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

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

26
Cut-Up Closure
The Return to Narrative

Oliver C. G. Harris

I n 1962 Burroughs looked back on the publication, two years earlier, of Minutes To Go and The Exterminator, observing of those initial experimental cut-up texts: "A breakthrough that knows exactly what it is breaking through into is not a break-through which is a step in the dark."1 This understanding of the cut-up enterprise indicated his goal to break new territory, to leave behind both his own past writing and the writing of the past. Some copies of Minutes To Go had been issued with a wraparound band that explicitly announced the adversary, as well as exploratory, aim of the cut-up "breakthrough": "Un règlement de comptes avec la littérature." Affirming Burroughs' radical positioning of cut-up methods against both the medium and its historical assumptions, this desire to "settle the score" exploited both the necessity of direct, violent and violating, material involvement and the unforeseen nature of the results obtained in cut-up operations. Yet, while the aesthetic outcome could not by the very nature of his techniques be predicted, from the outset Burroughs' practice drew upon, and inevitably defined itself against, the history of prior modernist experiments; cut-ups were not, as Brion Gysin acknowledged in Minutes To Go, "a new discovery."2 Deriving his knowledge largely from his collaborations with Gysin, Burroughs intended to achieve his settling of scores through a renewed interest in the material and technological possibilities offered by the modernist development of collage. Described by George Steiner as constituting "one of the few undoubted revolutions or 'cuts' in the history of the imagination,"3 those previous avant-garde experiments had been promoted through interdisciplinary movements producing multimedia practices. In the Beat Hotel during the early 1960s, the cut-up movement evolved in the same direction, as Burroughs recalled: "We held constant meetings and conferences with exchange of ideas and comparison of cut-up writing, painting and tape recorder experiments."4

____________________
Oliver C. G. Harris, "Cut-Up Closure: The Return to Narrative." Copyright © 1991 by Oliver C. G. Harris.

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