A Never-Before-Published Cut-Up Masterpiece
BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS is the most important new publication by William S. Burroughs not only since the writer’s death in 1997 but quite possibly since The Third Mind made it into print in 1978. Burroughs wrote a number of books in the final decades of his life. His estate, under the leadership of James Grauerholz, has done a terrific job putting out revised editions as well as previously unpublished material including correspondence, journals, and “lost” works. But BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS is of a different, higher caliber. The book, never quite finished by Burroughs, brings together typescripts he wrote from May to November 1960. This was a sort of annus mirabilis for Burroughs. In 1960, he was getting a handle on how to use the cut-up technique, discovered by Brion Gysin the previous October. He was learning how to transfer the technique over to tape recorders and he was considering doing the same with a film camera. He was taking mescaline and LSD for the first time. He was experimenting with the flicker phenomenon. These were preoccupations that would inform his work for the next decade, when Burroughs was arguably the riskiest, most relevant writer on the planet. BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS comes to us direct from this period of Burroughs’ greatness and offers a new take on what he was doing — an “uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk,” to borrow a phrase from Junkie.
BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS is one of a quartet of cut-up publications newly “oliverized” by Oliver Harris. Since working with Burroughs on the first volume of his collected correspondence, Harris has almost singlehandedly created a corpus of Burroughs editions which usually takes a team of scholars and a university press to assemble. Marking the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the cut-up in fall 1959, Harris now adds to the list Dead Fingers Talk, newly released by Alma Books, as well as Minutes to Go, The Exterminator, and BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS, all published by Moloko. The books have been rigorously edited, copiously annotated, and furnished with thoughtful introductions that explain their genesis, context, and intent. Dead Fingers Talk is rescued from neglect by Harris’ contention that the book, once “derided as a ‘mishmash’ and a ‘rehash,’ we now recognize as a literary prototype of mashup and remix.” Minutes to Go and The Exterminator, with Burroughs’ assertion that the cut-ups were “virus time bombs,” feel as fresh as ever in the era of Covid-19. But it is BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS that is revelatory.
Many readers will have had a premonition of BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS in “The Last Words of Hassan Sabbah,” known for the recording of Burroughs incanting it in a hypnotically glowering voice. “Last Words” was the text that opened up the whole of BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS for Burroughs. He wrote it in May 1960, describing it as “the testament of Hassan i Sabbah which came to me under mescaline,” and sent a draft to publisher Dave Haselwood. It was too late to include “Last Words” in The Exterminator, which Haselwood was just about to put out under the auspices of his Auerhahn Press. (Burroughs called the finished book “not bad” but Haselwood did a beautiful job designing and printing it, meriting it a place on Jed Birmingham’s list of the top 23 Burroughs collectibles.) Burroughs then included “Last Words” in a second manuscript which he sent to Haselwood on August 30, 1960, with the idea that Auerhahn would publish a follow-up called EXTERMINATOR II or THE INITIATOR. Never one to consider a text finished, Burroughs kept working on the material and added several further chapters. It is that never-published Auerhahn manuscript and the additional chapters which Harris has recovered from various archives to create BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS, deriving the title from a phrase that recurs in the material.
In an introduction, Harris describes how he discovered a batch of the texts in the Burroughs archive at the New York Public Library. What struck him about the material was not what the texts were about but what they looked like. “What holds [the typescripts] together,” Harris writes, “and gave rise to BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS as a ‘lost manuscript’ in the first place, is chiefly the visible appearance of the text on the page: its wholesale use of BLOCK CAPITALS.” For page after page Burroughs wrote as though the shift key on his typewriter was jammed in the on position. When you first start reading BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS, the all caps approach hardly seems worthy of the radical writer. It’s a crude stylistic technique, a beginner move comparable to Burroughs’ unfortunate use of homonyms. (“Meating for “meeting,” “copy write” for “copyright,” “Fraud” for “Freud” — Burroughs doing dad jokes.) The vibe e.e. cummings established using lowercase letters was casual, like people today who text without capitals or punctuation, whereas BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS rants, screams, and harangues. After a while, you realize that what makes the all caps technique effective is precisely that Burroughs pushed it, as he pushed the cut-up technique itself, to an extreme. The style is telegraphic but Harris points out that “a ten-thousand-word cable is a contradiction in terms, overloading the page and making BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS alienating to read.” That’s why it works — excess, audacity, Burroughs steeling himself to take a method to the bitter end.
It is precisely that commitment to the cut-up technique that made Burroughs its lord and master. The dabblers — Gysin, Sinclair Beiles, Gregory Corso, Harold Norse — cut up a few texts then filed the technique away as a party trick. Burroughs locked in on it. He developed various procedures for manipulating text (cutting, folding, reading across columns, working in grids, adding visual elements). He extended the cut-up into sound and film. He theorized about it. One of the fantastic things about BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS is that you can see Burroughs taking the technique to a new level. The first few months of cut-ups produced ruins, texts that were difficult to read or make sense of. Here’s the beginning of “Everywhere March Your Head” from Minutes to Go.
A rap of
Urns back O
Our lots con
the time to you
What counted in this early cut-up was the bold gesture, the assertion that something interesting happened when you chopped up a poem by Rimbaud. Now look at what happens when “Everywhere March Your Head” mutates in BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS.
YES I AM TALKING TO YOU “MR BRADLY VIRUS ADDING MACHINE MORE ME MARTIN.” YOU ANAL NARCISSISTIC BASTARD HAVE STOCKED A PLANET WITH YOUR STUPID SELF. EVERYWHERE MARCH YOUR LOUSY GRADE B HEAD. I REPEAT DEACTIVATE YOUR STUPID THE GIMMICK. IS THAT CLEAR ENOUGH OR SHALL I MAKE IT EVEN CLEARER?? GET UP OFF YOUR DEAD TIME ASS AND RUB OUT YOUR STUPID WORD.
It’s prose poetry. It’s fairly comprehensible, especially in context or for anyone familiar with the language of Burroughs’ cut-ups. “Everywhere March Your Head” was clearly a product of the scissors. But the BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS paragraph is the product of something else. Burroughs often said that out of a whole page of cut prose he might only take a phrase or two. In BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS we can see him taking these phrases, memorizing them, manipulating them, repeating them, transforming them into mantras, crafting them into paragraphs whose disjunctions take away little from their intelligibility. “EVERYWHERE MARCH YOUR LOUSY GRADE B HEAD” makes sense now. It means something like “you’re always letting your ego get in the way.” Burroughs is doing something he had never before done with the cut-up. He is internalizing it but also making it speak in character. In “Last Words,” he speaks in the person of Hassan Sabbah. In “THE MASTER OF TIME,” he speaks in the person of the “lord of time.” (“STAND ASIDE MR BURROUGHS OF SPACE AND LISTEN TO THE LORD OF TIME.”) In “CALLED THE LAW,” he speaks in the person of a B-movie gangster. (“WITH HIS LAST MOOCHED NICKEL FROM GYSIN BURROUGHS SNEAKED OFF TO THE PAY PHONE AND CALLED THE LAW.”)
In all these instances, Burroughs’ aim is to be insurrectionary. “THESE ARE BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS. SHIFT LINGUALS/ VIBRATE TOURISTS/ /FREE DOORWAYS/ /CUT WORD LINES/ /SHIFT TANGLE CUT ALL WORD LINES.” The book takes the revolutionary cant of texts such as Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Mao’s Little Red Book and makes something poetic out of it. In Mao’s case, Burroughs literally borrows from the Little Red Book, repeating the phrase “ENEMY ADVANCE WE RETREAT. ENEMY RETREAT WE ADVANCE. ENEMY ENCAMP WE AGITATE. ENEMY TIRE WE ATTACK” in different contexts and permutations. Who and what were the targets Burroughs was taking aim at with his Molotov cocktails of capital letters? Capitalists, media moguls, governments, liars, collaborators and cowards, as well as insect people, bird people, crab people, “TRAITORS TO ALL SOULS EVERYWHERE.” Presumably we are to read these various animal peoples as metaphors, much the same as David Cronenberg transformed paregoric and heroin into bug powder and mugwump jism in his film of Naked Lunch.
In the introduction, Harris reverse engineers one of these metaphors — the phrase “Elders of Minraud,” which recurs in many Burroughs cut-ups of the 1960s. It turns out that Burroughs derived the phrase “from the definitive anti-Semitic conspiracy text, much admired by Henry Ford as well as Adolf Hitler, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” In “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness,” Burroughs declared that he had “no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch” — a statement he made not because it was true but because he was trying to beat a drug charge in France. Similarly, Burroughs tried to insulate the inflammatory material in BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS by saying it was just “ABSTRACT LITERATURE” — a literary equivalent of abstract painting, an exercise in the formal use of words that has nothing to do with their content. He wrote to Haselwood on June 24, 1960.
I do not subscribe to any of the sentiments expressed necessarily. Are not personal opinions. Only a transcription of voices along the streets and quarters where I pass. Abstract literature. Not personal opinions. Do these plots really exist? How in the fuck should I know? Just a writer is all. Just an artisan. Not running for office. Just writing what I see and hear in my imagination. Pure abstract literature.
But Burroughs was well aware the content was not incidental. He wrote to his friend Bill Belli on June 11, “I am only concerned with what they [Jews] represent… Is that Anti-Semitism? I don’t think so.” In one recording of “Last Words,” Burroughs says, “I RUB OUT THE WORD JEW” — which he literally did as he revised the text. He deleted “JEW.” Harris ponders this “gap of silence… a trace of erasure and elimination loaded with historical meaning.” Does the erasure “clean” the text of its anti-semitic elements? Or does it merely encode a sort of exterminating of the Jews?
One irony to the anti-semitism in BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS is that the book can be reminiscent of one of the greatest works of Jewish literature — Ecclesiastes. It may sound crazy to say this. Gysin had encouraged Burroughs to cut up the Song of Songs, and Burroughs reworked the Christian Gospel every time he wrote a variation on “IN THEE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD.” It is doubtful Burroughs had Ecclesiastes in mind as he was writing in 1960 and yet, underneath its revolutionary posturing, BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS frequently echoes the prophet’s suspicious attitude toward the flesh.
I DONT WANT TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR SUFFERING. ALL YOUR WHINING WHIMPERING HUMAN SHIT. OF COURSE YOU SUFFER. BECAUSE YOU WONT TURN LOOSE OF YOUR STUPID BODIES. YOUR STUPID ORGANIC LIFE. YOUR MORE ME EQUATION.
It’s a shorter distance than expected from the refrain “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” in Ecclesiastes to “ALL OUT OF TIME AND INTO SPACE” in BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS. Both texts preach, use repetition for poetic effect, and assume that life is suffering. William Burroughs as religious writer? Hardly — yet BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS implies that victory involves what Burroughs once calls “spirit” and more often calls “awareness.”
PROPHET OF DESPAIR? I THINK NOT. I BELIEVE THAT ORGANIC LIFE AS WE KNOW IT HAS OR WILL REACH AN IMPASSE. CALLEJON SIN SALIDA. DEAD END. I AFFIRM SPIRIT AS FACT… WHEN I SAY: “ALL OUT OF TIME AND INTO SPACE,” I AM URGING ALL PEOPLE EVERYWHERE TO MOVE IN THE DIRECTION OF INCREASED AWARENESS. TO MOVE OUT FROM THE BODY WITH ITS TIME BOUND ANIMAL REACTIONS OF DEFENSE AGGRESSION ACQUISITIVENESS. NOT IN PURITANICAL BUT IN EXPLORATORY DIRECTION.
It’s not hypocrisy to hear this from a man who spent much of his life in the grip of substances that reduce awareness. That’s precisely the sort of person who would be sensitized to it.
If there is a hero in BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS, however, it is not an Old Testament prophet but the Old Man of the Mountain. During those same feverish months at the Beat Hotel when Gysin showed Burroughs the cut-up technique, he also gave him Betty Bouthul’s book Le grand maître des Assassins. The master of the assassins was something like a 12th century Charles Manson, using drugs to gain control over his followers’ minds so that they willingly killed for him. The story took root in Burroughs’ imagination. He adopted Hassan Sabbah’s last words, “nothing is true, everything is permitted,” as his personal maxim. He used Hassan Sabbah as an alter ego in texts he wrote for the rest of his life. We can witness the birth of this identification in BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS.
WE HAVE NO EYES TO SEE?? WE HAVE NO FEELINGS?? WE ARE THE INSECT PEOPLE?? THEN USE THE EYES OF HASSAN SABBAH. AND THE FEELINGS OF HASSAN SABBAH. THE EYES OF HASSAN SABBAH AND ALL THAT HASSAN SABBAH FEELS OR KNOWS NOW OR EVER FREE TO ALL ALL ALL. I REPEAT TO ALL. NO ONE IS EXCLUDED. ALL ARE WELCOME. BURROUGHS HASSAN SABBAH AND WELCOME.
Burroughs Hassan Sabbah — the act of identification takes the cut-up out of literature and into metaphysics. It’s as though Burroughs severed his personality with as much sangfroid as he cut a page of his prose in half, lined it up with someone else’s, and scanned across the fragments to see what new configuration of self emerged from the pieces. “I FIND IT A USEFUL LITERARY EXERCISE,” Burroughs writes, “TO PLACE MYSELF IN EXTREME, UH, CIRCUMSTANCES..” This is what makes BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS such a thrilling addition to the Burroughs canon. It is a vivid record, almost a livestream, of Burroughs at a moment when he was absolutely going for broke.