Published by Indiana University Press, this book is a platform for the latest expert scholarship on William S. Burroughs, William S. Burroughs: Cutting Up the Century collects essays and interviews by a number of Burroughs experts on various aspects of his contributions to the arts. The book includes unseen texts by Burroughs from the Berg Collection, New York Public Library.
There are transcripts and facsimiles of previously unpublished texts by Burroughs. They are as follows: various short letters, “Metamorphosis” (William Burroughs Junior poem, 1963), “Adios Saturn” (cut-up poem, 1963), “Cut-Ups of Critics” (cut-ups, 1960-4; including the memorable line “he is se [sic] serving dead clinets [sic] by the hour”), “The Permissive Society” (essay, 1971), collage of news cuttings (1960s), “On China” (essay, 1969), “P.S. to ACADEMY 23” (text collage, 1967), “On Addiction” (text, 1957-9/1970), “Opium” (text collage, 1970), “la chute de l’art une poeme moderne” (text, collage and photographs, 1970), “Thinking in Colors” (cut-ups, c. 1961), “On the Cut-Up” (cut-ups, 1960-1), “Watergate” (text collage, 1973), “Cutting Up Scientology” (cut-ups, 1963-5), “Dream Note on Indictment for Murdering Joan” (note, 1970) and “Cut-Ups of Last Words” (cut-ups, 1960-1). The most substantial piece is the 1972 Wild Boys Screenplay (actually a treatment or proposal rather than a script) for a pornographic film. Stimulated by the experience of seeing explicit homosexual pornography in cinemas in New York City in 1972, Burroughs decided to get into the erotic-movie business. The treatment opens with “We intend to make a beautiful film that will make some beautiful money.” Burroughs himself concluded with regret that “I finally decided the whole idea was impractical both from a financial standpoint and from the stand point of making a good film within our budget.”
The extensive illustrations present Burroughs’s complex collage/montages and cut-up creations in a form that makes them comprehensible. The opening up of the Burroughs archive acquired by the New York Public Library in 2009 has allowed scholars access to a treasure trove of material both published and published, alongside rare publications and various biographical materials. Burroughs is a particularly complex and multi-layered creator, whose huge output contains many contradictions, dead-ends and unexplored detours. There is no lack of Burroughsian material which seems to presage current cengagement regarding ecological thought, queer aesthetics, anti-corporate activism, globalisation, multi-culturalism and post-modern deconstructionism.
Oliver Harris explores Burroughs’s battle with publisher Henry Luce over a libellous article about the writer, published in LIFE (30 November 1959). Luce was publisher of TIME, LIFE and Fortune magazines. Burroughs brought a civil suit against the magazine. He won the case but the damages were paltry. Burroughs worked off his aggression in a series of cut-ups that were part venting and part an attempt to curse LIFE. (Burroughs had an abiding fascination with magic and superstition and later cursed a milk bar where he had a particularly bad meal. He attributed its later closure to his acts of psychic sabotage.) Harris excavates the Luce-owned material that was incorporated into Burroughs’s cut-ups and into his transcribed texts.
Kathelin Gray covers Burroughs’s ecological awareness, concern about species extinction and eco-activism in his later American years. The illustrations of paintings link Burroughs apocalyptic cosmology with his concern about environmental exploitation and degradation. He took an interest in the Biosphere 2 project in the early 1990s. Katharine Streips writes about Burroughs in relation to “transcendent porn”, especially relating to The Ticket That Exploded (1962).
Burroughs writing of Tangiers interzone as a paradigm of globalisation is the topic of Timothy S. Murphy. Genre in the Naked Lunch novel and film is the subject of Joshua Vasquez’s essay. Kristen Galvin documents the 1978 Nova Convention in Downtown Manhattan. A table lists events and speakers over the weekend 1-3 December 1978. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Cage, Gysin, Calder, Girodias, Seaver and others spoke or read at the event and a stellar cast of musicians and artists contributed performances. She briefly summarises the 1996 Kansas Nova Convention Revisited. The commendable essay (by Eric Sandweiss) on Burroughs in St Louis is particularly well researched and informative. The writer had deep roots in the city but was ambivalent about the class and racial situation of his youth. In 1964-5 he made a rare return to write an article about the city.
Biographer Barry Miles is interviewed by Oliver Harris. They discuss Miles’s approach to his two biographies of Burroughs and the problems that subject posed. Harris is interviewed by Davis Schneiderman about the satisfaction and quandaries of editing Burroughs. A transcript of a panel discussion by Ann Douglas, Anne Waldman and Regina Weinreich covers the contentious matter of Burroughs’s treatment of women. They remember their personal interactions with him and characterise him as courtly and accommodating towards women, notwithstanding his negative comments in his writing – and the near uniform exclusion of women in his fictional worlds. Anne Waldman writes of Burroughs the visionary.
Alex Wermer-Colan uses Burroughs’s early novels as a starting point to present Burroughs as an anti-imperialist and satirist. Aaron Nyerges puts the case for Burroughs as a regionalist, a Mexican Beat regionalist specifically. He relates Burroughs’ killing of his wife Joan to the resistance of feminist Beat scholars towards Burroughs. (Kathelin Gray recounts that Burroughs raised the subject of the killing of his wife and was overcome by deep grief. It is an incident – however fleeting – of Burroughs feelings towards women, which is a live-wire issue for feminists due especially to the misogynist sentiments of many of his texts in the 1960s.) Blake Stricklin writes on the word as written image. Landon Palmer’s discusses Burroughs’s voice and the Burroughsian voice. In an unusually clear and informed essay Véronique Lane explores Burroughs responses to Rimbaud and Genet. Chad Weidner – an expert on the links between Burroughs and ecological thought – returns to his eco-literary analysis by examining early cut-ups.
Kurt Hemmer’s essay on Burroughs’s search for outlaw role models is a satisfying read. The source of Jack Black’s You Can’t Win is a cornerstone of the Burroughs’s thoughts on the subject and it shaped his responses to other models, such as Captain Mission’s utopian pirate colony. The use of outlaw argot, private codes of honour and a system of signs form a community ethos for Burroughs, which he sees as a method resisting the social mores of the day and the arbitrary authority of cops, courts and corporations. Combined with the stories of Western cowboys, robbers and pioneers, Burroughs invented an imagined community and canon – effectively a lineage of resistance. This is encountered in The Wild Boys (1971), Port of Saints (1973) and The Western Lands trilogy (1981-7).
Allen Hibbard examines some of Burroughs’s collaborations – with Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gysin and Kurt Cobain. He omits the work with filmmaker Anthony Balch and technical wizard Ian Sommerville. The latter was perhaps his closest and most fruitful direct collaboration. However, the non-textual character of the Burroughs-Sommerville creations (photographs, tape recordings and the Dream Machine) makes the partnership complicated to discuss verbally. The loss of the Burroughs letters to Sommerville (destroyed by his family after his death) has further obscured his importance in Burroughs studies. If there is one line of Burroughsian scholarship which has not been exhausted – which has hardly been adequately outlined – it is the life, work and relationship of Sommerville vis-à-vis Burroughs.
The tone, depth of reading, insight and importance of the texts is necessarily heterogeneous, as it must be in such collections. The content of the texts is of variable quality and utility but is never less than engaging and thoughtful. By and large, the academic abstruseness is at a minimum. All texts provide source texts though not detailed footnotes. The original Burroughs texts range from the beautiful (“Thinking in Colors”) to the expected. It is good to have them – especially the facsimiles – but they are undeniably minor pieces. Overall, this is book for those already knowledgable about Burroughs and keen to follow recent developments in the crowded and industrious field of Burroughs Studies.
Joan Hawkins, Alex Wermer-Colan (eds.), William S. Burroughs: Cutting Up the Century, Indiana University Press, 2019, paperback, 434pp, fully col. and mono illus., $35 (hardback $85), ISBN 978 0 253 041333
© 2019 Alexander Adams
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