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

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

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

 

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

Grove Press/Evergreen and European Literature

barney-rosset-2005

Maarten van Gageldonk, Transatlantic Mediators: Grove Press, Evergreen Review and Postwar European Literature, 2016, 319pp, unpublished doctoral thesis

 

Transatlantic Mediators is the result of Maarten van Gageldonk’s research in the archives of Grove Press/Evergreen Review held at Syracuse University, New York, supplemented by wide-ranging reading and new interviews. This study is of Grove/Evergreen Review’s publication of foreign prose, poetry and drama from 1954 to 1973.

In 1951 American publisher Barney Rosset (1922-2012) took over the small, New York-based publishing house Grove Press and began to publish what would become a stream of highly influential literary, critical, sociological and biographical books. Rosset is widely considered the most important independent publisher of the post-war period. Van Gageldonk explains how the activities of Rosset, Grove Press and Evergreen Review were distinct yet often overlapping and in many respects inseparable. During the 1954-73 period Grove Press was on the cutting edge of avant-garde literature, publishing key texts by the Beats, French nouveau roman writers, European dramatists and other experimental and historically important writers

Van Gageldonk’s expertise in researching and evaluating periodical publications comes to the fore in his appreciation of Evergreen Review. Evergreen Review was founded in 1957 by Rosset to showcase Grove Press authors, as well as publish verse, prose and articles covering literary, artistic, social and political topics by non-house authors. It published excerpts of Grove volumes and introduced new writers in order to test reception. “Partly because of [its] eclecticism, the magazine was able to cater to a large and coherent group of young Americans, interested not only in cultural developments within the U.S., but also abroad. Evergreen Review’s ideal reader would have been in his or her early twenties, with a college education and left-leaning political views.”

Van Gageldonk uses statistical analysis to present a picture of how Evergreen Review changed over the years. He presents Evergreen Review’s sales and distribution figures to demonstrate its rise to the position of America’s most influential literary periodical and how it eventually lost its way. Once the censorship battles of the 1950s and 1960s were won, Evergreen Review was no longer the gatekeeper to clandestine avant-garde literature; it was just another counter-cultural publication. Evergreen Review changed format a number of times. When printing technology evolved, it became economic to publish on coated paper which allowed reproduction of photographs, first in half-tone then, later, in colour. The larger format, proliferation of advertisements and increased photographic illustration marked a gradual change in direction, highlighted by its retitling as Evergreen.  When the journal largely dropped poetry and translations of foreign-language texts – choosing instead to feature a mix of erotic stories, nude photography, radical social commentary and polemic – it came into competition with Playboy, a match it was unequal to. Evergreen ceased print publication in 1973.

Van Gageldonk considers Grove Press’s battles with various American censoring bodies over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch, driven partly by idealism, partly by commercialism. Controversy over freedom-of-speech issues increased sales as well as earning Grove cultural cachet. In purely financial terms, Grove’s position on banned books was not quite justified by the costs of defending them against charges of obscenity – especially in the case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where pirated editions by rival publishers would compete for sales once the ban was lifted. Works deemed illegal were not covered by American copyright law, so competing houses eyed the breaking of fresh ground with the intention of launching their own editions as soon as new markets opened.

The author discusses aspects of Grove/Evergreen Review’s output in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of cultural production and Ulf Hannerz’s conception of creolization of culture through adaptation and interpretation of cultural material. A good example of the latter is Van Gageldonk’s discussion of the publication of texts by Alfred Jarry in a 1960 issue of Evergreen Review dedicated to ‘Pataphysics. At the time, Jarry was a writer obscure to English readers, known mostly by reputation, and little of his work had been translated. The presentation of Jarry was in a highly mediated form: a small selection of his texts in translation with works by others connected to the ‘Pataphysics movement. The editing was highly influenced by figures active in the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, Paris. In this example of creolization, Jarry’s texts was detached from their historical and cultural context and presented as harbingers of Surrealism and Absurdism. The presentation of Jarry as a forerunner of the counter-culture resistance to social conformity and as a debunker of scientific rationalism made him attractive to Grove American readers familiar with the Beats. Thus a relatively underappreciated historical author became pressed into service of a publisher keen to buttress its artistic credibility.

Grove’s stake in the success of the Theatre of the Absurd is clear if one studies its publishing list. In 1954 Grove published the English translation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a gamble on an author little-known to Anglophones. Despite huge success in Paris, the play had not been performed in English due to concerns over possible infringement of obscenity and blasphemy laws. Van Gageldonk observes that Grove went on to corner the American market for European Absurdist drama, including in its list Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, Harold Pinter and Václav Havel. Van Gageldonk explains the involvement Grove had in arranging productions and how the commercial rewards and – particularly – critical responses to debut stage productions in New York could make or break dramatists in America. “Comparing Ionesco and Adamov’s impact on the theatrical field first of all highlights the absolute dominance still held by the older New York drama critics, a position at the time still little eroded by a younger generation. When the three key New York drama critics walked out of Ping Pong, they reduced Adamov’s chances within the field to nil.” He points out how successful early productions of Ionesco established him as a major dramatist for American audiences while Adamov sank into obscurity.

In other chapters Van Gageldonk assesses Grove’s publication of literature from Russia, Eastern Bloc nations and Germany – a useful complement to the attention already given by other academics to Grove’s important ties to the French avant-garde. Even when dealing with highly theoretical matters in the methodological introduction, Van Gageldonk’s prose is clear and precise. Discussing Rosset, Grove, Evergreen Review and Rosset’s most important editors, Richard Seaver and Donald Allen, Van Gageldonk’s text is enjoyable and engaging, conveying the social and literary milieu as well as the substance of his subject. Transatlantic Mediators is an approachable, thoroughly researched and informative study of the contribution Grove/Evergreen Review made to literature in the mid-Twentieth Century. Let us hope it reaches a wider audience in the future.

Scientology books reviewed

“I have faith. You are a member of a religion. He is part of a cult.

“Every participant in a discussion about the Church of Scientology reveals a position by using the nouns ‘religion’ and ‘cult’. The former is accorded a degree of respect and recognition (socially, morally and legally); the latter is regarded with suspicion and hostility. However, nominating a group as ‘religion’ or ‘cult’ does not – a priori– establish the veracity of its core beliefs. So what is Scientology?

“Scientology is a religion/cult/philosophy which offers an all-American blend of self-help, psychological counselling, health improvement and Masonic-style careerism (especially in the acting world), based on ‘scientific research’ by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard (1911-1986). Scientological methods have been claimed to reduce stress, reveal past lives, end drug addiction, cure mental illness and heal physical illness. Caught off-guard by the huge success of his self-help manualDianetics (1950), Hubbard decided to start the Church of Scientology as an organisation to oversee the ‘auditing’ of subjects (a talking therapy utilising an ‘e-meter’ similar to a lie-detector) in order to control and monetise it. Scientology’s hostility to psychiatry, which Scientologists consider responsible for worldwide murder and degradation, is partly because Scientology was founded not in opposition to psychiatry but in competition with it, using concepts and techniques pioneered by psychiatry. Professional scientists were unimpressed by Dianetics. One of them described it not as science fiction but ‘fictional science’…”

Read the full article on SPIKED, 1 March 2013 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/13395#.Vd96MfldU5k

William S. Burroughs: Letters, vol. 2

“Volume 1 of William Burroughs’s letters took readers from 1945 to 1959, following his frequent changes of location from New York to Texas, Mexico City, Tangiers and Paris, as he turned his hand to junk pushing, cannabis growing, pea farming, psychopharmacological investigation and – finally – writing. Burroughs skipped bail and left Mexico for good after accidentally shooting his wife dead, leaving their son Billy to be raised by his grandparents in Florida. During this early period, letters were a vital conduit for Burroughs’s political and intellectual ideas and for the continuation of friendships, principally with Allen Ginsberg.

In Volume 2 we pick up the story with Burroughs living in Paris, just having sent off the proofs of Naked Lunch to the printers…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 30 March 2012 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/12298#.Vd94GPldU5k

Iain Sinclair: American Smoke

“The observant will notice that the dustcover for the new Iain Sinclair book is (when fully revealed) a fold-out map of North America. American Smoke is part travelogue of North America, part memoir of Sinclair’s engagements with the Beats, part pyschogeography familiar to long-time Sinclair readers. The map shows destinations documented in the book: Lawrence, Lowell, Vancouver, Los  Angeles. To be strictly accurate, it should have had another map on the reverse – one of the UK.  Much of the narrative recalls events that took place in England: in St Leonards and Hastings on the South Coast, in the London home of socialite Panna Grady, in Croydon. But being strictly accurate wouldn’t be Beat and wouldn’t be Sinclair…”

Read the full article on EBSN website, March 2014 here:

http://ebsn.eu/scholarship/ebsn-reviews/iain-sinclairs-american-smoke-journeys-to-the-end-of-the-light-reviewed-by-alexander-adams/