Strange Factories and Star Fuckers: Andy Warhol, Gunnar Björling and Henry Parland

by on Dec.11, 2011

Recently I participated in a questionaire about “experimental poetry” on the web site HTML Giant, organized by Christopher Higgs. One of the questions was: “Is experimental writing political”? This was my reply:

“… Part of the politics of art is in its mimicry; it makes doubles, counterfeits, fakes. It makes a costume drama in which categories are tested (so much of the rhetoric I can’t stand – rigor, form, value – seems aimed at limiting that costume). Part of the politics of Art is that it makes a wound in our culture. The key is not to try to close that wound. The key is to remain homeless.

Artifice is associated with Evil. I’m just now as I type this watching “The Lion King” with my daughter and her cousin. My daughter wants to be batman and her cousin wants to be a princess. But this movie suggests that artifice is unnatural, associated with Death and Evil. The original Lion King appears at the beginning of the movie in a position of authority to present his son while the soundtrack sings “cycle of life.” The royal, authoritative order is appears as “natural,” based on what Lee Edelman has called “reproductive futurism.” The evil uncle on the other hand speaks with an accent, acts feminine, has weird green eyes and scars, and, in the midst of a spectacular pageant, organizing his unnatural union with the deathy hyenas (he has no children of his own) into a fascist rally. This counterfeit king deceives with language and fictions. Why do kids have to be taught the dangers of Art? Why was Michael Jackson’s face a bigger crime than his overdose (which was almost seen as a side-effect of a greater problem: his artifice)?

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It seems that Art always interrupts the idea of “community.” The natural relations between people. The unmediated relations. In the “feministe” blog post about “ruin porn” that Adam linked to in the comment section to Joyelle’s picture of ruined South Bend, there was the same rhetoric: real, moral action consists of being a Human as part of a Community, being Useful. The foreigner, the tourist, the Artist makes “Porn” (something immoral, pathological, useless exploitative) out of “Reality.”

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As another model of community I like to think of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Gone was “natural” relations, usefulness, progress. Instead: Artifice, art-making, drag queens, masquerades, “the superhuman crew.” BTW, in “Like a Rolling Stone,” Warhol is the “diplomat” (foreigner, not a true citizen, a visitor), who carries on his shoulder a “siamese cat” – icon of Alice in Wonderland, orientalism, decadence – and steals from the addressee “everything he could steal” (which seems to mean “everything” but also is an odd phrase). But more importantly, in a world of “desolation row” everything seems “like a rolling stone” – that is everything is “like”, everything is art. The Factory is not a community with its “reproductive futurism” and morality and hierarchical order; but it does “reproduce” in the form of images. It’s a site of sheer iconophilia. And the entire place was – as you can see form the picture above – covered in silver. The very space was a space of silver, of sugar, of artifice.

As I wrote in my recent post about Mick Jagger, Warhol doesn’t have lineage, doesn’t have a “community,” but has an “orbit” where causality, narrative, influence etc is corrupted. Instead of being influenced, being taught how to be major artists, we enter an orbit of transvesticism.

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‎”When you want to be like something, it means you really love it. When you want to be like a rock, you really love that rock. I love plastic dolls.” (Andy Warhol)

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Perhaps the ultimate creepy uncle I can think of is Finland Swedish poet Gunnar Björling (1887-1960) and his cadre of younger men, including most prominently the brilliant Russian-born Henry Parland (1908-1930). Björling is often called “the Gertrude Stein of Scandinavia” for his weird poems, poems that caused him general dislike, even among the radical Scandinavian modernists. When, rather late in his life, he began to get some recognition in the form of a small prize from a Finland Swedish literary organization, one board member resigned, claiming that Björling didn’t “write in Swedish,” but in “Björlingish.” We published Björling’s last book, “You go the words” with Action Books (in translation of Finland Swede Fredrik Hertzberg), and I translated a section from Where I know that you (from I think 1935 or so). Here’s one of the simpler stanzas:

Never saw I
as in the morning
I
you.

I always loved this stanza because of its seeming contradiction. In a poem where the addressee is almost always talked about as distant and probably dead, almost always in seeming ekphrasis, as if the you was an art object, this is a very immediate moment. The encounter is so immediate that – going from “Never” in all its glorious impossibility and abstraction – we end up with I/you. No words separate them. We might expect “saw” but that would create too much distance between the two pronouns. One might read this as a desire to go beyond “seeing” – beyond looking, beyond tourism, to the real encounter – but it’s precisely through looking, through seeing one word on top of the other that we see the intimacy of this encounter. Ie, it’s through that pathological visuality that we can have an encounter that in ART exceeds the intensity of the “real relations” that is so often stressed in ideas of community.

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Surprisingly little in Björling criticism has focused on the fact that he was gay (was even put under house arrest for this). Or that he was the ultimate “creepy uncle” – he was known to gather groups of young students into his “orbit.” That meant drinking and carousing but it also meant, very importantly, that they would come over to his shabby house, his very depleted “factory,” and write his poetry for him. Well, he would write pages and pages of pretty romantic lyric streams of poetry, which he would then have these young men erase. According to Henry Parland’s brother (who like Henry was a member of this orbit) Björling would get very impatient if they were too worshipful of his texts, but would get very pleased if they would basically erase his entire page. During World War II his house got mistakenly bombed but Bjorling published the nearly completely incinerated poems as a book (of love poems).

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The most interesting poet to come out of this “orbit” was of course Parland, whose first book, Idealrealisation, I translated as “Ideals Clearance” a few years ago (Ugly Duckling published it). Swedish critics have until recently completely ignored the strange bond between these two, even though the letters saved in the Parland archives suggest a very close intimacy (I’m pretty sure they fucked, but that may be a bias of our age/culture), even though, as one critic recently figured out, Parland’s manuscript of poetry was typed out on Bjorling’s typewriter, even though it was Bjorling’s status as notorious creepy uncle that appears to have been one of the key reasons that Parland’s parents sent him away to live with his real uncle in Lithuania (an illfated decision since Henry got Scarlet Fever there and died at 22), even though his parents blamed Bjorling for causing their son to write such terrible poetry – ie Parland was in Bjorling’s “orbit” in a way that made their bodies, technology and most important ART intersect in a very mobile, morality-clashing way. They were a heterotopia of sorts but were not contained (the way insane people were contained in asylums), even during “house arrest,” Bjorling became a contaminant figure in Swedish poetry.

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Parland himself in one of the last letters wrote to his friend Sven Grönvall, “I’m always a foreigner, no matter where I go.” Ie he’s never part of the kind of moral community of “real people” that is so often valorized in discussions about poetry. Instead his sociality was one of art/reproduction. He called himself a “dadaist,” though most dada poetry bored him, because he saw dada as modernity itself. His letters to Grönvall are full of statemetns like: I drove a car today, it was very Dada.

Here’s a part of an essay I published in a recent book of essays about Parland:

For Parland, Dada meant the embrace of this age, something his fellow Finland Swedish modernists had trouble doing. Parland seems to have embraced it both in his art and his life: his poetry consists of snapshots and visits to the movies; his novel Sönder is written in the form of photography; his letters are largely montages of modern life; and for someone who lived a life as brief as his, he left behind an astonishing number of photographs – largely of himself and various women friends. As Michael North argues in Camera Works, his study of avant-gardism of this era, the feeling that photography had already made reality into an artwork led to the promulgation of the “readymade” artwork, an avant-garde artwork that imitated the ceaseless circulation of the commodity economy. The idea of the readymade is prevalent in Parland’s commodity-based poetry. But, importantly, Parland frequently views himself through the same mechanical lens, portraying himself as image, “sak,” a stand-in for modernity, a “readymade.”

Here’s a famous piece from Ideals Clearance:

I thought:
it was a human being,
but it was her clothes,
and I didn’t know
that that’s the same thing
and that clothes can be very beautiful.

One can see the similarity to the Bjorling “poem” but there’s also a big difference: “indifferance” as Parland calls it elsewhere. Bjorling is always heated, passionate, yearning; Parland in his poems tend to be indifferent, or excited in a shallow kind of way. However, these affects are not as diametrically opposed as they may seem: they are exactly the roles the two play in their correspondences to each other.

7 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    I’m sure this is the same old agreement masquarading as qualm: how can form not be intrinsic to costume, to artifice?

    Ok, for a real qualm: homeless as metaphor annoys me a lot–maybe I’m way off but I feel like homelessness wld be really shitty unless one gets to wander like the garden at Les Trois Frere (or whichwhat one in CS’s Ours; I think the name I provided might be a cave in the Dordogne a la Guy D’s breathtaking story Robot!) and live in the tent remnants of lux parties. I suspect homeless is used as surrogate for un-moored but I think a word along those lines wld make more sense.

  2. Johannes

    Adam,
    Form is not intrinsic, nothing is intrinsic to this figure. It’s not interested in the intrinsic but the “strange meetings” of Joyelle’s “necropastoral.” It’s perhaps extrinsic if that’s a word. If you mean by “form,” “traditional forms,” I would say they are mostly used for the opposite effect, to reign in a sense of excess, to establish a sense of tradition. But there are tons of formal poems that use traditional forms very interesting: Joyelle’s vilanelles and sestinas, Seth Oelbaum’s sonnets (http://issuu.com/tylergobble/docs/stokediii) etc etc.

    As for the other stuff: I don’t honestly don’t care if something annoy or unmoor your morals. I don’t really engage with the whole moral policing schtick.

    Yes, we make use of the politics of migration on this blog reversing with some obviousness the common idea of the foreigner as a contamination or disease. That’s definitely a common political trope in my discussions.

    I’m not sure what elision of race/immigration you want me to go into or why: That Parland was Russian, operating within a minority culture (Finland Swedes), who were operating on a very postcolonial nation (Finland getting its independence from Russia for the first time ever in 1917). He also got engaged to a Jewish ballet dancer from Moscow who fled to Chicago (where she died in the 1970s) after his death.

    Johannes

  3. adam strauss

    I feel like the foreigner (or some strands of that moiniker) is one of the most exploited demographics, and often extremely useful(sadly this goes hand in hand with exploited). I’m thinking you don’t mean “illegal alien” tho, and actually yah am guessing you don’t mean the conventional political sphere at-all. Well tho I guess a signature Mvidayo trope–contamination, infection, the viral, the invasive–is grafted onto responses to immigration in some nativist vectors.

    Note: I find your elision of race/ethnicity with the discussion of the immigrant fascinating and weird.

  4. adam strauss

    It’s just a bit baffling to read immigrant because there are so many strata to that word and without more it’s easy to reread the term as flattening and because so much immigration does involve disenfran- chised non-white bodies this seems, well, important.

    I don’t necessarily mean set-form and well if not form then shape is intrinsic: letters have contours etc. In English they tend to go left to right and that too is form. So by form I mean the existence of text at-all. And artifice certainly has everything to do with form: without form there’s no “material” and hence no line or sentence; and I agree that it’s great to have the writing flaunt and flash and shimmy.

    I don’t think raising an eyebrow at a metaphor which has some currency–homelessness–is moral policing; I have no power to directly alter your use of a term in the way that a cop/”the” law could. Is it really absurd to wonder why that metaphor wld be chosen when there are others which might be even clearer and which don’t neglect a central meaning of the term? It makes homelessness sound like the ideal/desirable state, which is a lot hard to get with (especially when the poem and the human body have become so entangled in discourse over the past thirty years that to talk poetry becomes hard to isolate from a discussion of off the page living). I agree the trope is seductive, but even more so I wld argue the condition is one to startle a heart to tears and or rage.

    It’s weird that I am in this hug-the-world mode when my real dream is cocktails with high-fashion daughters of a dictator; I love seduction; I love glam; I love the unethical/immoral; glamour is in inverse proportion to morality.

    I need to read Brenda Coultas’ Bowery poem: read a bit on it in CS’s book of essays The Noise That Stays Noise.

    Funnily I’ve become Notley against Deleuze: in an interview she states a fuck you to him for his notion that one can become a woman textually and her response is of course he’d write that as that move wouldn’t make women’s lived experiences ones he contends with directly. And I don’t ultimately agree with AN here but I also don’t think her point can be excised: for me the two–or twenty or trillion–must all be addressed/twined/explored.

    These paragraphs are out of sensible order.

  5. Johannes

    In some contexts it would be important to separate out different kinds of immigrants. Not in this instance. This doesn’t mean I’m not interested in various people’s lot as immigrants and difference; it leaves the wound open, as I note in my post. Lets not smooth over it.

    I’m with Deleuze here as well, though not when it becomes too comfortable (lets all be nomadic, yahoo!). Again, lets leave the wound open.

    I am of course also an immigrant, so I can go that route too. If you want me to go with the “lived experience” my feeling is this: All my adult life I’ve lived with this figure of the “immigrant” – who is kitsch, who is illegitimate, who is cheat-y, who has secret access to jouissance, who is trying to steal “everything he could steal,” who is both ridiculous and threatening, and most importantly, who doesn’t belong. But the second I started to claim the immigrant, the second I said, “OK, I’m not legit, I’m an immigrant,” I’ve gotten so police-d: you can’t talk about immigration this way or you can’t talk about it that way, and really you can’t talk about it at all. And in fact, the terms used are very often exactly coming from the figure of the immigrant (you’re kitsch, you’re cheating, you’re trying to steal poetry/our women/our gold/our professorships etc.) So that’s maybe why I may seem snippy in this regard.

    Johannes

  6. James Pate

    Adam,

    Notley’s complaint about Deleuze has actually been in the air for decades now. A few decades ago, quite a few feminist were making it. It’s not new.

    To me, a much more interesting take on Deleuze comes from Elizabeth Groz, who actually has a very feminist take on Deleuze. In fact, Adam, in recent years quite a few radical feminists have been rethinking Deleuze on this very issue, and seeing in his anti-essentialist notions (against so-called “lived experience” and all of its authentic assumptions) ways of thinking that are actually highly compatible with feminism.

    And Johannes,

    I’ve never been a fan of the rhetoric around “community.” It implies a human bond consisting of sameness and transparency and what Foucault used to call the tyranny of common sense.

    There is also almost always an essentialist background to “community”: “we” are truly “this” and we share “this” with one another.

    Orbit on the other hand implies space and inhuman gravitational pulls.

    I think of community as the folk music scene Dylan pulled away from, and orbit, yes, as Warhol, and maybe the visceral realists in The Savage Detectives, the way they disperse across the globe, float out into space so to speak, but continually orbit around a moment in their youth…

  7. adam strauss

    I by no means meant to propose AN’s tske as new; I agree it’s not; my only intent was to note that I seemed to be aligning myself with a view of hers I don’t fully support. I intended to reveal the gap in my position, to call attention to its wobbliness.