In the 4th installment of the new Death and Taxes series “Cabinet of Subversive Books,” we profile works by Kenneth Fearing and Antonin Artaud.
My new series “Cabinet of Subversive Books” profiles fiction and non-fiction, both popular and underground, children’s and transgressive, poetry and tomes, comic books and even romance novels. And if you don’t see one of your favorites now, don’t despair, for it might well make an appearance in due time.
Reading these books won’t get you arrested, but they will bend and distort one’s mind with wonder and titillation, and hopefully radically shift one’s thinking about civilization.
Feel free to make suggestions—I will read them and report back. But some favorites will have to be kept to myself, folks (even if suggestions are made), because an artist never reveals his most important sources.
Nevertheless, the books to be found in this series will send readers off in a number of fruitful tangents, by which they might (might!) come across my more secret hoard.
In this installment, we take a look at some of the work by authors and radical cultural figures Kenneth Fearing and Antonin Artaud.
“Clark Gifford’s Body” by Kenneth Fearing
“Clark Gifford’s Body” by Kenneth Fearing got its resurrection by NYRB Classics in October of 2006, but it was around 2008 or so when I came across the novel, attracted—I must confess—by the book’s title.
From the author’s biographical notes I quickly learned that Fearing had attended my own alma mater—the University of Wisconsin-Madison—then moved to New York City where he began a literary career, publishing pieces in The New Yorker and founding The Partisan Review. He also published a great deal of pornographic pulp fiction under the pseudonym Kirk Wolff, which reminded me of one of my favorite proto-Surrealist writers and personalities Guillaume Apollinaire. Fearing was also political leftist but seemed rather disinterested in politics.
One of Fearing’s choicest quotes—as though he were predicting the recent trend in self-involved memoirs and fiction—was, “The autobiographical first novel is a death knell.”
Despite Fearing’s rather non-committal politics, with “Clark Gifford’s Body” (published in 1942), the writer created a quite avant-garde work of political satire in a noirish style with a radical bent. The novel is narrated by 23 characters in the form of an oral history (much like what Chuck Palahniuk apparently did with “Rant”) and covers 60 years of history.
Without giving too much away, “Clark Gifford’s Body” deals with an idealistic politician and his rebel followers seizing a radio station and broadcasting a call for freedom in an unnamed state (presumably the USA). The rebellion is quite thoroughly crushed by the state. Gifford and others are executed and thus the true motives are left to the imagination of those who narrate and the reader.
And, as it is in reality, there is a turncoat or agent provocateur in the group’s midst.
The reason this book is included in this volume of “Cabinet of Subversive Books” is that it details the exploits of subversives in a state in which electoral politics is thoroughly corrupted and some foreign war is constantly blooming. It suggests the power that radio broadcasts, even pirate radio, still holds in communication—and when applied to our present time, that we should never completely rely on social media. That every counter-cultural or revolutionary movement runs the risk of being corrupted from within by agent provocateurs. That the motives of any radical movement’s participants can be suspect and thus put us in an unreal world.
It might not be the best of novels, but it is certainly worth reading.
“The Theater and Its Double” by Antonin Artaud
Antonin Artaud is one of the great subversive minds of the 20th century, and his art was not limited to experimental theater either. He acted in films, was an early Surrealist, crafted philosophical ideas, wrote poetry and essays, as well as the scenario for Germaine Dulac’s pioneering Surrealist film “The Seashell and the Clergyman.”
Artaud was also an early experimenter with Peyote and wrote of the experience in “Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara.” (The Tarahumarans were a northern Mexican people.)
However, Artaud is most remembered for his theoretical work, a collection of manifestos “The Theater and Its Double,” in which he laid out the ideas of the “Theater of Cruelty,” which anticipated the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fernando Arrabal.
The Theater’s double would be something like the shadow of C.G. Jung or Freud’s Id—the hidden self that can be the source of our greatest ideas and creativity, but also the source of our most vile impulses.
With the manifestos in “The Theater and Its Double,” Artaud hoped to draw people out of the safe and conventional forms of theater, in the specific, though it could be applied to the then modern culture at large. Indeed, Artaud’s ideas as set forth in the book can still be applied in the early 21st century.
Artuad writes at one point:
How hard it is, when everything encourages us to sleep, though we may look about us with conscious, unblinking eyes, to wake and yet look about us as in a dream, with eyes that no longer know their function and whose gaze is turned inward…
…our petrified idea of the theater is connected with our petrified idea of culture without shadows, where, no matter which way it turns, our mind (esprit) encounters only emptiness, though space is full.
But, any attempt to summarize Artaud’s menagerie of ideas in “The Theater and Its Double” here would be rather pointless and far too lengthy an endeavor.
Read it instead.
Watch “The Seashell and the Clergyman” below.