Resisting Our Culture of Conformity: In the Hills of Southern Ohio and in the Groves of Academe

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Resisting Our Culture of Conformity: In the Hills of Southern Ohio and in the Groves of Academe Wayne Burns Blue Daylight Books, P.O. Box 805, Alpine, CA 91903. 2006. ISBN 0-9718849-2-7 xxi + 305 pp. US$14.95

It seems safe to say that Wayne Burns is unknown in Britain and that his name is scarcely more familiar, certainly nowadays, in his native USA. Yet he was a Professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle for over thirty years and during the 1950s and 1960s so enthused his students that many proceeded to disseminate his ideas on politics and literature in their later careers. There were, for example, north of the border, the late John Doheny at the University of British Columbia and Jerry Zaslove at Simon Fraser University, while Art Efron at the State University of New York at Buffalo and Gerald Butler at San Diego State University produced long-running periodicals, Paunch and Recovering Literature respectively, discussing and advancing parasitic anarchism and the Panzaic principle.

Parasitic anarchism can be easily explained. Burns believes it no longer possible (and clearly doubts that it ever was) to either overthrow or significantly modify the capitalist system, which controls not only the minds of its citizens but also the choices open to their minds. All that those who somehow manage to avoid this enveloping control can do is to be 'parasites on the body social and the body politic', linking up with other 'parasitic anarchists' and attempting to enjoy life to the full, while shunning all positions of power and even work that contributes to the maintenance and legitimation of the system. Burns's political theory is then a typically gloomy variant of individualist anarchism. It is however directly related to a theory of the novel that is arresting, highly original and demanding of the attention of any dedicated reader of fiction.

At the heart of the literature Burns most admires are parasitic anarchists, admittedly not self-aware but nonetheless parasitic and anarchistic: Moll Flanders; Arabella, Jude Fawley's wife, in Jude the Obscure; the Good Soldier Svejk; Ferdinand in Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Death on the Instalment Plan; Zorba the Greek; naturally Shakespeare's Falstaff; and also Sancho Panza, who gives his name to the Panzaic principle. Sancho Panza perpetually refutes, with his bodily needs, materialism and realism, the delusions and idealism of his master, Don Quixote. In a key passage of 'The Panzaic Principle' (1965), Burns's major statement of his literary aesthetic, he contends (and it will now be seen why Efron's journal was called Paunch) that

Sancho's belly has not only burst the seams of Venus's girdle, it has given the lie to Dulcinea and in fact all of Don Quixote's ideals - much as Lady Chatterley's guts give the lie to Clifford and his ideals in Lady Chatterley 's Lover.

'My dear, you speak as if you were ushering it all in! [i.e., 'the life of the human body'] ... Believe me, whatever God there is is slowly eliminating the guts and alimentary system from the human being, to evolve a higher, more spiritual being'.

'Why should I believe you, Clifford, when I feel that whatever God there is has at last wakened up in my guts, as you call them, and is rippling so happily there, like Dawn? Why should I believe you, when I feel so very much the contrary?'

Burns comments that 'in life the tightness of the guts (as against the mind) will depend on one's point of view'; but he believes that 'in Lawrence's as in all other novels, however, the guts are always right...' He had started out in 1951 by arguing that any 'serious' novelist was a revolutionary, 'never at one with his society and its values': 'he has to be free to function as a 'licensed madman and revolutionary' - the way all great novelists have, in fact, been obliged to function'. In 'The Panzaic Principle' he went further, maintaining that

it is an axiom or principle of the novel that [the guts] are always right, that the senses of even a fool can give the lie to even the most profound abstractions of the noblest thinker. …