Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
I turn forty this year. It has always struck me as odd which birthdays are most meaningful to me. Sixteen, twenty-one, and thirty weren’t real milestones. Thirteen was my first pivotal birthday, a time for realizing who I was. That birthday party at my uncle’s house in York, Pennsylvania remains my most memorable. My twenty-eighth birthday was also one of great meaning. Growing up I always wondered what I would be doing in the year 2000. That year I found out who I was not. I am about to turn forty, but it is thirty-nine that I view as momentous. I approached my thirty-ninth year as one of great possibility and potential creativity. It did not really turn out that way, although Beat Scene published my first chapbook, The Last Days of Jack Kerouac, just weeks before I turned thirty-nine. It was at the age of thirty-nine, with the 1953 publication of Junkie by Ace Books, that William Burroughs stepped out as a writer and began to define who he was to the public at large. Charles Bukowski, another writer I greatly admire, was thirty-nine when he put the finishing touches on Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail, his first chapbook of poetry. I find myself drawn to such late bloomers, as opposed to wunderkinds like Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney, who found their voices as mere babes and, to my mind, had little else to say.
Thirty-nine was also the age at which my maternal grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. It was the same year Olympia Press published Naked Lunch: 1959. So along with the possibility of re-birth, thirty-nine also marks the age at which I can no longer ignore the fact that I will not live forever. I have the rest of my life in front of me but it is also the beginning of the end. Like never before, I find myself examining my body for signs of deterioration. Increasingly I read lumps, bumps, and blemishes, as one would read the lines on one’s palm, for hints of the future. Can my mental decline be far behind?
As a Burroughs obsessive, I feverishly dig through my library searching for answers to the mysteries of what lies ahead. No worries. I am not reaching for The Western Lands or Last Words just yet. But with my grandfather in mind, I find myself flipping through the now morbidly titled Minutes to Go.
Several months ago, I felt compelled to watch the first episode of Mad Men. I constantly found myself in conversations about the show. These conversations were occurring everywhere: on TV, on the radio, in print, at bars, at the water cooler, over dinner, in bed. So I caught another episode a few days ago in which a character from that first episode, a hipster artist, returns as a desperate junkie. Naturally Burroughs came to mind. I am not the only one thinking such thoughts. In a Book Patrol blog post, William Burroughs is compared and contrasted to Don Draper. Nancy Mattoon provides a lot of interesting points. She notes that Mad Men opens in March, 1960, making Burroughs and Draper contemporaries. She focuses on Naked Lunch, an obvious choice, but for me the key book linking Draper and Burroughs is the Two Cities edition of Minutes to Go I had already been pouring over. Minutes to Go was published in April 1960, just after Mad Men opens, and one of Burroughs’ central concerns in the book is both mine and Draper’s: cancer.
Draper’s biggest account is Lucky Strike cigarettes. In the opening episode, we see that the culture of cigarette advertising is changing. By 1960 it has become an inescapable fact that cigarettes are harmful and carcinogenic. Admen can no longer promote safer cigarettes or doctor testimonials. Yet how do you make nearly identical products, such as cigarettes, unique? Well, you make something out of nothing. It’s the art of the soft sell, a technique that was developed around 1958. At this time, the benefits of the product became less important than associating the product with abstract and appealing images. Joseph J. Seldin, an advertising historian, wrote:
The multiplication of products, brands, and packages made the art of consumership increasingly difficult to practice in the postwar period. Increasingly, the marketplace was dominated by symbolic buying and selling, with the sellers of goods engaged in selling the symbols of goods rather than the goods themselves, and the consumers buying these symbols over the inherent product values.
One of the most famous examples of the time was a 1960 ad for Volkswagen: Think Small. For Draper and Lucky Strike, the key phrase is “It’s toasted.” The selling point is not the cigarette itself but a symbolic process: toasting.
In Minutes to Go, Burroughs’ cut-ups stand out from those made by his collaborators Brion Gysin, Gregory Corso, and Sinclair Beiles, partly because they all deal with cancer, especially newspaper articles announcing research and breakthroughs in potential cures. Like Draper, Burroughs is confronting the changing medical opinion about cancer. Burroughs, however, also turns against the admen. Draper could be one of the shadowy Cancer Men of the Minutes to Go poems — a conspiracy of doctors, large corporations, government officials, and admen, who promote dangerous, addictive, but socially acceptable drugs such as cigarettes and alcohol, while at the same time demonizing what Burroughs feels are more benevolent, beneficial, and radical drugs, like marijuana and apomorphine. For Burroughs, the Cancer Men are no better than heroin pushers. Like drug dealers, they are in the business of getting people hooked on cigarettes.
Faced with this conspiracy, Burroughs confronts the admen’s soft sell with a newly discovered weapon of his own: the cut-up technique. In Minutes to Go, Burroughs takes the scissors to newspaper articles, and throughout the 1960s he would cut up and détourne advertising. Time, APO-33 and Rx Morgan (a cut-up published in Aram Saroyan’s little mag Lines) all cut up advertising for radical effect. In fact, APO-33 is a Burroughsian version of pharmaceutical promotional literature. APO-33 promotes apomorphine, which Burroughs saw as a wonder drug ignored by the Cancer Men whose business is not to cure but to promote addiction.
In 1961, Daniel Boorstein published The Image, or What Happened to the American Dream, a book attacking the manipulations of advertising and, in particular, the art of the soft sell.
Now in the height of our power in this age of the Graphic Revolution, we are threatened by a new and peculiarly American menace. It is not the menace of class war, of ideology, of poverty, of disease, of illiteracy, of demagoguery, or of tyranny, though these now plague most of the world. It is the menace of unreality.
What alarmed Boorstein was the endless replication of images. As Joshua Shannon writes in The Disappearance of Objects
Boorstein was describing a cultural shift in which the material world was becoming detached from the ballooning sphere of representation. Focusing on phenomena we can now see as endemic to postmodernity, he worried less about decreasing utility than about the new primacy and arbitrariness of abstraction.
This connects to Burroughs’ theory about words and images as a virus. To the extent that it promotes this endless replication of images, advertising itself becomes a cancer. “I’m just a blooming old cancer and I gotta proliferate.”
The art and literature of the period dealt with this new trend. As Shannon writes, Jasper Johns attempted to combat the rise in abstraction with his sculptures.
Painted Bronze (Ale Cans), after all, is named not for what it represents but for what it is, its representational function appended as a subtitle. We are reminded here that John’s materialism is not one of utility: these are not cans reoriented to their proper function of holding liquid for drinking. Rather Johns seems to have wanted to make a consumer object that could, as if for its own sake, weight down the abstraction that was increasingly circulating through the real, mass produced goods everywhere around it.
Burroughs’ cut-ups in Minutes to Go perform a similar function. Burroughs saw the word as object and as material to be worked with — to be cut, pasted, folded. This materiality combats the increasing emptiness of words in an era of abstraction. Lines such as “cancers that surgery and Xrays C” or “Ociety rack up the score like” are, like the Johns sculptures, “not reoriented to their proper” function as words, which is to convey meaning. “Everywhere March Your Head” offers a collage —
A rap of
Urns back O
Our lots con
the time to you
— that functions like a concrete or language poem. “A rap of/sound/A” makes me think of Zukofsky and the poem as music. Burroughs would also work not just with sounds but with colors, cutting up Rimbaud’s famous sonnet “Vowels” and utilizing a color schema in the Olympia Press edition of The Soft Machine.
Yet utilizing materiality against image and abstraction has its limitations. Addressing his 1959 statement that a picture should be looked at like a radiator, Johns stated in the 1960s “I thought at the time that a radiator was a secure object one didn’t have to bring any special psychological relationships to. Now I’m not so sure.” Likewise, Burroughs might have realized that the form of the poem encourages the development of a special relationship, which naturally leads the reader to endlessly search for and generate meaning. Poems themselves become forms of cancer. Maybe this is why Burroughs largely abandoned poetry after Minutes to Go.
Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, a series of three essays published in the New York Review of Books in 1977 and collected the next year into a book, also comes to mind. In this slim volume, Sontag points out how using cancer as metaphor cheapens the illness, portrays the sick as Other, and serves as a tool for reactionary groups such as the National Socialists. In addition, cancer as metaphor is yet another abstraction that endlessly generates and replicates. In The Secret of Fascination, Oliver Harris has described how Burroughs struggled with the role his General Theory of Addiction should play in Naked Lunch. Burroughs worried that the metaphor of addiction threatened to overtake and schlupp the entire novel. It packaged it by saying too much and drowning out the novel’s other voices. “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness,” written after the first edition of Naked Lunch but used as a preface for many later editions, further encouraged readers to view Naked Lunch through the metaphor of sickness. Perhaps it was inevitable. As Derrida has written, Western philosophy and thought are intimately bound up with metaphor. Burroughs utilized illness as metaphor throughout his writings and one of Sontag’s most infamous statements — “The white race is the cancer of human history” — even used the device. In Minutes to Go, Burroughs may have sought to cut up the cancer / virus / sickness metahpor, break it down, shake it up, empty it of easy meanings. Yet the only cure was a step Burroughs could never fully take — silence.
William Burroughs in Nike ad
Getting back to Don Draper, it should be noted that the Beats were no slouches at advertising and promotion. Burroughs worked as a copywriter for an ad firm just after his graduation from Harvard in 1936. Allen Ginsberg served as the pitchman for the Beat Generation his entire life. In the mid-1950s, Ginsberg worked on Madison Avenue and learned the tricks of the Mad Men trade. Clearly, Madison Avenue held an appeal for Burroughs. In his 1965 Paris Review interview, he suggests that writers include advertising and product placement in their stories. Burroughs states, “And I see no reason why the artistic world can’t absolutely merge with Madison Avenue. Pop art is a move in that direction. Why can’t we have advertisements with beautiful words and beautiful images?” Some have argued that Burroughs’ Nike ad of 1994 does just that. Ernest Hemingway did a commercial endorsement in 1951 for Ballantine Ale: “How would you put a glass of Ballantine’s Ale into words?” In the ad, Hemingway states he “would rather have a bottle of Ballantine Ale than any other drink after fighting a real big fish.” At the time of the ad, Hemingway had just finished fighting with the last great novel of his life, The Old Man and the Sea. The novella, completed in Cuba in 1951, would be published the following year. This provides another twist on image and advertising in Johns’ Painted Bronze (Ale Cans), which utilized Ballantine’s Ale cans.
Another benign Cancer Man who lurks behind Minutes to Go is Wilhelm Reich, who died in disgrace and isolation in late 1957 after being hounded by the government for his theories on sexuality. As explained in The Cancer Biopathy (1948), one of Reich’s central tenets is that cancer and a host of other aliments are caused by the repression of sexual energy. Orgone, a “life force” or energy that could be captured in accumulators, could be used to fight repression by improving sexual potency. Burroughs was a firm believer and at various times built his own orgone box.
What interests me about Reich, in terms of Burroughs and Draper, is how he opens up a broader view on the linkage of cancer and sex. For Reich, the nuclear family involved repression of intimacy and sexual relations, with procreation leading to “family values.” In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, (1933) Reich writes:
From the standpoint of social development, the family cannot be considered the basis of the authoritarian state, only as one of the most important institutions which support it. It is, however, its central reactionary germ cell, the most important place of reproduction of the reactionary and conservative individual. Being itself caused by the authoritarian system, the family becomes the most important institution for its conservation. In this connection, the findings of Morgan and of Engels are still entirely correct.
In The Job, Burroughs would describe love as a virus and express Reichian views on the family. The Talking Asshole routine in Naked Lunch introduces the idea that cancer can serve as a metaphor for any malignant organism bent on replicating itself: not just the nuclear family but bureaucracy, communism, fascism, global and corporate capitalism, and liberal democracy. Just as sexuality is repressed into procreation, so too is creative energy — emotional, intellectual and spiritual — channeled into chasing monetary gain and acquiring consumer goods. Such a pursuit is the cancer that Draper sells and the one that he struggles to live with on a daily basis. Sometimes a cigarette is not just a cigarette.
(Not surprisingly, Sontag discusses Reich’s theories in depth in Illness as Metaphor, yet she does not discuss Burroughs’ work, which seems odd. Possibly this is because the figure of Burroughs reminds Sontag that using illness as metaphor is not just a device of the Nazis and other reactionary groups, but pervasive in the writings of the avant-garde and the Left as well.)
In the introduction to Queer, Burroughs infamously wrote that he would not have become a writer but for the accidental shooting of Joan. But as I contend in my William Tell piece, Burroughs wrote not just out of guilt but out of freedom. Joan’s death freed Burroughs and enabled him to act and move as he chose. Burroughs could only become the writer we know today outside his responsibilities as a father, son, and husband. This is not just a male phenomenon. The key text in terms of the Mad Men time period would be Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, and other writers of that generation — Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Tillie Olsen, and Grace Paley — have addressed the difficulties of marrying the duties of wife, daughter, and mother with that of the writer. Thus working with words is an act of solitude and isolation, a product of divorce not marriage, a nightmare not an American Dream. Writing is dangerous and deadly — like cancer, an awesome and awful disease.
My copy of Minutes to Go is a pharmakon — both poison and cure. As I mentioned in The Great Mimeograph Revolution Catalog, a library is a virus. It grows, replicates, spreads. It threatens to turn malignant and become a cancerous hoard. In the wrong situation, it can turn on you and leave you alone, ill and isolated like Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone, but it can also lead one on a journey of self-exploration and engagement with the surrounding world. The glass doors of my bookshelves serve as mirrors allowing me to look at myself and to see the reflected world around me. Some would say that the library I have created for myself is much too small and filled with a huge emptiness. That may be true, but at 39 I find that it has also proven a cure for my ills and a source of health and well-being.