MacFadyen Takes ‘Front Porch’ Look at Burroughs

I knew when RealityStudio posted Ian MacFadyen’s review of “The Name Is Burroughs: expanded media at the ZKM, Karlsruhe,” that it would be a major critique. I had already read his “Codename Burroughs,” the pamphlet that accompanied the retrospective, which was excerpted from a more complete text in MacFadyen’s book, William S. Burroughs. Cut. With his usual brilliance and lucidity he had made it plain as day what Burroughs was up to, especially in the “third mind” cut-up collaborations with Brion Gysin.

Ian MacFadyen and the Dreamachine, 2008 [Photo: Jonathan Greet]

Ian MacFadyen and Dreamachine
[Photo: Jonathan Greet]

Furthermore, when I read the complete “Codename Burroughs” text, MacFadyen had me totally convinced that Burroughs’s work as a visual artist in later life was as serious and as meaningful as his writing, contrary to the opinion of some of Burroughs’s most fervent admirers. But I didn’t realize — though I suppose I should have known, given MacFadyen’s thoroughness — that the critique would be such an encyclopedic summary of the show. It comes to almost 30,000 words and is so exhaustive and comprehensive that it could serve as a catalogue raisonné of Burroughs’s career. Titled “This Beautiful Corrosion — William S. Burroughs at the ZKM,” it describes an exhibition curated by Axel Heil, Udo Breger, and Peter Weibel that is likely to be definitive for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding next year’s Burroughs centenary.

Here’s an excerpt from the critique. There was so much to choose from I could have picked anything at random as representative of its insight. But this selection appealed to me particularly, because it talks about James Agee and Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville, Summer of 1915,” which happens to be one of my favorite pieces of music. Never in a million years would I have connected it to Burroughs.

American Flag Porch Sunset

Detail of shot plywood [Photo: Eric Anderson] Click to enlarge.

There are photographs in the exhibition of Burroughs with the tools of his trade and significant props. There’s the writer with his wire manuscript trays on the front of Harold Chapman’s Beat Hotel. And he’s pictured on the cover of the Sans Soleil edition of Last Words, the author writing, pen in hand — it’s the performance of the act of writing, the very image of the writer’s vocation, the literal signature shot. And there are images of Burroughs with typewriter and with gun — Burroughs as dedicated writer and enthusiastic shootist, reminders that the gun was in the art before the art came out of the gun. Burroughs is a writer of Westerns, and a painter of Western shoot-outs in space — the painter as shootist, for real. Bowles recalled Burroughs in Tangier in the ’50s, and his room in the Medina — “One wall of the room, his shooting gallery, was pock-marked with bullet holes. Another wall was completely covered with snapshots, most of which he’d taken on a trip to the headwaters of the Amazon.” Thirty years later, the image wall and the gunshot wall would coalesce. Shoot through the image wall, and make an image of the shooting wall — see the door to the room as an image and blow it off its hinges. Here’s a photo of Burroughs playing out the character of the old writer on his porch with a shotgun in his lap, on the Penguin cover of The Job — a serendipitous reenactment of Kerouac’s memory of Burroughs in Texas, sitting on his porch with a gun across his lap as the sun was slowly sinking into the blood-red earth. . . An image reminiscent of William Burroughs Jr.’s account of Burroughs on the rooftop in Tangier, watching the sun go down, “right hand holding the perpetual cigarette, lips parting to the sun. . .” Then the rush to the typewriter, to the dark room illuminated by a haunting painting of the moon by Brion Gysin. . . These are moments of illumination, memorable visualizations of Burroughs as witness to the light fading out, the impermanence of all things, like Hokusai’s famous image, Nakamaro Gazing at the Moon From a Terrace — Nakamaro who went to China to discover the measure of time, and was imprisoned on a roof terrace, condemned to watch the moon rise and fall, until his last moon rose and fell. . . Burroughs’ proposed anthology of outstanding passages from literature would have covered love, solitude, old age and death, and would have been illustrated with “panoramas of sunsets and sunrises. . .,” and Burroughs watching the sun go down, the sun setting north or south of due west, is a synecdoche of Spengler’s The Decline of the West, an epoch extinguished like the life of a man at the end of The Place of Dead Roads — “. . . the sky darkens and goes out.” In American music, literature and art, the porch is the site of reminiscence and quiescence, both serenity and acceptance of the ending of a life — the view of the lawn, the garden, the street, passers-by, the old familiar neighbourhood, the gold light of evening leaving and the night coming on, and you can see it all ending. It’s the sunset porch, epitomised by James Agee and Samuel Barber’s 1947 elegiac, transcendent “Knoxville Summer of 1915,” for soprano and orchestra, the illuminated moment out of time, the world of childhood remembered towards the end of a life, recalling “that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street. . .”

And here are photographs of Burroughs in old age, walking away, taking his leave, or with his eyes closed, head tilted back to receive the sun’s rays, an old guy on a torn davenport in a back yard, and the yard went on forever. Agee’s words evoke the vanished time which Burroughs would write of in Cobblestone Gardens, the elegiac mode which breaks through in his writing in bittersweet, unattended moments of nostalgia. . . In Knoxville, Agee recalls the blue dew and morning glories of a gone childhood, the long lawns and the tramcar spark running like a sprite down the wire, quiet talk on porches, the evening light falling and night coming on, and the mystery of “who I am” which remains, and the beauty and sadness of existence — “By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth. . .” Burroughs’ memories, in the prologue to Junky, of the Midwest world of 1914, are akin to Agee’s elegy to the Tennessee of 1915 — the front lawn and the gas streetlights and the shiny Lincoln and the fish pond: “All the props of a safe comfortable way of life that is now gone forever.” The porch is a set in Western movie-lore as well as in representations of American suburbia from the turn of the century through to 1950s and ’60s Cheever Land and beyond, and images of Burroughs combine the two strands — shots of an old shootist, the retired frontiersman, his battles behind him but the gun still loaded, just minding his own business as blue shadows fall, but prepared to defend his suburban plot, his bit of paradise, should deluded trespassers or suicidal intruders call. . . . I remember Ginsberg’s “porch haikus,” as he dubbed them — the direct perception of mortality, moments of fleeting existence caught on the wing, spontaneous soul transmission, views of the passing parade and the breeze through the leaves, first thought best thought and maybe last thought too, the poet with pen and page on the lap, at porch time. In fact, Agee’s original “Knoxville” text, written in 1935, was the spontaneous prosody of the porch, an improvisation, a stream of memory associations, and it was written and completed in just 90 minutes, a process prophetic of the writing of Jack Kerouac. . . As ever with Burroughs, there’s a corkscrew twist, an aberrant take on his own relationship with the American porch, despite those long hours spent reading the newspaper in the rocker in Algiers in 1949 — and so we CUT to Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1938 and “a small frame house on a quiet tree-lined street beyond the Commodore Hotel.” . . Burroughs and Kells Elvins are acting out improvised scenarios in the Hammett / Chandler mold and researching the sinking of the Titanic and the Morro Castle disaster. . . “On a screened porch we started work on a story called ‘Twilight’s Last Gleamings’ which was later used verbatim in Nova Express . . .” Here the porch becomes the site of story telling as the desecration of patriotism and heroism and manly virtue, while “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the National Anthem, is cut up and mocked on that leafy suburban street, along with the flag displayed on even the poorest porches of America. (Burroughs Note: A porch flag pole, metal, “with a wood grain coating for appearance,” and accompanying mounting bracket, is available from Wal-Mart for $24.75, while the flag comes in at a pretty reasonable $13.97). In Gus Van Sant’s 1990 film of Burroughs reading “A Thanksgiving Prayer,” the American flag ripples through Burroughs’ face as he says, “soak it in heroin and I’ll suck it” — while on the jacket of the 1985 John Calder edition of The Adding Machine, Thomi Wroblewski collages the American flag behind a photograph of Burroughs saluting — the flag emphasises the irony implicit in Burroughs’ salute, a civilian gesture, and one from a performer to his audience, which subverts the formal paying of respect of the armed services, while on another level we recognise it as a signal of recognition, a mark of true respect, directed at those who share his attitude towards the military and, by extension, the flag: “Last flag flaps when the yankee summons me with synthetic time synthetic life. . .” The porch and the flag evoke scenes and signs of tradition, memory and reminiscence in American life, and of disruption and overthrow in underground culture. The site returns in Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” as the territory to be defended by the Republican with a gun, in the name of individual freedom — in fact, it is in this film that the porch becomes the paramount last bastion, the final ethical and ethnical defence of a beleagured notion of the old, white American dream: My porch — My America. But there are other, more hedonistic porches in the American iconography. John Leonard wrote of Hunter S. Thompson — “It is nice to think of him, naked on his porch in Colorado, drinking Wild Turkey and shooting at rocks.” While Thompson would remember street fighters and militants and a motorcycle gang attacking a flag pole in Washington, D.C. in 1969, screaming, “Tear the damn thing down!” The porch would return to Burroughs in dreams at the end of his life, as the site of desuetude and decrepitude, old abandoned sets and no one in the streets or leafy avenues — “Houses boarded up, others have an air of being semi-occupied. On a porch a rusting bicycle is overgrown with morning glory vines.” Burroughs escaped New York and it’s significant that his ecological art issued from the reversion to a form of the rural, the mind-your-own business Johnson neighborly ethics of “porch philosophy” in Kansas. . . The lemurs had been there from Naked Lunch on, but it was in tranquility that they reemerged in a rustle of leaves, a flickering of shadow and light. . .

Ginsberg, Kerouac, Gysin, Kells Elvins, Bowles, Hunter S. Thompson, sure. But Agee, Barber, even Cheever of all people? Not to mention Katsushika Hokusai, John Leonard, and Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino.” Would anybody besides Ian MacFadyen make those kinds of “front porch” connections? (OK, maybe Jed Birmingham or Oliver Harris.)

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