February 2012

Davis Schneiderman


"Take a Life. Cut. Concentrate.": The Letters of William S. Burroughs

In many ways, Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974 could be another name for some of the novels of William S. Burroughs.

Oliver Harris, the premiere Burroughs scholar, has detailed in his excellent William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination how much of Burroughs's early prose work emerged from his letters. Therefore, the project of reading this second volume of Burroughs's correspondence, edited by Bill Morgan, is perhaps not all that different than reading some of Burroughs's novels. These epistles showcase a broad range of styles and textures, yet read quite differently than the first volume of Burroughs's letters, 1945-1959, edited by Harris.

In that pathbreaking collection, the recipient is for the most part Allen Ginsberg (along with several letters to Jack Kerouac and a small handful of others). In Morgan's volume, Ginsberg's role is diminished in a manner commensurate with what Morgan calls Burroughs's "steady drift away from the earlier 'beat' circle."

In Ginsberg's absence, we find no single correspondent taking his place, although Burroughs's collaborator Brion Gysin is most prominent. Aside from a fascinating series of literary-oriented letters (including excellent material on his relations with Alex Trocchi) Morgan includes a number of family letters -- to Burroughs's parents and son. This set demonstrates not only Burroughs's friendly estrangement from the former but also the tragic absenteeism in his relationship with the latter. That story has been told with great care in Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr., yet Morgan's letters fill out the agon by juxtaposing this very personal drama with the other-realm events of the writerly life.

After telling the thirty-three-year-old Billy that, "[t]he only thing that could unite the planet would be the exploration of space," his father's postscript adds: "200 dollar check enclosed. Let me know if you need more." The last sentence hangs, pregnant with tragic over-coding.

This collection offers a picture of Burroughs in his many different states of epistolary activity with correspondents from many aspects of his life; while the sum is not a truer picture of the author in comparison to the first volume, it is a markedly different one. The Burroughs of the earlier period (1945-59) still operated largely in obscurity compared to the celebrity Naked Lunch would bestow upon him. Therefore, the years covered in this volume chart his response to this success in an astounding period of experimental activity. The 1960s and early '70s saw Burroughs continue his expatriate status (before the prodigal return to the Unites States for the last decades of his life), while exploring the interconnected-yet-aleatory assemblage of diverse methods sometimes called simply "cut-ups." He made films, sound recording, visual art, covered the Chicago 1968 riots with Jean Genet, and wrote hate mail to Truman Capote (seriously): "You have placed your services at the disposal of interests who are turning America into a police state..."

The collective picture is of Burroughs-as-famous-writer, without the attendant wealth. Perhaps because there was never enough money to allow Burroughs to "sell out," he continued to take chances that would make the word hoard of Naked Lunch read like realist prose. Burroughs was a scientist, an empirical language explorer, and these letters wonderfully detail key aspects of his procedural operations.

The most well known example of his perhaps obsessive application of experimental method is the Nova trilogy (which I prefer to call the Cut-Up trilogy, emphasizing method over content), composed of three early 1960s texts: The Soft MachineThe Ticket that Explodedand Nova ExpressPut simply, the three works represent the crimes of the Nova Mob, an intergalactic mafia intent on "Control" of reality, and their opposite, the Nova Police, a series of characters, metonyms, and language cuts that oppose these forces.

The "novels" mix in passages of cut-text with more straightforward or narrative explanations of method, and this collection of letters does the same. We find letters to Burroughs's closest collaborator of the period, Gysin, with these words, "Take a life. Divide into Five Year Periods. Write in Pain Signs Word Signs. Cut. Concentrate," followed closely by entertaining examples of when the polite Burroughs would rarely lose his cool, here in a letter to editor Paul Carroll: "When I have to say something for the fifth or sixth time I have to say it clear enough to be understood. Is the above clear enough or must I make it even clearer?"

Morgan's editing then, approximately four hundred works drawn from a far-flung cache of over a thousand letters -- the largest bulk drawn from the recently made-public collection housed at the New York Public Library -- presents a cultivated sense of Burroughs's correspondence. Morgan is open about his methodology: to select the best letter when two or more offer similar material, with exceptions for topics of considerable importance for Burroughs (there are numerous discussions of Scientology, Dr. Dent's apomorphine treatment, the cut-up methodology, an aborted Dutch Schultz film). While the repetition can seem occasionally, well, repetitive, this repetition is perhaps a key aspect of Burroughs's work of this period.

What emerges, for instance, in the focus on Burroughs's ambivalent relation to Scientology -- "Point about Scientology is that it works. In fact it works so well as to be highly dangerous in the wrong hands" -- is in fact the importance of running material over and over again until the subject clears the block. This is a simplified extraction of Burroughs's experience on the Scientology E-meter, where a needle "reads" engrams or "blocks" that keep the subject from being "clear." When Burroughs repeats, or when his letters repeat, or when almost the exact same working appears in multiple letters, the text is processing itself on the reader. Repetition is a necessity.

Devotees of Burroughs-the-celebrity may be surprised to find his correspondents here more literary than star-inflected (although Timothy Leary is present). A good number of letters are directed to his publishers Maurice Girodias (Olympia, Paris), Barney Rosset (Grove, New York), John Calder (Calder, London), and Dick Seaver (Grove, and later publisher of the long-delayed The Third Mind for Viking) and are consumed with the minutiae of manuscript corrections, publishing dates, and, especially in the case of the noted provocateur Girodias, monies due: "I cannot quite sort out these contradictory statements nor can I quite understand how, in a matter where our joint interests are appreciably concerned you could allow $2,627 to dwindle to nothing without making some strenuous and effectual effort to check or reverse such a regrettable trend."

The fact that Burroughs has become recognized for Naked Lunch yet struggled to achieve the same success with his ambitious follow-up works is part of the larger sense emerging from these letters: "Reviews of Nova Express almost all bad and stupid beyond anything. I just skimmed through In Cold Blood, my God what a bore!"

For me, the hidden story here is of a collaborative project with Gysin never published during this period, the text that came to be known as The Third Mind (published in English in 1978). An early reference: "I have been working on the how-to book we discussed which takes the form of an army bulletin -- That is, an illustrated lecture to a group of cadets on enemy methods and techniques and the methods and techniques of combating the enemy -- Fold ins, cut-ups, photo montage, permutations, etc."

Harris has argued that Burroughs needed his letters to produce his texts, and Morgan's collection serves as an index for a period in which Burroughs comes to realize his dependence upon collaboration -- the implicit collaboration with other authors in the cutting of text, and the explicit collaboration with Gysin, Ian Sommerville, Antony Balch, and others in the production of artworks meant to circumnavigate Control. The Gysin project would take on a number of titles (including Right Where You are Sitting Now) before statements such as these begin to emerge: "I hear from [Dick] Seaver about the production problems on The Third Mind and I can tell you for sure no possibility of publication next fall."  

The sense of delay permeating so many of these letters, familiar to any author, points at both the struggle to write work that will chart new directions and our sense of these letters as retrospective indices of the Burroughs's production. Much of Burroughs's continual appeal, unfortunately, rests with his larger-than-life myth. These letters -- lovingly assembled and of great use to scholars and lay readers -- are largely absent of salacious details. Readers looking for clues to how the drugged-out literary guru felt about the accidental shooting of his wife in September 1951 will be for the most part thwarted.

Instead, in offering a better picture of one of our literary icons -- a fuller sense of a man struggling with art, family, experiment, and the long twentieth century, Morgan's collection brings welcome news. Buy this book. Open up in any direction. Take a life. Cut. Concentrate.

Davis Schneiderman is co-editor of Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globilzation, a contributor to Naked Lunch @50, and is currently co-editing (with Marcus Boon) a version of The Book of Methods. His most recent novels are Blank and Drain.