by Edward S. Robinson
It would be beyond countenance to ignore the context of the times we’re living in for framing this essay. A year into a global pandemic, our lives have been dominated by a virus, and never before has — thanks to the all-pervading media, social and otherwise — the collective consciousness been so preoccupied with the mode and rate of viral transmission and variant mutations.
On a number of social media forums, I have observed threads around questions of ‘what would William Burroughs make of all of this?’ Scrolling through the rather predictable responses speculating on how he would be critical of the authorities in their handling of the situation and whether or not he would wear a mask, I experienced a surging sense of deflatement and apathy. Blunt as it may seem, my initial reaction was ‘who cares? What does it matter?’.
After some pause for reflection, I came to realise that it did matter, and that there is some proper discussion to be had around the topic: after all, virus was a central theme through much of William S. Burroughs’ writing. As such, it’s very much worth exploring the way in which Burroughs’ writing on virus foreshadow the present, in particular the way his cut-up works extrapolate his theories on virus — and to ask the question ‘how much has changed?’ This essay will consider some of the revelations that emerged through the cut-ups and evaluate them in the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic, with a view to exploring just how ‘prophetic’ Burroughs’ writing may have been. For reasons which will become apparent, my focus will largely be on his cut-up works, as well as interviews, predominantly as contained in The Job.
The Future Leaks Out: Cut-Up Prophecies
I’ve personally questioned the merits of reading the literature of the past through the filters of contemporary theoretical perspectives — for example feminist readings of Shakespeare, and postmodern interpretations of Jane Austen — which strike me as redundant. For while they present a certain novelty, one has to question the relevance and benefits of projecting the values of the present on the past, when the present has no possible conception of the future. With Burroughs, however, there is a clear and specific case for making an exception, given his preoccupation with prediction, future, and foreshadowing, and in the context of the virus-laden planet we find ourselves trapped on, it seems appropriate to unravel and decode the messages embedded within his work.
‘When you cut into the present, the future leaks out,’ Burroughs wrote in the essay ‘Origin and Theory of the Tape Cut-Ups,’ which he read at Boulder’s Naropa University in 1976. Much has already been made of this quote, both as a signifier of the ‘prophetic’ nature of Burroughs’ writing, and as a key theory about the cut-ups. In the same talk, he explained, ‘When you experiment with cut-ups over a period of time, some of the cut and rearranged texts seem to refer to future events’.
For the purpose of this discussion, I will specifically focus on the details that connect the cut-ups to Burroughs’ wide-ranging theories around virus. I have no intention of stretching so far forward to suggest Burroughs predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, but shall instead draw out parallels that exist between the time when Burroughs was most deeply immersed in his cut-up practices and evolving his ‘word virus’ theory and the present. My aim is simply to address the speculation that fills so much dead air on social media. Perhaps there is no need to speculate as to what Burroughs would have made of the current situation, and perhaps many of his ideas and theories can be found within his texts: in much the same way as Nostradamus’ works foretold the future, so we can scrutinise Burroughs’ work for the leaked futures he believed were embedded there.
The Real Meanings
Burroughs drew on a wide range of source material spanning Shakespeare, newspapers, and science journals, for his extensive cut-up experiments, which spawned three full-length novels in the form of The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded and Nova Express, a number of collections, including Exterminator and The Third Mind, as well as a plethora of short-form pieces published in a host of underground magazines. He also found that political speeches proved a particularly fertile source of exposure through cutting up. “Quite often,” he remarked in an interview with George McFadden and Robert Mayoh in 1974, “you’ll find that some of the real meanings will emerge. And you’ll also find that the politician usually means the exact opposite of what he’s saying.”
A noteworthy example of this can be found in Nova Express: ‘Now you are asking me whether I want to perpetuate a narcotics problem and I say: “Protect the disease. Must be made criminal protecting society from the disease… Maintaining addict cancers to our profit — pernicious personal contact — Market increase — Release the prosecutor to try any holes.’ While the disease in question this time is different, the way this passage can be unravelled to show that it ‘reveals that the antidrug rhetoric of the fifties and sixties served merely to cover up the real intention of the government agencies assigned to tackle the problem: to “Protect the Disease” of addiction’, it does offer clear parallels with the attempts by some governments to ‘tackle’ coronavirus, which may not be all they seem. “A text may be ‘found out,’ exposed as empty rhetorical gesture or as a system of manipulations,” explains Robin Lydenberg.
Many political speeches made since the outbreak have contained either considerable obfuscation or a lack of clarity that serves to undermine their own stated meaning without the need for cutting up. Take, for example, the following statement from British Health Secretary Matt Hancock:
They’re [the] rules that need to be in place, and everybody must follow them and stay at home wherever possible… we’ve set those rules, we’re enforcing against those rules, and we reiterate those rules, because that is the best way to be able to bend the curve down and stop the spread of the virus.
When Boris Johnson announced a strategy based on cultivating a ‘herd immunity’ in the UK, it’s perhaps not surprising that many questioned the rationale, given that such an approach would almost certainly result in tens of thousands of deaths, and particularly given that the emerging virus seemed to be most dangerous to those who are older or with underlying health conditions, i.e. the demographic of the population which cost the government the most in healthcare and other benefits, from a government who had previously made swingeing welfare cuts under their ‘austerity’ programme, in response to the financial crisis of 2007-2008.
If anything, distrust in politicians has deepened considerably since then, and with Donald Trump being the first US president to be impeached twice in just a single term in office, the English government being reported as being ‘the most corrupt place on earth’, and the suppression of information being rife at the hands of the Chinese and Russian governments who control the state-owned media, the reasons why require little qualification. It’s perhaps small wonder that there is a large minority who believe that governments have a secret agenda steering their management of the pandemic, with the British government being under particularly strong scrutiny for their questionable strategies — from what some see as a plan to reduce the elderly population in order to reduce the cost of state pension benefits and the amount of funding required by the NHS to service an ageing population, to a strategy to run the NHS into the ground and therefore justify its privatisation and a move to a US-style ‘insurance-based’ healthcare system. And, despite the damage long-term lockdowns have had on the global economy, with the retail, leisure, and hospitality industries being particularly badly affected, the world’s top 15 hedge funders are reported as having made £17 billion in the twelve months to February 2021. That Chase Coleman III, the founder of Tiger Global Management (TGM), the best performing hedge fund manager, making $3 billion in performance management fees and gains on his personal investments in the fund, is also a major donor to the Republican party is just one example of why the pandemic has come to be so politicised.
In a climate of such deep distrust, it’s not difficult to understand why a large number of people are suspicious of not only the handling of the pandemic, but its origins, the term ‘plandemic’ providing a snappy catch-all that encapsulates the view that while people are dying in their hundreds of thousands around the globe, and many countless more are suffering mentally and financially and in myriad other ways as a consequence of the pandemic, there is a minority — many of whom are in government or other positions of power — who can be seen to be benefitting from the situation.
Burroughs was of the belief that the entire system was based on vested interests, and explained that ‘the police have a vested interest in criminality. The narcotics department have a vested interest in addiction. Politicians have a vested interest in nations. Army officers have a vested interest in war…’
Writing in Psychology Today, David Ludden identifies ‘the desire for understanding and certainty,’ as one of the three leading reasons people subscribe to conspiracy theories. ‘We don’t just ask questions,’ he writes. ‘We also quickly find answers to those questions—not necessarily the true answers, but rather answers that comfort us or that fit into our worldview. It’s raining because I always have the worst luck. She gave me the cold shoulder because she can’t stand it when she doesn’t get her way. You can’t understand what I’m saying because you’re just not listening.’ In short, people need a sense of narrative, and when coming from a place of fear and uncertainty, will likely gravitate to a narrative that conforms to their established perspective. For many, then, it’s easier to believe, as the planet’s dominant species, that COVID-19 is man-made and part of some dark plot, than the fact that as a species, we are always at the mercy of nature, and that it was ever thus.
Word Virus and Control
Based on their initial discoveries with the ‘revelations’ revealed through their initial cut-ups, Gysin and Burroughs began to formulate numerous theories concerning the capabilities of the cut-ups. A number of these theories revolved around the ideas of language preconditioning and control, word as virus and the revision of existing texts. Central to this was Burroughs’ exploration of what he believed to be the most powerful instrument of control of all: language — or, in Burroughs’ terms, ‘Word’. The idea that ‘Word is Virus’ provided a central theme to Burroughs’ middle-era work.
My general theory since 1971 has been that the Word is literally a virus, and that it has not been recognised as such because it has achieved a state of relatively stable symbiosis with its human host; that is to say, the Word Virus (the Other Half) has established itself so firmly as an accepted part of the human organism that it can now sneer at gangster viruses like smallpox and turn them in to the Pasteur Institute. But the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself.
Citing the research of others, notably the fictitious Dr Kurt Unruh von Steinplatz, who also supposedly theorised that the human ability to speak has a viral origin, and that ‘the word was a virus of… “biologic mutation” affecting a change in its host which was then genetically conveyed’, Burroughs expounded his Word Virus theory in great detail. He postulates that a virus illness could well have caused alterations on the inner throat structure of apes, and that these virally-induced biological changes facilitated the capacity for speech.
The cut-up trilogy sees Burroughs pursue his viral control theory through the portrayal of the Nova Mob — so named because they came to Earth after causing the supernova which formed the Crab Nebula — alien invaders who have controlled life on earth for 3,000 years by assuming the form of a parasitic virus which exploits the body’s weakness for addiction. And so begins Burroughs’ ‘mythology for the space age’, with the Nova Mob serving as both an explanation and analogy for the word-as-virus theory which forms one of the trilogy’s central themes. Jenny Skerl comments that “Burroughs’s Nova myth is parodic… it is not invested with belief; it is not a symbol of transcendent reality. Rather, it is an analysis and criticism of myth whose aim is to destroy the power of myth, leaving the reader free of its linguistic control.”
Later in Burroughs’ career, we see a subplot in Cities of the Red Night, involving Virus B-23, a mysterious disease, caused by radiation, the symptoms of which are ‘fever, rash, a characteristic odor, sexual frenzies, obsession with sex and death.’ Addiction to opiates provides some resistance to it. Written before news of the AIDS epidemic had become widely known, Burroughs writes with prophetic intuition of a sexually transmitted virus. In what is partly a detective story, partly sci-fi, characters debate ‘the wisdom of introducing Virus B-23 into contemporary America and Europe. Even though it might quiet the uh silent majority, who are admittedly becoming uh awkward, we must consider the biologic consequences,’ and whether ‘any attempts to contain Virus B-23 will turn out to be ineffectual… because it is the human virus.‘
As such, Burroughs can be seen to attribute human behaviours to viral mutations, and even indicates that the survival of the species is contingent upon continued mutation, rather than evolutionary development. Significantly he also returns to the idea of the virus, identified as having a specific source of origin — the Cities of the Red Night — being subject to laboratory containment and considered for use against the population. Cities of the Red Night is, of course, a work of fiction, yet it reads very like some of the key aspects of popular conspiracy theories about COVID-19. So what has happened for this to transpire?
The connotations and implications of the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ seem to have changed significantly post-millennium, giving rise to the era of ‘post truth’ and ‘fake news’. Burroughs was, unquestionably, a conspiracy theorist, in his deep mistrust of authority, specifically politicians and his belief that in using — and manipulating — language, politicians obfuscated their true motives and intentions.
Matthew J Hornsey distinguishes between a ‘conspiracy’ and a ‘conspiracy theory’, writing that ‘the emerging norm is to use the term ‘conspiracy’ to refer to actual, substantiated events, and to reserve the term ‘conspiracy theory’ for beliefs that seem, on face value, to be unreasonable or highly speculative.’ He continues ‘Given the number of converging, credible, and independent reports to this effect, it seems reasonable to argue that there was a conspiracy within levels of Chinese government to cover up emerging medical advice of a strange new virus that was causing deaths in Wuhan in late 2019. But it would be a conspiracy theory to argue, like Bronwyn Bishop, that COVID-19 was part of a Chinese government plan to reduce the state’s burden of care by culling vulnerable people.’
There is no shortage of evidence to suggest that Burroughs was prone to extreme paranoia, something common among addicts and heavy drug users. Ted Morgan’s biography, Literary Outlaw, recounts how in the early 1960s, ‘more and more, Burroughs was operating under the conviction that his writing placed him in danger, that he was surrounded by enemies who were out to do him in. He had a kind of “it’s-them-or-us” siege mentality… [he] now was himself as one of his characters, inspector J. Lee of the Nova Police. He began to wonder whether Mikey [Portman, a friend] was an agent sent to perturb his existence.’ His suspicious nature extended to all aspects of his life, and Burroughs was not averse to what can now be seen as problematic misogynistic views, saying that love was ‘a virus, a hoax perpetrated by women.’ True to form, Burroughs had a snappy one-liner which has been paraphrased to become an Internet favourite: ‘A paranoid might be defined as someone who has some idea as to is actually going on.’
Then again, Burroughs had some justifiable cause for paranoia, writing against the backdrop of the cold war, Watergate, and a period when the CIA were conducting covert experiments including MK Ultra, and classified documents covered all sort of things from the public. When Burroughs was writing, he was not seeking to propagate unfounded theories as fact, but was instead exploring the mechanisms of control and how truth and facts were obfuscated by authority.
Moreover, Burroughs was, first and foremost, a storyteller, and one with a penchant for tall tales, as exemplified by a great many of his ‘routines’, the likes of which provided the main fabric of Naked Lunch. While the narrative style of these is relatively ‘straight’ the routines tend to serve a dual purpose: first, to entertain, and second, to convey a point. The story of the ‘talking asshole’ in Naked Lunch, Dr ‘Fingers Schaffer’s All-American de-anxietised man’ which transmogrifies into a giant centipede, and the carnival of hangings and supporting cocks depicted in the section ‘AJ’s Annual party’ are amusing and grotesque in equal measure, and all serve to present some form of sociopolitical commentary, with ‘bad science’ and the barbarity of public execution as a form of ‘entertainment’ being central themes within the novel. No-one reads these passages literally, and since Burroughs’ works are littered with pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, precisely how seriously we should take them is questionable at best. Burroughs often sought to satirise through his writing, and defended the contents of Naked Lunch as a satire ‘in the manner of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal’ when it was tried for obscenity.
Even when Burroughs presents his theories in such a way as to appear serious, it’s important to bear in mind the dryness of Burroughs’ humour. Having experimented extensively with myriad narcotics, Burroughs would have been fully aware that nutmeg is not a viable marijuana substitute, and nor is its consumption in any quantity likely to prove fatal, despite the claims he made in the article ‘Letter from a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs’, published in The British Journal of Addiction in 1956. Therefore, his oft-cited claim that ‘Language is a virus from outer space’ and that ‘Word is literally a virus’ (my italics) it’s reasonable to question precisely how literally he meant, versus how far he was pushing an extended metaphor, particularly given that the ‘word virus’ theme is central to the cut-up trilogy of the 60s.
In the current scenario, then, it may be quite plausible that Burroughs may espouse an idea whereby a pandemic planned by major pharmaceutical companies, hedge fund operators, and governments working in cahoots in order to inject the world’s population with a microchip — but as a metaphor for control and the manipulation of the masses by those in power, rather than literally.
Prisoners of the Earth Come Out
The last twelve months have seen — if the news media is to be believed — an increase in protests, globally, over a host of issues, perhaps most prominently around the result of the US election, and Black Lives Matter, which, in a time of enforced social distancing may seem somewhat shocking, but perhaps equally no more shocking than scenes of gatherings in streets and parks. But again, as an indication of just how politicised the handling of the pandemic has been, we have witnessed numerous anti-mask protests, particularly in the US and UK. In context of protests against oppression, these make some kind of sense. As for Burroughs, he was a keen supporter of direct action and protest: when asked his position on student rioting and violence against police and state control and specifically nuclear weapons, Burroughs told Daniel Odier ‘there should be more riots and violence. Young people in the West have been lied to, sold out, and betrayed.’
He also said, ‘I don’t believe in nonviolence. The people in power are not going to throw themselves out. You don’t give flowers to the police, except in a flower pot from a high window.’
Is all protest political? To a certain extent, most definitely: protest tends to only happen when people feel their voices are going unheard and there is a collective sense of injustice. For Burroughs, the problem was politics itself. Again speaking to Odier in The Job, Burroughs said of the ‘problem’ facing American politics was that ‘the whole thing is unworkable… and I think the most likely change would be some form of extreme right fascism, a takeover by the army… Contrary to what Marx believed, industrialised countries go fascist, and it’s the unindustrialised countries that go communist.’ This observation holds true, as China’s rapid industrialisation followed its move to communism in 1949, while the remaining four communist countries — Laos, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba — are unindustrialised, while recent years have seen many developed countries within Europe, notably England and France, as well as North America, make a substantial shift towards right-wing populism.
In Naked Lunch, Dr Benway also expounds a theory which likens social structures to that of a viral mutation:
Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer. A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotic Bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised. Bureaus cannot live without a host, being true parasitic organizations. (A cooperative on the other hand can live without the state. That is the road to follow. The building up of independent units to meet needs of the people who participate in the functioning of the unit. A bureau operates on the opposite principle of inventing needs to justify its existence.) Bureaucracy is wrong as a cancer, a turning away from the human evolutionary direction of infinite potentials and differentiation and independent spontaneous action to the complete parasitism of a virus.
As the world remains firmly in the grip of both COVID-19 and political systems, that complete parasitism seems palpable.
Vaccination and Vested Interests
As we find ourselves in the next stage of pandemic management, the vaccination programmes have become another subject of intensely heated debate, which once again tap into numerous conspiracy theories. Such debate, while denounced by many, particularly governments, may still serve a desired purpose, for Burroughs observed that ‘all monopolistic and hierarchical systems are based on keeping people in anxiety.’
As to the question of the vaccine itself, Burroughs’ scepticism toward conventional medicine is well-documented. This scepticism largely centres on the vested interests of the pharmaceutical companies rather than being specifically questioning of the products themselves. This he articulates nowhere more clearly than, once again, in The Job:
Vested interest of power and/or money is perhaps the most potent factor standing in the way of freedom for the individual. New discoveries and products are suppressed because they threaten vested interests. The medical profession is suppressing Reich’s orgone accumulator and his discoveries relative to the use and dangers of orgonic energy… They are suppressing the use of massive doses of Vitamin E for the prevention of heart disease, the use of massive doses of Vitamin A for curing the common cold. (I have used this simple remedy for thirty years and it works. Everyone I have passed it on to has found that it works either to abort or modify the course of a cold. At the first soreness in the throat which presages the onslaught of a common cold you take 500,000 units of Vitamin A. Vitamin A alone. Not Vitamin C which is quite worthless for a cold. At one time I had thought to market this remedy but was told it could not be marketed because the American Medical Association is opposed to self-medication. The AMA is opposed to self-medication if it works).. The medical profession has a vested interest in illness.
This passage is particularly interesting, as it perhaps highlights in the sharpest relief just how disparate and wayward some of Burroughs’ ideas and theories were, and how he was given to placing pseudoscientific conjecture on an equal footing to genuine research. It would be difficult to refute that pharmaceutical companies, as profit-driven capitalist organisations, operate to produce maximum profit for themselves and their shareholders, especially given the pricing practices of some: for example, Martin Shkreli, during his tenure as CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, increased the price of AIDS treatment Daraprim, the only US-approved treatment for toxoplasmosis, by 5,000%, from $13.50 (£9) per pill to $750 (£490) overnight.
Burroughs’ scepticism also seems entirely appropriate when considering the response of the UK government in its allocation of contracts for various supplies, including the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), of test-and-trace and other tracking programmes, amongst other things during the pandemic. Burroughs appears to support the idea that a mass-vaccination plan may be a part of some strategy to increase their level of control by taking advantage of the situation and the climate of fear: ‘Power is not unlimited. They must have pretexts. They must have an excuse to proceed. They couldn’t start things like that without a pretext of war or some extreme emergency.’
In what may appear to be a rather unusual turn, Professor Andrew Lees, a leading Parkinson’s researcher, has been inspired by Burroughs’ radical thinking in his study on treatments for Parkinson’s disease, as chronicled in his book Mentored by a Madman (Notting Hill Editions, 2016).
In an article in Parkinsons Life, Susanna Lindvall demonstrates how Lees echoes Burroughs’ sentiments: ‘Some of the useful, cheap drugs that had been approved … like amantadine, benzhexol and Sinemet, kept inexplicably disappearing from pharmacies all over the [UK],” he writes. “Once a drug had become cheap and unprofitable, it was at risk of abandonment even when it was the best available remedy.’
It’s therefore not entirely unreasonable that the machinations of large pharmaceutical companies are less the domain of conspiracy theory, and can be seen to amount to a capitalist conspiracy of sorts.
But what of the vaccine? Would Burroughs have considered it a conspiracy of control? I would argue not. Writing in 1960 for the appendix to Naked Lunch entitled ‘Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness’, he wrote ‘The smallpox vaccine was opposed by a vociferous lunatic group of anti-vaccinationists’. The mass media’s tireless labelling of the COVID-19 pandemic as ‘unprecedented’ has also seen the anti-vaxx movement, as it has now come to be known, described by the BBC as ‘a loose group of fringe campaigners against immunisation’ as being a recent phenomenon which has grown following the MMR controversy — but if history, and Burroughs, tell us anything, it’s that nothing is ever entirely new.
The Future Is Also the Past
Having taken a journey through the key parallels that link Burroughs’ commentaries on viral contagion, politics, control and conspiracy theories, the one thing that stands out — perhaps not entirely surprisingly, given Burroughs’ prophetic’ reputation (much of which, it must be said, was of his own creation) — is just how contemporary and relevant his writing seems now. But, I would argue that as much as the cut-ups enabled the future to leak out for Burroughs, an understanding of history is the most assured way to foretell the future, and the future is also the past, leaving us to muse on, ultimately, how little has really changed.