[CN: Racism, antisemitism, misogyny, lewd sex, drugs]
For some reason my default reading of the title is a machine that produces soft, rather than a machine that is soft…i dont really know what’s up with me either.
A notion from Simon O’ Sullivan that I really like is that when political/ethical/theoretical discourse gets stuck in a rut and begins looping itself, literary fiction comes along and “scrambles the known codes, upsets the accepted formulae.” Burroughs’ experiments with cutting up text and with chance-based composition square with the upheavals occurring in the humanities in the sixities — THE SOFT MACHINE rails against the comforting neutrality of language and reality, showing words, time, and space to be finite dimensions that can bottom out at any moment. Not that Burroughs had any stock in reality to begin with. His serious investment in conspiracy theories embodies all the antisemitism that implies, and his contempt for women reeks from at least a few of these pages.
His style was the kind of discipline that cant really be accommodated by books or by publication since his texts arent things that can be “finished.” Like Wong Kar-wai, whose movies are made in the editing room with change after change right down to premier hour, Burroughs constantly re-mixed and re-issued, even cutting and taping changes to the galleys. Oliver Harris in the introduction has to inform us that SM is not only the first volume of the Nova trilogy, but is itself a trilogy of three different editions.
Needless to say you dont really know what’s going on as you read this work, which is basically the result of cutting together deleted scenes from NAKED LUNCH with a swath of other material, both original and from other writers, to form an acid space opera. But im totally on board with this cut-up/fold-in practice. If conventional novels create stable, “realistic” worlds that you could almost step into and explore, then SOFT MACHINE itself, like the best experimental novels, feels alive with all its undulating sliminess and organic froth. Not recommended for readers with insect phobias.
i bewildered myself with how much i kept thinking about James Joyce while reading this. i havent seriously tried to read anything by JJ since i was seventeen, which is too young anyway. But the first chapter is a collage of sentences and phrases from the rest of the book, like the “overture” to Episode 11 in ULYSSES. And like Joyce’s work, there’s a whole lot of shit, piss, and overwhelmingly semen flung about. So much in fact that it becomes significant as an act of human expression. There are hints of an evil Trak corporation which among other things pushes drugs that leave horrible tar in your system, presented as the ideal height of commerce, where the product never leaves the consumer. Excretion and secretion is then not only embraced as a wholesome aspect of being human, but is a way to communicate, an art, that both WB and JJ invite us to take seriously.
Another thought: i wondered if this could be considered an example of avant-garde nonfiction. According to the extensive end notes, a great deal of the characters can be sourced to actual people Burroughs encountered in experiences abroad. Maybe like Hunter S. Thompson, this is a kind of drugged-up and exaggerated reportage of Burroughs’ travels through Latin America and North Africa.
A passage chosen almost at random:
They was ripe for the plucking forgot way back yonder in the corn hole — Lost in little scraps of delight and burning scrolls — Through the open window trailing swamp smells and old newspapers — Rectums naked in whiffs of raw meat — Genital smells of the two bodies merge in shared meals and belches of institution cooking — Spectral smell of empty condoms down along penny arcades and mirrors — Forgotten shadow actor walks beside you — Mountain wind of Saturn in the morning sky — From the death trauma weary good-by then — Orgasm addicts stacked in the attic like muttering burlap —
Nothing in the way of plot or character, but it still flows like an uninterrupted dream. A beatnik poem of epic length, the words malfunction in terms of pointing to a distinct referent. Bc they dont cohere into a narrative there isnt a “subtext” between the words. But when an all-male orgy in a Panamanian hotel is interrupted by a brief description of the sea, almost entire worlds of sound and sense flit before your eyes, albeit usually unpleasant ones. And it’s not like the whole thing is a sentence salad either, as the more cogent excerpt below will hopefully show. The cut-up method wasnt entirely random; of course Burroughs did some more deliberate sculpting afterwards.
Fun and scary concepts aplenty: There’s a narcotic made from scorpion venom, instantly addicting and you turn into a scorpion if you dont get your fix within the hour; snuff films with the audience ejaculating sympathetically, and when the play black slows down their coming slows with it; a reference to the author’s own fold-in techniques, in which a page of manuscript is folded hotdog style and overlaid on another page, with the resulting composite re-typed, so that the subject changes mid-sentence without warning; an interplanetary police agency; an agent possibly affiliated with said agency who hunts down and murders queer people in scenes depicted with the same kind of squicky intimacy as all the m/m rough sex; crab parasites; “death by centipede.”
We follow men whose names change, another who goes only by “the Sailor,” and at least one character from NAKED LUNCH drops in. The narrative, perhaps like quantum physics, pops without warning between St. Louis, California, Mexico, Panama, New York, Algiers, Tangier, Venus, Uranus, Saturn, and god knows where else. The same or at least similar plot events loop through the text repeatedly, as do choice phrases such as semen smelling “like a compost heap” or “egg flesh” or “dingy” rooms.
The novel ends the same way 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY begins: a “Dawn of Man” sequence done as a homosexual porno. Burroughs is quoted in the end notes saying that this period of pre-history had many types of “homo.”
There are also anthropological asides on the Mayan culture which are pretty racist. One of these moments in the second chapter is the closest we might get to the trilogy’s thematic project. A white guy who has gone native explains to our narrator:
“It’s like with the festivals and the fucking corn they know what everybody will see and hear and smell and taste and that’s what thought is and these thought units are represented by symbols in their books and they rotate the symbols around and around on the calendar.”
The “thought units” are the means of control which keeps all humans in line via a “control beam,” and a “life script.” Burrough’s aleatory approach is almost like surrendering to words, which even pre-postmodern writers will tell you contain a frightening agency and trickery; not just a plastic medium that bends to the writer’s will. The words organize our thought-units, structure our lives, create routines of behavior. But if language is steering us and sapping our will like a parasite, at least we dont live in a totalitarian society of domination and hierarchy which uses such language to devalues all women and violently condemn gayness in order to present straightness as the wholesome natural norm as enshrined in the institution of the Family, or anything like that.
Something i learned from the last article by Ermarth that i read, since it answers a question ive had for a while: it’s beside the point that avant-garde fiction tries to push against linear representational time even though reading text is inherently a linear experience. The most important aspect of the empirical realism regime is the neutrality of the space it renders. There isn’t a neutral position on the “outside,” from which we can measure the world before us.
But the scholar Oliver Harris, whose “restored text” i read, is an effort at this impossible task. i realize im being cute. It’s excellent work what he’s done. He has a lengthy introduction which sketches out the composing and publishing history of SM, provides appendices with beefy extracts from these older editions, and almost page-by-page endnotes that go into the nitty-gritty textual differences between them. It’s an incredible amount of work to create this “outside” mapping for us; so overwhelming that i preferred to just stay lost in the text, fascinating as the extra material is.
So it’s a forward and backward thinking piece as these white male authors tend to make. But what i value in it is its total disregard for beauty, which had for too long been established as the objective of art. SM is in the dada tradition of giving the finger to the Western rational ordering of the world and its people, showing us the mad disorder that the beauty of our art and history tries to mask, and that it’s beautiful. The main text is also better, i think, than the excerpts of the earlier editions in the appendix. it somehow illuminates more than the experiments he cut out or re-mixed, bearing witness to the method in the author’s madness. It reminded me of why i enjoy experimental writing so much: they may be challenging and burlesque when traditional fiction is more gracious, but the supposed contempt for the reader is to me an act of love — a necessary intervention in our addiction to bad stories, the ones that serve controlling myths. SM might refuse to behave itself but it still has a precision and clarity to its language as it proceeds to demolish the pillars of liberal humanism and capital and all that. And at 180 pages of big print, you can kill it in a single reading if you can put a whole day aside for it, the way you would for a trip on mushrooms.
id go for two more hits of this.
THE SOFT MACHINE by William S. Burroughs
Joe Brundige brings you the shocking story of the The Mayan Caper exclusive to The Evening News —
A Russian scientist has said: “We will travel not only in space but in time as well” — I have just returned form a thousand-year time trip and I am here to tell you what I saw — And to tell you how such time trips are made — It is a precise operation — It is difficult — It is dangerous — It is the new frontier and only the adventurous need apply — But it belongs to anyone who has the courage and know-how to enter — It belongs to you —
I started my trip in the morgue with old newspapers, folding in today with yesterday and typing out composites — When you skip through a newspaper as most of us do you see a great deal more than you know — In fact you see it all on a subliminal level — Now when I fold today’s paper in with yesterday’s paper, that is traveling in time back to yesterday — I did this eight hours a day for three months — I went back as far as the papers went — I dug out old magazines and forgotten novels and letters — I made fold-ins and composites and I did the same with photos —
The next step was carried out in a film studio — I learned to talk and think backward on all levels — This was done by running film and sound track backward — For example a picture of myself eating a full meal was reversed, from satiety back to hunger — First the film was run at normal speed, then in slow-motion — The same procedure was extended to other physiological processes including orgasm — (It was explained to me that I must put aside all sexual prudery and reticence, that sex was perhaps the heaviest anchor holding one in present time.) For three months I worked with the studio — My basic training in time travel was completed and I was now ready to train specifically for the Mayan assignment —
I went to Mexico city and studied the Mayans with a team of archaeologists — The Mayans lived in what is now Yucatan, British Honduras, and Guatemala — I will not recapitulate what is known of their history, but some observations on the Mayan calendar are essential to understanding this report — The Mayan calendar starts from a mythical date 5 Ahua 8 Cumhu and rolls on to the codices as a God pouring water on the earth — The Mayans had a solar, a lunar, and a ceremonial calendar rolling along like interlocking wheels from 5 Ahua 8 Cumhu to the end — The absolute power of the priests, who formed about 2 percent of the population, depended on their control of this calendar — The extent of this number monopoly can be deduced from the fact that the Mayan verbal language contains no number above ten — Modern Mayan-speaking Indians use Spanish numerals — Mayan agriculture was of the slash and burn type — They had no plows — Plows can not be used in the Mayan area because there is a strata of limestone six inches beneath the surface and the slash and burn method is used to this day — Now slash and burn agriculture is a matter of precise timing — The brush must be cut at a certain time so it will have time to dry and the burning operation carried out before the rains start — A few days’ miscalculation and the year’s crop is lost —
The Mayan writings have not been fully deciphered, but we know that most of the hieroglyphs refer to dates in the calendar, and these numerals have been translated — It is probable that the other undeciphered symbols refer to the ceremonial calendar — There are only three Mayan codices in existence, one in Dresden, one in Paris, one in Madrid, the others having been burned by Bishop Landa — Mayan is very much a living language and in the more remote villages nothing else is spoken — More routine work — I studied Mayan and listened to it on the tape recorded and mixed Mayan in with English — I made innumerable photomontages of Mayan codices and artifacts — the next step was to find a “vessel” — We sifted through many candidates before settling on a young Mayan worker recently arrived from Yucatan — This boy was about twenty, almost black, with the sloping forehead and curved nose of the ancient Mayans — (The physical type has undergone little alteration) — He was illiterate — He had a history of epilepsy — He was what mediums call a “sensitive” — For another three months I worked with the boy on the tape recorder mixing his speech with mine — (I was quite fluent in Mayan at this point — Unlike Aztec it is an easy language) — It was time now for “the transfer operation” — “I” was to be moved into the body of this young Mayan — The operation is illegal and few are competent to practice it — I was referred to an American doctor who had become a heavy metal addict and lost his certificate — “He is the best transfer artist in the industry” I was told “For a price.”
We found the doctor in a dingy office in the Avenida Cinco de Mayo — He was a thin grey man who flickered in and out of focus like an old film — I told him what I wanted and he looked at me from a remote distance without warmth or hostility or any emotion I had ever experienced in myself or seen in another — He nodded silently and ordered the Mayan boy to strip, and ran practiced fingers over his naked body — The doctor picked up a box-like instrument with electrical attachments and moved it slowly up and down the boy’s back from the base of the spine to the neck — The instrument clicked like a Geiger counter — The doctor sat down and explained to me that the operation was usually performed with “the hanging technique” — The patient’s neck is broke and during the orgasm that results he passes into the other body — This method, however, was obsolete and dangerous — For the operation to succeed you must work with a pure vessel who has not been subject to parasitic invasion — Such subjects are almost impossible to find in present time he stated flatly — his cold grey eyes flicked across the young Mayan’s naked body: “This subject is riddled with parasites — If I were to employ the barbarous method used by some of my learned colleagues — (nameless assholes) — you would be eaten body and soul by crab parasites — My technique is quite different — I operate with molds — Your body will remain here intact in deep freeze — On your return, if you do return, you can have it back” — He looked pointedly at my stomach sagging from sedentary city life — “You could do with a stomach tuck, young man — But one thing at a time — The transfer operation will take some weeks — And I warn you it will be expensive.”