“non stop ad libbing”—selections from kerouac’s san francisco blues



Jack Kerouac, Book of Blues
San Francisco Blues

In my system, the form of blues choruses is limited by the small page of the breastpocket notebook in which they are written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus, and so sometimes the word-meaning can carry harmonically from one chorus into another, or not, just like the phrase-meaning can carry harmonically from one chorus to the other, or not, in jazz, so that, in these blues, as in jazz, the form is determined by Time, and by the musicians spontaneous phrasing & harmonizing with the beat of the time as it waves & waves on by in measured choruses.

It’s all gotta be non stop ad libbing within each chorus, or the gig is shot.
                                                                                                                —Jack Kerouac




I see the backs
Of old Men rolling
Slowly into black








Line faced mustached

Black men with turned back

Army weathered brownhats

Stomp on by with bags

Of burlap & rue

Talking to secret

Companions with long hair

In the sidewalk

On 3rd Street San Francisco

With the rain of exhaust

    Plicking in the mist

    You see in black

    Store doors—

    Petting trucks farting—

    Vastly city.








3rd St Market to Lease
Has a washed down tile

Tile entrance once white

   Now caked with gum
Of a thousand hundred feet
Feet of passers who

   Did not straight on

Bending to flap the time

Pap page in back

With smoke emanating

From their noses

But slowly like old

   Lantern jawed junkmen

   Hurrying with the lump

   Wondrous potato bag

     To the avenues of sunshine

     Came, bending to spit,

   & Shuffled awhile there.



 The rooftop of the beatup 
 On 3rd & Harrison 
 Has Belfast painted 
Black on yellow 

    On the side 
 the old Frisco wood is 
 shown with weatherbeaten

rainboards & a

washed out blue bottle

once painted for wild 

 commercial reasons by 

 an excited seltzerite 

    as firemen came last

afternoon & raised the

ladder to a fruitless 

 fire that was not there, 

 so, is Belfast singin 

   in this time



when brand’s forgotten 
taste washed in 
 rain the gullies broadened 

 & everybody gone

and acrobats of the 


    who dug bel fast 

    divers all 

   and the divers all dove




  little girls make 
  shadows on the 

  sidewalk shorter 

 than the shadow 

    of death 

       in this town—







Fat girls

In red coats

With flap white out shoes


monstrous soldiers

stalk at dawn

Looking for whores

And burning to eat up


Harried Mexican laborers

Become respectable

In San Francisco

Carrying newspapers

Of culture burden

And packages of need

Walk sadly reluctant


To work in dawn

Stalking with not care

In the feel of their stride

Touching to hide the sidewalk,

Blackshiny lastnight parlor

Shoes hitting the slippery

With hard slicky heels

To slide & Fall:

Breboac! Karrak!





Dumb kids with thick lips

And black skin

Carry paper bags


“Stop bothering the cat!”

His mother yelled at him

Yesterday and now

He goes to work

Down Third Street

In the milky dawn

Piano rolling over the hill

To the tune of the English

Fifers in some whiter mine,

`Brick a brack,

 Pliers on your back;

 Mick mack

 Kidneys in your back;  

   Bald boo!

 Oranges and you!

   Lick Lock

    The redfaced cock’





 Oi yal!

She yawns to lall

    La la—

 Me Loom—

      The weary gray hat

      Peacoat ex sailor

      Marining meekly

      Hands a poop a pocket



Oh     Mo     Sea!

    The long fat yellow

    Eternity cream

    Of the Third St Bus

    Roof swimming like

    A monosyllable

    Armored Monosaur

    Swimming in my Priomordial


      Of pain





Alas! Youth is worried,

Pa’s astray.

What to say

     To the well dressed ambassadors

     From death’s truth

     Pimplike, rich,

     In the morning slick;

     Or sad white caps

     Of snowy sea men

     In San Franciso

Gray streets

     Arm waving to walk

     The Harrison cross

        And earn later sunset







 Dig the sad old bum

No money

 Presuming to hit the store

And buy his cube of oleo

 For 8 cents

 So in cheap rooms

 At A M     3 30

 He can cough and groan

 In a white tile sink

 By his bed

 Which is used

 To run water in

 And stagger to

 In the reel of wake up

 Middle of the night

     Flophouse Nightmares—

     His death no blackern

     Mine, his Toast’s

     Just as well buttered

     And on the one side.





San Francisco is too sad
Time, I cant understand
Fog, shrouds the hills in

Makes unshod feet so cold

Fills black rooms with day

   Dayblack in the white windows

   And gloom in the pain of pianos:

Shadows in the jazz age

   Filing by; ladders of flappers

Painter’s white bucket

Funny 3 Stooge Comedies

And fuzzy headed Hero

Moofle Lip suck’t it all up

And wondered why

The milk & cream of heaven

Was writ in gold leaf

On a book – big eyes

For the world

The better to see—




And big lips for the word
And Buddhahood
And death.

   Touch the cup to these sad lips
Let the purple grape foam
In my gullet deep

   Spread saccharine

      And crimson carnadine

      In my vine of veins

And shoot power

      To my hand

         Belly heart & head—

              This Magic Carpet

                  Arabian World

                  Will take us

                      Easeful Zinging

                  Cross the sky

                  Singing Madrigals




 To horizons of golden

 Moment emptiness

Whither whence uncaring

    Dizzy ride in space

      To red fires

      Beyond the pale,

      Rosy gore outlooks



San Francisco is too old

 Her chimneys lean

    And look sooty

 After all this time

    Of waiting for something

    To happen

    Betwixt hill & house—

    Heart & Heaven.




San Francisco,

San Francisco,

You’re a muttering bum

   In a brown beat suit

   Can’t make a woman

   On a rainy corner


Your corners open out

San Francisco

To the arc racks 
Of the seals
   Lost in vapors

   Cold and bleak.




You’re as useless

As a soda truck

Parked in the rain

With cases of pretty red

 Orange green & Coca Cola

     Brown receiving

 Drops like the sea

     Receiveth driving spikes

Welling in the navel void.


I also have loud poems:

Broken plastic coverlets

 Flapping in the rain

     To cover newspapers

     All printed up

       And plain.



 Guys with big pockets

In heavy topcoats

 And slit scar

 Head bands down

 The middle of their hair

 All Bruce Barton combed

    Stand surveying Harrison

    Folsom & the Ramp

      And the redbrick clock

    Wishin they had a woman

    Or some money, honey


Westinghouse Elevators

Are full of pretty girls

With classy cans

   And cute pans

   And long slim legs

   And eyes for the boss

   At a quarter of four.


30TH CHORUS     

Old Age is an Indian

 With grey hair

And a cane

In an old coat

 Tapping along

 The rainy street

    To see the pretty oranges

 And the stores

    On his big day

When the dog’s let out.


Somewhere in this snow
I see little children raped
By maniacal sex fiends

Eager to make a break

But the F B I

In the form of Ted 

 Stands waiting 

   Hand on gun 
 In the Paranoiac 
    Summer time 

    To come.







   Falling off in wind.
I got the San Francisco

Bluer than misery

I got the San Francisco blues

Bluer than Eternity

         I gotta go on home

         Fine me 



      I got the San Francisco


      Bluer than heaven’s gate,


      I got the San Francisco blues

Bluer than blue paint, 


         I better move on home

         Sleep in

            My golden

            Dream again




I’d better be a poet

Or lay down dead


Little boys are angels

Crying in the street

Wear funny hats

Wait for green lights

 Carry bust out tubes

    Around their necks

   And roam the railyards

    Of the great cities

       Looking for locomotive

    Full of shit

       Run down to the waterfront

       And dream of Cathay

       Hook spars with Gulls

         Of athavoid thought




Babies born screaming

      in this town

Are miserable examples

      of what happens



   Bein crazy is

   The least of my worries


Now the sun’s goin down

In old San Fran

 The hills are in a haze

 Of shroudy afternoon—

 Bent withered Burroughsian

 Greeks pass

    In gray felt hats

    Expensively pearly

    On bony suffer heads




Pulsing push
To come on in
Inundate Frisco

  Fill the rills

And ride the ravines

And sneak on in

With Whipporwill

    To-hoo— To-wa!

      The Chinese call it woo

      The French les brumes

      The British





        Cellar door




This means

     that everything

       has some home

       to come to

Light has windows

     balconies of iron

       like New Orleans


It also has all space

 And I have windows

      balconies of iron

        like New Orleans


I also have all space


And St Louis too

 Light follows rivers

    I do too

   Light fades, I pass




Light illuminates

 The intense cough

Of young girls in love

Hurrying to sell their

       future husband

On the Market St



Light makes his face


Her white mask


She sucks to bone him dry

 And make him happy

 Make him cry

     Make him baby

 Stay by me.




San Francisco Blues
Written in a rocking chair
In the Cameo Hotel

San Francisco Skid row

Nineteen Fifty Four



This pretty white city
On the other side of the country
Will no longer be

Available to me

I saw heaven move

Said ‘This is the end’

Because I was tired

of all that portend




And any time you need 

   I’ll be at the other 



   at the final wall. 




baudrillard’s america: “nostalgia born of the immensity of the texan hills & sierras of new mexico”

the opening of jean baudrillard’s america always makes me think its writer is not a sorbonne professor but a wide-eyed innocent on whom nothing is lost, a child precocity who counts  among his forebears de tocqueville, kerouac and nietzsche. . . 






Caution: Objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear!


Nostalgia born of the immensity of the Texan hills and the sierras of New Mexico: gliding down the freeway, smash hits on the Chrysler stereo, heat wave. Snapshots aren’t enough. We’d need the whole film of the trip in real time, including the unbearable heat and the music. We’d have to replay it all from end to end at home in a darkened room, rediscover the magic of the freeways and the distance and the ice-cold alcohol in the desert and the speed and live it all again on the video at home in real time, not simply for the pleasure of remembering but because the fascination of senseless repetition is already present in the abstraction of the journey. The unfolding of the desert is infinitely close to the timelessness of film…




The Mexicans, become Chicanos, act as guides on the visit to El Alamo to laud the heroes of the American nation so valiantly massacred by their own ancestors. But hard as those ancestors fought, the division of labour won out in the end. Today it is their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are there, on the same battlefield, to hymn the Americans who stole their lands. History is full of ruse and cunning. But so are the Mexicans who have crossed the border clandestinely to come and work here.





Pompous Mormon symmetry. Everywhere marble: flawless, funereal (the Capitol, the organ in the VisitorCenter). Yet a Los-Angelic modernity, too — all the requisite gadgetry for a minimalist, extraterrestrial comfort. The Christ-topped dome (all the Christs here are copied from Thorwaldsen’s and look like Bjorn Borg) straight out of Close Encounters: religion as special effects. In fact the whole city has the transparency and supernatural, otherworldly cleanness of a thing from outer space. A symmetrical, luminous, overpowering abstraction. At every intersection in the Tabernacle area — all marble and roses, and evangelical marketing — an electronic cuckoo-clock sings out: such Puritan obsessiveness is astonishing in this heat, in the heart of the desert, alongside this leaden lake, its waters also hyperreal from sheer density of salt. And, beyond the lake, the Great Salt Lake Desert, where they had to invent the speed of prototype cars to cope with the absolute horizontality… But the city itself is like a jewel, with its purity of air and its plunging urban vistas more breathtaking even than those of Los Angeles. What stunning brilliance, what modern veracity these Mormons show, these rich bankers, musicians, international genealogists, polygamists (the EmpireState in New York has something of this same funereal Puritanism raised to the nth power). It is the capitalist, transsexual pride of a people of mutants that gives the city its magic, equal and opposite to that of Las Vegas, that great whore on the other side of the desert.



céline’s prose style explained, plus more from normance . . .

. . . Normance is a full-throttle grotesquery. The prose rears up at the reader like an exploding grenade, pumping shards of hate and disgust into the air, the pages littered with the fallout of sentences and word shrapnel. The novel lacerates linear narrative, leaving grammatical scars and the broken bones of syntax. What plot there is is lost in invective and fire-and-brimstone prose. Louis/Ferdinand – the novel’s narrator – trapped in a Paris apartment block, under siege during an air-raid by Allied forces during April 21-22 1944, dodges bombs, falling masonry, spastic dancing furniture, occasionally giving a slap to his girlfriend Arlette/Lili, while all the time aiming his own verbal volleys at Jules the hunchback, pervert sculptor he believes is directing the aerial assault and who has fingered Louis/Ferdinand as “a Kraut, a spy! A traitor!” Huddled under a table or squeezed into the concierge’s office, the inhabitants of the apartment block do anything to survive. The characterization of the narrator, the thug Ottavio, and the monstrous and eponymous Normance force the reader to question how far humanity will go – and how low individuals will stoop – to stay alive. The apartment block is an apocalyptic version of Georges Perec’s building in Life: A User’s Manual, but whereas Perec’s building had its rooms exposed to view, as if the façade had been carefully taken down by the author, Céline’s apartment block has had its floors and ceilings ripped out by Allied ordnance; indeed, Normance could be subtitled Death: A User’s Manual. Normance resists categorization, resists the history of the novel. 


. . . Exclamation marks mirror the bombs’ detonations, used together with Céline’s trademark use of ellipses … which pepper the paragraphs and act like punctuative landmines, these explosive points !!!!! – even before he became politically ostracized – placed Céline beyond the confines of French literature, beyond even his near-contemporary and un-familiar Jean Genet. This anti-academic approach made  Céline a hero to a new generation of American writers such as Jack Kerouac (the prose velocity), William Burroughs (use of the ellipsis and view of humanity), and Tom Wolfe who – in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – took Céline’s experimentation in punctuation to the limits of English grammar: 


Sandy hasn’t slept in days::::::how many::::::like total insomnia and everything is bending in curvy curdling lines. 


—just then—




—Cassady—twenty feet away across the beach road has suddenly wheeled and fired the four-pound sledge hammer end-over-end like a bolo and smashed the brick on top of the fence into obliteration, fifteen feet from the Mexican. 

Compare to Céline’s:

I can hear him!… ‘grrumph!…hraah!’ there’s a rattle in his throat…he’s got a bit of a cold…see, I’m being precise… you don’t care about the little details? well, tough luck!… I’m not going for artistic effect, that “almost-like-life” stuff! I was there, and while there I saw the following sights! that’s my motto!

Other writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth, and Ken Kesey, have also claimed Céline as an influence. But try to place Céline in a school of writing and your task becomes near impossible. The closest I can get is some awful hybrid writer/monster: Henry Miller + William Burroughs + Pierre Guyotat but that would be without Miller’s ego and Burroughs’ archness. If Zola is an obvious forerunner, then Pierre Guyotat – albeit from a reverse political pole – is the heir to Céline’s incendiary prose and explosive style. We can even see Céline’s influence on contemporary writers: Dan Fante’s A Gin-Pissing-Raw-Meat-Dual-Carburetor-V8-Son-Of-A-Bitch from Los Angeles is straight Céline “stinking ammoniac piss-sodden tippling snitching thieving spying abominable agitator” filtered through Bukowski. Céline defies and denies the canon, is resistant to history and political correctness.

. . . Is Céline a racist? An anti-Semite? A Nazi sympathizer and apologist? A collaborator? A misanthrope? Is he a novelist? A pamphleteer? And do these questions really matter when his prose is still shocking and fresh and a whole new generation of readers will have access to the phantasmagoric Normance? What Céline offers the reader is a fresh yet ugly take on human weakness, violence, and suffering – far from accusing the good doctor of  treason, we should applaud him for his honesty. Céline doesn’t blink when faced with human excess and pride – his prose may be rebarbative but it is necessary. Like William Burroughs, Céline preferred felines to human beings (the narratorof Normance worries more about the whereabouts and fate of his pet cat Bébert than he does the suffering of his neighbours). Ultimately, both Burroughs and Céline were moralists, their experimental styles and inflammatory prose became their means to deal with the 20th century’s absurd terrors. Despite the dodgy politics, Céline is an unflinching chronicler of humanity’s ethical depravity and moral relativism.

…they talk about love, in verse, prose, or songs, they can’t help themselves! the nerve! and always procreating! unloading fresh Hell-spawn on the world! and then speechifying! and their endless promises! … constantly swollen with pride! drooling and strutting around! only when they’re prostrate, dying, or sick do they lose a little of their human vileness and become poor beasts again, and then you can stand do go near them… 


—from Steve Finbow, “Roaring Up from the Depths”



Cover Image


Ferdinand versus Jules “the jerk-off artist”:

— Hey, Jules! Hey, Jules!

He could at least answer!

— You try calling him!

He gestures to us to leave him alone… he’s sulking… brooding…

— Leave me the fuck alone!

I can hear him clearly… between two tremendous bombs… a moment of calm… he wants a drink! Ah, a drink?… he’s outta luck!

The whole garden is flaming, all the shrubs…

It’s amazing that he doesn’t catch on fire, and his gondola and platform with him! considering the waves of sparks!

— Hey bozo, in the cart! jump! weirdo!

He called me a Kraut, a spy! a traitor! I can talk trash as well! all the names in the book!

— Faggot! hey, faggot!

— Please, Ferdinand! Take it easy!…

Always trying to calm me down! me, so tolerant and fair!… me, who he’d offended horribly! and publicly! and intentionally!…

— I hope your Jules roasts, the pig! the sub-pig! you were in on it together? tell me you were! admit it!

— No, Louis, calm down! Of course not!

— I hope that bozo of yours roasts! your fondler! I’d like to see him glazed in the flames all right! he’s poised for it! right into the pot!

Vrrouum! vrroum!

You’re probably finding me monotonous… I’m imitating the ruckus… what can I do? that’s how it is, period!… twenty squads fly over us, seething…

Ah! the windmill is leaning! and us! our whole building!… a powerful puff of air!… up above, Jules pitches against the rail, I think he’s going to crash through… no! he slams into it and ricochets off to the other side… he was thirsty, the gondolier now it must be a bit worse! he must have no tongue left!… it’s a dry wind from Levallois! even in our room, we’re baking in this heat!… especially our eyes! our eyes! our eyelids won’t close!… I’m not making it up!… the people who were there will tell you: an eruption! fifty… a hundred bomb craters spurting into the sky!… and not just in the sky, all around! and the windmill still isn’t burning! you want proof: Jules in all his glory on his skates! look how he maneuvers! and pivots! swerves! but he doesn’t break the barrier!… no! no!…

— Nut-job! Lunatic!

I howl at him!

He’s really taking a ride! his little platform is swaying, pitching, rolling and he’s still riding it in his gondola! from one railing to the other!… and in a hell of a wind! it’s blowing in from the Renault factory! from the west, a real oven! tornado after tornado! I’m not making any of this up! all the outskirts are an eruption… not just one little neighborhood!… the factories are torching!… the clown in his crate catches it all… right in the face! he’s a lot more exposed to the wind than we are… the whole windmill is leaning into the wind!… the whole frame… and the big strut and the ladder!… him up there, he rolls with the swells, pitching, then he shoots off again! if the platform really tips, that joker’s going to take a dive! in the lilacs! in the fire-and-phosphorous lilacs! jeez , he catches the railing! pivots! and off again! ah, he’s the acrobat of the elements! if he were overcome with rage, he’d fling himself off!… all the same I’m insulting him good and plenty! he tacks straight up against the swell… seems to me… I think… really!… they played a trick on him bringing him up there… or did he ask his pals to bring him? isn’t that the question?… there are strange forces at work, frequency waves, and more!… nothing would surprise me seeing how Jules behaves! the way he hangs onto his traffic light… acrobat artiste!

— Jump, you vampire!

There’s a little lull… the windmill straightens up… but the wind starts up again from the other side, towards Dufayel… a terrible aftershock!… this quake, I think this is it!

Sail, ship’s pup

The wind is up

I sing to him… he doesn’t give a fuck!… he throws himself against the other rail! his torso, face and nose are lit up… he’s all you see above Paris… naturally, being so high in the air! take a look at all the sparks hitting him! gust after gust!… even for us in our room, what swarms pouring in the window! crackling over us! we should have caught on fire too! we’re as lucky as Jules!

— I’m thirsty, Lili!… aren’t you thirsty?

She doesn’t answer… I shake her… I pick her up in my arms…

Aren’t you thirsty, Lili?

All she’s watching is Jules!… her eyes are glued to him! Jules up there, doing acrobatics with the bombs! I yell at him!

— Go on, chickie! dive!

It’s true, he’s stalling, the jerkoff artist!… I’m spurring him on!… he takes off at a zigzag, starts over! what a scene!… he’s never gonna break the rail!… and it’s flimsy too…


read more from Normance:

chandler brossard’s the bold saboteurs

thoughts on chandler brossard

the bold saboteurs reads like a strange conflation of louis-ferdinand céline and mark twain.  the main character, called yogi by his friends, james by his father and george by the rest of the family, seems like a slightly more criminal version of a j. d. salinger character, until he begins a surrealistic hallucination while being processed by the washington police. the ending is heartbreaker and reads like some hitherto unknown masterpiece of the theatre of the absurd. in its way as good as anything kerouac wrote – if not better. brossard’s freewheeling style and apparently random and picaresque narrative conceal a carefully modulated narrative voice and tightly-knit structure designed for maximum impact on the reader’s emotions.

Set in Washington, D.C. in the late 1930s and 1940s, The Bold Saboteurs is the story of the young Brown brothers who, along with their mother, must cope with the ravages, and absence, of their violent, alcoholic father. In order to survive, the elder Roland becomes a night watchman and uneasy head of the household; the younger George, a multiple schizophrenic whose hallucinations make up some of the most vivid, free-associative passages in the book, takes up a life of crime.

This autobiographical novel marks Brossard’s emergence from the formal influence of Flaubert and Camus into a wildly free, multilayered narrative where fantasy and reality, sanity and insanity coexist and intertwine.

Within the family, George, whose life chokes him with its "grimy emptiness," is controlled and, at times, brutally disciplined by his powerful brother. Roland, himself a borderline personality with religious delusions, creates an elaborate family mythology, convincing George they are descended from royalty. Outside the family, the rich detail of Brossard’s fictional underworld points to the author’s early life "near the gutter," among the outcasts of Washington society: thieves, muggers, extortionists, prostitutes and the Negro underclass."

By age thirteen, George is basically living on his own. While sporadically attending school (he also spends hours reading in the public library), he sustains himself with burglary, robbery, kidnapping, fencing of stolen merchandise, and hustling tennis matches.

Remarkable in its time for its in-depth treatment of alcoholism and its effects on family life, and its erotically charged descriptions of George’s voyeurism and his sexual initiation by older women.

a semi-accurate accounting cribbed from a later edition’s book jacket



el hombre invisible as gnostic seer and ufo contactee . . .

“Even the so-called science fictional elements of his books were not intended as satire or metaphor. Burroughs could very well have been introduced to the Nova Express model of invading extraterrestrials (and/or intrusions from alternate dimensions) at a very young age. In various interviews, for example, Burroughs has recounted one of his earliest childhood memories.

When he was four, he woke up early in the morning and saw little gray men playing in a block house he had made. ‘I felt no fear,’ he said, ‘only stillness and wonder.’ . . . Burroughs was so convinced of the reality of invading extraterrestrials that in 1989 he wrote a letter to Strieber asking to visit him and his family in their cabin in upstate New York . . .”

“William S. Burroughs, 20th Century Gnostic Visionary”

By Robert Guffey

In 1984, in Boulder, Colorado, an interviewer asked William S. Burroughs (1914-1997), “What religious persuasion would you consider yourself?” Without hesitating, Burroughs replied, “Gnostic, or a Manichean.”1

Upon reading those words, suddenly everything made sense.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the above conversation occurred in 1984. In many ways, Burroughs was a far more lucid and accurate analyst of twentieth century politics than even George Orwell, whose speculative concept of “newspeak” in his 1948 novel 1984 was quickly overshadowed by the real-world machinations of post-WWII Madison Avenue advertising techniques and Washington D.C. public relations firms.

Superior to Aldous Huxley’s brilliant 1958 collection of essays, Brave New World Revisited, Burroughs’s 1974 book The Job is a must-not-live-without essential guide to charting the opaque labyrinth of obfuscation and lies regularly constructed by the Reality Studio to protect itself from the light of scrutiny. Unlike his more naïve contemporaries among the Beat literary movement, Burroughs never took his eye off the twitchy sharpshooter in the corner, the wild card in the deck known as Control.

With the analytical eye of a surgeon (Burroughs studied medicine at Harvard, specialised knowledge that would eventually serve him well in his novels), Burroughs performed an autopsy on the body politic in a multitude of bleak and humorous novels, foremost among them Junky (1953), Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961), Nova Express (1964), and The Place of Dead Roads (1983).

But Burroughs never limited his vision to merely charting out the intricate connections that make up the system of control. Like Huxley before him, who eventually followed his dystopian novel Brave New World with a Utopian counterpoint titled The Island, Burroughs himself attempted to construct his own vision of a Utopia in such novels as The Wild Boys (1971) and Cities of the Red Night (1981).

In both cases, Burroughs seemed to suggest that a Utopia was not possible except within an isolated oasis, what Hakim Bey would call “a temporary autonomous zone.”2 In the first case, the autonomous zone takes the form of an all-male enclave in the jungles of North Africa; these commandos, trained in combat for defensive purposes, can reproduce without the aid of women and travel through the trees on prehensile hemorrhoids. In Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs’s Utopia is based on historical fact and manifests as an island settlement established by Captain Mission, an actual pirate who lived in the eighteenth century.

Mission explored the Madagascar coast and found a bay ten leagues north of Diego-Suarez. It was resolved to establish here the shore quarters of the Republic – erect a town, build docks, and have a place they might call their own. The colony was called Libertatia and was placed under Articles drawn up by Captain Mission. The Articles state, among other things: all decisions with regard to the colony to be submitted to vote by the colonists; the abolition of slavery for any reason including debt; the abolition of the death penalty; and freedom to follow any religious beliefs or practices without sanction or molestation.3

In both Wild Boys and Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs celebrates the notion of an autonomous zone kept separate from the madding hordes through potentially violent defensive measures, where a human being is allowed to pursue life free from the constant surveillance of overly authoritarian social structures. In Burroughs’s hands, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies would no doubt have a very different outcome.

Burroughs’s libertarian brand of morality was based on Jack Black’s notions of the “Johnson family” as chronicled in Black’s 1926 autobiography You Can’t Win. The impact this book had on Burroughs when he was still a young man can’t be overestimated. In Burroughs’s own words, the Johnson creed can be described as follows:

“The Johnson family” was a turn-of-the-century expression to designate good bums and thieves. It was elaborated into a code of conduct. A Johnson honours his obligations. His word is good and he is a good man to do business with. A Johnson minds his own business. He is not a snoopy, self-righteous, troublemaking person. A Johnson will give help when help is needed. He will not stand by while someone is drowning or trapped under a burning car.4

Surely in Burroughs’s world this would be the only mandatory social stricture established for his personal temporary autonomous zone.

Burroughs’s vision of a Utopian autonomous zone could be seen as a metaphor for the Gnostic concept of “the pneuma,” an infinitesimally small fragment of the divine that exists in all human beings.

Gnosticism, an early form of Christianity, flourished in the Middle East until approximately the second century CE when the movement was violently suppressed by Roman Catholic authorities. Dr. Stephan Hoeller, the current bishop of the Gnostic Church in Los Angeles, distinguishes Gnosticism from traditional forms of Christianity in this way:

[Gnosticism is] much more orientated toward the personal, spiritual advancement and transformation of the individual, regarding figures such as Jesus as being helpers rather than sacrificial saviours. It is a form of religion that has […] a much more ecumenical and universal scope in terms of its relationship to spiritual, religious traditions other than the Christian.5

According to literary scholar Gregory Stephenson:

…the attitude that characterises all the Gnostic systems is that the world, the body, and matter are unreal and evil. They are illusions that are the products of malevolent powers called Archons, chief among whom is Sammael (the god of the blind or the blind god), also called Ialdabaoth or the Demiurge. These creator-gods are not the Deity of the Supreme Being, though they make claim to being so. The Deity is completely transcendent – absolutely distinct, apart, and remote from the created universe. However, a portion of the divine substance, called the pneuma, is enclosed in the human body – within the human passions and the human appetites […]. The aim of Gnosticism is to liberate the pneuma from its material, delusional prison and to reunite it with the Deity. The Archons seek to obstruct this liberation and to maintain their dominion.6

This basic theological structure applies to almost all of Burroughs’s work. Burroughs’s strong sense of morality, of the distinct difference between right and wrong, is often lost in the lurid morass of details concerning his personal life. His heroin addiction, his homosexuality, his arrest in Mexico for the accidental death of his wife, his early experimentation with yage in South America and his later fascination with Wilhelm Reich’s unorthodox theories regarding orgone energy – all of these unusual aspects of his life, though admittedly intriguing, are often reduced to gossipy anecdotes that threaten to diminish the importance of the workitself.

Burroughs was never the star of his own novels, not even in his highly autobiographical debut, Junky. The central figure in all his novels is war – a continuous war between Freedom and Control, what Burroughs himself might very well refer to as “good and evil.”

The conflict between good and evil is considered to be a hollow theme by most literary scholars. After all, is this not the purview of Tolkienesque sword and sorcery epics and four-colour superhero comics? Surely no major literary figure of the twentieth century ever bothered to waste his time on such silliness.

But that’s not quite true. In the work of no other American writer do we find this theme explored in as complex and harrowing a manner as in the novels and essays of William Burroughs. At the beginning of this essay Burroughs described himself as a “Manichean.” Burroughs defined this term as follows:

The Manichean believe in an actual struggle between good and evil, which is not an eternal struggle since one of them will win in this particular area, sooner or later. Of course, with the Christians there was this tremendous inversion of values where the most awful people are thrown up as this paragon of virtue for everyone to emulate…7

The Manichean sect of Gnosticism spread across three continents over the course of eleven hundred years beginning, approximately, in CE 240. It was founded by the Persian prophet Mani, who was eventually imprisoned at the age of 61, tortured for 26 days, and assassinated. According to Dr. Hoeller, Mani is among “two of the great luminaries of the Gnostic tradition.”8

Dr. Hoeller sums up Mani’s basic doctrine as follows:

In the beginning, said Mani, the kingdoms of Light and Darkness coexisted in uneasy peace. While Light had no quarrel with the existence of Darkness and would have remained content existing side-by-side with it, Darkness would have it otherwise. Darkness was in a state of agitation and wrath and decided to attack and invade the realm of light.

As the legions of Darkness approached the realm of Light, the primal light needed to defend itself. It called upon the Mother of Life to bring forth the Primal Man (a cosmic figure, not related to Adam or other human beings except in an indirect way). The Primal Man in turn had five sons, and together the six expelled the Dark forces from the kingdom of Light and pursued them onto the battlefield of the lower aeons. Unfortunately, on the battlefield the chief demons of Darkness overpowered the Primal Man and his five sons and devoured them, incorporating their luminous essence into their dark forms. This is how the first terrible intermingling of Light and Darkness occurred […].

In the course of the rescue efforts the Primal Man is freed, and he gloriously ascends to the Godhead. The souls of the human beings, however, have been left behind, along with Light particles that derive from the captivity of the Primal Man and of his sons. It is only at this point that the material world as we know it comes into being. The Earth is created as an alchemical vessel of purification and transformation where the Light can be extracted from dark matter. The Sun and the Moon are both vessels of Light that serve as vehicles to transport Light upwards out of earthly darkness.9

In Burroughs’s world, evil disguises itself as good and good disguises itself as evil. The Archons are Christians and politicians and “jus’ good folk.” The Gnostics are roving bands of criminals and thieves known only to themselves as “the Johnsons.” The visionaries, the ones who have attained genuine gnosis (i.e., “knowledge”) can see through the illusions forged by control, identify the face of the enemy, and from that point begin the quest for true freedom.

These visionaries regularly employ unorthodox and seemingly “insane” methods to overthrow the hypnotic bonds of control: opiates, orgone energy, tape recorders that are used to cut up, analyse, and reconfigure the endless barrage of shallow mass media used to keep the masses docile, astral travel through time and space, hermetic magic, telepathy, etc. These are the tools of the twentieth century Gnostic in Burroughs’s revitalised Libertatia.

The goal of these latter day Gnostics is to establish an autonomous zone, a physical approximation of the pneuma, while having as much fun as possible trying to “wise up the marks,” a paraphrase of a key sentence in the third chapter of his 1964 novel Nova Express: “And you can see the marks are wising up, standing around in sullen groups and that mutter gets louder and louder.”10

The Archons are represented on Earth by parasite-infected control-freaks Burroughs aptly calls “the shits”: “…my contention is that evil is quite literally a virus parasite occupying a certain brain area which we may term the RIGHT centre. The mark of a basic shit is that he has to be right.”11 The shits will use all the power they have on this planet in order to prevent the Johnsons from waking up the marks.

This conflict between good and evil is played out in Burroughs’s fiction over and over again, perhaps most prominently in Nova Express. In this novel the Johnsons are called “The Nova Police” and the shits are called “The Nova Mob,” or simply “The Board”: “All right you board bastards, we’ll by God show you ‘Operation Total Exposure.’ For all to see. In Times Square. In Piccadilly.”12 Operation Total Exposure represents an attempt by the Nova Police to pull back the illusory curtain that protects the parasite-infected Reality Studio from being seen in its true form, to induce gnosis in the madding hordes, to transform the “marks” into “Johnsons.”

In chapter one of Nova Express, Inspector J. Lee of the Nova Police addresses the human race:

What scared you all into time? Into body? Into shit? I will tell you: ‘the word.’ Alien Word ‘the.’ ‘The’ word of Alien Enemy imprisons ‘thee’ in Time. In Body. In Shit. Prisoner, come out. The great skies are open.13

Chapter two, titled “Prisoners, Come Out,” is an open letter addressed to the “peoples of the earth” and is signed by Inspector Lee. In this letter the Inspector explains that the purpose of his novels are

…to expose and arrest Nova Criminals. In Naked Lunch, Soft Machine and Nova Express I show who they are and what they are doing and what they will 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.14

In his 1978 collaboration with Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, Burroughs wrote in reference to Nova Express:

A new mythology is possible in the space age where we will again have heroes and villains with respect to intentions toward this planet.15

The central villain of Inspector Lee and his Nova Police is a Demiurge-like figure named Mr. Bradly-Mr. Martin who leads the extraterrestrial Nova Mob, and through this Mob he has kept the Earth enslaved for thousands of years. In The Third Mind, Burroughs describes Mr. Bradly-Mr. Martin in terms that are overtly Gnostic:

Mr Bradly-Mr Martin, in my mythology, is a God that failed, a God of Conflict in two parts so created to keep a tired old show on the road, The God of Arbitrary Power and Restraint, Of Prison and Pressure, who needs subordinates, who needs what he calls “his human dogs” while treating them with the contempt a con man feels for his victims – But remember the con man needs the Mark – The Mark does not need the con man – Mr Bradly-Mr Martin needs his “dogs” his “errand boys” his “human animals” – He needs them because he is literally blind. They do not need him. In my mythological system he is overthrown in a revolution of his “dogs.”16

Throughout the novel, Inspector Lee explicitly warns the people of Earth about some of the most insidious tools the Mob is using against them:

Their drugs are poison designed to beam in Orgasm Death and Nova Ovens – Stay out of the Garden of Delights – It is a man-eating trap that ends in green goo – Throw back their ersatz Immortality – It will fall apart before you can get out of The Big Store – Flush their drug kicks down the drain – They are poisoning and monopolising the hallucinogen drugs – learn to make it without any chemical corn – All that they offer is a screen to cover retreat from the colony they have so disgracefully mismanaged. To cover travel arrangements so they will never have to pay the constituents they have betrayed and sold out. Once these arrangements are complete they will blow the place up behind them.17

The succeeding chapters introduce us to members of Mr. Bradly-Mr. Martin’s Archon-like Nova Mob:

‘Sammy the Butcher,’ ‘Green Tony,’ ‘Iron Claws,’ ‘The Brown Artist,’ ‘Jacky Blue Note,’ ‘Limestone John,’ ‘Izzy the Push,’ ‘Hamburger Mary,’ ‘Paddy the Sting,’ ‘The Subliminal Kid,’ ‘The Blue Dinosaur’.18

In a section eerily redolent of current events, a chapter titled “Coordinate Points,” the Inspector does us the favour of outlining the Mob’s plan to bring about global destruction:

The basic nova mechanism is very simple: Always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts – This is done by dumping life forms with incompatible conditions of existence on the same planet – There is of course nothing “wrong” about any given life form since “wrong” only has reference to conflicts with other life forms – The point is these forms should not be on the same planet – Their conditions of life are basically incompatible in present time form and it is precisely the work of the Nova Mob to see that they remain in present time form, to create and aggravate the conflicts that lead to the explosion of a planet that is to nova – At any given time recording devices fix the nature of absolute need and dictate the use of total weapons – Like this: Take two opposed pressure groups – Record the most violent and threatening statements of group one with regard to group two and play back to group two – Record the answer and take it back to group one – Back and forth between opposed pressure groups – This process is known as “feed back” – You can see it operating in any bar room quarrel – In any quarrel for that matter – Manipulated on a global scale feeds back nuclear war and nova – These conflicts are deliberately created and aggravated by nova criminals – […] In all my experience as a police officer I have never seen such total fear and degradation on any planet – We intend to arrest these criminals and turn them over to the Biological Department for the indicated alterations.19

Jack Kerouac once wrote, “Burroughs is the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift,” but the truth is that Burroughs never wrote a word of satire in his life. He was writing about life as he saw it, exactly as he experienced it. The Nova Mob and the virus parasites from outer space were not metaphors for him. They were real.

Burroughs, perhaps more so than F. Scott Fitzgerald or even Ernest Hemingway, was the prime mimetic writer of the twentieth century. He never wrote anything other than realistic novels. Marshall McLuhan, author of Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy, might have been the first to catch onto this subtle but significant point when he wrote in 1964,

It is amusing to read reviews of Burroughs that try to classify his books as nonbooks or as failed science fiction. It is a little like trying to criticise the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home.20

Indeed, Burroughs wasn’t trying to satirise modern culture, nor was he trying to create a hypothetical, science fictional representation of it. He was simply explaining his society within the only context that seemed appropriate to him, and that context was undoubtedly a Gnostic one.

Even the so-called science fictional elements of his books were not intended as satire or metaphor. Burroughs could very well have been introduced to the Nova Express model of invading extraterrestrials (and/or intrusions from alternate dimensions) at a very young age. In various interviews, for example, Burroughs has recounted one of his earliest childhood memories.

When he was four, he woke up early in the morning and saw little gray men playing in a block house he had made. “I felt no fear,” he said, “only stillness and wonder.”21 When asked about this incident in 1987, interviewer Larry McCaffery offhandedly referred to such experiences as “hallucinatory.” Burroughs replied, “I wouldn’t call them hallucinatory at all. If you see something, it’s a shift of vision, not a hallucination. You shift your vision. What you see is there, but you have to be in a certain place to see it.”22

This image of “little gray men” evokes more recent, popular conceptions of extraterrestrials as seen on the mass market covers of any number of books by Whitley Strieber, the author of Communion (1987), Transformation (1988) and several others in which his ostensible contacts with alien beings are delineated. Burroughs was so convinced of the reality of invading extraterrestrials that in 1989 he wrote a letter to Strieber asking to visit him and his family in their cabin in upstate New York. The 1996 revised edition of Victor Bockris’s With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker contains an in-depth interview about this meeting:

I was very interested in his first books and I was convinced that he was authentic. I felt he was not a fraud or fake […]. I wrote a letter to Whitley Strieber saying that I would love to contact these visitors […]. His wife, Anne Strieber, wrote back saying, “We, after talking it over, would be glad to invite you to come up to the cabin.” So we spent the weekend there. I had a number of talks with Strieber about his experiences, and I was quite convinced that he was telling the truth […].

Burroughs follows this comment by exploring the idea of “invasion” on all levels. He genuinely believed the human race was, and is, being infected by hostile intelligences on a regular basis:

When I go into my psyche, at a certain point I meet a very hostile, very strong force. It’s as definite as somebody attacking me in a bar. We usually come to a standoff, but I don’t think that I’m necessarily winning or losing […]. Listen, baby, I’ve been coping with this for so many years. I know this invasion gets in. As soon as you get close to something important, that’s when you feel this invasion, and that’s the way you know there’s something there. I’ve felt myself just marched up like a puppy to go and do something that would get me insulted or humiliated. I was not in control […]. There are all degrees of possession. It happens all the time. What you have to do is confront the possession. You can do that only when you’ve wiped out the words. You don’t argue […]. You have to let it wash through. This is difficult, difficult; but I’ll tell you one thing: You detach yourself and allow this to wash through, to go through instead of trying to oppose, which you can’t do […]. The more you pull yourself together the further apart you get. You have to learn to let the thing pass through. I am a man of the world; I understand these things. They happen to all of us. All you have to do is understand them or see them for what they are, that’s all.23

John Lash, co-founder of Metahistory.org, a website that concerns itself with Gnosticism and related topics, has many Burroughs-like perceptions regarding the Gnostic model of spiritual “intrusion.” Lash states:

It might be said that Gnostics believed that only by confronting what is insane and inhumane in ourselves, can we truly define what is human. In essence, to define humanity is to defend it against distortion. Gnostics asserted that the capacity for distortion of humanitas, or dehumanisation, is inherent in our minds, but this capacity alone is not potentially deviant. Since we are endowed with nous, a dose of divine intelligence, we are able to detect and correct distorted thinking […]. In a practical sense, Gnostic teachers in the Mystery Schools instructed the neophytes in how to face the Archons both as alien intruders, comparable to the Greys and Reptilians of contemporary lore, and as tendencies in their minds. The detection of […] intrusion in both these modes of experience seems to be unique to the finely nuanced noetic science of the [Gnostic] Mysteries.24

And it is this “finely nuanced science” that Burroughs attempted to keep alive in the form of fiction. Burroughs’s many readers were all potential recruits, “marks” who had “wised up” just enough to see a hint of light behind the illusion. His sincerest hope was that at least some of them were paying attention, would pick up the tools he left behind within his books, and use them to storm through the mass of Nova Mobsters whose unenviable job is to surround and protect the ramparts of the fragile Reality Studio until its dying day.


1 Gregory Corso Interview, “Attack Anything Moving.” Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs 1960-1997, Ed. Sylvere Lotringer, New York: Semiotext(e), 2000.

2 Bey, Hakim, T.A.Z., Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1991, p. 99.

3 Burroughs, William S., Cities of the Red Night, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981, p. xii.

4 Burroughs, William S., The Place of Dead Roads, New York: Henry Holt, 1983, p. ix.

Robert Guffey Interview, “The Suppressed Teachings of Gnosticism.” Paranoia Magazine,

Stephenson, Gregory, The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation, Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 1990, p. 60.

Gregory Corso Interview.

Hoeller, Stephan A, Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing, Wheaton: Quest, 2002, p. 135.

Ibid, pp. 140-41.

Burroughs, William S., Three Novels: The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Wild Boys, New York: Grove P, 1988, p. 196.

Burroughs, William S., The Adding Machine, New York: Seaver, 1986, p. 16.

Three Novels, p. 197.

Three Novels, p. 186.

Three Novels, p. 189.

Burroughs, William S. and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, New York: Viking, 1978, p. 97.


Three Novels, p. 188.

Three Novels, p. 236.

Three Novels, pp. 235-36.

Murphy, Timothy S, Wising Up the Marks: The Modern William Burroughs, Los Angeles: U of California P, 1997, p. 145.

Bockris, Victor, With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996, p. xx.

Hibbard, Allen, Conversations with William S. Burroughs, Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1999, p. 182.

With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker, pp. 242-46.

Lash, John, “A Gnostic Catechism: Encounters with Aliens in a Mystery School Text.”


First appeared in New Dawn No. 99 (Nov – Dec 2006)


—from http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/Article/William_S._Burroughs_20th_




telegraph’s strange list of the 20 best travel books of all time

"Newby . . . recounts a mountain-side encounter with the adventurer Wilfred Thesiger: We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger.’ "

Cover Image








Seeking to escape the trivialities of London’s high-fashion scene, Eric Newby went on a mountain-climbing trip to north-eastern Afghanistan’s remote Hindu Kush:

The view was colossal. Below us on every side mountain surged away it seemed forever; we looked down on glaciers and snow-covered peaks that perhaps no one has ever seen before, except from the air.


An unorthodox selection from the Telegraph of “the 20 best travel books of all time”:

1.On the Road by Jack Kerouac

2. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

3. Naples ‘44 by Norman Lewis

4. Coasting by Jonathan Raban

5. Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

6. Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

7. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

8. The Beach by Alex Garland

9. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

10. The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

11. Venice by Jan Morris

12. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

13. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

14. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

15. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

16. Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

17. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

18. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

19. The Journals of Captain Cook

20. Among the Russians by Colin Thubron


On the Road by Jack Kerouac

This book should come with a health warning aimed particularly at those in their formative years: proceed with caution, you may never be able to settle in one place again. And you might take up hitch-hiking. On The Road features a series of trips made by Kerouac and his Beat Generation friends across America in the years after the Second World War. Through the eyes of narrator Sal Paradise (Kerouac himself) the reader is transported from New York to Denver to San Francisco and LA. Along the way there’s jazz, poetry and drugs. And there’s Dean Moriarty, whose incredible thirst for life (and women) gives the book its extraordinary momentum. “The only people in life for me are the mad ones… the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles,” says Sal of his explosive travelling companion. And with those words, a thousand trips were launched…

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee’s lyrical account of his voyages as a young man in the 1930s is a masterpiece in English travel writing. Lee, who also wrote Cider with Rosie, describes his departure from a sleepy part of the Cotswolds, to London then Spain, armed with little more than an adventurous spirit and a violin. Exhilarating, whimsical and poetic, it captures a fascinating moment in time.

Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis

Lewis arrived in war-torn Naples as an intelligence officer in 1944, ostensibly employed by the army to liaise with the locals. The year-long diary he kept is a sublime portrait of the city and its people; a starving population that has devoured all the tropical fish in the aquarium; a place where respectable women have been driven to prostitution; where he meets an extraordinary collection of characters such as the gynaecologist who "specializes in the restoration of lost virginity" and the widowed housewife who times her British lover against the clock. "Were I given the chance to be born again," writes Lewis, "Italy would be the country of my choice."

Coasting by Jonathan Raban

Coasting tells the story of the author’s 4,000-mile journey around Britain in a 32-foot ketch, using only a compass for navigation. The story, like the voyage, digresses into personal memories, while the book is a metaphor for Raban’s own life. "For years I coasted from job to job, place to place, person to person. At the first hint of adverse weather I hauled up my anchor and moved on with the tide," he said.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

In 1960 John Steinbeck and his gregarious French poodle Charley set out in a converted pick up truck to tour the USA. The result is Travels with Charley: In Search of America, an absorbing and beautifully written account of the landscapes and people he encounters along the way. His bleak evocation of events and attitudes in the deep south reveal just how much America has changed in the past 49 years.

Notes From a Small Island
by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s farewell journey across the length and breadth of Britain is delivered with a combination of irreverent humour and touching nostalgia, while offering insights into our modern society. The list of Britain’s more bizarre place names and Bryson’s unerring antipathy towards some of the country’s less glamourous outposts are particularly amusing.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Part political history, part autobiography, part travelogue, George Orwell’s description of the role he played in the Spanish Civil War gives one of the most vivid English-language accounts of Barcelona at that turbulent time. It also proved agonisingly prophetic. After a being hit by a bullet (of which Orwell gives a searing account), the author returns home, where he says the inhabitants are “sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs”. The book was first published in 1938.

The Beach by Alex Garland

Alex Garland’s tale of a British backpackers’ search for paradise on earth – and the novel’s subsequent film adaptation – helped inspire a generation of gap year students to head to the Far East and is symbolic of the all-consuming escapism that travel can provide.

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux’s first and arguably finest book, The Great Railway Bazaar recounts a four-month journey through Europe, Asia and the Middle East. An essential for any enthusiast of train travel, the book features some of the world’s greatest lines, including the Trans-Siberian and India’s Grand Trunk Express.

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

The Road to Oxiana, written in the form of a diary, is considered by many to be the first example of great modern travel writing (indeed some even describe it as the Ulysses of travel writing). Its subject matter is a journey made by the author in 1933/34 through the Middle East via Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Teheran to Oxiana – the country of the Oxus, the ancient name for the river Amu Darya which forms part of the border between Afghanistan and what was then the Soviet Union. The book is a gripping, humorous account of Byron’s adventures, of the people he met along the way and of the architectural treasures of a region now only visited by the most intrepid of Western travellers.

Venice by Jan Morris

Few novels get under the skin of a city as well as Jan Morris’s Venice. The book offers a wealth of information on the city’s past and contains exquisite description. "Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell," writes Morris.

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

Described as a "little masterpiece of travel, history, and adventure", In Patagonia charts a six-month journey made by Bruce Chatwin in 1972 from the Rio Negro to the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Widely thought to be one of Hemingway’s finest novels, The Sun Also Rises portrays the colourful ebb and flow of group of mainly 1920s American expatriates as they immerse themselves in the lives and loves of Paris and Spain. It is perhaps most memorable for the pulsating bull-fighting sequences set in Pamplona. It may also change your perception of the word ‘utilise’ forever.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees.” From the first page of Arundhati Roy’s atmospheric and Booker Award-winning novel, The God of Small Things, you are immersed in the heat, the sounds and the colours of the southern Indian state of Kerala.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

With humour, Newby describes an ill-thought-out attempt to scale one of Afghanistan’s most challenging peaks. His inexperience gets the better of him, but readers of the much-loved book are recompensed with a hillarious segment that recounts a mountain-side encounter with the adventurer Wilfred Thesiger: "We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger."

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

Published in 1959, Thesiger’s account of a dangerous journey through the Arabian deserts has met with condsiderable critical acclaim since. Over the course of five years, the early explorer recorded the lives of the remote tribes he met in an often hostile land. His tales of hardships, unlikely friends and an age now passed have a timeless appeal for all travellers.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Surreal, sharp and consistently funny, Hunter S. Thompson’s "Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream" follows Raoul Duke and his attorney Dr Gonzo on a drug-addled trip to Las Vegas. The novel is said to owe its origins to two genuine journeys to Sin City made by Hunter S. Thompson while covering stories for Rolling Stone magazine.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

Few authors give as succinct and evocative a sense of place as Graham Greene, who also wrote several straight travelogues. In the fictional Our Man in Havana, the hapless central character James Wormold becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue and espionage over which he has little control. Seen by many as a satire on the Bautista regime that preceded Fidel Castro, this manages to be both a spoof and a reflection of Cuba as it used to be.

The Journals of Captain Cook

Captain James Cook went far, far beyond his humble origins in north Yorkshire to become, arguably, the most innovative and forward-thinking of all the many explorers of the 18th century. He also kept a vivid first-hand record of his ground-breaking voyages, in which he describes new territory in the southern hemisphere, and gives colourful accounts of his time in the islands of the Pacific. This is still in publication – and an original copy of the journals can be seen in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery in the British Library in London.

Among the Russians by Colin Thubron

Colin Thubron’s contribution to the travel writing genre over the last 40 years can only be described as immense. “Among the Russians” is a vivid account of a journey he made by car from St Petersburg (then Leningrad) and the Baltic States south to Georgia and Armenia towards the end of the Brezhnev era. It brilliantly portrays the lives of ordinary Russians trapped in what was then still a very harsh Communist regime, but the characters delineated can easily be recognised in the Russia of today. Thubron’s writings on communist China, Siberia, and, more recently, the Silk Road, are equally compelling.

from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/artsandculture/travelbooks/4932008/The-20-best-travel-books-of-all-time.html


the céline effect: “céline is a great liberator; I feel called by his voice”—philip roth

Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s influence on North American writers makes for a fascinating case study in literary influence. Is Céline a "strong poet" whose anxiety of influence has been felt on this side of the Atlantic for several generations? Have many of our best writers been "misprisioned" by the sinister Frenchman via the Freudian dynamics of Harold Bloom’s theory of literary progeniture? Do Céline’s populist sympathies for the poor and the sick and the outcast account for at least part of his attraction?    

Or does his searing contempt for that Dostoevskyean antheap, modern society (a contempt that many mistake for fascism), make him the exemplar of the truly authentic artist, the one who stands apart from the rest—and therefore markes him as a writer of highest possible integrity?

I think the real attraction of Céline is his frenetic style of wised-up street talk and caustic social observation. It’s a style that seems to survive in part the harrows of translation.

To be more precise: Céline’s voice, ably rendered by Ralph Manheim for the benefit of non-Francophones, plus the circumstances of his life, as captured and refined in his fiction, exerts such a seductive, siren-like lure for the safe and well-fed North American writer.

It is ironic Céline that remains so alluring for the North American writer, for that writer, no matter what degree of aliention he or she may feel, has never known the horrors and hardships of Vichy—occupation, resistance, treason—or had to endure the fugitive status of being allied with the wrong side, the losing side, indeed, quite clearly the criminal side in a global conflict, and, further, of being personally selected by the highest-ranking officals of your country as a most-wanted criminal, worthy of the death penalty, and even further again of being on the run in the Europe of 1945, with the continent itself now being rebooted by the victorious Allies to start again at Year Zero, with the determination to remove all vestiges of the Nazis and their accomodators very much on the agenda … to find one’s self alone, hunted and destitute, your country and continent in ruins…

Céline’s circumstances for a major portion of his writing life make Charles Bukowski’s call to "run with the hunted" seem like an invitation to a Japanese tea ceremony… everything Céline did seems marked with the stamp of the true isolate, and I often hear somewhere in my mind D.H. Lawrence’s dictum that "the essential Ameriucan character is cold, hard, stoic, isolate—and a killer." And Céline was at least the first four of those things when he had to be, and he may indeed have been a killer, too, what with his political pamphlets and his countrymen’s propinquity for betraying even to certain death the stigmatized and isolated among them, something that within a decade of his noxious political writings Céline came to know all too well.

Now here’s one academic’s take on the matter of Céline’s influence on North American writers (Alice Kaplan is the author of a fascinating study of an anti-Semitic writer in Vichy France, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach):   

Alice Kaplan, "The Céline Effect: A 1992 Survey of Contemporary American Writers."
From Modernism/modernity. Volume 3, Number 1, January 1996, pp. 117-136. 

Louis-Ferdinand Céline confounds the paradigm for fascist writers. A doctor for the poor with clear populist tendencies who emerged on the literary scene from out of nowhere, he produced a runaway best-seller, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) (1932), then a misunderstood bildungsroman, Mort à crédit (Death on the Installment Plan) (1936), that revolutionized the look of written French and exploded narrative convention. In the late 1930s he published two anti-Semitic pamphlets (Bagatelles pour un massacre [Trifles for a massacre] and L’École des cadavres [School for corpses]), both wildly successful, that pushed back the envelope of acceptable hate speech. In occupied France, he wrote letters to the editors of collaborationist newspapers and was identified with the racial policies of Vichy, but he was inconsistent and fairly useless as a polemicist for the "new order," since his spleen turned against Vichy as well its enemies. Nonetheless his camp was chosen: he was the writer who had passionately demanded the extermination of the Jews. At the end of the war he fled, following the Vichy government to the castle town of Sigmaringen, then to Denmark, where he was imprisoned by the Danes and released into exile. He was not extradited back to France during the early days of the purge, when collaborators such as Robert Brasillach were being condemned to death. By the time Céline stood trial, in absentia, the fury days of the purge had ended. Amnestied in 1951 as a veteran of World War I, he returned to a semireclusive life in the Paris suburb of Meudon, where he penned a trilogy of novels about the immediate postwar moment, featuring a shattered Europe and a paranoid, misunderstood, and wildly comic narrator. His novels (but obviously not his complete works) have been edited in the prestigious "Pléiade Collection"; his work appears on the French state agrégation examination, which certifies teachers of literature at the highest level. He is generally acknowledged, along with Marcel Proust (perhaps as an anti-Proust, in terms of class and syntax), as the great literary innovator of the century. Céline’s pamphlets, according to the wishes of his widow, have not been reedited since the war; pirate versions have been seized by his estate. There is currently a debate in France about whether or not his pamphlets should be reedited; whether, on the one hand, there is enough "Céline" in them to make them valuable as literary objects, or, on the other hand, whether it isn’t dangerous, in a current French climate of escalating racism and electoral successes by Le Pen’s Front National, to make this writer’s hate speech available to a public who reads him as great literature.

Céline has figured in the American literary context at least since the early 1930s; the story of his American reception runs along not quite parallel tracks to the French story, with some fascinating differences. This essay concentrates on one part of the American picture: Céline’s reception among writers.

The Miller Paradigm

Georges Brassaï, in a memoir entitled Henry Miller: grandeur nature (Henry Miller: lifesize), tells the following, now famous story: Henry Miller was living in Paris in 1932 and struggling with the manuscript of Tropic of Cancer, which had already been rejected by publishers. 1 An agent connected with the French publishing firm of Denoël and Steele gave Miller galley proofs of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit. This was Frank Dobo, also of the Winkler International Literary Agency, the agent who would help sell and promote the English version of Céline’s first novel with Little, Brown and Company, and who was soon after to become deeply involved in Miller’s literary career. According to Brassaï, reading Céline so affected Miller that he rewrote Tropic of Cancer. 2 Miller told Brassaï that "no writer had ever given him such a shock"; Brassaï went so far as to claim that Miller moved to the working-class suburb of Clichy to be near Céline—a strange claim, since Céline never lived in Clichy, although he consulted at the medical clinic there.

It is no coincidence that Brassaï, who with novelist Pierre MacOrlan was identified with 1930s Montmartre-Montparnasse bohemianism, and who prowled Paris by night with Henry Miller as he prepared his famous photo essay Paris by Night, should be fascinated by Miller’s attraction to the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit. Whether or not the story, as Brassaï told it, is literally true, we know that Miller sent Tropic to Céline, that he championed Céline throughout his career, calling him his "brother" and a "great man," and that he signed an American petition in his defense when Céline was threatened with extradition on charges of collaboration.3 The "shock" that Miller is said to have felt upon reading Céline had a positive and long-lasting effect. Samuel Putnam, a translator of Rabelais who was also closely linked to Miller through their shared Paris expatriate scene (Putnam would employ Miller at his literary magazine, The New Review ) used the word "shock" in a different register in his 1934 review of the American edition of the English translation of Journey to the End of the Night: "It is safe to wager that nine out of ten non-French French teachers in America would be unable to make head or tail out of the original, while the French-born ones would be terribly shocked, linguistically as well as morally."4 The difference between the academic and the artistic response is clearly marked here: Henry Miller’s discovery of Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, as related by Georges Brassaï, establishes a distinct relationship to Céline on the part of American authors, showing Céline en route to becoming a writer for writers.

The fact that Miller first read Céline in the original French is not to be overestimated in accounting for the impact Céline had on him. Many critics, including Putnam, acknowledged in the 1930s that John Marks’s translations of Céline were inferior to the original in tone, in addition to being expurgated. At Little, Brown, the telegram that editor Herbert Jenkins sent to the Boston branch, listing the phrases that Marks had cut, was hung on the wall as a reminder of the scandal that Journey constituted for the American reading public in 1934.5 It is astonishing that we had to wait until 1983for Ralph Manheim’s translation of Journey. By then, Céline’s American reputation had waned considerably.

American Moments

Under the impetus of the New Directions 1947 reprint of Death on the Installment Plan, Journey to the End of the Night in 1949, and the 1954 publication of Guignol’s Band in English, the circle of American-based writers interested in Céline expanded. For understanding the constellation of references and positions that accompanied the American taste for Céline during the 1950s, there is no more representative figure than Kenneth Rexroth, the New Directions author and critic who, in a series of articles on poetry, the Beat Generation, and literary rebellion, consistently used Céline as a counterpoint to the "polite" American writers, critics, and poets he dubbed the "Reactionary Generation." The paradox is that a writer like Céline, in the American context, shows up as an aesthetic alternative to writers who, like him, in the European context are situated on the reactionary Right. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound represented for the anarchist Rexroth the very essence of orthodoxy, crowned by a New Critical formalism for which he reserved his wittiest contempt: "there was growing up in Vanderbilt University, one of the few institutions of learning in the American South, a little coterie of political reactionaries, under the leadership of their English professor, John Crowe Ransom. . . . Their idol was T. S. Eliot, Classicist, Anglo-Catholic, Royalist. . . . They approved of Ezra Pound but wished he paid more attention to the rules of verse."6 At the other end of Rexroth’s spectrum was Allen Ginsberg, with his "denunciatory" jeremiad Howl, representing "an almost perfect fulfillment of the long, [Walt] Whitman, Populist, social revolutionary tradition in American poetry."7

Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs set out to visit Céline in Meudon in 1958. (It is generally thought that Burroughs learned of Céline through Miller as early as 1944 and transmitted his knowledge to the younger Beats, Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.) In the volume of poems that Ginsberg began writing in Paris that same year—entitled Kaddish, after the Jewish mourner’s prayer—Céline appears with a host of other writers—Whitman, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, Charles Dickens, William Carlos Williams, Arthur Rimbaud (Céline and Rimbaud are the only French writers mentioned)—in a poem called "Ignu." He is portrayed in his decrepit Meudon persona, administering morphine:

Céline himself an old ignu over prose
I saw him in Paris dirty old gentleman of ratty talk
with longhaired cough three wormy sweaters round his neck
brown mould under historic fingernails
pure genius his giving morphine all night to 1400 passengers on a sinking ship
"because they were all getting emotional"8

The physical description corresponds to the person Ginsberg and Burroughs must have seen at Meudon—decrepit, ill, covered in sweaters in an unheated house. The elements of Céline’s first two novels are suggested as well: the gathering of crowds, the ship, Céline’s medical practice. The gift of morphine in "Ignu" is much closer to a Burroughs fantasy (Burroughs had published Junkie in 1953, and he presented a copy of the book to Céline) than to any dominant aspect of Céline’s prose, and shows how Céline’s aura could be appropriated. In the mid-1960s, Ginsberg would acknowledge the influence of Céline on his poetry in technical, rather than thematic, terms: "the rapidity of transitions and shiftings made possible by the 3-dot syntax . . . that’s what impresses us in US who are interested in the use of aural speech patterns transferred to written language."9

That the Céline celebrated by the Beats was a sentence-level writer was no doubt part of the decision made by New Directions to underwrite a new translation of one of the French writer’s previously translated novels during the 1960s. In 1966, they published Ralph Manheim’s translation of Mort à crédit, Death on the Installment Plan, which rendered Céline in a style that was more syntactically interesting, and more American in terms of vocabulary than the earlier, British-idiom translations by John Marks. Manheim’s work is more attuned to the qualities that Ginsberg valued in Céline’s writing: the odd speech patterns and the three dots, which were often ignored or "corrected" in Marks’s translations. This was the first of the decade’s several major publishing events in the American career of Céline: in 1968, Manheim’s translation of D’un chateau l’autre, Castle to Castle, won a National Book Award for translation, boosting the visibility and prestige of Céline’s post-World War II historical fiction.

In 1965, Céline made a significant appearance in Bruce Jay Friedman’s anthology of short stories, Black Humor. Céline is represented in the volume by the Admiral Bragueton episode from Journey to the End of the Night. He is the only French writer, appearing alongside Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, John Barth, Terry Southern, and J. P. Donleavy. The essay in which Friedman introduces the black humor genre is political and aesthetic in focus; black humor, Friedman argues, is the only possible literary response to the mad reality of the Vietnam war, and Céline was the precursor of this angry, hallucinatory genre: "There is Thomas Pynchon appearing out of nowhere with a vision so contemporary it makes your nose bleed and there is Céline who reminds you that he thought all your thoughts, worked the same beat, was dumbfounded as many times a day as you are, long before you were born."10

It was in the 1960s that Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five; John Clellon Holmes, the chronicler of the Beat Generation who became a teacher of fiction writing; and Philip Roth, the young Jewish author of the infamous Portnoy’s Complaint, all taught Céline in fiction courses at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.11 The appearance of Céline as an antiwar writer in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), the dominant theme of which is a critique of the bombing of Dresden and whose success was overdetermined by protests against the American bombings of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, presented the French writer to a mass of American readers as an antiwar figure at a time when opposition to the Vietnam War was becoming a mass movement. If the 1950s was the decade when Céline’s reputation was expanding among writers and critics connected to the Beat Generation, the 1960s—with Céline’s canonization as a black humorist, the impact of the new Manheim translations, and the interest in his work shown by such mainstream novelists as Vonnegut and Roth—was the decade when Céline came closest to reaching a mass American audience—when Céline was reinvented as an antiwar novelist.

The Survey

In 1991, I undertook a survey of contemporary American writers. It was an attempt to document an afterlife for Céline—a life after the oppositional cultural movements of the 1960s, after the waning of avant-garde writing. The angry young men have been replaced as the most celebrated figures on the literary scene by women and minorities, and first-person narrative has attained a decidedly more confessional, less hallucinatory quality than it had thirty years ago. I wanted to know: Is Céline remembered? Is he still a writer’s writer? Who is reading him today?

The idea of asking a group of contemporary writers about a literary figure is an almost shockingly simple approach to questions of intertextuality and influence that have received sophisticated theoretical treatment. A survey cannot capture effects that are unconscious, repressed, or even indirect, but it can provide writers with a chance to give testimony—to create a text of their own. It is this "text"—the collective written responses to my questions on Céline—that I analyzed for patterns, repetitions, and surprises.

The empiricism of a survey was bound to antagonize a group of people who define themselves by their creativity. Asking writers to respond to yes-or-no questions is a bit like asking artists to complete a paint-by-numbers landscape. As I compiled the list of writers and later grappled with their answers, more often than not the survey came to seem rather like one of the experiments carried out by French writers of the twentieth-century OuLiPo school, which wants to formulate elaborate rules and mathematical structures as the bases for literary creation. My survey was a constraint, a mold, an opening into literary history that the writers could follow, resist, or ignore, as they pleased.

Among the thousands of writers producing in the United States today, I chose to survey novelists, poets, and translators. I included editors who have shaped some of the most interesting writing of the past twenty years and essayists who, in my opinion, have left the scholarly domain to reach an audience outside the university through large-circulation literary magazines such as The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. I chose individual writers for a variety of reasons: some had written or had spoken about Céline in interviews; others wrote in a genre or style favored by Céline; some writers were surveyed simplybecause I thought they would respond vehemently. At the same time, I aimed for a representative sample from various schools and tendencies in American writing: New Directions writers, Language poets, mainstream Knopf and Random House writers, writers born after 1950, and writers closely identified by their race, ethnicity, or sexual politics. The oldest writer to whom I sent the survey was born in 1897; the youngest, in 1964. The majority of writers who responded were born between 1927 and 1951, although there was a cluster of responses from writers born between 1909 and 1917, who came of age during the 1930s, when Céline’s American star first rose (fig. 1). My basic source for writers’ addresses was The Writers Directory, 1990-1992, although finding the right address was still not easy, and ten surveys never reached their destination.12

What do I mean by "writer"? The distinctions between writers and critics, between producers and analysts of literature, are not always clear, especially today when for economic and institutional reasons American writers often make a living by teaching criticism and creative writing in university English departments and in writing programs. This is a characteristic of American writers today that distinguishes them both from Céline, who always defined himself against literary and academic communities, and from contemporary French writers who are not institutionally linked to the French university system. Even Ginsberg, who was indicted on obscenity charges in 1957 for Howl, today teaches writing at Brooklyn College; Maxine Hong Kingston, the best-known Asian-American novelist in the United States, is a distinguished professor at Berkeley; and John Barth, known for his metafiction, holds an endowed professorship at Johns Hopkins. Very few of the writers surveyed are [fig. 1] completely independent of the academic world: either they teach, write criticism for academic journals, or depend on income from speaking engagements at universities.

I sent the survey to 163 writers.13 I received 65 responses, including completed surveys, letters, and one postcard, which constituted a response rate of 40 percent—unusually high for this kind of survey (10 percent is considered a very good response rate to any kind of direct mailing). I was struck by the generosity of the respondents, both in answering my questions and in suggesting more complex ones than I had asked.

Of the 65 respondents, 55 had heard of Céline, of whom 43 had read him; 12 people who hadn’t read Céline took the trouble to return the survey. Fourteen respondents asked to be quoted anonymously.

What Texts Have You Read?

I asked writers to check off the works by Céline they had read; these included the French editions of his novels and anti-Semitic/political pamphlets, and the English translations of his novels by John Marks and by Ralph Manheim.

An equal number of writers (17) had read Death on the Installment Plan in the Marks and Manheim translations. The figures, however, tilted toward Marks for Journey (34 people had read his translation, while 13 had read Manheim’s). More writers, that is, had read Journey before 1983, when the Manheim translation was first published.

The Céline work most frequently read by the American writers surveyed was Marks’s translation of Voyage au bout de la nuit, the only translation available from 1934 to 1983. The same number of people who had read the Manheim translation (13) read Voyage in the original French. The fact that Manheim’s translation appeared so long after the publication of Voyage is an important factor here. The ages of the Voyage readers ranged from 52 to 81, indicating that an older generation of American writers was more likely to have read novels in French than those born after 1945. One surprising result was that 9 of the 13 readers who read Voyage in French also read it in English as Journey: either they read the book twice, once in French and once in English, or they used one of the English translations as a guide in reading the French—an indication not only of their dedication as readers, but also of the specific appeal, and difficulty, of Céline’s French.

Discovering Céline

Céline is an antiacademic figure who nonetheless requires an educated taste. His work is transmitted in this country mainly through schools. Eleven writers had read Céline for the first time in college, either in a course or because friends had recommended his work. Five respondents precociously read him in high school or as teenagers, 1 in a graduate seminar, and 1 in a writer’s workshop—only 2 of the writers surveyed had first encountered him as book reviewers.

There were a number of writers who reported reading Céline as their first intense brush with literature (the experience that readers often recall with respect to J. D. Salinger or Rimbaud). The poet and translator Richard Howard, who has read a great deal of Céline, discovered him in high school—in Cleveland, where "a sort of diabolic aureole surrounded this antisemitic figure." 14 Novelist Jim Harrison also first read Céline "in high school, a rural agricultural school where my teacher subscribed to the Nation and Saturday Review so I found out early about Céline." Gary Indiana "first read Céline precociously, at age 13 or 14, because his books were available in paperback at the local news store: I liked the titles." If we date these high-school encounters to 1945, 1953, and 1963 respectively, we have evidence of a Céline influence on young people extending over three decades, from the period of his greatest infamy—the immediate aftermath of the war—to the decade of his most obvious influence, yet before the appearance of the first Manheim translation in 1966.

In addition to these high-school readers, the following writers (fig. 2) reported specific years for their first "awareness" of Céline (they are listed by order of birth year). Norman O. Brown (b. 1913) wrote a particularly interesting response to this question in a letter describing two different discoveries of Céline, fifty years apart.His initial encounter occurred

in my first Marxist incarnation in the late 1930s . . . as a "muck-raker," with ambiguous proletarian affinities. [Then] in the past year [1990] I discovered as more relevant to my post-Marxist tendencies Kristeva’s Pouvoirs de l’horreur [Powers of horror]. . . . the material was so fascinating I went to the French edition and read it bilingually, paying special attention to the quotations from Céline. Thus through Kristeva in bilingual translation I got some access to Céline in the original.

Only 2 writers (not counting Brown) mention French sources—either personal or literary—for their first encounter with Céline: overwhelmingly, then, his reputation seems to have depended on word of mouth within an American network.

Placing Céline

I asked, "Where do you place Céline (list other comparable authors, give a value judgment or a description): (a) in terms of French Literature; (b) in terms of American literature; (c) along with other translated European authors?" The results were eclectic; some writers placed Céline among the timeless classics, others with nineteenth-century novelists, with his contemporaries in the 1930s, or with writers working today. There was no discernible pattern of generational affinity in these comparisons: Jay McInerney (b. 1955), sees Céline as someone who "made the Beat Movement possible," while Ted Morgan (b. 1932), compares him to Eric Bogosian, the 1990s performance artist. Céline is poet Philip Levine’s "favorite French writer of this century," whom he prefers to André Gide, Proust, and André Malraux. Richard Howard calls Céline one of the "three greatest prose writers of the Second World War period," along with André Breton and Maurice Blanchot.

In terms of American placement, Henry Miller was the most frequently cited in comparison with Céline (6 times); Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, and the Beats were each cited 3 times, while John Hawkes, Ray Federman, Vonnegut, Pound, Harold Brodkey, and John Dos Passos were each mentioned twice. Clark Blaise defined Céline as a "proletarian lyric writer," along with Henry Roth, Edward Dahlberg, early James Farrell, Dos Passos, and William Saroyan (Nathaniel West was also mentioned). A number of writers chose to respond to this question in the "not as good as" mode—that is, evaluatively. According to Ron Sukenick, "Céline doesn’t rank with Faulkner or Melville but beats the Hemingway-Fitzgerald bunch by a longshot."

It was surprising that Norman Mailer responded to the survey by specifying that only one of his responses could be quoted—the response to this comparative question. He claimed that Céline is "significantly less valuable than Henry Miller." The remark is consistent with Mailer’s having championed Henry Miller in The Prisoner of Sex, after Miller had been famously attacked by feminist essayist Kate Millett in her Sexual Politics. Céline is an occasion for Mailer to continue championing Miller15


Céline’s English-language titles attracted attention. Gary Indiana, as noted above, saw Céline’s paperbacks at the newsstand when he was thirteen or fourteen years old, and "liked the titles." Tom Wolfe thinks that Death on the Installment Plan is the "greatest book title ever devised—better in English than it is in French."16 Greil Marcus, music critic and historian of punk rock, confessed to never having read Céline—"I haven’t gotten around to it (also haven’t read Woolf, Forster, etc); afraid I might like it too much (not kidding)"—yet he responded to several of the questions on the basis of his received ideas about Céline. Marcus has clearly absorbed Céline, in English, at the level of the titles: in Dead Elvis, published the year of the survey, he entitled a chapter "Ten Years After: Death on the Installment Plan."17 There is already a strong trickle-down effect of Céliniana in the culture, available to a knowledgeable critic like Marcus. Céline’s English titles are recyclable as slogans; the writer himself is known, even by someone who hasn’t read him, as forbidden and dangerous.

Voice and Freedom

Céline’s effect on a writer’s own practice was often connected by the respondents to the category of voice, although what "voice" means varied widely:18 Jay McInerny, for example, spoke of "a freeing up of the inner voice, a license to say whatever you feel," while for Andrei Codrescu, Céline’s writing is characterized by "the closeness of the speaking mouth: you can taste the spittle." Clark Blaise in a follow-up interview referred to Céline as promoting a "singularity of voice": "voice" in this case is akin to originality, or "signature," and for Blaise this is the key element in Céline. Like Samuel Beckett, Blaise contends, Céline is "entirely a ‘voice writer.’"19

Several writers acknowledged the effect of Céline as one of "freedom." Again, what liberation meant varied. For the Rumanian-born Codrescu, Céline represented a freedom from institutions: "He has given me license to practice medicine regardless of what authorities are watching." For Maxine Hong Kingston, he endorsed a freer speech, an end to secrets: "Perhaps I am assured by Céline that it’s all right to say anything I want." In Jim Harrison’s response, this freedom is physical and spiritual, linked to speed and range, power and godliness: "a strong early influence along with Faulkner etc., in terms of digression, freedom, how to accelerate fiction as if you were a god." Even 2 of the anonymous respondents, who were otherwise hostile to Céline, used the word "freedom," though grudgingly: "he freed [my writing] up—slightly"; "perhaps a certain freedom." In a 1984 interview in the Quinzaine Littéraire, Philip Roth combined these notions of voice and freedom in a provocative tribute to Céline, calling him "my Proust": "Céline," Roth concluded, "is a great liberator; I feel called by his voice."20 It is difficult to tell from his phrasing, translated here from the French, to what purpose Roth feels called. Céline’s "call," I suspect, is nothing other than the call to read Céline and to write.

The Pamphlets

Céline’s political affinities, his targets, and the passionate debates over what purpose his hate language served in its original context wither, or are suspended by many passionate American readers, in the interests of his writerly, emancipating effects. This may be both because he is not an American writer—and is therefore exempt from more local political passions—and because the full-blown expression of his racism takes place only in the pamphlets, which (with the exception of Mea Culpa [1936], an anticommunist polemic) are not available in English translation and so tend not to cloud his American reception.

Nevertheless, many more people (13, the number of Voyage readers) claim to have read one or more of the pamphlets (Mea Culpa, Bagatelles pour un massacre [1937], L’École des cadavres [1938], and Les Beaux Draps [1941]) than have read the playful postwar send-up of the world of journalists and editors, Entretiens avec le Professeur Y (1955), which was translated and published as Conversations with Professor Y in the United States in a 1986 bilingual edition.21 Saul Bellow read Les Beaux Draps in Paris in 1948, and responded to the survey with the following pun: "I still remember the hackles those fine sheets raised" ("fine sheets" being the transposition of the reference to bedsheets in "beaux draps," by which Céline is referring to the "fine fix" that the French have gotten themselves into during the Occupation).22

Overwhelmingly, the pamphlet readers have closer connections to France and to the French language than do the writers who have read only the novels. Saul Bellow was born in Montreal and has lived in France. Clark Blaise is of Quebecois origins. Raymond Federman, an American writer born in France in 1928, was the only survey respondent to have read every Céline text, French and English. Richard Howard is the foremost American translator of French literature. The writer and former journalist Sanche de Gramont came to the United States from France as an adult and changed his name to Ted Morgan. The poets Michael Palmer and Keith Waldrop also translate from the French and have close intellectual ties to France. Gary Indiana read the pamphlets while living in France.

Age is significant: of the 13pamphlet readers, 9 were born between 1911 and 1932, and only 3 were born after 1940—the youngest, Gary Indiana, in 1950. While he was living in France in 1980, Indiana read copies of Bagatelles pour un massacre, L’École des cadavres, and Les Beaux Draps borrowed from Jean-Jacques Schuhl, an experimental French novelist with an affinity for the Beats. No respondent under forty-two years of age had read the pamphlets. This is a provocative result, for it implies that the memory of Céline’s anti-Semitic writing is fading among his readers today. One might argue about whether that is good or bad, from both an ethical and an aesthetic point of view.

The responses I want to juxtapose with the surprising number of readers of the pamphlets—20 percent of those who responded to the survey—are to the question "Are you aware of the controversy over Céline’s political views?" and to the follow-up question "What effect has that awareness had on your appreciation of his work?" Forty-two writers responded that they were aware of the controversy, while only 1 writer wasn’t. What interests me here is the way American writers deal with a figure who is morally compromised, how they factor politics and formal considerations in reading Céline.

Politics versus Form

Thirteen people said that Céline’s political views had no effect on their reading; they answered with such startling one-liners as "none," "little or none," "little," "almost none," "not much," and "absolutely no effect." Of these 13 readers, 1 had read all four pamphlets, while another had read only Bagatelles pour un massacre. The "none at all" group included Adrian Piper, a professor of philosophy and performance artist who has taken strong political positions against American racism in her own art, most recently in an installation on the Rodney King incident.

At the other end of the spectrum were the people who refused to read Céline. For example, Paul Bowles declared, "I have avoided him for 5 decades," while Richard Selzer said, "I prefer not to read bigots and fascists. Life is too short. Art is too long." The anonymous respondents had harsher things to say, for example, "don’t you dare associate me with Céline." Or, in response to the question "Are you aware of the controversy over Céline’s political views?" one respondent asked in turn if the evil of Nazism could be construed as controversial, i.e., debatable. Jim Harrison offered up his own split between politics and aesthetics in the form of self-criticism: "Writers tend to be politically naive, self included. Have to stick to the work itself."

Another group of respondents considered politics and form as inseparable issues (this is one of the few groupings where none of the respondents asked for anonymity). Charles Bernstein described the effects of Céline’s politics as "part of the complexity of his work," whereas for Clark Blaise, "it provokes a sharper scrutiny of the good work and helps explain the bad." With regard to the effect of his awareness of the Céline controversy, Michael Palmer commented that "an awareness comes through the work, not apart from it." For Gary Indiana, "Céline’s vision is so deranging and raucous that his political views—which are impossible to take seriously—become a source of humor." Andrei Codrescu expressed it more figuratively: "the writing is generative: the views are to the writing what shit is to flowers, unfortunately." Céline, for Bob Perelman, is "an intensely interesting problem." Maxine Hong Kingston, however, reported a negative effect. She "liked the energy, the language . . . the idea that one must do anything—including go to jail—rather than join the army"; she saw Céline as a "wild hare, like Ezra Pound in American literature" but stopped reading Céline after hearing about his "weird views." Lydia Davis responded to this question with questions of her own:

To raise the very difficult question of morality and literature—i.e., how immoral can a piece of writing be and still be given highest honors and esteem—more broadly, how much, if anything, can or should be sacrificed for the sake of a piece of art. It forces me to judge author as man separately from work as work, despise a moral failing while admiring a consummate work of art.

Again, in the 1984 Quinzaine Littéraire interview, Philip Roth, perhaps the best-known American Jewish writer in France, gives this dichotomy between ideology and literature a poetic form, describing an art that transcends his own subject position. "To read him," Roth says about Céline, "I have to suspend my Jewish conscience, but I do it, because anti-Semitism is not at the heart of his books, even D’un chateau l’autre. "23

Historically Céline has always been positioned differently in the United States than in France. Thus Roth’s bracketing of Céline’s anti-Semitism can be understood as part of an American tradition and as the long-range consequence of an editorial decision made by an American publisher during the 1930s. In 1938, the year Bagatelles was selling briskly in France, Céline proposed the anti-Semitic pamphlet to Little, Brown. His American editor, Herbert Jenkins, rejected it definitively:

As you indicated in your letter, this is a four-hundred page attack on the Jews written with your usual vigor and violence. It does not appear to contain any narrative or personal experiences except in the last forty pages. We feel that you have made statements which are unsupported by evidence and that its publication here will seriously damage your reputation as an outstanding author.24

It was a rejection that would have long-term consequences for Céline’s American reputation. It looks, in retrospect, as if the rejection of Bagatelles in 1938—and the fact that all of the anti-Semitic material of the 1930s and 1940s would remain untranslated and therefore unavailable to American readers—helped create a situation in which Céline could maintain his identity for American readers of the late 1940s and beyond solely as the author of Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan. When Kenneth Rexroth, in a 1959 essay, "forgives" Céline on the very point that he can’t forgive Eliot and Pound, he does so by purposefully limiting the Céline corpus to the novels: "We can, if we confine ourselves to the two great novels, forgive Céline for being an anti-Semite, but when, as the Communists used to say, ‘Art is a weapon,’ then we cannot forgive. We cannot forgive the direct, depraved political tendentiousness of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or [Eugène] Guillevic."25 Whether or not, in their French context, the pamphlets functioned as "weapons" is not an issue Rexroth explores.

Conclusion: The Céline Effect

The most important finding to emerge from the survey is that while Céline’s novels may sell under 5,000 copies a year in the United States, he apparently endures as a writer for writers in a specific tradition: Céline as anarchist, liberator, anti-James/anti-Eliot figure in twentieth-century American letters, pitted against a whole tradition of polite, subtle psychological fiction and poetry. This dominant Céline effect was what I wished to explore.

Peter Glassgold, who succeeded James Laughlin as editor-in-chief of New Directions, wrote in response to the survey that Céline "had an interesting impact in the ’60s, helping to dynamite the Jamesian dominance of what a real novel ought to be. But I’m afraid this has degenerated and been watered down by creative writing programs." I asked Clark Blaise to tell me, therefore, as an educator of writers at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and director of its International Writing Program, what he thought "being a Jamesian" meant.

Rigorous attention to unity of point of view, tone, elevation of psychological realism, stifling expression; everything disguised—out of that comes Eliot, the aged eagle spreading his wings at age twenty. In the U. S., the clichés of writing are "politics are ruinous for good writing/dreams and allegories are cheap devices; write what you know; show, don’t tell." Céline, who breaks all the rules, "expands the perimeter of the permissible." The New Yorker, with its tailored tone, would detest Céline. . . . I learned through Céline that an unevenness of tone is not a flaw; spleen can be bracing.26  

Blaise uses Céline in the classroom to dismantle received ideas about American writing. He is highly critical of the idea that you must write from your own experience; he thinks it culturally impoverishes young American writers, making them anti-intellectual. It is paradoxical to use Céline against the write-what-you-know rule, given that Céline himself was an autobiographical writer, but for American students both the experiences described by Céline and his mode of description are radically unfamiliar.Céline’s work provides alternative forms and demonstrates that a writer can rave and lose control, to "tell" as well as to "show."

The Céline effect is also marked for Blaise by a class difference. As a writer of the lower crust, again the opposite of James and Eliot, Céline is an emblematic figure for writers of French-Canadian descent (including Blaise and Kerouac before him), whose French identity is tied to the marginalized working classes rather than a more aristocratic sense of literariness connoted by "Frenchness" in the United States. Paradoxically, the French writer gives Americans license to reject the worship of Europe that is part of our cultural baggage: "I’m not a francophile in terms of French," Blaise explained. "Céline tells you that the French are a low, vermin-encrusted culture; highfalutin phrases come down to shit." According to Blaise, Céline’s portraits of the disenfranchised have situated his writing in a register that is subliterary, "stinking of the world and of everything impolite, authentic, and dangerous"—what Blaise referred to as an "aim of artlessness" in Célinian poetics.27

The picture that finally emerges of the American Céline—in terms of published, acknowledged influences (as opposed to my survey)—is West Coast, not East Coast; Beat and City Lights, not The New Yorker; New Directions, not New Critical. New Directions is certainly an East Coast institution, so the East/West American split is not literally true. But it is evocative: Céline as westerner—roving, the bad boy. He is a scandalous figure who can be celebrated by people who hate the system.28

Bob Perelman, a Language poet who spent many years in the San Francisco area, acknowledges the flavor of this American Céline when he says, as noted above, that he did not come to Céline through the usual "leftist-nihilist-anarchist enthusiasm." That this enthusiasm should be occasioned by a foreign writer whose deeply felt ideas are unacceptable in this culture is perhaps no accident, and it remains a subject for further analysis. How would American writers describe the effect of Pound’s or Eliot’s anti-Semitism on the appreciation of these poets? How would French writers come to terms with Céline’s ideology in response to a similar survey?

There is something specific in our culture that gives American writers the freedom to love Céline, or—to put it another way—that might account for the fact that the United States was the only country where writers organized a petition in favor of Céline in 1946, when he was threatened with extradition from Denmark to France.29 Certainly the American First Amendment tradition is consistent with a libertarian defense of Céline, regardless of his views. The First Amendment is tacitly present in several of the responses to the question about the effect Céline’s politics on an appreciation of his writing ("none at all," "absolutely none"). 

Along with our First Amendment culture, there is a specific New Critical tradition of close reading, which separates politics from aesthetic appreciation. The Beats were not New Critics—anything but—yet the impulse toward art that aims to be formally transcendent, canonical because disinterested, runs deep. James Laughlin explained this position in his introduction to the 1946 New Directions annual. Although he is defending Paul Eluard and Pound, his explanation could just as easily apply to his defense of Céline, that same year, when he signed the petition in his favor:

I have been severely criticized for publishing Eluard because he is said to be a Stalinist. He is a killer, they tell me; he killed Germans with his poems. Very well: I have two answers to that. Much as I am opposed to the whole business of war and legal killing I would probably have done, or tried to do, exactly what Eluard did under similar circumstances. And secondly, I don’t care whether he is a Stalinist or what he is; the man can write. He is a poet and no mistake. That’s enough for me. I am one who still thinks Ezra Pound’s poetry is good—very good—not withstanding his political folly. These people who changed their minds about the merits of Pound’s poetry the day he was indicted for treason make me sick and angry. A poem is a thing in itself. You judge it by itself, for itself and of itself—not by the politics of the man who wrote it.30 The gist of this defense is pacifist and libertarian, but appeals most of all to the integrity of the art object and the talent of the artist: "the man can write." In 1942, Henry Miller articulated the same position, in his case specifically in reference to Céline: "I don’t care whether he is a Fascist or a Democrat or a shit-house cleaner. He can write. "31 This can-do/separatist defense of the politically compromised writer informs the 1946 petition and remains a familiar stance in all subsequent American discussions of Céline.

The other side of the coin is the refusal to read Céline. This rejectionist position is the same one often taken with respect to Martin Heidegger or Paul de Man. Political flaws or ideologically unacceptable positions in the text or in the author’s life become a kind of obscenity, and the work is censured. This, too, is distinctly American.

A third position that comes out of the survey is an integrationist one. This position would read Céline in many layers, many contexts, and recontextualizations, measuring the energy of the work in its passage through time and space. Often the most nuanced and conflicted positions boil down to this attempt to make the work make sense on both an ideological and poetic level, without reducing it to either one. Michael Palmer, who objected to the either/or quality of my questions about Céline’s politics versus his writing, explained in a follow-up postcard: "It really comes down to the reasons, at a fairly early stage, for my ‘refusal’ of the work. Certainly the fascism, but something else as well, perhaps a reductive bitterness which permeated it and (for me) ‘automatized’ the process of composition."32 For poet Charles Bernstein, who, unlike Palmer, is "very excited by the style, the urgency, the ‘. . .’ as poetic fragmentation, stream of tirade," Céline’s politics "deepens an appreciation of the dystopian and repulsive character of this work."

As a counter to the well-made novel or poem, as a figure of resistance and liberation from literary authority as historically constituted by the New Criticism, even as the occasion for moral conflict, Céline still signifies a vital critical function within the American institutions of literature.

[Please see post immediately below for text of footnotes.]

Alice Kaplan is Professor of Romance Studies and Literature at Duke University. Her previous work on Céline includes Sources et citations dans "Bagatelles pour un massacre" (1987) and a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, coedited with Philippe Roussin, "Céline, USA" (1994).

el hombre invisible: hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American

Joan Didion reads The Soft Machine


There sometimes seems a peculiar irrelevance about what is claimed for William S. Burroughs, both by those who admire him and those who do not; the insistent amorphousness of his books encourages the reader to take from them pretty much exactly what he brought to them. Burroughs has been read as a pamphleteer for narcotics reform. He has been read as a parabolist of the highest order. He has been read as a pornographer and he has been read as a prophet of the apocalypse. The Naked Lunch I read first on a beach in the Caribbean and the Naked Lunch I reread a few weeks ago in a hospital in Santa Monica, the book I read once when I was unhappy and again when I was not, did not seem in any sense the same book; to anyone who finds Burroughs readable at all, he is remarkably rereadable, if only because he is remarkably unmemorable. There are no “stories” to wear thin, no “characters” of whom one might tire. We are presented only with the fragmented record of certain fantasies, and our response to that record depends a good deal upon our own fantasies at the moment; in itself, a book by William Burroughs has about as much intrinsic “meaning” as the actual inkblot in a Rorschach test.


Nonetheless Burroughs is read for “meaning,” for we tend to be uneasy in this country until we can draw from an imaginative work some immediate social application. À la Recherche du temps perdu as precursor to the Wolfenden Report, Emma Bovary as victim of the Feminine Mystique. And, on another level, William Burroughs as “satirist,” that slipshod catch-all category for anyone who seems unconventional and modish. Burroughs is by no means successful as a “satirist” or as an “allegorist”; both satire and allegory depend upon strict control of the material, and to talk about Burroughs in that vein leads only into cul-de-sacs where Donald Malcolm can complain querulously that if Mr. Burroughs is satirizing capital punishment then Mr. Burroughs must be unaware that the trend on this issue is toward liberalization.


So it goes. First the insistence upon some fairly conventional “meaning,” then the rush to the barricades. Either Burroughs is a prophet or Burroughs is a fraud. Either he must be the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift” (Jack Kerouac) or he must be a fabricator of “merest trash” (John Wain). In this stampede to first discern the “message” and then take a stand on it, Burroughs’ limited but very real virtues tend to be overlooked. In a quite literal sense with Burroughs, the medium is the message: the point is not what the voice says but the voice itself, a voice so direct and original and versatile as to disarm close scrutiny of what it is saying. Burroughs is less a writer than a “sound,” and to listen to the lyric may be to miss the beat.


Consider The Soft Machine. Burroughs is uninfected by any trace of humanist sentimentality, and his imagery is that of the most corrosive nightmare, obscene, specifically homosexual, casually savage, peopled by androgynous mutations. Flesh is not flesh but “biologic material,” undifferentiated tissue which metamorphoses, dissolves into mucus, sloughs off, passes into other vessels. Hot crabs hatch out of human spines; police files spurt out bone meal. Although it is easy to read The Soft Machine as a parable of technological suicide, a kind of hallucinatory On the Beach, that reading is not going to get us very far, because Burroughs as a dreamer of didactic dreams is not only distinctly hit-and-miss but quite unremarkable, in point of fact Victorian. It has been some years, after all, since we first heard that melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, first stood upon the darkling plain of technology. Read for any such conventional meaning, 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. For the Burroughs repetitiveness blunts response. The particular Burroughs preoccupations atrophy rather than engage the imagination. Ah well, one thinks, eyes glazing, fingers riffling the pages, another orgiastic hanging, all possible switches. It is difficult even to read the book sequentially; to imagine that one will be able to put the book down when the telephone rings and find one’s place a few minutes later is sheer bravura.


In fact the point is not to read the book at all, but somehow to hear the voice in it. The voice in The Soft Machine is talking about time. Some of the book is mock nostalgia, and the title, whatever else it means, seems as well to be a play upon The Time Machine. The voice roves back in time through Mexico, Panama, the Mayan Empire, back through a landscape of pervasive corruption. One city in particular appears and reappears in explicit and extraordinary details: a port city, “stuck in water hyacinths and banana rafts,” a place where jungle has overgrown the parks and diseased armadillos live in the deserted kiosks. Candiru infest the swimming pools; albinos blink in the sun. Although the city is in the here and now, it is terrorized by the Vagrant Ball Players, who seem to have come forward in time from the Mayan period. The Civil Guard tries to placate the Vagrant Ball Players, for they “can sound a Hey Rube Switch brings a million adolescents shattering the customs barriers and frontiers of time, swinging out of the jungle with Tarzan cries, crash landing perilous tin planes and rockets.”


The voice moves not only back but ahead in time, to what seems to be the end of the world. There is an ambiguity here; the last few men left on earth are clearly the survivors of some disaster, but they are also just assuming human shape, just rising from the slime. In short, what the voice in The Soft Machine is doing is giving an hallucinatory reading to Eliot’s Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end” and “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.”


This is by no means unintentional. Eliot’s is one of the rhythms into which the voice in The Soft Machine slips deliberately and frequently, sometimes ironically and sometimes not. Sometimes the voice is not Eliot but Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain: “Meanwhile an angle comes dripping down and forms a stalactite in my brain.” Sometimes it is the voice of the Hearst Task Force: “I have just returned from a thousand year time trip and I am here to tell you what I saw… It is the new frontier and only the adventurous need apply—But it belongs to anyone with the courage and know-how to enter—It belongs to you.” Sometimes the voice slips into the peculiar rhythms of the hustler, sometimes into the ritualized diction of blue movies. The voice rattles off elliptical allusions, throws away joke after outrageous joke, shifts gear in mid-sentence, never falters.


It is precisely this voice—complex, subtle, allusive—that is the fine thing about The Soft Machine and about Burroughs. It is hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American, a voice in which one hears transistor radios and old movies and all the cliches and all the cons and all the newspapers, all the peculiar optimism, all the failure. Against that voice, those of the younger “satirical” or “black” novelists sound self-conscious and faked; it is the voice of a natural, and what it is saying is in no sense the point.


Joan Didion, "Wired for Shock Treatments," Bookweek, 27 March 1966, p 2-3.

The Soft Machine by bradallen.

“every decision you make is a mistake”—an edward dahlberg miscellany

Edward Dahlberg was admired by and a friend to an exceptionally diverse group of writers: Jack Kerouac, Lydia Davis, Guy Davenport, Paul West, Anthony Burgess, Charles Olson, Samuel R. Delany, Gilbert Sorrentino, Thomas McGonigle, Jonathan Lethem… 

edward dahlberg biography (from wikipedia)

Edward Dahlberg (July 22, 1900 – February 27, 1977) was an American novelist and essayist.

Dahlberg was born in Boston to Elizabeth Dahlberg. Mother and son wandered through the southern and western United States until 1905, when she opened a barber shop in Kansas City. In April 1912 Dahlberg was sent to the Jewish Orphan Asylum, Cleveland, where he lived until 1917. He eventually attended the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University.

In the late 1920s Dahlberg lived in Paris and in London. His first novel, Bottom Dogs, was published in London with an introduction by D. H. Lawrence. He visited Germany in 1933 and in reaction briefly joined the CommunistParty, but left the Party by 1936. From the 1940s onwards, Dahlberg made his living as an author, and also taught at various colleges and universities, most notably Black Mountain College. He married R’Lene LaFleur Howell in 1950.

Dahlberg died in Santa Barbara, California, on February 27, 1977.


assorted quotations

life, truth & the self

Every decision you make is a mistake.

Everything ultimately fails, for we die, and that is either the penultimate failure or our most enigmatical achievement.

So much of our lives is given over to the consideration of our imperfections that there is no time to improve our imaginary virtues. The truth is we only perfect our vices, and man is a worse creature when he dies than he was when he was born.

Men are mad most of their lives; few live sane, fewer die so. The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered. Man is driven to justice by his lunacy.

Ambition is a Dead Sea fruit, and the greatest peril to the soul is that one is likely to get precisely what he is seeking.

There is no place to go, and so we travel! You and I, and what for, just to imagine that we could go somewhere else.

The people who think they are happy should rummage through their dreams.

Genius, like truth, has a shabby and neglected mien.

We cannot live, suffer or die for somebody else, for suffering is too precious to be shared.

What most men desire is a virgin who is a whore.

When one realizes that his life is worthless he either commits suicide or travels.

It takes a long time to understand nothing.

Man hoards himself when he has nothing to give away.

I would rather take hellebore than spend a conversation with a good, little man.

merica & society

We are a most solitary people, and we live, repelled by one another, in the gray, outcast cities of Cain.

No people require maxims so much as the American. The reason is obvious: the country is so vast, the people always going somewhere, from Oregonapple valley to boreal New England, that we do not know whether to be temperate orchards or sterile climate.

Intellectual sodomy, which comes from the refusal to be simple about plain matters, is as gross and abundant today as sexual perversion and they are nowise different from one another.

One of the weaknesses in the cooperative is that it has never been sufficiently leavened by the imagination. This is a quick-silver faculty, and likely to be a cause of worry to any collective settlement.

The ruin of the human heart is self-interest, which the American merchant calls self-service. We have become a self-service populace, and all our specious comforts — the automatic elevator, the escalator, the cafeteria — are depriving us of volition and moral and physical energy.

There is a strange and mighty race of people called the Americans who are rapidly becoming the coldest in the world because of this cruel, man-eating idol, lucre.

A strong foe is better than a weak friend.

One cat in a house is a sign of loneliness, two of barrenness, and three of sodomy.

Men are mad most of their lives; few live sane, fewer die so. The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered. Man is driven to justice by his lunacy.

Nothing in our times has become so unattractive as virtue.

The Americans have always been food, sex, and spirit revivalists.

The ancients understood the regulation of power better than the regulation of liberty.

The machine has had a pernicious effect upon virtue, pity, and love, and young men used to machines which induce inertia, and fear, are near impotent.

The majority of persons choose their wives with as little prudence as they eat. They see a troll with nothing else to recommend her but a pair of thighs and choice hunkers, and so smart to void their seed that they marry her at once. They imagine they can live in marvelous contentment with handsome feet and ambrosial buttocks. Most men are accredited fools shortly after they leave the womb.

It is very perplexing how an intrepid frontier people, who fought a wilderness, floods, tornadoes, and the Rockies, cower before criticism, which is regarded as a malignant tumor in the imagination.

writers & writing

The earnings of a poet could be reckoned by a metaphysician rather than a bookkeeper.

Herman Melville was as separated from a civilized literature as the lost Atlantis was said to have been from the great peoples of the earth.

Though man is the only beast that can write, he has small reason to be proud of it. When he utters something that is wise it is nothing that the river horse does not know, and most of his creations are the result of accident.

The bad poet is a toady mimicking nature.

Hardly a book of human worth, be it heaven’s own secret, is honestly placed before the reader; it is either shunned, given a Periclean funeral oration in a hundred and fifty words, or interred in the potter’s field of the newspapers back pages.

Writing is conscience, scruple, and the farming of our ancestors.

To write is a humiliation.

What has a writer to be bombastic about? Whatever good a man may write is the consequence of accident, luck, or surprise, and nobody is more surprised than an honest writer when he makes a good phrase or says something truthful.

We can only write well about our sins because it is too difficult to recall a virtuous act or even whether it was the result of good or evil motives.

Writing is conscience, scruple, and the farming of our ancestors.

Those who write for lucre or fame are grosser than the cartel robbers, for they steal the genius of the people, which is its will to resist evil.

Recognize the cunning man not by the corpses he pays homage to but by the living writers he conspires against with the most shameful weapon, Silence, or the briefest review.


Edward Dahlberg, Because I Was Flesh (1964)

Would to God that my mother had not been a leaf scattered every-where and as the wind listeth. Would to heaven that I could compose a different account of her flesh . . . Should I err against her dear relics or trouble her sleep, may no one imagine that she has not always been for me the three Marys of the New Testament. Moreover, whatever I imagine I know is taken from my mother’s body, and this is the memoir of her body…

Kansas City was my Tarsus; the Kaw and the Missouri Rivers were the washpots of joyous Dianas from St. Joseph and Joplin. It was a young seminal town and the seed of its men was strong. Homer sang of many sacred towns in Hellas which were no better than Kansas City, as hilly as Eteonus and as stony as Aulis. The city wore a coat of rocks and grass. The bosom of this town nursed men, mules and horses as famous as the asses of Arcadia and the steeds of Diomedes . . . Kansas City was the city of my youth and the burial ground of my poor mother’s hopes; her blood, like Abel’s, cries out to me from every cobblestone, building, flat and street…


When the image of her comes up on a sudden—just as my bad demons do—and I see her dyed henna hair, the eyes dwarfed by the electric lights in the Star Lady Barber Shop, and the dear, broken wing of her mouth, and when I regard her wild tatters, I know that not even Solomon in his lilied raiment was so glorious as my mother in her rags. Selah.

Edward Dahlberg,
Bottom Dogs (1929)

The next five years were spent in a kaleidoscopic succession of occeupations, which took him all over the country. He has been a Western Union messenger boy in Cleveland, trucker for the American express, driver of a laundry wagon, cattle drover in the Kansas City Stockyards, dishwasher in Portland, Oregon, potato peeler in Sacramento, bus-boy in San Francisco, longshoreman in San Pedro, clerk in a clinic, and vagabond everywhere. . .

She moved from town to town, selling hair switches, giving osteopathic treatments, going on again when she felt the place had been played out. In this way she hoped to save a little money and establish herself in some thriving city. She had taken Lorry with her wherever she went.

Edward Dahlberg,
Do These Bones Live? (New York, 1941)

There are no abstract truths—no Mass-Man, no proletariat. There is only Man. When the Pulse has been nailed upon the crossbeams, lo, Reason gives up its viable breath and becomes a wandering ghostly Error. Truth and folly are ever about to expire, so that we, like our beloved Sancho Panza kneeling at the death-bed of Don Quixote, must always be ready to go out to receive the holy communion of cudgels and distaffs, for the rebirth of the Pulse, living anew, in our veins and bones, as the quickened Truth.

Finally, this Whitmanesque poem (in its entirety):

Edward Dahlberg, “The Leafless American,” (1967)

How old are we?

We are still a horse and buffalo
people, heavy, lumbering cattle, with
prairie and grain virtues, and our avarice
is primitive wigwam barter; we ought to
adore the great fish god, for we are a
costal people, and New Mexico and Arizona,
which are saurian undersea country, breeding
pine, cactus, and snakes, are Galilean land.

We are passing from a morning horse
innocence to unusual vices, and we are not

Is Pike’s Peak a hummock of old world
sin, or the Rockies Scythian debauchery,
or the mineraled Colorado dawn the Orient
pearl? It is hay and brook and sweet pony
corral, appled meadow garnished with odors
more virtuous than spiced Eden.

Take no stock in American turpitudes;
look to the Toltec of the Mayan for the
lascivious parrot and monkey.

The Platte River, the pine, the sage
brush are hardy character, but not history,
and I admit that nothing has ever happened
to me, and that I am mad for events.

Whatever we do is vast, unconscious
geography; we are huge space giants of the
mesa, surd, mad rivers that rush along, and
we do not care to be near each other; this
is not ancient wickedness, but solitary
prairie grazing.

We cannot bear each other because we
are immense territory, and our most malignant
folly was to closet us up in cities, and take
away our ocean past.

We should have the deepest reverence
for poverty, because we are New Testament
ground. Every day I offer a sacrifice to
the extinct bison, the horse and savage
Iroquois, who are our muse of cereal, yam
and maize, and when somebody strokes my
head, I walk to Mt. Shasta, or the Oregon
orchards which are my epistles to the

Who is my Father?

The rising sun-man disappeared,
and the step-father, the petticoat parent,
is rearing the children since the tent,
the wagon, and saddle have gone.

The great, grassy basin, the Catskill
eagle made us tribal and fierce; the Pawnee,
leading the sorrel of the Platte by a bull-hide
rope, lessoned us in poverty, for want too
is a tough, rude god make out of dried buffalo
skin, to which we must offer our orisons, lest
we perish of sloth and surfeit.

Our forefathers were giant volcano-horses;
we were a hot earth animal as the elephant
shaped mounds found in Kansas show.

Give us back our origins, for I am out
of season in any other land, or plant except
the corn seeds of Quetzalcoatl, the yucca,
the cactus, and the Mojave joshua tree,
dearer than the desert tamarisk beneath
which Saul sat.

We have lost ground, city-cursed
that we are, left it behind us like the
Quiche did the Yaqui for whom they wept.

Return the Platte, the bison, the hoof-print
of the deer, for I am as hungry for them as
the wandering Quiche who had to smell the points
of their staffs to deceive their empty stomachs.

Our Mother paps were rabid gulches
in which the white and gray wolves howled,
and now that the Toltecs and the Pawnee
are dead, we are their evil genius, looking
for a relic, a flint arrow, a teepee, a
harness, a piece of bread.

I need confidence, the antelope, the
pack-mule, the Indian apple, but we have
killed the old bread gods made of plums,
incense and the coca plant. Until we find
the Quiche bread idol, we are orphans.

The word together has become a tabu
devil; everything is public except guilt,
which is hidden like hands that are pursed
and pocketed lest they be demanded for
hand-shaking, which is some uneasy, first
sin; touch a man and blood goes out
of his cheek; the mountains, the hills and
the grass are turning against men, and
every man dreads every man.

The mating season that once cattled
the fingers of the marriageable now brings
the alley tree, cemented in the side walk,
and the tuberose poodle together. Aging
men walk through the macadam auto ravines,
until magnolia dusk, and then they go to
their rooms, walking from faucet to window-hole.
They crawl under a mealy blanket seeking that
primeval night that came before creation, and
fall at once into a water of sleep, void of
vegetable, animal or root.

The highways have no ancestors;
the 19th century American was kinless
iron, and these men of the
20th are houseless sepcters because
they have never claimed the continent.
They have destroyed the old, rooty
deities of the Cherokee and the Huron
which are now howling in their dead,
double-breasted coats and pants. The
city auto man has killed everything,
going through the unowned land without
branch, leaf, trunk or earth. The
autumn comes, and he has no foliage
to shed, and the winter appears, and
he cannot rest or sleep or die until
April, and his destiny star, too, is
dead. He has no green May shoots and
no loam in which to sprout. He feeds
listlessly and is alone when he genders
with his wife. He is an unseeding,
hating man who has forgotten to plant
a street, a blue-bell, a house.

Prophecy, O lost people without
a fate, is seeing the quick of the
instant. You have no porch, no yard,
no steps, you are groundless, and bitten
by gnats because you have slain the
earth. Can you die? Death is sweet
and dear, for it is quiet. But there
are no hills to appease you, and no
mountains to give you hard, striving
will, or rivers to wash your eyes to
make them see.

Homeless, denatured ghost of many
leafy races, where do you blow? who
will gather you up?

— from The Leafless American and Other Writings