Whenever assessing an author’s work, posthumously or otherwise, the critic must first establish the author’s place within the context of letters and second explain how this author’s work, the mythos or story, the thread which the author has deigned to spin, contributes to or participates with said context. Ultimately, it is a matter of establishment and movement. It is reasonable to say that the work of the critic is very similar to that of the mythographer. Both take as their duty the explication of a legend. For the mythographer, this legend explication is the explanation of a fabulae, a fabulous narrative account consisting often times of extraordinary and unverifiable elements with dubious historical accuracy. The critic’s duty, on the other hand, is to clarify and elucidate an author’s codex, her or his symbols and scale, thereby creating a correspondence between the map of the world constructed by the author and our own. In both cases, it is the comprehension of a system that serves as the ultimate goal.
The essays that constitute the collection Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization, edited by Davis Schneiderman and Philip Walsh, attest to this paradigm of critical analysis. Each essay is all at once a description, a rationalization, a commentary and a critique or assessment of Burroughs’ codex. The critics compiled in this collection each understand that the system incarnate of Burroughs’ work requires a great deal more exposition than a simple discussion of theme and style could possibly provide. Their material, malleable, arcane, the enigmatic literature of William S. Burroughs, is a subject matter of no small order. Oscillating between the complete surface of pop culture iconography and the trenchant depth analysis of a perhaps prophetic social critic, Burroughs work contains the entire spectrum of possible interpretations, making it much like an unnavigable maze; unless, of course, we receive some instruction on the system as a whole.
In Andre Gide’s Theseus, Ariadne says to the soon to be Hero, “But nobody to this day has ever managed to get out of the maze in which the monster lives; and you won’t succeed either unless your sweetheart (that I am, or shall presently be) comes to your rescue. You can’t begin to conceive how complicated it is, that maze.” (Gide 70) The maze in question is the legendary Labyrinth of Knossos, constructed by Daedalus, the master builder, at the command of Minos, the Cretan king. Minos ordered the construction of Daedalus’ Labyrinth so that he would have a place to hide away the Minotaur, the half man, half beast born to his wife Pasiphae after her illicit union with a brilliant white bull.
Daedalus’ mythological Labyrinth would, however, not have been a maze, as so-called by Ariadne, at least not as conceived of and understood in any modern or contemporary sense. The classical or Cretan-type Labyrinth
is not a system of false paths, a maze…it was a geometrical figure showing only a single path and thus containing no possibility of going astray. This classical labyrinth can best be understood as an architectural groundplan, a system of lines that represent confining walls, between which the path runs as an unobstructed track. This leads from the only opening in the exterior wall inexorably and choicelessly, with no intersections, to the center and out again, moving back and forth in continual switchbacks in the most circuitous possible fashion in such a way as to completely fill up the interior space. In the most ancient form…the single, unmistakable path leads in seven convolutions to the center, the sole dead end. (Jaskolski 7)
So then, as Daedalus explains to Theseus in Gide’s work, “judging it prudent to isolate [the Minotaur] and keep it well away from the public gaze, [Minos] asked me to devise a building and a set of communicating gardens which, without precisely imprisoning the monster, would at least contain him and make it impossible for him to get loose.” (Gide 75)
In the construction of the labyrinth itself, the monster is brought to realization. Through the act of language, the words of Minos’ command to Daedalus, the Labyrinth becomes a reality, and its contents unknown and therefore monstrous. The Labyrinth makes of the Minotaur a secret substance, hides him away, and in this hiding away makes him other, makes him the monster he was always to become, but otherwise could never have been. What is known can not solicit fear, can not be considered monstrous. In a sense, the monster and the Labyrinth are inviolably entwined, neither existing without its other. In the same sense, Daedalus’ fame would never have been so acclaimed had he no monster to hide away. But yet, as previously stated, the Minotaur only became the monster once it was decreed that it must be hidden. Such convolutions, when viewed from within the confines of the mythos itself, all of a single path, leading to the same inevitable center, are certainly confusing.
Burroughs too has constructed just such a labyrinth, plying, in Daedalus’ words, “all my scholarship, all my best thoughts, on the task.” (Gide 75) Burroughs’ labyrinth, however, is an entirely literary one. Its existence is obscure, veiled even. There is no blueprint. Ultimately it is a riddle of sorts, a circuitous, convoluted and often confusing world of words, at the end and center of which lies Burroughs himself, his daemon, the other of his Hericlitian Logos, who must first be found, and then wrestled and bested, before any understanding of his elaborate system can begin. This monster, residing at his labyrinth’s center, unpresentable to the public eye in any explicit form, is the frail and needy man deemed anathema for his gross indecencies, his anti-social tendencies, dependencies and sexual orientation. The global social order, the control machine that makes use of words in order to command certain consequences, has made Burroughs’ self into a monster that he must hide away, so that he may find freedom.
As readers we enter his maze and immediately become confused, befuddled by the vapors, so to speak as in Gide’s conception of Daedalus’ Labyrinth, where the pathway is pervaded with a narcotic haze of noxious gases emitted by certain plants continuously burned in the corridor. These gases intoxicate the traveler, sapping their will and making them unable to continue along their journey. Similarly, Burroughs’ narratives, often written while under the influence of some befuddling substance, are often void of clarity, and seem to lead endlessly nowhere. One becomes unsure of what they are reading, of quite literally, where they are going, forward, backward, or if there is any process or progress at all. Our only hope of escape, of understanding the twists and turns is that some Ariadne will come along with her discernible thread, her knowledge of the pattern, and lead us, not only to this central den, but also, and more importantly, back again.
Yet Ariadne’s thread is much more than just a simple balled string, unraveled upon entry and recoiled upon return. This thread is the knowledge of the pattern of the Labyrinth, the knowledge of the system itself, overarching and complete. It begins in an exterior space outside the Labyrinth, a ritual dancing ground, where the movements necessary to navigate the Labyrinth are marked in mosaic and known only to the priestess Ariadne, the Lady of the Labyrinth. These movements she taught to Theseus, initiating him in the divine rites of the geranos, the crane dance, through which he learned her particular philosophy of sacrifice and saving grace. Hers was a universal worldview, consisting of all the world and the stars, in which all things are subjected to the oppressive control of the gravity of the circle, and in their time, fall in the pattern of the dance. This knowledge she gives to Theseus as a way of explaining the pattern of life itself, represented by the ineffable precision of Daedalus’ construction.
The essays of this collection are the collected threads of a number of such would be Ariadne’s. The critics themselves begin their enumeration of Burroughs’ elaborate labyrinth by first establishing the existence of an external philosophical dancing ground, whose pattern can be readily applied to Burroughs’ work. Indeed, with these case studies, an understanding of the critic’s conception of Burroughs’ labyrinth is wholly dependent upon the acceptance and comprehension of an external theoretical system. These systems describe the contemporary scheme of globalization and the methods by which it uses certain mechanisms in order to control social perception and behavior. Next comes the movement, the dance performed upon this now established space. This movement is the application of the taught and learned theoretical pattern to Burroughs’ dense, complicated and labyrinthine work.
The collection itself is divided into three sections. This division makes the pattern of Burroughs’ labyrinth more readily discernible. These three sections, “Theoretical Dispositions,” “Writing, Sign, Instrument: Language and Technology,” and “Alternatives: Realities and Resistances,” each focus on a different aspect of Burroughs’ work, yet each section also allows for a complete understanding of his rather involved presentation of the age in which we live. As a whole, this collection is an attempt to represent Burroughs as “emblematic of our times and illustrative of current theoretical preoccupations, attesting to his continuing power as a writer.” (Skerl xiii)
In this text, Burroughs’ writing becomes “a form of resistance.” (Skerl xiii) From his very beginnings, Burroughs’ writing is a search to find freedom and enlightenment. Yet in order to accomplish this end, it became necessary for Burroughs’ to undermine the control system, the language, that commands our world. His words are subversive and serve to establish a new ground upon which, in time, through a repeated patterned movement, personal freedom can be attained. This freedom is only available to those willing to do the work of walking the Labyrinth, willing to find the monster that resides within and come to terms with the resultant and imposed psychological stigmas. The modern Theseus must come to understand that the beast that lives within us, is only a beast because society has deemed named it thus, with the intention of controlling and limiting the development of individual, the bane of society.
This collection serves to create and elaborate upon the legend of Burroughs as a profound social critic. They “attack their material with enough energy to infuse the cogent issue – literary explication that moves beyond its own rarified limits – with vital connections that present Burroughs’ work as a ‘blueprint’ for identifying and resisting the immanent control mechanisms of global capital.” (Schneiderman 2) Here we have Burroughs as critic, but also Burroughs as prophet, rebellious and radical freedom fighter, avant garde artist and all around pioneer. His is the refusal to be controlled, the refusal to be cornered and the refusal to be classified. The goal of this collection would seem successful; it’s critics “aim, en masse, [is] not… to cover the targets already pierced by earlier arrows, but to claim new areas for debate and discovery in the work of a writer who defiantly cast off the linear conventions of the world – and with whose work the world has perhaps only now begun fully to catch up.” (Schneiderman 2)
About the author:
JF Campbell is a is a failed musician anda petty thief, born to a painter afraid of her own portrait and a musician whose time was too strict.