“Word begets image and image is virus”
One of several books I’ve plowed through in this plague half year is Barry Miles’ biography of William S. Burroughs, Call Me Burroughs. Burroughs lead an incredible, fascinating life, but he was also, for the most part, a truly awful human being. I’ll leave the details for your own reading of one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.
One thingI will bring up is that Burroughs spent pretty much every day of his adult life on opium, heroin, morphine, apomorphine, alcohol, marijuana and/or hashish. He wasn’t one of those write-sober-then-get-fucked-up writers. No, he was pretty much fucked up his entire adult life.
This explains a lot.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Burroughs’ writing. In the last month I’ve re-read Junky, Cities of the Red Night, The Soft Machine, and Nova Express. That’s a lot of Burroughs in one go.
One theme that runs through Burroughs’ work is virus pandemics, specifically the word and image virus that comes from the media/government/ corporation complex.
[There’s also the radioactive virus B-23 in Cities, but that’s another story]
This is why you should read Nova Express now. Even though it was published in 1964 it’s still both scary frightening and mucho enlightening, even more than 1984 or Brave New World.
This is the novel of our plague year.
Nova Express (the title refers to both the speed at which our planet is going nova and to the novel as newspaper, à la the Daily Express) is basically about a conspiracy by a bunch of criminals known as the Nova Mob to infiltrate humans via the virus of word and image and bring about the destruction of planet Earth. Inspector Lee and the Nova Police are opposed to them, but also in a symbiotic relationship. Without the Nova criminals there would be no Nova police.
Their plan in a nutshell: “The basic nova mechanism is very simple:: Always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts…to create and aggravate the conflicts that lead to the explosion of a planet that is to nova.”
This is done by “infecting” humans with an information virus: “However it was found that these information molecules were not dead matter but exhibited a capacity for life which is found elsewhere in the form of virus. Our virus infects the human and creates our image in him.”
Partisans are working to break the lines of control, the lines of word and image that allow the Nova Mob to do its work. The only hope for victory is what Burroughs calls Plan D: total exposure. “Wise up all the marks everywhere. Show them the rigged wheel of Life-Time-Fortune. Storm The Reality Studio.”
Needless to say, it’s a very strange book.
Much of it is written using Burroughs’ cut-up method, where he would write, cut up and then rearrange sentences to get interesting and unique word combinations, breaking the lines of traditional syntax control. Entire pages of this cut-up stuff makes no sense and at the same time makes a strange new sense. You either like it or you don’t.
And it gets even stranger. Sci-fi strange.
Turns out that in the Crab Nebula there live Elders whose heads are preserved in bottles; “An intricate bureaucracy wired to the control brains directs all movement.” In the center of the metal cities these Elders preside over are the Ovens, guarded by red crustacean men, where anyone who disobeys the Elders is brought for disposal. There’s also a subplot about agent K9 of the Biologic Police tasked with bringing the Dwarf Plague under control by disconnecting them from the control brains of the Elders. Not to mention the Heavy Metal people of Uranus (yes, he coined the phrase heavy metal) and the Insect People of Minraud.
However, Burroughs’ genius is revealing the ways bureaucracies link virus with control, something we’ve all experienced in these lockdown months. Not just biologic viruses but viruses of rage hate fear. This is worth quoting at full and applying to our current circumstances:
“The virus attack is primarily directed against affective animal life — Virus of rage hate fear ugliness swirling round you waiting for a point of intersection and once in immediately perpetrates in your name some ugly noxious or disgusting act before your mind screen to produce more virus word and image around and around it’s all around you the invisible hail of bring down word and image — ”
Not just the biological virus but the rage hate fear word and image virus of the media, social media, government, corporations, the whole control mechanism Burroughs calls The Reality Studio.
We’re being poisoned every day by Control in the form of word and image. We’re on the road to Nova Express: “I have said the basic techniques of nova are very simple consist in creating and aggravating conflicts — No riots like injustice directed between enemies.” Control via chaos, riots, and seeing half our fellow citizens as “enemies.”
The Virus is not the only virus you have to worry about. Information is a virus. So, take some time off social media, ignore the corporate media. You can read Nova Express as the paranoid delusion ravings of a drug addict/alcoholic, or you can read it as positively prophetic about our current situation. Or —
In any case, The Nova Mob is here. Now. Sammy the Butcher. Green Tony. Iron Claws. Etc. etc. etc. And we’re playing right into their hands.