Overweening Generalist

Monday, February 4, 2013

William S. Burroughs at 99: Viruses, Memes, Cats, Art, ETC

On Feb 5, WSB would've been 99. What follows is a hodgepodge of Burroughsianiac musings.

For virtually all of his life, WSB was at odds with the trans-societal forces he eventually labeled Control. (On the Wiki page for WSB it says he was turned down by the OSS, and IIRC that was in Morgan's bio, but I digress already.) I've always found it interesting that Edward Bernays, the nephew of Freud who used Freud's ideas to manipulate the masses in the new "science" of Public Relations, had as an early competitor Ivy Lee, who was WSB's uncle via marriage. Lee was the epitome of Control, and just before he died of a brain tumor at age 57 in 1934, Congress had begun investigating Lee's ties to the Nazis and IG Farben.

In Ezra Pound's Canto 74, he mentions the stark fact that the Allies bombed the hell out of Germany, but somehow they missed the Farben plant.

WSB, the grandson of the founder of the Burroughs adding machine corporation, was sent to the Los Alamos Ranch School, a boarding school and college prep for rich kids that was influenced by the Boy Scout code, around 1930. He hated it. Later the US government bought the school and all the surrounding land, for the secretive Manhattan Project. Gore Vidal had also gone to Los Alamos Ranch, and in his autobiography Palimpsest he compared WSB to Pound (p.228) WSB was influenced by Pound (and Joyce). The NY artist/critic Richard Kostelanetz asserted that Pound's The Cantos was the last great poetry collage, while WSB's Naked Lunch was the last great prose collage. (Kostelanetz: ABC of Contemporary Reading, p.53)

Pound and WSB were very much in love with cats. See these photos of writers and their cats. If you know much about these writers - they were all (perhaps?) "weirder" than the average weird great writer. I wonder if it had anything to do with toxoplasmosis, or tiny organisms that get into the brain, which originate in cats?  (They are actually protozoa, these cat-carrying microbes...)

Pound was found "insane" by the US for his very poor use of First Amendment ideas on behalf of Mussolini and "the US Constitution" and other things.

If this had anything to do with explaining the avant aspects of WSB and his art, it seems almost too ironic, as he, under the influence of a course of study with Korzybski, developed the idea that language was a virus that had commandeered humanity's minds; we are language's "host."

[The great Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky on toxoplasmosis. Some of you hardcore Pound and Burroughs exegetes might want to invest 25 minutes of your time to listen to this guy, keeping in mind those writers' love for cats. Has anyone else pointed this out? I wonder if toxo can make someone sort of "half-schizo," where they are really weird, but creative, and not bothered by auditory hallucinations and the complete consort of the full-blown paranoid schizophrenic? Pound went around Rapallo feeding the feral cats despite not having any money; WSB was horrified at the prospect of nuclear annihilation because it would mean his cats would die. If there's something to it, then maybe we can venture that a protozoa has had a huge influence on Literary Modernism. OR: the OG is a cat lover: maybe I'm toxo-infected and what it does is give you grandiose ideas about unforeseen connections?]

This reminds me of an essay called "The Aliens Are Among Us," by Nathan Wolfe, who founded the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative. He's talking about viruses: "Viruses operate along a continuum with their hosts and other organisms they interact with: some harm their hosts, some benefit their hosts, and some - perhaps most - live in relative neutrality with them, neither substantively harming nor benefiting the organisms they must at least temporarily inhabit for their own survival." (p.191 of What's Next: Dispatches From the Future of Science)

The Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris said that Burroughs himself was like a cultural virus: "Burroughs dedicated himself to immortality by becoming what Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene (1976), called a 'meme.' : 'a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation which propagates analogously to the genetic code and the parasitism of viruses, and is more than metaphorically 'alive.' If memes survive by parasitizing human minds, so, reciprocally, can the mind survive parasitic self-replication. The viral programme 'simply says' "Copy me and spread me around." This is Burroughs: 'all poets worthy of the name are mind parasites, and their words ought to get into your head and live there, repeating and repeating and repeating.'" (from Harris's essay, "Can You See A Virus?: The Queer Cold War of William Burroughs")

Speaking of viruses from space, language as virus, cats infecting human brains, and memes: Scientology has been in the news a lot lately. And Burroughs had his fling with it. See here. This is another aspect of WSB that fascinates me.

Still one of the best biographies of WSB is, in my opinion, Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw. Last year Morgan wrote an article about why WSB hated Morgan's book. In Morgan's book he pointed out that, in Naked Lunch WSB seemed to foresee AIDS, liposuction, autoerotic asphyxiation becoming common, the crack epidemic. I'd add that WSB seemed, very early on, around 1961,  to suspect the CIA would be behind LSD flooding the streets of Unistat, and they would be doing it in an effort to staunch a youth rebellion.

I think WSB also foretold Kenneth Starr sexual fascism, but maybe that's for another day.

Oh yea: there's a wild little book called The Great Naropa Poetry Wars, by Tom Clark. In it he asserts that the antics of Chogyam Trungpa are like WSB's character "Dr. Benway."

Not long ago I went looking for the origin of a line WSB repeated: "And beside, the wench is dead." It looks like he got it from Christopher Marlowe via TS Eliot. (See Lives of the Poets, Schmidt, p.606)

Robert Anton Wilson: two passages around WSB:

"My friend, novelist William S. Burroughs, liked to say that 'anything which can be accomplished by chemical means can also be accomplished by non-chemical means.' I have personally found this to be true. There is no area of new perception and expanded awareness discoverable by peyote (or LSD or similar drugs) that cannot also be reached by techniques well-known to Oriental yogis and Western occultists. The sensory withdrawal techniques pioneered by Dr. Lilly and the new biofeedback machines also duplicate most of this expanded awareness." -pp.32-33, Sex, Drugs and Magick

From a 1992 interview:
Q: And what are some of your memories of that whole scene at Millbrook at that time?

RAW: Well, I'm sorry to sound like an advocate, but my impression was that Leary was one of the most brilliant people that I've ever met. Very much like my impression when I first met Buckminster Fuller and William Burroughs. The three people who gave me the sensation that I am in the presence of higher intelligence.

Q: And would you elaborate a little bit on why you put William Burroughs in that company? What do you see in Burroughs's writing, or his particular brand of intelligence that put him in that company?

RAW: Well, it's the choice of words. I first read Seventeen Episodes From Naked Lunch in a magazine called Big Table, and I felt no writer since James Joyce was able to put words together so efficiently and effectively to create the exact images and emotional overtones that he wanted. And I began to notice that not only was he a great prose poet, but he had a lot of interesting ideas, too.

Q: Had you also had the familiarity with Alfred Korzybski at that point?

RAW: Yes. That's one thing that Burroughs, Leary, Bucky Fuller and I all have in common - we all have familiarity with Alfred Korzybski and General Semantics.
(-from transcript of radio interview for Off The Beaten Path, see near the end. The person that transcribed the interview was quite unfamiliar with names mentioned, so I corrected the gross misspelling of Korzybski's name in the original.)

- In an effort to induce altered states without using drugs, Burroughs, in collaboration with Brion Gysin (the main brain behind the Thing) and Ian Sommerville, they came up with The Dream Machine, which uses flickering light patterns to interact with the eye/brain rhythms. You sit in front of it with your eyes closed and it does things to your brain. See the 2008 documentary by Nik Sheehan. Anyway, here's a brief:

WSB on art and making people aware of what they didn't know that they knew:


lavaface said...

Thanks for the good post! I always like to read about Burroughs. The toxoplasmosis/word control virus is interesting (and something that I've pondered before,) but as far as I know, Burroughs' love of cats came later in life, when he settled down in Lawrence, KS. This information comes from Word Virus, an excellent anthology of his work with illuminating biographical notes from his last lover.

I find an affinity between Burroughs' word virus and Philip K. Dick's musings on the paraclete, an aspect of the Holy Spirit that masquerades as information and can "infect" unsuspecting readers, turning them into a form of being he termed homoplasmates. Indeed, looking back at his own work in the Exegesis , he found evidence of this hidden information in his own work (particularly Ubik and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.) Where Burroughs saw the word as malevolent, and used his work to unshackle minds from Control, Dick considered this hidden information as benevolent, perhaps even necessary to salvation. I think they are both right in their own ways. If you haven't read the Exegesis, I can't recommend it enough. Seems like it would be some good fuel for future posts....

michael said...

Always good to hear from you, Lavaface. I'd wanted to check the WSB cat story in my copy of Word Virus, but it's in storage. Thanks for that. The PKD idea seems even more interesting to speculate about. The virus/paraclete idea: have you written on it?

I've only spent about 90 minutes paging through the Exegesis; it seems to require a true commitment.

I had loads of other items regarding viruses, memes, subconscious processes, metaphor, and other gnostic ideas, but I think I let that WSB birthday post get out of hand as it was.

I do appreciate your readership and hyper-thoughtful and erudite comments. Also: any speculative ideas in the OG should be stolen and combined with the author's own ingenium.

Re-reading your comment, what makes me really want to get hold of Exegesis again is "he found evidence of this hidden information in his own work."

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Really interesting blog post. Do you want to make a suggestion on what book a Burroughs newbie should read?

michael said...

For someone who's already read some "experimental" modernist writing and feels comfortable: Naked Lunch.

To ease in before NL, check out Junky/Queer/and WSB's hilarious letters to Ginsberg, The Yage Letters. Also: And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks finally came out; WSB co-wrote it with Beat colleagues. They didn't like it. I thought it was hilarious.

Also: Word Virus is a good overview of the entirety of WSB. I love The Burroughs File and thought The Adding Machine was very much like - oddly - Right Where You Are Sitting Now by RAW.

Do NOT start with the Nova Trilogy unless you're really weird.

The last novels of his career are, to me, just stunning works: incredibly high in phanopoeia; i.e, very cinematic. But I assert the reader won't get as much out them if they hadn't read the earlier stuff.

michael said...

ADDENDA: I don't know how I could've forgotten about The Job as a good first WSB book for those new to him.

Odd, short books to get a feel: Ali's Smile, Naked Scientology, and the unfilmed (AFAIK) screenplay Blade Runner (which bears no resemblance to PKD's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, or Ridley Scott's adaptation).

lavaface said...

Tom, The Job is an excellent introduction to some of Burroughs ideas.It's short and provocative and doesn't get into the utter weirdness that makes some of his writing so hard to get in to. I think Word Virus is the best intro to the man and his work. There are nice introductions to different periods of his writing, along with selections from his work to give you a taste of what he had to say and how he said it. From there, you can choose where to dive in further...

Michael, I have not written about the virus/paraclete but I should. I haven't read all of the Exegesis myself, but what I have read is very interesting. I need to pick it back up. I would suggest you read Ubik before you page through the Exegisis, or perhaps tackle them concurrently. It seems to set the tone nicely. I will let you know if I post anything further on the subject!