The 20th century, perhaps uniquely in history, produced at least two distinct periods when artists and writers felt emboldened to declare that anything is possible and everything is permitted. The first of these was at the turn of the century in Europe, as hidebound moral constraints collapsed and the avant garde energies of surrealism, Dadaism and other modernisms were released. The most recent, at mid-century in the U.S., injected an intensely repressive, scare-mongering period of Cold War paranoia with a surge of creative release that still astounds us today, or should. The Beats: Ginsberg, Kerouac, et al. and groundbreaking novelists like Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey and William S. Burroughs, produced a string of literary firecrackers aimed at shooing the demons conjured by the nightmare imaginations of Puritanical authorities with nuclear weapons. It’s arguable that the times themselves made it possible for that generation to produce its best work, making it urgent and essential and widely popular. And also, in many cases, wildly funny.
Less well-remembered now, but no less worthy of mention in this company, was Terry Southern.1 Southern was and is primarily known as a satirist, I suppose, but that’s like saying the guys who designed the atom bomb were “just” mechanics. He wrote both satirical and non-satirical pieces in a variety of genres: journalism, novels, short stories, screenplays, reviews, and precocious, unclassifiable mélanges of fact and fiction.
Probably the best-known work attached to his name is Dr. Strangelove, the classic Cold War farce-majeur of nuclear annihilation. Director Stanley Kubrick is Strangelove’s originating genius, of course, but Southern collaborated with him on its unforgettable screenplay. The extent of his contribution is apparently still contentious, and this may be an indication of why his career path led him to greater obscurity than many of his peers. The movies have been a cruel medium for many writers, and Southern’s later writing was almost entirely in collaborations on screenplays.
But if you read any of his prose, you’ll see that his particular sensibility, highly involved with depicting the clownishness and deadly “preversity” (his preferred rendering of this term) of the powerful is there throughout the film. You can bet that signature dialogue from each of its indelible cast of characters, and possibly their monikers themselves, from General Buck Turgidson to Colonel “Bat” Guano (“If indeed that is your name,” as Peter Sellers’ Captain Mandrake remarks tellingly during a crucial exchange) come from Southern. And personally I would hazard that General Ripper’s obsession with Russian infiltration of “our precious bodily fluids” through the monstrous Commie plot of fluoridation, which initiates the whole chain of events that ends in Armageddon, is a Southern contribution as well. And thus many equally brilliant touches in one of the world’s great satirical works, in any medium, of any age or land.
Another Southern collaboration, with Mason Hoffenberg, produced the novel Candy, in which Voltaire’s iconic innocent Candide is reconceived as a dim but preternaturally sexy small town girl who travels far (and wide) and finds her ultimate happiness in a very preverse manner. On his own, Terry Southern is perhaps best known for the novel The Magic Christian, a less transcendent but intermittently brilliant lampoon of human greed. Both of these stories became not-so-great movies, their wild imaginativeness stunted by a medium that Southern may have had too much confidence in, after experiencing it at its best with Kubrick. Later interviews with him indicate that he saw the medium to which he’d hitched his fortunes with a very jaded eye.
That’s why you need to read the stories. Southern’s short stories, both satirical and “serious,” are distinguished by prose mastery, subtlety and a truly mind-blowing range of genre and subject matter, possibly unique in U.S. fiction, from the magic realism avant la lettre of a Texas dirt farmer battling a mythical sea-monster in his melon patch, through the minutely examined lives of tragically hip expatriates in Paris, and insider views of the French working class, to the anomie and casual sadism of disaffected young boys. Whether the boys in these stories are in south Texas (where Southern grew up) or New York City, the dialogue is always pitch perfect and the milieu is coolly exact.
Most of his best stories were collected in the superb 1967 anthology Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes, along with some classic pieces of New Journalism, such as “Twirling at Ole Miss,” from 1962, which Tom Wolfe considered foundational to the genre. Here Southern reports on a baton-twirling convention at the eponymous deep South university, full of creamy white pubescent girls in drill team fetish attire, at the height of the dogs-and-firehoses period of the Civil Rights movement. His voice is deadpan and his eye for the telling detail is dead on. There is an exemplary moment in his visit to the college library, when he opens a first edition copy of William Faulkner’s Light in August and finds it raggedly inscribed with “Nigger-Lover” on the title page.
Southern’s most creative period was spent toiling in what he dubbed the “Quality Lit Game,” the smug and self-serving world of New York magazine publishing. This world can only be barely imagined by most of us today, not because it’s gotten any less smug and self-serving, but because it’s so diminished in cultural power. But through those then-ascendant, smoke-filled Madison Avenue corridors Southern rambled in a drug-enhanced state of ribald bemusement. He gives us inside looks in completely crazy-ass pieces like “Blood of a Wig,” whose fantastical sequence of events still grounds itself in a kind of realism with fly-on-the-wall boardroom dialogue, in the form of editors who say things like “let’s stroke this one for awhile and see if we get any jism out of it.”
Southern, somewhat like his contemporary Lenny Bruce, was fascinated with our night-selves, the unexpurgated utterers of all that language that narrow-minded ideologues of all stripes tend to fear and despise. This marks him as a spirit impossibly out of synch with our times, but quintessential in his own. The stuff he dredged up out of the mid-20th century psyche has all seen the light of day many times over now; concupiscence among the powerful and repressed no longer has the power to shock most of us. Incest, necrophilia, coprophagy, whatever: it’s a commonplace of 24-7 news feeds. And yet, in some way because the times demanded it, Terry Southern made his own uniquely delicious froth out of it all, that’s still tasty today. And still radical, even if it doesn’t shock. (The two qualities are often confused.) Why? Because he forces us to permit ourselves to imagine anything, and his wild and generous humor shows us what a pleasurable act such imagining can be.
Southern’s fecund sexual fantasies are always so over the top as to be self-satirizing—which this feminist critic at least would say is quite an apt way of looking at bourgeois male heterosexuality. For a slightly different take on gender relations, there is his gleefully mock-outraged letter to Ms. Magazine in the posthumous collection edited by his son Nile, Now Dig This! (which contains a whole section dedicated to Terry’s spoof complaint letters). He admonishes the editors that if women wish to be taken seriously as full citizens in modern society, they will have to stop acting like “rutting […] wildcat[s],” during sex: “moaning, sobbing, writhing, scratching, biting,” and so forth (Southern’s italicized list of shocking female copulatory behaviors is much longer). There is an unusual generosity of spirit here—often lacking in satirists from Jonathan Swift onward—that is the antithesis of misogyny or misanthropy.
I haven’t even begun to talk about his boundless love of drugs. You’ll have to experience that for yourself; suffice it to say that avid consumer doesn’t do justice to it, and that Southern’s reality is always somehow like a drug experience, even when no drugs are involved. Now Dig This! contains a hilarious transcript of a conversation with Burroughs, as he and Southern go through a bag of pharmaceutical samples Terry has acquired in a mostly futile quest for the real thing. Terry’s exclamation-pointed enthusiasm for the trial and error method of drug testing is dryly riposted by the world-weary Burrows. It’s an overlooked classic of drug literature. Southern paid for that exuberance with his health of course, in later life, as everybody does. How drearily real.
So why am I invoking Terry Southern now, when he’s been gone for almost 15 years? Because even in another landmark period for the triumph of folly, I’ve found no other writer in any medium who can generate the deep, hard, hearty and (still) surprised laughter at quintessential Amur-rican absurdity that Southern can, and who is able to do so precisely because of his mastery of the written word. Almost regrettably for those of us who savor the power of words alone to move and enlighten, Southern was not a lit snob: he moved into film and basically left fiction behind because he saw the cinema’s potential to tell the stories he wanted to tell in a powerful way. And so we have Dr. Strangelove, thank God. And of lesser brilliance but still worthy: The Loved One, Barbarella, Easy Rider and The Magic Christian. He even took a stab at writing for Saturday Night Live, but it was way too tame, by the early ‘80s, when it was largely considered to have gone seriously bad anyway. He would have had to survive into the era of cable, perhaps, to find a home in TV writing.
And even so, I don’t think so. Southern lived until 1995 but produced almost nothing of note from the early 1970s onward. The times had changed, you see. The historical moment from and to which he spoke most eloquently, when “All Power to the Imagination” was not an empty slogan, was utterly gone. (His unforgettable piece “Groovin’ in Chi” about the 1968 Democratic National Convention, suggests that that hope-slaughtering horror show may have been precisely when and where it died.) While our lives have continued to be coldly revolutionized in the technological sense, far too much human failure, particularly of the social imagination, has intervened since that statement was made for it to resonate in the same way with us now.
While some may think the U.S. has become more a more open, more culturally sophisticated society since Terry Southern’s time, I have my doubts. Rather we often seem to me like weird masochists choosing to keep ourselves in cultural lockdown, breathlessly mouthing the words “individual freedom” and “creative potential” and “no limits” and what-not, while our corporatist system, looking metaphorically like the gruesome self-caricature of the late-period Mae West dressed in red-white-and-blue burlesque house lamé, gleefully and unstintingly whacks us with its Naugahyde cat-o-nine tails. Oh, Freedom™.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t fresh and marvelous (and funny) stuff bubbling out there today amid all the homeland insecurity, or that there won’t continue to be. Reports of our cultural death tends to be greatly exaggerated. At the same time, factors too numerous to list here—everything from demographics (an aging U.S.) to global economics (an impoverished U.S.) and the exhaustion of natural resources (ditto)—all of which affect the production of culture in ways we ignore at our peril—bode against another upwelling of creative energies in the U.S. with the transformative power and scope of Southern’s time in the foreseeable future.
So now in this metaphorical late winter light, as we wait for some chance of another spring, let’s raise a joint or a syringe or a glass or a spoon and toast Terry Southern. Reading his best work gives you the pleasure of believing again, however fleetingly, that anything is possible and everything is permitted.