By James Reich
In February 2014, William S. Burroughs will not be 100 years old; like Ronald Reagan before him, he will be dead. The fingernails will have trailed out a little further and the hair may test subtly at the limits of the casket. There will be great lamentation for this postmodern Nebuchadnezzar, his hanging gardens, his luminous talent, his moments of possessed unreason, and his legendary humbling. It is one of the marks of our culture that the living dead are now seen ‘at 100’. Next year also marks one hundred years since the birth of my most enduring literary hero Dylan Thomas, though I would hesitate to say that even he did his best work still balling in the red gruel of his birth. Both Thomas and Burroughs were masters of the poetics of death, but it took Burroughs a while longer to get going. The Burroughs occasion is to be marked with a riot of impersonations, exhibitions, and more ‘re-edited’ editions of his major works.
February 2014 will also mark one year since I began corresponding with Malcolm Mc Neill, the graphic artist who made the most significant visual contribution to the Burroughs oeuvre, in a collaboration of intimately woven image and text. Their direct working relationship lasted seven years, from 1970 until the culmination of the project Ah Pook Is Here, when Mc Neill found himself “occluded from space-time like an eel’s ass occludes when he stops eating on the way to Sargasso…Locked out…” These spectacular panoramas and graphic novel abstractions went largely unseen until the publication of his exceptional memoir Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook and Me; and The Lost Art of Ah Pook: Images From The Graphic Novel (Fantagraphics). Until 2012, few were aware of Mc Neill’s role in defining elements of Burroughs’ work, even if they knew the largely pointless vanity projects like Burroughs’ famous junkies ‘collaboration’ with Kurt Cobain. Over the weekend commemorating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the great bull’s eye for publishers, historians and revisionists, Mc Neill and I spoke by telephone about anniversaries, the ethics of posthumously altering the work of a dead artist, and some of the unanswered questions surrounding the publication of Ah Pook Is Here.
JAMES REICH: Oliver Harris is editing new editions of The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express. I’m interested in what you make of the processing of Burroughs’ work. I say ‘processing’ because – however well-intentioned – it’s difficult to resist the feeling that something is at stake in posthumous editing, and revision; that there is as much to be lost as gained in the ‘rationalization’ of any author’s work, perhaps Burroughs in particular. It remains to be seen, of course, but it’s one thing to provide a concordance, but any executive decision to alter the texts, their grammar, idiosyncrasies, structure, in effect their voice, strikes me as a contentious one. The Burroughs Estate, headed by James Grauerholz (Burroughs’ adopted son) made a similar decision regarding the 50th Anniversary text of Naked Lunch. What are your thoughts?
MALCOLM MC NEILL: Burroughs’ entire literary output is apparently in need of improvement. It’s only a matter of time presumably before all his books are ‘corrected’. Despite his declarations of respect and admiration, it seems Grauerholz is unhappy with who Burroughs actually is. Using the prerogatives of his inheritance, and his claim of ultimate authority, he’s orchestrating a complete makeover … ‘tidying him up’ as it were. This involves a sentimental, more ‘acceptable’ spin on Burroughs’ personal history, along with an ongoing, systematic qualifying and alteration of his work. As someone who knew Burroughs – both as a friend and artistic collaborator – this obviously interests me, particularly since the same high-handed sense of how he should be perceived has had serious consequences for the work we did together.
Next year, coincidentally, is the fortieth anniversary of my meeting Grauerholz when he first came into Burroughs’ life. I’d been working with Bill on Ah Pook Is Here and supplying images for other texts for four years by then, so it put me in the unique position of seeing how things changed once he started taking charge. I’ve watched how the ‘celebrity’ Burroughs developed over the years and how Grauerholz in his role as Burroughs Communications went from Amanuensis to Assayer of Scribes. Postmortem revisionism of Bill’s work – of any artist’s work – is creatively and ethically indefensible. It’s Artcrime. The nature of the changes is irrelevant. To change one word is to insinuate one’s own opinion without the artist’s consent. If art can be altered without accountability in this way, then we have truly entered the Orwellian nightmare. Like you say, the fact that it involves the art of Bill Burroughs is somewhat ironic.
JAMES REICH: When Ah Pook Is Here was published in its text-only form, it was understood, between you and Burroughs, that this was a kind of ‘trial run’ of the text, to generate interest in what, at the time, would be a radical publishing enterprise: the unified graphic novel version. The question arises, is there a serious Burroughs reader who would not celebrate the reintegration of Ah Pook Is Here, literally, the return of its integrity? This centennial might have provided opportunity. Have you had any approach about that? From my understanding, it appears that the opportunity to divorce the images from the text was seized upon in a permanent way. It’s also apparent that a significant section of the text was removed, perhaps in part to render your collaboration – the symbiosis of the images and the text – meaningless.
MALCOLM MC NEILL: All of the reviewers have expressed disappointment over the text not being included in The Lost Art. It took almost forty years to find the publisher Bill and I had hoped for, and it happened at a time when Ah Pook is Here was more relevant than ever. It had been described as “a book ahead of its time” and in 2012 that time had come. Fantagraphics and I negotiated with the Burroughs Estate for almost a year to have the text included, but in the end Grauerholz simply walked away. He’d wanted to revise the text with Oliver Harris – “Oliverize” it, as he put it – and incorporate material from notes and earlier drafts. This was unacceptable. Bill had written the text specifically with my imagery in mind and the images in turn corresponded specifically to that text. Changing it would defeat the whole purpose – and meaning – of the collaboration. Quite apart from the presumption of altering a text after its author was dead, it would amount to a third party forcing themselves between writer and artist and obscuring their original intention.
Our response was to ask instead for the already published 1979 Calder text to be included as a stand-alone piece. The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here would look essentially the same as it does now but with that addition – its other half as it were. Our only caveat was that a chunk of text that had been removed from the working text for the Calder version might also be included since many of my images referred to it. That was the problem.
JAMES REICH: What was the significance of that piece of text, the section that had been cut from the Calder edition? With so much other Burroughs material surfacing, what would be so controversial about restoring this missing section of Ah Pook Is Here?
MALCOLM MC NEILL: Grauerholz had edited the Calder text and he had removed it. That section not only introduced the title character Ah Pook, but also encapsulated the premise of the book. It was also a wonderful piece of Burroughs fiction. To remove it was an inexplicable editorial decision, the more so since it was the only section in the working text that had been altered. Making that public might raise questions about Grauerholz’s editorial methods. Any reader seeing the two versions side by side would find it hard to justify such an omission. In light of his ongoing posthumous revising and re-editing of Bill’s inventory this obviously presented a dilemma. His solution was to simply stop communicating altogether, effectively denying the use of any Burroughs’ text at all.
JAMES REICH: It’s interesting because in The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here, one can see the images that the missing text refers to.
MALCOLM MC NEILL: “An astronaut walks into a bar…” – classic Burroughs. Mr. Hart’s first encounter with Ah Pook during a firing squad in Mexico that pans over to an abandoned Los Alamos overgrown with vines, then to the moon where an American astronaut walks into a bar full of Mayan gods. The baby Corn god turns into Ah Pook and shoots him. Back to the firing squad, Hart and the Mexican Commandante walk away as one of the bandits’ hat flies off and lands at the feet of the two boys reprised from the opening Hiroshima scene. The boys go through a charade exchanging a sugar skull and gun. “A papier mache skull full of fireworks explodes. A space ship is launched” (WSB) Wonderful circularity, the perfect encapsulation of Mayan-Judeo/Christian confrontation. The character of Ah Pook. The idea Bill approved its removal makes no sense whatsoever. The question is: why was it removed at all?
JAMES REICH: You used the term Assayer of Scribes earlier. At least as expressed in his work, Burroughs took a particularly hard line on that notion. How should that be understood in the context of the ongoing process of ‘restoration’?
MALCOLM MC NEILL: The Assayers of Scribes were the Egyptian court historians. Like today’s media controllers they determined what should be shown, what should be known. They controlled the Word essentially. The ultimate censors. Bill said he wanted to put a curse on all of them. This includes postmortem revisionism of course. It’s not a normal editorial process since the author doesn’t participate. It’s a case of self-appointed individuals determining what they think should or shouldn’t be seen. When it involves any work of art this is unacceptable, but when it includes Naked Lunch – and the entire text of Ah Pook is Here – it’s outrageous…and ironic, since that is precisely what Ah Pook is Here is about: censorship and Control. From its publication, until his death, Burroughs did not see fit to alter the core text of Naked Lunch. If you take the time to read through a half dozen reprints from 1959 to 1992 you can see no changes were made. Years after his death, however, so many egregious errors and grammatical inconsistencies were discovered, that it was deemed necessary to re-edit it. Changes would be made on “Burroughs’ behalf” in order to provide posterity with an improved, more ‘correct’ version of his work. The trick of course, is that very, very few people will take the time to read this new improved version alongside the original; if they can find one that is. It’s doubtful it will be republished, in which case it will have essentially disappeared down the memory hole.
JAMES REICH: Vale at Re/Search has published books on Burroughs and J.G. Ballard; in fact it was Burroughs who introduced Vale to Ballard’s work in the early 1970s. Ballard was unsentimental about the detritus accumulated by writers – abandoned manuscript fragments, the aura of first editions, and so forth. I’m reminded of what Ballard said to Vale (they also talked about Burroughs a great deal) was “I hate that instant memorializing – your used beer mats and used typewriter ribbons and tax returns – little shrines erected in some university around the handkerchief in which Graham Greene blew his nose in 1957… frankly it’s of no interest to me whatsoever. All those things that obsess archivists, like different variants of a paperback published in 1963…it leaves me cold! There’s too much of it going on.”
MALCOLM MC NEILL: I can’t really comment on the Burroughs fan mindset because that was never my relationship to him. When I met him I knew nothing about him essentially and he was far from the celebrity he would later become. If I had known who he was I might have been intimidated to the point none of this would have happened. As it was I started with a blank slate. I got to know him as a writer and a friend at the same time. The need for photo memorabilia also seemed irrelevant. The connection was in the work. Revelations about an artist’s methods or life style will always be something we enjoy, but the kind of hat they wore or typewriter they used doesn’t really interest me. Much less wanting to own them. It’s the fan/celebrity mindset. Owning a piece of the true cross kind of thing.
JAMES REICH: That’s the heart of the matter, isn’t it? It’s the tension between tinkering at the margins of a reputation and revealing something actually valuable. It’s like the cynical ‘bonus material’ on most DVD releases. Most of the time it’s junk, but then I suppose an addiction to ‘junk’ might be appropriate in discussing Burroughs. Junk was, of course, also a metaphor for the aesthetics of consenting capitalism.
MALCOLM MC NEILL: On the one hand it’s kind of trivial but then it’s not. That’s really not what’s at issue here. Fussing over the correctness of Burroughs’ texts is irrelevant to the greater intention, but in the case of Ah Pook, it’s obscuring the significant insights the collaboration revealed. Bill described Ah Pook is Here as “unique” but he was referring to the images and text combined. Removal of that text not only diminishes its significance but actually deters many would be readers from even considering the book. As Observed While Falling shows, the experience revealed many new aspects of Burroughs’ life and methods, but the events that occurred during – and after – Ah Pook’s making, take Word and Image to a very different level of consideration.
JAMES REICH: The experience of reading Observed While Falling is bizarre on at least two levels: it accounts for a significant period of Burroughs’ London years that has never been described by any of his biographers; and further, your experiences as an artist quite apart from Burroughs are the ones which, in a sense, vindicate some of the more occult ideas that you shared, those apparitions, coincidences, and ironies that are part of the textuality, the code of our existence. Our textual systems, our signs, permit and delimit certain kinds of phenomena. These are not psychic for you. I remember asking you if you were ever remotely tempted to call these phenomena ‘psychic’ and you said: “That’s the black square. As soon as you step on that, you’re fucked.” The point is that these are seductive patterns and chances that you observe, but in essence, these are textual phenomena, and they present – if permitted – the essence of Control. Here we are, back at the beginning, with The Word. If Burroughs’ novels and your collaboration laid out the argument, then Observed While Falling presents the evidence. It’s about the possession and repossession of ideas, the question of inspiration, genius and chance. I remember you saying: “Inspiration is recognizing coincidence. All science is based on useful coincidence, and that is what art is.” I think that idea underpins your memoir.
MALCOLM MC NEILL: It’s not a biography of William Burroughs. Even so, it uncovers – and substantiates – insights into the possibilities of Time and Death that indeed warrant the term unique and confirm many of his contentions regarding the creative process. It considers the nature of ideas, the way they are expressed – in Time – how they flow, how the currents within them are blocked, redirected and moved forward; above all, it questions who ‘owns’ them. Like all artists, Burroughs wrote from the need to write, the ideas expressed themselves according to his state of mind at the time. The essential spirit of those outpourings whether they are grammatically ‘correct’ or not, is in the form in which they first manifested. That’s the way they should remain. To take a painting by Jackson Pollock or Picasso and adjust a couple of squiggles or perspective years after they were dead would be both utter nonsense and an affront to the force of compulsion. No one would stand for it, especially if it involved all of Picasso’s paintings, yet that’s what seems to be happening here.
Like Bill so famously said, you can short-change just about anyone, but not the muse. You can’t second-guess it and you certainly cannot ‘correct’ it – especially if you are not its original intimate beneficiary.
Malcolm Mc Neill is the author of OBSERVED WHILE FALLING: BILL
BURROUGHS, AH POOK AND ME, and THE LOST ART OF AH POOK IS
James Reich is the author of BOMBSHELL: A NOVEL, and I, JUDAS: A
NOVEL (Soft Skull Press)