by Jon Longhi
William S. Burroughs’s experiments with novel literary and media forms have a self-conscious relationship to Dada and Surrealism. Few artists or writers active after the Surrealists’ heyday of the 1940s did so much to champion their cause and to reaffirm the fertility of the Dadaists’ explorations into the nature of the work of art and its producer. Many of Burroughs’s innovative working techniques originated in Dada parlor games; his cut-ups and dream journals employ devices first pioneered by the Surrealists decades earlier; and his interest in the unconscious and the irrational basis of human nature closely parallels the outlook of key Surrealist figures. This excursus examines some of the intellectual and aesthetic similarities between Burroughs’s work and that of his Dadaist and Surrealist predecessors, with particular reference to the roles of automatism and dreaming in artistic technique.
The common conceptual origin of both Burroughs’s ‘routines’ of the 1940s and 1950s—the spontaneous comedy monologues delivered as impromptu performances that gave rise to the revelatory and hallucinatory prose of Naked Lunch—and the free-form immediacy that characterized Dada is that of ‘automatic writing’. Automatic writing, a technique in which text is produced ‘spontaneously’, was introduced into public consciousness at the beginning of the twentieth century by, among others, W. B. Yeats and the psychic Helen Smith (Jochum 1993). The Dadaists’ adaptation of the method involved three elements: ‘the psychological concept of the liberation of psychic inhibitions, the mathematical one of the coincidences of chance verbal encounters, and the hermetic one of the oracular function of the medium-poet’ (Balakian 1971:61). All three of these themes are echoed in Burroughs’s reflections that ‘[t]he writer is simply someone who tunes in to certain cosmic currents. He’s sort of a transcriber, an explorer, a map maker’ (Ziegesar 1986:162), and in his 1957 letter to Allen Ginsberg, in which he remarks that ‘[t]he only way I can write narrative is to get right outside my body and experience it. This can be exhausting and at times dangerous. One cannot be sure of redemption’ (LWB 375).
The technique of automatic writing was pioneered by the Dadaists in the ‘Cabaret Voltaire’ performances in the refugee-flooded no-man’s land of 1916 Zurich. These performances involved spontaneous poems that, like Burroughs’s routines, invoked the elements of unconscious creation. Tristan Tzara’s Zurich Chronicle—itself a stream-of-consciousness diary of the first days of the Dada movement—describes the free-form spontaneous poems improvised nightly by the Cabaret (Huelsenbeck 1920). Such poems, read ‘in various languages, rhythms, intonations, by several people at once’ (1920:112), evolved into more elaborate innovations: ‘Innovations came pouring in: Tzara invented the static poem, a kind of optical poem that one looks at as at a forest; for my part, I initiated the dynamic poem, recited with primitive movements, as never seen before’ (1920:112). Tzara always remained committed to the element of mathematical chance, however: ‘choice played no part: the refusal of the conscious self was the essential thing’ (Brandon 1999:100). Even four years after the invention of the cut-ups, during the 1919 Dada Parisian debut—a poetry reading organized by Andre Breton’s magazine, Litterature—Tzara’s method of writing was still the same: ‘Tzara appeared, blinking in the lights. He proceeded to cut up an article by Leon Dauder, dropped the pieces into a hat, and read out the resulting “poem”. In the wings on either side Breton and Aragon rang bells as he spoke, drowning out the words’ (Brandon 1999:138–9).
Quite early on, however, two opposite dynamics developed in response to Tzara’s technique. Hans Arp interrupted the element of mathematical chance by discarding the poems he didn’t deem ‘successful’; from here it was a short step to Breton’s impatience and rejection of this core element of Dadaism. As Phillipe Soupault later commented, it was always in Breton’s nature to ‘draw conclusions’ (Brandon 1999:148). Two other key figures, Kurt Schwitters and Hugo Ball, however, went in a different direction, going beyond creating clusters of random words to reducing the poems to collections of sound-concoctions of rhythmic grunts, squeals and cries. Ball’s ‘intention was to free vowels from syntax and meaning, creating nuances and triggering memories’ (Huelsenbeck 1920:61), while Schwitters adopted Raoul Hausmann’s ‘optophonetics’, a technique for denoting atomized individual phonemes (which culminated in the 1932 composition ‘Die Sonata in Urlauten’, a 40-minute sound poem set in traditional sonata form [Nice 1988]).
While Burroughs often attributes the invention of the cut-up technique to Brion Gysin in September of 1959 at the Beat Hotel in Paris (see, for example, Miles 2000:194), there is no doubt that he was aware of Tzara’s techniques earlier than this (see, for example, BF 63). It is also possible that he was aware of Schwitters’s later experiments with collage and montage (a technique Schwitters dubbed Merz); certainly Burroughs’s visual works in Ports of Entry bear many similarities to Schwitters’s collages and canvases.
As the connection between Burroughs’s techniques and those of Dada may be understood in terms of automatic writing, his adaptation of Surrealist principles can be traced to a shared interest in the nature of the ‘unconscious’. The literary paths that Breton chose to travel following his disillusionment with Dada were strongly directed by his immersion in Sigmund Freud’s researches. Breton described Surrealism as ‘a systematic exploration of the unconscious’, and as existing ‘firmly in the realm of the non-rational, to be achieved by any number of routes—physical fatigue, drugs, extreme hunger, dreams, mental illness—all inducing similar hallucinatory phenomena’ (cited by Brandon 1999:215). Burroughs’s literary experiments were also closely linked to a view of human nature that, like psychoanalytic theory, emphasized instinct and the biological, non-rational basis of culture and consciousness. Burroughs experimented intensely with the manipulation and alteration of consciousness through the use of drugs, but he also viewed travel, sex, art, and machines of various types as portals to the unconscious.
The convergence between Burroughs, the Surrealists and psychoanalysis is nowhere more striking, however, than in their shared attitudes towards dreams. Both Burroughs and the Surrealists give the sleeping life an almost equal relevance to the waking world. As Burroughs wrote to Allen Ginsberg in 1958:
Of course life is literally a dream, or rather the projection of a dream. That is why political action fails, just as attempts to coerce neurosis with so-called will-power always fail. But the whole existing system can be dreamed away if we get enough people dreaming on the Gysin level. There is nothing can stop the power of a real dream. (LWB 398)
Burroughs also used his dreams ‘professionally’: ‘I get perhaps half my sets and characters from dreams. Occasionally I find a book or paper in a dream and read a whole chapter or short story … Wake up, make a few notes, sit down at the typewriter the next day, and copy from a dream book’ (AM 97). Burroughs was a restless sleeper and often woke many times a night, at which instances he recorded his dreams in a notebook kept next to the bed. A selection of these writings was published as My Education: A Book Of Dreams (1995).
Surrealist painters such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst considered their paintings to be essentially recorded dreams. Major Dali works such as The Great Masturbator (1929) and The Lugubrious Game (1929) owe the majority of their images to Dali’s sleeping world (Descharnes and Neret 2001:139). In 1922, immediately following his break with Tzara, Breton initiated the ‘séance project’ (see Nadeau 1944:80–2). Breton was the lead ‘scientist’ and Robert Desnos his favorite patient. Desnos had narcoleptic tendencies and was capable of frequent catnaps in public. During these ‘sleep fits’, as the Surrealists called them, Desnos would scrawl down spontaneous poems. Breton was entranced by the results of these experiments and for months the Surrealists embarked on a series of séances, where groups of Surrealists would study sleeping subjects and prod them to write down or speak messages as a means of accessing their unconscious. The experiments produced only words at first, but the Surrealists rapidly began to externalize images as well. These experiments in the visualization of dreams reached their highest point in Dali and Luis Bunuel’s cinematic masterpiece Un Chien Andalou (1928). According to Bunuel:
One morning we told each other our dreams and I decided that they might be the basis for the film we wanted to make. […] Dali said, ‘Last night I dreamed that my hands were swarming with ants.’ I said, ‘And I dreamed that I cut someone’s eye in half.’ […] We wrote the screenplay in six days. Our minds worked so identically that there was no argument at all. The way we wrote was to take the first thoughts that came into our heads, rejecting all those that seemed tainted by culture or upbringing. They had to be images that surprised us, and that both of us accepted without question. That’s all. (cited by Brandon 1999:317–18)
To cut through the ‘taint of culture and upbringing’ was a shared ambition of Burroughs and the Surrealists. Indeed, Dali argued that ‘I categorically refused to consider the Surrealists as just another literary and artistic group. I believed they were capable of liberating man from the tyranny of the “practical, rational world” ’ (1955:22).
The ‘logic of disintegration’ that may be said to inhabit both Dada and Surrealism as well as Burroughs’s work is not, of course, to be understood simply in terms of production, but also as reflection: their experiments in fragmentation anticipate—and helped to create the appetite for—the jumbled and confused circus of the nightly media, a spectacle that would not look out of place in the Cabaret Voltaire itself. However, while the Dadaists and Surrealists were marking the decline of Old World hierarchies, giving much of their work a playful and even celebratory dimension, Burroughs was in a position to observe the consequences of the appropriation of their techniques by the rapidly emerging hegemony of the culture industry. Burroughs’s vision, while it retains the humor and antinomianism of Dadaism and, to a lesser extent, Surrealism, has the nightmare quality of derangement, a reflection of an incoherent media landscape of constantly changing images, desires, and needs that the Surrealists and Dadaists could have only dreamed of.
Balakian, A. (1971) Andre Breton, Magus of Surrealism (New York: Oxford University Press).
Brandon, R. (1999) Surreal Lives (New York: Grove).
Dali, S. (1955) Diary of a Genius, Howard, R. trans. (London: Creation, 1994).
Descharnes, R., and Neret, G. (2001) Dali: The Paintings (Hamburgh: Benedik Taschen Verlag).
Huelsenbeck, R. (1920) Dada Almanac, Green, M. trans. (London: Atlas Press, 1993).
Jochum, K. P. S. (1993) ‘Yeats’s Vision Papers and the Problem of Automatic Writing: A Review Essay’, English Literature in Transition (1880–1920) (36)3, pp. 323–36.
Miles, B. (2000) The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1968–1963 (New York: Grove Press).
Nadeau, M. (1944) The History of Surrealism, Howard, R. trans. (New York: MacMillan, 1965).
Nice, J. ed. (1988) Futurism And Dada Reviewed [Brussels, Belgium: Sub Rosa Records].
Ziegesar, P. Von (1986) ‘Mapping the Cosmic Currents: An Interview with William Burroughs’, IN Hibbard, A. ed., Conversations with William S. Burroughs (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), pp. 160–70.
Retaking the Universe (William S.Burroughs in the Age of Globalization)
Part1: Theoretical Depositions/Excursus: Burroughs, Dada and Surrealism /Edited by Davis Schneiderman and Philip Walsh
First published 2004 by Pluto Press 345 Archway Road, London N6 5AA 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, VA 20166–2012, USA