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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.)

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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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