William S. Burroughs’ “Abstracts”

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The “Abstracts” As an Attempt to Write the Immediate Image

By Dave Teeuwen

The “Abstracts” of 1969 are a series of seven writing experiments which William Burroughs developed in the writing of his novel The Wild Boys. He published these “Abstracts” that year in small-press journals and underground newspapers, his usual testing ground in the 1960s. Their unusual format of careful juxtaposition is already familiar to anyone who has read The Wild Boys. Added to the five “Abstracts” found in The Wild Boys (actually six Penny Arcade Peep Shows / “Abstracts,” if you include the reprint of an “Abstract” first published in the journal Intrepid), the number of published individual “Abstracts” comes to twelve.

William S. Burroughs, The Wild Boys, Grove Press, 1971Burroughs provides an introduction to what the reader is viewing in The Wild Boys, as Audrey enters the Penny Arcade Peep Show and seats himself in front of the four screens on which films are being projected: “Audrey looked at the screen in front of him. His lips parted and the thoughts stopped in his mind. It was all there on screen sight sound touch at once immediate and spectrally remote in past time.” This bit of framing is absent in the “Abstracts”. However, it is clear that they are pieces designed to silence the reader and make him think without words, to think only in images. The language is not there to provide meaning, but to provide pictures in the mind. The “Abstracts” are as close as Burroughs could take the English language towards being purely visual without literally drawing it all out.

Burroughs’ obsession with the power of visual writing systems, such as Mayan and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, comes out of this desire to convey meaning without the use of words. In The Third Mind he writes about hieroglyphics, “If you are able to look at what is front of you in silence, you will be able to write about it from a more perceptive viewpoint. What keeps you from seeing what is in front of you? Words for what is in front of you, which is not what is there. As Korzybski pointed out, whatever a chair may be, it is not a ‘chair’.” The “Abstracts” are Burroughs’ attempt to do the same with the English language through the device of writing a brief summary of an abstract film. (It is perhaps a subtle play on the typical scientific “abstract,” usually a brief overview of a longer paper or thesis, and at the same time an abstract film made of cut-ups, cut-ins, and jumping images.)

Throughout the 1960s, Burroughs dabbled in making / writing films and sound recordings, presciently seeing that the lines between film and the written word were fairly blurry. Many things you can do with film can also be done with words. His cut-ups during this period are an example. As he says in The Job, “Cut-ups have been used in film for a long time. In fact films are assembled in the cutting room. Like the painter film technicians can touch and handle their medium move pieces of it around and try out new juxtapositions.”

Burroughs explored this concept cinematically through his relationships with Antony Balch and Ian Sommerville. Though not all of them were cut up, Towers Open Fire, The Cut-ups and Bill and Tony are films that play with sound and image to explore what it means to see, hear, and experience. This was exactly the point of cutting up texts and films, and the “Abstracts” are just another extension of the experiment. They are each a small film made up of flashing imagery and short, quickly cut scenes reminiscent of the films Balch was making with Burroughs at this time.

There were other artists in the 1960s making films that are amazingly similar in visual imagery to what Burroughs was writing. The films of Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner are filled with cut-ins and disjointed imagery. Conner in particular, in his 1958 film A Movie, uses stock footage of war atrocities of the type we see described the “Abstracts.” These films use the aesthetics of German Abstract filmmakers of the 1920s, but with the post-war imagery that Burroughs exploited so effectively.

The abstract films of the 1920s point forward to the imagery found in Burroughs’ “Abstracts.” Hans Richter’s 1923 film Rhythm 23, for example, almost seems to be the very film Audrey sees as he sits in the chair in the Penny Arcade. Shapes move in towards the screen and then recede again. (“Objects and scenes move away and come in with a slow hydraulic movement always at the same speed” — The Wild Boys). New shapes come in, other shapes evolve into something, all of it in total silence. (Rhythm 23 was made before the sound era.) One has to wonder whether Burroughs saw the film. Given his favorite number in the title, he would certainly have considered this an intersection point.

This use of visual imagery and cutting away were new techniques in Burroughs’ effort to “rub out the word.” They lead the reader into silence as the images convey meaning without causing the formation of words in the mind. The shift from cutting up narrative imagery to describing cut-up, film-based imagery shows the evolution of Burroughs’ writing at this point in his career.

The “Abstracts” are as follows:

“Abstract,” Klacto/23 International, 1969

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Klacto 23 International

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Klacto 23 International
This long “Abstract” appears in The Wild Boys in a much shorter form as the beginning of the first Penny Arcade Peep Show chapter. The introduction of the four screens moving forward and backward immediately ties this “Abstract” to the Penny Arcade Peep Shows. Over six sets of four numbered images, Burroughs ties together nostalgic symbols of carnival midways, adolescent lust and ancient Egyptian scenes. Obviously, all of these themes recur throughout his work of this period. In this instance, however, the colorless prose and slight details of the piece are utilized to create stark pictures in the mind instead of narrative.

The repetition of the 1 2 3 4 (the way Antony Balch describes the process of putting together the disparate pieces of the film The Cut-Ups) over and over again brings to mind the Dianetics of L. Ron Hubbard and his theory of the Engram, which stresses repetition to dissolve ideas that block mental or emotional progress. In this case, the progress is adopting the ability to see and think in images, without words. This idea is taken to greater lengths in other “Abstracts.”

“Abstract,” Intrepid 14, 1969

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Intrepid

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Intrepid
This “Abstract” makes up the final Penny Arcade Peep Show chapter of The Wild Boys, and is likely to be the most familiar one. It is mostly based in an ancient Middle Eastern setting and describes the assassins of Alamout and their leader Hassan I Sabbah. The longest section, set in the Persian city of Resht in 1023, develops into a story about an assassin from Alamout, disguised as a gardener, who waits 10 years to carry out his mission to kill an army general who has been searching for Hassan I Sabbah.

Burroughs’ alter-ego Audrey also appears in this “Abstract”, which ties it to The Wild Boys. However, much of the content in the piece has little to do with the general themes found in the book.

“Abstract,” Fruit Cup, No. 0 (1969)

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Fruit Cup

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Fruit Cup

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Fruit Cup

This “Abstract” appears in The Burroughs File and may already be familiar to readers. In some ways, it is more of an essay than a fractured narrative like the other “Abstracts.” Instructions for disrupting media and power centers are outlined, echoing some of the ideas of Burroughs’ essay The Electronic Generation (a postscript of which follows this “Abstract” in both Fruit Cup and The Burroughs File). As in the Lip “Abstracts”, scientists are identified as callous and unfeeling, almost robot-like. “Finally a scientist is making interferon with one hand and malignant hepatitis with the other.”

Newspapers are also singled out as prophets of doom, creating the news they report by “reporting” on it before it happens. They are responsible for the events they describe, says Burroughs. Images of horror and destruction are listed as examples of what newspapers can create through the use of the Word.

This “Abstract” is somewhat more clinical than the others. It is similar to the first of the Lip pieces in that it approaches its subject more clinically than the strong narrative approach of Best & Company piece.

“Abstract,” Best & Company, 1969

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Best and Company

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Best and Company

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Best and Company
Structurally, this “Abstract” contains both narrative and colorless prose used in juxtaposition. This is unusual, an obvious continuation of the overall experiment. Burroughs seems to have defined two types of “Abstract” and then attempted a combination of the two in this instance.

This is the most narrative-driven of the “Abstracts.” It contains a long section based in an ancient Mayan civilization, a familiar theme in Burroughs’ novels. A storyline is developed quickly, concerning the workers overthrowing the priests, who go about arrayed in golden centipede and crab suits. The workers refuse to continue working and burn the codices of the priests, eliminating their power of control.

It also contains a familiar passage about how the Wild Boys grow new boys by using a small chunk of flesh from another boy. They have no names or navels, getting rid of the need for identity. Even among the more austere sections in the beginning there are some beautiful passages (“God points with index finger of left hand. The youth dies. A rose bush grows from his body.”). These are almost poetic when compared with the stark language of the other “Abstracts”.

“Abstract” 1 & 2, Lip, 1969

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Lip

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Lip

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Lip

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Lip

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Lip

The first of the two Lip “Abstracts” attempts to rid the reactive mind of all negativity, anger and disgust by bombarding the reader with multiple images in much the same way the Mikrokosmos piece does using the Engram to disperse negative thoughts. With Dianetics, Hubbard postulated that constant repetition of negative or frightening words and phrases (the Engram process) would render a person’s thoughts harmless, causing the fear or negative reactions in the mind to be eliminated. The reactive mind is the mind that has not been conditioned to ignore or clear these thoughts from the psyche. It is the subconscious, reactionary part of the brain that you cannot control. As Burroughs says in The Job, “The Reactive Mind consists of goals so repulsive or frightening to the subject that he completely reacts against them and it is precisely this reaction that keeps these goals in operation.” Part of the text read by Balch and Burroughs in their film Bill and Tony is from an engram process. Clearly Burroughs already associated the engram and film when he came to write this “Abstract.” This is apparent in The Job when he describes how the Engram might work in a purely electronic situation, using film to show alternating, cut-up scenes to clear the Reactive mind. They are very similar in nature to what this particular “Abstract” presents:

To do everything: man in filthy apartment surrounded by unpaid bills , unanswered letters, jumps up and starts washing dishes and writing letters. To do nothing: he slumps in a chair, jumps up, slumps in a chair, jumps up. Finally, slumps in a chair, drooling in idiot helplessness while he looks at the disorder piled around him.

Here are some sample RM [Reactive Mind] screen effects…

As the theater darkens a bright light appears on the left side of the screen. The screen lights up

To be nobody… On screen shadow of ladder and soldier incinerated in Hiroshima blast

To be everybody… Street crowds, riots, panics

To be me… A beautiful girl and handsome young man point to selves

To be you… They point to audience…

One after another, the images are presented, tied together by a common theme of horror. Burroughs then relates the images to the Word Virus, one of his more famous concepts. The stated purpose of the “Abstract” is itself to “Destroy all minds,” perhaps through the repetition of horrific imagery, clearing and destroying at the same time. The Reactive Mind relies on the Word.

The second “Abstract” is reminiscent of the method employed by Burroughs and Antony Balch in the film Bill and Tony. He creates a scene and then immediately juxtaposes it to another, opposite scene. In most cases these are scenes of social embarrassment or public disgust against an outcast figure in society (the Beatnik, the junky, the faggot — all the familiar Burroughsian stock characters), similar to the first “Abstract.” In his usual fashion, Burroughs does not spare the reader by using the more polite term or image; he embraces the hated image, following Hubbard’s directions carefully, clearing / destroying the mind. The efficient Swedish workers do everything “right now,” but Burroughs equally accepts the stereotyped image of the lazy, singing Mexican with a guitar who does not work at all. As with the first “Abstract,” the piece ends with an image of exaggerated colour fading to black, this time the red stop-light face of hate disintegrating into darkness.

“Abstract,” Mikrokosmos, 1969

William S. Burroughs, Abstract, Mikrokosmos This short piece is terse, concise, and utilizes colorless prose more than other “Abstracts.” It contrasts two opposing images, in a method taken from Hubbard again, using a negative image against a positive one. Audrey sees films on the four screens before him. In each section, a barrage of varied images is presented to the reader, then the soothing other side of the coin is revealed in the opposing image.

One set of films speeds up while the second set slows down. One man at his desk works furiously while the man beside him does almost nothing. Image is juxtaposed with image to see both sides of a question, pointing the way towards any number of other possibilities, the consummate Burroughsian option.

As we will see in other “Abstracts”, the piece ends on a fading color, this time white light, highlighting its visual nature over verbal.

It is easy enough to say what the “Abstracts” are. It is clear that they are the overflow of Burroughs’ work on The Wild Boys and one of his many attempts at exploring different perspectives in his own writing. (There is only one “Abstract”-like part in Port of Saints. See pages 26 – 27. It is questionable whether this was once an “Abstract” or just Burroughs using the tempo of the “Abstract” for a few paragraphs. Exterminator! has no “Abstract”. Also see The Job pages 191 – 193 for an extended treatment of the idea behind the engram and the reactive mind in a very “Abstract”-like format.) The larger question, however, is why Burroughs bothered with them at all? Why include them as a consistent theme in The Wild Boys? They have an almost confusing effect, stuck in the middle of the text, jarring the reader out of the relatively straight narrative, a form to which Burroughs was returning at that point in his career. They do not greatly add to the story, nor do they offer more information about the Wild Boys.

Strangely, however, they do provide a consistency to The Wild Boys which it might lack if they were not included. Barely a novel, the book was made from some of the same material as Exterminator! and Port of Saints. Without the Penny Arcade Peep Show chapters to constitute an odd backbone for The Wild Boys, it is likely that the book would seem as fractured as Port of Saints, but with the disparate feel of Exterminator! due to the fact that included pieces are basically not connected in any real way. Audrey, the principle character of The Wild Boys, does recur throughout the book, but he is not a more prominent character than any of the others until late in the book. Only as the novel ends does the repeated mentioning of the Wild Boys as urban guerilla groups of young boys begin to take shape.

The “Abstracts” are important to The Wild Boys, but also as individual pieces in themselves, because they mark an important point in Burroughs’ work. At this time he was moving away from the cut-ups that defined his early work of the 1960s and towards his somewhat unique version of straight narrative, while still maintaining the philosophical need to fracture language and explore new possibilities. The “Abstracts” are not cut-ups in terms of language, but they are in terms of form — specifically, the medium and language of film. The attempt to write the immediate image and push words from the mind of the reader through the use of words is in part a logical end to the progression of the cut-ups of the early half of the 1960s, which was explored through film as well as through writing. The “Abstracts” mark an important transitional phase between the early experimental work and what may be called the more or less straight narrative of the Red Night trilogy which would occupy Burroughs for most of the 1970s and 1980s.

Written by Dave Teeuwen and published by RealityStudio on 29 September 2009. Also see Dave Teeuwen’s introduction to the Lip “Abstracts.”

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