On Alexander Trocchi and Wonder, High and Low

One of the fastest ways to make any group of people disagree is to ask them to draw a hard line between high and low culture. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what one person considers great art, an achievement for all humankind, another considers vacuous. Popular culture is popular for a reason, and that’s where common agreement ends. Alexander Trocchi exemplified this divide, though perhaps it’s better to say he collapsed it.

Trocchi with his son Mark

A drawing of Trocchi’s

Trocchi was born in Glasgow in 1925 to a Scottish mother and Italian father. He was a novelist and a founder of the Paris-based literary review Merlin, which published work by Pablo Neruda, Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, and many others. He was also the founder of the Sigma project, which was intended to be something like a database-meets-publishing-house of like-minded artists and writers.

A page from Trocchi’s initial plans for Sigma. “The word SIGMA we chose to be rid of bothersome semantic accretions. No one is excluded. A man will know when he is included without our offering him a badge. The conference begins now and goes on indefinitely.”

While Trocchi’s literary achievements stand on their own, he is also well known for having been a heroin addict and writer of erotica, and for having written honestly and unflinchingly about both of these aspects of his life and how they influenced his creative practice. His 1960 novel Cain’s Book is a semi-autobiographical story of a heroin addict, Joe Necchi, working on a barge in New York. In Britain it was the subject of an obscenity trial; elsewhere it received rave reviews for many reasons not limited to its frank and frankly wondrous explorations of how high and low the human mind can go. Trocchi also wrote extensively about the connections between drug use and the creative process.

The jacket of the edition of Cain’s Book used in its obscenity trial.

A page of the transcript of the obscenity trial

It’s easy to get lost in the sensationalism of his life story, much as it’s easy to decry anything related to drugs (or popular culture, or any other limitation) as not ‘real art’. While this impulse is understandable, it makes it more difficult to see the merit of Trocchi’s work and life as a whole. In many countries, drug addiction is treated as a public health issue inextricably tied to larger socioeconomic factors, rather than as an individual moral failing as it’s often treated here in the U.S. Who draws that line if not a group of individuals certain in their convictions? The line between high and low culture is as mutable as the line between being a fastidious researcher or a good steward of one’s materials and being an obsessive.

A page from Trocchi’s unpublished book, “Drugs of the Mind”

Trocchi (standing) with friends

Trocchi’s work not only collapsed the distance between high and low, art and smut, poetic reverie and chemical high, but questioned whether that distance truly exists, or exists in the way it’s commonly held to. Anyone who’s ever conducted research or utilized a library’s resources knows that the questions and parameters one sets make all the difference in what one finds. Any artist worth their salt knows that it’s vital to venture outside one’s comfort zone and consume media outside one’s genre, to abide with wonder and strangeness rather than reject them. It’s easy for society to label someone like Trocchi as an addict, and to assume that any addict’s mere ramblings are not worthy of anyone’s sober attention. It’s also easy to assume that if you don’t find what you’re looking for, it doesn’t exist. Whatever else there is to say about the merits of drug use or about sexually graphic literature, Trocchi had a healthy, lifelong predilection for testing our standards, the boundaries we live by, and the attitudes we assume to fit in. As his fellow writers at the time and as contemporary scholars know, the art he created in his  explorations of the highs and the lows is an everlasting wonder to behold.

Special Collections is proud to house the Alexander Trocchi Papers, which include manuscripts, correspondence, ephemera, and more, and to offer them for perusal and research. All images in this post are from the Alexander Trocchi Papers. Go here for more on the author and his collection.

Coming soon: watch this blog for an interview with the latest scholar to research the Trocchi Papers, for a book on the legendary Sigma Project!

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