Soft Machine, The

by Wiliam S. Burroughs
(1961)
   The Soft Machine is the first volume of what is popularly called William S. Burroughs’s cutups trilogy—The Soft Machine, The ticket tHat exploded, and nova express. Although these books are formed from material that was part of the naked luncH “word hoard” (and thus have many overlapping scenes and characters from Naked Lunch), the cut-up technique introduced in the trilogy distinguishes it from the earlier novel. Cut-ups were “discovered” by Brion Gysin in 1959 when he pieced together the sections of a newspaper that he had been using as a cutting surface for artwork. Burroughs had become convinced that language was a virus that controlled consciousness, and the cut-ups showed him a way to “cut word lines” and restore truth to writing. The cutup thus provided Burroughs with an experimental literary technique that matched his ambitions to write a “new myth for the space age.” Readers of these difficult books must keep in mind that Burroughs saw himself in a line of experimental writers who were particularly engaged by language itself, such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and John Dos Passos.
   Burroughs described The Soft Machine as mainly being a surreal retelling of his 1953 South American expedition in search of yage. In fact, much of the book is set in Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and Peru. Readers wishing background on this trip should read The yaGe letters and the “1953” section of Oliver Harris’s The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959. The book was first published in 1961 by Olympia Press. Grove Press published a revised version in 1966 in America. Another edition was published in England as well. The British version is, according to Barry Miles, the most accessible. For that edition (as well as the American edition) Burroughs added more “straight narrative” in an attempt to make the book more comprehensible. The original book was also color coded, while later editions were not. Burroughs defined the title of the book in an afterword to the British edition: “The soft machine is the human body under constant siege from a vast hungry host of parasites with many names but one nature being hungry and one intention to eat.”
   The “Dead on Arrival” chapter samples scenes of Burroughs’s addiction from Mexico City, Tangier, and New York City. The characters include “the sailor” (based on Phil White, who hanged himself in the Tombs), Bill Gains (based on Bill Garver, who dies in Mexico City in this chapter), and Kiki (based on Bill’s young lover in Tangier who was killed by a jealous bandleader when he found Kiki in bed with one of his female players). “Esperanza,” based on the same woman whom Jack Kerouac calls Tristessa in the novel tristessa and who was a drug connection for the American Beats living in Mexico City, makes a brief appearance. The chapter ends with Bill and Johnny en route to the Federal Narcotics Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, where Burroughs took the “cure” in 1948.
   In the “Who Am I To Be Critical” chapter, Bill and Johnny (who turn out to be the same person) never make it to Lexington; instead they go south into Mexico where they join up with revolutionary soldiers and continue further south for a series of adventures. Bill meets an Indian boy named Xolotl (also a character in tHe wild Boys) who shows him how to transmigrate into his body through sex magic. Now in Xolotl’s body (his body has been hanged), he travels into the land of the Maya where he meets up with a “foreigner” who is a “technical sergeant.” Technical Tilly teaches Xolotl how to overcome the powerful conditioning of the Mayan priests, but the two are caught and sentenced to “centipede death.” Xolotl frees them with intense mental concentration—“something I inherit from Uranus where my grandfather invented the adding machine.” He continues his adventures with Technical Tilly, now called Iam, whose “moaning about the equipment the way he always does” reveals him as based on Burroughs’s young mathematician friend in England, Ian Sommerville. In the cut-ups trilogy, Burroughs’s narrative identity is frequently that of an “agent” or an “inspector” (Inspector Lee). Here, he busts queers who have a James Dean addiction. “Public Agent” introduces cut-up sections of text that are thematically linked to the following “Trak Trak Trak” chapter. Cut-ups are used by Burroughs in these two chapters to cut “control” lines and to exorcise sexual obsessions (by replaying them in various cut-up forms). “Trak Trak Trak” has a variety of meanings, but in general it refers to a giant police state/bureaucracy/global corporation that enforces worldwide conformity. Cutting up language—as is the dominant style of this chapter—cuts these lines of control. Johnny from Naked Lunch’s blue movies makes a reappearance here, an example of how much of the cut-up novels came from the Naked Lunch “word horde.” There are even cutups from the interzone period (“Wetback asleep with a hardon was taken care of that way”). The author himself makes an appearance and reveals his seemingly haphazard methods. The jungle setting of this chapter (and others) is South America, and the time setting is 1951 when Burroughs went in search of yage.
   Burroughs has compared his cut-up style to what the eye sees (and the brain interprets) as one takes a walk around the block: images associate, break, synthesize, multiply. The “Early Answer” chapter is an excellent example of such a style. While taking a walk on North End Road (in London, where Burroughs lived during much of the composition of this book), “Jimmy” flashes on World’s End in South America, and London and South American settings cut in and out of the narrative. Fading photos also inspire the chain of memories, here involving Kiki in Tangier. The “Case of the Celluloid Kali” chapter marks the first appearance of one of Burroughs’s most famous characters, Clem Snide, the Private Ass-Hole.
   The chapter parodies the hardboiled style of Raymond Chandler. Clem takes a case from Mr. Martin (sometimes Mr. Bradly), the Uranian heavy-metal addict, and contacts the Venus Mob through a Venusian sex addict, Johnny Yen. The Venusians are set to blow up the planet (“nova”). In The Ticket That Exploded, the Venusians are foiled in their plot to cause a “nova” on Earth and to escape through transmigration of souls. Johnny Yen’s “3000 years in showbiz” routine is in this chapter and is a send-up of borscht-belt humor. Clem infiltrates the palace of the Venusian Queen, the Contessa di Vile, who projects pornographic films of boys being hanged for a sex-addicted audience. Snide speeds up the projector-which causes fits in the crowd—and subdues the Venusians in time for the Nova police to move in for the bust.
   The overall theme of the cut-up trilogy is that of “control,” and in “The Mayan Caper” chapter Burroughs explicates one of the world’s most efficient control systems—the Mayan calendar. According to Burroughs, who studied Mayan language and culture at Mexico City College in 1950–51, the Mayan priests invented a calendar that kept the people occupied with agricultural labor and cultural festivals virtually every day of the year. Only the priests knew the order of the calendar, and thus their control over the people was total. In “The Mayan Caper,” Burroughs creates a time traveler who returns to the time of the Mayans, destroys the calendar, and overthrows the priests. Time travel is explained through the use of Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s “fold-in” technique of creating texts (discussed at length in their book The Third Mind). In fact, fold-ins are used extensively in The Soft Machine. The actual time travel is accomplished first by transferring the scientist into the body of an Indian boy, a medical process that was accomplished by Dr. Bradly/Martin; and second, the Indian boy goes back in time a thousand years by drinking a potion prepared by a curandero, a ceremony similar to Burroughs’s description of drinking ayahuasca in The Yage Letters. This chapter is an important one in Burroughs’s project of creating a new “myth for the space age,” as it cleverly narrates time and space travel. The chapters “I Sekuin,” “Pretend an Interest,” and “Last Hints” are based on Burroughs’s experiences on his South American trip in 1953 in search of yage. Parts of this section are written as a mock travelogue that is authored by the invented explorer Greenbaum. Carl, from Naked Lunch, is a character, and he is still being experimented on by Dr. Benway. Here he undergoes a sex-change operation. The grotesque chimu pottery that so fascinated Burroughs—with its sense of a world taken to horrible extremes—comes alive in the final scenes of “Pretend an Interest,” in which Carl undergoes “Centipede Death.” The description of the teetering catwalk city in “Last Hints” comes from Burroughs’s yage visions.
   Much of the chapter “Where the Awning Flaps” is inspired by Burroughs’s experiences in Panama. Burroughs did not like Panama at all. “The Panamanians are about the crummiest people in the Hemisphere,” he wrote to allen ginsberg. Burroughs wrote “blue movie” sections into many of his books of this period, part of his campaign to replace the “word” with images. In the “1920 Movies” chapter, Johnny and Jose (Joselito) have sex in a Mexican prison. Erotic scenes in Burroughs frequently cause a loss of control, and in the following scene, without transition, Burroughs switches to a narrative about Salt Chunk Mary, who fences stolen goods. She (along with the Johnsons) is a character from Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, a book about “good bums and thieves” that impressed Burroughs in his youth. The last section of the chapter is broken down into color-coded “units.” The original book was printed in different colors, and the “units” here are a leftover from that scheme. They also are part of Burroughs’s project of replacing language through cut-ups, images, and colors. Silence, the aim of Burroughs’s work during these years, is colored “blue.” Blue is the color of his yage visions as well—so prominent in this book. The chapters “Where You Belong,” “Uranian Willy,” and “Gongs of Violence” sketch out Burroughs’s “myth for the space age,” a science-fiction plot that underlies the cut-up novels as well as The Wild Boys and later works. In “Where You Belong,” Burroughs is hired to write for the Trak News Agency, the motto of which is “We don’t report the news—we write it.” He falls in with “the Subliminal Kid” (based on Ian Sommerville) who teaches him how to plant subliminal, subversive messages in the Trak copy. Through words and images they destroy Trak’s hold on public consciousness: “Word falling—Photo falling—Break through in the Grey Room.” (Trak is based on the Time–Life wordimage bank often referred to by Burroughs). “Uranium Willy” continues this plot. “Willy the Rat” (based on Burroughs) “wises up the marks” about how they are being controlled. When the reality film buckles, what is revealed is an interplanetary battle underway in which humans are mere pawns. “Gongs of Violence” appears to describe the reenvisioning of society after the Board Books (“symbol books of the all-powerful Board that had controlled thought feeling and movement of a planet”) are destroyed. There is chaos but also evolution. The sexes split, no longer needing each other. With the reality film destroyed, the real universe is revealed to be a dreamlike city of precarious catwalks, bridges, and ladders. This city closely corresponds to the city Burroughs envisioned under the influence of yage. The end of this chapter shows humanity evolving to escape from the poisoned Earth. In the “Dead Fingers Talk” chapter, the “reader” is directly addressed by the “Captain” (presumably of spaceship earth) introduced at the end of the previous chapter. We see the “deserted transmitter” that had been used to broadcast the language of control. The rest of the chapter—as if demonstrating the freedom of language no longer subject to control—is a seamless collage of routines set in East Texas (where Burroughs raised marijuana within sight of the farm of his neighbor, Mr. Gilley), London, and even in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (which receives what is probably its first “queer” reading).
   The final chapter, “Cross the Wounded Galaxies,” dramatizes Burroughs’s theory of what went wrong with the human species. Two aspects of his theory are important here: First, Burroughs believes that our cave dwelling ancestors were infected by a language “virus” that controlled them (here, the “white worm”); second, he believed that our present age of violence stems from the fact that only one strain of primitive humanoid survived the ice age. As he told Robert Palmer in 1972, “Have you read African Genesis [by Robert Butler]? Well, there was the aggressive Southern ape, who survived because he was a killer, and has really in a sense forced his way of life on the whole species.” Burroughs would expand on this plot in cities of tHe red niGHt (1981), the first book in a second trilogy, the Red Night trilogy. Such interconnections among his past and future books reveal what amounts to a cosmology. Difficult works, such as The Soft Machine, thus become more comprehensible to readers willing to explore Burroughs’s entire oeuvre.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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