Notes on William S Burroughs’ “Ghost of Chance”

William S Burroughs’s Ghost of Chance (1995, High Risk Books) has a simple political point at the heart of it: humanity will perish if it continues at odds with nature.

It’s a familiar theme. Human beings are destroying the environment and must stop before it’s too late. But Burroughs’s unique view of why this is happening is interesting. For Burroughs, it’s happening because one side of the human organism – the side that uses language and tools to dominate others – is dominating the other side, the intuitive and innocent side.

To explain Burroughs’s view, it’s worth skipping ahead to the centrepiece of the book: the bit about the “Christ Sickness”.

About half-way through the book, a virus breaks out that makes millions of people believe that they are the Messiah. The symptoms of the disease are:

You hallucinate and start to believe that you can perform miracles.

Violence. You begin to accuse everyone of betraying the Son of Man, and you might attack those you suspect of betrayal: “And some, in their zealous dementia, were driven to release the fateful lightning of terrible, swift homemade flamethrowers and bizarre electrical devices, or to make bloody use of swords and axes.” (34)

The final stage is “grief, apathy and death”. (34)

Those who suffer from the Christ Sickness, believing that they are Christ, believe they can perform miracles. “The question arises: Did Christ actually perpetrate the miracles attributed to him? My guess is that he did certainly commit some of these scandals.” (25)

Miracles are not good things, for the author of Ghost of Chance. And on this point he believes he agrees with Buddhism: “Buddhists consider miracles and healing dubious if not downright reprehensible. The miracle worker is upsetting the natural order, with incalculable long-range consequences, and is often motivated by self-glorification.” (25-6)

You don’t perform miracles if you want to help people, as there’s no way of knowing what the long-term consequences of a miracle will be. Christ didn’t perform miracles in order to help people, but in order to bring glory to Himself. Worse than this, by bringing glory to himself he created the impression that only He could perform miracles. He created a “monopoly” on miracles, “so no more miracles can ever occur”. (25)

People believed Christ when he claimed he was the source of miracles, and when he was gone from the earth the illusion was complete: with Christ gone, people now believed that miracles were impossible. It took a virus outbreak to cause people to believe again in the possibility of miracles.

I don’t know how seriously Burroughs intended for us to take his theory about Christ, but it’s interesting because it’s a vivid illustration of one method of control: make it appear that you are the only game in town. Don’t just do what you can do, but create the impression that only you can do it. In this way you will gain followers, people who depend on you (or think they do, which is the same thing) for your power to create what you create. If you con them expertly, your followers won’t work out that they were ever capable of doing the work themselves.

It’s not just Christ and certain PR people that use this method. It’s also used by a virus called “the word”.

We use words every day, and they are essential to our mode of existence. But aside from their function allowing us to communicate they also have another function: ensuring their own survival. And they do this by creating the impression that we cannot exist without them. (When in fact it’s just our current mode of existence that would be destroyed were the word to be destroyed.)

In Ghost of Chance, Burroughs gives us his ideas of how language functions in the human organism:

“A rift is built into the human organism, the rift or cleft between the two hemispheres, so any attempt at synthesis must remain unrealisable in human terms. I draw a parallel between this rift separating the two sides of the human body and the rift that divided Madagascar from the mainland of Africa. One side of the rift drifted into enchanted timeless innocence. The other moved inexorably toward language, time, tool use, weapon use, war, exploitation, and slavery.

“It would seem that merging the two us not viable, and one is tempted to say, as Brion Gysin did, ‘Rub out the word.’

“But perhaps ‘rub’ is the wrong word. The formula is quite simple: reverse the magnetic field so that, instead of being welded together, the two halves repel each other like opposing magnets.” (49-50)

So whereas Gysin suggested killing the language-using side of ourselves in order to return to innocence – perhaps giving up on talking and writing and simply painting the world as you see it would be a way of doing this – Burroughs is suggesting that all that is necessary is that we give the non-linguistic side of ourselves a chance, and stop dominating our intuitive and innocent side with our word-using, rationalising side.

In practice perhaps this would mean: stop using language to rationalise the world, and instead look at the world first, and if you have to speak let the words follow from the impression you had before you started trying to put it into words.

“What would a wordless world be like? As Korzybski said: ‘I don’t know. Let’s see.’” (50)

In Ghost of Chance, it’s too late for mankind. They never broke the hold of the word on human life, balance between cleverness and innocence was never achieved, and mankind as we know it is destroyed. And what is the end result? “People of the world are at last returning to their source in spirit, back to the little lemur people of the trees and the leaves, the streams, the rocks, and the sky. Soon, all sign, all memory of the wars and the Plague of Mad will fade like dream traces.” (54)

Pure innocence is forced upon mankind because he couldn’t find balance. The word virus is eliminated, or “rubbed out”.

Burroughs didn’t want humanity as we know it to be destroyed entirely. He wanted it to be transformed so that the word would no longer rule us and we would be able to see clearly.

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