Word Bombs

Inter/Writing: With Ron Sukenick

ALT-X: Tell us about your role in the 1960s sexual revolution?

RS: We grew up in the Eisenhower Era all of this was like the Garden of Eden.

ALT-X: So talk a little bit about 1968 at Sarah Lawrence College and about the young women who wanted to have sex with their teachers?

RS: I suspect everybody was screwing each other. Teachers were screwing students in their dorm rooms.

ALT-X: Were there any girls you wanted to have sex with and they rejected you?

RS: No. Absolutely not.

ALT-X: How many did you have sex with?

RS: Fifteen or so.

ALT-X: Did ever achieve the status of a Wilt Chamberlain who claimed he slept with 20,000 women in the 70s?

RS: How did he schedule them in. Intellectuals can't do that. They need some time to think. It's not like going to the basketball court. You have to think before going into the classroom, so that takes up most of the day. You have to have to write, to eat, to sleep. You add it all up and I don't think there is time for three women a day. Now screwing students is very risky for teachers because they could get fired.

ALT-X: You've stopped doing it?

RS: Oh yeah, it's too much trouble. But it still goes on. No professor can have any relation with a student now. That rule hit graduate students especially hard because students were their only source of dating. A lot of good relations, a lot of marriages come out of those relationships.

ALT-X: So the experience with all these women, the political aspects and the sex in 1968 inspired you artistically?

RS: I think the whole ferment was intellectually very energizing and inspired me [sidetrack one]. Sex becomes turbulent and highly energized at times when other things become highly energized. It is a Reichian point of view.

ALT-X: Orgone energy. We have to release our orgone energy?

RS: Not particular to Reich. D.H. Lawrence has the same path. It's all one flow if you suppress it at one place the whole culture is effected. I think the people in charge of the culture know that. Sex can be used as a control mechanism.

ALT-X: Do you think sexual repression can stimulate cultural activity in the same way releasing sexual inhibitions can?

RS: I think it can work both ways because the sex became consumerized at that point and so you have to look at further boundaries of repression because the excitement is in breaking the taboos. A lot of people are pushing S/M these days while back in 1968 just to get laid was a huge revolution.

ALT-X: The excitement is gone?

RS: I wouldn't say it is gone but it doesn't carry any weight of cultural revolution. It was a quasi-political act to get laid in those days which was a nice coming together you might say.

ALT-X: These young women thought it was very political to sleep with their professors and you reaped the benefits?

RS: We were all reaping benefits in those days. By the way it wasn't only college girls, but it was high school students. I have a story in Death of The Novel and other stories about going out with a 13-year-old for example which was kind of instructive.

ALT-X: A sexual relationship?

RS: Yes.

ALT-X: Did you know the girl's parents?

RS: No. I met her the day my first novel was accepted. I went to see these underground films in the village and started talking to this girl in line next to me for a ticket. It was very dark in there and we started making out during the movie. When we got out I was astonished to see this girl was actually a kid. We started going out. I liked going around with her in public because everyone would look shocked. Making out in public and people would look appalled.

ALT-X: How about your wife? Was she cool with you going out with a 13 year old?

RS: We were trying to be cool in those days.

ALT-X: It's better than incest. I hear all these stories about fathers who sleep with their daughters?

RS: It is a syndrome of very powerful men they can't stop. They have to have everything. Polanski was really into this. Like that movie Chinatown.

ALT-X: What were some of the roots of the sexual revolution?

RS: I remember in 1968 I was living in the lower east side and there were hipsters and beatniks and all of the sudden in 67, 68 and 69 there was this immense publicity in Life Magazine. I asked myself, why did the media suddenly pick up on these weird outsiders who were advocating a huge change in the culture? I took a look to see when Marcuse's first books about politics and culture were out and sure enough they were early and mid 60s. They explained how capitalist culture needs to, instead of repressing the culture instinct to make people good workers and very puritan, they needed to harness the pleasure instinct to make them good consumers. Marcuse's books were being taught at the good schools and the good schools are where rich kids from big families who will run big corporations. These kids are telling there bosses, "Now we got to harness the sex instinct to sell more newspapers [side track two] and other kinds of merchandise [side track three]. It seems like a good idea lets try it." They look around and see there's these rock singers and beatniks and say that's just what we need.

ALT-X: The social revolution in the sixties came from the top?

RS: Just like the cultural revolution in China.

ALT-X: The Hippies were a new cultural thing that was happening.

RS: What happened with the hippies is that they were the result of this transition of the popularization of the beat movement. Beatniks became hippies and then what happened on the lower east side was violent. While the beatniks could blend in with local culture because we dressed like them, suddenly these guys in beads and sexy clothes and the Puerto Ricans hated them. There were all these fights and violence and drugs.

ALT-X: Hippies were these rich kids?

RS: They were consumers. The people before were cultural workers or dropouts. The hippies came in as consumers of the kind cultural capital that was built up by the underground for a long time. And the summer of love [side track four] in 1968 was when everything got violent.

ALT-X: The Hippies drove up the rent.

RS: Yeah. That is when the lower east side became The East Village. They drove up the rent indeed.

side-track one

I think somebody at Hearst or Chase Manhattan, those people, got the idea that the culture needed to be shaken up or loosened up, because of all the uptight attitudes that were involved, that almost got me kicked out of Cornell for writing 'Birdshit' in a story, were beginning to inhibit the productivity of the culture. So I think they decided that we needed a little loosening up from the Puritan tradition. They overdid it, released erotic Dionysian forces that they didn't expect to get unleashed, and all hell broke loose, luckily.

side-track two

I mean I think that the control of the media in this country is - not only in this country, what am I saying! the Western world, worldwide - is one of the major forces in the move towards the Right now. It's no accident that, all of a sudden, the newspapers, the magazines are owned by three or four different conglomerates. And you can even get it down to people in some cases: Si Newhouse, Rupert Murdoch, and what's that guy, "Good to the Last Drop"? Maxwell. The drop off his yacht, that is.

side-track three

But the point is, once you accommodate to the market you also accommodate to that market, you have a completely different effect. You help support the market. At this point it's hard to imagine somebody who could be a real seller, who's also undercutting the market. But anything is possible, so some genius will probably come up with that. sidetracked4

side track four

What I do is breach the conventional contract with the reader. I cancel that contract and make another kind of contract. I put fiction on the same level as any other discipline of knowledge, and throw out the suspension of disbelief, and move in the direction of the rival rhetorical tradition, which goes back to the Sophists. Which is a tradition of argumentation, and presents itself as a legitimate means of making valid statements and discovering information and imparting knowledge on the same level as other disciplines. For that matter, the old tradition of rhetoric was indistinguishable from psychology. Actually I think all of the humanities may have branched out from rhetoric in a kind of false and disastrous splitting up in multiphrenia of the way we research knowledge side tracked 3 In any case my feeling is that the whole notion of fiction in the Anglo-American tradition is on a very shaky basis, if not a totally false one. Or to put it another way, there's a much more fruitful way of going about it, and that is to just consider the whole thing narrative, and forget about the fictive quality. side tracked 2 What I'm looking for is direct interaction. I mean if it's something like, "Go-down-to-the-Post-Office-and-mail-a-letter" kind of thing, or, "STOP AND WRITE A CHECK TO THE ACLU." Anything that will make the reality of the reading situation and the writing situation manifest as opposed to hidden. It's part of my Reader's Liberation Movement.side tracked 1

side tracked 1

It changes the contract between reader and writer. So that other things become possible, at another time. It's a question of changing the way people understand writing. And once that happens, much more is possible. You then take writing more seriously, like you take history seriously in a certain way, or philosophy, or physics. Because you have faith that these things are directly about experience. Whereas the way you take fiction, now, it's at several removes, it's make-believe. So you don't take it that seriously.

side tracked 2

So put fiction, poetry, the arts in general on the same standing as other ways of gaining knowledge. If fiction or painting or the arts don't give you some access to knowledge, some increased understanding, some expansion of your comprehension of experience then it's a useless game. I'm not interested. But this is what we expect of all the other disciplines. That's the test we apply, the ultimate test of usefulness to the culture. That's what we apply to philosophy. When a philosopher is grappling with epistemology, it's a serious pursuit, because it has to do with the way we can understand our experience. I think we need to put the same requirements, and put the same test, to the arts. On that basis, if you apply that standard, almost all of what is now known as "Quality Lit" - contemporary I mean, not the Canon - Quality Fiction especially, just crumbles to dust. There's nothing there.

side tracked 3

I'm not enough of a historian to really answer whether this rival tradition was always oppositional to a more mainstream or more dominant mode of art. I would doubt whether it was always oppositional. But I would suppose that it was always contentious, because it's in the tradition of argument. Rhetoric is argument, and argument implies two sides to things, criticism, dissent and assent. I think it's automatically a stance that questions. It's what the legal tradition comes out of, and it's probably no coincidence that people are getting interested in the connections between literature and law now.

side tracked 4

The Lettristes / Situationists for example came up with the idea of "dŽtournement," which was to latch onto the content of the middle-class popular culture and distort it. The translation of dŽtournement would be something like "hijacking," maybe. Or diversion. It :"hijacks" a phrase or an image from the commercial culture and uses it for other purposes. It's basically using the mass market against itself. Hopefully it creates an audience for other modes than what the mass market is pushing. In that sense it might erode the mass market. tracked It's an interesting question though: how does the mass market suffer? You can't defeat the mass market; you can only alter it, change its centre of gravity. Also I'm not so sure that the mass market is bad, in any case. It's just a question of who's controlling the means to it; and it's usually forces I don't approve of. The music industry is the most sensitive part of it: Rock-and-roll. Punk. The mass market will tolerate certain kinds of entertainers, give them a voice, give them a platform: and the audience will pick them up in ways that are unexpected, and movements will arise that weren't pre-planned. The mass market has become our environment: and it's gotten so big and complex that you don't know what's going to happen. It's gone beyond anyone's control, even though some people, some groups have more control than others. It's, like, there are no outsiders any more. because there's no outside. You can't get beyond the reach of the culture any more, especially the popular culture. Unless you're a hermit or something, totally hermetic.


I think it's really a question of introducing a mode of thought that's more independent. Reader Liberation, as I say. Teaching the reader to read in ways that are not dictated but which in fact are calculated to release the reader's own thought processes and make the reader think for him or herself. You know, this is directly related to what Burroughs talks about when he says, "Cut the word lines." Cut the lines of authority that are implicit in most of what gets published. And it is an authority: it's written by stooges of the establishment enforced by money and distribution and promotion. It's absurd to think that the kind of writing that's pumped out of the conglomerate international publishing industry would not have an intellectual - or I should say non-intellectual - orientation, basically a political orientation. But it's a political orientation that surrounds us so much - i.e. free market capitalism - that it's invisible. It's so omnipresent it's like the force of gravity. And publishing is also, for writers, invisible as an influence in their writing, but is also like the force of gravity. Everything is pulled toward money, at bottom. And the only way to pull against that is by cutting those lines of authority that are plugged into the money machine. One of the ways of doing it is to write in different ways so that readers can get out of the molds that are prepared for them.