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.

Footnotes:


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.

5
Robert Guffey Interview, “The Suppressed Teachings of Gnosticism.” Paranoia Magazine,

6
Stephenson, Gregory, The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation, Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 1990, p. 60.

7
Gregory Corso Interview.

8
Hoeller, Stephan A, Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing, Wheaton: Quest, 2002, p. 135.

9
Ibid, pp. 140-41.

10
Burroughs, William S., Three Novels: The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Wild Boys, New York: Grove P, 1988, p. 196.

11
Burroughs, William S., The Adding Machine, New York: Seaver, 1986, p. 16.

12
Three Novels, p. 197.

13
Three Novels, p. 186.

14
Three Novels, p. 189.

15
Burroughs, William S. and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, New York: Viking, 1978, p. 97.

16
Ibid.

17
Three Novels, p. 188.

18
Three Novels, p. 236.

19
Three Novels, pp. 235-36.

20
Murphy, Timothy S, Wising Up the Marks: The Modern William Burroughs, Los Angeles: U of California P, 1997, p. 145.

21
Bockris, Victor, With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996, p. xx.

22
Hibbard, Allen, Conversations with William S. Burroughs, Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1999, p. 182.

23
With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker, pp. 242-46.

24
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_

Century_Gnostic.html

 

 

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.

on 9-11, some more from el hombre invisible…

On the seventh anniversary of 9-11, William S. Burroughs’ darkly comedic vision of worldwide terrorist anarchy seems sadly appropriate—and perhaps necessary: Burroughs gives us a much-needed measure of distance so we can look at our current plight from a fresh perspective.

From William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine:

It was a transitional period because of the Synthetics and everybody was raising some kinda awful life form in his bidet to fight the Sex Enemy—The results were not in all respects reasonable men, but the Synthetics were rolling off that line and we were getting some damned interesting types by golly blueheavy metal boys with near zero metabolism that shit once a century and then it’s a slag heap and disposal problem in the worst form there is: sewage delta to a painted sky under orange gas flares, islands of garbage where green boy-girls tend human heads in chemical gardens, terminal cities under the metal word fallout like cold melted solder on walls and streets, sputtering cripples with phosphorescent metal stumps—So we decided the blue heavy metal boys were not in all respects a good blueprint.

I have seen them all—A unit yet of mammals and vegetables that subsist each on the shit of the other in prestidigital symbiosis and achieved a stage where one group shit out nothing but pure carbon dioxide which the other unit breathed in to shit out oxygen— It’s the only way to live—You understand they had this highly developed culture with life forms between insect and vegetable, hanging vines, stinging sex hairs —The whole deal was finally relegated to It-Never-Happened-Department.

"Retroactive amnesia it out of every fucking mind screen in the area if we have to—How long you want to bat this tired old act around? A centipede issue in the street, unusual beings dormant in cancer, hierarchical shit-eating units—Now by all your stupid Gods at once let’s not get this show on the road let’s stop it."

Posted everywhere on street corners the idiot irre-sponsibles twitter supersonic approval, repeating slogans, giggling, dancing, masturbating out windows, making machine-gun noises and police whistles "And you, Dead Hand, stretching the Vegetable People come out of that compost heap—You are not taking your old fibrous roots past this inspector."

And the idiot irresponsibles scream posted everywhere in chorus: "Chemical gardens in rusty shit peoples!!"

"All out of time and into space. Come out of the time-word ‘the’ forever. Come out of the body word ‘thee’ forever. There is nothing to fear. There is no thing in space. There is no word to fear. There is no word in space."

And the idiot irresponsibles scream: "Come out of your stupid body you nameless assholes!!"

And there were those who thought A.J. lost dignity through the idiotic behavior of these properties but he said:

"That’s the way I like to see them. No fallout. What good ever came from thinking? Just look there" (another heavy metal boy sank through the earth’s crust and we got some good pictures. . .) "one of Shaffer’s blueprints. I sounded a word of warning."

His idiot irresponsibles twittered and giggled and masturbated over him from little swings and snapped bits of food from his plate screaming: "Blue people NG conditions! Typical sight leak out!"

"All out of time and into space."

"Hello, Ima Johnny, the naked astronaut."

And the idiot irresponsibles rush in with space-suits and masturbating rockets spatter the city with jissom.

"Do not be alarmed citizens of Annexia—Report to your Nearie Pro Station for chlorophyll processing— We are converting to vegetable state—Emergency measure to counter the heavy metal peril—Go to your ‘Nearie’—You will meet a cool, competent person who will dope out all your fears in photosynthesis—Calling all citizens of Annexia—Report to Green Sign for processing."

"Citizens of Gravity we are converting all out to Heavy Metal. Carbonic Plague of the Vegetable People threatens our Heavy Metal State. Report to your nearest Plating Station. It’s fun to be plated," says this well-known radio and TV personality who is now engraved forever in gags of metal. "Do not believe the calumny that our metal fallout will turn the planet into a slag heap. And in any case, is that worse than a compost heap? Heavy Metal is our program and we are prepared to sink through it. . ."

The cold heavy fluid settled in his spine 70 tons per square inch—Cool blocks of SOS—(Solid Blue Silence)—under heavy time—Can anything be done to metal people of Uranus?—Heavy his answer in monotone disaster stock: "Nobody can kick an SOS habit—70 tons per square inch—The crust from the beginning you understand—Tortured metal Ozz of earthquakes is tons focus of this junk"—Sudden young energy—I got up and danced—Know eventually be relieved—That’s all I need—I got up and danced the disasters—"

Gongs of violence and how—Show you something— Berserk machine—"Shift cut tangle word lines—Word falling—Photo falling—"

"I said the Chief of Police skinned alive in Bagdad not Washington, D.C."

"Switzerland freezes all foreign assets."

"Foreign assets?"

"What?—British Prime Minister assassinated in Rightist coup?"

"Mindless idiot you have liquidated the Commissar."

"Terminal electric voice of C—All ling door out of agitated—Ta ta Stalin—Carriage age ta—"

Spectators scream through the track—The electronic brain shivers in blue and pink and chlorophyll orgasms spitting out money printed on rolls of toilet paper, condoms full of ice cream, Kotex hamburgers—Police files of the world spurt out in a blast of bone meal, garden tools and barbecue sets whistle through the air, skewer the spectators—crumpled cloth bodies through dead nitrous streets of an old film set—grey luminous flakes falling softly on Ewyork, Onolulu, Aris, Ome, Oston—From siren towers the twanging tones of fear—Pan God of Panic piping blue notes through empty streets as the berserk time machine twisted a tornado of years and centuries—Wind through dusty offices and archives—Board Books scattered to rubbish heaps of the earth—Symbol books of the all-powerful board that had controlled thought feeling and movement of a planet from birth to death with iron claws of pain and pleasure—The whole structure of reality went up in silent explosions—Paper moon and muslin trees and in the black silver sky great rents as the cover of the world rained down—Biologic film went up . . . "raining dinosaurs" "It sometimes happens . . . just an old showman" Death takes over the game so many actors buildings and stars laid flat pieces of finance over the golf course summer afternoons bare feet waiting for rain smell of sickness in the room Switzerland Panama machine guns in Bagdad rising from the typewriter pieces of finance on the evening wind tin shares Buenos Aires Mr. Martin smiles old names waiting sad old tune haunted the last human attic.

 

The Soft Machine by bradallen.

Many readers have read only one book by William Burroughs, Naked Lunch. And many don’t realize that Naked Lunch is actually a kind of gateway or “prequel” to his Nova Trilogy, three experimental novels which, like Naked Lunch, were assembled from Burroughs’ “The Word Hoard,” a series of manuscripts Burroughs wrote in Tangier, Paris and London between 1953 and 1958. The Nova trilogy is comprised of The Soft Machine (1961), Nova Express (1964), and The Ticket That Exploded (1962). After their initial publication, Burroughs revised The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded, while leaving Nova Express in its original form (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Nova_Trilogy).
 

Here’s the opening section of William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine:
 
Dead on Arrival
 
I was working the hole with the sailor and we did not do bad. Fifteen cents on an average night boosting the afternoons and short-timing the dawn we made out from the land of the free. But I was running out of veins. I went over to the counter for another cup of coffee. . .in Joe’s Lunch Room drinking coffee with a napkin under the cup which is said to be the mark of someone who does a lot of sitting in cafeterias and lunchrooms. . . Waiting on the man. . . "What can we do?" Nick said to me once in his dead junky whisper. "They know we’ll wait. . ." Yes, they know we’ll wait. . . There is a boy sitting at the counter thin-faced kid his eyes all pupil. I see he is hooked and sick. Familiar face maybe from the pool hall where I scored for tea sometime. Somewhere in grey strata of subways all-night cafeterias rooming house flesh. His eyes flickered the question. I nodded toward my booth. He carried his coffee over and sat down opposite me.
The croaker lives out Long Island. . . light yen sleep waking up for stops. Change. Start. Everything sharp and clear. Antennae of TV suck the sky. The clock jumped the way time will after four P.M.
"The Man is three hours late. You got the bread?"
"I got three cents."
"Nothing less than a nickel. These double papers he claims." I looked at his face. Good looking. "Say kid I known an Old Auntie Croaker right for you like a Major . . . Take the phone. I don’t want him to rumble my voice."
About this time I meet this Italian tailor cum pusher I know from Lexington and he gives me a good buy on H. . . At least it was good at first but all the time shorter and shorter. . . "Short Count Tony" we call him. . .
Out of junk in East St. Louis sick dawn he threw himself across the washbasin pressing his stomach against the cool porcelain. I draped myself over his body laughing. His shorts dissolved in rectal mucus and carbolic soap, summer dawn smells from a vacant lot.
"I’ll wait here. . . Don’t want him to rumble me. . ."
Made it five times under the shower that day soapy bubbles of egg flesh seismic tremors split by fissure spurts of jissom. . .
I made the street, everything sharp and clear like after rain. See Sid in a booth reading a paper his face like yellow ivory in the sunlight. I handed him two nickels under the table. Pushing in a small way to keep up The Habit: INVADE. DAMAGE. OCCUPY. Young faces in blue alcohol flame.
"And use that alcohol. You fucking can’t wait hungry junkies all the time black up my spoons. That’s all I need for Pen Indef the fuzz rumbles a black spoon in my trap." The old junky spiel. Junk hooks falling.
"Shoot your way to freedom kid."
Trace a line of goose pimples up the thin young arm. Slide the needle in and push the bulb watching the junk hit him all over. Move right in with the shit and suck junk through all the hungry young cells.
There is a boy sitting like your body. I see he is a hook. I drape myself over him from the pool hall. Draped myself over his cafeteria and his shorts dissolved in strata of subways. . .and all house flesh. . . toward the booth. . .down opposite me. . . The Man I Italian tailor. . . I know bread. "Me a good buy on H."
"You’re quitting? Well I hope you make it, kid. May I fall down and be paralyzed if I don’t mean it. . . You gotta friend in me. A real friend and if."
Well the traffic builds up and boosters falling in with jackets shirts and ties, kids with a radio torn from the living car trailing tubes and wires, lush-workers flash rings and wrist watches falling in sick all hours. I had the janitor cooled, an old rummy, but it couldn’t last with that crowd.
"Say you’re looking great kid. Now do yourself a favor and stay off. I been getting some really great shit lately. Remember that brown shit sorta yellow like snuff cooks up brown and clear. . ."
Junky in east bath room. . . invisible and persistent dream body. . . familiar face maybe. . . scored for some time or body. . .in that grey smell of rectal mucus. . . night cafeterias and junky room dawn smells, three hours from Lexington made it five times. . . soapy egg flesh. . .
"These double papers he claims of withdrawal."
"Well I thought you was quitting…"
"I can’t make it.*’
"Imposible quitar eso."
Got up and fixed in the sick dawn flutes of Ramadan.
"William tu tomas más medicina?. . . No me hágas casa, William."
Casbah house in the smell of dust and we made it . . . empty eukodal boxes stacked four feet along the walls . . . dead on the surplus blankets . . .girl screaming . . . vecinos rush in…
"What did she die of?"
"I don’t know she just died."
Bill Gains in Mexico City room with his douche bag and his stash of codeine pills powdered in a bicarbonate can. "I’ll just say I suffer from indigestion." coffee and blood spilled all over the place, cigarette holes in the pink blanket… The Consul would give me no information other than place of burial in The American Cemetery.
"Broke? Have you no pride? Go to your Consul." He gave me an alarm clock ran for a year after his death.
Leif repatriated by the Danish, freight boat out of Casa for Copenhagen sank off England with all hands. Remember my medium of distant fingers?—
"What did she die of?"
"End."
"Some things I find myself."
The Sailor went wrong in the end. hanged to a cell door by his principals: "Some things I find myself doing I’ll pack in is all."
Bread knife in the heart. . .rub and die. . .repatriated by a morphine script. . .those out of Casa for Copenhagen on special yellow note . . .
"All hands broke? Have you no pride?" Alarm clock ran for a year. "He just sit down on the curb and die." Esperanza told me on Nino Perdido and we cashed a morphine script, those Mexican Nar. scripts on special yellow bank-note paper. . .like a thousand dollar bill . . .or a Dishonorable Discharge from the US Army. . . And fixed in the cubicle room you reach by climbing this ladder.
Yesterday call flutes of Ramadan: "No me hágas casa."
Blood spill over shirts and light, theAmerican trailing in form. . . He went to Madrid. This frantic Cuban fruit finds Kiki with a novia and stabs him with a kitchen knife in the heart. (Girl screaming. Enter the nabors.)
"Quédase con su medicina, William."
Half bottle of Fundador after half cure in the Jew Hospital, shots of demerol by candlelight. They turned off the lights and water. Paper-like dust we made it. Empty walls. Look anywhere. No good. No bueno.
He went to Madrid. . . Alarm clock ran for yesterday. . . "No me hágas casa." Dead on arrival. . . you might say at the Jew Hospital. . . blood spilled over the American. . . trailing lights and water. . . The Sailor went so wrong somewhere in that grey flesh . . . He just sit down on zero . . . I nodded on Niño Perdido his coffee over three hours late . . . They all went away and sent papers. . . The Dead Man write for you like a major, . . Enter vecinos. . . Freight boat smell of rectal mucus went down off England with all dawn smell of distant fingers. . . About this time I went to your Consul. He gave me a Mexican after his death . . . Five times of dust we made it, . . with soap bubbles of withdrawal crossed by a thousand junky nights. . . Soon after the half maps came in by candlelight. . . OCCUPY. . . Junk lines falling. . . Stay off. . . Bill Gains in the Yellow Sickness. . . Looking at dirty pictures casual as a ceiling fan short-timing the dawn we made it in the corn smell of rectal mucus and carbolic soap. . . familiar face maybe from the vacant lot. . . trailing tubes and wires. . . "You fucking-can’t-wait-hungry-junkies! . . ." Burial in the American Cemetery. "Quédase con su medicina. . " On Niño Perdido the girl screaming. . . They all went way through Casbah House. . . "Couldn’t you write me any better than that? Gone away. . . You can look any place."
No good. No Bueno.
You wouldn’t believe how hot things were when I left the States—I knew this one pusher wouldn’t carry any shit on his person just shoot it in the line—Ten twenty grains over and above his own absorption according to the route he was servicing and piss it out in bottles for his customers so if the heat came up on them they cop out as degenerates—So Doc Benway assessed the situation and came up with this brain child—
"Once in the Upper Baboonasshole I was stung by a scorpion—the sensation is not dissimilar to a fix— Hummm."
So he imports this special breed of scorpions and feeds them on metal meal and the scorpions turned a phosphorescent blue color and sort of hummed. "Now we must find a worthy vessel," he said—So we flush out this old goof ball artist and put the scorpion to him and he turned sort of blue and you could see he was fixed right to metal—These scorpions could travel on a radar beam and service the clients after Doc copped for the bread—It was agood thing while it lasted and the heat couldn’t touch us—However all these scorpion junkies began to glow in the dark and if they didn’t score on the hour metamorphosed into scorpions straight away—So there was a spot of bother and we had to move on disguised as young junkies on the way to Lexington—Bill and Johnny we sorted out the names but they keep changing like one day I would wake up as Bill the next day as Johnny—So there we are in the train compartment shivering junk sick our eyes watering and burning.