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PARIS- AMSTERDAM UNDERGROUND: ESSAYS ON CULTURAL RESISTANCE, SUBVERSION, AND DIVERSION

Edited by Christopher Lindner and Andrew Hussey

Amsterdam University Press. 196 pages. £32.50. ISBN 978 90 8964 505 0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The underground. “A place and an idea,” to quote from the foreword to this book. It’s something that operates below the dominant culture’s threshold of visibility. On a practical level the underground relates to a form of travel in places like London, Paris, and Amsterdam. But there is the kind of underground that operated in Europe during the Second World War. That certainly operated below the dominant culture’s threshold of visibility. It had to, the dominant culture then being one of control and repression. And, of course, we have the underground that was so much written about in the 1960s, though I can’t help wondering just how far underground it truly was? I have to admit to having a kind of involved interest, albeit in a minor way, being one of the contributors to the Penguin anthology, Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain (1969), as well as to a variety of now-forgotten underground magazines, including an issue of De Vrije, published in Rotterdam in 1967. I also recall seeing William Burroughs reading in a little Left Bank club called, not surprisingly, La Bohème, in 1962. A wave of nostalgia sweeps over me as remember those heady days. I’ve got to admit that I later fell out of favour when, in 1970, I wrote an article called “How Far Underground?” which questioned many of the values and achievements of the so-called underground’ and especially the literary aspects of it.

But I’m digressing, and a lot of this book touches on matters which I knew about but never felt that they affected me in any significant way. The Situationists are inevitably invoked because of their renunciation of “the world of the spectacle,” and the way “they looked to desires, resistances, and struggles from below” to challenge “the current social and spatial order.” Also inevitably, the spirit of 1968 is resurrected, and I can’t help thinking that the various essays presented here were probably written by people who were only very young then (if they were even born) and may have a somewhat starry-eyed notion of what actually took place.

It’s appropriate to ask why the focus is on Paris and Amsterdam? There were always what can be called “conventional exchanges” between the two cities, but using the term underground implies that something else was happening. It’s suggested that the “underground traffic” between the cities “most often occurred in avant-garde movements,” such as CoBrA, which stood for Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. Paris also played a part in the foundation of the group, and I seem to recall reading that some sort of inaugural meeting of CoBrA in the 1940s was held in Paris. Whatever, it’s certainly true that Paris has to be considered as of key importance in developments in post-war cultural movements.

As I read the essays I couldn’t help questioning some of the assumptions and generalisations, many of which tend to be backed up with quotes from other academics rather than from original sources. Andrew Hussey and Christopher Lindner go back to the 1950s in their search for the origins of underground as a way of defining “cultural resistance to mainstream power structures.” And they appear to approve of Norman Mailer’s The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster, which did arouse some controversy when it was first published but was rightly questioned about whether or not it represented any sort of mass movement. Likewise, Anatole Broyard’s 1948 essay, “Portrait of the Hipster,” which was said to have been based largely on one man, Stanley Gould, was more of a curiosity than a description of a whole group. True hipsterism, if it existed, was the province of a handful of people (musicians and their followers) around the bop world of the late-1940s and the 1950s. Broyard may have seen Stanley Gould as representative of a type who perhaps became more   prevalent in the early-1950s. Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, with its fictional portrait of Anton Rosenberg, is relevant, and George Mandel’s Flee The Angry Strangers could also be worth looking at for its portrait of some individuals who might be said to be like hipsters.

Hussey and Lindner then proceed to call in a sociologist who says that in the 1960s the underground went overground (true enough) and it became “a codeword to designate a way of thinking and behaving which, if not always totally new, was always at odds with received ideas.” I’m not convinced, and a lot of underground thinking always seemed to me very predictable and based on old assumptions about such matters as sex (women continued to be exploited) and money (there were plenty of sharp operators in the underground). Reading a recent book about Grove Press and its house-magazine Evergreen Review, both key players on the 60s scene, it was clear that underground soon became an advertising gimmick and a way to suggest that plenty of pornography was on offer. Perhaps this is a minor point to make and does no more than relate to the fact that, as is stated elsewhere, there is always a tension in evidence as “the underground confronts the mainstream and becomes fragmented, dissipated, commercialised, or absorbed into contrary interests.” We only need to look around us to see that the underground may have temporarily disrupted “but did not dislodge established power structures.”                                                             

I’ve spent some time considering concepts of underground, with particular relevance to its cultural aspects. But Paris-Amsterdam Underground isn’t only about such matters. An interesting essay about the artist Jean Dubuffet looks at a series of paintings he did of the Paris Metro. It’s said that the Metro provided him with “a mundane set filled with everyday characters that suited the artist’s claim to avoid high culture and classical beauty and depict instead the ‘common man` in his daily routines.” Furthermore, it’s pointed out that Dubuffet’s approach “played with the conventional notion that painting thrives on light and on representing its effect on the nature of things. Depicting an underground space lit with artificial light only made a clear statement about the pedestrian nature Dubuffet wished to confer on his art.” Did this constitute “a secretive, dissident art practice removed from the mainstream culture and from the avant-garde”? He claimed: “True art is always where it is not expected, where nobody thinks of it nor says its name.” I can’t help thinking that Dubuffet in his way was far more radical than many of those in the cultural underground and most of those among the “pop revolutionaries.” His underground was different.

There have always been differences of opinion about what underground meant. According to Hussey it only became popular in France in the 1970s and followed the “seismic cultural shifts that occurred in the wake of the revolts of May ’68.” Hussey also says that Amsterdam was the place where “the European avant-gardes met and sometimes dissolved into groups which in various ways blended into a `counter-culture’ on the Anglo-American model, meaning that the priorities were pleasure and freedom rather than just the apparently outmoded language of class struggle.” Hussey’s main concern is to explore the “brief but intense collaboration between Guy Debord and the Dutch artist Constant between 1957 and 1960.” The role of the Situationists in developing theory and practice in Paris and Amsterdam in relation to an idea of revolution as “lived experience,” rather than as metaphor, is interesting and Hussey usefully explores it. He also throws in some words about the delightful 19th Century utopian thinker, Charles Fourier, who projected a future world where “the sea would become as sweet as lemonade,” and the “North Pole as mild as the Riviera.” He did also say there would be 37 million poets, which is not a thought I’d ever want to entertain.

Changes in sexual attitudes were more noticeable: “In the 1960s, the sexual underground exploded: it grew enormously and parts of it entered the mainstream, often in different forms.” Gert Hekma inspects what happened in Amsterdam (“A sleepy town turns into a sex capital”) with some knowledgeable surveys of publications which focused primarily on sex. Some also included material about drugs and pop music. With Suck, one of the more outrageous publications, Hekma suggests that it “seemed a competition who could tell the strongest story,” with incest and bestiality among the topics involved. Perhaps there was a sort of “liberation” programme at work here, but unless someone’s tastes ran to such things I would guess that a lot of people were just turned off by that sort of material. And commercial interests soon moved in. They had always been there, of course, with pornography and prostitution providing openings for criminal elements. And as Hekma points out: “A revolution that only included the sexual would lead to commercialisation and continued erotic misery of oppressed groups such as women in a liberal, capitalist society.” From what he says elsewhere about the activities of supposedly radical groups it would seem that they too were likely to continue forms of oppression. He refers to the philosopher Fons Elders and “a group of lawyers and doctors” who formed something called “The Erotic Syndicate” which staged sex shows in Amsterdam: “The syndicate propagated tolerance and support for erotic imagery and play as a necessary  antipode to the arms race and commercialisation – a critical reference to militarism and capitalism, cornerstones of the existing order. They resisted sexual exploitation for anti-sexual aims. The shows included boys and girls playing school kids in shorts and with bare breasts, the boys at some point in cross dress and wearing fetish clothing that could be bought on the spot and removed from their bodies – leaving the children nude. Elders liked qualities such as enthusiasm and amateurism in the sex show.” Am I naïve, or does it not occur to anyone else that those “boys and girls” were being exploited? As for the stuff about the sexual play being “a necessary antipode to the arms race and exploitation,” I’m inclined to quote George Orwell and say, “You have to be an intellectual to believe something like that.”

My own observations of the underground, at least in Britain from direct activities and experience, and America from reading about it, is that commercialisation quickly took over. I’ve never been able to understand why anyone thought it could be any different, especially when pop music became an integral part of the underground scene. The music thrives on mass appeal, on selling records and playing gigs which attract large audiences. Agents, record companies, impresarios, and others, are involved and they certainly don’t have (they never did) any sort of radical aims. Quite the contrary. The same can be said of the performers, no matter how much they claim to be revolutionaries and lead hedonistic life-styles. A phrase that crops up elsewhere, “A commercially exploitable notion of freedom and tolerance” seems apt.

Some of the best parts of the book seem to me to be when the contributors leave theory alone and get down to fairly straightforward accounts of what actually happened. In 1975 riots erupted in the Nieuwmarkt district of Amsterdam as the authorities attempted to re-develop the area for extensions to the underground railway system. Squatters had occupied some of the buildings and they provided many of the materials (posters, leaflets, etc.) and bodies needed for protesting. Some of the established residents supported them, while others thought that they were a disruptive influence and interfered with practical negotiations about compensation and re- housing. There were concerns about the fact that many of the newcomers were outsiders, often from abroad, and were just “in search of cheap housing, alcohol, and drugs.” They “disturbed the social fabric.” It’s noted that histories of the protest movement usually ignore the “dissenting narratives” and favour an idea of a consensus of opinion about opposition to the authorities. To be fair to Ginette Verstraete, writer of this essay, she doesn’t fall into the trap of proposing that all underground actions were necessarily positive. But she does point out that more thoughtful activists did do good work in terms of highlighting financial mismanagement on the part of the local authorities and what they saw as flaws in the scheme to extend the Metro.

The chapter on the Beats in Paris suggests that they were a kind of “displaced underground” in terms of their relationship with the United States. Unlike some Americans (the ex-Hollywood writers, for example, who moved to Europe when blacklisted) people like Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Corso had not been harassed all that much, though they were all likely transgressors of social conventions and laws relating to drugs and/or homosexuality. They were in Paris, according to Alan Hibberd, because they “found the atmosphere freer and more conducive to creative activity than the United States was at the time, bound by Puritan morals, haunted by Communist witch-hunts, and writhing in the clutches of the Cold War.” That may be the case, but even Hibberd admits that many Americans have seen Paris as a place to visit or live. I don’t think the Beats were unique in that respect. There is, also, the romantic idea of Paris as somewhere where most of the great 19th and 20th Century literary and artistic movements had their origins. Ginsberg was certainly aware of that side of Paris, and the poems he wrote there, especially “At Apollinaire’s Grave,” reflect that fact. As for Burroughs, he was once quoted as saying that Paris meant nothing to him as a place and was just where he happened to be at that moment. Some play is made of how he and Brion Gysin developed the cut-up technique of composition while in Paris, though I wonder just how important it proved to be other than to academics and historians of the avant-garde?

I have to say that Hibberd does challenge the view that Burroughs was just an outsider in Paris, and he quotes sources (academic ones, of course) that claim he had an awareness of the Situationists and other groups like the Lettrists. I wonder. It’s certainly possible to draw comparisons between ideas in Burroughs’ work and that of the Situationists, though they could be examples of minds working along the same lines in response to what they perceive as general tendencies in society. Hibberd does have to add that “claims for direct influence remain speculative.”  I’m not convinced that, Ginsberg apart, the Beats produced anything major while in Paris. Corso wrote an entertaining but minor prose work, The American Express, and a few poems, and Burroughs did publish Naked Lunch with Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, but it had existed in chaotic form when he was in Tangier and was put together it would seem largely by Ginsberg.

I suppose there is a kind of romantic aura that hovers around the idea of the underground, whether in its cultural, literary, or social form, especially now that we live in a conservative age where state surveillance and control appears to be on the increase. Those old days of protest and experiment must look quite appealing. And it’s hard now to go underground. Carolyn Birdsall notes that “commodification of the underground is accelerated by contemporary trendspotting and cool hunting, whether in informal networks and social media, or by the marketing and advertising industries.” What’s left of the underground is, in Joyce Goggin’s words, “tempered with the more banal considerations of commerce.”

There are some interesting things in Paris-Amsterdam Underground, along with some doubtful theorising and the kind of academic jargon presumably meant to elicit admiration from one’s peers and keep out the rest of us. As an old veteran (sort of) of the underground of the 1960s I have to admit to being amused by it now being a subject for academic research. But ‘twas ever so.