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Old 08-04-2009   #1
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William Burroughs Ate My Cut Ups

In my late teens I meandered away from set reading texts into the worlds of Salinger, Kafka, Nin, 'The Dice Man', Miller, Kerouac, Heller et al. Although I have since followed the river back to its tributary source - the British Gothic Novel - one writer still disturbs and disorientates me on numerous levels, whether it be literary, sexual or spiritual.

William Burroughs.

A writer so revered by David Bowie that he copied Burrough's 'cut up' writing style, as explained here in this foreign documentary.


Burroughs' isn't just a genius because he pioneered a new style of writing. He was a genius because he was a damned good writer.

'Junkie' is the worst place to start with Burroughs. Opt for something like 'Cities Of The Red Night' - hit the man when he was on top of his game - and then study the early pieces by way of scholarliness.

JK
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Old 08-06-2009   #2
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Re: William Burroughs Ate My Cut Ups

The Naked Lunch is brilliant: precise and chaotic at the same time, like an electron microscope having a nervous breakdown. The Soft Machine is a disappointing sequel: much less spontaneous and weighed down by some spectacularly ill-informed stuff about human evolution (Stephen Jay Gould's classic Ontogeny and Phylogeny demonstrates the fallacy of the recapitulation theory that Burroughs riffs on throughout his novel).

Fans and critics are inclined to fixate on technique (I remember once hearing a lousy poet inform his audience that he had written 'a Sylvia Plath poem' by copying her 'technique'... needless to say, he wasn't even close to being within sight of anywhere near) rather than style or theme. The importance of the 'cut-up technique' is debatable: it only formalises what many writers do (perhaps a bit less randomly) at various stages of the creative process, and it doesn't change the fact that what fills the book is Burroughs' prose.
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Old 08-06-2009   #3
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Re: William Burroughs Ate My Cut Ups

Quote Originally Posted by Joel View Post
(I remember once hearing a lousy poet inform his audience that he had written 'a Sylvia Plath poem' by copying her 'technique'... needless to say, he wasn't even close to being within sight of anywhere near)
An honest writer speaks in his or her own voice... even if it is a little pastiche. The only true tribute to another writer may be plagiarism. Maybe not.

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Old 08-06-2009   #4
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Re: William Burroughs Ate My Cut Ups

I'm not a big Burroughs fan, but I find that his novels often have extraordinary passages in them here and there that I can appreciate. I've only glanced through The Soft Machine, but the opening of one of the chapters enthralled me when I first read it, and I've returned to it again and again. I posted this quote about a year ago in the Unlabelled Passages thread, and it's short enough to post again here:

The penny arcade peep show long process in different forms.

In the pass the muttering sickness leaped into our throats, coughing and spitting in the silver morning. frost on our bones. Most of the ape forms died there on the treeless slopes. dumb animal eyes on "me" brought the sickness from white time caves frozen in my throat to hatch in the warm steamlands spitting song of scarlet bursts in egg flesh. beyond the pass, limestone slopes down into a high green savanna and the grass-wind on our genitals. came to a swamp fed by hot springs and mountain ice. and fell in flesh heaps. sick apes spitting blood laugh. sound bubbling in throats torn with the talk sickness. faces and bodies covered with pus foam. animal hair thru the purple sex-flesh. sick sound twisted thru body. underwater music bubbling in blood beds. human faces tentative flicker in and out of focus. We waded into the warm mud-water. hair and ape flesh off in screaming strips. stood naked human bodies covered with phosphorescent green jelly. soft tentative flesh cut with ape wounds. peeling other genitals. fingers and tongues rubbing off the jelly-cover. body melting pleasure-sounds in the warm mud. till the sun went and a blue wind of silence touched human faces and hair. When we came out of the mud we had names.


This passage is probably an example of the fallacious stuff about human evolution that you were referring to, Joel. But I think that at least in this brief bit, Burroughs's treatment of it is artistically justified. The chapter does indeed go on and on in the same vein until it becomes tedious, but for me -- at least initially -- this false depiction of human evolution works as an artistic vision, couched in an extraordinary flight of Burroughsian prose.

It's hard for me to explain what I find so amazing about this passage. The best I can do is to notice that Burroughs is mixing several different kinds of discourse there, in a way that for some reason gets my attention. For example, "human faces tentative flicker in and out of focus" -- as if the faces of his animals are being depicted through some kind of irreal film technique. Also, the "talk sickness" and -- even better -- the "muttering sickness" is shown as a real physical illness in their throats. "The penny arcade peep show long process in different forms" mixes typical Burroughs sardonic sleaze with abstract language about process, in a sentence that is one perfect unpunctuated flow of words. And consider the beauty of some of the other phrases, such as "till the sun went and a blue wind of silence touched human faces and hair."

I'm a long-time science fiction reader, but I've never thought that fiction necessarily needs to be scientifically accurate. It depends on what kinds of expectations the particular story raises. Sometimes fiction works aesthetically and dreamily through a different kind of logic (or illogic) of its own. None of this is to say that you're wrong in general about the failings of The Soft Machine (which as I said I've only glanced through). But I find at least this particular passage to be quite effective.
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