Thursday, September 23, 2010

Terry Southern gets a new biography: "to render as real the most weird"

That grand guy, the gadfly writer Terry Southern, gets a scholarly biography at last. With access to forty years' worth of much unpublished material the result, Terry Southern and the American Grotesque, by David Tully, turns out to be quite a ride.

"The swinging sixties" wasn't just a worn catchphrase for Southern: he cast a gimlet eye over much of it, from Paris days with Burroughs and Beckett to London with the Stones and Beatles (making an appearance on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's), later with Stanley Kubrick and into the Seventies with Saturday Night Live. Here's an excerpt from the introduction, by his son Nile, who has been busy reshaping his father's legacy; there's lots more at the Terry Southern website. Why don't you pop over for a drink?

... Terry’s great impulse to write came from his exposure at an early age to the elaborate prose of E.A. Poe. (Tully) reveals how Poe became Terry’s key technical strategist—for he had cracked the code between seemingly authentic reportage (where credibility is paramount), and the timeless terrain of the ‘far-out’ tale. My father was smitten by Poe’s ability “to render as real the most weird.” ...

The philosophical idea that Nature will always trump contrivance was, as Tully points out, a constant theme of Terry’s, weaving throughout even his most unnatural settings, from Flash and Filigrees sterile waiting rooms, to Guy Grand’s ever-shifting metropolis. Another unexplored idea put forth by Tully places Terry as a practicing student of the Surrealists and Situationists. After David showed me some of Terry’s early surrealist texts, such as C’est Toi Alors, his thesis was further confirmed by a recent discovery: a treasure trove of reel-to-reel audio tapes that my father recorded in his apartment in Greenwich Village in the early ‘50s.

The radio-show routines, some of which are in French, captured much of the vibe and intensity that still resonated from his life spent in Paris between 1949 and 1954. These recordings (soon to be released) are like an audio odyssey into what Tully calls “the quicksilver philosophy” of Terry’s Existential world: a place where dreams and absurdist invention puncture the ubiquitously growing and ever-crass commercial culture. ...

Terry’s voice, reading Tristan Tzara’s 1918 Dada Manifesto, captures the pure state where hipster persona meets mad-cap Bunuelian intensifier. Embodying the surrealist impulse, the voice is dreamy, provocative and eerily defiant:

"I am writing a proclamation, and I want nothing. Yet, I say certain things. And I am against proclamations, as a matter of principle, as I am also against principles. I write this proclamation to show that one may perform opposed actions together, in a single, fresh respiration. I am against action, for continual contradiction. For affirmation also. I am neither for, nor against. I do not explain, because I hate good sense—but there exists an art which does not reach the voracious mob." Tully reminds us, Terry’s role as the musical genius side-man, blowing note-perfect riffs on now-classic film dialogue, is often how he’s remembered—at the expense of his written work. The best-selling Candy reached the “voracious mob,” however, and many of Terry’s most far out ideas (space burial, media pranks, diving for dollars, A-list erotic films) are current cultural phenomena. More importantly, Tully reminds us that in Terry’s literary output his true brilliance and originality endures; a capacity to astonish, hard and precise as a diamond. ... David Tully’s book may finally lay to rest the “party boy” image of Terry Southern—and confirm him as an accomplished artist of moral strength who found “beauty in every form,” and never lost sight of the powerful impulse to make it hot for them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gotta love that open neck scarf look. If I sported that at work, surely I'd be considered more creative.