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 Antony 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 11:21 PM | TrackBack

Good stuff. I agree 100%.

But don't see the case for him as a rationalist, cold or otherwise, here!

Posted by: that's all very well at August 28, 2004 01:29 AM

That's because I'm on the irrationalist side of the collective ;)

Some of his projects do have a sort of programmatic rationalism about them, but I think that Burroughs was just a romantic at heart. Chopping off the tip of your finger to impress some bloke you fancy has never struck me as particularly rational.

Posted by: johneffay at August 28, 2004 02:00 AM

but if it means you get what you *want* it might make sense....

But I'm the sort of person that drunkenly screams at people that I'm a rationalist...

Attractive, no?!

Posted by: infinite thought at August 28, 2004 02:08 AM

was just reading some of his journalism, and it's great fun. nothing like the persona he puts on for his 'novels', just good, sharp writing. As for MAGIC - strictly for people with too much time on their hands and borderline schizophrenics (of which old BIll surely was one). And of course, we all know that the one thing all heroin addicts have in common is an inexplicable interest in Alistair Crowley...

Posted by: loaf at August 28, 2004 08:32 PM

I thought the move away from cut-ups in later Burroughs was a move away from the mechanistic towards the artistic i.e. that having experimented with the use of cut-ups with the word hoard, he could later imitate their effect in a directed fashion without necessarily getting out the scissors..

Posted by: eoghan at August 29, 2004 05:24 AM

>As for MAGIC - strictly for people with too >much time on their hands

What, like blogging?

Posted by: Douglas at August 29, 2004 11:32 AM

I'm not suggesting that just because Burroughs invokes Pazuzu at the beginning of Cities of the Red Night, we should all be out there doing the same thing. What I am suggesting is that his writings are infused with a magical current which, if one is interested in Burroughs, one should take into account. To simply read him as an eccentric theoretician of language and an accomplished satirist (which is often the way he is read) is massively reductive.

That is one of the reasons given for Burroughs abandoning the cut ups, and it may well be true for all I know. However, he definitely was under pressure from publishers to produce something more accessible and the final trilogy is subject to serious editing from Grauerholz (with Burroughs' permission). I would be very interested to know exactly how he edited them.

Burroughs never moved completely away from the mechanistic: hence the use of shotguns and various automatic methods in his paintings.

Posted by: johneffay at August 29, 2004 11:47 AM

douglas: ouch! But you surely aren't defending crowley twats are you? Oh dear, you are...

john: I only read for pleasure, and many of Bill's books don't provide that for me. I don't think either his or joyce's 'innovations' amount to a hill of beans!

Posted by: loaf at August 29, 2004 10:16 PM

>But you surely aren't defending crowley twats are you? Oh dear, you are...

I never defend twats. In fact I was not aware that I was defending Crowley. But I do wonder whether you are familar enough with his work to pass judgement upon it when you cannot even spell his Christian name...

Posted by: Douglas at August 29, 2004 11:26 PM

Burroughs always seemed like a romantic; restless, shifting, invisible. He certainly seemed to see romance in the streets of Paris and Tangier and even London (this romance I seem to miss) and I think he wrote romantically as well...his writing is incredibly lyrical from Naked Lunch onwards, as is his take on the spoken word - people in his books said things not just as a form of communication but as a (I'm sure) literal form of magic. This explains why PTV and TOPY were so interested in him. And while he may was attracted to crowleyism / croneyism, I'm sure, I reckon that he was far more interested in the simple forms of magic which come from looking differently at the world - the mirror gazing experiments with Gysin et al are an example here and these seem to betray an essentially poetic heart which puts him in my mind alongside the likes of Dylan Thomas as writers who are in love with the word horde. Yeah, I can't read the Ticket that Exploded or Soft Machine all the way through either (and they don't really 'work' as novels) but I guess if you look at them as a collection of magical poetic observations - like a poets anthology almost - then I guess they don't really need to. After all, wasn't even Naked Lunch (in my opinion a relatively coherent 'novel' written as 'routines' rather than chapters?

Posted by: Loki at August 29, 2004 11:30 PM

After all, wasn't even Naked Lunch (in my opinion a relatively coherent 'novel' written as 'routines' rather than chapters?

That's right. It was edited into novel form by Ginsberg (mostly) and Kerouac.

I think everything else you say is spot on. If you want to see what a romantic sensibility Burroughs had (without having to plough through loads of mush about cats), check out the letters.

As for Crowley, and to head off Douglas before he starts quoting Liber Al vel Legis at us ;) I'm not aware of Burroughs being particularly interested in Uncle Aleister despite taking all that heroin.

Posted by: johneffay at August 29, 2004 11:48 PM