William Burroughs: Subversion of the Word Machine

Anne McDonald


Most critical approaches to Burroughs' work seem to have concentrated on his hell-vision content, seeing his use of and attitude to, language simply as a means to such thematic ends. This essay begins from the opposite angle, contending that he is, more than anything else, a writer about language, who sees the use and abuse of language as the most powerfully suppressive and potentially subversive of social weapons. Thus Burroughs' apocalyptic visions of the totalitarian chaos of the Twentieth Century and his use of metaphor of addiction as a framework for the abuse of power will be seen principally in the context of how language is used to express them. The starting point of the essay was the curiously mixed reaction I had on an initial reading of Burroughs. While his indictments of modem society invited empathy with the text, the emerging persona of Burroughs seemed uninvitingly aloof. My confusion and wariness seemed echoed in the radically divergent critical responses to his work and I hope to cover some ground toward answering those questions often asked of Burroughs: are his images necessarily purging processes or merely perverted indulgence? Is he a powerful satirist or a diseased crank? Is there a sophisticated structure behind his imagistic whirlwind to justify the literary chaos as the product of an intelligent 'modernist' author, or is he a science-fiction writing hack? Is his philosophical·political content childishly irresponsible or refreshingly avant-garde? Is he a revolutionary or a literary cheat?

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