An anarchy of new speech; notes on the American tradition of William Burroughs


Clive Bush


These three publications of works by and about William Burroughs1 confirm the importance of his place in English language fiction of this century. Burroughs has gone on writing after the first succès de scandale, and his style has become more exact and more imaginatively suggestive. He is, and has always seemed, older than the Beat Generation to whom he was a mentor. Intellectually, too, he has distanced himself from the Beats’ exuberant transcendentalism. Jack Kerouac, observing Burroughs studying Mayan Codices, once asked: ‘What’s going to happen to us when we die?’ and Burroughs replied ‘When you die you’re dead that’s all.’2 One of his greatest gifts is his ability to convey an almost Melvillean scepticism of that persistent transcendentalist strain in American culture. In fact Burroughs continues another great American tradition which has its origins in the Puritan revolutionary ideology of the seventeenth century. Its main features are a politically anarchistic investigation into the nature of authority accompanied by a distrust of coercive images, graven or otherwise. Accompanying this distrust is a lively fear of authoritarian leaders whose pathological drives endanger the mass of society.


As with a number of American writers in the twentieth century, Burroughs’s sheer personal survival is in itself remarkable. Born into an upper-middle class American family, endowed with a small private income, the initial revolt in the predictable patterns of nostalgie de la boue, flirtations with the criminal fringes of a hypocritical business culture, the refusal of heterosexual normalcy, and heroin addiction ought to have generated enough conflicts and enough threats to survival to make any prospect of a writing career impossible, let alone one of genius. Like Richard Wright, whose oppressions and alienations illustrate another facet of the same general problems of American society, Burroughs is able to use the experience of personal degradation to provide his work with an almost clinical precision of insight into the shifting consciousness of individual experience in a culture whose methods of dominance and control continue to reach ever higher levels of sophistication. Like Wright, and like many other major twentieth century writers, Burroughs records a specific change in the means of social control: from outer to inner, from physical to psychological, as society moves from imperialist to totalitarian techniques of order. Again like Wright, Burroughs is interested in the effects of psychological warfare, that inducing of passive obedience which unconsciously undermines self respect: ‘A dim notion of what life meant to a Negro in America was coming to consciousness in me, not in terms of external events, lynchings, Jim Crowism, and the endless brutalities, but in terms of crossed-up feeling, of psyche pain. I sensed that Negro life was a sprawling land of unconscious suffering . . .’3


It is precisely the charting of that ‘sprawling land of unconscious suffering’ of which Burroughs is the master. The prose techniques deliberately reinvoke the history of fictional expression and the styles of public language which create its character. The invocation of literary history in order to find present place and to find relevance and contemporary possibilities is in an American tradition which includes writers as different as Melville and T.S. Eliot. As Melville drew on and consciously cited Shakespeare, Smollett or Coleridge, or as Eliot mediated the achievements of Dante, Webster and Baudelaire, so Burroughs reaffirms that American search for a usable past in a contemporary redefinition of history. Flickering through the images and the patterns of Burroughs’s prose one may discern the terminal sense of western culture of a Spengler, the black Catholic melancholy of Graham Greene, the delicacy of ironic gesture of Jane Austen, the obscene logic of de Sade, and the steady gaze into the heart of darkness of Hawthorne, Melville and Conrad. The fictional location of that ‘sprawling land of unconscious suffering’ in Burroughs’s work is various, but persistent are scenes of the Edwardian seediness of North Africa, South America (the most ruthlessly exploited of American spheres of influence) and a personal backward glance at the East St Louis slums in juxtaposition with the upper-middle-class suburbia of Burroughs’s own childhood memories. These landscapes indicate a desire to move away from the realities of WASP culture, indeed they indicate a need to look at the foundations of that culture steeped as it is in wastage and cruelty. In addition Burroughs’s fiction incorporates modem techniques of character transformation (familiar in the American tradition from Melville’s Confidence Man, 1857), and owes a great deal to Dadaism, science fiction, the insights of twentieth-century archeology and anthropology, and to an intuitive sense of the economics and psychology of American business culture. It is an interaction between these themes and concerns that maps out the field of Burrough’s fiction.


‘Cobble Stone Gardens’ (1976) combines a number of familiar Burroughsian themes with a new elegance and urgency. It begins with a backward look at the St Louis of the 1920s and suggests an immediate contrast between the elegant upper-middle-class suburbia of Burroughs’s own childhood and the foul-smelling Missouri choked with ‘shit and coal gas.’ This image immediately intersects with a vision of ‘my sensitive inspirational old maid school teacher I borrowed from Tennessee Williams’ raising crocodiles to fight off the sanitation men in the name of freedom and ‘protecting your way of life.’ The breathlessly Hollywood-conditioned tones of ‘She suddenly gripped my arm. “We must keep all this” ‘ collapses by juxtaposition with ‘The old family creatures need this smell to breathe in.’ Having suggested the connections between heroic femininity and capitalist waste, Burroughs, in a typical shift of tone, both parodies and evokes nostalgia for the world of Edwardian romance by a banal undercutting of its means of expression: ‘She drew her hands together and looked up at the frayed stars.’ The passage stands opposite an almost soft-focus picture of Burroughs’s mother, a young, high cheek-boned beauty whose atmosphere of almost Southern-gentility is emphasized by the translucent broad collar of her evening dress over strong American shoulders. The picture draws nostalgia into Burroughs’s attempts to decondition himself from the coercions of his youth. Burroughs’s masked inclusion of himself in the fiction is again part of a familiar American tradition of quasi-autobiographical writing, and in this opening sequence Burroughs also presents us with another pervasive theme of American literature, youthful betrayal. In Burroughs’s fiction the young are oppressed by a series of contradictory commands, exemplified here in images of the rose garden and ashpit. These invocations may remind us of Hawthorne or of Eliot but perhaps here they most closely approximate those of Fitzgerald. The theme of youthful betrayal in the family is paralleled by a larger social betrayal of the young. The black surrealistic humour of the school teacher raising ‘alligators from tiny babies’ suggests the transformation of the young into predatory monsters in the name of education. Burroughs relates this type of authoritarian conditioning to a complex of issues which include Swiftian despair and anality, the nightmare, morbid world of Oedipal regression which, in its repetitive and seemingly inescapable banality, forms a weapon of coercive propaganda for ‘normal life.’ Norman O. Brown analysed the connections between capital, power drives and repression in a famous chapter of Life against death (1959) but, unlike Brown, Burroughs leaves us without the comforts of Keynsian prophecy.4 Above all it is the tone of the prose which energizes these issues, opens up their demonic energy beyond text-book propaganda, and mercilessly thrusts them with sardonic skill into the light of day. Burroughs has one of the acutest ears for speech and one of the sharpest eyes for the historical forms of prose of anyone writing English this century. In this opening passage the tone shifts among the querulous notes of the petit bourgeois, the polite commonplaces of an Agatha Christie tea party, ‘tough broad’ speech, whining Peanuts kiddy speech, sentiment and, above all, the monotone of the bureaucrat’s incapacity for self doubt.


Mingling fact with fiction in a tradition forged by the Hawthornian romance, Burroughs now expands these basic ideas to make an ironic assault on American and Western certainties. With a technique which shows obvious lessons learned from Nathanael West, life becomes for the characters of the story a sequence of fragments from old movies. The cop with his head full of Gary Cooper who shoots bandits robbing a bank finds himself straight-jacketed by ‘the Director’ for having destroyed ‘the upper crust of our town.’ Burroughs’s accompanying photographs show top brass army personnel juxtaposed with men in carnival masks, and young men in soldiers’ uniform juxtaposed against public school men in Eton collars. The images exemplify a state of mind recalled by the shell-shocked Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s narrator in The great Gatsby, who wanted ‘the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.’5 Like Eliot, Burroughs transfers a Wagnerian sense of a terminal culture to a domestic setting. The memories of long-married couples in fading drawing rooms do not, however, invoke Eliot’s nostalgia for heroic certainties, rather they investigate the basis of those certainties. There is still, however, an unmistakable sense of nostalgia in this memory of childhood. The tone is once more that of Fitzgerald: ‘Audrey remembered his mother from a picture taken when she was very young . . .


Set against nostalgia for Edwardian youth is the reality which supported that world. Burroughs outlines the colonial seizure of the Third World in images of sadistic sexuality, in the pornographic activities of men of power, and in the traditional acquisition of the invaded culture’s artifacts by conquerors incapable of creativity themselves: ‘The camera in Rome catches the fountain and Greek youths.’ The camera eye, reminiscent of Dos Passos, also catches the same kaleidoscope of hollow images on the wall-paper of the American consulate in Tangiers with their suggested connections between German yearning, Christian myth, the materialistic exploitation of that myth, and race propaganda: ‘nicht neues im Wester pornographic pictures of Christ drifting through Easter egg car wreck only angels have wings.’ In surrealistic passages worthy of Bunuel, Burroughs enters the aggressive domain of the obscene to cut through the barriers separating private psychology and public misrule, as if someone like Colonel Assingham of James’s Golden bowl had wandered onto the set of a Warhol movie: ‘ “You may leave the table”, said the father as his son jacked off into the boiled eggs. “Such behaviour in front of your mother it’s a shameful thing” .’ The images of water and of cleansing which follow connect scenes of army discipline and torture with the social rituals of capital punishment. Out of this complex of events Burroughs charts the psychology of religious propaganda, and specifically what Freud called ‘oceanic feeling.’6 Here it is linked to the earliest conquests of America as if to suggest the continuing pattern of this form of American consciousness: ‘Mad queens with long blond hair man a Viking ship . . . Every now and then one of them starts to shiver and twitch and ache with longing for the infinite . . ..’ These infinity longings are associated with the catatonically withdrawn junkie, and the pushers of such addictions are mercilessly castigated with a black malicious humour, here perhaps suggesting ‘Mr Natural,’ a cartoon figure who haunted the underground magazines of the 1960s: ‘A wize old thing with a long beard minces up: “It’s the Infinity Jumps, girls. Your mother knows what to do. I’m very technical” .’


The actual condition of youth - its induced longing for activities which mutilate, its real impotence and economic deprivation, its sexual confusions and vulnerability to the invading world of advertizing, its unreal choices and delusions of freedom are a real and continuous source of rage in Burroughs’s work. The penetration and manipulation of the human organism is portrayed in endless scenes of homosexual rape, counterpointed by the lethargic realisms of family life whose diverted erotic energies are tuned to the compensatory attractions of materialism.


The second section of the story has a narrative structure. Or rather it has several structures outlining Western society’s addiction to fetishes of every conceivable kind. The victims are those vulnerable to the American dream: the boy, for example, who reads a Spanish ‘western’ called ‘La Cuerda.’ Not only is this an ironic reference to his death—he ends up testing condemned parachutes—but as the term ‘cuerda’ means variously a chord, a match for firing a gun, and a clock spring, Burroughs suggests that the magic of persuasion makes connections between fantasies of the ‘west,’ linear orderings of time, and violence. Carl, the hero, who flickers in and out of the rest of the narrative, picks his way through apparently inviting pleasures with the caution of a soldier walking through a mine field. He fails to resist the blandishments of the ‘Maize God,’ a petrified image of fertility representing priestly control over natural function, and is thus imprinted with the mask of a middle-aged peasant woman. The price of becoming a devotee of the ritual is to be imprinted with whatever character it chooses to select. Following the pattern of drug addiction, the promise of paradise is speedily withdrawn, and Carl finds himself back in America ‘like a piece of worn out trade’ spending his allowance on ‘junk’ to recapture paradise lost.


Burroughs juxtaposes religious rituals with the daring of T.S. Eliot, whose own hanged god appears here not as part of an Anglo-Catholic nostalgia for a doomed metaphysic but rather as a spectacle which ensures obedience on the basis of vicarious sexual fulfilment. In the last few pages Burroughs cuts up and folds in the previous sequences with consummate virtuosity. The narrative emerges again briefly with Carl moving about the science-fiction world of endless booby traps as if the intervening cut-up sequence had somehow guaranteed protection from the Maize Gods. The protection is, however, only temporary, for the Tangier streets turn into a bland and totally controlled nightmare city. All hills are levelled out, the public is kept passive by heterosexual blue movies, boobytrapped KY jelly is planted to entice hopeful homosexuals. No deviance from permitted norms is permitted. Everyone is in uniform, the children wear pelvic braces and soccer scores are endlessly announced over the radio. This utopia of absolute obedience destroys intellectual and political life simultaneously: ‘The earth is flat here no matter what some Italian fruity says. Bestial children roast their marshmallows by the burning nigger.’


The last section is a kind of coda evoking the disappearance of even the sentiment of Burroughs’s bourgeois childhood. The very phrase ‘cobblestone gardens’ suggests at once some old world country inn and the petrified nature of priestly symbolism. The last images are of lost children and of a still enchanting but betrayed dream of American pastoralism. There is, in the final Fitzgeraldian echo of Long Island, a perhaps inevitable and very American wistfulness lying at the heart of the fundamentally anarchistic world of Burroughs’s imagination.


The third mind is a collection of interviews with Burroughs, statements about him, and examples of the cut-up technique from Burroughs and Brion Gysin who takes the credit for its invention. One might have wished for a rather broader selection of Burroughs’s materials, many of which are now difficult to obtain. But this book is a step in the right direction and a good collection on the cut-up theme. It will help to bury misconceptions about ‘automatic’ writing and will introduce the reader to some of the basic principles of Burroughs’s compositions. From the evidence pieced together here it should be clear that the cut-up technique is a means of destroying the secret unities of linear prose and the ‘either-or’ world of subject-object dualities which it unconsciously projects. The cut-up technique is a means of introducing chance and spontaneity into the creative process and a means of alerting the writer to the real meanings of images and preprogrammed events which fill the media channels. It is also a means of escaping the last vestiges of the Romantic ego and of destroying the presuppositions of conventional grammar: ‘lighten your own life sentence.’7 Above all it helps to recapture the sense of personal activity in the stupefying deluge of words and images flooding society, which Burroughs sees as largely controlled by powerful and mostly hidden manipulators of public opinion. Burroughs has always commented upon his own methods and on their relation to the society in which he lives with exemplary clarity. A careful study of the work collected here will take the reader a long way into Burroughs’s world.


Eric Mottram’s book, William Burroughs: the algebra of need, is the first serious full-length work on Burroughs. Mottram’s interest in Burroughs extends at least as far back as 1962 when he gave a series of lectures in the University of London on ‘Power relations in the work of Charles Brockden Brown, Melville and William Burroughs,’ to exemplify the continuance of the gothic fictional tradition in American literature and its methods of handling the psychological effects of oppressive social systems. The book itself is a deeply serious, committed and discriminating study of a major twentieth-century author. It has a directness of critical concern with the content of innovatory form which is relatively rare in contemporary criticism. It has an urgency of tone which recaptures for criticism the social stance it has largely lost under the impact of first New Criticism, and, recently, in the adaptations of the real advances of Structuralism in anthropology, linguistics and philosophy into academic fashion. The book is very well informed about twentiethcentury achievements in sociology, psychology, philosophy and literature and this wide-ranging learning is brought to bear on what Mottram considers to be the key issue of Burroughs’s work: the relation of political dependencies created by what he calls the ‘sexuality of power.’ What Mottram means by this phrase is the pattern of revenge and submission which arises out of the prohibition of basic drives in any authoritarian society. He shows how Burroughs’s key model of the induced dependencies of pusher and junkie serves as a metaphor for any dependency situation where power drives replace forbidden actual pleasures and so take on a destructive pleasure of their own. Mottram gives a number of examples of this theme and quotes at length from work difficult to obtain, so that his book serves another function of anthologizing scarce material.


Mottram is not uncritical of Burroughs’s work. He reminds us of the contradictions inherent in the anarchistic tradition in America and of the difficulty of a ‘sensual attack on sensuality, whose detail ambiguously relishes what is overtly rejects.’ Some of the weaknesses of the earlier work are pointed out: ‘Burroughs repeats his images of sexual waste and nausea at the risk of deadness within his fiction.’ Nor does Mottram fail to notice that ‘there is an anti-human side to Burroughs’s apocalyptic vision in which one feels his own consciousness of an absence of love and ability for common warmth, as if he felt himself infected with the world he maps, more than most of us.’ There is also an almost ‘puritanical obsession with the nightmare possibilities of sexuality.’ Again, and principally in the earlier work, ‘the use of methodological devices in composition seems to be too automatic in application.’ Mottram also points out that ‘Burroughs is an elitist: he is an early twentieth century man unconvinced that group action under political leaders, which he has seen fail repeatedly, has anything further to offer.’ In addition ‘Burroughs has never described love, and his vision of the human race is as malign and depressed as Mark Twain’s in the latter part of his career . . .’


Mottram is, however, aware that the road of the American artist, living out the contradictions of his culture, is hardly likely to make him a cheerful optimist. Indeed the malignity of Burroughs’s vision is both a response to and a consequence of his deep understanding of the culture, and part of a price paid for that understanding. Many of the works of Burroughs in the 1970s, especially since The wild boys (1972) and Exterminator! (1973), and now ‘Cobble Stone Gardens,’ show a new tautness and compression of style and a deepening of craft. One of the most interesting parts of Mottram’s book is in chapter 9 where, by way of prefacing the discussion of The wild boys, Mottram documents some of the Dionysian traditions in Burroughs’s particular synthesis. He considers the use of the bi-sexual figure in early twentieth-century artists and psychologists; specifically in Yeats, Schoenberg, Dowson, Freud, Weininger, Carpenter, Havelock Ellis and K.H. Ulrichs. The positive sides of these investigations are to do with the destruction of matriarchy and patriarchy, of endlessly recurring conflicts, a never-ceasing war of the old against the young. At best these investigations have a vision of the cessation from sexual conflict perhaps most positively glimpsed in Whitman’s comradely love. But Mottram shows how Burroughs’s concern with male dreams of taking over female biological functions and their inherent misogyny is part of an old American dream of self-reliance, ‘a manic myth of singleness which is the foundation of the ultimate totalitarian unity.’


Few writers have documented so brilliantly the deep psychology of the extent to which, in our time, every human need has been invaded for exploitation and control. The clarity with which Burroughs exposes the pornography of the authoritarian, the elegance and artistry of the style with which he does it, the twists of black humour and sardonic laughter—as in Twain sometimes barely keeping this side of hysteria—offer the hope, at least, of an end to delusion. As Mottram expertly demonstrates, Burroughs not only shifts the ground of debate for the novel away from the ‘domestic, national fiction of the so-called “great tradition” of the social documentary novel’ but also exposes the inadequacies of its assumptions of realism, its secret need for transcendental reassurance and its addiction to the natural tragedy of failed romance. In Mottram’s words, Burroughs places the imagination at the ‘disposal of true politics.’ For Burroughs’s work is an important antidote to what John Berger has called `publicity,’ that is, the production of eventless dream images which ‘recognizes nothing except the power to acquire,’8 and whose aim is the endless reproduction of itself in a world where real desire, real love and real pleasure are diminished. It is a society whose masters force the majority to ‘define their own interests as narrowly as possible.’9 Burroughs’s fictional world is a constant evocation of Conrad’s ‘The horror! the horror!,’ but it affords a chilling reminder that our incapacity to face it may exist in proportion to its power over us.


1 William Burroughs, ‘Cobble Stone Gardens’ in New writing and writers 16, London, John Calder, 1979. First published in the USA by Cherry Valley Editions, 1976. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The third mind, London, John Calder, 1979; Eric Mottram, William Burroughs: the algebra of need, London, Marion Boyars, 1977.

2 Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957), rpt. London, Pan Books, 1961, 150.

3 Richard Wright, American hunger, New York, Harper and Row, 1977, 7.

4 Norman O. Brown, ‘The excremental vision’ in Life against death (1959) rpt. New York, Knopf and Random House, 1959, 179-201. The Keynes quotation appears on 304.

5 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The great Gatsby, London, The Bodley Head, 1958, 20.

6 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its discontents, trans. Joan Riviere; rev. & ed. James Strachey, London, Hogarth Press, 1963, 1.

7 The third mind, 61.

8 John Berger, Ways of seeing, London, BBC and Penguin Books, 1972, 153.

9 Ibid, 154.