Reversalism: A Philosophy for Living It Up

As longtime readers of my Web site know, I've occasionally written essays critical of the late author and philosopher Ayn Rand. But I don't want to give the impression that Rand is the only major American philosopher whose work I've studied. Another one, less well-known but with her share of influence, is considered below.

She was born Melissa Lebensraum in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1915, but emigrated to the United States at the age of eighteen and shortly thereafter adopted the name Cassandra Prune -- Cassandra, after the prophetess in Greek mythology, and Prune, after a packaged snack food she was enjoying at the time. In 1942 she married Elbert Periwinkle, an unemployed grifter and soda jerk, but for the rest of her life she was known professionally by the name Prune or, as her followers deferentially insisted, "Miss Prune."


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Melissa Lebensraum, age ten. She was known as a dour child. (Photo courtesy The Cassandra Prune Institute; reproduced with permission)


Though she spent her first decade in America working as a lap dancer in a Vegas showroom, Prune's ambitions were considerably loftier. She intended to be a writer, and not just any writer, but the greatest writer of all time, with the possible exception of Nora Roberts. Her literary efforts were at first undistinguished, consisting of unfinished short stories and grocery shopping lists, and her submissions met with little success, even when accompanied by threatening messages and letter bombs. Her early diaries, posthumously published, show all too clearly the toll that this difficult period took on her:

How I long to rid myself of this execrable so-called "human" filth that congeals in the streets and alleys of this pestilent world - how easy it would be (and how right! and how proper!) to take a blowtorch and burn their witless faces off their skulls or tread them underfoot with spike-heeled shoes or simply commandeer a Gatling gun and march into a subway station at rush hour and pump the lousy God-damned worthless subhuman abysmal commuter bastards full of lead! And no one could blame me for it, either! Not one person!

Finally, in 1952 she achieved success with her first novel Taken for Granite, the story of an uncompromising young stonecutter who finds love, betrayal, and redemption in the big city of Minneapolis (where Prune and Periwinkle had relocated following their marriage). Critics have been divided ever since on the literary merits of Taken for Granite, but all agree that the novel's considerable commercial success was attributable to the famous "spanking" scene, in which stonecutting hero Norman Basehart invades the boudoir of uppity millionaire heiress Lola Frigidaire and teaches her a painful but erotic lesson:

His hand smacked again and again on her firm buttocks, leaving the imprint of his long elegant fingers on her creamy yielding flesh. She cried out in pain, but it was a cry not of dismay but of desire, and with every "No!" he heard "Yes!" and hearing this, he smiled as he continued to mete out the punishment she required. He was laughing ...

This was heady stuff for 1952, and legions of young, emotionally repressed and sexually twisted adolescents gravitated to the book. Girls in particular had their heads turned by the stoic, hard-spanking Basehart. It has been said that for much of the 1950s it was almost impossible for a young man to get a date unless he was employed in masonry. More prudish readers objected to the scene's violent overtones, an objection Prune wittily dismissed in the question-and-answer period of a public lecture: "If it was a spanking, it was a spanking by engraved invitation -- and I have a similar invitation available for anyone in the audience, male or female, between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five." The audience laughed heartily at what they took as a jest, although at the end of the evening engraved invitations actually were passed out.


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Reversalist protest march, c. 1954; signs read "Rubella Vaccine = Communist Plot" and "Rubella - Yes! Vaccine - No!" (Photo from the archives of the Minneapolis Handy-Dandy Shopping News)


The book remained on best-seller lists for three years and was made into a 1956 movie starring Claude Raines as Norman Basehart and Jennifer Jones as Lola Frigidaire. Prune wrote the screenplay herself, after an unprecedented agreement with Universal Studios that insured that not one single word or even typo of her screenplay would be changed. Unfortunately, Prune was a haphazard typist, a fact that resulted in some awkward dialogue exchanges.

BASEHART

I can't love you, Lola. You're in love with dearth.

LOLA

It's not dearth I love, Basehart. It's lifting. I want to lift!

The climax of the film is an extended soliloquy by Norman Basehart as he faces a firing squad for the crime of mowing down a crowd of commuters in a subway station with a Gatling gun. In his impassioned 37-minute monologue Basehart defends the right of every man to kill pretty much anybody who rubs him the wrong way. The firing squad, moved by his statement, tearfully shoots him full of holes. The film was a commercial flop but can still be seen on very late-night TV in the programming slots normally reserved for infomercials.


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Claude Rains as Norman Basehart, with Gloria Stuart as spurned lover Vestal Virgin, in Universal Studio's mega-flop Taken for Granite (1956).


Despite the publishing success of Taken for Granite, Prune remained dissatisfied. Her intention had now moved beyond literature to the founding of an entirely new philosophy of life which she called Reversalism, because it was based on the premise that "the truth is the exact reverse of everything you believe." She had decided, she said, to challenge the 4000-year-old moral tradition embodied in the Ten Commandments. "God says thou shalt not kill?" Prune writes in a 1958 leaflet distributed on windshields throughout the Twin Cities. "Reversalism says thou shalt! God says thou shalt not covet? Reversalism says covet all you like! Traditional morality is a philosophy of self-denial, which means: a philosophy of self-abnegation, which means: a philosophy of self-destruction, which means: a philosophy of death, which means: a philosophy of not being alive. Against this age-old primordial cult, Reversalism proudly offers itself as a philosophy for living it up." (emphasis in original)

In a 1960 interview with Modern Bride magazine, Prune was asked to summarize her philosophy while hopping on one foot. Smiling, Prune calmly raised one leg, hopped twice, and booted the interviewer in the groin. (In technical terms, this was an "ostensive definition" of Reversalism.) It was the only summary of her views she ever offered, and people were understandably reluctant to ask her again.

Accused by critics of fomenting a rearguard action, Prune defiantly replied that sometimes backsliding was the best form of progress. "In our battle," she wrote, "we man the backside of the barricades, advancing with every retreat. As your general, I ask you to join me at the front -- that is, the rear!"


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Well-attended Reversalist rally in downtown Minneapolis, on August 13, 1970. Prune is speaking on the dais. Dr. Linwood Spleen stands on Prune's right. (Photo courtesy The Cassandra Prune Institute; reproduced with permission)


Her fans took up the battle cry in growing numbers. One of these enthusiasts was the young Arnold Schlotzsky, who first met Prune in 1958 during a "personal audience" at her Minneapolis split level. Schlotzsky, with his formidable intellect, coolly logical demeanor, and heroic buttocks, soon became a favorite visitor at the Prune-Periwinkle home, especially when Elbert Periwinkle was out pursuing his newfound passion for gardening or, in the winter, building snowmen with corncob pipes and funny hats. Impressed with Prune's fictional heroes, Schlotzsky soon changed his name to the more rugged "Arnoldo Purenson." It was later noted that the name Purenson is an anagram of Prune and son. Was Schlotzsky slyly suggesting that Miss Prune was in fact his intellectual mother or, as she would prefer, his father? The question remains unanswered.

Purenson became one of the first in a series of ardent admirers who made the long trek to Minneapolis to become part of the Reversalist movement. The young fans were known collectively by their formal name The Acolytes, though among themselves they referred to the group more humorously as "The Jerk Squad." Only years later would some disaffected followers realize how accurate this latter designation had been.

In 1975, after years of heroic procrastination, Prune completed her magnum opus, the 8,046 page epic novel Prometheus Burped. The Acolytes were convinced that the book would sweep the country and ignite a philosophical revolution that would convert all of America to Reversalist thinking in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Prune herself was less sanguine, arguing that a complete remaking of American society could be expected to take much longer, perhaps even a month. But even Prune was unprepared for the barrage of critical hostility unleashed against Prometheus Burped. A Newsweek reviewer wrote acidly, "I wouldn't wipe my butt with this sludge," while Time magazine observed, "Yeah right, like anyone's gonna read 8,046 pages." Perhaps Prune's greatest disappointment was that no prominent intellectuals spoke up in defense of the book, although Art Linkletter did send her a postcard saying he'd read the first chapter and thought it was "pretty okay so far, but you can't quote me on that." Prune kept the postcard and in later years said that it may have saved her sanity during this difficult time.


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Despite the book's formidable length and the fact that it consists of the same five scenes repeated over and over with the exact same dialogue, only with the characters wearing different clothes, Prometheus Burped became a surprise bestseller. Again, Prune's ability to weld complex philosophical issues to steamy sexual content undoubtedly played a role in the novel's popularity. A word count by prominent Prune critic Jeff Hatcher (included in his exposé The Wacko Nut Cult of Cassandra Prune and Her Crazy Wacko Nut Job Ass-Kissing Followers) lists 879 uses of the word buttocks in the novel, 326 uses of the word ass, and 17,321 uses of the term rear end -- although Hatcher cautions that in some of those cases rear end refers to the rear end of a train. (Conversely, the term caboose is not invariably used in a locomotive context.)

Prometheus Burped created a demand for more information about Prune's innovative philosophy. Arnoldo Purenson was quick to oblige, creating the Arnoldo Purenson Institute for Advanced Intellectual Masturbation, which operated out of his powder room. At first tens, then dozens, then scores of eager young "disciples of Reversalism" flocked to Minneapolis to attend lectures given by Purenson, his wife Beatrice, and their trained macaw Bernie. Occasionally, Cassandra Prune herself would condescend to attend the question-and-answer periods. She cut a dramatic figure on stage, wearing her stylish 1930s pageboy 'do, clad in her trademark Eskimo parka, and holding aloft her gilded riding crop.

In 1981, a noted film producer, fresh from his dazzling success with the international hit movie Debbie Does Dallas, held a press conference at Bob's Big Boy on Sawtelle Avenue in West L.A. and announced plans to make a seven-hour theatrical film version of Prometheus Burped. Unfortunately these plans were scotched the very next day, when Prune insisted on not only directing the film but playing all the major roles. Prune was to spend the rest of her life fruitlessly seeking the financing necessary to bring her novel to the big screen, or at least turn it into a four-color comic book.

It was at this point that Prune, depressed over the failure of her ideas to appeal to anyone old enough to drive, embarked on a controversial three-way personal relationship with Arnoldo Purenson and her pet dalmation, Rex. The unconventional menage a trois disturbed her husband, mainly because he was not included. Elbert Periwinkle took to spending a lot of time in his room and, in Beatrice Purenson's muckraking 2005 biography The Colossal Bitchiness of Cassandra Prune, was even said to have become an early user of crack cocaine. This claim, however, is fiercely disputed by Prune's partisans. The executor of Prune's estate, Dr. Linwood Spleen, responding to allegations that Periwinkle's room was found cluttered with coke spoons, has explained that Periwinkle actually used the spoons for "mixing tea."


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Rex. Photo taken in 1982, shortly after the commencement of his menage a trois with Cassandra Prune and Arnoldo Purenson. (Author's private collection)


Spleen was a comparatively late arrival to Prune's inner circle, but his dogged sycophancy quickly made him a fixture in the movement. He became known as the intellectual leader of the Acolytes, inasmuch as he was the only one of them who had actually finished college. (He obtained a bachelor's degree in Philosophy, with a minor in Home Economics, from the University of Saskatchewan. He later received an honorary doctorate from Martin and Lewis College.) His book The Horrendous Similarities, originally intended for publication in 1972 as a protest against the McGovern presidential campaign, was slightly delayed by Prune's insistence on revisions, and eventually saw print in 2004. Prune, in her foreword to the book, praised Spleen as "the foremost intellectual figure in the world today other than myself and Nora Roberts" and said that the 120-page monograph was "destined to reshape, or I should say reverse, all the intellectual trends of today's debased culture, and then some." The book sold 372 copies, most of them purchased by the Cassandra Prune Institute under the direction of its chairman, Linwood Spleen. Used (but frequently unread) copies of The Horrendous Similarities can still found on eBay in the "intellectual claptrap" section.

During her lifetime, Prune did not allow anyone other than members of her increasingly limited inner circle to refer to himself as a Reversalist. Instead, those interested in the philosophy were ordered to adopt the term "disciples of Reversalism," although the alternative designation "Reversalist brown-nosers" was also permitted. The movement swiftly grew throughout the 1980s in the go-go Reagan years, its numbers enlarged by the publication of several collections of Prune's nonfiction essays in book form. In The Antebellum South: The Forgotten Ideal (1982), Prune argued that America below the Mason-Dixon line during the plantation era had been a paradise for both slave owners and the slaves themselves. The idea that slaves had suffered during this period was a distortion of history, she argued, foisted on an unsuspecting public by "Marxist historians, leftist propagandists, and subhuman quasi-Neanderthal pseudo-intellectuals with flabby sagging buttocks." Prune laid particular emphasis on the custom of whipping errant slaves, which she proved was not an act of abuse, or if it was, "it was abuse by engraved invitation."

Other Prune titles of the period include The Virtue of Self-Righteousness (1987), in which Prune argues that dogmatic insistence on one's position regardless of evidence is the essence of morality, and Hippies and God: America's Twin Menace (1992), a challenging look at the folk music scene, with particular emphasis on the metaphysical contradictions of John Denver.

Although Prune always insisted that politics would be the last phase of American culture to reflect Reversalist dogma, ironically it was in politics that her burgeoning movement may have made its most lasting impact. A small but determined band of Reversalist infiltrators managed to insert a plank into the Reform Party platform of 1996 attacking the civil rights movement, hippies, and the rubella vaccine. The Reversalist position is even said to have exerted some influence on top advisers to Ross Perot, or at least on some people who met Perot once at a barbecue and say they shook his hand.


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Image from Prune's disastrous appearance on The Jerry Springer Show (Oct. 26, 1997), which ended in a riot. The episode aired only once. (Photo courtesy Jerry Springer/Upchuck Productions)


By the late '90s Prune was largely alone. Elbert Periwinkle had died in a fire started when one of his tea-mixing sessions went tragically awry. Following a romantic misunderstanding involving a branding iron, Arnoldo Purenson had split with Prune to start his own 1-900 telephone sex service in Tampa. His ex-wife Beatrice, expelled from Reversalism for questioning Prune's choice of underarm deodorant, was at work on an unflattering biography of the movement's leader. Most of the other members of the inner circle either had drifted away or had been "purged" in a series of "show trials" held in Prune's rec room. A few were beheaded. Even Prune's beloved dalmatian, Rex, had succumbed to unspecified rectal injuries. Only Dr. Linwood Spleen remained at Prune's side.


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Reversalist rally, late 1990s. The falloff in attendance from the earlier "glory days" can be clearly seen. (Photo courtesy of Beatrice Purenson; reproduced without permission)


These last years were difficult ones for Cassandra Prune. She was once observed staring moodily out the window on a winter day and whispering, "Holy shit, did I ever fuck up my life or what?" Her only solace came from rereading her own novels, flipping through the well-worn pages, lingering particularly over the steamy sex scenes. In her later nonfiction essays she became prone to quoting from her fiction, often inserting long X-rated passages from her novels into articles on trade policy and border control.


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Late in life, Elbert Periwinkle discovered a passion for art. In his chosen medium of Magic Marker he produced dozens of works, including "Sunrise Over My House" (above). Periwinkle's paintings are sold as limited-edition lithographs by the Second Rendezvous Bookshop, a subsidiary of The Cassandra Prune Institute.


In her final years Prune's health deteriorated, possibly in consequence of her lifelong habits of smoking cigarettes, consuming diet pills, eating broken glass, strangling puppies, and feasting on human flesh in satanic midnight rituals. Eventually she was confined to her bed. Though her body was immobilized, her mind was reportedly as sharp as ever, and she spent her final months working on TV Guide's weekly crossword puzzles, completing most of them.

After a series of hospitalizations and surgeries for liver failure, pancreatic cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, cyanide poisoning, and bubonic plague, Prune finally expired in December of 2004, ironically on Christmas Eve, only hours before the dawn of the holiday she had once described as "an orgy of bloody subhuman self-abnegation and hypocritical, malicious envy disguised in the bright red suit of a flabby-assed Santa Claus delivering sugary sweets to nasty foul-smelling street urchins who are in desperate need of a serious spanking." She was interred in a two-story pyramid topped by a stylized twenty-foot riding crop -- the symbol, as she put it, "of free rein and therefore of a free mind."

Following Prune's death, the Reversalist movement has been split by further schisms and purges as well as by Internet controversies. (The average Reversalist spends a minimum of 17 hours a day online, and even more hours on days when his parents don't make him do chores.) One of the more noteworthy disputes involved a proposal made at a leading Reversalist newsgroup site that the Bush administration should drop nuclear bombs on any U.S. city that traditionally votes Democratic. The so-called "nuke Boston" thread attracted much attention. Spleen himself appeared on the top-rated Fox News Channel program The O'Reilly Factor to advocate the policy, prompting host Bill O'Reilly to blurt out, "What are you, pal, some kind of freakin' nut job?!"

By this time a certain pessimism had crept into the Reversalist movement. Spleen began insisting to Prune's longtime publisher that all future editions of her works be printed on acid-free paper, with ten percent of the printings distributed to caves and mine shafts, where they would be protected in the event of a worldwide nuclear holocaust. "My thinking," Spleen said at his annual Reversalist lecture at the Gerald R. Ford Forum in Anchorage, "is that if even one of these copies survives, it will be enough to rebuild civilization on a new, rational foundation. This will be true even if nobody actually finds the copy."

While Spleen may be pessimistic, the growing cadre of "Prune scholars" are delighted with the wealth of new details about Prune and her thinking that continue to emerge, thanks to the tireless effort of the Cassandra Prune Institute. The Institute has announced its intention to put into print every single piece of paper Prune handled in her lifetime, even ticket stubs. Posthumous publications that have already been issued or are in the works include The Diaries of Cassandra Prune, The Letters of Cassandra Prune, The Recipes of Cassandra Prune, The Doodles of Cassandra Prune, The Angry Scrawls of Cassandra Prune, and The TV Guide Crossword Puzzles Completed or Nearly Completed by Cassandra Prune.

These posthumous materials offer a fascinating window into the mind of perhaps the 20th century's greatest and most profound thinker, other than Nora Roberts. And they reveal an intellect that was forever active, never satisfied with thinking "the same old thoughts." In The Marginal Jottings of Cassandra Prune, for instance, we read Prune's spontaneous reaction to a 1992 Weekly World News article reporting that an extraterrestrial visitor has endorsed Bill Clinton for the presidency:

Those God-damned lousy triple-damned bastard extraterrestrials cannot destroy this country by overt invasion so they stoop to conquest via the political process!!! It is a perfect illustration of the epistemological self-contradiction inherent in Kierkegaard's view of Man as a subhuman cockroach who exists only by feeding on the fecal matter of cows!!!!!!! Well, now the cows are coming home to roost, brother!!!! Damn and double damn those lousy God-damned bug-eyed Martian bastards!!!!!! I'd like to commandeer a Gatling gun and march into a subway station and open fire on those God-damned alien commuter scum!!!!!!!!!!!! And no one could blame me for it, either!!! Not one person!!!!!!


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Currently there seems to be a heartening resurgence of interest in Cassandra Prune and Reversalism. Hollywood producers are attempting to develop a TV miniseries based on Prometheus Burped for public access cable, and there is talk of a remake of Taken for Granite starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, or maybe Clay Aiken and Paris Hilton. Linwood Spleen's long-awaited book Reversalism: A Guide to the Perplexed has finally hit bookstores, offering the first comprehensive overview of Prune's radical vision. So far, however, the book has not been adopted for widespread use in university classrooms, perhaps because of the somewhat off-putting tone of Spleen's introduction, in which he writes, "All you smarty-pants college assholes can kiss my ass and go fuck yourselves, and I mean all of you!"


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But perhaps we should leave the last word to Cassandra Prune herself. In her famous afterword to Prometheus Burped, Prune summed up her guiding philosophy and reinforced the convictions evident throughout her work in a single bold statement:

Nobody ever gave a damn about me, and I never gave a damn about anybody, ever. And I mean it.

Her more sympathetic apologists deny she really meant it.

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