Kulchur and “The Conspiracy”

Tags: , , , ,

Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

Yugen, Floating Bear, Kulchur. I always think of these three magazines together. One reason for this is the editorial and creative presence of the then Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka). The other impetus behind these magazines is Donald Allen’s New American Poetry Anthology or, more correctly, the poetic ferment of the 1950s that made that anthology not only possible but absolutely necessary. Kulchur is essential reading. I have written about Yugen and Floating Bear before, and now the time has come to talk about Kulchur.

I admit that I ignore Kulchur compared to the other two magazines. I cherish my Floating Bears and even have a soft spot for my Yugens, It basically comes down to judging a magazine by its cover. Mimeo (Floating Bear) is more fun to me than offset (Kulchur): I have a prejudice that way. Closer examination reveals that this preference can blind one to the joys of a useful and important document of what was once called “New Writing.” If Floating Bear is a gossip sheet / newspaper and Yugen is a poetry magazine, Kulchur is the New American Poetry’s critical arm. Gilbert Sorrentino (editor of Kulchur for several issues) and Lita Hornick (editor and patron of Kulchur from issue three on) have written histories of Kulchur in the Little Magazine in America essay collection published by Pushcart Press. This collection is absolutely mandatory reading for anyone interested in the history of the little magazine and post-WWII literature. Less interesting to me is the he said / she said bickering and bad blood between all the editors.

Hornick, a patron, student of Dylan Thomas and modern poetry, art collector, socialite, editor, scenester, et al, is definitely a fascinating and frustrating figure. Leafing through the twenty issues of Kulchur, Hornick’s hand is quite visible. Her memoir, The Green Fuse, is part literary / art history and part Warholian diary. Amongst all the boring and repetitious crap about dinner and cocktail parties is some great behind-the-scene stuff on the avant garde. As Burroughs’ whirlwind tour of New York in 1965 shows, the cocktail and dinner parties went hand in hand with the readings and art shows. It all blended and worked together in a type of ecosystem that made the avant garde possible. The commerce of the avant garde. Hornick helped make this fragile world go round. Margret Anderson and Jean Heap of Little Review, Harriet Monroe of Poetry or the salon of Mabel Luhan Dodge provide the historical antecedents. The process continues today. This is Tom Wolfe territory and to be honest I have trouble getting my mind around it.

Personally, I dislike the direction Hornick took the magazine, if you judge a magazine by its cover so to speak. The first issue of Kulchur looks a lot like an issue of Yugen. The chapbook feel appeals to me. Rereading Garrit Lansing’s introduction to Letters to Gloucester Times made me see the initial issue in a new light. Lansing noted the power of Olson’s eyes, therefore the premier issue reminds me of Olson looking over and approving the content. He was on the editorial board. More importantly, my mind jumps to Olson’s line “polis is eyes.” Olson’s sense of community permeates the magazine. Of course, Kulchur also cast a critical eye on the contemporary scene.

By issue two, changes were in order and Kulchur got glossy and cleaned up. The look shifted from the chapbook of Yugen to the more polished design of Evergreen Review. By issue four, the distinctive appearance and quarterly schedule of Kulchur was set. I suspect Hornick instituted the black and white visuals that defined the magazine until its demise after 20 issues. Maybe not, but I associate the new design with her presence. The arrival of Hornick lightened the magazine. Issue four onward seems to have more white than black. The Schleifer issues, I am thinking of two and three, are darker. Black is the dominate color. Schleifer’s magazine presents a more politically charged and bleaker vision (see issue three, for example). Hornick introduced gossip and the bright rooms of the gallery showroom.

Still the later covers are fantastic with representative work by the likes of Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers and Robert Indiana as well as photos from underground film and dance. The message is the same as the first issue. Kulchur provides a snapshot of what‚s new in the Arts. Kulchur documented, critiqued, and memorialized. I prefer the rougher look of Kulchur 1 along with the surreal cover that winks at those in the know.

In his essay on Kulchur and Neon, Sorrentino noted Kulchur‘s shift in content and focus. Sorrentino bemoaned the increased involvement of Hornick arguing that the magazine lost force from roughly issue 11 onward. The revolving door nature of the masthead tells this story. For example by issue 20, Hornick was the sole editor. I am sure there were all types of literary politics behind who was placed on the masthead. There is definitely a change in content but not focus. If Leroi Jones and the New American Poetry hover over Yugen, Floating Bear, and Kulchur, the New York art scene remains another dominant factor. More than Yugen and Floating Bear, Kulchur chronicled the visual and performing arts in New York. Lita Hornick was a creature of the New York art world to be sure. The early issues without her influence were heavy on the Beats. Burroughs appeared in some fashion in three of the first four issues. The Black Mountain crowd who dispersed to New York City after the demise of the college in 1957 was also represented as are the first generation New York School. Yet as Hornick got involved, her constant search for the new as a collector and patron took shape. This is the changing shape of artistic New York. Later issues focused more on second generation New York Schoolers with a Tulsa flavor, like Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Joe Brainard.

Most telling is the shift from Frank O’Hara to Andy Warhol. In Andy Warhol, Poetry and Gossip, which is essential reading on the New York little magazine scene, Reva Wolf analyzes the literary politics of the Kiss cover and what it states about the strained relationship between O’Hara and Warhol. The tensions between them can be seen as representative of a shift in the New York avant garde. Abstract Expressionist to Pop. 1950s to 1960s. I would suspect alcohol to hard drugs, MOMA to Factory, different definitions of gay, different sections of the city, maybe textual to visual. It is a subject I know little about but would like to learn more. Any information and comments would be appreciated.

To me, Kulchur seems to have evolved along with New York not to have lost focus. Issue 20 still provided the essence of the New York scene or, better stated, of “a” New York scene, and could serve as a time capsule. I find that the later Kulchurs stick to the tenets of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound in utilizing the magazine format as a means to disseminate and define an artistic community. The community just changed over time. I have written about some of the points above in talking about Floating Bear, Yugen, printing techniques and Fuck You / Kulchur covers. Please see them for more information.

A close examination of Kulchur reveals many interesting points about William Burroughs’ early publishing history and critical reception. Burroughs was something of a constant in the early issues, but also appeared as late as issue fifteen. Burroughs’ work was the first piece in the premier issue. It is interesting just how many times Burroughs contributed to the initial salvo of a literary magazine. Big Table, New Departures, Cleft, Insect Trust Gazette, Gnaoua to name a few. In many cases, Burroughs was the driving force for a magazine’s creation. In others, the presence of Burroughs helped define the magazine’s voice and stance. Burroughs symbolized something, or maybe more to the point stood against something. That something could be defined a myriad of ways: censorship, the literary Establishment, the white picket fence of Middle Class America, the Outsider, the avant garde, the counterculture, drug culture, the Beats, the New American Story. In addition in 1960, Burroughs was much talked about but little read. Quite simply, his books were not available, so the little magazines provided an outlet for his work and in turn they could be assured of a hot selling product.

Burroughs contributed “The Conspiracy” to Kulchur 1. When booksellers and bibliographers discuss “The Conspiracy,” they all mention that the piece was part of the Naked Lunch manuscript but edited out for the Olympia Press edition. The 1958 Interzone manuscript shopped to City Lights and Olympia Press contained this brief section. The piece provided context to and extended from the Hauser and O’Brien conclusion to Naked Lunch. The decision on that conclusion is a story in itself, part of the myth regarding the publication of the novel. “The Conspiracy” later appeared in book form in Interzone, published by Viking in 1989. The required readings on “The Conspiracy” and the Hauser and O’Brien piece include Oliver Harris’s various articles and introductions for Junkie and The Yage Letters, as well as his book The Secret of Fascination; Carol Loranger’s article on the Naked Lunch text; Barry Miles and James Grauerholz’s introduction to Naked Lunch: The Restored Text; and James Grauerholz’s introduction to Interzone. Oliver Harris’s reading of “The Conspiracy” is particularly interesting. Harris writes,

“The Conspiracy” thematized the essential conflict between spontaneity and control — the dream and anti-dream drugs, East and West, forces of life and repression — within a master narrative well able to organize the disparate elements of his work in progress. But it is more than a question of narrative coherence. When Lee hides out in Mary’s flat off Columbia University, he gives her the alibi that he needs some solitude to “write his thesis.” A university campus is the ideal hideout for someone with a thesis, that is a coherent project. If “The Conspiracy” was a narrative about a theory, it points to Burroughs’ recurrent search for both a narrative and a theory to make his material accountable. In late 1957, he thought he had finally found one that worked, both scientifically and as an explanatory principle, which he called his “General Theory of Addiction”: “Incidentally, this theory resulted from the necessities of the novel.” Far from being incidental, this describes Burroughs’ typical working procedure, in which it is the material itself that gives rise to a theory to account for and develop it, at which point it starts to become counterproductive. In other words, “The Conspiracy” provided the kind of schema Burroughs kept looking for, and yet it’s for this very reason that in the end he aborted it.

Burroughs’ decision to excise this section from Naked Lunch maintained the veiled nature of the novel’s meaning. He avoided a narrative thread in terms of plot as well as a master narrative in terms of the novel’s message. Burroughs embraced mystery, ambiguity, and secrecy.

The appearance of “The Conspiracy” in Kulchur, therefore, raises some interesting questions. Why would Burroughs agree to the publication of this excised section of Naked Lunch before the novel was available in the United States? In a sense, “The Conspiracy,” even if it was not a part of the Olympia text, served as many readers’ first exposure to Burroughs and his work. As we see, the appearance in Kulchur was a defining text on many levels.

In 1960, Grove Press sat on the publication of Naked Lunch while laying the groundwork for the inevitable obscenity trial. “The Conspiracy” served as an exhibit in that trial in the court of critical and public opinion. This performed a similar function to “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness” and the “Letter from a Master Addict” that were appended to the Grove Press edition.

That which is obscure or seemingly without meaning is generally thought of as obscene. The FBI investigation of “Louie, Louie” is a case in point. The trials and tribulations of James Joyce is another. Naked Lunch contained graphic sex, drug use and profanity, but even more damaging was its ambiguous, contradictory, and mysterious nature. Critics and the public could not safely explain it away. In order to get published in the United States, Naked Lunch had to make sense and speak rationally. The “Deposition” and the “Letter from a Master Addict” presented the voice of an expert as well as introducing a moral message. The links to the satire of Swift or the hellish vision of Dante served a similar purpose.

As Harris argues, “The Conspiracy” laid bare the secret of the novel and baldly provides a key to its contents. In addition, it provided a narrative thread throughout the novel and a sense of closure. Writing Naked Lunch, Burroughs saw this as against his creative vision, but in getting the novel before the American public Burroughs needed to make concessions. Harris makes clear just how important an audience was for Burroughs’ creative process. “The Conspiracy” helped make Naked Lunch understandable to the general public and thus less likely to be labeled obscene.

The presence of “The Conspiracy,” an explicating text of sorts, fell in line with the critical thrust of Kulchur, thus making it an appropriate choice for the first issue. Burroughs writes as much as a critic here as a fiction writer. The piece provides insight into him as a writer and his theoretical framework. The piece also breaks down into manageable terms his confusing novel. In an interview Gilbert Sorrentino comments on Burroughs and Naked Lunch. He states,

Then there’s the school that thinks of Naked Lunch as a “satire” on authoritarianism and the state. But the text of Naked Lunch presents the reader with a classic aporia: it does not mean to say what we mean it to say. There is something vaguely “insincere” about it. By that I mean that Naked Lunch sends a number of conflicting messages, the most salient of which can be phrased — simplistically and reductively, I grant you — “Oh, how terrifying and horrible and impossible to tolerate is this destructive addiction to heroin… you dumb squares! So the referential function of the text works one way and metalingual function another. Naked Lunch, however, succeeds because of this conflict, i.e., Burroughs as good as tells the reader that the latter is in the hands of a con man, he is a mark. And what is the role of a mark? To believe the con, to think himself, as a matter of fact superior to the con. That’s precisely how he gets conned.

I want to make clear that Sorrentino was not on the editorial board for the first issue of Kulchur, but his comments help explain how “The Conspiracy” worked. Burroughs wrestled with the issue of what Naked Lunch meant and he ultimately decided to excise “The Conspiracy” because it said and defined too much. This is true to Burroughs’ vision as a writer, but in an effort to get Naked Lunch through the censor, Burroughs had to be very insincere. He had to con the courts by supplying an obvious meta-narrative and meaning to the novel, even one he felt uncomfortable with. Critics and the public had to feel superior to the material, i.e, categorize, understand and pin it down into stability and thus harmlessness. “The Conspiracy” helped this to occur. In my opinion, Naked Lunch is as much nostalgia, pornographic fantasy, and celebration of dark forces as it is political commentary, satire and anti-drug novel. Burroughs had to tone down the black magic and Delphic obscurity of the novel for publication.

“The Conspiracy” also paved the way for publication beyond Naked Lunch and provided a commentary on Burroughs’ entire writing project. The text linked back to the ending of Junkie with its discussion of Yage as the final fix. The hardboiled style of the piece looked back to Junkie as well. As Harris demonstrates in his writing on The Yage Letters, Burroughs utilized the little magazine as a laboratory to experiment with the form of that book and sneak it into publication. “The Conspiracy” touched on the themes of The Yage Letters allowing Burroughs to grapple with that material in a public forum. Finally, the paranoia of “The Conspiracy” introduced the reader to the conspiracy theories and Nova Mob themes of Soft Machine that were in progress in 1960. Burroughs immediately began work on Soft Machine after the late July publication of Naked Lunch. “The Conspiracy” also laid the groundwork for the science fiction fantasies of The Ticket That Exploded and The Soft Machine. “The Conspiracy” provided a bridge of sorts from Naked Lunch to the yet-to-be-published material and a link back to the work already available. In a sense, it provided a narrative to not only Naked Lunch, but also to Burroughs’ writing career up to that point.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 5 February 2007. Also see the companion pieces Kulchur Archive, Kulchur and “The Conspiracy”, and Kulchur 3.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *