#9: The Soft Machine (Olympia Press Edition)

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

#9: The Soft Machine. Olympia Press (1961). An Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series of the The Top 23 Most Interesting Burroughs Collectibles.

William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine, Olympia Press, 1961

Desert island books versus deathbed books. Which do you think of in moments of reverie? One book is for reading when you have all the time in the world and one book is for reading when time is running short. I have always thought more about the latter: what will be the last book I ever read? It seems the more interesting, important and harrowing question. I am not a glass-half-full type of guy. For years that I have felt that book will be James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. I bought my paperback copy the same summer I bought Naked Lunch and Gravity’s Rainbow, way back in 1990. That summer’s reading changed my life. I quickly read the Burroughs and Pynchon, but could only read about ten pages of the Joyce until I felt literally sick. It was that feeling of vertigo when you have had much too much to drink and it seems that your brain is doing somersaults. I was drunk on Joyce’s language. I remember reading those ten pages in bed and, man, did I suffer a major case of the bed spins. My mind was swimming. I had to put the book down and sober up. I have yet to take it up again. I still have time.

Since that summer, I have been reading constantly for going over two decades and I still do not think I am ready for the Irishman. Hopefully in my ripe old age with a lifetime of reading — and thinking about that reading — under my belt, I will be able to approach him at his most demanding. Joyce stated that there was enough packed into Finnegan’s Wake to occupy scholars for an eternity. What better book to contemplate as I slip into eternity myself?

William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine, John Calder, 1968If Naked Lunch is Burroughs’ Ulysses, his extraordinary account of daily life, then the Olympia Press Soft Machine is Burroughs’ Finnegan’s Wake, his book of dream life and hallucination. Like Wake, Soft Machine is notoriously difficult to read, written in a style and language all Burroughs’ own, although it derived from and was, in large part, inspired by, the writings of others. Today, Burroughs’ dream book is not read — less because it is tough going than for the simple reason that it has become very difficult to obtain. The truly illegible book is one you cannot possess. As Oliver Harris demonstrated, Soft Machine was heavily edited over three editions. The first and best — the Olympia Press edition — has never been reissued since its publication in 1961. If you want to read it, you have to make the effort to find it in an institution’s special collection or make the personal sacrifice to pay for it yourself, which will cost you several hundred dollars. So in order to be just a casual reader of the book, you have to become an amateur book collector.

For me, it is worth it. The Olympia Soft Machine will be the last Burroughs book I ever read. It is a book to be contemplated for an eternity and, as with Finnegans Wake, I am still not ready to unlock its mysteries or to fully appreciate it. I have read it several times and feel that I am just floating on its surface. Soft Machine is very deep. I have yet to release myself to its full power and to dive down into its depths, which, as everybody knows, is where all the greatest and most valuable treasure lies.  

Written in large part at the Beat Hotel, the Olympia Press Soft Machine is Burroughs at his most French. Here Burroughs channels Rimbaud, Lautréamont, and Saint-John Perse, as well as the Dadaists and Surrealists. The novel is prose poetry, coming at a time when Burroughs was truly a poet, with the publication of Minutes to Go, The Exterminator, as well as little mag appearances like Floating Bear #24. Soft Machine looks forward to the explosion of prose poetry in the 1980s. Coming off of Naked Lunch, Burroughs possessed “[c]omplete power and confidence” and, thus emboldened, he rushed headlong, armed with the cut-up, into poetry:  

When used for poetic bridge work procedure is different. Like I write a page of prose or prose poem straight. Then cut once or twice or more. And select from all sections what I find most valuable. A sifting panning process . . . There is no reason why classic sonnets or any other poetic form could not be so reduced. I find cut ups most immediately workable on poetic prose image writing like Rimbaud, St. Perse and your correspondent. (Letter to Ginsberg Sept. 5, 1960)

William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine, Grove Press paperback, 1967To look at just the beginning and end of Soft Machine. Burroughs opens the book with a structuring device based on colors derived in part from Rimbaud’s “Voyelles.” The book’s last line — “And being blind may not refuse to hear: ‘Mr. Bradley Mr. Martin.’ Disaster to my blood whom I created. The stale rooming house of fiber flesh. (The shallow water came in with the tide and the Swedish River of Gothenberg.)” — has always reminded me of the opening line of Wake, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Blood, rivers, flow, flux, time, history, genealogies, architecture, geography. When I was at Iowa as a grad student, I remember a story that one of the professors wrote his entire dissertation on that first line of Joyce’s. What could be done with Burroughs’ last?

While Burroughs wrote Soft Machine at the Beat Hotel, he and Brion Gysin experimented with scrying — gazing into a mirror in order to get into one’s head and to look into one’s soul. According to Literary Outlaw, “When Burroughs tried mirror-gazing, he saw his hands in the mirror with the fingers amputated, looking completely inhuman, black-pink and fibrous, with long white tendrils growing where the fingers should have been.” Morgan adds, “Burroughs wasn’t sure what was going on, but the paranormal phenomena were flying thick and fast. He felt that he had crossed an important barrier, and that he was in a very dangerous place, but there was no going back.”  

Unfortunately, the Burroughs of “[c]omplete power and confidence” had second thoughts regarding Soft Machine. Many readers found the book illegible: “Many fans told me they found the Olympia edition difficult to read and it never sold well.” (Letter to Gysin, December 23, 1966) Even his closest reader and biggest fan, Allen Ginsberg, agreed: “I can not agree with Allen about the ending. I realize the book is experimental and difficult. What else? I can’t do it over.” (Burroughs to Gysin, May 8, 1961) I find this incredible coming from a fellow poet. It demonstrates just how ahead of his time Burroughs was. In fact, Ginsberg would never catch up poetically with the Burroughs of this period. Ginsberg never approached such prose poetry.  

William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine, Grove Press, 1966Sadly, Burroughs listened to his deaf critics and did Soft Machine over. Evidently, going back was possible. Thus, the black-pink, fibrous authorial hand of the Olympia Press Soft Machine had to be manicured. As Burroughs writes in that December 23, 1966 letter to Gysin, while he was revising the text for Grove: “I dare say many ‘phosphorescents’ and ‘iridescents’ fell to my magic marker.” Maybe amputated is the better word. Burroughs again: “I went through the original edition and used all the material that was in any way usable and the material I added was grafted on with some care, a little scar tissue is unavoidable in such cases.” The Olympia Soft Machine bears the print of Burroughs’ amputated finger à la the Anderson affair. The Burroughs of passion, desire, and obsession. The Burroughs of poetry. Yet to prevail in the world of commerce, this evidence must be removed. Burroughs to Girodias (May 11, 1963): “You also make no mention of The Soft Machine which I rewrote at considerable expense of time and effort without any financial incentives of an immediate nature to create a more saleable property again to our joint advantage and which I feel to be quite definitely saleable.” A few years later, the final verdict: “Everyone I have talked to who has read the Olympia edition and the revised edition says they find the revised edition much more readable.” (Letter to Gysin, December 23, 1966) Scar tissue indeed; the Olympia edition died on the operating table. Burroughs as Benway at his worst. The Grove was written by the Invisible Hand of economics, thus erasing the mark of the long, white tendrils of poetry. A tragedy for generations of readers.

The Olympia Soft Machine is somewhat out of time as well as being out of print. I own two copies. One signed by Burroughs and Maurice Girodias as a collectible and one as a reading copy, although this copy is also signed, in this case inscribed by Carl Weissner: “Give me another 6 months and I’ll add it to my transl. canon . . . (famous last words) – La Perla, Paris 29 June 09.” Sadly, Carl never got around to it. Yet if Soft Machine is timeless, particular copies are time-bound; my copy signed by Carl captures a special moment in my life involving Naked Lunch‘s 50th anniversary and that of my wedding. Only a true loser would coincide a honeymoon and a Burroughs conference, and only Carl would suggest discussing Burroughs at a Mexican restaurant in Paris. Over margaritas, Carl and I talked about the Olympia Soft Machine, and he spoke with passion and true insight about Burroughs as a poet and marveled at what a strange, beautiful book the Olympia edition was. The same could be said of Carl. I really miss him.

So I own two copies, which is a reminder that the library is an ark. In a world increasingly flooded with information, it is odd that there seems so little that you can grab onto and so little that really grabs your attention. You have to pluck out the bibliographical flotsam and jetsam from a vast sea of data just to keep afloat. Despite all the recent restorations, it is doubtful that the Olympia Soft Machine will ever be so, since the only way to restore it is to reprint it. Until then you have to hoard it. Or maybe bootleg it. It is the nature of pirates to plunder treasures. Late in life, Burroughs championed piracy as a viable alternative community. Maybe some Captain Mission will restore the Olympia Soft Machine to Burroughs’ canon. Famous last words.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 14 February 2016.

8 thoughts on “#9: The Soft Machine (Olympia Press Edition)

  1. Well why don´t you type it by yourself? To type anything is the best way to read it – or, as in my case, translating is even better…

  2. Love what you’ve been writing here. Just curious. What do you think of the “Restored Text” version of The Soft Machine that was published recently? Not being a Burroughs scholar but rather a lover of his works I (for a second anyway) was led to believe the Restored Text versions were definitive versions. Not so. Art being malleable and in constant flux, and considering what you’ve written, it seems not quite right to have a definitive version of any of Burroughs’ writings. There are, it seems, generally agreed upon opinions as to the best/favorite/most liked by Burroughs versions that I can get behind.

  3. I just bought a restored text edition of NOVA EXPRESS and right there on first page in the acknowledgements is JED BIRMINGHAM. Well then, that clarifies a few things and brings up a few other questions. I can only assume you dig the restored text editions and once I read them all I’ll discover nothing is true, everything is permitted. Just read, right? Right.

  4. Again, wow. The link? Excellent. Printed it immediately. Mind fed. Mind blown. Rational thought destroyed.

  5. I made the investment in the 1961 Olympia edition, and it arrived the other day.

    It’s true that it is very different. It sure starts off with a bang. Unfortunately, much of this book is in my opinion inferior to the material in the other versions of The Soft Machine. I don’t mean that I always prefer the clearer narrative prose to the more challenging cut-up “poetic” content of the original edition. I mean that this cut-up material is inferior in comparison to the cut-up material in the other SL editions and the other books in the trilogy. We know that WSB was obsessive with the cut-up results beyond just cutting up and piecing together. He manipulated the resulting prose well beyond the cut-up itself. I feel like much of this material is awkward, rough, and asking for the revisit it later gave it. At times this reads like a parody of WSB’s prose, or another author trying their hand at prose in imitation of Naked Lunch, which in a way is exactly what this is. WSB after NL was completed and published was a very different man with very different interests. A lot of material was left over from NL and this book mined this material but through the filter of the cut-up method. I do think the ideas in the book, the war between the sexes, the color magic, the Novia Conspiracy, are much more interesting then the continuation of the addiction theme from NL that the later editions of Soft Machine begin with. I remember when I first read Soft Machine (Grove edition) I read the first line about “working the hole” with the Sailor and feeling immediately tired, as in “Again?” like it was a retread of the NL junkie world and not the space fantasy I was anticipating. So really there’s much I’d have kept from this first edition but much I would have revised, thrown out, and added from the later editions, which makes any notion of a “restored text” a bit impossible and definitely intrusive. A true version of The Soft Machine that is the culmination of all three editions doesn’t exist in this world.

    I first read the Cut-Up Trilogy when I was 16 or 17. I was dazzled by it then, but much less so now. So maybe I’m just not as receptive. I do think that Burroughs’ lack of exposure to French experimental literature as well as visual art of his day and of 100 years before elevated the importance of the cut-up method in his mind that it didn’t necessarily deserve. I don’t think he ever read his contemporary Maurice Roche (compare the method in MR’s “Compact” to WSB’s comparatively minor cut-up method). I don’t think he was familiar much with weirdos like Roussel except at a distance, or even giants like Mallarme or Alfred Jarry. And WSB really didn’t know very much at all about art history. Here is a guy who kissed the hand of Marcel Duchamp once at a party but I’ve never read anything from WSB mentioning a familiarity with his work. What I mean is something like the cut-up method would have been part of a basic and well-worn vocabulary for a French writer or artist by the time WSB came upon it living in France and producing works like Minutes To Go, The Exterminator and then this “sequel” to NL. I don’t mean to sound so disparaging. Many results of the cut-up are dazzling. Much of it, though, in my mind doesn’t serve his whole Nova mythology. I feel like the cut-ups work much better usually in shorter format. The text included on this website “Where Flesh Circulates” would be an exceptionally beautiful example. WSB wasn’t striving for beauty, but a slow but ruthless dismantling of the linear mind, etc. etc. I feel like he did that better in NL without the cut-ups. NL is also a very, very funny book and for the most part the Cut-Up Trilogy for me is not. He revisited old jokes verbatim in a way that diminished the original surprise of hearing the joke the first time. The freshness of his routines developed in his letters that reached their fruition in Naked Lunch he never matched afterwards. The long stretches of “Word Falling-Photo Falling” cut-up material is a unique reading experience and one well worth having, but as a reader I value these experiments more for how they strengthened him as a writer much later. There are sentences he wrote in his Red Night trilogy that have an intensity, especially a conjuring power, he would not have gained without his having gone so deeply into the cut-ups.

    All that said, this book isn’t any more difficult than the rest of the Cut-Up Trilogy no matter what editions have been published, and there is no reason that this one shouldn’t be reprinted.

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