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Comments on Heathcote Williams' AUTOGEDDON

These are comments and a bit of analysis on both the version of AUTOGEDDON published in the _Whole Earth Review_ in 1987, as well as the significantly longer illustrated version published in the US in 1991. Things discussed include: implications of the work; the potential of making the full text more available; how I discovered it; and related texts.

Added by colin #442 on 2005-11-20. Last modified 2005-11-23 02:24. Originally created 2005-11-20. F0 License: Attribution
Location: World
Topics: analysis or criticism, carfree places, literature, media campaign \ propaganda, poetry, recommended reading, Vision
: analysis



There are two versions of AUTOGEDDON that I know of. The one published in the Whole Earth Review in 1987. And the one published in both the US and England in 1991 (London: Jonathan Cape; New York: Arcade).

The edition I've produced for this website should match almost exactly with the one in the Whole Earth Review. The changes are: emdashes are not surrounded by spaces, and I bold and put in all caps the first word of what appeared to me to be new sections. The latter strategy, learned from copying the Jeffrey Sawyer article, seems to offer more ways into the text visually.

An epic?

First, whether his full-length poem should be called an epic is questionable. It does give thorough treatment to the effect of car use on humans and the earth, but it does not follow the life of a particular hero or anti-hero. But I am new at studying literature and the definition of epic in my dictionary says "usually centered upon a hero." I haven't found epic used to describe the full-length AUTOGEDDON except in editor's comments in the Whole Earth Review edition. [I may stand corrected—it sort of looks like Lawrence Ferlinghetti does.]


From here on, "WER" will be used to refer to the Whole Earth Review edition, and "AG" will be used to refer to the edition of the poem in the book titled AUTOGEDDON published in the US in 1991. "AG" will also be used to refer to the whole book containing that edition of the poem, since the book AUTOGEDDON also contains an extensive section of related quotations.

An excerpt?

Second, WER is not an excerpt of AG. From the fourth line on, it is a different poem. Some of the lines are identical to lines in AG, but many vary significantly. One general trend is that many of the lines in WER are split into two lines in AG. While WER's thematic sections are all found in AG, at least some appear in a different order. One example of this I remember is that in AG the section on oil comes before the section on architecture/urban wasteland.

The Alien Visitor

One important thing to note is that the lines in AG corresponding to line 8 in WER ("If an alien was to hover. . .") reads as follows:

Were an Alien Visitor
To hover a few hundred yards above the planet
The narrator of AG uses the perspective of the alien often throughout the poem. This can be seen in line 75 of WER: "The Visitor follows up the court reports."


Some of the numbers referring to the death toll cited in AG (p32-35) differ enormously from WER. The differences I noted by line number in WER are as follows:

  • 140: "Eight times the count in Korea" vs. "Eighteen" in AG
  • 141: "Two hundred and thirty Vietnams" vs. "Seventeen" in AG
  • 146: "A quarter of a million ‘auto-fatalities’ a year" vs "half a million" in AG (in a different part of the text I cannot find at the moment).

Everything else

There is a lot more to be said about these two poems, especially the longer one. If I weren't afraid of being bothered by Williams' agent, about having published the new edition of the WER poem here, I might try to contact Williams and ask permission to make the full text of AG available (and ask permission to have WER here). But I should be spending more time on my school work anyways.

There is, additionally, a lot that doesn't quite make sense in one or the other version. (More in WER, I think.)

What I would like to do, barring getting the whole of AG online, is catalog and detail its themes. I personally would prefer to see the poem as a plain text without the corresponding pictures as in AG—but some of the words may need the pictures to make sense—, but with a quick check just now, maybe not.

I don't really enjoy reading the poem, but he's not trying to be pretty. Much of that may be due to the smell of the ink of the glossy picture pages, and my preference to focus on the images formed in my mind rather than on the images in the pictures.

My initial amazement was at how well he details and expresses the breadth and pervasiveness of the problem of the car. I found the last few lines of the poem especially effective.

It is worth including the contents of AG here:

Autogeddon                                       7
Voices Dying to be Heard above the Traffic      83
Picture Credits                                147
Acknowledgments                                148
Index                                          149

I felt on coming across AG and WER that I had found a lost text of the carfree movement (lost to me, at least), that was similar to the feeling I got when reading CARtoons for the first time. I had avoided carefully reading CARtoons, thinking I already knew most of what was in it, but when I did take the time to study CARtoons, I was impressed with the depth of research and breadth of conceptualization of the effects of car use.

In AG that research is obvious. The last 64 pages contains a collection of quotations called "Voices Dying to be Heard above the Traffic." The quotations document the breadth of people who support the carfree movement—which is in part the purpose of this web site. Also included are statistics and quotations documenting the damage caused by cars and car-related pollution. The quotes are organized thematically as well (e.g., Noise, Ozone).

Well, that is all I have at the moment.

Discovery (Ferlinghetti & J.G. Ballard)

Oh—I discovered this from the use of the word "autogeddon" in a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti whose work I was reading for a course I took this summer. It was in The Portable Beat Reader. I can't remember which poem. It may not have been the word, just the sense. Ah. It was on page 540 or 544 in his poem “Uses of poetry” where he mentions "Age of Autogeddon." I'm starting to remember more now. His earlier poems in that book showed the awareness. Yes. It was at least in In Goya's greatest scenes . . . (1958):

In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when
they first attained the title of
‘suffering humanity’
They writhe upon the page
in a veritable rage
of adversity
Heaped up
groaning with babies and bayonets
under cement skies
in an abstract landscape of blasted trees
bent statues bats wings and beaks
slippery gibbets
cadavers and carnivorous cocks
and all the final hollering monsters
of the 
“imagination of disaster”
they are so bloody real
it is as if they really still existed
And they do
Only the landscape is changed
They still are ranged along the roads
plagued by legionnaires
false windmills and demented roosters
They are the same people
only further from home
on freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent
spaced with bland billboards
illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness
The scene shows fewer tumbrils
but more maimed citizens
in painted cars
and they have strange license plates
and engines
that devour America
(from A Coney Island of the Mind, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, New Directions: New York, 1958.)

This led me also to the work of J.G. Ballard, about whom I wrote in a recent email:

I also hope to read and report on Crash and Concrete Island by JG Ballard. . .

Concrete Island
On a day in April, just after three o'clock in the afternoon, Robert Maitland's car crashes over the concrete parapet of a high-speed highway onto the island below, where he is injured and, finally, trapped. What begins as an almost ludicrous predicament soon turns into horror as Maitland—a wickedly modern Robinson Crusoe—realizes that, despite evidence of other inhabitants, this doomed terrain has become a mirror of his own mind.
The book's characters are obsessed with automobile accidents and are determined to narrate the horrors of the car crash as luridly as possible. In the words of the novel's protagonist, the wounds caused by automobile collisions are "the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology."


From here, let us go the following directions:

Colin Leath <>    

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