Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Blade Runner. Berkeley: Blue Wind Press, 1979.
Philip K. Dick’s copy. The novel is entombed in a clear, crystal clamshell box. In 1990, upon acquisition, the book was photocopied and bound as a reading copy for the owner. This photocopy has since been scanned into various digital formats and stored on various disks and drives. The entire archive of the original and copies is in stored in a safe behind van Meegeren’s Jesus among the Doctors. Location: In the private collection of an undisclosed Japanese businessman.
An annotated book is a doctored text. This can be exploratory surgery to save a book from oblivion, an autopsy to see what makes a book tick, or a botched abortion killing what was once living within its pages. While the annotator is, on one level, a doctor, he is also a medieval scribe. To annotate is to copy. A writer in a Borgesian universe might meticulously create a pornographic version of Don Quixote by rewriting it word for word in the margins of the first edition.
Burroughs’ Blade Runner doctored Alan E. Nourse’s 1974 novel The Bladerunner into a movie treatment. Thereafter Hampton Francher, the screenwriter of the film version of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, discovered Burroughs’ screenplay and, with director Ridley Scott’s urging, paid Burroughs for the right to copy the title. Stare into the blade. What do you see? It runs from A to Z: Aleph to Zahir. The entire universe or the monolith.
Philip K. Dick’s edition of Burroughs’ Blade Runner contains no underlining or symbolic annotations. Instead, Dick copies, in blue ink, phrases and sentences that arrest his attention. Good artists copy; great artists steal. In Scott’s Blade Runner, the perfect (or is it imperfect?) replicant become nearly human due to a storehouse of (false) memories. By copying Burroughs’ words, Dick makes them his own; he sears them into his memory, but Dick also changes Burroughs’ text forever and writes a new novel — a home movie version. Dick’s emotional life, his reading life, his personal history alter and distort Burroughs’ intended meaning. Yet that meaning died the instant Burroughs put it to paper. Or more accurately, the meaning multiplied endlessly.
Dick’s annotated copy of Blade Runner is a piracy of a Burroughs’ original. But as Nourse’s book suggests, Burroughs’ original is itself a copy. Did a true original ever exist? We are back to Borgesian mirrors and mazes. Can we be anywhere else? Is there any way out? In any case, by the publication of Blade Runner, Burroughs had moved on and created his own bootleg novel, his own novel on piracy: Cities of the Red Night.
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