Friday, January 28, 2011

William S. Burroughs: One Man's Dream

 Francis Bacon, Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950

Through The Soft Machine, which predates A Clockwork Orange (1962) and Clarke/Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), one sees the world through pederastic eyes: there are those who get it and those who give it. And it’s not just because of the literal passages. The world is divided between the powerful and the powerless. People are shown to be either at the mercy of an oppressive regime, or else the ruthless manipulators of it. Sometimes those manipulators are shown to be chimeras propped up by an unchecked mechanism, and sometimes the oppressed one turns out to be a subversive seed, but always what prevails is a system of coercion. It’s like Jack Henry Abbott’s description of prison society: the first thing you do is look for a weapon. Or else be prepared to become a victim.

If anyone seems to elude this scenario, however vaguely and obliquely, it is the doctors which “flicker in and out of focus like an old film”,  who use their knowledge of drugs to slip in and out of the system like insects. One is tempted to see them as stand-ins for the author. The blurb states that the novel “cuts through the glib acceptance of the best-of-all-possible planets: the sexy, “scientifically” controlled, mass-media society”, and it certainly does that with acidic satire. But like all forms of anarchy or nihilism it offers nothing to replace what it attacks. Sodomy to replace the war of the sexes? Illegal drugs to replace pharmaceuticals, booze and professional sports? Warring gangs to replace corporate power? Burroughs does not offer these as an alternative, his novel is an attack, the blackest of all possible satires, but at the same time we know what his tastes were, so the question hangs.

Burroughs enters and leaves his novels through the doctors, a little like the way a certain kind of artist operates in society: neither quite a part of it nor outside it either (no one can be outside it). In general terms, I find the view of the doctor as a door through which Burroughs enters and leaves the novel a useful way of getting a grip on the phenomenon, that being the remarkable existence of these novels on the one hand, and on the other the enigma of the man who made them. He was someone who spent a lot of time in crummy nondescript rooms sitting at a typewriter, or lying around high on drugs, or having—one imagines—not so universe-exploding sex. The value is in contemplating the nature of artistic creativity, particularly the artist in society (I think Cronenberg understood this). 

However, unless one is entranced by his vision, there is not enough here to sustain a prolonged interest. By that I mean the kind of deep and sustained reading one might give to a writer of ideas. Burroughs is at his best when he invents monsters in a vernacular voice, making him a contemporary Bosh. His writing can be very good, but writing alone is not enough, and there are problems with his techniques. To say, as Burroughs does about the cut-up technique, that by putting two spliced texts together, thus producing a “walkie-talkie” effect, is to “write in present time” is at worst a gimmick and at best a form of impressionism. The ostentatious cut-up sections of The Soft Machine bog it down in an incoherence that belabors the point, which could be illustrated with more economy. As Barthelme said, a building falls on the reader.

Burroughs reads like rock ‘n roll to me, the fast, aggressive, quick-changing kind. Here it must be said—the band that named itself after The Soft Machine couldn’t be more different than the novel. Rock music dictates how it is to be listened to, and Burroughs dictates how he is to be read. Lest we forget, Burroughs warns us: “Glad to have you aboard reader, but remember there is only one Captain of this subway.” Even though his novels are cut up and pieced together, their language propels the reader along. Rock music has a drug-like quality to it, that is, a quality akin to being habituated to a certain substance or food. When you listen to it a lot, and get very accustomed to it, switching to another form of music can take a little effort. One becomes habituated to the aggression, the beat, the pulse. To some degree it takes you over, like a drug—the point being you need not put a lot of effort into it. And that’s the way The Soft Machine reads—it’s easy, the mind is placed on a track and Burroughs takes you for a ride. This is fun, but the ideal reading experience is a meditation in which the reader actually participates (the same goes for a meditative or a playful kind of music, be it classical or jazz). Make no mistake reader, Burroughs is doing it to you.

The final chapter, Cross the Wounded Galaxies, stands out for me as an exemplary use of the imagination crossing space and time. Burroughs seems to be saying that the ego is something one chokes on in attempting this crossing, that even as the self is dispelled, something like a universal self is discovered, yet without ever overshadowing the primal appetites. Indeed, this may be the universal self. Burroughs suggests that we, at bottom, are a complex of primal appetites. If so, what knowledge can one derive from such a conclusion? Burroughs doesn't tell you. In the end he seems to urge, this is my dream, the implication for the reader being,  dream your own.
One must not handle Burroughs casually. He’s a potent drug and he knows it. Georges Bataille once commented that he respected people who were deeply offended by Sade over those who defended him. I feel the same about the hipsters who declare a romantic love of artists like Burroughs, who once said, “I hate criminals.” Is the hanging orgasm—one of the most recurring images of the book—solely a metaphor for ego-death? People have died as a result of pursuing this thrill.
Look at Burroughs, the man. He remained standing, a man. Dream your own dream, don’t try and live another man’s dream.


  1. I'll admit to having never been tempted by Burroughs. I admire you in taking on the challenge, and your analysis of him and this book are intriguing. Here is one of many observations you made that I found fascinating:

    "Burroughs enters and leaves his novels through the doctors, a little like the way a certain kind of artist operates in society: neither quite a part of it nor outside it either (no one can be outside it)."

    I think you make good sense when you say "no one can be outside of" society, and it's particularly interesting to think on that given my impression of Burroughs as someone who thought he was. Curious fellow, Burroughs.

  2. Certainly a curious fellow, a real mixed bag, in some ways conservative, in others subversive. But I think that's what keeps me interested.

    I was thinking about writing another post in light of the fact that I followed a post about Martin Luther king's dream with one about William S. Burroughs' dream, which is a rather jarring juxtaposition. But I think (I hope) I made it clear that dreams should be greeted in different ways, depending on what they are. The two aren't really incompatible, in the sense that to follow a dream like King's, it's necessary, or at least helpful, to understand a dream like Burroughs', remembering that Burroughs wrote from the platform of an inheritance from a well established white name.

  3. Hey, you! I was gobsmacked by Francine. Why did it disappear?

  4. You know how it is, Laura. I was taking commas out and putting them back in. I figured it needed more work.

  5. I hope you will follow on that thought (the two dreams). It would definitely make an interesting read--and, as I get to know you a bit, one that perhaps only you could pull off!

  6. Comparing this to reading Rock 'n Roll is apt. Most Rock 'n Roll lyrics are atrocious when read. Full of half-constructed sentiment, quotable and poorly bolted together. Not unlike every nihilistic paradigm I've encountered. That Burroughs might not be advocating a point of view, rather sharing his own, would be a saving grace.