Strange Loves, Magic Christians, and So Much More: An Appreciation of Terry Southern

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. ((A host of other Southerniana is available here.)) 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.

Christy Rodgers’ writings have appeared on Dissident Voice, Truthout, Alternet, Upside Down World, Counterpunch, and Dark Mountain Project. She lives in San Francisco and blogs at What If?: Tales, transformations, possibilities. Read other articles by Christy.

19 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. joed said on January 31st, 2009 at 4:48pm #

    thanks so much for the wonderful article. of late, i have been thinking about how the world will change when the acid generation dies off. i did see The Magic Christian some time, i think in the late sixties. we were trippin’. i didn’t know Strangelove was satire untill about 1993.
    having taken every drug in “every conceivable cobination” and still being alive (i think) … anyway, thanks for the great article.
    another wonderful article, about HSThompson:
    what i want to know is what happened to all those millions of pot seeds that we planted from san diego to portland to seattle to des moines to chicago to new york. millions of’em.
    thanks again and please more articles like this. people are so afraid these days. it is good to talk about drugs and writing and creativity and drugs so people espically kids wont be frightened.
    thanks again

  2. Gordon Whiting said on February 1st, 2009 at 9:24pm #

    Thank you for this thoughtful discussion on the continuing relevance of Terry Southern. I have found it hard to describe to others just why he is so great, but in saying his “dialogue is always pitch perfect and the milieu is coolly exact” gets close to the heart of his appeal. You can hear these conversations actually taking place, however absurd! And you laugh until you weep because the situations on display in Mr. Southern’s work stand firmly on the social logic to which we all subscribe, to one degree or another.

  3. anthony innes said on February 2nd, 2009 at 3:15am #

    Terry Southern’s movie” Candy” do not overlook master piece . This simply brilliant flic ,I think before the magic christian raised my consciousness and allowed me to laugh at my contemporary mileu as few mediums could.Ringo,Richard Burton,Brando cameo and with Southern’s direction waste you.

  4. Damon Gitelman said on February 4th, 2009 at 12:11am #

    Terry Southern’s work may not, as the author notes, shock readers today, but it’s worth noting that shocking readers was never Ter’s intention. “The important thing in writing,” Southern advised would-be satirists, “is the capacity to astonish.” In this respect, his best work holds up beautifully today: take a look at some items from ‘Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes’ (1967), for instance, ‘The Sun and the Still-born Stars’, ‘The Road Out of Axotle’, and ‘The Blood of a Wig.’ And, some works from the ’70s and ’80s can leave you stone-faced astonished as well, like ‘Heavy Put-Away’, ‘Fiasco Reverie’, ‘King Weirdo’ [about his beloved literary mentor E.A. Poe], and ‘Strange Sex We Have Known’ [written with William Burroughs]. Terry Southern is enjoying a much-deserved renaissance this decade, and his many admirers will be grateful to Christy Rodgers for her informed, inspired, and thoughtful piece. She shares the spirit of the late Michael O’Donohue of ‘National Lampoon’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’ fame when he wrote, “If there were a Mount Rushmore of American satire, Terry Southern would be the mountain they’d carve it from.”

  5. r martin said on March 16th, 2009 at 7:40am #

    the writer’s formulaic denunciation of america in the 1950s should not lead her to cedlebrate the rubbish produced by the likes of Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsburg. Burroughs wrote cruel, sadistic and barbarous pornography, Kerouac produced what is likely the single most turgid and unreadable novel of the 20th century and the oeuvre of Ginsburg is adolescent self-indulgence at its worst. Had James Dean ever tried his ridiculously overrated hand at poetry, he would likely have produced risible pomposity like Howl.

    so there,


  6. Barclay Bates said on March 16th, 2009 at 10:32am #

    Cut the hype, Christy. Southern was an entertaining and worthwhile minor writer. That’s all.

  7. Mack Arch said on March 16th, 2009 at 12:16pm #

    Wonderful to read an informed appreciation of Mr. Southern. But I was surprised to find no mention of the ebulliently toxic novel Blue Movie, especially amid so much discussion of Hollywood.

  8. John Bove said on March 16th, 2009 at 2:37pm #

    I’m always happy to discover another Southern fan, but no mention of Flash and Filigree?

  9. FLTom said on March 16th, 2009 at 3:37pm #

    It’s a little off-putting to come across an amateurish grammatical error right at the beginning of a piece. How much confidence should one put in the author’s point of view if he or she never learned how to write properly?

    Perhaps on the left grammar is seen as suppressive authority, its rules meant to be flouted, its defenders nothing more than soporific pedants in thrall to The Man. I’m not cool enough to be on the left, so I really don’t know.

    What I do know, though, is that et al. means “and others.” Et is a complete rendering of the latin word for “and,” and is not contracted. Al. is a contraction for “alia,” the latin word for “others.” The expression is written “et al.”

  10. Sunil Sharma said on March 17th, 2009 at 8:49am #

    FL Tom:

    Rodgers use of et al. is correct, and if that’s the best/all you can do to criticize the article, then clearly you have no point worth considering.

    — Sunil

  11. Tom Doyal said on March 17th, 2009 at 10:06am #

    Terry Southern grew up in Alvarado, Texas, which is in the American South and in Texas, but is not in south Texas. Alvarado is southwest of Fort Worth. Nothing north of San Antonio, Texas, can be said to be in south Texas. This is a minor quibble. I enjoyed the article.

    Tom Doyal

  12. Barry99 said on March 17th, 2009 at 11:57am #

    In fact, I would argue that Alvarado Texas is likely not in the ‘cultural’ south (but south only in the sense that the nation necessarily has a midway latitude separating north from south. It seems to me that, culturally speaking, anything west of I-35 is the west. That’s where southeast meets southwest. I say that not knowing particulars of Alvarado, however.

  13. FLTom said on March 17th, 2009 at 2:39pm #

    The editor appears on the thread after a correction has been made, never mentions the correction, and takes me to task by claiming “Rodgers use of et al. is correct.” Well, uh, ya. It’s correct now because someone changed it from et. al. to et al. !

    Thanks for the laugh, DV, and thanks for demonstrating once again, as if it were ever needed, the high ethical standards of the Left, the “conscious of the world.”

  14. Tree said on March 17th, 2009 at 3:59pm #

    FLTom, I believe you mean “conscience” of the world.

  15. FLTom said on March 17th, 2009 at 5:11pm #

    Touché, Tree. My mistake. Mmmm, it sure feels good to admit a mistake. It’s cleansing — cathartic, even. DV’s editor should try it sometime.

  16. Christopher Thomas said on March 18th, 2009 at 3:34pm #

    All this quibbling over a copyediting glitch shouldn’t detract from the fact that this is a fine appreciation of an excellent and neglected writer.


  17. Juancho said on March 18th, 2009 at 5:01pm #

    Lots of snide commenters here. The piece told me enough about Terry Southern, whose name I knew but whose work I didn’t, to make me want to read some of it. So good work on that.

    I will agree with the guy who slammed the Beats – Kerouac, Ginsburg, Burroughs, and all the rest of those guys were talentless poseurs. Especially Gary Snyder. But let’s not confuse that lot with the New Journalists, whatever exactly that meant. Wolfe, Capote, and Thompson did real writing, and Southern fits in much better with them.

    Since I am a moderate Republican, I completely disagree with the opinions of the author in the last four paragraphs. However, it’s just standard lefty potboiler stuff, thrown in as part of the standard lit crit essay formula, and not even the writer takes it seriously.

  18. Barry99 said on March 18th, 2009 at 5:55pm #

    FLTom – Having raked the author and editor over the coals for putting a period in the wrong place – not a significant error by any stretch of the imagination – it behooves the critic to get his own message correct. Well, you blew it and then went overboard on the catharsis crap. To be sure, using ‘conscious’ instead of ‘conscience’ is a considerably larger error – it’s not just a typo. And you want an ever bigger error? Being a ‘moderate’ Republican just after the Republicans finished trashing the country.

  19. Sarte said on April 13th, 2009 at 11:23am #

    Huzza FL Tom! Well said. The effusive praise for drug-addled, vacuous nit-wits is a chimera at best and friable.

    Hyperbolic writers like Burroughs and his ilk are less reflugent than repugnant. I am sure, however, they never owed their positions to union jobs and rent control….