Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Naked and the Unfamiliar

I'm trying to read Naked LunchAgain.

I'm not sure at this point how many times I've tried.  Quite a few.  Each time, I start, determined to get through it and see how Burroughs is like Poe or Baudelaire or Blake. 

The visionary junkie.

Like I said, I'm trying.  Usually, I start the novel, think, "Why am I doing this?", set it aside for a little while, and then, months later, put it back on the bookshelf, determined to try again another day.

I've never done a drug in my life, so it's inevitable that I'm going to have trouble relating to Burroughs' lifestyle and vision. 

And I kinda think that's a good thing, actually.

So there's that initial level of resistance.  And I probably shouldn't have read about how he shot his wife in the head in a drunken game of "William Tell" and then fled Mexico to avoid prosecution. 

All of the critics point out how that event shaped Burroughs' life and clearly tormented him forever.  Not enough to do actual time in a Mexican prison for murdering a loved one, of course, but enough to keep on writing and drugging.  In New York.  And Palm Beach.  And Rome.  While living off his parents' money. 

Given that this is what he was doing before, I'm not sure I see how it was so very life-altering, but again, I'm biased.

I think the argument that writers use drugs to experience alternative states and unleash their imaginative powers is inherently limited.  Coleridge, Poe, DeQuincey--all of the famous writers who experimented with drugs eventually lost their art to the drugs. 

Is art about imaginative innovation or is it about human connection?  Are you trying to show me something new, or are you trying to show me something new about life itself? 

If I'm held hostage to a writer's own drug-induced visions, what can I learn or see or think?

I think of Hunter S. Thompson's prose: at its best, there is an intellectual engagement and a social critique at work.  When it becomes about the drugs and the guns and the porn, something is lost. 

I mourn the loss of that something, because I think it's the loss of an insightful mind and an incisive vision that articulates itself in words and images. 

For the benefit of all of the rest of us, who can only see what the artist sees when they show it to us.

If art is about intellectual and emotional engagement with others and with the world around us--if it is an actual craft that requires thought and patience and practice and mastery (and I think it is)--then pages produced in a drug-induced consciousness are not by default "art."  There has to be something else happening.

The literary critic Viktor Shklovsky argued that poets and artists make us see the familiar in an unfamiliar way.  He called it ostranenie (остранение). 

Obviously, Burroughs and Thompson can offer that, particularly to a reader like myself who has no familiarity with the world of drugs and all that accompanies it.  In "Art as Technique, Shklovsky argues,
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.
It's going to be a long, unfamiliar weekend, reading Burroughs.

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