William Burroughs, “Blade Runner: A Movie”

Source of disappointment and confusion for two generations of fans of Ridley Scott’s eponymous sci-fi movie, William Burroughs’s unrelated book Blade Runner: A Movie is republished by Tangerine Press. The short text – which is comprised of a series of prose scenes or routines – was originally published in 1979. It appears here in a new edition, with a frontispiece photograph of the author and an introduction written by Burroughs expert Professor Oliver Harris.

In the introduction, Harris explains the indirect, accretion-evolution of Blade Runner. Burroughs read Alan E. Nourse’s novel The Bladerunner (1974) soon after its publication and by 1976 (newly arrived in New York, roughly three decades since his departure) had embarked on writing his version. It was nominally a movie treatment, nothing close to a conventional script. Burroughs had been stimulated by the lifting of many restrictions on pornographic cinema in the early 1970s, which he had seen on visits to New York prior to his move there in 1974. Completed in 1977, Burroughs realistically accepted that his text was not suitable for even the most outré of independent cinéastes of the era. Burroughs then repurposed the treatment as a novella-length book.  

It was Nourse’s novel about medical smuggling in a sci-fi future that provided the name for Burroughs. It was from Burroughs that Hampton Fancher took the title for his film script adaptation of Philip K. Dicks’s novel Do Androids Dreams of Electric Sheep?, that would become Scott’s 1982 film. As it happened, neither Burroughs or Nourse’s books influenced the content of that script, beyond the title.

So, what of Blade Runner itself? It bears little resemblance to Nourse’s novel. Burroughs gives us the rollicking foul-mouthed satire of the excesses of the politico-medical complex in the near future. Burroughs’s text is both Modernist and Post-Modernist. It is Modernist in that it is deliberately dense, self-aware, assertively artificial, alienating and politically provocative; it is Post-Modernist in that is ironical, destabilising, self-negating.

It opens with an unnamed narrator pitching the Blade Runner film to a studio executive. “Now B.J. you are asking me to tell you in one sentence what this film is about? I’m telling you it is too big for one sentence – even a life sentence. For starters it’s about the National Health Insurance we don’t got.” The film will be a satire of the crippling medical insurance/services racket in the USA and the social collapse resulting from a system of exploitation growing to epic levels. The critique could appeal to both the big-state socialist and low-tax conservative through its depiction of a dysfunctional system that fails to provide adequately to the average-income man while taxing him exorbitantly. “This film is about overpopulation and the growth of vast service bureaucracies. The FDA and AMA and the big drug companies are like an octopus on the citizen.”

In reaction to the insane costs and bureaucratic resistance, the population of Manhattan has turned to underground medicine – the smuggling of medical supplies – a rare direct link to Nourse’s novel in Burroughs’ narrative. Societal collapse gives rise to a nightmare New York. The subway is reduced to a sluggish partial service. “Hand-propelled and steam-driven cars transport produce, the stations have been converted into markets. The lower tunnels are flooded, giving rise to an underground Venice. The upper reaches of derelict skyscrapers, without elevator service since the riots […] Buildings are joined by suspension bridges, a maze of platforms, catwalks, slides, lifts.”

Protagonist Billy will save humanity from a deadly virus. His story is told in a series of impressionistic scenarios described in Burroughsian poetic-satirical eroticism, generating a flickering delirium of a montage of scratched silent footage or jumbled phantograms.

In many ways, Blade Runner is a recapitulation of Burroughs’ greatest hits. The comic routines here are from Burroughs’s pre-existing roster of scientifically-shrewd dystopian medical science and anarchic exploits in doctoring – half prophecy, half silent comedy. There are glimpses of a failing metropolis that resembles strike-ridden impoverished London and riot-scarred New York on the verge of bankruptcy. Both were cities with which Burroughs had deep familiarity. Touches of archaic technology being used to replace broken modern systems will remind some readers of steampunk. Escape from New York (1981), Robocop (1987) and the Deathwish vigilante films are also handy comparators for this failed and feral metropolis.   

Burroughs presents us the racial conflicts of tribalisation in Balkanised city, the dream of post-racialism impossibly distant. Considering the race riots in the USA of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Burroughs was as much re-presenting a pre-existing reality to his readers, as he was using his powers of imagination. It is difficult to tell if the legalisation of heroin is satire, considering the methadone programs of various local and national public health systems. In another scene, a taxpayer complains of being forced to fund “Queer sex orgies and injections of marijuana”.

The people work to combat the forces of the medico-military complex, using their ingenuity and improvised weapons. Life-lengthening drugs have caused dysgenic deterioration of the population in a manner predicted by social Darwinists. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics has rendered the population of Western cities as vulnerable as “the Indians and South Sea Islanders on first contact with the whites.” An ancient virus is released by a scientist to combat an accelerated form of cancer. All the while, the population is deprived of basic medication and access to Wilhelm Reich’s orgone treatment. (Burroughs was a supporter of fringe medical figure Reich, who was hounded for his quasi-spiritual theories and whose writings were destroyed by the American government. This also comes up in the original manuscript of his first published novel, Junkie (1953).)

Blade Runner includes scenes of homosexual sex and gun action, as well as social commentary and comedy, making it typical of Burroughs’s writing. With Burroughs, we cannot be sure he is not relishing depravities even as he mocks them. Burroughs is the most complex of all writers because of the interleaving levels of ethical and artistic contradiction present in his life and writing. Burroughs can be legitimately interpreted as Stoic, Buddhist, moral patriarch, Modernist, Post-Modernist, decadent, individualist, communitarian, post-humanist, conservationist, reactionary and libertarian.

Burroughs advocates for affordable healthcare as he delights in describing scenes of mayhem, wherein elaborate boobytraps are deployed against soldiers. Not that these points are necessarily in contradiction – and Burroughs should not be read as anything less than primarily a writer of the freewheeling imagination and comic paradox – but it makes constructing a settled, coherent, moral narrative from Burroughs’s fiction nearly impossible. One might draw absolutely multiple opposing interpretations from a Burroughs text and all be valid.   

Overall, Blade Runner is a short, accessible romp, lacking involved plot and differentiated characters. For fans of Naked Lunch (1959) and Interzone (1989), this book is an ideal addition, with its own tone and content. Although Burroughs is in the habit of recycling material, collaging and overlayering it in hectic fashion, the distinct setting and common threads make Blade Runner more memorable than some of the other Burroughs books of the 1970s. Recommended for enthusiasts and those wishing to sample classic Burroughs for the first time.

William S. Burroughs, Oliver Harris (intro.), Blade Runner: A Movie, Tangerine Press, (second printing) 2022, paperback, 96pp, 1 mono illus., £9, ISBN 978 1 910 69 1908

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art


Polina Mackay: Beat Feminisms

The ever-expanding field of Beat studies extends our knowledge and understanding of writers within the Beat Generation movement. I have previously reviewed the Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature here. Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, a new book from Beat scholar Dr Polina Mackay (University of Nicosia) in the Routledge Transnational Perspectives on American Literature series, examines the role played by women within the Beat Movement. Mackay adopts a division of women which splits up them into waves. Firstly, are the women  (born in the 1910s and 1920s) close to the original generation of Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; secondly, those born in the 1930s who joined (or were associated with the Beats as they reached a public stage; and thirdly, those who were born in the 1930s and were inspired by the Beats but not necessarily personally close to the original Beat Generation. Mackay takes one female writer from each wave and examines them in detail in relation to feminist ideas and practice.

Mackay starts by acknowledging that participation in the Beat Movement – certainly for those individuals not personally connected to original members – was a matter of affinity and allegiance rather than one of conformity of style, theme or content. As Mackay notes, many of the Beat women were isolated from one another, some not meeting until the 1990s. Whether such seclusion was primarily driven by external or internal factors (or both), the point is that male editors and publishers were being exposed to female Beat writings less often and it is therefore unsurprising that little of that material was reaching publication in the 1950s-1980s period. The female absence (in terms of early-era publishing) that could be attributed to male hostility could just as easily be assigned to lack of access to material, no doubt exacerbated by ignorance and indifference. Seeing hostility towards women and absence of interest in women writers as equivalent would be an unhelpful conflation.

There is a thoughtful discussion of the literary place of Joan Vollmer Adams’s death at the hands of her husband William Burroughs in Mexico City. Burroughs, drunk, accidentally shot his wife with his pistol during a game at a party. Mackay outlines the various treatments of the incident. These include a few references in Burroughs’s writings and interviews (he did not present a fictionalised version in his novels), those written by associates and the writings of later authors. It is true but not informative to state that Vollmer’s life is written in her absence, as this is always the case when a subject does not leave any substantial written legacy. The author analyses how Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac used their memories and fantasies regarding Vollmer’s life and death in their writings. Mackay concludes, “A common thread in Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac is the intertwining of female presence in Beat textuality with autobiographical discourses, such as the development of the writer as a process of freeing from the biographical past (Burroughs), the conflation of poetic topic and the author’s poetic self-consciousness (Ginsberg), or the reconstruction of the past in writerly terms (Kerouac).”[i]

The core of the book is a discussion of Diane di Prima, Ruth Weiss and Anne Waldman as key women writers within the Beat movement, whose work exemplifies issues highlighted as feminist and female-specific within literature of the time. In her book Recollections of my Life as a Woman (2001), Diane di Prima wrote of her relationship to the poetry and letters of John Keats, seeing her work as a writer in relation to the ground-breaking output of the Romantic poet. Mackay draws the obvious parallel between di Prima’s inspiration from Keats with the famous incident when Ginsberg had a vision of William Blake, in 1948. Mackay analyses di Prima’s poetics in Recollections and This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958) and Dinners and Nightmares (1961) in terms of a response, extension and revision of Keats’s verse, writing both about him and through him, in a process of intertextuality. “Di Prima’s repurposing of Keatsian poetics [accentuates] Keatsian-like contemplative pieces with the Beat vernacular not only modernizes the meditative poem as a genre but also brings into it a new discourse created by the unique time and space of the work’s production, which was the New York countercultural scene of the 1950s.”[ii]

Ruth Weiss’s Desert Journal (1977) represents two Biblical narratives – of the journeys through the wilderness by Moses and Christ – in a book of 40 poems, symbolising the traditional length of the journeys of 40 days and 40 nights. A reinterpretation of theological stories provided Weiss with a space to explore her journey of spiritual self-understanding. The use of English, German and Hebrew adds to the multi-level sequence, which mirrors the double narrative of the journeys through the wilderness made by the fathers of two religions.

Diane di Prima’s Loba (1998) is a later book, which Mackay uses as a starting point for a discussion of de Prima’s knowledge of early Modernist verse and her responses to mid-century writers, such as Black Mountain poet Charles Olson. This complex book-length poem includes a cast of well-known women from history and, according to critics, contains contradictory attitudes that put forth a complex idea of femininity, not one wholly laudatory. Mackay’s chapter indicates how dense the levels of mythology are in Loba and, more than the other chapters, makes one wish to read the original.

There is a chapter on female performances at Nova Convention in November-December 1978, New York, held to celebrate the work of William Burroughs. These included Laurie Anderson, Julia Heyward, Patti Smith and Anne Waldman. The event marked a widespread acknowledgement of the influence of the Beats on the New Wave and punk movements and advanced a younger generation of creators to be seen as peers of Burroughs and Ginsberg. The performance of Anderson was a key step from being a performance artist known only to afficionados of the New York art scene of the 1970s to a widely known musician and storyteller, world famous by the 1980s. Tangentially related are Kathy Acker’s cut-ups (as found in her novel Don Quixote (1986)), which were expressly parodic in character and considerably less respectful toward Burroughs than were Anderson and Waldman’s performances.

Waldman’s poetry is considered as a form of activism, mainly through the light of her collection Fast Speaking Woman (1975, expanded 2nd edition 1996) and Iovis Trilogy (2011). Aside from generalised statements in support of women lacking power, Waldman makes explicit statements against war. She has been an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Waldman’s Iovis Trilogy is a 1,000-page long Post-Modern, post-Beat “cultural intervention into public space”. Although this book is held up as a “clear link between writing as a woman and being an activist against various forms of oppression”[iii], this argument seems slightly light here. At least, we could do with more concrete examples that display how Waldman enacts activism through text, as opposed to simply displaying socio-political engagement. Is Waldman’s activism more explicit or direct here? Are there some distinct literary devices that support Mackay’s thesis or is it simply the prominence and urgency of Waldman’s politics that make Iovis Trilogy a landmark work?

The avoidance of jargon and clarity of argument makes Beat Feminisms a pleasing read, in a field that can become opaque with theory and advocacy. The extensive bibliography and a full index contribute to the book’s use as a study resource. Mackay’s book will prompt renewed consideration of the way prominent female Beats have viewed themselves as writers and is recommended for students of the Beat Generation and the wider movement, as well as for those researching feminist literature.

Polina Mackay, Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, Routledge, hardback, 172pp + xiv, £120, ISBN 978 0 415 8927 1 1

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art, visit www.alexanderadams.art

UbuWeb: Culture meets the Internet

“Founded in 1996, UbuWeb is a pirate shadow library consisting of hundreds of thousands of freely downloadable avant-garde artifacts. By the letter of the law, the site is illegal; we openly violate copyright norms and almost never ask for permission. Most everything on the site is pilfered, ripped, and swiped from other places, then reposted.” So Kenneth Goldsmith describes the website he started in 1996. It has survived copyright claims because it is non-profit, so it does not extract financial gain from its appropriation.

The website was named after Alfred Jarry’s anarchic protagonist Ubu Roi. The website contains avant-garde artistic and cultural material such as verse, prose, audio, video and images. The site hosts little-known side-projects of major artists, such as Salvador Dalí’s film Haute Mongolie – hommage á Raymond Roussel (1976) and Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People (1973). Goldsmith is a poet and so there is a particular emphasis on poetry and spoken poetry, including concrete poetry and sound poems. UbuWeb is a resource replete with ephemeral material, side projects, creative dead-ends, aborted forays and one-off collaborations. It does not host mainstream music, video or texts. The material sometimes comes from official releases; other times it is recorded (with varying degrees of competence and fidelity) from radio or television by private individuals. Sometimes it is bootleg or clandestine. UbuWeb is the sort of place a person can spend a whole evening following a meandering trail through the cultural jetsam of the Twentieth Century.

Goldsmith explains that he uses basic coding and simple systems that have not changed in over 20 years. The relative crudity of such procedures makes the website robust, as well as charmingly old-fashioned. Without relying on cloud data storage or specialised database systems, Goldsmith has (so far) avoided the dangers of redundancy or dispute with programmers, which could have taken the site offline. “Don’t trust the cloud. Use it, enjoy it, but don’t believe in it.” He warns, “don’t bookmark. Download. Hard drives are cheap. Fill them up with everything you think you might need to consult, watch, read, listen to, or cite in the future.” We live in a time of encroaching censorship, when cloud/online access is at the mercy of increasingly censorious governments and overbearing social-media websites. Organisations make themselves vulnerable to pressure from activist lobby groups and Twitter mobs of a few hundred ill-informed virtue-signallers.

Pirating is a compliment, as Goldsmith views it. “If your work is well regarded enough to be pirated, that means you have achieved some level of success that most artists will never have. When we decide to pirate an artists’ work, it means that we think that work is worth knowing about and worth preserving.” The diffuse, unregulated distribution of material increases the chance of preservation and transmission. However, technological obsolescence has rendered some formats more inaccessible than some dead languages. Do you know anyone who has the technology to read a floppy disk or Betamax video cassette? The technology exists but it is rare, specialised and diminishing yearly. This will inevitably apply to digital files also.

Goldsmith calls the guerilla collaborative project of UbuWeb the product of “folk archiving”. “[…] we’re no fans of licenses of any kind. We’d prefer the materials be used without any restrictions whatsoever.” Fine in itself but beside the point because the material is not produced or owned by UbuWeb, as Goldsmith freely admits. He is applying his principles to the products of others but yields ground when challenged by rights holders. Sometimes artists submit material or make arrangements with their agents to permit material to remain on the website.

UbuWeb falls into an ethical grey area, even if the legal situation is fairly obvious. The UbuWeb modus operandi is to post first and wait for artists or representatives to react. Strictly speaking, the fact that UbuWeb is not monetised and is a non-profit body does not take precedence of copyright violation, which is a matter of intellectual property rather than income claiming. Copyright strikes come from those copyright holders important and financed sufficiently to pursue take-down notices. UbuWeb does accede to requests from copyright owners. (Search for the films of Francesca Woodman on UbuWeb and you will encounter the message “These films have been temporarily removed by request of the Marian Goodman Gallery.”) However, much of the work on the site is so gloriously shoddy, awful and poorly recorded – or simply obscure – that it is not material that could generate income worth claiming.

Goldsmith explains how automated notices triggered by file titles – often filed by bodies with no authorisation to do so – claim copyright and demand compensation. As UbuWeb gains no income from the material, there is no gain to be paid. (Legally, the issue is deprivation of benefit and unauthorised use of protected material.) These automatic copyright claims are now commonplace and even inhibit legitimate criticism and educational use permitted under law. Among ISPs, rights holders and pirates, there is recognition that digitisation of data and the advent of the internet has meant that copying and distribution are beyond complete control.

There are odd cases when works are caught in limbo: not financially viable enough to license and release and still restricted by copyright. This means that non-profit file-sharing is the only way to make (unofficially) available material of documentary, historical or cultural value. In the case of artist videos, the material is seen so rarely and in specific locations that – unless one happens to have access to a specialised university library – one can live a whole lifetime without seeing pieces. The stills reproduced in monographs or old magazines become the entirety of one’s understanding of the videos. Gallerists consider UbuWeb a competitor, which devalues the rarity if their commodity, although it is possible to view UbuWeb as a promotional channel, exciting and stimulating viewers and collectors, especially with regard to lesser known artists. The often poor quality of the videos on UbuWeb (compressed, pixellated, muffled, samizdat) means that ardent collectors or enthusiasts seek out high-quality versions they have pre-viewed on UbuWeb. Some creators offer material to Goldsmith and use it as a channel to reach an audience, although Goldsmith notes that UbuWeb is a repository for material already existing rather than a channel for new work.

The birth of digitisation and the internet has revived the readership of concrete poetry. Now original books and journal pages can be copied and shared accurately, allowing readers access to visual-verbal poetry that is not financially viable to publish conventionally. Kurt Schwitters is a favourite of Goldsmith’s. He discusses the importance of words to Shwitters the artist and how his writing overlaps with his celebrated reading of his Ursonate. All of this maps neatly on to UbuWeb’s capacity to store examples of visual, verbal and aural art. UbuWeb contains scans of every page of Aspen, RE/Search and Fuck You, famous channels for the counter culture. Likewise, the 27 Tellus audio cassettes of music, poetry and sound are available complete on UbuWeb.

The book ends with 101 of Goldsmiths favourite gems of UbuWeb: Céline singing his songs accompanied by accordion, Don Cherry and Terry Riley playing live in Cologne, a rare very early Steve Reich tape piece taken from secret recordings, Captain Beefheart reciting his verse, Alice B. Toklas reading Brion Gysin’s recipe for hashish fudge.

The author is generous in his appreciation for the countless donors who have sent files and physical material and he tells the stories of some pioneers – poets, collectors, fans, obsessives (or an admixture) – with whom he has interacted. Some wish to remain anonymous, concerned about stigmatisation as pirates or the threat of legal action. Their enthusiasm is infectious and we can well imagine the excitement of discovering troves of material – some of it considered permanently lost.

Goldsmith makes a common error of writing of material being “excluded from the canon”, which is an impossibility, as the canon is not exclusionary. No material can be excluded from a canon, only included or omitted and is a corporate effort; the canon cannot be imposed or enforced, hence exclusion is impossible.

Goldsmith has a lively and informal style and a lithe mind. He blends erudition and irreverence. Although the writing style is witty and readable, Goldsmith does include some footnotes. Duchamp is My Lawyer would prove a valuable book for law students and jurists as it explains how copyright works in practice not just law and how “folk law” tends to regulate copyright disputes through give-and-take personal interactions rather than court rulings. Interested parties reach informal, cost-effective, non-arbitrated understandings through negotiation in cases regarding material of little monetary worth.  

Duchamp is My Lawyer is an approachable and even-handed discussion of UbuWeb and issues regarding copyright in the digital age. It also provides an insight into the evolution of the counter culture in the internet age and the practical, legal and financial issues of producing and consuming art today. Well worth seeking out.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Duchamp is my Lawyer: Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb, Columbia University Press, paperback, 2020, 318pp + x, $26/£20, ISBN 978 0 231 18695 7

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

William S. Burroughs: Dead Fingers Talk

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Dead Fingers Talk (1963) is a bibliographic oddity in Burroughs’s output. It was a composite text composed extracts from the novels Naked Lunch (1959), Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962). Dead Fingers Talk was the brainchild of John Calder. Calder was the Scottish London-based publisher of Calder Books, which specialised in avant-garde literature. This restored version gives us the text as it was intended to be.

The publication history of Burroughs’s texts in the 1960s is fiendishly complex. Myriad publications in various countries issued by different publishers in forms that ranged from partial, censored, jumbled, poorly proofed and corrected, not to mention revised, expanded and partially re-written forms. At the time Dead Fingers Talk was composed, Naked Lunch had been published twice in two versions, Soft Machine was in its first edition form and Burroughs was finishing the manuscript for The Ticket That Exploded for Grove Press. Dead Fingers Talk was produced as an introduction to Burroughs’s work for British readers, preceding Calder’s publication of Naked Lunch in 1964. Calder had brought Burroughs to the Edinburgh Festival in 1962, where his description of his cut-up technique in a literary panel captured the imagination of consumers of experimental culture and newspaper journalists.

When it appeared, Dead Fingers Talk disappointed those who had already heard responses to the imported Girodias’s Naked Lunch and deemed Dead Fingers Talk “merely pragmatic means to more important ends”, i.e. British publication of Naked Lunch. The book was a curiosity that went out of print and was not published outside of Great Britain. Dr Oliver Harris is the leading Burroughs textual expert. He has produced restored editions of classic early books – discovering missing parts and correcting errors – and now turns his attention to Dead Fingers Talk. His comprehensive and fascinating introduction discusses the initial reception of the book and its absence from critical literature since. “By ignoring Dead Fingers Talk completely, the consensus of the critics is that there’s simply nothing to say for or about it […]” Harris has provided full textual notes, explaining changes, for those wishing to understand what has changed. Of course, given the limited readership of the original book and its reprints, most readers will be encountering this book for the first time.

The book includes parts of the three novels of 1959-62, omitting the most sexually explicit and profane passages. There was also a small amount of new material. The texts were reshaped and re-ordered, forming a new semi-narrative. Notoriously, there is no linear narrative to any of the novels, so chopping up the material did not make the text less comprehensible, simply comprehensible in a new way. Dead Fingers Talks is a collage of recognisable materials; it is a famous symphony played by a chamber orchestra. There are absurd horror, mordant satire and memorable characters. There are passages of exquisite prose poetry in tangled streams of consciousness. “Hands empty of hunger on the stale breakfast table – Winds of sickness through his face – Pain of the long slot burning flesh film – Cancelled eyes, old photo fading – Violet brown souvenir of Panama City –” There are paragraphs of Conradian description. “Aching lungs in dust and pain wind – Mountain lakes blue and cold as liquid air –” There are cowboy-style gunfights. There are sections of science-fiction. The chapters are short. However dense a section, it does not last. Thus there is no grind or page after page of unindented word collage, which renders The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded tedious reads.

Describing the text in any conventional manner would be absurd. We meet again familiar characters such as narcotics agents, junkies, dealers and confidence tricksters. Dr Benway, the maniac physician of dubious means and morals, reappears as a part raconteur, part press agent, part Dr Mengele.  Burroughs’s scepticism about authority leads him to treat religion as the long con – a giant experiment in control. His blasphemy is an expression moral outrage at manipulation. For Burroughs, restrictions on sexual activity are intolerable impositions on natural rights. This would become a core part of his libertarian fantasies of autonomous colonies in Wild Boys (1971), Port of Saints (1973) and The Red Night trilogy (1981-7).

A key element in Burroughs’s writing is discussion of drugs as a means of control and consciousness expansion. He invents fantastic drugs and also describes the reality of addiction. Sometimes fact and fantasy blur. “Shooting Eukodol every two hours. I have a place where I can slip my needle right into a vein, it stays open like a red, festering mouth, swollen and obscene, gathers a slow drop of blood and pus after the shot. […]” Burroughs is no way a hedonistic promoter of drug usage and is unflinching about the danger and squalor of drug taking. “Look down at my filthy trousers, haven’t been changed in months – The days glide by strung on a syringe with a long thread of blood – I am forgetting sex and all sharp pleasures of the body – a grey, junk-bound ghost.”

There is also plangent beauty throughout Burroughs’s writing, all the more striking when contrasted with the high comedy, street slang and horror. There is a persistent melancholy in Burroughs’s imagination. Sooner or later, the atrophying of the heroin high induces sadness. “There is no rich mother load, but vitiate dust, second run cottons trace the bones of a fix.” “Inactive oil wells and mine shafts, strata of abandoned machinery and gutted boats, garbage of stranded operations and expeditions that died at this point of dead land where sting-rays bask in brown water and grey crabs walk up from the mud flats to the silent temple of high jungle streams of clear water cut deep clefts in yellow clay and falling orchids endanger the traveller.”

Pleasure is plentiful in reading such free language and playful ideas, especially in a time when speech is policed so arbitrarily and tactically. That makes Dead Fingers Talk recommended reading for dissidents, critics, free-thinkers and lovers of imagination. Remarkably, for a compromise stop-gap measure meant to sustain notoriety with an eye to commercial considerations, Dead Fingers Talk is perhaps the best entry point for a reader who has never encountered Burroughs’s writings.

William S. Burroughs, Oliver Harris (ed., introduction), Dead Fingers Talk: The Restored Text, Calder Books, September 2020, paperback, 269pp + XLIII, £9.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 50015

 

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

© 2020 Alexander Adams

A Confederacy of Dunces

CFD_S_11“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting

In John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) (reissued in an illustrated edition by the Folio Society) Ignatius J. Reilly is that genius. He dresses oddly, refuses to convert his university education into productive employment and lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is ashamed of his mother, who likes to drink and socialise, and she is beginning to tire of him. He speaks like so to a policeman: “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft.”

Ignatius mission is to act as truth teller for the 1960s. He attends the cinema to observe the lewd and tawdry content of films purely to glean insights into the descent of culture. “With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy,” he declares in his treatise on the decline of the Western world, written on pads which he illustrates.

Finally at the age of 30, forced by circumstance, Ignatius takes a clerical position at decrepit Levy Pants. In its squalid premises he seeks apply his acumen to the ignoble task of pursing trade. He engages in business correspondence with the arrogant vitriol of which society so necessarily curtails expression. “Mr I. Abelman, Mongoloid, Esq.: We have received via post your absurd comments about our trousers, the comments revealing, as they did, your total lack of contact with reality.”

Announcing that “I cannot tolerate social injustice,” Ignatius visits the factory floor to observe the inequities of capitalism in action. He is astute enough to realise that the black workers’ responses to jazz on the PA is mere Palovian conditioning, which the subjects mistake for pleasure. “In a sense I have always felt something of a kinship with the colored race because of its position is the same as mine: we both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Of course, my exile is voluntary. However, it is apparent that many of the Negroes wish to become active members of the American middle class. I can not imagine why. […] However, if they wish to join the bourgeoisie, it is really none of my business.”

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

Fired from Levy Pants for organising a (failed) riot, Ignatius becomes the world’s (or at least New Orleans’s) least satisfactory hot-dog vendor: arguing with customers, fighting bystanders and consuming the hot dogs himself. This brings him into contact with the seedy underbelly of New Orleans and into the orbit of yet more odd characters, which drive the story to a satisfying denouement.

Toole gives us some comedic set pieces without too much contrivance. These include an incipient lecture “Sex in Politics: Erotic Liberty as a Weapon Against Reactionaries”, the luncheon party and Ignatius’s follies. There is a plot and plenty of action and thus A Confederacy of Dunces does not suffer from the usual weaknesses of comic novels: passages of self-regarding clever prose and contrived authorial observations. The reader feels he is in the world of these characters and is invested in what happens to them. He is never irritated by the author incongruously taking him aside to deliver witty barbs about modern life.

Ignatius is a comic protagonist: he is a liar, glutton, sluggard, prig and sneak. Yet Toole keeps us engaged and we never lose sympathy despite our disapproval for his main character, who is somewhere between hero and anti-hero. Ignatius suffers consequences of his character flaws and his actions drive the plot. Ignatius is unfettered by social convention and we get the delight of seeing a person overturning politeness and saying the unsayable. He seems to lack the filter that most people have that prevents them from immediately voicing our views out loud. On the other hand, by reading his journal we see that he is driven by folie de grandeur and a series of peculiar convictions which distort his understanding. Thus Ignatius is both liberated by self-belief (having few behavioural inhibitions) and constricted in by delusion (having little wisdom). It is that friction between liberation and ignorance that makes Ignatius compelling as a character. That is why we can find him loveable – or at least appealing – while being aware of his foolishness and inadequacy.

Myrna Minkoff is Ignatius’s long-distance on-and-off-again Beatnik girlfriend. She wears black clothes, a beret and glasses purely to demonstrate her seriousness. From New York she writes letters diagnosing Ignatius’s dysfunction and urging sexual liberation. (To be fair, in this case Ignatius’s sexual repression does seem a contributing factor to his abnormal behaviour.) She reports on her activism. “At the moment my every waking hour is spent in helping some dedicated friends raise money for a bold and shattering movie that they are planning to film about interracial marriage. Although it will be a low-budget number, the script itself is chock full of disturbing truths and has the most fascinating tonalities and ironies.” She makes it her place to befriend the black actress. “She is such a real, vital person that I have made her my closest friend. I discuss her racial problems with her constantly, drawing her out even when she doesn’t feel like discussing them.” She carries a valise full of pamphlets on left-wing campaigns. Toole indirectly shows that her defiance of her parents is bound up with her libido. Although outwardly agitating for racial equality through political conviction, it is Myrna’s sex drive that directs her towards race-mixing and reveals a fetishisation of interracial relationships.

She is a great comic creation, although admittedly one drawn from Toole’s real-life experience. In her relentless moralism, lack of inhibition and absence of self-awareness, Myrna stands as a cutting portrait of a proto-SJW. Ignatius, likewise, is a precursor of a disaffected university-graduate anarchist who rails against the middle class whilst living with his mother. He suspects he is slandered by the forces of white supremacists. He is an armchair revolutionary who muses on how to restructure society and abolish the tyranny of commerce. He could be persuaded to engage in terrorism. “I am not above tossing a Molotov cocktail or two,” he confesses. His class solidarity allows him boundless compassion towards the masses but no patience in their execrable company.

In their forceful views, profanity, volcanic tempers and quick resorts to violence, Ignatius and Myrna are the embodiment of the minority-adulating, self-appointed class warriors.

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

The secondary characters are distinctive. Hapless Patrolman Mancuso, operates undercover as a vice operative; factory owner Mr Levy is a distracted and uninterested owner of a failing concern; his wife is discontent, mildly guilty about their income, she nags her husband to better himself; Darlene, the barmaid, wants to develop a striptease act with her pet cockatoo removing her garments; her boss Lana is a penny-pinching martinet overseeing a dive bar; Dorian Greene is a party-hopping trust-fund homosexual with a line of catty banter. Burma Jones is a stand-out character; he is a cool streetwise black man living on the boundary of the licit. Toole captures his patois accurately and without condescension. When he is employed to clean a bar for below minimum wage, Jones sourly rehearses a conversation he could have with the policeman who has harassed him to get a job. “Well, I gonna tell that po-lice I gainfully employ, keep him off my back, tell him I met up with a humanitaria payin me twenty dollar a week. He say “That fine, boy. I’m glad to see you straighten out.” And I say, “Hey!” And he say, “Now maybe you becomin a member of the community.” And I say, “Yeah, I got me a nigger job and nigger pay. Now I really a member of the community. Now I a real nigger. No vagran. Just nigger.””

Jones’s backchat with his employer shows him moving between leveraging historical injustice and following self-interest in a seamless manner, yet he is sympathetic and believable. He is not a rake, criminal or grifter but a smart-yet-lazy man who follows the line of least resistance, able to provide a dry self-deprecating commentary on his situation. We enjoy his company, appreciate his intelligent insight and wish him well. He is the closest to a neutral reader-perspective character in the book. It would be wrong to call A Confederacy of Dunces a collection of grotesques. Toole’s characters do not seem calculated to make social critiques or embody types but seem to have an internal life and faithfulness to life (albeit heightened) that renders them truer than outright caricatures.

This volume consists of the corrected text of the novel, an introduction covering the writing and publication history of the book and a preface by Bill Bailey, comedian and musician, explaining why he – like many comedians – finds Toole’s story strikes a chord. Production values of the Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces are characteristically high. Carefully designed, well printed and using high-quality materials, the book is a pleasure to read. Jonny Hannah has provided new illustrations for this edition. It comprises 7 illustrations plus a frontispiece, all full colour. He has also designed endpapers, cover and the design of the pictorial slipcase, as well as incidental figures in black and white, making the book a complete experience. The images are painted and drawn in a collage style, vigorous and striking. This riotous, informal and vibrant approach perfectly matches the tone and contents of the novel. Reading this new Folio Society is like being immersed in one of the best comic novels of the Twentieth Century.

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, Folio Society, 2019, cloth hardback in pictorial slipcase, 332pp, 8 col. illus., £39.95. The Folio Society edition of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, with preface by Bill Bailey and illustrated by Jonny Hannah, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Serving Dead Clients by the Hour: William Burroughs, Cutting Up the Century

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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

To view my art and books visit http://www.alexanderadams.art

 

Alexander Trocchi: “Cosmopolitan Scum”

Young Adam

When Glaswegian writer Alexander Trocchi appeared at the Edinburgh Writers Festival in 1962, his reputation preceded him. Disreputable, dissolute, addicted to heroin, fugitive from the law, a confirmed libertine and author of books with description of sex, violence and drug abuse, Trocchi was marked as a subversive and potentially dangerous figure. When Trocchi appeared to talk on a panel, he became involved in a verbal altercation with Scots nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who called him “cosmopolitan scum”. Trocchi took great pride in the insult.

For Scots authors of gritty fiction, such as James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, Trocchi is a point of origin. Tough, unsparing, tautly written, unsentimental, identifiably Scots but tempered by French existentialism and Beckett’s interiority, Trocchi’s books are a touchstone for ambitious Scottish writers of later generations. The international acclaim afforded Trocchi was a badge of approval from the cognoscenti. As an individual, Trocchi’s extreme lifestyle – including drug taking, drug dealing, facing the death penalty, flight from US legal jurisdiction and pimping out his own wife to feed the couple’s heroin addictions – is full of palpable authenticity. By turns pathologically selfish, pitifully squalid and creatively barren, Trocchi’s life and long writer’s block act as a warning to creative artists those who are tempted to dabble in depravity. At his death in 1984, there was little unpublished material in his estate.

One can read all of Trocchi’s serious fiction over a long afternoon, if one is minded to. If one excludes eight erotic pulp novels, written to make money, the entirety of Trocchi’s prose fiction comprises Young Adam (1954), Cain’s Book (1960) and The Holy Man and Other Stories (1965), the latter of which consists of four stories. Man at Leisure (1972) is a collection of verse and completes the quartet of Trocchi’s substantial output published by Calder Publications, now owned by Alma Books.

Trocchi is generally grouped with the Beat Generation, particularly William Burroughs in his early hard-bitten documentary period, but John Calder comments that Trocchi actually belongs to “the “damned” French writers, from Baudelaire and Rimbaud to Céline and Genet. One could almost also mention Cocteau, who was responsible for introducing him to heroin, the cause of [Trocchi’s] eventual downfall and death.” Trocchi was also an active member of the Situationist movement.

Young Adam is a quasi-crime mystery novel. Our narrator recounts his collection of a woman’s body from a canal, coloured by indifference, where his responses to his breakfast are as stronger than his reaction to handling of a dead body. A observes a naked leg hang from below the blanket as the body is carried on a stretcher, looking like “a parsnip”. A boy watches the scene while eating an apple. The novel is situated in a world that has remained almost unchanged since Victorian times – low wages, simple meals, manual labour, newspapers read in pub saloons, no presence of radio and television – with hardly a glimpse of the post-war world of the time. We are immersed in the narrator’s ennui and his detachment. His only strong motivation is to seduce his colleague’s wife. We find out the narrator’s connection to the dead woman and watch his reactions as the story of the consequences of her death is played out. The blend of indifference and intimacy is affecting. The narrator’s pathologically cold and selfish psychology is mapped out indirectly through his observations of his reactions to events, from which he seems detached.

CAIN'S BOOK

Cain’s Book is about a scowman working the waters of New York. The narrator works maintaining and piloting a scow (a barge used in inland waters to transport cargo), filling in time between fixes. He is a junky who also uses marijuana. He is also writing a novel. We meet his fellow scowmen and scowwomen, individuals whose company he seeks out or avoids. His writing seems no more or less engaging than the reading he does or the conversations he has. He is unthreateningly unambitious, drifting in the moment, occasionally recalling events from his past and his failed marriage. Fragments of the narrator’s past in Scotland and his sojourns to Greenwich Village intersperse his waiting moored in the river off Manhattan. It is worth comparing the book to Trawl (1966) by B.S. Johnson. In that book, the narrator is a writer seeking material by taking passage on a fishing vessel. We are immersed in his internal monologue and preoccupation with his romantic failures and the privations of confined living and seasickness. In Trawl the subject of a writer is a very self-conscious preoccupation and plot point. In Cain’s Book, the writing is incidental and one could imagine the book without that aspect not being thematically different from the book Trocchi wrote. Trocchi writes perceptively about addiction, but it is not a core of the novel, being no more than a single factor in the narrator’s guiding conditions.

Junkies in New York are often desperate. To be a junkie is to live in a madhouse. Laws, police forces, armies, mobs of indignant citizenry crying mad dog. We are perhaps the weakest minority which ever existed; forced into poverty, filth, squalor, without even the protection of a legitimate ghetto. There was never a wandering Jew who wandered further than a junkie, without hope. Always moving. Eventually one must go where the junk is and one is never certain where the junk is, never sure that where the junk is is not the anteroom of the penitentiary.

There are other novels which bear comparison with Trocchi’s. Beckett’s internal monologues of isolated individuals (which Trocchi uses as an epigraph of Malone Dies (1951) in Cain’s Book) and the stripped nouveau romans of the period both parallel Trocchi’s novels. Another book from the preceding era which also relates is Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1941). It is a crime novel which follows the struggles and deterioration of George Bone, as a wrestles with the unreciprocated desire for Netta Longdon, a bit-part actress. Netta exploits her looks, drifting in a dissolute lifestyle of sleeping, drinking, fancy restaurant meals and borrowed money, cultivating a façade of indifference. In the end, Bone murders Netta and her lover, then takes his own life. The isolation of the main characters of Hangover Square – socially and familially disconnected, emotionally and financially atomised – who seem to have few ties or duties and are immersed in a demi-monde centred on immediate gratification and calculated cynicism are not dissimilar to Trocchi’s dissociated protagonists. The undeclared and unspoken part-time prostitution of the women is another thread connecting Hamilton and Trocchi. While the prose style is leaner in Trocchi’s novels, the internal monologues, character behaviour and ambience are close. Both Hangover Square and Cain’s Book include quotes as –somewhat elliptical – chapter introductions.

The Holy Man

The Holy Man and Other Stories collects four short stories. “A Being of Distances”, a description of a family funeral, reuses material that is in Cain’s Book. “The Holy Man” is about the outcast inhabitants of a tenement building in Paris. It shows a debt to Beckett in terms of tone. “To live, to grow old and to die: the process excited little interest.” He downplays the comic and anecdotal potential and instead emphasises the existential aspect of a holy man living in squalor in an attic. “Peter Pierce” concerns a man going into business with a disfigured ragman. “A Meeting” is a description of a clerk’s afternoon’s work in a small office and his conversation with a secretary. As a story, this is the most engaging and subtle story in The Holy Man – apparently the entirety of Trocchi’s short fiction.

Man at Leisure

Man at Leisure is a collection of poems, with a foreword by publisher John Calder and introduction by William Burroughs. Calder recounts that he had to illegally enter Trocchi’s residence to take possession of the manuscript, for which Trocchi had signed a contract but had repeatedly delayed to deliver.  The manuscript was not thoroughly revised by the poet. The 49 poems date from the writer’s time in Glasgow in 1951, through his wide-ranging travels in Europe and time in New York, up to his residence in London in 1972; they range widely in style. Burroughs correctly discerns the influence of John Donne’s Metaphysical poetry in some of Trocchi’s verse. Myrtle with the Light Blue Hair: “[…] what she / showed the toad, & not coy… / the slicks, flats, elastic tensions / of her great, her imperial thighs, the torque of her hot delta […]”It is striking how many times “thighs”, “belly”, “loins” and “sperm” appear in the poems – a debt to Marvell and Donne, as well as the pulp erotica of Trocchi’s era. At other times we get the jibber-jabber wild listings and political mottos of a Ginsberg: “[…] foreign policy implies / apes showing teeth / black ape-teeth / white ape-teeth / brown ape-teeth / yalar ape-teeth / gritting their prongs / all ape / all them aliens / sounding their gongs”.

Some poems are rather slight, hardly more than occasional pieces, and very short. The flippancy and flimsiness of some of the poems is not balanced by wit, insight or skill. However, that is not to suggest that Trocchi was a poor poet, just a poet who tried only sporadically and achieved uneven results. The most ambitious poem is “A Little Geography Lesson for my Sons and Daughters”, a sweeping description of the West and East, is delicately descriptive and carefully worked but still with energy and originality. In it, Trocchi expounds the common counter-culture view that the West is rational and male, enervated and played out (“The west is boudoirs and actresses / and a dwindling aristocracy”); the East is intuitive and female, fecund, unknowable and vital (“The east is a dark uterus, / darker than the waters of the Nile or the Euphrates. / she is female & her spawn / is a seeping alluvial silt […]”). It reiterates the tropes of Orientalism and anti-capitalism in terms of the human sexes. Regardless of what one thinks of the politics, it is an effective and powerful poem. Sadly, little else rises to that standard in Trocchi’s poetic output. “How at Thebes Tiresias, the Prophet, Told…” is Trocchi’s effort at recasting Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, complete with mixture of ancient myth and modern life, anachronistic parody, multilingual interjections and multi-part format. It is the longest poem here but still unfinished. One cannot help thinking that Trocchi was rambling, enjoying the writing but directionless. Verse allowed Trocchi to detach himself too much from argument, description and unambiguous meaning and to attach himself too much to undirected asides, free association and the minor pleasure of word play.  Trocchi’s gifts of description and insight shine forth in prose.

 

Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam, 2018, Calder Publications, paperback, 139pp + xiii, £7.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4462 5

Alexander Trocchi, Cain’s Book, 2017, Calder Publications, paperback, 212pp + xx, £8.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4460 1

Alexander Trocchi, The Holy Man and Other Stories, 2019, Calder Publications, paperback, 115pp, £8.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4847 0

Alexander Trocchi, Man at Leisure, 2019, Calder Publications, paperback, 85pp + viii, £10.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4944 6

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

The Fight to Publish Ginsberg’s “Howl”

“In The People v Ferlinghetti: The Fight to Publish Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, Ronald Collins and David Skover take us to the 1950s, and a California on the verge of social change. At the heart of their uplifting story is the business acumen and literary idealism of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

“Ferlinghetti, now aged 100 and still proprietor of City Lights Bookstore and publishing house, is a seminal figure in San Francisco. He is considered its poet laureate and a great contributor to its cultural life, as a publisher, artist, activist and political renegade. His idiosyncratic blend of environmentalism, anarchism, socialism and artistic freedom has provided generations with inspiration; his poetry, prose and polemic has impressed writers and given them the courage to follow their convictions; his publications have introduced millions of people worldwide to advanced writers.

“San Francisco was the West Coast centre for the Beat Generation, a counterbalance to its other centre in New York. On the evening of 7 October 1955, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg gathered at a gallery in San Francisco to read poetry at an event called ‘6 Poets at 6 Gallery’ (the sixth poet was either compere Kenneth Rexroth or the spirit of the late John Hoffman, whose work was read by Lamantia). In the audience were Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac….”

Read the full review on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/05/09/the-fight-to-publish-allen-ginsbergs-howl/

Jeff Nuttall: Bomb Culture

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Writer, teacher, artist, publisher, musician and agitator for the counter culture, Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004) was a large figure in the British pop culture landscape during the 1960s and 1970s. He knew most of the leading figures in the underground scene of the era and acted as a link in the form of organiser, publisher, promoter and communicator. As someone with a high profile, Nuttall was in the ideal position to promote the counter culture – though what he put forward was his own version of the counter culture. Nuttall had his own preoccupations and blind spots and the underground culture he promulgated was very much in his own image. Bomb Culture – first published in 1968 – became the handbook for British readers in search of an explanation of the ideas driving the radical Sixties led by the post-Hiroshima generation. Widely reviewed and popular, Bomb Culture was seen at the time as representative of the zeitgeist. The new edition contains a foreword by Iain Sinclair and an introduction by Douglas Field and Jay Jeff Jones. Biographical notes allow younger readers to orientate themselves with less familiar names from 1968. There are also some added photographs.

Nuttall covers the well-established link between the origins of jazz as brothel music from New Orleans and the power of jazz music as a potent expression of political liberation and sexual defiance. Nuttall mentions the liberation movements of the period but is clearly less engaged by these movements. Sexual liberation is viewed in terms of accessibility to sexual gratification rather than to the widening of the social horizons for women. Consciousness liberation took the form of consumption of psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs. Rock music (especially acid rock) is considered as an extension of the psychoactive effects of drugs. Nuttall is knowledgeable about pop music and writes with confidence about the counter culture credentials of rock and roll. Bomb Culture’s perspective is of particular interest because it was written from 1967 to 1968 and was published in 1968, placing its creation right at the centre of activity it describes.

While Nuttall’s perspective was British – laced with references to the Second World War and post-war austerity – his view of the scene was refracted through the lens of American culture – jazz, film, poetry, and underground activist journalism. Nuttall sees the cultural upheaval in Britain as a response to the failure of the CND and Aldermaston Marches of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He condemns much British Socialist writing as a compromise, seeking to ingratiate writers with the existing structure of the Labour Party as the main leftist opposition to the establishment. His claims are scattershot and his pragmatic counter-position is not forthcoming. For Nuttall the more underground, the freer from compromise production becomes. The International Times and his own fanzine (or “little magazine”, according to your definition) My Own Mag are freer. The manifest failure of the mass youth-led protests against the Cold War bomb culture led to the wider, more pervasive social movement of the counter culture. While British protesters took their lead from anti-Vietnam War protests and American pop culture, Nuttall sees a direct line from the anti-Cold War culture of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Nuttall took a more militant – even violent – position than the hippy outlook headed by Allen Ginsberg and the San Francisco scene. He is decidedly opposed to the pacifism of the hippies. He sees the violence of protestors in London’s Grosvenor Square against the American Embassy at the height of the Vietnam War as an enervating corrective to the violence being perpetrated against the Vietnamese. Likewise, there is adulation for student bomb makers and narcotic manufacturers. Yet how much of this is not simply the petulant anger of malcontents directed against the status quo? Is not the violent response the extension of violence the responders seeks to curtail? For Nuttall, bomb culture has a double meaning – the hegemony of the military-industrial complex that the nuclear bomb created and the bomb culture of youthful resistance to that system. Nuttall sees violence as an explicable and inevitable response to potential violence of a military system. He discusses the aimless violence of the teenage thrill kill and the gang fights of the Mods and Rockers. (The Teddy boys appropriated the upper-class fashion revival by the Edwardian age that Savile Row tailors, who had planned to market it to the middle class. Instead of the style becoming a profitable product for tailors to reach the middle classes, the working class adopted it as a badge of decadent defiance.)

Another line is the pseudo-Nietzschean amoralism of the Moors murderers as an example of libertinism. The defiance of sexual and social mores logically leads to the defiance of the ethical principles of the sanctity of life. In one startling observation, Nuttall talked of the crowd at the trial witnessing the process less in indignation than in envy.

Nuttall puts forward the psychoanalytic theory of the day, cribbed from popular publications.

Schizophrenia was ill-defined. At best it meant, means, someone who was isolated and therefore not adjusted to the patterns of society.

This conformed to the social-repressive view of R.D. Laing and others, who saw schizophrenia and serious conditions not as a problem of an individual being unable to map reality on to the mental landscape of the subject but of society stigmatising the non-conformist individual. In this view society and family (and the medical profession which sought to apply the principles of those institutions) were systems of repression. Any system that restrains (no matter how it also nurtures, supports and protects) is an artificial development which seeks to divert the potentially disruptive force of individualism. The psychoanalytic profession – rather than seeking to actualise the potential of people – was attempting to neuter people in the service of the pharmaceutical industry, educational system and social structures that were themselves beholden to insane priorities and values. In short, the insane were responding to the insanity of their alienated social reality rather than to any internal deficiency. In this respect Nuttall puts the counterculture case in its clearest form, associating Laing’s ideas with Ginsberg’s Howl – a poem noting the madness of great minds faced by the painful reality of society.

Nuttall diverts into Surrealism and Dadaism as attempts at liberation of art. His art history is unconventional – more Norman Mailer than Ernst Gombrich. Yet, even when he is elaborating ideas that would not find a place in any conventional study, he remains thought provoking.

The destination, as far as art is concerned, is the journey itself. Art keeps the thing moving. The only true disaster is the end of the journey, the end of man and his development.

Nuttall knew many of the Beat Generation, particularly William Burroughs. They lived in London at the same time and Nuttall published Burroughs’s writings. The British Beats are described in a series of amusing anecdotes.

Nuttall does not weave his observations into an integrated thesis. His observations form a torrent of history, pop culture criticism, fashion and music. (Television and radio hardly comes up and American movies are referenced in passing and in terms of iconic actors rather than any discussion of particular films.) Political theory, philosophy and revolutionary activism concepts are almost entirely omitted. The book includes many lengthy quotes – poems, newspaper extracts and popular science papers. Nuttall has limitations as a creative writer and a populariser of other people’s ideas. He was a reckless writer: casual with facts, lazy in style and clumsy with logic. Yet he was by no means a cynical blagger. He had an original and wayward mind; his Bomb Culture remains not only a personal view of a tumultuous period but also an enjoyable record of the era seen from the inside.

Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture, Strange Attractor Press (MIT distr.), 2019, paperback, 306pp., £14.99, ISBN 978 190 7222702

 

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art

FBI surveillance of writers

“The remit of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) includes monitoring figures who potentially threaten national security. And the FBI has long included famous writers on that list. To them, writers pose a double menace: not only do they pose a potential threat themselves, they might also inspire large groups of people to undermine the status quo, which the FBI is charged with protecting. The perceived threat posed by novelists and essayists is laid bare in Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files, a new book comprising facsimiles of archived files on famous American authors.

“During the Cold War, when suspicion of writers and intellectuals was at its peak, the FBI was under the control of the domineering, aggressive and thin-skinned J Edgar Hoover. During his long career as FBI director, Hoover took an active personal interest in pursuing political and personal opponents. Writers Under Surveillance reveals all this in official memoranda, letters and reports, with redactions, mainly to conceal identities of informants and other intelligence agencies. The editors have selected the more complete documents….”

Read the full review on Spiked Online here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/12/17/writers-under-surveillance/