Mitya’s Certainty (Karamazov pp. 438-9)

“She may be there . . .”

Mitya is jealous. He hides in the bushes in the dark outside the window, wondering whether his beloved is inside with the old man. He’s already peeked in through the window. He can’t see her. She could be there behind the screen, out of sight.

“. . . she’s not there.”

But he doesn’t think so. He knows she couldn’t be. Yet still he doubts. Reassuring himself as he walks away he says to himself:

“He’s alone, he’s alone!”

The old man is alone. She is somewhere else. (Where?) He ought to feel relieved. (But where is she?) And still he doubts.

“Strange to say, a queer, irrational vexation rose up in his heart that she was not here. ‘It’s not that she’s not here,’ he explained to himself, immediately. ‘but that I can’t tell for certain whether she is or not.’”

He knows and doesn’t know she’s not there. He knows but doesn’t know for certain, which can seem like not knowing. Sometimes you know something, and it is only afterward when you entertain doubt and demand certainty that suddenly you feel you don’t know it –– even though you do. Certainty is not necessary for knowing something.

“Is she here or not?”

There’s only one way to be sure. He creeps back up to the window to give the secret knock. An agreed sign between the old man and his servant, to announce her arrival. Mitya can see immediately that the old man is excited, and he quickly dashes away as the old man comes to the window. And opens the window and looks out, calling her name.

“‘He’s alone,’ Mitya decided.”

It’s clear, beyond doubt. Now he can leave . . . but he’s waited too long. Now he’s spotted and chased across the grounds by an old servant, he reaches for the instrument in his pocket as the servant catches him climbing the wall –– Mitya strikes, and the man collapses to the ground. Dead? If only Mitya had trusted himself, been sure of what he had known, the tragedy would have been avoided . . . (Dostoevsky has already said that Othello trusted too much, which is why, persuaded that Desdemona has been treacherous, he is lost –– “his ideal was destroyed.” Mitya has the opposite problem: he doesn’t trust anyone enough, not even himself, and this leads to the accident –– a tragedy, if the old servant dies, and a senseless one . . .)

(I’ve been reading The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Constance Garnett, published by Wordsworth Classics in 2010.)

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Where Cows Are More Real Than Policemen

Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a poem about a dog. This dog is a “real realist,” which means he looks up and down and smells with his nose and asks questions and doesn’t have any smart answers.

“Dog” is a poem about what it means to live in a world. There are things that matter to the dog, and things that don’t. “The things he sees / are his reality / Drunks in doorways / Moons on trees.” The things that matter to you make up your world, the things that don’t are beyond you. “He doesn’t hate cops / He merely has no use for them.” A dog sees a man, but never a policeman. “He would rather eat a tender cow / than a tough policeman,” so the “dead cows hung up whole” at the meat market are real, while the police fade into the background, ghosts of a doubtful reality.

He sees the “moons on trees,” but he doesn’t see a moon that moves in the sky. Each moon is bright and each sits upon one of the tall trees that line the pavement, dazzling doggy eyes and lighting the way. No depth to his vision: he doesn’t imagine a solar system up there in the night sky. No concept even of sky to hang his moon upon. Just a bright bowl of light on a tree as he “trots freely” underneath. Does he see the stars? The bright things of the night rest upon the trees, or on the edges of rooftops, or even on the tip of his nose. The world is endless, not deep, no end to the things he encounters, to bring him joy.

Sometimes “what he hears is very discouraging / very depressing,” especially when he hears about politics. “But he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle,” and goes around in “his own free world,” however un-American others might think it. When you have your own world, bright and rich and clear and full of delight, you won’t spend very much time thinking about these spectres, these Doyles and McCarthys.

So Ferlinghetti’s dog doesn’t have much to say about politics. But he does have “something to say / about ontology / something to say / about reality.” He knows that “the things he smells / smell something like himself,” he knows his own doggy being. He knows how to listen and look, when “with his head cocked sideways . . . like a living question mark” he gives his limitless attention to the world. He knows how to evaluate, how to respond, when to trot along, and when to stop.

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How To Make Word Dust

Besides being a science fiction novel, Nova Express is a how-to book.  It tells us how to make cut-ups and create “word dust”.

For example, Burroughs has a character called “The Subliminal Kid” use tape recorders to create cut-ups:

“‘The Subliminal Kid’ moved in and took over bars cafés and juke boxes of the world cities and installed radio transmitters and microphones in each bar so that the music and talk of any bar could be heard in all his bars and he had tape recorders in each bar that played and recorded at arbitrary intervals and his agents moved back and forth with portable tape recorders and brought back street sound and talk and music and poured it into his recorder array so he set waves and eddies and tornadoes of sound down all your streets and by the river of all language – Word dust drifted streets of broken music car horns and air hammers – The Word broken pounded twisted exploded in smoke –”

The Kid is putting the cut-up method into action to “cut word lines”.  Words have a socially recognised function when they are used in discourse.  By cutting into conversations at random intervals and recording, and then playing this back over new conversation, and recording the resulting sound at random intervals, and cutting into all this random noise from the street, words are separated from their original context.  Words separated in this way will have an immediate impact on the senses, no longer part of the extended discourse, instead just noise now, filling the air.  As noise the words will have an unconscious effect on the listener.  This is “word dust”: words broken up to fill the air to be inhaled by anyone in the vicinity.

Burroughs shows us the potential political effect of cut-ups.  Just as the cut-up method separates words from their context, so it can separate other abstract elements from their contexts and give them new meaning.  For example, colour:

“– Pay back the Colour you stole –

“– Pay Red – Pay back the red you stole for your lying flags and your Coca-Cola signs – Pay that red back to penis and blood and sun –”

Individual colours become fixed in our minds to things such as brands and flags.  The cut-up method can separate the colours out again, to create a dust so that we experience the colours out of context and break the associations we automatically make between colours and things.

It would be impossible to own anything once everything had been reduced to dust through cut-ups.  All things would float in the air, to be inhaled by anyone passing by.  Life as we know it would cease if everything was reduced to dust in this way.  Burroughs saw this as the first step towards elevating ourselves to a new non-biological mode of existence.

For art, cut-up is essential, because art’s purpose is to make us see in new ways, and this can only be done by breaking down the existing associations.  What we do when the dust settles is another matter . . .

(I’ve been reading Nova Express by William S. Burroughs)

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William S. Burroughs: Vision and Intuition

Reading Queer by William S. Burroughs, I’m struck not just by the sharp clear quality of the prose, but also by the insights themselves, the things Burroughs can see and points out to us. If he had been a worse writer he’d maybe have been a philosopher of the popular variety, and people would have gladly waded through pages of pseudo-academic clumsy prose to get to the insights he offers. As Burroughs himself waded through Alfred Korzybski. As it happens, Burroughs was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and he was able to deliver his insights effortlessly, instantaneously.

He has an intuition for things, he can get to the essence of the matter in front of him, and brings this essence to life in his rapid prose. Like describing Winston Moor, smiling at the waiter:

“Moor smiled into an inner mirror, a smile without a trace of warmth, but it was not a cold smile: it was the meaningless smile of senile decay, the smile that goes with false teeth, the smile of a man grown old and stir-simple in the solitary confinement of exclusive self-love.”

Moor is senile even in his youth, a mind old beyond the years of his body. And when he smiles at another human being he does so “into a mirror”, not truly seeing the other person. Burroughs is showing us what self-love can do to a person, how it can dehumanise by killing the human need for human contact.

Unlike Moor, Burroughs can see: Lee – the main character in the novel, based on Burroughs – takes Morton in in an instant, and Burroughs delivers his verdict in his instantaneous prose. Burroughs/Lee has intuition, an ability to see things immediately as they are. But did he always have this skill, or is this something he had to develop?

Burroughs sometimes seems to believe he had something of this skill from a very young age, the ability to see people for what they are. False people would become unnerved in his presence, as the young Burroughs watched them with his penetrating stare. Ivy Lee – “Poison Ivy” – father of modern PR and an uncle of Burroughs, was one of those truly evil people negated by the young Burroughs’s gaze. “Ivy Lee hated me on sight.”

But even if this was some innate magic that Burroughs possessed, it would take him time to master it. He sought out theories: of language, metaphysics, psychoanalysis . . . I’ve already mentioned Korzybski – also there was Oswald Spengler’s theory of Western culture, Wilhelm Reich’s theory of character, and L Ron Hubbard’s new system of “Dianetics”.

Burroughs’s often strange ideas about language, mind, and the world shaped the way he wrote, so that the style he chose he chose deliberately, because it was the only one to suit his purposes. In the last year of his life, Burroughs wrote:

“An artist must be open to the muse. The greater the artist, the more he is open to ‘cosmic currents.’ He has to behave as he does.”

Burroughs listened to the world, saw how it was, and came to write in a “telegraphic” style (a term used to describe the writing of Céline, whom Burroughs admired). He did this because it was the only way to show the world as it is. The human world for Burroughs is a world compromised by language. Human beings use language to hide who they truly are, like Moor hiding behind his smile. The only way Burroughs could punch through this false world was by “cutting the word lines,” keeping things simple, sparing the words to cut through to the truth . . .

(I’ve been reading Queer and Last Words by William S. Burroughs, and Barry Miles’s William S. Burroughs: A Life.)

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The Myth of Burroughs

It’s no use trying to cut through the myth of William S. Burroughs to get to the truth of the man himself. The truth of Burroughs is found in the myth: “the idea of Burroughs has its own realities, its own narratives; and . . . the man contains and is contained by their interaction.”

The Burroughs myth, according to Graham Caveney: the popular images and ideas of Burroughs, the picture you have of him as “cult icon”, suit and hat, “junkie” and “gentleman” . . . The Burroughs myth is real, since Burroughs created it, and so it was created by an artist. And an artist’s work, when it is successful, tells us the truth about the artist.

Still, the myth wasn’t just created by Burroughs himself, others had a hand in it too. Burroughs always collaborated: making a novel out of the letters he’d written to Allen Ginsberg, the recipient playing the vital role of a “receiver” without whom Burroughs could never have finalised his ideas; cutting up words from all over – books, magazines, radio, conversations – to make something new out of the already-made work of others.

A vast collaborative work of art itself, the Burroughs myth is something that he had a hand in, but all kinds of things helped to shape it: his appearances in newspapers and magazines, on television and in film, descriptions of him by critics and admirers, musical collaborations and references to his work in music . . . Caveney takes us through some of these, so we get a sense of how the myth was formed.

Burroughs didn’t like to use the word “we”. “Most ‘we’s’ you can count me out of,” he said. He had few friends to collaborate with. So he must collaborate with his enemies, interacting with voices that are hostile to him or that he felt hostile towards: the “War on Drugs” message put out by the government, racism and nationalism and homophobia in the media . . . all this becomes material for him to cut up, fold in, imitate and mutate with satirical routines. Burroughs always took the words of others alien and inimical to him to turn them around and make them into something new. His myth, too, is shaped by his enemies as much as his friends – junky, deviant, outsider, alien . . .

And not all the hostile voices he interacted with came from outside. Burroughs had his own “Ugly Spirit” inside him, which he describes as an evil inner voice and a very real influence:

“When I go into my psyche, at a certain point I meet a very hostile, very strong force. It’s as definite as someone attacking me in a bar. We usually come to a standoff.”

Burroughs was always at war, not only with the world but with his own mind. This is what makes him so hard to imitate. The most interesting point in Caveney’s book for me is towards the end, where he writes that “Burroughs’s impact is to influence a sensibility, rather than to invite any imitation.” Burroughs can open up a way of seeing to his readers, but in a moment it’s gone, to be replaced by something else. Something stays with you that’s Burroughsian, but it’s difficult to pin down. It’s not this or that idea or image, it’s not even his fascinating, drawling voice. It’s something inimitable and elusive.

No doubt Burroughs would have liked to make his message clearer, and pass on his wisdom. He “intended to lay down a blueprint for fiction, a coherent philosophy of composition.” But he was never able to stick to any one rule for long, before that rule itself comes into question or is flatly contradicted. Speaking of philosophy, he reminds me of Wittgenstein or Nietzsche in this respect: his mind moving at such a speed that no single conclusion he draws is ever held onto for long before he’s found the end of it, and moved on. If you try to copy Burroughs you can only capture a thin moment, come out with something flat and one-sided, not living and breathing like Burroughs’s own work:

“The problem faced by aspiring Burroughs copyists is that they are confronted with texts that write against themselves . . . Burroughs defies imitation because he defies himself.”

Perhaps defiance is the essence of Burroughs’s work: if you want to be Burroughsian, then you need to think for yourself, which often means going against Burroughs’s ideas, and even your own. Caveney’s book – illustrated by Simon Jennings – lives up to this: paying tribute to Burroughs without merely parodying him, giving its own perspective on the life and work of Burroughs, and challenging us to think for ourselves what the Burroughs myth means. “Far from being the end of an era, Burroughs has been instrumental in creating the one in which we now live.” We have to decide for ourselves what it means to live in a Burroughsian era.

(I’ve been reading Graham Caveney, The ‘Priest’, They Called Him: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs. It was published in 1997 by Bloomsbury.)

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The Silence of Ancient Egypt

For two thousand years ancient Egypt was “dead but unburied.” It existed only as stone, as a lifeless monument to its living past. The pyramids have stood silent and blind for millennia, and to Toynbee they seemed to speak: “Before Abraham was, I am.”

Egyptian painting, flat and fragmented, gives a sterile impression of ancient Egyptian life. The people depicted seem themselves made of stone, unmoving, communicating with each other in stylised poses, fixed forever in their intention. Kings of stone eternally petition their unmoving gods, while stiff labourers, ungrumbling, toil ceaselessly together in workshops and fields.

It’s the silence of ancient Egypt – the silence of stone – that creates the impression of a vast mystery. Where there is silence, there is often a secret. But the mystery is so vast, that the thought of Egypt stretches out into a thin nothingness: a cosmos of motionless stone and eternally shifting sand, stretched over a void.

(Quotations are from A Study of History by Arnold J. Toynbee.)

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Herder’s First Principle

The life of rational individuals is chaotic as a madhouse. Herder writes:

“Whoever goes into a madhouse finds all the fools raving in a different way, each in his world; thus do we all rave, very rationally, each according to his fluids and tempers. The deepest basis of our existence is individual, both in sensations and in thoughts.”

Herder’s first principle: you will find the essence of who you are only in yourself, not in some general principle that applies to all people. You are not a type. We’re too different from each other for there to be such universal types.

Observe those around you. The well-established principle that there is no accounting for taste: we accept that there’s no general principle to explain the differences between people. We can only describe the situation: it is just a fact that human beings are different.

“What leaves the one person cold causes the other to glow; all the animal species are perhaps less different among themselves than human being from human being.”

This radical difference from individual to individual is the basis of creativity. If all human beings were alike, there would be a set of objective principles to discover, we could read the meaning of life there and the truth would be revealed. The truth out there to read, there would be nothing left to make up. To make up is to make something up out of yourself, out of what you find in yourself, your memories and thoughts and experiences tangled up in your deepest depths, interwoven with what you essentially are.

Perhaps some people never search for their depths, and it might seem that the truth really does lie there on the surface. Simple principles seem to be the highest truths. They learn to watch out for types, trust their instincts, satisfied that they know what – and who – is right and wrong. Talk of anything deeper sounds like nonsense to them.

But the deepest truth does not lie at the surface, in the form of such general principles. Each human being that is born brings into existence her own principle, which has to be freshly discovered in a life of experimentation, if it is to be discovered at all. And it lives and dies with that individual. This is the artist’s life, the life of a person who is fixated on truth and must discover it. And so must discover it for herself, since it belongs to her alone:

“If a human being could sketch the deepest, most individual basis of his enthusiasms and feelings, of his dreams and trains of thought, what a novel! As things stand, it is only perhaps illnesses and moments of passion that do this – and what monsters and amazing sea-miracles one often perceives!”

Of course, whatever is created, if it is truly new, must appear monstrous or miraculous. Because it has never been seen before, and will never appear again. Because the very universe from which it came – a single human life – was born into its own existence only to burn and blaze before it dies.

From Herder’s first principle you can derive the precept: you must find your own first principle, your deepest depth. It lies inside you and nowhere else. Or you can live on the surface and leave the treasure buried forever, to fade into oblivion.

(I’ve been reading the Philosophical Writings of Herder, translated and edited by Michael N. Forster.)

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