Lessons from Los Alamos

Albert James Connell ran the Los Alamos Ranch school, which William S. Burroughs attended when he was a boy. “Many of Connell’s ideas were taken on board by Burroughs, such as that there was no such thing as an accident: if something went wrong, it was someone’s fault, probably yours.” (Barry Miles)

So Burroughs went his whole life with the paranoid’s idea that there’s intention behind everything. Sometimes it’s something big, like a political conspiracy:

“The subject must not realise that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct.” (Naked Lunch)

Bureaucratic institutions cover up their function – to control you – by appearing incompetent. You’ll have to wait, the system isn’t responding, please take a seat … And the people who make up the rules and designed the system remain out of reach, protected by the many “mistakes” that the bureaucrats will make as they process your request. And you sit and wait, docile and patient, or ranting at “incompetence” until you wear yourself out, never getting to the real cause of the problem.

Or the control agent might be something more local, subjective: an “Ugly Spirit” within yourself.  Burroughs believed in possession: evil spirits can take control of your actions, you won’t even know you’re not the one in control. (“I don’t know what I was thinking …” “He came out of nowhere …”) Misfortune is never an accident, always an ugly intention behind it, evidence of possession. The demon put you there, raised your hand, pushed the button, pulled the trigger.

Ancient magic and evil forces are responsible for human misfortune:

“America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.” (Naked Lunch)

The modern troubles in America stem from the ancient evil that has existed there since the beginning. But Burroughs’s enemies need something visible that they can blame: drugs, atheists, immigrants … No, says Burroughs, the evil runs beneath the surface. The very fact you’re looking for someone to blame is proof that the deep evil is doing its work. What is this evil?

“In Burroughs’s mythology ‘evil’ applies to anything which represses spontaneity.” (Robin Lydenberg)

And this always comes back to the “Algebra of Need”, the name Burroughs gives to a mathematical understanding of the way need functions. Increase the need for something beyond a certain point and you have an absolute need, and the subject loses control because he or she has no choice but to pursue that need. “Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control. In the words of total need: ‘Wouldn’t you?’ Yes you would.” (Naked Lunch, quoted by Lydenberg)

Evil arises with necessity. When you absolutely need to do something, when you have no choice, when you “can do no other”, you are subject to – possessed by – evil. Control systems operate by making things necessary, and the way to make things necessary for a human subject is to tap into their needs, and make them need those things absolutely. (Human beings already come into the world with an “eating habit”, and leaders have always exploited this need to control their citizens.)

An unqualified evil for Burroughs is “sending,” which is a compulsive need to transmit thoughts to others for the purpose of control. “A telepathic sender has to send all the time. He can never receive, because if he receives that means someone else has feelings of his own could louse up his continuity.” Burroughs and his wife Joan would experiment at home with telepathic sending, sat in different rooms while they took it in turns to visualise an image, for the other to write down. Joan turned out to be a very powerful Sender. But it’s the Senders who use it continually, as a method of control, that Burroughs was worried about.

The Senders want to make it so that the only thoughts you have are the ones they send you, and the only thoughts they have for you are the mindless images that they conjure up again and again, in no meaningful order, purely for the purpose of sending. The Sender is sending messages for the sake of continuing to send, and through this they maintain a state of equilibrium where nothing can ever change – the Sender can feel in total control because no one else has a chance to have a thought of their own that might “louse things up”. The Sender doesn’t want to understand others, but to eliminate their free will altogether.

They might be evil, but we can understand their desire to Send. Blocking out the world with a mind-numbing procession of images might seem desirable where there is so much suffering in the world. Burroughs asks us to imagine applying for God’s job:

“‘You are responsible for every groan, every scream. You have to feel everything, every murder, suicide, depression, psychosis, all, all, all.’

“Now, most applicants don’t make it twelve hours.

“And those that do? How to they do it?

“Mostly by turning of the feel line . . . Disqualified.” (Last Words)

Turn off the feel line. This is how you survive, but you cut yourself off from understanding this way. Give up being an artist, it’s too painful. The young Burroughs destroys his diary and vows never to write again. The result of a good American education. Disqualified.

(I’ve been reading William S. Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles, and Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs’ Fiction by Robin Lydenberg. Also Burroughs: Naked Lunch and Last Words.)

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3 Responses to Lessons from Los Alamos

  1. Fascinating! Augustine wrote about the “libido dominandi”, the dominating desire that was itself the desire to dominate. On a casual read on four hours of sleep, they seem similar.


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