Interview with William S. Burroughs
Extracted from the 1966 interview by Conrad Knickerbocker in 'Paris Review'; reprinted in 'Writers at Work', 3rd Series (New York, 1967).
[From the book 'The Third Mind', by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Viking, 1978.]
Burroughs: I don't know about where fiction ordinarily directs itself, but I am quite deliberately addressing myself to the whole area of what we call dreams. Precisely what is a dream? A certain juxtaposition of word and image. I've recently done a lot of experiments with scrapbooks. I'll read in the newspaper something that reminds me of or has relation to something I've written. I'll cut out the picture or article and paste it in a scrapbook beside the words from my book. Or I'll be walking down the street and I'll suddenly see a scene from my book and I'll photograph it and put it in a scrapbook. I've found that when preparing a page, I'll almost invariably dream that night something relating to this juxtaposition of word and image. In other words, I've been interested in precisely how word and image get around on very, very complex association lines. I do a lot of exercises in what I call time travel, in taking coordinates, such as what I photographed on the train, what I was thinking about at the time, what I was reading and what I wrote; all of this to see how completely I can project myself back to that one point in time.
Interviewer: In 'Nova Express' you indicate that silence is a desirable state.
Burroughs: The *most* desirable state. In one sense a special use of words and pictures can conduce silence. The scrapbooks and time travel are exercises to expand consciousness, to teach me to think in association blocks rather than words. I've recently spent a little time studying hieroglyph systems, both the Egyptian and the Mayan. A whole block of associations–boonf!–like that! Words–at least the way we use them–can stand in the way of what I call nonbody experience. It's time we thought about leaving the body behind.
Interviewer: Marshall McLuhan said that you believed heroin was needed to turn the human body into an environment that includes the universe. But from what you've told me, you're not at all interested in turning the body into an environment.
Burroughs: No, junk narrows consciousness. The only benefit to me as a writer (aside from putting me into contact with the whole carny world) came to me after I went off it. What I want to do is to learn to see more of what's out there, to look outside, to achieve as far as possible a complete awareness of surroundings. Beckett wants to go inward. First he was in a bottle and now he is in the mud. I am aimed in the other direction: outward.
Interviewer: Have you been able to think for any length of time in images, with the inner voice silent?
Burroughs: I'm becoming more proficient at it, partly through my work with scrapbooks and translating the connections between words and images. Try this: Carefully memorize the meaning of a passage, then read it; you'll find you can actually read it without the words' making any sound whatever in the mind's ear. Extraordinary experience, and one that will carry over into dreams. When you start thinking in images, without words, you're well on the way.
Interviewer: Why is the wordless state so desirable?
Burroughs: I think it's the evolutionary trend. I think that words are an around-the-world, ox-cart way of doing things, awkward instruments, and they will be laid aside eventually, probably sooner than we think. This is something that will happen in the space age. Most serious writers refuse to make themselves available to the things that technology is doing. I've never been able to understand this sort of fear. Many of them are afraid of tape recorders and the idea of using any mechanical means for literary purposes seems to them some sort of a sacrilege. This is one objection to the cut-ups. There's been a lot of that, a sort of superstitious reverence for the word. My God, they say, you can't cut up these words. Why *can't* I? I find it much easier to get interest in the cut-ups from people who are not writers–doctors, lawyers, or engineers, any open-minded, fairly intelligent person–than from those who are.
Interviewer: How did you become interested in the cut-up technique?
Burroughs: A friend, Brion Gysin, an American poet and painter, who has lived in Europe for thirty years, was as far as I know, the first to create cut-ups. His cut-up poem, "Minutes to Go," was broadcast by the BBC and later published in a pamphlet. I was in Paris in the summer of 1960; this was after the publication there of 'Naked Lunch'. I became interested in the possibilities of this technique, and I began experimenting myself. Of course, when you think of it, "The Waste Land" was the first great cut-up collage, and Tristan Tzara had done a bit along the same lines. Dos Passos used the same idea in "The Camera Eye" sequences in 'U.S.A.' I felt I had been working toward the same goal; thus it was a major revelation to me when I actually saw it being done.
Interviewer: What do cut-ups offer the reader that conventional narrative doesn't?
Burroughs: Any narrative passage or any passage, say, of poetic images is subject to any number of variations, all of which may be interesting and valid in their own right. A page of Rimbaud cut up and rearranged will give you quite new images. Rimbaud images–real Rimbaud images–but new ones.
Interviewer: You deplore the accumulation of images and at the same time you seem to be looking for new ones.
Burroughs: Yes, it's part of the paradox of anyone who is working with word and image, and after all, that is what a writer is still doing. Painter too. Cut-ups establish new connections between images, and one's range of vision consequently expands.
Interviewer: Instead of going to the trouble of working with scissors and all those pieces of paper, couldn't you obtain the same effect by simply free-associating at the typewriter?
Burroughs: One's mind can't cover it that way. Now, for example, if I wanted to make a cut-up of this [picking up a copy of the 'Nation'], there are many ways I could do it. I could read cross-column; I could say: "Today's men's nerves surround us. Each technological extension gone outside is electrical involves an act of collective environment. The human nervous environment system itself can be reprogrammed with all its private and social values because it is content. He programs logically as readily as any radio net is swallowed by the new environment. The sensory order." You find it often makes quite as much sense as the original. You learn to leave out words and to make connections. [Gesturing] Suppose I should cut this down the middle here, and put this up here. Your mind simply could not manage it. It's like trying to keep so many chess moves in mind, you just couldn't do it. The mental mechanisms of repression and selection are also operating against you.
Interviewer: You believe that an audience can be eventually trained to respond to cut-ups?
Burroughs: Of course, because cut-ups make explicit a psychosensory process that is going on all the time anyway. Somebody is reading a newspaper, and his eye follows the column in the proper Aristotelian manner, one idea and sentence at a time. But subliminally he is reading the columns on either side and is aware of the person sitting next to him. That's a cut-up. I was sitting in a lunchroom in New York having my doughnuts and coffee. I was thinking that one *does* feel a little boxed in in New York, like living in a series of boxes. I looked out the window and there was a great big Yale truck. That's cut-up–a juxtaposition of what's happening outside and what you're thinking of. I make this a practice when I walk down the street. I'll say, When I got to here I saw that sign, I was thinking this, and when I return to the house I'll type these up. Some of this material I use and some I don't. I have literally thousands of pages of notes here, raw, and I keep a diary as well. In a sense it's traveling in time.
Most people don't see what's going on around them. That's my principal message to writers: For Godsake, keep your *eyes* open. Notice what's going on around you. I mean, I walk down the street with friends. I ask, "Did you see him, that person who just walked by?" No, they didn't notice him. I had a very pleasant time on the train coming out here. I haven't traveled on trains in years. I found there were no drawing rooms. I got a bedroom so I could set up my typewriter and look out the window. I was taking photos, too. I also noticed all the signs and what I was thinking at the time, you see. And I got some extraordinary juxtapositions. For example, a friend of mine has a loft apartment in New York. He said, "Every time we go out of the house and come back, if we leave the bathroom door open, there's a rat in the house." I look out the window, there's Able Pest Control.
Interviewer: The one flaw in the cut-up argument seems to lie in the linguistic base on which we operate, the straight declarative sentence. It's going to take a great deal to change that.
Burroughs: Yes, it is unfortunately one of the great errors of Western thought, the whole either-or proposition. You remember Korzybski and his idea of non-Aristotelian logic. Either-or thinking just is not accurate thinking. That's not the way things occur, and I feel the Aristotelian construct is one of the great shackles of Western civiliation. Cut-ups are a movement toward breaking this down. I should imagine it would be much easier to find acceptance of the cut-ups from, possibly, the Chinese, because you see already there are many ways that they can read any given ideograph. It's already cut up.
Interviewer: What will happen to the straight plot in fiction?
Burroughs: Plot has always had the definite function of stage direction, of getting the characters from here to there, and that will continue, but the new techniques, such as cut-up, will involve much more of the total capacity of the observer. It enriches the whole aesthetic experience, extends it.
Interviewer: 'Nova Express' is a cut-up of many writers?
Burroughs: Joyce is in there. Shakespeare, Rimbaud, some writers that people haven't heard about, someone named Jack Stern. There's Kerouac. I don't know, when you start making these fold-ins and cut-ups you lose track. Genet, of course, is someone I admire very much. But what he's doing is classical French prose. He's not a verbal innovator. Also Kafka, Eliot, and one of my favorites is Joseph Conrad. My story "They Just Fade Away" is a fold-in (instead of cutting, you fold) from 'Lord Jim'. In fact, it's almost a retelling of the 'Lord Jim' story. My Stein is the same Stein as in 'Lord Jim'. Richard Hughes is another favorite of mine. And Graham Greene. For exercise, when I make a trip, such as from Tangier to Gibraltar, I will record this in three columns in a notebook I always take with me. One column will contain simply an account of the trip, what happened: I arrived at the air terminal, what was said by the clerks, what I overheard on the plane, what hotel I checked into. The next column presents my memories: that is, what I was thinking of at the time, the memories that were activated by my encounters. And the third column, which I call my reading column, gives quotations from any book that I take with me. I have practically a whole novel alone on my trips to Gibraltar. Besides Graham Greene, I've used other books. I used 'The Wonderful Country' by Tom Lea on one trip. Let's see…and Eliot's 'The Cocktail Party'; 'In Hazard' by Richard Hughes. For example, I'm reading 'The Wonderful Country' and the hero is just crossing the frontier into Mexico. Well, just at this point I come to the Spanish frontier, so I note that down in the margin. Or I'm on a boat or a train and I'm reading 'The Quiet American'; I look around and see if there's a quiet American aboard. Sure enough, there's a quiet sort of young American with a crew cut, drinking a bottle of beer. It's extraordinary, if you really keep your eyes open. I was reading Raymond Chandler, and one of his characters was an albino gunman. My God, if there wasn't an albino in the room. He wasn't a gunman.
Who else? Wait a minute, I'll just check my coordinate books to see if there's anyone I've forgotten–Conrad, Richard Hughes, science fiction, quite a bit of science fiction. Eric Frank Russell has written some very, very interesting books. Here's one, 'The Star Virus'; I doubt if you've heard of it. He develops a concept here of what he calls Deadliners, who have this strange sort of seedy look. I read this when I was in Gibraltar, and I began to find Deadliners all over the place. The story of a fish pond in it, and quite a flower garden. My father was always very interested in gardening.
Interviewer: In view of all this, what will happen to fiction in the next twenty-five years?
Burroughs: In the first place, I think there's going to be more and more merging of art and science. Scientists are already studying the creative process, and I think the whole line between art and science will break down and that scientists, I hope, will become more creative and writers more scientific. And I see no reason why the artistic world can't absolutely merge with Madison Avenue. Pop art is a move in that direction. Why can't we have advertisements with beautiful words and beautiful images? Already some of the very beautiful color photography appears in whiskey ads, I notice. Science will also discover for us how association blocks actually form.
Interviewer: Do you think this will destroy the magic?
Burroughs: Not at all. I would say it would enhance it.
Interviewer: Have you done anything with computers?
Burroughs: I've not done anything, but I've seen some of the computer poetry. I can take one of those computer poems and then try to find correlatives of it–that is, pictures to go with it; it's quite possible.
Interviewer: Does the fact that it comes from a machine diminish its value to you?
Burroughs: I think that any artistic product must stand or fall on what's there.
Interviewer: Therefore, you're not upset by the fact that a chimpanzee can do an abstract painting?
Burroughs: If he does a good one, no. People say to me, "Oh, this is all very good, but you got it by cutting up." I say that has nothing to do with it, how I got it. What is any writing but a cut-up? Somebody has to program the machine; somebody has to *do* the cutting up. Remember that I first made selections. Out of hundreds of possible sentences that I might have used, I chose one.