This essay first appeared in Ambit #27, London, 1966.
Burroughs reviewed by Ballard
Although the taboos of a society may well reveal its deepest preoccupations the reactions to one aspect of the work of William Burroughs, both pro and con, have tended to distract attention from the rather more serious issues that it raises. The first mythographer of the mid-20th century, and the lineal successor to James Joyce, to whom he bears more than a passing resemblance exile, publication in Paris, undeserved notoriety as a pornographer, and an absolute dedication to The Word (the last characteristic alone sufficient to guarantee the hostility and incomprehension of the English reviewers) Burroughs nevertheless reaches certain conclusions not only about society at large but also about our notions of reality, of the hierarchies of the mind and senses that underpin our consciousness, that seem to me to be questionable.
These reservations aside, his four novels, The Naked Lunch, Nova Express, and particularly The Soft Machine and The Ticket that Exploded, display a degree of complexity, comic richness and imaginative power that places Burroughs on a par with the authors of Finnegans Wake and The Metamorphosis. His novels are the first definitive portrait of the inner landscape of our mid-century, using its unique language and manipulative techniques, its own fantasies and nightmares, those of:
"Followers of obsolete unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesised, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, officials of unconstituted police states, brokers of exquisite dreams..."
The landscapes are those of the exurban man-made wilderness; "swamps and garbage heaps, alligators crawling around in broken bottles and tin cans, neon arabesques of motels, marooned pimps scream obscenities at passing cars from islands of rubbish."
The inability of some English critics to understand Burroughs is as much a social failure as a literary one, a refusal to recognise the materials of the present decade as acceptable for literary purposes until a lapse of a generation or so has given to a few brand names a discreet respectability. The retrospective character of the bulk of fiction, which by and large tallies with the view we take of the perspectives of our own lives, shifts the effective 'present' back some twenty or thirty years and plays straight into the hands of this false nostalgia. In part it explains the reflex hostility to science fiction, almost the only prospective narrative fiction, whose great merit has been its capacity to assimilate rapidly the materials of the immediate present and future, a capacity of which Burroughs makes full use.
Whatever his reservations about the mid-20th century, Burroughs accepts that it can be fully described only in terms of its own language, its own idioms and verbal lore. Dozens of different languages are now in common currency, from the sinister jargon of Rand Corporation 'think-men' to the non-communicating discourses of politicians and copy-writers, and a verbal relativity exists as important as any of time and space. Much of Burroughs' difficulty as a writer resides in the fact that he is a writer, systematically creating the verbal myths of the mid-century at a time when the oral novel, or unillustrated strip cartoon, holds almost exclusive sway.
Burroughs begins by accepting the full implications of his subject matter: "Well these are the simple facts of the case There were at least two parasites one sexual the other cerebral working together the way parasites will And why has no-one ever asked 'What is word?' Why do you talk to yourself all the time?"
Operation Rewrite, Burroughs own interlocutory function as the writer, defines the subject matter of The Ticket that Exploded: "The human organism is literally consisting of two halves, word and all human sex is this unsanitary arrangement whereby two entities attempt to occupy the same three-dimensional coordinate points giving rise to the sordid latrine brawls which have characterised a planet based on 'The Word'..."
Far from being an arbitrary stunt, Burroughs' cut-in method is thus seen as the most appropriate technique for this marriage of opposites, as well as underlining the role of recurrent images in all communication, fixed at the points of contact in the webs of language linking everything in our lives, from nostalgic reveries of "invisible passenger took my hands in dawn sleep of water music broken towers intersect cigarette smoke memory of each other" to cryptic bureaucratic memos and medicalese. Many of the port- manteau images in the book make no sense unless seen in terms of this merging of opposites, e.g. the composite character known as Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin, and a phrase such as 'rectums merging' which shocked a reviewer in The London Magazine to ask plaintively 'how" obviously the poor woman hadn't the faintest idea what the book was about. (A question on a par with Edith Sitwell's complaints in the TLS about "having her nose nailed to other peoples lavatories." Some lavatory, some nose.)
In turn, Burroughs' four novels are a vision of the individual imagination's relationship to society at large (The Naked Lunch), to sex (The Soft Machine), to time and space (The Ticket that Exploded) and to the sense of identity (Nova Express).
In The Naked Lunch, i.e. the addict's fix (Burroughs has described the title as meaning "the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork" but this is hardly borne out by the narrative more exactly, the naked lunch is the flood of pure sensation or, in physiological terms, of pure affect). Burroughs compares organised society with its most extreme opposite, the invisible society of drug addicts. His implicit conclusion is that the two are not very different, certainly at the points where they make the closest contact in prisons and psychiatric institutions. His police are all criminals and perverts, while his doctors, like the egregious Dr. Benway of Islam Inc., are sadistic psychopaths whose main intention is to maim and disfigure their patients. Most of them, of course, are not aware of this, and their stated intentions may be the very opposite.
By contrast, the addicts form a fragmentary, hunted sect, only asking to be left alone and haunted by their visions of subway dawns, empty amusement parks, and friends who have committed suicide. "The fact of addiction imposes contact", but in their relationships with one another they at least take no moral stand, and their illusions and ambitions are directed only at themselves. in spite of its continued comic richness for much of the way it reads like the Lenny Bruce show re-written by Dr. Goebbels The Naked Lunch is a profoundly pessimistic book, for Burroughs' conclusion is that the war between society and individual freedom, a freedom that consists simply of being individual, can never end, and that ultimately the only choice is between living in one's own nightmares or in other peoples, for those who gain control of the system, like Benway and the Nazi creators of the death camps, merely impose their own fantasies on everyone else. In The Soft Machine (i.e. the sexual apparatus) Burroughs carries out a vast exploration of the nature of the sexual act. In this strange, hallucinatory world everything is translated into sexual terms. The time is one when "everybody was raising some kinda awful life form in his bidet to fight the Sex Enemy."
At times, however, Burroughs' view of the sexual act, whose magic revivifies everything it touches, seems excessively dominated by the functions of urination and defecation. The only atmosphere of this airless world is a damp miasma of rectal mucus. In spite of its brilliant images, which revolve like chimeras in a neural jungle, Burroughs' landscape becomes an increasingly regressive one, set at an infantile level where the differentiation of physiological and cerebral functions has yet to occur. To the drug addict all events in the universe may seem coeval and conterminous, but this sense of unity, the equivalence of all objects and activities, is a result not of an enlarged but of a blunted consciousness.
What appear to be the science fictional elements in The Ticket that Exploded and Nova Express the Nova Police and characters such as the Subliminal Kid, the delightful Johnny Yen, errand boy from the death trauma, heavy metal addicts and green boy-girls from the terminal sewers of Venus in fact play a metaphorical role, part of the casual vocabulary of the space age, just as Mata Hari, the Mons Angel and the dirty men's urinal to the north of Waterloo form part of the semi-comical vocabulary of an older generation. The exploding ticket, i.e. the individual identity in extension through time and space, provides Burroughs with an endless source of brilliant images, of which "the photo-flakes falling" is the most moving in the book moments of spent time, each bearing an image of some experience, drifting down like snow on all our memories and lost hopes. The sad poetry of the concluding chapter of The Ticket... as the whole apocalyptic landscape of Burroughs' world closes in upon itself, now and then flaring briefly like a dying volcano, is on a par with Anna Livia Plurabelle's requiem for her river-husband in Finnegans Wake.
"And zero time to the sick tracks a long time between suns I held the stale over-coat Sliding between light and shadow Cross wounded galaxies we intersect, poison of dead sun in your brain slowly fading Migrants of ape in gasoline crack of history..."
In The Ticket... and Nova Express Burroughs describes the effect of modern communications on our sense of freedom and identity, particularly the role of the rapid-access and feedback mechanisms of electronic control devices. As his characters engage in their drugged copulations, tape recorders and cine-cameras play back fragmented images of themselves, inundating them in an endless spillage of permutated sex-words. His characters move like neural zombies in a house of electronic mirrors, snared and diminished by the images that multiply around them. The development of computers and data-processing devices, whether in the hands of financial or political agencies or in those of novelists, may well reduce the margins of freedom open to us in the future. Yet these devices, like the narrative techniques Burroughs invents to describe them, are shown only in their most regressive role, operating like some rudimentary autonomic nervous system unable to distinguish even its own identity from the environment around it.
J. G. Ballard