Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
For too long I considered the 1970s a period of stagnation for William Burroughs. This is wrong on several levels. First of all, Burroughs was in motion geographically, particularly early on in the decade. The move from London to New York City in 1973 was one of the most pivotal of his life. This willingness to change addresses highlights the fact that despite being on the cusp of retirement age he was far from settling down. Not only was he on the move geographically, he was still evolving creatively. This was a period of intense productivity, although most of it is generally viewed as transitional work such as Port of Saints and Exterminator!. Burroughs’ ideas and worldview were in flux. It could be argued that he was stuck creatively, blocked, but in an effort to break out of this impasse, he was clearly open to new possibilities and opportunities. A single project dominates the entire decade, which for me represents his attempt to articulate a definitive statement of his personal and creative worldview: Ah Pook Is Here, a collaboration with Malcolm Mc Neill, unfinished and unpublished in its full glory, and maybe because of this fact, remains Burroughs’ Gesamtkunstwerk, his total work of art.
As envisioned by Burroughs and Mc Neill, Ah Pook Is Here encompassed the performing arts, literature, and the visual arts. For the most part, the project has been described as a comic book or proto-graphic novel, but Burroughs makes clear Ah Pook was broader and more ambitious than that. Burroughs writes in the essay “Les Voleurs”:
Look at the surrealist moustache on the Mona Lisa. Just a silly joke? Consider where this joke can lead. I had been working with Malcolm Mc Neill for five years on an illustrated book entitled Ah Pook Is Here, and we used the same idea: Hieronymus Bosch as the background for scenes and characters taken from the Mayan codices and transformed into modern counterparts. That face in the Mayan Dresden Codex will be the barmaid in this scene, and we can use the Vulture God over here. Bosch, Michelangelo, Renoir, Monet, Picasso — steal anything in sight. You want a certain light on your scene? Lift it from Monet. You want a 1930s backdrop? Use Hopper.
In addition to literature and painting, there are elements of film as well, particularly in the sense of storybooking, to say nothing of editing techniques like montage.
To me the most important aspect of Ah Pook is an art form that I have never seen associated with Burroughs’ work: hentai. In the West, hentai generally refers to pornographic animation or comics of Japanese origin. Ah Pook Is Here is a Garden of Sexual Delights in the tradition of Bosch, a sexual carnival in the tradition of Rabelais, and a Garden of Eden before the Fall. The book expresses Burroughs’ sexual obsessions, fears, and fantasies. There is a strong tradition of sexually explicit comics in North America, such as underground comix and Tijuana bibles. In fact, the work of comix artists such as R. Crumb are a definite influence on Ah Pook Is Here, but what interests me in the context of hentai is not just its link to sexual perversion but the etymology of the Japanese hen meaning change, weird, or strange, and tai meaning attitude or appearance. As such the word can also mean metamorphosis as well as abnormality. Ah Pook Is Here also serves as a sexual playground or laboratory where Burroughs can experiment with and explore his fluid ideas on sexuality and gender.
The key image in this Garden of Delights is the Reddies: “the chicks with dicks” that seem so out of place in the Burroughsian universe that Mc Neill felt compelled to make clear the fact that the androgyny in Ah Pook Is Here came directly from Burroughs himself. Mc Neill writes
The “chicks with dicks” thing has come up several times and of course I’ve had to clarify that this was a BILL BURROUGHS book! These were GUYS with breasts. There were a couple of times when it was suggested that hermaphrodites weren’t part of Bill’s repertoire and that maybe I’d got it wrong — or that being straight and all I was just extemporizing. For the record then (quoting from Ah Pook Is Here):
Old Sarge: “All right Audrey you and Ouab fuck out a red skunk boy on the double.”
Audrey and Ouab fuck in a pink cloud of porno pictures. Emaciated and comatose they curl around a pulsing pink egg. The egg splits and out steps a red boy with female breasts, an egg at his left nipple. A sweet rotten musky smell fills the barracks…
“We are known as Reddies” the boy says. He squirms as the egg swells and splits. Out steps another boy with an egg at each nipple.
It is tempting to see the Reddies merely as Mc Neill putting a feminine element on Burroughs’ Wild Boy fantasy in an attempt to inject a heterosexual element into the text. Such a view is possible, but in my opinion androgyny plays a large role in Burroughs’ vision for Ah Pook Is Here in terms of Burroughs’ thoughts on Mayan culture, reproduction, genetic engineering and sexual conditioning, his son, Billy, gender, and Judeo-Christian ideology; thoughts that were particularly unstable and under revision and development in the decade of the 1970s.
In order to understand the apocalyptic vision of Ah Pook Is Here, we have to step back to 1968. Burroughs is generally regarded as a cynic, but like many in the late 1960s he found himself caught up in the belief that the world was on the brink of revolutionary change. The dominant world order seemed doomed. Burroughs’ harrowing experience at the 1968 Democratic Convention proved to him that the established system was crumbling. He wrote to Antony Balch that the two most important developments in Chicago were the joining of blacks and whites in a non-communist revolt and a spirit of sexual freedom and permissiveness that extended to frank representations of homosexuality. Regarding pornography Burroughs wrote,
[C]omplete breakdown of censorship. There are shops all over town now where you can buy pictures of naked boys with hard ons step right up and take your prick displayed on the counter. And there is also a selection of home movies with the actors hard on the cover. What is different from movies like “The Men” is that this is legal and therefore competitive. Instead of horrible looking Soho Jews there are beautiful kids jacking off ecetera. We could cut these movies in with the Cut Ups and show the result publically. We could cut the sex films in with newsreels and street shots and pop singers. How long this God sent opportunity will last I don’t know. No doubt our creeping opponents will try to crack down on “smut.” If that happens we can put a protest riot in the streets.
On one level, Ah Pook Is Here was an attempt to realize “this God sent opportunity.” In it, Burroughs “cut sex films in with newsreels.”
Yet on another level by 1970, the year Burroughs began collaborating with Mc Neill, the dream of the 1960s was over, the threat of violence against the government perverted into acts of self-mutilation such as the Manson murders, Altamont, and the accidental deaths of three Weathermen in a bomb explosion. The backlash against the spirit of 1968 that would crest in the Reagan Years was already in motion by 1970. Like many of his generation, Burroughs became disillusioned by the failure of the 1960s, but in Chicago, he had caught a glimpse of the apocalypse and stood at the gates of a new age.
In addition, by 1970 Burroughs had a similar experience in his creative life. The 1960s represented the highpoint of Burroughs’ creative life. He had his hands in every form of media available: books, magazines, film and video, LPs, audio tape, readings, Happenings. Anything seemed possible. Burroughs’ creative ideal was a merging of text and image that expanded upon his three column and scrapbook work, like Time, APO-33, or The Dead Star into an artists’ book format that expanded beyond the boundaries and limitations of the traditional novel and incorporated the content and structure of film, instructional manuals, pictorial art, illustrated books, comics, poetry, and musical scores. In short, Burroughs, like Mallarmé as theorized by Maurice Blanchot, dreamed of the ideal book, the book to come.
In the 1960s, The Third Mind was that book — an attempt at an all-encompassing statement of Burroughs’ philosophy of art. For a brief period in the 1960s, Burroughs held the belief that the physical realization of his ideal book was possible and imminent. The Third Mind was to be published by Grove Press, marketed as a high-end art book, and priced at $10. Yet by 1970, Burroughs realized that the project was stillborn. It was economically and technically impossible. Burroughs’ dream of a revolution in society and art seemed over. Ah Pook Is Here represents Burroughs’ last-ditch attempt to capture the hope and terror of 1968 in a physical object, not just a book but THE book. Ah Pook Is Here would be Burroughs’ Book of Revelations. As such, the Reddies represent Burroughs’ angels of the apocalypse: harbingers of salvation and destruction and objects of fear and fascination.
1970 was also the year of publication for a book of interviews with Burroughs called The Job. This book contains one of Burroughs’ most famous and most widely interpreted statements. Burroughs called women a “biological mistake.” This statement and others like it on the role of women haunted Malcolm Mc Neill throughout his collaboration with Burroughs. For many critics and fans of Burroughs, particularly heterosexuals or feminists, the statement has proven troubling and confusing.
Over the years, Burroughs clarified the statement considerably, stating that the biological mistake is specifically the separation of gender into male and female, and more particularly, the binary opposition of gender and sexual preference as presented by Western philosophy and Judeo-Christian religion. As Burroughs was aware, this opposition and separation was not always the case even in the Judeo-Christian tradition. God created Adam and Eve in his own image. They have been considered sexless or androgynous in the developing history of Christianity. When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, their punishment was the division of the sexes, the separation of male and female identity. Radical Judeo-Christian sects attempted to integrate the ideal state of androgyny into their teaching, but more conservative forces, like that of John the Baptist, prevailed and suppressed the forbidden knowledge of a merging of the sexes.
Gender in flux, a fluid conception of sexuality, was an ideal for Burroughs that both fascinated and disgusted him. This is most apparent in his Yage visions where all races and sexes shift and merge. Burroughs in one Yage vision views himself as a “Negress.” This is not to say that Burroughs wished to be black or a woman. Instead he felt the ideal state in terms of sexuality and gender was one of possibility and flux. Heterosexuality / homosexuality, male / female, patriarchal / matriarchal. For Burroughs these are not either / or propositions, but both / and possibilities. Western, Judeo-Christian society is based on suppressing this truth. The exposing of the arbitrary, and in fact false, nature of such oppositions would mean this society’s destruction. As such, the Reddies, as “chicks with dicks,” represent angels of destruction, a plague.
On the other hand, for other societies, the Reddies are gods of salvation. The Mayans are one such civilization. Ah Pook Is Here is a re-envisioning of the Mayan Codices and Calendar, so not surprisingly Burroughs incorporated the belief systems of Mayan civilization. Since the 1970s, cultural anthropologists have corrected European projections on Mesoamerican culture. One of the most interesting areas of investigation is that of gender and sexuality. In Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica (2000), Prof. Rosemary Joyce reveals her findings that the Classic Mayan concept of gender was fluid and not biologically determined. For example, one could be considered androgynous at birth, sexually definitive in middle age, and then again androgynous in old age. In such a view, gender is tied to pregnancy. Mayan gods are generally viewed as androgynous. The Reddies are Burroughs’ version of the Mayan Gods and an alternative to the Judeo-Christian concept of God or a return to God’s and his creation’s original, suppressed androgynous nature.
In interviews throughout the 1970s, Burroughs expressed his belief that the global balance was in peril due to overpopulation. The nuclear family and matriarchal societies exacerbated the problem since they functioned merely to produce children. This had an economic element in that the production of children feeds into the ethos of a consumer capitalist economy. Those with families have a responsibility to provide essentials, as well as leisure goods, for their children so they subsume their individual desires in order to benefit from and fit into the economic system.
The Reddies are Burroughs’ fantasy of escape from this trap. The Reddies are not hermaphrodites as they do not have male and female genitalia. Burroughs is clearly phallocentric. He stated numerous times to Mc Neill “the penis is the star of the show.” The co-opted feminine is represented by the breast and the egg. The vagina is a site of fear and repulsion because it is the site of birth. Similarly pregnancy is particularly repulsive to Burroughs. Mc Neill recounts a conversation with Burroughs that revealed that his disgust with women and heterosexual sex was tied to the threat of pregnancy. With the Reddies, progeny hatch from eggs fully developed and self-sufficent. The fear of pregnancy is thus tied to a fear of fatherhood.
Burroughs’ concerns with overpopulation may have been related to his own personal problems resulting from his becoming a father. Joan’s pregnancy with Billy forced Burroughs into a nuclear family (no matter how unconventional) that limited his personal and creative freedom. With Joan’s death and the shedding of familial responsibility, Burroughs had been free to pursue his own creative interests. In the 1970s, Billy was becoming increasingly needy and unpredictable. When Burroughs arrived in the United States in 1973, the door was opened to increased contact with his son. The re-appearance of Billy in his life endangered Burroughs’ relationship with the children he understood and nurtured most dearly: his books and his literary characters. The Reddies, an androgynous golem programmed to destroy the nuclear family and the personification of a fantasy of masculine replication without responsibility, can be viewed as one aspect of the Ugly Spirit that possessed Burroughs on the night of September 5, 1951, the date of the “William Tell Incident,” and a solution to the new threat of parental responsibility in the form of Billy.
By 1976, Billy would become a parody of the Reddies and a grim reminder to Burroughs of the horror and cost of being a father. Billy was one of the first recipients of a liver transplant. To this day, such a process is incredibly invasive, destroying one’s sense of privacy and self. Billy received the liver of a young woman killed in a car accident. After the operation on steroids and a multitude of other medications, littered with scars and filled with tubes, Billy felt like Frankenstein’s Monster. In his writing, Billy mentions his feelings of androgyny after receiving a woman’s liver. He was a cyborg or, in a sense, a Reddie. Again the Reddie is not a hermaphrodite but more akin to a transsexual “built” through estrogen treatments and surgical implants.
Is it too much to suggest that the sight of Billy in his physical being and as a reminder of Burroughs’ status as a biological father forced Burroughs to cleanse his already ambivalent attitude toward the feminine from his concept of sexuality and gender? Burroughs’ move away from the fluid conception of gender and sexuality represented by the Reddies and the ideal version of Ah Pook Is Here is contained in the edition of Ah Pook Is Here published by John Calder in 1979. This slim book of just over 170 pages, like Billy, is a parody of the original vision of the book. The visual, pictorial aspect of the work, the feminine aspect, is excised leaving only the phallocentric text. Burroughs’ dream of an ideal book of text and image was finally over. From 1979 on, Burroughs published for corporate presses books that were conventional as physical objects. The presence of the feminine, the visual, was separated from his novels. Yet this side of Burroughs remained an important part of his creative life. It is at this point that his interest in easel painting developed, becoming a pursuit divorced from his writing.
Some might state: Doesn’t a work such as The Cat Inside contradict your point? Actually, The Cat Inside as traditional livre d’artiste reinforces it. Like Billy, this book parodies the Reddie, a Frankenstein Monster that awkwardly joins text and image. They are in fact separate and in opposition as art forms. They do not cohere. This is clear in Apocalypse, a catalog to a Keith Haring exhibition, in which Burroughs provides the text. Although they comment and relate to each other, text and image are segregated and separate. You get the sense that Haring and Burroughs have no contact with each other and are from different worlds. The collaboration is fabricated (for the market). The subject matter, Apocalypse, is a watering down of Ah Pook Is Here, a parody of the Revelations of the Mc Neill / Burroughs collaboration. The same holds true for The Valley. The fear of overpopulation, the horror birth, the treatment of children as problem, yet the fear of sterility comes out in Burroughs’ written portion of The Valley, but again this collaboration lacks the depth of Ah Pook. Burroughs’ obsessions are not integrated into the form and content of The Valley as a material object. To return to the boom in sex films in the 1960s that inspired Burroughs to create Ah Pook, the relationship between Haring and Burroughs is “competitive,” as in designed to stand out in a glutted art market full of merchandise and not conductive to two distinct, powerful artists creating a third mind. The Valley is a celebrity sex tape of two famous people jerking each other off. The version of Ah Pook Is Here made with Mc Neill was Burroughs’ last serious image / text collaboration; the later ones are not true interactive collaborations / communications (like earlier Ginsberg / Gysin / Nuttall / Balch / Mc Neill collaborations were) at all, they are two people talking at each other.
Ah Pook Is Here, unfinished and forever unrealizable, remains in Burroughs’ oeuvre as an ideal, forever a work-in-progress that attempts to fully express his androgynous creativity. The textual and visual joined in one coherent whole. If Ah Pook Is Here were ever completed, it would have been a Reddie, an apocalyptic angel / demon that embodied Burroughs’ final artistic statement; the fulfillment of his destiny as a writer. It would have been his last act of creativity. There would be nothing else to do. He could retreat into silence. Yet Burroughs could never let that happen, he was too addicted to expressing himself creatively, to making visible that which was hidden within him. Ah Pook would have revealed the mysteries of Burroughs and the universe to all, leaving him with nothing else to say, and thus in the process would have destroyed both artist and his world. Ah Pook Is Here is a ruin, a fragment. The shattered pages are dust and ashes which will never receive the Breath of Life.