[William Burroughs, 1975 – Photograph by Peter Hujar “© 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco”]
WSB: Technology is neither good nor bad. People ask whether technology is good or bad. Good and bad don’t float in vacuums. They only have meaning with relation to the actual people at actual times (because, if you say) “who did what, when, and where?”, never “what is good for society?”, and so on
[At this point, Allen arrives, drops in and delivers some “souvenir posters” and “an article on Nikola Tesla and his career in relation to J.P.Morgan, who stopped his work” – Interviewer to Allen (momentarily thwarted by “criss-cross communications”) – “We’re doing an interview, so you’re welcome to…stick around and join in]
Interviewer: Well, this leads me (to)… if technology is not responsible, who is responsible?
WSB: Now, wait a minute, technology is not responsible for anything.
Interviewer: But it seems (to me), that if you have an atom-bomb, somebody’s going to use it. I mean, this seems to be our experience so far.
WSB: No. Technology is not responsible for anything, because technology has no responsibility. Okay, now you get someone with.. they’re fighting with clubs, stone axes, bows and arrows, but yes, since they’re fighting and it is.. all games are hostile, and basically there is only one game, and that game is war. Now it is a rule of the game that you must always try to win, and therefore you are going to try to develop more and more efficient weapons, right?
WSB: So finally you develop weapons so efficient that the whole game is in danger, that is, a weapon that can kill all players.
Interviewer: Do you think suicide is an inherent wish for human beings?
Interviewer: So what do you think makes it happen? I mean, why develop suicide weapons?
WSB: They don’t think of it in those terms. No war happens unless somebody thinks they can win.
Interviewer: This seems clear that no one thinks they can win a nuclear war.
WSB: Yeah, well they probably won’t have one.
AG: This week’s headlines [Editorial note – The interview is taking place January 1 1975] have the United States preparing for “limited” nuclear wars.
WSB: “Limited” nuclear wars.
Interviewer: What is a “limited” nuclear war? Little nukes?
Allen Ginsberg: The tactic, which was considered impractical for a decade but is now being revived as a tactic, since everybody’s been stumped by the total war, they’re all figuring now, well, maybe they will actually need to have a limited nuclear war to get their ends – It’s in yesterday’s papers. [Editorial note – Allen is presumably referring here to the so-called “Schlesinger Doctrine” that emerged later that year] – the assessment of the “limited effects of a nuclear war)
WSB: Yes. No telling what will happen with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Anyone can make one now. It’s got to the point to where I think, oh, a hundred thousand dollars, you could make some sort of a nuclear device.
Interviewer: Well who is responsible for this. I mean, I’m not responsible. I didn’t drop any bomb. You said the other night, you’re not responsible
WSB: Who is responsible for what exactly? Who is responsible for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. Well, if you had to decide to one person it would undoubtedly be Robert Oppenheimer
[J Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), “the father of the atomic bomb”]
Interviewer: Not Harry Truman?
WSB: Harry Truman didn’t… I mean.. The difference between Harry Truman and (Robert) Openheimer is the difference between a higher intelligence from outer space and a Southern sharecropper. They’re not of the same species. One is a tremendous intellect, the other was – they both were – was an extremely limited, common-place person. He just happened to be in a position of power and that was almost.. that was an accident.. he was Vice-President – but he had no…
Interviewer: Do you think people are ever driven towards..to want things like peace and home and families, those kind of steady dreams or desires for themselves?
WSB: What people?
Interviewer: Any people. Have you ever met people like that?
WSB: Man, the world’s full of them!
Interviewer: How come it doesn’t work out?
WSB: Well, what do you mean? They don’t run things.
Interviewer: (So) you think the desire to run things is the opposite of that need, of that want?
WSB: Not always, no, but certainly the world is full of people who are quite content with their refrigerator and their two cars and their television, their color television set. But they are not the people that run the country and all these, of course, economic forces and other forces which lead to wars are quite out of their control. They don’t even know anything about it.
Interviewer: What are the forces, besides economic forces, that lead to wars?
WSB: Fools, fucked-up ideologies, but I think, certainly, economic factors are very important. See, the only thing that pulled us out of the first Depression, was World War II. There’s been a war going on somewhere ever since then. And the reason the French were so reluctant to turn loose of the Algerian war was partly economic (they were afraid for the collapse of their economy)
Interviewer: ..which didn’t particularly happen. It seems like that could be more of a model to the United States..
WSB: I would hardly take France as a model.
Interviewer: The United States didn’t exactly collapse after Vietnam.
WSB: No, it didn’t actually collapse but their economic situation is about as shaky as any Western country, I would say, and that is extremely shaky.
Interviewer: Is the current Depression/Recession whatever directly linked to the ending of the Vietnam War?
WSB: No. Because it’s world-wide. It’s as much in England (and more in England than it is here). See, everything we’ve been taught about economics proved to be basically folly. The law of supply and demand and all that kind of thing, or the idea that it a good product will sell. In England you have demand but no supply. Okay, they say, well, we’ve got rationing now, everybody wants a bicycle, there aren’t any bicycles, bicycles can’t be produced, to be produced to fill orders takes six months. The reason, one reason for that is, they say we can’t get skilled workers. They can’t get skilled workers because they can’t pay them a living wage. So it’s on (an) absolutely vicious down-spiral.
Interviewer: This whole vicious circle thing really interests me. When (Gregory) Bateson was here last year, he was talking about that a lot. Like, the armaments race being a vicious circle, and I think samsara could be described as a vicious circle. I still have a feeling that we’re looking for some way out of that circle.
WSB: Well, naturally, but, there comes a point when, apparently, there isn’t, there isn’t a way out. I don’t know what in the fuck England can do. Now there’s a place that’s got a really fucked-up economy. They can’t.. they’ve got, at once, see, mass unemployment, inflation, and a scarcity of consumer goods. Now this was supposed to be impossible in old economic terms.But a very simple definition of money, that I think explains a great deal is – Money is something that you have and some-one else needs and doesn’t have. Now if you think of money in those terms, you’ll see that any sharing of wealth is nonsense, because money depends on somebody not having it.It depends on not having. If there were no poor people, there would be no rich people. You see the old laissez-faire economics might have led to something like that. That was why it wouldn’t work. You’ve got to keep the not-having-ness of money going.
Interviewer: Could we jump a level and imagine a society without any money?
WSB: You could imagine a small society without any money. Can’t imagine New York City without any money.
Interviewer: Except that looks like what’s happening! –
[Headlines on the front-page of the New York Daily News, October 30,1975]
Interviewer: Could you imagine a society, small or large, without tokens, without tokens of product?
WSB: Sure. It depends on how large or how small. If it’s small enough. They didn’t have any money on Pitcairn Island, for example. They didn’t need it.
Allen Ginsberg: The problem is not, in New York, or even England, scarcity of money, it’s just more physical money because of the inflation (but) in circulation. It’s the scarcity of raw materials and energy supply. The energy supply has been used up – and in England, definitely, cheap labor, raw materials, and energy from the Empire, are no longer available, and so they have to live on their own means within the island.
WSB: And they can’t do it.
Allen Ginsberg: H.T.Odum‘s idea about inflation or the increasing scarcity of goods and higher cost is that it costs more money to get the primary energy that runs the society in America, it costs more money to get at the oil from the north slope of Alaska or the North Sea, so that.. you have to work harder to get it. So that’s.. so that basic energy’s more expensive, or harder to get, and therefore the whole bulk goods are more expensive, because they are based on this..originally on a cheap, available supply of fossil fules, which, now running out, makes the energy supply more costly, and therefore all things more costly.
Interviewer: Basically, you’re using more energy to get less all the time
Allen Ginsberg: Right, and they were using more energy to get (less) energy, what is the net-energy measurement.
[H.T.Odum (1924-2002), pioneering ecologist]
Interviewer: Can you posit any kind of social system that you can see as workable, you know, in the remnants, in the ashes of America?
WSB: It depends on the number of people.
Interviewer: That’s really the key issue, the key issue to..
WSB: On the number of people, or, at least, on their ability to function together. Now, of course, the Chinese are much more homogeneous than we are, so therefore they can get more people into less area with less friction.
Could you make a statement, say what you think the next fifteen to twenty years [1975-1995] (will be like), like a scenario for the US of A?
WSB: Not really. We have the escalating rate of change, which seems to be a rule that the changes in the next fifteen years are going to be much much greater than the last fifteen years (and they’ve been tremendous in the last fifteen years) and so on. We could certainly have.. I guess the bankers are all working on this but how efficiently I don’t know, a complete break-down of the world monetary system in the West. In fact, all bankers say this is inevitable. The time is going to come when no amount of money will buy anything. And this could not occur as an isolated phenomena, like after World War I in Germany, you had a terrific inflation, but that wasn’t.. that didn’t occur in other countries. If it’ll happen one place now it’ll happen every place. So that’s why they go around desperately propping up currencies. No major currency can be allowed to collapse at this point. When the lira was threatened with collapse, they rush(ed) in and support the lira, because a collapse anywhere would bring the whole thing right down the drain.
Interviewer: Is need the desire? I mean, it seems we are taught that desire is kind of an absolute. I mean, people just assumed what they desire is what they want, what they want is what they should try to get, and so on. Is that at the basis of this kind of..
WSB: Well, no, what people think they need of course is socially determined. People are taught that they need a car and in fact found their social system on a car, and then they, by god, do need a car! But needs are not inherent. They’re always socially conditioned. Okay, you give someone junk for a month, he needs junk. He didn’t need that before. Or you give someone money, with which he buys all the things he needs, then he needs money.
Interviewer: Well we might think that those things are socially-determined, what about the need for love and even for sex, the need for existence, in fact?
WSB: Well, those of course are just basic, basic needs of any animal organism
Interviewer: But you don’t see the root of this sort of proliferating baroque kind of need in those things?
WSB: Well, naturally, you couldn’t have it without an animal.. you don’t have an animal organism, you don’t need one, right?, you don’t need food. But if you do, then you have those needs. Now those needs of course have, say in a small hunting or agricultural society, those needs can be quite satisfactorily solved in small communities.
Interviewer: Yeah, we seem to have passed way beyond the place where we can even imagine what a small community, self-sufficient to itself, might be.
WSB: No, we can imagine that very well and in fact you can go and see them (tho’ you better hurry, because they won’t be there long, but there are.. they do exist. I think it’s very easy to imagine what life is like in (small communities) but, yes, we’ve certainly gone beyond the possibility of that, and that’s partly a result of overpopulation in these tremendous cities We’re absolutely dependent on food brought in from outside, on power, garbage collection and so on
Interviewer: We talked earlier about leaving the body (and) now as you’re speaking, as possibly a way to get around the fact that we’re animals.
WSB: Well, to say we are animals is, once again, the use of a vanity, whatever you may, you are not an animal, you’re not a word, animal. And I would say that also you are not your body, you occupy your body, anymore than a pilot is a plane.
Interviewer: Who is it that occupies this body?
WSB: Well, who is it that pilots the plane, it’s the pilot.
Interviewer: Do you think it’s possible to leave the body?
WSB: Well, of course, it’s been done.
Interviewer: Who’s done it?
WSB: Haven’t you read (Robert) Monroe‘s book, Journeys Out Of The Body. But that’s.. it’s a very old phenomena. I mean, it’s..I mean, there are many, many instances of it.
Interviewer: Do you think there are technological possibilities of people developing this, shall we call it, skill?
WSB: Well, sure
Interviewer: Such as?
WSB: Oh, Monroe describes, in great detail, exercises, and, actually, he’s running sort of a seminar down there in [Virginia] doing this there
Interviewer: Once you’re out of your body, though, where do you go?
WSB: Various places. He may.. Sometimes he’s just gone to another city, and so on. And many of these have been confirmed, that is, people have gone there and seen things..and described situations that were accurate
But you don’t think that’s kind of a fantasy of escapism from what the actual situation is?
WSB: No, because he’s actually out of it . And, of course, I think that out-of-the-body experience is not rare, it happens all the time. It happens every time you put yourself in some other place. It just depends upon how accurately you do it and that of course is one of the basic exercises – put yourself in a certain place, where you were yesterday, and you are doing astral travel, it depends on how, how vividly you do it (if you do it with complete identification then you are there).
Interviewer: What’s the point? What’s the point of doing it?
WSB: Well, it gives you more freedom of motion, for one thing – and it’s interesting. I mean, Monroe describes very many interesting trips that he’s made. I mean, what’s the point of going to Africa? what’s the point of going to India? what’s the point of travel?
Interviewer: Do you think.. does the term “total liberation” mean anything to you at all? You don’t think there’s a state in which we’re somehow freed from everything that seems to be binding us, enslaving us, confusing us..?
WSB: No, it’s bound to be relative, so long as you are occupying a body, a physical body, with physical limitations. I mean, an absolute freedom from all conditions is almost a meaningless proposition, so long as you have conditions.
Interviewer: Well, it’s the other side of conditioning, perhaps?
WSB: No. I say, as long as you have conditions. Now if you didn’t have any conditions whatever, well, you’d certainly have nothing to worry about! – but it is a state that is very difficult to conceive, so you have conditions. Plus the Buddhists talk a lot about that.
Interviewer: About not having conditions?
WSB: Yes, about freedom from conditions.
Interviewer: And you think that’s just their nirvana dream, or..
WSB: No. You’re still talking in either/or terms. I mean, it’s something that people can certainly approach and have approached.
Anne Waldman: It’s just not labelled Buddhist
WSB: No, as (Chogyam) Trungpa has pointed out, a carpenter who’s really right all there in his job is achieving a sort of nirvana. In a sense, because the way out of the body is in. You go all the way in and out the other side. It’s like somebody climbing a cliff. He’s got to be right there every second and by being there he is also approaching the state of not being there, by being there completely. And, in fact, many out-of-the-body experiences have been reported by cliff-climbers. They fall and find their bodies floating beside them and they’re not at all harmed, etcetera – r someone driving, a pilot, at high speed, a fighter-pilot, he’s right all the way there.
Interviewer: But what happens when they hit?
WSB: Well, here’s somebody out of his body, right?
WSB: If he hit, he wouldn’t come back
Interviewer: Nothing to come back to.
[Associate Warden’s Record Card for Wilhelm Reich, Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, March 1957]
Interviewer: I know you’re interested in (Wilhelm) Reich. It just seems to me that Reich’s whole point was that human beings can’t stand their bodies somehow and that most of the religions and so on are sort of neurotic attempts to, you know, somehow try to get, imagine ourselves out of this thing, like the pain is too great, so.. let’s fantasize a way out of it.
WSB: Well, there is no “the way”.There are any number of ways. I say people might get out by climbing cliffs, driving racing cars, gliding, all sorts of things. I don’t say there’s any “the way” at all. In fact, if you postulate.. I think that is another of the great errors of Western thought, the idea that there’s one “the” way, (which, of course, has been propounded by all one-god religions).
Interviewer: Well in the The Job you seem to talk about, maybe not “the” way, but you propose kind of a strategy of dealing with the mess we’re in, which seemed to involve a kind of political or social ways.
WSB: Yeah. Most of those ways, I say, it’s too late. I mean, these things would have been possible a hundred years ago, if they had controlled the Industrial process and performed more cooperatively and communally, (with) more diversity instead of more uniformity, but I don’t see this as very practical in the present time.
Interviewer: Who’s been your teachers?
WSB: Teachers? I ‘ve never had any teachers, as such. Well, naturally, I’ve learned a lot from (Alfred) Korzybyski, I’ve learned a lot from…(Joseph) Conrad, a lot about writing from reading Conrad, a lot from reading (Samuel) Beckett, a lot from reading (James) Joyce.
[Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)]
Interviewer: You never had any interest in looking for.. I mean..it was never a conscious thing for you to look for anybody to show you..
WSB: Well, to show me what?
Interviewer: Well, to show you anything about how to live.
WSB: No. Because I don’t think there is the way. I can see someone as being.. okay, (if) you wanna learn to fly, you go to someone who knows how to fly, right? If you want to get into meditation, you go to someone who knows something about meditation, you want to learn karate, you go to a karate master. In that sense, yes, but, as I said, I don’t believe there is a, sort of one, way that you can learn from somebody, because his way may not apply to you at all
Interviewer: Do you see gurus as being authoritarian figures in a sense?
WSB: It depends on the guru and the attitude towards him/
Interviewer: What would be the proper attitude?
WSB: Once again, there’s no such thing as a proper attitude. A sincere guru like (Chogyam) Trungpa, I feel, may have that forced on him, which he isn’t seeking at all, that people assume that he has the answers, which he continually tends to deny
Interviewer: What do you think people are attracted to..(about Trungpa)
Anne Waldman: It makes a lot of sense.
WSB: It makes a lot of sense
Anne Waldman: Sanity concern(ed) with sanity
WSB: Sanity.. Reading his books he’s got a lot of very sensible things to say
Anne Waldman: Intelligence.. I think there’s a problem just separating the god from his teachings. You know, Buddhism goes back, what, three thousand years?, and there’s a lot of good sense there. And you do, if you accept a teacher, you presumably become devoted but I mean, Just because he drinks and smokes and fucks around doesn’t mean.. People get a little schiz around something they think is religious, you know.
[Chogyam Trungpa (1939-1987)]
Interviewer: What did you mean by the statement – “Don’t put your dirty karma on me”
WSB: Well just that. There’s no reason for anyone to accept anyone else’s bad karma (just) because we have enough of our own. That’s one of the oldest tricks in the industry, you try to unload your bad karma on somebody else.
[The complete audio for this interview is available (via the Internet Archives) and here (via the Naropa Archives), as well as being made available here on this web-site – this second segment begins at approximately thirty-five-and-three-quarter minutes in)]