Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, November 29, 2009

More On William Burroughs

My own little Thanksgiving tradition is to link to the text or, better, when it's available, a video clip of William Burroughs's "A Thanksgiving Prayer" (for which Gus Van Sant provided excellent visuals), either here on Amor Mundi itself, or at least on the blogs associated with various courses I happen to be teaching for which the Burroughs seems nicely apt. Here's a link to this year's video clip, together with a transcript of the text. In the Moot, I have been having the beginnings of a lovely conversation with Athena Andreadis about the poem which I thought I should promote to the top of the blog for others to join in on if they like. I always appreciate those precious occasions when an intelligent disagreement plays out in the Moot, rare though that is. You should probably read the poem or view the clip before diving in, if the piece is unfamiliar to you. Thanks to Athena (and I don't mean that "thanks" ironically)!

Athena: I agree with the rest but laboratory AIDS? Not. A pernicious, dangerous myth.

Me: Yes, of course.

I have hesitated many times to quote this wonderful poem because of that single line, my worries about what it means to approve a poem with that line in it. But to me the important truth he is getting at in the poem isn't located at the level of any of the individual assertions (even the many individual assertions with which I happen to agree that they speak the literal truth), but in the cohort.

Taken together with the rest, I hear in the bitter paranoid reference to "laboratory AIDS" a history that contains the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, involuntarily sterilization of Native American and African American women without their knowledge or consent, as well as the deaf, the blind, epileptics, the "retarded," involuntary lobotomies for the suicidal, for "perverts" and "promiscuous" women, smallpox infected blankets distributed among Native Americans, and so on (every single instance among which has its truths and hyperbolies in tow, after all).

The power of the poem, and the truth it connects us to, does not derive from our agreement with any of its lines or our disagreement with any of them, finally, but with the way it tells truth against the grain of what passes as truth.

If we comfortably agreed with every line and approved the poem as a consequence of that agreement we would be doing a great violence to the actual truth available in it, I think, degrading it into a tedious zealous bumper sticker that costs us nothing to affirm and hence is worth nothing even to those who affirm it since it is threatening to nobody.

You know what I mean?

Athena: Your point about the cohort is well taken.

However, as illustrated by the numerous examples that you list yourself, Burroughs could have scored a far more potent hit if that line said something like "thanks for the involuntary sterilizations and lobotomies performed on those who by not fitting were called unfit".

It would have the added virtues of being literal truth and of subsuming the horrors that the medical profession visited on all Others, not just gay men.

Agreeing morally with something does not include not calling it out for inaccuracies that may blunt or weaken its moral force.

Me: I don't know that Burroughs thought the statement was untrue himself, although he definitely was fond of saying provocative things that were so bad they had a certain ring of truth whether they were true or not, and that in itself does express a kind of truth poetry is especially good at getting at, even if the vehicle through which the truth is expressed is strictly speaking untrue.

And I, like you, I hope it goes without saying, most certainly and uncontroversially do think it is untrue and deranging to claim as a factual matter that the AIDS pandemic originated in a deliberate laboratory conspiracy of some kind!

But, again, I do think that neither would Burroughs propose that the potency of the truth telling in the piece derives from the strict accuracy or inaccuracy of any of the statements individually.

After all, it is the ironical "thanks" that is repeated each line, while the various assertions that follow it have very different forms and flavors (it's different to express ironical gratitude to Native Americans for "provid[ing] a modicum of challenge and danger" and ironical gratitude toward "Kill a Queer for Christ" bumper-stickers, one inhabits these atrocities differently because they are differently embedded in American history, the force of the first is far trickier to get a handle on than the second one, the first one goes deeper into the viciousness at the heart of the American story and implicates us all more deeply too, in consequence, while it is a comparatively easy thing to condemn the idiotic bigotry and hypocrisy of the latter, which is not to diminish the damage it has done).

Notice that it is only Van Sant's imagery in the background that alerts us to the fact that it is the relinquishment of a real space program to which Burroughs refers as the "last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams," a theme that recurs in many of his writings (although with many figurative associations that are far from the customary ones).

One needs to take up the whole to take in the poisoned apple of Burroughsian knowledge here.

I'm not sure why a reference to AIDS would seem to suggest Burroughs is focused on the quandaries of gay men in particular, since elsewhere in the poem he has already demonstrated he is plenty enraged at other violations of human beings (not that I can say I am particularly thrilled with what looks to me like the yuckiest imaginable misogyny in Burroughs's writing, which I can't forgive him for, but neither do I confine my appreciations and educations to those with whom I am in comfortable agreement, else I can't say that I would like much or learn from much of anything, after all), but also since even by 1986 everybody with a brain knew that AIDS was not a gay man's disease if one assumed a planetary vantage on the pandemic.

Of course, every single second we were to spend tit-for-tatting along these lines would draw us moment by moment, line by line, further and further from the actual force and life and substance and provocation and actual truth in it, domesticating it into a vehicle for truths better delineated in public health pamphlets and political speeches, quite the furthest imaginable space from one Burroughs would want to be seen in.

I personally think the chief moral force that one derives from Burroughs, if moral force is the word for it, is a sharpening of our skepticism toward all constituted authorities, a heightened awareness of the value of tolerant relaxation and the cruelty and mischief of intolerance and unthinking rule-following, and, greatest of all -- at least for those who are willing to pay the price of the ticket -- an invitation to what he called the magical universe of artists in which every material association is capable of being woven through our biographical narrative into an altogether different salience than is usual, often in a way that yields unutterable beauties, but more often than not just renders one an incomprehensible paranoid bore (and of course Burroughs's corpus provides ample occasion to observe both outcomes).

Do please feel free to add what you will here, any of you.


jimf said...

> I personally think the chief moral force that one derives
> from Burroughs. . . is a sharpening of our skepticism toward
> all constituted authorities, [and] a heightened awareness of
> the. . . cruelty and mischief of. . . unthinking rule-following. . .

From a 1976 review of _My Father, Bertrand Russell_ by
Katharine Russell Tait,9171,913866,00.html

"The mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell was a
child's delight, full of games and good spirits and tall tales.
As the Pied Piper of Carn Voel, his country retreat on the
Cornwall coast, he used to lead his young followers on
hunts for the ingredients of a special home brew -— a concoction
of stagnant water, mold, dead leaves, old grass and whatever
other unsavories could be dredged up at the moment.

The slop, labeled "Poison for the Government," was then poured
in tobacco tins and left to stew in the sun. Russell's daughter
Kate says that the game was one of her father's ways of teaching
his children that everything the government did was "completely
misguided if not deliberately wicked." The game also indicates
the degree of pleasure -— both principled and perverse -— that
Russell derived from his nearly lifelong role as the loyal
opposition to all forms of authority."

Ms. Tait's book also makes heartbreakingly clear that having
Bertrand Russell for a father was not, in fact, an unalloyed
delight. He was, unfortunately, quite capable of
interposing his principles between his children and
his natural parental feelings. So it goes.

Making "Poison for the Government" sounds like great
fun, though.

Chad Lott said...

I remember talking to a friend of mine about this conspiracy a few years ago.

He is an older gay man and was telling me about the years in the Castro where no matter where you went there were wheelchairs and newly constructed wheelchair ramps to accommodate all the dying. He was a firm believer that AIDS was constructed in a lab somewhere.

I'm not sure if he still feels that way, but I think he would agree that the people who run the labs probably didn't move as quickly as they could have on helping people (testing, education, etc.).

So in that sense, I think you could say "laboratory AIDS" has meaning beyond conspiracy. For me the phrase has come to mean technology not being used to help people that "don't really matter".

I could be wrong.

Dale Carrico said...

Good point, one could indeed mean to refer by the phrase "laboratory AIDS" the way in which comparatively few labs were devoted to research on AIDS due to moralizing hysteria articulating both corporate (controversy) and governmental (theocracy) funding priorities. I don't really think that is what Burroughs was getting at, I think he meant precisely what Athena rightly disapproves of him saying here. I disapprove that assertion, too, but still strongly approve of the poem, and not just in spite of that line.

Athena Andreadis said...

Actually, Chad, labs were working around the clock to find an AIDS countermeasure. Given that HIV is a retrovirus, which means it mutates very rapidly, they came up with usable drugs in record time. As comparison, we still don't have decent treatments for any other fast-mutating virus, starting with influenza (not a retrovirus, but still a quick change artist).

One of the reasons for the hurry was that the scientists, if not the politicians, realized immediately how quickly an epidemic of this sort could escalate. Another, of course (humans being what they are) is that the first investigator to come up with an explanation of the HIV mechanism was guaranteed a Nobel. And last but not least, the gay community was willing to act as guinea pigs in droves.

Dale, I'm no lover of authority -- you cannot love authority and be an effective research scientist, to say nothing of social aspects. However, some facts are incontrovertible: the earth goes around the sun, not the other way around, whether we like it or not. Burroughs was factual in all his other references in that poem. Why he chose a scare propaganda clause for AIDS is still a major detraction, as far as I'm concerned. Basically, after that line I'm inclined to discount the rest of his words both emotionally and intellectually. It's like being jolted out of immersion in a wonderful piece of writing by a totally clunky line.

Dale Carrico said...

Do you feel I have said anything that would demand you to don your armor to defend the force of facts? I sincerely don't think I have done. We agree on the facts, after all, and the facts aren't threatened here, I daresay, and, of deeper concern to the teacher of Burroughs in me, I frankly think that facticity is -- to be generous -- a secondary concern to Burroughs's in the poem, including the facticity of the assertions in the poem with which you (and I, too) agree with him, let alone the one in which we both disagree with him.

If one sees in the poem just an enumeration of crimes in American history I don't think you are digging deep enough into what is available in the way of provocation in the actual poem -- Howard Zinn is a far better guide to such things than William Burroughs of all people, especially considering he was high was most of the time and often brandishing loaded firearms like a maniac.

I simply don't think Burroughs cares particularly if we "agree" with him or not about any of the provocative allusions he's making. After all, even "agreeing" with Burroughs about the sin of Native American genocide or the ugly spectacle of racist bullying lawmen abusing their power hardly gets at the subversive way Burroughs is re-writing the mythos and ethos of the American self-image eternally reconsolidated through the pious brainless rituals of Thanksgiving day amnesiacs congratulatory themselves in a patriotic frenzy before loading off to shop on Black Friday.

I can't say that I agree with you that Burroughs was "factual in all his other references" because, even if I would agree that assertions very much like them offered up as candidates for warranted assertability in matters of prediction and control were good in the way of belief (as good old William James would have it), I simply don't think that this is the spirit in which these references are offered up or by means of which they provide much of real interest and value to the reader.

Every one of these assertions is, after all, a wan pathetic retroactive reconstruction capturing very little in the way of the truth and agony and betrayal in each of the matters he evokes in these serial phony genuflections -- clearly, controversial disputes about the truth-content of a series of historical assertions is far from what the poem is about. Rather, it is evoking through those acerbic thank-yous a glimpse of a truth on a different order.

Again, I agree with you about the facts you drew our attention to, and I was quick once you did so to insist with you why it would be very wrong to seem to acquiesce in the circulation of falsehoods about the matter for exactly the reasons you indicated. Also, I definitely didn't mean to imply by anything I said that I have some sense that you are enamoured of authority (quite the opposite, I'm sure, I have always felt we were rather kindred spirits in such things)...

If you feel attacked, or defensive, or called upon to defend the honor of truth-hood from a humanities relativist who doesn't think poems always mean by the truth the same thing a lab scientist or an accountant does let me assure you that I agree that there are plenty of contexts in which precisely what is wanted is the sense of truth that preoccupies the lab scientist or accountant rather than the poet, but that this poem is probably not one of them.

I feel bad that you could lose the costly pleasures afforded by the poem simply through awareness of one clunky line in it -- especially when the clunkiness derives from its indulgence in an inaccuracy, given how few of the pleasures Burroughs connects us to ever have anything the least to do with accuracy of all things!

My very best to you!