Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 724
William S. Burroughs 1914–1997
American novelist, essayist, critic, poet, and scriptwriter.
For further information on Burroughs's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 5, 15, 22, 42, and 75.
A homosexual drug addict turned experimental novelist, Burroughs embodied for many observers the artist as outsider and rebel. As a Beat generation writer and avant-garde theorist, Burroughs greatly influenced the hippie and punk movements of the 1960s and 1970s, while making an important contribution to gay literature. Born in 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs was the grandson of the inventor of the adding machine and founder of the Burroughs Corporation. After graduating in 1936 from Harvard University, Burroughs worked odd jobs until the mid-1940s, when he became addicted to morphine and other drugs. In 1946 he met and married Joan Vollmer, who introduced him to fledgling Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. They rekindled Burroughs's college dream of becoming a writer, and later facilitated the publication of Junkie (1953), Burroughs's memoir of his drug addiction. Under constant threat of arrest for drug offenses, Burroughs moved around the United States and eventually to Mexico, where in 1951, after a day of drinking and drugs, he accidentally shot and killed Vollmer in a game of William Tell. Shortly after his wife's death, Burroughs dealt indirectly with the incident in Queer, a novel that was not published until 1985. Burroughs next went to South America in search of the legendary hallucinogen yage; his correspondence with Ginsberg during this trip became the basis for The Yage Letters (1963). In 1953, Burroughs joined a community of expatriate American writers and artists in Tangiers, Morocco. Over the next four years he indulged his drug habits to the point of aimless inactivity, but still was able to compile a mass of notes based on his drug-induced experiences and fantasies; these notes were later collected and published in France as The Naked Lunch (1959). Composed of loosely related sections containing graphic descriptions of drug use, murder, and sadomasochistic homosexual acts, The Naked Lunch aroused critical debate in the United States in advance of its 1962 American edition, which appeared only after three years of court trials for obscenity. In 1957 Burroughs traveled to London to undergo treatment for drug addiction using the nonaddictive drug apomorphine; after several relapses he was cured in 1959. Using leftover material from his Tangiers notebooks, Burroughs applied the "cut-up" technique that he had used in Naked Lunch—derived from the collage method used in visual arts—and produced three books: The Soft Machine (1961), which outlines the use of control systems throughout human history; The Ticket That Exploded (1962), which borrows concepts from science fiction to illustrate linguistic control systems; and Nova Express (1964), which introduces the idea that writing is a powerful tool to resist control. Throughout the 1960s Burroughs experimented with cut-ups in fiction, film, and tape recordings, while gradually becoming aware of the cult figure status accorded him by "underground" culture. Burroughs abandoned the cut-up method in favor of a more conventional narrative style with The Wild Boys (1971), but his concerns about personal freedom, the control systems of society, and efforts to free oneself from social restrictions remained and continued in Exterminator! (1973), Port of Saints (1973), and Ah Pook Is Here (1979). During the 1980s Burroughs began a second career as a visual artist, which included such pursuits as painting, calligraphy, and writing screenplays and a libretto, as well as appearing in the films Drugstore Cowboy and Twister and a television ad for Nike shoes. Burroughs's most significant literary work of this period comprises the so-called "Red Night trilogy," and includes Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1983), and The Western Lands (1987), the latter of which many critics thought would be his last book. But Burroughs continued to write into the 1990s, producing Ghost of a Chance (1991) and My Education (1995). He died after a heart attack on August 2, 1997, in Lawrence, Kansas, where he had lived since 1981. Despite Burroughs's undeniable influence in the arts and popular culture, his works as a whole have not received widespread academic acceptance. The Naked Lunch, however, has received critical praise from most quarters and is considered a classic of American literature by some scholars. James McManus has said, "He's turning out to have been enormously influential, especially on artists who go into the inferno and report back. He was into sex and drugs and rock n' roll before anybody else. And his influence on gay literatuure is immeasurable."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 188
Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict [under the pseudonym William Lee] (novel) 1953; also published as Junky [unexpurgated edition], 1977
∗The Naked Lunch (novel) 1959; also published as Naked Lunch, 1962
Minutes to Go [with Brion Gysin, Sinclair Beiles, and Gregory Corso] (poems) 1960
The Soft Machine (novel) 1961; revised edition, 1966
The Ticket That Exploded (novel) 1962; revised edition, 1967
The Yage Letters (letters) 1963
Nova Express (novel) 1964
Time (poems) 1965
The Job: Interviews with Williams S. Burroughs (interviews) 1970
The Last Words of Dutch Schulz: A Fiction in the Form of a Film Script (screenplay) 1970
Third Mind (novel) 1970
The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (novel) 1971; revised edition, 1979
Exterminator! (novel) 1973
Port of Saints (novel) 1973
Ah Pook Is Here and Other Texts (prose) 1979
Blade Runner: A Movie (novel) 1979
Cities of the Red Night (novel) 1981
The Burroughs File (prose and diaries) 1984
The Place of Dead Roads (novel) 1983
The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (essays) 1985
†Queer (novel) 1985
The Western Lands (novel) 1987
Interzone (novel) 1989
Ghost of a Chance (essays) 1991
The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945–1959 (letters) 1993
My Education: A Book of Dreams (sketches and prose) 1995
∗This work was adapted for film by David Cronenberg in 1991.
†This work was originally written in 1953.
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Richard Severo (obituary date 3 August 1997)
SOURCE: "William S. Burroughs Dies at 83; Member of the Beat Generation Wrote Naked Lunch," in The New York Times, August 3, 1997, p. B5.
[In the following obituary, Severo reviews Burroughs's life and literary achievements.]
William S. Burroughs, a renegade writer of the Beat Generation who stunned readers and inspired adoring cultists with his 1959 book Naked Lunch, died yesterday afternoon at Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Lawrence, Kan. He was 83.
The cause of his death, at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, was a heart attack that he suffered on Friday, his publicist, Ira Silverberg, said.
Over the years, Mr. Burroughs had lived in such places as New York, London, Paris, Mexico City and Tangier. But since 1981 he maintained a house in Lawrence, where he lived simply with three cats and indulged his interests in painting and photography and in collecting and discharging firearms.
Mr. Burroughs had undergone triple bypass surgery in 1991. He quit smoking after the operation. And though he continued to suffer from a leaky heart valve, from all reports, he regained robust health quickly for a man of his years.
His recovery was all the more noteworthy since he had spent so many of his younger days engulfed in narcotics addiction, an imperative so demanding that in 1954, while living in London, he sold his typewriter to buy heroin, although he kept working in longhand. He spent years experimenting with drugs as well as with sex, which he engaged in with men, women and children.
Naked Lunch, first published in Paris, and later by Grove Press in New York, was hailed as a masterly definition of what was hip, although the critics were not sure how to define the definition. Herbert Gold, writing in The New York Times, said that the book was "less a novel than a series of essays, puns, epigrams—all hovering about the explicit subject matter of making out on drugs while not making out in either work or love." Mr. Gold called the book "booty brought back from a nightmare."
Newsweek said that Naked Lunch possessed a "strange genius" and was a masterpiece "but a totally insane and anarchic one, and it can only be diminished by attempts to give it a social purpose or value whatever."
For his part, Mr. Burroughs said he agreed with the writer Mary McCarthy, who thought that Naked Lunch, and his other books, had a deep moral purpose.
"I do definitely mean what I say to be taken literally, yes, to make people aware of the true criminality of our times, to wise up to the marks," Mr. Burroughs told an interviewer in 1970.
Nobody found it especially easy to impose literality on Mr. Burroughs's sentences, either written or spoken. He described Naked Lunch as "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."
His work was not for traditionalists who loved a well-developed narrative. Dame Edith Sitwell was among those who demurred from the critics' praise, denouncing Naked Lunch as psychopathological filth. And even those who admired Mr. Burroughs's iconoclasm and his ruthless honesty had to admit that they could see flaws in the man. He was, in the final analysis, an alien among aliens, the ultimate odd duck.
"Just because he sleeps with boys, takes drugs and smokes dope doesn't mean that he tolerates or supports the majority of junkies, homosexuals or potheads," wrote Barry Miles In his 1993 biography, William Burroughs, which was subtitled El Hombre Invisible and published by Hyperion. "Bill simply doesn't like most people."
William Seward Burroughs was born on Feb. 5, 1914, in St. Louis, the son of Mortimer P. Burroughs, the owner of a plate-glass company, and Laura Lee Burroughs, who came from a prominent Southern family. His grandfather, for whom he was named, invented the perforated, oil-filled cylinder that made the Burroughs adding machine add and invariably get the right answer. The machine became a standard fixture in small and large businesses everywhere.
Mr. Burroughs's parents sold their stock in the Burroughs Company shortly before the stock market crash of 1929, and the $200,000 they received saw them nicely through the Depression. It did not leave the author with much of a legacy; his mother died in 1970, and what was left of her share of the estate was $10,000.
When Mr. Burroughs was a teen-ager, he read You Can't Win, an autobiography of Jack Black, a drifter who took drugs and pilfered his way through a sordid, predatory life. The book made a considerable impression on him and became grist for his own books years later. It was around this time that he, too, started experimenting with drugs.
Mr. Burroughs was educated, not happily, in private schools in St. Louis and in Los Alamos, N.M.
He was sent to Harvard University, which he did not like any better than he had his preparatory schools, although the time spent reading pleased him. His favorite writers gave no hint of what was ultimately to come out of his typewriter. They included Shakespeare, Coleridge and DeQuincy. Other writers he came to admire included James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Jean Genet, Franz Kafka, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler. He received a baccalaureate degree from Harvard in 1936.
He took a vacation to Europe after graduation and in Dubrovnik met Ilse Klapper, a German Jew who had fled the Nazis. She was stranded, unable to renew her Yugoslav passport and unable to go to the United States. To accommodate her, he married her. They never lived together, and dissolved the marriage almost immediately upon returning to the United States, but they remained friends.
After his return to the United States, he worked at many jobs, including bartender, private detective, factory worker and insect exterminator. Except for exterminating, which he rather enjoyed, these jobs bored him.
He later recalled his experiences in Exterminator! published by Viking in 1973.
In the years before World War II, he returned to Harvard and did some graduate work in cultural anthropology and ethnology. After the war began, he was drafted into the Army but got out after only three months. According to the Miles biography, his mother used her influence to win his discharge for physical reasons.
By 1944, Mr. Burroughs had an apartment on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village and developed an addiction to heroin. Among those he befriended in New York in the 1940's were Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. It was from these three and their friends and acquaintances that the term Beat Generation would later be applied. And it was Mr. Ginsberg who, several years later, inadvertently came up with the title Naked Lunch. He got it from misreading a bit of manuscript in Mr. Burroughs's scrawl, which actually referred to "naked lust."
Mr. Burroughs's first book, published by Ace in 1953 under the pseudonym William Lee, was called Junkie and told of his years as an addict.
The writing of Junkie came after what was arguably the saddest part of Mr. Burroughs's life. He had married Joan Vollmer in 1945 and in 1951 they were living in Mexico City. He was then using drugs heavily and had returned to Mexico City from a trip to Ecuador, where he had tried to learn more about a hallucinogen called yage. His wife was addicted to Benzedrine and, according to Barry Miles, did not mind Mr. Burroughs's homosexual interests. Indeed, she had borne him a son.
Their life in Mexico City was not especially happy. One September afternoon in 1951, they began to drink with friends. Eventually, Mr. Burroughs, who was quite drunk, took a handgun out of his travel bag and told his wife, "It's time for our William Tell act." There never had been a William Tell act but his wife laughed and put a water glass on her head. Mr. Burroughs fired the gun. The bullet entered her brain through her forehead, killing her instantly. Mexican authorities concluded that it was an accident; Mr. Burroughs was convicted only of a minor charge and served little time in jail.
Years later, he would say that he would never have become a writer had it not been for her death. His wife's death, he said, "brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice but to write my way out."
The incident did not stop his drug use, and in his introduction to Naked Lunch, he describes his addiction: "I have smoked junk, eaten it, sniffed it, injected it in vein-skin-muscle, inserted it in rectal suppositories. The needle is not important." Mr. Burroughs wrote that during the time he was an addict, he did "absolutely nothing." He said, "I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours." When he was 45 years old, he ended 15 years of addiction by taking apomorphine, a chemical compound developed in Britain.
His son, William, died in 1981. He is survived by his companion and manager, James Grauerholz, who remained at Lawrence Hospital and declined to take phone calls.
No other Burroughs book attracted the attention of Naked Lunch, but his works always interested the critics. In 1960, he started inserting shards of sentences and paragraphs from newspapers and other authors into his own prose because, he said, he wanted to break the patterns that one normally finds in a book and emulate the peripheral impressions experienced in life itself.
"I don't plan a book out. I don't know how it's going to end," he told one interviewer. He readily admitted there was considerable overlap of material in his books.
In 1989, he collaborated on a comic opera, The Black Rider, which was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House by the Thalia Theater of Hamburg and was based on Der Freischutz, a folk opera by Carl Maria von Weber. Mr. Burroughs wrote the libretto; Tom Waits wrote the songs, and it was staged by Robert Wilson. It was also produced in Europe. There were many other projects but some, like Ruski (1984), The Cat Inside (1986) and Ghost of a Chance (1991) were limited editions.
In his later years, he spent a great deal of time as a painter and calligrapher. He said he did a lot of painting "with my eyes closed," but there was interest in his art and sales of his works helped bail him out of the tough financial situation in which he found himself in the mid-1980's.
Only a week before his death, Mr. Burroughs had been helping to prepare selected writings to be published next year by Grove Press, Mr. Silverberg, the publicist, said. A reprinting of a novel, The Third Mind, is also scheduled by Grove Press for next year and last year Viking Press reissued My Education: A Book of Dreams.
A self-avowed animal-rights activist and environmentalist, he had been supporting a Duke University foundation dedicated to the survival of lemurs.
In a rare interview last November, Mr. Burroughs told The New York Times that he made entries in a journal each day but had given up formal writing, adding quietly, "I guess I have run out of things to say." He also said that he had temporarily given up painting. "I don't want to keep repeating myself," he said.
Several of his friends, fellow drug-users and contemporaries have died in the last two years, including Timothy Leary, Herbert Huncke and Allen Ginsberg.
To the end of his life, Mr. Burroughs remained pessimistic about the future for humankind. In Ghost of a Chance, he lamented the destruction of the rain forests and their creatures and wrote: "All going, to make way for more and more devalued human stock, with less and less of the wild spark, the priceless ingredient—energy into matter. A vast mudslide of soulless sludge."
The London Times (obituary date 4 August 1997)
SOURCE: An obituary for William Burroughs, in The London Times (online publication), August 4, 1997.
[In the following obituary, the writer provides an overview of Burroughs's life and career.]
William Burroughs saw himself as a campaigner against destruction of the self by all the agents that he believed were conspiring to depersonalize it. His metaphor for this was junk addiction. By junk, the one-time drug-addict meant anything that put a person's life beyond his or her control. He saw the world in the despairing terms of addiction and fragmentation of the psyche, and his vision made him one of the most controversial writers of the second half of the century. Described as "the big daddy of the Beats", he influenced much of the "underground" of the 1950s which became the mainstream of the 1960s, from Norman Mailer and Anthony Burgess to Allen Ginsberg and R. D. Laing.
William Seward Burroughs was born in St Louis, Missouri, into the family of a famous industrialist. At Harvard during the New Deal years he studied poetry, ethnology and yoga, and gained a reputation for his wide-ranging knowledge. He travelled in Europe, studying medicine at Vienna University, and returned to Harvard to study postgraduate anthropology. He then rejected the bourgeois academic and scholarly life and entered the demi monde that was to shape his life.
Rejected for the US Army, he went through a variety of jobs, including those of private detective, pest controller, bartender, factory and office worker, advertising and "the edge of crime". It was a good training for a writer of his social range and peculiar gifts of mimicry. He developed his first drug habit at this time, and its frightening effects became central to his life and work. His experiences of drugs, crime and the police were fully documented in his first book, Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (1953), published under the pseudonym William Lee.
Addiction and withdrawal or cure were the central metaphors of his career. His concern with the analysis of power was based largely on his drug-dependence and concomitant dependence on pushers, and on his antagonism to narcotics agents.
After some time in New Orleans and Texas, he made anthropological journeys to South America in search of alien cultures and new varieties of drugs. In the later 1950s he lived in Tangier, and after a crisis there in 1956 he underwent the apomorphine cure under Dr John Yerbury in London. The Naked Lunch (1959), his most famous book, was written largely in Tangier afterwards. "I awoke from the Sickness at the age of forty-five," he wrote, "calm and sane, and in reasonably good health except for a weakened liver and the look of borrowed flesh common to all who survive the Sickness."
The Naked Lunch—an aleatory, anarchic fantasy about addiction and homosexuality—was acclaimed by Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell, but its monotonous and nauseating violence, scatology and sadism ensured that it was banned in America until 1962. It did not appear in Britain until 1964, by which time the failure of the Lady Chatterley case had freed publishing from most taboos. Like other "underground" writers, such as Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett, Burroughs was published by Olympia Press in Paris, Grove Press in America and John Calder in Britain. But Burroughs was no Beckett. While Beckett became famous for his fastidiousness about words, Burroughs used them casually, flippantly, and without compassion.
His ideas were shocking but shallow. "The whole system is completely wrong and heading for unimaginable disasters," he said. He claimed that there was a "necessity of deconditioning people from their whole past", and argued that "words are thought control". For a writer, who must begin with the inherited resources of language, this wholesale rejection was not promising.
His major theme was power as the manipulation of pleasure and pain in the human body. Around him he saw a systematic degradation in which people willingly submitted to becoming hosts of the parasites of rule. His targets were gangsters, judges, doctors, psychiatrists, policemen and servicemen. Fake sacrifices and cures, phoney panaceas and causes were his satirical targets, and yet he believed that people volunteered for exploitation. His work may have been a warning against the nature of power, but he saw human beings as irrevocably addicted to victimization by their overlords.
The Naked Lunch was followed by The Soft Machine (1961, final version 1968), The Ticket That Exploded (1962) and Nova Express (1964). Julian Symons's review of The Soft Machine summed up Burroughs's world: "The lovers bugger each other desperately, have nightmares in which they are violated by centipedes, and endure painful fantasies about the terminal erections of a hanged man. Out of the dirt, the excrement, the couplings, the repetitious confusion with which they are described, Burroughs makes a kind of dismal and disgusting urban poetry."
The confusion and repetition stemmed from Burroughs's "cut-up" method, which involved slicing up his typescripts and reassembling them—techniques demonstrated in two books of examples, The Exterminator! (1960, written with Brion Gysin) and Minutes To Go (1960, written with Brion Gysin, Sinclair Beiles and Gregory Corso). This form of dislocation was supposedly influenced by film and recording methods, but after Finnegans Wake and Gertrude Stein it was perhaps not so revolutionary and exciting as was made out.
Burroughs's subsequent career was spent between Tangier, Paris, New York and London, the main scenes of what Mary McCarthy called his carnival world. His experiences of South America emerged in The Yage Letters (1963), written to Allen Ginsberg, who contributed a letter of his own, and Burroughs also wrote of his drug experiences in a number of articles, the most significant of which was "Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness" (1960).
Newspaper column formats and ticker-tape structures appear in his Time (1965) and again in Apo-33 Bulletin A Metabolic Regulator (1967), which sought a way to re-establish individuality in the face of ideologies, miseducation and advertising.
Burroughs wrote a large number of shorter fictional pieces and articles on drug addiction and cure, but never, despite the popular myth, encouraged the indiscriminate use of drugs. He was, however, deeply interested in transformations of consciousness through both drugs and meditation. For a while he associated with Scientologists, in order to discover whether their methods were useful for the development of the self. His criticism of all such educational programs, plus some account of his own schemes for retraining the mind and body, are contained in the conversations of The Job (1970). The Wild Boys (1972) imagines a youth organization which has gained sole political power, a Spenglerian coming of the New Barbarians, self-generative and asexual.
His film script The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1970) is based on the delirious dying testimony of the celebrated gangster, and reflects Burroughs's lifelong interest in cinema (he took part in two films based on his own work) and in the criminally pathological mind.
In his later work, science fiction techniques extended his vision of perpetual terrestrial strife into galactic conflicts, but in the 1970s his reputation and readership began to decline. His style and compositional method had been highly influential, but were more and more evidently one of modernism's culs-de-sac. The Burroughs family fortune had been based on the invention of the adding machine, but although he continued to write and publish into his eighties, it is unclear what it all added up to.
William Burroughs married Joan Vollmer in 1945, but in Mexico in 1951 he accidentally shot her, reportedly while playing William Tell. His son died in 1981.
Achy Obejas (obituary date 4 August 1997)
SOURCE: "Beats' Burroughs Survives in Pop, Gay Culture," in Chicago Tribune (online publication), August 4, 1997.
[In the following obituary, Obejas appreciates Burroughs's influence on modern music and art.]
"But I'm dying," says William Burroughs in his flat, unflinching voice on the song, "Interlude 3 (The Vultures are Gone and Will Never Come Back)," a collaboration with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Then, with just a hint of a smirk in his voice, Burroughs adds, "No, you're not."
Burroughs, one of the founding figures of the Beat Generation, actually died Saturday in Lawrence, Kan., after a heart attack. He was 83. But anyone who thinks that's the end of him doesn't understand the effect Burroughs continues to have on literature and popular culture.
"He's turning out to be have been enormously influential, especially on artists who go into the inferno and report back," said James McManus, author of the novel Going to the Sun, last year's Carl Sandburg award winner. "He was into sex and drugs and rock n' roll before anybody else. And his influence on gay literature is immeasurable."
Burroughs' Naked Lunch is considered a landmark book, even though its publication in 1959 prompted Dame Edith Sitwell to label it "filth." Other writers, including Mary McCarthy and Norman Mailer, hailed Burroughs as a genius.
"It's a satire on the evils of government and the uniquely American conflict between independence and control," said Barry Silesky, a magazine editor and author of a biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, another Beat Generation writer.
Naked Lunch was nonetheless the subject of a long-running obscenity trial, which concluded in 1962, generating enough publicity for a re-issuing of the book by Grove Press, literary home of both Burroughs and Beat pal Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg died four months ago.
Burroughs' third book is a hallucinogenic feeding frenzy, with unlikely characters such as the Shoe Store Kid and the Lobotomy Kid. In one passage, a man is consumed by his own anus; in others, mad scientists perform a series of parodic operations. Burroughs' over-the-top style, influenced by his longtime heroin addiction, often bypassed literary staples such as plot, narrative and characterization in favor of an urgent, visceral approach.
"The study of hieroglyphic languages shows us that a word is an image," said Burroughs in 1969. "The written word is an image."
In that vein, Burroughs pioneered a writing style called "Cut-Ups," in which he cut up pieces of his own writing, mixed it with text from other sources, then glued it back together. For all the surreal and shocking subject matter of his work, Burroughs' tall, trim figure served as contrast. Often wearing white suits and a fedora, Burroughs rarely smiled, preferring instead an affectless demeanor that suggested gentility.
In 1981, he was invited to read from Naked Lunch and another work, The Soft Machine, on Saturday Night Live. As Burroughs read, "The Star Spangled Banner" played.
In recent years, Burroughs had been collaborating with musicians, including Sonic Youth, John Cale, Donald Fagen, Marianne Faithful, Brian Jones, Tom Waits, Kurt Cobain, Michael Franti, Ravi Shankar, and Laurie Anderson. He had a significant influence on others such as Lou Reed, Throbbing Gristle, Bob Mould, Jesus Lizard and producer Steve Albini.
His last CD, Spare Ass Annie, was released in 1993, a pulsating, danceable collection of stories told in Burroughs' staticky voice.
"It's one of the great American voices of the century, in terms of its tonal qualities—literally, how it sounded, regardless of what he said," explained McManus, a writing professor at the School of the Art Institute and whose own works, particularly Chin Music, were inspired in part by Burroughs.
One rocker who certainly thought of Burroughs' voice as unique is Chicagoan Al Jourgensen of Ministry, who used the Beat poet on a CD single called "Just One Fix." "Smash the control images, smash the control machines," intones Burroughs on the 1992 release.
Burroughs' rock n' roll legacy, however, goes beyond his vocalizing. He is credited as the first person to use the term "heavy metal" in relationship to music. The Mugwumps, a 1963 band formed by the Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian, took its name from a Burroughs novel. Steely Dan was named after a metallic dildo in Naked Lunch. And '70s progressive band Soft Machine won Burroughs' permission to name itself after his novel.
Since the beginning of his writing career, Burroughs also demonstrated a separate interest in visual arts. He did the first dust jacket for Naked Lunch; the cover of "Just One Fix" is a Burroughs painting titled "Last Chance Junction and Curse on Drug Hysteria." Last year, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art organized his one-person show of works on paper, collage, photography, installation and paintings.
In Man from Nowhere, a biography of Burroughs by Joe Ambrose, Terry Wilson and Frank Rynne, the authors describe how Burroughs discovered one of his painting techniques: "In 1982, (he was) trying out some guns at a friend's place, using a double-barreled 10 gauge shotgun with an 18 inch barrel…. He had been shooting at pieces of plywood, and he found that different layers of wood had been exposed on different parts of the plywood … He tied cans of spray paint in front of the pieces of wood and blasted away with the gun. The inevitable explosions of garish and tactile color pleased Burroughs … Burroughs had changed writing with the Cut-Ups. Now he was applying the same random spirit to the world of art."
His first customer was Timothy Leary, who paid $10,000 for a painting. Cobain and other members of Nirvana were later customers. In his October 1988 show in Chicago, his works sold at prices between $1,500 and $10,000.
Burroughs was born February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, grandson and heir of the inventor of the Burroughs adding machine. He was educated in private schools and served as a glider pilot trainee for three months during World War II. Burroughs claims he began writing after shooting his second wife, Joan Vollmer, to death while playing a William Tell game. Their son William died in 1981 of cirrhosis of the liver. Burroughs is survived by longtime companion James Grauerholz.
Tunku Varadajan (obituary date 4 August 1997)
SOURCE: "America's Original Hippy Dies at 83," in The Times (online publication), August 4, 1997.
[In the following obituary, Varadajan offers highlights of Burroughs's career.]
The writer William Burroughs, widely acknowledged as the world's first hippy, has died, aged 83.
Burroughs, whose life was a melange of self-abuse and self-satisfaction, founded the "beat" movement with the novelist Jack Kerouac and the poet Allen Ginsberg.
A junkie, homosexual and brilliant writer, Burroughs was also famous for shooting his partner in the head in a drug-addled attempt to recreate the apple episode from William Tell. She balanced a glass on her head at a party in Mexico City, but Burroughs' aim let him down. Her death was to be the most famous case of wife-killing until O. J. Simpson.
Burroughs' most famous work, Naked Lunch, is a roller-coaster ride through the psyche of a drug addict and a deviant world of junkies, perverts and hucksters. The book was the subject of numerous censorship trials. Although written in 1959, it did not go on sale in America until 1962.
Although many found it unreadable at first, Naked Lunch eventually came to be recognized as a "stream of consciousness" classic. Critics have described Burroughs' his style as "non-linear", which is an elegant way of saying anarchic.
Burroughs also wrote Junkie (1953), The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962) and Nova Express (1964).
Burroughs' happiest times were spent in Tangier in the 1950s, where he had easy access to drugs and boys. He befriended a Dutch sea-captain who ran a male brothel, moved into his home, and scoured the alleyways. "I get averages of ten very attractive propositions a day," he said.
Martin Weil (obituary date 4 August 1997)
SOURCE: "Beat Author William S. Burroughs Dies at 83," in The Washington Post, August 4, 1997, p. B4.
[In the following essay, Weil summarizes the highlights of Burroughs's life and career.]
William S. Burroughs, 83, whose efforts to transmute into literature the events and visions of a tormented life earned him fame as an artistic innovator and a founder of the Beat Generation, died Aug. 2 in Kansas.
Mr. Burroughs, who had resided since the early 1980s in Lawrence, Kan., after a knockabout life on four continents, died at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. He had been admitted Aug. 1 after a heart attack.
Much of Mr. Burroughs's enduring literary fame rests on Naked Lunch, the controversial 1959 novel that was hailed for groundbreaking creativity and denounced as vile filth.
In that book and in later writing, Mr. Burroughs employed a highly personalized stream-of-consciousnessstyle to which literary critics have traced much of the work that characterized the authors of the Beat Generation.
Along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, whom he was credited with introducing to each other, Mr. Burroughs was regarded as one of the three literary mainstays of the Beat movement. That movement exercised a profound effect on the culture of young people in the 1960s and ultimately on the wider culture, as well.
Filled with nightmarish, surreal, corrupt images of living matter, Naked Lunch seemed off-putting and even revolting to many students of literature. Others, however, believed that Mr. Burroughs used his surreal imagery, its polymorphous insects and intestines, to serve as a vast metaphor for his central vision.
It aimed, British critic Tony Tanner once said, to stand for the variety of ways mankind is devoured in the modern world, and, according to New York literary scholar Morris Dickstein, it served as a model "for younger writers trying to break through the standard realistic method."
Mr. Burroughs's work was in many ways closely connected with a life that included firsthand familiarity with society's underside, years of heroin addiction and a tragic incident in Mexico in which, after hours of taking drugs and drinking, he accidentally shot and killed his wife.
Just the same, Mr. Burroughs's own life was one of paradox and of unexpected departures and deviations from the images and expectations created by his art and vision. St. Louis-born, he was the grandson and namesake of the man who invented the adding machine, or at least, said Mr. Burroughs, "the gimmick that made it work."
The literary, personal and psychological odyssey of his life, a voyage through New York's literary communities, to Mexico, to the jungles of the Amazon basin, to the exoticism of Tangiers, finally took him to Lawrence.
A friend, Richard Gwin, a photographer for the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper, said Mr. Burroughs had a bungalow with a large yard "and sort of faded into the community." One of Mr. Burroughs's cats was buried in the yard under a tombstone with the cat's name on it, Gwin said.
In the 1980s, Gwin said, Mr. Burroughs and Ginsberg, wearing ear protectors, would shoot at targets with a pistol when Ginsberg came to visit.
Mr. Burroughs had a circle of friends but lived in seclusion "in a lot of ways," Gwin said. "Maybe that's what he wanted."
Indeed, in his speech, appearance and demeanor, Mr. Burroughs appeared to belie his reputation for iconoclasm and the unconventional. While his fellow Beats were histrionic in declaiming their work from the lecture platform, Mr. Burroughs presented "very much a style of his own," said Dickstein, a professor of literature at City University of New York, who wrote a book on the literature of the 1960s.
He was dry, poker-faced, antiseptic and "always very well dressed," Dickstein said. And in his quiet way, Dickstein said, Mr. Burroughs was "very funny."
Not even Mr. Burroughs's descent from a member of the nation's pantheon of industry and achievement counted for much in his life. Only vestiges of the family fortune survived the Wall Street crash of 1929. His mother, described as a member of the southern aristocracy, may, according to students of his work, have cultivated in him a degree of misogyny that marked his life.
He attended private schools, found his way as a young man to the fringes of the drug world and, in 1936, graduated from Harvard University with a degree in English. Afterward, he traveled to Europe, where he met and married a woman of Jewish extraction to help her emigrate and escape the Nazis. The marriage was dissolved after they reached this country.
Mr. Burroughs served briefly in the Army during World War II, was discharged for medical reasons and, by 1944, had become addicted to heroin; concern about legal problems prompted his move to Mexico with his second wife, Joan Vollmer, whom he later shot.
They had a son who died in 1981.
Eventually, a British doctor was credited with breaking Mr. Burroughs of his heroin addiction, ending what he said were years of "staring at the toe of my foot" and opening the way for him to write. Naked Lunch appeared in Europe in 1959 and, after overcoming efforts to censor it, was published in the United States three years later.
His work often incorporated random observations sometimes inserted into the manuscript with scissors and paste, creating a stream-of-consciousnes style. It all had an overarching purpose, he once said:
"To make people aware of the true criminality of our times. To wise up the marks."
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Thomas Parkinson (essay date Spring 1980)
SOURCE: "Critical Approaches to William Burroughs, or How to Admit an Admiration for a Good Dirty Book," in Poets, Poems, Movements, UMI Research Press, 1987, pp. 313-20.
[In the following essay, which originally appeared in 1980 in Occidem, Parkinson approaches Naked Lunch as continuing the "peculiar American tradition of hilarity" in literature.]
I want to begin by giving a retrospective view of my own relations to Burroughs. First, I saw both the Yage Letters and Naked Lunch before publication. In 1955 Allen Ginsberg lived in a little cottage four houses south of us on Milvia Street in Berkeley. He came to see me first in my office before we realized that we were neighbors, and he enrolled for graduate study at Berkeley. Kenneth Rexroth had advised him to see me, and together we worked out the best possible program that our graduate school would allow: required courses in bibliography and Anglo-Saxon and a special studies course in the prosody of Whitman. At first we talked incessantly about Whitman, and practically every day he came to the house and read Whitman aloud, and we discussed and argued. At that time Ginsberg was much taken with Richard Chase's book on Whitman and kept arguing for Whitman's sense of humor. At first I was amused and suggested that he could also write on intentional jokes in the Faerie Queene. Later we came to agreement, but I insisted he use the term hilarity rather than humor—a concept that I shall return to later.
Ginsberg did not trust academic figures, but he gradually came to the conclusion that I was not really a bad sort and showed me some of his poems. I thought that those weak imitations of Andrew Marvell were pretty dreadful and told him so directly, advising him to follow Whitman. That came as a relief to him, and since that moment we have been good friends. He showed me parts of a long poem that he was working on, and he began talking about Kerouac and Burroughs. He showed me a typescript of On The Road and segments of what would become Naked Lunch. The long poem was Howl, which he would read aloud later in the year at several places in the Bay Area. The little cottage in Berkeley has since been torn down, but though it was extremely tiny, about fifteen by fifteen feet, Ginsberg lived there, Kerouac visited for periods, Phil Whalen was a constant resident, and, when Ginsberg lived for a week or more at a time in San Francisco, the only resident. Gary Snyder was a frequent visitor, and they often overflowed into the old farm house—now torn down—where I lived with my wife and our first daughter. Mine is the melancholy fame of being the professor that the narrator of The Dharma Bums claimed to have scared the shit out of, with his customary elegance. The truth is that I threw Kerouac out of the house one evening because he was drunk, obscene, and was frightening my five-year-old daughter. In those days I stood six feet seven inches tall, weighed about two hundred and twenty pounds, was only 35 years old, quicker than most bears and as strong as some, and it would have been a pleasure to throw Kerouac physically out of the house, but he went mumbling away. Another piece of mythology about that period is that Ginsberg quit graduate school, though I encouraged him to stay, because Kerouac told him to quit. This is simply not true. Ginsberg on the way back from San Francisco one night asked me whether he should leave graduate school because, in his words, he could not twist his mind to work in the grammatical categories of Anglo-Saxon and the systematic procedures of bibliographical study. I told him that if he tried to orient himself toward something alien to his being, he would be making a mistake. But he insisted that he could not let down some of the professors who had been kind to him, and I answered that perhaps he should think of his well being rather than theirs. Finally I lost my temper and told him that he was a grown man, should certainly know his own mind, and should get out of graduate school as soon as possible because he was only making himself miserable. Kerouac may have said something to him, but the day after our conversation Ginsberg withdrew from graduate school.
In 1957–58 Ginsberg spent several weeks at our house in London, where Donald Carne-Ross recorded the whole of Howl for BBC and I included part of it in a broadcast on American poetry. In spring of 1958 I met Burroughs in the hotel on 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur and found him charming, gentle, and kind. He had just returned to Paris from London where he had undergone the apomorphine treatment and was free of drugs, very calm and gently didactic in conversation with Ginsberg, who was deep in the writing of Kaddish and in one of the manic phases which affected him occasionally during that period. That was my only meeting with Burroughs, though I have followed his career with attentive respect.
In 1959 while writing my second book on Yeats, I was also compiling the Casebook on the Beat. When I was being considered for a promotion my then chairman asked for a description of recent publications and current research, and after I handed him a bibliography, I remarked that I was compiling an anthology on the Beat writers. He replied that it would be wiser not to mention it because there might be somebody on the Budget Committee who lacked a sense of humor. I have always treasured that moment. That was the first critical approach to the Beat writers—ignore them, don't take them seriously, they are a bunch of clowns. But the fact is that they could not be ignored, that they went on to become the common reading of millions of young people, and my chief pride in the Casebook is that not one of the writers included in it has failed to be continuously productive, that Gary Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize and Ginsberg the National Book Award and that, alas, those writers have become part of academic study.
I say alas, because there is something mildly depressing in considering the distance from 1959 to 1977, from the chairman who thought the Beat writers were funny to the full majesty of the Modern Language Association turned toward the study of William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch is now, in Chaucer's terms, to be considered by the members of "A solempne and a great fraternitee," rather than in unpublishable form by a few young people reading a typescript.
The danger in making the contemporary respectable is that we might at the same time make it dull. Serious study tends toward solemnity, and I have the uneasy feeling in reading Eric Mottram's William Burroughs that a handful of very uneven books and a rather goofy theory of composition are being treated as if they were the major works and theories of a Conrad, Hardy or James. I am mildly relieved when I note that Mottram has absolutely no clue about how to handle routine matters like bibliographies and notes and is no scholar, but when the question of Burroughs' world view is given so Germanic a presentation, I become irreverent, as I do at times with Professor Tytell's excellent long essay on Burroughs in his Naked Angels.
The primary critical problem is what is the ground of the appeal of this work? Does Ulysses, for instance, get its overwhelming charm from the series of literary and philosophical and historical correspondences that can be found through patient labor and a little bending of the truth? Does Yeats' later poetry appeal to us because of the endless delight of comparing perfectly clear poems with irrelevant and obscure prose selected from A Vision? Do The Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn command attention because of their Emersonean vision of individual value? Do we read Naked Lunch because it is one phase in the development of a vision of defiance against cosmic authoritarianism? Do we read the notes to The Waste Land rather than the poem because we don't want to face the funny frightening poem that Eliot actually wrote? I suspect that we read Yeats because he is bold, sexy, and wise, and that we read Naked Lunch because it is outrageously funny.
This brings us back to Ginsberg's perception of the funny side of Whitman. What he had in mind can be epitomized in a single line: "I dote on myself. There is that lot of me and all so luscious." This is on the surface as hilarious as Mark Twain's essay on the literary offenses of James Fenimore Cooper or Faulkner's "Spotted Horses" episode from The Hamlet. The English are capable of humor, the French of wit, but only Americans are capable of hilarity: boisterous merriment. I am speaking of literature not life; the English are capable of boisterous merriment, but except for the Anglo-Irish, notably Joyce, it is beyond them in literature. "No, Sir; wine gives not light, gay, ideal humour; but tumultuous, noisy, clamorous merriment" (O.E.D.). Outrageous fun.
Humor for Dr. Johnson was ideal; he loved Shakespeare's comedies and had little use for the tragedies. Burroughs is frequently compared to Swift, especially the Swift of A Modest Proposal, but there is a more appropriate sense in which he should be compared to Twain and Faulkner, and perhaps most of all to Henry Miller, all part of that special tradition of hilarity that distinguishes American literature and would seem hopelessly out of place in English or French, not to mention our earnest German and Russian friends. When Russian writers are hilarious, the tone is entirely different, and there are many times when to think of their work as hilarious is to insult them. Woody Allen's Love and Death is a marvelous parody of an American trying to keep a straight face when he treats characteristic situations and plots in Russian fiction. Even so solemn a fellow as Woody Allen cannot quite bring it off.
What is the special hilarious quality of American humor? It has not been defined, though my suspicion is that many members of this audience have an immediate reaction to the effect that, yes, the same tradition that produced Hemingway's "Today is Friday" could as properly produce the famous hanging cum buggery/fornication scenes of Naked Lunch. It is hard to believe, however, that Hemingway would excuse his travesty of the crucifixion as an argument against capital punishment. Burroughs says of the disgusting and fascination hanging cum buggery/fornication passages that they were written "… as a tract against Capital Punishment in the manner of Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal. These sections are intended to reveal capital punishment as the obscene barbaric and disgusting anachronism that it is…." Now this is hogwash. Swift's Modest Proposal is written in a somberly rational tone, and it is a kind of hoax writing—like [Daniel] Defoe's The Shortest Way with Dissenters (suppress them totally, even if the cost is mass slaughter)—that was taken literally by part of its audience, even though it was written by the Dean of Dublin's St. Patrick's Cathedral, just as Defoe's ironic tract was written by a notorious dissenter. Now nobody in his right mind would take Burroughs' "tract" as in any way a literal or probable recommendation. It boggles my mind to imagine any reader of the text, without Burroughs' intervention, stumbling unaided on the notion that those obscene, barbaric and disgusting passages are anything more than an exhibit of the kind of depravity that the human mind can sink to, and of which to the guilt and sorrow of humanity, we are all capable. But the text itself gives no clue to Burroughs' intended effect. If Burroughs really intended to write an attack on Capital Punishment, what he managed was a much more fundamental indictment of humanity. That he did so through savage hilarity superficially comparable to that of Apollinaire's The Debauched Hospodar and his Memoirs of a Young Rakehell (which have absolutely no redeeming social importance, except that they were written by a great poet) places him firmly in the tradition of Miller and the late Twain. Burroughs is not a social critic but a nihilist intent on wiping out all conventional and civilized human values.
The appeal of Naked Lunch resides in the fact that it expresses the plight of a decadent capitalist culture in which the audience does not believe. The conventional and civilized values that it flouts are accepted superficially by the audience, and they delight in seeing them reduced to sexual and violent horror. The same principle makes the figure of Doctor Benway so numbingly funny:
Dr. Benway is operating in an auditorium filled with students: "Now, boys, you don't see this operation performed very often and there's a reason for that…. You see it has absolutely no medical value. No one knows what the purpose of it originally was or if it had a purpose at all. Personally I think it was a pure artistic creation from the beginning.
"Just as a bull fighter with his skill and knowledge extricates himself from danger he has himself invoked, so in this operation the surgeon deliberately endangers his patient, and then, with incredible speed and celerity, rescues him from death at the last possible split second…. Did any of you ever see Dr. Tetrazzini perform? I say perform advisedly because his operations were performances. He would start by throwing a scalpel across the room into the patient and then make his entry like a ballet dancer. His speed was incredible: 'I don't give them time to die,' he would say. Tumors put him in a frenzy of rage. 'Fucking undisciplined cells!' he would snarl, advancing on the tumor like a knife-fighter."
A young man leaps down into the operating theatre and, whipping out a scalpel, advances on the patient.
Dr. Benway: "An espontaneo! Stop him before he guts the patient!"
(Espontaneo is a bull-fighting term for a member of the audience who leaps down into the ring, pulls out a concealed cape and attempts a few passes with the bull before he is dragged out of the ring.)
The orderlies scuffle with the espontaneo, who is finally ejected from the hall. The anesthetist takes advantage of the confusion to pry a large gold filling from the patient's mouth….
Now, does anybody in the audience think that this is an argument for socialized medicine? It is an hilarious presentation of all our unconscious fears of doctors, their absolute authority over life and death, their indifference to their patients, their pride in their skill, even their vainglory, and finally the opportunistic greed of the anesthetist. Since modern medicine has saved my life on three separate occasions because of its recent technological developments, I respect it immensely, and number among my friends several devoted radiotherapists and surgeons. But this episode makes me laugh heartily and with a sense of relief. Burroughs writes many such brilliant scenes in Naked Lunch, including the unprintable (!) section on the day that Roosevelt appointed nine baboons to the Supreme Court. Is this a satire on the judicial system? Or is it a terribly funny presentation of the fears that Roosevelt haters had of him and his intentions? Anybody who understands or remembers the New Deal will also understand why otherwise rational men in their seventies will drool with rage at the mention of NRA, WPA, and FDR. And much of Naked Lunch is full of such topical fun. I find it hard to think of it, however, as satirical. Burroughs and his readers are just having a good time. But since this means that we share low motives and are capable of being moved by gleefully unrestricted obscenity, we try to convince ourselves that we are reading a noble tract against Capital Punishment or the AMA or the judicial system. I think that one deficiency in criticism of Naked Lunch is that critics are wary of being caught appreciating the book for laughs. Hence the "solempne" tone. And until some serious critic of Burroughs writes a frank and uninhibited appreciation of the book, really serious criticism of Burroughs cannot begin.
When it does, I think that certain results will follow, and one of them will be a depreciation of the succeeding books. I am a tireless reader of science fiction, and Burroughs apparently has also read E. E. (Doc) Smith's Lensman series. Those books with their Intergalactic Patrol, their Arisians contemplating the Cosmic All, the monstrous Eichs who cut their victims to pieces molecule by molecule and then assimilate them by a gruesome method that a Burroughs character would characterize as "disgustin"—they are the exact and adequate parallel to the "serious" novels that follow Naked Lunch and strike me as pretentious bores.
As for critical approaches to Burroughs, my own feeling is that the central need for determining the ground of the work's appeal has not been satisfied. First, I should suggest that evaluations of the individual books have not seriously been entertained. The negative critics merely call names; the friendly critics take refuge in allegories that, to my mind, inhabit the banks of the Nile. The special humor of Burroughs has not been defined, and his place in the history of the peculiar American tradition of hilarity not approached. In contemplating the subject for the purposes of this brief chapter, I have concluded that wit divides man from man; humor brings them together in a community of biological good sense; hilarity destroys the individual person as the author transcends and violates reality by a sense of outrageously uninhibited fun. Burroughs is no Swift or Defoe. Works like the Bickerstaff Papers, A Modest Proposal, or The Shortest Way with Dissenters are rational wit with a certain extravagance. Burroughs belongs with the authors of The Mysterious Stranger, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, The Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn, and Faulkner's classic The Hamlet.
Beyond that, there simply has to be some more rational examination of science fiction that would clarify what Burroughs is up to in his cosmic works. There is a special genre of science fiction that can only be called fascist—some of the works of Robert Heinlein (especially Farnham's Freehold), most of the grand panoramic works, but especially Doc Smith's Lensman series. Burroughs uses many of Smith's devices for anarchist purposes, and this seems to have evaded sensible notice.
Finally, there is the entire question of Burroughs' theories of composition. They are goofy, and the cut-up method and all the nonsense about electronic fooling around neglect the fact that Burroughs' sensibility is what makes the work interesting, not all the gimmicks. The trouble is that there is no young Kenneth Burke around to make a responsible analysis of the folly of the entire theory. My own experience with Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs is that they rationalize their practice when they theorize, and with the exception of Ginsberg—who has real knowledge of the poetic tradition—they lack the training and good sense to shape any kind of rational and usable theory. There is something dreary in watching that chameleon Norman Mailer try to use Burroughs' style in Why We Are in Viet Nam. All that Mailer proves in that book is that Burroughs' manner is peculiarly suited to his sensibility, not to Mailer's.
In my view the best description of Burroughs' idea of the novel is Wyatt Blassingame's conclusion that Mark Twain "was not so interested in the novel as a compact whole as in the individual scenes on which he could release his full flamboyant genius."
Hence there is a great deal to re-think about Burroughs, evaluatively, with some sense of literary continuities and parallels, socially with some sense of the post-fascist nature of the later works. A good Marxist critique of Burroughs might also clarify matters. But above all, I should like to see the serious students of Burroughs confess that they like Naked Lunch because it is outrageously funny, hilarious in the manner of Faulkner, Miller, and Twain. Seriousness about hilarity becomes unconsciously hilarious. Years ago I consented to do an individual study project on Miller with a rather solempne student. Finally, at one of our weekly conferences, I asked him with a feeling of despair, why he liked Miller. He looked shifty and said, "Well, remember the passage at the Paris Opera where the soprano has an immense menstrual flow that inundates the orchestra and boxes and leaves the audience floundering for their lives? Well, I used to have visions like that all the time, and until I read Miller, I thought I was abnormal." All right, I could understand that, but he was deeply offended when I said that I liked Miller because he was hilariously funny. I hope that nobody in the audience is offended when I affirm that in approaching Naked Lunch, we should keep our real motives in mind.
Gregory Stephenson (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "The Gnostic Vision of William S. Burroughs," in The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation, Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, pp. 59-73.
[In the following essay, Stephenson discusses Burroughs's middle and late works in the context of Gnostic thought, focusing principally on the themes of The Soft Machine.]
In the following I want to consider what I call the Gnostic vision of William S. Burroughs and to trace its development in his work with particular attention to his key novel The Soft Machine. I do not mean to suggest that William Burroughs is an adherent of Gnosticism or even that he would endorse or concur with its tenets and practices. I do, however, find that there are significant parallels and points of contact between Burroughs' writing and Gnostic thought, and that these provide a framework in which aspects of his work may be clarified.
Fundamental to religion, philosophy, and other modes of human enquiry is the problem of the relationship of the self to the physical body, of spirit to matter. The spectrum of opinion with regard to this problem varies from the absolute materialist position at one extreme, through the immanentist position in the center, to the position of the absolute transcendentalist at the other extreme. The ideas of the Gnostic and of William Burroughs are situated at this latter extreme. Both view the material world as illusory, the body as the primary impediment to true being and identity, and escape from the body and the world of the senses as humankind's paramount concern. The terms in which they characterize their beliefs and the proposals they advance to further their goals have much in common. To this extent they share a vision of the universe and of the human situation.
Gnosticism was a religious movement that flourished in the Middle East and in the Roman world approximately during A.D. 80–200. Gnosticism incorporated elements of Hellenistic philosophy, Oriental religion, Judaism, and Christianity together with magical practices and mystical traditions from diverse cultures including Babylon, Persia, and India. Orthodox Christians considered it heretical and blasphemous, and they persecuted and finally suppressed the movement.
There were a number of different sects and systems of Gnosticism: the Simonian, Saturnian, Ophite, Naasene, Valentinian, Basilidian, Marcionite, Peratikite, Encratite, Docetist, Haimatitite, Cainite, Entychite, Carpocratian, and others. These systems had varied emphases and approaches, different terminologies and mythologies to the extent that, as one scholar has stated, "There is no one uniform set of ideas that may be singled out as gnostic; rather it is a matter of a type of thought that manifests itself in different ways in different groups."
Essentially though, the attitude that characterizes all the Gnostic systems is that the world, the body, and matter are unreal and evil. They are illusions that are the products of malevolent powers called Archons, chief among whom is Sammael (the god of the blind or the blind god), also called Ialdabaoth or the Demiurge. These creator-gods are not the Deity or the Supreme Being, though they make claim to being so. The Deity is completely transcendent—absolutely distinct, apart, and remote from the created universe. However, a portion of the divine substance, called the pneuma, is enclosed in the human body—within the human passions and the human appetites where it is "unconscious of itself, benumbed, asleep, or intoxicated by the poison of the world." The aim of Gnosticism is to liberate the pneuma from its material, delusional prison and to reunite it with the Deity. The Archons seek to obstruct this liberation and to maintain their dominion.
The tyrannical rule of the Archons is called heimarmene, which manifests itself through natural law, through human governments, institutions, laws, and conventions. It even extends to the afterlife where the escape of the soul and its return to God is prevented. In the Gnostic cosmology the universe is a closed domain, ruled by forces hostile to man, where ordinary life is spiritual death.
The situation would be entirely without hope were it not for "a messenger from the world of light who penetrates the barriers of the spheres, outwits the Archons, awakens the spirit … and imparts to it the saving knowledge…." This saving knowledge is gnosis, which means knowledge or insight. Gnosis is distinct from rational, philosophical, or scientific knowledge. It is an ecstatic, transcendent knowledge of the nature of the self and of reality, an enlightenment that redeems the pneuma from the body and from the realm of matter and allows it to escape the control of the Archons.
Gnosis may be achieved in many ways. A knowledge of the nature of the Archons, their spheres and their powers, and a ritual renunciation of their dominion is basic to the quest for gnosis. Gnosis may be the result of a long process of self-knowledge or of the correct understanding of spiritual texts, or the receipt of knowledge may be swift and revelatory. The knowledge may be attained through ascetic discipline or by means of a systematic licentiousness. Whatever means break the illusion of the body-self and the material world, whatever acts repudiate the authority of the Archons and affirm the pneuma, are paths to gnosis.
The Gnostics were strictly antihierarchical in their approach to their religion and to the social and political situation of their time. They viewed all rulers and powers on the earth as servants of the Demiurge. The distinctions between clergy and laity and the relationships of superiors and subordinates were seen as reflections of the principles of the Archons from which the Gnostic was redeemed. Elaine Pagels notes that "instead of ranking their members into superior and inferior orders within a hierarchy, they followed the principle of strict equality. All initiates, men and women alike, participated equally in the drawing; anyone might be selected to serve as priest, bishop or prophet. Furthermore they cast lots at each meeting, even the distinctions established by lot could never become permanent ranks." In this way, resistance to the blind god and his minions was total, and each human was an agent of either the Deity or the Demiurge.
In a similar manner, the universe of William Burroughs' writing is also dualistic, a universe of warring powers and their agents on earth. At the highest level of abstraction, Burroughs exhibits in his novels a struggle between freedom and control, whose representatives in the universe are often portrayed as the Nova Police and the Nova Mob. The Nova Mob, also called the Board, enforces limit, authority, and single vision, while the regulatory, redemptive Nova Police have as their goal the restoration of multitudinousness, the liberation of consciousness from matter.
The head of the Nova Mob, which has occupied earth for thousands of years, is Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin, also called Mr. & Mrs. D or the Ugly Spirit. Of him Burroughs writes:
Mr. Bradly-Mr. Martin, in my mythology, is a God that failed, a God of conflict in two parts, so created to keep a tired old show on the road, The God of Arbitrary Power and Restraint, Of Prison and Pressure, who needs subordinates, who needs what he calls his "human dogs" while treating them with the contempt a con man feels for his victims—But remember the con man needs the mark—The mark does not need the con man—Mr. Bradly-Mr. Martin needs his "dogs" his "errandboys" his "human animals." He needs them because he is literally blind. They do not need him. In my mythological system he is overthrown in a revolution of his "dogs."
Burroughs' blind god, like the Gnostic Demiurge, enforces his dominion over man through the human body and brain. By means of manipulation and control he keeps human consciousness confined to the body and reduced to the body consciousness of the ego self. His Archons include: "Sammy the Butcher," "Green Tony," "the Brown Artist," "Jacky Blue Note," "Limestone John," "Izzy the Push," "Iron Claws," "Hamburger Mary," "Paddy the Sting," "the Subliminal Kid," and "the Blue Dinosaur." The agents of Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin on earth are all the authorities and all the establishments and all the systems—the military, the police, business and advertising, religion, and such individuals as customs inspectors, con artists, politicians, pushers, all those who coerce and con, anyone in a position to impose and enforce a reality on another.
The key technique of the Nova Mobs control is image, especially as it is communicated through language. Through the manipulation of word and image an illusory reality is created and maintained. This is what Burroughs refers to as "the Reality Film." It is scripted and directed by the Nova Mob and we are the unconscious, involuntary actors. The script, "the Board Books," calls for the deliberate creation and aggravation of insoluable conflicts, which serve both to keep the actors unaware of their position and to move the planet slowly, inexorably toward the Nova State that is the climax of the entertainment for the Nova Mob. "The angle on planet earth was birth and death—pain and pleasure—the tough cop and the con cop…." By these means the earth is kept as a sealed colony, exploited viciously and controlled totally by Bradly Martin and the Board."
As in Gnosticism, it is "a messenger from the world of light who penetrates the barriers of the spheres" to bring the message of liberation. The Nova Police break through the blockade around the earth, infiltrate Nova Mob operations, and with the help of local partisans, eventually overthrow the rule of Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin.
The message of the Nova Police is, "This is war to extermination—Fight cell by cell through bodies and mind screens of the earth … Storm the Reality Studio and retake the universe." Their plan calls for "total exposure—Wise up all the marks everywhere Show them the rigged wheel." And their strategy is to "cut the word lines—smash the control images."
This program of the Nova Police is equivalent to gnosis, for it provides a way of breaking through the illusion of the material world and escaping from the body and the limits of ego consciousness. The specific method to implement the strategy is the cut-up.
The cut-up is quite simply the cutting up and rearranging of written material. There are variations such as the fold-in method or the use of tape recordings, but the intention and the effect is the same: to decondition perception, to destructure and restructure reality.
Burroughs' premises for his theory of the cut-up are these: language is a system that carries implicit patterns of perception and thought that are largely unconscious in the user of the language; these patterns are the assumptions of the system; and all patterns, all systems are reductive. We experience ourselves and the world through language, but language limits our experience to its implicit patterns. Our life within the limits of our language is our reality. If we wish to discover what other realities may exist outside of the patterns of our language reality, then we must break out of our language.
For Burroughs the cut-up method is a tool of escape from language reality into a multiverse. The cut-up can release us from the discreetness, the exclusiveness of an either/or universe into a multivalent infinity where all sets intersect. By cutting the word lines we can restructure our reality, our consciousness.
Colin Wilson has distinguished between two planes of consciousness that he names the horizontal and the vertical. "The plane of everyday experience is horizontal, static," he writes, and my ordinary thinking moves on this plane. On the other hand, experiences of intensity tend to penetrate vertically into consciousness, and make us aware of consciousness as freedom instead of as passive perception." This is precisely Burroughs' direction with the cut-up—from the horizontal to the vertical plane. His concern is the liberation of consciousness and its extension beyond language.
For Burroughs the cut-up is not primarily an act of destruction but an act of creation. The cut-up creates by permitting multiple connections and by unifying. Specifically, the cut-up unifies time, identity, and perception. In the multiverse of the cut-up all time is simultaneous. The past, present, and future are exploded as arbitrary and artificial distinctions. Events occur in what scientists call Absolute Elsewhere. The ego identity is likewise discovered to be an arbitrary and nonexistent limit. Self and other and it melt and merge in the cut-up. The modes of sense perception overlap and fuse into synaesthesia. Thus, the cut-up provides access to a new clarity, a new lucidity.
In this regard, there is an affinity between Burroughs ideas and Aldous Huxley's view (based on the ideas of C. D. Broad and Henri Bergson) of the human central nervous system as a "reducing valve" that processes information according to its pertinence to physical survival, restricting "Mind At Large" to ego identity.
Clearly though, there is a more direct line from Burroughs back to Rimbaud. Burroughs has acknowledged the relationship of his cut-ups to Rimbaud. "Images shift sense under the scissors smell images to sound sight to sound sound to kinesthetic. This is where Rimbaud was going with his color of vowels. And his 'systematic derangement of the senses….'"
Burroughs refers, in the above quote, to Rimbaud's poem "Voyelles," in which the poet explores the correspondences between color and sound. The same correspondence is referred to again in the "Alchemie Du Verbe" section of Une Saison En Enfer. Like Burroughs, Rimbaud felt that true being and true identity were elsewhere and other than ego identity. ("Je est un autre." "La vraie vie est absente.") And he believed that in order to attain experience of the unknown, visionary self, the ego identity and its perceptions must be destructured. ("Il s'agit d'arriver à l'inconnu par le déreglement de tous les sens." "Le poète se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné déreglement de tous les sens.")
The cut-up for Burroughs is a way of knowledge, a method of resistance, and a tool of escape readily available to everyone.
The extent to which Burroughs became convinced that cut-ups represented a radical and effective solution to the human predicament is evidenced in his letter of 21 June 1960 to Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg had written to Burroughs on 10 June 1960 from Pucallpa, Peru, describing a terrifying experience with the drug ayahuasca and its disorienting aftermath. Fearing madness, Ginsberg appealed to Burroughs for aid and advice. Burroughs replied, instructing his friend to cut-up the enclosed copy of the letter, cut-up his own poems, cut-up "any poems any prose." His message is unequivocal and is striking in its resemblance to the Gnostic vision.
WHAT SCARED YOU INTO TIME? INTO BODY? INTO SHIT? I WILL TELL YOU. THE WORD. THE-THEE WORD. IN THEE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD. SCARED YOU ALL INTO SHIT FOREVER! COME OUT FOREVER, COME OUT OF THE TIME WORD THE FOREVER. COME OUT OF THE BODY WORD THEE FOREVER. COME OUT OF THE SHIT WORD THE FOREVER. ALL OUT OF TIME AND INTO SPACE.
Apart from its insistence on language as the principal device of control, Burroughs' statement is very close in tone and sentiment to a phrase in a Gnostic text: "Why did ye carry me away from my abode into captivity and cast me into the stinking body?"
Beyond the cut-up, beyond language and image, is silence, which Burroughs describes as "the most desirable state" because it leads to "non-body experience." In Burroughs' view man must move from speech to silence, from image to awareness, from body identity to disembodied self, from time to space. This is the direction of human evolution as he assesses it, and these ideas are the central themes of Burroughs' middle and late work, beginning with his novel The Soft Machine.
The Soft Machine is a pivotal work in Burroughs' oeuvre and as distinct from Naked Lunch as was that book from Junkie. In The Soft Machine all that has preceded in Burroughs' work is summarized and extended, and all that is to come is forespoken. In The Soft Machine Burroughs introduces his new technique, the cut-up; employs a new central image, parasitism; and outlines his cosmic myth, the Nova Police versus the Nova Mob. And in contrast to his earlier works in which he restricted himself to description and detached observation, in The Soft Machine the author himself becomes a prescriptive and an active agent, a partisan saboteur working against the occupying forces of the enemy.
The Soft Machine was printed in three different versions, the first of which was published in Paris by the Olympia Press in 1961. The second rearranged, recombined, altered text, with deletions and additions, was published in New York in 1966 by Grove Press. Apparently, as correspondence in the Grove Press collection indicates, the author was not satisfied with this edition even at the time that it was typeset for publication and wished to make further revisions. However, the editor insisted on a cutoff date for revisions, and the book was published without incorporating Burroughs' final revisions. The third version of The Soft Machine, the final and definitive text, was published by Calder & Boyars in London in 1968 and is still unavailable in the United States. This version contains about thirty pages of new text plus an appendix and additional material following the text.
The new technique, new imagery, and new vision of The Soft Machine may already be discerned in Burroughs' contributions to Minutes to Go. In these short pieces, the author's first cut-ups, he discovers his central metaphor, that of parasite and host; some of his most important characters, including Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin; and the dominant themes of The Soft Machine and his subsequent novels.
Burroughs' collaborators in Minutes to Go, Brion Gysin, Gregory Corso, and Sinclair Beiles, use literary, religious, or political material for their cut-ups, while Burroughs uses medical articles, especially those concerning virus. "These individuals are marked foe," pronounces one text referring to the medical profession. Other texts disclose diseases and viruses as "deals," while another ominously reveals the "agent at work" behind cancer. Burroughs' final contribution to the volume presents a comprehensive delineation of the theories that inform The Soft Machine: "The word was a virus … virus made man … man is virus…." The addictions to language, body, ego identity, sex, religion, and drugs are exposed as one addiction: image addiction, a virus parasitism. The Native Guide, who becomes a recurrent figure in Burroughs' mythology, is introduced as is Hassan i Sabbah and his maxim, "Nothing is true—everything is permitted." And finally, Burroughs presents his countermeasure to the agents, the deals, the addictions, and the parasites that infest human consciousness: "Rub Out The Word."
The Soft Machine is a full-length treatment of the ideas, images, and characters introduced in the pieces in Minutes to Go. Burroughs has described the book as "an obstacle course. Basic training for space." The episodic structure, together with the use of cut-ups, effects a spatial and temporal dislocation, a breakdown of sequential, linear perception, inducing a sort of dream state in the reader. The recurrence of words, phrases, places, images, situations, and characters without forward narrative movement contributes further to a sense of an utter otherness that is almost familiar, almost recalled. In this manner the book fulfills its intended "training" function.
The first version of The Soft Machine was divided into four large sections or Color Units: Unit I, Red; Unit II, Green; Unit III, Blue; Unit IV, White. This structure was abandoned in the second and third versions of the book but it remains embedded in the text. The reference is to Rimbaud's color vowels (alluded to in the text) and the intention is, again, that of an "obstacle course." Color imagery dominates in The Soft Machine and is used most frequently to produce the effect of synaesthesia. Burroughs hopes to train the reader to perceive and to conceive in larger terms than the discreetness permitted by the five senses. The program, which is Burroughs' systematic derangement of the senses, is aimed at deconditioning and reconditioning consciousness to permit nonbody experience.
The Soft Machine portrays a world of violence, viciousness, mendacity, and manipulation. The earth is a planet approaching nova state as a result of the deliberate design of the Nova Mob. The first section. "Dead on Arrival," depicts the hopelessness of the human condition in images of junk, parasitism, and death. Desperate junkies wait in downtown cafeterias for "the Man," and in the suburbs "antennae of TV suck the sky" in images of addiction. Man is at the mercy of biology ("running out of veins") and of the authorities (pushers, croakers, the heat) and is receiving a short count of junk and of time. Parasitism is the principle of survival; the hosts attach themselves to other hosts; the junkie becomes pusher or turns stool pigeon. The strategy of parasitism is "INVADE. DAMAGE. OCCUPY.," and the pusher, promising "freedom," moves into his host with the junk. Death by overdose, by drowning, by hanging, by murder, by accident, by one's own hand, or at the hand of another, physical death and psychic death: we are all, by the nature of the setup, "Dead on Arrival."
Human history is a "penny arcade peepshow long process in different forms" for Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin and the Board, and they are preparing to bring it to the Grand Finale of nova when the Nova Police arrive. Arrests are made, and one Board member "Willy the Rat" turns stool pigeon. Partisans undertake sabotage, and agents infiltrate and destroy Board operations past and present (the Mayan control system and Trak News Agency). As the total control of the Nova Mob begins to crumble, the situation report of the conflict is, "Word falling—photo falling—breakthrough in grey room." The tyranny of image is being subverted. The Reality Studio, the "grey room," is under siege.
A final apocalyptic overthrow of Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin is presented in the section titled "Gongs of Violence."
Police files of the world spurt out in a blast of bone meal…. Wind through dusty offices and archives—Board Books scattered to rubbish heaps of the earth—Symbol books of the all-powerful board that had controlled thought feeling and movement of a planet from birth to death with iron claws of pain and pleasure—The whole structure of reality went up in silent explosions—Paper moon and muslin trees and in a black silver sky great rents as the cover of the world rained down—Biologic film went up.
Having shown us the end, Burroughs then shows us the beginning in the final section of The Soft Machine, "Cross the Wounded Galaxies." We are presented with the moment in prehistory when herbivore apes were first invaded by the parasitic consciousness of the Nova Mob. Migrating during a period of glacial advance, a band of apes is suddenly afflicted with "the talk sickness," which causes both interior and exterior transformations.
Whereas previously the apes had no sense of individual identity, no "me" but only "we," the "talk sickness" precipitates a radical change in consciousness, creating ego identity. (It may be, as Eric Mottram has suggested, that this passage owes something to William Golding's The Inheritors , but it is not a cut-up of Golding's book.) This alteration of consciousness is accompanied by a physical metamorphosis: "hair and ape flesh off in screaming strips, stood naked human bodies…."
The parasite invasion of consciousness also manifests itself in the awareness of "the white worm-thing inside" that feeds off the fear and the pain of others and that changes the dietary practices of the ape-men to carnivorousness and cannibalism. The ape-men become hunter-killers, practicing ritual hunting magic. This first tribal religion quickly evolves into social hierarchy and monotheism when one of the creatures tells another, "I am Allah. I made you." Thus, in Burroughs' view, human religion and class structures are the extensions of psychic parasitism.
The Soft Machine ends with a coda in which the events of the myth are condensed and fragmented. Bradly Martin's arrival on earth, his long reign, his pursuit by the Nova Police, and his final overthrow are presented in twenty-two lines of cut-up prose-poetry.
The incidents and essential situations of The Soft Machine are repeated, developed, and further clarified in the author's next two novels. The Ticket That Exploded (1962, rev. ed. 1967) and Nova Express (1964). Subsequent novels such as The Wild Boys (1971), Exterminator! (1973), and Port of Saints (1970, rev. ed. 1980) also treat aspects of Burroughs' Gnostic vision but do so using different characters and situations. The problem of image and body is resolved most conclusively in The Wild Boys, in which all existing institutions, systems, and cultural and biological patterns are overthrown, and there is a return to a preverbal tribalism as an evolutionary medium to a nonmaterial state of being.
As the central work of Burroughs' oeuvre, The Soft Machine is itself centered around Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin. His phantom and elusive presence, his dual nature (as his name suggests), is the informing principle of the story.
Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin may be related to the figure of "Bradly the Buyer" in Naked Lunch, but he first appears under his own name in Minutes to Go in a piece titled "Reactive Agent Tape Cut by Lee the Agent in Interzone." The context of his appearance is a précis of his history and his ultimate fate in Burroughs' mythology. "He had to use junk somewhere. Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin—slotless fade out in sick streets of cry—."
Bradly Martin, the god of image and of reality, is himself addicted to image. He is junk in all its manifestations. Without his human hosts he is literally nowhere. He cannot exist without a medium. So he has to use junk somewhere. (We learn later that earth is not the first host planet for Bradly Martin. He has left a trail of novas behind him in space, across "the wounded galaxies." The fade-out image foretells his ultimate disappearance following his overthrow on earth.
Bradly Martin is also in Minutes to Go associated with Yves Martin, a member of an actual expedition composed of four scientists and a guide that met with disaster in the Egyptian desert. The bodies of four of the members were recovered; one person remained missing. Positive identification of the bodies proved impossible due to their decomposition and due to the sharing and exchange of clothing, documents, and diaries by members of the expedition. This curious event intrigued Burroughs and contributed to his conception of Bradly Martin as a ruthless survivor of an interplanetary spaceflight, who, after a forced landing on the planet earth, assimilated and subsumed the other crew members. Burroughs refers to the Yves Martin expedition in The Soft Machine and again in Nova Express. Bradly Martin describes his arrival on earth in "The Beginning Is Also the End."
In developing Bradly Martin ("God of Conflict … God of Arbitrary Power and Restraint, of Prison and Pressure"), Burroughs also drew on other sources. He has stated, "My conception of Mr. Bradly-Mr. Martin is similar to the conception developed by William Golding in Pincher Martin."
The similarity between the two figures, Christopher Hadley "Pincher" Martin and Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin, extends beyond the obvious resemblance of their names. Their situations are essentially the same, for they are both godlike creators of a reality, the product of their remorseless will to survive. Both are eaters—viciously self-assertive, parasitic, aggressive, greedy, without scruples, and ready to survive at all costs. Pincher Martin is an actor by profession; Bradly Martin repeatedly refers to himself in the narratives as "just an old showman." Both are marooned: Pincher Martin on his island and Bradly Martin on earth. And both are erased finally, unable to completely control and thus maintain the reality that they have created.
As an avid reader of science fiction, Burroughs may also have been influenced in the construction of his cosmic myth by J. B. Priestley's short story "The Grey Ones" (1953) or by Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (1955), in both of which the takeover of human consciousness by alien intelligence is depicted; by Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan (1959) in which all of human history is the product of alien control; and by Brian W. Aldiss' novelette Hothouse, which first appeared in the early sixties, in which the human brain and intelligence are presented as being derived from and susceptible to parasitic invasion. It is also interesting to note that Colin Wilson adopted Burroughs' metaphor for his philosophic science fiction novel The Mind Parasites (1967), and that Lawrence Durrell's latest series of novels, of which the first two constituents are Monsieur (1974) and Litia (1978), is centered on Gnosticism.
In the second century Tertullian wrote contemptuously of the Gnostics: "They meet together to storm the center of the one only truth…." In 1960 William Burroughs wrote on a New Year's card to his friend Brion Gysin, "Blitzkrieg the citadel of enlightenment!" This sense of urgency, of impatience with anything less than direct and immediate action, characterizes, at the deepest level, the vision of the Gnostics and of William Burroughs. In addition, as we have seen, they share an essentially pessimistic view of the material world, a radical dualism, a sense of alienated existence, a principle of the negation of physical experience, an antihierarchical approach to human organization, an urge to transcendence by means of saving knowledge, a willingness to pursue extreme measures to achieve such saving knowledge, and the predisposition to express their vision through a mythology rather than an ordered theology.
The recurrence in a twentieth-century American writer of the essential ideas and attitudes of a long vanished religion is not as surprising nor as unlikely as it may at first seem. Scholars have long recognized that art and religion share a good deal of common ground, and the problem with which the Gnostics and Burroughs have dealt may be seen as "the basic problem of the universe, the relationship between good and evil, between man and this seemingly evil cosmos." Furthermore, the type of thought or vision that may be called Gnostic is not an isolated phenomenon; but rather, it is a universal and recurrent tendency. "Manichaeism among the Persians, hermeticism among the Greeks, the Ismaelites in Islam, the Jewish Kabbala, medieval alchemy, the theosophy of the Romantics, modern occultism and contemporary surrealism" have all been seen as descendants of the Gnostics. Although there is no direct continuity from one movement to the next, Gnostic thought has been seen as "a religious ideology which always tends to reappear … in times of social and political crisis."
Although we must recognized that the political and social climate in which Burroughs writes is one of crisis, we need not accept the implication that Gnostic thought is therefore a hysterical and desperate psychological reaction to unstable historical conditions. The periodical recurrence of Gnostic thought may well be due to its relevance to the human situation or due to its not having truly been addressed and considered but only repressed and anathematized by the dominant orthodoxy.
In his essays "Passage to More Than India" and "Why Tribe," the poet Gary Snyder posits the existence of what he calls the "Great Subculture"—a tradition of thought extending back to the late Paleolithic era and resurfacing at various times in various guises. "In China it manifested as Taoism, not only Lao-tzu but the later Yellow Turban revolt and medieval Taoist societies, and the Zen Buddhists up till early Sung. Within Islam the Sufis; in India the various threads converged to produce Tantrism. In the West it has been represented largely by a string of heresies starting with the Gnostics…."
I believe that Burroughs' work can most properly be understood and appreciated in the context of this tradition—in the esoteric, heretical modes of thought that constitute a suppressed and subversive unconscious beneath the accepted and orthodox social, philosophical, and religious structures of civilization.
Within this tradition of Snyder's "Great Subculture" Burroughs' work serves two key functions, both essentially shamanistic in nature.
First, it exorcises "the negative and demonic potentials of the unconscious" by presenting them in symbolic form. Thus, the violence, obsessive sexuality, and nightmare horror that are so often characteristic of Burroughs' work represent an attempt to purge the psyche of these influences by means of their symbolic enactment. The Hungarian psychoanalyst Géza Róheim has observed: "The shaman makes public the systems of symbolic fantasy that are present in the psyche of every adult member of society. They are … the lightning conductors of common anxiety. They fight the demons…." Or, as the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas states: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
The second function of Burroughs' writing, is to provide a new cosmology. The author's space-age mythology, together with his experimental prose technique, introduces a new view of time, space, and identity, a new map of the cosmos and of our psychic geography. "In my writing," Burroughs has stated, "I am acting as a map maker, an explorer of psychic areas … as a cosmonaut of inner space…."
Both functions of Burroughs' writing, expressed in a manner similar to that of the ritual practices and mythological systems of the Gnostics, serve to effect self-knowledge, internal transformation, and transcendence. In this sense his work occupies a position in that zone of contemporary culture that is still being defined—where anthropology, philosophy, religion, psychology, and literature overlap and merge into a single discipline: human liberation.
Daniel Punday (essay date Spring 1995)
SOURCE: "Narrative after Deconstruction: Structure and the Negative Poetics of William S. Burroughs's Cities of the Red Night," in Style, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 36-57.
[In the following essay, Punday analyzes the meaning of the narrative structure of Cities of the Red Night based on linguist A. J. Greimas' theoretical construction of the semiotic square.]
William Burroughs's recent writing poses problems for critics. Traditionally Burroughs is known for a negative poetics that assaults the word and all continuity for the sake of breaking down social controls. His recent writing attempts to balance this negative poetics with a narrative continuity previously foreign to his writing. Burroughs remarked in a recent interview, for example, "I don't think there's any substitute for [narrative structure]. I mean—people want some sort of story in there. Otherwise they don't read it. What are they going to read? That's the point." This shift towards increased narrative cohesion is one that we can observe in most postmodern authors. Thomas Pynchon shifts from the radical discontinuity of Gravity's Rainbow (1973) to the more cohesive style of Vineland (1990); Ishmael Reed moves from absurd parody in Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969) to somewhat more realistic social satire in The Terrible Twos (1986); Kathy Acker quiets some of the radical discontinuity of works like The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1973) in her recent In Memoriam to Identity (1990). Burroughs and these other writers can be seen as working through the deconstructive impulse that dominated writing of the 1970s and searching for some way of reintroducing narrative structure without rejecting that deconstruction wholesale. Because Burroughs's writing was, perhaps, more radically deconstructive than any of these other writers, his movement towards a narrative continuity is more pronounced and promises to be particularly revealing. Our challenge is to explain how Burroughs can adopt a narrative structure without renouncing his confrontational, negative poetics.
Burroughs's recent writing is primarily "scenic": that is, it moves away from the linguistic basis of his experimental "cut ups" of the 1960s to concern itself with the dynamics of individual episodes. The Place of Dead Roads (1983), for example, begins and ends with the same scene recast with a different ending and significance. These scenes differ from the often individual comic and stylized pieces of Naked Lunch (1959) in that Burroughs's recent scenes recast the same characters and situations in a variety of combinations, drawing attention to how characters and their goals are structured by their situation and its narrative presentation. Situation also appears as a plot issue in this recent fiction. Characters search for a way of transcending the traditional conceptualization of the human situation. Burroughs speaks, for example, throughout The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands (1987) of the need for humans to "evolve" out of their bodies in order to move beyond the earth into space. Thus, in reading this recent fiction, we need to bring together an understanding of the dynamics of scenes and a consideration of how this scenic structuring reflects the more abstract construction of the human universe. We must account for both the concrete scenes and the abstract values that stand behind them.
This scenic and abstract narrative seems to push us back towards an older structuralist model, in which a narrative balances abstract deep structural values with their manifestation into concrete situations and narrative. At the same time, however, one of Burroughs's principle themes is the danger of universalizing systems that reduce the world to an abstract machine, exactly the complaint raised against narrative structuralism. In other words, Burroughs demands a narrative model that emphasizes the play between surface and depth but rejects the notion that narrative can remain under the control of some deep "core." Burroughs can be seen as returning to a notion of narrative structure that he has rejected in the past just as current theorists reject structuralists' accounts of narrative in the hopes of reworking this model as the basis of a new narrative form. Thus, in describing Burroughs's narrative we will need both to employ and to critique the structural narrative model that these scenic and abstract repetitions play out. The closest theoretical analogue to Burroughs's scenic, conceptual narrative is the structural semantics of A. J. Greimas. Greimas has theorized the abstract bases of the fictional universe and has concerned himself, like Burroughs, with the structural roles within narrative scenes. Greimas is best known for his attempt to synthesize abstract binary semiology and Vladimir Propp's theory of characters and their formal functions within narrative. Thus, more than any narrative theorist, Greimas balances "deep" abstract values and "surface" narrative characters and situations. Greimas thus offers a theoretically explicit analogue against which we can define the nature of Burroughs's approach to narrative. We need to ask not only what Greimas can reveal about Burroughs's fiction, but also what aspects of Greimas's theory Burroughs accepts or rejects. In doing so, we will sketch a narrative that employs a structural model without accepting it fully; how structure and critique are balanced is the key to Burroughs's movement beyond the negative poetics for which he is principally known. To simplify this inquiry, I would like to focus on one novel in particular, Cities of the Red Night (1981). This novel is the first of Burroughs's recent trilogy (which includes Place of Dead Roads and Western Lands) and is grounded as much in Burroughs's 1960s experimentalism as in the narrative cohesion of the later books of the trilogy. As such, it offers a natural starting point for considering Burroughs's more recent constructive works.
1. DEEP STRUCTURES
For Greimas, the most basic level of any narrative consists of "[d]eep structures [which] define the fundamental mode of existence of an individual or a society, and subsequently the conditions of existence of semiotic objects." This abstract mapping—a term Burroughs often uses to describe his own writing—is particularly appropriate for Burroughs since he himself is interested in the invisible conceptual grounding of reality. Burroughs's description of language and power as a "virus," for example, implies a hidden, logically replicating structure that gives rise to everyday relations. Greimas's analytical model for this deep structure is the "semiotic square," which Ronald Schleifer defines as "a logical mapping out of structural possibilities: for any content which can be understood as itself analyzable into binary oppositions (S vs. non S), the square, repeated and superposed, will exhaust the logical structural relations between its minimal elements." Greimas's square takes an abstract term and discloses the three terms logically opposed to it (which, consequently, define it). In doing so, it presents a four-part schema of what Greimas calls a "semantic category." To take a simple example, black can only be understood in contrast not only to white, but to the very possibilities of "coloredness" and "noncoloredness." The latter two elements can be thought of as metaterms, elements that comment on the possibility of the simple black-white opposition. Greimas represents the semiotic square in its most basic terms as follows:
Here S1 is the positive simple term (i.e., s), S2 the negative simple term (i.e., non-s, the opposite of s), S̅1 the positive complex term (both s and non-s), and S̅2 the negative complex term (neither s nor non-s). It should be obvious that S̅1 is not simply equivalent to S2; the former represents a distinct step outside the basic opposition of s and non-s. One of Greimas's more concrete examples, "The Social Model of Sexual Relations," should clarify the interrelation of these terms:
I note in italics how Greimas applies to "traditional French society" his general mapping out of possible social attitudes towards sexual relations. Thus the simple opposition between prescribed and prohibited love (in Greimas's application, matrimonial and deviant sexual behavior such as homosexuality or incest) is complemented in the square by the complex form of this binary relationship. The positive complex term is that which is both prescribed and prohibited, "adultery by woman." Greimas suggests that traditional French society generally emphasizes sexuality as an element of female social identity yet prohibits extramarital expression of that sexuality in adultery; thus this term combines the accepted and rejected elements of social relations and exposes the mixed signals sent by this society to its female members. This positive complex term is counterbalanced by that which is neither prohibited nor prescribed, "adultery in man." Greimas implies that this society neither ties sexuality so closely to the social identity of males nor bans so forcefully extramarital sexual relations; this society thus largely frees its males from the opposition of accepted and deviant social relations.
In this opening section I will establish what I take as the novel's fundamental stratum of values and analyze them by means of a semiotic square. We will find these values by looking at the dynamics of individual scenes. Burroughs's recent writing increasingly relies on discrete scenes or groups of related scenes. Indeed, at one point in Cities, characters put on a play called "Cities of the Red Night," suggesting that this model of discrete noncontinuous bits of narrative with individual dramatic foci represents the novel's structure as a whole. Cities is a composite of independent episodes and groups of related scenes; both share typical themes and methods of progression. The three most developed of the larger subplots are Clem Snide's investigation of Jerry Green's murder (set in the present); the more elaborate tale of the "Cities of the Red Night," a chaotic civilization that became "addicted" to death (set in the futuristic ancient past); and the story of Noah Blake, a Boston gun maker who falls into the hands of pirates and eventually helps to found a utopian civilization in South America (set in the nineteenth century). We can group these subplots and other independent scenes into types of episodes according to their concern with one of two basic goals: either an attempt to transcend the physical or a quest for something lost. Indeed, these goals support each other and run throughout Burroughs's career. Burroughs's fiction is characterized by the attempt to return to the past—in The Western Lands to ancient Egypt, in The Soft Machine to Mayan civilization, in Place of Dead Roads to the American west—for the sake of physical transcendence of which we no longer seem capable. This search for transcendence seems to reach a pitch of explicitness and centrality in Burroughs's most recent novel, The Western Lands, in which characters search for a way to evolve into "space" just as fish evolved in order to leave the seas and move onto land. In Cities, the first type of episode is best represented by the story of Noah, and the second by the story of Clem Snide's search for Jerry Green. Both of these types of subplots have their own set of "deep structural" values. I will eventually return to consider how these two groups of values interact and suggest that the two groups of values are intertwined.
Let us begin, then, by looking at episodes concerned with transcending the physical. Burroughs's episodes fall into patterns of progression that have little to do with the desires or choices of the individual characters: one of Burroughs's principle themes is how individuals are controlled by powers so pervasive as to be part of the world itself. The first episode in the novel, "The Health Officer" (unrelated to any of the novel's major subplots), is a particularly clear example of the stages through which these scenes progress. This is the novel's first instance of homosexual sex and instances the metaphysical issues that Burroughs attaches to these couplings. Such scenes, although rarely discussed in detail by critics, comprise a large portion of Burroughs's fiction and are the single most consistent and repeated event in his writing. Any method of reading Burroughs must account for these repeated scenes, but in Burroughs's turn to narrative, the details of how these scenes progress become particularly significant. Like many of the independent episodes, this episode mirrors in miniature the progression that the larger subplots will carry out across many individual scenes. This episode ends as follows:
Farnsworth lay down on his shirt and pants and fell into a wordless vacuum, feeling the sun on his back and the faint ache of the healing scratch. He saw Ali sitting naked above him, Ali's hands massaging his back, moving down to the buttocks. Something was surfacing in his body, drifting up from remote depths of memory, and he saw as if projected on a screen a strange incident from his adolescence. He was in the British Museum at the age of fourteen, standing in front of a glass case. He was alone in the room. In the case was the figure, about two feet long, of a reclining man. The man was naked, the right knee flexed, holding the body a few inches off the ground, the penis exposed. The hands were extended in front of the man palms down, and the face was reptile or animal, something between an alligator and a jaguar.
The boy was looking at the thighs and buttocks and genitals, breathing through his teeth. He was getting stiff and lubricating, his pants sticking out at the fly. He was squeezing into the figure, a dream tension gathering in his crotch, squeezing and stretching, a strange smell unlike anything he had ever smelled before but familiar as smell itself, a naked man lying by a wide clear river—the twisted figure. Silver spots boiled in front of his eyes and he ejaculated.
Ali's hands parted his buttocks, he spit on his rectum—his body opening and the figure entering him in a silent rush, flexing his right knee, stretching his jaw forward into a snout, his head flattening, his brain squeezing out the smell from inside … a hoarse hissing sound was forced from his lips and light popped in his eyes as his body boiled and twisted out scalding spurts.
This blending of sex and dreams is common in Burroughs's fiction and often related to characters' attempt to transcend and transform the body. New in Cities is the explicitness and significance of the stages through which the characters pass. In this section Farnsworth progresses through four distinct stages, which are consistent through all episodes concerned with the physical. At the beginning of this section, Farnsworth rests in a normal state, vaguely remembering a past episode. Then he dreams, mixing self-abstraction with the increased physicality of "a dream tension gathering in his crotch, squeezing and stretching." Farnsworth then ejaculates, "his body opening," and finally merges with the vision. The same type of four-part movement occurs throughout Cities. Clem Snide's assistant becomes possessed by Jerry Green's spirit and moves to the "stretching" of his body ("he's half in and half out and it hurts") through the expulsion of the spirit through a homosexual coupling that "opens" the body and provides some magical vision ("For a split second Jerry's face hung there, eyes blazing green light"). Similarly, Noah is able to see into the future of weaponry through a similar process of bodily merging: he couples with Hans, and the "explosion" of their bodies allows him a vision of the use of gunpowder. This pattern also appears above the level of individual scenes in overall plot patterns. Burroughs's history of the Cities of the Red Night itself repeats the movement from the physical balance ("no one was born unless someone died") to the "explosion" of these bodies through the use of slaves as "receptacles" for the spirits of dying inhabitants of the cities to the visionary confrontation of the moment of conception.
Greimas's structural model offers us a way of understanding how these four parts of the scene are related. Indeed, the mechanical, automatic progression of this scene implies that Burroughs sees these four stages as somehow logically inevitable. Central to the scene is the issue of physicality: the "solidity" of our body and the validity of the inside-outside dichotomy. The first and third stages seem to represent a basic opposition. The first stage instances the clear presence of physicality, "feeling the sun on his back and the faint ache of the healing scratch," where Farnsworth's body is present to him. Here, as in everyday life, we sense the connection between what happens to our body and what we feel, and we assume that the body is exterior but accessible to our mental life. The third stage, conversely, seems to represent a lack of that physicality as his body "opens," directly negating the strong sense of physical presence and continuity between inside and outside that we saw in the first stage. The semantic category of "physicality" could be analyzed, therefore, as a primary opposition:
If these two stages represent the "positive simple" and the "negative simple" terms of Burroughs's approach to the physical, the other two stages of this scene represent the "positive complex" and "negative complex" terms. The positive complex term is the second stage, dream and recollection. This stage blends the physical and the nonphysical: "Something was surfacing in his body, drifting up from remote depths of memory, and he saw as if projected on a screen a strange incident from his adolescence." Here Farnsworth moves away from the physical by leaving the present, but the dream is still described in terms of his body as something "surfacing." This stage can be described as "antiphysicality": it negates the physical in its own terms and in the process retains the physical as part of its definition. Conversely, the negative complex term, the fourth stage of the passage, is transcendence, the direct confrontation and negation of physicality. In contrast to the previous stage, this one negates the physical but also rejects rejection: that is, it refuses an adversarial stance and in the process escapes both simple terms. Physicality is transcended not as simple "nonphysicality" (that is, a loss or void), but by confronting and expelling physicality: "his brain squeezing out the smell from inside." For this reason, we might call this stage "aphysicality" since it seems to stand outside the physical-nonphysical opposition. We can represent this four-part structure graphically as shown in figure 4, below. I have italicized the four primary terms of the square and will use them throughout this article to refer to these structural relations specifically. Already it should be clear that these various forms run throughout the novel. Burroughs's fiction in general is dominated by people and things in various forms of physicality: ghosts, missing persons, visions, memories, vaguely human powers from beyond.
Burroughs's second group of episodes and the semiotic square it implies are more straightforward, in part because Greimas himself has provided us with a discussion of this type of semantic category. Episodes of this type follow the common quest pattern of loss and reclaiming. Following the hero's relation (conjunction) with his or her object or goal, Greimas has sketched the structure of the quest as shown in figure 5, below. The search for Jerry Green begins with simple terms: the family used to "have" him and now they have lost him. Greimas uses the terms "conjunction" and "disjunction" for these simple states of relation to a desired object. The quest for Jerry veers off into more complex terms early in the novel. Shortly after Snide is hired to find him, Green is discovered murdered and decapitated. Snide's quest consequently becomes a search for Green's head, which promises to explain the mystery behind his disappearance and the ritualistic manner of his murder. Green as a desirable object thus becomes more complicated; in addition to the simple states of "conjunction" and "disjunction," we discover positive complex and negative complex forms of relation to him as a desirable object. The positive complex state is defined by the complication that Green undergoes when he is murdered: he is both now "possessed" by the family (his body is returned) but "lost" in that his desirability as an object is transformed and integrated within a ritual that the family does not understand and has no part in. The negative complex term arises in that Snide's investigation attempts, at least in part, to uncover the ultimately metaphysical implications of Green's disappearance. Snide's quest for knowledge of the ritual attempts to transcend Green's "loss" and "return" and ends up evoking the powers at work in Jerry's death. The same complicated and problematized quest recurs in Snide's later attempt to "rewrite" the lost book, "The Cities of The Red Night." Indeed, throughout the trilogy Burroughs returns to older mythologies and genres—particularly the western of Place of Dead Roads and the Egyptian mythology of Western Lands—in order to reclaim and transform possibilities and ideas lost in the past.
These two models trace out the basic values of the novel. It is already clear that they must be interrelated. The quest for physical transcendence is, of course, a quest and thus relies on conjunction and disjunction. Similarly, the quest for Jerry Green is a quest for a head, an emblem of physicality and its rational transcendence. How these two squares come together is an issue of the novel's movement towards a "story" level, to which we now turn.
2. STORY LEVEL
In narratology, the "story" level of a narrative traditionally refers to what happens in a narrative, its plot. This story level is distinguished both from the ways those factual events are told by the narrator and the more abstract deep-structural values that the story instances. Greimas attends to this "story" level in terms of his fairly well-known theory of "actants." Based on Propp's folklore functions, actants are abstract actors necessary in the structural logic of the text. Individual characters within a story need not have a one-to-one relation to that story's actantial structure. Thus, two characters may split the "opponent" role, or one character may play the story's "opponent" role and then later, perhaps after a change of heart, play the "helper" role. By formulating character in this abstract way, Greimas hopes to connect these characters to the deeper, logical relations that we examined in the previous section. According to Greimas, actants act out the confrontation and exchange of values defined in the work's implicit deep level.
Most noticeable in Burroughs's novel is the fact that an explicit actantial manifestation of these deep-structural values is lacking and, indeed, unnecessary. As I have already argued, Burroughs's characters seem to fall into patterns of development that have little to do with their own individual goals and choices. Indeed, as we have already seen, these patterns of development seem to contain within themselves their own narrative development before ever being inserted into the "story" level. Because Burroughs accepts Greimas's theory of semiotic values but disregards Greimas's theory of how these values are manifested actantially, his use of Greimas resembles that of Jameson. Jameson has argued that any semiotic square can act as a model of plot development towards a goal state. According to Jameson, every semiotic square has the seeds of a quest implicit in it; this quest can be read without reference to the actantial structures Greimas proposes. Jameson argues that the semiotic square generally privileges the negative complex term towards which the artistic composition strives. This model applies particularly well to Burroughs's use of the physicality square. Burroughs's preface to Cities, "Fore!", which in one sense summarizes the novel, exemplifies the movement in individual episodes towards this fourth term of the physicality square. This preface tells the story of Captain Mission, who attempts to establish an innovative social state in South America in the nineteenth century. Mission's problem is a more general, social form of the "personal" physicality I sketched in the first section: he simply does not have enough troops to withstand the attack of the South-American natives and European invaders. To escape such a population disadvantage, this preface suggests moving out of the simple terms of the physical-nonphysical split:
Fortified positions supported by and supporting guerrilla hit-and-run bands; supplied with soldiers, weapons, medicines and information by the local populations … such a combination would be unbeatable…. Consider the difficulties which such an invading army would face: continual harassment from the guerrillas, a totally hostile population always ready with poison, misdirection, snakes and spiders in the general's bed, armadillos carrying the deadly earth-eating disease rooting under the barracks and adopted as mascots by the regiment as dysentery and malaria take their toll.
Traditionally, militaries rely on their size and fortifications, their presence. Good military strategy is the effective use of finite troup resources, the best system of "presences" and "absences" within a battlefield. Captain Mission's guerrilla troups depart from their model of physical presence and location and make it difficult to locate the army itself as a distinct entity. Mission here defines an army that is neither "present" in the traditional sense, and hence not susceptible to traditional military counterattack, nor simply "absent" since these forces can have a direct effect. What Burroughs suggests for this historical situation applies to individual characters as well: they must move to aphysicality, to transcendence if they are to achieve success. This valuation is built into Burroughs's general interest in "evolving" out of the body to move into space and to the physicality square's fourth term, aphysicality.
The similarities between Burroughs's and Jameson's uses of Greimas force us to recognize that, while both squares are important to Burroughs, physicality represents the more distinctive organizing issue of the novel's composition. While "reacquisition" may be built into nearly any narrative, Burroughs's concern for transcending the physical is more distinctive and related to the interests that have run throughout his career. Conversely, how Burroughs deviates from Jameson's theory makes clear why Burroughs needs the second quest square. Unlike Jameson, Burroughs is far more interested in why natural progression does not occur. The emphasis on failure and entrapment is clear throughout all of Burroughs's novels. Burroughs emphasizes not how the physical and nonphysical are reconciled and escaped, but why characters fail to reach transcendence. Such misguided striving is clear in how the Transmigrants (inhabitants of The Cities of the Red Night) attempt to escape from the body by dying and "transmigrating" into new, young bodies. The narrator summarizes this and the problems involved with it: "This was the basic error of the Transmigrants: you do not get beyond death and conception by reexperience any more than you get beyond heroin by ingesting larger and larger doses. The Transmigrants were quite literally addicted to death and they needed more and more death to kill the pain of conception. They were buying parasitic life with a promissory death note to be paid at a prearranged time." Burroughs clearly shows here an antiphysicality that cannot move to aphysicality, cannot transcend the physical. Unlike Captain Mission's guerrilla army, which escapes from the conventional ways of understanding the physical existence of military forces, the Transmigrants' attempt to escape from the body simply repeats the conventional forms of death. The Transmigrants' attempt to escape physicality, to move to aphysicality, is tied to the physical in the terms of its rejection and thus remains antiphysicality. The investigations of Yen Lee (another one-time character related to the Health-Officer scenario) best exemplify the limitations of antiphysicality. Yen Lee's astral projection enables him to conduct "an out-of-body exploration of the village," but he is unable to complete such an exploration because of the physicality implicit in this antiphysicality: "He did not push himself, knowing that a biologic protective reaction was shielding him from knowledge he was unable to assimilate and handle."
Because antiphysicality provides a false transcendence, characters have difficulty distinguishing genuine and illusory attempts at aphysicality; this confusion represents the central danger in the novel. In this sense the rituals that permeate the novel, such as the "series of theatrical performances" designed to impregnate the women in Port Roger (in the Noah subplot), prove misguided attempts to transcend the physical and to achieve aphysicality. Regardless of the degree to which "the faces of the boys are remote and impersonal … their bodies quiver and shake as if possessed by wild spirits." As such we see one reason why sex and drugs pervade the novel: they are often examples of antiphysicality, attempts to negate the physical that are inescapably tied to that very physicality. These means contrast sharply with those that genuinely lead to aphysicality, the transcendence of physicality. Dink Rivers, the character who spurs Noah on to aphysicality, is noted for his body control. By mixing dreams and conscious physicality, this control stresses the use and eventual transcendence of the physical: "In order to achieve orgasm [without physical stimulus], it is simply necessary to relive a previous orgasm. So while awake, I would endeavor to project myself into sexual dreams, which I was not having several times a week. It was some months before I acquired sufficient concentration to get results."
Burroughs's narrative differs from that explained by either Jameson's or Greimas's theory. Although Jameson's theory deviates from Greimas's formulation of how deep-structural values are inserted into the text (bypassing any systematic theory of actants and the modalities of action), like Greimas, Jameson sees the tension of the work arising out of how the logical relations of the square are manifested in a plot and whole narrative. Narrative tension for Burroughs, conversely, arises out of the contradiction of textual logic. Burroughs shows us characters caught within a text whose logic seems to turn back on itself and deny the progression it demands. Presenting such self-contradiction can be seen as the principal challenge of the novel's composition. Burroughs employs two squares in order to separate the text's values with their implicit natural progression from the characters' actual position in relation to those values. Burroughs's episodes consequently arise out of the combination of the two squares. More specifically, Burroughs creates two types of episodes: one that follows the ideal, expected model of progression and another that offers a real but self-contradictory movement. I will call the combination of these two squares "plot structures" and argue that these two types of plot structures represent, respectively, the two types of episodes mentioned at the beginning of this essay.
To start from seeing oneself as a unified self whose exterior is controlled by one's interior is the more "obvious" and basic view on physicality in the novel. This notion entails pairing simple physicality with simple conjunction and seeing nonphysicality as a matter of disjunction (to see, for example, amputation or death as a simple and unproblematic loss). This view is the way that we assume physicality should be. To pair these squares in this way results in the following plot structure.
The subplots that obey this first plot structure develop along the values of the primary (physicality-nonphysicality) square, moving from the simple terms to the negative complex term (aphysicality). We have already seen this in the Farnsworth example above. I have numbered the positions on the square as the stages of progression through this plot structure although the second stage rarely is distinct and usually combines with the first to form a simple starting point.
The pirates (in the Noah subplot) for example, begin in a state of conjunction and physicality and move towards a final reacquisition of that conjunction on a higher, decentered level (and thus aphysicality). Noah, in this sense, begins in the simple conventionality of Boston with its strict social codes that enforce a very definite view of the physical individual and his or her responsibility, adopts the defiant freedom of the pirate ship where the notion of "body" and "individual" is turned upside down (particularly in transvestitism), and finally helps to establish the utopia of Port Roger, which represents a society that has transcended issues of individual bodies.
Obviously, Burroughs's view of physicality is often considerably more complex; when trying to express such complexity, he resorts to a second plot structure. In contrast to this ideal vision, Burroughs presents another physicality that is far from simple and under control of a unified self. Specifically, this second view of physicality begins with an understanding of physicality based on loss. This loss does not take the form we might expect (amputation, death) but rather, while retaining the form of physical control, implies that the body is somehow forfeit to powers beyond itself. Thus, the simple terms of the basic square (physicality and nonphysicality) are paired not with the simple terms of the quest (conjunction and disjunction) but with the complex terms of the quest. Characters are, in a sense, always already in the middle of the quest. This leads to the second plot structure:
We can see this attempt at reunion at work in Clem Snide's detection system. Snide's attempt to "reacquire" Green represents, en abyme, the characters' more general attempt to "reacquire" simple physicality. Let us look specifically at Snide's method, which will reveal the implications of this second plot structure:
I will explain exactly how these recordings are made. I want an hour of Spetsai: an hour of places where my M.P. [missing person] has been and the sounds he has heard. But not in sequence. I don't start at the beginning of the tape and record to the end. I spin the tape back and forth, cutting in at random so that The Magus may be cut off in the middle of a word by a flushing toilet, or The Magus may cut into sea sounds. It's a sort of I Ching or table-tapping procedure. How random is it actually? Don Juan says that nothing is random to a man of knowledge: everything he sees or hears is there just at that time waiting to be seen and heard.
Snide moves from the nonphysicality of the missing character to the antiphysicality of cutting up the recorded material (a rejection of its physicality in its own terms) towards the aphysicality of the insight provided by the merging of all these materials (the transcending of the physical materials). Although this second plot structure repeats the same terms and direction of progression as the first, Snide's position and overall goals are different. Noah's story begins in a state of conjunction and moves through relinquishment finally to reacquisition in the position of aphysicality. Snide attempts, instead, to use aphysicality as a way to return Jerry to his family (and thus achieve normal physicality). For this reason, I have numbered the second plot structure as I have. Characters in this plot structure do not strive towards a new relation to their goal as in the first plot structure (aphysicality), but instead attempt to return to an ideal situation of simple physicality postulated before the action of the plot. We thus contrast the more adventurous first plot structure with its bold rejection of the norm to the more hesitant second plot structure; the characters generally want, in this second structure, simply to return to the security of an unproblematic norm. As Snide investigates Jerry's abduction, however, he discovers Jerry's hidden past, suggesting that such an unproblematic normal situation is illusory. Relinquishment invalidates the previous stage by revealing the flaws in that norm, and characters are never able to reach the fourth stage. Characters are thus caught, in this second plot structure, tragically relinquishing without ever being able to reacquire.
For this reason the second plot structure places more emphasis on the quest since physicality is more the means to the end of finding what is lost. The first plot structure, conversely, places more emphasis on physicality because the quest structure is not problematic here and can be assumed. This contrast helps to account for why these two types of episodes seemed to have distinct thematic foci at first. Both plot structures, however, work with the same elements, and the meaning of the novel results from their interaction.
3. STRUCTURALIST READING AND DECONSTRUCTIVE STYLE
We have already discovered that we must read Burroughs's basic "story" and its abstract structures in a different way from how we read traditional narrative. I would like to suggest that this analysis also models the overall trajectory of the reader's interaction with the novel. Indeed, Burroughs himself has described his narrative as something we can feel with our body: "I think it is possible to create multilevel events and characters that a reader could comprehend with his entire organic being." Consequently I would like to argue that in reading Cities we are implicitly trying to use and transcend the physical limits of his text. Understanding this parallel will allow us, finally, to explain what role the structural analysis we have just completed plays within the whole meaning of Burroughs's antistructural text.
In order to understand fully how Burroughs means us to read, we must turn to consider how Burroughs understands language. The response from the Santa-Claus figure to Toby's Christmas wish (another brief and unrelated character set more or less in the present) is one of the clearest examples of the pervasiveness of language and how language limits characters' attempts to reach their goals: "Yes, Toby, people do ask for silly things. They want to live forever, forgetting or not knowing that forever is a time word and time is that which ends." Language in this sense forms a network of terms without which the characters cannot express themselves yet which necessarily limits their ability to get outside their physical location and state. The notion of a limiting but inescapable linguistic and conceptual system runs throughout the novel. Peterson's response to Dr. Pierson's lecture (an early episode that sets up Burroughs's general attitude towards the problems that characters face in the novel) suggests the larger context of linguistic limitation:
"Why should this virus be an exception?"
"Because it is the human virus. After many thousands of years of more or less benign coexistence, it is now once again on the verge of malignant mutation…. The whole human position is no longer tenable."
Humanity itself is a problematic concept with which we are nonetheless stuck at least for the present. Language is for Burroughs a virus that replicates itself and homogenizes the organism it inhabits. Indeed, we can go so far as to characterize language as a kind of "antiphysicality," both physicality and nonphysicality. Language is omnipresent and inescapable (physical) yet inadequate and finally illusory (nonphysical). The presence of this linguistic system distinguishes the first and second plot structures. We saw above that antiphysicality often provides a false transcendence; this linguistic antiphysicality is the reason that characters of the second plot structure are unable to progress fully through the square. Characters of the first plot structure can free themselves from this linguistic control. We see this state in Dink Rivers's explanation of body control, which stands as the clearest statement of the conditions of aphysicality in this first plot structure: "Having brought sexual energy under control I now had the key to body control. Errors, fumbles, and ineptitudes are caused by uncontrolled sexual energy which then lays one open to any sort of psychic or physical attack. I went on to bring speech under control, to be used when I want it, not yammering in my ear at all times or twisting tunes and jingles in my brain. I used the same method of projecting myself into a time when my mind seemed empty of words." Snide's second plot-structure investigations, conversely, lead him to the book "The Cities of the Red Night," suggesting that language and textuality are the heart of the second plot structure. Burroughs clearly sees this first plot structure as desirable but unattainable; consequently, the second plot structure models the situation of his reader.
This inescapable linguistic system helps to explain Burroughs's direct presentation of abstract deep-structural relations in lieu of an actantial textual level. Greimas devotes so much of his theory to actants, in part because the transition from deep to actantial level reflects the whole metalinguistic functioning of semiotic analysis. Ricoeur's analysis of Greimas on this tricky subject is worth quoting at some length:
The initial model must from the outset present an articulated character, if indeed it is going to be able to be narrativized. The stroke of genius—and this is not too strong—is to have sought this already articulated nature in a logical structure that is as simple as possible, that is, the "elementary structure of signification." This structure has to do with the conditions of grasping of meaning, any meaning. If something—anything at all—signifies, it is not because one might have some intuition as to what it signifies, but because one can lay out [through a semiotic square] … an absolutely elementary system of relations…. The mutual defining of its four poles presents an absolutely static network of relations. But one can represent the model dynamically. One just has to move from the morphological point of view to the syntactic one, that is, treat the constituent relations of the taxonomic model as being operations. Indeed, syntax is no more than a regulating of these operations.
Greimas's theory can be seen as an attempt to define the essence of narrative in such a way as to justify its translation into a semiotic metalanguage. Ricoeur bases the essential narrative function of a text on the continuity between analytical metalanguage and textual, actantial representation. Because the actantial story model is simply another version of sentence syntax, narrative structuring can be reduced to the metalinguistic semiotic analysis of deep-structural values. Greimas has been criticized for assuming without justification this homology of sentence syntax, narrative structure, and the deep structures of the text. Burroughs's use of Greimas's square can be seen as an indirect response to this problem, an attempt to analyze essential workings of language without relying on such presumed homologies. In representing the squares directly, Burroughs admits the artificiality of these structures and separates true linguistic functioning from these structural overlays. Consequently, the plot structures discussed above outline this linguistic functioning but do not fully define it or reduce it to a metalanguage.
In order to stress the autonomy of linguistic play from the structures that can be isolated in the text, Burroughs attempts to cast language as something with its own motivation: language almost becomes an independent character in the novel. To understand how he does this, let us return to the analysis we have already carried out and consider how it departs from Greimas's own theory. In Greimas's theory, the combination of semiotic squares I employed in the second section occurs only in describing modalities of character predisposition and ability to act and not in describing the deep structures of texts. For Greimas, modal homologation is possible in a way that combining textual deep structures is not because, while we can imagine a situation in which we are expected but unable to do something (modal categories of prescription and competence), textual deep structures must provide a simple scheme of opposed values that the actants will embody. For Greimas, without deep-structural values in direct and simple opposition, actants lack the basis for interaction, and narrative is impossible. These two squares can be combined for Burroughs, conversely, because his text has no actantial narrative and therefore does not need a simple deep-structural opposition. The structure we have discussed in the previous two sections is thus merely a potential for character action, rather than a genuine narrative of conflict between deep-structural oppositions worked out in the confrontation of actants. The novel's locus of conflict—its narrative—is not in the conflicts between characters, but in how the characters are elaborated within the scenes according to the text's contradictory semiotic predispositions. The text, the process of articulation, is the real actor in Cities. This is consistent with Burroughs's definition of language as a virus. To call language a virus is to attribute to it a crude motivation (of self-preservation and propagation) that we do not normally recognize. A virus both obeys a logic for self-preservation and repeats that logic as it spreads into a new organism. So too, the text both functions within a predisposing modal structure and represents that logic within the text as the scope of characters' actions. Burroughs seems to want us to recognize the parallel between the text's functioning and what it describes for characters as a clue for glimpsing the methods of textual self-motivation and self-begetting.
We get a model of how we should read this linguistic self-motivation in those characters who successfully confront these linguistic problems in Cities and learn to "exist" in Burroughs's textual environment. For episodes of the first plot structure, aphysicality occurs by two characters blending physically. Noah's "initiation" by Dink Rivers into body control is described as follows: "He is getting stiff and so am I, the feeling of weakness now like death in the throat as we both are fully erect. Silver spots boil in front of my eyes and I have a feeling of squeezing into his nuts and cock as I lie on the pallet and Dink fucks me." The aphysical vision that results from this scene brings an understanding beyond the temporal limits of the characters; thus, as a result of this transcendence Noah glimpses the future of weaponry and works to bring these new weapons into existence. For the second plot structure, the circumstances are subtly different and reflect the way the antiphysical quality of language (omnipresent but hollow) problematizes transcendence. Characters do not use this blending to see into another narrative situation; instead, that blending itself is with characters in other such situations. Audrey's problems of temporal disorientation, for example, seem to dissipate when, late in the novel, he is given a "separator": "Might come in handy if you ever need to be in two places at once." Similarly Toby gains the power to travel in time by moving into conjunction with people who already exist and who are active during Toby's "residence." This method implies less an escape from body to body than a merging of characters who are equally bound. Because characters' thoughts and actions are always already defined by language in the second plot-structure, their movement between scenes is not a way of glimpsing something beyond the scene, as it is in the first plot structure, but merely a way of circulating within a network of scenes and characters. Such a closed network of scenes and the repetition it leads to parallels the finite, all-encompassing linguistic system in which characters find themselves. In this sense, the characters of the second plot structure are always dependent on other characters, are always both present and absent, and hence antiphysical.
Burroughs believes, I think, that the direct experience of this disjointed text, understood properly, will provide an ineffable but real insight into linguistic self-construction that parallels but also extends the insight of characters in the second plot structure. Like Audrey and Toby, we learn to straddle narrative situations. As we move from seeing characters as splintered and disjoint, we begin to gain insight into how language and context create character and self. Unlike the specific and summarizable meaning provided by the play of plot structures, this insight derives from experience and cannot be summarized and translated into a semiotic metalanguage. Throughout the novel Burroughs shifts the same character to another manifestation within another narrative context in order to provide us with a glimpse of the structuring process itself. Thus Audrey is a teenager in Greece, a fighter in the Cities of the Red Night, and the detective Clem Snide, none of which have ontological priority but all of which rely on similar situations. These characters (and they often realize it themselves) cannot stand on their own, but are always the products of forces and parallels only barely glimpsed. In following these disjunctions, we should gradually progress from seeing them as negations, to attempting to find that which is not simply "physically" present in any of the individual subplots and thus limited by preexisting social, linguistic, and narrative structures; instead we find the gaps between these episodes and subplots and thus glimpse something beyond this structuring. This movement from seeing characters as both parallel to and distinct from each other to seeing the process of that structuring in the abstract is similar to the movement from the antiphysicality to aphysicality of character. At this moment the active structuring of characters by a self-motivated language becomes equivalent to the characters represented. In this aphysicality of character, Burroughs seems to promise insight into the nature of language. Farnsworth, as quoted above, senses "a strange smell unlike anything he had ever smelled before but familiar as smell itself"; and as the mise-en-abyme text of "Cities of the Red Night" says, "At one time a language existed that was immediately comprehensible to anyone with the concept of language."
We find, then, that Burroughs's structural narrative does not "contain" its meaning as a traditional narrative might. Structural analysis cannot reduce the novel to a simple core statement, as Michael Riffaterre's Semiotics of Poetry might, nor reveal an ideological tension frozen in the text's structure, as Jameson's use of Greimas would. Rather, Burroughs's strictly controlled structural play is a pattern that points beyond itself. The real meaning of Burroughs's text does not rest in the plot structures themselves, but in how those structures provide a pattern for a reading of linguistic play that is beyond Burroughs's or our own control. Burroughs's text, then, does not merely set up oppositions to tear them down, as a deconstructive critic might read his play with abstractions and shifting repetitions. Instead, these oppositions stand as a form in which a much more intuitive reader response occurs, giving a meaning to the text shaped by, but not equivalent to, a narratological structure.
Greimas has provided us with a crucial formulation of how narrative balances surface and depth for a whole textual meaning. This surface-depth opposition has allowed us to recognize a structure within Burroughs's narrative that is not available to the more descriptive and currently popular narratologies concerned with speakers, narratees, and types of discourse. The movement back towards this more structural narrative theory is part of postmodernism's recent search for some form amid the deconstructive play that has concerned it in the past. Burroughs does not simply accept Greimas or the metalinguistic structure that he offers. Instead, as we have seen, the structure in Burroughs's novel is "self consuming": it makes visible something within the text that cannot be reduced to the structure and even stands as a critique of that structure. Thus, Burroughs's recent turn to narrative is not a rejection of his earlier experimentalism and antagonism to language. Rather, it is a recognition that he can confront the issues of language not only on the level of words in his "cut-up" technique, but also on the level of the narrative structures that this language gives rise to. The increased cohesion of Burroughs's recent narrative implies no more trust of language than it ever did. It does, however, locate the aporia of language and the text's representation in a different and more carefully constructed position within the text. Burroughs no longer assaults language directly, but now constructs a carefully structured narrative that turns back and points beyond itself to the language within which both reader and text operate. Postmodern writers, Burroughs suggests, will attend to narrative structures and how they open up a language play that they cannot fully circumscribe.
Brent Wood (essay date March 1996)
SOURCE: "William S. Burroughs and the Language of Cyberpunk," in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1, March, 1996, pp. 11-26.
[In the following essay, Wood explains the connection between Burroughs's works and cyberpunk writing.]
The work of William S. Burroughs has often been credited as a primary influence on cyberpunk writing. The connection between the two, however, is more often cited than explained. Burroughs' "science-fiction" work (Nova Express, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded, 1964–1967) was more experimental poetry than conventional science fiction, and had already come in and out of style by the time science fiction became theory-worthy. Times have changed. Today, theorists not only feel sf to be worthy of theory, but theory to be worthy of sf. To this end, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. has invited Jean Baudrillard and Donna Haraway into the sf fold; Scott Bukatman has extended a similar invitation to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In this essay I would like to argue for the inclusion of William S. Burroughs as a diner at the sf theory dinner-party, especially to hear his theories of poetic action in a world where science fiction has become reality.
In spite of the riotous dark comedy and starkly innovative character of his writing, Burroughs' reputation has been chiefly as the writer whose book Naked Lunch (1959) challenged the conservative mores of post-war America. In recent years, many cuttings from Burroughs' texts have emerged in commercial culture as soundbites and cryptic political slogans. This phenomenon supports Burroughs' claims about the way language functions, and reflects the things he has tried to do with it. Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave (1984) repopularized Burroughs' slogan "language is a virus," which had first reached into popular consciousness over a decade before through Harper's magazine and Rolling Stone. The vogue which Burroughs' texts and ideas currently enjoy around the fringes of mainstream culture belies their continuous influence on the counter-culture since the 1950's. Their relevance to an understanding of post-modernity is confirmed by their intimate relationship with the generally fashionable texts of Guattari, Deleuze, Baudrillard, and Derrida. Burroughs is of course also one of William Gibson's principal sources, and the Burroughs fold-in method is a part of the history of cyberspace. The link that Burroughs makes between theory and sf lies in his understanding of the force of language, the danger it poses to free and evolving life, and just what a writer is supposed to do about it anyway.
In an issue of Science-Fiction Studies devoted to postmodernism and science fiction (1991), Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. raised the issue of the "operationality" of language in sf and in the "sf theory" of Baudrillard and Haraway. This concern with the effect of the written word is related to his argument that the texts of Baudrillard and Haraway constitute, in effect, a deconstruction of the terms "science" and "fiction." Csicsery-Ronay argues that for these writers "the boundary between sf and social reality is an optical illusion." He classes both Baudrillard and Haraway as sf theorists whose texts operate in a hyperreality in which the categories of subject, body, machine, and text have become thoroughly confused by the evolution of technology and its discursive ripples.
The question to be asked of these "theoretical" texts, then, is not "are they true" or "are they accurate" but rather, "what do they do?" Scott Durham's essay "The Technology of Death and Its Limits" (1993), an attempt to reconcile Baudrillard with J. G. Ballard, asks just this question of Baudrillard. Ballard's novel Crash (1966), which one might consider a bridge between Burroughs and contemporary cyberpunk fiction, deals in part with the "precession of simulacra" as expressed through "planned" automobile accidents. Durham uses Crash to illustrate a sort of comic failing that is characteristic of the actual functioning of cybernetic systems. Ballard, he argues, explores the leftover "reality" that Baudrillard dismisses as a desert. This interest in exploring society's marginalia, those events, spaces and characters that have slipped through the cracks in the planner's model—in Baudrillard's terminology, the "outside" of the simulation model—is essential to a "punk" ethos, and typical of the cyberpunk literature which Burroughs' texts indirectly foreshadow. While Burroughs uses the same black humour as does Ballard; explores the same marginal territory and like Ballard offers an antidote to totalitarian cybernetic systems, the absolute dismembering of conventional narrative in Burroughs' science-fictional works indicates a self-consciously operational inspiration, as opposed to a metaphoric one. The anti-narrative in his sf-derived works is what sets Burroughs apart from the science-fiction writers whose work he appropriated and those he has influenced, and is the reason Ballard has called Burroughs "the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War."
Durham concludes that the force of Baudrillard's hyperreality hyperbole, especially as expressed in "The Precession of Simulacra" (trans. 1983) and "The Ecstasy of Communication" (trans. 1988), is to effect a sort of supplication to the control system that is made comic by the revenge of the real—in the case of Crash, the accidental of the planned "accidents." In other words, despite the apparent infallibility of the simulation model, the desired life on the far side of the screen will not be manifested as planned. In the end, Durham concludes, "there is no real other than the relation to the spectacle he [Vaughn] has shared all along with his fellow victims." Denied by Crash, Baudrillard's texts become for Durham just so many "soft machines," confounding and contradicting their own revelations and necessarily failing in their attempts at totality.
Accepting that we do live in a world rapidly being enclosed by massive interconnected cybernetic machines, and that our words have no recourse to truth or accuracy as guarantors of their behavior, a question of pragmatics arises. How are we cyborg-writers to understand the effects of our words such that we are not unwittingly or unconsciously participating in the kinds of cybernetic machines we would prefer to avoid? In other words, since resistance implies an opposition of sorts, how can one mobilize one's forces when it is so difficult to tell who is "them" and who is "us"? Csicsery-Ronay describes this problem by imagining conventional language as a Trojan Horse which is carried into a utopian future and proceeds to disgorge the very same social relations which characterize the (dystopian) present. This is the situation which led Frederic Jameson, as Csicsery-Ronay notes, to call language the "informing aporia of sf." Haraway's response, Csicsery-Ronay argues, is to protect her imagined future from corruption by refusing to make it explicit or give it a name. Baudrillard's response, on the other hand, is to create a "logical delirium" in the reader through his hyperbolic prose. Both these strategies typify a reaction to cybernetic domination which Burroughs refers to, in Cageian terms, as Silence. The silence demanded by Burroughs is not a passive, a quietist, or a conservative silence, but rather a generative silence, a silence on the part of those faculties that manage representational meaning and enforce a controlling order on experience.
1. Burroughs and Derrida: The Anarchist Use of Language.
Burroughs is a key figure in the history of theoretical and textual resistance. A generation ago, we would not have been thinking about Gibson and Baudrillard, but if we were of a particular mind we might have been drawing connections between the experimental "science fiction" of Burroughs and the critique of logocentrism forwarded by Jacques Derrida. Although Burroughs and Derrida seem to make strange bedfellows, there is much that might have attracted them to one another. Each sought to challenge the reading and thinking habits of his audience and to shake the foundations of "totalitarian" systems of thought; since the 1960s, each has also become and iconic figure whose reputation threatens to outgrow his actual work. The two line up on the same side of most issues, the most noteworthy exception being their differing conceptions of the role of writing with respect to those totalitarian systems. Because writing confuses the defining categories of absence and presence, Derrida considers the very idea of writing to be a threat to metaphysically-based modes of Western thought (including structuralism) and the social order associated with them. Burroughs, on the other hand, understands writing as essentially a force alien to the human. He refers to it as "a virus that made the spoken word possible," and fingers it as the culprit responsible for the growth of totalitarian control systems of all shapes and sizes.
At first glance, Burroughs' categorical separation of language and human being invites the same sort of deconstructive treatment Derrida gives other Western writers and thinkers. If language is not part of the human, just how does Burroughs define the human? Not as body; Burroughs is as famous as Gibson's console cowboys for his disdain of the human body. But if the body is nothing but an obsolete artifact, and language a virus infecting that artifact, just what is it that Burroughs feels so strongly about rescuing? I propose that Burroughs is attempting to direct us to the energy of continuous evolution, or mutation, which, temporarily embodied in the human, is in Burroughs' view under siege by the insidious self-replication of language.
One might conceivably relate Burroughs' ideal of continuous evolution to Deleuze-Guattari's "continuous variation" and even to différance, Derrida's playful neologism conflating the concepts of difference (in space) and deference (in time). The function of différance is to act as a sort of anti-origin that, far from keeping any given thought-system stable, keeps everything moving and off-kilter. By temporarily "inhabiting" structuralist philosophical modes, Derrida does with traditional philosophy what Burroughs does with conventional science fiction. Burroughs twists the words of those fiction writers who imagine that humans can live in outer space like fish in a tank; Derrida critiques those philosophers who seek to revolutionize philosophy while repeating the same old (logocentric) thought-patterns. The governing structures of thought, both writers argue, must be shaken from within the communication networks through which they perpetuate themselves.
Derrida's "trick," if I may be allowed such a crude reduction, is to work through the texts of the masters with one eye peeled for a seam to slip into. Once in, his meticulous scholarship is set to work stretching and reshaping the fabric not along normal patterns of use, but along lines of tension never tested by its creator, using the seam as a fulcrum. When challenged on his having made the seam into a center, Derrida quickly moves his work elsewhere. His philosophical practice is not unlike the musical practice of an early twentieth-century composer, endlessly modulating at the very moments that tonal centers threaten to establish themselves. Through this mobile deconstruction, Derrida seeks to turn hierarchy into anarchy. Burroughs' approach to his source material is somewhat less intellectual, but the result, for the reader, is not dissimilar. Rather than looking for seams, Burroughs simply cuts and sews the garments randomly, keeping an eye out for the hidden patterns which begin to reveal themselves when the rationalist filters of everyday perception are removed.
Perhaps the following well-known expression best relates Burroughs to Derrida: "'Nothing Is True—Everything Is Permitted—' Last Words Hassan I Sabbah" (Nova Express). Burroughs here locates the notion of "truth" as a device that acts to suppress possibility. For Derrida, this is the "transcendental signified"; for Haraway, it is "the one code that translates all meaning perfectly." Just as Haraway finds her freedom in living as a cyborg in a cybernetic system that can't quite be closed, so did Derrida once find that, when nothing is true, the world becomes text. Conversely, everything is permitted when the "absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely." When everything is permitted, the result is anarchy. And anarchy is precisely what a cyberpunk aims at.
What Burroughs terms the viral function of language is its ongoing ordering of reality toward the limit of total control, the opposite of anarchy. He employs the figure of the virus, a force hovering between evolving being and mere replicator, to problematize conventional definitions of living and nonliving. In Burroughs' cosmos, one must always remember that the words one transmits can never be neutral moves in the universal language-game; even if misfiring, some sort of force is necessarily being transmitted. This is the very problem addressed by Csicsery-Ronay when he cites Jameson's skepticism over sf's linguistic aporia. It is exceptionally difficult for any resistant message to avoid complicity with the dominant communication systems in whose language it is composed. If "a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo can cause a tornado in Toledo," who knows what havoc a few well-chosen words could wreak in the infosphere? As responsible cyborg-writers, we'd best have a good idea how the "techsts" we use are going to function out there before we turn them loose. The trick, argues Burroughs, is to transmit a kind of force that doesn't immediately contribute to the virus-effect but can actually help work against it. The fold-in is the principle textual method of guerrilla resistance against the virus (or, as Burroughs puts it in his science-fictional work, against the Nova Conspiracy); one takes a strongly linear form like the typewritten word, cuts it, and reassembles it such that its ordinative powers are deactivated. As apomorphine was Burroughs' antidote to morphine addiction, so silence is the antidote to word-addiction and the fold-in to order-addiction. This resistance, in Burroughs' work, is the only option under the circumstances of total occupation by Control.
2. Burroughs as Body without Organs.
Scott Bukatman is another writer who has taken the role of language in contemporary sf as an issue to be addressed. In his article "Postcards from the Posthuman Solar System" (1991) and later in his book Terminal Identity (1993), Bukatman describes cyberpunks as "taking their cues from Burroughs and Pynchon as well as from Bataille and Breton and Dali and Man Ray." In Bukatman's opinion, one of the principal tactics of cyberpunk writers is to, like Derrida and Burroughs, temporarily inhabit the "rational structures of technological discourse" in order to transform them into a "highly poeticized, dreamlike liberation." Like Csicsery-Ronay, Bukatman would like to extend the boundaries of sf to include his own favorite theorist(s), Deleuze and Guattari. "Deleuze and Guattari are cyberpunks, too," he writes, "constructing fictions of terminal identity in the nearly familiar language of techno-surrealism."
Bukatman is interested in Deleuze and Guattari primarily for their idea of the "Body without Organs" (BwO), which he uses as a way to understand the non-unitary cyborg body. He argues that Ballard's Vaughan "seeks to crash through to attain that state of being without organs," and that a comic-book character who is an android reproduction of Andy Warhol has in fact already attained it. To illustrate the tricky (anti-)concept of the BwO, Bukatman resorts to the same passage from Burroughs' Naked Lunch as do Deleuze and Guattari:
In his place of total darkness mouth and eyes are one organ that leaps forward to snap with transparent teeth … but no organ is constant as regards either function or position … sex organs sprout anywhere … rectums open, defecate and close … the entire organism changes color and consistency in split-second adjustments.
The Body without Organs, in this illustration, is a sort of ad hoc body, one whose configuration can change according to present need. Bukatman uses it as a way to explain what happens when the human is sublimated entirely into technology or text. In Terminal Identity Bukatman correctly concludes that the "BwO stands against the telos of theology and the order of instrumental reason" and that "it is also anti-armor," but then is misled by Deleuze and Guattari's use of the passage from Naked Lunch. Bukatman defines the BwO as "a heterogenous system defined by the malleability of the organs and not just their absence" and cites Cronenberg's Videodrome, Ballard's Crash, and performance artist Stelarc as exemplifying this "malleability of organs." In Deleuze and Guattari's use of terminology like "machine," "appendix," "spare part," he argues, they are following the steps of Burroughs and Ballard in making use of technological language to create their own brand of sf theory. Bukatman then cavalierly claims that "the BwO is the state in which we aspire to dissolve the body and regain the world." This allows him to segue into a chat about surface vs. depth, and to make the claim that "the surface of the body becomes the arena for dissolving the governing instrumental reason of the organism."
To my mind Bukatman is off course in his concern with the malleability of bodies. The Body without Organs is more than a figure useful for illustrating the intermingling of the human body and technology. Its principle import is as one of the many deconstructive "sets of practices" Deleuze and Guattari advocate as a way to dismantle the (ideologically-determined) "self" in its relationship to organization and judgement. The BwO, they write, is a "practice," not a "concept"; a "limit," not a "goal"; the "full egg before the extension of the organism and the organization of the organs." They relate it specifically to what they call "desire," which is "a process without telos, intensity without intention." The BwO is deconstructive in that one can never achieve it; it is "always swinging between the surfaces that stratify it and the plane that sets it free." Their translator, Brian Massumi, paraphrases bodies without organs as "bundles of virtual affects" (93) in his discussion of the making-monstrous of a man who tries to become a dog. My own preference is to understand the BwO as a sort of ideal anarchist or Taoist existence in which energy flows freely within and through the individual, moving one between order and chaos; one works at it but can never completely achieve it.
Deleuze and Guattari theorize various BwOs at various stages of "fullness." The full BwO, as opposed to the empty, "drugged body" or "masochist body," is illustrated by the already quoted passage drawn from the opening routine of Naked Lunch. On the way to the full BwO, one encounters several types of "emptied" bodies, bodies without organs whose circulation of intensities nevertheless remains blocked. Deleuze and Guattari turn once again to Burroughs for an example of an empty body: "the drugged body, the experimental schizo," indicated by the iteration of a scheme by Dr Benway's colleague Dr Schaefer, also drawn from Naked Lunch.
"the human body is scandalously inefficient. Instead of a mouth and an anus to get out of order why not have one all-purpose hole to eat and eliminate? We could seal up the nose and mouth, fill in the stomach, make an air hole direct into the lungs where it should have been in the first place."
Before further explicating the "empty" BwO, it is instructive to return to the first quotation from Naked Lunch which Deleuze and Guattari and Bukatman use to illustrate the "full" BwO and put it in context. In this passage, a character referred to as "the Vigilante" has been sentenced to the Federal Nut House, an institution designed to contain ghosts. Alone in his cell, with nothing to organize or subdivide his need, the Vigilante has, in Deleuze and Guattari's reading, become the very image of a BwO, an undifferentiated body able to mobilize portions of itself ad hoc. The Vigilante is thus a figure of Deleuzian desire suspended in a moment of temporary isolation, eventually to return to the drugged body from which he emerged.
One clue to the relevance of the second quotation is the later citing by Deleuze and Guattari of Speed, a book written by Burroughs' (amphetamine-addicted) son, William Jr., as an expression of a "paranoid point, a point of blockage" that prevents circulation at the level of the BwO. The junky (also exemplified by the pre-Naked Lunch Burroughs, Sr.) is thus defined as one who has moved toward the limit of the BwO but "botches" the job by achieving a body in which the intensities that pass are equal to zero. By "wildly destratifying," the emptied bodies have made the mistake of emptying themselves of their own organs rather than seeking a point where they could momentarily dismantle the true enemy—organization itself. Burroughs himself worried about his extensive cut-up experiments ending up in just this way. It is not enough, obviously, to simply be done with the organs themselves, for when they are gone there is nothing from which to gain leverage. Deleuze and Guattari state that there is a fascist use of drugs and this is clearly the use Burroughs sees in the function of junk.
Burroughs is an appropriate choice for Deleuze and Guattari not because these particular passages happen to be suitable illustrations of the BwO, but because Burroughs' own life experiences and theoretical orientation make him a model case for many of their ideas. As already noted, Burroughs himself shows an intense lack of interest in the human body, which he identifies as a sort of weakness, a foothold for the forces of control. Most of his writing, however, is intensely visceral in its imagery, relying heavily on descriptions of sexual interplay, deformed bodies, and especially olfactory experience. The sorts of "monsters" envisioned in the fore-going passages from Naked Lunch are quite typical of the imagery of that book, and would not be out of place in certain parts of his later, more "realistic," writing also. These mixed-up bodies, however, are not what the BwO is all about; they are merely symptoms of Burroughs' own quest for the BwO. Burroughs originally made contact with junk in his attempts to throw off his stratified and stifling upper-class St. Louis upbringing, only to find that junk itself became a blockage point, preventing the circulation of desire because it in fact replaces desire itself. Drifting from one misadventure to another in his early adult years, Burroughs eventually found himself playing at the life of a small-time criminal and junkie in New York City, and the heroin habit he developed there lasted fifteen years. Unlike the crowd that started him on heroin, Burroughs continued to receive a monthly allowance from his parents of $200. This was more than just a symbol of his upbringing; it was a long, flexible tentacle of upper-class judgement keeping Burroughs in a state of arrested development. It was only when the allowance was cut off that he finally sought the infamous apomorphine cure and detoxified himself by writing the chaos of material that eventually became Naked Lunch. In becoming a writer, and in writing material to aid his own (Deleuzian) "becoming" and that of his readers, Burroughs can be counted among the few who have made it past the "drugged" BwO to approach the "full." Burroughs' experimental texts are evidence of his conviction in the power of continuous mutation through freedom from what Deleuze and Guattari might call "the molar order."
The Body without Organs is not only a figure through which to grasp the import of Burroughs' work, but also one which can be used to understand Deleuze and Guattari's own work, especially A Thousand Plateaus (trans. 1987), a text in which the BwO is prominently featured. In this case, however, it may be easier to make use of another of Deleuze and Guattari's figures, the "rhizome," which is related to the BwO but is more readily applicable to texts; in fact, Deleuze and Guattari do just this in their introduction to A Thousand Plateaus. Like Burroughs' work, A Thousand Plateaus is an attempt to function on the margin of both the medium (book) and the genre (philosophy, science fiction) by letting the conventions that define those discourses act as leverage points for resistance. Where Burroughs uses imitation and recombination to defuse the forces of push-button mind-and-body control, Deleuze and Guattari look past the sender-receiver relationship altogether and constitute their own work as a middle.
A plateau is always in the middle, not at the beginning or the end. A rhizome is made of plateaus. Gregory Bateson uses the word "plateau" to designate something very special: a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end.
Eschewing mechanical randomizing technique (such as the fold-in), Deleuze and Guattari find their own method of making their text a multiple: "Each morning we would wake up, and each of us would ask himself what plateau he was going to tackle, writing five lines here, ten there." Their motive was not to make their book grow from the roots up, but from the middle out. A Thousand Plateaus is thus "in assemblage" with its own outside, acting on "semiotic flows, material flows and social flows simultaneously." Its translator, Brian Massumi, states that the book should be approached with the "plateau" in mind. The best way to read it, he argues, is to
pry open the vacant spaces that would enable you to build your life and those of the people around you into a plateau of intensity that would leave afterimages of its dynamism that could be reinjected into still other lives, creating a fabric of heightened states between which any number, the greatest number, of connecting routes would exist.
"Some might call that promiscuous," Massumi writes. "Deleuze and Guattari call it revolution." In their creation of an "open system" that levers itself against the borders of the domain of philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari have developed their own parry to what Burroughs identifies as control. As Burroughs writes chaos to engender silence, Deleuze and Guattari write a rhizome to engender anarchy.
This notion of generative chaos is crucial to the "punk" aspect of cyberpunk writing. The understanding of chaos as a positive force in organisms and systems has gained acceptance with the popularizing of Ilya Prigogine's work, which in sf circles has been facilitated in part by Gibson, Sterling, and others, including Porush and Fischlin. It is equally important to understand the importance of chaos to experimental, subversive, or resistant communication strategies. Massumi refers extensively to Prigogine's theories in his User's Guide to A Thousand Plateaus (1993), particularly with respect to Deleuze-Guattari's underlying theory of language acquisition and development of the "self." In A Thousand Plateaus, Guattari and Deleuze, like Baudrillard and even Burroughs, rely on a sort of "logical delirium" as a way to bring their work in touch with the generative powers of chaos. In their own way, they, like Burroughs, are writing silence—a silence that is not equal to zero, but rather is unrepresentable in a conventional cybernetic model of communication. The reason is that conventional cybernetic theory, drawn as it is from thermodynamic theory, equates order with life and disorder with death, in stark contrast with the theories of Burroughs, who sees a fixation with order as strangling the forces of life as they seek to mutate. As Massumi writes, Deleuze and Guattari understand chaos as a sea of virtuality which beings need to come in contact with in order to evolve. To this end, they intend their work to function as a "rhizome," a multiplying multiplicity opening up the reader to the infinite possibility of becoming.
Though happy to borrow from Burroughs' texts to illustrate their ideas, Deleuze and Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus, are skeptical that his work actually succeeds in doing what he intends it to. Before explicitly defining what they mean by their term "rhizome-book," they identify two other models: the "root-book," which is organized like a dichotomous tree in which one becomes two, two become four, and so on; and the "radicle-system," in which the principle root has been aborted and a multiplicity of secondary roots have been grafted onto it. Burroughs' work is held up as an illustration of the radicle model:
Take William Burroughs' cut-up method: the folding of one text onto another, which constitutes multiple and even adventitious roots (like a cutting), implies a supplementary dimension to that of the texts under consideration. In this supplementary dimension of folding, unity continues its spiritual labor.
Burroughs' cut-ups are thus consigned to the museum of modernist obsolescence along with Joyce and Nietzsche. In their respective works, "the world has become chaos, but the book remains the image of the world: radicle chaosmos rather than root-cosmos." Deleuze and Guattari argue that the multiple is not made by adding more dimensions, but by subtracting a dimension from the number given in order to open the work to the forces of chance. Burroughs is thus figured as a mere "adding machine" (an ironic comment on his family heritage and his creation of the "Third Mind" with friend and collaborator Brion Gysin).
The model put forth to supplant both the tree and the radicle-system is the rhizome. "Certain approximate characteristics" of the rhizome are cited:
1 and 2. Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be.
3. Principle of multiplicity: it is only when the multiple is effectively treated as a substantive, "multiplicity," that it ceases to have any relation to the One as subject or object, natural or spiritual reality, image and world.
4. Principle of asignifying rupture: against the oversignifying breaks separating structures or cutting across a single structure. A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines.
5 and 6. Principle of cartography and decalomania: a rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model … a map and not a tracing…. The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves alleged "competence."
Despite Deleuze and Guattari's reservations, the relationship between chaos and life finds, to my mind, an enlightening expression in Burroughs' experimental sf texts. Living in the space between order and chaos, working within the tensions resulting from their interaction, Burroughs offers not merely the rhetoric of resistance, but sets his texts in motion as "soft machines" operating to deconstruct systematized communication. Although Burroughs has often been presented to the public as a writer of "new kinds of novels," it is seldom emphasized that the "novel" form functions only as a margin that can be turned back on itself, used as a lever to create a tension between the expected order and the actual text that "spill[s] off the page in all directions."
Using Deleuze and Guattari's terminology, one might think of Burroughs' texts, at their best, as also comprised of plateaus. Any given "chapter" of Naked Lunch, Nova Express, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded may contain a number of plateaus which occur as intensities build between a text comprised of fold-ins of outlandish comedy routines, poetry, quotations and reports, the reader's gut reactions, and the rational mind searching fruitlessly for order. Initial exposure to the shocking or disgusting images Burroughs commonly employs might result mainly in a series of jolts to the nervous system, while prolonged exposure to severely cut-up text may leave one simply cross-eyed. The importance of the texts, however, according to the theories explored here, is not to be found in their immediate consumption, but in whatever the lasting effects they have on their readers' lives. As noted earlier, much of the "word horde" which came out of Burroughs' typewriter in the late 1950's was in fact designed to liberate Burroughs himself from his own upper class midwestern upbringing. In playing with (stereo)typical sf images, the sf works represent an attempt to re-write Naked Lunch in order to deal specifically with the kinds of technological and communicational crises which Burroughs, like Gibson a generation later, sensed were occurring all around him.
I have written about Burroughs' work largely in the past tense, but both he and his texts are very much alive, stimulating thinkers, writers and anarchists of all stripes. Though his books returned to a more narrative form in the 1970s and 1980s, he continued his experimentation with chaos in the 1960s through graphic collage and in the 1980s through shotgun-painting. His skill at using the spoken word has led to a proliferation of sound recordings and a corresponding invitation to the cyberpunk dance party just down the hall. And, like any counter-cultural icon, his image has finally been appropriated by consumer culture as a Nike television advertisement. If Warhol-as-reproducible-android represented the achievement of the BwO, then certainly Burroughs' living texts will soon qualify him as at least approaching that limit. Perhaps the best tribute to Burroughs' work along these lines is given by Gibson in Neuromancer, where he casts Burroughs' voice, personality and wisdom as McCoy Pauley, the Dixie Flatline. A ROM construct, the Flatline guides Gibson's protagonist in his cyberspatial mission. The resulting union of Wintermute and Neuromancer, though accomplished under duress, provides at least the birth of a new form of life even as it totalizes the Matrix. If we anarchist cyborgs similarly keep our ears tuned to Burroughs' voice, and consider its advice, we may be able to hope that our own science-fiction realities will result in a revolution of happy accidents instead of the world of corporate control which was the subject of Gibson's speculation.
Jonathan Paul Eburne (essay date Spring 1997)
SOURCE: "Trafficking in the Void: Burroughs, Kerouac, and the Consumption of Otherness," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 53-92.
[In the following essay, Eburne examines the influence of the Cold War-era ideological construct of "otherness" in Naked Lunch and in Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans, comparing its effect on the subjectivity of each novel.]
Divulging his latest platform as crime-and-commie-busting director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover claimed at the 1960 Republican National Convention that "beatniks" were, alongside communists and liberal "eggheads," one of the three greatest menaces to U.S. National Security. Using "beat-nik" rather than "beat" to describe the group of writers, poets, and bohemians known as the Beat Generation, Hoover's semantic slide—or push—seemed to implicate beat "niks" as petty communists who threatened to enervate America's welfare. Both a terrible menace and a crude joke, the Beat Generation elicited similar disdain across a vast cultural front—from Hoover, mainstream culture, and "eggheads" alike.
Notorious for its resistance to conventional sexual and moral practices, the Beats' literary solicitation of breaches and breakdowns within the social fabric garnered obscenity charges for much of their written work. What these charges signified, according to the Supreme Court, was that their work itself was "patently offensive because it affront[ed] contemporary community standards" and that "the material [was] utterly without redeeming social value." At issue was the imputation that the Beats radically and deliberately affronted firmly installed notions of decency and thus threatened to undermine the basic integrity of a nation that was already nervous about its internal security.
The broad aim of the following paper will be to examine this subversive element in William Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959) and Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans (1958, written in 1952), both of which faced obscenity charges or censorship in some form. These two works confront, and seek to disrupt, what their authors considered to be a cultural environment in which individual identity had become inexorably bound up within stifling artistic, societal, and existential norms. Keeping in mind Judith Butler's contention that "identity" itself operates not as a predeterminate ontological category but as a regulatory, and often oppressive, practice of cultural formation, I will argue that the two novels seek to "trouble" such regulatory practices within the context of the postwar U.S. By casting the "self"—as the privileged signifier of narrative and cultural identity—into serious contention, they each attempt to drain identity of its fixity as a locus of coercive standards. In doing so, they also attempt to contest the very discursive practices of Cold War-era identity configuration themselves.
What troubles such efforts most immediately, however, is that the very idiom of dissent from these norms was prefabricated by a "liberal" intelligentsia with its own set of governing standards and expectations. Indeed, novels such as Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans were considered "obscene" by many of the "eggheads"—liberal intellectuals, literary critics, and scholars—in whose eyes their dissent was not formulated cogently enough to qualify their writing as truly "radical." Both grotesque and stylistically discombobulated, this writing seemed so immersed in remonstrating the personal that it fell victim to a damning romance of the apolitical. Writers like Burroughs and Kerouac were little more than incoherent, and therefore obscene in the sense that they merely channeled the confusion of the society that distressed them. Their confusion deviated distinctly from the more lucidly formulated "pragmatism" of critics like Lionel Trilling, who argued that by introducing "alterity" and "conflict" as incorporable challenges to the mind of the individual, a true radical could be jostled free from the forces of conformity and repression which characterized Cold War normalcy. The Beats, however, scoured city streets in order to find alterity and conflict in the form of a racial, cultural, and ethnic minority, an anthropomorphized strategy of dissent by means of which incorporation and control became a calamitous impossibility.
However, any such means of evacuating a bankrupt subject position by identifying with the "otherness" of the American cultural margins ends up, as Burroughs and Kerouac realize with increasing distress, implicating themselves in the same process of normativity and containment that they attempt to leave behind. Since the identification with "otherness" operates as a power-play relying upon specifically conceived notions of what this "otherness" consists of, it proves to be an elaborate fantasy by which Burroughs and Kerouac themselves end up performing the coercive work of identity configuration. My specific aim in this paper, then, will be to examine how this latter instance of containment comes about and becomes yet another subject position to be evacuated. In other words, I aim to show how "making trouble" for identity becomes a fundamental and deeply complex problem in the two novels, a problem which necessitates not merely a rethinking of "identity" as a discursive concept but, in fact, a radical complication of notions of the process of identity refiguration that would rely upon the commodification of otherness as its fundamental mechanism of change.
"I can feel the heat closing in…."
—William Burroughs, Naked Lunch
This first line of Naked Lunch leaps out, in medias res, from a hardboiled melodrama which bears an acute sense of imminent constriction. For Burroughs's narrator/protagonist, this encroachment is not merely the legalistic menace of stalking detectives but, more broadly, the tightening grip of an entire network of heirarchized systems of containment and control. In the opening lines of The Subterraneans, Kerouac's narrator/protagonist exposes a similarly constricting (albeit less evidently "political") web of limitations: his loss of youth, his obfuscatory need for "literary preambles," and a perplexing trap of self, this being the story of "an unself-confident man, at the same time of an egomaniac." What is most striking about the near-paranoiac sense of confinement and constraint at the opening moments of these novels is precisely their immediacy: the narrational "I" appears as already caught up within such strictures. The novels thus bear the traces of a complex drama of escape—not merely from "the heat" but from a notion of selfhood caught in a network of temporal, spatial, and narrative constraints: aging and the passage of time, the "literary preambles" of style, and the subject positions determined by U.S. culture and national policy in the post-World War II years.
Much of this evacuative work is attempted stylistically. The majority of critical work written about Naked Lunch addresses, in some fashion, Burroughs's full frontal assault on textual "control systems." As a brutal subversion of accepted notions of narrative unity, character cohesiveness, and linguistic propriety, Burroughs's writing slashes vertiginously through space and time. Thomas Hill Schaub, among others, reads this radical disruptiveness as a search "for some means of achieving 'nakedness' or immediacy without succumbing to the atrophy or imposition of form…." Burroughs's solution is to distill a "language of consciousness" by zooming in on a first-person narrator's subjective relation to experience. Schaub maintains that the authority of Burroughs's work relies in part upon this subjective language's claim to immediacy, its reduction of rhetorical mediation. He cites a passage from Naked Lunch's "Atrophied Preface" which appears in the novel's final pages: "… I am a recording instrument … I do not presume to impose 'story' 'plot' 'continuity.'… Insofar as I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I may have limited function…. I am not an entertainer…." While Schaub focuses on Burroughs's claim to impose as little structure and mediation as possible, any claim to "immediacy" here seems to be cut short—not just by the ambiguity of the passage, but by the very positioning of this claim: as an atrophied preface, its presence is suspect. Is this passage itself an attempt to impose structure and continuity by means of explanation? How structured, or how atrophied, is its own value? This suspicion is fed by the narrator's later claim that he has written many prefaces which atrophy and amputate spontaneously. As we'll see, the very idea of "stripping down" narrative to a naked prose-consciousness is itself a treacherous process; Schaub's argument that this has to do with immediacy assumes the presence of a subjective logos, some "naked" core of consciousness that can be served up to readers as the "naked lunch" itself.
Such a stripping down, though, is done only at the expense of the speaking subject: as noted above, any claim to immediacy threatens the narrator with the eradication of his authorial function. It is not merely the preface(s) that are at risk of atrophy and amputation, but the narrator—or even the writer—himself. Indeed, in Naked Lunch, the narrational "I"s clash and commingle to such a degree that the didactic voice of "William Burroughs" the author (or author-function), "William Lee" the protagonist/narrator, and the "Master Addict" of the appendix are conflated yet maintain specific relationships to the body of the text. These disjunctions open up a discursive space inside which the constructedness of the so-called narrative "self" can be scrutinized, thrown into disarray, subverted.
This "discursive space" to which I am referring is not a clean, open, locatable area made possible by a simple division of the narration into different voices, each relaying separate and differentiated subjective consciousnesses. Rather, the novel is a total disarray; it is more a recombination, a juxtapositioning of narrative selves than a stripping down to individual consciousness. Indeed, "William Lee" is not only Burroughs's protagonist but his own alter-ego—the name with which he closes many of his letters as well as, in fact, the pseudonym under which he published his first book, Junky, in 1953. Nor is William Lee, within the novel itself, an unflappable narrational presence: the text fades in and out of first-person and third-person narration, just as Lee himself drifts in and out of the book's mosaic fragments. Lee's function as a storyteller is also complicated, threatened by the suspicion that he is expendable. Many passages throughout the novel narrate him rather than vice versa; others are narrated in spite of his absence. Thus, rather than adopting a first-person narrative style as a direct mainline into the "language of consciousness" of the individual subject, Burroughs wreaks havoc upon the possibility of such a subject ever being an embraceable totality.
Kerouac effects a similar breach in the narrative subject's claim to immediacy and presence. As a fictionalized yet thinly veiled autobiographical novel, The Subterraneans unlocks a fictive space in which the primary identifications of the narrative "self" as author (or author-function), narrator, and protagonist are at once advertised and suspended, deferred and yet more or less immediately available. Commenting on the stylistic background of the novel, Kerouac writes that "the form is strictly confessional in accordance with the confessional form of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground." But any claim to directness or emotional immediacy that his modeling of Leo Percepied after Dostoyevsky's nameless anti-hero bears is, as in the case of Burroughs's atrophy-prone storytellers, undermined by Kerouac's choice of literary model. Dostoyevsky's speaker is no simple "confessor"; ruthlessly self-effacing, frequently infuriating, never to be fully trusted, his presence in Kerouac's text speaks of more than merely assertion and disclosure.
Percepied's frequent self-depreciating slashes and rebuttals—as well as the shadowy intertextual presence of Dostoyevsky's madman himself—call a significant amount of attention to how much his narration is tied up, reflexive, mediated; this mediation becomes as conspicuous, and as necessary, to Kerouac's prose as the emotional unguardedness of its attempt at spontaneity. And yet, the novel's "spontaneous prose method" has often been read as an attempt to eliminate temporal and emotional distance between the writing of the novel and the experiences it narrates: The Subterraneans was written in three grueling, Benzedrine-compelled days almost immediately after the events described in the novel took place. The novel ends, too, narrating its own (fictionalized) conception: Percepied goes home to write "this book." However, the deeply engaged, intricately entangled narrative that results only serves, conversely, to dramatize the distance between speaking and spoken subjects, a distance which Kerouac realized to be a function of "the limitations of time flying by as our mind flies by with it." Indeed, Kerouac's writing faces the broader problem of control involved in eliminating distance—embedding his narration within the mechanics of representation, the sticky limitations of expression, and the fracturing of the possibility of an omnipotent literary auteur able to convey successfully "the language of consciousness." Instead of using fast work and fast language as a "way in" to the immediate experience it promises, Kerouac's prose cleaves apart the very fabric of the narrative "self" assumed by such a language's metaphysics of presence to be a coherent possibility.
I have deliberately simplified Schaub's notion of the "language of consciousness's" claim to immediacy here for the sake of highlighting an effect of Burroughs's and Kerouac's writing whereby "the way OUT is the way IN" (Naked Lunch). Their attempt to escape temporal and rhetorical limitations by zeroing in on an "immediate" language ironically, and traumatically, necessitates an evacuation of the "self" as a fixed narrational category. As we've seen, though, this effect is itself as much the result of limitation and entanglement as it is of efficient self-evacuation.
Schaub, however, argues otherwise: the conscious move of many post-World War II writers to "subjectivize" the novel was itself a "voice of resistance to general pressures, both popular and critical, for political conformity and controlled, crafted form. The discourse of resistance and reform was no longer dominated by the language of social and economic forces, giving way, instead, to explanatory models based in psychology—to a renewed focus upon the mind." According to Schaub, the first-person affords a means for dramatizing a subjective view of experience, a focus on "the ongoing dialectic of consciousness." Such points-of-view not only relieved the stifling artistic bane of conformity, but also had a more legitimate access to "reality" and "authenticity" within their highly individualized contexts. "The subject" thus became a highly motivated—and, it seems, highly fashionable—literary trope for a postwar novel in search of the voice of subversion "within the postwar discourse of 'mass society,' 'conformity,' and 'totalitarianism,' which governed thinking about society for writer and critic alike in the forties and fifties…."
However, in Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans, this move fails to claim coherence or even authority; rather, the use of a first-person narrator in these two novels serves more to alienate the self from the self than to distance the "rebel" self from postwar society. As Schaub points out, both novels often dramatize the vicissitudes of the subjective voice. However, if the novels in some way approach the naked immediacy of consciousness, they expose a realm so turbulent as to rip apart the subjective voice altogether.
Nonetheless, both novels remain deeply committed to confronting the social and political modalities of the selfhood they subvert: namely, the images of U.S. postwar "normalcy" which privileged a virulently anticommunist white, middle-class, heterosexual male. Burroughs and Kerouac resisted, and attempted to evacuate, this position of artistic and experiential subjectivity which, in their eyes, had become a real drag. This evacuation implicated not merely the existential drudgery that conformity entailed but, in fact, the whole notion of "fitting in" altogether. In the discursive climate of the early postwar years, "fitting in" already carried an onerous amount of ideological baggage. As we will see below, conformity implied complicity with a U.S. social and political orthodoxy intent on stamping out difference and "deviance" by means of the Cold War politics of personal containment.
Little Surrealist sketch. A woman in white uniform with a chrome-plated machine appears in J. E. Hoover's office: "I have come to give Mr. Hoover a sample high colonic wash courtesy of the Fox Massage Studios Inc." She plants a time bomb up his ass. High up.
—William Burroughs, Letter to Allen Ginsberg, 24 Dec. 1952
Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans nosed their way into the literary market at a period—the Cold War 1950s—in which a remarkably hegemonic cultural and political body had fashioned a narrative of opposing internal and external forces, positioning "us" versus "them." The national fixation upon internal security, operating not only within U.S. Government policy but, to an unprecedented degree, within the private sector, implemented an alarmingly pervasive political consensus which would define the affairs of the state in "human" terms. Under this consensus, a mass of "anxieties" drawn from foreign and domestic policy alike—the fear of communism, the Bomb, homosexuality, sexual chaos and moral decrepitude, aliens (foreigners and extraterrestrials)—became condensed with a nightmarish lucidity upon a unifying rhetorical figure: a festering and highly contagious disease which threatened the national "body" with pollution. Andrew Ross aligns the widespread use of such rhetoric
to the chorus of similar hysterical discourses that contributed to the Cold War culture of germophobia, and the many fantasmatic health concerns directly linked to the Cold War—Is Fluoridation a Communist Plot? Is your washroom breeding Bolsheviks? Cold War culture is rich with the demonology of the "alien," especially in the genre of science fiction film, where a pan-social fear of the Other—communism, feminism and other egalitarianisms foreign to the American social body—is reproduced through images drawn from the popular fringe of biological or genetic engineering gone wrong.
Implicit in Ross's explication of the language of germophobia is the work being done in the Cold War imagination to transform "egalitarianisms" into something "alien"; indeed, what is most interesting in such a transformation is that the most damning aspect of the "Other"—of "It," "The Thing," and other manifestations of alien presence—was not its sameness but its seemingly ineluctable difference. As Ross suggests, behind the figuration of this difference was the danger of usurpation, the systematic transformation of "us" into "them" which would, in fact, result in a perverse sort of egalitarianism whereby American self-identity would dissolve. More specifically, it was the fear of infection, of the infiltration of a foreign pollutant into the American social body, which figured as this demonization's fundamental rhetorical anxiety. Such invasive rhetoric was most visible in J. Edgar Hoover's massively publicized agenda as FBI director, which co-opted his antebellum campaign to stamp out "degenerates" for the sake of maintaining U.S. internal security against the "trojan horse of Communism" in the postwar years. Though more moderate, George Kennan's 1947 article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," makes a similar move, allegorizing the threatening spread of communism as a contaminating "fluid stream." In face of this spreading ooze of Soviet expansionism, Kennan calls for a form of "containment" which would counterbalance its external threat by means of a reinforcement of the "integral integrity" of the country. It is by strong counterexample, by an American self enclosure—that is, by "good health"—that the Communist danger could be kept at bay.
The "integral integrity" or American social body at stake in this drama of corrupting influence formed the contrary figure upon which was condensed an equally astounding number of concentric structures of self-enclosure, from the most personal to the most public. Conflating the languages of physical, psychic, and public health with the language of national security, an American "self" was formulated as a dominant subject position designed to withstand the threat of outside pollution. This "self" was compound, a set of varying spatial boundaries and bulwarks, each protecting another's integrity. The versions of subjectivity at stake were liable to change and slide into multiple configurations; depending on the situation, depending on the concurring cultural and political contexts called upon for legitimacy, the "self" at stake could be private, public, national, or all at once.
The master metaphor of this struggle to preserve the "integrity" of the American subject position from the contamination by the Other was the drive to preserve the body from the corrupting influences of "unnatural" bodily acts: the advances of "loose" women, sexual perverts and deviates, and, most emphatically, homosexuals. To engage in such "unnatural" sexual practice was symptomatic of a transgression into pathological deviance. As Elaine Tyler May writes, unfettered female promiscuity figured as the "explosive issue" which plagued male sexual health with venereal diseases—May's term "explosive issue" calling to mind both a Kennanesque metaphor of communist infection as an "issue" or seminal fluid, as well as the notion of the "bombshell," the pin-up siren registering atomic destruction in female form. An even more explosive issue in the immediate postwar years was the juridical linkage of sexual deviance to political deviance, a move which, Robert Corber attests, "not only politicized the sexual practices of an indeterminate group of gay men and women by linking them directly to the growing crisis over national security, but also coerced heterosexuals into policing their own behavior." This implication of homosexuals as a communist threat to American integrity came scandalously at the heels of a full-blown investigation, launched by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Senate Appropriations Committee, which sought to confirm allegations that "sexual deviates" were employed by the federal government. This infiltration, or, in the Senate's terms, this "pollution" of the federal government (Hoover, too, would revise his own "trojan horse" metaphor to the suggestively phallic "trojan snake") provoked a metaphor of anal penetration which, in turn, could be co-opted for the purposes of further hystericizing the Communist "pollution" of the United States as a national body.
Furthermore both the natal—and thus "natural"—origin of the individual body as well as its most intimate social milieu, the family, was posted as a version of the self similarly at risk on a national level. The family as a state apparatus—an image reiterated not just by the state itself but also by the popular media at least since World War II—existed not just as an endangered social unit but as a protective structure that was itself essential to national security. Such structural units were considered to be endangered as much from within as from without. Bad parenting, which threatened a family with the lurking danger of an "Oedipal complex"—or what Philip Wylie called "momism"—risked producing psychologically damaged "mother-lovers" destined to become criminals, drug addicts, or (worst of all) sissies. The latter were especially demonized since, as likely homosexuals, they thus became susceptible to suspicions of communistic subversion as well. Indeed, in his 1944 article entitled "Mothers … Our Only Hope," J. Edgar Hoover posits "crime" and "perversion" as the consequences of "parental incompetence and neglect." It thus became the father's role—and the State's—to contain the mother's influence over her children, a further bulwark of internal security. This regulatory family structure was crucial to the rearing of "healthy" and "decent" children.
What is interesting here is that, in adopting developmental psychology as a means of describing domestic relations, there arose a widespread clinical prognostication of "deviance"—crime, drugs, perversion, homosexuality—as a psychological sickness. A "maladjusted" child could become Hoover's "degenerate" "afflicted with diseases which only recently have been discussed in public." Psychoanalysts such as Edmund Bergler, too, lumped homosexuals in "among swindlers, pseudologues, forgers, lawbreakers of all sorts, drug purveyors, gamblers, pimps, spies, brothel owners, etc.," as deviants with fundamental psychological problems. Once again, we find what Andrew Ross called the "pan-social fear of the Other" condensed onto the figure of disease, this time with the aid and clinical authority of doctors, psychoanalysts, and other "experts."
In terms of this vision of the individual American subject as a body perpetually at risk of pollution, the enemies who posed this threat lurked not only outside of the various physical and psychic bulwarks (and fallout shelters) of the U.S. identity-structures, but often from within these boundaries. Yet what this rhetoric of disease (whether mental or physical) and vampiric infiltration provided within the ideology of containment was a way of locating "internal" difference as the result of outside influence. The demonology of the "alien" or "the Thing" as a generalized Other served as a strategy for abjecting integral difference within a U.S. national identity, projecting such difference upon all kinds of shadowy figures of negative influence. Such figures, whether the nuclear warhead or the covert homosexual, were recast in the dominant public eye not merely as "Others" but, it seems, as perversely phallic Others with the ability and will to penetrate into the national fabric and disrupt its integrity. More precisely, such figures became the symbolic repositories of what Julia Kristeva describes as the abject: the fundamental lack (in this case, of health, of normality, of "American-ness") which is "what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules." In the shifting images of personal, familial, and national security, the discourse about such "dejects" of U.S. national culture provided a brilliant strategy for maintaining the rhetoric of containment. The importance of such demonized figures was due not to their fundamental positioning "outside" U.S. culture, but because of the ability of their essential "otherness" to be compounded into an "abject" which could be located as the source of internal differences within the U.S. self.
"I always told you Trilling was a shit."
—William Burroughs, Letter to Allen Ginsberg, 1956.
Foreshadowing Burroughs's and Kerouac's reactions to this national narrative were the counter-narratives of the "liberal" literary critics of the Cold War period who, though virulently anticommunist as well as homophobic, wished to distance themselves from the conservative preoccupation with rooting out subversives. However, for such intellectuals the conception of a society—and especially of an individual subject position—organized in response to traumatic difference nevertheless remained a key concept in their critical imagination. Rather than adhering so rigorously to the importance of the subject's "integral integrity," though, the Cold War liberals redefined the subject to present a more "realistic" picture of U.S. culture. No longer at constant risk of penetration by an "abject," the subject became, in a sense, always already polluted by the homeopathic strains of difference; "reality" was the perpetual struggle of the self with this trauma, and thus the "abject" became a fundamental, internal property of this reality.
Though indeed anticommunist, the Cold War intellectuals were emphatically critical of the "conservative" official and popular-media ideas of national security on the home front. The rigorously normative strategies of containment and defense represented, in their eyes, less security than "a shadow-world of political sectarianism and sheer obsession" as well as "an hysteria through which … foreign policy has been frozen into an inflexible rigidity." In other words, the conservative compulsion to attack communism on the home front had become a form of mass-manipulation, an ideological "false consciousness" which lured the U.S. population into a state of conformity which could drain individuals of the will to resistance necessary to free democracy. The national fixation with its own health was symptomatic of a broader fascination with the homogenizing appeal of "mass culture." Indeed, the watershed Partisan Review symposium "Our Country and Our Culture" (1952) mobilized the majority of Cold War Intellectuals under Dwight Macdonald's argument that mass culture was the very "spreading ooze" of conformity and commodification which threatened to engulf the possibility of individualism altogether. And yet, while Macdonald's "spreading ooze" certainly reiterates the germophobic language of anticommunist hysteria, rhetorically it represented a fear of mind control rather than of a physical penetration and a fear of sameness rather than the fear of "deviance" voiced by pundits such as Hoover and McCarthy.
What was at stake in the liberals' struggle against the "spreading ooze" of conformity was still the individual self which the fixation upon National Security wished to protect. Yet it was a "self" figured differently: on one hand, the language of hegemonic representations of individual subjectivity tended to conflate "self," "Nation," and "family" as allegories of each other, condensing geopolitical and psychoanalytical language under the master-signifier of the male body; the Cold War intellectuals, on the other hand, saw the self as an emphatically psychological entity. Indeed, the Cold War liberals mobilized psychic criteria to dramatize the susceptibility of an unconscious, mass-culture-desublimated populace to the deadly "false consciousness" of ideology. Controlled and manipulated by forces of social repression, an individual consciousness would lose its fundamental autonomy and capacity to think, since it no longer had access to "reality."
The project foreseen by Cold War critics, such as Lionel Trilling, was to devise a critical methodology which could reinstall an essential complexity within the American intellectual milieu, emphasizing the power of "high" (complex) cultural artifacts to offset the dangerous repressions lurking beneath mass culture's simplicity. As he writes in the 1949 preface to The Liberal Imagination, "[t]he job of criticism would seem to be … to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty." For Trilling, the Cold War intellectual closest and most influential to the Beats in their early years, "reality," as the first essential imagination of complexity, gains a transcendental potential for resistance. In rendering the struggle against conformity an essentially subjective project, Trilling locates reality in the individual mind's ability to internalize the conflict, or the dialectic, of culture. As he writes in "Reality in America," the form of culture's existence is
struggle, or at least debate—it is nothing if not a dialectic. And in any culture there are likely to be certain artists who contain a large part of the dialectic within themselves, their meaning and power lying in their contradictions; they contain within themselves, it may be said, the very essence of the culture, and the sign of this is that they do not submit to serve the ends of any one ideological group or tendency.
That Trilling lends to "reality" the power to transcend the ideological constraints of a given historical moment suggests a sublime quality: as simultaneously "really real" and beyond normal (mass) experience. Trilling's dialectical struggle possesses the power to remain precarious, to be an "essential core" which forever resists hardening into ideology.
As a kernel of reality which escapes resolution and thus possesses a destructive power over ideological tendencies. Trilling's "reality" appears, as Slavoj Zizek writes, as the Lacanian "rock upon which every attempt at symbolization stumbles, the hard core which remains the same in all possible worlds." Fortunately for Trilling, such a notion of "reality" can never actually be identifiable as an actual material thing; rather "[a]ll its effectivity lies in the distortions it produces in the symbolic universe of the subject: the traumatic event is ultimately just a fantasy-construct filling out a certain void in a symbolic structure and, as such, the retroactive effect of that structure." The ability of this version of reality to cause trouble—that is, its sublime power to disrupt totalization—is precisely the concept Trilling is looking for. Indeed, the ability of dialectical reality's "sublime" nature to create distortions in the "symbolic universe" allows Trilling a mechanism for disrupting an American cultural "universe" at risk of stasis. As Zizek suggests, the "void" in the symbolic structure created by the Real fulfills the Cold War liberal fantasy of maintaining an essential complexity within U.S. culture.
Ironically, though, what Daniel O'Hara calls Trilling's "romance of reading" requires a forceful limitation of reality's disruptive potential. Ultimately, Trilling must reformulate the sublime effect of culture's dialectic as something assimilable; since he assumes reality to be something containable within literature, its effect must thus be capturable, expressible through writing. Connecting the "trauma" (or "trouble") of remaining faithful to dialectic with Freud's concept of neurosis as the "conflict" facing "genius," Trilling argues that neurosis—while indeed essential—is not, in fact, the source of genius at all. Rather, it becomes the material upon which a genius "exercises his powers." What allows the genius to transcend ordinary madness is his ability, through struggle, to gain command over the trauma. In other words, the essential, disruptive nature of traumatic neurosis—its sublime effect—invokes, but must be mastered by, the "power" of genius. This mastery—Trilling even calls it "dominion," citing Charles Lamb—is a process of colonization which becomes a much different kind of "struggle" essential to his thinking.
I have opened the previous two sections with William Burroughs's opinions of both Trilling and Hoover to show, through his anal-izations of these two figures, how their respective models of identity are interconnected. If, in Burroughs's terms, Hoover's ass—an available synecdoche for the FBI as both the "head" and the "seat" of government—is clinically sodomized by the very fear it systematically locks out and pathologizes (the bomb, subversion, anal penetration), then Trilling's colonization of abjection gets, shall we say, colon-ized. As "a shit," Trilling becomes the internalized abject which Hoover's time-bomb artificially supplants: Trilling's narratively contained dialectic represents an already digested, internalized "hard kernel," an abject substance that is the evidence and essence of psychic/cultural production. In other words, the liberal response to anticommunist, homophobic, nuclear-age hysteria does not reverse that systematic rejection of invading substances (difference, the abject, disease, trauma), but, rather, positions "difference" as an essential but consumed, digested, and containable abject. But by calling Lionel Trilling "shit," Burroughs allows me to voice the suspicion (both Burroughs's and my own) that any attempt to contain the "sublime" potency of the abject is destined to fail: it's got to come out sometime.
Of course, it is much easier to look at Burroughs's attack on Trilling as "a shit" simply as a rejection of his criticism. But if my hyperbolic treatment of this attack suggests anything else at all, it is that the Beats did not reject Trilling's insistence upon the sublime effect of "reality" as the shock to the system U.S. culture desperately needed in order to transcend conformity, but found him rather hopelessly constipated. Moving "reality" from the University to the city, and from the mind to the body, as the sites of culture's essential conflict, the Beats developed a much more radical idea of what this reality—and the plural possibility it promised—meant.
Thrown into the context of postwar New York City, what this "reality" came to represent was not simply a deviance from standard cultural formations but a "discovery" of an American racial, ethnic, and cultural underclass who lived in a manner very much at odds with mainstream culture. That is, the Beats encountered a city loaded with all kinds of demographic "others"—down-and-outs, drug addicts, homosexuals, criminals, political subversives, and other such undesirables against whom the National Security State was protecting itself, as well as the jazz legends, hipsters, and African Americans whom the U.S. refused to recognize and had relegated to the ghetto. Such social "dejects" became the Beats' "secret heroes" whose access to social objection was construed as a privilege which allowed them, it seemed, to contain the dialectic of culture within their minds as something immediate, powerful, and real.
For Burroughs and Kerouac, the refusal, or inability, of such figures to be assimilated into mainstream culture volunteered them as models of resistance able to disrupt the stylistic and existential rules of white, middle-class America. For the most part, the Beats' desire for the privileged experience such "secret heroes" supposedly possessed played itself out vicariously as a drive to plug into the lifestyles, imitate the speech and music, and inhabit the marginalized cultural realm of such figures.
This desire to identify sinks deeper, though: the desire for otherness figures in their texts not as identification with "secret heroes," but as identification as "other"—a move which even relies on hegemonic stereotypes of who "dejects" were for the very sake of rejecting societal typecasting. Burroughs thematizes his own homosexuality and drug use; Kerouac writes in On the Road of "wishing I were a Negro." The question of identification becomes, in their work, that of how to gain access to this paradoxically privileged experience of cultural subversion, how to modulate one's own subject position by means of it. One argument shows this romance of abjection playing itself out sexually, as if "the dialectic" experience were physically accessible. As Catharine Stimpson suggests, this took place as a sexual trafficking of "ethnic" women—or in Burroughs's case, of young boys from Tangiers, Mexico, and Peru. As she writes, "If a chick were black, Chicana, Native American, or Mexican, her grooving and swinging were all the more mythic because she was displaying a 'primitive' force that all those in flight from bourgeois society so wishfully craved." Stimpson's take is particularly useful here in showing sexual co-optation as a mechanism for meeting a deeper desire to rebel against mainstream conventions. Such sexual appropriation points to a conflation of the "abjecting" effect of racial and ethnic otherness with the human object of desire herself, which charts this appropriation as a fantasy-identification by means of which the object—the "chick" or young boy—becomes the repository of what the subject lacks. This implication within Stimpson's criticism suggests an already deep difficulty, yet it does not fully realize the extraordinary degree of appropriation and romantization involved in this scenario.
Norman Mailer, however, does fully realize—and fully perpetuates—the deep implications of the consumption of otherness. In his 1959 essay "The White Negro," Mailer's endorsement of the kind of racial cross-dressing suggested by the title posits "race"—figured as blackness—as a metaphor for the abject. In effect, Mailer's essay responds directly to Lionel Trilling's invocation of the sublime effect of "reality" as the way to subvert conformity; the difference is that Mailer—one of the youngest and most "hip" of the Cold War intellectuals—uses the Beats as his medium and blackness as his master trope. Indeed, in "The White Negro," Catharine Stimpson's explication of the Beats gender politics modulates to a full-blown narrative of miscegenation:
In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-à-trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were hip. And in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry.
That "the Negro" occupies the feminine position in this marriage typifies Mailer's double configuration of the black male at once as active—the locus of cultural and sexual potency—and as passive, the courted object of desire. Both phallus and lack, the "Negro" appears homosexually available as capital; and yet, what is charging this configuration is not so much homoerotic desire but rather "what the Negro had to offer": the "cultural dowry" offered in this "wedding." This dowry—literally the object of exchange in this eroticized instance of homosexual/cross-racial desire appears as some essence intrinsic to race for which blackness is the synecdoche and whose power is the sublime. Moreover, the "sublime" registers as an inflated, accelerated version of Trilling's sublime effect: it has the power not merely to critique society but to evoke total removal of all social restraint. This makes Mailer's White Negro literally a psychopath whose sublime power—repositioned as "hip" and avantgarde—fulfills the role of the specter plaguing the National Security State: psychopath, sexual deviant, juvenile delinquent, drug user.
Indeed, for Mailer, the "White Negro" represents not merely a radical cross-identification but a whole reconfiguration of a "new white man" as a sort of bomb-era Nietzschean Dionysus, whereby, in Toni Morrison's words, onto the master trope of blackness is transferred "the power of illicit sexuality, chaos, madness, impropriety, anarchy, strangeness, and helpless, hapless desire." The consumption of such romanticized attributes of racial otherness, which Mailer advertises as "Hip" or "Beat," promises not only self-marginalization from the constraints of "square" mainstream culture but, as Eric Lott notes in his tremendous essay "White Like Me," caters also to a "dream of freedom and play" beyond the rational constraints of Cold War society.
As we can see, such an example of binarized "cross-identification," though bound to Trilling's concept of reality, is not "real" at all but relies instead upon deeply mythologized constructions of "otherness" formed directly from the mainstream rhetoric of subjectivity. At the same time, these constructions are made to retain the privileged status of "reality" as well as its apparently sublime power to subvert the "false consciousness" of normalcy. Such disquieting strategies of "self-othering" run into very serious trouble in the mediated narratives of Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans. In these two texts "the void" of Otherness ceases to function merely as a commodity that exists (in the words of bell books) "solely to suggest new aesthetic and political directions white folks might move in" and becomes a category as inadequate—and indeed as suspect—as that of the white, middle-class, heterosexual male "self" which Burroughs and Kerouac attempt to deconstruct.
"… break the shell of body."
—William Burroughs, Naked Lunch
At the obscenity trial for Naked Lunch, Norman Mailer testified (in defense of the novel) that its value springs from its ability to envision a bomb-era "descent into Hell." Calling Burroughs "essentially a religious writer," Mailer attempted to get the book out of trouble by underwriting its "obscenity" as allegory, as something assimilable into the national literary imagination. But in terms of its relationship to nationalized as well as "liberal" enforcements of subjectivity, Burroughs's book was not so easily digested. As Lydenberg argues, Naked Lunch adamantly resists such allegorization, stripping down writing to a "naked lunch, a revelation of what is really going on and not an allegorical evasion." Such an argument is especially useful when we understand "naked" to refer to a radical divestment of the moral and rhetorical "dressing" of the National Security State—as well as from Mailer's own dressing up of the novel. However, Lydenberg's further argument, that such nakedness creates "a materiality of absence, a literal mysticism which opens up the possibility of a 'non-body experience,'" disregards the extent to which Naked Lunch not only relies on the body to perform its subversive work, but in fact relies on the very "allegories" of self and subversion—the very tropological system—it wishes to destroy.
Continuing the character of William Lee from his two earlier and more personal novels, Junky (1953) and Queer (1985, written in 1953), Burroughs retains these two titular identifications as the two societal "Sicknesses," as he (not uncritically) calls them, which not only act as primary contexts of identification for Lee himself but also enshroud the very writing process of Naked Lunch. As we have seen, the pathologization of drug use and homosexuality took place in the Cold War imagination as patently psychological ailments; ailments which, moreover, represented criminal breaches in the public health. Indeed, Allen Ginsberg himself was institutionalized for psychoanalytical treatment of his homosexuality in 1949. Burroughs met the notion of such a "cure" with ample sarcasm and hostility: "By the way what ever became of Als normality program?… I thought the nut croakers had fucked him up permanent and reconstructed him in their own dreary image." His words on psychological treatments for junk addiction, though less charming, are just as harsh: "Morphine addiction is a metabolic illness brought about by the use of morphine. In my opinion psychological treatment is not only useless it is contraindicated." As this suggests, Burroughs vehemently resisted treating such "illnesses" as psychological, insisting instead that they be viewed as primarily physical, metabolic phenomena.
To do otherwise is to impose psychological tyranny; thus, in Naked Lunch, there are figures such as Dr. Benway, who, though he strikes away concentration camps and mass arrests in the name of democracy, is "a manipulator and coordinator of symbol systems, an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control." Benway's philosophy: "He [the subject] must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him." As such, the "technological psychiatry" of Naked Lunch erupts in a form of violence that, ultimately, ends up being physical anyway.
Just as his anger at "Als normality program" soon shifts in his letters to a rhetorical arrogation of homosexuality-as-disease for his own satirical purposes, in Naked Lunch, Burroughs transforms what was considered an emphatically mental disease into a physical "sickness." He retains the National Security trope of homosexuality figured as a physical penetration that would threaten the integrity of the subject with annihilation, breaking up the "shell of body." This effect whereby "the way OUT is the way IN" requires, as Lee Edelman writes, that homosexuality be figured as sodomy, thus producing this disruptive effect by "Confounding the distinction between coming in and going out, between consumption and expulsion, between the public and the private, and thereby transgressing the definitional boundaries that underwrite social identities…." Rather than a "nonbody" experience, sodomy figures as a physical disruption that takes over the body and destabilizes it. Thus suspending the biological and social logic of "integral" identity, Burroughs's sodomy files in the face of hegemony, "washing away the human lines" of body, compulsory heterosexuality, family values, and other nationalized metaphors of identity. Naked Lunch's polymorphous perversity becomes, in fact, the platform of a political party—the Liquefactionists—which embodies decadence in all its senses: "Liquefaction involves protein cleavage and reduction to liquid which is absorbed into someone else's protoplasmic being." Satirizing both Kennan's language and Hoover's, Burroughs's reduction of the human body to liquid and protoplasm offers a hedonistic subversion of the possibility of an "integral" social being.
Similarly, Burroughs retains the pathology of heroin intoxication as a sickness with a similarly profound potential for physical and ontological disruption. Lee describes one such "attack," which results in a condition whereby: "… no organ is constant as regards wither function or position … sex organs sprout anywhere … rectums open, defecate and close … the entire organism changes color and consistency in split-second adjustments…." An extreme example because it describes the first high after a long withdrawal, this passage nevertheless dramatizes junk's radical subversion of the metaphor of bodily integrity, compounding severe disruption with a kind of drastic, eroticized jouissance as the effects of the same act. Ironically, the "afflicted" member's attack transforms the symptomology of heroin withdrawal—which Burroughs describes in his early work as a transfigurative metabolic craving—into the pathology of intoxication. Feeding and hunger, cellular production and consumption, are conflated in Naked Lunch in favor of a different "prescription": a version of intoxication that rewrites the bodily script as a polymorphous entity.
The "act" which induces such alterations occurs, moreover, as a consumption—that is, as the result of an injection of "the junk virus" which produces an alternate version of experience in which "identity" is not evacuated but rather repossessed. The process of "in/toxication"—the internalization of an abject substance; a pollution conflating desire, pleasure, and violence—occurs not only in the intravenous injection of the needle into the skin but by multiple penetrating instruments (needles, droppers, jagged glass, morphine and heroin in any form, including anal suppositories) into multiple orifices. The performance of a self-othering process as both penetration and consumption reveals its subversive nature—it involves, as does sodomy, breaking into and disrupting the "integral integrity" of the body.
At the same time, though, this penetration into the body is not the sole cause of intoxication's altering effects, but rather the material exchange which catalyses this disruption. As Avital Ronell writes, "drugs" are only a material logos used only to catalyze, and signify, a chemical reaction that occurs inside the body. The injection only serves to activate a pathology that is already rooted in the human cellular structure: "Drugs are excentric. They are animated by an outside already inside. Endorphins relate internal secretion to the external chemical." As a pathologized form of bodily communication (between "inside" and "outside"), junk—which Burroughs tropes both as a virus and as a form of textuality—is, like sodomy, at once a penetration and an internal awakening. This intoxication presents a form of exchange, an intercourse, which changes the body both from within and from without.
But it is not this easy. Such a "way out" of the Cold War self confronts serious limitations in Burroughs's text. As a kind of consumption, sex results not only in the "absorption of liquid" but in the irreversible commodification of the (homo- or hetero-) sexual partner. Indeed, "going all the way" in Naked Lunch means literally killing, using up the sexual "object" in an ultimate ejaculatory moment. Rather than reverting to the homophobic Cold War ideology, imagining death as the end result of desire reveals the complicity of such a commodification of human life with systems of power and control. Desire, always ready to run out of control, threatens to become an automatic mechanism of domination.
The stakes of "junk" consumption, too, run the risk of conflating total excess with the perpetuation of control. As an addictive quantity, heroin is at once eminently consumable and all-consuming—Burroughs portrays it as a commodity of a heirarchized and violently repressive exchange structure. If it does somehow succeed in "evacuating" the self, its seduction of "being other" yields a state of addiction whereby, as Ronell writes, Being itself (Dasein) "has become blind, and puts all possibility into the service of the addiction." Under the specter of addiction, junk's sublime promise of alterity, and thus transcendence, threatens always to end up as automatism, as subservience to an ethic of domination. What is at stake in the commodification of otherness, the trafficking of "ways out," is a terrifying conflation of power with powerlessness: addiction produces not merely "sick people who cannot act other than they do," but, more precisely, people who are utterly controlled. Naked Lunch dramatizes how the sublime and the desublimating constantly threaten to merge into one another.
In order to realize fully the complexity and danger of this slippage, Burroughs extends the conflict outwards, configuring the transitivity of sublimity and addiction as a place he calls "the City of Interzone." As he writes in letters to Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1955: "The meaning of Interzone, its space-time location is at a point where 3-dimensional fact merges into dreams, and dreams erupt into the real world. In Interzone dreams can kill … and solid objects and persons can be as unreal as dreams." An ontologically transitive state as well as a city, Interzone creates a site at which Burroughs's "self-othering" problematic becomes racialized. He explains: as a space of racial and national transitivity "Interzone is very much modeled on Tangier in the old international days: it was an Inter-Zone, it was no country." Resisting total identification either as vision of a real city or as an allegory of a mental state, Interzone is neither an inner space nor an outer space. Rather, it is a between space, a crossroads at which textuality, alterity, and identity collide:
The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indian—races as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized pass through your body. Migrations, incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains (stasis and death in closed mountain valleys where plants grow out of genitals, vast crustaceans hatch inside and break the shell of body) across the pacific in an outrigger canoe to Easter Island. The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market….
… Cooking smells of all countries hang over the City, a haze of opium, hashish, the resinous red smoke of Yage, smell of the jungle and salt water and the rotting river and dried excrement and sweat and genitals….
The City is visited by epidemics of violence, and the untended dead are eaten by vultures in the streets. Albinos blink in the sun. Boys sit in trees, languidly masturbate. People eaten by unknown diseases watch the passerby with evil, knowing eyes.
Much like the junk-virus and Burroughs's repathologization of homoerotic desire, this "Composite City" promises a market of human potential where identities—figured as the "blood and substance" of "race"—can be trafficked like opiates. The sublime quality of Trilling's "plural possibility" is offered in a vast carnal buffet of alterity, wherein "abject" identities are consumed, sacrificed, and used up. At the same time, while it would be inaccurate to conflate Interzone with junk and sodomy as direct allegories of each other, they each furiously insist that the consumption of otherness is not a simple capitalist exchange; rather it is a fantasy whose transitivity engenders confusion, violent conflict, and illness.
Burroughs suspends moral judgment of the commodification of otherness as a "starting point for white self-criticism" by representing racial cross-identification as an addiction: he terms it in the language of need, a consuming need that requires identification—"wouldn't you?" he asks in the introduction. "Yes, you would," is the imposed, unspoken, response, his one absolute. For Burroughs, the state of being addicted to cross-identification is also a sickness, a virus, indicating its violence not only to the subjective carrier, but to those he comes in contact with, a violence at every intersection.
The injection/intersection point does not generate space of freedom and play immune to the violence of repressive cultural formations or of rebellions against them. The potentially deadly dream-state is, at best, a space of potential, fantasized play, the space of distant masturbation, of spectacle rather than true intercourse. This interzone, neither fully formed nor immaterial, is a crossroads whereby the attractions, the addictions, of either side of the binary are traffickable as commodities—indeed, the perfect commodities, since they require no advertising in order to be ferreted out by desperate consumers—but only at the price of deferral, violence, and the endless craving of metabolic addiction.
"I would have preferred the happy man to the unhappy poems he's left us."
—Jack Kerouac, The Subterraneans
In Kerouac's more intimate and sentimental novel, The Subterraneans, Interzone's potentially deadly dream-state of endless deferral becomes instead an emotional crossroads which compounds loss, paranoia, obsession, and the lingering emotions of a relationship gone hopelessly awry. This traumatic juncture haunts the entire novel, since The Subterraneans consistently wrestles with failure and breakup; indeed, as a narrative of the broken love affair between Leo Percepied and Mardou Fox, a part-Cherokee, part-African American woman ten years his junior, the novel is less about a romance than about its failure. And as a broken-up book itself, it becomes increasingly aware of the breakdown of "romance" as a cultural and literary apparatus, the failure of the romance of abjection.
The Subterraneans, then, seems less directly concerned with consuming "otherness" for the sake of self-evacuation than with managing the interpersonal and narrative consequences of such a Romance of dissent. As if realizing the inadequacies of a Maileresque project—a project which includes several of Kerouac's earlier novels—The Subterraneans struggles to configure the relationship between Percepied and Fox in a way that doesn't merely involve "sucking her dry" of her othering power. Likewise, the "self" Kerouac wishes to evacuate here isn't merely the Maileresque "white man disillusioned" of On the Road, fleeing from the constraints of Cold War expectations. Rather, the trap of "self" in The Subterraneans expands beyond these constraints to include the sexually appropriative "White Negro" rebellion against them as well. Such reflexivity confounds the efficiency of the latter's romance of the racial sublime and, simultaneously, lodges their relationship at a perpetual scene of anxiety.
Ineffably confused as to what to do with his feelings of desire and sexuality towards Mardou other than being "crudely malely sexual," Percepied interrogates his own motives for attraction: is his love for Mardou merely a romance of the other's abject power? This consternation and ambiguity toward the sources of his own desire plays itself out repeatedly in scenes of paradox and conflict wherein Percepied seems unable to come to grips with the possibility of racial and gender difference, whether to embrace it or to eradicate it. First making, then abnegating, horrified confessions of "male self-contained doubts" about Mardou and "doubts about her race," Percepied asks himself if the reason for his attraction to her is, conversely, because of her race, because of her exotic otherness.
This anxiety in the face of the inevitable specter of difference continues to manifest itself throughout the novel; even in one of the most secure moments of their relationship, it arises as a paranoid attempt to deny their racial difference altogether. Kerouac tells of "my fear of communicating WHITE images to her in our telepathies for fear she'll be (in her fun) reminded of our racial difference, at that time making me feel guilty." This guilt over racial difference, it seems, represents less Percepied's reluctance to dissolve a fantasy identification with blackness than it does his compulsion to perform for Mardou's love. Unlike Burroughs, who deploys "race" to connote difference, Kerouac struggles with an inability to conceptualize race as anything but difference, in a situation—the intimacies of telepathy and love—where the two people are presumably bound by similarity.
However, by casting Mardou as at risk of being "reminded" of difference, when it is Percepied himself who seems unable to forget it, the passage suggests that something further is in play. What seems to be Percepied's own fear of judgment retroactively casts Mardou as his judge, thus re-igniting the problem of agency and appropriation that the novel otherwise tries to leave behind: the question is not only about who is judging whom, but about who is narrating whom. This crisis in textual power arises as an immediate concern over how to "tell" Mardou: "But now let me tell Mardou herself (difficult to make a real confession and show what happened when you're such an egomaniac all you can do is take off on big paragraphs about minor details about yourself and the big soul details about others go sitting and waiting)." Implicit in this struggle to sort out who should or should not be narrated lurks a deceptively forceful clash of complex subjectivities. Though he berates his own self-absorption, the very process of writing out an evacuation of this selfishness still amounts, narratively, to self-absorption. Moreover, lingering within this admonishment of his own selfishness is an indicative, albeit tender-hearted, trace of the romance of abjection as the "way out." As he comes to grips with the differences between representation and forms of narrative domination, Kerouac seems to trip over his own internalized romances in an effort to avoid them—as with Naked Lunch, the attempt to evacuate a bankrupt subject-position becomes a further bind.
This kind of conflict occurs with greater severity once Percepied's initial attempts to deny difference fail, and he resorts to imposing textual control over the language which structures his relationship with Mardou. The explosion of contradictory exchanges resulting from this struggle with control and failure occurs not only within Kerouac's narrative discourse, but also at the intersections of this voice and Mardou's "own" words. The clash is twofold: it involves both Percepied's persistent drive to fashion his relationship into a mythological binary, as well as the secondary clash of subjectivities in which Mardou rejects this essentializing and deeply normative structuration. The normative value of such myths reverberates throughout the whole series of imposed configurations in which Percepied and Mardou are cast, respectively, as "jazz poet" and "child of bop," phallus and womb, tower and well, and Adam and Eve—constructions whose motives swing back and forth between tenderness and panic, between desire and fear. Again, Percepied is critically aware of the artificial nature of such "big abstract constructions" and attributes his tendency as a writer to "erect" these constructions as "the stupid neurotic nervousness of the phallic type, forever conscious of his phallus, his tower, of women as wells." Yet these images, compounded by the gender-, race- and ethnicity-related power differential implicit in their polarity, recur throughout the novel as the conceptual apparatus for dealing with the difference that Kerouac cannot seem to avoid.
The result is a changing series of constructions all reiterating the same theme. Relegated to "womb" and "well," Mardou is allegorized as an orifice whose primitive and generative nature is corroborated by her mythologization as Eve, and made doubly disturbing by its racial and ethnic overtones of darkness and indigenousness. At the same time, this synecdochal orifice is invested with the abject power of the sublime: Mardou becomes the object upon whom Percepied projects not only the vitality and darkness of "bop" but a deep fear of being consumed and used up. At once beautiful and fearful, Mardou-as-womb suggests the power both to rebirth and to destroy. Like Burroughs's orifice, where identity becomes amorphous and volatile, Kerouac's neurotic figuration of Mardou as womb and as well hovers between the primordinacy of birth and the destructiveness of a vagina dentata. This representation figures most paranoically in a passage where, borrowing roles from Tennessee Williams's "Desire and the Black Masseur," Mardou becomes "the big buck nigger Turkish bath attendant, and I the little fag who's broken to bits in the love affair and carried to the bay in a burlap bag, there to be distributed piece by piece and broken bone by bone to the fish." Percepied's fear of being used up by Mardou—of being chewed up and devoured by the vagina dentata—represents the flip side of the romance of blackness which seems most actively at work in Kerouac's acceptance of its promise of rebirth and self-evacuation in the first place. Furthermore, the terminologies at work in this example from Williams are charged with particular Cold War resonances: as we saw earlier, the "fag" dominated by a "phallic" maternal, or pre-oedipal, presence (Mardou-as-womb) was a favored iteration both of psychoanalysis in general, and of Hoover-era "experts" in particular; furthermore, "nigger" carries in this context an indelible brand of racism which simultaneously bows its head to the power-play at work in Williams's story. That Kerouac would position Percepied and Mardou in this manner not only suggests a deep anxiety over his own sexuality and desire, but intensifies the volatile ambiguity with which their relationship is represented.
Whether neurotic, well-intended, or self-pitying, such binary constructions are each painfully invalidated, either by the self-conscious paranoia and hyperbolic hatefulness of Percepied's language or by Mardou's "own" resistance to them. In another—though presumably tender—instance, Percepied tells Mardou: "'because as part Negro somehow you are the first, the essential woman, and therefore the most, most originally most fully affectionate and maternal'—there now is the chagrin too, some lost American addition and mood with it—'Eden's in Africa,' I'd added one time—." In response to which Mardou later adds, in a parenthetical aside: "'Look man,' she'd said only a week before when I'd suddenly started talking about Adam and Eve and referred to her as Eve, the woman who by her beauty is able to make the man do anything, 'don't call me Eve.'" Mardou's blunt censure of this romanticized notion is, to some extent, echoed by the narration's own self-destructive reflexivity. Indeed, Percepied seems aware that his association is a loaded one; for in calling Mardou "Eve" he knows he is engendering it with "some lost American addition and mood," by means of which Mardou is transmuted from lover to allegory. Mardou's aspersion is, furthermore, surrounded by the narrator's own reasons for the objectionability of the myth. He revises the "story" of Adam and Eve to fit this awareness: in the second passage what is of concern is not Eve's "original" nature but, again, her "sublime" power to manipulate and use up Adam. The breakdown of this myth is compound: effected most explicitly by Mardou, its artifices are also disclosed by Percepied's self-reflexive narration.
The disintegration of such essentialistmyths in which women are symbolized as wells—or, as Mardou later argues, as prizes—do not only occur within this double context of dialogic confrontation, but also in the inability of the relationship to remain a private binary. Again dramatizing the possibility that their relationship may not just be about love but about Percepied's desire for self-evacuation, the novel's binarisms tend to evolve into threesomes. Indeed, throughout the text their relationship is framed as a shifting love-triangle, whereby Percepied's relationship with Mardou exists only in oppositional exchange with a third party.
Such imaginary triadic constructions—and Kerouac, each time, struggles in his indirect discourse with the suspicion that they are constructions—engender a homosocial rivalry between Percepied and a shifting series of male characters, even by the rumor and possibility of Percepied's own homosexuality. Most significantly, though, it is a young poet, Yuri Gligoric, who becomes Percepied's final obsession and thus the third-party rival whom he continually fantasizes to be sleeping with Mardou. The novel ends with a contemplation of this triadic obsession:
… I curled her on my lap, and she talked about the war between men—"They have a war, to them a woman is a prize…."
"Yeah," I say, sad, "but I should have paid more attention to the old junkey nevertheless, who said there's a lover on every corner—they're all the same, boy, don't get hung-up on one."
"It isn't true, it isn't true, that's just what Yuri wants is for you to go down to Dante's now and the two of you'll laugh and talk me over and agree that women are good lays and there are a lot of them.—I think you're like me—you want one love—like, men have the essence in the woman, there's an essence" ("Yes," I thought, "there's an essence and that is your womb") "and the man has it in his hand, but rushes off to build big constructions." (I'd just read her the first few pages of Finnegan's Wake and explained them and where Finnegan is always putting up "buildung supra buildung supra buildung" on the banks of the Liffey—dung!)
… And I go home having lost her love.
And write this book.
Mardou's rejection of being trafficked as bounty in the war between men finally shuts down the long series of romances which have appropriated her as symbolic property. Appealing to essentialism as a version of reality preferable to Percepied's "big constructions," Mardou attempts to focus Percepied's attention back on their relationship and to dislodge it from the coercive identifications his narrative attempts to impose.
Though it concludes with Mardou's resistance to commodification as a "prize," this very resistance raises yet a further question: does "this book" itself become another construction, another monument of "the war between [white] men," another figuration of Mardou as sublime object? Mardou's suspicion seems to introduce the question of how much her influence—her own voice and the way she resists symbolization throughout the text—is itself a textual consumption of her "sublime" ability to disrupt it. Does Kerouac use her merely in order to break up the unity of his prose and "make trouble" for his sense of identity as a nonconformist writer of "bop prosody"? Even if, as I suggested earlier, Mardou figures as an "ideal ego" and not as a mere object of consumption, she still serves narratively as the "object" to his "subject," and her "voice" could seem to serve as the petit objet a of identification which Kerouac ultimately covets, the "sublime object" which breaks up totality and escapes symbolization. In a refrain of his intimations of rebirth through Mardou's sublime womb, Kerouac appears to ponder this latter possibility when he cites Joyce's revision of the Bildungsroman of personal development as "buildung supra buildung." In this final image, juxtaposing textuality, construction, and dung, he questions the tractability of any such project of containment and control: is he just another Trilling, using Mardou to access a textual sublime; is he, too, in Burroughs's words, merely "a shit"?
Kerouac's project diverges significantly from Trilling's, though. The Subterraneans is charged with a traumatic awareness of its own failure, acting out and disinheriting a vast array of identity strategies, myths, and structures whose coerciveness and propensity for damage become glaringly apparent. And unlike Trilling's idea of the "conflicted" artist who contains the dialectical essence of culture in his mind, Kerouac/Percepied cannot master that conflict, either in his head or in his prose: Percepied's relationship with Mardou disintegrates alongside the mythologies used to frame it.
Though it dramatizes Kerouac's discovery of the emotional violence and breakup forever imminent in imposed configurations of identity, the "failed romance" of The Subterraneans engenders a self-destructive poetics that does not, however, court the righteous possibility of "self-deconstruction" by castrating its own phallic tower of typological constructions. Gerald Nicosia writes that Kerouac somehow turns loss into gain through art, that "this book" feeds upon the sadness within it and assimilates the tragic outcome as an element of the master-narrative the book itself represents. However, the narrative control over events Nicosia implies is only ever lost, never gained: Kerouac is neither completely able to escape his own entangled illusions nor to identify with Mardou's "language of bop." I am tempted, for sentimental reasons, to say that there lies in the structural dynamics of The Subterraneans an internalization of Mardou's subjective influence—that ultimately, the novel works as a true romance in a more spiritual sense by showing Kerouac to "really understand" Mardou's take on their relationship. Any such self-righteousness, though, is inevitably disqualified; the damage is done. The Subterraneans, like Naked Lunch, represents a crisis, a trafficking of the interzone between the traumatic inadequacy of identity impositions and the harsh narrative and emotional violence that comes in realizing this inadequacy.
The possibility that this latter notion of a "textual sublime"—which Kerouac broaches in order to transcend the constraints he seems unable to escape otherwise—would also play itself out as a commodification of otherness seems to have been lurking all along. Like Burroughs, who constructs a sublime, orifice-like textual space as an alternative to the limitations of Cold War existence, Kerouac attempts to co-opt Mardou's voice in order to sever—or at least to mediate—his ambivalent position "within" and "without" the dominant U.S. culture. Such an ambivalence, suggested in On the Road by Kerouac's use of the "Interstate" to allow him to leave and return home, cannot fully evolve into a space free of cultural determination without the disruption the sublime entails. As we've seen, though, in both Kerouac's and Burroughs's cases this very promise lands them in a further bind, a place no longer "on the road" or a utopian "outside," but at a crossroads.
And despite Trilling's claims to the contrary, such a crossroads does not proffer transcendence. Burroughs and Kerouac do indeed "make trouble" for dominant Cold War constructions of "self"—that is, their attempts to forge a notion of identity, or at least subjectivity, as a volatile site of contested meanings were indeed disruptive—but the effectiveness of "trouble" must also take into account whom one makes trouble for. The "sublime" performs useful work in Burroughs's and Kerouac's fiction insofar as its power to disrupt is used to keep meanings and identities in a state of flux and contestation—that is, when it works toward the acceptance and generation of difference. However, implicit in locating the sublime as an inherent property of another person's being is a power-play which brings this very work of contestation and flux to a crashing halt. As Timothy Engström writes, "the subversive thrill of undermining identities with the help of the sublime may be itself the repetition—by inversion—of a rather classical philosophical project: to establish identities." The risk of such an inversion, in the case of Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans, is of accidentally performing the containment work of the Cold War.
And yet, I have argued that Burroughs and Kerouac both become painfully aware of this inversion, aware that, as Lee Edelman writes, "producing different notions of subjectivity is not the same thing as occupying a different position as a subject." In order to read their fiction outside of the repressive forces of consumption and containment that lurk within it, we must read the use of the sublime in a way that foregrounds its tendency to be the stumbling point of representation, a tendency which best expresses frustration rather than mastery or control. The rhetorical deployment of sublimity we've witnessed in Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans is most useful in its capacity to mediate relationships which, as Engström argues, "reside for some time in an awkward orbit around the normalcy of any given narrative…." As something always inassimilable into the narrative of mainstream culture, the sublime can be liberating if activated as a way of mediating the unknown and generating a familiarity with difference. Burroughs's and Kerouac's "interzones," however, gain their volatility and propensity for violence at the moment when they try to "score"—and become addicted to—the myth of someone else's intransigence, and thus refuse to accept its conceptual value as something that cannot be fully abstracted as a commodified racial, ethnic, or gendered attribute. Such a transaction results in an inability to vacate the confines of the subject position with which they are most critically at odds, an inability which leaves indelible traces of an inherited rhetorical agenda of coercion and containment. Ill at ease with either situation, and thus neither ever truly "in" nor ever truly "out," Kerouac and Burroughs find themselves instead—to use the Cold War idiom—painfully "out in the cold."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5144
James Campbell (review date 15 October 1993)
SOURCE: "The Bare Facts," in Times Literary Supplement, October 15, 1993, p. 22.
[In the following review of the first volume of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, Campbell gleans the "facts" of Burroughs's early writing career from his correspondence, observing its relation to specific works and other Beat writers.]
There is no such thing as a Naked Lunch. In keeping with its conception as a fluid event rather than a frozen artefact ("the usual novel has happened", the author wrote. "This novel is happening"), William Burroughs's purgative, funny, wholly original book has continued to exhibit new forms over the years. As successive editions have followed the Paris one of 1959, passages which once appeared as footnotes have been integrated into the text or else excluded from it; new prefaces and appendices have been grafted on to the narrative, each becoming in the process an organic part. Even the title eludes definition, the American publishers offering plain old Naked Lunch, while the British, following the Paris original, garnish it with an article. Now, from this first volume of Burroughs's correspondence [The Letters of William S. Burroughs], a different shape emerges: Naked Lunch is actually a letter to Allen Ginsberg.
In the late 1940s, Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and their friends would not have seemed unlike any other group of white, New York low-lifes, except that they read books and aspired to write them, and also that their assaults on the sacred cow of respectability led them to more than usually unrespectable behavior. Ginsberg staggered from mental hospital to law court (petty theft) as he fought with the unwelcome fact of his homosexuality. Neal Cassady, the original for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's On the Road, was a larger-than-life, irresponsible sponger, with an appetite for women (and occasionally for Ginsberg). Lucien Carr was in prison, having killed a man who made sexual advances towards him. (The case later inspired James Baldwin to write Giovanni's Room.) Gregory Corso had also spent time in prison, for lesser offenses. Kerouac, the legendary lonesome traveller, was actually cripplingly dependent on his mother, and later on drink.
Burroughs was different: older than the rest by about a decade, he was Harvard educated and heir to a fortune (his grandfather invented the Burroughs Adding Machine). He was not seduced by the accessories of hip: the dress, the jazz, the argot; in letters written from New Orleans and Mexico in the early part of this fascinating book, he comes across more as a gun-toting, lawless frontiersman than an imitator of Brando and black cool. "Dear Jack," he writes from Mexico City on January 1, 1950, "Every time I receive a communication from the U.S. I congratulate myself on being here. Nigra laws eh? That really is the pay off."
Despite the grey suit and the somber countenance ("his whole person", he wrote of himself, "seemed at first glance completely anonymous"), Burroughs was even more given to extremes of behavior than the others. Variations on the phrase "I mean business" pop up regularly throughout these letters. It might refer to anything, from cutting off a finger-joint to impress a lover, as he did in the early 1940s, to cutting up his pages to usurp the forces of "thought-control" lurking in conventional grammar, a campaign we find him embarking on as this book ends. In 1952, he wrote to Ginsberg that he was not really meant to be a writer. "I am essentially active and will always seek solution in activity."
This is strictly true, even though the man of action was to spend much of the remainder of the decade, in his own description, staring at the end of his shoe. If his activity was destined to be in the literary arena, then he wanted, so he told Ginsberg (to whom the vast majority of these letters are addressed), to practice a form of writing that had "the urgency of bullfighting". In so far as it makes sense at all to say so, in Naked Lunch he succeeded.
Stranded in Tangier during the second half of the 1950s, addicted to heroin, lovesick for Ginsberg with whom he had been briefly partnered in New York (the pair were not to meet for six years), gorging himself on paid-for sex with Spanish boys, Burroughs began to record his impressions of the city in a series of bulletins to the poet. Tangier was then an "international zone", colonized by eight foreign powers, and technically not part of Morocco. Eager and admiring but also critically objective, Ginsberg was felt to be the perfect "receptor" for what Burroughs called his "routines": short, phantasmagorical prose pieces, usually involving mutations of people and events seen or experienced in Tangier. Dr Benway, A.J., The Lobotomy Kid, and other weird beings from Naked Lunch, all have real-life originals. Over time, a book began to emerge from the impressionistic mass, to which Burroughs gave various titles: "Interzone", "Ignorant Armies", etc. (By a curious coincidence, the latter was also an early title for Baldwin's novel based on the Lucien Carr case. Was "Dover Beach" the hip poem of the 1950s?)
Whenever Burroughs tried to turn his hand to other types of writing—for a magazine, for instance, in the hope of earning some money—he only had to begin typing to find he was writing another routine. In December 1954, he told Ginsberg that he had
sat down seriously to write a best-seller Book of the Month Club job on Tanger [sic]. So here is what comes out in the first sentence:
"The only native in Interzone who is neither queer nor available is Andrew Keif's chauffeur, which is not an affectation on Keif's part but a useful pretext to break off relations with anyone he doesn't want to see: 'You made a pass at Aracknid last night. I can't have you in the house again.'…"
Vile grotesquerie ensues, and the passage was later refined and used to form the opening of the "interzone" section of Naked Lunch. (In a PS, Burroughs adds: "Andrew Keif is Paul Bowles, of course.")
The early letters mainly concern the composition and publication of Junkie, his first novel. Burroughs began writing seriously in 1950, when in his late thirties, possibly in an effort to displace one type of occupation—the all-absorbing inaction of the drug-addict—by another. A more or less straightforward account of the drug-addict's life in New York, Junkie (later Junky) was published in 1953 under the pseudonym William Lee—the name Burroughs later used to represent himself in his own fiction. The novel was presented as a "confessions of …" sort of book by its nervous publishers, who packaged it in one volume with the memoirs of a narcotics agent. A first attempt, it falls on to the page in a style fully formed. The original intention was to follow it with Queer, a companion-piece on the theme of homosexual obsession. But after the completion of Junkie, Burroughs's ideas about writing changed. It is interesting to learn that as early as 1952 he was persuaded of his need for medium-as-message innovation. "A medium suitable for me does not yet exist, unless I invent it", he told Ginsberg in May of that year. Three years later, fully committed to his new style, he wrote: "It's almost like automatic writing produced by a hostile, independent entity who is saying in effect, 'I will write what I please' … only the most extreme material is available to me."
The hostile entity drew him towards horrors greater than what was to become Naked Lunch. In 1951, in a now notorious incident, Burroughs killed his wife Joan while aiming to shoot a champagne glass off her head in a game of "William Tell". "The idea of shooting a glass off her head had never entered my mind, consciously, until, out of the blue so far as I can recall—I was very drunk, of course—I said 'It's about time for our William Tell act…. Put a glass on your head, Joan.' Nothing led up to the idea." It was an accident all right, but four years later Burroughs remained haunted by murmuring voices from his subconscious. "I am quite a good shot and accustomed to handle guns. I aimed carefully at a distance of 6 feet for the very top of the glass."
That there might be a connection between this incident and the violent reconstruction of his consciousness which Burroughs afterwards began to pursue in literary strategies—obscene fantasy, cut-up or whatever—is touched on in the letters. It was made explicit, though, in the introduction to Queer, which was finally published in 1985:
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to the realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvred me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have no choice but to write my way out.
In a letter to Ginsberg published here, he writes: "I am trying to create something that will have a life of its own, that can put me in a real danger, a danger which I willingly take on myself." Burroughs begins to sound increasingly like some demonic performance artist, for whom each act—wilful drug addiction, a jungle expedition to meet Indian tribes, a game of William Tell, and finally writing itself—involves a struggle with the Ugly Spirit, which will bring him face to face with death, but also offers the possibility of total release.
At the same time, we see him working methodically on his prose, sometimes writing more than one draft of a letter, and quite aware of the nature of the book emanating from his transmissions. The picture often drawn by chroniclers of the Beat Generation, of Burroughs friendless and penniless in Tangier, floating on a raft of junk amid the scattered pages of Naked Lunch, without a clue as to how to put them together, should gain revision from the publication of these letters. When he wrote to Ginsberg, "Read in any order. It makes no difference", it was not lack of interest but the affirmation of a surrealist aesthetic of chance: "The selection chapters form a sort of mosaic, with the cryptic significance of juxtaposition, like objects abandoned in a hotel drawer, a form of still life" (October 21, 1955). Two years later, he wrote: "I am beginning to see now where I have been going all along. It's beginning to look like a modern Inferno." The Inferno, he might have added, "c'est moi".
Here and there, some harsh light is cast on the romance of the Beats. For all his way-out behavior, Burroughs often exhibits a sympathetic conventionality. At the beginning of 1949, he wrote in a tone of annoyance to Ginsberg of a journey being planned by Cassady and Kerouac:
Neal is, of course, the very soul of this voyage into pure, abstract, meaningless motion. He is The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another. Wife and child may starve, friends exist only to exploit for gas money…. Neal must move.
So much for On the Road. Two years later, he is no more tolerant:
I can not understand Neal's passion for travel—especially under the disagreeable conditions you run into in the States. What does he do to eat?
As for Kerouac, "To be blunt, I have never had a more inconsiderate and selfish guest under my roof." By the end of the decade, Kerouac's crude opinions and dependency on his mother had marginalized him from Burroughs's field of vision: "If he is content to be treated like a child and let his mother open his mail and tell him who to see and correspond with, he is a lost cause."
Burroughs's expensive drug habit was financed by a private income, regulated by his parents, who, exasperated though they were, subsidized his repeated attempts to find a "cure". They were also, of course, subsidizing his addiction, and the composition of Naked Lunch. It's interesting to discover how often, and from what an early stage, Burroughs tried to kick the habit. The second letter in the volume (September 1, 1946) contains the sentence, "I have given up junk entirely and don't miss it at all." The refrain is then repeated throughout, sometimes backed up by one of the medical theories or systems for which he had great fondness. Like any quack, he was never discouraged by their exposure. He was convinced he had discovered cures for schizophrenia and cancer, involving narcotics and the withdrawal process, and circulated them to medical practitioners. In 1956, he was introduced to Dr. John Yerbury Dent of London, who succeeded in freeing him from his addiction by means of apomorphine treatment, though not at the first attempt.
When this volume comes to a close, Burroughs is in Paris, working out new ways of assaulting language, in this case actually involving sharp implements. With the aid of Brion Gysin, whom he had met in Tangier and who was starting to replace Ginsberg as his number one receptor, Burroughs developed the cut-up technique, which he used in his next three books, The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, and Nova Express. The cut-ups, which were to occupy him for the next decade, and for which he was to make grand psychic claims, mostly read like a waste of time now in a writer who could show language such care and consideration. But Burroughs is one of those artists whom the reader has to swallow whole, lean, fat and offal together in a mad new recipe, or probably not at all. What this collection displays, above all, is the integrity of his experimentation; it's plain, as he reels off the routines, that he has faint hope of seeing the results in print. When Ginsberg suggested putting the material into a shape which would give it linear continuity, Burroughs replied that he regarded "any attempt at chronological arrangement extremely ill-advised". This was in September 1957, after his manuscript had been rejected by the Olympia Press, which Burroughs had held as his only hope. (They took it at second submission.)
To read these letters is to be, in a Burroughsian phrase, in possession of the facts. It is like reading Burroughs in the original, of which the published texts seem like translations. Oliver Harris's editing is in general exemplary, though he reproduces the error—first propagated by Maurice Girodias, Burroughs's roguish publisher—that Graham Greene mounted his defence of Lolita in 1956 in the TLS (it was in the Sunday Times). I look forward to a second instalment, which will tell the story of the 1960s in Burroughs's own words—published complete with a pair of scissors.
Robert Cohen (review date 15 January 1995)
SOURCE: "Dispatches from the Interzone," in The New York Times Book Review, January 15, 1995, pp. 9, 11.
[In the following review, Cohen detects an "autumnal, elegiac" tone in the imagery of My Education.]
William S. Burroughs is now 80. Is this a shock? Certainly his skeletal, impassive, thin-lipped mask of a face—sort of a cerebralized Buster Keaton—has always looked old. At the same time Mr. Burroughs's iconic stature among the young, for whom he is arguably the most influential American prose writer of the last 40 years, remains undiminished. The heavy metal traces of his singular vocabulary can be seen glowing darkly at the edges of our cultural landscape: In Thomas Pynchon, Hunter S. Thompson, J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick and countless other writers; in avant-garde music, painting and film; and in all the successive new waves of Beats, hippies and punks (what Newt Gingrich—a Burroughsian construct if ever there was one—likes to call the counterculture) who have made withdrawals from his well-endowed image bank.
And yet at the end of the day, after the lights have gone off and the noisy admirers have departed, there is simply what there was in the beginning: a man alone at his desk, spinning dreams into words and words into dreams. "Survival is the name of the game." Mr. Burroughs writes in My Education: A Book of Dreams. "It's all a film run backward."
Readers of Mr. Burroughs's previous novel, The Western Lands (1987), may recall a certain last-testament quality in the final passage—the old writer signing off, perhaps for good, with a line appropriated from another literary St. Louisan: "Hurry up, please. It's time."
Yet each new book in the Burroughs oeuvre overlaps with the last. His ongoing project—a kind of multidimensional map of his own mythology—refuses to complete itself. How can it, you find yourself wondering, while he's still alive? And yet small changes can be registered. Dream fragments and direct autobiography, present in the novels since the beginning, have been infiltrating Mr. Burroughs's late work more and more; now they appear to have won the day. These pages reveal how thin the membrane is that separates the writer's fictional conceits from the life he has lived, asleep and awake (we can see the flow in both directions) and how this flow is itself perhaps Mr. Burroughs's real subject. The loose, seemingly casual form of a dream journal is ideal for such purposes; here he can eschew fictional routines altogether, offering instead a whirlwind valedictory tour—hurry up, please—of his own unconscious.
For those who have traveled this territory before, certain features are reliably prominent. Dreams, guns, sea disasters, fringe science, conspiratorial struggles for control—the familiar obsessions are still around. One of this book's more touching suggestions is that everything is still around: the things we've seen, the places we've lived, the lovers we've had, the friends we've lost, the books we've written. All exist in a kind of eternal Interzone, in which the line between the dead and the living is as indistinguishable as that between dream and waking, autobiography and fiction, past and present. "There is no line between the dream world and the actual world," Mr. Burroughs has said. "Of course if you get to the point where you find it difficult to cross the road then you should see a doctor."
This brand of satiric duality—Kafka on the one hand, W. C. Fields on the other—is a Burroughs trademark, a shrewd small-town sheriff's approach to abstraction, one that allows him to observe without judgment or interpretation. "The danger," he writes, "is to walk through life without seeing anything."
Indeed, one of the pleasures of this book, as the title suggests, is its depiction of an artist's endless self-education, the various processes—"cut-ups," most famously, in which fragments of text from wildly disparate sources are juxtaposed on a single page—by which Mr. Burroughs has trained his perceptions to yield fresh and often startling observations. As far back as 1959, with Naked Lunch, he claimed to be "a recording instrument … not an entertainer." In truth, he is both. His gaze is dry, laconic, corrosive, at once playfully inventive and coolly subversive: there has always been something of the carny in him, and more than a little Tod Browning—as in this droll digression, apropos of nothing: "And here, you young lions, is a recipe for making botulism, used with conspicuous success by Pancho Villa against the Federal troops in Mexico." Or: "It always makes me nervous to see a cat on a ledge…. Suppose a bird flew by?"
It must be said that this method of inclusive neutrality has its cost. There is nothing to be found here, for example in the way of story. "Plot," "character development," "continuity," "context," "exposition"—none of what we like to think of as the novel's featured players so much as put in a cameo appearance. Readers unfamiliar with Mr. Burroughs's work and life will find a maze of involuted references that go unexplained, and will quickly resort to skimming.
But even skimming has its rewards—particularly in a mulligan stew like this, studded with dreams, memories, apocalyptic reflections, digs at old friends and critics, and meditations on art and science. "The fragile lifeboat between this and that," Mr. Burroughs writes, rather tenderly, of his own craft. "Your words are the sails." Some entries are as brief and instructive as Zen koans: "The answer to any question will be revealed when you stop asking questions and wipe from your mind the concept of question." Some are vivid but glancing: "I have what I suspect to be a live cockroach stuck in my ear." And some remain, for this reader anyway, stubbornly opaque, the unconscious flexing its muscles in an empty gym.
"For years I wondered why dreams are so often so dull when related," Mr. Burroughs tells us early on, anticipating such a problem. "No context … like a stuffed animal on the floor of a bank."
Fair warning some of the dreams that follow are dull. A considerable number concern "the unsuccessful attempt to obtain breakfast or any other kind of food for that matter, except very occasionally some utterly unpalatable dish." This unsatiated quest becomes a kind of running joke—a portrait of the hunger artist, that rudely ignored customer at life's bad restaurant—until, like so much else in this slippery and provocative little book, it becomes by the end oddly moving. "An old man's hunger," Mr. Burroughs writes, with no trace of his usual irony, "is precious."
Though his book has more than its share of lively, often hilarious bits, the prevailing tone is autumnal, elegiac. This is truly a place of dead roads. Many of the settings—Kansas (where Mr. Burroughs now lives), Tangier, Paris, New York, St. Louis—have a vacant, Edward Hopperish feel, ghost towns full of "empty houses, leaves blowing and drifting like shreds of time." Even the occasional bout of dreamed sex is a halfhearted, somewhat vestigial affair ("We sort of make it," runs a typical entry); it fails to console. Nothing offered here is free of doubt or self-subversion.
At its heart, My Education is an intensely personal book, so much so that it leaves the usual forms of personality behind. It depicts a life seen almost from beyond itself, through a dense field of shifting, associational patterns, but behind it there is a naked weight of loss and regret. Since accidentally shooting his wife in 1951 in a notorious drunken game of William Tell, Mr. Burroughs has been struggling with what he calls "the Other Half Boy," his own "Ugly Spirit." The deeper the plunge into the unconscious, the larger its shadows. Thus the book as it unfolds takes on a painful gravity. Mr. Burroughs writes with uncharacteristic directness about the past, the "cold hate" he showed his father, his detachment in the face of his mother's death. The final image is of his mother in a packing crate, frozen.
From a man who once claimed that "anything in the past as far as I'm concerned is of no importance," such passages come as a shock. But then age can do funny things. At the end, we are left with the writer as a diminished Prospero, under overhead lights that "sputtered out like an old joke," pleading for a chance to complete his education and wondering if it's still possible to "get it all straight."
Benjamin Weissman (review date 18 June 1995)
SOURCE: "Dream Control," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, p. 15.
[In the following review, Weissman assesses the dream-like aspects of My Education.]
William Burroughs has the greatest speaking voice I've ever heard in my life. A gravelly deadpan, direct from the chest cavity. Think of a goat with a large vocabulary. Burroughs was and is the wild alternative to his spiritual, stream-of-confessional beat brothers of the 1950s and '60s. With the publication of Junky and Naked Lunch, he locked himself and his readers into a blasted, playful zone, a sort of Jonathan Swift-meets-Marquis de Sade "humanoidspeak." The voice of Burroughs' prose is a profound and prophetic dementia that continually blows people away, and like all great writing it disturbed a lot of people (got banned, of course; this is America), including his immediate fans who had a gut need for disturbance. A surreal maelstrom of sex, violence and drugs all swirled together in a levelheaded cowboy vernacular—an American viewpoint as fresh and unpredictable as a can of gray (his favorite color) paint poured over your head. His sense of humor was another thing that threw people off. Writers usually aren't funny about those dire sorts of things, and Burroughs' writing seemed a little like prose from the devil. He was very weird in the most exciting ways, articulated the queerest levels of behavior and narration, and became his own American avant-garde (a position he held/holds all by his little lonesome).
At 81 years old he's very much alive but it seems more natural to talk about him in the past tense; maybe because that's where his great books and contributions reside. All the greats who were affected by Burroughs have also, politely, left him behind. What else can you do with a hero but say thanks, kick him in the pants and leave? Think about writers such as Denis Johnson, William Gibson, Jeanette Winterson and Stephen Wright (the list is long and there are more obvious, regularly cited, examples), or underground comics, or rock bands from the Sex Pistols to Sonic Youth. Most of these fiery things came out of the flaming pit of Burroughs. History seems to be muttering that his influence on fiction and pop culture is much more significant than the gargantuan monoliths of the same period (John Barth, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer), or the minimalists (Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley).
My Education is subtitled A Book of Dreams, which it is, in part. It's also a notebook of story sketches and odd little prose chunks. Every Burroughs novel reeks of dreams; the imagery, the illogic, the unexplainable, the violent. My Education has moments of being a fragmented memoir with highly distorted sequences. He writes about Joan, his wife, whom he shot and killed accidentally in 1951 during a game of William Tell, trying to shoot an apple off her head—but he writes of her only as she appears in dreams of no particular consequence. It may be a subject too painful and tricky to handle any other way, and it's information that a Burroughs reader craves, especially a version of the story straight from the shooter's mouth. Burroughs explains at the book's beginning that he dreams during sleep and also has waking dreams that are more real than real life or more like dreams than dreams, and that he also experiences a third type of dreaming. This sets the table for the many non-dream entries, general notations on things such as therapy, gun enthusiasts or on being a writer (the world's most natural type of freak).
In the end, the book's strongest feature is Burroughs' language. His blunt, grumpy vocabulary. It's hugely satisfying to read something approaching nonfiction from Burroughs simply because it's good to know what he thinks, curious to see what his language is like with his fictional guard down. He is very straightforward. Here is a recipe for making botulism, "used with conspicuous success by Pancho Villa" against federal troops in Mexico:
Fill a water canteen to the top with freshly cooked and drained green beans. Close it and put aside for several days. A few slivers of rotting pork are then added, and the canteen sealed tightly. Ten incubators are buried underground. After seven days most will be swollen, indicating a thriving botulism culture.
Can be smeared on any fruit, meats, or vegetables, dabbed on thornbushes and fragments of glass. Guerrilla children sniped sentries with pottery shards or with obsidian chips dipped in botulism. A little ingenuity. There are many ways and it takes such a little to do the Big Job. A woman opened a can of home-canned beans. Put one bean in her mouth, spit it out and washed her mouth out with mouthwash. She died three days later from botulism poisoning.
And there are wonderfully cryptic moments, like this one, that occur regularly:
All abilities are paid for with disabilities. Perfect health may entail the heavy toll of bovine stupidity. Insight in one area involves blind spots in another. I could not have done what I have done as a writer had I been a gifted mathematician or physicist.
Honesty wrung out of him by pain, he cried out with a loud voice.
What haunts Burroughs in dreamland is an amusing parallel cartoon version of what obsesses him during waking, working hours. (His favorite thing on earth might be cats.) It's not too surprising that the dreams of William Burroughs would be filled with paranoia, but a small disappointment flares up over how undetailed his dreams are. It's far from a rigorous documentation. In most cases the dreams are vaguely remembered, void of nuance and of the pleasure of kicking around oddities one expects from Burroughs' fiction. On the other hand, the general tone, which lacks specificity and detail, has the appealing feel of folk tales, and reeks of whacked-out lessons and upside-down morality tales.
Four pages from the end of the book there is a black-and-white photograph of a sweet, curly-haired boy with big ears. Under the picture a caption reads "Michael Emerton [to whom the book is dedicated] August 1985, aged nineteen." Preceding that page is an entry about crashing a car followed by a classified ad taken in a Kansas newspaper expressing thanks to two motorists who helped the victims out of their car. Followed by an entry stating that Emerton shot himself seven weeks later. Burroughs writes: "An experience most deeply felt is the most difficult to convey in words. Remembering brings the emptiness, the acutely painful awareness of irreparable loss." And then a paragraph about losing his cat Ruski and how empty that made him feel.
Passages like these, about real people and events, bring up some revealing aspects of his personality. A familiar detachment keeps the reader at arm's distance. Burroughs is unwilling to go where things are emotionally dangerous. He's not going to go in. His dreams reveal aspects of his psyche, but in the telling he will not let anything get out of control. Family and loss are slippery. Even with sex he's extremely modest (his term for it is "making it"). There's rarely a genital in view, a smell of any kind. Those wild things are off-limits, avoided. He won't take us there. And that's a huge shame, because it's the humbling humiliation of dreams that makes being on earth exhilarating and horrible—just what a Burroughs reader has learned to love.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 186
Mannes-Abbott, Guy. "The Beats Go On." New Statesman & Society (27 October 1995): 47-8.
Reviews My Education, suggesting that Burroughs's "carefully forged work will prove the accompaniment to [T. S.] Eliot's evocation of our century's waste lands."
Vickers, Scott. "Summer Reading." The Bloomsbury Review (May-June 1994): 7.
Details the insights on Burroughs's life and writings provided by The Letters of William S. Burroughs and William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible.
White, Edmund. "This Is Not a Mammal: A Visit with William Burroughs." In The Burning Library, edited by David Bergman, pp. 107-14. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Recounts a visit to Burroughs's residence shortly after reading Cities of the Red Night, commenting on its themes and relation to other works.
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