William Burroughs tells Allen Ginsberg: “I am about to annunciate a philosophy called ‘factualism.’ All arguments, all nonsensical considerations as to what people ‘should do,’ are irrelevant. Ultimately there is only facts on all levels, and the more one argues, verbalises, moralises the less he will see and feel of fact. Needless to say, I will not write any formal statement on the subject. Talk is incompatible with factualism.”
What Burroughs is saying might be counterintuitive and difficult to grasp because ordinarily you might think of facts as something spoken. “Give me the facts!” But “facts” in Burroughs’s sense are seen and felt, the things you know because you’ve experienced them. What you’re normally encouraged to think of as facts – the things you’re told are true by politicians telling you what should be done, by popular scientists and theorists trying to explain devilishly complicated ideas in as few words as possible, by philosophers and mystics trying to transmit the meaning of life – these statements are the opposite of facts. Such spoken “facts” are in fact insane utterances, jumbled confusions of real experience, jumbled because real experiences are distorted as they are bound together into words and sentences that cannot adequately express them.
To take an example, Burroughs found Ginsberg’s attempts to describe his own mystical experiences inadequate, confusing as they do the various levels of experience to produce something untrue:
“Al’s dichotomy between ‘regular life’ and visions is not only unnecessary, it is inaccurate. I mean it does not in fact exist. ‘Either … or’ is not an accurate formula. Facts exist on infinite levels and one level does not preclude another. Insanity is the confusion of levels. Insane people do not have visions worth hearing about because they are afraid to see. The insane are too much concerned with ‘regular life’: that is with money, sex, food, digestion, illness, and the impressions they make on others. These ‘facts of life’ frighten the insane, and no man can detach himself from what he fears. In consequence the visions of the insane are unspeakably dreary.”
By listening to what are ordinarily called “facts” – the things we’re told are facts – a counterfeit reality is created. You take those verbal “facts” that you’ve accepted as true to be the building blocks of reality, and from this a kind of “common sense” is born: when you say you’re being “realistic” – doing what must be done, concerning yourself with the money you need for a good life, putting idealism to one side – you mean you’re basing your decisions on the facts of life as you see them. But where did you get your facts from?
And so there is a danger that your realism is grounded upon untruth, an unreality fabricated out of a confused mixture of levels inadequately verbalised. And that you get a simplistic, either/or view of the world. For example, we learn that being “right” means avoiding what is called “criminal” – and yet, even while you stay within the letter of the law, you might continue to do what is unethical in order to survive.
“It seems to me that you harbour some semantic confusions on the subject of crime. ‘Crime’ is simply behaviour outlawed by a given culture. There is no connection between ‘crime’ and ethics: the sadistic atrocities of the Nazi S.S. were not ‘criminal.’ I do not see a connection between lying and violation of the law. In fact there is more lying in the course of a ‘regular job’ most of which require a constant state of pretence and dissimulation. The necessity of continual misrepresentation of one’s personality is most urgent in such lines as radio, advertising, publicity, and, of course, television. Personally I find pushing junk a great deal more restful and less compromising from an ethical standpoint.”
The key thing is to pay attention to what is in fact true at the deepest level, so that you can see where the facts stand on all levels. It means an honesty with yourself. So that even a criminal can be ethical, if he is true to himself, and true to others. The deepest element is “love,” though the early Burroughs here would never have admitted it. (Famously, the final word Burroughs wrote in his journal was “LOVE,” a final realisation of the meaning of life, the course he had been following all along.) You follow your heart and walk without fear, and you can see and feel the facts, and your relation to them, and be certain of your place in the world.
(I’ve been reading The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945 to 1959, edited by Oliver Harris.)
Great piece, thanks.
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Thanks for reading!
>insane utterances, jumbled confusions of real experience, jumbled because real experiences are distorted as they are bound together into words and sentences that cannot adequately express them.
Some people would take that as a review of Burroughs’ oeuvre.
Do you think there is a relationship between the struggle within language to capture and communicate experience and the period in which Burroughs cut up texts to ever more extreme lengths?
Certainly I do. I think what he realised about language was that it usually conceals more than it reveals, and you can find out what’s going on in an utterance by cutting across it. In this way you bypass the peculiar tricks that language plays on us, and that people sometimes consciously exploit in order to hide themselves and the truth using language, and get to what the words are “really saying.”