Writing the Counterculture
Terry Southern as Social Satirist

Thesis by Vikki Reilly
University of Edinburgh, Scotland; English Literature (Magna Cum Laude)

“The cultivation of poetry is never more to be desired than at periods when, from an excess of selfish and calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature.” Percy Bysshe Shelley, from A Defence of Poetry.

It is hard not to romanticise the 1960’s when contemplating its artists and their works. Instantly recognisable, perhaps even a part of our psyche; Andy Warhol’s tins of soup; Allen Ginsberg’s Howl; Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it can be said that these works are among the crown jewels of 1960’s artistic endeavour. Though the importance of those jewels cannot be denied, their influences, those hidden treasures of the counterculture deserve their showcase too. Scouring along the faces of Sergeant Pepper’s band reads like a who’s who of counterculture influences; Oscar Wilde; Karl Marx, and in between Dylan Thomas and Dion stands Terry Southern, the forgotten face of 1960’s hipdom. Born in Alvarado, Texas, educated at Northwestern and the Sorbonne, Terry Southern wrote some of the 1960’s best known and best loved works. Working with artistic giants such as Stanley Kubrick, Steve McQueen and the Rolling Stones, his anonymity nowadays seems all the more surprising. It can maybe be explained with the suppression of the subversive in the conservative post-Vietnam America, for Terry Southern’s works could never be described as conservative. It can maybe be explained with the current trend of romanticising the 1960’s, for Terry Southern’s works could never be described as romantic either. His main stocks in trade were the absurd and the ridiculous. To Terry Southern, the figures and events of the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, in retrospect, might have seemed like a gift.

Post-World War Two, and in the United States of America there is affluence never experienced before by the masses. Suburbia, advertising, television, these were exciting attractions to the burgeoning middle classes. It was the beginning of what we now call ‘consumer culture’. Although this consumerism was only in its genesis, the consequences of this new culture of greed were to clear to some, not least Terry Southern, who in his novel The Magic Christian satirises the lust for money and status. His protagonist, August Guy Grand, an eccentric billionaire, spends his time and his money in crazy schemes to witness the lengths people will go to for the almighty dollar. In various adventures, many scatological, most clever, all outrageous and provocative, Grand finds that most people have their price. The various expressions Southern uses show an awareness of marketing jargon:

“I think we’ve hit on something here…something that may well spell ‘touchdown’ in the hearts of Mr. and Mrs. U.S.A!”

Southern also shows knowledge of the petty importances in these times of social climbing. Appearance and manners mean everything in the quest for ascension:

Both their skins were perfect, a condition they attributed to proper diet and to the Doctor’s prescribed methods of care-which had become, more or less, the focus of their lives.

Many characters in Terry Southern’s works are portrayed as extremely self-conscious, aware of their every word and move and how they appear to the world they inhabit. Although, more often than not, these characters do not overact, their self consciousness gives rise to a restrained performance. In ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ there is no passion, therefore any risk of disapproval. During the dog show in The Magic Christian, the dog owners are:

Slightly ambivalent, between not wishing to get mussed or hairy, and yet wanting to pamper and coo over their animals

However, the younger generation, the ‘baby-boomers’, poses problems for this rigid, repressed society:

Emmanuel was the Mexican boy who came to mow the lawn. Mr Christian had strictly forbidden Candy to talk to him as she had shown, on a number of occasions, an inclination to do so. Mr Christian had said that he, personally, was broad-minded enough not to mind, but that it “looked funny” to the neighbours

The new affluence, and the system that provided it, was greatly appreciated by the generation that had lived through two World Wars. Their children, however, born into this affluence, and viewing it with indifferent expectation rather than grateful awe, began to seek something which would be worthy to inspire their awe. Terry Southern, although not a ‘baby-boomer’, greatly felt the hypocrisies of the United States, and in his works documented and influenced this coming clash of generations.

“Seduction into compliance” is how Theodore Roszak described the older generation’s enthusiasm for the consumer culture of 1950’s America. Having never experienced a Great Depression or wartime rationing, the younger generation required more than a washing machine and a vacuum cleaner to be seduced. Sex, drugs and Rock n’ Roll were now the main passions of the ‘baby boom’. The Kinsey Report made sex a talking point, though in the outwardly sexually conservative times, many American households wished that this were not the case.

She handed him the drink, bringing herself very close as she did, so that he could not fail to feel her warmth, nor to catch the fragrance of her Tabu

This is Terry Southern’s description of Candy’s first seduction. In his novel, Candy, the eponymous heroine has many sexual adventures, and like Guy Grand in The Magic Christian, they are always outrageous. Southern’s play on words, above, with Candy’s perfume is a clever and humorous indication of the era’s censorial attitude towards sex. This theme is carried on, not as subtly with the supposedly “broad-minded” (p30) Mr Christian, Candy’s father, who Southern has in full prudish hysteria at the idea of sex, especially where his daughter is concerned. When catching Candy with Emmanuel:

It was not as though he couldn’t believe his eyes, for it was a scene that had formed a part of many many of his most lively and hideous dreams-dreams which began with Candy being ravished, first by Mephesto, then by foreigners, then by Negroes, then gorillas, then bulldogs, then donkeys, horses, mules, kangaroos, elephants, rhinos, and finally, in the grand finale, by all of them at once, grouped around different parts of her, though it was (in the finale) she who was the aggressor, she who was voraciously ravishing them, frantically forcing the bunched and spurting organs into every orifice-vagina, anus, mouth, ears, nose etc. He had even dreamed once that she asked him if it were true that there was a small uncovered opening in the pupil of the eye, because if it were, she had said, she would have room there (during the finale) for a minuscule organ, like that of a praying mantis to enter her as well!

This gloriously histrionic imagination of Mr Christian has Southern mocking the priggish overreaction to sex and satirises this so-called restraint. In Candy, the characters that are the most sexually repressed are the characters that become the most uncontrollable. Their desire for propriety is so exaggerated that all propriety is lost. No doubt, in Barbarella when Barbarella states that in her world normal sexual practices had been stopped “because it was proved to be distracting and a danger to maximum efficiency”, there were some nods in agreement and a wish to make a real “exaltation transference pellet”, especially for those who did not appreciate Southern’s joke.

One Establishment faction who probably did not appreciate Terry Southern’s method of handling sex and the hypocrisies it generated was the church. Always in battle with the secular for the hearts and minds of the young, and in Southern’s eyes as full of hypocrisies as the secular world, this battle proved fertile ground for Southern’s satiric vision in his novel Blue Movie. Hollywood versus Holy See, the fate of the first fully financed, spectacularly produced porn movie in their hands. Both sides are given a chance to defend their stance. Southern has his Hollywood character in enthusiastic preacher parody mode:

“Right B!” exclaimed Tone with exaggerated enthusiasm, then turned to an imaginary audience, Billy Graham style, “and to you out there tonight, I put forward the solemn pledge that God willing, we shall cause the cherished, the sacred, the immaculately white panties of the incredibly cute and lovely ‘Miss Average Movie-Goer’ to become absolutely sopping…yea, be they white, pink, yellow, blue, black, beige, red, flesh or sepia…be they frothy lace-edged or sweet scalloped-edged…latex or spandex…bikini, brief, or full-fashioned…nylon tricot, Danskin or acetate…size four, five or six…yea, I say unto you, even so shall they be sopping…and, in truth, the darling girl shall literally drown in her own precious love-juice as it surges up about her-by the end of the fan-fucking-tastic…show-stopping…SECOND REEL!” He paused for breath, and added in soft, swift urgency: “As God is my witness!”

The characters of the church, however, do not have the same sense of humour in defending their stance, but are ruthless and the film is captured. Nevertheless, the church’s real reason for capturing the film is shown at the end of the novel with a mock newspaper article headlined “New Protocol Mystery at the Vatican” (p255) that ponders a new procession into the vault of Saint Anthony. The article states that the purpose of these processions are unknown and:

Little or nothing can be deduced from the demeanour of the processionals themselves-moving slowly, almost contemplatively, faces shadowed by their ceremonial hoods, expressions shrouded in a sombre obscurity, pierced only on occasion by the glitter of their eyes.

The hypocrisy and absurdity of denying sex, keeping it hidden and naming it wrong or evil is made clear when in confrontation with those that love it, have fun and do not take the subject too seriously. Even Barbarella is turned onto the “old-fashioned ways”, though admittedly it did not take much persuasion! Terry Southern’s works may have outraged the puritans with his words, but they were written, not only as a comment on the times, but in good fun. However, in some cases censorship prevailed, as in the case of Flash and Filigree when “don’t get your shit hot!” was changed to “don’t get your crap hot!” (p38), and also in the case of Candy, which was banned when it was first published. An admirer of Henry Miller, and a friend of Lenny Bruce, two artists who were only too aware of the power of censorship, Terry Southern ridicules the idea and the language of censorship in his short story ‘Scandale at the Dumpling Shop’, found in Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes. In this story, Southern takes on the voice of Establishment self-righteousness at the “Little Cathy Curse Doll-Complete with Teeny Tampons” (p219):

This doll we were blandly assured by the management, is merely a “logical follow-up” on last season’s highly successful Tina Tiny Tears-the Naughty Nappy Doll (“she cries Real Tears and Wets Her Beddy”). Whether or not it is a “logical follow-up” is, at least in our opinion, not the principal issue at hand; the principal issue is that of taste, of responsibility, and of common decency

Throughout his work, Terry Southern was dedicated to “overthrowing this tyranny of words.” Not only did he use words that the Establishment may have found to be in bad taste, he used expressions that even the most liberal of people could describe as offensive or derogatory. It should be said though, that Southern did not employ this method as mere shock tactics. They were used to break taboo and shatter the power of these words, which were used in everyday life but were deemed inappropriate for art-another hypocrisy Southern wished to expose. What seemed absurd to Southern was the Establishment’s preoccupation with the idea of art’s power to corrupt, as seen at the time in the famous ‘Lady Chatterly’ court case. What seemed more obvious to Southern was that the power to corrupt was to be found in the minds of those preoccupied with petty prejudice:

At immigration, Dennis encounters a menacing officer in the form of Big Jim Coburn.
“Occupation?” asks Jim tersely.
“Oh, I’m in A.I.D,” is Dennis’ cheerful reply.
“A.I.D, huh?” says Jim, relaxing now in easy rapport, comfortable with the use of bureaucratic initials.
“Yes, Artificial Insemination Donor,” explains Den “…but actually, I’m a poet.”
Jim doesn’t even blink at the Artificial Insemination Donor remark, but the word poet gets his hackles up, and no mistake. “What’re you mister,” he demands, with a tight and knowing grimace, “one of them spic commie fruit fag poets?!”

There can be no exaggeration that the dirtiest word to the post-war Capitalist American Establishment was Communism. The Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, along with the Bay of Pigs and concern over Cuba contributed to a real paranoia of a Communist take-over and a real fear of nuclear annihilation. It can be said that the American Establishment did little to allay either of these feelings. That the American government and military forces seemed quite willing to persevere with their dangerous and deadly competition with the Communist forces struck many as completely insane. When Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern got together to make Dr Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, it was with the fantastic and the ridiculous in mind:

“Mr President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Depending on the breaks.”
(General Turgidson)

The characters in Dr Strangelove take the military paranoia of communism and competitive nature to extremes, from General Ripper'’ delusions on “our precious bodily fluids”, to Colonel Bat Guano’s strict adherence to the laws of private property: “You’re going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company”, to the grand finale when the end of the world is assured and a cross section of the world’s population are to be transported to live in a mine-shaft until the “Doomsday Shroud” has dispersed:

“We must not allow a mine-shaft gap!”
(General Turgidson)

The use of the Vera Lynn song ‘We’ll Meet Again’ only confirms that this perpetual state of competition and paranoia could never bring a stable peace. Though the Dr Strangelove script portrays these ideas in an outrageous tone, other works by other artists cried out in despair. It can be read in Howl, it can be heard in Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’. Is it any wonder that the younger generation, witnessing the mess their elders were making, decided that there would be ‘dancing in the streets’, ‘sympathy for the devil’, to “Turn on, tune in and drop out”?


“The duty of a revolutionary is to make love and that means staying alive and free. That doesn’t allow for cop-outs. Smoking dope and hanging up Che’s picture is no more a commitment than drinking milk and collecting stamps. A revolution in consciousness is an empty high without a revolution in the distribution of power. We are not interested in the greening of Amerika except for the grass that will cover its grave.”

In the end, the revolution, whether televised or live, never materialised. The hippies, the yippies and their youthful, hopeful ideas did not come into full system-smashing fruition. It could be said that the Establishment proved to be too strong an opponent but it must also be noted that the counterculture did not do itself any favours. It is now described as “exotic but impotent”. There were too many issues, whether it was Black rights, Gay rights, Woman’s rights, peace in Vietnam, Socialism, the environment or drug legalisation. This meant no unity, as each faction jostled for pole position in the minds of the general public. Terry Southern satirises this problem in The Magic Christian with Guy Grand spending his money creating a newspaper called “The Facts”. Circulation is low as “the contents on the whole appeared to be so incredible or so irrelevant”(p32). It is then changed to “Opinions” which is widely read and results in a full scale riot between “the groups and the groups-within-groups”(p33):

“You rotten Mick!”
“You dirty Yid!”
“You black bastard!”…

The well-meaning but inadequate spirit of the counterculture is also portrayed in the character of Dildano in Barbarella. He is earnest in his quest for revolution: “I am not a savage!” but also bumbling and clumsy with all of his devices breaking down.

At least, however, Dildano genuinely believes in a cause. It can be said that the glamorous, or the outlaw nature of the counterculture lead to a great number becoming involved only for the thrills of the scene instead of a real desire to pave the way for a new way of living. This is satirised by Terry Southern in Flash and Filigree with the character of Jean-baby. She is without substance, except for the ones she snorts, smokes or swallows, spouting empty counterculture idiom:

“No cornballs on the scene, Marty, they might hip the fuzz. I told the cat to just

Although there were also those who got an intellectual kick out of these exciting times, as Southern mocks in his short story ‘Put-down’:

“It’s hashish,” said Violet.
“Hashish!” Pricilla was delighted. She almost clapped her hands. “Baudelaire used to have it in his confiture!” she cried.

It could be said that the counterculture, with the race relation protests as exception, was largely a middle class phenomenon. The links with the rise in affluence after the Second World War are hard to ignore. The late 1950’s and the 1960’s produced the first instances of ‘the generation gap’. Through the younger generations use of sex, drugs and Rock n’ Roll, there was an evident consciousness of rebelling against the older generations safe, comfortable, obedient values. Sometimes this resulted in a definite patronising attitude towards those who did not experience the new affluence. As Tom Wolfe wrote in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

Intellectuals were always hung up with the feeling that they weren’t coming to grips with real life. Real life belonged to all those funky spades and prize fighters and bullfighters and dockworkers and grape pickers and wet backs. Nostalgie de la Boue.

Although this patronising attitude was probably not intended, Terry Southern, noting this condescension, savagely addresses these projects of ‘slumming’ in various short stories, including ‘The Night the Bird Blew for Doctor Warner’:

And he even had the gall and devotion, one time toward early morning in a booth gone blue-gray with the circling tides of smoke, when a sleepy-faced drummer passed him a sweet cigarette the thinness of two matchsticks, to hold it as might have been expected, take quick deep drags, wink without smiling, and say in a low voice, “Crazy, man.”

Through these short stories, Southern shows the absurdity of the idea that visiting jazz clubs or smoking marijuana could attain the experience of “real life”. The “funky spades” or the “dock workers” probably found little glamour in their everyday lives, where real issues needed to be addressed. And there were plenty of people involved in the counterculture that took the issues seriously. True to his satiric spirit, however, to Terry Southern there was no group safe from his irreverent pen. Just as he mocks the self-righteousness of his Establishment targets, Southern writes of those who lived against the Establishment grain in equal ill humour and an equal spirit of self-righteousness. In imitative tone:

“Most of us like to work in our regular clothes, and then keep them on-- it gives us a sense of the work we’re doing, and isn’t so hypocritical as changing.”

To many, especially by the end of the 1960’s, it seemed as if the counterculture had turned into everything it was supposed to be rebelling against:

Polls revealed that the only thing less popular than the Vietnam War was the anti-war movement, to cite only one of the bitter ironies.

Strange parallels between Establishment life and the counterculture meant that “there was a huge pressure to conform to non-conformity” and the madness of the clash of ideologies in Capitalism versus Communism seemed to mirror the lifestyle of the counterculture:

You’re either on the bus…or off the bus

It comes as no surprise then that in an era bogged down with these conflicts of ideology, in Terry Southern’s adaptation of the John Barth novel End of the Road, the character of Jack Horner phases out and howls every time a discussion of ideologies takes place. And again, in Easy Rider Terry Southern perceives the whole problem of the counterculture. George Hanson tells Wyatt and Billy:

“What you represent to them is freedom.”

However, in the end, it is only that---a representation. In their quest for “the big money”, Wyatt realises the chance for the real American dream has been lost. He speaks for everyone, real or fictional, who wanted the dream in the beginning, when he says:

“We blew it.”

Terry Southern envisioned a change when he wrote his works. Although he did not dress it up with flowers or love beads or sentiment, his wishes were similar. For the counterculture movement to backfire like it did must have meant disappointment for Southern and all those who truly believed their vision could be realised. Southern said:

The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish…The world has no grounds whatever for complacency…Where you find smugness you find something worth blasting. I want to blast it.

He may not have blasted the system completely, but his irreverent, outrageous and hilarious works are compulsory discovery for anyone feeling disillusioned. Just as the people and the events of that era astonished Terry Southern, his works will astonish you, “that’s how hip he was.”

(c) Vikki Reilly; all rights reserved.

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