Notes on The Soft Machine Chapter 10: “Last Hints”

This chapter is about Carl continuing his travels through space and time by finding a new body. He’s back in the city of catwalks and ladders and cable-cars in the middle of a jungle. Presumably he’s already changed bodies at least once since he arrived, since at the end of chapter 8 he was turned into a pile of green slime. But we mustn’t take things too literally and any interpretation is possible.

“Carl descended a spiral iron smell of ozone.” With cut-up, Burroughs achieves a pared down prose that makes even the pulp writers he admired seem long-winded. He could have written “Carl descended a spiral iron staircase and there was a smell of ozone”, but we don’t need all this. With what we’re given we see (and smell) immediately what we’re supposed to. This is one of those cut up sentences read it aloud and you can hear the cut, two messages cut together to give the full picture:

“Carl descended a spiral iron …”

“… smell of ozone.”

Like we’re listening to two channels at once, switching attention between the two to get the full sight and smell picture.

Carl meets a boy and sees that “through his eyes the look out different”. He’s sizing up his victim, the one who will give him a new body and therefore a new mind and therefore a new perspective on life and therefore a new position in space time and therefore a new mode of being. He’ll be rejuvenated taking the body of this young man. “Woke up in other flesh …” is how the chapter ends, once Carl has seduced him and entered him and by this method taken his body.

We mustn’t take things too literally. On the one hand this is straightforward science fiction, where a group of individuals have learned how to travel through space and time by occupying other bodies and minds. It’s a horror story, where a race of psychopaths see human beings as so much flesh to be put to use for their own experiments. But however you interpret the story, the most important thing is the book itself, The Soft Machine, the artefact you hold in your hands that is the product of the real life application of the cut-up method. A new method, or “technology”. With cut-up you don’t only create books, but also transform and control minds, alter reality, and look into the future.

This much we must take literally: Burroughs believed in the real life application of the writing and recording methods he described and demonstrated in this book. Pay attention to the outer layer, the text itself. The futuristic world described there is a prophecy of what is possible if you take up this book and learn from it and apply these methods yourself.

The author, and the books he’s written, keep popping up in the book not just as a piece of post-modern cleverness, but as a reminder that the book you hold in your hands is itself part of the story, and that the story is real, and you as reader play a part in it.

Like all great science fiction, the Soft Machine describes a world both future and present, imaginary and real.

(P.S. I’ve written another essay about Burroughs, just published at Empty Mirror. You can read it there now.)

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