Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Alan Ansen, “After the Naked Lunch,” from City Lights Journal #2 (1964)
William Burroughs, The Soft Machine, Olympia Press, Paris, 1961
The Ticket That Exploded, Olympia Press, 1962
Dead Fingers Talk, John Calder, London, 1964
The Naked Lunch marks a turning point in Burroughs’ writing. The earlier work, published and unpublished, Junky, Queer, Yage Letters, is primarily a transcript of exemplary suffering, the record of an isolated embodied spirit in search of relatedness and meaning. In The Naked Lunch fantasy, vision, revelation loom larger than transcription. The problems of the individual merge with the panorama of a sick manifold of societies. In this essay I should like to discuss the works that have followed The Naked Lunch: The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Dead Fingers Talk. These works explore the first causes and the final consequences of the syndrome of wretchedness set forth in The Naked Lunch. They propose and indeed themselves try to be a remedy for the horror of irreconcilable conflicting impulses that language sets up in us by breaking down language into less dangerous fragments. Let us see to what extent they succeed.
First we must go back to Naked Lunch, where the techniques and consequences of the later works begin.
In that work a substructure of narrative, characterization and place description fades into “routines,” that is, heightened fantastic projections of people, places, and actions and into learned footnotes on drugs, diseases and folkways. These projections, in their exaggerations of and differences from the normal human condition, induce both laughter and the fear of death at the same time. We feel helpless and superior as if we were being tickled a little too long.
Two further elements in the style of Naked Lunch point clearly to the techniques of the later works. One is the presentation of streamlined conversation. “I knew this cop in Chicago sniff coke used to come in form of crystals, blue crystals. So he go . . .” illustrates the method both in its elimination of conjunctive pronouns like “that” and of the definite article “the” and in its disregard of conventional conjugation. The speaker, to be sure, is a foreigner; but all the characters feel conventional grammar a barrier to the communication they must held with each other within the intimacy of shared needs and experiences. And even the would-be Ciceros and Burkes of the little gang pay their respects to our common humanity by an occasional “uh” or “hehehe” sprinkled in among their orotund periods. In justifying his presentation of sudden changes of locale without describing the means by which his characters are transported from here to there Burroughs says, “I am not American Express;” and I think we may assume a similar impatience with a syntactical drudgery imaginations in a desperate hurry for a fix or a lay have no time for.
The other technique is the catalogue of images. There are many catalogues in The Naked Lunch — of characters, of places, of actions. Like most catalogues they indicate the range and suggest the totality of their subjects. But as the items succeed each other more rapidly and more heterogeneously they function in ways that at first glance seem to contradict each other. First, they illustrate an absence of affect. “Remembering a period of heavy addiction is like playing back a tape recording of events experienced by the front brain alone. Flat statements of external events . . . Complete absence of nostalgia in these memories.” “Notes from Yage state: Images fall slow and silent like snow.” “The word . . . can perhaps be indicated by mosaic of juxtaposition like articles abandoned in a hotel drawer, defined by negatives and absences . . .”
But at the same time they can be vehicles for an overwhelming presence of affect, a presence so great that formal articulation would merely weaken the emotion. So at the point of orgasm “A train roars through whistle blowing . . . rockets burst over oily lagoons . . . penny arcades open into a maze of dirty pictures . . . ceremonial cannon boom in the harbor . . . a scream shoots down a white hospital corridor.” But afterwards comes a succession of images defeated by time, for what memory loses as it stares at its images is the vitality of irreversible unselfconscious process. Instead of irreversibility we have stasis, and as memory frantically chops its recollections into smaller and smaller pieces it creates more and more loss and insane obligation to leave as it goes.
And that is the dilemma inherent in the use of cut-up and fold-in, the key techniques of Burroughs’ later novels. In 1960, Burroughs, in collaboration with some friends, issued a pamphlet called Minutes to Go, in which the virtues of dicing texts with scissors and reassembling the fragments arbitrarily in order to neutralize their power and more generally to liberate man from the traumas of early verbalization were illustrated and expounded.
The Soft Machine provided a much grander vehicle for the method. Since the entire work takes place at action stations, we have to grasp frantically at the ideology as it runs past us on its way to expendability. Briefly, original vitality is seized on by writers of life-scripts, who impose on lively organisms deathical patterns (though it is possible to down-grade a life script, even the best life script is inhibiting and so inimical) for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. The victims revolt by talking out of turn and throwing the word and image back.
We must ask ourselves whether in actual fact the effect of cut-up and fold-in is to restore those “clear young faces” to their state before the onset of auction block and life script. Are not, in fact, cut-up and fold-in the music of obsession, fragments that evoke rather than destroy? And granted they provide a fascinating vehicle for abjuration and repentance, they still indicate the persistence of concern, whatever the shift in assignment of values. You can move from the North Pole to the South Pole, but the world you move in stays the same.
Having intended to change the world, he has succeeded in inventing a new technique. Elaborate verse forms like the sestina, the triolet and villanelle assume a vision of an ordered world, whether that order be for evil or for good. If our vision shifts to one of chaos and indeterminacy, such forms are likely to lose their attractiveness. But it is hard to write or to think without some sense of recurrence. If we reject the interpretation of the recurrence as order and system, we may grow to see it as irrational tyranny in which elements recur at random persistent but inexplicable. Cut-up is a beautiful vehicle for this feeling as it is for palinodes. But it needs an obsession behind it. Cut-up trivia, and you have pretty much what you had before because the absence of affect which the cut-up was to achieve was already in the material to begin with. Of course, cutting out connective tissue may in this case operate to cancel the whole process of reading, the superficiality reaching the point of negative gravity. But what takes its place? On the other hand, when the connective tissue is removed form obsessional images they can become even more tyrannical when revealed in all their irrationality. The cutter, the exterminator, the Old Man of the Assassins’ Mountain can hope that the truth will make us free. But it may also damn us to a stasis stripped of plausibility. And at best in the resultant silence to say goodbye we are caught forever in the act of saying goodbye with no energy left to greet anything else. But while its value as therapy is still unclear, as a method of conveying the malefic vision it has proved itself triumphantly.
The surface structure of The Soft Machine is analogous to a revolution of Ian Sommerville’s Flicker Machine. Place on a turntable, with a lighted electric bulb at its center, a perforated cylinder (some or all of the perforations may be covered by diaphanous material of different colors) and start the turntable revolving. Watch the cylinder intently. The result should be a fragmentation of the image-track equivalent to the fragmentation of the soundtrack achieved in cut-up.
The material is organized (always remembering that with Burroughs all organization is tentative and subject to change without notice) into four colored units. The red unit consists of an initial statement of the war between the sexes. Two basic lines of device are developed to meet the challenge. First, man tries to escape doom through hermaphroditism and total involvement with his sex’s biological product. Then, he looks for salvation through accumulation and hoarding by means of drug addiction, by means of verbalization with its opportunities for power and by means of simple avarice. The green unit consists of a more particular investigation of the biological device with a predominantly Latin American topography and a presentation of trak, the total addiction organization. The blue unit consists of an exposition of the nature of life scripts directly and through the monologue of total recall of an indefatigable queen (this section has a somewhat Scandinavian cast). And the white unit consists of a consideration of the causes and final results of man’s horrible condition with an account of the origins of life scripts in primitive times and their catastrophes recalled in the hell of memory together with a fantasy of confused identities dying of thirst in the desert. The use of cut-up is pervasive, almost every section of narrative is followed by a fragmentation. Cutting across various sections is the figure of Johnny Yen, the indispensable dream boy, and, less importantly, Sekouin, the talking head, a concentrate of power. The head owes much to C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength.
The Soft Machine, then, is at once a vision of various states of the human emergency, an instruction manual in how to deal with it and a demonstration of methods.
In The Ticket That Exploded the demonstration does not play so large a part, for while cut-up persists and fold-in, a device for jumbling two texts together, also appears, the proportion of original text is relatively greater. There is, however, a new approach to the liquidation of identity in the admission of collaboration, Michael Portman working on the adventures of Lykin, a cosmonaut, and Brion Gysin supplying the calligraphy of the last page.
The Ticket That Exploded is even more apocalyptic than its predecessors in that it concentrates on the resolution of dilemma rather than on the dilemma itself. From its opening section, in which one of the bearers of the burden of the narrative blows up the Garden of Delights, to the final silence the music of the final chord is seldom absent. The two principal characters, the old Doc and Inspector Lee of the Nova Police, are not so much investigators as gods from the machine called in to provide denouements well calculated to being down the house. The element of universality found in the cave man and a sort of swish Wandering Jew in The Soft Machine takes in the later novel the form of explorations of and interventions from outer space and a curious parody of a nineteenth century explorer’s journal. The places of penance vary from the biological quagmires of lush jungles and gardens of delights through Piranesi cities of suspended intricacy and formal instability to the ever present tyranny of past sounds and images with which the work begins and ends. Old popular songs and The Tempest are particularly prominent carriers of the disease. The villians are the Nova Mob organized as a carnival to bemuse and control the rest of us. The heroes, old Doc and the Inspector, display a certain ambiguity in that the Doc is called in by the mob to quiet the suckers or “marks” by his spiritual authority but turns on his employers when called in a second time while the Inspector in his zeal may not be altogether free from the “arrest fever,” the impulse to arrest the innocent as well as the guilty, he blames in his subordinates.
The remedies include the performance of sex acts in conditions of total alertness such as flight, sense withdrawal by immersion in water at blood temperature with no sound or light, the rewriting of life scripts and in cases of extreme gravity the total destruction of the planet. Just as we saw there was ambivalence in such a method of release as cut-up, so the ruthlessness of the Ticket‘s final solution to the built-in cross-purposes of human life bears a disquieting resemblance to the tendencies of the situation it was devised to correct. As Burroughs says elsewhere, “amputation at the waist is indicated but under the circumstances hardly worthwhile.”
What Cosmic jest or Anarch blunder
The human integral clove asunder
And shied the fractions through life’s gate?
Burroughs’ answer to Melville’s question postulates control addicts working as the Nova Mob and leads to the devising of “A writing machine that shifts one half one text and half the other through a page frame on conveyor belts” to combat their activities. The relation between bi-symmetry in one human body and sexual reproduction involving a complementary juxtaposition of two bodies is not explored, but we may assume that left and right are training for marriage and divorce. Language assists the syndrome in several ways: it fosters a sense of individuality and hence incompleteness. For example, it foists on us the isolating particle “the” and saddles us with names that cut us off form totality like “Mr. Bradly” and “Mr. Martin.” It encourages a belief in an order of reality other than observed phenomena, and the syndrome is so deeply embedded in its structure as to hypnotize its users. Visually, Ticket combats sexual complement by rapid changes of sex partners and by permutations of copulation on film.
Ticket launches a double attack on reality both by presenting it as a host to parasites from some macrocosm who impose their will imperceptibly on what we feel and do and by putting it into competition with “a whorehouse of tapes,” i.e. artificial visual and aural stimuli that affect a given organism more powerfully than “the real thing.” Thus, caught between the control of evil wills and the impingement of purely mechanical devices on its fancied uniqueness, we find our reason for being slipping away from us.
Dead Fingers Talk is a reassembling of passages from The Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. Excerpts from The Naked Lunch account for half the text, the other two works together provide the other half. Dead Fingers includes two-thirds of Naked Lunch, three-sevenths of The Ticket That Exploded and a little less than two-fifths of The Soft Machine. The omitted material consisted largely of descriptions of sex acts (it is worth remembering that Dead Fingers has an English publisher) and cut-up. Burroughs has expressed a certain dissatisfaction with the high proportions of cut-up in The Soft Machine and at one time planned to revise the work making it more straightforward.
Before considering Dead Fingers itself it might be well to consider the idea of the book; for, like cut-up, fold-in and collaboration, the issuance of a reassemblage of already given texts is another move in the campaign to deconsecrate language, this time on larger scale. As we have learned the variability of the texture of language from cut-up and fold-in, we now learn the tentativeness of structure from Dead Fingers. :The Word is divided into units which be all one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth, in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement.
Dead Fingers Talk seems to fall into three cycles, each beginning with an exposition of undesirable conditions, going on to illustrations of and ambiguous remedies for those conditions, interspersed with long sections expounding the theory of disaster and ending in panoramas and cut-ups of final emergency.
The first cycle begins, as did Naked Lunch, with the hero’s flight from the United States. In this version a “primal scene,” the shooting of two policemen for the sake of a higher morality, appears toward the beginning of the work instead of near the end as it did in Naked Lunch. The disorientation brought about by a new environment is presented forcefully through a street boy’s experience waking up in a strange bed in a strange city, and then through a panorama of South American escape under the auspices of the Sailor, a hardened addict and seducer of street boys. After an exposition of the theory of sex-war and the nature of life (scripts taken from The Soft Machine) we visit the evil city and experience apparently final war only to have the old doc emerge to quiet the dissatisfied customers of our crooked carnival.
The old doc fades into Dr. Benway, who begins the second cycle by describing his experiences in Annexia, the paradise of control addicts, and Freeland, the seamy side of the Scandinavian welfare state. This leads to a variety of illustrations of a dubious nature of agents and devices, form beating up queers through the elimination of cerebral centres of anxiety to plastic surgery, automatic dishwashers out of control and all-purpose orifices. The nature of agency is then exhibited in more detail through portraits of A J, Salvador Hassan, and Clem and Jodie, the moving spirits behind Islam Inc. Another theoretical discourse supervenes in the form of an account of the parties of Interzone: Senders (control addicts), Liquefactionists, the universal gluttons, and Divisionists in search of associates who combine freedom and absolute predictability. In a significant change from the original in Naked Lunch there is no account in Dead Fingers of the fourth party, the Factualists, who alone hold the truth. The old doc and Dr. Benway and Inspector Lee of the Nova Police have taken over their functions. At this point vision reveals its origin in hallucinations attendant on the use of and withdrawal from narcotics (idealized as the black meat and the black fruit) and the second cycle ends as some of the author’s aliases head into the green hell of a South American nightmare.
The final sequence beings with the doctor telling Carl, the young wanderer, about the incurable tuberculosis of a street-boy Carl has befriended and, after a commemoration of dead friends, introduces us to some of the flawed characters of Interzone and then to the indefatigable queen who exists only by a continuous monologue that drowns out the threatening exterior world. Benway tries to witch out homosexuality in Carl, and All God of Street Boys rescues one of his worshippers, as combat troops to fight the insect people of Minraud march to final conflict. Nostalgic commemorations and farewells follow and fade into the vision of confused identities dying of thirst in the desert (taken from the closing pages of The Soft Machine). Theoretical passages on the various addictions, the counterattack of the Nova Police and the uses and misuses of the image-track follow, increasingly alternating with passages of cut-up, which take over completely as the author’s characters take their leave in an amalgamation of the finales of the three preceding works.
The course of the book, then, runs from a proclamation of evil (with attempts to escape from it and to analyze it resulting in a momentary pacification of the victims by the analyst) through an exploration of evil in terms of case history and sociological survey, to terminal remedies by the Nova Police and a requiem for victims. Dead Fingers Talk constitutes the most compendious handbook to the world of William Burroughs, the world where contradictory obsessions seem at once to constitute and to deprive us of our reason for being.
Perhaps it consists in the ability to suffer pain. At the other extreme form the frustration-free life, the shining product of cut-up and rewrite, looms a sacred remembering Head kept alive forever by the advances of medical science, honed by cybernetics to an extreme pitch of exacerbated sensibility, doomed in the most grossly material manner to an eternity of that manifold of torments we had almost learned to teach ourselves was a warning exaggeration of the self-discovering but blessedly transient spirit.