August 14, 2008
Taken from an unused foreword to White Thighs, by Stewart Home.
I tend to think of Alex Trocchi as the original punk rocker. He never lets you down because he always aims to disappoint; in White Thighs (1955) he disappoints almost too well…
There are those who think Trocchi failed to live up to his promise, but I think he lived up to it admirably by self-consciously working towards spectacular failure as a literary figure. Trocchi despised the bourgeois cultural order and in his pornographic works such as White Thighs he mocks it by using his mastery of literary technique for the ends of pastiche and parody. In this his pornographic works are quintessentially post modern, and move both beyond and behind the paradigmatically modernist concerns of his two “serious” literary works Young Adam and Cain’s Book. In terms of prose style White Thighs is better than one might reasonably expect a work of sado-masochistic pornography to be. That said, Trocchi doesn’t bother to construct a credible story or attempt “proper” characterisation; since such things would undermine his revolutionary intentions.
On one level White Thighs is a tale of bondage and flagellation. At the age of 12 the narrator Saul Folsrom becomes infatuated with his governess Anna. He wants her to spank and dominate him. He even commits murder for her; but soon afterwards his American guardians ship him to England to complete his education. Unable to find sexual satisfaction in women other than Anna, Folsrom returns to the United States with the intention of finding her. At which point he explicitly states he is what he is due to Anna, that she’d made him a murderer:
“For that is what she had made of me, and the mould, once set, was firm and unchangeable: I experienced no desire to possess, nor to mould in my own likeness another woman. I felt only an urgent necessity to be absorbed, used again even to the point of murder, and to draw my identity from every act done of another’s necessity. The memory of Anna electrified me. She alone, of all the women I had met, was fit to receive such homage.
“Had she not made me commit murder for her? I nurtured the memory, with as much loving care as a poet gives to his creation. I worshipped her. I imagined myself prostrate before her. I buried my head between her soft thighs, knowing their strength. I asked her to judge me, to control me, to administer my punishment. I loved her, called to her in my dreams that I would kill my uncle all over again. She had to exist. She could not be dead, or worse, grown weak and as insipid as the women I met at college. That would be a betrayal. Men have destroyed gods for less.”
After Fulsrom has “freed” Anna so that she might “dominate” him, by murdering her tyrannical husband, he rushes off to tell her all about the killing only to be disappointed by her response:
” “I told you I loved him!”
” “You told me he had the power of a beast over you. I shot the beast.”
“She was looking at me as a rabbit watches a snake.
“Something stirred in me. I knew that I had to act now or not at all. Coldly, with calculation, I slapped her across the face.
“I was now ready to act at every moment in accordance with a new attitude. She had loved Inez. I had thought about that night after night as I waited to slay him.
She had loved me in a different way.
“My act of slapping her across the face had the effect of annihilating the past, of reversing the relation between us. In the future, she would obey. It was not what I wanted, not what I had intended, not the situation for which I had made a thousand preparations while I was separated from her, but I had come to realize clearly that it was the only effective way—at least for the moment, for she was not ready to be that woman of my imagination—of putting things in suspension; I should not have lost irrevocably.
“Her expression had changed.
“The fear was still there, but it had undergone a subtle modulation:it was no longer stark panic, and all hatred had gone from her eyes. It was as though she were waiting for me to act again.
“Slowly, holding her gaze, I bared myself, and as I did so, I felt the sluice of urgent blood move to harden my member. I looked I climbed onto the bed beside her. Kneeling there, slowly, an inch at a time, I brought it toward her face. She stared at it, her whole attention riveted upon it, and then suddenly, when it was no more than six inches from her, she let out a small whimper, enclosed it like a valuable object in both hands, and took it into her mouth. As she did, her liquid eyes closed, and I felt the warmth of complete envelopment. Her full lips pressed to my hard flesh, sliding up and down it, her tongue twisting madly around the swollen head. She held onto the base of my sex with her hands, squeezing hard. I was on the verge of annihilation.”
Disappointed by Anna, Folsrom develops an infatuation with his housekeeper Kirstin. Stumbling across her engrossed in sado-masochist acts with two other maids, he watches them through a keyhole:
“Each girl picked up a skeleton. The fantasy began. I was conscious at once of the fact that the bones had been wired together, and that, fixed firmly to each skeleton, was a rubber penis. Carefully, in a practiced way, each girl slipped it into her, draped the arms of a skeleton over her back and shoulders, and lay down on the filthy straw. To see a skeleton pricking a young girl, the bones bouncing like a beaded parrot-cage on her soft belly, is a strange sight. It did not last long. I had the impression that Kirstin was impatient for her little insects to become stuck in her web. She said something and the girls rose immediately, allowing the skeletons to tumble onto the floor. They began to fly again, or rather, to make the motions of flying. Mona was more graceful than Milly. Her movements were less abrupt and the flesh of her buttocks was a startling white against her red hair.”
And so after Folsrom has witnessed these ‘perversions’, Kirstin becomes his new sexual ideal:
“Here, at last, was the risk that I was looking for; the intensity, the obscenity, the criminality to which I could bring the willing consent of my own body and soul. The vision of Anna paled before the image of Kirstin. The one wished nothing more than to be a victim; the other would dare to victimize. What hellish green fires must have burned within Kirstin to turn her into the woman-beast I had seen in action!
I had to make a compact at once. I would wait an hour. Then the orgy surely would be over, and then I would ring for her. For the first time in my life, I had met a woman to whom I could dedicate myself utterly. The old craving to be the instrument of another’s will surged up in me anew. Kirstin. Kirstin. Faust is waiting for you.”
Folsrom briefly finds contentment with Kirstin, leading him to announce that:
“In only a few days time, Kirstin had made me the doting slave of her body and her will. Kirstin now slept with me every night, or rather, I slept with her, for it was she who had become pre-eminent and it was I who nightly slept with my head between the wet weight of her thighs. It was she who insisted upon this, and I loved and worshipped her for it, deriving more pleasure from my utter abasement than I had ever drawn from abasing another.”
However, boredom soon set in and at the conclusion of White Thighs, Folsrom discovers a new and better sexual ideal than Kirstin in a housemaid called Ursula:
“She lay with her hands to her sides, as if her palms were nailed to the floor, and looked ceilingward. Still, I thought I gleaned a shadow of a smile on her face. It was not a smile of simple pleasure, but one that seemed to hold the secreted knowledge of evil. I was, surely, going insane, for Ursula had no knowledge of evil, but was virgin soil, untainted, pure. Surely. I drove into her harder, in confusion perhaps, and she closed tightly around me, and I released my seed deep into her womb. There was, afterwards, again that smile, that evil smile!
“I kneeled up to remove myself from the hideous, yet lovely sight of her furtive meaning. She looked at me, my body kneeling before her.
” “Now pray,” she uttered, her voice hoarse, dull. “Pray and then lick me clean.”
“Obediently, I did as I was told. As my tongue came out to meet the mixture of our fluids, I realized the gravity of my actions, for then, intoxicated by her heavy, sweet fragrance, I was committing sacrilege, worshipping a new god. She clamped my head between her flawlessly white thighs, the tender flesh of them burning my cheeks, my ears, suffocating me and cutting off all sound. It was then, as I swirled in the thick eddy of her release, that I gleaned the future: I would have to prove my devotion to her; there would have to be a sacrifice.”
Moving from the specific to the more general, men only enjoy power in a male dominated society if they function as a cog of this society by transmitting their own submission onto those on the next level down. The problem that Trocchi is confronting – but Folsrom patently cannot – is the fact that rather than abandoning their power, revolutionary males must assert themselves over and above their function as cogs in an inhuman machine. White Thighs does not address the sexual struggle from the perspective of women, it merely demonstrates that pre-determined sexual roles lead to disappointment and the endless repetition of a limited number of unsatisfactory acts. That said, it is important not to see women as the victims of sexual norms, but rather as playing the role of victim. While women too have to reclaim their repressed sexuality, the fact that they start from a different position in present society means that their struggle has other dimensions, with Trocchi presumably viewing them as more suited to describing this.
What White Thighs ultimately provides us with is a critique of consumer society in the form of a parody of a pornographic novel. In our alienated world we can never be satisfied – physically, emotionally, intellectually – since capitalism is predicated on us forever attempting to assuage an unending number of cynically manufactured dissatisfactions through the acquisition of new goods and chattels (which upon examination turn out to be little different from the old ones we already had). What Trocchi attempts to do in White Thighs is show us that we need to free up our sexuality from the limits imposed on us by capitalism and the state, and he does this by depicting the dehabilitating effects these limits have on Folsrom. Trocchi’s problem with Folsrom is not that he is “perverse”, but rather that his perversion is limited and channelled, when if it were healthy it would overflow capitalist canalisation in a rising flood and tide of polymorphous perversity. The controlled release of sexual frustration has long been used for the purpose of repression and Trocchi’s depiction of this in White Thighs is spot on. This book remains an exemplary revolutionary text in as far as it continues to disappoint those who pick it up hoping to gain sexual satisfaction from it… As I said at the start of this piece, Trocchi never lets you down because all along his intention was to disappoint!
August 9, 2008
“The label of nihilistic writer so often attached to him is profoundly, not just superficially, accurate: he’s nihilistic not so much in the lay sense of having a gloomy outlook on life, but rather inasmuch as his entire sensibility rests on an intimate relation with a space of annihilation, of becoming nothing”
I remember reading Cain’s Book in my early twenties and being struck by an almost visceral awareness — the same kind of sensation you get when reading Joyce or Burroughs for the first time — that this was momentous, important stuff. The prose seemed to affirm at every turn the presence of someone who, besides knowing how to write, fundamentally understood and articulated what literature is: what it offers, what it withholds, what’s at stake in it. When I was invited to come and talk tonight, I dug out my old Calder copy, and found I hadn’t been wrong.
One of the most striking characteristics of Cain’s Book is its refusal of story. Narrative in the conventional sense is almost non-existent, and wilfully so. In one of the novel’s many self-reflective moments, Trocchi compares his text’s progression to a landscape which is not only un-signposted but also, in its very innate formation, devoid of the ‘natural’ narrative contours which we might expect a book to follow: peaks and troughs, steady plot inclines rising to dramatic summits or climactic cliffs from which whole vistas open up, that kind of thing. Rather, it forms an ‘endless tundra which is all there is to be explored.’ Tundras are bleak, monotonous, quasi-repetitive, the same and not the same at the same time. He adds: ‘This is the impasse which a serious man must enter and from which only the simple-minded can retreat.’ Must enter: I’ll come back to this sense of obligation later.
But for now I want to stick with the landscape analogy, because it seems to me that Trocchi’s sensibility is totally spatial. Like Christopher Marlowe in Doctor Faustus or Herman Melville in Moby Dick, he’s mapping a whole cosmogony, intuiting his way towards an understanding of a social, poetic and metaphysical layout. That’s the real action of Cain’s Book, its ‘plot’. To gain the vantage point necessary for this undertaking, he has to go out to the edge of things. Emily Dickinson often talks about finding her place on the ‘circumference’ — of the globe, of space itself, of life — a limit-point from which she can look two ways, in and out. Trocchi is drawn to this circumference, attracted by the view it offers. He finds it, in its most literal form, in a scow (or barge) moored off the edge of Manhattan, a spot from which he can peer back and see the city’s celebrated skyline dim and hazy in the distance, ‘like a mirage in which one isn’t involved.’ On the scow’s other side, the black water of the Hudson across which he’s towed at irregular intervals by tugs, and the even blacker water of the Atlantic in which he’s occasionally deposited for long stretches, ‘tottering at the night edge of a flat world’ (space, for him, is always flat). The question then becomes: Where’s that edge’s edge, the point beyond which you fall off? ‘I often wondered,’ he writes, ‘how far out a man could go without being obliterated.’
Trocchi is acutely aware that his sought-after observation post lies somewhere pretty close to the trip-line of death — just past it even, by a couple of paces. This agonisingly nerve-wracking set-up is, quite paradoxically, what keeps him steady, gives him purpose: ‘to be able to attain, by whatever means, the serenity of a vantage point ‘beyond’ death, to have such a critical technique at one’s disposal — let me say that on my ability to attain that vantage point my own sanity has from time to time depended.’ The label of nihilistic writer so often attached to him is profoundly, not just superficially, accurate: he’s nihilistic not so much in the lay sense of having a gloomy outlook on life, but rather inasmuch as his entire sensibility rests on an intimate relation with a space of annihilation, of becoming nothing.
What’s more (and here it gets really interesting), this space is also where writing itself — the act, the practise and the stuff, the matter — comes from. When he describes the billowing Atlantic as ‘like a sheet of black ink’, it’s not just to be gratuitously poetic: the dark, void-filled liquid, for him, really is like what’s inside his typewriter. Tied to Bronx Stakeboat Number 2 in what seems an interminable night, he spends his time re-reading notes whose logic is entirely circular: ‘If I write: it is important to keep writing, it is to keep me writing.’ The other author who immediately springs to mind here is Maurice Blanchot, that writer of infinite night, darkness and disappearance, and in fact some of Trocchi’s lines could have been written by Blanchot, not least the one in which he tells us that ‘the great urgency for literature is that it should once and for all accomplish its own dying.’ But where Blanchot’s ponderings on literature and the right to death are abstract, Trocchi has willed them into material form off New York harbour, given them concrete embodiment, a mise en scene: ensconced in what he describes as the ‘floating coffin’ of his scow, with ‘the emptiness of the night beyond the walls… the trackless water,’ he lays out before us, in one of the most brilliantly pared-down passages of the whole book, ‘a chair, a typewriter, a table, a single bed, a coal stove, a dresser, a cupboard, a man in a little wooden shack, two miles from the nearest land.’ Like a tracker dog, he’s hunted down literature’s ground zero, its primal scene, and set his store up there: Here it is, Here I am.
When he’s not immersed in the black liquid, he’s injecting it into himself in the form of heroin. Heroin is an essential weapon in Trocchi’s nihilistic armoury: ‘There is no more systematic nihilism,’ he writes, ‘than that of the junky in America’. If Paris was a moveable feast for Hemingway, junk, for Trocchi, is a moveable void: taking that void around the city with him, in him, he ensures that he inhabits negative space constantly. This is his poetic project and it’s also the way his whole perception system works at its most basic level (the two are the same). I can’t stress enough how utterly negative Trocchi’s negative space is. It’s negative in the strict chemical or photographic sense of the word. An early sequence in Cain’s Book takes us through a kind of Proust-moment of perception and recall in which Trocchi, watching a man urinating in an alley, becomes
‘like a piece of sensitive photographic paper, waiting passively to feel the shock of impression. And then I was quivering like a leaf, more precisely like a mute hunk of appetitional plasm, a kind of sponge in which the business of being excited was going on, run through by a series of external stimuli: the lane, the man, the pale light, the lash of silver — at the ecstatic edge of something to be seen.’
Edge again. The sequence kicks off a long analepsis to an Edinburgh pub, then the image of a blade cutting the outline of a woman’s body into wood — a loop whose eventual folding back into the present dictates that Trocchi take the man back to his scow and sleep with him. But their sex doesn’t respond to a need which is, properly speaking, sexual: rather, it fulfils the requirements of the perception-memory tip he’s launched himself on. Just prior to the seduction, Trocchi tells us:
‘I experienced a sly female lust to be impregnated by, beyond words and in a mystical way to confound myself with, not the man necessarily, though that was part of the possibility, but the secrecy of his gesture.’
This is Phenomenology in action: what drives him is a longing for the world to unpack itself before us, to take form and resolution, like an image looming into view from murky liquid in a dark room.
Finally, that notion of obligation I was talking about earlier. Cain’s Book is shot through with a sense of mission. Trocchi has a task, an almost military duty to attend to. Several times he talks about being confronted by the ‘enemy’, against whose charges fixing gives him an instant ‘Castle Keep’, an enclave from which he can hold out: against his age, morality, stupidity, capitalism’s work ethic, the lot (as Burroughs would say, ‘the whole tamale’). Writing finds another role in this battle. As he divvies up his scores with them, Trocchi, intriguingly, lectures his fellow junkies on the contemporary importance of the diarist and exhorts them ‘to accept, to endure, to record’ (although whether they’re roused into Pepys-like diligence by his exhortations is doubtful). In the select moments when he references other writers directly, he invokes Beckett’s aesthetic of endurance and bearing witness and Joyce’s strategy of cunning, exile and silence. As with Joyce’s writing, there’s a real sense that Trocchi’s lays out a project which is at once political, personal and aesthetic. You can’t separate these strata in his work. His goal has always been ‘to strike permanently against uncreative work… to explore and modify my great contempt.’ Although lots of commentators try to ‘reclaim’ Trocchi from literature, set him aside from its canon, for me statements like this place him firmly within a tradition running from Celine to Houellebecq: like them, Trocchi is writing against his time, against all time, against history. ‘I felt my thoughts were the ravings of a man mad out of his mind to have been placed in history at all’ he rages, full to bursting with his mission, ‘having to act, having to consider, a victim of the fixed insquint.’
What he’s aiming for, his ultimate goal, in one sense, is the archetypal tragic moment and the transcendence that this moment offers. ‘The problem,’ he decides near Cain’s Book‘s end, ‘has always been to fuse the fragments of eternity, more precisely, to attain from time to time the absolute serenity of timelessness.’ Yet at the same time he rejects the very aesthetic mode (tragedy) that would allow this absolute serenity and timelessness to happen — as he has already told his fellow junkies, it’s ‘the death of tragedy which made the diarist more than ever necessary.’ Basically, he’s a Modernist: classically, essentially. And what we’re ultimately encountering in Cain’s Book is the Modernist quandary that turns around failure of tragedy — the same quandary articulated by the work of Eliot, Conrad or Faulkner. I want the transcendental tragic moment, but I can’t believe in tragedy anymore, therefore my writing will both self-frustrate and form the record of that experience of self-frustration. This paradox is what gives Cain’s Book its final, brilliant ending, in which Trocchi first recognises the inadequacy of art and literature in actually ‘accomplishing’ anything, muttering dismissively ‘such concepts I sometimes read about, but they have nothing in intimacy with what I am doing, exposing, obscuring’ — then immediately, compelled as always, carries on producing work, showing us, again, the scene of writing: the typewriter, the half-written page. ‘Only at the end,’ he writes, ‘I am still sitting here, writing, with the feeling I have not even begun to say what I mean, apparently sane still…’ And he lets us know that as soon as he’s finished the paragraph he’s going to go into the next room and take drugs. Eventually, as we know, the writing itself would slip away, until only the void was left. This was probably distressing to those who knew and loved him; but, given the trajectory he’s cast himself along, it seems ‘correct’, the ending that his work, in its extraordinary honesty, demands.
Finally finally: I think Trocchi is important, more so now than ever. We’re living in a time when the very ‘uncreative work’ against which he permanently struck is dominating culture, especially in the field of publishing. All too often, pliant authors are content to serve as little more than copywriters advertising neoliberal concerns, churning out middle-market copy for conglomerates, and all too often broadsheets who rely on these conglomerates for revenue try to persuade us that this copy is literature. Well it’s not; and Cain’s Book is. It’s a book in which the very possibility of literature booms and resonates, or (to use another metaphor) rushes and gurgles like so much black water under a hull two miles from land: literature’s possibility and, of course, its impossibility.