Thomas M. Disch Versus the Catholic Church: “The Cardinal Detoxes”

By Kevin PowerSeptember 27, 2017

Thomas M. Disch Versus the Catholic Church: “The Cardinal Detoxes”

ON MAY 23, 1990, a one-act verse drama opened at a tiny experimental theater called the RAPP Arts Center, on East 4th Street in Manhattan. Its author, Thomas M. Disch, had written the script “in a ten-day marathon, sequestered in a cottage in the Poconos.” Disch’s commercial hopes for the play were not high: a working theater critic for The Nation, he was acutely aware of “the normal mortality rate of Off-Off-Broadway productions” (later, speaking to an interviewer, he described the RAPP Theater as “as far Off-Off-Broadway as Broadway can get”). The show’s initial three-week run passed without incident: “The play,” Disch wrote later, “got a good amount of critical attention but not the make-or-break authentication of notice by The New York Times.” A lone rave in Theater Week, comparing the play’s cult potential to that of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, convinced Jeffrey Cohen, the RAPP’s artistic director, to bring it back for an open-ended revival. That was when the troubles began. Just as the play was about to reopen, the RAPP Theater received a letter from its landlord, the Most Holy Redeemer Church (part of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York). All performances of Disch’s play, this letter said, must cease: the play contained language “which would be detrimental to Landlord’s reputation [sic] as a Roman Catholic Church.” If RAPP went ahead and opened the play, the troupe would face eviction.

The play was called The Cardinal DetoxesIt was, as Disch later confessed in an essay for The Hudson Review, “designed to serve as a vehicle for my hoard of opinions concerning the secret, Realpolitik reasons for the Catholic Church’s more opprobrious policies and scandalous behaviour.” Disch — who was known as a poet and science fiction writer — had been raised Catholic, and described himself as “a passionate and devout ex-Catholic since my teen-age years.” “Like so many other fervent ex-Catholics,” he wrote, “the Church’s misdeeds were my hobbyhorse. But I’d never ridden that hobbyhorse for any distance.” The Cardinal Detoxes was Disch’s battle charge against the Church: a scabrous assault on an institution riddled, as Disch saw it, with venality, hypocrisy, and greed. It was designed to provoke a response. When it did, Disch was frankly gratified. “I found the whole thing,” he admitted, “pretty exhilarating.”

RAPP ignored the Church’s cease-and-desist instructions. The Cardinal Detoxes went ahead as scheduled. But the Church wasn’t finished yet. On September 20, 1990, the controversy debuted in the mainstream media, when Joseph Zwilling, press agent for Cardinal John O’Connor (the archbishop of New York), released a statement condemning Disch’s play. This play, Zwilling said, “is detrimental to the Catholic Church. Even though it [the theater building] is rented by an outside group, we still have to run it in keeping with Church teachings. We include a clause in the lease to insure that.” Recounting the Cardinal Detoxes scandal to an interviewer in 1994, Disch explained:

They did it on the grounds that my play offended Catholic feelings […] Ultimately, the Church was trying to argue they could evict any tenant from its properties simply for not respecting Catholic beliefs. They could evict someone for having an abortion, say, or for being gay or for living in unmarried cohabitation.

Disch — who was gay, and who cohabited with his partner, the writer and editor Charles Naylor — regarded the Church’s efforts to sabotage his play as an egregious attempt at censorship. He was determined to resist. “The church,” he told the Times, “has always been at the forefront of any national effort to censor and tone down the arts.”

RAPP promptly went to court to contest the Church’s eviction notice. Jeffrey Cohen told The New York Times: “My attorneys are looking into it and they are convinced that the church’s position is unconstitutional as well as being unconscionable […] you cannot legislate in a lease against freedom of expression.” Disch, meanwhile, published an open letter to Cardinal O’Connor in The Nation, asking:

When criticism is based on matters of public record, scandal and notoriety (and all the fictive scandals referred to in my play have clear parallels in news reports of the past few years), can the critic be blamed for damaging the Church’s reputation?

Disch — whose novels and short stories evince a Swiftian saeva indignatio, and who loved nothing better than a good scrap — was plainly having the time of his life.

On October 5, 1990, the New York State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Church: RAPP was ordered to vacate the premises (the building was, appropriately, a former parochial school). But the appeals process delayed any final eviction, and performances of The Cardinal Detoxes continued. By now, the play was attracting large and enthusiastic audiences. Then, on the evening of Friday, October 12, ticketholders attempting to enter the RAPP building were stopped by inspectors from the New York City Department of Buildings, who padlocked the doors, citing, according to The New York Times, “several building code violations.” The audience, frustrated and outraged, came close to rioting; Jeffrey Cohen later told Disch that he had been “roughed up” by the “workmen” who were trying to close the theater.

Finally, after a three-hour standoff, inspectors allowed the building to reopen. As the Times chastely put it, the “police decision avoided a possible violent confrontation between the authorities and members of the audience.” Disch was in no doubt about what had happened: the Church, “balked of the gratification of an immediate closing of the play because of the appeals process, apparently summoned a goon squad from the City’s Department of Buildings, who tried to close the theater by force, provoking a near-riot.” The inspectors themselves disagreed: the timing of the closure, they claimed, was coincidental.

The show went up that night. It seemed like a victory. But as Disch later reflected,

In the end the Church carried the day by its traditional means — inertia and patience. The controversy lost steam, the case dragged on in court, audiences dwindled, and the coup de grâce came not at the hands of the Church but by the provisions of Actors Equity, which requires any production that runs beyond a certain length of time to up salaries and hire more personnel.

RAPP Theater went the way of most experimental theater groups, and dissolved; the former parochial school on East 4th Street was returned to the ministrations of the archdiocese (it is now a school for girls from low-income households). The Cardinal Detoxes faded from memory — a Google search for the play returns only a scant few pages of results, none of them especially informative. The text of The Cardinal Detoxes was published in The Hudson Review in Spring 1993, but if you want to read the play, you will find that it is now out of print, available only through secondhand dealers or university libraries.

Disch went on to publish a satirical Gothic novel, The Priest (1994) — a work that, he said, “served as a more than sufficient safety valve for any residue of anger” he still felt toward the Church. He remained proud of his one-act play and often performed The Cardinal Detoxes himself at readings and on lecture tours. On July 4, 2008, Disch — suffering from ill health, mourning the death of Charles Naylor, and under threat of eviction from his own landlord — committed suicide. He was 68.



So what was the big deal? What was it about The Cardinal Detoxes that so offended the New York Archdiocese that it was compelled (if we credit Disch’s own interpretation of events) to dragoon the Department of Buildings into padlocking the doors of the RAPP Arts Center, back in October 1990? How did a 35-minute blank-verse monologue by an underappreciated science fiction writer end up provoking a media firestorm, as well as a “near-riot”? And, if it were staged today, would The Cardinal Detoxes still feel as incendiary as it did three decades ago?

To understand the The Cardinal Detoxes, it’s worth taking a look at some of Disch’s other writing — most of which repines, 10 years after Disch’s death, in a penumbra of obscurity (though several of his best novels, including the extraordinary Camp Concentration, published in 1968, remain in print). By the time The Cardinal Detoxes opened at the RAPP Arts Center in 1990, Disch had been writing and publishing for three decades. He was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1940, and grew up in Minneapolis; his father was a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. As soon as he graduated high school, Disch lit out for the territory — in this case, New York. His first story, “The Double-Timer,” was written in 1962, while he was supposed to be studying for an NYU exam. When it was accepted by the science fiction magazine Fantastic Stories, Disch dropped out of college and began to write full-time, turning out austerely satirical SF stories for the pulp magazines and becoming, very quickly, a paragon of SF’s “New Wave.”

In 1967, Disch moved to London, where he became associated with Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, the house organ of the British New Wave; it was here that much of his early science fiction appeared. Disch was one of those rare writers who quickly arrive at a characteristic tone of voice: in this case, a mixture of folksy irony and cosmopolitan wit that freely mingled the accents of his native Midwest with the urbanity of his adopted Manhattan. His plots tend to hinge on the elegant subversion of classic tropes; the prose in which they are told is marked by an Augustan clarity of diction, and a sly colloquialism, that is, in many ways, distinctly out of step with the imperial exuberance of postwar American SF.

An early Disch novella, White Fang Goes Dingo (1965), sees human beings turned into dancing pets by a race of powerful aliens. In the standard US pulp version of this story, the protagonist would spearhead a violent rebellion against humanity’s oppressors; in Disch’s version, the narrator, White Fang, rather enjoys his life of effortless ease and comfort as a “puppy of Terra,” and joins the insurgency only with considerable reluctance. “I was as valuable a pet as there could be,” White Fang reflects. “In what else does happiness consist than in this — a sense of one’s own value? Not in freedom, surely.” The ironies, here, are characteristically Dischian; he seemed intent on leaving no American sacred cow unslaughtered. His first novel, The Genocides (1965), similarly posits an Earth transformed by implacably remote invaders into a farm for vast plants, among whose roots a band of savagely reduced human beings tries, without much hope, to survive. Again, in a classic American SF story, the earthlings would see off their oppressors with a combination of ingenuity and heavy ordnance.

Disch’s revisionism is entirely gleeful. He took a caustic pleasure in exposing the threadbare conventions of American SF to the ambiguous light of his pessimism. He believed, with Dryden, that “the true end of satire is the amendment of vices,” and his early fiction arraigns a variety of institutions on charges of hypocrisy, political reaction, folly, and vice. His third novel, Camp Concentration, rearranges Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947) as the story of Louis Sacchetti, a conscientious objector in a future war (“President McNamara has decided to use ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons”) who finds himself remanded to an underground prison complex called Camp Archimedes. Here the US military is dosing prisoners with an intelligence-boosting drug called Pallidine, derived, à la Mann, from a syphilitic spirochete. Under the influence of Pallidine, Sacchetti — a minor poet and New York littérateur — is inspired to compose works of genius, including a verse play entitled Auschwitz: A Comedy. But there is a catch: Pallidine may have exponentially increased Sacchetti’s IQ, but it will also kill him, along with all of his fellow prisoners. 

Camp Concentration appeared during the worst years of the Vietnam War, and its chief satirical target is the US military — here exposed as a gang of deluded, power-hungry dolts with zero interest in the well-being of their prisoners. In this sense, the novel can be seen as a pretty typical product of the late 1960s countercultural sensibility — to satirize the military, in 1967, was scarcely a revolutionary gesture. What distinguishes Camp Concentration from its cohorts is the scale of its ambition — and the caliber of its prose. Sacchetti’s voice (the novel takes the form of his prison journal) is echt Disch: dry, passionate, eloquent, ironic, self-conscious, and full to the brim with literary inheritances. “Journals, such as I have erewhile attempted, have a way of becoming merely exhortatory,” Sacchetti says, in the novel’s early pages.

I must remember, here, to be circumstantial from the start, taking as model that sublime record of prison existence, The House of the Dead. It should be easy to be circumstantial here: not since childhood has mere circumstance so tyrannized me.

Elegant prose of this type came so naturally to Disch that in the later pages of Camp Concentration he strove to do something other. The novel’s middle section is pure modernism: a staggeringly ambitious, and caustically witty, attempt to represent in language the operations of an artificially boosted intelligence. “More and more,” reads one fragment, “it is in his gardens that we walk. Who, if I cried out then, who would hear? Mute overthrownness! (Chirico).” It is a virtuoso performance. It is also a joke. This section of the novel is prefaced by an anonymous “Editor’s Note” that dismisses Sacchetti’s “ravings” before listing some of his “sources”: “the Bible, Aquinas, the Kabbalah, various alchemic texts, including the second part of The Romance of the Rose, Richard (and George) Wagner, Bunyan, Milton, de Lautréamont, Rilke, Rimbaud, and any number of modern English poets.”

After Camp Concentration, Disch began his slow drift away from SF — though his later novels, 334 (1972) and On Wings of Song (1979), show no diminution of rigor in their skewering of institutionally oppressed near-future venues. He also rejected his former association with the New Wave. If the stock-in-trade of New Wave SF was a modish pessimism, Disch the contrarian would soon come to subvert even this; his later novels, including the “Supernatural Minnesota” trilogy, would pursue a tone of knockabout irony reminiscent of Mark Twain (although one of them, The Sub, published in 1999, would lead Publishers Weekly to tag Disch “the Swift of supernatural satire”).

Since the early 1960s Disch had been maintaining a parallel career as a poet; in 1972, his first solo volume, The Right Way to Figure Plumbing, appeared. His poetry displays the same Augustan virtues as his prose: it is witty, conversational, and acerbic, and it generally eschews modernist involution. The early poems are Audenesque, pursuing long trains of thought through multiple run-on lines. Irony is a constant. Disch had a remarkable facility for what is sometimes known as light verse. In the 1970s Disch also began to publish fiction in mainstream venues: his short fiction appeared in the Paris Review (and a collection of mostly non-SF short stories, Getting into Death, was published in 1974). With Charles Naylor, Disch collaborated on an ambitious historical novel about Thomas Carlyle, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Stuart Mill, and others: Neighboring Lives (1981) was published by Knopf and praised in The New York Times by Anthony Burgess. Disch even published a children’s book, The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances (1980), which was filmed in 1987. Clearly, he was searching for a way out of the SF ghetto, which was certainly too small to support a writer of his range and ambition.

By the 1990s, when The Cardinal Detoxes premiered, Disch had more or less abandoned science fiction altogether. In 1998, embittered by the SF community’s reception of his work, he published The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the Worldwhich is less a serious history of the genre than a book-length attempt to undermine its foundations. Citing, among other progenitors, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Balloon-Hoax” (1844), Disch suggests that science fiction is actually rooted in the 19th-century tradition of the hoax:

America is a nation of liars, and for that reason science fiction has a special claim to be our national literature, as the art form best adapted to telling the lies we like to hear and to pretend we believe […] What distinguishes American liars from those of earlier times and other nations is that the perfected American liar does not feel himself to be disgraced by his lies, even when he is caught in them. Indeed, the bolder the lie and the more brazenly imposed on the public, the more admiration the liar is accorded.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Disch continued to write genre fiction, but SF was no longer his chosen field. The Businessman (1984) was marketed as a horror novel but is actually a kind of high-camp absurdist fantasy, reminiscent of Stanley Elkin’s The Living End (1977); the suicidal poet John Berryman, like Disch a Minnesotan, appears as a ghost. In fact, it was around now that the spectre of suicide began to haunt Disch’s work; a startling number of the poems he blogged during his last year take suicide as a theme. For years Disch had suffered intermittently from depression; he had no reliable commercial publisher for his work, and he felt that he had failed to create a sustainable career as a writer.

Disch’s final novel, The Word of God (2008) — which suggests, mischievously, that Disch’s real father may have been Thomas Mann, who may or may not have paid a flying visit to Iowa in 1940 — was brought out by Tachyon Publications, a small press. In 2005, Charles Naylor died after a long illness; Naylor’s name was on the lease of the rent-controlled apartment on Union Square West that he and Disch shared. The landlord, seeing a chance to raise the rent, immediately served Disch with a notice of eviction. “If I lost the apartment,” Disch said to a friend, “I’d have to shoot myself.” Crippled by sciatica and diabetes, Disch, on the July 4, 2008, carried out this threat. The Word of God had been published just three days previously.



A satirist, of course, is a writer whose work is held together not by its subject matter or by its thematic obsessions, but by a highly individual tone of voice. In this regard, Disch was indisputably a satirist. In everything he wrote, it is the voice that counts. It was entirely natural, therefore, that when Disch turned to the stage, he should write a monologue — and, given his life-long anticlericalism and the exuberant scorn he felt for hypocritical institutions, it was also entirely natural that this should be the monologue of a disgraced Catholic priest in a rehab clinic.

The Cardinal Detoxes is the confession of Cardinal Flynn, an alcoholic archbishop, who has killed a pregnant woman in a drunk-driving incident and has been dispatched to rehab to dry out and — presumably — to repent. The cardinal isn’t particularly concerned about the legal ramifications of this incident: “[W]ith any luck,” he says, “The diocese will pay whatever price / The prosecution asks to drop the charge.” Convinced he will go free, the cardinal uses his time in rehab to recount his own, and by extension the Church’s, hypocrisies. “I’ll sing,” he says:

I’ll tell those things
We Cardinals and Archbishops say
Among ourselves, the secret wisdom of
The Church, its policies and stratagems,
Beginning with the obvious.

The play takes place in “a monastically bare cell in a Catholic detox center run by the Brothers of the Most Holy Blood.” There are only two characters: Cardinal Flynn himself, and the Brother, “attentive but inexpressive,” who caters to the cardinal’s requests for glasses of white wine but never speaks (“[I]t is your vow to say / Nothing at all,” the cardinal chides. “The merest sponge for all / My vinegar.”). Narratively speaking, The Cardinal Detoxes is barbarously plain. The cardinal vents his anger at the Church in blank verse; the Brother refills his wine glass; the cardinal develops hiccups and is cured by a well-timed slap from the Brother (who is horrified at the cardinal’s description of Pope Pius XII as “a holy arsonist, a saint / With clap, a blessed ex[*]ecutioner” and a “sodomite”). The cardinal, presuming himself to be observed (and perhaps even recorded), intimates that his “legal counsel” keeps under lock and key a stash of notes divulging the Church’s secrets, to be published unless the charges against him are dropped and he retains “my See, / My freedom and my Cardinality.” The cardinal’s paranoia is justified; the silent Brother is receiving messages through a concealed earpiece. As the cardinal rattles pointlessly at the locked door of his cell, the Brother poisons his bottle of wine. The cardinal begins to splutter and cough. His hiccups return. “Cure me!” he shouts at the Brother. “You did before, you (*) must again!” The Brother slaps the cardinal with “all his force,” but to no avail. The cardinal dies. Over his body, the Brother makes the sign of the cross — ending the play on a neat, if perhaps rather predictable, image of Church hypocrisy in action.

Does the cardinal ever get around to properly repenting? “I do repent me of the woman’s death,” he insists, at the beginning of the play:

Mother of four and pregnant with a fifth;
A Catholic to boot. Had I had doubts
Of God’s ambition as a dramatist,
They’d be resolved with this: CARDINAL FLYNN,
They’re always “Moms” in newspapers — a Mom,
What’s more, who was my own parishioner.
It is deplorable, and I deplore it.
Do I, as well, blame God? Who iced the road
And sent her Chevy somersaulting? No.
I doubt that God’s as meddlesome as that.

This is the cardinal’s first and last reference to the accident that sent him to rehab. He is himself an avatar of Church hypocrisy — we might mark the fact that he is knocking back wine in a detox clinic, which makes, of course, a cheap irony of the play’s title. In fact, it is wine that provokes the cardinal’s first cheerful blasphemy:

Where do you find this wine? The tears of Christ,
Indeed! He would have died before he drank
This piss. But piss is sacred, too, if it
Is His, and I consume it reverently […]

For a contemporary audience, familiar with South Park and Sarah Kane, this sort of thing might raise no more than a generous chuckle — what a naughty idea! Drinking the piss of Christ! But in 1990, Disch’s blasphemies still retained some of their power. It’s worth recalling, at this juncture, the controversy stirred up by Andres Serrano’s Immersion (Piss Christ), a 1987 photograph depicting a small plastic crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist’s own urine. Immersion (Piss Christ) was exhibited in New York in 1989 — one year before the opening of The Cardinal Detoxes — and provoked considerable indignation on the right, especially when it was revealed that Serrano had received funding for the work from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato tore up a reproduction of Piss Christ on the floor of the Senate. “This is an outrage,” he said, “and our people’s tax dollars should not support this trash, and we should not be giving it the dignity.” It doesn’t seem far-fetched to suggest that Disch had l’affaire Serrano in mind as he wrote The Cardinal Detoxes: if the conjunction of Christ and urine had (as it were) pissed off religious conservatives once before, why not gleefully invoke it again?

Moreover, these early lines — with their spikily irregular iambic rhythms — adumbrate the basic satirical strategy of The Cardinal Detoxes, which is to smash together sacred and profane linguistic registers in order to expose the Machiavellian darkness hidden behind the Church’s sanctified rhetoric. The simple plot is not the point; the point is the poetry, with its undertow of Swiftian vitriol. The cardinal will divulge the Church’s secrets, “Beginning,” as he says, “with the obvious” — the obvious being, in 1990, “Abortion, naturally.” “Our problem’s women,” the cardinal reflects, and suggests that what the Church should do is “relight the Inquisition’s torch [...] Burn down the clinics of / Planned Parenthood. Make foetuscide a crime / Punishable, like homicide, by death.” The freedom of women, the cardinal contends, has destroyed the Church’s old authority. In a line that has accrued a fresh satirical resonance since the play was first staged in 1990, the cardinal says, “Islam, at least / Holds firm in keeping women in their place.” For Disch, indifference to the rights of women takes pride of place on the charge sheet against organized religion; this is why, thematically speaking, the cardinal’s crime is the death of a pregnant mother.

Throughout the play, the cardinal’s ruminations toggle recklessly between the ecclesiastical high style and the language of gangsterish realpolitik. Arraigning a prominent bishop for his mob ties, the cardinal says:

“There is no mob, the mob’s a media myth!”
And all the while he fulminates and rants,
His limousine is waiting in the lot,
His chauffeur sinister as some Ton-ton
Macoute. What is so wonderful about
The Bishop is the man’s unswerving and
Unnerving righteousness, his perfect Faith
That his shit and the shit of all his kin
Must smell like roses.

Reading lines like these, you begin to understand why the New York Archdiocese was so keen to suppress The Cardinal Detoxes. Perhaps even more troubling, to the RAPP group’s archdiocesan landlords, was the fact that Cardinal Flynn is an apostate. “God, if He’s / Not dead,” the cardinal opines, “is deaf, indifferent, or asleep. / For me, for most of us, God is a sham.” Disch’s implication, of course, is that the Church itself is apostate — mouthing pious platitudes while engaged in various ruthless and hypocritical maneuvers (including, of course, the murder of an inconvenient cardinal, in the play’s final moments). As the cardinal’s monologue unspools, Disch marshals most of the familiar modern arguments against the Church: its criminal negligence in the matter of AIDS and contraception; its suppression of the rights of women; its anti-Semitism (“Jews served the purpose for a while, and still / One meets the odd parishioner who feels / A pang of loss for Father Coughlin”). The Cardinal Detoxes is a sort of Greatest Hits of anti-Catholicism; you can imagine it fitting neatly into a film by Luis Buñuel, perhaps alongside the shooting of the pope in La Voie Lactée (1969). The play hits its targets; the reader (or viewer) is left in no doubt about its author’s view of the Catholic Church.

For all that, The Cardinal Detoxes is a minor work. Twenty-seven years after its first performance, it has, inescapably, the feel of a period piece. This isn’t entirely Disch’s fault. The public image of the Catholic Church has experienced repeated crises during those 27 years. Revelations of child sexual abuse, and of concomitant cover-ups, mean that to state “the obvious” about the Church is no longer, in the first instance, to criticize its attitudes about women or abortion. Also, since 1990, satire itself has been radically emboldened. In a 2002 episode of South Park, the town’s priest, Father Maxi, travels to the Vatican, where he finds that the cardinals and archbishops are leading naked children around on leashes. This is both more exuberant and more devastating than anything Disch envisions in The Cardinal DetoxesOf course, in 1990, The Simpsons was less than a year old, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was a recent memory, and the Church still retained much of the power and prestige it has since lost. In context, The Cardinal Detoxes was a grenade; now it feels more like a cherry bomb. When Jeffrey Cohen briefly revived the play in 1998, it provoked nothing more than some spluttering about Disch’s “hate speech” from the Catholic League.

What did the controversy mean? Disch, in his essay for The Hudson Review, saw it as part of a larger battle between the Church and the forces of secular liberalism, fought in a space sacred to the latter: the theater. He wrote then:

When the Church acted to shut down my play, I doubt that it had been seen at that point by as many as a thousand people. But the Church, with dinosaur-like intuition, understands that the transaction between players and audience is essentially the same as that between priest and worshipers. Basically we’re in competition for the same souls, as our Puritan forefathers realised when they targeted the theaters of their time. In the crucial political act of forming and controlling the moral imagination they would brook no rivals. The Puritans lost that round. I think the Church is losing this one.

Disch was optimistic about the eventual outcome of the culture war in which he had played a small but important part. I don’t know if he ever saw the South Park episode that depicts the Vatican as a child-sex Valhalla. I imagine he would have approved of it. He might also have reflected that with The Cardinal Detoxes, he had helped to nudge open a door that has now been kicked down completely. Disch was a lifelong enemy of the forces of reaction. He believed that by exposing them to operatic mockery and scorn, their power and influence could be eroded. A decade after his death, much of his work retains an extraordinary pertinence. The forces of reaction are still with us, daily assuming new forms. If the controversy over The Cardinal Detoxes is worth remembering, it is because it reminds us that the battle over “the crucial political act of forming and controlling the moral imagination” is never finished, but must continually be waged, on new fronts, under new rules of engagement. Thomas M. Disch fought the Catholic Church to a stalemate over The Cardinal Detoxes. The war continues.


Kevin Power is a novelist and critic based in Dublin. He is the author of Bad Day in Blackrock (Pocket Books, 2010), filmed as What Richard Did (Element Films, 2012). He teaches in the School of English, Dublin City University.

LARB Contributor

Kevin Power is a novelist and critic based in Dublin. His novel Bad Day in Blackrock (Lilliput Press, 2008; Pocket Books, 2010) won the 2009 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and was filmed by Lenny Abrahamson as What Richard Did. Kevin reviews regularly for The Sunday Business Post, Literary Review, and Strange Horizons, and his blog can be found at He teaches in the School of English, Dublin City University.


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