November 2003

Michael Schaub

propaganda

The "Idiot Madness" of Valerie Solanis

It looks like Lou Reed was right. Independent cinema fans and followers of the Velvet Underground might recall Reed's refusal to let filmmaker Mary Harron use VU songs in her 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol. Reed was afraid that Harron might glorify the movie's hero, Valerie Solanas, the profoundly disturbed hanger-on who shot and nearly killed Warhol and filmmaker Paul Morrissey in 1968. Harron ended up using Yo La Tengo, a great band that should have known better, as a Velvet-esque stand-in for Factory party scenes.

To be fair, I Shot Andy Warhol didn't exactly glorify Solanas, but neither did it paint an entirely accurate picture of the woman who has become a cult hero to a small segment of postmodern quasi-feminists. Whatever mainstream recognition Solanas has now is probably due to the Harron film, though her book SCUM Manifesto has been in and out of print for years, thanks to publishers with names like Dialectical Immaterialism Press and Matriarchy Study Group. The book is currently issued by AK Press, the excellent, far-left Bay Area publishing house.

"Radical" would indeed be one way to describe Solanas's 47-page screed, a statement of purpose for the theoretical group she founded, the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM). That name, coupled with the fact that she tried to murder two men, tells you pretty much all you need to know about Solanas's gender politics -- although self-hating males will be pleased to read that they're eligible for membership in the SCUM Men's Auxiliary. This particular group is composed of "men who are working diligently to eliminate themselves" -- for example, "men who kill men ... (and) faggots who, by their shimmering, flaming example, encourage other men to de-man themselves and thereby make themselves relatively inoffensive...." Yeah, Valerie Solanas must have had men beating down the door to join SCUM. Though she probably shot them all.

Solanas studied psychology in college, and her book is informed with the discipline's distinctive, annoyingly imprecise language. That's not to say that this is a scholarly monograph, as even the most casually written scholarly monographs seldom contain references to "Big Bouncy Boobies" and "lowly, abject turds." Also, very few scholarly monographs urge the systematic murder of an entire male gender. (Although, in fairness, I've never been to the Antioch College library.)

So was Solanas serious? It's hard to say. Taken as satire, SCUM Manifesto is a fairly witty, occasionally intelligent piece of writing. Solanas, one presumes, encountered several men over the course of her life, and she only shot two of them. (Not for lack of trying, though -- if it weren't for a defective gun, she almost certainly would have killed Warhol's manager, Fred Hughes.) After serving a ridiculously light sentence for the attempted murder of Warhol, Morrissey and Hughes (technically, she was convicted of reckless assault), she lived for several more years, eventually ending up as a homeless prostitute. As far as anyone knows, she never killed, or tried to kill, any other men. SCUM Manifesto is written in the language of satire, but it's clear that Solanas believed at least some of what she wrote.

And though it's definitely interesting as propaganda, Solanas's book is much more fascinating as an account of what must have been severe mental illness. That is, perhaps, an overly facile way to deal with this extremely unsettling philippic, but really, how do you solve a problem like Valerie? For his part, Lou Reed didn't buy the insanity excuse, as evidenced by his 1990 song about Solanas's "idiot madness," "I Believe." "I believe life's serious enough for retribution," Reed hisses, "I believe being sick is no excuse / And I believe I would've pulled the switch on her myself." (Reed blamed Solanas for Warhol's 1987 death from a gallbladder infection; indeed, he probably wouldn't have had the problem if it weren't for Solanas's bullets.)

AK Press has made my life as a propagandist significantly harder by handling SCUM Manifesto so professionally. The book isn't presented in a sensationalistic manner, which, you can imagine, is pretty difficult to pull off. Included in the AK edition is a fascinating afterword by Freddie Baer which manages to be both sympathetic and admirably objective. I don't exactly recommend SCUM Manifesto for its politics or prose style, but it's undeniably an interesting historical artifact.

As for Solanas, it's hard not to think of Reed's angry words: "There's something wrong if she's alive right now." She's not; she died in 1988, evidently from lung disease. Warhol's friends never forgave her for her incredible act of violence. And it's hard for anyone who's read Cunt to forgive her for indirectly inflicting Inga Muscio on the world. There are no easy answers here, not even any easy questions. But as disturbing, wrongheaded, and scary as it is, SCUM Manifesto is ultimately an impossible book to forget.

SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
AK Press
57 Pages
ISBN: 1873176449