Troubling Images: 1.) Professor Theodor W. Adorno, at the University of Frankfurt, was, not long before his death, the audience for—or the object of—a striking bit of symbolic action. Adorno, a distinguished philosopher and the teacher of many leftist students, had come to be worried about student zeal for immediate action, about spontaneity, random rebellion, and, of course, the possibility of repressive actions by the government. And how was the sacred old father rebuked? A girl got up in the classroom and took off all her clothes.
A bit of The Blue Angel here? No, perhaps the key is found in the famous scene in Swann’s Way. Mlle. Vinteuil, making love to her girl friend, puts the photograph of her doting, gifted father on the table next to the sofa so that the girl can spit on it. Proust says about the scene: “When we find in real life a desire for melodramatic effect, it is generally the ‘sadic’ instinct that is responsible for it.”
“Sexuality”—the word has become a sort of unfleshed abstraction as it trails along with liberty, fraternity, and equality in the youth revolution—is suddenly political. The body, the young one at least, is a class moving into the forefront of history.
In Gimme Shelter, a brilliant documentary film about the Rolling Stones and their concert outside San Francisco that ended in murder, several accidental deaths, and an outburst of desolation, anger, and danger that is thought to have signaled the end of something in the rock and roll scene—in this film a number of people, mostly girls, take off their clothes. Each has an expression both blank and yet sure that something is being done, accomplished, signified. They stand there in the crowd, enclosed in their sad flesh, as lonely as scarecrows among the angry, milling thousands. The gestures did not cause a head to turn and all one could feel was that the body, the feet, the breasts were foolishly vulnerable, not because of any attractions they might have for the crowd, but merely due to the lack of protecting clothing. The nude bodies were no match in dramatic interest to the fabulously dressed performers, whose tight pants, scarves, snakeskin boots, spangled boleros, red silk ruffled shirts, represented what is meant in the entertainment world by a “personal statement.”
2.) Huey Newton in New Haven, visiting Bobby Seale in jail. “If Ericka and Bobby are not set free, if the people can’t set them free, then we’ll hold back the night, there won’t be day—there’ll be no light.” The eschatological mode has in modern times wearied the Christian world, but it served them well enough for centuries and so perhaps militant leaders sensibly feel there is some life left in this style. At the Black Panther convention recently—a small and dispirited gathering according to journalists—Huey Newton outlined the program: “First, focus on closing down Howard University, second on liberating Washington, and third the seizure of the White House.” Liberating Washington. The seizure of the White House. For a little group of the faithful these words perfectly represent the “schizophrenic bind” R. D. Laing writes about. If the words are not genuinely taken seriously and only a pretense about them is kept up, this creates an impossible and corrupting cynicism very difficult for all except leaders to live with; if the commands are treated as genuine their insane and sadistic nature will unhinge all who try to act them out. This is perhaps what is truly meant by the phrase, revolutionary suicide—the killing in oneself of the uses of reality by submitting to “the program.”
The film, Ice, and the novel, Dance the Eagle to Sleep, are both imaginary projections of revolutions and civil wars to come, and there is a coercive and mystical inevitability claimed, not directly but aesthetically, that links them with the program Huey Newton gives to his followers. And the concentration upon revolutionary “balling” in the novel goes back in my mind to the poor professor in his classroom, to the mysteriousness of the girl’s answer to the professor’s worries.
In Ice there is a deliberate lack of art, decoration, plot, characterization. All of these elements are missing and in their place is revolutionary dedication. Dedication to the revolution is the plot, is the characters. They have surrendered personality, differences, past and future history, and this mingling of people with their guns, their propaganda, their “actions,” and their indistinguishable faces and voices is the substance and the interest of the work. Everything moves by the pulsing of “inevitability” and the pretense or rather the belief in the coming revolution. The belief is not directed at the public but is simply a picture of the mind of the creator. Robert Kramer. Ice is filmed as if it were something on the TV evening news, something that has already happened.
In the film, the United States has become involved in a military intervention in Mexico, acting with force against leftist or peasants, whoever is rising up there and threatening “imperialist” interests. In New York, and no doubt in other cities, the young radicals have opened up a second front of guerrilla warfare against their own government. The scene is upper Broadway, the courtyard of the Belnord, the New Yorker Bookstore at 88th Street, and a large apartment house in Greenwich Village. The actors look like Columbia or Hunter students, but not teen-agers by any means. They might well remind you of people about to get their licenses to teach in the New York City public school system since they have about them an oppressive and oppressed look, an air of dissatisfaction coupled with dedication, a feeling for work that is necessary, directed toward the welfare of the person and the community but which is, revolution and school alike, often unwelcome.
Some scenes from Ice: The revolutionaries occupy an apartment house in Washington Square. They go up and down the halls with machine guns, blocking elevators and escapes, beating on the doors of the hard-pressed, polymorphous tenantry of New York City. They gather together some of the people—middle-aged men in undershirts, women in wrappers—and a revolutionary says to them: “You are closer to the Mexican students than to your own country.” This is a reading lesson to a class watching the clock, and a complete falsification of the experience and nature of the tenants, who can’t speak Spanish, and who aren’t students. What is interesting about it is the lack of questioning on the part of the radicals, the survival in them of the grim sectarianism of the Communist International thirty or forty years ago.
The value of constantly predicting revolutions, civil war, violent accountings is to give a sense of power to the powerless. Sukhanov, thoroughly involved in revolutionary life, was sitting at his desk in February, 1917, sure that the revolution was decades away. And those to be overthrown were not in a state, either, of practical, counter-revolutionary readiness. Trotsky quotes Prince Luvov’s account of a visit to the Tsar at a time when everyone could see the monarchy was collapsing: “I expected to see the sovereign striken with grief, but instead of that there came out to meet me a jolly, sprightly fellow in a raspberry-colored shirt.”
The activism in Ice and Dance the Eagle to Sleep is not a replacement of deadening alienation but simply an addition to it. Even though Ice was filmed in the basements and bookstores and streets of New York City, one often feels in it a memory of the suffocating boredom and darkly sexual crowdings of an old army post, the kind of waiting and frustration that made soldiers before Vietnam long for some action. So, after a few years of threats and promise of revolution, rebellion, change, militant encounter, Ice and Dance the Eagle to Sleep are tours of active duty at last.
Another scene: A young revolutionary is trapped in a basement by the enemy—powerful, short-haired policemen or rightists—and subjected to terrible genital torture. We hear the screams of pain and the horror of the scene makes it difficult to watch. Later another radical is in bed with his girl. He tells her that he is sometimes afraid. Our mind goes back to the torture. “You know what they do to you,” he says softly. The girl, rather heavy, depressed, touches the boy’s arm and mumbles, “You can’t let it get to you.”
Ice is as cold as its title, a glassy radical vision, austere, masochistic, longing for the “inevitable.” To think of the revolution is to prepare to die. “They kill; we kill.” You endure approaching death in a fantasy of activity: “regional offensive,” arrival of “the Mexican footage,” admitting “We had some bad losses.” One of the most interesting things about it is that it is old-fashioned, humorless, like Maoists or the Progressive Labor youths, and we are thus spared endless fornications and commune banalities.
This is not true of Dance the Eagle to Sleep by Marge Piercy—a harsh and sentimental “youth” novel, vaguely set in the future but quite openly counting on the reader’s acquiescence in the reality of its themes and obsessions. Actually many of the reviews thought the book was needlessly cast into the future and seemed to want to allow the fantasy the status of fact. The novel is about a pathetic group of “acid revolutionaries,” all very young, most of them in high school. It is a destructive fantasy, full of suffering, dreary phallic obsessiveness, and it is meaningless and childish in a political sense.
Still the book’s claim to immediacy is insistent and its scenes of brutal police activity, school occupations, drugs, communes are true enough. However, the real source of the action is a sado-masochistic death dream. The people in Ice seem to be Marxists, but in Dance the Eagle to Sleep, they are “tribes” brought together by the visions of a young Indian boy named Corey. “We belong to a new nation of the young and the free, and we’re going to win!” The radicalization of some of the students starts at a police gassing and beating up in Tompkins Square, the others at the occupation of a high school in New York: both of these occasions not only solidify political activism but offer some pretty good “sexuality” as well. The young people set up a commune in New Jersey, and send out others to keep organizing “tribes” all over the country. The principal activity at the commune, or at least the ritualistic experience that shapes the movement, is a tedious and often repeated evening of drug-taking, nude dancing, and sexual excitement.
The language of the book has, in the dialogue, a coarse power, but the exposition, the thought, and the structure are very weak. Almost every idea or opinion in the book is a banality from one side of the gap or the other. Here is the dreaming mind of Corey, the Indian boy, leader of the tribe. “Just stride into school cool and easy some morning with the rifle on his back like a guerrilla fighter. Better a machine gun. Line up the faculty. Torture the principal to learn where they kept the anxiety gases and the chemicals they put in the soup to make the kids stupid and passive.” When you get to “the anxiety gasses,” and the chemicals that keep the kids “stupid and passive,” you have passed, amateurishly, from the boy’s dreams to mere opinions about our schools. It goes on, smothering teen-age life in the spelled-out opinions about that life. “Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t look like you’re enjoying yourself, ever. Don’t laugh out loud over your peanut butter sandwich; don’t get into excited conversation about anything you care for.”
It is the intellectual assumptions of the book that interest me rather than its literary quality. Both are unimpressive. However, a reviewer, leaning on the staff of comparison, mentioned Lord of the Flies, Lord of the Rings and…Moby Dick. So…. The dreary sexual scenes go from, “Her cunt ached,” to formal cadences in the late Hemingway manner: “She had prepared herself carefully, and he would wait for her. He would spend the night with her, he decided. She was plump the way he liked and he liked too that she had stopped to make herself ready.” Symbolic moments are of a surprisingly handy sort. Corey has attacks of suffocation and panic. “It was an eagle [America?] that stooped on him as he slept and tore into him, that carried him bleeding high up so he could not breathe, and dashed him to the ground.” The book ends—after Corey and Billy and others have been killed, Joanna has gone over to “them,” and everything is destroyed—with one of those odd but oft-remembered finales of contrived hope, the birth of a baby. “The baby lived and she lived and it was day for Marcus and for him, it was day for all of them.”
There is a brutal murder in the book. Joanna, Corey, and Shawn—the principals of the novel—participate in the torture and shooting of one of their members because he has been selling “bread”—the hallucinogenic drug the tribe manufactures—for his own profit. This scene has a moral numbness and indifference to physical pain quite characteristic of all the works I am concerned with. After the comrade has been shot and thrown into a grave, Joanna makes a smooth, “literary” switch to sex and takes that moment to tell her lover, Corey, that she once “made it” with Shawn, the other participant in the crime.
Remember the opening of Malraux’s Man’s Fate, the foot sticking out from under the mosquito netting, its throbbing life stinging the consciousness of the assassin. The foot…. What repels in the new works is the loss of pity for the poor body, of respect for its life, its suffering. Perhaps this is the underside, just as it was in Sade, of the worship of the body, of reverence for its sensations.
Notes on Trash, The Groupies, and Gimmie Shelter
“He who gazes at monsters should beware lest he become a monster himself,” Nietzsche wrote.
Trash is a homosexual film produced by Andy Warhol and directed by Paul Morrissey. The Groupies has to do with deranged, obscene girls who follow rock stars around, hoping to sleep with them, if one may use such a drowsy, untimely phrase for these wandering, never-sleeping hunters. The Groupies is a documentary, although there is considerable staginess in it; Trash is a concoction that is also a real life thing part of the time.
The nature of sexuality is repetition. Phallic compulsiveness is an exaltation of repetition and yet a reduction to routine of the most drastic kind. Still novelty and challenge never lose their hold on the imagination and in the phallic hell, the center of interest will be reserved for the refusing, even for the impotent. The hero of Trash is an impotent junkie. He wanders through the long hours of the film, quiet, handsome, mysterious, stoned, but arousing almost insane desire in everyone he meets. In a world of compulsive sex, dramatic interest can only be achieved by complications, particularly since every frontier of practice has been crossed.
In Trash the little drag queen, Holly Woodlawn, pursues, waits on, loves the impotent junkie, Joe Dallesandro, with an air of blind necessity, like that of an animal running on and on in the plains in search of food. Joe’s drug addiction has released him from “performance,” and although he keeps trying in a nodding fashion it is never because he himself feels the loss but rather that he is a nice, passive boy and the frenzy he arouses in others makes him attempt an accommodation. Joe has the charm of silence—he also talks very little—in a room of screaming deviates.
In Ice one of the revolutionaries has a “hang-up” and one of the girls sneers (in the sort of folk poetry that decorates all of these works), “If you’re having trouble with your prick, don’t take it out on me!” It is almost impossible to keep face, statement, and shadow of personality together in one’s mind about Ice, but if memory serves, the troubled young man was far from being weak and inadequate and was instead particularly zealous, concentrated, and effective. In Dance the Eagle to Sleep, the girls are constantly available and practical—I’m afraid rather like a jar of peanut butter waiting for a thumb. Billy, the most intelligent and the most violently intransigent, is by comparison with the others noticeably reserved sexually, partly out of temperament, and partly because he gives thought to other matters. The revolution, at least in the beginning, is for puritans…. Later….
In Gimme Shelter, Mick Jagger, Grace Slick, Tina Turner—the rock stars—are a disturbing contrast to the dull, sullen, angry hundreds of thousands who have come to hear them. For one thing the performers are working and even if the pay is outrageous, the acts somewhat tarnished by time, there is still discipline, energy, travel, planning, and talent. Each one is a presence, unique, competitive, formed by uncommon experiences. The crowd, however, is just a huge clot of dazed swayings, fatuous smilings, empty nightmares, threatening hallucinations, and just plain meanness.
There is death everywhere, and of every sort, in the dead, drugged eyes and in the jostling, nervous kicks and shoves. Everyone is a danger to himself and to others. One could be stabbed by a “mystic” who thought he was God or Satan; or choked by the lowering, alcoholic violence of the Hell’s Angels just for brushing against one of their sweating arms. Someone is having a baby—another corny freakout, you find yourself thinking. The owner of the Altamont Speedway, where the concert took place, wants the birth mentioned in the media as a “first.” “Easy, easy,” Grace Slick pleads from the stage. “Why are you people fighting?” Mick Jagger wants to know. After the concert, two young boys were killed when a car left the highway and crashed into their campfire. Another young man, drugged, fell into a canal and was drowned.
Thinking about the predatory girls who call themselves “the groupies,” remembering their obscene reveries and their moronic self-exploitation, one wants to hold back from description. One of the young men connected with the film said, in a press interview, that he was horrified by the girls and that they were stoned out of their minds all of the time. The girls are hoarse and coarse and not one arouses pity of the kind we feel for the pimply, snaggletooth synthetic girl. Holly Woodlawn, in Trash. All are despised by everyone, by the cameramen, the producers, the rock stars, just as Holly is despised by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey.
The main life of Trash comes from the perverse, proletarian vitality of Holly Woodlawn, who comes across to us as rotting skin and bones, kept alive by the blood of mascara and the breath of discarded clothing from the city’s trash barrels. Still, the people in charge of the film show their hatred by a long, boring, hideous scene in which Holly buggers herself to some sort of satisfactory exhaustion with a beer bottle. This scene is pure sadistic contempt and is also gratuitous, since it is unreal, even strangely unconvincing. Or not strangely.
The groupies take plaster casts of the parts of rock stars—or they claim the stars as the origin of their “collection.” The idea came to one of them, she says into the waiting microphones, when an art teacher said one could make a plaster cast of “anything hard.” “Wow,” grunts the groupie. She later describes herself in the more delicate moments of the casting as being “very gingerly.”
Certainly these girls are in extremity, pushing out beyond the horizon. Yet they are not much more freakish nor are they more obscene than the teen radicals in Dance the Eagle to Sleep. In the novel, Joanna, the girl most admired and desired by the boys, is serenaded with a little song that goes:
Joanna has a hairy cunt.
It’s the kind of cunt I want.
I get on my knees and grunt
For a touch of Jo-Jo’s hairy cunt!
Still the groupies contain in every swagger and delusion genetic reminders of their parents, longing for the kiss of celebrity; aging Stalinists seem to haunt the memories in Ice; Holly Woodlawn says in the film she was born on welfare and while that is probably a fiction there is no reason why she might not have been. Hell’s Angels and the vaguely disoriented crowds are both caught up in mindless anarchy. What can one make of these deaths, since death is the feeling most clearly projected by radical and freak, girl and boy: death by drugs, by the misery and dreariness of the commune; death by political enemies, death to political enemies, death in “regional actions,” by helicopters raining destruction on teen tribes, death at the free rock festival, in the eyes of Miss Harlow, the little groupie with frizzy hair.
At his trial, perhaps feeling the sorrow of his complicity in the death of Che Guevara, Regis Debray said: “The tragedy is that we do not kill objects, numbers, abstract or interchangeable instruments, but, precisely, on both sides, irreplaceable individuals, essentially innocent, unique….”
Something pitiless and pathological has seeped into youth’s love of itself, its body, its politics. Self-love is an idolatry. Self-hatred is a tragedy. But the life around us is not a pageant of coldness and folly to which we have paid admission and from which we can withdraw as it becomes boring. You feel a transcendental joke links us all together; some sordid over-soul hangs out there in the heavy air. No explanation—the nuclear bomb, the Vietnam war, the paralyzing waste of problems and vices that our lives and even the virtues of our best efforts have led to—explains. Yet it would be dishonorable to try to separate ourselves from our deforming history and from the depressing dreams being acted out in its name.
After the squalor of Trash, The Groupies, and Dance the Eagle to Sleep, one comes back to the girl in Professor Adorno’s class. What did she think her bare breasts meant? What philosophy and message could this breathing nude embody? In one of his last essays Adorno wrote, “Sanctioned delusions allow a dispensation from comparison with reality….” And he also said, “Of the world as it exists, one cannot be enough afraid.” The students may have known all about the second idea, but perhaps they could not forgive him the first.
January 7, 1971