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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Terry Southern’s Quality Lit

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 02/01/06 at 04:37 PM

(Another, this one obliquely relevant, note on surrealism.) When folks think of Terry Southern, if they do, they mostly think of the screenwriter for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or maybe his appearance on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s. But at one time Southern was a rising player in what he called the “Quality Lit game.” He displayed marvelous potential and was effusively praised by Dwight MacDonald, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, William S. Burroughs, and Henry Green. Realization, though, fell short. Four novels and a collection of short stories appeared during his life. A couple more items have appeared since, but his reputation has had no great revival.

The neglect isn’t entirely unjustified. Southern’s output was both small and uneven. His best works shine with brilliances, yet each seems lacking. Despite being a minor writer, he is very interesting culturally, occupying an interesting middle position between the 60’s (a recently hot topic, for some odd reason, hereabouts), and the previous era. He is also interesting literarily as a stylist. Say what you may about his sensibility, as a writer of sentences and paragraphs, he is a rare model for any aspiring prose stylist.

(Another, this one obliquely relevant, note on surrealism.) When folks think of Terry Southern, if they do, they mostly think of the screenwriter for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or maybe his appearance on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s. But at one time Southern was a rising player in what he called the “Quality Lit game.” He displayed marvelous potential and was effusively praised by Dwight MacDonald, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, William S. Burroughs, and Henry Green. Realization, though, fell short. Four novels and a collection of short stories appeared during his life. A couple more items have appeared since, but his reputation has had no great revival.

The neglect isn’t entirely unjustified. Southern’s output was both small and uneven. His best works shine with brilliances, yet each seems lacking. Despite being a minor writer, he is very interesting culturally, occupying an interesting middle position between the 60’s (a recently hot topic, for some odd reason, hereabouts), and the previous era. He is also interesting literarily as a stylist. Say what you may about his sensibility, as a writer of sentences and paragraphs, he is a rare model for any aspiring prose stylist.

Southern’s main collection of shorter pieces, Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes, models his whole corpus: brilliant parts that never quite make brilliant wholes, but sentence after sentence exudes what his friend Henry Green called “great distinction.”

The collection begins with a mostly autobiographical story, “Red-Dirt Marijuana.” Southern’s boyhood stories are not his strongest work. They’re gently told, even when telling of razor fights and the like, and lack the snap of his usual irony or surrealism. The next and best of the stories, and one of Southern’s first, “The Sun and the Still-born Stars,” is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. A tale of magic realism, “Sun” starts with a couple of poor East Texas dirt farmers’ fascination with the movies and ends with a mortal struggle against a mysterious sea-monster. The simplicity of style reminds one of the simplicity of Bunuel’s camera-work and editing. The author of Southern’s biography, Lee Hill, says, “It has a deceptively naturalistic finish that belies the strange blend of nightmare and fantasy beneath.” This juxtaposition of calm voice and bizarre story is a trademark of Southern’s work. The book closes with “The Blood of a Wig,” a remarkably quick and dead-pan romp through the cutting edge drug culture of the mid-Sixties and the trailing edge culture of literarily pretentious and mawkishly sleazy men’s magazines.

Red Dirt abounds with throwaway moments of small genius, such as “Twirling at Ole Miss,” in which Southern witnesses a baton championship, invents the New Journalism, and immediately turns his back on the genre, all in thirteen pages.

As with his stories, with his novels the earlier work is best. Flash and Filagree is an odd little novel, in which a doctor and his patient draw out, to neither’s edification, each other’s hidden sociopathies. Flash displays Southern’s remarkable writing talent, yet fails to make a case for its own greatness. A contemporary reviewer, Anthony Quinton, called it “a work of unclassifiable or indefinable intention, a pure literary artifice, carried out with amazing dexterity and control […]” Flash is a rare example of late High Modernism in its insistence on craftsmanship in detail, with page after page of subtlety, of story telling incrementally plotted (exploring the realm of least possible difference between a story and not-a-story, the realm of Adorno’s “gray on gray Modernism”), suddenly pierced by lightening flashes of the macabre.

The Magic Christian, his next novel (the movie made from it is not popular enough to even be a cult classic, yet it is better know then the book), is again better in parts than in the whole. Millionaire Guy Grand (his nephew was an invention of the movie script, which, oddly, Southern had no part in) arranges elaborate, massive pranks, such as the luxury liner after which the novel is named. After a great build-up (Life devotes a whole issue to it), S. S. Magic Christian sets off with the world’s most beautiful and wealthy people aboard, then transforms into a huge performance art piece: all the amenities disappear and the ship is overrun with bearded ladies, vandals in gorilla suits, and other various freaks. Guy Grand’s project, as was Southern’s, is épater les bourgeois. Lee designates Magic as Southern’s Beat novel, but instead of the raw finish of Keroac, Ginsburg, or Burroughs, Southern’s prose is smoothly varnished, again producing an odd-juxtaposition of low-key voicing and outrageous story. Still, the novel comes off as shapeless. Green feared that it “drives the same nail in with the same hammer too many times,” though he insisted on its stylistic excellencies.

The outrageousness dates the work. Southern staked his reputation on his ability to shock. Hill’s biography quotes an unpublished interview:

the important thing is to keep in touch with the youth of whatever culture you’re in. When you lose them, you can forget it. When they’re no longer surprised or astonished or engaged by what you say, the ball game is over. If they find it repulsive, or outlandish or disgusting, that’s all right, or if they love it, that’s all right, but if they just shrug it off, it’s time to retire.

Shock, however, turned out to sell. Southern himself made a few buck off it. Marketability puts the outré on every billboard, and what was outrageous became shrug-offable. And that’s not the only way his work is dated. It displays the characteristic 60’s blindspot toward women: Flash contains an execrable date-rape scene, and an uncompromising reader might judge Candy as an over-extended Playboy cartoon.

The outrageousness also did him in, via Hollywood. The cult popularity of Magic Christian got Southern an interview with Stanley Kubrick, who was looking to transform his nuclear armageddon script from the dour, moralistic tale of its source novel into something rich and strange, or at least marketably different from the recent Fail Safe. The novel got Southern the interview: his charm and urbanity got him the job. From there, the movie sirens called, and Southern threw himself eagerly against the rocks. Not that it seemed entirely a sell-out at the time, a time that Phillip Lopate called “the heroic age of moviegoing.” Southern 1962 essay, “When Film Gets Good” argued, before he had gotten the call from Kubrick, for film’s equal aesthetic standing with the novel:

It has become evident that it is wasteful, pointless, and in terms of art, inexcusable, to write a novel which could, or in fact should have been a film. This ought to be a first principle of creative literature and of its critical evaluation; without it the novel, in the present circumstances, has only a secondary function as art.

Southern soon enough lost track of the art part, what with all the partying. The biography tracks his transformation from someone who wrote to someone who worked in the film business, and “worked” as in “worked the room.” Supremely charming, he presented a deliberately crafted personality: a vague, mid-Atlantic accent developed during his studies abroad, a patter patterned after Lord Buckley, a wit always ready with some quip. He was an A-list partier, even if he made a Connecticut farm his home base. He knew everyone who was anyone in New York. And the good times killed him. Though acknowledging the contradiction of Southern “jockeying between a Kafka-like embrace of the inner-life and a compulsion to burn the candle at both ends in the bars, parties, and salons of the Manhattan cultural scene,” Hill fails to attribute any of the writing’s failure to the booze. John Cleese, who co-wrote the Magic Christian screenplay with Graham Chapman, in some magazine article attributed to Southern “a tremendous talent lost amidst crates of whiskey.” (Or I think he did: I am relying on memory here.) Alcoholism robs the brain of its suppleness, to say the least. Southern’s later correspondence finds him repeating jokes from his early stories and movies, such as “Blood of a Wig”’s “NECK-rophilia” gag. Hill quotes a producer assessing a late script as “Terry parodying Terry instead of being genuinely outrageous.” Henry Green, another talent terminated by whiskey, had warned him long before that over-reliance on style can become “self-indulgence or self-parody.”

But in the end, Southern was more than some 60’s relic. As I said before, he straddled worlds. A WWII vet who went to Northwestern on the GI Bill, he went on to study at the Sorbonne and fall in with the nascent Paris Review scene on the Left Bank. He had a high art sensibility, hung out with Cocteau, Camus, and Sarte, idolized Carne and Bunuel. As Hill puts it, Southern “favored ideas over feelings, pure speculation over the autobiographical, and careful and deliberate rewriting over the free-form and spontaneous approach of his Beat friends.”

The “careful and deliberate rewriting” produced what Mailer called “clean deliberate prose.” Unlike many students of Modernism, he didn’t write pastiche. Unlike the hyperactive excesses of pure 60’s types such as Hunter S. Thompson, Southern had a control over his writing that hearkened back to earlier times. He worked his narrative into a consistent grain, in Harry Allen’s words, “a style of spectacular grace, clarity and modulation.” But not ostentatiously. He possessed what might be called the middle style, something between the featureless sentences meant to be consumed for their content, then discarded, and the highly wrought syntactical exercises that draw attention to themselves, away from the story. This middle style, something mostly missing today, is perhaps Southern’s best legacy, and something I for one would like to see more of.

I also miss, though, the days when mainstream culture had a taste for the absurd. For all its bad rap today, Casino Royale was the third highest-grossing film in 1967—though Orson Welles attributed that to the movie poster’s full-figure silhouette of a naked hottie (& she had guns in her hands! with silencers!). Though uncredited in the film, Southern had a hand in the early stages of script development, to the degree that there was script development for that glorious mish-mosh. Surrealism is the main motor behind Southern’s narrative, from “Blood of Wig,” which finds Southern’s alter ego pitching story ideas to a crusty old editor while high on the blood of a schizophrenic Chinese poet, to Blue Movie’s Teeny Marie, the dwarf hooker.

In closing, consider this possibility: when Southern said in a Newsweek interview, “We’ve only scratched the surface of our Freudian heritage,” he is not speaking of Freud the pseudo-scientist, the beard that launched a thousand Theory dissertations, but Freud the inventor of narrative possibilities, the head of production for the great phantasmagorial studio, greenlighting hundreds of artistic projects. Surrealist art is the unconscious of psychoanalysis, its resolute kernel, resisting the false articulations of theory. Freud appears as a character in two of Southern’s short pieces, each time as a perverse nemesis of an oddly innocent Franz Kafka, each time as a nefarious trickster. In the words of another nefarious trickster, “It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how.”


Comments

As an artistic project, Surrealism succeeds or fails on the truth of Freud’s analysis of unconsciousness mental life.  Which is to say that you can’t have “the great phantasmagorial studio” if Freud is merely a “pseudo-scientist.” I’m refusing to engage in any debate over Freud’s truth-value; but you can’t have it both ways.  But you want it both ways and you want it bad.  This sentence—“Surrealist art is the unconscious of psychoanalysis, its resolute kernel, resisting the false articulations of theory”—reads like the punchline of a Zizek sock-puppet in a Theory-inflected anti-Theory Punch and Judy show.  Psychoanalysis cannot have an unconsciousness if it itself is merely a pseudo-science.

By on 02/01/06 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I enjoyed that, Lawrence.  Surely I’ve come across Terry Southern’s name in some other connection—did he do any other screenplays, write movie reviews, anything like that? 

For what it’s worth I disagree with Luther’s comment (though I also won’t be getting into any truth-value debate) and don’t see that acknowledging the imaginative fertility of Freud’s body of work must be tightly coupled to the issue of the scientific credibility of psychoanalysis. 

I guess nobody would object per se when Freud is used as a kind of sourcebook akin to the Bible or The Thousand and One Nights.  The objection to Surrealism as an artistic method involving deliberate efforts to access the unconscious is different, but sort of puzzling given the irrelevance of stated intentions to finished works generally.

You’re right that there’s nothing like Casino Royale doing the rounds today...I don’t know if I can be very sad about that, however.

By on 02/01/06 at 09:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura:

Southern had a hand in the screenplay for Easy Rider, though he failed to get credit for it, & spent the rest of his life in falling w/Dennis Hopper. He also did the screenplay for The Loved One.

Luther:

I want all sorts of things really badly, & you have no idea what they are. Psychoanalysis can’t have an unconscious because psychoanalysis is not a person. So much for metaphor, or ventriloquizing a mock-Zizek (as you point out, the double-inversion is an awkward maneuver).

Two questions:

(1) Does the non-existence of a personal God fatally debilitate Herbert’s poetry?

(2) What do you think about Casino Royale?

I’m serious about both of these, esp. the second. I was disappointed the previous go around on this argument was so short-lived. (Laura’s opinion is already duly noted.)

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 02/01/06 at 10:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(1) No, the existence of a personal God does not fatally debilitate Herbert’s poetry, because his poetry isn’t necessarily trying to give the reader a religious experience.  And even if Herbert did want to give the reader a religious experience, Freud could explain that “oceanic feeling” without recourse to a personal God.  But surrealism only makes sense if you believe that you can gain access to your own unconscious mental life by observing, say, the juxtaposition of normally disconnected objects.  Surrealism was trying to do work on the reader, and that work can only be done if Freud was right about certain basic ways in which the mind works.  Surrealist art wasn’t trying to be pretty or didactic, so its ethical or aesthetic value won’t survive if its theoretical assumptions don’t hold. 

(2) I know I’ve seen *Casino Royale* in one of those Bond fests on TV at some point, but I can’t remember a single thing about it.  Then again, this would have been about 20 years ago.

BTW: I wasn’t trying to be snarky about surrealism or Freud.  I actually think both are amazing, the former because of the latter.  I just wonder what’s at stake in the move that gives a shout out to Freudianisms while dissing Freud himself.  Don’t hate the player.  Hate the game.

By on 02/01/06 at 11:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Casino Royale” is a tedious mess. It falls prey to some sort of late 60’s ‘jam session’ fallacy that just throwing everything in the filmic pot constitutes spontaneous, expressive achievement. (Surrealism is not the same as not having an editor.) Also, getting stoned makes you think stuff is funny, without increasing your capacity to think of things non-stoned people will think are funny. At least for some people it works that way. (I’ll take “The President’s Analyst” over “Casino Royale” any day.)

I don’t think the problem is so much that it no longer seems outrageous. I think the problem is more that at the time the likes of Southern felt they were tearing back the veneer of convention, revealing their authentic individuality. And in hindsight, what seemed so authentic looks suspiciously hippyporn generic. When an author thinks something is individual and original and it looks to you like a Playboy cartoon cliche, that’s a big hurdle to clear. I agree that he does have style, however.

It may be that I haven’t read enough of his stuff and should try some more.

Thanks for an interesting post.

By John Holbo on 02/01/06 at 11:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther:

You set the conditions for surrealism “making sense.” I’m embarassed to make this concession, but it doesn’t make sense to me. But I have a very strong, highly inarticulate, aesthetic response to it. For example, Ernst’s collages in “Une Semaine to Bonte” strike me as incredibly beautiful. & I find many of the juxtapositions in Southern’s writing hilarious. I would like to understand my reactions better, hence my writing on it. They might point to something deeper, only I’m not so sure it’s in me or somewhere else.

& I don’t think I’m alone in this. As I’ve mentioned before, Guy Davenport was also quite taken w/surrealism, & as far as I can tell he had no investment whatsoever in the Freudian unconscious.

John:

Casino will never be entirely tedious for me because I saw it (several times) when I was young & it has become hardwired into my sense of who I am & what those times were. President’s Analyst is a much better movie, for starters because it’s a whole artifact. As I said about Southern, he had problems making up wholes, though Kubrick was obviously a good editor for him. & one is very tedious when one is stoned.

Still, though the movie fails to cohere, & though there is much that could be removed, it has some grand parts. I mean, take the soundtrack. Herb Alpert, Dusty Springfield? Better than President’s, and better than anything they can do today.

As for the authenticity, I have no doubt that if you talked to Southern, he’d probably be full of ideas like that, but I don’t find any picture of such a thing in the writing. The author’s position, when it can be located, is always pretty thoroughly compromised and ultimately comic. One piece, “You’re Too Hip, Baby,” has an expat American hipster living in Paris, an obvious Southern stand-in, woo a jazz trumpeter and his wife. In the end the hipster is revealed to be pretty vacant. Of course the end turns out to be the weakest part in the otherwise seamless construction.

The autobiographical, boyhood-in-Texas pieces could be going for authenticity, but they are completely satire-less.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 02/02/06 at 01:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I beg your pardon, but NOTHING competes with the flute solos as James Coburn strolls his self-satisfied simian stroll - all his extra teeth glinting in the sunshine - after he lands the job.

By John Holbo on 02/02/06 at 01:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Producers Redux

By nnyhav on 02/02/06 at 10:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Who is the hepcat who could not dig The Magic Christian ? Guy Grand is the yankee playboy Everyman, sort of Donald Trump meets PT Barnum. Craft, skills, artistry:  Mr. Southern had those in abundance, above the usual beat kitties’ confessions and excretions. He’s quite a few IQ points above Ti Jean Kerouac or pals. Tant pis. And also he had a hand in Dr. Strangelove: one of the most relevant pieces of manga of the last 60 years or so.  He’s sort of the beat Voltaire as somone yawped back the day. They should name high schools after him; make his tomes part of the curriculum.

By Jake on 02/02/06 at 10:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, Luther. Saying that I can’t get anything from surrealism without being a Freudian seems exactly like saying I can’t get anything from devotional poetry without sharing the devotion (or anything from an epic if I don’t think bloody warriors make the best rulers). Theology isn’t the same as religious art; governing isn’t the same as political art; psychology isn’t the same as art which tries to have a disorienting effect. A cause I disagree with can still have fine effects, just as a cause I agree with can have bad ones. And finally surrealist art is much less focused than A Child’s Intepretation of Dreams. Psychiatry was an influence on the artists, but they had other influences too. They were interested in politics; most of all, they were interested in what they were doing. I almost never think about Freud when I read or view their work.

On the other hand, I was thrown off by Lawrence’s “the unconscious of psychoanalysis” line just about as much as I was by your comment. “Creating something in conscious response to an intellectual trend” is like “the Freudian unconscious” how?

“You’re Too Hip, Baby” should be required reading for all teenage Anglo-Americans. Otherwise, Southern seemed to me like his generation’s Oscar Levant: the funny mordant hanger-on.

Casino Royale I treasure for what’s still my favorite Woody Allen joke—you know, the “They said Einstein was crazy, too!” one. If it turns out Southern wrote it, somehow that makes it even funnier.

Otherwise, though, The President’s Analyst for me: the most politically astute espionage movie ever made, the only ‘60s film to textually justify its treatment of the love interest, and as for music—that “Circles” sequence was brilliant. The only thing I dislike about it is the utterly lame LSD-as-(rigidly-segregated)-aphrodisiac scene.

By Ray Davis on 02/02/06 at 10:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Freud may have been the catalyst for Breton’s Manifesto, yet surrealism was not bound by Freudian concepts--Breton himself provided a laundry list of influences, ranging from Hegel and Marx to Swift, Lewis Carroll, Alfred Jsrry. The nightmares of WWI--trench warfare, modern weaponry, gas, tanks, millions dead--also had a major impact on the dada and surrealist figures. Breton also routinely affirmed a Trotskyan view of marxism for better or worse; there was sort of a shift in the surrealist views from the earlier Freudian, unconscious, and slightly occultish aspects to more political and anthropological perspectives by the late 30s and forwards. 

I would agree Southern’s writing has some surrealist aspects, perhaps filtered through the existentialists (and realist type of view here and there): tho’ those two camps were not so fond of each other (Andre Breton was at least as much an intellectual force as JP Sartre and the Beaver, and free of some of the stalinist aspects of JPS). Yet my contention is that Breton distrusted most literature and the literary tradition and thought fine arts (and sort of philosophical pieces such as the Manifestos) a better “vehicle” for surrealism: and in some sense Magritte and Dali (tho’ he was not so down with marxism) preferable to poesy or narrative. I think a writer such as Ballard (and early Pynchon to some extent, as in V) sits more comfortably in the Chateau Breton.

By x on 02/02/06 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

On the other hand, I was thrown off by Lawrence’s “the unconscious of psychoanalysis” line just about as much as I was by your comment. “Creating something in conscious response to an intellectual trend” is like “the Freudian unconscious” how?

I started a joke, but it just wasn’t funny. I actually like some psychoanalysis stuff, yes, even some of the dreaded Lacan (perhaps Luther knows me better than I’ll admit), but I like surrealist art better. When Lacan said that Dali & Bunuel were his most serious competition, I think he was being serious. I wish more theorists saw things the same way. What I wanted to say was that in criticism, art should do the driving, that surrealism should be a constant reminder to any psychoanalytic critic that they’re not doing a good enough job. They don’t know how to have fun (I think John H. has made a similar point often). (& I don’t mean to be snarky: I don’t do a good enough job either. Human, all too human.)

But Oscar Levant? Ouch!

As for surrealist literature, I would refer back to my <a href=http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/an_advertisement_for_jack_spicer> Jack Spicer post</a>. Spicer does it, so it can be done.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 02/02/06 at 01:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t the belief that Surrealist art “succeeds or fails on the truth of Freud’s analysis of unconsciousness mental life” one about aesthetics?  People can still produce good art even if their aesthetic theories are incoherent.

I don’t think that Luther’s explanation of the counterexample “No, the existence of a personal God does not fatally debilitate Herbert’s poetry, because his poetry isn’t necessarily trying to give the reader a religious experience” really works.  Wouldn’t the example, to be the same as the original, really have to assert a situation in which Herbert only believed that religious poetry had aesthetic value because God really existed?

By on 02/02/06 at 02:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are a few outbreaks of surrealism in the academy but it’s far too subversive for that: the science people wouldn’t care for it, nor would biz types, nor the marxists, victorians, and realists who rule the lit. departments (including francais) with their velvet-covered iron fist.There were some science and medical people who took an in interest in surrealism, and tho’ it’s often thought to be “anti-rational” I think Breton wanted scientists and mathematicians in his cadre, unlike Sartre and most postmod. 
Personally I think Lacan is more surrealist in potentia than actuality; and Freud--who everyone seems to think they understand--still closer to roots of that which is now known as “surreal.”
An essay like “The Joke and its relation to the Unconscious” brings out the hint of sadism nad black humor that surrealist artists sought--the foil/"straight guy” as butt of the comedian’s jest, done in hope of seducing the femme/audience---c’est surrealisme, and there is some of that black humor in Southern....but I would agree the painters did it better than literatteurs: Maria spanking her infant Jesus, or Le Chien Andalou sort of conceptual paper shredders (insert shrew victorian, irish oafs, or Tory tea host here)

By Zizi on 02/02/06 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Although it may be a bit too coherent to count, a closer generic match than The President’s Analyst for Casino Royale would be What’s New, Pussycat?—probably the best of the ‘60s big-budget goon shows.

And still not very good. The Goon Show just isn’t improved by a big budget, any more than an intelligent satirist is improved by a decade of booze and cocaine. Comparing the career arcs of Southern and Allen would make a good case for abstinence.

So I better not do it.

Comparing the career arcs of Southern and Nathanael West, though? I guess that would make a good case for dropping the cocaine.

By Ray Davis on 02/02/06 at 04:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lawrence wrote: “You set the conditions for surrealism “making sense.” I’m embarassed to make this concession, but it doesn’t make sense to me. But I have a very strong, highly inarticulate, aesthetic response to it. For example, Ernst’s collages in “Une Semaine to Bonte” strike me as incredibly beautiful.”

I don’t see “sense” as the condition of possibility of surrealist art objects—of course not, insofar as surrealist art objects are intended not to make sense in the normal sense of sense.  What I meant was that as a *project*, surrealism must be understood as an attempt to access an audience’s unconsciousness and transform society by releasing unconscious mental forces. 

I’m not saying individual surrealist art objects don’t have aesthetic value unless you agree with Freud (as Rich would have me argue).  But remember the ending of *Nadja*: beauty will be convulsive or not at all.  This is the difference between the purely aesthetic “surrealism” of, say, Russell Edson and the politicized surrealism the limitations of which Adorno critiqued.  Adorno questioned surrealism on the basis of that key move—will an appeal to an audience’s unconsciousness lead to a liberated society, or will it simply wind up as just another art object?  As was also the case in Adorno’s critique of Benjamin’s Arcades Project and B’s reliance on montage.

Basically, I want to reserve the term Surrealism for that particular politically inflected attempt to use juxtaposition and other anti-rationalist strategies to transform society through the liberation of unconscious mental forces.  Why call just any interesting juxtaposition “surrealist”?  Coleridge already had a good word for the mental processes behind such work: fancy.

By on 02/02/06 at 06:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I think that I understand what you’ve written, but people call Surrealist work Surrealist because it is associated with a historical period and a historical belief, whether that belief is true or not.  The religious metaphor has already been used, so how about socialist realism, which was inextricably “linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism” (Statute of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934, as quoted on wiki).  It’s going to continue to be socialist realism if socialism completely dies out and no one believes in it any more.  More generally, I would say that any politicized or scientized art project is going to eventually be proved to be “wrong”, because no politics lasts forever and no science remains unchanged.  Saying that such a project “succeeds or fails on the truth of “ something seems to want to make such projects eternal, when they probably can’t be.  As such it devalues their possible success during their time.

By on 02/02/06 at 08:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Luther, Freud himself *rejected* surrealism, and refused Breton’s overtures. So if as you say we must reject psychanalysis as a ‘pseudoscience’, and if its top pseud himself rejected surrealism, then surely surrealism is back with us, via the double negation?

Or, perhaps we could try a more nuanced approach to a movement which, after all, lasted for over 30 years and spanned most of the continents.

By McKenzie Wark on 02/02/06 at 11:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

----More generally, I would say that any politicized or scientized art project is going to eventually be proved to be “wrong”, because no politics lasts forever and no science remains unchanged.  Saying that such a project “succeeds or fails on the truth of “ something seems to want to make such projects eternal, when they probably can’t be.  As such it devalues their possible success during their time."-----

Has Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” been “proved ‘wrong’”? Has such Swiftian satire been “proved ‘wrong’”? It doesn’t get more “politicized” than that. What about Aristophane’s “Lysistrata”? Etc and so on.

No one has been able to demonstrate that human nature has changed; thus, why should political insights of millenia past necessarily be “proved ‘wrong’” even in relation to today?

In any event, in many ways so-called apolitical art is as political, as politicized, as anything else. Lila Rajiva notes that “Toer and Chomsky both write that the apolitical position is the most thoroughly political position. To live in a society and pay taxes is to accept the power relations in that society and thus to be political and to a lesser or greater degree complicit in the acts of the state” in one’s art and otherwise.

By Tony Christini on 02/03/06 at 02:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, my only point is that we cannot redeem some movement called Surrealism today if we remove from it its theoretical underpinnings.  We need more subtle terms to discuss techniques derived from Surrealism; just calling art “surrealist” bugs me, especially when it’s used as a stick with which to beat Freud himself.

We can enjoy Surrealist art, appreciate it, understand it—but we shouldn’t go around using the term to describe post-Surrealist art if all we mean is “weird juxtapositions” or “zany writing.” That’s all I’m saying.  We can say that a recent writer took surrealist techniques and removed them from their theoretical system, but I don’t think we should call such art Surrealist. 

So Rich, I don’t want to make a movement like Surrealism somehow “eternal.” I want it kept in its historical moment and kept true to what it was in the fullness of its theoretical and practical formulations.  What I objected to was Lawrence’s argument that somehow the truth of Freud can be found in surrealism and the rest of Freud can be rejected as pseudoscience.  For to divorce the art-historical movement known as Surrealism from its Freudian underpinnings is to no longer have Surrealism.  We are left with, as I wrote before, merely what Coleridge called the work of fancy: a dog with a horse head, a car driving at the bottom of the ocean, or any of those ridiculous juxtaposed photomontages college kids buy from the hippie poster dealer on campus during Move-In Week.

McKenzie: I never wrote that Freud was a pseudoscientist.  That was Lawrence in his original post.  Nor can we take Freud’s personal rejection as a sign that any movement—in art or psychology—was somehow improperly psychoanalytic.  Freud the man—like all men and women—is far less intelligent than the Freud of his major writings.

By on 02/03/06 at 02:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Surrealist imagery was of course appropriated by H-wood, rockers, marketing. The earlier subversive and Freudian elements were obscured, and the fantastical aspects exaggerated: and Breton himself indicated surrealism was not simply fancy or hallucination. I believe the counterculture viewed Dali’s art like Escher’s: early psychedelia rather than as representations of libidinal repression or whatever. (the Hippie poster guy probably banking more on aesthetics via sinsemilla than via Freudian ego sychology. As an art movement, c’est mort: yet along with Southern’s sort of satire-noir, there are surrealist elements to be perceived in sci-fi (Ballard, PK Dick has a sort of surreal edge, Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, however yankee like) to filmmakers such as Lynch or perhaps the Coen Brothers films, tho’ they a bit zany-- The Hudsucker Proxy seemed a bit Bunuel. Surrealism was itself commodified and packaged, as satirical and political art always has been; the marketing and pop hucksters sort of inverting the disruptive elements, stripping it of politics, and aestheticizing it. Satire and a sort of surrealist black humor, whether Andre Breton, Southern or Monty Python, doesn’t play well in Pleasantville anyway: too many french-euro overtones for the hicks, not blatantly violent or porno-y enough for gangstas, and lacking the sort of fuzzy PC sentiment that a mall liberal needs.

By jake on 02/03/06 at 10:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

.....yet why should “surrealism” be bound by Freud? If Freudianism is not an adequate “explanatory hypothesis” of mind and behavior that doesn’t imply surrealism is botched as well...if for instance, memes exist in some way--ideas, concepts, art and science have genetic and evolutionary origins---then perhaps the surreal meme, or satire meme, functions in some manner to further interests of the individual or group:  mockery of the society’s religious and political myths being a type of subversive strategy: the rogue primate sort of throwing, well, feces at the larger alpha male and his harem of satiated ho’s.  And Freud was not in principle opposed to Darwin...but if not Freud or Darwin as basis as aethetics, then what--some form of Platonism

By on 02/03/06 at 12:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

ah, nostaglia; bring back the days of Terry Southern posts on Valve.

A bit preferable to kazoomann

By Uoy Kcuf on 02/14/06 at 09:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Can someone please define the differences between Magical Realism and Surrealiam for me please. I am looking at if Magical Realism and if it can be applyed to photography (does it only work as a literay term ? This is for my dissertaion, for my degree. I want to define the differences to Surrealism to try to clarify what magical realism is? it is proving a very hard subject to research in relation to photography?

By on 10/31/07 at 08:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I have come not to bury Terry Southern(redundant, surely) but to praise him - in particular, his short story collection “Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes.” Although Terry Southern is best known for his sexual humour("Candy" and his underrated “Blue Movie"), for me, the defining characteristics of Terry Southern were his cunning mixture of the hieratic and demotic literary voices(forgive my lit-crit speak here), his sense of metaphysical absurdity(perhaps leading Allen Ginsberg to think “Flash and Filigree” an anti-novel), and, of course, his absolute irreverence.  While many quality-lit writers produce many fine things, a good many of them have styles that are more or less interchangeable, truth be told.  They, in effect, could have been written by anybody.  With some sentences by Terry Southern, you could run into them in the middle of the desert and cry,"Terry Southern!” (Highbrows will no doubt recognise the allusion.) That’s what I love about Terry Southern - he was himself and no one else.  “Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes” has some of the very best Terry Southern.  “Razor Fight” is a prime slice of Texas rural humour with every detail just right.  “The Road Out of Axotle” is a truly great story in which literary realism and surrealism meet and make strange, passionate love, as it were - it makes reality strange in the Russian Formalist sense.  And “You’re Too Hip, Baby"(my personal favourite) is also a great story - a combination of student humour and an ironic perspective on the pursuit of ‘hip’(in spirit, rather like “the Night the Bird Blew for Doctor Warner”, I think).  For my money, these are the best, but there’s certainly more pleasure in the Roland Barthes sense to be had.  “A South Summer Idyll” is a hilariously understated masterpiece of literary surrealism.  “You Gotta Leave Your Mark” is a fine specimen of urban realism, comparable to the work of James Farrell and the underrated Irving Schulman.  “The Butcher” is an underestimated story with the mounting of horrific detail being, in my estimation, a thing of genius.  “Apartment to Exchange” is absurd and absurdist outright - I drop all pretense to objectivity and just say I love it!  “The Automatic Gate” is an uncharacteristically subtle piece of quiet literary realism - its merits grow on one over time.  “The Face of the Arena”, in spite of Southern’s admiration for Hemingway, almost seems a deft thrust at the Hemingway cult of macho - again, an underestimated story. “Love Is a Many Splendored” is almost like a Monty Python sketch in its rapid-fire surreal juxtapositions.  “Put-Down” and “the Blood of a Wig” are superb drug stories, the latter of which seeming very proto-postmodernist to my eye, almost defying description.  “Twirling at Ole Miss"(I love that thumbnail portrait of the Southern literary professor), “Recruiting for the Big Parade,” and “I Am Mike Hammer"(beloved by no less than Mordecai Richler) are both funny and prophetic of the so-called new journalism.  Of the toss-offs(and let’s face it, there are some here), I love “The Moon Shot Scandal” and “Red Giant on Our Doorstep"(especially the former) for the sheer joyous absurdity of them.  All in all, this collection contains some essential Terry Southern.  Old-time Terry Southern fans would do well to reread it while newcomers will find much to enjoy and tweak their fancies, so to speak.  Terry Southern diffused his talent too much and spent too much time martyring himself on the altar of cool(as it were) to do the things he needed to do to be a truly great writer.  Nevertheless, he did do some truly great things, both in literature and in cinema.  It’s a pity he didn’t do more, but let’s enjoy what there is.  As Barthes would say, why deny yourself the pleasure?  Greg Cameron, Surrey, B.C., Canada

By on 05/08/09 at 02:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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