A Life in Pieces: Reflections on Alexander Trocchi [Rebel inc.]
ed. Allan Campbell and Tim Niel
A follow through from the TV documentary of the same name, this volume collects together the various interviews that were gathered for research and presents them in their entirety together with fragments of Trocchi’s writing, odd letters, tape transcripts, essays and appreciations. The basic tenor of the questioning lies around Trocchi the writer and the reasons for his ‘silence’ after Cain’s Book; so like the TV programme there is much about wasted talent and drugs. As most of the interviewees have some kind of professional investment in writing it is hardly so surprising that they don’t too arduously pursue the reasons behind Trocchi’s criticisms of and dissatisfactions with writing. At the same time, though the interviewers˛ try to encourage people to talk about Project Sigma, the phrasing of their questions shows next-to-no identification with even the idealist component of Sigma. An image of rebellion as egotistical and radicalism as self-indulgent is what certain interviewees and contributors eagerly embrace and it is really only Bill Burroughs and Leonard Cohen who defend Trocchi’s communitarian hopes. It is Burroughs, who responding to the lead-in that Sigma was far-fetched, replies sympathetically: “I think that it is indeed far-fetched but he possibly had some idea there’s enough minds that would…. Different ideas would of course make a change in society and that’s not without foundation. It’s the way changes come about”.
Amongst the previously unpublished documentsâ, two of the most interesting pieces in the book are by Trocchi himself and date from the period of the early 50s before he became involved with the Lettrist and Situationist International. In a editorial for the magazine Merlin, Trocchi discusses language as an “apparatus for thinking with” and he extrapolates that if the apparatus is faulty then “language itself can be the greatest obstruction to clear thinking”. For me this points towards his initially controlled use of heroin at the same time that it sets the terrain for the experience and furtherance of communal-affects that his counter-cultural activities with Sigma were intended to catalyse. I think, for Trocchi , “clear thinking” was not always a matter of words and his resistance towards writing could well be seen as another layer of his revolt: against a logo-centric society. Though once more in this volume there is next to nothing #±about his participation in the Situationist International, their activities of ‘drift’ would hardly be unknown to Trocchi and it is interesting to view this activity, which depends upon a non-verbal sense of the environment, as a means towards accessing an unacknowledged form of “clear thinking”. It is the same with music: words are always the yardstick but what about the complexities of feeling music can inexpressibly set-off?
The other piece of interest is a letter by Trocchi that was published in the magazine Nimbus in 1952. Here in an article about French writing of the early 50s he articulates the schism between Sartre and Camus in terms of the former’s interest in a writing that is politically committed. In a discussion of existentialism Trocchi shows his support for Sartre’s position and his letter contains passages of rhetorical invective against ‘Literature’ similar to those that characterised Situationist exasperation with ‘Art’. Here he bemoans a ‘Literature’ that has become a “superior amusement” and is practised as a means of arttaining a “position” within the “reigning literary oligarchy”. In a manner akin to the Situationists, Trocchi dismisses ‘Literature’s’ transcendental pretensions, rejecting the then, and sadly still now, commonly held view that writing and politics are separate categories: “The point is that if you pretend to be ‘above’ politics, i.e. the contemporary situation, then however amusing your professions and ingenious your pleadings, you are in effect contributing to the maintenance of a repressive status quo…”. Here dismay with where writing can get you, the required self-centredness, the conformist obeisance that accompanies careerism translates into the breadthening, the ‘doing it for yourself with others’ that characterises the hopes of Sigma. Like the Situationists, who saw strikers, rioters and revolutionaries as creative agents, Trocchi was trying to free-up an und~erstanding of creativity that would no longer be accepted as being contained within ‘individuals’ but as existing between them. When this is the case, the forms that creativity can take are also widened: pig-farming, crime, poems on bog roll, revolutionary movements, tape recordings, portfolios (1).
Points such as these, appreciations of Trocchi’s intent, are what is lacking from this collection. No one is really inclined to deal with the ideas that thread through Trocchi’s life in terms other than their being stereotyped as a quaint 60s exuberance. Instead what we have are Trocchi’s contradictions and enigmatic faces taking them forefront once more. Some commentators seem almost to relish his personal failings as if these somehow mean that the ideas he generated have failed and his example means that no-one should take these responsibilities seriously anymore. This was an interpretation, itself a conditioned response, that Trocchi was at pains to play down and Sally Child notes how his being known as a heroin addict was a way that some of his contemporaries could avoid taking him seriously. Trocchi himself rued the fact that others exploited Sigma tactics for personal, non-sigmatic ends (to feed “Sam Self” as he once put it).A At pains to counter-balance the prevailing image of Trocchi as a ‘monster’ she also importantly adds that he was keen to help people, “encourage them to be creative and give them confidence” and when we add this to the perennial Sigma plan to establish an anti-university we can understand that maybe part of Trocchi’s ‘work’ was to directly pass his non-institutional knowledge and experience on to other young malcontents. The example of an older person who hasn’t sold out is always an inspiration for it confirms and strengthens those initially unsteady oppositional thoughts and attitudes that are constantly being drawn back into conventionality by their characterisation as ‘childish’, ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘pretentious’.
As much as Trocchi’s heroin addiction obscures most peoples attention from a consideration of the ideas Trocchi proffered, Jeff Nuttall’s piece in this anthology expresses with a keen regret the pain and wastage it caused, how it may well have led to the dissipation of Sigma projects for which funding ha–d been secured. This unromanticised reflection is, after Burroughs’s comment, probably the piece which is most sympathetic to Project Sigma. But, would a state-funded Sigma still have the same resonance today, the same potential to inspire those post-media operators who work, rest and play in the latter-day underground? Would it have encouraged people to imaginatively delve into it seeking connective points to situationists, anti-psychiatrists, dissident beats, crazy architects, black power activists? Like Russian communism, would its potent eclecticism have diminished and been written out the longer it actually existed. Trocchi’s comparatively small literary output is a similar point in case. Unresolved and left hanging it does not weigh over the reader like a tradition. It is inspiring because Trocchi’s not making a career out of it makes us view his writing as relative and equal to other pursuits. There’s more to make than just a book. You could do it too.
(1) In this connection Trocchi’s meeting and acknowledged indebtedness to American West-Coast underground artist Wallace Berman is another element missing from this book.
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