William S. Burroughs Burroughs, William S(eward) (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Burroughs, William S(eward) 1914–

Burroughs is an American novelist best known for Naked Lunch, which was based in large part on the author's years as a drug addict and which became the center of a storm of controversy upon publication. Burroughs's fiction is characterized by such experimental techniques as "folding-in" or "cutting-up" in which his own writing or the works of other authors are reorganized so that words and events occur in random sequence, achieving a hallucinatory, surreal effect. He influenced beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and has collaborated with Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, Gregory Corso, and Sinclair Beiles. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

John Vernon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The world of William S. Burroughs is not a world of fantasy; it is real, it is "reality." But "reality" is defined by Western culture; it is insane, schizophrenic, and more fantastic than fantasy could ever be…. It is a reality in which the environment is objective and mechanical, and it is a reality whose machinery has come to life, like the kitchen gadgets that assault the housewife in Naked Lunch….

This is schizophrenia; objects are self-activating and living beings are inert. On a wider scale, this schizophrenia is manifest in the absolute polarization of the mechanical and the organic in Burroughs. Burroughs' vision is one in which the world has flown into two opposing principles, a labyrinthine, external, mechanical structure and a reified "organic" content. I use the word "content" in the same sense as it is used by McLuhan, who rightly sees Burroughs' origins in the Industrial Age, when "Nature" became a vessel of aesthetic and spiritual values, that is, a content. The underlying roots of this condition lie in the schizophrenic structures of thought in the West, which can only comprehend "Nature" by siphoning it off into a pure, separate space…. [For Burroughs] the "natural" and "organic" are always shaped by the repressive nature of the "mechanical," so that their manifestations are always stained by violence and evil. The most common image of the "mechanical" and "external" in Burroughs is the City, "a labyrinth of lockers, tier on tier of wire mesh and steel cubicles joined by catwalks and ladders and moving cable cars." Maps, bureaucracies, I.B.M. punch cards, and machines are also common images of this principle, as is the recurring notion of the real world as a movie film. The most common image of the other polarity, of organic content, is protoplasm, the blob, jelly…. At times this organic content is given the traditional name of "Garden," for example, the Garden of Delights (G.O.D.), or the Amusement Gardens, both pure areas into which "Nature" as a reified entity has been channeled by the structures of the "real" world…. (p. 107)

Structurally, the mechanical and the organic in Burroughs are exact opposites. A machine is comprised of discrete movable parts, each confined to its location, in no other location, and each related according to its border areas to other parts. All of these parts are brought together one by one to perform an action, the coordination of which is not a "synthesis," but rather a reified object itself, with its own space: a circuit, a map, or in an extended sense, a program, or punch card. The "organic," on the other hand, reverses the tendency of the machine to unfold and separate into isolated, discrete spaces. As in the Amusement Gardens, objects structured as organic content merge with each other, they become a diabolical parody of the romantic "All" and of the fluid life of the original garden. Of course, mergence in this sense approaches the same condition as the mechanical, that of isolation and confinement. This is seen most clearly in the plan of the Liquefactionists in Naked Lunch. They propose that everyone merge by protoplasmic absorption into one person—who would then, of course, be totally alone, as confined in his space as any discrete mechanical part in its space. Thus, although the mechanical and organic in Burroughs are exact opposites, there is an underlying sameness to them, a kind of inert, imprisoned objectivity; this is why the mechanical and organic are themselves often merged, for example in the recurring image of "metal excrement."

Again, all of this is schizophrenia. It is a making explicit of the schizophrenic nature of "reality" in our culture by a man diagnosed as schizophrenic …, in ways that are appropriately schizophrenic, that is, hallucinatory. Burroughs' world is structured upon either-or polarities—the organic and the mechanical, consciousness and the body, the self and the Other. This is most apparent in the image of the body in his novels. The body is variously seen as a machine …, and as a soft, amorphous mass, transparent, wet, penetrable, and finally as a combination of the two, a "soft machine." As a "soft machine," the body's shape, skin, or surface is the external, mechanical principle which contains its soft, amorphous content (a view which derives ultimately from the reification of shape and form as properties of objects in Aristotelian thought). Thus, bodies are "boneless mummies," and people wear uniforms of human skin, their own skin, which they can discard for the purpose of merging their soft skinless "content" with someone else's. This combination of a kind of dismemberment and merging is seen most explicitly in an incident that occurs repeatedly in the two later novels, Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded: the merging of two homosexuals by means of the dismemberment and flaying of their "external" bodies in a film. (pp. 108-09)

The camera metaphor of human perception … becomes literal in Burroughs, and the object-world exists as an "image," that is, it is something we face, something we see or have, not something we are. Thus, the dismemberment that is virtual, for example, in Fielding's mechanical descriptions of the actions of the body in objective space, becomes actual in Burroughs, in a space that is itself an object, a movie screen.

This dismemberment in space in Burroughs is pushed to the extreme condition of a total atomization of all things. Burroughs' world is the Newtonian world of discrete objects and entities existing in objective space, confined to their own locations, and it is this world carried to such an extreme that space explodes, and each object wraps its own space around itself. Or more accurately, space is polarized into the totally frozen map-space of administration on the one hand (maps, punch cards, bureaucracies), and the atomistic space of objects overflowing their administration on the other…. On the one hand there is immobility and catatonia, a condition made possible … by the diffusion of space into...

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GéRard Cordesse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


In the main Burroughs is faithful to [the theme he expressed in both The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express]: a coalition of three life-forms infiltrated Earth three thousand years ago, after ruining another planet. Their strategy is to take advantage of human weaknesses and conflicts, exacerbate them and feed on the energy thus released. The soft spots manipulated by these alien agents disguised as human beings (the nova mob), are sex, drugs and power; in this we see Burroughs' obsessions take shape. The Venus Vegetable People crave sex energies, the Uranian Heavy Metal People drugs, and the Minraud Insect People control….

[The three-fold plot is] nowhere to be found in straightforward linear form. The reader must piece [the story lines] together from flashes, obsessive phrases, and incomplete scenes, struggling through disjointed chronology and abrupt changes of narrators, or cryptic cut-ups. The difficulty and sophistication of the narrative technique stands thus in striking contrast to the naiveté of the popular science-fiction outline. Although Burroughs enjoys toying with the science-fiction panoply (space and time travel, immortality, telepathy and mindscreens) he spurns the suspense and adventure element … or he depends on the connotations of these magical words to conjure up the illusion of roaring action. He is more attracted to the oneiric poetry of imaginary worlds…. (p. 34)

The use of science-fiction becomes … passionate when it features Burroughs' perennial themes: addiction, the enslavement of man, resistance, liberation…. [The] distance between fiction and reality varies with passion. Burroughs, for instance, defeated his addiction to hard drugs thanks to an apomorphine cure, so in Nova Express apomorphine is a key weapon…. While the science-fiction rhetoric hides the earnestness of the declaration, the fictional mask is sometimes all-too transparent…. Even the science-fiction conventions cannot hide the deeply personal character of Burroughs' fiction, but is the science-fiction element, which dominates The Ticket That Exploded (1961), Nova Express (1964) and The Wild Boys (1971), simply a façade stuck on the original vision of Naked Lunch (1959) and The Soft Machine (1960)?

In The Soft Machine, allusions to the science-fiction theme that will only be complete in The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express keep floating up enigmatically…. These strange echoes, reverberating back from Burroughs' later work reveal his non-linear, illogical composition, in which time seems to play no part, as if the reader's glance could encompass the whole of his production spread out like a landscape. As a matter of fact, The Soft Machine can only be read after the later novels, which illuminate so many tantalizing clues.

The bulk of the book is devoted to successive variations on a lost Mayan civilization, a theme seemingly unrelated to science-fiction. The hero reaches the Mayan world through various techniques; some belong to fantastic literature (magic, drugs, body exchange), others lie in the province of science-fiction: surgery to build a composite body, time travel through fold-in techniques. The civilization described is not unfamiliar,… [for it has] all the features of the wider science-fiction world…. (pp. 35-7)

Burroughs' Mayan theme is … on the border between fantastic literature and modern science-fiction:...

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William L. Stull

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Burroughs] noted that there is an important difference between Naked Lunch and the books that follow …: his adaptation of the cut-up method of Brion Gysin. The Soft Machine develops out of the quest in the early novels, but the question that boldly opens the "Atrophied Preface" at the end of Naked Lunch is perhaps more important than the complex answers to it in the later works. "Wouldn't You?" triggers an elaborate program of anarchic individualism aimed at revitalizing the junk universe. As in the medieval romances, almost immediately after the hero asks the magical question the waters of life begin to flow.

Along with the myth, however, goes a cosmology, "a vision of the...

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Harold Beaver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The aim [of The Third Mind, a collaborative effort of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin,] is to expand consciousness, to tap the coded messages beyond literary earshot, to retrace the secret of Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs, to reach the silence beyond words in soundless, universal images and patterns "at the extreme limit of readability". Everything, from Dunne's Experiment with Time to Derrida's Las dissemination, is grist to this neo-romantic mill…. Like earlier romantics, Burroughs and Gysin also claim linguistics for their programme. For this is to be a collaborative deconstruction of the verbal prison-house, not by a sunburst of Blakean vision, but by a kind of science of Dadaism. Though "scientology" seems a more appropriate term….

Ah Pook Is Here follows close on the heels of The Third Mind, as a kind of companion volume which puts the doctrines into action. Yet it seems much the same mix as before: less junk, more sex, with the masturbatory images as often visual as verbal. At first sight it looks as if The Plumed Serpent had been shredded with Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. On closer inspection it seems to owe more to Charles Olson's Mayan Letters. (One hopes Burroughs is better informed about Maya corn gods than he is about Moby-Dick.) This Mayan farrago, in fact, turns out to be the ultimate Western, a comical strip-tease of the capitalist and technological Far West.

Burroughs picks up where the Yippies, some ten years ago, left off: political sabotage, by scrambled electronic cutups, swamping the mass media with total illusion. Like a latter-day Whitman, he extends his democratic revolution from literature to politics.

Harold Beaver, "Dismantling the System," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4005, December 21, 1979, p. 150.