Here's the text of the talk I gave on September 11th last year in New York. I waited for a while to see if video footage would turn up, but it doesn't seem to be, so here, for anybody interested, is a talk that took 28 minutes of a 30-minute timeslot to give. I finished writing it 6 hours before I was due to get up to go on the plane to New York from Chicago. Always was an edge-dweller; more fun that way.
GENERAL SEMANTICS MEETS EXPERIMENTAL LITERATURE: THE LIFELONG EFFECT OF ALFRED KORZYBSKI ON WILLIAM S BURROUGHS
BY GRAHAM RAE
Good morning, and thank you for attending. I am honored to be here doing a talk during the 57th annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture & Dinner, and I would like to thank Lance Strate for inviting me.
As you will have heard by now, I’m not from around these parts. I am in fact from Scotland, and not Sweden, or Russia, or Poland, or Australia, to quote a few of the more entertaining stabs by Americans at my nationality. You’ll find I speak very good English, as I have also been told. I realize my accent can be a bit challenging for Americans to understand initially, so I’ll give you a few moments to acclimate yourself to my tones and intonations.
If I go too fast, please tell me and I’ll slow down to a manageable level. I hope you find my talk of interest, but if not you at least enjoy hearing me speak no matter what I waffle on about. I have had women in this country ask me to repeat myself because they weren’t listening to what I was saying, only how I was saying it. In other words, they confused the content and presentation and structure of my words, and a communication connection was unfortunately not achieved.
Which brings me fairly neatly to Alfred Korzybski. I would like to start, if I may, by reading you a short piece from what I would assume to be the society pages of the Chicago Tribune from January 11th, 1939, by a woman named June Provines.
“Few Chicagoans are aware that Count Alfred Korzybski, famed Polish mathematician and semantics authority, is established on the south side where he holds daily classes in an apartment on East 56th street. A short, baldheaded, amiable looking man in the middle fifties, Korzybski, who is married to Painter Myra Edgerly, wears khaki clothes, shirt open at the throat, sleeves rolled up, and spends considerable time when he is not lecturing to students working with a machine he uses in teaching his theory.
“We don’t solve problems for people,” the author of Science and Sanity says. “We give them a message to help them clear up their messes.”
One of Korzybski’s students last week was pretty dark eyed Mrs. Cornelius Crane, wife of the young Chicagoan who endowed Count Alfred’s Institute of General Semantics. Young Crane is intensely interested in social anthropology and Mrs. Crane attended a series of lectures to familiarize herself with this correlated phase of her husband’s interests. Count Alfred – that’s the way associates refer to him – wrote an earlier book in 1921 that introduced his theory, with which he hopes to revolutionize mankind’s thinking habits and help create a saner world. His Science and Sanity develops the theme. It is this book Stuart Chase quotes frequently in The Tyranny of Words. A portrait of Korzybski by his wife hangs in the Art Institute. It’s called The Time Binder.”
Just for the sake for those who don’t know, which included me, Stuart Chase was an American economist and engineer who wrote the aforementioned book as an influential popularization of Science and Sanity.
One other writer, however, who most definitely would have approved of the Polish Count’s oil on ivory portrait hanging in the prestigious Chicago Art Institute was William Seward Burroughs, who died in 1997. For those of you who do not know, Burroughs is regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. He was ostensibly the elder statesman of the Beat Poets and he worked in a wide variety of mediums, but it’s for his literary work that he will truly be remembered. In July 1959 Olympia Press, an underground Parisian publishing house, published Naked Lunch, the book for which Burroughs is most famous.
It’s a work of avant-garde opiate madness and vile sleaze and beauty and debauched poetry. Plot is really a four-letter word in relation to it and you’d have to read it yourself to know what I mean. On a very rough level it concerns the insane innerspace cadet adventures of a character named William Lee, being a hilariously obscene satire on middle class 1950s America morals and mores, and control systems of all kinds. It was banned in Boston in 1962 for obscenity, with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturning this decision in 1966. This effectively ended literary censorship in the United States, so the book has quite a proud and interesting legacy. As you might have noticed, it’s the book’s half-century-since-publication anniversary year, and there have been events taking place in Europe and America, including in New York, to celebrate.
You might rightly ask what the wordwork of a homosexual lifelong drug addict who shot his wife in a drunken accident - a checkered reputation which sometimes overshadows his achievements – has to do with General Semantics. The answer is, a lot. William S Burroughs was a literal scholar of Count Alfred’s, and both Science and Sanity and a series of Korzybski lectures he attended in Chicago in 1939 exerted a deep and lasting influence on him and his work for most of his life.
But let’s back up a bit, shall we? William Seward Burroughs was born in on February 5th, 1914, in St. Louis into a comfortable upper-middle class existence – his grandfather, whom he was named after, invented the Burroughs Adding Machine company, which evolved into the Burroughs corporation. But it was his mother’s brother ‘Poison’ Ivy Ledbetter Lee who was to have a much more lasting effect on young William. Ivy Lee was a former newspaper journalist who is considered by some to be the founder of modern public relations, a sort of prototype spin doctor.
Sourcewatch.org points out that he worked during the period of Nazi ascendancy with notorious German chemical cartel, I.G. Farben, which held the patent for Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide used against Jews during the Holocaust. As if that wasn’t enough, he met with Hitler himself, recommending interpreting the Nazi rearmament program as a plea for "equality of rights" among nations and an effort at "preventing for all time the return of the Communist peril." Disclosure of his work prompted a 1934 story in the New York Mirror headlined "Rockefeller Aide Nazi Mastermind," and Lee's obituary in the Jewish Daily Forward described him as "an agent of the Nazi government"--a judgment later echoed by the Nuremberg Tribunal.
With this proud pedigree of lies and word-filth-flinging, it’s no wonder that Burroughs hated his sleazy uncle, which was to become a major force in his artistic and psychological makeup. As Ted Morgan puts it in the authoritative Burroughs bio Literary Outlaw: “He was like a son whose father has embezzled a fortune, and who promises to pay back ever cent on the dollar. His uncle had debased the language, turned it to purposes of trickery and deceit. He would, in his own writing, restore integrity to language. To use language honestly, or to expose the ways language was used dishonestly, was a sacred trust, not to be taken lightly…” William grew up as a dreamy, disaffected, bookish youth, completely alienated from his cloistered emotionally stultified Midwestern background. He read English at Harvard, where he studied writers like Shakespeare and Chaucer and, more to his later drug-abusing taste, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his opium-inspired visionary writings.
But none of these literary canon big guns were to have as massive an effect, or semantic reaction, on the would-be writer as Count Alfred Korzybski. Burroughs read Science and Sanity whilst studying graduate anthropology at Harvard, and decided he was going to attend a series of lectures in 1939 spanning 35 hours being given in Chicago at the Institute of General Semantics from August 25th-2nd September, after the book had a profound and fundamental life-and-mind-changing effect on him. Along with 38 other eager young eggheads, he paid $40 to hear the lectures.
El Hombre Invisible’s application form shows that he listed his occupation as “student,” that he became interested in the subject matter through reading Science And Sanity, and that he is “interested in the interrelations of language and cultures.” Though the seminar notes indicate that Burroughs was quiet and kept to himself, his attendance at Korzybski’s lectures was perfect.
Certainly General Semantics cast a spell over him that would last from 1939 right up until his death nearly six decades later.
Here’s a quote from a letter to the poet Allen Ginsberg from Burroughs in 1949:
“Allen, please do me a favor. Get Korzybski’s Science and Sanity and read it. Every young man should get the principles of Semantics clear in his mind before he goes to college (or anywhere else for that matter).”
What exactly was it about Science and Sanity, and General Semantics generally, that appealed to the young Burroughs, invading and taking over his fevered fertile mind? Well, having just read Science and Sanity, I can see how Korzybski’s theory of sanity, as he put it, would have resonated with the young wannabe-writer. I think what would first have attracted Burroughs to the book and its general message was its view of how the language of the contemporary world was basically pathological and keeping humanity back by locking us into logic-and-word-traps that we needed to destroy before we could move on as a race. Burroughs had studied medicine in Vienna for six months in 1936, as well as taking some psychology classes at Columbia University, and mental and physical health were subjects that would interest him for the rest of his life.
In the preface to the first edition of Science and Sanity, Korzybski writes that the erroneous use of literal ‘identification,’ or mistaking a word for the object it represents at the expense of multiplicities of meaning, is like a devastating society-destroying infectious disease, transmitted “directly or indirectly from parents and teachers to the child by the mechanism and structure of language, by established and inherited ‘habits of thought’, by rules for life-orientation, etc. There are also large numbers of men and women who make a profession of spreading the disease. Identification makes general sanity and complete adjustment impossible.” Compare this to a couple of later quotes from William S Burroughs, who came to believe that language was literally a parasite, a virus from outer space:
“My basic theory is that the written word was literally a virus that made spoken word possible. The word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host.”
"The only weapon was silence: silence to say goodbye - by silence to say good. 'You see, gentlemen, what we call history is the history of the word - and the word is a killer virus...'"
Burroughs’ virus analogy was to become a famous cornerstone of his esthetic philosophy. It seems to me that Korzybski’s medicinal disease-transmission analogy was later picked up and expanded upon by his genius student, taking it somewhat literally to bizarre science fiction (or prescience fiction if you will) realms the teacher would not have dreamed of. Ironically, Korzybski was using the very vectors of supposed disease transmission to transmit a potential cure. As he put it in the preface: “As in infectious diseases, certain individuals, although living in infected territory, are somehow immune to this disease.” Obviously both men would have regarded themselves as being free of verbal pathogens, and thus free to disseminate general semantics curatives to the word-world at large.
One thing, however, which must have impacted somewhat on Burroughs’ reading and understanding of Science and Sanity was its reliance on deepdish mathematics because, like so many people who work with words, Burroughs was apparently useless with numbers. Korzybski, of course, regarded mathematics as the only ‘pure’ language that other spoken forms could learn rigid empirical structure from, but what Burroughs made of this aspect of Science and Sanity is not known. He certainly never brought mathematics up whenever he mentioned the book in future decades at least. You wonder how much this would have impacted on his applications of its principles into his own views and work, but we’ll probably never know.
Another quote from William S Burroughs:
“Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word. “
In Science and Sanity, Korzybski talks of the “un-speakable on the objective level” and “an object or feeling, say, our toothache, is not verbal, is not words. Whatever we say will not be on the objective level, which remains un-speakable. Thus, we can sit on the object called ‘a chair,’ but we cannot sit on the noise we made or the name we applied to that object. It is of utmost importance for the present non-Aristotelian system not to confuse the verbal level with the objective level, the more so that all our immediate and direct ‘mental’ and ‘emotional reactions, and all semantic reactions states, and reflexes, belong to the un-speakable objective levels, as these are not words.”
Korzybski’s theory of achieving, as he put it, ‘silence on the objective levels’ was hugely headspinfluential to Burroughs, and was an aspect of General Semantics that would, again, become one of the major strands of his wordwork for the rest of his life. Burroughs adopted a mad adversarial relationship with the word, and this helped define his existence and personality. Many writers may have adversarial relationships to their craft, to a greater or lesser degree, often dependent on if they have a deadline or have missed one, but not many take it to the level the avant-garde writer did. He wanted to literally ‘rub out the word’, lay siege to the verbal and written word by all means at his disposal.
Count Korzybski believed that basing our languages and institutions on Aristotelian logic and language thousands of years old, disregarding contemporary science and psychiatry and discoveries, had twisted our societies into a constant state of insanity-producing disrepair, and that they could be cured by retraining everybody to use the new ‘theory of sanity’ General Semantics. This would make everybody disregard old pathological mindsets and ways of speaking and acting, and the world would be a great deal mentally healthier as a result. Whilst this is an overly simplistic reductionist view of societal ills, its heart is in the right therapeutic place and it has a lot of merit.
To take things back to an extremely simple level, Korzybski believed absolutely in denial of the ‘is’ of identity, saying “Whatever you may say something is, it is not!” This erroneous either/or binary thinking, to him, denied possible multiplicities of meaning in a word or statement, and greatly confused, if not destroyed, the meaning. It’s almost impossible to understate how important this was to Burroughs in his work and thinking. He quoted Korzybski’s dictums until the end of his life writing, for instance in an entry in his Last Words dated February 1, 1997:
Many come under the primal law of the physical plane: duality.
White or black. Good or evil.
That is — as Korzybski, founder of General Semantics, pointed out — “either/or thinking.” Instead of “both/and” –
This absolute refusal of the either/or equation led to the development of one of the major esthetic experimental techniques Burroughs is known for, the cut-ups. Shortly after the publication of Naked Lunch, Brion Gysin, a painter friend of Burroughs’, made some accidental cuts through some sheets of newspaper. Rearranging the pieces, he found he could create interesting and exciting new texts. These experimental new wordworks could be arranged and rearranged at will to produce strange deranged new works without number and, it has to be said, often without comprehensibility.
Burroughs, who had been looking for a way to deconstruct linear plotting and characterization and word-use in general in his works, immediately recognized the revolutionary and evolutionary nature of the cut-ups. Here was a medium where Korzybski’s beloved multiplicities of meaning could be carried on indefinitely with every new conjunction of rearranged texts. What he liked about this was that it ‘severed word-lines’, as he put it, freeing the reader from old thought patterns and forcing new semantic reactions, as Korzybski would have put it, from the organism-as-a-whole.
His excitement at this discovery was partly because he had been instinctively groping towards a method like the cut-ups in his own artwork, but also partly because he, like Korzybski, abhorred the simplified mass media, because of his uncle Ivy, with its half-chewed soundbites and cheap easy sloganeering. He saw the cut-ups as a way to combat the vicious verbal excesses of the newly minted spin doctor-and-madvertising age, killing the psychological control mechanisms inherent in the bombastic bombardment of manipulative electronic media. And coming from a writer who briefly worked in New York in an ad agency as a copywriter himself in his 20s, he would have had a very clear unsentimental view of what verbal dog food the corporate pushers manufacture to make us buy their useless products.
For Burroughs the cut-ups were more than a literary and linguistic parlor trick, they “make explicit a psychosensory process that is going on all the time anyway.” As he put it: “Somebody is reading a newspaper, and his eye follows the column in the proper Aristotelian manner, one idea and sentence at a time. But subliminally he is reading the columns on either side and is aware of the person sitting next to him. That’s a cut-up.” Shattering consensus word-meanings and scattering their sense to the senseless communication winds would have been an extremely liberating thing for somebody Harvard-educated. That institution had taught him what words were – now he could un-study them, kicking against the know-nothing know-it all college pricks, and free his mind from its obsolete literary canon indoctrination as befitted somebody of his extreme intellectual brilliance.
The un-writer took a swipe at the concepts of literary authorship and the sanctity of texts by mixing in texts from the likes of Rimbaud (Arthur, not John), Shakespeare and others with his own work and constructing a new deconstructive textual whole. During the 1960s he obsessively rewrote his texts, much like George Lucas cynically remaking the Star Wars films, but without the crap CGI or merchandising, so that the first version of a cut-up novel of his can look distinctly different from, say, the third. Meaning and text for him were not fixed entities, to be played with and discarded at will, and presented an ever-changing meaning-and-visionary kaleidoscope that could have as many or few versions as the discerning reader wanted if they simply did their own cutting and pasting on his own work. As he put it, if you like a poet or author you can just cut up their work and paste it together in some new random order and have a whole new textual experience with their prose, rejuvenating old books or poems or stories or whatever. Shakespeare never looked so good. Or confusing.
Count Alfred speaks in Science and Sanity about how primitive peoples explain events away by means of “some sort of demonology and ‘good’ and ‘evil’ spirits” as a way to render some world events comprehensible. He also talks of the importance of using pictures in communication, pointing to a picture without saying something to sully the non-verbal waters with all our old word-associations and pathological reactions. He also points out, literally, that pictures can be hung up permanently in a children’s classroom to stimulate discussion amongst the kids, as well as for education. I think discussing the use of pictures in the book instead of words was also an extremely important thing for Burroughs, and for a very odd, disturbing reason. His first Chicago trip in 1939 brought prescient flashes of another worldview-shaping encounter. As he put it in the February 1985 introduction to his novel Queer:
“In 1939, I became interested in Egyptian hieroglyphics and went out to see someone in the Department of Egyptology at the University of Chicago. And something was screaming in my ear: “YOU DONT BELONG HERE!” Yes, the hieroglyphics provided one key to the mechanism of possession. Like a virus, the possessing entity must find a port of entry.
This occasion was my first clear indication of something in my being that was not me, and not under my control.”
Putting aside the fact that the voice Burroughs heard might have been a campus security guard warning off a non-student, what the beleaguered man is talking about here is the Ugly Spirit, the evil entity that he believed possessed him and made him kill his wife Joan in a notorious drunken shooting accident in Mexico on September 6th, 1951. He also believed that the Ugly Spirit pushed him into a lifelong writing career, for which he had no option but to write or be possessed again. Striking out obsessively against verbal control mechanisms, which is back to Korzybski again, and indeed control mechanisms of all kinds, was what drove him to create art, at least in his delusory mind. His supposed reaction to words versus pictures in Chicago, around the time of his first reading of Science and Sanity, was very interesting in this context.
The Ugly Spirit – I know, just go with it – believed that silence and pictures were a threat to its continued existence, and so tried to drive him away from non-word representations. William S Burroughs literally believed he was possessed by words and moved more into painting towards the end of his life so that he wouldn’t have to write. And in case you think this is some sort of self-dramatizing stunt, he genuinely did believe this: in 1992 he underwent a cleansing ritual that had originated with the Sioux Indians, performed for him a Navajo shaman. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg stripped and sat round a coal fire while the shaman did his exorcism on the evil he sensed in Burroughs. And is this sounds outlandish, well, that’s because it is. It’s also somewhat misleading, because, as James Grauerholz, the Burroughs literary estate executor, notes:
“Burroughs wrote an essay (now unfortunately lost) in July 1940, for submission to Korzybski, examining the life of the 18th century Edwardian dandy Beau Brummell, in light of the theories of Burrow and John W. Dunne and Korzybski himself. The paper is described as an examination of Brummell as an ‘oral personality’ in the context of a theory of ‘projection’ that touched on the possibilities of television.”
This shows Burroughs was trying his hand at writing long before any supposed Ugly Spirit “pushed” him to it. His lost Brummel essay remains tantalizingly unavailable, but a still-in-existence letter to Korzybski (which I have not been able to see but which resides in files of the Institute for General Semantics) includes a note by the Count calling Burroughs “tragically disturbed” and noting that he recommended the errant pupil attend another seminar. Which is not the way that most of us would treat a tragically disturbed person, but hey – if anybody was going to recognize an internal battle casualty it would be the war veteran Pole.
There is no word on what Burroughs thought of his intellectual idol’s views on homosexuality in Science and Sanity, where Korzybski posited that homosexuals were basically infantile blocked personalities, in line with the muddy psychiatric thinking of the time. But even though Burroughs was homosexually active by the time he read the book, there’s no indication that any homophobia in it put him off its intellectual content any. He certainly never took on board the results of an experiment involving morphine Korzybski describes, where dogs were apparently given a shot of the drug, then when shown a syringe later on the effects of the drug would reproduce themselves in the animal psychosomatically. Burroughs would have saved himself a lot of money on smack if he had taken this experiment to heart.
As I said earlier, William S Burroughs was the elder statesman for the Beat Poets whose nucleus comprised of him, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. They were the 1950s literary movement who were the forerunners of the hippies and who basically laid the template – sex and drugs and rock and roll and art – for the counterculture to this day. Burroughs pushed Science and Sanity onto Ginsberg and Kerouac, excited, as I have hopefully proved, by its intellectual content. His seminal controversial book Naked Lunch literally changed literary history in America, and literature in general elsewhere. Korzybski was a huge influence on Burroughs, and so it could be argued that Count Alfred’s thoughts were one important strand of the emergent counterculture, a generation obsessed with freedom from all dogmas, freedom of intellect, freedom in art and love, freedom in spirituality for those who believe in it. This is something Count Alfred Korzybski would thoroughly have approved of.
So there you have it. As Count Alfred put it, “silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing,” so I’ll just say goodbye, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the talk.
The painting below is 'The Time Binder,' a portrait of Korzybski done by his wife which is now in the archives of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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