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Cutting Remarks | The Nation

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Cutting Remarks

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In 1966 Valerie Solanas moved to New York City. At 30, she was already a woman with a difficult past. Growing up in New Jersey, she was molested by her father. She attended college at the University of Maryland, then did a year of grad school in the psychology department of the University of Minnesota.

About the Author

Claire Dederer
Claire Dederer, who lives in Seattle, writes frequently for the New York Times Book Review.

Also by the Author

In his 1997 song "Highlands," Bob Dylan reports a conversation between
himself and a waitress. "She says, You don't read women authors, do
you?/...

She worked as a prostitute either during or after college, according to different accounts. Once ensconced in Greenwich Village, Solanas wrote an absurdist and quite filthy play titled Up Your Ass. Then, sometime in early 1967, she wrote the book that would change her life: the SCUM Manifesto.

"SCUM" stood for Society for Cutting Up Men. The Manifesto is a call to rid the planet of men. It opens with this sentence: "Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex." Get rid of money, work and men, and you'd have a society fit to live in.

According to Solanas, men suffer from "pussy envy." They are the passive members of the race. "He hates his passivity, so he projects it onto women." In his attempt to compensate for his inadequacy, Solanas's man dominates the family, the workplace and, through his warmaking, the world. (Not a bad analysis of Bush's America.) "No genuine social revolution can be accomplished by the male," she writes, "as the male on top wants the status quo, and all the male on the bottom wants is to be the male on top.... The male changes only when forced to do so by technology, when he has no choice, when 'society' reaches the stage where he must change or die. We're at that stage now; if women don't get their asses in gear fast, we may very well all die."

Getting your ass in gear means getting rid of the men. Not all women can be trusted with this charge; only SCUM--"hateful, violent bitches given to slamming those who unduly irritate them in the teeth"--are up to the task. (There were, in fact, no other members of SCUM. Solanas later described SCUM as a kind of "literary device.") The leap from social critique to a six-inch blade is breathtaking. The manifesto whipsaws you. One moment you're nodding along with her rage, the next you're wondering "How did we end up here?" as she talks about ramming ice picks up assholes.

Solanas mimeographed her manifesto and sold it on the streets. (In Mary Harron's scrupulously researched 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, we see her charging women a quarter and men 50 cents.) Around the same time, Solanas stormed the gates of the Factory to present a copy of Up Your Ass to Andy Warhol, who refused to produce it. He did, however, let her hang around the Factory for a time, and cast her as a lesbian in his film I, a Man. Solanas, a budding paranoid, hounded him about the play and grew anxious about his possession of the script.

Solanas continued to hit the streets, peddling her manifesto, her body or even an hour of lively conversation, for which she charged just $6. By chance, on some New York sidewalk, she met Olympia Press chief Maurice Girodias, the legendary maverick who published Nabokov, Burroughs and Miller. He signed her up to write a book. Solanas was thrilled by her status as a soon-to-be-published writer, but it wasn't long before she began obsessing about the seemingly restrictive legal boilerplate of Girodias's contract.

On June 3, 1968, Solanas stopped by Girodias's office or his room at the Chelsea Hotel, depending on the source. She carried a gun in a paper bag. Girodias was out that day, so she proceeded to the Factory. There she shot Warhol in the chest three times. (And the art critic Mario Amayo as well--no one ever seems to remember the poor guy.) She aimed the gun next at Warhol's manager, Fred Hughes, who uttered a line that could have been lifted from one of Warhol's deadpan films: "Oh, there's the elevator. Why don't you get on, Valerie?" She did. That evening, she turned herself in.

Warhol survived, and Solanas went to jail for three years. In the 1970s, she was in and out of psychiatric wards. In the 1980s, she continued to live a marginal life, nursing a drug problem and supporting herself with prostitution. She died of emphysema and pneumonia in 1988, either in a hotel in San Francisco's Tenderloin district or in a welfare hospital, again depending on the source.

The SCUM Manifesto, on the other hand, went on to bigger and better things. In 1968 Girodias published it with a commentary by Realist publisher Paul Krassner. Feminist-movement leaders like Florynce Kennedy, Ti-Grace Atkinson and Robin Morgan hailed Solanas as an important new voice. In 1970 Morgan included the Manifesto in her influential anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful. Girodias published it twice more, in 1970 and 1971. In 1977 Solanas, freaked out by minor edits made by Girodias, self-published "the CORRECT Valerie Solanas edition." In 1983 the Matriarchy Study Group in London brought it out, and it was published a few more times by small presses throughout the 1990s. (San Francisco-based AK Press put out an edition in 1996 with a terrific afterword by the artist Freddie Baer, from which much of the biographical information in this article is taken.)

Now Verso has published a top-of-the-line, sexy new edition, begging the question: Why the SCUM Manifesto, now? Possibly because Solanas's crazed rage doesn't look so crazed anymore. These days, SCUM is no longer scummy. SCUM is transgressive, queer, other-identified. SCUM has its own learned journals, its own coffeehouses, its own university departments, its own bands and movies. The cultural critic B. Ruby Rich noted Solanas's burgeoning relevance in her 1993 essay "Manifesto Destiny," which ran in the Voice Literary Supplement. "The 90s is the decade of the Riot Grrrls, the Lesbian Avengers, Thelma and Louise, the Aileen Wuornos case, and Lorena Bobbitt," she wrote. "There's something intensely contemporary about Solanas, not just in her act but in her text as well."

Was Solanas a harbinger, even an early cause, of this flowering of female rage and queer empowerment? Does she merit some kind of elevated status as the mother of transgression? Verso's gorgeous new edition seems to answer yes. The slim, hardbound volume, with its elegant matte black cover, lends her manifesto a canonical gravitas. She's given the full theory treatment in an introduction by Avital Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at New York University whose previous academic titles include Crack Wars and Stupidity. Even the typeface is beautifully designed. Verso's SCUM Manifesto is a chic little object.

At her arraignment for the Warhol shootings, a clamoring pack of reporters surrounded Solanas. "Read my manifesto," she said to the crowd. "It will tell you who I am." Her words eerily conjure the problem for those of us intrigued by Solanas. Does the manifesto justify the shooting? Or does the shooting vindicate the manuscript? Is she the manifesto? Or is she the shooting? Text or action? Word or woman?

Of course, we'll never be able to answer these questions, because we can never encounter the manifesto without the shooting. We would probably still read Ariel and The Bell Jar if Sylvia Plath had not killed herself, but would they mean the same thing? We can never know.

The Plath connection is hardly coincidental. A question nagged at me as I read the SCUM Manifesto: What if Sylvia Plath had shot Ted Hughes instead of gassing herself? How would we read her work? Would we still dream of her as a beautiful woman? In the 2003 biopic, Plath was played by the radiant Gwyneth Paltrow. Solanas, on the other hand, was portrayed in I Shot Andy Warhol by Lili Taylor, an actress who has played ugly in many films. (I ran into Taylor once at the Mallory Hotel in Portland, Oregon, and she was heart-stoppingly beautiful in real life. But that's another essay.)

Plath's suicide and Solanas's attempted murder of Warhol might be considered the two major acts of feminist violence of the 1960s. Plath and Solanas can be seen as representing two aspects of the movement. On the one hand, women were trying to articulate their unhappiness and their madness in a male-dominated society. They talked, soul-searched, bore witness. They wrote memoirs and met in consciousness-raising groups. Plath's writing predates this discourse, but belongs firmly in it.

Memoir and consciousness-raising were not for Solanas. It wasn't just that she came along too early for consciousness-raising. You feel pretty sure she would have detested it, had she ever met it. She believed in action. "SCUM is too impatient to wait for the de-brainwashing of millions of assholes." The SCUM Manifesto is a kind of anti-memoir. Instead of focusing inward on her own feelings and experiences, Solanas looked outward at the world and demanded action. She had a theory and a plan. Men were ruining the world, and must be gotten rid of. "SCUM is impatient," she wrote. "SCUM wants to grab some thrilling living for itself."

But Solanas couldn't entirely escape memoir. Her description of the women who are proudly SCUM is imbued with a carnal knowledge. "[F]unky, dirty, low-down SCUM gets around...and around and around...they've seen the whole show--every bit of it--the fucking scene, the dyke scene--they've covered the whole waterfront, been under every dock and pier--the peter pier, the pussy pier...." B. Ruby Rich, quoting the same passage, pointed out that this is a species of autobiography: "Of course," wrote Rich, "'they' in this story can only be 'I,' since there were no other members of SCUM. It's as close to confessional as the Manifesto ever gets."

Solanas imagined her SCUM sisters as a fierce tribe of vibrantly imagined ur-women: "dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females, who consider themselves fit to rule the universe, who have free-wheeled to the limits of this 'society' and are ready to wheel on to something far beyond what it has to offer." To me this is the most painful and beautiful moment of the Manifesto. You picture beer halls and fistfights, wet kisses and joy rides. But Solanas, as far as we know, wasn't a member of some utopian girl gang. She was evasive even on the topic of her lesbianism. She had no SCUM sisters. She was alone. In her introduction, Ronnell rightly situates Solanas alongside David Koresh and Ted Kaczynski, a trio of revolutionaries "unmoored and alone with their inscriptions."

A manifesto needs a goal, a green pasture where you'll presumably go when all your revolutionary acts are discharged. Solanas's goal was an intimate fantasy of female comradeship. Her green pasture was filled with freewheeling women. In the meantime, her happiness was made safely impossible by the unmanageable scope of her revolution. Solanas is saying she'll be happy personally after her political needs are met. Since this can never happen, she's perfectly justified in her misery and loneliness.

In a sense, Solanas's manifesto is an expression of powerlessness. Her revolution is so huge that it can never begin. True, she did shoot a man, but even that seemingly militant act was marbled with vulnerability and unsureness. In the Manifesto, Solanas was the decisive woman who attacked silently, ruthlessly, in the dark. Her real-life shooting lacked a basic unifying intention. It was a flailing. She went to Girodias's office to shoot him, found he was out that day, so shot Warhol instead. (And the art critic.)

The SCUM Manifesto is a document of profound vulnerability, written in a voice of profound empowerment. It's a brutal call to arms, written by a woman in a world of hurt. This tension between powerlessness and power makes it an enduring piece of writing. Never have the personal and the political been so mercilessly zipped together, like little steel teeth.

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