Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

William S. Burroughs and Giambattista Vico on Immortality, and Other Ragtag Observations on Death

First: A Gnostic: Simon Magus
In Jacques Lacarriere's little gem of a book, The Gnostics, he's discussing the diffusion of gnostic ideas "along the great routes of the Orient," on "the road to Samaria," and the wonderfully odd figure of Simon Magus, one of history's uber-heretics. His ideas contradicted the ideas of the Apostles quite radically. For what would turn out to be the orthodox view, the Apostles said a human's soul is immortal, no matter what he or she does; we are all condemned for eternity to burnish or tarnish that soul, know the depths of hell, or paradisical delights. Simon preached, or railed rather thus: We all have a fragment of God in us. We are special creatures because, for example, we can use language and reason. But these are potentialities, not eternal. We must use it or lose it. (In the 20th century, we found that if a child was not exposed to any language by age seven or so, their brain's innate language acquisitive feature soon dissipates. And who really "reasons" much even these days?) Simon says: we have the capacity for speech, grammar, and geometry...but it's up to use to seize the day and work that stuff, get really good at it. The point is: we have the capacity. Simon seemed to think we also had the capacity for immortality, but time's a wastin': let's get to it, figure it out...

We must cultivate an attitude towards our aptitudes. That spark of he Divine in us is not eternal. It can only become eternal if we feed that spark, make it into a fire. Otherwise, we revert to nothingness.

And here's how the eloquent Lacarriere unpacks Simon Magus's heretical view of immortality: "For the gnostic, the die is cast, here, before death. (No wonder Simon Magus was hated by the orthodox! - the OG) Which is why he feels this sense of anguish in the face of time and the brevity of the human span, a feeling that is so characteristic of the Gnostic sensibility, and one which is only remotely related to the melancholy Jeremiads of the poets who lament the passing of the days: every moment of our lives is counted, for each is a door opening on to immortality or the void." (p.49)

Another gnostic heretic, Valentinus, is quoted: "Make death die."

It is because of the Gnostics, the Sufis, the Taoists, much of Buddhism, some mystical Judaism, and some Hinduism and certain Christian mystics that I find a line of the so-called "new atheism" interesting, and that line says something like, "Religion is too important to be left to the believers, the faithful." See Alain de Botton's views in this article, which also mentions Nassim Taleb.

It would seem the Extropian/Transhumanist manifestoes echo certain things some gnostic sects were already groping towards, in the first two centuries of the Common Era.

A Quick Thought and/or Inchoate Koan
Let's say the worldwide army of scientists working on the Death Problem solve it. A few huge key findings fall into place, the rest is like knocking over dominoes, and WHAM!: we've got immortality. Is this something like Sisyphus pushing his stone all the way to the top of the mountain, and over the edge, finally, wiping his hands and going home?

Burroughs and Vico
After Norman Mailer published his book Ancient Evenings, Burroughs, from roughly 1972 till death, showed a Mailer influence with an Egyptian-based death as mythic antagonist, which comes out in unique Burroughsian full-force with his use of the "seven souls" one has and must deal with correctly in the afterlife, largely derived ultimately from The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Here, have a listen to Ol' Bill reading from his novel The Western Lands, accompanied by the fantastic electronic-world music of Bill Laswell's band Material:

Here's the lyrics as WSB reads them; he added a few bits here and there as improv, like "Sort of thing you might see on a screen in an Indian restaurant in Panama." I confess the first time I heard this piece I went into an altered state, and when WSB says the first three souls are immortal and go back to heaven for another vessel, but the last four souls must "take their chances with the subject in the land of the dead," I was floored. O! The primal poetry of it all!

My blogging colleague Oz Fritz is all over this soul-after-death bardo trip, and I eagerly refer to his recent post HERE.

Throughout Burroughs's dazzling oeuvre, there's an obvious obsession with memory and vital, sexual young men (some of this for obvious reasons); but he also liked to remember himself as young and vital when he was an old man. He thought and wrote about death in ways that few of the candidates for Great American Novelist did. And apparently, from at least around the time of the appearance of the book that would make him famous, Naked Lunch, in 1959, he'd dreamed about afterlives. Personally, I do not think much about an afterlife, possibly because of my overweening materialism and non-religiosity. But I'm fascinated by what cultural anthropologists have told us about the various beliefs about death. Someone once said, "We are all greater artists than we realize." When it comes to religious ideas about life and death I see them as sort of collective artworks, and who knows? Maybe I'm just lacking imagination, and some of these ideas are "right"? How hilarious! How ironic! How...marvelous to contemplate.

Back to Burroughs.

In his book from 1995, (he died in 1997), My Education: A Book of Dreams, WSB recalls a dream he'd had right after Naked Lunch was published:

Airport. Like a high school play, attempting to convey a spectral atmosphere. One desk onstage, a gray woman behind the desk with the cold waxen face of the intergalactic bureaucrat. She is dressed in a gray-blue uniform. Airport sounds from a distance, blurred, incomprehensible, then suddenly loud and clear. "Flight sixty-nine has been----" Static... Fades into the distance... "Flight..."

Standing to one side of the desk are three men, grinning with joy at their prospective destinations. When I present myself at the desk, the woman says: "You haven't had your education yet." 

The semantics of "education" seem vital here: by 1959 WSB had long dropped out of Harvard, where he studied medicine and anthropology, and had travelled and written a couple of novels and many later-to-be-published letters of literary delight to weirdos like myself. Aside from formal education, he had earlier astonished young Ginsberg and Kerouac with his erudition, and shaped their thinking - and other notable "Beat" types - mostly via his learning of Arcane Things and WSB's spectral presentation of himself. It's easy (and valid, methinks) to surmise the dream's semantics of education had to do with imagination/narrative/tapping into post-terrestrial circuits of brain/magick/experimentation.

It was much later that WSB began to concentrate on the cosmi-comic high drama of Death as the Adversary, like a character in multifaceted forms. And he drew from many sources regarding this, not just the Egyptians. Emotionally, a very strong actuating force for his thoughts about death had to do with his beloved cats. I recall reading once - I forget where - that Burroughs thought nuclear annihilation would be particularly horrible because then his cats would die.

(At this point in my rambling little blogspew I'm quite tempted to link to articles on cats and taxoplasmosis and its potential to make humans quite a bit odder than they would've been, if only for the irony of someone I thought was maybe Unistat's greatest writer during the second half of the 20th century, and who used the metaphor of language-as-virus extensively, but I will just link this and you go ahead and make of it what you will. Hmmm...Ezra Pound loved cats too, feeding them all over Rapallo...)

Yes, but what about Vico? He had something to say about immortality and the afterlife too? Of course he did.

Vico thought a looming large and distinctive feature of human law, as opposed to natural law, was that we humans bury our dead. And with ceremony. (We have good reason to believe Neanderthals did too, but there was no way Vico could've been on to that.)


Let us imagine a brutish state in which human corpses are left unburied as carrion for crows and dogs. Such bestial behavior clearly belongs to the world of uncultivated fields and uninhabited cities, in which people wandered like swine, eating acorns amid the rotting corpses of their dead kin. This is why burials were rightly defined in a lofty Latin phrase as "the covenants of the human race," foedera humani generis, and were characterized less grandly by Tacitus as "exchanges of humanity," humanitatis commercia."

Then Vico enumerates many books he's had the privilege to get hold of, about peoples from far-flung areas of the world. What all these books prove is that "all pagan nations clearly agree in the view that the souls of the unburied remain restless on the earth and wander around their corpses: which is to say, souls do not die with their bodies but are immortal." Vico doesn't have much at all to say about what happens to anyone's soul after death. But I do like his proto-ghost/zombie vision idea. I like it in the same way Burroughs talks about the at-times treacherous roads to the Western Lands. I don't "believe" it, but it makes for tremendous poetry.

The end of the section of The New Science in which Vico here discusses burial as a human law, culminates with this quote from Seneca:

"When we discuss immortality, we must grant considerable importance to the consensus of humankind, who either fear or worship the spirits of the underworld. I follow this general belief." (section #337)

Nietzsche On This Topic...
...Seems to lead us by some sort of circumambient commodius vicus of recirculation to Nietzsche's The Antichrist, and back to a quasi-Simon Magus-like gnostic view. In section #58, Fred N. rails against the quasi-Neoplatonic "life is better up there" crowd, where the real immortality lies. For these weak, unimaginative folk, the Good Life is to be found after death. And before orthodox Christianity became the master of Rome, Epicurus had already battled against these types. I will leave it to the better minds who know the gnostics (such as Simon Magus) and Nietzsche to say just where and how they diverge with regard to immortality, but clearly, in The Antichrist, Fred N. doesn't dig the Christian version either:

"One should read Lucretius to comprehend what Epicurus fought: not paganism but "Christianity," by which I mean the corruption of souls by the concepts of guilt, punishment, and immortality. He fought the subterranean cults which were exactly like a latent form of Christianity: to deny immortality was then nothing less than a real salvation."

Final Thoughts: Professor George Carlin
"When I die I don't want to be buried, but I don't want to be cremated either. I want to be blown up. Put me on a pile of explosives and blow me up. Or throw my body from a helicopter. That would be fun. One stipulation: wherever I land, you have to leave me there. Even if it's the mayor's lawn. Just let me lie there. But keep the dogs away." - N&S:9

"If I had my choice of how to die I would like to be sitting on the crosstown bus and suddenly burst into flames." - N&S:10

"Isn't it time we stopped wasting valuable land on cemeteries? Talk about an idea whose time has passed: 'Let's put all the dead people in boxes and keep them in one part of town.' What kind of medieval bullshit is that? I say, plow these motherfuckers up and throw them away. Or melt them down. We need the phosphorus for farming. If we're going to recycle, let's get serious." - N&S:79


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Now, I haven't read this post yet (I hope to this evening), but I just got this flash of how much Bob Wilson would have enjoyed your blog.

A fnord free zone.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

These days I really enjoy listening to Beethoven. I have made a conscious effort to listen without multitasking, just listening. Your comments about using or losing mental potential made me think the capacity to listen to fully may also have that attribute.

(My ghod, my posts reek of ego.)

I found meeting William Burroughs very intimidating. ASU bought his papers, and he attended an event at the ASU Library Special Collections room on October 23, 1983. I talked with him a bit about Bob Wilson and Phil Farmer, but I didn't have real success in striking up a conversation with him.

Another terrific post, Dr. Johnson. I guess I would consider Bob Wilson and the Pynch as my favorite authors of the second half of the 20th century.

michael said...

I think if I had been in the same room with Burroughs I wouldn't be able to approach him for a conversation. At least you did that.

When I look at the totality of not only Unistatian, but Western-Euro novels in the period 1951-2000, I personally like a few authors more than WSB (like RAW, Tom Robbins, PKD , Pynchon, and maybe even Calvino and Wm Gibson), but WSB's artistic statements, on the whole, leave me totally awestruck.

The legitimate "problem" of WSB's sexuality and stance towards women is something I follow, but it doesn't change my admiration. A rich kid from middle America, about as Outsider as anyone could get... And there's a certain black humor that's so stunningly effective - to me - I think it's a personal thing. Wonderful performer, too. I'm glad he had a guy like Grauerholz to take care of him.

Much of a kindness, Prof Eric!

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I haven't read a book by Burroughs for decades, but I do have a poster of him in my classroom, a gift from a student. I may have neglected his writing since I don't use his texts in any classes - too explosive for most American schools (except Maybe Logic Academy and a few others).

When I met Ginsberg in 1985 at the Ezra Pound Centennial in Maine, I asked him whom he considered the most intelligent person he had met. (I had a lot of Leary-esque notions in my head at the time.) Ginsberg found the question corny, but he answered Burroughs, and then he added Bob Creeley.