Sunday, July 24, 2022

Paragraphs from "Militant Nudes", Elizabeth Hardwick, in the NYRB in 1971

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. 

...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.

...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 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.

“Sanctioned delusions..." including his own.

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