Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835
In The Western Lands, Burroughs moves beyond devastating descriptions of worlds in chaos and collapse (as in the plague-ridden planet of Cities of the Red Night, 1981) to prescribe a remedy for the social ills he has been challenging. The core idea of repressive force wielded by people or organizations...
(The entire section contains 835 words.)
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In The Western Lands, Burroughs moves beyond devastating descriptions of worlds in chaos and collapse (as in the plague-ridden planet of Cities of the Red Night, 1981) to prescribe a remedy for the social ills he has been challenging. The core idea of repressive force wielded by people or organizations bent (often blindly) on annihilation of the species recurs as a continuing motif, but instead of challenging destructive force with its lethal counterpart, Burroughs offers a means to escape from this doom-driven arrangement. In accordance with his previously introduced theme that an alteration in consciousness is necessary for any significant transformation, Burroughs argues that if a sufficient number of people are made aware of the conditions of imprisonment and shown an alternative mode of behavior, a community may be born in which the so-far "always imaginary — world in which I would like to live" might become a reality. This world of the imagination is a cosmos of artistic possibility, and Burroughs envisions artists of every medium as explorers who can limn the landscape, landing a cohort of sympathetic, open-minded citizens toward real freedom.
While Burroughs has a reputation for avant-garde, ultra-contemporary inclinations in his novels, he has also informed his work with a solid, wide-ranging grasp of traditional literature. The Western Lands attempts to join the two streams of his artistic sensibility and to claim for him membership in an august company of great writers. In a moving apostrophe to his life's work, he asserts:
We poets and writers . . . live in the snow on Michael's grave falling softly like the descent of their last end on all the living and the dead, we live in the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, in the last and greatest of human dreams . . .
The specific reference to Joyce's "The Dead" (the snow on Michael Fury's grave) and to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925; the light on Daisy Buchanan's dock), as well as other admiring quotations drawn from celebrated writers throughout centuries of human history represent Burroughs's unusually unguarded request to be included among those who were fully committed to the powers of art to redeem troubled humanity. Characteristically, however, his ideas about how this process works are unlike the material found in most of the more conventional writers he admires.
Perhaps because of his fixation on physical sensation in many previous books — an outgrowth of his awareness of his body due to his extensive experience with mind-altering and mind-numbing drugs, and the turmoil he faced from his youthful realization that his essential erotic nature was homosexual in orientation — The Western Lands is structured around a conviction that liberation is possible only through an escape from a preoccupation with the body. To accomplish this, Burroughs combines many details from Egyptology relating the requirements for the soul's safe passage after physical death to a paradisiacal state (the "Western Lands" of the title) with his own notions of how an artistic sensibility might produce this condition of being during human life. The crux of his theory is that the imagination must be fed by a process of continuous creation. He quotes Goethe's observation that without this receptivity to change and growth, men "are only a sad guest on the dark Earth," and his continuing interest in what appear to be hybrid or mutant creatures reasserts his contention from Nova Express (please see separate entry) that "Man is an unsuccessful experiment, caught in a biological dead end and inexorably headed for extinction." The emphasis on the artistic imagination as the true source of the mind's vitality is not surprising in a writer of his age, nor is the mood of spiritual longing and recollective reconsideration that operates in many passages.
Although Burroughs's use or the word death is somewhat inconsistent, his initial equation of death with debt is significant. When he speaks of "old novelists like Scott" who "were always writing their way out of debt," he is expressing a part of a fundamental credo for his artistic outlook. "A valuable attribute for a writer is tenacity," he comments, explaining that "Death . . . is equivalent to a declaration of spiritual bankruptcy," and sets the course of the narrative by positing that "William Seward Hall" (using his first two names) "sets out to write his way out of death." The act of writing is also compared to a pilgrimage (with apt quotes from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales included) and the classical archetype of a journey through perilous climes used to illustrate various wrong turns (reliance on style; false gods; drugs here seen in conjunction with exploitive sex/death images) and snares. The tenacity he speaks of is especially important since there are so many ways for a writer to become discouraged, and in another, unusually direct expression of his artistic credo, Burroughs writes:
You don't understand this Hall character. He won't quit. He'll just come back harder.
The Western Lands is Burroughs's effort, late in his writing life, to show the difficulties along the way and the ultimate value of the goal of the journey.