August 27, 2004

Why we love William S. Burroughs

The attraction of William Burroughs from a K-Punk perspective is undeniable, but what exactly does it consist of? Putting to one side the sheer aesthetic pleasure of his prose, the three main reasons to get excited about Burroughs can be listed as follows:

His contention and careful working through the thesis that language is a virus.
Interestingly, in contradistinction to the APE gnawing away at Mark K-P, Burroughs says that the id and the super-ego are separate parasitic invasions; the latter occupying the place where the ego used to reside and the former being the site of the attack by the language virus. He conjectures that the language virus was initially a beneficial symbiont but, being super-paranoid, he claims that all symbiotic relationships inevitably mutate to into parasitic ones (an understandable position what with all those arab boys ripping him off). Consequently the language virus is now positively harmful forcing thought into patterns which impinge upon the behaviour of the host. The virus makes its presence felt by the constant internal monologue which occurs in the human mind, meaning that it is impossible to escape control unless one develops techniques to temporarily shut down the internal monologue. The rest of the time, the id is controlling the organism by pumping a stream of orders into the brain.

At this point, people are undoubtedly shouting ‘It’s a metaphor you twat! He doesn’t mean it literally!’ Well, ermm, yes he does actually, which brings me to the second reason.

Burroughs the magician
Whilst commentators seem to be able to cope with the drug (ab)use, pederasty, and hanging, the thing that many of them baulk is the fact that Burroughs’ belief in a magical universe meant that he spent the greater part of his life systematically experimenting with magical practices. From the Paris workings with Brion Gysin via (ahem) Scientology, orgone theory, and anything else he came across, all the way to the end of his life. He even underwent a full initiation into the Illuminates of Thanateros when he was in his late seventies. Consequently, the various invocations and magical practices described within his writings should be taken at face value; they are not just some sort of Swiftian satire on the modern world.

The cut ups
Bill’s big innovation drags literature into the Twentieth Century – Hoorah! The trouble with the cut ups is that they are a good idea, but pretty shit when you actually have to wade through them. I would call them a failed experiment. Be honest now, do they really have the effect upon you that Burroughs claimed? They seem to work much better in any medium other than writing. If you see the films he made with Anton Balch, you get a good idea of the sort of thing that he intended, but it just doesn’t come across in the books. Of course, he more or less abandoned them in the later books, so perhaps (as some have suggested) he came to see them as a dead end. On the other hand, he was under pressure from his publisher to cease them because sales were declining. Did Bill really sell out and write Cities of the Red Night to give the public what they wanted? I don’t give a toss; I still prefer it to The Ticket That Exploded.

Somebody was commenting on Burroughs versus Beckett: When they met and Burroughs described the cut up method to him, Beckett is reputed to have said “That’s not writing; it’s plumbing.” Beckett's got a point, but the fact is that Burroughs could produce pages of dense unreadable prose in a much shorter time than the months that it took Beckett to compress his later writings into something with a very similar effect. Engineers are always more productive than artists...

Posted by johneffay at August 27, 2004 11:16 PM | TrackBack
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