Notes on The Soft Machine Chapter 10: “Last Hints”

This chapter is about Carl continuing his travels through space and time by finding a new body. He’s back in the city of catwalks and ladders and cable-cars in the middle of a jungle. Presumably he’s already changed bodies at least once since he arrived, since at the end of chapter 8 he was turned into a pile of green slime. But we mustn’t take things too literally and any interpretation is possible.

“Carl descended a spiral iron smell of ozone.” With cut-up, Burroughs achieves a pared down prose that makes even the pulp writers he admired seem long-winded. He could have written “Carl descended a spiral iron staircase and there was a smell of ozone”, but we don’t need all this. With what we’re given we see (and smell) immediately what we’re supposed to. This is one of those cut up sentences read it aloud and you can hear the cut, two messages cut together to give the full picture:

“Carl descended a spiral iron …”

“… smell of ozone.”

Like we’re listening to two channels at once, switching attention between the two to get the full sight and smell picture.

Carl meets a boy and sees that “through his eyes the look out different”. He’s sizing up his victim, the one who will give him a new body and therefore a new mind and therefore a new perspective on life and therefore a new position in space time and therefore a new mode of being. He’ll be rejuvenated taking the body of this young man. “Woke up in other flesh …” is how the chapter ends, once Carl has seduced him and entered him and by this method taken his body.

We mustn’t take things too literally. On the one hand this is straightforward science fiction, where a group of individuals have learned how to travel through space and time by occupying other bodies and minds. It’s a horror story, where a race of psychopaths see human beings as so much flesh to be put to use for their own experiments. But however you interpret the story, the most important thing is the book itself, The Soft Machine, the artefact you hold in your hands that is the product of the real life application of the cut-up method. A new method, or “technology”. With cut-up you don’t only create books, but also transform and control minds, alter reality, and look into the future.

This much we must take literally: Burroughs believed in the real life application of the writing and recording methods he described and demonstrated in this book. Pay attention to the outer layer, the text itself. The futuristic world described there is a prophecy of what is possible if you take up this book and learn from it and apply these methods yourself.

The author, and the books he’s written, keep popping up in the book not just as a piece of post-modern cleverness, but as a reminder that the book you hold in your hands is itself part of the story, and that the story is real, and you as reader play a part in it.

Like all great science fiction, the Soft Machine describes a world both future and present, imaginary and real.

(P.S. I’ve written another essay about Burroughs, just published at Empty Mirror. You can read it there now.)

Posted in Beat Generation | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Notes on The Soft Machine Chapter 8: “I Sekuin”

“… the old hop smoking world I created …”

Who created it?

“I Sekuin …”

Who are you?

“I Sekuin Perfected These Arts Along The Streets Of Minraud.”

Sekuin has perfected the art of image-control. Word dust blows through the streets of his city, and settles on shop window frames.

Sekuin is a kind of deity, this landscape belongs to him because it is his creation. He made it through cut-up, reducing the words and images to dust and fragments.

“Darkness fell in heavy chunks blocking out sections of the city.”

I found this chapter hard to grasp. It describes the end point of the cut-up experiments, a nightmarish horror city-scape in which no kind of continuity can survive. Minraud is a city broken into fragments and filled with dust. When the word is destroyed, disjointed cities like Minraud will be all that remains of the world.

Bradly, the tragic hero of this chapter, crash lands here and is immediately seized by one of the local inhabitants, who wants to help him, or this is what he says.

“You crazy or something walk around alone?”

But who could live in this desolation? Is this a human being or just a spectre, a projection, an assemblage of images and words conjured up in a moment by the wind that carries the dust through the empty streets?

Bradly follows his guide, the spectre. What else can he do?

He’s taken to a restaurant, he’s in need of a meal. “Krishnus,” his guide says, as the waiter puts the strange food stuff down on the table. Bradly eats “in ravenous gulps.”

Later, Bradly is seduced by his guide. They undress and smear a bright green substance over each other’s bodies. This green slime burns their bodies away until all that is left of them is the slime. This is Bradly’s form now in this world, his human body dissolved away. Slime that will itself eventually break apart, disintegrate, and dissolve into the scenery.

Sekuin watches the scene, watches sadly his own world “… the old hop smoking world I created mutters between years saddest of all movies frosted on the glass wind and dust through empty streets and gutted buildings spectral janitors grey autumn chill in the ashes cold dusty halls …”

And through the emptiness his past self calls out to him. Who was Sekuin before he was Sekuin? What is this past identity calling out to him now?

“… a petition from the old me … the narcotics department … Colonel Smoky … Chinese waiters … Pantapon Rose … Bill Gains …”

These are names from Burroughs’s past work. Sekuin is Burroughs, it was Burroughs who created this desolate hellscape and became Sekuin, a captive in his own creation. This silence, where words must become dust to blow endlessly along desolate grey streets and human beings must be reduced to slime.

“Under Sign Of The Centipede. A Captive Head. In Minraud Time.”

Sekuin is Burroughs himself, at an extreme. Burroughs is showing us the extreme desolation that exists at the furthest limit of cut-up experimentation. He’ll return from this limit, from this point of self-destruction, to turn his technique around against a greater evil in the world …

(I’ve been reading The Soft Machine by William Burroughs. All the stuff in quotation marks is taken from there.)

Posted in Beat Generation | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hegel: Knowledge, Desire, and Freedom

The first part of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, concerning “consciousness,” shows us how knowledge of objects is knowledge only of oneself. In other words, it describes how we reach the initial premise of “transcendental idealism” – a philosophy created by Kant and developed by Fichte – that says that all the objects we know in the world are constructed in our minds, and that whatever might exist outside our minds is totally unknowable and entirely un-object-like.

Knowledge of objects is knowledge “only” of oneself: but it is knowledge of objects nonetheless. Because on the one hand, objects are constructs in the mind; but on the other hand, the reality we’ve constructed is the only reality we have, and so these objects are “real” in every meaningful sense of the term.

And so, in the Phenomenology, consciousness (meaning consciousness of objects) and self-consciousness (meaning consciousness of consciousness) keep getting separated, they’re proven again and again to be distinct, because it’s just not enough to say that everything exists “only” in the mind. Objectivity is a thing that keeps coming up again and again, or we might say: we keep running into objects day by day, they are a stubborn part of our experience, and we have to explain them somehow. And saying they “only” exist in the mind just isn’t enough.

And so, later in the Phenomenology, we get the discussion of “stoicism,” where objects are known to us by our desire for them, all objects are desire-objects, and so they exercise control over us, and so the only way to be free is to find a way to flee the grasp of the object, by retreating into thought.

Subjective freedom versus objective determination: this war for the freedom of the individual, for triumph over material circumstances, rages on, long after objects have been proven to be “only” in the mind.

(I’ve been reading Jean Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by Samuel Cherniak and John Heckman, published in 1974 by Northwestern University Press.)

Posted in Hegel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

William Burroughs, Truth, and Storytelling

The young Burroughs liked to read adventure stories. The older Burroughs did too.

Stories are about characters. What’s infuriating and gripping about a good character is that she’ll have blind spots, things the reader can see that she cannot. It puts you into the story, you’re screaming at her: for goodness sake! Open your eyes! Just like real people have blind spots but you often don’t get involved enough in real people’s lives to notice or care so much. You have your own blind spots in this way.

In Last Words Burroughs writes about the clever ways some writers have of putting the reader into the story. Like one author has a wasp buzzing about a glass as two characters talk. You notice a wasp, it gives you something to feel bothered about as you read the conversation. Like you’re there half-distracted, like you’re mostly half-distracted in real life when you’re supposed to be paying attention.

Blind spots, distraction, these things are so human. You’re in the story because you know this could just as well be you. Well, you haven’t made such huge mistakes in your life, surely. In real life you’ve rarely encountered real tragedy or comedy, in the poetic senses of those terms.

One of the clever things a writer can do is find something interesting in a situation most people would pass over blindly. If you’re a writer you’ll pass over many things, but stop the wheel anywhere and there should be something you can write about to great effect. “A smokestack or a button,” Henry Miller said. Everything is meat to the writer.

The mundane is just the starting point. What develops is something larger than life. The characters are heroic in their resistance to acknowledging their blind spots. There’s no voice of reason to mediate between the clash of great personalities. In W. Somerset Maugham’s “Neil MacAdam,” we have two main characters: Neil and Darya. Neil is a moralist, Darya is a nihilist. Darya, a married woman, falls in love with Neil, and when he finds out he feels only revulsion, no pity at all. And Darya can’t understand Neil’s moralism, she won’t let it alone. The well-rounded character is Munro, Darya’s husband, but of course he won’t find out what’s happening, and there’s no way he can mediate the disagreement.

Neither the nihilist not the moralist will budge an inch. Munro in the background, Neil and Darya have to battle it out so that one of them must perish in the struggle.

This is the way a story goes. It’s something otherworldly. Could it have gone this way in real life? Well possibly. But more often in real life something gets in the way of the struggle, so it doesn’t have to be fought to its bitter end. It’s too convenient that when Darya puts Neil into an impossible position by blackmailing him, when she has him in her grasp, the stage on which they stand is the heart of the jungle, and he can abandon her to her death. When in real life does Nature conspire with the human heart to produce such an evil result?

For all he read and enjoyed stories, Burroughs himself was never much of a storyteller. He’s like Henry Miller in this respect. Writing is a way to get at the human soul, which is necessarily fragmented. Stories are just too neat. Human experience, mediated through the human soul, is something non-linear, and with plenty of loose ends. So if you want to be truthful in your writing, you’d better make it messy.

And one thing Burroughs and Miller had in common was that they wanted to tell the truth. There’s truth in Maugham of course, and in other 20th century storytellers. But they’re writing stories, and not autobiography.

(“Autobiography of a Wolf”: Burroughs had the truth-habit from the beginning, always writing about himself.)

One conundrum I’ve found trying to write about Burroughs, is how much I should be excusing Burroughs’s uneven style. In other words, is this unevenness a necessary part of what he’s trying to do? Or just sloppiness on his part? In other words: could Burroughs have created such an effect and yet have been easier to read?

It’s reading someone like Maugham, who is able to deal with deep philosophical ideas and the finest and most mysterious elements of the human soul, while still being a popular writer, that makes me ask questions like this. A writer like Maugham, who has his stylistic points of interest too, and was a popular storyteller without being just a hack. Burroughs, who admired writers like Maugham, while aspiring to be a writer himself, never became popular in this way, instead becoming a cult figure, someone in the margins. Even today, when everyone has heard of him, few have read him, and Burroughs is known for being an impossibly difficult writer to read. “Burroughsian” can more or less be used to mean “incomprehensible.” Why? The evidence seems to suggest that it’s not because he consciously decided to rise above writing popular fiction like Maugham’s, but because he couldn’t do it.

I’m not trying to make a point against Burroughs here. There are plenty of great writers who found themselves utterly unable to produce certain kinds of writing, while excelling in others. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, failed as a sports journalist in his early years, finding himself unable to write an article about a horse race. Finally he typed “The horse jumped over the f***ing fence,” then gave up on sports journalism.

It’s necessity that creates artists. If Burroughs had been able to write adventure stories with a philosophical twist early on in life, then he would never have had to struggle and experiment in order to succeed, and he would never have produced the body of original work, from Naked Lunch onward, that transformed a generation. Or if, failing as a writer early in life, he’d had nowhere to turn to pursue his own course, he’d have maybe got no further than the limited success of works like Junky, in which the experimental elements have yet to ripen. By noting this, you can begin to see how “standardisation” of culture can be harmful: no-one could have foreseen Burroughs’s success, and it was vital that he be allowed to experiment to produce the work that only he could. Culture has to be something that is both transformative, and transforms itself continually. Don’t fall in love with culture, because it will change and you’ll be disappointed. Burroughs, influenced as he was by Oswald Spengler, knew this well, and wasn’t afraid to keep experimenting, to try to create something new. And he succeeded, even if he didn’t end up in anything like the place he’d imagined.

Posted in Beat Generation | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Walk in the Sun

Summer heat wrinkles the air and dries the brain. I move slowly, under pressure, as if pondering a great thought. All I’m trying to do is remember why I got out of bed this morning.

The sun’s warmth swallowing me up. It’s under my skin I can feel its fever in my blood. An alien energy that enervates, working against me, leaving me tired and mindless. Soon skin bones blood boiled away I will be nothing but sunlight, shimmering into air. Pure energy.

“We’re just energy,” he said. But not all energy is alike. The sun is a great giant preparing to swell and swallow us, a dangerous distant negative force, and enemy we keep at arm’s length. I feel the hostility of a fierce universe in the rays of the sun. A reminder of how precariously we exist in our little spot in our little galaxy, and how soon everything will be burned away and left cold ashes.

William Burroughs wrote about the ancient Pharaohs and their mummies. Human energy depends on the cellular: it needs a body. So hold onto the body if you want eternal life. Destruction of the corpse means “second death.” Nowhere for that energy to go. It stays with “Sekhu” – the corpse, the remains – until it is annihilated.

You need courage to live in full knowledge of this human limitation: “Knowing you might not make it … in that knowledge courage is born.” If I were nothing but starlight, I would have no need for courage.

“Allen Ginsberg says you got no soul.” How much more courage is required if this is true? You have to find some way – some practice, some method – to get yourself through this short journey in the sun’s heat. And nerves of steel to steer you. Maybe even telling yourself you have a soul, if it makes you gentler and happier. (And of course you might be right.) “Enjoy your stay here! And God bless you!” We’re all just passing through here. Enjoy your walk in the sun.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“Try going in reverse”: Henry Miller’s advice to writers

“For him who is obliged to dream with eyes wide open all movement is in reverse, all action broken into kaleidoscopic fragments. I believe, as I walk through the horror of the present, that only those who have the courage to close their eyes, only those whose permanent absence from the condition known as reality can affect our fate. I believe, confronted with this lucid wide-awake horror, that all the resources of our civilisation will prove inadequate to discover the tiny grain of sand necessary to upset the stale, stultifying balance of our world.” (Black Spring)

Henry Miller describes two types of dreamer: one with eyes open, the other with eyes closed. Because they are dreaming, their perception is fragmented and disordered. Those who want to save us from our fate using reason and science are eyes open type dreamers: they see “reality”, but what they call reality is in fact just a “kaleidoscopic” dream-world. And all the empirical evidence that they cite – and all the deductions they make from it – this is just more dreaming. It’s “in reverse”, and it will only lead in the wrong direction, to more horror.

And then the eyes closed type dreamer. She cares nothing for reality, closes her eyes against it, looks inward. And so isn’t dazzled by the kaleidoscope, and isn’t fooled into thinking that the dream is reality. The eyes closed dreamer knows the dream as dream. Expects no logic but dream logic. Knows only the appearances of things, which transform themselves as they will. Nothing is “in reverse” for the eyes-closed dreamer. Everything is as it should be.

Eyes open or closed you are dreaming.

Miller’s contempt for “reality” comes out in his practical advice for writers:

“What few young writers realise, it seems to me, is that they must find – create, invent! – the way to reach their readers. It isn’t enough to write a good book, a beautiful book, or even a better book than most. It isn’t enough even to write an ‘original’ book! One has to establish, or re-establish, a unity which has been broken and which is felt just as keenly by the reader who is a potential artist, as by the writer, who believes himself to be an artist. The theme of separation and isolation – ‘atomisation,’ it’s now called – has as many facets to it as there are unique individuals. And we are all unique. The longing to be reunited, with a common purpose and an all-embracing significance, is now universal. The writer who wants to communicate with his fellow-man, and thereby establish communion with him, has only to speak with sincerity and directness. He has not to think about literary standards – he will make them as he goes along – he has not to think about trends, vogues, markets, acceptable ideas or unacceptable ideas: he has only to deliver himself, naked and vulnerable.” (Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch)

We are separate and atomised, each dreaming our individual dreams. And we want to be united with other human beings. Following established literary standards – the ways that human beings have communicated with each other in the past – helps a writer to move in step with humanity. Write “acceptable ideas” and you will be accepted. But this method is too “eyes open” for Miller. It’s to be lulled into forgetting that you are dreaming. Instead you should close your eyes, discover what you have to say and say it. Instead of connecting to humanity via the official dreamt up standards you make actual “communion” with your fellow human being, by writing directly, from the heart.

New ideas don’t exist yet in the real world, they must be created. And they can only be created if we’re brave enough to close our eyes and look away from the world. Since the individual is unique, this is where you’ll find the unique ideas. Inside yourself and in your dreams.

But this means that there are no standards, no signposts to tell us where to turn, how far until we arrive. So we just have to experiment.

“The main thing is to hook up, get the wheels turning, sound off. When your brakes jam, try going in reverse. It often works.” (Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch)

You already see the world fragmented, disordered, and “disarranged.” So write it that way.

Posted in Literature | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Nowhere Under the Sun

“This is the sun of the high plateau that bakes the land dry and leaves one nowhere to hide.”

Ma Jian’s Red Dust is a book about escape, and discovering that there is no escape. A flight from something is always a flight towards something else. In Ma Jian’s case he escapes the red walls of Beijing, the rules and practices he found so restrictive, to encounter his own freedom. But he discovers that, like the desert sun, freedom is unrelenting. Every decision you make will have consequences that you cannot escape and that you are responsible for.

“I don’t want to read, or speak, or move, or think . . . Live your own life . . . Sky beyond the sky . . . Empty, everything is empty . . .”

Living, empty and new, moment to moment. Look at that bright sky. It’s enough to have escaped the red walls of Beijing. He hadn’t thought very much about what to expect on his long journey. We’ll see him lost in the desert at night, almost dying of thirst, unprepared for hot sun and violent sandstorms . . . Ma Jian is no survivalist. At first he doesn’t care if he survives or not. The essential thing was to escape. The essential thing is to be free. It’s only his close scrapes with death early in his journey that make him realise his life is something to cherish too.

At the very beginning of his journey, he’s looking out the train window: “The neat fields outside the window flick past like pages of a book.”

As if the story of his journey is already written down. As if each moment he heads away from Beijing is of such monumental significance that pages are dedicated to it. He hasn’t written his story yet, and not could he write anything in this moment. His mind is empty. Already empty as if he was already weary and thirsty is the searing heat of the desert sun.

Red Dust is a book about coming to life as an individual. At the start of the book Ma Jian is a Buddhist. He likes Buddhism because it “teaches man to transcend the material world and view life and death as trivial.” In this way it’s unlike Christianity, which “urges man to cherish life and fear death.” But his scrapes with mortality teach him to cherish life too. The gratitude he finds in himself for those who save his life, who give him water to get his blood moving again, meat that gives him the strength he now feels in his bones. To live freely is to live dangerously, and to live dangerously is to cherish every moment of your life. This moment so valuable that I would perish now if that were the only way to truly savour it. My mind in this moment and what is to come is of no significance. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow . . .” Every moment a work of art, a page in a great book . . .

On his journey, Ma Jian learns to reconcile the lessons of Buddha and Christ: Have no fear of death, and your fearlessness will allow you to truly cherish life.

(I’ve been reading Red Dust by Ma Jian. It’s translated into English by Flora Drew and was published by Vintage in 2002.)

Posted in books | Tagged , | Leave a comment