William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

7
The Subtracting Machine The Work of William Burroughs Ihab Hassan

To speak is to lie

-- William Burroughs

S ome works stand in judgment on the world though the world rules their judgment invalid. Their authors cannot be punished for they have put themselves beyond any punishment the world can dispense. William Burroughs is one of these authors. "I offer you nothing. I am not a politician," Burroughs says.1 He offers this: the black and bodiless specter of human betrayal, the dreadful algebra of absolute need. He offers a deposition against the human race, a testimony of outrage in the metallic voice of a subtracting machine.

It is not surprising that his testimony is subject to extravagant praise and hysterical denunciation. In the view of some, Burroughs is the underground king of the Beat Movement for which sweet Jack Kerouac is merely the publicist; in that view, Naked Lunch ( 1959) is the secret masterpiece through which the movement is vindicated. There is, of course, some truth in this. Yet the "masterpiece," thanks to the dauntless publishers of the Grove Press, is now public, and the shadowy status of its author is compromised by the encomium he received, at a recent Edinburgh Festival, from Norman Mailerand Mary McCarthy! Others, however, remain unimpressed. In a classic snort of common sense, John Wain has said, "From a literary point of view," the novel "is the merest trash, not worth a second glance."2 Mr. Wain then proceeded, through seven columns of small print, to glance at the novel, comparing it with the work of Miller, Céline, and Sade, in order to prove a very different point, that Burroughs is a partisan of death.

Controversy may profit the sales of Burroughs' works; it will surely dull their terror. We begin to understand that terror when we refuse to accept it exclusively as a literary phenomenon. From Rimbaud to Beckett, a dangerous strain in modern literature has evaded Mr. Wain's "literary point of view." Vision in that strain seems incommensurate with language; experience seems incommensurate with sanity. If

____________________
Ihab Hassan, "The Subtracting Machine: The Work of William Burroughs," Critique 6 ( 1963): 4-23. Copyright © 1963 by Ihab Hassan. Reprinted by permission.

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