Thursday, July 17, 2008
Beat Primer, part 2: Burroughs posted by Adam Marks
Who monopolised immortality?
Who monopolised cosmic consciousness?
Who monopolised Love Sex and Dream? …
Who took from you what is yours?
Now will they give it back?
Did they ever give anything away for nothing?
Did they ever give any more than they had to give?
Did they not always take back what they gave when possible and it always was?
The purpose of writing on this blog is to expose and arrest the Nova Criminals… We show who they are and what they are doing and what they’ll do if they are not arrested. Minutes to go. Souls rotten from their orgasm drugs, flesh shuddering from their nova ovens, prisoners of the earth to come out. With your help we can occupy The Reality Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly.
Burroughs is an idiosyncratic but politically committed writer. He is the most modern of the key Beats. If Kerouac is hipness was then we make Ginsberg into hipness is and Burroughs, in his most utopian moments, hipness to be.
Burroughs was an exceptionally consistent writer, true to who he was. In life and in work he was the perfect declassed bourgeois anarchist, as likely to appear on the left or right wing spectrum. He could hold very advanced views on personal liberty as well as be a vile misogynist. He was bitterly opposed to bureaucracy and coercion but scornful of anything beyond individual organisation. He could work up a stinging satire on militarism on one page and denounce the welfare state on the next. Despite being, arguably, more sophisticated than his contemporaries he was never active in social movements, unlike, say, Allen Ginsberg.
Personal and Political Bio
Despite the dazzling narrative and linguistic devices, Burroughs content is personal. In this respect he is like the other Beats. So what well was he drawing from?
Burroughs was older than the rest of the Beat Generation. He was born in 1914 into a well to do family. The family fortune was built on grandpa Burroughs patented refinement of the adding machine, the early computer. The Burroughs became idle rich. William was due to inherit part of the wealth.
By most accounts, including his early autobiography, Burroughs was a strange child. He describes his earliest memories being coloured by fear of nightmares. He was conscious of his sexuality, a key form of difference, from an early age. He was acutely but passively aware of his alienation. Alienation is felt keenly by wageworkers, but they aren’t the only ones touched by it.
When the bourgeoisie was the middle-class, young, pioneering and revolutionary, it had a life-affirming link with the world. Its members were industrialists and merchants, its advocates lawyers, doctors and journalists. The average bourgeois was seen in the thick of the workplace, anxiously directing the work going, pouring over facts and figures, profit and loss.
With the arrival of modern capitalism, the capitalist retreated from active life. Capital grew and concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Capitalists could no longer marshal their empires. They delegated to a new class of managers, executives, foremen and so on. They became, as Rosa Luxemburg once described, “coupon clippers”.
Young Burroughs lived an essentially pointless life. He went to university, graduated in 1936 with a degree in English literature and a $150 a month trust. At the height of the depression he didn’t need to get a job. He drifted around Europe for a while, with enough money to “buy a good percentage of the inhabitants… male or female”. He came back to America, diddled around with graduate courses and eventually fell into drug use.
The questions, of course, could be asked: why did you ever try narcotics? Why did you continue using it long enough to become an addict? You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction… Most addicts I have talked to report a similar experience.
We don’t have to take his word about addiction but his early life does confirm the archetype of the poor little rich boy. In the prison notebooks Antonio Gramsci, at one point, compares typical attitudes of American and Italian wealth. In America there is the legend of the pioneer, the bootstrap capitalist who builds an empire from dust and, importantly dedicates his life to hard work. In Italy, by comparison, it was considered bad form for a wealthy family to keep working.
This led Gramsci to draw conclusions about the quality of bourgeois life and politics. If the bourgeoisie play no active role in public life they will surely lose the knack for rule, the generations that scrapped for power will be replaced by decadent dullards.
There is a degree of truth in that observation. Gramsci wrote his notes in Mussolini’s prison. Mussolini was a fascist, the leader of a lumpen middle class movement of students and ex soldiers, which rose to power, in part, on the incapability of the Italian bourgeoisie to rule.
There is also a degree to which the observation is false. Capitalism is still here. There are many great leaders of politics, industry and commerce left. While the modern bourgeoisie may have Paris Hilton and Pixie Geldof they also have Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch.
Back to Burroughs: his encounter with heroin was the start of his downward spiral (for one thing, it meant he had to take up manual labour). It was also became a focal point for his literature.
On cue, here come the appetisers!
We’ve already had a couple of snippets from his early work. It’s time to introduce some of his books. Meet Junky and Queer.
In many ways they are his only two novels. Two short books about his overriding preoccupations: sex and drugs. You can read them and understand most of what he was driving at.
Their fate as books tells us something about contemporary politics and taste, particularly in publishing. Junky was first published as “Junkie: confessions of an unredeemed drug addict”, by a pulp novel publisher. Pulp novels were (and still are) cheap and sensationalist fare, designed to excite. Yet Junky is flat and matter of fact about its subject and, as the original title suggests, the subject pays no regard to traditional moral positions on narcotics. Junky was paired with another tale, a balancing story about a narcotics agent, in a super-cheap 2 for 1 deal. Queer was originally part of the same manuscript, but the material about homosexuality was hived off and allowed to gather dust until 1985.
Part of the reason for the strange, dead tone was (at least for Burroughs) his ongoing opiate addiction. Burroughs made many interesting extrapolations from drug addiction, the trade, and the nature of narcotics generally. One of the first, and clearest, was his distinction between front and back brain drugs, stimulants and depressants.
Burroughs considered opiates to be depressants. They work on the back of the brain, suppressing the emotional and social centres of thought. This for him was part of the addiction. An addict does not need society, feels no love or hate. Once they get a habit they shift to junk time, their mind and body become regulated by their addiction. While their appetite is sated they can happily sit and stare at their shoe for eight hours.
What remains of brain function is rational and fact orientated. Junkies can absorb large amounts of information uncritically and without emotional response or diversion. A famous addict, John Lennon was an avid reader. Around the time of his heroin addiction he apparently developed the knack of reading piles of newspapers from top to bottom, front to back.
To return to Burroughs, And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks title came from Kerouac and Burroughs sitting in a bar listening to a report on a fire in a zoo. The newscaster was audibly distressed. What Burroughs latched onto was not the emotion in the voice but the striking phrase.
Here you can see the building blocks of his theory of control and domination. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.
When asked to define himself in print Burroughs wrote Junky and Queer. What’s so striking about them is they are honest but untroubled accounts of what were then (and to an extent still are) supposed to be painful subjects. The subculture Burroughs found himself in felt like home. He built on this conclusion, later expelling straights of all kinds from his pirate utopia, Interzone.
How are radicals made?
Radicals are made in response to radical situations. People make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Why did Burroughs become an individualist anarchist while others of his class and circumstances, say James Joyce or Charles Dickens (criteria: bourgeois fallen on hard times) turn to a different types of politics?
The society we live in creates determining pressures on individuals. People are developed and shaped so they can fulfil certain roles in the perpetuation of that society. People are defined in certain ways (we are common because of X: we are different because of Y). This lays the basis for common perspectives, points of view from which to view society.
Ideology is a collection of ideas based around a common point of view. Politics is a method through which those ideas can be realised. Class is a crucial defining factor in any society. In a democratic capitalist society ideology and politics are openly contested. The contest usually takes place along class lines, through parties, trade unions, chambers of commerce, newspapers and so on.
The vital classes in our society are the capitalists and the wageworkers. There are capitalist ideas and there are working class ideas, based around their perspective on society. Each class has different ways of advancing those ideas, different politics. Current capitalist politics is a competitive synthesis between neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. Working class politics is less well defined but still divided between those who want to fight for reform within the system and those who see struggle as a process leading beyond into a new society: reform versus revolution.
What about anarchism? Where does that fit in?
Anarchism is unlike other politics. It doesn’t struggle for power but against it in total. There have been many anarchist movements, but they’ve all suffered from the same problem. Social change doesn’t make sense without taking into account power (the history of all hitherto existing societies). Probably the greatest anarchist movement, the CNT union federation in Spain, at its crucial moment couldn’t ignore the question of power. It joined the republican government during the civil war.
It’s sometimes traditional to file anarchism under the label “petty bourgeois”. This tends to be a bit of dustbin for Marxists to chuck anomalous movements and social phenomena. A better description would be to say anarchism is a permanent fringe movement on mainstream politics.
There are two factors that can raise anarchism to prominence. The first is obvious, a dominant, all-pervasive state. The second is a lack of clear opposition politics, especially if the opposition is compromised or absorbed within the system.
Back to Burroughs
Before we go out further on a limb… The above scheme certainly applies to Burroughs political development. He left university and bummed around Europe, politics caught between the rise of Hitler and the decline of the two internationals. The labour movement in America in this time went through the popular front period followed by McCarthyism before it fell into endemic corruption.
The post-war period was characterised by witch-hunts and climb-downs. Two huge military-industrial complexes dominated the world, dominating politics and absorbing life. Given this background and his own personal history the limitations of his politics are understandable. Within this framework, however, he shows great insight.
The main course
1. Never give anything away for nothing.
2. Never give more than you have to give (always catch the buyer hungry and always make him wait)
3. Always take everything back if you possibly can.
These are Burroughs principles of monopoly (take them and apply them to the means of production, what do you have?). They are the premise of The Naked Lunch.
Naked Lunch is what Burroughs is most famous for. More than any other writer (except perhaps James Joyce) a page of Burroughs stands alone and obvious. He took the basic themes of Junky and Queer and began building on them.
He builds through a new method of ‘routines’. The Naked Lunch can be consumed in any order. The chapters do not lead into each other or explain each other. There is a hero (of sorts) but no moral or redeeming message.
Psychology and morality have been banished altogether. Instead there is a much broader picture arising from the general collage. Naked Lunch is in many ways post-literature. It is an attempt to come to terms with new visual media, such as film and television. Parts of the book are written in script form. There are graphic scene changes, fadeouts etc. Parts of the book flip between short, graphic sentences, creating strong images.
Another comparison might be with music. Rock and roll took the very precise terms of the folk/blues lyric (I woke up this morning… My baby done gone now… etc) and broadened it out. Instead of a quick-fire narrative you have a broad appeal to the senses and the emotions. You can’t say what “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop” literally means, you just know. This is what Naked Lunch tries to do.
What does Naked Lunch mean? It was a phrase coined by Jack Kerouac. It is the moment when you realise exactly what’s on the end of your fork. Put it another way. The French have a phrase, jamais vu, never seen. It means to regard a commonplace object with an unaccountably fresh eye.
In Naked Lunch Burroughs draws our eye toward the carefully hidden underbelly of modern capitalism. The true satire and obscenity is that madmen and perverts don’t just dine at the same table as the rich and powerful, like the pigs and men in Animal Farm, they are the one and the same: be they Doctor Benway, A.J or the County Clerk.
But Naked Lunch is more than just straight satire. It is set in a city called Interzone. It is a completely unaccountable pirate utopia where the people expelled by society as freaks gather and turn the tables (you know something is happening/but you don’t know what it is/do you/Mr Jones?). Interzone is a rich and ambivalent setting, suited to Naked Lunch’s cast of anti-heroes. It is based on the city of Tangier.
The prelude to World War One and climax of the imperial period was an incident in 1911 where Germany tried to assert its dominance over the Gibraltar straights. Part of the settlement was the division of influence in Morocco. Tangier was declared an international zone, officially (mis)administered by several European powers. For over forty years it effectively had no government. After the war it became a popular bohemian location. Many writers and artists (Mohamed Choukri, Tennessee Williams, Jean Genet, Paul Bowles) made their way to Tangier: a little rough and tumble but cheap, laid back and with plenty of freely available keif.
Naked Lunch may never have reached print without help from his friends, Ginsberg, effectively his early agent, and Kerouac, who typed up the manuscript (which had spent months or even years scattered around Burroughs Tangier abode) at the cost of having vivid nightmares. It was published in 1959, in the face of outrage and obscenity trials. Naked Lunch is the literary revenge of the alienated and marginalized. Burroughs once described his writing as purposefully obscene, “shitting out” his Middle American background. The powers that be were right to fear Burroughs writing as it pointed out the ultimate nightmare was essential to the system itself.
Cheese and biscuits
Naked Lunch is a slim book drawn from a fat deposit of pages. The “word hoard” built up in Tangier, became the basis of his sixties output. He developed and sharpened the political thrust of Naked Lunch. Inspired by the artist Bryon Gysin, Burroughs attacks the sentence, very unit of meaning and communication through the cut-up method.
He severs and reassembles sentences, developing motifs (no bueno, c’lom Friday, minutes to go and so on) and even appropriating other authors’ works (TS Eliot’s The Wasteland is used heavily). His abiding metaphor became the word as virus.
Religion, politics or philosophy, human systems of power and control, are designed to win acceptance and reproduce themselves. They are all built on texts. Burroughs assault is deconstruction. Deconstruction has become debased in the hands of postmodernists, a deeply cynical tool (Burroughs wasn’t above cynicism). It’s easy to forget that people once saw it as a radical, emancipatory tool. In a way Burroughs anticipated the socialist/situationist outburst of May 68, the manic desire to raze stale, state philosophies to the ground.
Bureaucracy is built up from text (red tape); ever multiplying and self-justifying text. Into this mix he chucks Inspector Bill Lee of the Nova Police, in hot pursuit of the Nova Mob, a gang of protean criminals bent on hooking populations on the word (word as drug) as a means of control and eventually destruction (word as virus). In the motif of the “nova ovens” Burroughs brilliantly conveys the horror of the century, the nazi holocaust, and the potential final holocaust, nuclear war. The Nova Mob books were written during and after the Cuban missile crisis, adding an extra dimension to the criminal gang bent on destruction.
Inspector Lee’s programme is one of “apomorphine and silence”. Lee’s department is the only non-bureaucratic police force. It does not perpetuate crime. Like apomorphine (which Burroughs credited with helping him beat his addiction) it does its job and departs.
Will Inspector Lee succeed and catch the Nova Mob? In every sense its up to you.
Coffee and mints
I hope I have shown, in a not too round-a-bout way, that Burroughs is a modern and engaging writer.