Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius ?
At supper ! Where ?
Not where he eats, but where he’s eaten : a certain
convocation of politic worms are e’en at him.
Your worm is your only emperor for diet : we fat
all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
maggots : your fat king and your lean beggar is but
variable service, – two dishes, but to one table :
that’s the end.
Alas, alas !
A man may fish with the worm that hath eaten of a
king, and eat the fish that hath fed of that worm.
What dost thou mean by this ?
Nothing but to show you how a king may go a
progress through the guts of a beggar.
Where is Polonius ?”
Hamlet, Act IV, Scene III.
Not a whit, we defy augury : there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
‘tis not to come ; if it be not to come, it will be
now ; if it be not now, yet it will come : the readi-
ness is all : since no man knows aught of what he
leaves, what is’t to leave betimes ? Let be.
Hamlet, Act V, scene II.
The way in is the way out
(I started taking notes for an article about Burroughs in 2008…)
We could first approach our question in the style of literary criticism. Just for the sake of clarity:
Who – and what – is the Subject of Burroughs’ writing?
This question, in its treacherous generality, is already scrambled by trying to transform the subject of a reading into the reader as a subject, object of itself, against himself. Possessed as he maybe, the Subject has to be avoided, and the only possible way for Him to be, is to first to be divided, then to divide it, turning it against himself… Possessing the possessed, writing a way out after you just shoot yourself inside. But that “inside”, the Subject, indeed never existed…
In between Junky and Naked Launch the Subject has changed. The strategy was suddenly “radicalized”. The Subject was at the beginning – in Junky’s narrative – the Object. The experience of junk was reflected in a pleasant narrative fashion: the Subject, Burroughs “himself”, was the object of the story. However, he was already the Subject as the Object – junk – (subject to the object). In Burroughs’ writing, this Object operates as the “metaphor” for every other object: Junk, the general equivalent. The junkie is the essence of junk just as the worker is the essence of value. (The original title of his first novel was indeed Junk and not Junky).
The Subject in Naked Lunch explodes.
Nevertheless, the truth is that this change didn’t happen at a precise moment, for example, in between one experience of writing and another, one book and the next. What happened though is that the experience of junk, which is an alienated experience like any other, became conscious. But is junk truly just another experience? And, even if the Moment of lucidity, that frozen instant in which we see what’s on the tip of our fork (Kerouac on Naked Lunch), is not a precise quantifiable moment, isn’t it a more precise experience?
What, then, is the Experience of the Subject?
Control and Possession are two major poles of Burroughs’ writing. They are two names for an experience that discovers a void at the core of itself – the fiction at the place of the Subject. But, fiction can only take the place of the Subject when the reality of the Subject was already a fiction. Fiction then accounts for the truest experience of Reality.
This is when Interzone comes onto the scene. It is a fiction that also tells of the impossible experience of the exploded Subject. IT – HE or SHE – the subject, is nothing but a fiction. When exploded, he also becomes other than Itself, other than fiction. IT becomes “real” – part of a “reality” in which fiction can be as real as fantasy, which is what some call “reality”. Scrambled reality is a more serious pragmatic approach than any plain mechanical empiricism. Then, the SUBJECT becomes aware of the Fact that IT is but a wanderer in the composite city.
A Vision in the labyrinth is also a Vision of the labyrinth. A part can account for the whole as long as we realize that there’s no more totality – no more whole as a totality. The experience is not mystical any more because the revelation cannot be achieved. The Vision remains partial. The consciousness of reality as a self-conscious experience – the intuition of Interzone – the composite city – can always fade away. Self-consciousness cannot chase the double of its shadow – Unconsciousness – as its own possibility. It is not the case that once oriented in the Interzone, the Subject gets lost again. Rather, the possibility of orientation in the Interzone means one is already disorientated. Disorientation is a moment in which orientation, recognition, and consciousness may happen. However, this doesn’t mean it has to happen. The possibility of experience also means that it may never occur.
(This is an article I thought about writing first on grounds of an experience I had…)
Writing, and reading: possession and being possessed. The difference between both – which may be illusory – is Reason. The pen in contact with the paper on one side, and the hand on the other side is just like an hypodermic needle… or a gun. The way in is the way out. All of these “tools”, the pen, the hypodermic syringe, and the gun, are moments in which the “subject” experience its being-exploded [It experiences his being as a being-exploded], possessed, and controlled. But he – she, or it – also experience the possibility to challenge control and possession. Van Gogh’s death is not any more an allegory of such an experience, but its literal impossibility: possession came upon him – a storm of black crows over the corn fields – there was only the gun to shoot a way out. A deadly garden of gunfire shots – an experience of the impossible directed against himself (in van Gogh’s case), but also directed against the other, the beloved one (in Burroughs’ case):
“I live with the constant threat of possession and a constant need to escape from possession, from control, so the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit; and maneuvered me into a life long struggle in which I have had no choice except to write my way out”. (Queer, Prologue 1986)
When escaping from what you cannot escape, you become the Persecuted one – not the Paranoid who is maybe not being followed, but the writer who had the experience of Interzone, that gray zone where we are indeed all being followed…
The experience of Interzone, the exploded-subject (and with it, the possibility of something like the experiment of Naked Lunch), is also the barely concealed secret of The search for yagé. It is the ultimate poem that, with the devil ‘in between’, cannot be finished. Interzone, the composite city, is an extended vision of the impossible dialectics between the land and the city… It not a contradiction in terms but the ‘in between’ of all possible terms: The King, the Queen, Hamlet and Laertes all died in the same action. Literally and symbolically, the moment of their actions is an ‘in between’, a qualification of time that gets beyond time itself – an interregnum.
The way in is the way out. In 1953 while in Colombia, the experience of yagé showed Burroughs a path in the labyrinth: the vision of the composite city, Interzone – a different way to write the way out – to escape from control and possession by multiplying the subject, erasing the center… In order to become a double of your shadow, you have to have already escaped from the boundaries traced by space and time, the boundaries of grammar and Aristotelian logic. Korzybski gave Burroughs a hint on the possible logic for the experience of Vision.
The question of the vision in so-called “visionary-experiences” is more precisely the question of the synaesthetic experience. The vision is a sound, the sound is a feeling, the feeling is an intuition that could grab you by the throat before you could even describe what is looking at you, looking from the blind spot all you can see, think and imagine is happening. How to write about it? Better, how to write it? Who can indeed do it? For sure, it is not simply a Subject to write about…In this sense, writing can be, at the same time, a figure of this “experience” and the experience itself.
While he was looking for the final fix in Colombia, what happened to Burroughs to make him start to reconsider his whole writing strategy? The experience of yagé? There are a couple excellent accounts on the essential link ‘in between’ this experience and his writing.
So, in a way, the question of the Vision becomes the experience of writing as a way to change the meaning of signs: writing wasn’t just another job but life itself – a way to deal with movement.
But this all still sounds quite anecdotal. Yeah, ok, he was in Colombia, he drank yagé and that experience contributed to the shaping of his art. Nevertheless, the implicit political statement of TheYagé Letters is that ayahuascais is indeed a powerful “tool”, so to speak, against control. The intuition that closes the last page of Junky, already anticipating a still more ironic and sarcastic sense of humor, was indeed more accurate than Burroughs himself thought:
“Like a man who has being away a long time, you see things different when you return from junk.
I read about a drug called yagé, used by Indians in the headwaters of the Amazon. Yagé is supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity. A Colombian scientist isolated from yagé a drug he called telepatine.
I know from my own experience that telepathy is a fact. I have no interest in proving telepathy or anything to anybody. I do want usable knowledge of telepathy. What I look for in any relationship is contact on the non-verbal level of intuition and feeling, that is, telepathic contact.
Apparently, I am not the only one interested in yagé. The Russians are using this drug in experiments in slave labor. They want to induce states of automatic obedience and literal thought control. The basic con. No build-up, no routine, just move in on someone’s psyche and give orders. The deal is certain to backfire because telepathy is not in itself a one-way setup or a setup of a sender and a receiver at all.
I decide to go to Colombia and score for yagé. […] My wife and I are separated. I am ready to move on south and look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.
Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of aging, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh. Maybe I will find in yagé what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yagé maybe the final fix.”
Like the Hegelian « positive infinite » the end moves in circles. The final fix can be caught in the general movement where junk, weed, and coke are variable elements of a general logic where possession and writing keep on exchanging one way against the other. The point is that yagé gives a better hint, a more precise experience, about this « logic ». The “problem” with yagé, why it cannot simply be a “tool” for control, is that it goes necessarily in both directions. The way in is the way out. The input can turn at any time into the output. The one on whom control is directed by means of a “telepathic” device like yagé cannot simply be turned into an autonomous replicator focused on control. It can turn in the reverse mode: he can intend to control what is actually directed to control him. That experience, the experience of the reverse mode, that one can also call the experience of madness, happens when the way in turns into the way out. A dangerous metaphor – or the Metaphor as danger: in the movement, the transfer (metepherein), caught in between – where the experience is not anymore literal or symbolical, but the multiplication of wandering (that can indeed be designated, as Burroughs does, as “practical knowledge”). The moment of “Vision” in this sense can then also be a liberating experience: a (re)possession of the possessed self. To haunt the ghost not in the name of reality, the true conditions of production and reproduction, but to let the ghost become what it is: a time scrambling machine:
“The property of the ghost is that we never know if he comes from the past or from the future” (Derrida, Marx’s specter).
To scramble Time… To scramble time is to scramble control. And capital only lives by sucking out time as labor. “Death needs time like a junky needs junk”. Control just wants more control, just like capital moves for the sake of itself. “If Control is absolute”, asks Ah Pook, “why does Control need to control?” “Because Control needs Time.”
“Death needs time for what it kills to grow in,” said Ah Pook.
Is Control a metaphor for Capital? Or the other way around? Control in this sense is not in control of itself. Control, for the sake of control, is as “irrational” as capital. Control is controlled by its need to control, just as capital is controlled by the need for profit. Capital or Control? Control and Capital? The truth is that they both meet in their relation to Time. To scramble time also means to scramble a whole tradition of logico-grammatical thought in which the present, in the form of the third person infinitive, has been privileged (“S is P”). Indeed, it is in this sense that the experience of yagé as a time scrambling machine leads to Interzone.
Another way of writing the way out.