Lessons from Los Alamos

Albert James Connell ran the Los Alamos Ranch school, which William S. Burroughs attended when he was a boy. “Many of Connell’s ideas were taken on board by Burroughs, such as that there was no such thing as an accident: if something went wrong, it was someone’s fault, probably yours.” (Barry Miles)

So Burroughs went his whole life with the paranoid’s idea that there’s intention behind everything. Sometimes it’s something big, like a political conspiracy:

“The subject must not realise that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct.” (Naked Lunch)

Bureaucratic institutions cover up their function – to control you – by appearing incompetent. You’ll have to wait, the system isn’t responding, please take a seat … And the people who make up the rules and designed the system remain out of reach, protected by the many “mistakes” that the bureaucrats will make as they process your request. And you sit and wait, docile and patient, or ranting at “incompetence” until you wear yourself out, never getting to the real cause of the problem.

Or the control agent might be something more local, subjective: an “Ugly Spirit” within yourself.  Burroughs believed in possession: evil spirits can take control of your actions, you won’t even know you’re not the one in control. (“I don’t know what I was thinking …” “He came out of nowhere …”) Misfortune is never an accident, always an ugly intention behind it, evidence of possession. The demon put you there, raised your hand, pushed the button, pulled the trigger.

Ancient magic and evil forces are responsible for human misfortune:

“America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.” (Naked Lunch)

The modern troubles in America stem from the ancient evil that has existed there since the beginning. But Burroughs’s enemies need something visible that they can blame: drugs, atheists, immigrants … No, says Burroughs, the evil runs beneath the surface. The very fact you’re looking for someone to blame is proof that the deep evil is doing its work. What is this evil?

“In Burroughs’s mythology ‘evil’ applies to anything which represses spontaneity.” (Robin Lydenberg)

And this always comes back to the “Algebra of Need”, the name Burroughs gives to a mathematical understanding of the way need functions. Increase the need for something beyond a certain point and you have an absolute need, and the subject loses control because he or she has no choice but to pursue that need. “Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control. In the words of total need: ‘Wouldn’t you?’ Yes you would.” (Naked Lunch, quoted by Lydenberg)

Evil arises with necessity. When you absolutely need to do something, when you have no choice, when you “can do no other”, you are subject to – possessed by – evil. Control systems operate by making things necessary, and the way to make things necessary for a human subject is to tap into their needs, and make them need those things absolutely. (Human beings already come into the world with an “eating habit”, and leaders have always exploited this need to control their citizens.)

An unqualified evil for Burroughs is “sending,” which is a compulsive need to transmit thoughts to others for the purpose of control. “A telepathic sender has to send all the time. He can never receive, because if he receives that means someone else has feelings of his own could louse up his continuity.” Burroughs and his wife Joan would experiment at home with telepathic sending, sat in different rooms while they took it in turns to visualise an image, for the other to write down. Joan turned out to be a very powerful Sender. But it’s the Senders who use it continually, as a method of control, that Burroughs was worried about.

The Senders want to make it so that the only thoughts you have are the ones they send you, and the only thoughts they have for you are the mindless images that they conjure up again and again, in no meaningful order, purely for the purpose of sending. The Sender is sending messages for the sake of continuing to send, and through this they maintain a state of equilibrium where nothing can ever change – the Sender can feel in total control because no one else has a chance to have a thought of their own that might “louse things up”. The Sender doesn’t want to understand others, but to eliminate their free will altogether.

They might be evil, but we can understand their desire to Send. Blocking out the world with a mind-numbing procession of images might seem desirable where there is so much suffering in the world. Burroughs asks us to imagine applying for God’s job:

“‘You are responsible for every groan, every scream. You have to feel everything, every murder, suicide, depression, psychosis, all, all, all.’

“Now, most applicants don’t make it twelve hours.

“And those that do? How to they do it?

“Mostly by turning of the feel line . . . Disqualified.” (Last Words)

Turn off the feel line. This is how you survive, but you cut yourself off from understanding this way. Give up being an artist, it’s too painful. The young Burroughs destroys his diary and vows never to write again. The result of a good American education. Disqualified.

(I’ve been reading William S. Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles, and Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs’ Fiction by Robin Lydenberg. Also Burroughs: Naked Lunch and Last Words.)

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The Greatest Gift

Father Zossima tells his followers that the greatest torment is discovering the meaning of love too late to profit by it. You’re on your deathbed, in your dying brain you seem already at the gate of Paradise itself, and soft as a dying breeze it’s dawned on you that the greatest thing in life is to be able to give all you have to help another human being, to be overflowing and have everything to give and to give it – but now on your deathbed in your final ruin you have nothing left to give, nothing to sacrifice, nothing to share with your fellow human beings, not even a breath of your own to spare. The greatest gift in the world is living love, and what does it mean to be alive with love? Alive! It is to see another as your friend, his needs as your own, and to give wholeheartedly to help him. “It will come to pass that even the most corrupt of our rich will end by being ashamed of his riches before the poor …” He will be ashamed because he will realise how foolish he has been, that he had rejected the greatest gift – living love – in favour of power and worldly riches.

“He taught that life is a great joy and not a vale of tears,” is how Zossima is remembered. A great joy because whatever the hardships you suffer in your poverty, they are nothing compared to the lightness of heart you find in the living love that led you to give your riches away.

“The time is at hand,” is the tone of Zossima’s message. With Christianity you’re always on the cusp of the new world, Heaven on earth, these past 2000 years have been nothing but passing shadow before the cloud passes and the sun of truth shines again.

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The corners of rooms everywhere

There’s a shadow in the corner of my room. Sometimes as I sleep, peering at my room through my eyelids with the vision of dreams, it crawls near, sits down on the bed, and watches me. Night creeping close to me. I wake and it’s gone: I’m out of bed and looking there it’s always dark in that corner. But it’s still and silent. It’s sat there still as a predator listening to my breathing, heavy in the silence.

My landlady laughs a lot. Sometimes in my dreams I suppose she’s talking to the dark …

I’m sat here trying to write – and in my sulk I close my eyes and I seem to go right up and peer closely into the laughter, which sometimes seems a response to some moment of my secret anger, and I feel her laughter mocking and I’m irritable and irrational, and sometimes I hear the dog howling. And it won’t stop: I hear the landlord shout on at it for about twenty minutes.

She came into my room today. When I saw her she’d been stood there a while. Her smirking smile. White hair. Callous grey eyes. I asked her what she wanted, but she just nodded down to the landlord. I asked her what she wanted, but she just asked me if I kept my door locked.

It’s hard to explain this. I see things now only with the vision of dreams. I see now only with eyes closed.

But the shadow I know for sure.

And I know now that there are shadows in the corners of rooms everywhere.

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Reading Toynbee A Study of History

A society is a group whose members have shared problems.

“There is no such thing as society” would be true if there were no shared problems, if each individual had only his or her own problems to worry about.

“There is no such thing as society” is clearly false, since there are a great number of problems that human beings currently share. Destruction of the planet through global warming is one of these problems.

Arnold J Toynbee thought that “Western Christendom” was a society, distinct from “Orthodox Christian”, “Islamic”, “Hindu” and “Far Eastern” societies. This is because they each had their own distinct set of problems to contend with.

But he saw that beyond the “cultural plane” of Western Christendom were also “economic” and “political” planes. These latter planes extend further that Western Society, to encompass just about the whole world –– so, existing on these planes, we belong to a global society beyond our local one. There are problems that we share with the whole of humanity. Today this is especially apparent, with the threats of global warming and nuclear extermination.

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Spengler and Destiny

I’ve been reading Oswald Spengler again, and what he writes about destiny. If you’re going to discover your destiny – the destiny of your culture, of your family, or your own personal destiny – you need to get out of the habit of thinking about cause and effect. This seemed absurd the first time I read Spengler, but I think I understand it now.

If you think that everything is grounded in cause and effect, then you’ll make the ostensibly logical step from “x caused y” to “if x hadn’t happened, then y wouldn’t have happened.” This is often a mistake, especially when dealing with human life. Human life has a destiny, which in short means: if not by this cause, then by another.

Spengler gives Napoleon as an example. Paradoxically, Napoleon’s role in history was to allow for the dominance of the British spirit, which led to the expansion of the British Empire. Spengler tells us that in Napoleon’s time there were only two powers with really the same level of imperial ambition: Britain and France. The stage was set, and the creation of an empire “on which the sun never sets” was inevitable. Determinism is false, and events can go one way or another – Napoleon might have been victorious, and never met his Waterloo – but destiny is certain, and whatever the events certain trends are inevitable. If Napoleon had been victorious then it would have been the French who would have had the greatest Empire in the 19th century. But he was defeated and, since the time for empire was ripe, his downfall meant the dominance of the British Empire.

This is important: it wasn’t Britain’s destiny that was realised in the British Empire, but the destiny of the West, which means the destiny of West European and North American Civilisation. Even as Britain and France fought, they were working together to bring about the next step in the decline of the West . . .

Strange to call it a decline, of course, when you’re talking about the success of Empire building. But Empire building is always a sign of the death of a culture. There is nothing new to be created, and so the civilisation just expands, sharing the relics of its past, spreading its already dated ideas of freedom, technology, ambition . . .

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Burroughs and the Bad Cop

Recently I read The Manhunter by John Pascucci. I bought a copy because it’s one of the last books William Burroughs read before he died. Burroughs notes in Last Words that he liked a phrase of Pascucci’s: “the plot sickened.” It’s got a few whimsical phrases in it like that. But it also really is a sickening book in places: the “astounding” and “true” story of a police officer who searches for the worst criminals of all – Nazis and child-killers – but in the process realises he’s willing to do some pretty evil things himself to get the job done.

The dialogue in this book feels pretty fake: like Pascucci wanted to go down in history not just as a deep and troubled but kick-ass cop but also as something out of a Hollywood film, all cool and ready with the one-liners. But the struggle feels real, and the book is gripping, and you start to care about the main character – even in the places where the evil in him bubbles to the surface. But he justifies this with a philosophy: “utilitarianism”, the belief that it’s about the greatest good of the greatest number, and so sometimes the ends justify some pretty nasty means. If the stories in this book are true, if things really went down this way, then Pascucci is right to say that evil acts really can save lives, and sometimes it’s necessary to do evil for the sake of the greater good. But the fake sound of so much of this makes me wonder: like when he impales a man on a spike to get the location of the bomb just in time. It all seems too convenient, like satisfying Hollywood fare. And one thing Pascucci tells us over and over is that the “real world” is a mess, and nothing works out the way it does in the movies.

Another thing Pascucci tells us: that a criminal never has a philosophy. I agree that a Nazi’s “philosophy” is nothing but a rationalisation for carrying out acts of violence. But if Pascucci has done half the things he claims he has in this book, then he himself is a criminal, and his utilitarian justifications for the things he did start to sound pretty weak.

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Inhuman Indifference

When Kenneth Rexroth heard Dylan Thomas had died, he wrote a poem. He wrote about who he blamed for the poet’s death: and he finds fault with us, with society. He uses “You” in the poem, addressing all of us. Are there any exceptions? Is anyone innocent? Is Rexroth excluding himself with this “You”?

“You drowned him in your cocktail brain. / He fell down and died in your synthetic heart.”

Rexroth is describing a cruel indifference towards artists. Even where a poet’s work is loved the man himself is a non-entity. Even where there is fascination with the “tortured artist”, this isn’t an interest in the person, but in the type, the romantic ideal. The interest is inhuman. (This interest comes and goes, articles about the artist are written and forgotten, TV shows watched in half-interest and repeated for eternity on obscure channels.)

Indifference kills. There is no respite for artists on these shifting sands. No place to make a home, no place of peace and comfort for sleep and dreams, rooms of light for drink and laughter . . . Self-expression is such a personal thing, such a human and natural thing . . . and the poem once created becomes an object, detached now from the human depths out of which it emerged. So that it can seem it came out of nowhere. The artist is forgotten.

Oswald Spengler: “Sleep, too, liberates –– ‘Death and his brother Sleep.’ And holy wine, intoxication, breaks the rigour of the spirit’s tension, and dancing, the Dionysus art, and every other form of stupefaction and ecstasy. These are modes of slipping out of awareness by the aid of being, the cosmic, the ‘it,’ the escape out of space into time.”

Art is expression of being, a reckoning with time, with the cosmic, by means of intoxication and dance. To express yourself you need to slip into your own being, your real being –– which means dreams and dance and forgotten memories that now bubble to the surface as you follow the flow. You’ve slipped into being, and doing so you slip beyond space and into time, into the eternal. Out of awareness. The writer writes his being, and slips out of awareness. And we let him go, since he has entered an invisible realm –– of time, being, the unconscious –– and is becoming himself invisible to us. We can’t make him out, he’s fading further and further. We see less and less of him, or what we once took him to be, and what’s left is incomprehensible to us, a hopeless mess, an artist, and we become indifferent as we become oblivious to his existence now that he has made for himself his own territory, a realm of living being.

“Was their end noble and tragic . . . ?”

It’s not a noble end. Let’s not romanticise the lonely existence of the artist, or the ways they died in this loneliness, through suicide, alcohol, violence . . . What is the artist’s existence really? The artist does not choose to suffer. It’s necessary given the situation we placed him in. We would not give him a home, and so he made one. We do not recognise the realm that he inhabits now, in his suffering –– the realm of time and being, versus our own ordinary realm of space and conformity, which is non-being.

“They stopped their ears.”

The artist utters what cannot be heard. What the others are not yet ready to hear. For me, the first sign that I am looking at a great work of art is the discomfort it makes me feel. I’m confused. I’m offended. And then I’m transformed. And so I’ll keep my ears unstopped for the new and strange sounds of poetry.

(I’ve been reading Kenneth Rexroth’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” which I found in The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters and published in 1992 by Penguin Classics. Also, Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, translated by Charles Francis Atkinson.)

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