell,” and how much of all that is dream or is it reality-remembered? His breakthroughs in memory-writing will eventually lead to the use of a line so tensile it can react at speed to the slightest varia­tion in the memory-chords he’s blowing his present-time melodies over. He’ll develop an instinct for just which words sink into the furthest backgrounds and which ones bring the writing right up to the surface present. “Like Proust,” but American, so quicker, “more instant and interesting.” And overall the writing has a “real-time” feel I sometimes think only the gonzo writ­ers (R. Meltzer at his Gulcher peak, Hunter Thompson on the Nixon trail) really picked up on. The sense too that you could write about anything, doesn’t matter what, with the expansiveness of Kerouac’s unceasing line. Something all poets speeding across time’s drop-offs well know.

The angry rant letter to Ginsberg, but really to everybody in Kerouac’s writing arena at the time (October 8, 1952), has to be one of the exemplary outbursts of writ­er’s pain in the literature. He is so like the Céline he loved here. No matter the disturbance of mental surface, his spirit remains bright. The explosion happens, then clears. It had been, as Holmes says, “an expression of localized pain,” and “there was no mean­ness in him.” A month later he is writing to Allen, “you are very nice to understand my writings. I felt honored.” And, speaking of John Holmes, there’s a special feeling in Jack’s letters to him, of a tender eloquence, shared jazz and bookly concern, and writ­ing-buddy regard. From the letter (sadly not included in this collection) to Holmes (June 1952) which moves from musings on the mysteries of the Doctor Sax universe through exigency woes of the writer’s life and concludes paralleling his with Wilhelm Reich’s fate (“he will die in disgrace, pover­ty and loneliness. It will happen to me.”) to a later letter where he concludes “John­ — Please stay my friend thru life, it’ll be long and dark,” you feel the strong emotion of comradely stability (also found in his friendship with Ed White in the West).

In January of 1953 he announces to Neal Cassady, “In Mexico, after you left, I in 5 days wrote, in French, a novel about me and you when we was kids in 1935” — “it’s the solution to the On the Road plots, all of em.” I must have this book! Occasionally in these letters Kerouac will reveal the name of a previously unknown work (like “The Long Night of Life,” The Imbecile’s Christmas, or Hold Your Horn High), making you wonder and wait. Did these remain separate works, completed or no, or were they sub­sumed into the later books that we know? I wish Charters had annotated some of these mysterious but practical matters.

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Shakespeare arrives as well, he lurks in the Kerouac line over the time of his books anyhow, a quality little noticed by critics of the nod. A 1956 letter to poet Philip Wha­len, “in Shakespeare’s time they didnt know what autobiographical naturalism was, and well for us, we dont know what spontaneous writing is… How else can you spit forth yr. intelligence? In meats, in par­cels of meats? In wrappings? in hesitations, in bean-pots, in hooks and hams and ahems and holes of thought? in hems and haws?” Here he’s been reading the Bard while writ­ing Visions of Gerard, an influence particu­larly noticeable there. Was it especially Henry V? In an earlier letter to Ginsberg he had quoted from the play, “[w]hose blood is fet from fathers of war-/proof!” and then commented, “wottaline!” His great essay, “Shakespeare and the Outsider” (included in Good Blonde & Others), makes plain their kinship in lines like “wrote in an in­spired hurry what he immediately heard sound-wise while his steeltrap brain kept shutting down on the exigencies of plot and character in that sea of ravening English that came out of him.” Eloquence. And, to Ginsberg re Howl, “the first spout is the only spout, the rest is time’s tired faucet.”

It becomes sorely apparent as these let­ters progress through the many stages of On the Road revision that this book became in many hard-born ways his cross to bear. Forced, either by his own lights or the pres­suring of his book-mill editors, to rewrite it so many times, he had to create Visions of Cody (using much of the same material) to get some of his own back, to get back into his own stream of developing writing safe­ly away from the cookie cutters of the indus­try. All through the early ’50s you see them pestering him to tangle his perfect books together and make up a “seller” he rightly rejects (“I dont care”). To Sterling Lord, January 1955, “publishing to me (the big kind like Town & City) is like a threat over my head.” April 15, 1955, to Neal Cassady, “for the rest of my life, I’m dedicating my­self to enormous artistic labors, for better or worse, I dont give a fuck whether it brings me riches or nothin… it’s the work itself, I want, want to see the ordered sen­tences typed up neat on perfect pages under a soft lamp, wild prose describing the world as it raced through my brain and cock once…” But they keep pressing and prodding, making him rush around gath­ering permission signatures from all the persons in Road, even though he’d long since changed all their names (was libel so much easier to prove in those years?). Then in a letter to Sterling Lord (October 1956) re a request that he make “minor changes throughout” (what a hideous threat phrase!), this time in The Subterraneans, he says, “I only want to stress, however, that… we do not dare touch the rhythm of that prose and those sentences; I assume they want to remove objectionable words, I will replace them with words of similar sonic rhythm. I don’t want a repetition of, as in the case of ‘The Town and The City,’ letting an editor change a good big book into a mediocre shorter book.” “Tell Don Allen ‘Doctor Sax’ is a master-piece as it stands, and ‘Visions of Gerard’ suits me as it stands. As it comes, so it flows, and that’s literature at its purest.” “I’ve been through every conceivable disgrace now and no rejection or acceptance by pub­lishers can alter that awful final feeling of death — of-life-which-is-death.” How like a stab to the heart then his final comment of that letter: “Dear Sterling, excuse me my convictions.”

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But he was so aware of his abilities and accomplishments always. Even as his clos­est friends quibbled over his every advance: “A lot of people say I don’t know what I’m doing, but of course, I do.” Every time he comes up with a new book “they revert & start in, re-saying, ‘He doesn’t know,’ but then it will be proven all over again with disastrous boring regularity, of course I know what I’m doing.” It’s painful to realize that as Jack hung out through the early ’50s in the literary bars of New York City with writers who regularly abused him for non-­accomplishment, maybe half a dozen people had so far read the beauties he’d already written but not yet published, and so were able to see him in his true light. To Philip Whalen, March 1956, “I’m amazed you dont seem to realize that I’ve already writ­ten so much I’m afraid to go on for fear of being a windbag” — “a huge lifework already accomplished” — “so that I’m really a weary old writer now and I’m amazed that nobody knows it, except possibly Allen and Will Lee and Cowley and Giroux.” And the same year to Sterling Lord, “I just keep turning out manuscripts like a machine/ and they just keep flying away into the void…/what other writer can keep this up and not go crazy/like I’m about to do?/It’s been going on such a long time/it doesn’t seem like/accidental neglect anymore.” How terrible that he knew this.

The collection ends on the hinge of 1957, the year of On the Road’s publication and submission to America’s most mad commercial judgments, making me ponder the eve of its first review when, as Joyce John­son so perfectly and terrifyingly puts it in Minor Characters, “Jack lay down obscure for the last time in his life. The ringing phone woke him the next morning and he was famous.” The next volume of Kerouac letters will show how he went on, neverthe­less, into the shock and the blear.

There are some problems with this edi­tion that I have to mention, many having to do with just what Ann Charters chose to remove from these letters. There are, by my count, 171 deletions over 600 pages of text, and as these gaps mounted up over my reading through the book, I began to wish that Charters had given the reader some indication as to the nature of her pruning. In fact I think she owes the reader such an explanation. As several of the letters have appeared previously, apparently in their en­tirety (or at least more completely), I was able to compare the texts and could see the little consistency or reason in her deletions. Sometimes what she might have considered a gratuitous insult to a perhaps still living person has been removed, while another such remark has been left to stand, some­times later on in the same letter and even referring to the same person (!). Then there are senselessly annoying gaps, as in the let­ter to Ginsberg concerning a visit to poet Philip Lamantia, “but I was disappointed in Neal that night for not at least digging (…).” Much less frustrating if she had left the whole passage out? She has torn great rents in the “Rattling Trucks” letter to Holmes, leaving out the whole marvelous “America is an Egyptian land” section, and others including his great comment about how “the dividing line between seriousness and unseriousness is almost unknown, and is where our best knowledges take flower.” In the big Buddhist instructional letter to Ginsberg, a passage of several pages of great interest regarding Kerouac’s juggling of Christianity and Buddhism is missing, a removal seemingly with an eye to little more than space limitations. This sort of surgery (combined with notational errors like Charters’s misplacement of his “Satur­day Night Red Neons Making Me Think of Chocolate Candy Boxes in Drugstores” in the early cafeteria-sketches section of Vi­sions of Cody rather than where it belongs in the later “Neon Heart of Saturday Night” section, one of the wellsprings of his work), all this, as I say, becomes even more troubling in light of rumors that the Sam­pas family has dictated considerable cen­sorship of the letters prior to publication. Whether this be true or not, the book as it stands betrays shoddy treatment of a man who believed in hiding nothing, and whose statement “What a man most wishes to hide, revise, and un-say, is precisely what Literature is waiting and bleeding for” graces the jacket copy of this very volume.

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Viking Portables… My image is of Frank Sinatra just off the bus home from the war in Some Came Running; he takes them out of his duffel bag and in his fur­nished room and places them in a line on the dresser top, Hemingway Faulkner Dos Passos Wolfe, he’s going to be a big novelist and show everybody. So it is some justice that Jack Kerouac is finally being included in such company, only sad that this didn’t happen in his lifetime, a chance to external­ize his pride. Charters has chosen perhaps the more popular of the two obvious schemes for organizing such a reader, a chronological series of excerpts from his life story as fictionalized in the books. While this may go easier on the reader, I don’t think it serves Kerouac’s work as well as a trip through the changes in his writing life, the lifeline of a writer thus showing forth as the history of a mind. The late John Clellon Holmes, to whom this volume is dedicated and who gets the credit for originating the idea of a Kerouac reader (with Jack’s ap­proval), seems to have leaned toward this second organizational method. At the On the Road Conference in 1982, he said: “If you read the books in the sequence in which they were written, then you are watching the evolution of the writer’s consciousness as it changes in real time.” It seems to me (maybe my bias as a writer?) that there is a richer focus provided in looking at the life detail through a succession of writing acts, the movements of a delving consciousness, rather than by the opposite method of see­ing the writing always in terms of the more “reader-friendly” life-story approach. It’s as if Charters has tried to tweak Kerouac into at last becoming the plot-driven writer that the critics of his time disparaged him for not being, to the detriment of the more complex and strange Jack Kerouac visible in the orders of his writing life. Plot, after all, was not central to his purpose, but memories of character and place and thing were. It’s entirely too simple to conclude, as Charters does, that “he considered him­self an old-fashioned storyteller.” See the 1954 letter to his editor Robert Giroux: “I’m now going to endeavor to write pure narrative… but new narrative, unplanned, ored up from the bottom of the mind, orgas­mically rushing from the center out.” That ellipsis is not only his own but it strongly illustrates (in real time) how his mind’s complexities would never let him settle for “story.”

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An alternative arrangement according to the order of writing would also avoid the awkward back-of-the-bus sections here labeled “On Buddhism,” “On Bop and the Beat Generation,” or “Poetry.” (Come on! His whole project was poetry.) How much more magnificent an architecture might ap­pear, starting with a section from his earli­est novel, The Sea Is My Brother (does the manuscript still exist?), and moving through some of his vast Wolfean sound­ings of the Martin family, then on to a selection from the early On the Road manu­scripts (why are unpublished sources not brought to bear here? Would not the estate permit?). A succession of Road changes might have shown some considerable writ­ing differences: the Melvillean version cited above, etc. (In fact a collection of all the On the Road manuscripts in the order of their writing would make a useful study volume à la The Waste Land or Howl.) Then on into Visions of Cody and Doctor Sax practically simultaneously (the red sun of his birth memories leading seamlessly to the red neon heart of his adult adventures), “The Railroad Earth” in its entirety, and on through the third-person framings of the Maggie book, the Dostoyevskian explora­tions of The Subterraneans, and the begin­ning of the “Blues” sequences (“San Fran­cisco Blues,” Mexico City Blues, and beyond). Why not include also parts of Some of the Dharma in illustration of his serious Buddhist interests? Then some chapters from Visions of Gerard placed next to his “Shakespeare and the Outsider” essay, to show Shakespearean language ef­fect on the writing of Gerard. Then how about some of “Berkeley Blues” standing next to the Berkeley section of Desolation Angels featuring Jack’s mother and Philip Whalen? Plus Old Angel Midnight next to “The Scripture of the Golden Eternity” (both written in the same notebook). Then perhaps the full Pull My Daisy narration, followed by some “Big Trip to Europe” sad­nesses leading into the crack-up writing of Big Sur, the later genealogical concerns of Satori in Paris and “Among the Iroquois,” and concluding in the “nothing ever came of it” darknesses of Vanity of Duluoz. All with the pertinent letters, shorter poems, and notebook entries interspersed. Not too spare an alternative design?

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Again, there are enough sloppy errors throughout her commentary to raise severe doubts as to the degree of Charters’s commitment to a full realization of Kerouac’s genius. But what really got to me was a passage in the “Editor’s Introduction” where­in she manages somehow to casually insult both Kerouac and his readers. Here’s what I mean: “Perhaps it is poetic justice that few of Kerouac’s readers can claim to have finished all the books making up his Duluoz Legend.” (She’s previously cited Philip Whalen as saying that Jack never finished reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but how can she possibly know or claim such a failure on the part of Kerou­ac’s readers?) “As with Proust, there are just too many words” (in Joyce too, right? And didn’t Coltrane play those overly long solos? etc., etc., etc.). “Who has the time to sit down and plow through [my emphasis] the dozen books comprising Kerouac’s saga?” Who, you have to ask? Only those of us who couldn’t wait upon reading On the Road to go on and read all of his work (and each book many times) and still can’t wait for the unpublished rest of it all to be re­leased to us, who will always treasure our fascination with all facets Kerouac, whose lives and senses and works have been trans­formed by his brilliance and so don’t need it reduced by explication or framed in disin­terest, who read anyway to attain the direct ecstatic connection and not to occupy some backseat of abstraction, who love and re­vere him with no reservation, no need to meddle or to judge, and who take him seri­ously entire, as the magnificent artist that he will remain.

“Ah me, John, but, but, but — it will all end in love I promise you. Another letter follows. Because I am thoroughly exhaust­ed. Sweet John. Soon. Wait for my next letter… Write. Forgive — give — cry­ — wait — Jack.” ■

Edited by Ann Charters

Viking, $29.95

Edited by Ann Charters

Viking, $27.95


Was Walt Whitman Christ?

Whitmaniacs at Large

The big embarrassment of Walt Whit­man’s later years was not his poverty (groups of writers in England and America had to take up a collection) but the cult that arose around him. Ardent followers celebrated him as Messiah, Christ, maybe a god. Some of these followers were individuals of genuine distinction, not exactly in the first rank of intellectual life, but not without talent either. William D. O’Connor, who wrote the pro­-Whitman tract, The Good Gray Poet, was a formidable polemicist. More formidable yet was the poet’s doctor, R.M. Bucke, an ac­complished figure by anyone’s lights. Dr. Bucke was a leading Canadian psychiatrist, superintendent of a lunatic asylum in On­tario, and president of various psycho-medi­cal societies. He was also a man of worldly experience. Five years of his youth were spent in the American West, prospecting and driving a wagon train. He fought Indians, almost discovered the Comstock Lode, lost one foot and part of the other to frostbite.

And yet as a result of two strange ex­periences that he associated with Whitman, Bucke subscribed wholeheartedly to the cult. The first experience occurred during a visit to London. While riding a hansom after reading Whitman and other poets, Bucke was suddenly enveloped in a flame-colored cloud, which he thought was a fire in the city, but then realized was an inner illumination. A drop of “Brahmic Bliss” fell on his heart. The second experience came when he presented himself to Whitman in the flesh. A few minutes of chat, and Bucke ascended into a “spiritual intoxication” that lasted six weeks. Un­der these circumstances it was natural that he would wonder about Whitman’s more than human powers and qualities and begin referring to him as “the Christ.”

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Dr. Bucke’s great achievement was to come up with a scientific theory to explain Whit­man’s messianic role. You can see this theory in his biography of Whitman (1833), his let­ters, and his tract Cosmic Consciousness, which is regarded as a classic in certain circles and is still in print (Dutton, $6.25 paper). Eons ago, the theory went, mankind made a dramatic evolutionary leap from animal con­sciousness to human consciousness. Now the human race was about to make its next great leap, from ordinary human consciousness to Cosmic Consciousness, which means full awareness of eternity and the universe. Dur­ing the last couple of thousand years, a hand­ful of superior individuals anticipated this evolutionary development. These individuals, who stand in relation to ordinary people as humans do to dogs and cats, included Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammed. Also Balzac. Greatest of all was Whitman, the harbinger of evolution’s next step, who of­fered in his own person the fullest picture of what the future of the race would be like. That future was on its way and would take hold initially in the United States. Wealth and poverty would be abolished, and demo­cratic socialism would reign. Whitman, who had absorbed the entire human race, would in turn be absorbed back by every individual who attained the higher spiritual level. Bucke wrote in the biography that, just as the gospels and Pauline writings were the Bible of Christianity in the past, so Leaves of Grass would be the Bible of Cosmic civilization in the future. This, however, was a disputed point. In his later tract Bucke said that Cos­mic Consciousness would have no Bible.

All in all, it was an excellent theory, and commendable particularly for its optimism. “The immediate future of our race,” Bucke wrote, “is indescribably hopeful.” What was not indescribably hopeful, indeed was hope­lessly bleak, was the future of Walt Whitman so long as his reputation rested in the hands of Dr. Bucke and the other cultists.

Bliss Perry, the eminent editor of the At­lantic Monthly, addressed this situation with a biography of Whitman in 1906. (Perry’s book, not Bucke’s, has been reprinted by Chelsea House.) Dr. Bucke was mildly cracked, Perry implied. Whitman was a mere human — a very talented human, even a ge­nius, but a mere human nonetheless, and with too many objectionable flaws. Perry’s account of these flaws reflects the literary sensibility of turn-of-the-century Boston, which readers may find irksome and prissy. But one can salute him for the role he played in the history of Whitman criticism. He was the great de-Bucker and he brought the age of cultism to an end. So far as Whitman’s literary reputation was concerned, the dra­matic evolutionary leap was right here. Whit­man could be celebrated as a mere poet, not a messiah.

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Only the problem with Perry is that Bucke­-ism won’t entirely go away, no matter how much you want it to. It’s not just that in his old age Whitman tolerated the cult and se­cretly collaborated with Bucke on the 1883 biography (all the while protesting against Bucke’s overenthusiasm). The messianic urge had been with him all along, ever since his emergence as a poet in the 1850s. Messianism exuded from the deepest struc­tures of his thought, indeed something very much like it exuded from his person, and Bucke was not the only one to make the observation. “You can’t confound him with the other inhabitants of Brooklyn or New York,” Thoreau reported after a visit to Whitman. “He occasionally suggests some­thing a little more than human.” Exactly.

Something a little more than human exudes even from Whitman’s occasional prose writings, at least the prose writings of the 1850s. You can see it in the reviews of his own book that he wrote and published anonymously in the press, where he described his whole purpose in life as “to stamp a new type of character, namely his own,” on American civilization. Or better still, look at his strange 1856 political manifesto, The Eighteenth Presidency!, which you can find by thumbing through back pages of the fat Library of America volume (thumbing through is your only chance: the Library of America edition is the most complete one-volume Whitman ever published, and a handsome book to boot, but has an almost useless table of contents, and no prose index at all). In this manifesto Whitman denounced the two political parties as a collection of pimps, malignants, VD suf­ferers, and body snatchers, along with murderers, kept editors, carriers of concealed weapons, and similar undesirables. And then unexpectedly the name “Walt Whitman” pops up as a possible alternative. You can’t confound this with other political manifestos.

Or turn to the front of the volume and read the celebrated Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass, where he called for an American “bard” or “seer” who will incarnate the nation, be more popular than the president, and be the universe’s greatest lover. The preface was written in a peculiar exalted prose that almost lifts off into poetry. In his own edition of this preface, the poet William Everson has abolished the almost by setting Whitman’s sentences into verse-a clever stroke which improves the readability. But I think the reason Whitman wrote in prose was to sug­gest a prose degree of literalness. He was being sober here, more or less. The preface was relatively restrained.

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Where he let fly was in the poems that he intended as poems. Messianism was at the heart of the Leaves central character, “Walt Whitman, a kosmos,” who is the brother of Jesus, who sometimes becomes Being itself, and who promises to return in 5000 years. More especially it was part of the book’s technique and tone. I mean the King James­-style bombast and bluster, but also the half-­spectral, half-sensual intimacy that certain passages achieve — and the way one tone plays against the other. An example is “So Long!,” the last great poem in Leaves, which begins with bombastic Buckean prophecies: “I announce natural persons to arise,/I an­nounce justice triumphant,/I announce un­compromising liberty and equality,/I an­nounce the justification of candor and the justification of pride.” But then the big guns fall silent and he shifts to an infinitely more powerful tender intimacy:

My songs cease, I abandon them,
From behind the screen where I hid I advance personally solely to you.

Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here together alone?) It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms — decease calls me forth.

The opposed tones correspond to the two elements of a messiah. On one hand a messiah must be a spiritual teacher who converts you to his doctrine by broadcasting what he has to say through sermons or poems. Those are the first lines, in which Whitman hurls his bombast. On the other hand a messiah must go beyond being a spiri­tual teacher. He must aim at redemption, and for this he needn’t broadcast at all. Instead he must establish an almost physical pres­ence, and let his message flow from him to you in direct communion, without any me­dium at all. As Whitman says in another poem, “I and mine do not convince by argu­ments, similes, rhymes,/We convince by our presence.” That is what he does in these second lines from ”So Long!” he establishes direct communion by springing into your arms, on the occasion of his death, in a vaguely sexual embrace.

Whitman does this so casually you may barely notice what he is about. The casual­ness is characteristic, and might lead you to think he is merely being chummy or touchy­feely. You might not think of sacraments at all. No matter: Read with an open heart and your hair will stand on end. Bliss Perry, confined by the mere-human conventions of secular criticism, cannot explain this. But a reader beginning with Dr. Bucke’s pre­posterous assumptions will realize that here is the more-than-human moment of redemp­tion. The messianic vocation is not just prom­ised, it is fulfilled, and Leaves of Grass is its fulfillment.



The authenticity of Whitman’s vocation accounts for why his admirers have always responded in extraordinary ways to him. He seems directly at hand, his lips pressed to yours in casual communion, and it would hardly feel right to experience this and not respond in some way. Dr. Bucke’s circle of Whitmaniacs (the term came from Perry) was one response, though not a very good one, and not fated to last. Better responses, liter­ary ones at any rate, were bound to emerge. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, a remarkable anthology edited by Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, is a record of precisely this. These editors show that from Swinburne to Dave Smith, scores of poets have responded to Whitman by talk­ing to him in their writings, as if in a con­versation across the ages. Some of this talk has been in essays, more of it in verse. Whit­man has been addressed directly in the sec­ond person, as when Hart Crane said, “My hand in yours, Walt Whitman”; and in the third person, as when Allen Ginsberg de­scribed him eyeing the supermarket boys. There have been so many invocations of Whitman by so many poets that one might say they constitute a modern genre. Call it the Walt-iad. Ed Folsom observes, “There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in English or American poetry — a sustained tradition, a century old, of directly invoking or address­ing another poet. It has become a litany running through our poetry.” Not just ours, as the anthology shows, but poetry in Span­ish and Portuguese as well. The Walt-iad is an Anglo-Hispanic phenomenon.

Unsurprisingly, the Walt-iads have fol­lowed several of the major themes of the original Whitmaniacs — the celebration of Whitman as sexual liberator, for instance, which was a concern of O’Connor’s The Good Gray Poet as early as 1865, and later ap­peared in Bucke ‘s biography. Something of the same celebration can be seen in “Saluta­tion to Walt Whitman,” a 1915 poem in Portuguese by Fernando Pessoa, who struck a Ginsbergian level of sexual exuberance and humor: “Walt, my beloved old man, my great Comrade, I evoke you! … Open all the doors­ for me!/Because I have to go in!/My password? Walt Whitman!/But I don’t give any password … /I go, in without explaining … ” Or in a completely different fashion, the same response can be seen in the title poem of John Gill’s 1982 book, From the Diary of Peter Doyle (Alembic Press, $4.50). Peter Doyle was Whitman’s real-life companion for a number of years, and the poem is a fictional homosexual love letter, dry and restrained but still tender, to Whitman by Doyle.

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The old Whitmaniac democratic and so­cialist themes survive in any number of Walt-­iads. Hart Crane celebrated Whitman for his democratic vision of America. Langston Hughes credited him with a definition of America that included everyone. June Jordan echoes Dos Passos (who is omitted from the anthology) by declaring, “I too am a descendant of Walt Whitman,” then further declares that Whitman is comparable to Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, which is a dreadful thing to say. Another horrendous left-wing Walt-iad is by the Dominican poet Pedro Mir, whose idea is to convert Whitman’s individualist “Song of Myself” to a collec­tivist “Song of Ourselves.” On the other hand Thomas McGrath’s Walt-iad wittily places Whitman at a Marxist meeting. Kenneth Patchen in a poem and Meridel LeSueur in an essay place Whitman in the old American socialist tradition by remembering the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books editions of Whitman, published by the old Socialist Party. A Walt-iad by Neruda, a true son of Whitman, invokes him for a militant protest: “Because I love my country/I claim you, essential brother,/old Walt Whitman with your gray hands,/so that, with your special help/ line by line, we will tear out by the roots/and destroy this bloodthirsty President Nixon.”

What seems to have departed since Bucke’s day is a sense of Whitmanian op­timism. Not a single contributor to the anthology regards the future of mankind as “indescribably hopeful,” except possibly Henry Miller, who in a 1956 essay took the Buckean position that Whitman was a harbinger of a future golden age. A major theme of democratic Walt-iads is instead to contrast miserable present-day America to the fine democracy that existed in Whitman’s time. I’m not sure this Walt-iadic theme is fair to Whitman, since he never thought that Amer­ica in his own time was all that wonderful — ­on the contrary, he thought the country was ruled by pimps, malignants, VD sufferers, and body snatchers. Democracy was going to triumph in the future. Anyway, many Walt-­iads offer the contrast, beginning with a De­pression-era “Ode to Walt Whitman” by Ste­phen Vincent Benet, a dreary poet, who ex­plained to Whitman that things were not going well in these States. Dave Smith, in “With Walt Whitman at Fredericksburg,” dilates on nearly the same theme: “I want/to tell you how progress has not changed us much.” But traffic booming in the distance chants: “wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.” End­less variations of this sort have been worked on the Open Road. In “A Supermarket in Cafifornia,” Ginsberg quietly contrasts the supermarket’s open corridors to the in­vigorating open road. Louis Simpson asks: “Where are you Walt?/The Open Road goes to open the road used leads car lot.” Ernest Kroll says: The “The open road leads only into space … The love of comrades is a hopeless case.”

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Some poets look to Whitman for technical reasons, which is a decidedly unBuckean theme. William Carlos Williams cited Whitman for blazing the trail toward that dubious technical concept, the variable American foot. Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan praise the long line, and Galway Kinnell de­livers up the opinion that Whitman’s break with counted meter is the culmination to­ward which all prosody has been striving since the King James Bible. In a brilliant essay Muriel Rukeyser observed that Whit­man’s sensuality was a technical matter: “He remembered his body as other poets of his time remembered English verse.” By no means are all the selections in the anthology wild about him. Poets as different as Edwin Markham and Ezra Pound stressed their objections in verse, before agreeing to admire him. Pound wrote: “I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman — /I have detested you long enough.” Louis Simpson and Robert Bly have contributed essays expressing reserva­tons not so different from Bliss Perry’s complaints in 1906.

And yet nestled among these varied selections are a couple of contributions that do suggest the continuation of an almost religious current of Whitman worship. A single Chistological Walt-iad from 1901 by a minor British Whitmaniac stands for the old cult of Bucke’s day. From the new day Michael Kin­caid, in a shrewd essay, declares himself an adherent of Whitman’s poetic religion — care­fully keeping the quotation marks around “religion.” Patricia Hampl explains that she turned to Whitman for solace during the evil days of Vietnam and still reads him as gospel, or “good news.” This is different, less silly, than what the old Whitmaniacs had in mind, though I don’t doubt that a community o£ emotion stretches from them to more than a handful of contemporary writers.

In one respect the whole anthology can be seen as the continuation of a Whitmaniac custom. The Camden cultists used to repeat stories about Whitman’s amazing effect on certain individuals. Dr. Bucke’s flame-colored cloud and spiritual intoxication was one such story. Another, passed along by Justin. Kaplan in his biography, was the experience of a British Whitmaniac who paid a call in 1891 and underwent a palpable vision of his late mother. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song is in a sense a 400-page collection of stories like these, only told by poets, each to his own fancy. The old Whitmaniacs published a volume of birthday greetings to p their idol; here we have a volume of poetic greetings from our own day. What is striking is the continuity of love expressed in all this— gushing, reserved, off the wall, begrudging, levelheaded, scholarly, ecstatic, yet love nonetheless. ❖


Beat Streets: The War Between the Prophets and the Profs

Kerouac & Friends assembles Fred McDarrah’s famous hipster photographs with 30 prose pieces of the time by various beats, journalists, and critics. It’s a splendid memoir-montage, not so much about Kerouac as about the Village beat milieu. Ker­ouac had a strong New York presence even when he wasn’t in town; one of the most evocative essays here, “The Roaming Beat­niks,” is his ramble through beat Manhat­tan after dark, an ode to simple postwar urban pleasures. But he wasn’t an integral part of everyday New York beat life, at least after On the Road was finally pub­lished in 1957. Young McDarrah, a self-­confessed beatnik groupie, mainly recorded that late-’50s Village scene — drinks at the Cedar, openings at the Hansa Gallery and the Living Theater, quiet times in Allen Ginsberg’s kitchen.

The book offers some long glimpses at Kerouac; the most striking appear in How­ard Smith’s and Dan Wakefield’s separate accounts of Christmas, 1957, at the Village Vanguard, with a sweaty, juiced-up Kerou­ac reading to the jazz buffs and his faithful flock. But these snippets reveal little that isn’t familiar from Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters or from McDarrah’s contribu­tions to The Beat Scene (1960; edited by my father, Eli Wilentz of 8th Street Book­shop fame). The real treat is getting to rub elbows with an enormous cavalcade of oth­ers, some long gone, some now well-estab­lished (William Styron!), and some, like McDarrah himself, who still figure mightily at places like The Voice (my favorite: Joel Oppenheimer looking dapper in his 1959 crewcut).

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The only disappointment is the uneven quality of the photo reproductions. McDar­rah was a beginner in the late 1950s, shoot­ing with an old Rolleicord and a beat-up Nikon. His pictures had none of the sharp­-edged contrasts and meticulous composi­tion of his present work. Still, despite the occasional gaffe, he took some wonderful photographs, and Morrow doesn’t do them justice. Some of the best — a beat party un­der a scrawled graffito, “Le Sang des Poetes”; Tuli Kupferberg grinning outside the Gaslight — look muddy and overexposed compared to other versions I’ve seen. One picture, of Ginsberg and Corso at the Art­ist’s Club, looks murky enough to have been shot in a mine shaft. McDarrah deserves better; luckily, enough of the pictures are clear, and enough of McDarrah’s style shows through, that the clinkers are at worst an annoyance.

The book’s mood is nostalgic in the proper sense, a longing for home, for a Vil­lage half-remembered and half-invented. Its sense of place is rhapsodic, recalling the lost landmarks of youthful fantasy, the San Remo (sigh!), the 8th Street Deli (ditto!), the original 8th Street Bookshop on Mac­Dougal Street (mixed feelings, personally, about that one). Even more touching is the human congeries, the writers, artists, and hangers-on, populating a world where cheap rents, greasy spoons, and literary enterprise brought people together, to bohemia. It’s remarkable how many of McDarrah’s pho­tographs are of crowds — in cafés and bars, in galleries, in Washington Square on weekend. “The night people,” Jean Shepherd used to call them, those who forswore the 9 to 5 grind, spent afternoons and evenings in palatable jobs or solitary artistic work, and then came out at night for barroom conviviality and incessant party-going. Manhattan still has crowds; pockets of bohemia survive here and there. But nothing quite like the beat demimonde exists anymore, not with the same literary élan, the same desperate vitality. Being a poor New York writer or painter has become too expensive — or too crushing — to permit such animated congregation.

And animated it was. Long before anyone thought up a happening or a be-in, the beats mastered public showmanship, blur­ring the lines between art and the everyday, playing tricks with their own personae and the mythic “beatnik” invented by Time. Some beats called their hijinks a way to get attention and make some bread: Ted Joans, the Afro-surrealist painter, poet, and impresario, once remarked of his show-off stunts, “Well hell, that’s just part of the job of making a living.” But the beats’ irreverent aesthetic made even their wildest ploys more than a job. Joans himself took part in one caper, the Rent-a-Beatnik business that McDarrah started in 1959. Time had just publicized the Village scene as an abomina­tion, a titillating but unholy world of beard­ed sex perverts in berets and their emaciat­ed chicks. McDarrah, seizing on the stereotype, decided to give the suburban public the real thing. In the first beatnik rental, Joans, replete with beret and torn sweater, traveled to a Scarsdale party, McDarrah in tow, and mingled with the gentry. The photograph from that party is hilarious. Joans is earnest; his audience, decked out in its own weird idea of beat garb, looks just as well-meaning. The host had a great time (“People in Westchester are still talking about it,” he later enthused to a reporter); we can imagine Joans and McDarrah’s rollicking trip home.

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The scene flourished only a short time, from about 1957 to about 1961 (the year some leading Village lights met at director Robert Cordier’s flat to contemplate the beat generation’s funeral). Kerouac & Friends offers several explanations why — ­the publicity was too much, one critic writes; the folk song crowd pushed the beats aside, another suggests. But even if the beats had stuck it out, beatdom could never have survived the politics of the ’60s. A personal recollection brings that home. Ex­actly 20 years ago, my family moved the bookshop across the street from its old spot on MacDougal. Some of the remaining beats in town helped with the lifting and unpacking (I especially remember Peter Or­lovsky, with his mottled tam o’shanter, and how he was so physically strong for one so skinny). When it was done, there was a grand party, a gathering of old friends, writ­ers, and beats. All went swimmingly until midday, when news arrived from Harlem that Malcolm X had just been murdered. Bewilderment, then tension, hit the room. My clearest memory is of LeRoi Jones im­mediately leaving the proceedings. I sensed that the Village would never be the same. The next time I saw Jones in the shop, his name was Baraka.

Despite its evanescence, the beat scene marked an important cultural and literary break, one that still affects those who passed through it and those of us born a bit too late. A great deal has been written about the beats’ long-term cultural signifi­cance; much of it has focused on their sexu­al style, on what Barbara Ehrenreich appre­ciates as their pre-feminist flight from gray-flanneled manhood and what Norman Podhoretz despises as their portentous re­nunciation of middle-class norms. Kerouac & Friends touches on these matters, with opinions from all sides, Podhoretz included. But its photos and reviews also place the New York beats more exactly in their liter­ary context. The beats’ disaffiliation from ’50s mainstream America was in large mea­sure a revolt against the prevailing arbiters of literary taste and manners — specifically, the New York intellectuals of Partisan Re­view and Commentary and their provincial admirers and imitators. From the start, the beats took the intellectuals — those Kenneth Rexroth called “the general staff of the En­emy” — as their chief objects of negative ref­erence. Thereafter, the passionate, ambivalent argument between Beat and Intellectual helped sharpen their respective identities, in creative and destructive ways. American literary culture hasn’t been the same since.

It began at Columbia in the late ’40s­ — years before anyone talked of a beat genera­tion — when Allen Ginsberg sought out his literature professors, especially Lionel Trill­ing. “In the early years, I tried to be open with him,” Ginsberg tells Al Aronowitz in a 1960 piece included here, “and laid on him my understanding of Burroughs and Jack­ — stories about them, hoping he would be in­terested or see some freshness or light, but all he or the others at Columbia could see was me searching for a father or pushing myself or bucking for an instructorship, or whatever they have been conditioned to think in terms of.” Diana Trilling’s notori­ous, motherly “The Other Night at Colum­bia” (also in the book) shows that this was exactly what the Morningside Lions thought then and continued to think later: she recalls that when pressed about why he didn’t correct his young pupil, Lionel Trill­ing would exclaim, “I’m not his father.” From these testy, stumbling encounters came the first clues that Ginsberg’s struggle with his teacher-critics ran far deeper than literary disagreement; the young trouble­maker and his oddball friends had hit a nerve in some of the most Olympian New York critics, and vice versa. Once the New York beats expanded their number, hooked up with the San Francisco Renaissance, and took to mocking the uptown eminences, the wrangling began to turn nasty.

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The antagonism was mutually reinforc­ing, establishing Intellectual and Beat as opposites in their own minds. There were, to be sure, a few powerful critics — very few — who greeted the beats with bemused curiosity. William Phillips recalls in his memoirs how he listened to Ginsberg hold forth persuasively one day at the Partisan Review office; poetry by Ginsberg and Corso actually made it into PR. Far more typical was the response of Phillips’s coedi­tor, Philip Rahv: “I have looked over the stuff and it seems pretty vacuous to me.” To be an intellectual, especially on the Up­per West Side, meant cultivating a world-­weary, epigrammatic civility, even (espe­cially?) when cutting your rivals to ribbons. To be a beat meant finding sweetness, freshness, and light in elegiac, angelic bar­barism. The intellectuals, most of them products of the radical ’30s, had for the most part retreated from serious criticism of American capitalism, but they still saw literature politically, as the proving ground of the liberal imagination. The beats, chil­dren of the ’40s and Cold War stalemate, abhorred capitalism and communism, and retained at least some sense of political commitment — “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” Ginsberg declared — but their poetry always vaunted the personal, the existential, the religious above politics. The intellectuals were al­most exclusively critics and essayists who devoted the better part of every day to tak­ing positions. The beats wrote poems and novels and very little criticism; they thought position-taking was absurd. The in­tellectuals cherished complexity, ambiguity, and Niebuhrian paradox. The beats sought simplicity, ecstasy, and Blakean transcen­dence. And yet, irreconcilable as they were, Intellectual and Beat shared an ambiva­lence about each other, born of an often unacknowledged awareness that they had each other’s number.

The beats’ ambivalence concerned fame: though they rejected the intellectuals, they still wanted to be known as the great artists of their time, the best minds of their gener­ation — laurels the intellectuals weren’t about to bestow. Ginsberg’s touching “Ego Confession” speaks to the beats’ anxiety about literary success; so, in a sadder, more destructive sense, does an anecdote Podhoretz tells in Al Aronowitz’s piece about Gins­berg, about an occasion McDarrah must have kicked himself for missing. One night, Podhoretz (then a Trilling protégé and pre­eminent aspiring New York Intellectual) got a phone call from his old Columbia ac­quaintance, Ginsberg, inviting him to a downtown party. Podhoretz went, only to discover that the party consisted of Gins­berg, Kerouac, and Peter Orlovsky, sitting in wait. Kerouac’s fury at Podhoretz crept through his charming wisecracks: “Why is it,” he fumed, “that all the biggest young critics… Why are you against us? Why aren’t you for the best talent of your generation?” Podhoretz replied that he didn’t think them the best talent; Kerouac became indignant. The indignation grew over the coming years — the years when Podhoretz really “made it” — as Kerouac fell apart and wound up an embittered paranoid, holed up in St. Petersburg (Florida), knocking back the boilermakers that finally killed him. At the very end, he declaimed against the Communists and the Jews, and especially against the Jewish literary mafia he swore had done him in.

The intellectuals’ ambivalence had to do with a nagging sense of vacancy about their own decorous, well-heeled academic lives. This was the nerve the beats hit. In characteristic form, the intellectuals responded by taking a position, but this time some of them lost their cool; Kerouac & Friends, with its reprints of reviews of the beats, invites us to contrast beat realities with the critics’ caricatures and see just how over­heated some of the intellectuals became. The beats, here, look genial enough — ­scruffy by ’50s standards, certainly frivo­lous, at times wild-eyed, but hardly menac­ing. They speak plainly of their basically religious faith, well summarized by Ted Joans: “We’re the richest people in the world and yet we don’t have truth and love. It’s not what’s up front that counts, it’s what’s in your heart and brain. There’s nothing wrong with material possessions. But you should use them and not let them use you.”

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Yet to the intellectuals — many of them immigrant offspring who had won the re­spect of the goyim — the beat scene was both a cultural blasphemy and a kind of personal affront, an abandonment of cultur­al obligations and the hard-won refine­ments of Claremont Avenue, a regression to a confused and dangerous state of self-in­dulgent juvenile delinquency. The beats­ — bright students many of them — had refused the only world that mattered. With their rumpled clothes and zany non sequiturs, they challenged the intellectuals’ victory as a sellout. Worse than that, they got atten­tion with their ravings about transcen­dence; they had followers (“so many young girls, so few of them pretty,” Diana Trilling harrumphed about the audience at a Co­lumbia beat poetry reading). No problem taking a position on these miscreants.

Kerouac & Friends provides a survey of the critics’ escalating rage. Thus Trilling, commenting on the Columbia reading: “Maybe Ginsberg says he doesn’t bathe or shave… But for this occasion, at any rate, Ginsberg, Corso, and Orlovsky were all beautifully clean and shaven… Certainly there’s nothing dirty about a checked shirt or a lumberjacket and blue jeans; they’re standard uniform in the best nursery schools. Ginsberg has his price, as do his friends, however much they may dissem­ble.” Thus Podhoretz: “Isn’t the beat gener­ation a conspiracy to overthrow civilization (which is created by men, not boys) and to replace it not by the State of Nature where we can all romp around in a free-and-easy nakedness, but by the world of the adoles­cent street gang?” Thus Boston’s John Ciardi in the Saturday Review: “I hope the next time the young go out for an intellectu­al rebellion, they will think to try the li­brary. It’s still the most subversive building in town, and it’s still human headquarters. And even rebels can find it useful to know something, if only to learn to sit still with a book in hand.”

Beneath all this bluster, rumbling like a runaway Broadway local below ground, was the intellectuals’ suspicion that maybe the mannered academia of the age of anxiety wasn’t all they cracked it up to be. For the older heads, there was the creeping sensa­tion that they had lost something valuable in their adaptation, that their well-wrought existence demanded they suppress the unorthodoxy and high spirits of the rip-roar­ing ’30s: nights of debate and spritzing in Stewart’s Cafeteria, days in the left-wing alcoves and meeting halls, singing their lungs out, “A SOCialist union is a NO good union, is a COM-pan-y union of the bosses.” For the young men, like Podhoretz, there was an eerie feeling that they had grown prematurely stodgy and safe, apolo­gists for caution.

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Not that the intellectuals were entirely wrong about the beats, their criticisms mere angry projection. When it came to self-­promotion — making it — there was method to the beats’ craziness; the intellectuals knew it. With their memories of Hitler and Stalin, they were entitled to be nervous about those beats who dipped into Céline and Gide and Hesse and celebrated the cult of experience. And there’s no denying that some of the prose and poetry written in the spontaneous bop mode was quite simply godawful.

But what made the beats so compelling — ­and, in retrospect, makes them even more so — was that they had their antagonists figured out so well, and so early on. A decade and more before the intellectuals suffered through the late ’60s and early ’70s, the beats smelled the staleness of an existence consecrated entirely to criticism, urbanity, and infighting, without much hope of transcendence, personal or political. A glance through the recent spate of New York Intellectuals’ memoirs exposes, with gloomy regularity, the phenomenon of lives unlived (or at least unremembered) outside the suffocating trenches of intellectual combat. These were lives of scholarship — ideally among the highest forms of spiritual endeavor — blighted by an unending search for correctness, a corrupting form of liberal anticommunism, and the conventions of a West Side literary career. Their self-importance bred a profound sadness and a paranoia as crippling in its way as Kerouac’s. The great crack-up really hit about ’67 or ’68. The CIA-Congress for Cultural Freedom exposé and the Columbia upheaval were especially upsetting episodes; the intellectuals’ imagination was slow to grasp that the liberal academy had shamelessly debased its honor and then lied about it. But the first shock was the sight of the beats chucking Matthew Arnold and lighting out for North Beach and the Village when they should have been knotting their ties, getting on with their dissertations, and earning their instructorships.

Nowadays the beats, with their wild dreams and ecstatic chatter, seem part of a distant pre-’60s past. Most of them made it through the storm and live on; Ginsberg, for one, having tamed his anguish in Buddha, is regarded in some circles as our national poet. But the beat scene itself is dead, its leaders scattered, its supposed armies of legatees lost to law school, the academy, the day-people’s world. Many of the surviving intellectuals, meanwhile, have grown smug­ger, plumper than ever with success. Since lurching into neoconservatism in the 1970s, they’ve banished any doubts they might have had about the wholesomeness of middle-class stolidity, and are now in the pro­cess of regaining their authority. Though they hold little political power — Jeane Kirkpatrick aside, the Reaganites couldn’t care less for the Commentary crowd — they are in charge of some important cultural precincts all down the line. And from their squad rooms they are doing their best to police American arts and letters and revive their own sort of intellectual as culture hero.

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All of which makes Kerouac & Friends — ­and more generally the literary history of the beats and the ’50s — enormously instructive. The neocons certainly haven’t forgotten the beat scene. In their revisions of history, the beats were the advance guard of the 1960s cultural vandals; accordingly, the police actions of the 1980s are an at­tempt to restore all that was good and true about American culture before Ginsberg, Kerouac, and friends unleashed their beast­ly barrage. It’s a dreary moment indeed these neocons are sponsoring, less a reprise of their earlier anti-bohemian outbursts than a desecration of history — their own included — to justify their subsequent odys­sey and their current project. Bad enough they should have to repeat their by-now ritualistic slandering of the beats, with so little self-examination or reflection. Even worse that they do so under the pretext of bringing back the good old days. Whatever their mistakes and tragedies, the most thoughtful of the ’50s intellectuals would have recoiled in disgust at the notion that 30 years later some of their associates would flirt with the Radical Right while mouthing euphemisms about cultural excellence: imagine Lionel Trilling sharing anything with Jerry Falwell, much less a common discourse. Yet such are the lessons and bur­dens of history, as some of our angrier ex­-liberals see it.

If the neocons’ ascendancy marks their betrayal of liberalism, it also helps us un­derstand the ’50s in a very different way. In this version, the beats appear not as vandals but as something closer to prophets. Long before anyone else, they saw it all coming. They sensed the deadliness of obsessive ci­vility, of irony as a creed and manly liberal criticism as a way of life — and they sensed where it could lead. They understood that somewhere in the Intellectual’s soul — in the part closed to transcendence — stirred the spirit of what Ginsberg called Moloch. In these flat, discouraging neocon times, the beats’ prophecies ring true enough. And their protests sound as urgent as ever. ❖

KEROUAC & FRIENDS: A Beat Generation Album by Fred W. McDarrah Morrow, $17.95


Black Women Writers Reclaim Their Past

Family Plots: Black Women Writer Reclaim Their Past
March 1987

When I was in grammar school, a friend of my father’s gave me a copy of Paule Mar­shall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. He told me a Negro woman had written the novel and it was about a young girl. I was shocked. I’d never seen a book about a black girl — ex­cept, that is, for a weird little volume called The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God by G.B. Shaw. Unfortunate­ly, in the years since then, books like Mar­shall’s still come as a surprise. Like a number of other black women writers, I have made it a point to speak of our “tradition,” yet I know that no such tradition is assumed by the rest of the world, primarily because our books have not been read or taught.

During the controversy over The Color Purple, this was particularly evident. No one seemed to make even one cogent obser­vation about the books black women write. Yet much was said about black women writ­ers and our work. Contemporary writers are being accused of pillorying black men, pro­moting homosexuality, ignoring sociological overviews of black oppression — and they’re often pegged as the first black writers to commit such sins. Mel Watkins, for in­stance, asserted in The New York Times Book Review last spring that black women writers had broken a silent pact among all black writers to present positive images. He even dared to trace the portrayal of hostility between black men and women to a 1967 novel by Carlene Hatcher Polite, which is like saying black writers started to expose racism in 1940. It’s obvious the finger point­ers don’t know where we’ve been, much less where we’re coming from.

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Any defense of black women should take into account the priorities laid down by black women writers over the years — it should assert the place of black women’s tradition within the larger black literary tra­dition. This women’s tradition — which shows that Alice Walker’s impulses are much the same as those of 19th century black women writers — has been, until now, barely charted territory. There is a body of literature by black women that hardly any of us has been able to study. The reclamation of this work has begun, and there are new editions of four landmark novels: Plum Bun (1929) by Jessie Fauset, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, and The Street (1946) by Ann Petry. These older novels will undoubtedly put the current con­troversies into perspective.

Black literature comes from peculiar roots — a proliferation of narratives written in isolation by former slaves, unaware of themselves as a literary community. The personal narrative became popular — it still is — and the works came to the larger black community often by way of oral renderings for people who could not read. Black women share these roots and this isolation. Until 10 years ago, we couldn’t read much of our foremothers’ work; the books went out of print almost as soon as they appeared. Fic­tion by black women — going back to the 1859 novel Our Nig — shows certain disjunc­tions that suggest an ignorance of forebears unusual among American writers. The works do not form the kind of linear pro­gression one might ascribe to fiction by black men, white men, or other American women.

Black male writers of several generations have been repeatedly described by critics as being involved in “father/son” conflict: you guessed it, the son rebels against the father. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, the dad­dies of them all, evidently had no daughters. Their sons were heralded as they appeared: James Baldwin, John A. Williams, Ernest Gaines, William Melvin Kelley, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. And in flurries of es­says and articles, the critics debated as Elli­son battled Wright’s troops. Baldwin railed against Wright, Jones railed against Bald­win. This was the pattern until the ’70s, when the hegemony broke down and others began to appear who went their own way­ — people like Ishmael Reed, who railed against Jones, was railed against by Jones, made up with Jones, and started railing against wom­en. Clarence Major, David Bradley, and Charles Johnson seem to be minding their own business.

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Ellison wrote rather pointedly of the father/son dilemma, acknowledging that he and Baldwin were viewed by Irving Howe as “guilty of filial betrayal” because they re­jected Native Son’s naturalism and “while actually ‘black boys,’ they pretend to be mere American writers trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predica­ment.” This is much the fate that has met black women. Having never really been in­cluded in the family, they’ve still been charged with stepping outside the tolerated boundaries of the black literary tradition. And they have done so, precisely as Ellison put it, “trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predicament.”

While the father/son crew developed its tradition through critiques of previous work and the appearance of various schools and philosophical perspectives, fiction by black women shows signs of being improvised with materials taken almost exclusively from personal experience. It’s as if those books the novelists had read barely served as models for style, structure, narrative ap­proach, or content.

Imagine a John Coltrane who had only heard one 78 by Charlie Parker, one LP by Billie Holiday. Imagine a Cecil Taylor who did not grow up with the sounds of Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, and you have some idea how amazing it is that we have writers like Lorraine Hansberry and Toni Morrison.

Each generation of black women has cer­tainly taken ideas from known forms, yet in the matter of content — the telling of black women’s stories — the same impulses appear time and again, with little revision over the decades. Only lately have we seen work that makes conscious nods to the past. And no wonder: Morrison, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, Sherley Anne Williams, Ntozake Shange, and others are the first generation to have a body of work on the black woman’s condi­tion readily at hand.

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Morrison, Walker, and their sisters laid claim to the ’70s and ’80s, and these decades will be looked upon as a time when a signifi­cant number of major American works were created by a relatively small group of wom­en. Ranging in age from about 30 to 50, these same writers also produced works that will last in poetry, theater, and nonfiction. In so doing, they have prompted the resur­rection of their own tradition.

This is no small accomplishment. Though the first black writer ever published in this country was a woman, the first black novel­ist and poet to win Pulitzers were women, we have remained outside the accepted (or expected) ranks. Our critical essays went unpublished until the ’70s and no collection of essays by a black woman writer was ever published until Alice Walker and June Jor­dan broke the ground five years ago. Only one diary by a black woman writer — Char­lotte Forten’s Journal — appeared before the early ’80s, when Audre Lorde put out The Cancer Journals and Gloria Hull released Give Us Each Day, the journals of poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Whatever writers have had to share about their working process or their understanding of tradition has been in shoe boxes in the closet.

So the reemergence of our lost books is not only the unearthing of roots, a map of past travels, but for generations of younger writers, the work will be a motherlode of images and sounds, choices laid open to the sky. To know this is so, you only have to look at what happened when we found Zora Neale Hurston — imagine a Jelly Roll Mor­ton of the Harlem Renaissance.


Exactly a decade ago one black woman writer emerged — alone — from the shadows, and her impact has been stupendous. Rob­ert Hemenway’s 1977 work, Zora Neale Hurston, as the first in a chain of events, may have been the most important thing to happen to black women writers in modern times. Had Hurston and others like Fauset, Larsen, and Petry been widely known, the publication of a Hurston biography would merely have been part of a timely response to the social and political events of the ’60s and ’70s. Instead, the book opened a flood­gate of possibilities, both for the imagina­tions of writers and the aspirations of black scholars and readers.

Zora, as writers affectionately call her, be­came the woman to whom black women writers are most often — rightly or wrong­ly — compared, because she was the first foremother to become a hot item in book shops. But she became a major influence on all contemporary black writing because her work is rich in African-American folk material (and maybe just a little bit because her colorful life is a natural subject for rumor and legend). There is much to discover in Hurston and her rootsy writing appeared at a time when blacks were digging the African bedrock.

Zora shows up as an influence in inter­views with black women writers more often than anyone else, with the exception of their mothers and grandmothers. Ntozake Shange and Sherley Anne Williams still describe reading Hurston as a revelation, a discovery of language and feelings close to home. Kristin Hunter and Gayl Jones speak of attempting to incorporate ideas gleaned from Hurston into their fiction. The im­prints of Hurston’s folklore research in the Deep South are palpable in fiction by Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara. Hurston worship has taken such hold that Hortense Spillers says, “Hurston is like the Bible.”

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Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hurston’s most widely read book, is a poetic novel written in black Floridian dialect. I vividly recall how this book lit up the con­versations of women who shared it, as it passed from hand to hand in the late ’70s. The novel’s heroine, Janie, is an unusual one for the ’30s, or any other decade. Janie’s tale fits squarely in the flow of the black storytelling tradition, but in it she is the primary agent of her own destiny.

By making her African-American story­teller the primary agent of her adventure (in a universe nearly as animated as an African forest), Hurston sets herself apart from ear­lier novelists who chose to diminish the power of their characters’ decisions by em­phasizing the effects of racism and oppres­sion. Janie strikes home with women be­cause she experiences traditional roles and then moves beyond them, and as many have put it, “creates herself.” She’s a singular figure in a fiction landscape full of reluc­tantly self-sufficient working black women who struggle, usually in vain, with a dream of race and gender equality, independence of mind, love, and a decent quality of life. Ja­nie does not gain it all, but she exercises a greater portion than had been given to any of her foremothers.

For nearly every heroine in the black women’s tradition, isolation, hard labor (if not poverty), disappointment, and lack of self-esteem are the battles. Janie suffers all of these, and walks back from her odyssey a complete woman. Janie is The Color Pur­ple’s Celie and Shug in one character; while they find wholeness in making love with one another, Janie embraces the world. The gift of self-love showed Celie how to take the patriarchy out of God and see the color pur­ple; the same gift, 50 years earlier, showed Janie “God in herself’ (as Shange would put it) and in the birds fleeing an Everglades hurricane.


Hurston’s canonization does skew the pic­ture. She did not become a novelist until 1934; before that she was known as a folk­lorist and a “live wire” who often debunked what she called the Harlem Renaissance “niggerati.” She was not exactly revered, and many of the Renaissance men striving for white acceptance looked askance at her unmediated public “signifying.”

Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Ann Petry were also in this literary community, but they too found themselves either critical of the Ebony Tower folks, or outsiders. Re­viewers in black newspapers and magazines like the NAACP’s Crisis, all members of the “niggerati,” granted these three grudging re­spect as the most able black women novel­ists of their time. Occasional reviews in the Times or The Nation were usually favorable. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry, however, were never considered the equals of black males. Their continued marginality is proved by the fact that they barely appear in antholo­gies of any (race/gender) orientation. All three pop up as Renaissance figures in liter­ary histories like From the Dark Tower by Arthur P. Davis (yes, we’re related), and When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Le­vering Lewis. But their work has been large­ly ignored for almost 50 years.

Jessie Redmon Fauset, who worked with W.E.B. Du Bois at the NAACP and Crisis magazine, took up novel writing in reaction to the popular trend of “primitive/exotic” novels about black life. She said the tenden­cy among writers to concentrate on the black “underworld” posed “a grave danger” to black writers. Because she admirably rep­resented the Renaissance’s genteel intelli­gentsia in this aesthetic standoff, she was promoted in all the little magazines and col­lections they put out.

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But this probably discouraged later schol­ars from taking her seriously. Fauset wrote four novels in nine years: There Is Confu­sion (1924), Plum Bun (1929), The China­berry Tree (1931), and Comedy, American Style (1933). In his 1958 study, The Negro Novel in America, Robert Bone designated the most published black woman of the Har­lem Renaissance a front-runner of the Re­naissance’s “Rear Guard.” (No, I don’t know what that means, I’m just telling you what the man said.)

Nella Larsen, an intriguing figure, was part of the literary community for only 10 years, during which she wrote novels, and was, like Fauset, encouraged by Walter White and the NAACP crowd. Usually dubbed a Harlem Renaissance writer, she is to my mind a transitional figure: her novels use the “tragic mulatto” theme popular at the time but depart from the Renaissance’s optimism and race pride, instead anticipat­ing the concerns of the Depression.

Quicksand, Larsen’s first novel, won a Harmon Foundation prize and was hailed by Du Bois as the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the hey­day of [Charles] Chesnutt.” Her second novel, Passing, was also well received, and shortly after its publication she became the first black woman writer to win a Guggen­heim. She was accused of plagiarism in 1930 in a dispute over a short story, and though exonerated, she did not get over the accusa­tion and the scandal. Larsen went back to a nursing career and died in Brooklyn in 1963 — like Hurston, virtually forgotten.

Petry, who at 76 still lives in Old Say­brook, Connecticut, has the distinction of being perhaps the best-selling black woman writer ever. (Of course Walker may yet over­take her.) The Street, which she is proud to remind folks has never been out of print, has sold over a million and a half copies. Her readership is so consistent in part be­cause critics put her in the “Richard Wright school of naturalistic protest writing,” and she does belong in that school. But she was deemed by some to be Wright’s poorer sister because she did not conform strictly enough to the conventions of the protest novel.

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Fauset’s Plum Bun is a novel of unful­filled expectations, told in almost fairy-tale fashion. It is one of the few books by a black woman to borrow from the romantic tradi­tion popularized by European women. It’s not hard to imagine why — we have so few idealized, so-called feminine women in our mythology or experience. Fauset uses the simplest, most familiar devices of romance fiction to make exactly this point. She shows the mythic nature of traditional fe­male socialization and emphasizes the reali­ties that defy blacks to participate in the equally mythic American culture.

Fauset is associated with those Harlem Renaissance writers who sought to prove that middle-class blacks were barely differ­ent from their white counterparts except for “reduced opportunity.” As a result, the folks in Plum Bun are indeed rather colorless. The children play games popular across America, but none of those traditional for black children. It is an odd, raceless envi­ronment where people talk about race but don’t reflect it much in their behavior. An­gela tries passing to escape from racism and at the same time rejects traditional women’s roles to become a painter.

She later chooses to abandon her artistic dreams for a man, and becomes “dependent, fragile… ‘womanly’ to the point of inepti­tude.” Nearly every naïve assumption with which the character ventured out into the world from her cozy row house — particular­ly those having to do with power — must be relinquished in her struggle with the reali­ties of sex and race.

Actually she has many more counterparts among young postfeminist buppie women these days than she probably did in the ’20s, when her class was minuscule and her prob­lems more rare. Some of the pathologies that plague her understanding of the race situation are painfully evident any time Rae Dawn Chong or Whoopi Goldberg opens her mouth. The homogenization of American culture has produced a new breed of passers, blacks who simply reject any black group identification at the same time that they ignore stigmatization.

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Nella Larsen’s novels also use the passing theme, but probably because she was a bi­racial person, she shows a deeper under­standing of the ambivalences of the mulatto character than Fauset. And in her stories, the secondary theme is a search for autono­my and sexual independence that would be taken up by Morrison’s Sula, Shange’s Sas­safras, Cypress and Indigo, and Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place, to name only three. As editor Deborah McDowell points out, Larsen was in conflict with the mores of her time. Like Fauset’s Angela, Larsen’s heroines must return to the black fold to be themselves, yet they are suffocated there by an inability to be independent or to escape marriage and motherhood.

At the opening of Quicksand, Helga Crane, a young woman of mixed race, sits in her room in the faculty quarters of a south­ern black college. She is in fact in a corner, one of many she will back herself into in the course of the novel. Helga runs off from each haven she finds — first in the black world, then the white world of Scandina­via — in a vain search for racial identity and unnamed adventure, which McDowell identifies as sexual independence.

While Hurston’s Janie may have simply decided to run off with her lover, Teacake, Larsen’s Helga Crane, socialized to be out of sync with her sexual drives, must lunge this way and that, toward her desires and then away, before giving in to the adventure. And unlike Janie, she pays a heavy price for following her impulses, descending into a hell­ish fate. The episode of madness in which Helga manages to do as she pleases presages events in Alice Walker’s early fiction, and later themes in the work of Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones. Larsen also creates one of the few literary portrayals of the fetishism for exotics so widespread in the ’20s.

Passing, considered by most critics a slight novel, reworks the passing theme through a less sympathetic heroine, Clare Kendry, whose willful abandonment of her blackness is opposed by her old friend Irene Redfield, a smugly bourgeois young black woman full of “positive” but patronizing no­tions about blacks. She considers herself a “race woman.” Irene is something of a fraud, though; she only encounters her old friend because she happens to be doing a little tea-time passing herself in a downtown Chicago hotel. This “harmless” occasional diversion for light-skinned black women is important to Larsen and Fauset; for them it makes credible the logic of characters who cross the line permanently.

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McDowell says the passing theme is also a parallel for sexual passing. Irene, refusing to acknowledge that she’s sexually attracted to her friend, deflects Clare’s attention onto her husband. Irene, then, is passing for a happily married woman. Reading the novel now, you have to wonder if readers missed the lesbian theme 50 years ago, or chose to find Passing innocent of sexual content. Al­though Larsen appears to have been wary of making the theme overt, its presence is sig­nificant to the tradition.

Ann Petry’s novel The Street is a bleak tale of a black woman’s failure to stop the crushing hand of a hostile environment. Lutie Johnson’s decline is set in motion right at the beginning when her husband loses his job and she takes a live-in domestic position to support the family. Lutie finds she must protect herself from exploitation, sexual as­sault, and her own dreams of upward mobil­ity. Trying to get better-paying work, she ends up killing a man who wants sexual favors in return for a job, and has to aban­don the son she tried to keep off the streets.

The writing in The Street is grim, unre­lenting, and contrived to strip the environ­ment of the lively, beautiful motion that also comes with a black neighborhood. Lutie lives like the women of Brewster Place — or perhaps I should say the Brewster Place women live like Lutie, since Gloria Naylor acknowledges a debt to Petry. But there is a crucial difference between Petry’s charac­ters and those of recent novels: Naylor’s women live with a sense of female commu­nity, and so do the characters in nearly all the novels written by black women in the ’70s and ’80s. The stories of younger women in Brewster Place or Corregidora, for in­stance, belong in a continuum going back several generations. And yet the tales of women who have gone before do not en­snare their daughters like the “sins of the fathers visited upon the sons”; they stand as warnings. So we see Petry revised by a gen­eration which has found a community not perceived by Petry and her characters.

Books written from the ’20s to the ’50s offer portraits of isolated, powerless women with little self-esteem and little mobility. Their troubles are much like those of Frado, the heroine of Our Nig, and Celie in The Color Purple. Their concerns are personal, racial, sexual, and economic. They struggle against class and color consciousness among blacks and against the destruction of once supportive communities. They sometimes lash out with violence against the violence wrought against them. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry wrote about the women who stand in the shadows or do the ironing in novels by Wright, Baldwin, Williams, and other men of this century. They shift the eye’s focus from the street to the interior, throw light from the preacher to those silent women swaying in the back row, and the scene we’ve seen before becomes complete.

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A small group of scholars who have poli­ticked with presses and written some excel­lent studies have managed to get the most significant works by black women lined up to come back into circulation. Fauset, Lar­sen, and Petry’s books are part of a major reclamation. With the combined efforts of Beacon Press, the Feminist Press, Rutgers and Oxford universities, virtually all the fic­tion (and lots of everything else) written by black women will soon be available.

Henry Louis Gates, who found Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, is a one-man cottage in­dustry specializing in black literature — and he’s been turning up more books by black women. He is currently working on two ma­jor collections: The Oxford Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers, and a 30-volume series to be produced in collabora­tion with the Schomburg Center for Re­search in Black Culture. Gates is also editor of The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature.

Oxford is bringing out two pioneer novels by Emma Dunham Kelley: Megda (1891), to be edited by Molly Hite, and Four Girls in Cottage City (1898), to be edited by Deborah McDowell. This last was located by Gates’s Periodical Literature Project at Cornell, and members of the black bourgeoisie will be amused to hear it is about four young black women who move to Oak Bluffs on Mar­tha’s Vineyard. Iola Leroy, the highly re­garded 1892 novel by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, long assumed to be the earliest nov­el by a black woman, is being reprinted by Beacon. Beacon has republished Petry, Marshall, and others, and clearly has made a commitment to this retrieval process. Deborah McDowell is editing the Frances Harper book, and has overseen the reprint­ing of Fauset and Larsen. And Hazel Carby is editing the serialized novels of Pauline Hopkins, which have never been collected. Taken together these books will publicly establish the tradition — a literary tradition created by black women.

In the late ’70s and the ’80s, the work of Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, and a number of others has seemed like an intimate conver­sation, swirling around these questions which we now find resonating back through the tradition of black women’s fiction. The conflicts arising from color and class differ­ences among blacks are carefully dissected in all of Morrison’s work, suggested in Walker’s, and assumed in Shange’s.

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What is new in recent fiction would seem to be a greater freedom to experiment with form and style, artful uses of the kinds of folklore resurrected by Hurston, and a growth in the complexity of characters. The books share a concern with madness, dreams, and the woman’s psyche often found in work by other contemporary wom­en — European and American. (Schizophre­nia is almost the signal metaphor for breaking loose from repression in the novels of the ’70s.) While sexual liberty is often at the core of earlier novels, now it is the “outward journey” for the black female character.

The contemporary black woman writer is more skilled than most of her predecessors. In the ’70s she showed off an ecstatic lan­guage unique to the work of black women, full of poetry, dreams, hallucinations, mag­ic, recipes, potions, song, fire, and flight. The language is often body-centered, as in Shange. Or one finds passages of seemingly improvised narrative, as in Alexis DeVeau, unimaginable in Petry. And then there are writers like Morrison and Gayl Jones, who exert extreme control over the language to capture the rhythm or flavor of blues, or to emphasize the fantastic. Styles vary from safe to adventurous, but they can all be said to acknowledge a reading of some parts of the tradition. The connections between the works of so many women who were both reading Hurston and writing fiction at the same time could not be linear. They cross each other like threads on a loom.

It’s difficult to know what we’ll find — the conversation is really just getting started. We will be talking about the prevalence of issues such as personal independence, racial struggle, the criticism of traditional roles, the use of folklore and myth, and female bonding. We may ask if women aren’t mov­ing toward holistic forms that embrace the objective and subjective at once, to escape the narrative confines of naturalism. We will be able to argue about whether writers have conformed to the expectations and conventions of their time, and how they have differed from the male writers in black literature. What it is to be black and woman will be shown in the colors and textures we have been weaving. We will define ourselves by our own processes. ■

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QUICKSAND & PASSING. By Nella Larsen. Edited by Deborah McDowell. Rutgers Uni­versity Press, $25; $7.95 paper.

THE STREET. By Ann Petry. Beacon, $8.95 paper.

PLUM BUN. By Jessie Fauset. Pandora, $15.95; $8.95 paper.

CONJURING: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Indiana Uni­versity Press, $29.95; $10.95 paper.


Hemingway Triumphant: Portrait of the Artist as a Great Man

When Borges wrote that the novelists of the United States had made a literary virtue of brutality, he no doubt had Hemingway in mind. Not only because there is so much violence in Hem­ingway’s novels but because in perhaps no other modern writer do physical prowess, courage, brute force, and the spirit of destruction achieve the same dignity. In Hemingway, to suffer or to cause suffering is not an unfortunate fatality of the human condition: It is the test through which man transcends his miserable circum­stances and wins moral greatness.

He was, unquestionably, a great writer. The proof is that he is still alive as a novelist even though his values have been discredited. There is an instructive paradox in this. How can we ex­plain the fervor of today’s readers — ecological revolutionaries, worshippers of conservation, de­votees of chemically inspired spiritualism, pacifists, and militants of disarmament — for the bard of hunting, bullfighting, boxing, and all other manifestations of machismo? Simply by pointing out that the cultivator of those anachronisms was a great writer, that is, an artist who totally controlled his means of expression and who had a power to communicate that compels even those readers who oppose the dominant values of his era to accept the world of his writing. It’s not Hemingway’s “ideas” that convince us today. His concept of man and life seems superficial, schematic, and naive. Despite that, the power of his images, the stoic magic of his words, the perfect elegance with which the rites of combat, love, or murder are performed in his stories continue to seduce today’s benign young people, neither more nor less than they seduced the angry young people of 30 years ago.

That’s why publishers compete for his unpub­lished manuscripts, constantly reprint his novels and stories, and seek out biographies or reminis­cences by his friends. I have read that in 1985 no other writer, living or dead, was the subject of as many critical studies or doctoral theses as Hem­ingway. And, to judge by the three I just read, the quantity is matched by quality. All three books, no matter what reservations or disagreements we might have about them from a critical point of view, are the result of rigorous research.

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Jeffrey Meyers’s is the most ambitious. It covers Hemingway’s entire life and adds to as well as corrects Carlos Baker’s 1969 biography, until now the standard work. Profes­sor Meyers has corresponded copiously with Hemingway’s friends and relatives, has in­terviewed many of them, and discovered a great deal of hitherto unknown information (for example, the FBI tried to ruin Hemingway’s reputation as a writer because they thought he was a communist). Meyers also moves knowledgeably through Heming­way’s works and relates them t0 episodes of his life, although his efforts to identify the sources for Hemingway’s characters are not always persuasive. Meyers’s book is the most complete biography written on the au­thor he calls (forgetting about Faulkner’s existence) “the most important American author of the twentieth century.”

Despite this hyperbole and the massive amount of work he’s’ dedicated to Heming­way, I have to wonder after reading his book if the hard-working Meyers really likes his hero. His Hemingway is pitiful. A man who, contrary to his public image — the good-natured, gigantic adventurer, heroic even in his weaknesses — was a lifelong braggart, a drunk, a man who took unfair advantage of his strength, who was pos­sessed by a murderous obsession with the animal world he devastated with every kind of weapon he could lay his hands on, a man who betrayed his friends, who was a despot with his wives, and who cultivated his public image with as much ability as imposture.

I’m not accusing Meyers of calumniating Hemingway. I’m willing to believe his statistics — the accidents, sicknesses, the moves, almost every ejaculation and fiasco perpetrated by Hemingway. But why is it that this biography has an air about it of being off target, of being a caricature?

It may be a problem of point of view. A magnifying glass does not reveal the details of a beautiful body: It makes the body mon­strous by isolating and enlarging one detail that possesses harmony and grace only within the totality. Meyers’s biography is an autopsy in which the subject has been dismembered. All we have are fragments — most of them horrible — and no way of knowing how the body was as a living whole.

What gives unity and life to a writer after death, when journalistic gossip, the myths and horror stories that surround him no longer matter, are his poems or prose, the world of words which survives him and which should be the only reason for our taking an interest in his life.

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This idea has only a tenuous role, in Jeffrey Meyers’s biography and, what is worse, when the biographer alludes to it hedges so in a most debatable way. For him, literary archeology consists of a detective-like inves­tigation that assumes the author’s literary creations correspond to extraliterary models — persons or  events — which the critic must identify. Once he’s done it, voila! the creative act is explained. Meyers states flat­ly that so-and-so is such-and-such a character and that episode x or anecdote y, retouched in one detail or another, is the theme of this story or that novel. It’s because of this, perhaps, that a reader of Hemingway who reads this biography has the impression something’s being put over on him. No literary work, and even less so one by a great writer, reproduces lived reality or is a mere summary of observations and experiences translated into words, seasoned by the author with a pinch of fantasy.

A fiction is always a fraudulent recomposition of reality, a lie that — if the creator has genius — is powerful enough to persuade the reader that it is true in the magic moment of reading. A fiction does not express the world: It changes it, reworks it, all in accord with the ambitions, appetites, or frustrations the creator feels in his bones. It’s on these things his fantasy works. That transmutation of personal ex­perience into literature  — into universal experience, a myth in which other people may recognize themselves — is always mysterious. Successful biographies make the process intelligible.

This doesn’t happen in Meyers’s book. It’s possible that the Hemingway of flesh and blood was a capricious, inconsiderate, ill-intentioned man, capable of flattening the careless friend who’d agreed to box with him, a conceited man who always wanted to be Number One. I suspect there are many such in the world. They abound above all in underdeveloped countries, where hard drinking and fistfighting constitute a religious cult. But only one of those drunken thugs was capable of writing The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and a handful of outstanding stories in which a man’s life seems — falsely — like a heroic conquest of dignity, a test in which physical prowess — in sports, war, or sex — becomes metaphysical, a path to plenitude and the absolute.

Any man is a summa of weakness, petti­ness, and misery, and Jeffrey Meyers has accumulated a painful number of Hemingway’s defects. But his book does not show us how Hemingway managed to metamorphose that arsenal of imperfections into a splendid fresco of human adventure during the era of world wars, revolutions, the col­lapse of institutions and traditional certi­tudes, the era of a great spiritual vacuum. In his biography, literature is a marginal activity, an afterthought in a life in which fishing, hunting, alcohol, boxing, bullfights, women, and travel were the important events.

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The sympathy Meyers’s hook lacks abounds in Peter Griffin’s Along with Youth, the first volume of a biography so fervent it borders on hagiography. The character’s defects haven’t disappeared, but they are masked by his virtues: vital energy, spontaneity, personal charm, an intimate innocence which no failure or disillusion seems capable of destroying —and which the biographer documents with contagious devotion. Griffin writes in a clear, pleasant style and knows how to narrate in a subtle fashion. The result is that the reader forms his own, very vivid image of Hemingway’s early years: Oak Park, a virtuous Republi­can suburb of Chicago, a willful, musical, and mystical mother, a doctor father suffer­ing from nervous disorders and a taciturn existence that would end in suicide.

The power and care with which the au­thor follows the movements of the young Hemingway make him seem at times omniscient. The most original sections deal with Hemingway’s romance with Hadley Rich­ardson, his first wife. Peter Griffin reconstructs their courtship day by day, using a huge number of letters which belonged to Hadley and which her son, Jack Hemingway, made available to him. But for me, the best part of the book describes Hemingway’s earlier romance, while he was convalescing in Milan, with a nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, who dropped him for a Neapoli­tan duke. (There is justice in this world: The duke dropped her later on.) Their brief romance is admirably brought to life in de­tails — the restaurants the lovers frequented and the dishes they ordered. Griffin has finally laid to rest the doubt that perturbs Hemingway’s biographers and critics: Was the relationship consummated or was it pla­tonic? He proves that the couple shared a bed for three days and produces a letter from Agnes in which she says that she dreams of “going to sleep with your arms around me.” The point here is neither aca­demic nor gossipy because the romance with Agnes von Kurowsky is the raw material Hemingway used to construct A Farewell to Arms, and knowing what happened in fact allows us to understand better what Hemingway added, subtracted, and enriched when he transformed it into fiction. That is, we actually get inside his narrative system.

This, by the way, is the only part of Griffin’s interesting book that the reader can use to reach a greater understanding of Hemingway’s writing. Unlike his relation­ship with Agnes von Kurowsky, neither his romance nor his marriage with Hadley seems to have directly affected his writing, except for the meager evocation of his first marriage in A Moveable Feast. For this rea­son, Griffin’s reconstruction of the months before the marriage — Hadley was in St. Louis and Ernest in Chicago — by means of their dense epistolary conversation turns out to be rather dull. The things the lovers said to each other were much more interest­ing for them than for posterity.

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In those years minutely documented in Along with Youth (1919 and 1920), Hem­ingway was not yet Hemingway, only a vague project. What we see does not lead directly to the writer he would begin to be a few years later. It’s true he wrote a lot, and Griffin’s book includes five unpublished stories from that period, a mere handful from the many he wrote and sent to maga­zines. (They were all rejected.) Griffin seeks to disprove what Hemingway criticism takes as fact, namely that only beginning with his trip to Paris and his encounters with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound did Hemingway define his literary orientation and find his style. Griffin declares that Hemingway defined himself before going to Paris. The definition was forged in the peri­od between his return to Italy and his mar­riage to Hadley, above all during the months he lived in Chicago, where he met Sherwood Anderson, his first literary in­fluence, as well as other writers and intellectuals.

I don’t think Griffin proves his point. To the contrary, the early stories he includes in Along with Youth actually destroy his the­sis. Of the five, only one, “The Current,” about a boxing match in which the protago­nist risks losing both the title and the heart of the girl he loves, has a “Hemingway­-esque” theme. But this story doesn’t even remotely approach what would be the prin­cipal characteristics of Hemingway’s writing — the economy of his prose, the clarity and efficacy of his dialogues, the facts hidden from the reader to create mystery or charge the story with drama. These stories are sensationalist in tone and fail because of the pomposity of their language. They are wrong exactly where Hemingway is always right — in dialogue. One feels inclined to agree with the editors who refused to publish these immature productions because thanks to them Hemingway found his way — a way very different from the one in which he took his first hesitant steps as a writer.

Peter Griffin’s book does not really help us to understand that process. Even though ­it is prolix about Hemingway’s relations ­with family and friends, his loves, his trips, his sports, his work and pleasure, it practically overlooks his intellectual development. His education was weak and defective, and it was only after getting to Paris in 1922, and thanks to the milieu in which he had the good fortune to move, that it acquired dynamism and quality. But he must have read some books before. He must have ­had some idea about the métier to which he was going to dedicate himself, and he must have had some ideas about the literature of his times. On this, Peter Griffin’s book says almost nothing. The young Hemingway his ­pages project wanted to be a writer, yes, but there is no sign he had any interest in literature.

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Michael Reynolds, in The Young Hemingway, explores this intellectual and aesthetic growth, certainly the most attractive aspect of Hemingway’s life for those interested in his books instead of his legend or myth. Curiously enough, most Hemingway biographers have overlooked it. Reynolds’s project was not easy to realize, since it en­tailed something like painting empty space or making music out of silence. The reason Hemingway’s critics and biographers have not spoken about his “literary education” is that, in a certain sense, he had practically none, and what little he did have seemed so poor that it was preferable to forget it. But this was not really true, and Reynolds’s es­say proves it.

Hemingway cultivated an anti-intellectu­al public image. He avoided literary groups and often ridiculed (especially in Death in the Afternoon) bookish writers, those who preferred books to “life.” Like so many of his poses, this one concealed his discomfort, his awareness of an intellectual void which shamed him. This is why he invented the tale of not being able to go to Princeton, where he’d supposedly been accepted, be­cause his mother had spent the tuition money on a summer house.

Until he was 20 or 21, Hemingway was very ignorant in literary matters. Not only because he read little, but because he read mediocre books. This does not mean that his family was uneducated. His mother, who had studied music and was a singing teach­er, had an intense spiritual life — including mystical experiences — but her rigid puritanism must have excluded any poetry, nov­els, or essays that might have been hetero­dox or sinful. Hemingway’s father, the weak, neurotic doctor, stimulated the young man’s love for nature, travel, and sports, but apparently had no literary curiosity whatsoever. The intellectual climate of Oak Park, admirably reconstructed by Professor Reynolds from what the citizens of that conservative town read or published in the local paper, what books they bought for the library, what lectures or debates they at­tended, was conventional, stereotyped. There is nothing strange in the fact that the young Hemingway would grow up without knowing about the radical changes taking place in literature in the United States and the rest of the world. The Young Hemingway shows that when he was 19, he had still not read Conrad, Lawrence, Sherwood An­derson, Gertrude Stein, Eliot, or Joyce, and that his literary models were the authors who published stories in magazines like Red Book, Cosmopolitan, and The Saturday Evening Post. It’s no wonder, then, that until his trip to Paris he had never thought of someday being a “great writer,” with all that means in terms of artistic excellence. Literature for him, in his prehistory, was nothing more than a “job that produced income.”

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One of the most interesting chapters of this book studies how some of the essential ingredients of what would later be Hemingway’s philosophy — the cult of courage, submitting oneself to tests to prove one’s physi­cal and moral energy, love for sports — filled the air of the hermetically sealed world in which he spent his adolescence. It shows how important Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas about how the character of the citizen should be formed were for Hemingway. Reynolds was correct to examine the environment instead of concentrating exclusive­ly on Hemingway himself, reconstructing by means of sound interpretive methods Hemingway’s various worlds: family, school, country, and city. He reveals the coordinates that enlighten us about the limitations the young man had to overcome to make himself into the creator he would be later on. Although the book is repetitious and some themes are not developed in proportion to their real importance, the reader will find here information that clarifies many aspects of Hemingway that until now have been badly misunderstood. It is a mag­nificent evocation of the difficult beginnings of Hemingway’s literary career. ■

Translated By Alfred J. MacAdam


HEMINGWAY: A Biography. By Jeffrey Meyers. Harper & Row, $27.50.

ALONG WITH YOUTH: Hemingway, the Early Years. By Peter Griffin. Oxford University Press, $17.50.

THE YOUNG HEMINGWAY. By Michael Reynolds. Basil Blackwell, $19.95.


Lester Bangs’s Naked Grunge

I’ll Be Your Mirror

Here’s one way of explaining what Lester Bangs did. You could locate him according to the same vectors that diced up Mark David Chapman’s identity, and finally re­duced him to killing a Beatle — a murder he mistook for a suicide. But instead of being victimized by the dislocations of self that take shape as pop fandom, Lester wrote about them, and turned expressing them into one life-affirming shitstorm.

From 1969 up to his death at 33, five years ago, Lester expressed many things: anomie, hostility, gleeful scorn, a love-hate relationship with excess, pratfalls of the heart, intimations of grace. He did so in a style that ran from the shock of great graffi­ti to pages so receptive to each new turn of thought and emotion that articulating those turns became an act of compassion.

Most of his work, though not all, took the form of writing about rock and roll records. Partly because that got him labeled a “rock writer,” and partly because he constantly overstepped the boundaries of being one, his huge achievement was also fugitive. He was banging away in the cellar of journalism, let alone literature. Lester was exiled by Jann Wenner from the review section of that great iconoclastic publication Rolling Stone for, according to Greil Marcus, “disrespect toward musicians.” Scribbling for the Voice, his major outlet after moving to New York in 1977 — from Detroit, where he had creat­ed a vortex of unrequited turbulence in the stillborn mid-’70s music scene at Creem magazine — was as close to a respectable fo­rum as he got.

No doubt that bedeviled him: no writer who cares about his or her work wants it to stand forever on such slippery ground. But given how much Lester’s writing was not only a response to pop culture but an enactment of it, the mongrel circumstances of his work may have been appropriate. To have him between hard covers and claimed for literature, as he is in Marcus’s anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, is a satisfying validation and a major event. On the other hand, even when the selection is as conscientious and astute as Marcus’s, such a presentation is also a diminishment. It can’t duplicate experiencing Lester’s work as a swarm of contingent, one-shot respons­es — as immediate in its improvised rudeness as the music he loved.

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Another thing about Lester: Lester pro­duced. Marcus mentions assembling five million words of published and unpublished essays, reviews, polemics, fantasies, screeds. The total output may be considerably larger. Any corpus that size is going to include dull writing; Lester committed some. The amaz­ing part is how much is magnificent. My first reaction to the table of contents was to remember a dozen or a hundred extraordinary pieces left out, which is said in sympa­thy with what Marcus was up against.

There’s still an awkwardness about calling any critic a great writer. Writing about the popular arts can at least feel more central to one’s culture than the literary kind. The way records and movies and TV jell social life — ­the way people use them to jerry-build rea­sons to believe — means that writers almost can’t help broaching and, if they’re good, illuminating politics, class, democracy, capi­talism, fucking, whatever.

That’s the intellectual defense — where you’d start from to evaluate most of the best pop critics, most of whom also understand that pop culture is a dialogue, not a canon, and put their personalities as much as their intellects on the line, in their responses. The intellectual defense, however, has next to nothing to do with Lester. Whatever value his work had as cultural analysis, or cultural history, was by inference only, as witness­ing, not exegesis. If he’d lived a little more vicariously, he’d be alive today.

I don’t think it occurred to him that a critic couldn’t be a great writer. He was writing about the life around him, and in him, and rock and roll was the best refractor for it. What Lester never bothered to argue, but simply embodied, was that for this society the flotsam and effluvia of pop were spiritual determinants. The map shows a land of a million chapels, all spackled up differently from the bones of Saint Crud’s left little finger.

So Lester testified. “If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not be­lieve, then along with our nurtured indiffer­ence to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other’s objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will con­tinue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I will guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”

Lester was a religious writer — the pop era’s first, and most likely the pop era’s only. But conventional literary pigeonhol­ing, even assuming it could accept that Les­ter took all this grunge seriously, would never know what to make of the fact that he knew it was grunge; he recognized that finding one’s teleology in the fried cross-circuits of pop was such an absurd endeavor that farting in church was one of the votive offer­ings. Or: HAW HAW HAW, as Lester used to transcribe said recognition.

Anyone in love knows that the deepest bonds are schizophrenic — you ping-pong from worship to jeering like the number-­bubbles that bat around when they pick this week’s Lotto. Lester’s all was predicated on the notion that pop, as a relationship, was just that volatile and close. The bumptiousness, which is simply immediacy, is much of what literature has lost even for those who’ve plighted their troth to it.

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Pop came about, in part, as a quasi-acci­dental substitute for social verities whose authority had ebbed more than the people running the store suspected. Because pop was still part of the store, whatever emo­tional truths you latched onto in it came fractured and distorted, cheek by jowl with all sorts of inane vacuity — sometimes closer. In fact, the mix itself took pride of place among the emotional truths.

Lester didn’t make the choice of reveling in the mix. It just didn’t occur to him to leave it out of his transcription of what life felt like. His appreciation of grunge was of­ten farcical — the mark of a sensible man. Marcus reprints one typical Creem review — ­of a long-forgotten ’70s goon-rock band —  which is mostly devoted to gleefully tracing one band member’s face, through all the permutations of rock posturing, back to “that same dork … that used to sit in the seat right in front of you in Driver Train­ing.” (He only gets around to wondering what the band sounds like in the last para­graph, and answers himself, “Great!” — his equivalent, at the time, for asking who gave a fuck.) He got the kind of laughter that racks you as unexpectedly as vomiting, but sure feels like an improvement on it.

Lester’s appreciation of grunge was never camp. Partly, he saw the way it dealt in stuff art wasn’t supposed to as an enlivening yawp, one his own career participated in. Partly, he saw that it reached back, in suit­ably half-assed fashion, to simulate the primitive: If we couldn’t have blood knowl­edge, we could have howling electronic grunge knowledge. Mainly, though, grunge was what had best expressed his experience and answered his cravings as a teen in one of those completely atrocious California suburbs of nowhere that come on a little like Los Olvidados on an allowance, the last qualifier removing any potential for cathar­sis and dumping you flat-out instead in a moronic torpor to which no music speaks so aptly and indeed avidly as the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” or the Music Ma­chine’s “Talk Talk,” two of the classier, be­lieve it or not, of Lester’s submental So-Cal garage-band faves.

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They answered some of his cravings, I should say. His other cravings were an­swered by putting on Coltrane real loud and declaiming “Howl” in his bedroom. It takes something like the equivalent of genius in personality to grow up without denying ei­ther legacy.

Lester ennobled the ludicrous inner life of pop fans by telling the truth about it — by discerning that inner lives, and not music, were what pop music was about. But the most difficult quality to communicate about his writing is how whole-souled it was. Ev­erything that affected him — and he believed that what affected people at the lowest and most embarrassing levels was as worthy of consideration as whatever evoked their highest conceptions and hopes — was en­gaged in passionate earnest with the whole self. Lester once wrote a piece, not reprinted by Marcus, about the British band the Au Pairs, caught up in humane admiration for the women’s gutsiness, and heartfelt, mov­ing wishes for an era not of genders but of human beings. Then he cut it all off with the declaration that now he was going to go jerk off to Celebrity Skin. It was brave; you were face to face with the page. For Lester, it was nothing special — wasn’t that what writers were for?

Lester was unable to confine himself within the essay, the review — even journal­ism. It’s revelatory to turn from his first piece on Iggy and the Stooges, “Of Pop and Pies and Fun,” near the beginning of Psychotic Reaptions, to “Women on Top,” a previously unpublished fragment near the end. The first is earnest and perceptive, but too much of it is written in the deadly, sono­rous — and in this case, almost eloquently inappropriate — style of the jazz critics Les­ter emulated early on. The second, composed 11 years later, may be the most ex­treme foray into language he ever made.

He sat down to write a book proposal­ — the subtitle is “Ten Post-Lib Role Models for the Eighties.” But within a dozen sen­tences, having typed the name “Andy War­hol” and leaped from that to Amos ‘n’ Andy, he’s off on an entirely subterranean, private goof, making characters from Warhol’s Fac­tory tell shaggy-dog stories in brain-fried King Fish accents: “iz jazz cummon cartessy but diz iz alzo drue dat daffrunt sexshinz av de town gut dawfrint moo-rayze n moadez a be-in an karyin yosevz psnly oi jiz woke awraiown in MAN MOI AWN BAZNAZ … ” A goof the piece stays; but as a tran­scription of the stumblebum rhythms of junkie talk, not to mention an excavation from the bottom of the mine shaft of the national idiom, it’s almost on a par with the broken English of the great closing passages of Naked Lunch.

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The genesis of “Women on Top” suggests other ways Lester looked for more. His brain, and his files, teemed with ideas and beginnings for books, treatises, manifestos; none completed, I suspect because he de­spaired of finding a single framework that would somehow say it all. Even his pub­lished work pushed the outside of the enve­lope. Psychotic Reactions moves from a pre­ponderance of casual music reviews and interviews from Lester’s early career to an equal preponderance of crammed, sweeping sieges on meaning. “The White Noise Su­premacists,” his epic essay/report/castigation/soul-searching of punk racism, is one such siege; “New Year’s Eve,” packing a decade of personalized social history into a basically frivolous Voice assignment, may be an even better example of Lester always trying to say it all.

But even when writing about music prop­er, Lester’s dynamic was to veer off into fantasy, imaginary dialogues and encoun­ters, whole scenes which anthropomor­phized pop-figure public images into the presences they had become in his mind. Lester, deciding the reason he can’t stand Jethro Tull is that they remind him of Viet­namese folk music, jets off to war-torn Sai­gon for confirmation, and gives us Thieu declaring, “I’m no folkie.” When he tried fiction outright, it was shaped by the same impulse. Marcus reprints an imaginary ac­count of the real-life affair behind the song “Maggie May” which is oddly, credibly, poi­gnant — and also so slanderous the proper names had to be omitted and a legal dis­claimer inserted, after the book was in proof.

Lester’s hyperactive expansions were nev­er just jokes. (You laughed your head off.) They were true imaginative renderings of the emotional reality of pop culture — a hu­man relationship, not an aesthetic one, for all that the other person involved is entirely in your own head. Lester took the extrapola­tions and identifications and daydreams whose real significance is normally denied by their expression in trivializing fan-mag drivel — My Dream Date With Phil Col­lins — and found what exists there, in differ­ent versions, for each member of the audi­ence: his own Yoknapatawpha County.

Lester wrote many heartfelt tributes to the artists who had given him reasons to believe. Some, like the essay on Van Morri­son’s Astral Weeks included in the antholo­gy, are quite beautiful. At other times, as Marcus notes, awe — or gratitude — tied his tongue. Still, he never succumbed to Chap­man’s fallacy, because what gave Lester hope was that men and women as bamboo­zled as himself had yet been able to produce such stuff.

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To him, that meant they’d been touched by grace; it also meant that they could let grace down, or just be full of shit. Midway through one of Lester’s celebrated battle­-royal interviews in Creem with the mid-’70s Lou Reed, several of which Marcus in­cludes — bitch Lou, acrid with fatigued iro­nies, baiting, parrying, waylaying; engorged Lester lunging, demanding; both men drunk on their ass — the avatar says, defending Bowie, “David wrote some really great songs.” “Aw c’mon!” Lester hollers back, “anybody can write great songs! Sam the Sham wrote great songs! Did David ever write anything better than ‘Woolly Bully’?”

It’s a pitched moment — suddenly they’re cellmates, or married, or maybe the lover and the cuckold: any two people in a rela­tionship whose intimacy is a given, not a choice. It’s also a defenseless moment — the voice of an obsession that no longer cares what it says so long as it arrives at what it believes. And it’s also an uproarious mo­ment — Sam the Sham! Of course he belongs there.

The other thing about Lester’s pieces on Lou, and a lot of his other hectoring, ob­sessed pieces besides — though few other of his subjects let him do the hectoring in per­son — is that they’re scary. Lester obviously hung on to who he was a lot better than Mark Chapman did. But he was still con­fronting, quite consciously and doggedly, for the sake of truth, the identical risky duet of the psyche — how much we let our pop he­roes put names and labels to our private stance, style, morals, fundament. To feel de­fined, and worse, betrayed (and some of Lester’s greatest writing was his most un­fair, pillorying some former Great One who’d turned his or her back on grace) by people who are, after all, not your cellmate, or spouse, or cuckolder, is to court the psy­chotic. But Lester never seemed more hero­ic, or public-spirited, than when he’d lay out how much they’d gotten to him. “I would suck Lou Reed’s cock,” Lester the con­firmed heterosexual wrote, and there wasn’t any embarrassment in it, because he didn’t believe his human dignity was compromised by such a statement.

It was never just for the sake of his partic­ular inner drama that Lester felt let down or pissed off by his avatars, but for a cause — a hard one to define without sounding too bald, which Lester chanced when he called it “the war for the preservation of the heart” (it’s much less sententious in context, because so plainly felt, no mere generality). He was old-fashioned about responsibility, believed in things like compacts; he knew how urgent were the promises these people dealt in. That understanding is the touchstone of one of his best-remembered pieces, an obit­uary for his friend Peter Laughner, who “killed himself for something torn T-shirts represented in the battle fires of his ripped emotions.” Lester knew that was pathetic and hideous; he was right to think it still mattered.

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Lester craved beauty — believed in it, unaffectedly, as an absolute. Hence his love not only for Van Morrison but for the early Eno, later to become a fit subject for war-of-­the-heart rancor. Both examples suggest how much he only trusted beauty when it was also absolutist — invented solely out of the nonnegotiable demands of an entirely individual grip on wonder, without regard or recourse to the conventional claptrap signifiers that pass for beauty. But his deeper precondition, as ever, was that the music materialize emotions which might otherwise have had no witness; given his time, it’s no surprise that he was best known instead for being; and, may even have been most valu­able as the champion of elemental racket. (Note: “Grunge” and “elemental racket” are not the same thing, though the overlap between them is made clear by the wonderful, hilarious old-geezer monologue on the lost glory of the Count Five which gives Psychotic Reactions its title.)

Lester was the first to crow over what real rock fans always knew. Just like those ’50s fogeys and their modern descendants have always said, and as the music’s prissier de­fenders have been at such pains to deny, it was racket. Messy, unsoothing racket. As usual, there’s an intellectual defense. Lester revered artists of acute intelligence, acutely intelligent instinct, or plain nonspecific acuteness, like the “Sister Ray” Lou, or Iggy, or the Ramones, who used elemental racket purposefully, to get at elemental things. He also saw that valuing it was the hidden link between the most feckless garage guitar-bashing and the avant-garde titans, from Albert Ayler to antititan Arto Lindsay. But as usual, the intellectual de­fense won’t do. Lester loved racket because it was racket: ”illiterate chaos gradually tak­ing shape as a uniquely personal style,” he wrote early on of Iggy, maybe too elegantly; “horrible noise” he summed it up.

He was right again — nothing’s so galvan­ic. It has to do with tracking down the spiro­chete in the blood, the bacilli rubbed into the vaccination. No stimulus like racket to animate you up onto the sensation of ramparts. It feels surgical. Contrary to what parents used to say, racket doesn’t give you a lobotomy; it apostrophizes, and treats, your feeling that you’ve already had one. Energizing the negative is the polite way of describing this. “The yowlings of missing links around the purple fire” was one of Lester’s many ways.


Partly because of the distance imposed by hard covers, Psychotic Reactions and Car­buretor Dung makes it possible to see the larger patterns and congruences of Lester’s work. I’d say that 98 per cent of what Mar­cus has done is first-rate. One flaw is that no accounting is given of the cutting and reshaping Marcus performed on some choices, which was most likely necessary — particu­larly with the unpublished stuff, an elucida­tor’s nightmare — but which should still have been acknowledged right up front.

An early section devoted to Lester’s work on Creem, which he all but invented in the early ’70s, feels scattershot. As Marcus sug­gests, Lester’s creativity at Creem wasn’t just a matter of doing great pieces, but of making exhilarated use of the magazine’s whole apparatus, from headings and picture captions to replies to reader mail, to purvey a gestalt. Creem was Lester’s own Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Selecting only the Creem work that can stand on its own loses the effect of swarm, and maybe there wasn’t any way around that — though I’d have liked to see some of the picture captions and replies to readers.

The anthology is designed to make visible a series of trajectories, most notably Lester’s evolution from chaotically irreverent, anything-goes debunker and joker at Creem to increasingly open and adamant moralist (and debunker, and joker) later on — plainly a development, not a change. What Lester paradoxically always looked for in extremes was the corrective balance. Pissing on every­thing, sending it up, boosting nihilistic rage, were unquestionably the most ethical and sane contributions a moralist could make to the prepunk ’70s. But once Johnny Rotten had appeared to take over that job, and the battle had been joined in both senses, it was a gesture of optimism to argue about values and thrash out doubts. Lester’s concern for the punks was tender — a lot of his dreams, which like most good ones had begun with nightmares for honesty’s sake, were bound up with them. By the end, though he didn’t indulge in recriminations, he knew that punk had gone down the toilet like everything else; that made the search for values still more urgent, unmediated even by mu­sic, and utterly solitary.

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The book also enables you to see Lester’s own literary lineage much more clearly: Ginsberg’s long line, and telegraphic modern resurrection of forceful early-English rhythms. Burroughs’s inspired stand-up routines and disease-telethon dada. Some Mailer in the happiness of plunging into thickets of contradiction, and finding one’s way out by inventiveness and will. The gath­ering-up of emotional textures into bunchings of pure compassion that moved him in Tennessee Williams. Not to mention a style of unfolding, gravely enunciatory plain speech, which sounds Lincolnesque but has a more likely origin in Lester’s having gone to elementary school back when kids still had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.

The most common take on Lester’s lan­guage was that he found the equivalent in writing for the dynamics of rock and roll; there’s jazz in it too, in the improvisation of solos over a progression which itself mu­tates in response to them. The freight of second thoughts and recollections and asides which Lester was able to add to the main line of his ongoing reaction has the effect not of dispersion but of tributaries running into a river, adding their push to the current. Still, Lester never seemed to be working out a conceit; all his best moments felt blurted, pure serendipity. Here’s one modest example, found at random not only by me but I suspect by Lester (he was writ­ing during the Iranian hostage crisis): “Two nights ago my friend John Morthland was over and we talked about Teheran and the future of this embassy we live in.” The shift to metaphor is quiet — blink and you’ll miss it; the effect reverberates. Lester discovered shit like that all the time.

Probably the most astonishing piece in the book — not only for itself, but for its demonstration of the escalating quality, even from the most chorelike start, of Les­ter’s imagination — began life as background notes for a review of Peter Guralnick’s book Lost Highway. Lester’s just plugging away at first, sorting out impressions. Soon he be­comes engrossed, ruminating on Sam Phil­lips as shaman, conformity and rebellion, the discovery of America. Then something triggers a recollection of Geraldo Rivera de­manding, on TV, that Elvis’s body be ex­humed to check for traces of drugs; Lester loathes Geraldo, and so imagines that his real craving is to make off with the actual half-digested pills from Elvis’s decomposing insides. That brings to mind the Golden Bough legends of primitives ingesting the best qualities of their enemies by eating them — the perfect metaphor for tabloid necrophilia, and he doesn’t even have to say so.

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But it’s too late to stop now. Either Lester or Lester-as-Geraldo, it’s hard to tell which, swallows the pills; suddenly he is speaking as Elvis, feeling out his new identity. The rant is knockabout abusive and funny (“Guess I could get one of my rifles off the shelf and shoot out a few TV picture tubes. Lemme get the TV Guide and see who’s on I wanna shoot”). But then it climbs into pitches of dread made tangible (“I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t get high”). The piece just keeps on mushrooming until it explodes as a half-comprehending scream of stop eat­ing me that finally stands as the deepest, most heartbreaking rendition of that poor lost dumb slob, P.F.C. Jesus H. Presley, ever caught in words. Its source, its absolutely necessary beginning, is as a ghoulish, dopey sick joke. And yet these crass, grotesque, and driven pages deserve permanent en­shrining in our literature. Of course Lester could never get it printed.

Psychotic Reactions shows the freewheel­ing nature of Lester’s responsiveness, how many polyglot things fed his preoccupations. A long account of the Clash on tour in England reels in an encounter with a handi­capped woman in an airport, Lester’s read­ing at the moment (The War Against the Jews), snippets of road life, how Lester’s dressed, William Blake, how Teds dress, etc., into a pilgrim’s progress that really is about nothing but the Clash, and their im­pact on him. Yet Psychotic Reactions also shows the unsuspected extent to which his mind kept revolving around the same few preoccupations, or maybe just one: the fight with death.

Death could be literal, or death could be figurative — it’s typical of how Lester’s mind worked that he saw no distinction, and had only one vocabulary for both. His belief in sexual union as the rebuttal to it could be literal or figurative; even when figurative, it was no metaphor. It all came down to Les­ter’s words for how he felt when first seeing Elvis on stage: “an erection of the heart.” A world is in that phrase; a lot of writers would have retired on it. Lester was just being descriptive, and moved on.

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His own end centers all melancholy on wondering what more he might have done. Marcus disputes the theory that he’d have quit writing about music. My bet is the shift was quite probable, partly because a big chunk of what motivated Lester was the belief that there was an audience out there that felt as he did, and that belief was get­ting harder to sustain, at least about rock and roll. People hadn’t just stopped looking to the music for reasons to believe; what appalled and frightened Lester was that in the main they seemed to feel no need to compensate for it elsewhere. His conception of his work’s worth, as of the records he loved, was that it was an offering, part of a communal back-and-forth. He was willing to be a crank, but had a horror of being one in a vacuum; that was too much like solipsism, always one of his words for death.

But his writing up to that point, as repre­sented in Psychotic Reactions, also feels like there’s nothing more to add to it. My own belief is that Lester saw this as his appren­ticeship; the task of defining one’s world, and establishing the terms of one’s identity, that precedes the foray into creation. Mar­cus reports that he was about to leave, ro­mantic in earnest to the last, for Mexico, there to get down to work on the big book of his life. You can’t know whether to mourn or marvel that this magnificent body of work, as far as he was concerned, had only cleared the decks so that he could begin.

One other thing: Practically every past and serving rock critic in the country — in­cluding yours truly — is listed in the book’s acknowledgments. Some are weighty names, at least in our benighted guild; some of the others make everything you’ve heard about rock critics sound true. We aren’t a bunch much given to fellow-feeling, or for that matter activity. But this once, we all came out of our Grub Street holes, blinking like bats from how white the page is. Everyone wanted to stick in two cents — the big guns and the jerkoffs, and the crowd in between. It’s the guild’s testimony, for whatever it’s worth: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Lester.

By Lester Bangs
Edited by Greil Marcus
Knopf, $19.95