The landscape of this piece is populated with figures from b-science fiction flicks and disintegrating paperbacks glimpsed in fragments by insomniacs staring at screens and reading in bathtubs: vampires, clone armies, mad scientists, time travelers, dream assassins... The whole hellish hallucination, a snapshot of the American cultural imaginary deployed as a wrench in the works, is a triptych: It begins with a condemnation of capitalism as a pyramid of pyramid schemes rationalizing evil predation (there are vampires everywhere in this section), goes on to declare that the paranoid defense of a false and facile notion of coherent selfhood drives the possessiveness that enables this predation and fraud (clones throng this section), and concludes by proposing an embrace of open futurity against parochial PR projections of the future that foreclose empathy and possibility (time and space travelers take the stage here).
This concluding proposal -- which Burroughs identifies with an embrace of "the magical universe" in which beliefs are permanently susceptible to refiguration and warranted not only by the powers they can confer of prediction and control but by the ways in which they can be invested with meaning, beauty, solidarity otherwise -- is close kin with Nietzsche's proposal of philosophical truth-telling as an affirmation that resists ressentiment, just as the deconstruction of self in the second part of the piece aligns with the moral project of the Freudian unconscious, just as the jeremiad against selfish exploitation with which the piece begins (and which is excerpted below) is nicely illustrative of themes in Marx. I assign this piece in my undergraduate Critical Theory survey course both at the San Francisco Art Institute and at UC Berkeley -- a course which makes the argument that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are three threshold figures taking us from the philosophical life of the mind and its contemptus mundi to the post-philosophical project of critical theory in which, in the Marxian phrase, "the point is to change it."
I think I have read and taught this piece by now something like thirty or forty times and I think it one of Burroughs' great aesthetic accomplishments. It is so short that I usually begin my lecture by simply reading the story like some demented grandfather in an armchair at a sick child's bedside. It takes about fifteen minutes or so. In my lecture I regularly go on to pair it with excerpts from another short piece by Burroughs "On Coincidence," which provides helpful elaborations on its themes, and of course poses new perplexities too. Both pieces are anthologized in a collection called The Adding Machine. It surely goes without saying, but I will add that there is much more happening in the piece than I have mentioned, including quite a lot of mischief designed to nudge some readers into a state somewhere between paranoia and serendipity while cruelly reading for filth those who cannot accompany him on the journey.
Anyway, I also think the piece gets to something profoundly true and profoundly hilarious about the evil, if one is inclined to put it that way, of Peter Thiel and the current brouhaha over plutocratic parasitic blood transfusion as a route to techno-immortality. Long-time readers of the blog know, of course, that I have been ridiculing and rampaging against the anti-democratic robocultic Thiel for years. Those who are interested should click on "The Superlative Summary" on the sidebar and scroll down to the entry "Peter Thiel" for a taste of what I mean (the aftertaste, I warn you, is highly unpleasant).
"To me the only success, the only greatness, is immortality." -- James Dean, quoted in James Dean: The Mutant King, by David Dalton
The colonel beams at the crowd . . . pomaded, manicured, he wears the satisfied expression of one who has just sold the widow a fraudulent peach orchard. "Folks, we're here to sell the only thing worth selling or worth buying and that's immortality. Now here is the simplest solution and well on the way. Just replace the worn - out parts and keep the old heap on the road indefinitely.
"As transplant techniques are perfected and refined, the age -- old dream of immortality is now within the grasp of mankind. But who is to decide out of a million applicants for the same heart? There simply aren't enough parts to go around. You need the job lot once a year to save 20 percent, folks. Big executives use a heart a month just as regular as clockwork. Warlords, paying off their soldiers in livers and kidneys and genitals, depopulate whole a reas. Vast hospital cities cover the land; the air -- conditioned hospital palaces of the rich radiate out to field hospitals and open -- air operating booths.
The poor are rising in mobs. They are attacking government warehouses where the precious parts are stored. Everyone who can afford it has dogs and guards to protect himself from roving bands of parts hunters, like the dreaded Wild Doctors, who operate on each other after the battle, cutting the warm quivering parts from the dead and dying. Cut-and-grab me n dart out of doorways and hack out a kidney with a few expert strokes of their four-inch scalpels. People have lost all shame. Here's a man who sold his daughter's last kidney to buy himself a new groin -- appears on TV to appeal for funds to buy little Sally an artificial kidney and give her this last Christmas. On his arm is a curvaceous blond known apparently as Bubbles. She calls him Long John; now isn't that cute?
A flourishing black market in parts grows up i n the gutted cities devastated by parts riots. In terrible slums, scenes from Brueghel and Bosch are reenacted; misshapen masses of rotten scar tissue crawling with maggots supported on crutches and cans, in wheel-chairs and carts. Brutal-as-butchers practitioners operate without anesthetic in open-air booths surrounded by their bloody knives and saws.
The poor wait in parts lines for diseased genitals, a cancerous lung, a cirrhotic liver. They crawl towards the operating booths holding forth nameless thin gs in bottles that they think are usable parts. Shameless swindlers who buy up operating garbage in job lots prey on the unwary.
And here is Mr. Rich Parts. He is three hundred years old. He is still subject to accidental death, and the mere thought of it throws him into paroxysms of idiot terror. For days he cowers in his bunker, two hundred feet down in solid rock, food for fifty years. A trip from one city to another requires months of sifting and checking computerized plans and alternate routes to avoid the possibility of an accident. His idiotic cowardice knows no bounds. There he sits, looking like a Chimu vase with a thick layer of smooth purple scar tissue. Encased as he is in this armor, his movements are slow and hydraulic. It takes him ten minute s to sit down. This layer gets thicker and thicker right down to the bone -- the doctors have to operate with power tools. So we leave Mr. Rich Parts and the picturesque parts people their monument, a mountain of scar tissue.
As L. Ron Hubbard, founder of scientology, said: "The rightest right a man could be would be to live infinitely wrong." I wrote "wrong" for "long" and the slip is significant -- for the means by which immortality is realized in science fiction, which will so on be science fact, are indeed infinitely wrong, the wrongest wrong a man can be, vampiric or worse.
Improved transplant techniques open the question whether the ego itself could be transplanted from one body to another, and the further question as to exactly where this entity resides. Here is Mr. Hart, a trillionaire dedicated to his personal immortality. Where is this thing called Mr. Hart? Precisely where, in the human nervous system, does this ugly death-sucking, death-dealing, death - fearing thing res ide? Science gives only a tentative answer: the "ego" seems to be located in the midbrain at the top of the head. "Well," he thinks, "couldn't we just scoop it out of a healthy youth, throw his in the garbage where it belongs, and slide in MEEEEEEEE?" So h e starts looking for a brain surgeon, a "scrambled egg" man, and he wants the best. When it comes to a short - order job old Doc Zeit is tops. He can switch eggs in an alley.
Mr. Hart embodies the competitive, acquisitive, success-minded spirit that formula ted American capitalism. The logical extension of this ugly spirit is criminal. Success is its own justification. He who succeeds deserves to succeed; he is RIGHT. The operation is a success. The doctors have discreetly withdrawn. When a man wakes up in a beautiful new body, he can flip out. It wouldn't pay to be a witness. Mr. Hart stands up and stretches luxuriously in his new body. He runs his hands over the lean young muscle where his potbelly used to be. All that remains of the donor is a blob of gray matter in a dish. Mr. Hart puts his hands on his hips and leans over the blob.
"And how wrong can you be? DEAD."
He spits on it and he spits ugly.
The final convulsions of a universe based on quantitative factors, like money, junk, and time, would seem to be at hand. The time approaches when no amount of money will buy anything and time itself will run out.
This is a parable of vampirism gone berserk. But all vampiric blueprints for immortality are wrong not only from the ethical standpoint. They are ultimately unworkable. In Space Vampires Colin Wilson speaks of benign vampires. Take a little, leave a little. But they always take more than they leave by the basic nature of the vampire process of inconspicuous but inexorable consumption. The vampire converts quality -- live blood, vitality, youth, talent -- into quantity -- food and time for himself. He perpetrates the most basic betrayal of the spirit, reducing all human dreams to his shit. And that's the wrongest wrong a man can be................