Janet Maslin article from The New York Times, Dec. 27, 1991 about the David Cronenberg adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ famous novel. It wasn’t a literal adaptation of the book, as it only used parts of it. I saw this movie at the time and it was definitely strange…
Drifting In and Out of a Kafkaesque Reality
Naked Lunch, adapted by the dauntless David Cronenberg from William S. Burroughs’ 1959 landmark novel, represents a remarkable meeting of the minds. It’s hard to imagine another filmmaker who could delve so deeply into the monstrousness of Mr. Burroughs’ vision, in the end coming up with a bona fide monster movie of his own. Yet while Mr. Cronenberg’s ingenious approach to his material matches Mr. Burroughs’ flair for the grotesque, it also shares the author’s perfect nonchalance and his ice-cold wit. Seldom has a filmmaker offered his audience a more debonair invitation to go to hell.
The director of The Fly, Dead Ringers and Scanners will not disappoint viewers who appreciate his devilish ingenuity. Instead of attempting the impossible task of adapting Naked Lunch literally, Mr. Cronenberg has treated the disjointed, hallucinatory book as a secondary source. Concentrating instead on Mr. Burroughs himself, the drug experience that colors his writing and the agonies of the creative process, Mr. Cronenberg also devises purely metaphorical versions of the author’s wild and violent sexual scenarios. The result, by turns bracing, brilliant, and vile, is a screen style as audacious as Mr. Burroughs’ is on the page.
Naked Lunch makes an instantaneous break with conventional reality in its opening moments and never looks back. Centering on the adventures of Bill Lee, played by Peter Weller as a droll, deadpan evocation of the author (Lee was the maiden name of Mr. Burroughs’ mother, and William Lee his pseudonym), the film begins with smallish bugs. Then it moves on to ever more huge, horrible, and intelligent ones. Bill works in New York City as an exterminator and sees even that as a metaphor. “Exterminate all rational thought: that is the conclusion I have come to,” he says.
In addition to viewing his job in philosophical terms, Bill has also used it as an excuse to ingest narcotic bug powder, to which both he and his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), have become addicted. Ms. Davis, who is wonderfully dry and unflappable in two different bizarre incarnations, at first turns up barely long enough to inject bug powder intravenously and conduct a lazy affair with one of Bill’s friends. “Hank and I, we’re just bored,” she tells Bill. “It wasn’t serious.”
This is enough to raise Bill’s suspicions that Joan is a secret agent for an enemy spy ring, especially after a large talking beetle befriends Bill and drops that hint. Joan must be eliminated, the beetle insists, speaking from an orifice that recalls Mr. Burroughs taste for the playfully obscene and talking in the lively, Burroughs-like idiom of Mr. Cronenberg’s inventive screenplay. “It must be done this week,” the insect says, “and it must be done real tasty.”
So Bill and Joan perform their “William Tell act,” just as Mr. Burroughs and his wife, Joan Vollmer Burroughs, did on one drunken evening in Mexico City in 1951. As Bill shoots and kills Joan, the film makes one of its many allusions to the real events of Mr. Burroughs’ life. Soon afterward, he either physically or psychically flees New York for Interzone, a Tangier-like exotic setting in which the film’s nightmarishness escalates to new levels (although Naked Lunch is so thoroughly hallucinatory that it’s difficult to know exactly where its characters are, literally or figuratively). In Interzone, the suffering gets worse and the bugs get bigger as Bill attempts to write what will be Naked Lunch, the novel.
Onscreen Naked Lunch recalls both The Sheltering Sky and Barton Fink in its respective evocations of the life of the literary exile and the torment of trying to write. Mr. Cronenberg’s hideously clever contribution in the latter realm is the insect-cum-typewriter that supposedly assists Bill in his efforts but clearly has a mind of its own. Both the writing bug and the Mugwump, a man-sized and rather soigné strain of monster, are capable of registering their approval by oozing viscous, intoxicating substances from various parts of their anatomies. “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine,” Bill is told upon encountering his first cigarette-smoking Mugwump on a bar stool in Interzone. “He specializes in sexual ambivalence.”
These elements, plus a lot of attention to the addictive powers of the black meat of the giant Brazilian centipede, insure that Mr. Cronenberg’s version of Naked Lunch is no more suitable to the fainthearted than Mr. Burroughs’ was. And the film, while very different from the book, is every bit as impenetrable in its own way. By the time it reaches a repellent fever pitch, with one character literally tearing its body open to reveal someone of a different sex inside (a simple yet extravagantly weird evocation of the author’s thoughts on sexual identity), Naked Lunch has become too stomach-turning and gone too far over the top to regain its initial aplomb. Yet for the most part this is a coolly riveting film and even a darkly entertaining one, at least for audiences with steel nerves, a predisposition toward Mr. Burroughs, and a willingness to meet Mr. Cronenberg halfway.
The gaunt, unsmiling Mr. Weller looks exactly right and brings a perfect offhandedness to his disarming dialogue. (“You’re patronizing me, boys, but I don’t mind ’cause you’re so sweet to me too,” he tells the film’s Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg stand-ins.) And Ms. Davis is chillingly good as both Joan Lee and Joan Frost, a writer Bill meets with her husband in Interzone; between this and her work as the helpmate of the William Faulkner character in Barton Fink, Ms. Davis surely qualifies as the tortured writer’s Muse of the Year. Also roaming through Naked Lunch are Roy Scheider as the demented Dr. Benway, an odd fixture of the pharmacological strain in Mr. Burroughs’ writing; Ian Holm as a fellow writer with a grasp of the typewriter-bug’s habits, and Julian Sands as a debauched Interzone playboy.
“Stay until you finish the book, but then come back to us,” Bill’s friends say about his sojourn in Interzone. But if the terror so slyly and sickeningly rendered in Naked Lunch is representative, it’s a miracle that artists ever survive the creative process to come home.
Beat author William S. Burroughs reviewed this book by Colin Wilson for the June 19, 1969 issue of New York underground magazine Rat. The copy editing was so sloppy they misspelled Burroughs’ name as “Borroughs.”
I am not familiar with the Wilson book itself and know nothing about it, besides this review…
“The human race is being attacked by a sort of mind cancer. Something is sucking the human mind dry and has been sucking it for the past two hundred years.” That is the shattering discovery made by Professor Gilbert Austin. Who or what is responsible? Mind parasites, malignant beings who lurk in the deepest layers of the unconscious… (in precise physiological terms this would correspond to the back brain or hypothalamus) …sapping the very life force of mankind, cutting him off from his natural capacity for self renewal… It was all so unsettling that I broke the habit of a lifetime and drank a bottle of champagne at lunch time.
There is considerable inferential evidence to indicate the actual existence of such a parasitic instance as this book postulates. An Italian sociologist said if you want to get to the bottom of any situation that seems on the surface inexplicable ask yourself the simple question ‘who profits?’ Who would profit from blocking every basic discovery about the human mind? Techniques are now available to alter consciousness and effect the hypothalamus directly. In a recent Mayfair article I described the experiments of doctor Miller who has demonstrated that any mammal can learn to control such seemingly involuntary processes as brain waves, blood pressure, rate of heart beats, his whole state of mind and body. Doctor Miller had great difficulty in raising funds for his experiments. The importance of these experiments was completely missed by the press. The means are at hand to conquer inner space but they are not being used. Despite impressive technical advances the planet is still in the stone age psychologically. Who would profit from turning the clock all the way back to the stone age and keeping man out of space? A parasitic entity that lives in the human body and could not survive space. Only in the last two hundred years have technological advances made space exploration a possibility. By maintaining control of inner space the parasites can block any discovery or destroy anyone who suspects their existence. It is in fact unexplained suicides among scientists investigating inner space that leads to the discovery of the parasites by the narrator Professor Gilbert Austin. Once the presence of the parasites is inferred the means to combat them is obvious. They must be combated by the brain itself pushed up to and beyond its limits so that men can read each other’s thoughts, control their own thoughts and feelings. So they join battle with the parasites on equal terms. These are precisely the measures I have advocated in the Academy Series, measures that must be applied whether we believe in mind parasites or not if man is to expand his horizons and survive in the space age. There is no turning back to the false security of dogmatic creeds. To travel in space you must learn to leave the old verbal garbage behind: God talk, priest talk, mother talk, family talk, love talk, country talk, party talk. You must learn to exist with no religion, no country, no allies. You must learn to see what is in front of you with no preconceptions.
In Mr. Wilson’s narrative it is a space voyage that finally defeats the parasites. They cannot survive in space. As the space craft travels further and further from the earth the parasites, still lurking in the crew, are in a panic. “Now they felt their psychic links with the earth stretching and growing weaker and they were frightened. We now understood the nature of ’space fever’ that had so far frustrated all men’s efforts to penetrate further into space.” Known, watched, the parasites became desperate. They now reveal themselves as creatures of a low intelligence floundering about like a beached squid. “It happened on the fourteenth day… Something infinitely evil and slimy was pushing its way from inside me. I realized I had been wrong to think of the parasites as separate beings. They were one, they were IT, an immense jelly like octopus whose tentacles are separate from its body and can move about like individuals.” (And this being is none other than the ancient slug Abhoth the Dark also known as Abhoth the Unclean)… “Now this infinitely vile thing was coming out of its lair and I could feel its hatred of me, a hatred so powerful and maniacal that it almost needs a new word. Then the inexpressible relief of knowing that it was gone…”
What has made this planet such a soft touch for Abhoth?… The greatest human limitation is that we are all tied to the present by an arbitrary identity, personal and national. What is identity? The identity of a shark is its teeth, its size, its ability to eat and digest almost anything. An oyster’s identity is its protective shell. Identity then is the means by which an organism protects and maintains itself in a hostile environment and all environments that contain such identities are hostile. And what is the identity of Abhoth the Dark? Its ability to remain hidden and carry on a parasitic existence that is hostile to its host by parasitic necessity. So we are all playing Abhoth’s game. And by setting one identity against another Abhoth maintains himself indefinitely.
Isolation from such an environment is the first step in the unexplored territory of inner space… As man loses touch with his inner being he finds himself trapped in the world of consciousness that is to say the world of other people. “Man is a political animal” said Aristotle telling one of the greatest lies in human history. For every man has more in common with the hills and with the stars than with other men. Other men do not supply our values. Other men do not matter in the way we have believed. Man is not alone. You could be the last man in the universe and you would not be alone.
William S. Burroughs
This excerpt from WSB’s 1964 “cut-up” novel Nova Express, which was published on Nov. 9, 1964 by Grove Press…
They do not have what they call “emotion’s oxygen” in the atmosphere. The medium in which animal life breathes is not in that soulless place — Yellow plains under white hot blue sky — Metal cities controlled by The Elders who are heads in bottles — Fastest brains preserved forever — Only form of immortality open to the Insect People of Minraud — An intricate bureaucracy wired to the control brains directs all movement — Even so there is a devious underground operating through telepathic misdirection and camouflage — The partisans make recordings ahead in time and leave the recordings to be picked up by control stations while they are free for a few seconds to organize underground activities — Largely the underground is made up of adventurers who intend to outthink and displace the present heads — There has been one revolution in the history of Minraud — Purges are constant — Fallen heads destroyed in The Ovens and replaced with others faster and sharper to evolve more total weapons — The principal weapon of Minraud is of course heat — In the centre of all their cities stand The Ovens where those who disobey the control brains are brought for total disposal — A conical structure of iridescent metal shimmering heat from the molten core of a planet where lead melts at noon — The Brass And Copper Streets surround The Oven — Here the tinkers and smiths work pounding out metal rhythms as prisoners and criminals are led to Disposals — The Oven Guards are red crustacean men with eyes like the white hot sky — Through contact with oven pain and captured enemies they sometimes mutate to breathe in emotions — They often help prisoners to escape and a few have escaped with the prisoners –
(When K9 entered the apartment he felt the suffocation of Minraud crushing his chest stopping his thoughts — He turned on reserve ate dinner and carried conversation — When he left the host walked out with him down the streets of Minraud past the ovens empty and cold now — calm dry mind of the guide beside him came to the corner of 14th and Third –
“I must go now,” said the guide — “Otherwise it will be too far to go alone.”
He smiled and held out his hand fading in the alien air — )
K9 was brought to the ovens by red guards in white and gold robe of office through the Brass and Copper Street under pounding metal hammers — The oven heat drying up life source as white hot metal lattice closed around him –
“Second exposure — Time three point five,” said the guard –
K9 walked out into The Brass and Copper Streets — A slum area of vending booths and smouldering slag heaps crossed by paths worn deep in phosphorescent metal — In a square littered with black bones he encountered a group of five scorpion men — Faces of transparent pink cartilage burning inside — stinger dripping the oven poison — Their eyes flared with electric hate and they slithered forward to surround him but drew back at sight of the guard –
They walked on into an area of tattoo booths and sex parlors — A music like wind through fine metal wires bringing a measure of relief from the terrible dry heat — Black beetle musicians saw this music out of the air swept by continual hot winds from plains that surrounded the city — The plains are dotted with villages of conical paper-thin metal houses where a patient gentle crab people live unmolested in the hottest regions of the planet –
Controller of the Crab Nebula on a slag heap of smouldering metal under the white hot sky channels all his pain into control thinking — He is protected by heat and crab guards and the brains armed now with The Blazing Photo from Hiroshima and Nagasaki — The brains under his control are encased in a vast structure of steel and crystal spinning thought patterns that control whole galaxies thousand years ahead on the chessboard of virus screens and juxtaposition formulae –
So the Insect People of Minraud formed an alliance with the Virus Power of the Vegetable People to occupy planet earth — The gimmick is reverse photosynthesis — The Vegetable People suck up oxygen and all equivalent sustenance of animal life — Always the colorless sheets between you and what you see taste smell eat — And these green vegetable junkies slowly using up your oxygen to stay on the nod in carbon dioxide –
When K9 entered the café he felt the colorless smell of the vegetable people closing round him taste and sharpness gone from the food people blurring in slow motion fade out — And there was a whole tank full of vegetable junkies breathing it all in — He clicked some reverse combos through the pinball machine and left the café — In the street citizens were yacking like supersonic dummies — The SOS addicts had sucked up all the silence in the area were now sitting around in blue blocks of heavy metal the earth’s crust buckling ominously under the their weight — He shrugged: “Who am I to be critical?”
He knew what it meant to kick an SOS habit: White hot agony of thawing metal — And the suffocating panic of carbon dioxide withdrawal –
Virus defined as three-dimensional coordinate point of a controller — Transparent sheets with virus perforations like punch cards passed through the host on the soft machine feeling for a point of intersection — The virus attack is primarily directed against affective animal life — Virus of rage hate fear ugliness swirling round you waiting for a point of intersection and once in immediately perpetrates in your name some ugly noxious or disgusting act sharply photographed and recorded becomes now part of the virus sheets constantly presented and represented before your mind screen to produce more virus word and image around and around it’s all around you the invisible hail of bring down word and image –
What does virus do wherever it can dissolve a hole and find traction? — It starts eating — And what does it do with what it eats? — It makes exact copies of itself that start eating to make more copies that start eating to make more copies that start eating and so forth to the virus power the fear hate virus slowly replaces the host with virus copies — Program empty body — A vast tapeworm of bring down word and image moving through your mind screen always at the same speed on a slow hydraulic-spine axis like the cylinder gimmick in the adding machine — How do you make someone feel stupid? — You present to him all the times he talked and acted and felt stupid again and again any number of times fed into the combo of the soft calculating machine geared to find more and more punch cards and feed in more and more images of stupidity disgust propitiation grief apathy death — The recordings leave electromagnetic patterns — That is any situation that causes rage will magnetize rage patterns and draw around the rage word and image recording — Or some disgusting sex practice once the connection is made in childhood whenever the patterns are magnetized by sex desire the same word and image will be presented — And so forth — The counter move is very simple — This is machine strategy and the machine can be redirected — Record for ten minutes on a tape recorder — Now run the tape back without playing and cut in other words at random — Where you have cut in and re-recorded words are wiped off the tape and new words in their place — You have turned time back ten minutes and wiped electromagnetic word patterns off the tape and substituted other patterns — You can do the same with mind tape after working with the tape recorder — (This takes some experimentation) — The old mind tapes can be wiped clean — Magnetic word dust falling from old patterns — Word falling — Photo falling — “Last week Robert Kraft of the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories reported some answers to the riddle of exploding stars — Invariably he found the exploding star was locked by gravity to a nearby star — The two stars are in a strange symbiotic relationship — One is a small hot blue star — (Mr. Bradly) Its companion is a larger red star — (Mr. Martin) — Because the stellar twins are so close together the blue star continually pulls fuel in the form of hydrogen into an incandescent figure eight — One circle of the eight encloses one star — The other circle encloses the other — supplied with new fuel the blue star ignites.” — Quote, Newseek, Feb. 12, 1962 –
The Crab Nebula observed by the Chinese in 1054 A.D. is the result of a supernova or exploding star — Situated approximately three thousand light years from the earth — (Like three thousand years in hot claws at the window — You got it? -) — Before they blow up a star they have a spot picked out as many light years away as possible — Then they start draining all the fuel and charge to the new pitch and siphon themselves there right after and on their way rejoicing — You notice we don’t have as much time as people had say a hundred years ago? — Take your clothes to the laundry write a letter pick up your mail at American Express and the day is gone — They are short-timing us as many light years as they can take for the getaway — It seems that there were survivors on The Crab Pitch who are not in all respects reasonable men — And The Nova Law moving in fast — So they start the same old lark sucking all the charge and air and color to a new location and then? — Sput — You notice something is sucking all the flavor out of food the pleasure out of sex the color out of everything in sight? — Precisely creating the low pressure area that leads to nova — So they move cross the wounded galaxies always a few light years ahead of the Nova Heat — That is they did — The earth was our set — And they walked right into the antibiotic handcuffs — It will readily be seen that having created one nova they must make other or answer for the first — I mean three thousand years in hot claws at the window like a giant crab in slag heaps of smouldering metal — Also the more novas the less time between they are running out of pitches — So they bribe the natives with a promise of transportation and immortality –
“Yeah, man flesh and junk and charge stacked up bank vaults full of it — Three thousand years of flesh — So we leave the bloody apes behind and on our way rejoicing right? — It’s the only way to live -”
And the smart operators fall for it every fucking time — talk about marks — One of our best undercover operators is known as The Rube — He perfected The Reverse Con — Comes on honest and straight and the smart operators all think they are conning him — How could they think otherwise until he slips on the antibiotic handcuffs —
“There’s a wise guy born every minute,” he says. “Closing time gentlemen — The stenographer will take your depositions -”
“So why did I try to blow up the planet? — Pea under the shell — Now you see it now you don’t — Sky shift to cover the last pitch — Take it all out with us and hit the road — I am made of metal and that metal is radioactive — Radioactivity can be absorbed up to a point but radium clock hands tick away — Time to move on — Only one turnstile — Heavy planet — Travel with Minraud technicians to handle the switchboard and Venusians to make flesh and keep the show on the road — Then The Blazing Photo and we travel on — Word is flesh and word is two that is the human body is compacted of two organisms and where you have two you have word and word is flesh and when they started tampering with the word that was it and the blockade was broken and The Nova Heat moved in — The Venusians sang first naturally they were in the most immediate danger — They live underwater in the body with an air line — And that air line is the word — Then the technicians spilled and who can blame them after the conditions I assigned to keep them technicians — Like three thousand years in hot claws — So I am alone as always — You understand nova is where I am born in such pain no one else survives in one piece — Born again and again cross the wounded galaxies — I am alone but not what you call ‘lonely’ — Loneliness is a product of dual mammalian structure — ‘Loneliness,’ ‘love,’ ‘friendship,’ all of the rest of it — I am not two — I am one — But to maintain my state of oneness I need twoness in other life forms — Other must talk so that I can remain silent — If another becomes one then I am two — That makes two ones make two and I am no longer one — Plenty of room in space you say? — But I am not one in space I am one in time — Metal time — Radioactive time — So of course I tried to keep you all out of space — That is the end of time — And those who were allowed out sometimes for special services like creating a useful religious concept went always with a Venusian guard — All the ‘mystics’ and ’saints’ — All except my old enemy Hassan I Sabbah who wised up the marks to space and sad they could be one and need no guard no other half no word –
“And now I have something to say to all you angle boys of the cosmos who thought you had an in with the Big Operators — ‘Suckers! Cunts! Marks! — I hate you all — And I never intended to cut you in or pay you off with anything but horse shit — And you can thank The Rube if you don’t go up with the apes — Is that clear enough or shall I make it even clearer? You are the sucker cunts marks I invented to explode this dead whistle stop and go up with it –’”
William S. Burroughs
Corso & Ginsberg interview WSB in 1961 for Journal for the Protection of All Beings, a periodical edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and published by City Lights Bookstore. This is supposedly the first published interview with WSB…
Gregory Corso: What is your department?
William Burroughs: Kunst und Wissenschaft.
Gregory Corso: What do you say about political conflicts?
William Burroughs: Political conflicts are merely surface manifestations. If conflicts arise you may be sure that certain powers intend to keep this conflict under operation since they hope to profit from the situation. To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth. That is what politics is for, to teach you the cloth. Just as the bullfighter teaches the bull, teaches him to follow, obey the cloth.
Gregory Corso: Who manipulates the cloth?
William Burroughs: Death
Allen Ginsberg: What is death?
William Burroughs: A gimmick. It’s the time-birth-death gimmick. Can’t go on much longer, too many people are wising up.
Gregory Corso: Do you feel there has been a definite change in man’s makeup? A new consciousness?
William Burroughs: Yes, I can give you a precise answer to that. I feel that the change, the mutation in consciousness, will occur spontaneously once certain pressures now in operation are removed. I feel that the principal instrument of monopoly and control that prevents expansion of consciousness is the word lines controlling thought, feeling and apparent sensory impressions of the human host.
Allen Ginsberg: And if they are removed, what step?
William Burroughs: The forward step must be made in silence. We detach ourselves from word forms — this can be accomplished by substituting for words, letters, concepts, verbal concepts, other modes of expressions: for example, color. We can translate word and letter into color — Rimbaud stated that in his color vowels, words quote “words” can be read in silent color. In other words, man must get away from verbal forms to attain the consciousness, that which is there to be perceived at hand.
Gregory Corso: How does one take that “forward step,” can you say?
William Burroughs: Well, this is my subject and is what I am concerned with. Forward steps are made by giving up old armor because words are built into you — in the soft typewriter of the womb you do not realize the word-armor you carry; for example, when you read this page your eyes move irresistibly from left to right following the words that you have been accustomed to. Now try breaking up part of the page like this:
Are there or just we can translate many solutions for example color word color in the soft typewriter into political conflicts to attain consciousness monopoly and control
Gregory Corso: Reading that it seems you end up where you began, with politics and it’s nomenclature: conflict, attain, solution, monopoly, control — so what kind of help is that?
William Burroughs: Precisely what I was saying — if you talk you always end up with politics, it gets nowhere. I mean man it’s strictly from the soft typewriter.
Gregory Corso: What kind of advice you got for politicians?
William Burroughs: Tell the truth once and for all and shut up forever.
Gregory Corso: What if people don’t want to change, don’t want no new consciousness?
William Burroughs: For any species to change, if they are unable and are unwilling to do so — I might, for example, have suggested to the dinosaurs that heavy armor and great size was a sinking ship, and that they do well to convert to mammal facilities — it would not lie in my power or desire to reconvert a reluctant dinosaur. I can make my feeling very clear, Gregory, I fell like I’m on a sinking ship and I want off.
Gregory Corso: Do you think Hemingway got off?
William Burroughs: Probably not.
Allen Ginsberg: What about control?
William Burroughs: Now all politicians assume a necessity of control, the more efficient the control the better. All political organizations tend to function like a machine, to eliminate the unpredictable factor of affect — emotion. Any machine tends to absorb, eliminate, Affect. Yet the only person who can make a machine move is someone who has a motive, who has Affect. If all individuals were conditioned to machine efficiency in the performance of their duties there would have to be at least one person outside the machine to give the necessary orders; if the machine absorbed or eliminated all those outside the machine, the machine will slow down and stop forever. Any unchecked impulse does, within the human body and psyche, lead to the destruction of the organism.
Allen Ginsberg: What kind of organization could technological society have without control?
William Burroughs: The whole point is, I feel the machine should be eliminated. Now that it has served its purpose of alerting us to the dangers of machine control. Elimination of all natural sciences — If anybody ought to go to the extermination chambers, definitely scientists. Yes, I’m definitely antiscientist because I feel that science represents a conspiracy to impose as the real and only universe, the universe of scientists themselves — they’re reality-addicts, they’ve got to have things so real so they can get their hands on it. We have a great elaborate machine which I feel has to be completely dismantled — in order to do that we need people who understand how the machine works — the mass media — unparalleled opportunity.
Allen Ginsberg: Who do you think is responsible for the dope situation in America?
William Burroughs: Old Army game, “I act under orders.” As Captain Ahab said, “You are not other men but my arms and legs –” Mr. Anslinger has a lot of arms and legs, or whoever is controlling him. Same thing as the Eichman case: he’s the front man who has got to take the rap. Poor bastard, I got sympathy for him.
Gregory Corso: Could you or do you think it wise to say who it will be or just what force it will be that will destroy the world?
William Burroughs: You want to create a panic? That’s top secret — want to swamp the lifeboats?
Gregory Corso: O.K. How did them there lifeboats get there in the first place?
William Burroughs: Take for instance some Indians in South America I’ve seen. There comes along this sloppy cop with his shirt buttons all in the wrong hole. Well then, Parkinson’s law goes into operation — there’s need not for one cop but seven or eight, need for sanitation inspectors, rent collectors, etc.; so after a period of years problems arise, crime, dope taking and traffic, juvenile delinquency. So the question is asked, “What should we do about these problems?” The answer as Gertrude Stein on her deathbed said, comes before the question — in short before the bastards got there in the first place! That’s all —
Allen Ginsberg: What do you think Cuba and the FLN think about poets? And what do you think their marijuana policy is?
William Burroughs: All political movements are basically anti-creative — since a political movement is a form of war. “There’s no place for impractical dreamers around here,” that’s what they always say. “Your writing activities will be directed, kindly stop horsing around.” “As for the smoking of marijuana, it is the exploitation for the workers.” Both favor alcohol and are against pot.
Gregory Corso: I feel capitol punishment is dooming U.S.A.
William Burroughs: I’m against Capitol Punishment in all forms, and I have written many pamphlets on this subject in the manner of Swift’s “Modest Proposal” pamphlet incorporated into “Naked Lunch”; these pamphlets have marked “Naked Lunch” as an obscene book. Most all methods of capitol punishment are designed to inflict the maximum of humiliation — not attempts to prevent suicide.
Allen Ginsberg: What advice do you have for American youth who are drawn to political action out of sympathy for the American revolution?
William Burroughs: “I wouldn’t be in your position” — old saw. If there is any political move that I would advocate it would be an alliance between America and Red China, if they’d have us.
Gregory Corso: What about the Arab peoples — how are they faring?
William Burroughs: They’re stuck back thousands of years and they think they’re going to get out with a TV set.
Gregory Corso: What about the Negros, will they make it — not only the ones in the South, but everywhere?
William Burroughs: Biologically speaking the Afro-Asiatic block is in the ascendancy — always remember that both Negro and White are minority groups — the largest race is the Mongoloid group. In the event of atomic war there is a tremendous biological advantage in the so-called undeveloped areas that have a high birth rate and high death rate because, man, they can plow under those mutations. The country with a low birth rate and low death rate will be hardest hit — and so the poor may indeed inherit the earth, because they’re healthier.
Allen Ginsberg: What do you think of White Supremacy?
William Burroughs: The essence of White Supremacy is this: they are people who want to keep things as they are. That their children’s children’s children might be a different color is something very alarming to them — in short they are committed to the maintenance of the static image. The attempt to maintain a static image, even if it’s a good image, just won’t work.
Gregory Corso: Do you think Americans want and could fight the next war with the same fire and fervency as they did in World War II?
William Burroughs: Undoubtedly, yes — because they remember what a soft time they had in the last one — they sat on their ass.
This review comes from Bookweek and was written by Joan Didion, March 27, 1966…
Wired for Shock Treatments
There sometimes seems a peculiar irrelevance about what is claimed for William S. Burroughs, both by those who admire him and those who do not; the insistent amorphousness of his books encourages the reader to take from them pretty much exactly what he brought to them. Burroughs has been read as a pamphleteer for narcotics reform. He has been read as a parabolist of the highest order. He has been read as a pornographer and he has been read as a prophet of the apocalypse. The Naked Lunch I read first on a beach in the Caribbean and the Naked Lunch I reread a few weeks ago in a hospital in Santa Monica, the book I read once when I was unhappy and again when I was not, did not seem in any sense the same book; to anyone who finds Burroughs readable at all, he is remarkably rereadable, if only because he is remarkably unmemorable. There are no “stories” to wear thin, no “characters” of whom one might tire. We are presented only with the fragmented record of certain fantasies, and our response to that record depends a good deal upon our own fantasies at the moment; in itself, a book by William Burroughs has about as much intrinsic “meaning” as the actual inkblot in a Rorschach test.
Nonetheless Burroughs is read for “meaning,” for we tend to be uneasy in this country until we can draw from an imaginative work some immediate social application. Ã€ la Recherche du temps perdu as precursor to the Wolfenden Report, Emma Bovary as victim of the Feminine Mystique. And, on another level, William Burroughs as “satirist,” that slipshod catch-all category for anyone who seems unconventional and modish. Burroughs is by no means successful as a “satirist” or as an “allegorist”; both satire and allegory depend upon strict control of the material, and to talk about Burroughs in that vein leads only into cul-de-sacs where Donald Malcolm can complain querulously that if Mr. Burroughs is satirizing capital punishment then Mr. Burroughs must be unaware that the trend on this issue is toward liberalization.
So it goes. First the insistence upon some fairly conventional “meaning,” then the rush to the barricades. Either Burroughs is a prophet or Burroughs is a fraud. Either he must be the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift” (Jack Kerouac) or he must be a fabricator of “merest trash” (John Wain). In this stampede to first discern the “message” and then take a stand on it, Burroughs’ limited but very real virtues tend to be overlooked. In a quite literal sense with Burroughs, the medium is the message: the point is not what the voice says but the voice itself, a voice so direct and original and versatile as to disarm close scrutiny of what it is saying. Burroughs is less a writer than a “sound,” and to listen to the lyric may be to miss the beat.
Consider The Soft Machine. Burroughs is uninfected by any trace of humanist sentimentality, and his imagery is that of the most corrosive nightmare, obscene, specifically homosexual, casually savage, peopled by androgynous mutations. Flesh is not flesh but “biologic material,” undifferentiated tissue which metamorphoses, dissolves into mucus, sloughs off, passes into other vessels. Hot crabs hatch out of human spines; police files spurt out bone meal. Although it is easy to read The Soft Machine as a parable of technological suicide, a kind of hallucinatory On the Beach, that reading is not going to get us very far, because Burroughs as a dreamer of didactic dreams is not only distinctly hit-and-miss but quite unremarkable, in point of fact Victorian. It has been some years, after all, since we first heard that melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, first stood upon the darkling plain of technology. Read for any such conventional meaning, The Soft Machine has only the dulling effect of a migraine attack, after pain and nausea and unwanted images have battered the nerve synapses until all connections are lost. For the Burroughs repetitiveness blunts response. The particular Burroughs preoccupations atrophy rather than engage the imagination. Ah well, one thinks, eyes glazing, fingers riffling the pages, another orgiastic hanging, all possible switches. It is difficult even to read the book sequentially; to imagine that one will be able to put the book down when the telephone rings and find one’s place a few minutes later is sheer bravura.
In fact the point is not to read the book at all, but somehow to hear the voice in it. The voice in The Soft Machine is talking about time. Some of the book is mock nostalgia, and the title, whatever else it means, seems as well to be a play upon The Time Machine. The voice roves back in time through Mexico, Panama, the Mayan Empire, back through a landscape of pervasive corruption. One city in particular appears and reappears in explicit and extraordinary details: a port city, “stuck in water hyacinths and banana rafts,” a place where jungle has overgrown the parks and diseased armadillos live in the deserted kiosks. Candiru infest the swimming pools; albinos blink in the sun. Although the city is in the here and now, it is terrorized by the Vagrant Ball Players, who seem to have come forward in time from the Mayan period. The Civil Guard tries to placate the Vagrant Ball Players, for they “can sound a Hey Rube Switch brings a million adolescents shattering the customs barriers and frontiers of time, swinging out of the jungle with Tarzan cries, crash landing perilous tin planes and rockets.”
The voice moves not only back but ahead in time, to what seems to be the end of the world. There is an ambiguity here; the last few men left on earth are clearly the survivors of some disaster, but they are also just assuming human shape, just rising from the slime. In short, what the voice in The Soft Machine is doing is giving an hallucinatory reading to Eliot’s Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end” and “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.”
This is by no means unintentional. Eliot’s is one of the rhythms into which the voice in The Soft Machine slips deliberately and frequently, sometimes ironically and sometimes not. Sometimes the voice is not Eliot but Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain: “Meanwhile an angle comes dripping down and forms a stalactite in my brain.” Sometimes it is the voice of the Hearst Task Force: “I have just returned from a thousand year time trip and I am here to tell you what I saw… It is the new frontier and only the adventurous need apply — But it belongs to anyone with the courage and know-how to enter — It belongs to you.” Sometimes the voice slips into the peculiar rhythms of the hustler, sometimes into the ritualized diction of blue movies. The voice rattles off elliptical allusions, throws away joke after outrageous joke, shifts gear in mid-sentence, never falters.
It is precisely this voice — complex, subtle, allusive — that is the fine thing about The Soft Machine and about Burroughs. It is hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American, a voice in which one hears transistor radios and old movies and all the cliches and all the cons and all the newspapers, all the peculiar optimism, all the failure. Against that voice, those of the younger “satirical” or “black” novelists sound self-conscious and faked; it is the voice of a natural, and what it is saying is in no sense the point.
In 1962 William S. Burroughs appeared at the International Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh. He read statements at the panels on Censorship and on The Future of the Novel. Later that year the Transatlantic Review (#11 – Winter 1962) published Burroughs’ statements along with a cut-up…
What i am saying has already been better said by Mr Henry Miller in his essay “Obscenity And The Law of Reflection” — Censorship is the presumed right of governmental agencies to decide what words and images the citizen is permitted to see: that is thought control since thought consists largely of word and image — What is considered harmful and therefore censored will of course depend on the government exercising censorship — In The Middle Ages, when the church controlled censoring agencies, the emphasis was on heretical doctrines — In Communist countries censorship is close in the area of politics — In English-speaking countries the weight of censorship falls on sexual word and image as dangerous to an economic system depending on mass production and a large public of more or less uncritical consumers — In any form censorship presupposes the right of the government to decide what people will think, what thought material of word and image will be presented to their minds — I am precisely suggesting that the right to exercise such control is called in question.
The excuse usually given for censorship is the necessity to protect children, impressionable, unstable and stupid individuals — However, this impressionable being is already subjected to a daily barrage of word and image much of it deliberately calculated to arouse sexual desires without satisfying them — That’s what advertising is all about as anyone on Madison Avenue will tell you, and much popular fiction falls into the same category — And he is continually subjected to word and image deliberately calculated to arouse aggressive impulses on TV and radio, in movies and comic strips — I can not see how he would be harmed by reading the work of Rabelais, Petronius, De Sade, Henry Miller, Jean Genet or my own work (unlikely that he would read these works if they were available to him being in many cases virtually illiterate).
What would happen if all censorship were removed? — Not much — Perhaps books would then be judged more on literary merit and a dull, poorly written book on sexual subjects would find few readers — As to whether people will be sexually stimulated by reading a book? — We know from Pavlov’s conditioned reflect that people can be sexually stimulated by almost anything through association — I think that if censorship were removed fewer people would be so stimulated by the mere sight of four-letter words on a printed page — .
The anxiety of which censorship is the overt expression has so far prevented any scientific investigation of sexual phenomena — Few investigators have asked the question: What is sex? — and taken the necessary steps to find the answers — So far as i know the only scientific work on this subject was done by Doctor Wilhelm Reich — As a result he was expelled from a number of countries before he took refuge in America where he died in a federal prison — His experiments indicate that sex is in all likelihood an electromagnetic phenomena, that physicists and mathematicians could discover precise formulae of sexual energy and contact leading to a physics of sexual behavior — It would then be possible, on the basis of precise knowledge, to determine what sexual practices were healthy and what practices were not healthy with reference to function of the human organism.
The Future of the Novel
In my writing i am acting as a map maker, an explorer of psychic areas, to use the phrase of Mr Alexander Trocchi, as a cosmonaut of inter space, and i see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed — A Russian scientist has said: “We will travel not only in space but in time as well — “That is to travel in space is to travel in time — If writers are to travel in space time and explore areas opened by the space age, i think they must develop techniques quite as new and definite as the techniques of physical space travel — Certainly if writing is to have a future it must at least catch up with the past and learn to use techniques that have been used for some time past in painting, music and film — Mr Laurence Durrell has led the way in developing a new form of writing with time and space shifts as we see events from different viewpoints and realize that so seen they are literally not the same events, and that the old concepts of time and reality are no longer valid — Brion Gysin, an American painter living in Paris, has used what he calls ‘the cut up method’ to place at the disposal of writers the collage used in painting for fifty years — Pages of text are cut and rearranged to form new combinations of word and image — In writing my last two novels, Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded, i have used an extension of the cut up method i call ‘the fold in method’ — A page of text — my own or some one elses — is folded down the middle and placed on another page — The composite text is then read across half one text and half the other — The fold in method extends to writing the flash back used in films, enabling the writer to move backwards and forewards on his time track — For example i take page one and fold it into page one hundred — I insert the resulting composite as page ten — When the reader reads page ten he is flashing forwards in time to page one hundred and back in time to page one — The deja vue phenomena can so be produced to order — (This method is of course used in music where we are continually moved backwards and foreward on the time track by repetition and rearrangements of musical themes –
In using the fold in method i edit delete and rearrange as in any other method of composition — I have frequently had the experience of writing some pages of straight narrative text which were then folded in with other pages and found that the fold ins were clearer and more comprehensible than the original texts — Perfectly clear narrative prose can be produced using the fold in method — Best results are usually obtained by placing pages dealing with similar subjects in juxtaposition –,
What does any writer do but choose, edit and rearrange material at his disposal? — The fold in method gives the writer literally infinite extension of choice — Take for example a page of Rimbaud folded into a page of St John Perse — (two poets who have much in common) — From two pages an infinite number of combinations and images are possible — The method could also lead to a collaboration between writers on an unprecedented scale to produce works that were the composite effort of any number of writers living and dead — This happens in fact as soon as any writer starts using the fold in method — I have made and used fold ins from Shakespeare, Rimbaud, from newspapers, magazines, conversations and letters so that the novels i have written using this method are in fact composites of many writers –
I would like to emphasize that this is a technique and like any technique will, of course, be useful to some writers and not to others — In any case a matter for experimentation not argument — The conferring writers have been accused by the press of not paying sufficient attention to the question of human survival — In Nova Express — (reference is to an exploding planet) and my latest novel The Ticket That Exploded i am primarily concerned with the question of survival –, with nova conspiracies, nova criminals, and nova police — A new mythology is possible in the space age where we will again have heroes and villains with respect to intentions toward this planet –
Notes on these pages
To show ‘the fold in method’ in operation i have taken the two texts i read at The Writer’s Conference and folded them into newspaper articles on The Conference, The Conference Folder, typed out selections from various writers, some of whom were present and some of whom were not, to form a composite of many writers living and dead: Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Golding, Alexander Trocchi, Norman Mailer, Colin MacInnes, Hugh MacDiarmid.
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 Bradley-Mr Martin needs his ‘dogs’ his ‘errand boys’ 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’ — “Dogs that were his eyes shut off Mr Bradly-Mr Martin.”
My conception of Mr Bradly-Mr Martin is similar to the conception developed by William Golding in “Pincer Martin” and i have made a fold in from the last pages of his book where Martin is destroyed “erased like an error”, with my own version of Bradly-Martin’s end — The end of Mr Bradly-Mr Martin is the theme of these pages — as regards The Writers Conference i shared with Mary Macarthy a feeling that something incredible was going on beyond the fact of people paying to listen – -I could not but feel that it was indeed The Last Writer’s Conference.
Nova Police besieged McEwan Hall
The last Writer’s Conference — Heroin and homosexuality war melted into air — the conferents are free to come and go visiting the obscurity behind word and image — Mr Martin was movie of which intellectual and literary elite asked the question: What is sex? –
“Hear Mr Burroughs or his answer?”: Flesh identity still resisted the question and that book in this memory erased the answer.
On reflection we can discover cross references scrawled by some boy with scars — The last invisible shadow caught and the future fumbles for transitory progress in the arts — Flutes of Ali in the door of panic leaves not a wrack of that God of whom i was a part — The future fumbles in dogs of unfamiliar dust — Hurry up — Page summons composite mutterings flashing foreward in your moments I could describe — The deja vue boatman smiles with such memory orders — Shifted with the method of composition, i have frequently left no address — Some pages of straight narrative beside you — Moments i could describe left other pages more comprehensible than the original texts that were his eyes — Inherit these by placing page deals: “Hurry up please — Heavy summons, Mr Bradly-Mr Martin, with texts moved or conveyor belts retained and copied my blood whom i created.”
You are writer since the departed choose the juxtaposition beside you — The image of the hanged man shut off, Mr Bradly-Mr Martin, to fashion heavy summons — Too much comment and the great boatman smiles — Growing suspicion departed have left no address — Falling history beside you — Dogs that were his eyes inherit this — Let them stray please, its time — And they are free to come and go — Fading this green doll out of an old sack and some rope — The great streaks of paint melted into air — Out of the circle of light you are yourself bringing panic or chaos — Heavy hand broken, erased like an error, fading here the claws in The Towers — The great claws, Martin, caught melted into air — Their whole strength with such memories still resisted — Mr Bradly-Mr Martin was movie played the vaudeville voices — These our actors visible going away erased themselves into air — Adios in the final ape of Martin — Just as silver film took it you are yourself The Visiting Center and The Claws — They were our Towers — A Street boy’s courage resisted erogenous summons muttering flesh identity — For i last center falling through ruined September beside you erased like and error –
A Russian scientist has said: “Martin disaster far now” — Shifted with travel in space — Writers were his eyes, inherit this travel in space and time — Areas opened by the heavy summons, Mr Bradly-Mr Martin — I think they must close your account — New and definite my blood whom i created leaves not the third who walks with the past and your dust now ended — These techniques that have been war melted into air — Hurry up in human survival — My last summons Nova Express — Reference is to the ticket that exploded your moments — Nova Police — Heavy summons, Mr Bradly-Mr Martin –
Cross references scrawled by some governmental agency decide what the citizen is permitted to see in Scotland since thought consists largely of the arts — Zero time to the sick areas of politics protecting unfamiliar dust — In English speaking countries, hurry up — Page summons sexual word and image — Consumer’s orders shifted — Any form of censorship left no address — Thought material of method proffers precisely the texts that were his eyes — De Sade, Henry Miller are free to come and go — Censorship is the necessity of chaos for stupid individuals advertising to thin air the story of one absent — Like an error fading here the claws we know from Pavlov — Mr Bradly-Mr Martin was movie of which sex is the overt expression — Voices asked the question: What is sex? — and erased themselves into the answer — Flesh identity, of which censorship is the overt expression, still resisted the question What is sex? and some boy’s memory erased the answers — he had come muttering things i used to say over and over as Mr Martin Weary my blood whom i pent — Then i raised my eyes and saw words scrawled by some boy — Hurry up — Page summons composites — Get it over with — I have never known you moments, but the rages were the worst such memory orders — Shifted with me frequently left no address — Hurry up please — Heavy summons — Voice all day long muttering moved on conveyor belts very low and harsh no wonder shut off — But let me get on with this day and they are free to come and go without sore throat of an old sack and some rope — These flashes out of things i used to say over and over as yourself bringing panic or chaos — Never loved anyone i think fading here in The Towers — Same old things i dont listen to — These our actors going away on the final ape of Martin — Mr Bradly-Mr Martin all day long muttering sick lies — Closed your account — Not even mine it was at the end –
This brings me respectable price of my university — The Kid just found what was left of the window — Pages deal what you might call a journey — Its faily easy thrash in old New Orleans smudged looking answer — Sick and tired of Martin — Invisible shadow tottering to doom fast — Dream and dreamer that were his eyes inherit this stage — Its time — Heavy summons, Mr Bradly-Mr Martin timeless and without mercy — You are destroyed erased like my name — The text of that God melted into air — Mr Bradly-Mr Martin walks toward September weary good bye playing over and over — Out of the circle of light you are words scrawled by some boy with chaos, for a transitory ape of Martin understood Visiting Center and Claws — He had come muttering flesh identity — His dream must have seemed so close there, whole strength to grap it — He did not know that it was still resisted, falling back in that vast obscurity behind memory as the boatman began to melt away — Enchanted texts that were his eyes inherit this continent — Mr Bradly-Mr Martin was movie played to thin air — Vaudeville voices leave the story of one absent — Silence to the stage — These our actors erased themselves into good night far from such as you, Mr Bradly-Mr Martin — Good bye of history — Your whole strength left no address — On this green land the pipes are calling, timeless and without mercy — Page summons the deja vue boatman in setting forth — All are wracked and answer texts that were his eyes — No home in departed river of Gothenberg — Shadows are free to come and go — What have i my friend to give?: An old sack and some rope — The great globe is paint in air –
William S. Burroughs
This essay was included in the 1962 promotional “prospectus” that Grove Press prepared for the publication of “Naked Lunch”…
In life there is that which is funny, and there is that which is politely supposed to be funny. Literature, out of a misguided appeal to an imaginary popular taste and the caution of self-distrust, generally follows the latter course, so that the humor found in books is almost always vicarious — meeting certain “traditional” requirements and producing Naked Lunch the kind of laughter one might expect: rather strained. Burroughs’ work is an all-stops-out departure from this practice, and he invariably writes at the very top of his ability.
The element of humor in Naked Lunch is one of the book’s great moral strengths, whereby the existentialist sense of the absurd is taken towards an informal conclusion. It is an absolutely devastating ridicule of all that is false, primitive, and vicious in current American life: the abuses of power, hero worship, aimless violence, materialistic obsession, intolerance, and every form of hypocrisy. No one, for example, has written with such eloquent disgust about capital punishment; throughout Naked Lunch recurse sequences to portray the unfathomable barbarity of a “civilization” which can countenance this ritual. There is Naked Lunch one way, of course, to ridicule capital punishment — and that is by exaggerating its circumstances, increasing its horror, accentuating the animal irresponsibility of those involved, insisting that the monstrous deed be witness (and in technicolor, so to speak) by all concerned. Burroughs is perhaps the first modern writer to seriously attempt this; he is certain Naked Lunch is the first to have done so with such startling effectiveness. Social analogy and parallels of this sort about in Naked Lunch, but one must never mistake this author’s work for political comment, which, as in all genuine art, is more instinctive than deliberate — for Burroughs is first and foremost a poet. His attunement to contemporary language is probablly unequalled in American writing. Anyone with a feeling for English phrase at its most balanced, concise, and arresting cannot fail to see this excellence. For example, in describing the difficulty of obtaining narcotis prescriptions from wary doctors in the southwestern United States, he writes:
“Itinerant short con and carny hyp men have burned down the croakers of Texas…”
None of these words are new, but the sudden freshness of using “burned down” (to mean “having exploited beyond further possibility”) in this prosaic context indicates his remarkable power of giving life to a dead vernacular.
Or again, where the metaphysical finds expression in slang:
“One day Little Boy Blue starts to slip, and what crawls out would make an ambulance attendant puke…”
“The Mark Inside was coming up on him and that’s a rumble nobody can cool…”
Imagery of this calibre puts the use of argot on a level considerably beyond merelly “having a good ear for the spoken word.” Compared to Burroughs’ grasp of modern idiom in almost every form of English — and his ability at distillation and ellipsis — the similar efforts of Ring Lardner, and of Hemingway, appear amateurish and groping.
The role of drugs is of singular importance in Burroughs’ work, as it is, indeed, in American life. In no other culture in the history of the world has the use of narcotics, both legal and illicit, become so strange and integral a part of the overall scene. And reviviscent addiction has reached such prevalence and intensity that, in teh larger view, it can no longer matter whether it be considered a “crime” or a “sickness” — it is a cultural phenomenon with far more profound implications than either diagnosis suggests.
Burroughs’ treatment of narcotics, like his treatment of homosexuality, ranges from that of personal psychology, through the sociological, and finally into pure metaphor. And he is perhaps the first writer to treat either with both humor and humility.
Although Naked Lunch, and his second novel, The Soft Machine, have not been available (except clandestinely) in either America or England — ostensibly because of the preponderance of “obscene words” — they have had, in their Paris editions, an extremely wide reading among the creatively inclined of both countries. No one writing in English, with the exception of Henry Miller, has done so much towards freeing the reader of the superstitions surrounding the use of certain words and certain attitudes. And it is safe to add that for the new generation of American writers the work of William Burroughs is by far the most seriously influential being done today.
Written about William S. Burroughs for The Nation, Dec. 28, 1964 (pages 517-519)…
1. Today men’s nerves surround us; they have gone outside as electrical environment. The human nervous system itself can be reprogrammed biologically as readily as any radio network can alter its fare. Burroughs has dedicated Naked Lunch to the first proposition, and Nova Express (both Grove Press) to the second. Naked Lunch records private strategies of culture in the electric age. Nova Express indicates some of the “corporate” responses and adventures of the Subliminal Kid who is living in a universe which seems to be someone else’s insides. Both books are a kind of engineer’s report of the terrain hazards and mandatory processes, which exist in the new electric environment.
2. Burroughs uses what he calls “Brion Gysin’s cut-up method which I call the fold-in method.” To read the daily newspaper in its entirety is to encounter the method in all its purity. Similarly, an evening watching television programs is an experience in a corporate form — an endless succession of impressions and snatches of narrative. Burroughs is unique only in that he is attempting to reproduce in prose what we accommodate every day as a commonplace aspect of life in the electric age. If the corporate life is to be rendered on paper, the method of discontinuous nonstory must be employed.
3. That man provides the sexual organs of the technological world seems obvious enough to Burroughs, and such is the stage (or “biological theatre” as he calls it in Nova Express) for the series of social orgasms brought about by the evolutionary mutations of man and society. The logic, physical and emotional, of a world in which we have made our environment out of our own nervous systems, Burroughs follows everywhere to the peripheral orgasm of the cosmos.
4. Each technological extension involves an act of collective cannibalism. The previous environment with all its private and social values, is swallowed by the new environment and reprocessed for whatever values are digestible. Thus, Nature was succeeded by the mechanical environment and became what we call the “content” of the new industrial environment. That is, Nature became a vessel of aesthetic and spiritual values. Again and again the old environment is upgraded into an art form while the new conditions are regarded as corrupt and degrading. Artists, being experts in sensory awareness, tend to concentrate on the environmental as the challenging and dangerous situation. That is why they may seem to be “ahead of their time.” Actually, they alone have the resources and temerity to live in immediate contact with the environment of their age. More timid people prefer to accept the content, the previous environment’s values, as the continuing reality of their time. Our natural bias is to accept the new gimmick (automaton, say) as a thing that can be accommodated in the old ethical order.
5. During the process of digestion of the old environment, man finds it expedient to anesthetize himself as much as possible. He pays as little attention to the action of the environment as the patient heeds the surgeon’s scalpel. The gulping or swallowing of Nature by the machine was attended by a complete change of the ground rules of both the sensory ratios of the individual nervous system and the patterns of the social order as well. Today, when the environment has become the extension of the entire mesh of the nervous system, anesthesia numbs our bodies into hydraulic jacks.
6. Burroughs disdains the hallucinatory drugs as providing mere “content,” the fantasies, dreams that money can buy. Junk (heroin) is needed to turn the human body itself into an environment that includes the universe. The central theme of Naked Lunch is the strategy of bypassing the new electric environment by becoming an environment oneself. The moment one achieves this environmental state all things and people are submitted to you to be processed. Whether a man takes the road of junk or the road of art, the entire world must submit to his processing. The world becomes his “content.” He programs the sensory order.
7. For artists and philosophers, when a technology is new it yields Utopias. Such is Plato’s Republic in the fifth century B.C., when phonetic writing was being established. Similarly, More’s Utopia is written in the sixteenth century when the printed book had just become established. When electric technology was new and speculative, Alice in Wonderland came as a kind of non-Euclidean space-time Utopia, a grown-up version of which is the Illuminations of Rimbaud. Like Lewis Carroll, Rimbaud accepts each object as a world and the world as an object. He makes a complete break with the established procedure of putting things into time or space:
That’s she, the little girl behind the rose bushes, and she’s dead. The young mother, also dead, is coming down the steps. The cousin’s carriage crunches the sand. The small brother (he’s in India!) over there in the field of pinks, in front of the sunset. The old men they’ve buried upright in the wall covered with gilly-flowers.
But when the full consequences of each new technology have been manifested in new psychic and social forms, then the anti-Utopias appear. Naked Lunch can be viewed as the anti-Utopia of Illuminations:
During the withdrawal the addict is acutely aware of his surroundings. Sense impressions are sharpened to the point of hallucination. Familiar objects seem to stir with a writhing furtive life. The addict is subject to a barrage of sensations external and visceral.
Or to give a concrete example from the symbolist landscape of Naked Lunch:
A guard in a uniform of human skin, black buck jacket with carious yellow teeth buttons, an elastic pullover shirt in burnished Indian copper […] sandals from calloused foot soles of young Malayan farmer […]
The key to symbolist perception is in yielding the permission to objects to resonate with their own time and space. Time and space themselves are subjected to the uniform and continuous visual processing that provides us with the “connected and rational” world that is in fact only an isolated fragment of reality — the visual. There is no uniform and continuous character in the nonvisual modalities of space and time. The Symbolists freed themselves from visual conditions into the visionary world of the iconic and the auditory. Their art, to be visually oriented and literary man, seems haunted, magical and often incomprehensible. It is, in John Ruskin’s words:
… the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connections; of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps, left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character. (Modern Painters)
The art of the interval, rather than the art of the connection, is not only medieval but Oriental; above all, it is the art mode of instant electric culture.
8. There are considerable antecedents for the Burroughs attempt to read the language of the biological theatre and the motives of the Subliminal Kid. Fleurs du Mal is a vision of the city as the technological extension of man. Baudelaire had once intended to title the book Les Limbes. The vision of the city as a physiological and psychic extension of the body he experienced as a nightmare of illness and self-alienation. Wyndham Lewis, in his trilogy The Human Age, began with The Childermass. Its theme is the massacre of innocents and the rape of entire populations by the popular media of press and film. Later in The Human Age Lewis explores the psychic mutations of man living in “the magnetic city,” the instant, electric, and angelic (or diabolic) culture. Lewis views the action in a much more inclusive way than Burroughs whose world is a paradigm of a future in which there can be no spectators but only participants. All men are totally involved in the insides of all men. There is no privacy and no private parts. In a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another there can be no obscenity or pornography or decency. Such is the law of electric media which stretch the nerves to form a global membrane of enclosure.
9. The Burroughs diagnosis is that we can avoid the inevitable “closure” that accompanies each new technology by regarding our entire gadgetry as junk. Man has hopped himself up by a long series of technological fixes:
You are all dogs on tape. The entire planet is being developed into terminal identity and complete surrender.
We can forego the entire legacy of Cain (the inventor of gadgets) by applying the same formula that works for junk — “apomorphine,” extended to all technology:
Apomorphine is no word and no image — […] It is simply a question of putting through an inoculation program in the very limited time that remains — Word begets image and image IS virus —
Burroughs is arguing that the power of the image to beget image, and of technology to reproduce itself via human intervention, is utterly in excess of our power to control the psychic and social consequences:
Shut the whole thing right off — Silence — When you answer the machine you provide it with more recordings to be played back to your “enemies” keep the whole nova machine running — The Chinese character for “enemy” means to be similar to or to answer — Don’t answer the machine — Shut if off —
Merely to be in the presence of any machine, or replica of our body or faculties, is to be close with it. Our sensory ratios shift at once with each encounter with any fragmented extension of our being. This is a non-stop express of innovation that cannot be endured indefinitely:
We are just dust falls from demagnetized patterns — Show business —
It is the medium that is the message because the medium creates an environment that is as indelible as it is lethal. To end the proliferation of lethal new environmental expression, Burroughs urges a huge collective act of restraint as well as a nonclosure of sensory modes — “The biological theater of the body can bear a good deal of new program notes.”
10. Finnnegans Wake provides the closest literary precedent to Burroughs’ work. From the beginning to end it is occupied with the theme of “the extensions” of man — weaponry, clothing, languages, number, money, and media in toto. Joyce works out in detail the sensory shifts involved in each extension of man, and concludes with the resounding boast:
The keys to. Given!
Like Burroughs, Joyce was sure he had worked out the formula for total cultural understanding and control. The idea of art as total programming for the environment is tribal, mental, Egyptian. It is, also, an idea of art to which electric technology leads quite strongly. We live science fiction. The bomb is our environment. The bomb is of higher learning all compact, the extension division of the university. The university has become a global environment. The university now contains the commercial world, as well as the military and government establishments. To reprogram the cultures of the globe becomes as natural an undertaking as curriculum revision in a university. Since new media are new environments that reprocess psyche and society in successive ways, why not bypass instruction in fragmented subjects meant for fragmented sections of the society and reprogram the environment itself? Such is Burroughs’ vision.
11. It is amusing to read reviews of Burroughs that try to classify his books as nonbooks or as failed science fiction. It is a little like trying to criticize the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home. Burroughs is not asking merit marks as a writer; he is trying to point to the shut-on button of an active and lethal environmental process.
William S. Burroughs, Jr. – “Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr.” (2006)
This review was written by Tom Bowden for Education Digest in 2006. WSB, Jr., better known to all as Billy Burroughs, was of course the son of William Burroughs. He wrote a couple of excellent books in his youth (“Kentucky Ham” and “Speed”) about his various addictions and estrangement from his father. This book was an unfinished attempt at a sequel to those two books. It was pieced together (by David Ohle) from various sources (including the unfinished manuscript of “Prakriti Junction”) and further establishes Billy’s talent at writing. He died on March 3, 1981, of acute gastrointestinal hemorrhage associated with micronodular cirrhosis. He was only 33 years old…
The son of a heroin-addicted father and an alcoholic mother addicted to Benzedrine, William S. Burroughs, Jr. had the kind of start in life most of us would rather avoid. Things went downhill from there when he was four after his father shot and killed the mother in Mexico. His older sister (whom he was to never see again) was sent to live with his mother’s parents, and Billy was sent to live with his father’s parents. His father skipped the country and lammed it to Tangiers, where he remained addicted to various opiates, smoked lots of dope, and wrote what would become a seminal 20th century classic of avant-garde fiction, Naked Lunch.
Growing up in the comfortable upper middle class surroundings of Palm Beach, Florida, and sent to private schools, Billy, as the son of privilege, nonetheless flailed about, an emotional misfit. His father, always distant before the shooting, he saw only on short, occasional visits to the U.S. after the shooting. (The book’s cover is particularly chilling, showing a picture of father and son, Billy appearing to be six or seven years old, with the father’s arm coming from around and behind the boy, but with his hand frozen just inches above his son’s shoulder. Whether the picture was snapped in mid-pat or just before Burroughs, Sr. gripped Billy’s shoulder, the picture nonetheless captures the emotional distance between the two.)
Cursed from Birth is a sad but compelling autobiography of a self-destructive soul (Billy) who acts as if he is fated for his particularly grueling death: hemorrhaging from cirrhosis of the liver (his second one) by the age of 35. Pieced together from notes toward a third novel he was too drug-addled to finish, and complimented by numerous interviews with people who knew him — including Burroughs, Sr., Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, and others — Cursed forms a mosaic not unlike a shattered mirror reassembled.
Billy begs for money, steals from his grandmother, gets stoned with his dad, and endures a liver transplant that never quite heals and leaves him in chronic pain:
The wound, as I called it, was three inches across, eighteen inches long, and as deep as my backbone. I was gutted like a Halloween pig. It couldn’t be stitched up because of infection danger and had to heal from the inside out. When the nurse first saw it, she said, “Oh my God!” Which scared me to death. Just what I needed. And it had to be washed out with saline at least three times a day and disinfected. Slosh it in with a squirting machine, suck it out with a vacuum machine. The first time I looked down at what they were doing, I said it, too: “Oh my God!” I didn’t look down there again for weeks.
For the pain they gave me only enough Demerol to maybe cure a headache — 25mg. I used to mainline 400 and go for a walk.
And in between the bouts of pain, the half-hearted attempts to find work, the failed marriage and love affairs, is lots and lots and lots and lots of drinking.
I read Cursed from Birth as a fan of the author’s father. I wrote my master’s thesis on him in 1988, for which I also interviewed him (before he decided to “turn on the charm” to strangers, as he phrases it in his Last Words). I suspect most readers of Cursed will read it for the same reason — to find out more about the father — even though Billy’s first two books, Kentucky Ham and Speed, are still in print. From that angle emerges a man quite at odds with his public persona. (For all his hard-ass talk, Burroughs, Sr. struck me as actually quite shy.) We find a father doing everything he can — within the realm of letting his son take responsibility for his own behavior — to help his son through hard times, who sobs uncontrollably at the hospital when his son undergoes the liver transplant that could kill him (not that Billy had many options at that point in his dissolute life), who is angrily frustrated by his son’s steadfast insistence on blaming everybody else but himself for his troubles.
Cursed from Birth also stands on its own merits as a document chronicling abuse, addition, apathy, desperation, self-destruction, and death. No one comes out of this autobiography an angel, and nobody comes out wholly evil, either. Everyone here does their share of dumb things and good, motivated by conflicting desires and opinions as to what is best, what is right.
This is an excerpt from “Electronic Revolution,” an essay collection first published in West Germany in 1970.
The book is divided into two parts. Part one, entitled “The Feedback from Watergate to the Garden of Eden” invokes Alfred Korzybski’s views characterising a man as “the time binding machine” due to his ability to write. Burroughs sees the significance of a written word as a distinguishing feature of human beings which enables them to transform and convey information to further generations. He proposes the theory of “the unrecognised virus” present in the language, suggesting that, “the word has not been recognised as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host.”
In the beginning was the word and the word was god and has remained one of the mysteries ever since. The word was God and the word was flesh we are told. In the beginning of what exactly was this beginning word? In the beginning of WRITTEN history. It is generally assumed that spoken word came before the written word. I suggest that the spoken word as we know it came after the written word. In the beginning was the word and the word was God and the word was flesh … human flesh … In the beginning of WRITING. Animals talk and convey information but they do not write. They cannot make information available to future generations or to animals outside the range of their communication system. This is the crucial distinction between men and other animals. WRITING. Korzybski, who developed the concept of General Semantics, the meaning of meaning, has pointed out this human distinction and described man as ‘the time binding animal’. He can make information to other men over a length of time through writing. Animals talk. They dont write. Now a wise old rat may know a lot about traps and poison but he cannot write a text book on DEATH TRAPS IN YOUR WAREHOUSE for the Reader’s Digest with tactics for ganging up on digs and ferrets and taking care of wise guys who stuff steel wool up our holes. It is doubtful if the spoke word would have ever evolved beyond the animal stage without the written word. The written word ist inferential in HUMAN speech. It would not occur to our wise old rat to assemble the young rats and pass his knowledge along in an aural tradition BECAUSE THE WHOLE CONCEPT OF TIME BINDING COULD NOT OCCUR WITHOUT THE WRITTEN WORD. The written word is of course a symbol for something and in the case of hieroglyphic language writing like Egyptian it may be a symbol for itself that is a picture of what it represents. This is not true of an alphabet language like English. The word leg has no pictorial resemblance to a leg. It refers to the SPOKEN word leg. so we may forget that a written word IS AN IMAGE and that written words are images in sequence that is to say MOVING PICTURES. So any hieroglyphic sequence gives us an immediate working definition for spoken words. Spoken words are verbal units that refer to this pictorial sequence. And what then is the written word? My basis theory is that the written word was literally a virus that made spoken word possible. The word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host…(This symbiotic relationship is now breaking down for reasons I will suggest later.)
I quote from MECHANISMS OF VIRUS INFECTION edited by Mr. Wilson Smith, a scientist who really thinks about his subject instead of merely correlating data. He thinks, that is, about the ultimate intentions of the virus organism. In an article entitled VIRUS ADAPTIBILITY AND HOST RESISTANCE by G. Belyavin, speculations as to the biologic goal of the virus species are enlarged … ‘Viruses are obligatory cellular parasites and are thus wholly dependant upon the integrity of the cellular systems they parasitize for their survival in an active state. It is something of a paradox that many viruses ultimately destroy the cells in which they are living…”
And I may add the environment necessary for any cellular structure they could parasitize to survive. Is the virus then simply a time bomb left on this planet to be activated by remote control? An extermination program in fact? In its path from full virulence to its ultimate goal of symbiosis will any human creature survive? Is the white race, which would seem to be more under virus control than the black yellow and brown races, giving any indication of workable symbiosis?
‘Taking the virus eye view, the ideal situation would appear to be one in which the virus replicates in cells without in any way disturbing their normal metabolism.’
This has been suggested as the ideal biological situation toward which all viruses are slowly evolving…’
Would you offer violence to a well intentioned virus on its slow road to symbiosis?
‘It is worth noting that if a virus were to attain a state of wholly benign equilibrium with its host cell it is unlikely that its presence would be readily detected OR THAT IT WOULD NECESSARILY BE RECOGNIZED AS A VIRUS. I suggest that the word is just such a virus. Doktor Kurt Unruh von Steinplatz has put forth an interesting theory as to the origins and history of this word virus. He postulates that the word was a virus of what he calls BIOLOGIC MUTATION effecting the biologic change in its host which was then genetically conveyed. One reason that apes cant talk is because the structure of their inner throats is simply not designed to formulate words. He postulates that alteration in inner throat structure were occasioned by virus illness … And not occasion … This illness may well have had a high rate of mortality but some female apes must have survived to give birth to the wunder kindern. The illness perhaps assumed a more malignant form in the male because of his more developed and rigid muscular structure causing death through strangulation and vertebral fracture. Since the virus in both male and female precipitates sexual frenzy through irritation of sex centers in the brain the males impregnated the females in their death spasms and the altered throat structured was genetically conveyed. Having effected alterations in the host’s structure that resulted in a new species specially designed to accomodate the virus the virus can now replicate without disturbing the metabolism and without being recognized a virus. A symbiotic relationship has now been established and the virus is now built into the host which sees the virus as a useful part of itself. This successful virus can now sneer at gangster viruses like small pox and turn them in to The Pasteur Institute. Ach jungen what a scene is here … the apes are moulting fur steaming off them females whimpering and slobbering over dying males like cows with aftosa and so a stink musky sweet rotten metal stink of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden…
The creation of Adam, the Garden of Eden, Adam’s fainting spell during which God made Eva from his body, the forbidden fruit which was of course knowledge of the whole stinking thing and might be termed the first Watergate scandal, all slots neatly into Doc Steinplatz’s theory. And this was a white myth. This leads to the supposition that the word virus assumed a specially malignant and lethal form in the white race. What then accounts for this special malignance of the white word virus? Most likely a virus mutation occasioned by radioactivity .All animal and insect experiments so far carried out indicate that mutations resulting from radiation are unfavorable that is not conductive to survival. These experiments relate to the effects of radiation on autonomous creatures. What about the effects of radiation on viruses? Are there not perhaps some so classified and secret experiments hiding behind national security? Virus mutations occasioned by radiation may be quite favorable for the virus. And such a virus might well violate the equilibrium with the host cell. So now with the tape recorders of Watergate and the fall out from atomic testing the virus stirs uneasy in all your white throats. It was a killer virus once. It could become a killer virus again and rage through cities of the world like a topping forest fire.
“It is the beginning of the end.” That was the reaction of a science attache’ at one of Washington’s major embassies to reports that a synthetic gene particle had been produced in the laboratory …”Any small country can now make a virus for which there is no cure. It would only take a small laboratory. Any small country with good biochemists could do it.”
And presumeably any big country could do it quicker and better.
William S. Burroughs