Alex Trocchi's Hour Upon The Stage
We never met either Ralph Rumney or Alex Trocchi though we easily could have done so and most likely would have been welcomed. But what would have been the point as it would have been no more than gawping at icons surrounded by an increasingly worshipping entourage. Nonetheless I once spoke to Alex and was to prove a transcendental moment in my life getting a telephone call from him one morning angrily wanting to know why his cleaner hadn't turned up to shovel up all the shit. As I was going out with the gal on a casual basis at the time she was in fact in bed recovering from the previous night's drunken spree. He slammed the phone down retorting: "That bloody cleaner is too much".
Alex Trocchi and Ralph Rumney: Their names in the late 1950s/early 1960s conjure each other up as they were the only two British members of the early Situationist International and in many ways they were both rather similar having come from reasonably well-off backgrounds quickly becoming bohemian rebels setting off early in life for the Parisian Left Bank. Historically they have come to be regarded as revolutionaries advancing a contemporary relevant critique of modern society though in reality neither was able to transcend cultural specialisms and dissident cultural milieus. These two were forever pulling themselves up short never allowing themselves to fall and fall and fall on through the cultural safety net constantly afraid their publishers and dealers might no longer have anything to do with them even though this fear was rarely openly acknowledged. Constantly re-working things (e.g. Trocchi's novel Young Adam morphed from its first published edition in 1954 to its final version in 1963 and the same went for some of Rumney's artifacts) their real revolutionary contribution was very patchy. For sure such impulse to constantly change insights and nuances is commendable as why should everything you do be set in amber but such flow was not applied to that subversive theory fully appropriate to the times. Trocchi's however, was a promise which never came to anything like fruition, though it was far more significant than fellow traveller, Ralph Rumney. Both the present critiques of these interesting and noteworthy characters are inevitably contrasted with our own very different experiences relating to a wider, more total critique set unfortunately within the paradigm of much harsher times whereby we had to pick up on the best of their efforts whilst making sure we didn't repeat their compromises with the old world. In fact compare and contrast is the essential underlying motion of these two highly selective portraits of Ralph Rumney and Alex Trocchi as we felt it necessary to make some clear distinction between them, us and those like us who have been forced to be more sternly negative in our approaches to an increasingly alienated existence where even the survival of much sentient life, and not only humanity, has become doubtful.
In his lifetime Trocchi was calumnied more than praised but this had more to do with his aberrant lifestyle than his artistic/literary product. No matter the verdict bordered on being regarded as virtual scum and he was to some extent to interject this appalling censorious decree. True, it is a familiar refrain in the history of some who wrote within what became the cliche of 'outsider rebellion' and perhaps personified most clearly in one of the earliest contributions to 'outsider' rebellion, that of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Three to four decades after and you need only think of Lautreamont and the monsters infesting Maldoror to realise the experience was plummeting to ever greater depths. Trocchi's scribbled comments: "Notes towards the making of a monster" fell within such a trajectory as it became the title: The Making Of The Monster of Andrew Murray Scott's rather pedestrian and boring book on Alex Trocchi. One of Alex's failings which, we will go into at greater length here was his persistent need to be a showman which in practise meant encouraging such definitions lacking a native savvy to keep clear of a media manipulated public gaze inviting such stereotypes. Someone had once warned him: "Be careful that you don't become notorious instead of famous" though in reality these days such labels have kaleidoscoped; indeed some kind of notoriety - usually now a vapid notoriety - is necessary in order to be a bankable asset. It could be said that within this trajectory, Alex was something of a pioneer minus the fact he hardly made a penny out it!
Much of the rubbishing related to Trocchi's scrapes with the law which were numerous throughout his life - more serious in his youth than later in London's Kensington - were largely to do with his drug taking especially his heroin habit. The reaction of the authorities was certainly far heavier than anything deployed against literary precursors such as Baudelaire, Coleridge, De Quincey or even, Branwell Bronte as their opium habits were pretty much ignored by the powers that be as indeed initially was drug taking amongst the new factory proletariat during their sparse leisure time. But by the 1950s illicit drug taking had combined with a McCarthyite witch hunt against 'commie subversives' particularly in New York where Trocchi lived for a while, the city legislature having passed a law which could mean 'the chair' for anybody found guilty of selling drugs to minors. Hardly surprising that Trocchi's drug anguish was therefore far worse than anything Coleridge or De Quincey ever experienced and he was far more persecuted for it by the state which is why the Situationist International rightly came to his defence commenting: "that drug taking is without importance" a remark which must be understood within this specific context and not as a proclamation on the eternal validity of drug taking whatever the circumstances. Furthermore, with a devil may care attitude, Trocchi certainly spectacularised his drug habits helping further bring the wrath of the moral establishment down around his ears. He was punished and punished and punished again for such transgressions.
As for ourselves how often have we've experienced castigation upon castigation and endless notoriety which, if not for the same reasons ' drugs never came into it - comes pretty damn close, not so much using 'monster' as self-definition but your very body as the worst PC crime in existence and "the biggest cunt of all", followed by "supreme arsehole" as lesser epithet etc. Both however were involuntary refrains welling up inside whenever the shit was hitting the fan whenever you'd again put another person's back up who'd decided to have yet another familiar pop in the spirit of "It's time these guys were taught a lesson". Hadn't you'd had that lesson thrown at you a million times when the inevitable daily chips were down when one door closed to be followed rapidly by another and then another. Some were worse than others especially those that came like whistling daggers from your nearest and dearest like Anne Ryder's so many, many moons ago when she penned a letter saying she didn't want to be in the company of "a self-destructive ghost" and "an outsider". As bald and as rabid as that as the men of money and opportunity beckoned never to set eyes on you or contact ever again; indeed to disappear off the edge of the map you were just so bad. Yes, truly 'the supreme cunt' forever hovering and trembling on the precipice of perpetual nervous breakdown. Yes, most certainly monstrous and though for different reasons you recognised Trocchi's introjections under constant attack and water really does wear away a stone.....
Trocchi's books were burnt but then our pamphlets and posters were though for different reasons. Ours because we suggested a peoples' uprising in pretty violent terms that sometimes deployed sexualised graphics, Trocchi's for more simple obscenity in an injunction brought by the sheriff of Sheffield who seized some of his stuff together with others from local bookshops to be dumped forthwith into the flames of the municipal incinerator. Sheffield: 1963 and ours in Newcastle, 1967 and only four years between the fiery furnaces. Harsh, repressive cities? Well no. Sheffield especially gives off an emancipatory air among its people, streets and enclaves like that corner of Castle Market which really is the nearest thing to a humanised odd ball Paradise and perhaps the hellfire attitudes of its great and good helped its population move in these entirely different directions which, the libertarian ambience of Castle Market hints at?
Yes for sure the endless misery and for Alex the drugs: "I have needed drugs to abolish within myself the painful reflection of the schizophrenia of my times, to quench the impulse to get at once on to my feet and go out into the world and live out some convenient, traditional identity of cunning contrivancy; acting, doing, asserting myself in the world of others, desperately as men do, and competitively against short time. The astronauts who were my heroes moved on trajectories through inner space... I wanted to escape out of the prison of my mind's language; to "make it new". The very concepts in terms of which men still ordered their lives.... and these were the root and fabric of our insanity....the dud coinage of our everyday language was the measure of our imbecility". Yes Alex, what better description could there be and, as fresh as ever, it applies to all of us who try and still try.....
These are the comments of a guy who tried to live life for real. Trocchi was feisty and a natural rebel from the word go with a healthy disrespect for the rules of daily commerce, nicking from shops when a kid etc and at school engaging in pranks that had a real edge. That's always a good sign. He was to quickly grow up living hard and fast in a then courted bohemian drift, though like his fellow traveller Ralph Rumney this overlapped with an unfortunate predilection for la dolce vita and those who inhabited its circles: One day penniless, the next right in there with an on the lam rich whom you rapidly became unfortunately financially dependent upon. And never forget whilst at the apex of alternative rebellion Trocchi sent at least one of his off-spring to a private school near Paris. Altogether, it was something post 1968 we couldn't do or fall in with especially having disappeared through the sieve of the cultural paradigms which were la dolce vita's bottom kowtowing line. Ah that we could have kowtowed like this as things may have been easier, especially survival. None the less there was compensation trawling the negative and Rimbaud had come up with one: "I am a thousand times the richer, let us be as miserly as the sea". But this miserliness wasn't puritanical, repressive or fatalistic as it was sometimes mistakenly characterised even by erstwhile friends. It's just that you had little or no choice as again you had to set out into the unknown moving onto a clearer though necessarily different terrain and one pointing well beyond the boundaries of art and representation. Just how much of this society did you wish to hang on to in any case? Beyond basics - food, warmth, shelter, physical and mental health etc - did you really want to go in for spectacular consumption? A thousand times: No. No. No....
La boheme in any case had always favoured the wayward refugees from the middle classes. That was also partially Trocchi's misfortune as he'd hailed from the relatively well-off in Glasgow - there had been housemaids in the past - and his upbringing was much more middle class than ours and that of most of our friends who were the products of post second world war social democracy. Indeed one of our close relatives had been a housemaid and maybe it could be said this fixation on social provenance fixation which seems to mark these islands, as it marked us, became something like a Freudian repetition compulsion and just as emotional inexplicable to ourselves as to others not imprisoned in this often mind-boggling conundrum.
And as if to complicate matters further Trocchi though from a more privileged background wasn't at all well-off consequently he too was always 'throwing them in' against those in the boheme/ la dolce vita milieu that were more financially secure than him having dosh and inheritances. Way back then Trocchi had an advantage because guilt tripping worked though, as a tactic, even in the 1950s it never really extended much beyond an experimental bohemian cultured clique. Moreover Trocchi was able to supplement a few freebies with the occasional scholarship and grant. Part and parcel of this was Trocchi's epater le bourgeois stance whereby he could windup the on the lam rich whilst still making himself acceptable allowing scope for 'poor me' appeals and occasionally hitting the jackpot. Post '68 and all that was out if you wished to have the honour of cutting edge stuffed under your belt.
Again the bottom line was cultural celebrity. But what would happen if your ideas or your imagination was pushing beyond the cultural realm? Could you then be still on the tap in any serious way? Our experience has proved otherwise. Throughout Trocchi's life the dismissal/transcendence of culture keeps cropping up getting ever more intense as the late 1960s approached. It all began in a rather beautiful, casual way. Completing his enforced national service in the navy in Xmas 1945 in the last moments of the war and so youngggg our man was walking at night along Southend pier (it must be the pier) and back to where his frigate was anchored. Fed up, Trocchi had been reading a book of poetry after a dismal night out on the town and in a moment of exasperation threw the book into the sea watching the words first distort then gradually disappear under the gentle swell: "To get away from words that followed him like a footstep down his own mind! To escape from thoughts and ideals and words". (Was this an intimation coming deep from within of the historical necessity to make a final break with the sublimated constraints of written poetry?) Maybe all such individuals like us have had similar, almost premonitions like illuminations. Ours was meeting Jacques Vache in a Harrogate public library aged fourteen and a half and four years later having had your mind blown learning about that incident when Charlie Parker, somewhere in the American mid-west played his alto sax up close to the face of a cow in a field - and did this memory morph to the day on Newcastle Town Moor in 1968 when you tried to spray paint the gist of the King Mob leaflet The Death of Art Spells the Murder of Artists onto a poor, unsuspecting grazing cow who looking nonplussed, quickly legged it?
For sure even at this early moment Trocchi was, probably unbeknown to himself, connecting with the movement of negation at the heart of modern poetry from Gerard de Nerval, to Mallarme, to Appollinare, to Duchamp. But this was Britain and there was the whole ossified weight of Eng Lit hanging about your shoulders and just how far and how thorough was Trocchi's re-evaluation of Eng Lit going to be? Evidently his lecturers thought Trocchi's student essays were ace. It would be interesting to know what Trocchi's take was, fondly imagining they were constructed around the essential dimension of the breakthrough/dissolution of form - maybe following on from Hazlitt, influenced by Lettrism - and not (repeat NOT) pickled in the vinegar of Eng Lit interpretation which resolutely sets itself against the outcome emanating from the explosive revolt of form. But all this is fanciful. Was it ground breaking; did Trocchi's developing ideas begin to open up a vista beyond culture seeing into so many things and the moment where culture could move - and transcend - into a rejuvenated life? What were his student essays like seemingly so clued in and knowledgeable about the intricacies of past poetic form; things like 'The Development of Ideas in Keats' Poetry', Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales', Dryden's satire, Donne's poems and Alexander Pope. What did Trocchi have to say on John Milton and Edmund Spencer's 'The Fairie Queene'? Was his long manuscript - 73 pages long - entitled 'General Theory of Literary Criticism' any good? Perhaps there are more than relevant clues in all of this which need to be disentangled though perhaps not as the guy finally was to remain stuck fast in the groove of written poetry and that of novelist though it was more the transcendence of the form of the novel rather than the form of poetry that engaged Trocchi. He tried to quit his literary habit as much as his drug habit but in the end couldn't do either. Even after Trocchi's excellent contribution to subversion with his 'Invisible Insurrection Of A Million Minds' in 1961 within the space of ten years he was welcoming the publication of much of his past poetry by Tandem Books which wasn't much more than a celebration of his encyclopaedic knowledge of style ranging from the techniques of Donne, Marvell and other metaphysical poets up to contemporary times and only adding to the large amount of crap Trocchi wrote, miring himself in further obfuscation. He didn't even consider so much as a forward condemning or maybe self-critiquing his juvenilia. Trocchi never separated his wheat from his chaff and that simply wasn't good enough. Obviously no slouch Trocchi remarked that "Coleridge was an opium addict and he wrote the greatest literary criticism of all time 'Biographia Literaria'" yet failed to go beyond this to acknowledge that the Biographia constantly splits open the boundaries of literature which is why it is an early milestone in the transcendence of art. (Hazlitt had remarked that a good part of the Biographica had been cribbed from German philosophical theory - which also postulated the end of art (our emphasis) but that the crib was better than the original!) It might be big headed to intervene here but did we not push things like this that much farther and more comprehensively realising you had to explain more historically, especially as everything with the neoliberal economic experiment was becoming so much more dumbed down and even though such seemingly 'academic' concerns were well apres the event out there on the streets especially in the late 1960s? (1)
Though media heat was directed against Trocchi's contemporaries The Angry Young Men, it was nothing like the assault against his own person. In any case 'the heat' was by way of a welcoming introduction which quickly followed and the resentful class aggression of The Angry Young Men with so often its base in northern working class realities was often based on resentment and more an overture to conservatism than anything else hanging onto as they did to standard literary cliches related to typical novelistic artifice. The reason why The Angry Young Men were taken up so quickly by a traditionally oriented Eng Lit pantheon was because they applied an acceptable artistic form to a content the literary establishment knew nothing about but were more than fascinated with and it was the social anthropology, seeing now that social democracy was the name of the game, unveiling the mysteries of the social apartheid and a different species being, that grabbed their attention recalling a similar fascination with Mass Observation during the 1930s and the later war years. (See the comments on Mass Observation elsewhere on this web). The only overlap between the Angry Young Men and Trocchi was an initial vague but real hatred of the system with the latter seeing himself as more 'engage' in the French sense of the term which most of the time didn't cut the mustard neither and only occasionally sliced through to the real negative, though when it did it was to turn into a sharp scalpel indeed. All of them tended to remain on a diffuse ban the bomb level and even when Trocchi alone among them all did briefly wield a very subversive scalpel indeed his analysis of the recuperative methods of modern day consumer capitalism remained feeble e.g. performing for the TV rather than engage - the real engage - in an imaginative intervention against the mode of representation which was coming to imperiously dominate and destroy all our lives.
It was from such engage perspectives that Trocchi judged Orwell tending to dismiss his "political" stuff concentrating on what was leftover, his way of writing as something of an existential individual preparing the ground for much lesser figures such as Albert Camus. It seems Trocchi had little knowledge about leftisms beyond a simplistic anti Communist party stance which, quite crudely, equated communism with the Stalinoid state and he wasn't up to Orwell's subtleties and experiences of such things especially his fraternal relationships with the Spanish anarchists during the Spanish revolution of 1936-8 despite belonging to the militias of the Trotskyist POUM. Beyond that Trocchi probably knew absolutely nothing about the old ultra left represented by individuals such as Bordiga, the early Sylvia Pankhurst, Gorter or Pannekoek etc nor did he probably have much of a clue even about Socialisme ou Barbarie or its off-shoot Solidarity in Britain. As far as Orwell was concerned, Trocchi found a book like The Road to Wigan Pier something of a mess and that lengthy impassioned, viciously beautiful tirade at the end of the book against a self-important leftist milieu swept right over him. Minutiae like the "mechanical snigger" of the Marxologist would most likely have passed right over Trocchi's head seeing he'd probably never crossed swords with such obnoxious politicos!
Without resorting to too much repetition, we know that try as he might Trocchi could not escape the paradigms of culture and everything ineluctably was marked by this. His friendships remained imprisoned within the circle of writers, artists and sculptors even though somewhat dissident like that of his chum, Christopher Logue who, to his honour, did spend a few months in prison for his political beliefs. However, by the late 1960s, Logue was nothing more than a Trotskyist hanger-on, contributing to the idiocies of The Black Dwarf around Tariq 'Tin Pan' Ali and the syndrome of "there's no business like revolutionary show business" which, in retrospect, wasn't too much at odds with the millionaring he's been engaged in ever since, in cornering the distribution market for a great swathe of Asian film production.
If Trocchi hung around with others who weren't writers, they were most likely culled from the usual con men and flankers who are often attached to these circles and a presence marking the essential con that it is at the heart of the vast contemporary art world. In retrospect it was a great personal failing in comparison to the life of a fellow Scotsman nigh on two centuries previously; that of the great ploughman Robbie Burns with his friends in the Ayrshire pub as he supped daily with the likes of Clockie Brown, the Auld Man, Holy Willie among others. Trocchi never had a good friend among the wild working stiffs and their dependents. How different and hard edged might Trocchi have become if some of his best mates had been spreads, sparkies, truck drivers or chippies on drugs for, after all, there's more than enough of them who enjoy the chemical relief from a nightmarish existence?
True, Paris was to finally open up Trocchi's mind in the late 1950s/ early 1960s but only after he'd trawled through all the detritus of the Left Bank scene and too late, he could never leave it behind. His anchor was the expat American/English literary scene where they pointlessly discussed facets of the oeuvre of Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Joyce, Faulkner and Miller without heading for the heart of the matter. Trocchi's editorship of the magazine Merlin during these years is a mirror up to this ambience most of the time publishing the successful litterateurs of their age as well as a few old time big names like Genet, Queneau, Eluard, Ionesco, Neruda and Backett though willy-nilly connecting somewhat, though in a very tame way, the old Parisian art/anti-art traditions. The name Merlin was gleaned from Ezra Pound by Logue and the magazine immediately sought to compete with Sartre's Les Temps Modernes. In reality Merlin wasn't much more than run of the mill hardly venturing on the beckoning subversive terrain beginning to be felt throughout Paris at the time but it did rapidly become a springboard to predatory publishers who invariably ripped the writers off and/or forcing them to do things they didn't want to do. Maurice Girodias was one and as a business man persuaded Trocchi to write eight pornographic novels under the pseudonym of Frances Lengel making Girodias' publishing house, the Olympia Press, a pretty packet over the coming decades. Not that Trocchi really minded because unlike today pornography way back in the 1950s had a hip, artistic, risque, even avant garde character appearing to take on the state and censorship. From today's perspective it is a question which is completely irrelevant with 'pornography' having completely won the day with those who burned Trocchi's books becoming the suburban and open essence of pornography themselves. Remember France in the 1950s had no censorship and the overlap between art and pornography could be safely practised and then, if you like, exported. In any case the whole Left bank scene in the mid 1950s had really gotten off on The Story of O by Pauline Reage or was it Simone de Beauvoir? and here an overlap between Trocchi and Ralph Rumney beckons with both wanting to prize open the stultifying moralism of Olde Englande, though Alex went farther in this than Ralph indulging in bouts of mild sado masochism though you suspect more for the sake of performance, publicity and the spotlights than anything else. Hadn't Alex once said: 'The conquest of a new female, especially a beautiful one was closer to hate than love'. Whatever, generally The Story of O was regarded as a worthy female addition to De Sade and the sometimes risque content of Merlin reflected this though the magazine was immediately welcomed by the British cultural establishment with the likes of Stephen Spender, Bertrand Russell, and Sir Herbert Read singing its praises.
Nevertheless, Trocchi did take the piss out of the literary establishment a little by hoodwinking them with two outrageous hoaxes for the time on Frank Harris and the Greek poetess Sappho producing two 'authentic' freshly unearthed books by them: The Lives and Loves of Frank Harris and Sappho in Lesbos. Based on existing material Trocchi had fabricated the rest. In our late teens the former certainly had us fooled as we eagerly read and enjoyed 'that book' on Frank Harris in a smutty way. Trocchi had completed the book on Sappho in 1960 and if it had come out then instead of 11 years later it would have had a helluva good impact. As for the Frank Harris the title of the book in a later edition finally became What Frank Harris Did Not Say. Finally, it's still a great pity that there isn't more of this hoaxing around especially when art is now something like the omniscient word of god in the late Victorian era when more Christian churches were built than ever just at the moment the church was about to really enter the twilight zone despite all the efforts of the Born Again in recent years to put a humpty dumpty fool of Nazareth back together in one piece. If such tactics were to be employed again today they would also probably have to be lucidly explained and, fairly quickly after the event simply because every subversive tactic or technique has now been virtually lost. It could perhaps also be said that Trocchi's hoaxes, even his 'pornography' pointed to something like a new innocence among many songs of experience; an emancipation not only from 'honest' writing but from sexual shame and guilt and still valid especially in these maimed times when most sexuality, differently inclined or straight, has become lost and fucked-up by ultra-commodification.
Then a dramatic geographical break occurred as Trocchi left Paris for New York. It was a break that seemed to encourage a more profound crisis in everyday life. Penniless he was forced to find a job, any job becoming a scow captain with the New York Trap Rock Corporation on the river Hudson. Essentially it meant he was a bargee with zilch status remarking: "The scow captains were regarded as the rats of the waterfront" and symbolic of the fact he'd rejected literature and literary product. Also, this was a necessary step as it distanced him from a literary/artistic Greenwich Village and the cultural commodity as he confronted the next hurdles on the road to realisation, that of bums and proletarianisation and an overlap with the buildings, as 'the rocks' removed were mainly building materials and, sometime later, we were to pick up these building materials as an ordinary gang collective without the intermediary of the subcontractors we were to hate so much. Trocchi noted his stint as a scow captain as "a period of extreme alienation" - where "I never came nearer to self-destruction". (In reality what was wrong with that as scumbags as we are we've put up with things like that for decades!) Trocchi had made the necessary step beyond the art scene, maybe feeling it like an absence, though like some fellow traveller American Beats this was to be where it ground to a halt, on the threshold of that open door between art and life. It meant such rich absence gave Cain's Book something of a radical edge that pointed elsewhere, even towards a veiled revolutionary praxis but then six months later Alex jacked the job scurrying back to the literary scene and to another open door, that of The Cedar Bar, that artistic/literary watering hole where Jackson Pollock and his cohorts had hung out. Cain's Book though wasn't like Young Adam a novel as such but a process of moralistic disintegration combining forthright polemics and personal history and without time sequences with no beginning, middle or end, independent of novel or manifesto, which is why it still hasn't been made into a film like Young Adam because film makers understand novels and little else. In a way the book is a development of a comment of Mayakovsky's: "From the philistinism of living comes the philistinism of politics" though with a more cataclysmic emphasis on ritual mundanity: "He had to spread them thinly over the day, as he spread margarine over his bread, to prevent the collapse of the world". Real revolutionary theoretical films despite the passive audience/screen social relation and cause for condemnation of cinemas entire ouevre are out of the question and Cain's Book is half and half. Also because Cain's Book was neither mickling nor muckling it was immediately proclaimed by the lions of the literary establishment like Samuel Beckett and Norman Mailer. (That thankfully has never happened to us but then our publications and films were always beyond the ken of all categorisation and referentials not only cultural but political referentials too!)
It took France to make the anti-novel novel 'le nouveau roman' into the anti-film film in the shape of the 'nouvelle vague' something which the Anglo-American world has always found difficult to come to terms with. And as is well known Last Year at Marienbad was a Robbe-Grillet anti novel in motion and rip-off of early International Lettriste anti films. This though was - and still is - beyond the ken of the English speaking world and such experiment always remained very much at the margins of cultural production most likely because the real subversion at the heart of the revolt of modern art in its classic heyday never really touched these shores, though it did America in a minor key. In many ways Trocchi's was a lone voice with perhaps the exception of BS Johnson oriented around a post Joycean stream-of-consciousness anti-novel novels. However Johnson was unable to take steps towards more coherent revolutionary theory though realised that a lot more was needed than pushing the boundaries of anti art but instead of searching out the elusive autonomy of the sharp end, Johnson settled for the role of trade union rep. Nevertheless the guy really tried and that incessant cold shouldering, having been 'washed up on these inhospitable shores' (John Dennis) may have been a factor in his suicide.
Now for a further interesting tale. A few years back we once had occasion to mention the film Young Adam based on the novel by Alex Trocchi to our niece Clare as she had helped facilitate the film's production as part of the management structure of the British Film Institute, raising money for it, so the name was at least familiar to her whilst knowing nothing about the man or what he stood for. (Later we were to seriously fall out with her the more she got into a despicable PFI privatisation at the BFI) A short discussion ensued. We mentioned that he had been, for a brief period, a member of the situationists and that he was a writer/anti writer and that this was evident in the film when Adam chucks his typewriter into the canal in the hope that he may eventually become a fully-fledged bargee. The film also contained other art historical references like when Adam smeared the remains of his breakfast over his estranged girlfriend, a clear allusion to the surrealist, Meret Oppenheim. (The book ends on that ringing anti-climatic half-sentence "and the disintegration was already taking place" a something the film couldn't capture). As for Clare's brother, the actor Greg Wise and now married to Emma Thompson, it was all lost on him for he had not even heard of Trocchi never mind Meret Oppenheim though he had heard of Ewan McGregor who played young Adam and probably was jealous of his stardom, wishing he could have landed the role seeing his looks were the equal of McGregor's. It also turned out that our thespian had not heard of Thomas Bewick, the wood engraver from Northumberland. We were about to launch into a disquisition on Bewick, on his qualities as a naturalist and how he linked nature and the iniquities visited on the rural poor together, remaining a revolutionary all his life when we decided to call it a day. We were getting nowhere with our bullet-proof conversers and the whole thing was just downright depressing. Better to shut up and say nowt.
Yes our Alex couldn't break free. For sure it to his credit he was a scow captain and also willing to occasionally hit the odd job circuit as handyman or gardener but there it remained. Trocchi's solution: Rather than something egalitarian; a collectivity or a workers' collective versus the boss etc, he instead inclined towards the solipsist loner tending towards the entrepreneurial, like selling books. (Collectivity as mode of survival - that essential egalitarianism - was unlike us - anathema to Trocchi). Ah yes there was something else: he actually ventured on the dole and social security for a short while. He found it rather demeaning and are we supposed to feel sorry for him? Afraid not, as any self-respecting subversive doesn't give a toss about stints on the dole which once, in any case, held out unlimited possibilities to engage in subversion. Finally, when the literary world failed him and he the literary world, Trocchi no longer looked to casual work or the dole but to that of business man trading in antiquarian books moving from Portobello Rd and Kensington Market to his final resting place at the Rare Books Antiquarius emporium in Kings Road, Chelsea in the 1970s and interestingly not too far from Maclaren's and Westwood's pre punk SEX boutique down the less salubrious end! Selling wares and performance. Money and performance; always performance!
The scows had made their subversive mark however and back in Paris Trocchi was to write - for its time - the remarkable The Invisible Insurrection Of A Million Minds which was not only published in the Situationist International journal in 1962 and Anarchy mag in London but the literary New Saltire Review in Edinburgh whose editor, the later Mastermind's Magnus Magnusson also demanded to be revised. (Did Alex do as requested: Most likely!) For once biographer Scott Murray grasps things: "This new direction led him away from the concept of novels, stories and scripts - saleable commodities which could be sold to publishers and to the general reading public, and instead led him to challenge the entire nature of literature". That was the whole point and is exactly why Alex couldn't stick to the letter of what he'd superbly written in theThe Invisible Insurrection Of A Million Minds' simply because from then on there would be no financial reward to hand at the end of the emancipatory rainbow. Interestingly too, William Burroughs didn't really approve of the Invisible Insurrection seeing the concepts contained in the manifesto as an excuse to avoid the serious task of 'creative' writing by the 'creative' individual genius and which is why a little later, King Mob's deployment of a Burroughs' one-off "Storm the Reality Studios; Retake the Universe" on a demonstration banner sent out the wrong signal. Yet immediately you sense Scott Murray deep down doesn't approve in any case of Trocchi's drift but is too polite and academically cunning to say so despite his body language betraying him. According to this 'expert', by 1955 Trocchi's letters to his brother had become 'bilious tracts' citing such lines as: "I reject the entire system....the answer is revolution". (I mean where has Scott Murray been!)
In retrospect though you do indeed wonder what all the fuss was about because in any case Alex immediately betrayed himself attending the International Writers' conference at the next Edinburgh Festival almost in the same breath as he helped write an editorial for the Situationist International magazine while also arranging an exhibition at the ICA of his driftwood sculptures, the 'feelies' or "futiques", as he called them. Habits of a lifetime refused to budge and Trocchi in any case always had been writing for official mags beginning with The Scots Review in 1950. If anything his cultural world was expanding even engaging in a bit of action painting here and there when times were boring and, moreover, selling his paintings to London art dealers. No longer though was it writing or rather a frozen in time painterly action which attracted him, the more the active performing and exhibitionist part of himself found outlet and impact through an ever-enlarging and technically newer, media mode of production. More and more Trocchi gradually became in hoc to media roles initially as an extension of shock - well for the times - episodes in his writings like deploying fuck expletives (well before his occasional friend Ken Tynan openly deployed them), remarking: "As artists we situate ourselves at the level of man-at-crap". First these active, on-the-spot stunts were for shock and sensation like fixing on live American TV in 1961 when making a guest appearance on a programme discussing drugs - and paying the price (I mean really paying the price and not in monetary terms) as the law got heavy. In some ways these actions of Trocchi were initially rather admirable but a little later the money angle really began to creep in. Sure many appearances remained provocative but increasingly with an eye to the irregular cheque in the post Alex, sensing acceptance wasn't too far away, even gave half hour TV programme interviews which went hand in hand with an emerging lecture circuit plus a stint as visiting sculpture tutor at St Martin's College of Art, London. It was if you like pre-punk and the failure that entails in treating with the media essentially on its own terms, even reinforcing the growing sensationalised tabloid description of him "as the media's favourite junkie". The guy finally sold himself short never realising as Nick Brandt was to say some twenty years later, "with ever the best intentions, the media always makes you look a prat". Yet even here through the distorting, mocking lens of the TV interview with a ridiculous charlatan of an interviewer doing the business, Trocchi could perceptively say: ''We mustn't consider ourselves as professional writers any longer"..... in the literary industry like the "Shakespeare Industry" ... which had to be overthrown as we now approach the time of the.... "millions of individual centres of sensitive men and women all over the world who, if they could only become aware of their identity, and the fact that there were a million such identities who, acting together could create a new world."
The media used Alex Trocchi he didn't use the media. The Situationist International at the time of Alex Trocchi's cavorting for the TV - his hour upon the stage - and the title of this particular critique was the only possible position to adopt; the one of utter negativity alongside a clear explanation why you must behave like this which fundamentally means having nothing to do with either newspaper journalists or TV appearances. It was a negativity which after 1968 was practised more and more especially and, indeed with some longevity, throughout the highly capitalised world, including some interesting developments on this score somewhat later by Os Cangaceiros and interventions against television by the strikers of Les Intermittents in 2004. During the 1980s in France, Os Cangaceiros experimented with different ways of dealing with the media. One of their participants, commenting in a stray thesis in May 1995 (The Blurred Trail of the Cangaceiros in the Social Pampas elsewhere on the RAP web) said: "The best use of the media (instead of them using you) is to try and bypass them. First, make them unnecessary so they might react as a mere amplifier of what happened and without us deploying their assistance".
And then for Trocchi there was to be Sigma; a collectivity, ill thought through that rapidly became meaningless, that wasn't necessarily of the old world but neither was it of the new; a product of The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds but also a failure of its application too. For starters, Sigma had nothing to do with egalitarian, sharp end collectivism but an artists/writers coming together and ugh with what consequences! Playing on radicalism its terminology was also a meaningless distortion.Technically, 'sigma' is the symbol used in mathematics for the sum of the whole becoming with late 1960s Sigma, a deflected acknowledgement of dialectics and the necessity of totality and total critique. Indeed Trocchi referred to Sigma as "a dialectical instrument" though it was anything but. As a bureaucratic organisation Sigma eschewed the principal of commercial publication though its practise had nothing to do with a perspective tending towards the transcendence of money but a 'clearing house for artists to sell their wares, cutting out the agents and middlemen' thus going off at half-cock which at that moment in time simply meant Sigma would never be memorable influencing a few years later Dutch state initiatives whereby all art works were bought up on a yearly stipend by anybody who wished to call themselves artists in the 1970s-80s. You'd hoped at the time that such a scheme might have produced some quality revolutionary reflections as some more enlightened individuals in disguise could have quickly knocked out some artistic shit giving them time to produce revolutionary theory and action of quality yet still able to pick up another grant from the Dutch state at the end of the year. No such luck.
The Invisible Insurrection - that record of the explosion of a million minds thinking, experiencing and trying to live in different ways - got sidetracked by the changing face of culture itself and the manifesto instead of contributing to contemporary revolutionary critique helped form the basis of the alternative poetry production of Sigma spearheaded by the now well forgotten - and deservedly so - figure of Simon Vinkenoog. Sigma was a widened and spread out redefinition of culture embracing the beginnings of all the shit that is centre stage so overpowering us today and is finally a banal acceptance of what is. Needless to say Sigma has nothing to do with revolutionary praxis nor does it provide an opening out onto such hopes emphasising as it did throughout its heyday in the 1960s, happenings, installations, environment exhibits and all the rest of the crud panoply which somewhat later, people like the Saatchi Bros and henchmen of Thatcher's were to sponsor as social democratic capitalism gave way to the infinitely greater hell of the free market. Trocchi went on to found the First International of Poetry in 1965 which, was itself a sad displacement and recuperation of the first (and best) Workers' International in the mid 19th century founded by English trade unionists and quickly broadened in scope and intention by the likes of Marx and Bakunin. But this kind of radicalism was exactly what Trocchi was now into, distorting and camouflaging revolutionary initiatives and not searching out new friends - essentially those without professional aspirations - and tapping into the new tremors the times were increasingly revealing. Instead he increasingly associated himself with people like acid media guru Tim Leary, psychiatrist RD Laing with his half-baked grasp of cultural negation together with a none too deep take on Artaud. Other poets like Mike Horowitz and Jeff Nuttal were similarly half-baked. He also liked the novelist William Burroughs though truth to tell, Trocchi like Rumney occasionally, had a far more significant grasp of what was beginning to unfold than all the American Beats precisely because they did understand something of the terminal crises inherent in artistic form beginning to add the essential dimension missing in social revolutionary praxis.
Within Sigma everything in no time went awry. The transcendence of art got locked into a perspective of mass democratised art to be placed here, there and everywhere becoming a harbinger of today's neoliberal or PFI aesthetic economy. Trocchi lamentably commented: "I reject the category of literature because it is highly dangerous and leads to a number extravagances and perversions. What I want to create is an infectious ambience for the revitalisation of art because art should be something to inform every waking moment" (oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh...). As if to reinforce these increasingly vapid notions Trocchi banally suggested to the Postmaster General that a series of stamps be cut featuring and commemorating the work of British sculptors. Hardly the stuff dreams are made of! In no time Trocchi wanted Sigma to become a business, albeit an alternative business and limited company before such notions encountered the grim reality whereby counter culture also became a culture counter extensively refurbished, decades later entering the arena of global market players. The then Labour administration in the 1960s under Harold Wilson took an interest via Ms Jenny Lee, the new Minister for the Arts and even though Trocchi disliked official institutions in reality he wanted them in a sensitised, reconstructed form in the shape of a London Free University, the anti-university staffed by anti-lecturers though stopping well short of that rallying cry of the most radical elements in the uprisings of 1968 'abolish the university'. (1) Trocchi's poorly digested notion of recuperation was becoming all too obvious and he was tending to become all things to all people. After Trocchi resigned from the Situationist International in 1964, no wonder Guy Debord was forced to condemn him and 'the mystical cretins' like Alan Ginsberg, Colin Wilson, RD Laing and Tim Leary he was hanging around with. Indeed you get the impression Guy had shown much leniency and patience.
Without Trocchi though the underground of the 1960s/early 70s, what rapidly became known as the alternative in these islands wouldn't have been what it was together with its related periodicals and pamphlets. Indeed, The International Times, that generally banal, alternative organ of the late 1960s put on the masthead of its first issues that IT was "a sigmatic newspaper" and a move instigated by Trocchi's fellow Glaswegian,Tom MaGrath. Moreover, there was also something of an essential drift in these diverse alternatives, happenings and the like as they evolved throughout the years slipping more and more towards the lower orders leaving the specialists in art farther and farther behind an increasingly autonomous momentum. That beautiful style of writing that Trocchi was so capable of producing gave way to a rawness and spontaneity when some of these tendencies were taken up by others which courted the semi-literate at times but whose vitality compensated for loss of stylistic ease when crying out for 'revolution now' together with a renewed passionate life. For having the courage to take this path, Trocchi must be given credit as we were some of the first also to have the courage to tear its failings and contradictions apart during the moment of King Mob including a few attacks both theoretical and physical on The International Times. For sure at the time we thought a lot of this alternative was complete rubbish but now that the froth has gone, even its ill-defined social egalitarianism, it's as if the 1960s never existed and on this score, we have to agree with some recent comments by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
By 1968 Trocchi was falling apart on some of its contradictions as if the ground he'd prepared had become too much for him. More famous than ever and on the threshold of the big time money-wise, the impetus of that annus mirabalus was anti art and anti money and it was almost as if the year had stabbed Trocchi in the back as it also superseded his hesitations bringing about an ennui and lethargy he was henceforth never to escape from, lapsing into a fraught though reasonably comfortable middle class alternative life style where followers and acolytes from well-meaning nobodies to the Marianne Faithful's and Mick Jagger's were welcomed along with Leonard Cohen and in the aftermath of the late 1960s, a renegade from King Mob's revolutionary perspectives in the shape of Chris Grey. As for us, our lives were to head off in a diametrically opposite direction eschewing hangers-on, followers and acolytes; unknown and unseen without image and profile. The disappeared -The has beens who never were - "Fame; I knew it yesterday" as Mallarme pregnantly called it.
Almost immediately Alex Trocchi was to encounter searing personal tragedy with the death of loved ones followed by an untimely demise which though clinically diagnosed as cancer was probably more accurately to do with a broken heart. It was April 1984 and just a few weeks into what was to become the epic British miners' strike which, if it had succeeded might - just might - have stalled somewhat the most devastating counter revolution in history. Unfortunately, if Trocchi had survived the guy probably wouldn't have given much of a damn whether the strike succeeded or not as by then he was so out of it having lost all revolutionary coherence years previously.
Though these are arguments and memories outlining a way of seeing essential things about life and more or less suppressed in the pantheon of Eng (and American) Lit and among what's left of a radical social perspective they've wormed and worried there way in sideways into aspects of hip TV despite the fact there's no 'movement' or alternative out there. Occasionally in The Sopranos and especially Californication, the role of writer is obliquely portrayed as at an end becoming nothing but a mockery of its former self. What's leftover are only the entrails, the wordsmiths of one-liners and/or searing blogs to be consumed by alienated replicants colonised by the language of advertising though feeling very uneasy with its blatant lies and disinformation. Artistic expression is virtually dead though beyond this lies a world getting off on never ending fucks - only it's a souped up, commodified bad sexuality amounting to total disaster where nothing can be realised least of all fulfilment and happiness, except because it is TV, nothing is stated as frankly and truthfully - merely hinted at - and, least of all, providing clear openings assisting the re-vitalising of revolutionary critique.
Which leads to a final point. The really interesting latter day fact about Trocchi was his final inability to do anything which the more conventional culture bugs (e.g. Barry Miles who is still as big a prat as he ever was) refers to as 'writers' block'. Though easy to dismiss as a simple consequence of Trocchi's well known heroin addiction in fact it points to something far more significant: the failure of cultural forms of writing as a vehicle of communication and the end of the writers' role, itself part and parcel of a deeper historical malaise where all officially recognised creativity defined by the artistic embrace has lost its raison d'etre. Does it now matter how well one writes and how seemingly rich is the supposed artistic flair? That old but lost adage is truer today than ever; those who live authentic lives are the ones who write the best. For a long time it's no longer been about a 'good' (i.e. formally correct) command of the English language (or indeed any language) merely that this insight has been brutally eclipsed and vanquished in the perfect storm of the worst counter revolution in history. BRING ON WRITERS' BLOCK EVERYWHERE and therefore by strange default realising the last inspirational example set by Trocchi himself.
It could be said that Michel Prigent always maintained something of an enthusiasm for Trocchi though if you came out with some of the arguments outlined here in casual conversation Michel would have readily agreed. True Alex was more clued-in on the essentials than the somewhat earlier generation of American Beats but he still couldn't make really essential theoretical breakthroughs like say Asger Jorn. It could be said maybe that Michel has a certain Scottish sentimentality towards Alex (Michel's mother was from Glasgow having met his dad when based in Scotland as part of the Free French squadrons of the RAF during the second world war) together with a kind of emphasis on romantic self-destruction/god's die young syndrome in relation to Trocchi's tragic family life. Michel used to regularly carry around those 1970s video interviews with Trocchi - most likely the ones made by Jamie Wadhawan in and around Trocchi's house in Observatory Gardens, Kensington - which Michel would offer to me for free!! (2)
To end at the beginning: Our negativity - and the negativity of those like us - was also based on the reality you'd become a taboo representative of a profound moment the memory of which must forever be suppressed or, if not that, marked by grotesque distortions, facile interpretation and the no people never to be mentioned again, beyond the pale of humanity and simple decency. An open season declared so subtly yet hunted down like vermin. True, we couldn't write as well as Trocchi (Ah the beautiful stylist with that often astonishing ability with words.) and if only we had got something of that skill as a wordsmith. Alas, we had little apprenticeship, we were "rough hewn" (Wordsworthsmith) Then again we were trying at times to express the inexpressible, trying to describe the virgin outlines of a path we had to take; a lonely path without recognisable assistance trying to conceptualise this febrile gossamer we were beginning to feel brush against us beckoning from a beyond. At times the gist of this came along as a confused jumble of words and phrases. Trocchi never really got to the point where he was really confronted with this difficult and prolonged experience; the moment of a possible breakdown of words, even though, here and there, he came close enough.
After the late 1960s much emphasis was placed on "clearly sorting out your survival" between the exigencies of the here and now under capitalism and the social revolution we all hoped longingly for and wouldn't perhaps be too far away. We had to find a survival which didn't involve a massive compromise of our minds, thoughts, honesty and feelings, whereby we could be 'free' to say what we had to say. No more writers, artists, musicians and their contracts, appearances, conferences etc. All chains had to be cut and cast asunder. You could see clearly that Ralph Rumney and Alex Trocchi were caught in this spider's web and a trap that Trocchi particularly hated. In fact this fatal nexus helped kill him off.
Generally though the art scene was to get even worse, emptier and emptier. The more the dog days of 'art' encompassed an expanded reproduction, the more it gradually became the central reference for every event portrayed in the media. At the same moment that powerful undertow; that repressed but profound historical concept that art was dead became nothing more than the ravings of the insane. The result is a situation far worse than that of ancient biblical prophets in the wilderness because today it defies all empirical daily perceptions cutting through surface appearances and at the moment of its abolition, the role of art is bigger than ever. The artist has finally telescoped into advertising executive, the contemporary hidden persuader of nothingness, the empty-headed ideas guru looking for that elusive, never-ending sales pitch seeking backers, promotion and media exposure for their latest commodity. The pitch is the gimmick to be talked about for 15 minutes, followed by another 15 minute wonder; ad infinitum. Art is money, art is the bank, art is the hedge fund, art is the imagination of fictitious capital mimicking the processes of the hollowed-out company with hollowed out global aims requiring the 'enforced' wage labour of those at the sharp end to be realised.
Like any on-going business concern, artists are no longer required to do much for themselves now requiring shedloads of working stiffs to bring their vapid concepts to a miserable fruition. Once even 20 years ago these art finks could at least do something for themselves having acquired a reasonable practical dexterity with basic ingredients and materials; be it welding, woodworking, plasters and resins, nuts and bolts, saws and glues together with knowledge of basic photography and add-on literary skills. Now the most these people have are a few IT competences allied to a back drop where the imperious edicts of the Health and Safety Executive - itself in thrall to litigation culture - further ensures personal practical tasks can never be carried out.
Cast adrift, ours is the polar opposite, and necessarily without profile, somewhat in the multi-skilled tradition of a William Blake where there's no choice but to learn everything yourself without that much dosh and no sub-contracted outfits/limited companies to hand. It's a situation where you are more or less forced to learn every technique and practical application you may require whether it concerns materials, command of the English language and/or knowledge of IT. The results may contain many a rough-hewn edge becoming an easy target to be mocked by the superficial and plain stupid but who can only see a few ill-planted trees and not a wood beginning to look really healthy.
D & S Wise: Spring 2008
(1) A word to the wise: It's not that the former immense insights and brilliance of English poetry has been cancelled. Rather it's magnificent and often delicate, trembling subtleties tracing the outlines of so many breath-taking perceptions should perhaps now be seen as a potential gateway, even guidance at times, to a reinvigorated life during the moment and aftermath of a profound total social revolution.
(2) Ironically and retrospectively, today the times are really dumbed down to the point of a near complete incomprehension. Again there is much room for individuals - nay the mass of the people - to really acquire valuable learning and knowledge. However can this, more than ever be taught at a university more in hoc to quick profits than ever?
(3) The truth is Michel Prigent is a more consistently significant figure than Alex Trocchi. However, I never got too close to the guy because I could never really take on board Michel's worshipful awe of Debord which he has since transferred to Moishe Postone. (For my mind Guy Debord is a much more substantial figure - and the debt I owe him is enormous - than a cloistered academic like Postone who simply has never encountered real everyday life). In practise this always meant you could only take a practical/theoretical drift with Michel so far before ideological barriers kicked-in. Postone's infallibility has now replaced Debord's infallibility etc. Still I really like Michel as a person and the guy is always funny and enjoyable company and his latest writings in Principia Dialectica are the best things in the magazine. It has been far too easy to characterise Michel for a certain wild madness but first and foremost one must praise the guy for a relentlessly un-compromised daily life.
For further recent commentary related to the above read the following in the "Wreckage & bric-a-brac" series: