The Death of a Culture Warrior
Although my only contact with Sol Yurick was a class I took with him at the Brecht Forum in New York in the early 80s, his passing genuinely touched me. For a good overview on his life, I recommend the obituary by Eric Homberger that appeared in the January 7, 2013 Guardian. It starts off:
The American novelist Sol Yurick, who has died aged 87, was too radical, too extreme and too violent for the respectable literary establishment of New York, yet no writer more fully embodied the city’s anguished spirit in the 1960s. His novels The Warriors (1965), Fertig (1966) and The Bag (1968) constitute a trilogy of vibrant energy, biting satire and high, though irreverent, artistic seriousness.
The Warriors, a tale of gangs and street violence, was rejected by 27 publishers before it finally appeared. With its carefully crafted parallels with Xenophon’s Anabasis, it was more literary than Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), but shared its gritty feel for the city’s underclass. In 1979 it was made into a stylish film by Walter Hill. Vincent Canby in the New York Times considered the film “a mish-mash of romantic cliches, moods and visual effects”.
Yurick, who thought it trashy and sentimentalised, agreed. After the New York premiere, his daughter, Susanna, said: “It’s all right, daddy, the kids will love it.” And they did. The Warriors became a cult classic, later embraced by hip-hop acts including the Wu-Tang Clan, spoofed in a Nike commercial and adapted as a PlayStation 2 game.
Hill’s movie drew upon comic-book characterisation but Yurick, who came out of the proletarian belly of New York, knew better. His parents, Sam and Flo, immigrants from eastern Europe, were communists and trade-union activists. Marx and Lenin, strikes and demonstrations, were regular topics of dinner-table conversation. His earliest political memory was, at the age of 14, the anguish he felt at the Stalin-Hitler pact. Yurick enlisted in the US army in 1944 and trained as a surgical technician. A long illness led to a medical discharge in 1945. The GI bill enabled him to attend New York University, where he studied literature. He read James Joyce with intensity and conceived (half-seriously) the Joycean idea of using the Anabasis of Xenophon as a way to tell the story of a gang battling through the city towards their home at Coney Island.
He went to work as a social investigator in the department of welfare in 1954. Life within the welfare bureaucracy led Yurick to conclude that such programmes were designed solely to control the poor. He later wrote an angry essay on welfare which he submitted to Commentary, a leading Jewish magazine with intellectual pretensions. It was repeatedly rejected by the editor, Norman Podhoretz. Yurick had committed the unforgivable sin of writing with too much passion, of violating the canons of civility and detachment. He was sure that the rejection was political.
Like Tuli Kupferberg, who was born two years before Yurick and to whom he bore a striking resemblance, he had an amazing ability to connect with much younger people. As eternal hipsters, such radical writers always had ‘tude to spare.
When the 60s kicked in, Sol Yurick jumped into the deep end of the pool as Homberg’s obit recounts:
From the mid-1960s Yurick became increasingly involved in street protests against the war in Vietnam. As the protests accelerated into free speech confrontations with “liberal” educational establishments such as Columbia University, he worked with Students for a Democratic Society, contributing to the SDS tract Who Runs Columbia? and sharpening their strategy.
Unlike many 60s leftists who “repented” for their excess, Yurick never backed down or apologized. Like many of us, he regarded periods of “normalcy” as displaying all the abnormality of a social system in terminal decay.
In a special 1984 Social Text issue titled “The 60′s without Apology”, there’s a Yurick piece titled “The Other Side” that blasted the dominant narrative depicting the sixties as some kind of nervous breakdown. The “other side” referred to in his title were the forces of law and order that did everything in their power to get the genie back in the bottle. Challenging the idea that the movement “ran out of steam”, Yurick viewed repression as key to the movement’s retreat.
Who this “other side” is would require a massive book and this is only a sketch. Certainly E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class gives us a glimpse. The “other side” is a fluctuating entity. But we can say this much. They evince two kinds of police activity. The overtly repressive and the covert. The covert attempts to maintain proper cultural climates: white and black propaganda, disinformation, control of the popular media, news, culture. In the west there is no one agenda. Todd Gitlin, Stuart Ewen have written about this. Although not perfectly distinguishable, the non-ideological covert involves intelligence and counter-intelligence operations, spying, provocation, penetration, deception, the use of fronts and cut-outs, the creation of disruptive splinter groups, seizing control of leadership positions, and so on.
Now a good 30 years after having taken a class on debunking “the world’s great literature” with Sol, I can remember what a great learning experience it was. Like most people fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to endure a typical freshman humanities class, I was taught to adopt a worshipful attitude toward Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare and company.
I imagine that these sorts of classes (indoctrination really) were inspired by the introduction of classes on “Great Literature” into the British university of the Victorian era. As religion and belief in the monarchy began to subside among the working class, astute servants of the ruling class came to the conclusion that Shakespeare, Jane Austin, et al could help bind the nation together in pursuit of the ruling class’s ambitions. Before literature became elevated to this lofty status, it was simply seen as entertainment–something that ladies and gentlemen enjoyed in their leisure.
All this is discussed in some detail in The Rise of English, an article in Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory, an Introduction. Eagleton states:
If one were asked to provide a single explanation for the growth of English studies in the later nineteenth century, one could do worse than reply: ‘the failure of religion’. By the mid- Victorian period, this traditionally reliable, immensely powerful ideological form was in deep trouble. It was no longer winning the hearts and minds of the masses, and under the twin impacts of scientific discovery and social change its previous unquestioned dominance was in danger of evaporating. This was particularly worrying for the Victorian ruling class, because religion is for all kinds of reasons an extremely effective form of ideological control…
Fortunately, however, another, remarkably similar discourse lay to hand: English literature. George Gordon, early Professor of English Literature at Oxford, commented in his inaugural lecture that ‘England is sick, and . . . English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State.’ Gordon’s words were spoken in our own century, but they find a resonance everywhere in Victorian England. It is a striking thought that had it not been for this dramatic crisis in mid-nineteenth- century ideology, we might not today have such a plentiful supply of Jane Austen casebooks and bluffer’s guides to Pound.
About the closest analogy to Sol Yurick’s brilliant take-down of Great Literature was the memorable scene in the 1989 Batman, when Jack Nicholson goes through a museum writing graffiti like “the joker was here” on immortal masterpieces one after the other. The vandalism was preceded by an announcement to his henchmen, “Gentlemen, let’s broaden our minds.”
Determined to find some example in print of Yurick’s assault on High Culture, I struck a bit of gold in JSTOR, a database of scholarly articles, once again tapping in to the Social Text vein. In the Autumn 1989 issue, there’s an article with the wonderfully provocative title How the Athenians Planned to Colonize the Mind of the West and Immortalize Themselves. No groveling at the altar of Greek Civilization here! He reminds his readers how the “culture wars” that burned so hot at the time were ultimately about preserving the status quo:
The CIA and other First World intelligence agencies were found to have penetrated newspapers, advertising agencies, public relations firms, think tanks, corporations, experimented with psychology and mind-altering drugs…the list seemed endless. They also infiltrated the world of literature and even made agents of dead authors (such as Dostoevsky and Henry James) in the great Cold War struggle. They promoted living writers, critics and philosophers, to say nothing of artists. The Cold War was not only a covert and overt political, military and economic struggle, but an intellectual war to preserve the values of what it called “Western Civilization” against the leveling, canon-devouring “Communist” Bloc, who were barbarically seen to be trying to destroy, devour and loot capitalism and the culture some capitalists seemed to deem necessary for the West’s survival.
Artistic “freedom” and modernism were counterpoised against repression and Socialist Realism. “Western Civilization,” it seemed, consisted of more than accumulating capital; it had vital, energizing, mnemonic, psychic and cultural commodities to protect. From 1967 on it became impossible to think of literature, indeed all art, as being above and beyond politics. Such cultural interventions did not arise only as a response to the exigencies and crudities of the Cold War period. They are more ancient.
The bulk of Yurick’s article is a deconstruction (but not in the narrow academic sense) of Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex” that first of all challenges to our understanding of “tragedy”.
From what we have seen, and from the point of view of the oppressed, of those assaulted by newer, yet ancient modes of cultural domination, we must ask of tragic figures: why, only after being brought down from power, do they develop conscience and sensitivity and insight, begin to feel for others, and suffer? Why didn’t they exhibit these “human” attributes before? What if all the characters in such tragic dramas are bad? If so, no dramatic tensions, as we have been forcibly taught to understand drama, can be built out of such a construct. There would have been no drama, no suspense if we suspected that the committee that judged Nixon was as bad as he was. But the solemn intonation of the word “tragedy” summoned up a series of associations from a collectivized brain that had become “hard-wired” and prevented us from seeing this. Not only do these old mnemonic corpses still pollute the realm of our senses but the newest mnemonic corpses pollute the past.
He also considers the possibility that the act of incest, despite being unintentional, that leads to the main character’s tragic fall, might be a key to understanding Greek power politics and its legacy on the contemporary era.
But what if the woman wanted to rule and determine the pleasure structures of the realm? Her “sacred” reproductive chamber might be denied access to the right sperm and its genes. And, we all know, don’t we, that “Western Civilization” traditionally considers women sexually uncontrollable. Look at the trouble, from the patriarchal point of view, Helen of Argos/Troy caused; the war against Troy was both a trade conflict and an attempt to recover a sacred woman’s sacred womb. Sexual disorder, in just about every mythology (and indeed today), is seen to lead to genetic contamination and political, economic, cultural and even cosmic chaos in the realm, threatening a return to primeval anarchy. (Even today we hear the assertion that unrestrained sexuality has led to political and economic decline, to say nothing of disease as Fate’s or God’s punishment.) As for men, not having a womb, it doesn’t matter who and how they fuck, so long as the line of succession is not in question.
Therefore, what we see happening in Oedipus can be seen not merely as a political conspiracy, but is also a genetic drama, a struggle for the control of the continuity of power. Oedipus, indeed all tragedy, is a drama of succession, whose later manifestations are to be found in the novels of Balzac, Dickens, Zola and such teleplays like Dynasty and Dallas.
There are 13 articles by Sol Yurick listed in JSTOR, including the two I cited above. As most of you know, JSTOR has been a kind of battleground over the past several years with a 26 year old Stanford dropout named Aaron Swartz being arrested for downloading all of the JSTOR articles from MIT with the obvious intention of making them available to the hoi polloi—in other words, the opposite of the Athenian ruling class revered by Sophocles.
If there were any justice in the world, those articles above all should be accessible to the kinds of people who would have taken a class with Sol 30 years ago at the Brecht Forum or who are CounterPunch readers today. In the same defiant spirit as Aaron Swartz, but on a scaled-down level, I invite anybody who wants to read a Sol Yurick article without paying 15 dollars for the privilege to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll work something out. You can get a list of Sol Yurick’s articles doing a search on jstor.com without paying a penny and I encourage you to so without delay.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at http://greenhouse.economics.utah.edu/mailman/listinfo/marxism.