Penguin Classics, £30, 444pp. £25 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S Burroughs 1959-1974, Edited by Bill Morgan
Friday 06 April 2012
This long-awaited second volume of William Burroughs's letters spans 15 years, from the publication of Naked Lunch in Paris, to his mid-Seventies departure from London for a New York radically different to the one he knew in the 1940s. How strange it must have been to settle into a transformation that you, in part, had affected. For this is really what this volume of letters is about. The first, published in 1993 when Burroughs was still alive, covered 1945-1959. Junky aside, he was a largely unpublished but influential mentor to Kerouac, Ginsberg and co as the Beat generation assumed its shape – an entity as synthetic and modern as Beyer Pharmaceutical's heroin, a longtime companion in Burroughs's life.
Ginsberg, in a tightly knotted relationship of friend, lover and agent, had been chief sounding-board for the letters and routines that became Naked Lunch. But as the 1960s dawns, you see the set changing as the artist Brion Gysin becomes Burroughs's main agent of correspondence. "Dear Allen," the book's first letter begins, "Thanks a million for the mescaline. Split it with Brion for a short trip home". The two worked at the centre of a web of occult and artistic actions – painting, scrying, mediumship, telepathy, and the Cut-Up's operations of chance – from 9 Rue Git de Coeur in Paris. Here, at the Beat Hotel, Burroughs turns from Beat writer to counter-cultural figurehead, achieving a fame that influenced the Beatles, the Stones, Bowie, the punks and the sampling culture of the Nineties and beyond.
It is this process we see unfold, as Burroughs's correspondence expands from Maurice Girodias in Paris to Barney Rosset and Dick Seaver in America, John Calder and Tom Maschler in London, and into television, film, and the broadsheets. We discover that, on the day Gysin discovered the Cut Up technique by accidentally slicing through newspapers, Burroughs was interviewed by two operatives from Life magazine. The influence of a burgeoning mass-media and the Cut-Ups formed the core of his work to the Seventies, and the fascination of these letters is in how he explores this technique. The trilogy of Nova Express, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded is no easy read. But he successfully demonstrates the Cut Up, and we see how it extends into pictures, sound, and our own consciousness.
This is where his influence and legacy remains so compelling. His urge to question and go beyond language - to "rub out the words" – extended to all media and systems of perception and control. At the turn of the Sixties, TV and transistor radio were as remarkable as the latest touchscreen technology today. Not only the broadcast channels but the static surrounding them was a new signal, and Burroughs, with Gysin and the mathematician Ian Summerville, tuned in, took experiments with tape, film and word as far as they could go, and then further.
At a time when your friendly internet search giant points to its lack-of-privacy settings while hooking you up on Facebook, you sense exactly what Burroughs means when he talks about cutting through the lines of control. Today, the agents of consensus reality come in tablet form, and though we cut ourselves more finely then ever, perhaps we perceive the process less clearly. Though these letters do contain longueurs, they illuminate the most compelling and practical areas of Burroughs's work. This stuff matters still, and the first cut, as always, remains the deepest.
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