Burroughs, William S(eward) (Vol. 15)
Burroughs, William S(eward) 1914–
Burroughs is an American novelist best known for Naked Lunch, which was based in large part on the author's years as a drug addict and which became the center of a storm of controversy upon publication. Burroughs's fiction is characterized by such experimental techniques as "folding-in" or "cutting-up" in which his own writing or the works of other authors are reorganized so that words and events occur in random sequence, achieving a hallucinatory, surreal effect. He influenced beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and has collaborated with Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, Gregory Corso, and Sinclair Beiles. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
The world of William S. Burroughs is not a world of fantasy; it is real, it is "reality." But "reality" is defined by Western culture; it is insane, schizophrenic, and more fantastic than fantasy could ever be…. It is a reality in which the environment is objective and mechanical, and it is a reality whose machinery has come to life, like the kitchen gadgets that assault the housewife in Naked Lunch….
This is schizophrenia; objects are self-activating and living beings are inert. On a wider scale, this schizophrenia is manifest in the absolute polarization of the mechanical and the organic in Burroughs. Burroughs' vision is one in which the world has flown into two opposing principles, a labyrinthine, external, mechanical structure and a reified "organic" content. I use the word "content" in the same sense as it is used by McLuhan, who rightly sees Burroughs' origins in the Industrial Age, when "Nature" became a vessel of aesthetic and spiritual values, that is, a content. The underlying roots of this condition lie in the schizophrenic structures of thought in the West, which can only comprehend "Nature" by siphoning it off into a pure, separate space…. [For Burroughs] the "natural" and "organic" are always shaped by the repressive nature of the "mechanical," so that their manifestations are always stained by violence and evil. The most common image of the "mechanical" and "external" in Burroughs is the City, "a labyrinth...
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In the main Burroughs is faithful to [the theme he expressed in both The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express]: a coalition of three life-forms infiltrated Earth three thousand years ago, after ruining another planet. Their strategy is to take advantage of human weaknesses and conflicts, exacerbate them and feed on the energy thus released. The soft spots manipulated by these alien agents disguised as human beings (the nova mob), are sex, drugs and power; in this we see Burroughs' obsessions take shape. The Venus Vegetable People crave sex energies, the Uranian Heavy Metal People drugs, and the Minraud Insect People control….
[The three-fold plot is] nowhere to be found in straightforward linear form. The reader must piece [the story lines] together from flashes, obsessive phrases, and incomplete scenes, struggling through disjointed chronology and abrupt changes of narrators, or cryptic cut-ups. The difficulty and sophistication of the narrative technique stands thus in striking contrast to the naiveté of the popular science-fiction outline. Although Burroughs enjoys toying with the science-fiction panoply (space and time travel, immortality, telepathy and mindscreens) he spurns the suspense and adventure element … or he depends on the connotations of these magical words to conjure up the illusion of roaring action. He is more attracted to the oneiric poetry of imaginary...
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William L. Stull
[Burroughs] noted that there is an important difference between Naked Lunch and the books that follow …: his adaptation of the cut-up method of Brion Gysin. The Soft Machine develops out of the quest in the early novels, but the question that boldly opens the "Atrophied Preface" at the end of Naked Lunch is perhaps more important than the complex answers to it in the later works. "Wouldn't You?" triggers an elaborate program of anarchic individualism aimed at revitalizing the junk universe. As in the medieval romances, almost immediately after the hero asks the magical question the waters of life begin to flow.
Along with the myth, however, goes a cosmology, "a vision of the creation and destruction of the world that is vouchsafed to the successful hero." Here gods and demons will symbolize the forces at work inside and outside the hero's psyche which aid and distract him in his quest for the very source of the life force. This is the dimension of Burroughs' work that has most pleased and perplexed his critics and gained his work a reputation for "newness." Even here, however, novelty fades into familiarity when we see the basic outlines of a cosmogonic cycle involving good and evil, heaven and hell, emerging in the early books….
[For Burroughs, the basic element of life and matter] is junk—chaotic, self-consuming power—and the expansion of this principle informs his early work with a...
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The aim [of The Third Mind, a collaborative effort of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin,] is to expand consciousness, to tap the coded messages beyond literary earshot, to retrace the secret of Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs, to reach the silence beyond words in soundless, universal images and patterns "at the extreme limit of readability". Everything, from Dunne's Experiment with Time to Derrida's Las dissemination, is grist to this neo-romantic mill…. Like earlier romantics, Burroughs and Gysin also claim linguistics for their programme. For this is to be a collaborative deconstruction of the verbal prison-house, not by a sunburst of Blakean vision, but by a kind of science of Dadaism. Though "scientology" seems a more appropriate term….
Ah Pook Is Here follows close on the heels of The Third Mind, as a kind of companion volume which puts the doctrines into action. Yet it seems much the same mix as before: less junk, more sex, with the masturbatory images as often visual as verbal. At first sight it looks as if The Plumed Serpent had been shredded with Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. On closer inspection it seems to owe more to Charles Olson's Mayan Letters. (One hopes Burroughs is better informed about Maya corn gods than he is about Moby-Dick.) This Mayan farrago, in fact, turns out to be the ultimate Western, a comical strip-tease of the capitalist and...
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