Up Against the Wall

A Memoir of the '60s,
With Notes for Next Time

Osha Neumann
(Seven Stories)
This will prove vexing for English Majors like me who are paid to worry about such things. I am talking about the title, which is, on the front cover, and along the spine, and on the first two pages, Up Against the Wall Motherf**cker. On the back cover, as well as further inside, it gets converted to Up Against the Wall Motherfucker.

On the CIP page, the Library of Congress --- naturally --- has it both ways, although the second entry has the plural: "Motherfuckers" --- followed by "(Gang) --- History." All very confusing for prim librarians like me. The running title on the inside pages comes complete with asterisks. On its title page, RALPH chose to omit the word entirely.

It all brings into question what they call "substitute profanity." When I was a squirt, novels would give themselves over to such vulgarities as "H-ll" or "D-mn." Later writers like Philip Wylie got more daring, began using "G-dd-mn." Or in the case of Norman Mailer's Naked and the Dead, the appalling "fug" (someone once met him at a cocktail party, said to him, "You're the writer who can't spell 'fuck.'")

The question always arises where the spellcheck editors are going to insert what they call in the print biz "dingbats." Why "Motherf**ker?" Why not, in keeping with certain street-wise pronunciations, "Mo***fucker," for the butterfly chasers "Moth**fucker," or for us dyslectics, "*o*er*u**h*r?" Or for that matter, for the very delicate, "M**********r?" An innocent reader could believe it to be "Murder," or "Madder," or, perhaps, "Monomolecular."

It might as well be "Mother," at least in the context of Neumann's book. At the drop of a hat, during the course of the narrative, he'll be wandering off, wondering if the Motherfuckers (always spelled with a capital "M") and his tendency towards sadomasochism have something to do with his poor Mum.

He also reports that whenever his violent buddies in the gang were confronted by the police, he would fade out. He also claims that Herbert Marcuse, the philosopher, roomed with his mother and father ... indeed Herbert may turn out to have been his own father. Philandering philosophers, as it were.

Whatever his heritage, he did have the usual Bronx / Queens / Lower Manhattan revolutionary influences at home, growing up on a steady diet of Marxism and European Social Democratic theory, Songs of the Spanish Civil War and Paul Robeson. But when, at sixteen, he reacted, he did so in favor of direct action: Neumann's Lower East Side gang's first act of defiance was to unfurl a photograph of a maimed Vietnamese child in St. Patrick's cathedral, in 1968, in Manhattan. In jail with several others, someone began to chant "Hare Krishna," and he had a "mystical experience." The harsh light became "simultaneously brighter, clearer, softer." He and the other jailbirds "became Motherfuckers." (Does this sound as weird to you as it does to me? I mean, the word does have some fairly far out connotations, including but not limited to Oedipus Rex.)

§     §     §

The author claims to have been one of the founding fathers of the gang, and Up Against the Wall is a rambling account of his life with them, followed by a retreat to a commune in New Mexico, then to one in Northern California, and finally to his present reincarnation as an ageing radical lawyer in Berkeley. There are sidetrips to the Seattle WTO demonstrations of 1999 (just like old times), philosophy (Herbert Marcuse's "dialectics"), a neo-military recrudescence of the gang in New Mexico, and the one event that may have fomented his break with them. They were demanding time at Fillmore East, and as Bill Graham stood in the doorway blocking their entry, he got severely beaten by a Puerto Rican juvenile delinquent. This last, Neumann admits, may have caused his ultimate break with the Motherfuckers:

    I had watched Bill get hit with the chain and felt a door open between our violent rhetoric and reality.

The book finally devolves into a rambling disquisition on reality, Truth, capitalism, civil rights, black mothers, mothers in Central America and Cuba, "the movements of the Sixties," sadomasochism, and "a multiracial/multigendered global corporate hegemony."

Neumann is a lawyer, so some --- perhaps too much --- of Up Against the Wall is given over to quoting other radicals, or the propaganda that the Motherfuckers put out with their Multilith Machine (in those days radicals everywhere, even radicals from New York's Lower East Side, made their presence known by announcements, demands, and endless sloppily-printed rhetoric blather-sheets).

§     §     §

What should I say? I went through this stuff in the Sixties, so I couldn't put it down, even when we get to the muddled meanderings of the last hundred pages or so. Still and however, Neumann should know that there is a Motherfucker somewhere loose in the print shop that printed this edition of Up Against the Wall. We are used to typos in the proof copies that are sent out to reviewers, but the ones in this volume take the cake. Every damn one of them comes with a delicious twist:

  • Graham's eyes did a soft role in their sockets...
  • [O]ur turds fell with a soft thud onto a peeked, somehow comforting mound below...
  • Graham unexploded and stormed into the paper's office...
  • Was I, as Erikson might say, trapped in unresolved conflicts of the anal stage of development wherein the child masters control of his or her bowls in this stage?

--- Richard Saturday
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