Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Gilbert Sorrentino to Leroi Jones, April 5, 1961, published in Floating Bear #11
Just before I left Dillon’s last night you and Joel were talking abt this Burroughs stuff in the last issue of The Bear — that Joel cdnt read it, etc. Which got me to thinking abt Burroughs and this morning I dug out a review of The Naked Lunch that I did abt a yr or so ago, but which I buried later, not because I thought it wasn’t the right angle to take on it but because I didn’t know if my reasons for putting the book down were valid. I think maybe it’s time we talked abt that book, instead of just taking it for a “classic” or whatever the fuck you want to call it, what the clowns call it anyway . . . well, what the hell is the book? I mean what is so good about it that we must pay attention to it, which we must . . .
I didn’t like the book, as a Book, because of reasons extra-literary, that’s why the review I did bugged me — the trash about its lack of organization etc., well, we won’t go into that old shit. I don’t care if he wrote the book with a pair of scissors in each hand etc., etc. Like, he’s fooling us? “And now, ladies and gentlemen, I shall reveal to you that this book was actually written by my pet bedbug.” (fanfare) — like that weary bullshit about the monkeys winning prizes at abstract painting exhibits in Bohunk and so on. No. At least that wd be the literary come on and the indefensible in the year 1961, it holds some water. My bitch against the book is I’m afraid, a moral one.
Now, is Burroughs showing us the world? And I don’t mean the English Class world, so that our lives can be better etcetc, but is he showing us the junk world, nightmare world, not even “as it is,” but is there a human agency involved in all that jazz? Where is our compassion to go, what figure do we setup as someone worth it all, there isn’t even the rejection of love, like in let’s say Cubby’s Tralala, where the whore has her chance with the Army officer and doesn’t even know what he’s talking about, she tears his love not up looking for a check, etc. Or is Ferdinand (?) in Celine’s Journey: when he gets to New York, well, you writhe, and not in horror, but because he is so pitifully defenseless, hopeless, and is such as a man, a human being. Or taking it out as far as it will go in my mind: Dostoievski’s hero in Notes from the Underground. Now there is alienation to the 3rd power, no figure in literature has ever been more not with it than this guy, more so than Benway or Bradley the Buyer, but the point is that something is lost and gone in him and we know it: I mean we know that he’s lost something that human do/shd have. The Burroughs people come at you like they never had anything to lose; that “undreaming insect world” that he talks about IS the world of The Lunch. And so what? I mean this is sheer horror and I don’t know but what it gets to an oversaturated point at which it turns into almost caricature (intended? — no not certainly that word, but what then? — superhumanism, certainly not antihumanism, that doesn’t occur in the book), Burroughs, that is, does not have a Swiftian comeon in that he loathes people, he starts from the premise that all these folks ain’t really human, they are alienated to the point at which they turn backwards and become — not evil, but just horrors. I think it’s Coleridge talking abt Lear and the evil of Cordelia’s sisters, talking that the horror is truly that because we expect them to act like human beings at some point and they don’t they are absolutely without moral values. This the truly horrible. Ok, so does this put Burroughs on that level of making: /? But where the relief? Like, where are the good guys? There is Edgar; where Kent?
Work of art? Or valid lesson-book? Or even a reference to gauge the junkies that we know against? Balls, nothing happening here/ Sex in the head, Lawrence would have cut him up in little pieces, like he’s cutting things out of the phone book or whatever books he’s got going for him — and on that score, Christ: Haven’t we had enough of Transition and nightwriting and all the rest of that half-assed spawn of JJ who picked up ass-wise on everything from Portrait to the Wake? Like all the terrible shit that Bloom lets go thru his mind, used, USED, mind you, as a valid and workable technique by all the slobs who thought that Joyce like bumped into it, and won’t believe you if you try and tell them that this was the MOST explicit putdown of the Bloomian mind, this the mind that encounters OB-JECTS, and lets them flow out the back of the head like shit thru a sieve. Yep, Bloomian thought in The Lunch, we got that, sure, but what again, is the point? That these cockroaches think like this is no surprise, and to show us that they think like this, so what. When they wig out, and die, or get hung with an OD, it’s not the Pequod going down, that went down a long time ago, and though I hope and trust and MUST believe that Lawrence was wrong as hell when he said that all American writing after Moby Dick was post-mortem effects, here we have a book at hand that justifies and proves that observation, and it bugs me. I don’t mean either that these cats dying and fucking up is not important as the sinking of the Pequod in the same terms, that is, life for life, etc., but that Burroughs doesn’t let you give these cats life. Who the fuck in the whole Naked Lunch is worth saving, I mean can you care abt Hassan O’Leary in any other context but what chills and laughs he can give you?
What the hell is the man up to? Blah, Blah, “an indictment of American society,” etc. Whatever the jerks say, no, no, simple, much too simple for me, and I won’t buy it. It is a rage, a destruction, not of American society but on the mind of Burroughs himself, he hurls all that hate around like shit from a bucket, and then some goddam stupid sonofabitch stands there and has the idiocy to say to me that this spastic shitflinging is an “indictment of American society”; as if we needed it anymore after Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, The Maximus Poems, Paterson, Pierre, and on and on . . .
What do we have to be told for? I mean to say does the intensity of the hatred leveled make the “indictment” stronger? You don’t need a machinegun to kill a dying man. You don’t need this fierceness to do in our kulch. A question: what, considering time, place, and values, is the fiercer book? The Red and the Black or Naked Lunch? In REAL terms, the Red and the Black make the Lunch look like petulance. I ain’t gonna play with those dirty coplovers and gunsellers . . . ok, but what to say after that? Obviously, nothing: grab the honeybucket and start flinging.
I want compassion, I want it, I need it, I ain’t going buy Hussan, I don’t like him, I don’t give a damn abt him. OR, I want real hatred directed against real people, who do things that are evil in a world that still has those values (of good and evil), which the world does have, even though we are in our “cycle of decay,” and the rest of the German Romantic Spenglerian horseshit, flow, flow time is a god, bullshit. You are my friend because you are a good man, no, not corn, you are a good man, the important word here, man. I mean, it makes no difference if I say you are a good roach/you are a bad roach. Who cares whether a roach is good or bad?
OK, just some ideas I wanted to write you while I had them; I must believe in the goodness of Creation or I stop living.