“I can feel the heat closing in,” mutters the persona of William S. Burroughs, William Lee, in the opening words of Naked Lunch. Coming from the fingers of a man that his family had realized so much personal tragedy, an uncle that dies shamefully of a brain tumor while acting as the American publicist for Hitler’s Nationalist Party, another dying embarrassingly of a morphine overdose, even his own accidental shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer, Burroughs had to feel the heat of external control closing in on him. He dedicated his life to ‘writing his way out’ of his personal mental turmoil and pushing the limits of control shackled to the use of that thing we call the word. (Morgan)
Nietzsche would have loved the experiments of anti-control and the disharmonic syncopation of Burroughs writing, themes, and plots. The Birth of Tragedy and ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’ so seamlessly apply to Burroughs works and routines it appears as if they were prescient of the writing to come. While Nietzsche’s theme of the Apollinian and Dionysian are so eloquently mapped out in The Birth of Tragedy it is amazing, and somewhat sensually disgusting, the same theme will appear in Burroughs’s work in the guise of a Talking Asshole.
In Nietzsche’s work, The Apollinian of The Birth of Tragedy represents the inward growth of language and society. The sun god is the embodiment of the plastic arts and represents all that has come before in the codification of language and the arts. The Apollinian allows societies to grow decadent and not move beyond the limits of their society and arts due to cultural stagnation and lack of aesthetic stimulation.
The Apollinian is the sinful art of reason that kidnaps and holds hostage the creativity of the individual. Euripides, the Greek playwright responsible for the Attic tragedies, Nietzsche argues his tragedies, bereft of music and human spiritual oneness, represents the actual death of tragedy. (Mann, Corpse of Theory) Spectators have to use their faculties of reason and sensibility to understand the unfolding drama before their eyes. The stage, characters, and scenes are secondary to the words. (Birth, 68)
Nietzsche later illustrates the birth of this Apollinian in the use of language and the word in ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.’ He proposes the word is simply a double metaphor created from the mind of man to describe an object. The man sees an object and receives stimulation by the ‘thing in itself.’ However, as the man tries to conceptualize the object he foists a metaphor of image created from the mind upon the object thus distancing itself from its true form. The second metaphor occurs when the man attaches sounds to the sensual stimuli of the image he mimics in his mind. This created double metaphor at once distances the word from the true object and turns the word into a mimetic device that will never truly represent the thing in itself sending the word and the language that employs it on a road of deception and mistruth. (On Truth) Nietzsche takes this concept further to the extreme and states that the mimetic devise of the word grows deeper upon subsequent generations of itself.
Everyone “thinks that the truth demands that each conceptual god be only sought within his own sphere. Here one may certainly admire a man as mighty genius of construction, who succeeds in piling an infinitely complicated dome of concepts upon an unstable foundation, and, as it were, on running water.” (On Truth)
This organic growth of the metaphorical concept of a word object is exactly what Burroughs terms the Word Virus. A truth built upon a distant lie that can overtake and control societies, the sexually repressed, and the weaker individual. A convention to be broken and exposed to the world for the truth of its deception. (Electronic Revolution) Moreover, Burroughs feared the subliminal power of the press. He strongly believed the media, through concise patterned word placement, created stories and messages that the mind read subliminally. He developed this ‘fear’ while experimenting with the cut-up methods in the Rue de Coeur in Paris with Brion Gysin. Burroughs believed the “Cut-ups make explicit a psycho-sensory process that is going on the time anyway. Somebody is reading a newspaper, and his eye follows the column in the proper Aerstotelian manner, one idea and one sentence at atime. But subliminally he is reading the columns on either side and is aware of the person sitting next to him. That’s the cut-up.” (Miles, 167)
Burroughs blue blood roots created a man that should have epitomized the Apollinian essence of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy; however, he shrugged off the notions of following in his family’s aristocratic patronage and embraced the Dionysian edges of society. After his self-possessed demons finally caught up with him in Mexico City and found purchase in the barrel of an errant gun, Burroughs ran to Tangiers to begin the escape from himself and dove headlong into a Bacchanal Festival of word play. Ultimately, his hedonist bacchanalian melancholy escaped even the constraints of the modern novel form and realized, intuitively, the word was a virus placed upon man to control feelings, emotions, and even the most sacred of human depths, the subconsciousness of our dreams. (Electronic Revolution) To escape the virus, or to even exploit its controls, Burroughs sought the cut-up method that morphed into the fold-ins and decidedly ended with recordings that found hidden meanings in the recorded conversations of friends and foes alike. (Miles)
This notion of the Dionysian, escaping the practical conventions of the novel, is the opposite of the Apollinian. While the Apollinian strives to constrain art and render it to it’s past forms and conventions, the Dionysian works on the fringes of what is accepted as the norm. Imagine a fount of wisdom spewing forth built upon the foundation of a tumbling column of water. The constructs of the original form support this wavering serpentine of accepted concepts, words, and at the top where there no longer exists a word for a concept, on the edge of the metaphysical, where only imagination and creativity can save the tumbling column is where we find the playful parties of the Dionysian. Through intuition, desire, and a healthy dose of self-satisfaction, the return of one to nature, and the desire to break through the constructs of convention, the Dionysian, in essence, reaches out of the aquiline column and extends the fount higher. The precariousness of this reaching through the metaphysical ultimately leads to a Dionysian suicide-the suicide of the concept is in itself its birth; a continuous cycle of birth and simultaneous death.
The death dance of the Dionysian and Apollinian is an ongoing march. However, one cannot only see the two in Machean black and white detail one has to view the two as a contrapuntal harmony that arises to coincide in tone and tenor to enhance the growth and creativity of the plastic and metaphysical arts. The two act as check and balances to ensure that the beauty of the aesthetic is preserved and extended at the same time. (Birth)
Burrough’s Dionysian struggle to escape control emerges early in his works from the hard-boiled pulp fiction of Queer and Junky to the novel convention busting of Naked Lunch. We get the first taste of the routines that will compose Naked Lunch in Queer. The introduction marks the beginning of Burroughs escape from the Apollinian constraints of the written word and starts to deliver his readers from the lies of the conformed word. Playing it up for Allerton, the homosexual love interest of William Lee, Lee dives into the role of a south Texas oilman and performs for a bar lizard’s entertainment the décolletage required to be a successful Texas oil baron.
So you got the calling and the proper appearance. You go around taking up leases. You get five or six people lined up to lease you their land for drilling. You go to the bank and talk to the president: ‘Now Clem Farris, as fine a man as there is in this Valley and smart to, he’s in this thing up to his balls, and Old Man Scranton and Fred Crockly and Roy Spigot and Ted Bane, all of them good old boys. Now let me show you a few facts. I could set here and gas all morning, taking up your time, but I know you’re a man accustomed to deal in facts and figures and that’s exactly what I am here to show you. (Junky 30)
Nietzsche and Burroughs realize the power and control an individual can manifest in words can paint a picture to fool or dupe the unsuspecting viewer that places his meaning of images and words in the context of lies he learned during his conceptualization of a specific word-not the authors. This ‘duping’ is the inherent crux Nietzsche postulates in ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.’
A regularly valid and obligatory designation of things is invented, and this linguistic legislation also furnishes the first laws of truth: for it is here that the contrast between truth and lie first originates. The liar uses the valid designations, the words, to make the unreal appear as real; he says for example, ‘I am rich,’ when the word ‘poor’ would be the correct designation of his situation. He abuses the fixed conventions by arbitrary changes or reversals of the names. (On truth)
The routines Burroughs developed early in his career may have been in part created by a lost sense of self earlier in his life. There is the unfortunate possibility that he was sexually abused as a four year old by his nanny’s boyfriend. The damaging incident may have forced Burroughs to live a life on the outside of the aristocracy that if it had treated him differently may have made him a promised son. He referred to himself as ‘El Hombre Invisible;’ a reaction he felt when he traveled the alleyways and markets of the Zona Rosa of Reynosa, Mexico City, Tangiers, and Paris hunting for the fix of homosexual pedophilia that controlled him. (Morgan)
To find this inner-self that foisted the name El hombre Invisible upon himself, Burroughs began to send routines to his much younger obsession, Allen Ginsberg. The routines explored the control of human nature, the oppression of 1950’s America, the depths of the ‘Algebra of Human Need,’ and control of one individual over another through the medium of sex. The latter aspect of the sexual control may very well have been a self-backlash at his unhealthy obsession with Ginsberg. (Miles) One thing is certain Burroughs was ready to move from the seedy paperback racks of fameless American pulp fiction and defy the controls of the Apollinian word virus and create something true, something new, something beautiful and Dionysian.
The post-modern construct of Naked Lunch defied convention and had no discernible architecture or narrative arc. The general theme of Naked Lunch was addiction; control is an addiction. (Miles) The general narrative architecture, as was organically growing in Kerouac’s spontaneous prose and Amos Tutuola’s traditional folkloric oral tales in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, was as a ‘test is simply a record of the writer’s consciousness at the precise point of writing, with breaks, mood changes, unpleasant fantasies, mad humor, all described as they flash into consciousness.’ (Miles, 97) These three writers were backlashing against the controls of oppression that constrained them in their respective societal views.
Burroughs, in one of the most poignant and famous scenes in 20th century American literature, finally lashes out against the novel convention and brutally sums up Nietzsche’s struggle of the Apollinian and the Dionysian through the guise of a Talking Asshole in the ‘Ordinary Men and Women’ routine of Naked Lunch.
“Did I ever tell you about the man that taught his asshole to talk?” Dr Benway asks. (Naked, 111)
Dr. Benway’s patient is Burroughs’s Apollo. Benway appears throughout Burroughs career in many guises; however, he always occurs as a mechanical, narcissist junky more concerned with his next fix than with his patients. (Miles) Benway’s patient is the structure of control and Apollinian determination. He is controlled by that which came before and now the external control of the junkies ‘Algebra of Need,’ Burroughs definition of addiction.
The Talking Asshole greatly outlines the use of controls inherent in the Apollinian/Dionysian struggle. Benway’s patient’s talkative orifice is invited into the real world milieu much like the word was at the birth of time. Burroughs weaves the tenets of The Birth of Tragedy and ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’ masterfully through the Talking Asshole routine.
This ass talk had a sort of gut frequency. It hit you right down there like you gotta go. You know when the old colon gives you the elbow and it feels sorta cold inside, and you know all you have to do is turn loose? Well this talking hit you right down there, a bubbly, think stagnant sound, a sound you could smell. (Naked Lunch, 111)
Nietzsche’s metaphor? How can one smell a sound? Burroughs italicized the smell for intent. Why was he setting it apart? Was it prompting us to question the truth of the word?
Here is an individual creating his art–the ventriloquism act of a traveling Carney. However, the artist becomes the whim of his creation. What he creates at once as an act of beauty, Burroughs here is obviously using the obscene to set a scene, overtakes the beauty of the individual. The creation in “the experience of the truly aesthetic listener to bring to mind the tragic artist himself as he creates his figures like a fecund divinity of individuation (so his work can hardly be understood as ‘imitation of nature’) and as his vast Dionysian impulse then devours his entire world of phenomena, in order to let us sense beyond it, and through its destruction, the highest artist primal joy, in the bosom of the primordial One.” (Tragedy, 132)
The man’s creation of the talking asshole at the moment of the first gaseous outburst is the idealistic catharsis of the individual. The artist in one giant leap of inspired Dionysian indulgence creates his art. He has removed the notion of the ‘thing in itself’ and given it a metaphorically speaking, life.
The birth of the Talking Asshole limits on the realms of tragedy. The idea has metamorphosed into to an idea that others can use, admire, and foist their own conceptualized beliefs on the artwork. They can hijack and take it as their own and bastardize the beauty of the man’s One primordial fruit and turn it into their own conceptualized Talking Asshole-much like an opinion as the saying goes, “everyone has one.” What at once the man conceived each Talking Orifice to come can only distance itself from the beauty of the original.
Now that the Asshole has a life of it’s own, it begins to overtake the original idea and the artist himself. Dr. Benway tells us
“After awhile the asshole started talking on its own. He would go in with nothing prepared and his ass would ad-lib and toss the gags back at him every time.
Then it developed teeth-like raspy incurving hooks and started eating. He thought this was cute at first and built an act around it, but the asshole would eat its way through his pants and start talking on the street, shouting out it wanted equal rights.” (Naked, 111)
It is not hard to imagine here the outward growth of a new art. The act begins to get bigger than it’s self and grows a new life. Other entertainers begin to pick up the fruition of the asinine beauty of the gag. Picture if you will a gaffe like Seinfeld’s ‘Man Hands’ episode. The joke was born in the mind of Seinfeld; however, it grew outward from its first Thursday night airing and now is an extremely recognized moniker for a woman with big hands. The joke is stolen and now has built a life of it’s own. The Talking Asshole has developed this life and moves outward to be used by others, ‘deserving of equal rights.’ (111)
The truth is the Asshole is alive and moved on to stand as a metaphor of itself. Nietzsche asks and proposes though:
“What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms-in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer coins. (On Truth)
Benway’s talking Asshole patient sadly gives us the answer. The patient’s body, after a few weeks, begins to develop an ‘Undifferentiated Tissue’ around his mouth. Each morning the man awoke and had to remove the un-DT; each morning he removed the gel it stuck to his body like ‘burning gasoline jelly.’ Anywhere the gel fell, it would stick and begin to grow and overtake the body part. Eventually, the man’s mouth was over come with the un-DT and he could no longer speak. (Lunch, 111)
The man is now completely consumed by his art. His creation has high jacked the originator and moved completely away from the original artist. The Apollinian has interposed itself onto the original thought. The tragic loss of original thought has now become a decadent part of the world and sadly separated itself from the host and the subsequent original metaphor. The art has taken a complete life of it’s own and can no longer be changed or expressed or represented by the original control and intent of the artist.
So finally, the mouth sealed over, and the whole head would have amputated spontaneous-except for the eyes, you dig. That’s the one thing the asshole couldn’t do was see. It needed the eyes. But nerve connections were blocked and infiltrated and atrophied so the brain couldn’t give orders any more. It was in the skull, sealed off. For a while you could see the silent, helpless suffering of the brain behind the eyes, then finally the brain must have died, because the eyes went out, and there was no more feeling in them than a crab’s eye on the end of a stalk. (Lunch 112)
The struggle between the Dionysian and Apollinian defined–the unfortunate victory of the Apollinian. You can almost hear Burroughs trying to scream out the travesty of the victory. The eyes the windows of the soul are all we have left to see of our original object. Burning outward to see the world, as if, to remember what it once stood for-its self, its being, its essence-a beautiful Talking Asshole. Then as the nerve center, the brain, fades and is overcome by the strength of the Talking Asshole the eyes begin to fade-the fading of the original thought. The man, the inter-ganglia of his self the brain, is completely obliterated by the strength of the metaphor-the Talking Asshole, now the Apollinian. The routine shows us the literal death of the walking, thinking man, the creative Dionysian, to the irreverent birth of the Talking Asshole, the Apollinian.
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