Jimmy Fazzino – Inside the Whale: William Burroughs and the World


by Jimmy Fazzino

This essay has been peer-reviewed by the boundary 2 editorial collective


A Tale of Two Whales

Call Me Burroughs: A Life, Barry Miles’s landmark biography of William S. Burroughs, takes its name from a 1965 spoken word album, the first of many Burroughs would record over the course of his long and prolific life. Miles, then a co-owner of London’s Indica Bookshop, was in charge of the album’s UK distribution. “He made more records than most rock groups,” writes Miles (2013: 629). And later in life this “literary outlaw”[1] would become a rock star of sorts. Returning to the United States in 1974 after a quarter century of living abroad, he followed Allen Ginsberg’s example and began a “new career” of public readings (514). These engagements helped solidify Burroughs’s status as a countercultural icon; they also showcased the performative dimensions of his work. For those familiar with Burroughs’s singular drawl, which became even more pronounced onstage, it is impossible to read him without hearing that voice. It haunts the page. Burroughs is a master ventriloquist, inhabited by many personae, whose voice is best understood as a construction and, at times, a put-on. Establishing a sense of critical distance between author and performance, not easy to do when Burroughs’s performances are so incredibly convincing, is crucial for grasping his project as a writer. In a 1974 interview with David Bowie for Rolling Stone, he indicates the ultimate stakes of this project while gesturing toward a deeper performativity of writing when he says, “Writing is seeing how close you can come to making it happen, that’s the object of all art,” adding, “I think the most important thing in the world is that the artists should take over this planet because they’re the only ones who can make anything happen.”[2]

It is fitting that Miles should borrow his book’s title from Burroughs, repurposing what was already an adaptation of the most famous opening line in all of US literature. This nod to the détournement of Burroughs’s writing practices, epitomized by the “cut-up” experiments of the 1960s, is also an implicit argument for Burroughs’s place in literary history. When Beat Generation writers—and the question of whether Burroughs was a “Beat” inevitably arises—get talked about at all in relation to literary history, they are usually confined to a distinctly American tradition stemming from nineteenth-century American Renaissance writers like Melville. (Burroughs did share an appreciation for Melville with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and when the latter two were students at Columbia, the English faculty happened to include Raymond Weaver, who had discovered the unpublished manuscript of Billy Budd and helped restore Melville’s reputation.) Beat writing continues mainly to be read and studied “domestically”—that is to say, as a latter-day manifestation of Emersonian individualism, Whitmanian populism and frankness, and Thoreau’s anti-materialist gospel.

Burroughs himself consistently rejected the Beat label, but if public disavowal were enough, then one would have to exclude Kerouac and many others besides. Miles’s biography in no way privileges or gives prominence to the Beat years, treating them as one phase among many in the long, strange trajectory of Burroughs’s life. Miles does trace an evolution in the author’s thoughts regarding the Beat movement, writing that while “previously he had always distanced himself from the Beat Generation,” upon his return to the States, “He now claimed Kerouac as a friend, even though they had been estranged for the last decade of Kerouac’s life. He recognized Ginsberg’s role in shaping his career and helped him to rehabilitate the Beat Generation and give it its rightful place—as Allen saw it—in the pantheon of American letters.” Burroughs had by this time become an “elder statesman” (Miles 2013: 513) of the whole counterculture that the Beats helped launch.

One of Burroughs’s earliest sustained attempts at writing, the 1945 novella And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, he cowrote with Kerouac, and his eventual career as a writer is practically unthinkable without the support of Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs’s first agent and his most vociferous booster. In fact, most of the early work (classics like Junky and Naked Lunch) has its origins in letters to Ginsberg. Ultimately, such questions as “was Burroughs a Beat?” should be a secondary concern, although I happen to think that he can be productively read alongside Kerouac and Ginsberg, Diane di Prima and Amiri Baraka, Gregory Corso, Philip Lamantia, and a host of writers and artists called, however equivocally, “Beat.” In my own work this has meant a more careful reckoning of the transnational sources and contexts of the Beat movement as a whole.

The Beats traveled widely and produced some of their most important works abroad. (Ginsberg: Kaddish, Kerouac: Mexico City Blues, Gregory Corso: Happy Birthday of Death, which includes the epochal poem “Bomb,” Burroughs: Junky, Queer, Naked Lunch, the Nova trilogy, just to name a few). This distance from home is precisely what opens up a space for all sorts of unexpected connections and crossings to arise in their work. And it turns out that Beat writers were profoundly engaged with the world at large, particularly colonial, postcolonial, and third world. Living and writing in places like Morocco, Mali, India, and Latin America (and centers of imperial power like Paris and London) at the great moment of decolonization across the globe, the Beats were more than just tourists. They could be very attuned to the immediate and usually fraught political situations unfolding around them, although it takes a certain kind of worlded reading practice to unearth these subterranean concerns in their work. For Burroughs in particular, it seems that his calling as a writer is predicated on leaving the United States behind. He turns out to be Ahab, not Ishmael, and the quest for his white whale—the “final fix,” as he first calls it in Junky (1953)—leads him all over the world.

Accordingly, some of the best recent scholarship on writers in the Beat orbit has taken a transnationalist approach of one kind or another. This includes Timothy Gray’s (2006) Gary Snyder and the Pacific Rim and Rachel Adams’s (2009) Continental Divides. Adams argues that Kerouac is a quintessentially “continental” writer, while Hassan Melehy (2016) figures Kerouac as a Deleuzian nomad of the Québécois diaspora in Kerouac: Language, Poetics, and Territory. Todd Tietchen’s (2010) Cubalogues examines the impact that Castro’s Cuba had on Lawrence Ferlinghetti, LeRoi Jones, and Allen Ginsberg, all of whom visited the island in the years just following the revolution, and Brian Edwards’s (2005) Morocco Bound addresses the topic of Cold War orientalism in part by locating Burroughs’s Tangier writing within a persistent set of tropes surrounding Arab North Africa and demonstrating the ways in which Burroughs both exceeds and gets “trapped” by orientalist discourse. A number of related currents in Beat studies have converged in the volume The Transnational Beat Generation, edited by Nancy M. Grace and Jennie Skerl (2012), and collectively they lead to these conclusions: the Beats represent a transnational literary and cultural movement par excellence, and the study of Beat writing can shed new light not just on the transnationalism of US literary history but on the meaning of the transnational itself.

So Miles’s title might turn out to be a red herring altogether. What if the whale in question isn’t the one who destroyed the Pequod but the one who swallowed up the prophet Jonah—the same one George Orwell invokes in his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale”? Chiefly a meditation on the proper relationship between art and politics in an age of totalitarianism, Orwell’s essay singles out for praise the work of American expatriate writer Henry Miller, who stands in sharp contrast to the “committed” writers of the day. In both spirit and style, Miller is a forerunner of the Beat Generation. Fans of Kerouac’s Big Sur (where Miller lived for two decades) are likely to regard their missed dinner date (Kerouac got drunk that night and never made it out of San Francisco) as one of the great lost opportunities of American letters. Along with Howl and Naked Lunch, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer became another milestone in the fight against censorship in the United States when the US Supreme Court declared it not obscene in 1964. Because of their affinities, Miller gets read in similar, and similarly reductive, ways as the Beats, and Orwell’s essay sets the tone for these later readings. It also points beyond them, offering by extension a fresh way to look at Beat writing in general and Burroughs’s work in particular. Finally, Orwell’s whale suggests an idiosyncratic image of transnationalism as worlding and a means of navigating some of the impasses that have grown up around the so-called “transnational turn” in the humanities.

Like Miller, Orwell had lived dead broke in Paris in the early 1930s, but his description of the experience in Down and Out in Paris and London is more akin to the reportage of Orwell’s own Road to Wigan Pier than to anything in Tropic of Cancer. That notwithstanding, he admired Miller’s work and championed it at a time when Miller was known only to a cognoscenti, who, like T. S. Eliot, had gotten hold of a copy printed in France by Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press. (After the war, his son Maurice Girodias changed the name to Olympia Press and would go on to publish The Naked Lunch, as the 1959 first edition of Burroughs’s novel was called.) In his essay on Miller, Orwell frames his discussion of Miller with the story of their first meeting. It was 1936, and Orwell was on his way to Spain to serve the Republican cause, which Miller bluntly told him was “the act of an idiot.” Orwell recounts, “He could understand anyone going there from purely selfish motives, out of curiosity, for instance, but to mix oneself up in such things from a sense obligation was sheer stupidity” (2009: 129-30).

After Spain, where Orwell was branded a Trotskyite and a fascist and forced to flee, he comes to agree, or at least sympathize, with Miller’s basic position. Moreover, he concludes that a literature of utter passivity and complete acceptance is far preferable, and more honest, than high-minded and resolutely political writing from the likes of Auden and Spender. In a world of such turmoil and flux, any art attaching itself to a cause, or worse yet a party, is doomed to failure. To capture the full extent of Miller’s detachment, Orwell borrows an image that Miller himself once used to describe good friend Anaïs Nin: he compares her “to Jonah in the whale’s belly.” Orwell writes:

And however it may be with Anaïs Nin, there is no question that Miller himself is inside the whale. All his best and most characteristic passages are written from the angle of Jonah, a willing Jonah. Not that he is especially introverted—quite the contrary. In his case the whale happens to be transparent. Only he feels no impulse to alter or control the process that he is undergoing. He has performed the essential Jonah act of allowing himself to be swallowed, remaining passive, accepting.

“Short of death,” Orwell calls this “the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility” (132), but the implication is that sometimes irresponsibility is more principled than its opposite. The complexity of Orwell’s figuration lies in the dialectical twist whereby Miller is trapped in the belly of the whale, but the whale is transparent. I want to formulate things slightly differently and instead say that he is inside the whale, but the whale happens to contain the entire world. Read against the grain of its original intent, the whale becomes an image not of separation but of worlded connectedness. It points to an alternative, monist strain of worlded thought that appears everywhere in Beat writing and runs counter to the Beats’ supposed isolationism and indifference to the wider world.

Ahab’s white whale as blank screen or “empty cipher” is akin to what some critics fear has become the transcendent sameness of the transnational. The prominent Americanist Donald Pease speaks for them when he remarks that in its rise to become a dominant paradigm transnationalism writ large has “exercised a monopoly of assimilative power that has enabled it to subsume and replace competing spatial and temporal orientations—including multicultural American studies, borderlands critique, and postcolonial American studies—within an encompassing geopolitics of knowledge” (2011: 1). Worse yet, this shift toward the “unmarked” space of the transnational mirrors and recapitulates the same global flows of capital and corporate power that transnationalist critics want to interrogate (10).[3] Transnationalism as worlding, however, with its counter-hegemonic animus, its emphasis on materiality, on local histories and lived experience, and its attention to the always uneven encounter between the local and the global, is particularly well-suited to retain the lessons of older critical formations, especially postcolonial theory. With roots in Spivak’s planetarity and Said’s global-materialist outlook, worlding privileges precisely those “peripheralized geographies and diasporic populations” that, for Pease, have been marked and marginalized by the transnational (10).

Miller’s whale is more like worlding’s messy immanence—its belly a subterranean space that supplies what Ginsberg has called “the bottom-up vision of society” (in Raskin 2004: xiv), or what cultural historian David Pike characterizes as “the view from below” (2005: 8-12). The world as such is an oppositional term that upholds the local and the contingent in the face of the deracinating transcendence of global space. At its core, worlding entails a dialectic of near and far; it adopts the in-between-ness of James Clifford’s “translocal” sense of cultural adaptation (see in particular 1997) and Rob Wilson’s global/local (Wilson and Dissanayake 1996; Wilson 2000). Lawrence Buell (2007) associates these shifting spatial scales with the planetary “ecoglobalism” of environmental writers and activists, for the world/planet is fundamentally an ecological vision of a world-organism: earth as ecos (“home”) and lived space. Via the Beat ecopoetics of Gary Snyder, the etymology of “eco-” as oikos (house, family) is made worldly and worlded in Earth House Hold, Snyder’s 1969 collection of “Technical Notes and Queries to Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries.” That is to say, the lived, material experience of the near-at-hand (one’s “household”) is, in Snyder’s conception, the necessary ground upon which one might imagine communal ties that run much deeper than the nation (oikos as earth/planet). The world, then, becomes a necessary “third term,” as Christopher Connery has labeled it (2007: 3), preserving the local within the global as it confronts the relentless logic of East-West, colonialism-nationalism, communist-capitalist, self-other.

Along with Spivak and Said, Immanuel Wallerstein and his pathbreaking “world-systems analysis” are part of a recognizable and increasingly consolidated canon of worlded thought. I want to hold on to their classic formulations of the worlded world even as I open up to a more expansive genealogy that comprises poetry, philosophy, and the sciences in addition to literary and cultural theory and criticism. Wallerstein makes a crucial distinction when defining “world-system.” He writes that “a world-system not is the system of the world, but a system that is a world and that can be, most often had been, located in an area less than the entire globe” (2004: 98). The world indicated by Wallerstein’s world-system is neither identical to nor coterminous with the world as empirical object (Wallerstein uses “globe” to mean the latter). It is thus a non-totalizing totality, a totality in the Marxian sense: that is to say, a critical concept that functions descriptively but also works to denaturalize what it describes. Just as our “species-being” is determined by, yet exceeds, the “totality of social relations” under the prevailing economic system. As Lukács points out, for Marx the totality itself is dialectical; it is precisely the universality of capitalism that sets the stage for the universal liberation of proletarian revolution. (Transferring things from base to superstructure, Peter Bürger will make an analogous argument when he writes that it is only after the Aestheticists declare the supremacy of “art for art’s sake” that avant-garde movements like Dada can come along and attempt to negate any distinction between art and life.) Wallerstein’s differentiation between a conceptual world and an empirical globe points to the dual nature of world as both physical and figural, topological and tropological. And the space opened up by this distinction is what makes the worlded imaginary possible.

The Marxian world-system as non-totalizing totality means that civilization progresses in dialectical fashion from one world to the next (e.g., from the feudal world to the capitalist world). But what if multiple worlds, an infinite number of worlds, can exist simultaneously? This is the conclusion to draw from the work of biologist and proto-posthumanist Jakob von Uexküll, whose concept of Umwelt (environment, life-world) posits that each species’s sensorium is fundamentally unique and constitutes a world unto itself. In Uexküll’s most enduring work, A Foray into the Worlds (Umwelten) of Animals and Humans (1934), he asks readers to take an imaginary stroll with him:

We begin such a stroll on a sunny day before a flowering meadow in which insects buzz and butterflies flutter, and we make a bubble around each of the animals living in the meadow. The bubble represents each animal’s environment and contains all the features accessible to the subject. As soon as we enter into one such bubble, the previous surroundings of the subject are completely reconfigured. Many qualities of the colorful meadow vanish completely, others lose their coherence with one another, and new connections are created. A new world arises in each bubble. (2010: 43 [emphasis added])

The author will emphasize the salutary estrangement involved in such a pursuit when he writes, “Only when we can vividly imagine this fact [of the “bubbles”] will we recognize in our own world the bubble that encloses each and every one of us on all sides” (70). Uexküll’s perspective, which radically decenters human consciousness and imagines a dense, rhizomic web of inputs and interactions among all life forms, is picked up by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus and has come back to the fore in the field of animal studies and among today’s theorists of a posthuman biopolitics.

This talk of worlds and bubbles is strangely reminiscent of Leibniz even, whose rationalist abstractions seem miles away from Uexküll’s empiricist phenomenology. Yet Leibniz’s “monad” is but the metaphysical counterpart to Uexküll’s model of ecological interdependence. On the surface, the self-sufficient monad—a substance without windows or doors, as Leibniz puts it—seems to be an image of extreme isolation, but the exact opposite is true. His “monadology” only works because we live in a universe where everything is connected to everything else and everything affects everything else; transculturally speaking, it is a version of Indra’s net. The philosopher writes, “This interconnection or accommodation of all created things to each other, and each to all the others, brings it about that each simple substance [i.e., monad] has relations that express all the others, and consequently, that each simple substance is a perpetual, living mirror of the universe” (1989: 220). Leibniz also plays on the tension between singularity and multiplicity inherent in the monad, and like Uexküll he is interested in perspective, writing, “Just as the same city viewed from different directions appears entirely different and, as it were, multiplied perspectively, in just the same way it happens that, because of the infinite multitude of simple substances, there are, as it were, just as many different universes, which are, nevertheless, only perspectives on a single one, corresponding to the different points of view of each monad” (221).

In “Inside the Whale,” Orwell ponders the idea of “books that ‘create a world of their own,’ as the saying goes”—books that, like Tropic of Cancer, “open up a new world not by revealing what is strange, but by revealing what is familiar” (2009: 11). Burroughs’s Junky presents itself as exposé of the junk world (where there are not only junky habits and junky lingo but junk time and “junk cells” with their own “junk metabolism”). Ginsberg plays up this junk world in an early preface he wrote for the novel, which he promises will reveal a “vast underground life” and a “world of horrors.” The final pages of Junky prepare readers for the yagé world, which will soon become the world of Interzone in Naked Lunch, and so on. These are all instantiations of a “world-horizon come near” that Rob Wilson writes about in The Worlding Project (2007: 212). The zero degree formulation of the world-horizon in Beat writing is Dean Moriarty’s ecstatic “It’s the world! My God! It’s the world!” near the end of Kerouac’s On the Road, uttered after Sal and Dean cross the Mexican border. Such sweeping gestures always run the risk of erasing difference in the name of an essential oneness across time and space, but their sublime expansiveness is what also leads Beat writers to a more grounded or “situated” understanding of their world-historical moment of decolonization and Cold War geopolitics. This is especially true for Burroughs, whose worlded imaginary gives rise to complex textual geographies.

Worlding Burroughs

Barry Miles has been a prolific chronicler of the counterculture. I first encountered his work when I read The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957–1963 (2000). His still authoritative account of the Beats in Paris, much of which gets reprised in the “City of Light” section of Call Me Burroughs, has proven indispensable to understanding those years of fertile experiment at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur, especially Burroughs’s intense collaboration with painter and writer Brion Gysin, whom he had met in Tangier but didn’t really connect with until Paris. Despite the earlier book’s strengths, in Beat Hotel Miles makes a key claim that seems to me to encapsulate the most reductive tendencies of so much Beat scholarship. Describing Burroughs’s experience of Paris and his refusal to humor Ginsberg by joining him on trips to museums and sightseeing excursions, Miles writes that “his was more a landscape of ideas, and in many ways he could have been living anywhere” (2000: 160). A theme running through Beat Hotel figures Paris as a missed opportunity for Burroughs and the other Beat writers living there. It turns out, for example, that Burroughs was oblivious to the presence of the Lettrist/Situationist group who also made the Latin Quarter their base of operations and were engaging in similarly provocative textual experiments. The parallel evolution of the cut-up method alongside the Situationist practice of détournement is really quite remarkable, evidence that the Beats were soaking up similar energies and looking to common ancestors in Dada and Surrealism.

The “landscape of ideas” thesis becomes more problematic when applied to Burroughs’s oeuvre. It means that a prominent setting like the Interzone of Naked Lunch gets read as a nightmarish abstraction or drug-induced hallucination rather than the satirical depiction of Tangier in the years immediately preceding and following Moroccan independence that it is. Since Miles’s Beat Hotel was first published, scholarship on Burroughs has made a spatial turn mirroring the “transnational turn” in literary and cultural studies more broadly. Brian Edwards, Oliver Harris, Allen Hibbard, and others have recently sought to restore a sense of place to the study of Burroughs’s work. These developments are echoed in the structure of Call Me Burroughs, which suggests a spatial turn in Miles’s thinking as well. His biography is organized chiefly by locale, with discrete sections on St. Louis (where Burroughs was born and raised), Mexico, New York, Tangier, London, and Lawrence, Kansas (where he lived for sixteen years before his death there in 1997), making Call Me Burroughs an itinerary as much as a chronology of the author’s life and work.

Call Me Burroughs is not the first biography of the author that Miles has written. That would be William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible, a slimmer volume published in 1992 that serves as a blueprint for the later book. (Miles inherited the project to write a follow-up from Burroughs’s longtime agent and partner James Grauerholz, who had compiled a vast archive but could not complete the undertaking.) The moniker refers to the persona Burroughs acquired while strung out on opiates in Tangier. In Call Me Burroughs, Miles writes:

He was famously known as el hombre invisible to the Spanish boys in Tangier; this came from a conscious effort on his part to blend in so well that people would not see him, as well as the fact that, in his junk phase, he was gray and spectral-looking. … Bill practiced getting from the Villa Muniria to the place de France without being seen. He walked down the street, his eyes swiveling, checking everybody out. … Sometimes he could get through a whole line of guides without anyone seeing him, which in Tangier is a very good test. (2013: 296)

The invisible Burroughs is unattached, non-aligned, and where Miles might have used the image to show how it gives the author’s work from and about Tangier a greater critical purchase, which it certainly does, Miles uses it instead to paper over the complexities of Burroughs’s attitude toward the momentous events that were unfolding around him. It is odd that in a book that assumes a kind of politics on Burroughs’s part—tied to a critique of power and language (its “viral” carrier) and a sincere belief in the potential of transgressive writing practices like the cut-up method “to do something about it” (335)—mostly sidesteps the much-debated question of the author’s “Moroccan politics.” In the pages just preceding the description of Burroughs cited above, Miles quotes a long passage from Naked Lunch dealing with the rise of nationalism in Morocco; he also quotes from the complicated and richly performative “Jihad Jitters” letter to Ginsberg (dated October 29, 1956, also the date of Tangier’s integration into Morocco—i.e., the end of the International Zone). But rather than follow this up with an acknowledgement of the difficult issues being raised in these texts, Miles cuts to el hombre invisible and thus performs a disappearing act of his own.

Readers of Naked Lunch are vexed by what seems like the author’s inability or unwillingness to confront the realities of Moroccan independence and the end of the International Zone. Those who read Naked Lunch through the earlier Yage Letters, as the palimpsestic nature of both texts demands, may instead see a complex engagement with colonial legacies in the Maghreb and around the world. Initially conceived as “Naked Lunch, Book III: In Search of Yage” (Junky and Queer were books I and II), Burroughs’s epistolary account details his 1953 trek through the upper Amazon in search of the mythical hallucinogen ayahuasca, or yagé.[4] He arrived in Bogotá in the midst of Colombia’s long-simmering civil war, and Yage Letters is full of barely concealed political content. The centerpiece of Yage is Burroughs’s expansive, even utopian, ayahuasca vision of a great Composite City “where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market” (2006: 50). Language and imagery from the Composite City sequence will reappear throughout his later works, notably in Naked Lunch, where the passage is reproduced nearly verbatim; the Composite City becomes the Interzone while still retaining its earlier referents and resonances from Yage. South America becomes North Africa, and similar examples proliferate across an oeuvre that, as Burroughs once told an interviewer, is “all one book” (1989: 86). Recognizing these resonances and mapping the composite geographies and composite texts they produce just might be the key to answering some persistently thorny questions that surround Burroughs’s work.

Burroughs’s Moroccan politics are equivocal, to be sure, but in Yage Letters he displays no such ambiguity. Through Lee, his epistolary alter ego, Burroughs repeatedly expresses his solidarity with the Liberals against the Conservatives, whom he aligns with the “dead weight of Spain” (2006: 10). The predation described throughout Yage is characteristically, for Burroughs, set in sexual terms but represents world-historical forces, which appear as the not-so-hidden underbelly of Wallerstein’s world-system, or a sinister variation on Wai Chee Dimock’s “deep time.” After his first, failed trek into Colombia’s Putumayo region, Burroughs recounts:

On my way back to Bogota with nothing accomplished. I have been conned by medicine men (the most inveterate drunk, liar and loafer in the village is invariably the medicine man), incarcerated by the law, rolled by a local hustler (I thought I was getting that innocent backwoods ass, but the kid had been to bed with six American oil men, a Swedish Botanist, a Dutch Ethnographer, a Capuchin father known locally as The Mother Superior, a Bolivian Trotskyite on the lam, and jointly fucked by the Cocoa Commission and Point Four). Finally I was prostrated by malaria. (16)

Not only have the power relations between predator and prey been inverted in Burroughs’s getting ripped off by the “local hustler,” but in one long parenthetical aside he lays bare the entire colonial and postcolonial history of oppression and exploitation in the Americas: economic, political, religious, and otherwise. And by including the “Swedish Botanist” and “Dutch Ethnographer” in his litany, he even foregrounds the notion of scientific knowledge as an epistemological violence that his own narrative is attempting to circumvent. It should come as no surprise that he recasts this history in terms of sexual violation. Both as an individual—“I thought I was getting that sweet backwoods ass”—and as an American citizen, Burroughs, through the persona (Lee) that emerges in his narration of Yage, writes himself into this chronicle of domination and abuse. The force of Burroughs’s critique derives in equal measure from his complicity and from the critical distance provided by his status as an “exile.”

At one point in the narrative, prevented from leaving the town of Puerto Asís while his tourist card is set in order, Lee muses, “If I was an active Liberal what could I do … aside from taking the place over at gun point? (2006: 22-23), implying that he is one in spirit or sympathy and that it wouldn’t take much to force him over the line. Later on in Yage Burroughs writes, “What we need is a new Bolivar who will really get the job done” (38). Burroughs’s statement is echoed in a (real) letter written to Ginsberg from South America: “Wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up with the Liberal guerillas” (1994: 159) which also anticipates his “Jihad Jitters” routine. Reflecting on the possibility of rioting and revolution in the streets of Tangier in a letter to Ginsberg dated October 29, 1956, Burroughs writes, “If they stage a jihad I’m gonna wrap myself in a dirty sheet and rush out to do some jihading of my own” (339).[5] He tells him earlier in the letter, “The possibility of an all-out riot is like a tonic, like ozone in the air. … I have no nostalgia for the old days in Morocco, which I never saw. Right now is for me” (337), and in a subsequent dispatch meant to allay Kerouac’s fears about his upcoming trip to Morocco, he presses, “I will say it again and say it slow: TANGER IS AS SAFE AS ANY TOWN I EVER LIVE IN. … ARABS ARE NOT VIOLENT. … Riots are the accumulated, just resentment of a people subjected to outrageous brutalities by the French cops used to strew blood and teeth over a city block in the Southern Zone” (349). At moments like these Burroughs is clearly sympathetic to the Moroccans’ anticolonial aspirations and their right to self-determination, but he can also be cynical and mocking. In Naked Lunch he portrays imagined riots as grotesque orgies of violence, yet even here Burroughs’s kaleidoscope of obscene violence is meant, as it was for Beat hero Antonin Artaud, to shock his audience out of its moral complacency and to confront the West with its original sin of imperialism.

Thinking transnationally means thinking about and beyond borders of all kinds, and Burroughs’s work keeps transgression front and center. Transnationalism as worlding is interested in transgressive acts; at the same time, it seeks to be transgressive: counterhegemonic, reading against the grain, writing against Empire and globalization transcendent. These last are tricky business, as Pease and others have noted, and a worlded critique needs to account for its own entanglements. Where transgression is concerned, one must ask who has the privilege, authority, and power to transgress—who gets denied passage, is the crossing undertaken willingly, and to what ends? Derrida claims in Rogues that transgression and sovereignty are always linked, and Beat writers, primarily though by no means exclusively white and male and carrying US passports, were at liberty to move about in the world in a way that most others are not. But it turns out that by and large the Beats were hip to these dynamics as well, making strategic use of their privilege in order to thematize cultural difference and comment incisively on Cold War geopolitics.

The performance of transgression is a productive way to read Burroughs because for him crossing physical borders always seems to precipitate other kinds of breakthroughs. In particular, Burroughs’s “travel writing” throws into sharp relief legacies of western imperialism and the United States’ expanding postwar footprint abroad: every travelogue is also about home. Travel writing in the West came into its own during the age of discovery and is closely linked to colonialism and the modern world-system.[6] In Yage Letters, the author describes being mistaken for “a representative of the Texas Oil Company traveling incognito” and thus “treated like visiting royalty.” He explains that the “Texas Oil Company surveyed the area a few years ago, found no oil and pulled out. But everyone in the Putumayo believes the Texas Company will return. Like the second coming of Christ” (2006: 24). What reads as a statement mocking the childlike faith of the locals is in fact directed against a long history of exploitation and oppression, an unbroken chain from the Spanish missionaries to United Fruit. And while he doesn’t seem to mind the benefits his mistaken identity afford him—he fails to correct anyone, after all—he uses these instances of misprision to launch a critique of US military and economic policy in Latin America.

In Burroughs’s writing, the author’s own privilege is consistently figured in the recurring type of the “ugly American,” a stock character who first appears in the routines of Queer and manifests a particularly virulent form in Naked Lunch with the characters Clem and Jody. But even where they appear identical with the author himself, the ugly American remains a textual construction on Burroughs’s part. As Oliver Harris argues, Burroughs is playing the ugly American. It may come off all too naturally, but it is a performance nonetheless. In Call Me Burroughs Miles writes about Burroughs’s long-held belief that he was inhabited by what he called the “ugly spirit,” a malevolent force that pursued him like a ghost. Miles’s biography opens, in fact, with a sweat lodge ceremony performed late in Burroughs’s life to try to rid him of the spirit once and for all. Burroughs felt that his was an especially difficult case, as Miles recounts:

Burroughs had warned the shaman of the challenge before the ceremony: He “had to face the whole of American capitalism, Rockefeller, the CIA … all of those, particularly Hearst.” Afterward he told Ginsberg, “It’s very much related to the American Tycoon. To William Randolph Hearst, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, that whole stratum of American acquisitive evil. Monopolistic, acquisitive evil. Ugly evil. The ugly American. The ugly American at his ugly worst. That’s exactly what it is.” (2013: 2)

The ugly spirit corresponds on a psychic level to an ugly nation rapaciously at work in the world. “Particularly Hearst” indicates a theme Burroughs often sounds (Henry Luce a common variation): a news monopoly made all the more insidious by his conviction that to control information is to shape reality. The force of Burroughs’s critique derives from the fact that he doesn’t hesitate to implicate himself along the way. A scion of the Burroughs family (his grandfather invented the adding machine), his monthly allowance meant that he was at liberty to pursue writing as a career. Burroughs’s maternal uncle Ivy Lee is “considered to be the founder of public relations” and counted John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Joseph Goebbels among his clients and advisees (12-13). Coming to terms with these personal histories meant grappling with the cause and effect of American power in an American century.

The most profound forms of transgression in Burroughs are textual and have to do with the denaturing of form and genre. Yage Letters is exemplary here as well: although its epistolary presentation promises a direct, unvarnished account of the author’s ordeal in the Amazon, those reading Yage for vicarious drug kicks are likely to be disappointed. The book is about much more, and the “letters” mask a fiction. Large portions of the text did originate in real missives sent to Allen Ginsberg, as did much of Burroughs’s early work—he once notably told Ginsberg, referring to Naked Lunch, “Maybe the real novel is letters to you” (1994: 217)—but by the time Yage is finally published by City Lights in 1963, the text has been thoroughly cut-up and rearranged and redacted. Like so much of the author’s corpus, it has also been marked by a good deal of contingency. Burroughs settled on the epistolary after trying out other forms and genres. One early draft resembled an ethnographic report, and the “final” version of Yage still bears the traces of ethnography, which he lampoons to great effect.

Burroughs had studied anthropology as a graduate student at Harvard in the 1930s and later took classes in Mesoamerican archaeology at Mexico City College. While in South America he even accompanied renowned Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Schultes on one of his Amazon expeditions. It was with Schultes that Burroughs records his first experience taking yagé, and an early, non-epistolary draft of the Yage manuscript looks very much like ethnography. Through this lens, Junky begins to read like ethnography as well (from a participant observer, no less), this one dealing with the heroin subcultures of New York and New Orleans. And readers will recognize something of the anthropological in Burroughs’s later depictions of Interzone, in “The Mayan Caper” episode from The Soft Machine (1966) and in his catalog of The Cities of the Red Night in that later novel.

Like Junky, whose prologue declares, “There is no key, no secret someone else has that he can give you,” Yage reveals and withholds simultaneously; Burroughs “scientific” account of ayahuasca and the rituals surrounding it may be as much a fiction as the letters themselves. Its opening lines suggest as much: Lee begins, “I stopped off here [Panamá] to have my piles out. Wouldn’t do to go back among the Indians with piles I figured” (2006, 3). With this frank admission, suggests Harris, the narrator immediately relinquishes any claim to objective distance or impartiality in what follows (2006a: xxv). At a deeper level, what this too-personal tale calls into question is the entire notion of scientific objectivity and transparent ethnographic knowledge. With Yage Burroughs anticipates the breakthroughs of poststructuralist anthropology by some years, whose practitioners (e.g., James Clifford, Clifford Geertz) would seek to account for the power differential inherent in the relationship between observer and subject, questioning the ideological assumptions that shape all knowledge of the Other.[7]

For many, “Beat politics” means Allen Ginsberg chanting Hare Krishna at a Vietnam War demonstration. In this context Burroughs’s ethos appears as a non-politics of absolute rejection or disciplined disavowal—the “Absolute ZERO” ([1960] 2001: 208) of the junky that Deleuze fixates on. But, as Deleuze knows, the greatest so-called nihilists (Dostoevsky, Nietzsche come to mind) are the most profoundly affirmative, and Burroughs does not share Ahab’s will to death. His affirmation lies in the performative creation of transgressive communities like the whole “wild boys” mythology of the late 1960s and the queer utopias imagined in Cities of the Red Night (1981). In Miles’s biography, Burroughs’s project extends well beyond the written word and emerges as a transformational politics of the everyday. His remark to Bowie that “the artists should take over this planet because they’re the only ones who can make anything happen” is a version of Bürger’s “integration of art into the praxis of life”—the avant-garde attempt to redefine both art and politics simultaneously.

At the heart of Burroughs’s work is a constant vigilance against “Control” in all its aspects. Significantly, these are often figured by Burroughs as a kind of colonization, whether it be the parasite of language (his famous “word virus”), possession by the “ugly spirit,” or a more historically situated encounter. Cities of the Red Night, a beautiful and important book that Burroughs worked on through much of the 1970s, tells the story a loose confederation of sixteenth-century outlaws bent on toppling Spanish and British rule in the Americas. The novel’s layered plot unfolds in the present as well, where a shadowy organization plots world domination from its South American headquarters, and I am again reminded of Artaud, who envisioned a first production of the Theatre of Cruelty to be called The Conquest of Mexico and justified it by writing, “Ce sujet a été choisi … à cause de son actualité” (This subject has been chosen … because it is of the present moment” ([1938] 1964: 196). Poised upon the world-historical moment of decolonization—the constant “present” of Burroughs’s writing—Burroughs is perfectly positioned to launch a postcolonial critique of Empire’s new hegemony.

Miles’s biography came at a propitious moment in Burroughs and Beat studies. In 2014 Burroughs’s centennial year was marked with museum and gallery exhibitions, readings, performances, film screenings, and several major conferences, all proof of his continued relevance not just in the literary world but also among visual and performance artists, musicians, filmmakers, and troublemakers of all kinds. For scholars of Burroughs’s work, the past decade has seen a flowering of historically minded, materially grounded, and theoretically capacious criticism. This has in large measure been made possible by the assiduous research and recovery work of editors, archivists, and critics including Miles, James Grauerholz, Bill Morgan, and especially Oliver Harris, whose recent string of “redux” editions is making legible the labyrinthine textual histories of so much of what Burroughs wrote. Amid these developments, and despite some missed opportunities, Call Me Burroughs will deservedly become the standard reference on the author’s life for scholars and fans alike. Its greatest contribution lies in uncovering the experiences and above all the places that animated a body of work as significant as that of anyone writing in the latter half of the twentieth century.

*          *          *          *          *


[1] The epithet refers to Ted Morgan’s early biography, Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs, first published in 1988.

[2] Bowie, who based his Ziggy Stardust aesthetic in part on Burroughs’s 1969 novel The Wild Boys, is among the many musicians inspired by Burroughs.

[3] Whether one agrees with Pease’s basic contention—and more is at stake, after all, than disciplinary boundaries—probably has something to do with whether one agrees with Hardt and Negri that globalization and Empire’s new order are in fact liberatory because diffuse power engenders proliferating sites and modes of resistance while the totalizing pressure of capital’s global reach brings us that much closer to universal emancipation.

[4] “Naked Lunch, Book III” is the title Burroughs gave when he published the “Composite City” letter in Black Mountain Review in 1953. See Oliver Harris 2006b for a complete textual history.

[5] October 29, 1956, also happened to be the date of Tangier’s official reintegration into a newly independent Morocco and the end of the International Zone.

[6] It was during the Enlightenment that Denis Diderot and the philosophes began to see the critical potential of the travelogue: Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1772) purports to “supplement” the just-published Voyage autour du monde by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe.

[7] James Clifford has written about “ethnographic surrealism,” particularly in relation to Georges Bataille and the Documents group.


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