Notes on David S. Wills: Burroughs on Civilisation, Hallucination, and Telepathy

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For William Burroughs, the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a dividing point in history, marking the moment that Western civilisation finally ended. Could you really call a people capable of such an atrocity “civilised”? And so without civilisation, those born since 1945 have lived scavenging about the ruins of a lost civilisation, without a home or a people. Burroughs was often nostalgic for the times before the bomb.

From there, the post-modern idea that artistic creativity includes random processes, the chopping together of whatever you can find. You do what you must in a post-apocalyptic world. Failure of many to understand: they wait for the apocalypse, expecting immanent disaster, but it’s already happened.

Burroughs tells us to pay attention to visions. “Just a hallucination” is meaningless, doesn’t explain anything: what, after all, is a hallucination? You don’t know. So focus on what you DO know. You SAW something. What is it? What are its qualities? And see if it means something to YOU. You can disregard it if it’s vague and without meaning for you. Otherwise, take it up and use it, or pay attention and heed its warning, depending on what it is you saw.

Telepathy is, by definition, independent of space. A telepath can send her thoughts anywhere. It’s also independent of time, says Burroughs. Meaning that every thought that has ever, is right now, or ever will be thought is present and available to anyone sensitive enough to pick it up. So ignore your “hallucinations” at your peril.

It’s easy to feel jaded, and say that the world is singularly devoid of vision today. Why? If humanity has no future, then there’s no future thought to pick up on. You can only look around at the present, scattered people blinking at each other, or turn backward, search in old books, or whispers of past thoughts lost among long scattered ashes.

Too pessimistic. The end of civilisation meant the end of something. And something new will arise from those who live among the wreckage. But it’s difficult to pick up on the signals of a future culture, speaking as it will a whole new language, with a whole new system of thought. Difficult but not impossible. Learn to recognise the new and you can help to bring it into being.

(I’ve been re-reading David S. Wills’ Scientologist!: William S. Burroughs and the “Weird Cult”)

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The Pendulum

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In Chapter 5 of his book about the philosopher Leibniz, Gilles Deleuze ponders whether he should keep working this evening, or go to a nightclub. He’s not firmly in favour of either and he seems to prefer first the one option, then the other. Perhaps he couldn’t even tell you at any given moment which he prefers, and a series of “possible or even hallucinatory perceptions” crowd his mind when he thinks about it. (“Not only of drinking, but the noise and smoke of the bar” – he’s writing in the 1980s – “not only of working, but the hum of the word processor and the surrounding silence.”) He compares the oscillation between the two options to the swing of a pendulum, and whatever he decides will depend on where the pendulum happens to be at the particular moment he happens to act. But his point is this: though the question of what he chooses is, for the moment, open, his final decision, his going out or staying in, will be an expression of his “entire soul at a given moment of its duration.”

Deleuze’s decision must be free and voluntary if it is to express his soul. But for Leibniz, possibility was closed the moment that God created the world. The creator set in motion the series of events out of which would arise the best of all possible worlds, the one we live in now. Anything is possible for God, but in this world an event, in order to come into being, must be “compossible” not only with past events in the world, but also with what has been predetermined to happen in the future. Did Deleuze really make a free choice at all?

Everything is possible before the creation of the world. It is possible to imagine an Adam who never sinned. It is essential to believe that Adam freely chose to sin, or the concept of sin makes no sense. And yet he could not have done differently, because God created this version of the world, in which Adam sinned.

“The event is voluntary when a motive can be assigned”. Deleuze wasn’t forced to go to the nightclub, or to stay at home: his own motives, which drove his decision, are evident in his inclination to be tempted by the thought of a smoky atmosphere or the hum of the machine. Adam wasn’t forced to sin, and yet “at that instant his soul has taken an amplitude that is found to be easily filled by the aroma and taste of the apple …” God, of course, knew Adam’s moods.

Your free will, if it is free, reflects the way your soul is in that moment. A free act “expresses the wholeness of the soul in the present.” Deleuze made his decision based on how he happened to feel when the phone finally rang. Adam made his, too, on a pendulum swing.

(This week I’ve been reading The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, which was written by Gilles Deleuze and translated into English by Tom Conley.)

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Beats and Hippos

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And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks is an early work of the Beat Generation, written in the winter of 1944-45 by William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac together, or separately in that they take it in turns throughout the book to write the chapters, a book not published in their lifetimes, and probably of interest only to scholars and fanatics.

The writing is competent but neither writer has come into his own yet. There are places where an editor might have stepped in and suggested some changes, but it being published so late, and neither writer still living and able to reply, it was presumably decided to leave such imperfections alone, which, in the early work of writers such as these, who went on to write such great books, can only lend a certain charm to the work. In the “Afterword”, the editor James Grauerholz seems to confirm this when he writes that he has “endeavoured to present these writings according to the authors’ own intentions, insofar as those can be discerned.”

The title is strange, and is explained in Chapter 4, in which Kerouac describes the “unctuous relish” with which a newsreader, heard on a radio as some of the characters drink in a bar, describes a fire at a circus in which hippos perish in the manner described. It has little or no bearing on the story itself, which is about the murder of David Kammerer (“Ramsay Allen” or “Al” in the book) by Lucien Carr (“Phillip Tourian”), except insofar as both are tales of death and cruelty, told with equal relish. “We had fun doing it,” said Burroughs.

I love a title like this, the sheer self-indulgence of it, giving no clue as to the subject-matter of the story itself, offering no assistance to the reader who is trying to decide whether to pick up the book or not. A kind of aristocratic disdain for the reader, who’s going to read the book or won’t, it makes no difference. Often writers are not so courageous – not so privileged, one might say – since they want readers in order to make money: a title will be quite literal, or at least a little bit suggestive of the subject matter of the book, so that a reader knows what they’ll be getting and can make an informed decision. But a weird title like this can be almost a work of art in itself, a generous gift from the authors in that it perhaps will give a flicker of strange pleasure to a reader, even one who never picked the book up and will only ever know the title. “You’re welcome,” it seems to say, even as the once potential reader moves on and picks up something else.

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Life into art: taking what you find, a smokestack or a button, and finding what is abstract in it, and thereby transmuting it into art. Miller, of course, the great example. Even in a button you can find the stuff of life. The essence of life is perspective, and where there is narrowing of vision there is a depletion of life. Every time life is transformed into art, a new perspective is created, and life is enriched and enhanced.

Art into life: Taking what is already an abstraction of life, and relating is back to what you “know”. “Know” in the narrow sense of bumping into it in everyday life. This can be a frivolous direction to go in, taking what is full of thought and meaning and reducing it to the ordinary. A sign of someone no longer interested in art, who can only find enjoyment in a book or a painting if it relates directly to themselves in some way. It doesn’t have to be as trivial as recognising a lover’s face in a painting by an old master. Perhaps, full of serious purpose, you just want to put the work of art in its place, and remind it that it’s just a painting after all. When you write about it draw attention to the viewer, the back of your head before the painting, the latter being now just another object in your life. Or picture yourself in your study with a classic work of literature. (“Lie quiet Divus …”) Serious work can come out of this, and Pound is still a more widely respected writer than Miller.

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Meaningless to Whom, Exactly?

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An artist is someone who sees something that others don’t. And then makes that thing visible, in their work, for others to see.

What the artist sees is something that did not exist before it was observed by the artist. William S. Burroughs seems to equate existence with visibility. Ignore your enemies out of existence, he says, putting great emphasis on the power of the human mind to shape its own reality. Burroughs believes in ESP, witchcraft, Scientology … Whatever you think of these things, it’s impossible to truly grasp Burroughs’s approach to writing without acknowledging his deep and literal belief in the truth of many paranormal claims.

You have to take him literally: he found meaning in his dreams. But looking around it seemed to him that not many people were capable of doing the same. “Dreams mean nothing,” they say. To which Burroughs replies: “Meaningless to whom, exactly?” And he points out that he has made a living finding meaning in his dreams.

If science believes it has proven our night-time dreams to be meaningless, it also believes it has proven the daydreams of paranormal enthusiasts to be false. But, like dreams, the realm of the paranormal was a great source of inspiration for Burroughs. Would it have been better if he had listened to reason and abandoned his study of magic and UFOs? But in that case Burroughs the writer would have become a very different animal.

If the question of meaning – of what is meaningful and what is not – is decided for us in advance, then the notion of a personal quest for meaning itself becomes meaningless. And who knows by what paths you will come to the greatest understanding of yourself? While it is certainly a sign of progress that scientific method can be applied to determine the truth or falsity of any given claim, it’s worth remembering that truth and meaning are not the same thing. It’s suspension of disbelief that allows you to find meaning in what is fantastical, and by noticing where you find meaning – what stories inspire you, and what dreams nourish you – you might also find a great new truth about yourself.

(I’ve been reading My Education by William S. Burroughs.)

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“ … It was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Christmas would also be a serious time, for Scrooge. He would remember that night of his sudden change of heart. By his nature, he had never been forgetful – always remembering every debt, and slight, and perceived stupidity in others. And what is deepest in him, the tenacity that defines him, remains unchanged. Only now he holds on to only what is important for the spirit, and lets the rest go. The lessons he learned on that long night: those he must keep. His own debts and faults: he must remember those, and learn from them. And, most of all, he remembers to laugh at his old self, in his newfound lightness of spirit.

Almost imperceptibly – you’ll see it in his twinkling eyes if you look closely – he becomes sober and thoughtful as advent approaches. He is thinking about past Christmases. He is thinking about what might have been. He has seen the horror of an alternate future narrowly averted.

He’s back on form by the 1st of December, if he could ever have been said to have been off it. This is his time to shine, after all. He does what is expected of him and keeps Christmas in grand style. Not because it is expected of him. No, he has a natural inclination to smile and sing at Christmas because Christmas brings him joy.

And he’s a jolly person all year round now. Even in a thoughtful mood, he’s a hair’s breadth from breaking into laughter, and he’s always ready with a smile if anyone should interrupt his meditation. Christmas brings about no change in Scrooge, in respect of his jollity. The change is one of perspective: Christmas, with all its traditions and associations, is an illuminating force, a shining backdrop, which shows up Scrooge plainly now for what he truly is and has been all year. The greens, reds, whites of Christmas – trees, gifts, candles – all set him off and show him up, a shining example of humanity and joviality.

And that’s all the big change in him ever was: a change of perspective. Everything you see is a projection of what you are. It took a change of heart, a lighting up and brightening of the spirit, to create a world that Scrooge could find joy in.

(I’ve been reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.)

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The Golden Age

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The ideal is always something inhuman:

“These men were the so-called golden race, subjects of Cronus, who lived without cares or labour, eating only acorns, wild fruit, and honey that dripped from the trees, drinking the milk of sheep and goats, never growing old, dancing, and laughing much; death, to them, was no more terrible than sleep.”

According to Robert Graves, the golden age myth has its origins in the worship of the Bee-goddess. Like bees, the ideal human beings just get on with whatever comes naturally, dance their dance, and are incapable of worry. Like the bee they don’t labour: you might think of a bee as “busy”, but it doesn’t count as work when it’s no trouble and just part of an eternal dance.

The golden age ideal is a state of bliss free from worry. Neither is there any choice, since choice implies worry. “Did I do the right thing?” Everyone moves according to a natural flow, and no place for reflection or second-guessing.

Reflection comes in the silver age, where people start to become “quarrelsome”. With reflection comes judgement and retrospection. “You shouldn’t have done that.” The implication here is that these quarrelsome people are inferior to the golden ones. According to the golden age myth, we should all have remained as bees and thereby remained perfect. It’s funny that the silver race are criticised for being “ignorant” when the golden ones were all mindless as bees.

But bees aren’t entirely mindless. They know what they need to know to do what they do. The people of the silver age lack that kind of knowledge. They do not sacrifice to the gods – and thereby fail to do what is necessary for their own survival. They are ignorant in the sense that their minds are always on the wrong things, spiralling off into reflection and blame, and thereby losing sight of the material reality of their own existence.

It’s difficult to remain focused on what’s important when you have so much to think about. The golden age myth is a reminder that less can be more: emptying your mind can put you in touch with reality again, with what is essential for a creative life. That all the calculations and abstractions in the world won’t get you anywhere if you can’t catch hold of what is in front of you.

(I’ve been reading The Greek Myths by Robert Graves)

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Religion, Magic, and Science

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It’s useless to try to define something like religion. James Frazer says all he’ll do is say what he means by it, and then try to be consistent in using the term throughout his work.

By “religion”, Frazer means

A propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life.

He goes on to say that, according to this definition, there must always be both a theoretical and a practical side to religion. There must always be a theoretical because one must believe in a higher power if one is to feel compelled to attempt to appease it. There must always be a practical side because appeasing a god always involves some kind of work, whether that be ritual or merely living a “good” life – a life in accordance with the preferences of your god.

Frazer believes that the religious world view is superior to the magical world view that came before it. The magicians believed that they could control nature, performing rituals to cause rain, to make crops grow, and so on. Religion comes about when human beings start to notice that the magic doesn’t always work like it’s supposed to – it doesn’t always rain when the magician says it will rain, the harvest was bad again this year – and they come to doubt their own powers to cause desired outcomes in nature. Religion is born of “a confession of human ignorance and weakness.” What follows from this confession is the imagining of a power greater than they, against which they are helpless, but which might be merciful and grant human beings what they need if they behave rightly.

To believe in the existence of gods is more rational than believing in magic, Frazer tells us. We can prove that magic doesn’t work, but it’s more difficult to refute religion. Spirits and gods can be fickle, and a failure on the part of the priest to produce the desired outcome might be viewed as proof of the displeasure of the god, rather than of the non-existence of that god. And yet, according to Frazer, the religious view has been slowly eroded. Little by little, it has become apparent that nature behaves in a more or less orderly and fixed way. Gradually humankind has come to see that nature does not look like something governed by the whim and caprice of spirits. Increasingly, the scientific world view has come to prevail.

For Frazer, the scientific view is similar to the magical. Both views are opposed to the religious belief in fickle spirits. Both claim a regularity in nature. The magicians claimed that they knew the laws of nature and through this knowledge could make predictions and bring about desired effects. The scientists make similar claims. The difference between the two is that science seems to be effective, whereas humankind has gradually come to believe that magic is not.

The triumph of science is not final and absolute, for Frazer. Magic, religion, and science all have in common the fact that they are theoretical ways of viewing the world. The belief in magic and religion were only very slowly eroded over time, as gradually it became apparent that they did not explain the world. Frazer leaves open the question whether the belief in science might go the same way.

For Frazer, science appeared when humankind started to doubt whether the world was governed by the caprice and whim of invisible powers. The arrival of science brought with it a confidence in the fixity and predictability of things, in the human being’s power over nature and assured place in the world. But however things might have looked to Frazer, today we live in a world of uncertainty. Isn’t it starting to look, to many of us, as though the world is not quite governed by law in the way we were told? That decision-making is impossible in a world of information, with so many variables to hand? That with so much misinformation out there, truth and falsity is beginning to look like a matter of personal preference? Perhaps amid this uncertainty we are heading once more towards a world governed by whim and caprice, and towards a world view that looks a little closer to the religious than the scientific.

(I’ve been reading The Golden Bough by James Frazer.)

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You must be ecstatic

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In The Night Manager, Madame Latulipe asks Jonathan if he is in love. “Not that I am aware, madame,” he replies.

“You are unhappy? You are lonely?”

“I am blissfully content.”

“But to be content is not enough! You must abandon yourself. You must risk everything every day. You must be ecstatic.”

John Le Carré has Jonathan reply that “his ecstasy was in his work”. Since he is a cook, perhaps she can believe this. A cook is a kind of artist after all.

Meanwhile, Henry Miller sings and shouts and makes conversation as he types. According to Robert Ferguson he is “playing at being a writer”. He’s not carefully considering “artistic problems” in the way that Joyce, Beckett, or Nabokov did: he just goes for it, hammering at the machine. It’s when others can see him here, glass of wine beside him, putting his deep thoughts on the page, that he feels like he’s a writer. He is “enjoying the paraphernalia of the role,” putting on a show for those who watch him create. Is this not a man in a state of abandon? In a state of ecstasy?

I find this notion of playing at being a writer fascinating. Don’t all writers need to do this to some extent? Abandon themselves to the task and just start to put those incomplete thoughts on the page, and see what comes of them? Or is it just that I can relate more to the Miller-type than to the more serious kinds of writer? If I tell myself: This is work, I need to get this done then nothing comes at all. Whereas when I just sit down and bash the keys at least I’ll have something down on the page, which I can work into something better later on. I can’t remember who taught me that writer’s block does not exist, and I don’t know whether that’s strictly true, but as soon as I stopped believing in it I found myself able to write every day.

Of course, not everything that comes from bashing the keys is going to be very good, and that’s why it’s not serious work. Half the time you’re not producing anything worthwhile, just enjoying the process. This seems to be one of the ways we’re to understand “seriousness”: in opposition to “fun”. Something is serious when it’s more than just fun, when it has some definite purpose beyond that.

But according to that definition, playing at being a writer would be serious too. Because it’s not just about having fun, it’s also about hoping that something worthwhile will come of the work beyond that. Writing is “serious play”, one might say, because it has the lightness of play mixed with the purpose of serious work. One plays in the hope that, eventually, one might succeed in producing a completed piece of work.

“You must risk everything every day. You must be ecstatic.” This is the ecstasy of play. You roll the dice: perhaps nothing will come of this play. Perhaps the day will be wasted. But what’s the alternative? Preparing and preparing and never getting down to the business of writing. Of course, one day you’ll be sure everything is in place, ready to begin, and once you finally get down to writing it will be marvellous. But when will that be?

(I’ve been reading The Night Manager by John Le Carré and Henry Miller: A Life by Robert Ferguson.)

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A Short Note on Reason’s Certainty


In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, having “reason” means being certain that you are “all reality”, knowing that the whole of the world can be found in your “I”. This self-certainty is well-founded in a sense: idealism is true, and the opposite belief, that the world subsists outside ourselves and simply impresses itself upon us through our senses, amounts to a naïve and false realism.

But reason’s certainty is also mistaken: its notion of idealism is too simplistic. For Hegel, it is not just a single “I” in which the whole world is found; this “I” must find itself to be a member of a community, and only “we”, together, can form a real and true conception of the world. The whole of reality is found in a community’s conception of itself, and not just that of a single individual.

To say that the “I” is the whole world, in any sense, is to take up the standpoint of idealism. It is not such a strange thing for a philosopher to do: we have Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, and many more. And Hegel himself is an idealist.

We can observe reason’s claim for itself from different perspectives: on the one hand, we can take it in its immediacy, in which case it is simply saying “I am the whole world.” In which case it seems a strange, mad claim to make. On the other hand, we can view this utterance in the context of the Phenomenology of Spirit, in which case we see consciousness, as reason, at a point on the path that has brought it here. It has taken up and rejected the various claims that the particular forms of consciousness and self-consciousness have made for themselves along the way – for example, that truth can be found immediately in objects, or in the negation of objects and withdrawal from the world – and step by step, as it has moved along this path, consciousness has demonstrated the truth of the simple idealism of reason.

Consciousness is correct, even though it is mistaken. Given what has gone before, it has found, in the certainty of reason, the truest standpoint that it can find for the moment. It has rid itself of naïve realism and has taken up the perspective of idealism, which means that it is at least pointing in the right direction. Consciousness will now find its simple idealism tested, until it is refined and transformed from the narrow idealism of reason’s  “I”, into the more fulfilling idealism found in the concept of “spirit” and the notion of the whole world found in an ethical community and its culture.

(I’ve been reading paragraph 233 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller. Image is from Wikimedia Commons.)

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