The Soft Machines

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By Dave Teeuwen

William Burroughs had the unusual habit of rewriting and rereleasing his novels during the 1960s and 1970s. He is not the only author to have undertaken a revision of a previously published work. Henry James famously revised and added to his novels in the early years of the 20th century for the special New York Editions; Whitman’s Leaves of Grass saw a number of versions before his death; even Baudelaire reworked and rereleased Les Fleurs du mal. But Burroughs’ commitment to radically changing his already published work separates him from most writers. For Burroughs, there was nothing sacred about his texts; nothing was final, nothing was true, and everything was permitted.

William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine, Grove Press Paperback Edition, 1967The first published novel that Burroughs revised was The Soft Machine. There was an almost immediate but failed attempt to reissue it in 1963. The Acknowledgements page of the 1962 version of The Ticket That Exploded says “The Soft Machine First Edition: 1961. New revised and augmented edition: February 1963.” Ultimately a second edition would not come out until 1966, followed by a revision to The Ticket That Exploded, which was rereleased in 1967. These revisions yielded the versions most readers are familiar with — the Grove Press editions, which were the first publications of those two books in the United States. A third revision was made to The Soft Machine in 1968 for the Calder Press in England.

It would be interesting to collect all of the interview statements in which Burroughs discusses what he thinks about his novels. I doubt that there were many that he felt really measured up. If there are no boundaries on what you are willing to revise, it may be that nothing ever seems complete. Burroughs said in The Job that he was not satisfied with Nova Express as a novel, though he never revised it. In 1975 The Last Words of Dutch Shultz was revised from a more narrative 1970 version of the novel, and in 1980 Blue Winds Press rereleased the 1973 short novel Port of Saints in a larger, expanded version. Naked Lunch, however, never underwent any major revisions during Burroughs’ lifetime.

A note should be made about Dead Fingers Talk, released in 1963. This book was not a revision of any previous work, but an interesting experiment in taking content from Burroughs’ three previously released novels and creating what is essentially a cut-up at the chapter level. A chapter from Naked Lunch follows a chapter from The Soft Machine, followed by a chapter from The Ticket That Exploded. In the end a new novel emerges with attributes of its own. Strangely, this book has since gone out of print.

The Soft Machine initially took the same publicity route as Naked Lunch. Burroughs published portions of the book in various journals and magazines to introduce the book to the public. Comparatively large portions of Naked Lunch had appeared in journals like Big Table and The Chicago Review. The Soft Machine began appearing in smaller amounts, though in more places and in countries outside of France and the United States, suggesting a growth in Burroughs’ popularity. Burroughs described this plan in a letter to Allen Ginsberg in September, 1959: “I am working on a sequel to Naked Lunch… I will write pieces of the present work in the form of short stories that can be sold to magazines in the U.S. for immediate cash. If you have any suggestions or know of any magazine that might ask for material, I can deliver.” Burroughs did this in earnest both before and after The Soft Machine was released to increase the attention paid to his work.

Burroughs would not repeat this practice with The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express to nearly the same degree. By the time those books were released, he was occupied with other cut-ups and was using the underground press to carry out his experiments with form and text. He knew that the underground press represented a receptive audience and exploited it for his more experimental work, which was suited to short pieces presented in small magazines and alternative newspapers.

The First Edition

William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine, Olympia Press, 1961The initial edition of The Soft Machine was released by Olympia Press in 1961 after the success of Naked Lunch had placed Burroughs on the map as a challenging new writer of the avant-garde. Taken mostly from the remnants of the rumored 1,000 pages of material (his famous Word Hoard) from which Naked Lunch had been put together, The Soft Machine detailed yet more sexual encounters, scenes of drug use and abuse, the battle between the sexes and the developing Nova Conspiracy mythology that would run throughout the coming novels of that decade. (It was still at that time called the Novia conspiracy). The poetic nature of the prose in the first edition is likely a reflection of the material he was writing at the time — The Exterminator and Minutes to Go, both written with the assistance of Brion Gysin in the early 1960s, just before the release of The Soft Machine.

The first Olympia edition of The Soft Machine is a fundamentally different novel from the edition of The Soft Machine with which most readers are familiar — the second Grove Press edition. For this reason, it is easier to compare both the first Olympia and third Calder editions against the second, making it a kind of anchor.

The first and second editions have little likeness to each other. They are even laid out differently. However, the second and third editions do not vary so radically in content as to be seen as completely different novels. In many ways the third edition is really just a reworking of the second edition’s less commercial material. It adds new passages and cuts away what may have been too difficult or extraneous for a wider audience. Presumably the critical reception of the first two editions influenced the revisions Burroughs made in the third.

The first edition has a very specific framework that was removed from the later editions. There are four units, each assigned a color. The first unit is titled Red, with Green, Blue, and White following in sequence. Each section is made up of generally short chapters, some of which are familiar to readers of the second edition because they are later recycled into it, in both cut-up and straight narrative forms. The opening chapter of the first edition, “Gongs of Violence,” is the third-to-last chapter of the second edition. The opening chapter of the second edition (“I was working the hole with The Sailor…”) begins at a paragraph halfway down the page in the “White Score” section of the first edition, near the end of the book. This signals a shift in the overall concept of the book away from a vision of war to a vision of addiction and control that is typical of Burroughs’ concerns in the mid-1960s.

Throughout the novel, sections that appear in the second edition are found in completely different places, highlighting the concept of non-linearity that Burroughs maintained in the novels of the 1960s. This book can be read any which way. However, the third edition maintains the structure of the second edition, hinting that Burroughs may have settled on a rough structure for the book, perhaps backing away from the original color-unit concept after the first edition of The Ticket That Exploded.

In the first edition of The Soft Machine approximately 80 of the book’s 182 pages are never used again in either of the following two editions. That is nearly half of the novel. This alone shows why the first and second editions are really two different novels. Moreover, they focus to some degree on two separate though similar ideas. The first edition focuses more on war than the second — in particular, the war between the sexes. The second is centered more on control and addiction, with the male-female war basically in the background. As usual, sex in its many forms is a main theme for both versions.

Given that Burroughs so regularly recycled his characters and story lines in other pieces and novels over the span of his career, it would not be incorrect to argue that the first edition of The Soft Machine is a separate entity from the second edition in much the same way that Dead Fingers Talk is a separate entity on its own, despite being a cut-up of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. The first edition could easily be published alongside the second and third editions without treading on their conceptual territory. It’s a pity that the first edition is so difficult for most readers to obtain, since it gives insight into Burroughs’ areas of exploration immediately after and during the publication of Naked Lunch, when he was still living in Paris. More so than the other editions of the novel, the first edition was made up of overflow pages from the Word Hoard material, demarcating a certain period in Burroughs personal history that is presently lacking in print.

The Second Edition

William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine, Grove Press, 1966Since the second Grove edition is the version most familiar to readers, it can be a shock when they find out that there were alternates. The second edition has long chapters instead of units cut into small, sometimes half-page sections. It is more narrative and less fractured than the first edition. This may be one reason that Burroughs insisted on revising it, allowing the reader some kind of access to an already difficult novel by offering extended narratives which were absent before.

In the first edition, as Oliver Harris has stated, “the reader is too forcibly & relentlessly reminded that something methodological is going on, without there being any visible means of deducing precisely what it is.” The first edition was a full-steam-ahead operation in using the cut-up method to create a novel-length manuscript. However, the number of cut-ups leaves the reader with nothing to follow consistently. The second edition has much longer continuous sequences. Burroughs could see by the mid-1960s that pure cut-up could not retain a reader’s interest. When Nova Express was released in 1964 a more continuous structure had been introduced into the cut-up novel. As Harris has also noted, “from the wholesale revisions he made to The Soft Machine it is evident that Burroughs had then only learned… that it was barely possible for anyone to read such a text.” The prose-poetry of the first edition was replaced with a more narrative form where cut-ups happened within the story instead of being the whole of the story.

The radical change from the prose poetry and narrative disconnectedness of the first to the second editions suggests more than just the pursuit of perfection or accessibility. Burroughs’ revisions may have been spurred by criticism of the first edition of The Soft Machine, and more than likely Grove Press demanded some changes to make the text more commercial and accessible. Also Burroughs was mindful of his finances, especially in the late 1960s when he was living in London. As Graham Masterson points out in a recent interview, Burroughs was short on cash and the need to create a salable novel must have weighed heavily on him. Thus, the Grove Press edition was released in a form drastically different from the original.

The Third Edition

William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine, Calder, 1968In 1968, only two years after the Grove edition, Burroughs reworked The Soft Machine again, showing that he cared about it still and had something left to add to the book. It can also be assumed that the publisher, John Calder, encouraged Burroughs to make the book more accessible to the reader and therefore more commercially viable. Joan Didion had written, in a review of the section edition, that “The Soft Machine has only the dulling effect of a migraine attack, after pain and nausea and unwanted images have battered the nerve synapses until all connections are lost.” While on the whole her criticism was favorable and she remained a fan of Burroughs, such reviews may have prompted a more conventional format for the third edition.

The changes in the Calder reissue are fairly significant, though not even close to what we see in the transition from the first to the second edition. In this third edition Burroughs expands chapters that were previously much shorter, using both new material and selections from the first edition which he had omitted. In creating the second edition, Burroughs cut out many of the first edition’s cut-ups. However, in preparing the third edition, he went back to rescue some of the material he felt was still worth preserving. In some instances, this is the reason for extending what were shorter pieces in the second edition.

To demonstrate the difference between the second and third versions I will list in brief the more significant changes he made to the text, which eventually became an amalgamation of material from all three editions with new material added in as well, while still relying heavily on the second edition for structure.

The changes in the third edition are as follows:

  • “Trak Trak Trak” replaces two pages with material from the first edition of The Soft Machine and then omits eight pages at the end which are moved in to the “Early Answer” chapter.
  • “Early Answer” begins where “Trak Trak Trak” cuts out the last eight pages of the second edition. This chapter adds the first page of the second edition’s “The Case of the Celluloid Kali” onto its end.
  • “The Case of the Celluloid Kali” begins in the third edition on the second page of the second edition.
  • “I Sekuin” has a half page of new material added to the end of this short chapter.
  • “Where the Awning Flaps” is nine pages longer, with both new material and material taken from the first edition.
  • “1920 Movies” is retitled “Streets of Chance” and is 13 pages longer than the second edition, again with a mix of new material and material from the first edition.
  • “Uranian Willy” has one page of new material with a footnote.
  • “Gongs of Violence” has three extra pages of both new material and material from the first edition.
  • “Dead Fingers Talk” adds five pages of new material.
  • The book ends with 18 pages of new material concerning addiction and the apomorphine treatment. There is a short, one-page piece titled “Appendix to The Soft Machine,” an essay titled “A Treatment That Cancels Addiction,” a short piece titled “Plan Drug Addiction” and a final essay titled “Jail May Be Best RX For Addicts MD Says.” The last essay is in part taken from Burroughs article “The Death of Opium Jones” in New Statesmen from March of 1966.

The third edition is significantly different from the second, but the last 18 pages of material discussing apomorphine stick out as a fairly odd way to replace what was arguably the fine ending of both the first and second editions: “(The shallow water came in with the tide and the Swedish River of Gothenberg).” It is a haunting line almost reminiscent of the “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” that ends The Great Gatsby, a book Burroughs admired. Both have the nostalgic feel typical of Burroughs’ work. However, in the third edition we are left with this line: “Since all monopolistic and hierarchical systems are basically rooted in anxiety it is not surprising that the use of the apo-morphine treatment or the synthesis of the apo-morphine formulae have been consistently opposed in certain drearily predictable quarters of the soft machine.” It lacks the poetry of the earlier versions’ ending. Also it is more concerned with the immediate issues Burroughs was confronting at the time, 1968, than with the more universal theme of the previous versions’ ending.

This is not to say that the third edition is inferior to the second or, for that matter, the first. In many ways the third edition works out and refines the problems Burroughs experienced from the first edition in using the cut-up method on a novel-length scale. As Harris has noted in his essay “Cutting Up Politics,” the cut-up was well suited to short pieces of a page or two but less so on the level of a novel, where the poetic language suddenly demands a continuous narrative to maintain interest. With the third edition, we are introduced to a commercial cut-up method in a book with more logical chapter breaks and fuller story sequences.

It is interesting to speculate what Burroughs’ thought of his second edition and the fact that a version he once felt was imperfect was the only one still in print at the time of his death. Did the appending of apomorphine propaganda to the end of the third edition eventually seem dated? While apomorphine was a popular topic in the media at the time Burroughs was writing about it, it quickly faded into the past. Were the extensive additions to some of the chapters from the second edition still seen as an improvement? Given the complexity of the first edition, it is difficult to say what Burroughs might have thought about the second edition’s poularity.

If nothing else, he could at least have had a university press reissue the third edition in the 1990s, an opportunity more than a few presses would have jumped at. Evidently he was not motivated to seek a wider audience for that third edition of the book, which is less easily found in North America than it is in the U.K. (It took me three months to track down a reading copy that wasn’t priced in the hundreds. I’m not much of a collector, so no flyleaf and a few cigarette burns are fine with me. Regardless, it took actual effort in the age of the internet to find the book.)

What the various versions of The Soft Machine offer are three visions of the first real cut-up novel. They also display the process of a writer refining a technique over a decade of dedication to a single book. However, The Soft Machine also serves as an object lesson in responding to the demands of a publisher in a new market. For this reason alone it is of interest to scholars and writers because the three editions together are almost a textbook in how to conceive, execute, and finalize an influential experimental work.

Written by Dave Teeuwen and published by RealityStudio on 17 November 2009. Dave would like to thank Oliver Harris for research from his unpublished text Soft Machines, 1993.

8 thoughts on “The Soft Machines

  1. This article is like a bolt from the blue – I knew there were revisions but had NO IDEA the original edition was SO drastically different! Red, Green, Blue, White….???!?! I also never knew that the ‘Apomorphine’ bit is a ‘Deposition’-style afterthought. It’s weird, because next time I read the book I know and love, there’s going to be this ghost hovering above it..

    The note says Oliver Harris’ ‘Soft Machines’ is unpublished manuscript… any chance of hosting this?? …?? (bats eyelashes)

  2. Oliver’s unpublished work is a large collection of notes, but not a completed piece, so to speak. He has done a lot of work on this book, but it’s not something I think he would make public without revising it.

  3. Memo From Turner always had a burroughsian feel to me, maybe me being misled by the verse: “You’re the man who squats behind the man who works the soft machine.”

  4. In the film by Fennella Greenfield – William Burroughs interviewed by Kathy Acker – Burroughs complains to Acker that Grove Press had no interest in publishing the revised British edition. Acker promises to put in a word with the editors at Grove about this. I’m assuming from this clip that Burroughs considered the third revision as ‘definitive’. But some enterprising soul should publish both the Olympia and the British versions some day …

    (URL for the interview with Burroughs below)

  5. “For this reason alone it is of interest to scholars and writers because the three editions together are almost a textbook in how to conceive, execute, and finalize an influential experimental work. ”

    see also Bowie and the eventual Outside album born out of the ‘Leon’ sessions or the well known struggles behind Lynch’s film of Dune.
    the similarities are striking.

    very helpful essay here, glad to have read it.

  6. Apologies; i took the moniker K-9 without checking the forum first.

    Any confusion is entirely my fault – feel free to disqualify my comment or, if possible, change the name to this one; Joe Noe.

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