Richard Fariña Essay - Critical Essays

Fariña, Richard

Fariña, Richard 1937?–1966

Fariña, an American songwriter, playwright, folksinger, and novelist of Cuban-Irish heritage, was an important figure in the folk music scene of the 1960s. Fariña, who espoused revolution in Castro's Cuba and fought with the IRA in Northern Ireland, was "one of the earliest protest writers to be lyrical as well," according to Lillian Roxon. His song "Pack Up Your Sorrows" is considered a folk classic. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

The style of [Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me], which is its least appealing aspect, is derived heavily from J. P. Donleavy: it displays the same edgy levity, the same corrosive strain of guarded self-deception. But Gnossos Pappadopoulis (the hero, "furry Pooh Bear, keeper of the flame") is not simply a little Ginger Man; the flower of a later generation, he is gentler, less decisive, more overtly sentimental, and more innocent….

As a literary work, the value of Been Down So Long is slight; its interest as a chronicle of a certain lost hippie scene … is limited, if that is what the reader had in mind. But as an expression, highly personal and honest, of the outcome of those feelings of disinterested virtue and existential autonomy once encouraged (though not often proved) by universities, and later condemned as "apathy," Mr. Fariña's book deserves some serious attention. (p. 449)

Stephen Donadio, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1966 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Summer, 1966.

[Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me] mixes hipster-picaresque with a much more modish, campy style, and seems to be by, for, and about, what Leslie Fiedler calls the New Mutants, whose attachment to normal human attributes is extremely tenuous. There isn't much to it except for a forceful facility in the writing and a horribly accurate ear for the inanities of hipster speech…. Mr. Fariña keeps it all going wildly on, in the accepted manner of comic-strip fiction, with lots of way-out names to keep up the merriment: Louie Motherball, Juan Carlos Rosenbloom, Calvin Blacknesse, G. Alonso Oeuf, etc. For all its souped-up gaiety I found it depressing: a bright, cold, cruel, empty book. (p. 28)

Bernard Bergonzi, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1966 NYREV, Inc.), October 6, 1966.

Long Time Coming and a Long Time Gone is haunted by a paradox. On the one hand, it displays an almost incredible mastery of moods and styles; on the other, it creates an impression of enormous talent lost in a blur of conflicting identities. In the title story Fariña speaks in the voice of a Southern poor white. Later on he becomes Irish, with strong overtones of Dylan Thomas; then somber Cuban, with echoes of Hemingway at his most pompous, and finally slick New York, in a glossy magazine piece about an encounter with some Birchers at a country fair. A few general themes—death, romance, lurking demons, socialism, the decline and fall of America—remind us that all the pieces were written by the same person…. Fariña was a brilliant posturer and a vibrant personality, yet the best work surviving him is his songs. One realizes after reading this book that as a writer of prose he never found a voice of his own. (p. 36)

Henry S. Resnik, in Saturday Review (© 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 5, 1969.

Whitman is legitimately associated with a tradition of optimism and occasional naïveté, but he also expresses a characteristic tendency to raise the highest hopes for the future of the country—and then to criticize it mercilessly when it fails to measure up to the standard. The idea of America as a New World Garden of Eden proposes so extreme a conception of society that its realization is almost inevitably doomed. The shift of the American mind to the other extreme is equally predictable, and it brings to the surface expressions of pessimism, determinism, and visions of apocalypse. Major writers of the last decade (including Vonnegut, Brautigan, and Pynchon) have worked almost totally within this apocalyptic mode (an attitude mirrored well in the rock music of the period) and are consequently closer to literary naturalism and what might be called literary Calvinism than has been supposed. Their sense of loss, like Whitman's, is the greater for the image of the American dream which they have carried in their mind's eye. And it focusses on the failure to achieve a humane and democratic culture.

Among the germinal works of this period which have not received sufficient attention is Richard Fariña's "academic" novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. Although it deals with the university, its themes go far beyond what we have come to expect from the academic novel. And aside from the intrinsic merits of his book, Fariña provides some important insights into the work of Thomas Pynchon, who was his contemporary at Cornell. Pynchon's dedication of Gravity's Rainbow (1973) to Fariña is the expression of more than a sentimental connection.

Been Down So Long is in the classic tradition of American literature—a comic quest by a young hero, "the keeper of the flame," obsessed by intimations of death and loneliness, but with a fine seriousness underlying the often fantastic episodes…. Invisible, an outcast and isolate in his own land, [Fariña] feels a profound sense of betrayal of the promise of America and its spiritual resources to a mechanistic, mindless, advertising-ridden non-culture which threatens to destroy the environment and its inhabitants. Unlike the writers of the twenties, Fariña sees the situation as the consequence of a conspiracy which emanates from the highest levels of political power—and then goes completely out of human control, even of those who may have seemed to be the prime movers. (There is very little of the passivity and world-weariness we associate with writers of the Lost Generation.) Fariña's hero is reminiscent of the Humphrey Bogart character who proclaims his neutrality and isolation from the conflict but succumbs to the indignation he has tried to control and at last finds himself in the midst of the battle. Mentor University symbolizes for Gnossos [the protagonist] what he thinks he's up against …, the microcosmic world of the American university molding its students into consumers of artificial foods and an endless dependence on drugs whose trade names mask what little pharmaceutical reality they contain. The resigned, Gnossos proclaims, are his foes and he combats them with an arsenal of weapons that under cuts the packaged world. (pp. 927-28)

[The] major image is Gnossos the teller of tall tales, the artist as subversive. In response to the conventional world, he invokes a series of references to children's literature, comic books, and radio serials. It is a concatenation of materials from popular culture, the use of which is one of the central characteristics of the fiction of the sixties…. Fariña provides a good insight into the use by writers of the sixties of materials from popular culture…. [They] symbolize the common heritage of the generation, their only source of communion in a world which offers now only exploitation and the portent of nuclear destruction. We often think of pop culture as "camp" or simply silly, but many contemporary writers place it in a wider frame of reference. It provides a fine shock technique, a thrust at the values of middle class culture. It is similar to the use by a writer like Twain, for example, of folk materials which genteel society considers beneath its notice. The mass media are low on any scale and the young are encouraged to aspire to the "higher arts" as they have been sanctified by book clubs and assorted tastemakers. The heritage of "Western Civilization" is sold to the younger generation; their reaction is to reject it, classifying it as another instance of the hypocrisy of an American culture which pretentiously touts what it thinks is "highbrow." "Classical music," the masterpieces of art, "uplifting" literature are prescribed, but the real interests of the adult world are more accurately revealed by the perusal of any best seller list. (pp. 928-29)

At the same time, Gnossos' generation has discovered serious and significant meaning in mass media materials. In one sense it is their folklore (as rock becomes their folk music) and despite the objections of professional folklorists there is some truth in the conception. Though hardly anonymous (anonymity being one of the standard requirements for authentic folklore), the mass media are functionally without authorship…. The materials, nevertheless, have reached a mass audience and provided it with a stock of fantastic, humorous demigods whose behavior is not very far from the real article. Perhaps equally important, they often operate on a level of brutal honesty and overt violence which exposes aspects of American existence that the official culture will not acknowledge. (p. 929)

[Ralph Ellison has said that] "the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically." The statement defines very well Fariña's approach to the form and content of his work, which deals with still another form of invisibility in the United States. "Been down so long it looks like up to me" is a line from a blues well known in a number of variations…. Ellison has used the blues as a basis for literary form and it seems to me that, like Invisible Man, Fariña's book moves along similar lines. Fariña reveals how well black tradition works for the white American, a point Ellison has tried very hard to emphasize in his own speculations about the relationships between black tradition and American culture in general. (p. 930)

Although there is always the danger of sentimentalizing or distorting the meaning of the black experience (and Fariña guards against this by dealing with the Black Mafia), there is also something the white hipster can learn from it. It helps him to deal openly with the brutal experience of life; it directs him to seek what Melville once called the "usable truth," the awareness that at the bottom of individual existence is a confrontation with evil; it helps him to see that "all men who say yes, lie." There is in Fariña's attitude a sense of depravity which is reminiscent of Melville's literary Calvinism.

Gnossos carries close to the surface of his consciousness an image of the monkey-demon, one of several symbols that characterize the power of evil in his world. (The motif is analogous to Pynchon's preoccupation with paranoia.) At the edge of Mentor University's banal community of stupid fraternities, or in the midst of the desert's spaces ("I couldn't even manage a goddamned sunset without a little competition from the Firebird Motel sign"), there are always personifications of evil, banded together in a fraternity of Mafia confidence men, purveyors of drugs, sponsors of orgies, and practitioners of sadistic arts…. In fact, he is their connection with the kind of energetic and impious personality which they must control. At the same time, they are irresistible to Gnossos, for they provide tantalizing glimpses of the vision he is seeking for himself.

For although Gnossos is not hooked on hard drugs, he relies heavily on mescaline and pot for moments of release from the sickness around him: "You go looking for something simple and the whole cancer of your country gets in and infects it." He tries to use his Greek antecedents to fend off the mass of packaged, dehydrated products which pass for food, but even the bits of goat cheese which he carries in his rucksack are not sufficient. (It is an instance of that complication of pluralistic identities which the American contains and which he often uses to neutralize the impact of a homogenized American culture.) (pp. 931-32)

As in much of the rock music of the period, there is a good deal of Waste Land imagery in the fiction of the sixties. But the connection is more with images of desolation and apocalypse than Eliot's sense of the potential redeeming power of the quest. The need for traditional religious values is even less apparent….

Gnossos is not so much cynical, jaded, or deluded as he is aware of the danger that any sincere commitment will be distorted by the organization. Fariña was prophetic in his treatment of the organizational fate of the student movement, for its political aims were "co-opted" or sold out by its leaders. The university itself symbolizes the difference between an academic community and the knowledge factories which turn out the interchangeable parts on their assembly lines and provide an ever-expanding market for the products of off-campus industries. When the dust settled, as Fariña knew, nothing fundamental had changed. (p. 932)

Fariña provides a complex vision—he has written an "autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically," and in a framework that encompasses some uniquely American materials, ranging from folklore to the mass media. But despite some fantastic episodes, his plot line is quite linear and we can see in clearer outline some central themes which are more obscurely developed by a writer like Pynchon who, like Fariña, shows us a devastated spiritual landscape, lighted by explosions of mad, pop humor and similarly destined for destruction. In the background is a vision of what might have been, the dream that has been despoiled. (p. 933)

Gene Bluestein, "Laughin' Just to Keep from Cryin': Fariña's Blues Novel," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1976 by Ray B. Browne), Spring, 1976, pp. 926-34.