Thanks for the wild turkey and the passenger pigeons, destined to be shat out through wholesome American guts.
Thanks for a continent to despoil and poison.
Thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger.
Thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin leaving the carcasses to rot.
Thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes.
William Burroughs, “Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1986” in Tornado Alley, (New York: Cherry Valley Editions), 1989.
I have often considered Burroughs’ work as containing a recurrent ecological sensibility, from the descriptions of the exploitation of South American towns by American big business in The Yage Letters (1963) and the prevalence of garbage in Naked Lunch (1959), to the later heartfelt affection for and desire to protect the lemurs of Madagascar in Ghost of a Chance (1991). The problem with Burroughs (among many problems for scholars, hence the ripeness of his work for study) is his, for want of a better term, contrariness. Apparent positions on many issues change, and within works contradictory positions can be found being espoused simultaneously. The title of this review: “Great. Burroughs is a liberal now”, was culled from an online discussion group about Weidner’s book which sardonically discussed Burroughs’ personal politics. The idea that Burroughs could be considered an ‘ecowarrior’, let alone a ‘liberal’, is anathema to many fans and scholars of Burroughs alike. The fragmentary and experimental practices that persist throughout his work also make any attempt to pin him or his work to a particular philosophical or political position all but impossible. Yet attempts to examine his work using critical theory have been particularly fruitful, and I am thinking here of Robin Lydenberg’s Word Cultures (1987) and Timothy Murphy’s Wising up the Marks (1997) which progressed Burroughs scholarship immeasurably.
Most of the recent scholarly works on Burroughs are enlightening and enriching, though not because they necessarily shed new light on Burroughs’ work (the archives have been well mined, particularly in work such as Oliver Harris’ seminal William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination , and most major critical approaches have now been explored), but rather because they shine a light back on the flaws in methods of literary study. Sean Michael Bolton’s recent Mosaic of Juxtaposition (2014) works as a case in point, where the study of Burroughs’ wild experimentation is seen to throw critical practice into the long grass, recovering the original texts as free vessels to use in the exploration of a range of philosophical positions. At this juncture the focus changes, as it should, from Burroughs and his text to the reader and their interpretation.
In The Green Ghost, Chad Weidner (lecturer at University College Roosevelt, The Netherlands) presents a timely ecocritical study of a range of Burroughs’ texts. By re-reading canonical and ignored texts while pushing the boundaries of ecocritical theory and practice, Weidner provides a much needed fresh perspective. Despite the surfeit of ecocritical studies devoted to Gary Snyder and to some extent Allen Ginsberg, Weidner’s study not only offers a new way to look at Burroughs, but also suggests new theoretical and methodological approaches to understanding the work of other Beat writers.
Using this ecocritical lens, The Green Ghost explores the toxicity in Naked Lunch, with its ‘iridescent lakes and orange gas flares, and swamps and garbage heaps, alligators crawling around in broken bottles and tin cans, neon arabesques of motels, marooned pimps scream obscenities at passing cars from islands of rubbish….’ (certainly one of my favourite passages), arguing that in positing the concept of the ‘Toxic Human’ Burroughs is presenting a zero-sum game in the present of human existence, while finding in its fragmentary structure a form that is enabling to the reader, shocking them out of their ecological complacency. Weidner also shows a canny knack of teasing out the latent ecological questions embedded in Burroughs’ later works. In particular his analysis of unknown and miniature “cut-ups,” texts that have been disassembled and rearranged to create new texts, provides a new understanding of these cryptic forms. He also examines in detail books by Burroughs that have been virtually ignored by critics, exposing the deep ecology of Burroughs’ vision.
The Green Ghost reveals Burroughs’ work as a ripe source for ecocritical dialogue, through the examination of narrative strategies and themes that link his texts to environmentalism, without mistakenly trying to fix the writer and his work as environmentalist. I was a bit surprised that the book did not make more of current theories of the anthropocene, the notion that the geology of Earth has been impacted significantly by humans in current epoch, usually marked as beginning with the Trinity nuclear test in 1945 (atom bomb references, and a sense of time running out, occur frequently throughout Burroughs’ oeuvre – particularly with reference to his experiences as a youth at the Los Alamos ranch that later became a key site of the Manhattan Project). In his 1978 essay “The Limits of Control” Burroughs observed something vital to the understanding of the politics of the anthropocene: “A government is never more dangerous than when embarking on a self-defeating or downright suicidal course.” (The Adding Machine, Calder, 1985) In the context of scientific research, with a nod to the Manhattan Project, Burroughs writes in the context of governmental politics and the basic rights of citizens to hold their governments to account over issues that may involve their complete annihilation. Weidner’s book does not really reflect on Burroughs’ politics per se, rather it maintains strict focus on poetics in an ecological framework. But this is missing the context of “The Limits of Control” and its sister essay on a planet in trouble, “Women: A Biological Mistake?”, which takes the ecological and political focus right back to the beginning of Burroughs’ career as a writer – to the influence of Gide on “Twilight’s Last Gleamings”, his 1938 collaboration with Kells Elvins, with the image of a lifeboat beset on all sides.
The comparative section that places Burroughs’ Nova Express (1964) alongside Věra Chytilová’s experimental film Daisies (1966) at first seems incongruous, and the case for the inclusion of Daisies rather than a broader examination of experimental film of the 1960s, or of Burroughs’ own collaborative experimental films is not made. Given this shift to an examination of visual media it is all the more surprising that there is a lack of engagement with Burroughs’ visual art and particularly Apocalypse, his 1988 collaboration with Keith Haring. This is compounded by its framing in the context of Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter” and a brief discussion of Dada-ecopoetics. The ‘Neo-dadaism’ Weidner perceives in Nova Express and Daisies, while fascinating and well argued, feels overly-simplistic through to its conclusion that ‘The desecration of literary and film conventions and the bent temporal syntax of the works under study here provide an alternative aesthetic environment that is rich for experimentation and offers new ways of understanding the world in which we live.’ It is with the Burroughs material that Weidner’s argument is expressed most directly and clearly.
Particularly rich is Weidner’s analysis of the Red Night trilogy of novels, though I do not readily agree with the initial claim that ‘By the early 1980s, Burroughs’ writing was gradually shifting toward more accessible content and linear narrative structures’, as my research suggests that those structures were not imposed by Burroughs, and this relinquishing of control is in part incorporated into the texts themselves. Using Leo Marx’s study The Machine in the Garden (1964) Weidner maps an American pastoralism onto the trilogy, and explores how it ‘uses the past to reimagine a future for humanity.’ Survival is a key trope of Burroughs’ ‘retroactive Utopia’, which Weidner sees as ultimately doomed to failure, much as Burroughs’ earlier work forms a lament to missed opportunities and failed ventures. The chapter feels a little compressed, and it seems that there is more to be made certainly of the first novel of the trilogy, Cities of the Red Night (1981), in an ecocritical context.
Also welcome is Weidner’s analysis of The Cat Inside (1986), long neglected in studies of Burroughs as an oddity in straight memoir form. The chapter begins as a response to Kelly Anspaugh’s 2001 essay “The Black Cat Inside”, but then drifts into a textual analysis of a long section of Junky (1953) ending with an assertion of the clear contrast between The Cat Inside and Junky – all of which feels unnecessary in the wider context of the analysis. Reference to Burroughs’ enduring contrariness is also missed here, as well as his failure to address the inherent cruelty and ecological problems of domestication itself, with the focus instead placed on the perceived transcendental, spiritual (and apparently mutually beneficial) connection between humans and cats. More apposite is where the discussion moves into the realm of post-human; the representation in Burroughs’ work of non-human/interspecies sexual activity which Weidner posits as a site where Burroughs challenges distinctions of what it means to be human and animal in a literature that can ‘decondition us from our inherent anthropomorphic tendencies’, though again, I would have liked to have seen more in this area. Weidner’s argument, that The Cat Inside amounts to a call to protect the planet, is convincing, though it is a stretch to see it as a call to arms rather than another lament.
Similarly, Burroughs’ novella Ghost of a Chance, even in its title, feels like a lament for doomed species, be it lemur or human. Despite this Weidner sees a sense of hope emanating from the text through Burroughs’ plea for readers to donate money to The Duke University Primate Center. Yet the human cruelty Burroughs fails to see in the domestication of cats is repeated, as Weidner notes, ‘The center breeds endangered lemurs in captivity.'[emphasis mine] Burroughs’ direct appeal to the reader is a particularly interesting narrative element of the text, and is a technique he has used in different forms extensively in his work, a point not taken up in The Green Ghost. Weidner does usefully note Burroughs’ use of extensive footnotes and references in the text, but his tentative assessment that Burroughs was doing so to ‘lampoon academic writing’ could have been taken further, as it seems Burroughs may be experimenting with something more profound in relation to truth, authority, and ecological narratives, as seen in current debates between ‘climate change deniers’ and ‘scientific experts’.
While there are still some residual elements of Weidner’s thesis here on display in terms of style, such as the repeated insistence that there is a lack of critical engagement with Burroughs’ later works using ecocritical tools, there is much to admire, particularly the extensive archival sifting and some fascinating new readings. There are some very astute close readings, particularly the welcome analysis of the final line of Naked Lunch, though as the afterword shows ultimately it feels as though we have not moved very far: ‘To what extent can Burroughs’ texts be evaluated within an ecocritical framework? The answer to this question is deeply complex and requires much consideration and discussion’. A useful reminder that attempts to fix Burroughs’ intended meaning, or to present a political reading of Burroughs’ texts is deeply problematic. But that is not to discount Weidner’s excellent addition to Burroughs scholarship, which should be considered in future analyses of Burroughs’ works, as The Green Ghost makes a great case for the continuing relevance of Burroughs’ enigmatic texts in contemporary critical debates.