William Burroughs Creative Reading – 1 (Conrad & Fitzgerald – 1)



Continuing from yesterday

WSB: Last year I applied these exercises in consideration to a book by Stephen King called The Shining – How many of you have read it? [a show of hands ] Well, in this book there’s a warning of future events which takes the form of a word seen in the mirror, that is, backwards – The word was “Redrum”. Well, how many of you immediately saw that this is “Murder” spelt backwards? – No?

Well, it took me three days I’m ashamed to say. Now, hold the word “Patna up to the mirror – how many of you, by the way, have read Lord Jim ? – (no?,) very good..well, hold the word “Patna up to the mirror, it’s a tap, and Jim was warned as clearly as a tap on the shoulder.Destiny , the hints and portents of things to come, is always there at the periphery of your vision. If you don’t keep your eyes open for the warning, the event will take you by surprise as Jim was taken by surprise. Well, he complains that the whole thing was unfair, came out of nowhere, but actually he was clearly warned – Did you all notice where in the narrative Jim got his tap on the shoulder?, his warning from (Captain) Destiny?. Anyone? – [silence]

Well here it is, right, literally – “On a lower deck in the babel of two hundred voices he would forget himself, and beforehand live in his mind the sea-life of light literature. He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line..: and so forth “and finding savages on tropical shores..”, and so forth.

And then something happens – “”Something’s up, come along”– “He leaped to his feet. The boys were streaming up the ladders. Above could be heard a great scurrying about and shouting, and when he got through the hatchway, he stood still as if confounded…’….’Jim felt his shoulder gripped firmly. “Too late, youngster”. The captain of the ship laid a restraining hand on that boy, who seemed on the point of leaping overboard, and Jim looked up with the pain of conscious defeat in his eyes The captain smiled sympathetically,”Better luck next time. This will teach you to be smart.””

– Absolutely clear warning of what happened on the Patna. Now here he is on the Patna – He had “unbounded confidence” in himself -“There was nothing he could not face. He was so pleased with the idea that he smiled, keeping perfunctorily his eyes ahead, and when he happened to glance back he saw the white streak of the wake drawn as straight by the ship’s keel upon the sea as the black line drawn by the pencil upon the chart.”

And then the boat hits this..probably a sea-log, wreck, and he’s taken completely by surprise because he wasn’t there, he was up floating around in some visions of self-glorification, from fiction. He very much needed a training in awareness, a seminar in vipassana, being there. And this must, of course, go back to an earlier incident (probably in Jim’s childhood), which we don’t hear about . He is compensating for some basic flaw, or fear, but he isn’t facing the basic flaw. He is running away into fictional exploits, as he does in the course of the book. And there’s a very definite comparison to the neurotic personality that is over-compensating for something lost (you can see his wife screaming. from a New Yorker cartoon, “What are you trying to prove?”) Jim’s abandoned ship just as the neurotic abandons control of his own body and nervous system.

Now he’s over-compensating here for something (there was something wrong to begin with), and then he over-compensated for that with these fictional exploits, and, as a result, the actual emergency caught him completely unprepared. Now, actually, he seems to have blanked out when he jumped off the ship (as you’ll recall, he said – the..what is it?- the third engineer had collapsed and died – and Jim says “I stumbled over his legs” and he’s over here and the next thing is he’s stumbled over this man’s legs, not aware of having moved. And also, when he says, “I had jumped, it seems“, (and Marlow says, “yeah, it looks like it”) – but, apparently, whacked out and didn’t remember that – just as the neurotic forgets the trauma itself and is left with the crippling results) And Jim has forgotten the jump itself and only the disgrace and dishonor remained (which he felt very keenly). Now, then, it’s a….

We don’t know the basic fear in Jim’s case.It apparently wasn’t the fear of death, or the fear of drowning, and we must just look for any clues… One is, no time, no time to prepare himself . There is always a moment (say, the soldier’s afraid, then he pulls himself together, but then, if there’s no time, then, he may not be able to pull himself together, and for Jim there wasn’t any time). So something he can never forget becomes something he can never remember, and that is, at bottom, the same thing. He couldn’t remember having jumped (which means, he simply couldn’t face the thoughts.. what thoughts and feelings he had at that time. Now, he could have made, of course, to the court, a simple statement, “Well, we thought, (and any seaman would have thought), the boat would go down in a matter of minutes. There was no time to save the passengers and no possibility even, so we cut the boat s loose and saved ourselves” . And that’s it. You know, he could have electrified the inquiry board (after all, it was only gooks, a bunch of prayer-mullah-and Allah freaks!) – take the certificate and shove it, (and) give them the finger and walk out!). But Jim was incapable of that (just as the condemned man, in most cases, goes quietly to his death, instead of articulating some memorable bit of insolence ). And that would have been quite a different story and quite a different character. As it is, in Lord Jim, he fulfills an incredibly fragile and romantic destiny (rather like the Odor-Eaters in Tibetan mythology – the cities of the Odor-Eaters are fantastically-shaped clouds which dissolve in rain and vanish very much like the mansion of The Great Gatsby and Jim’s Patusan). Now Gatsby is no less romantic but he’s a hell of a lot tougher than Jim. I’ll go into that in more detail… But, in any case, such destinies no longer exist, they’re a natural resource, and we may blame perhaps Jim and Gatsby for, perhaps, using up more than their share (as Gatsby in the last pages speaks of the “last and greatest of human dreams.”)


Now, both Gatsby and Jim only exist in the prose of the writers (which is one reason that… (so) a fictional character can be completely seen through the eyes of the narrator, Captain Marlow. Now there’s a gap between Gatsby’s rather absurd fake gentleman, (all this “old sport” stuff), and the actual Gatsby that is never… Fitzgerald doesn’t really go into this at all. You see, Gatsby was not only in an illegal business, but he must have been very good at it.   I mean, you don’t.. you’re not playing in the league of someone who fixed the World Series without being pretty good, but we don’t see this side of Gatsby at all (we just see him as sort of a.. well, a sort of a dope, you know, who rents this big house to impress a girl, to impress Daisy). And so Jim remains under a cloud. We never quite see him, and Gatsby remains rather inane and almost stupid on the surface, and there’s just an occasional glimpse of a Gatsby who was very shrewd and very confident indeed. But he is not like Wolfsheim (sic), immediately recognized (You see, Wolfsheim has paid for his success with the outward marks of his trade, (just like the Skipper in Lord Jim), one look tells you all you need to now. As Marlow said, “I can imagine the type of people..” (he was talking about the Skipper, with whom he was acquainted). And one look at Wolfsheim, you can see the shady deals, the World Series fix, black markets, hired killers, and so on.

So, both Gatsby and Lord Jim are Romantic heroes. Now, heroes must die, by and large (otherwise they lose their heroic quality). Imagine if Jim’d have been a bit duller, (if he’d stuck to the ship, of course, there woudn’t have been any story. Or suppose he had stayed on in Patusan to become a living anachronism, photographed and written up in the newspapers, or suppose Gatsby had married Daisy (here he is, a bit paunchy, drinking too much and putting on his tuxedo to attend some dull party, old sport! – a spurious, inessential ghost, rather like the Duke of Windsor). So, he would have lost his heroic quality if he had lived. The same is true of Jm, of course.

Now the universe of Jim is…seems quite remote from present time, as does the universe of Fitzgerald, and the.. It’s.. it was a very fragile universe. But they’re both very precisely placed in time (Conrad’s time there runs from about 1860 through the First World War, and Fitzgerald is even more definite, from the American entry of war, into the war, in 1917, through to 1929 – That is the only period in which Gatsby could have existed. Gatsby himself could only live and breathe in the 1920’s and Jim could only live and breathe in the nineteenth.. I mean, yes, in the nineteenth-century, in the sort of clear Monetlight of the nineteenth-century). Now, both universes are not yet darkened by the atom bomb, nor are they illuminated by the hope of space exploration, the possibility of transcending the whole human condition through genetic engineering or achieving immortality through cloning. These didn’t exist for Jim or Gatsby, anymore than the certainties of that time (Fitzgerald’s belief in the American Dream as money and Conrad’s implicit belief in a fixed code of conduct).

Both Gatsby and Lord Jim, on closer inspection, they’re both very romantic and very much dreamers, (they have a very different dream), but this dream begins to look pretty..shabby indeed (the American Dream looks like a 1920 party, and the nineteenth-century dream of Lord Jim, the distinction of being white and so on, all the old colonial values, the.. you know, this time it appears pretty thin). Now if these universes are brighter than our universe, they’re also more limited and they are both time-bound, and they’re both creations of the writer, literally, having their breath of life in the prose of Conrad and Fitzgerald, and therefore they both require the midwifery services of a narrative, of a narrator.

Now this phrase, “he was one of us”, is quite mysterious. What does this mean? Did it mean simply that he was a likely lad to leave in charge of the deck? – I think this is too superficial. Although his appearance is the immediate manifestation of his being “one of us’ (whoever “we” are) – clear-blue eyes and blonde hair, and so on. One wonders if there’s a reference here to homosexuality, and of course the letter of the bachelor who takes Jim on as a.., gives Jim a job for a while, is certainly the letter of a snippy old queen, if I ever heard one… put my hands on that – So, when Jim leaves – “There are no spoons missing, as far as I know… I haven’t been interested enough to inquire. He is gone, leaving on the breakfast-table a formal little note of apology which is either silly or heartless, probably both – and it’s all one to me. Allow me to say, lest you should have some more mysterious young men in reserve, that I have shut up shop, definitely and for ever….Do not imagine for a moment that I care a hang, but he is very much regretted at tennis-parties, and for my own sake I’ve told a plausible lie at the club..” – Ingrates, every one of them, ingrates, obviously! –

Well, as Fitzgerald refrains from looking at the other side of Gatsby, the Gatsby who actually conducted a very successful illegitimate business, a number of very sucessful illegitimate business ventures, so we don’t have any.. any glimpse of Jim’s sexual.. sexual life at all, and one wonders whether some of these flights of fantasies lifted him off the deck when he wasn’t in present time when.. when he should have been, when there was an emergency, were of a sexual nature.

Now, they were both, and completely, creations of the writer,of the narrator, and they don’t.. they don’t have any existence, reality, apart from that. And to me there is something highly unconvincing about the last section of Lord Jim (and also, the same is true, to some extent, with The Great Gatsby)  And this Gentleman Brown, this character, Gentleman Brown never comes alive at all. He is as much a paper character as Jim but not being loved by the writer he has less space and less credibility (if anything, I wonder if he wasn’t, perhaps, patterned on the actual John Brown, because he sounds very much like (that) – you can see him with a Kansas twister behind him, sort of like some harsh and bloody prophet, and indeed, he’s extremely self-righteous). But where exactly does he relate to Jim. I mean, he really seems to come out of nowhere, like there’s no, no relation between them. Of course he’s got the relation with the Skipper and the other people that were on the boat, they were,,literally, all in the same boat. But where does this Gentleman Brown come from? Well, possibly he comes from Jim’s early readings, because he’s a typical villainous character, and I think that, maybe Jim read about him somewhere.

Now both Lord Jim and  The Great Gatsby are essentially about a second-chancee. I think (Nick) Carraway (sic) says to Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past”, and he says. “Well, of course, you can”. And this, I think, is what he means by “the last and greatest of human dreams”. And, of course, what America was about was a second chance – the American Dream.  But, of course, if Fitzgerald had lived on another.. into the (19)60’s, he could not have maintained this dream any longer. It’s just no longer tenable. And that they are both (both Jim and Gatsby) very definitely time-bound and only exist at a certain time (Gatsby was a product of the 1920’s, of Prohibition, and Lord Jim, of the turn-of-the-century and the position of the white man in the colonial world – The man, the only man who came to Gatsby’s funeral (it) says, “took off his glasses and wiped them again, outside and in – “The poor son-of-a-bitch”, he said.” (Now that was exactly what Dorothy Parker said at Fitzgerald’s funeral, which sort of ties up the identification of Fitzgerald and Gatsby). And both Gatsby’s mansion and Jim’s Patusan are equally fragile, the same sort of quality, ephemeral, shimmering quality, of the mirage, (and) could just disappear at any moment. And, of course, there’s very definitely implicitly the fact that both writers are chronicling a white world. (and this is so basic they don’t even think about it – I think Tom Buchanen (sic) is tallking about the breakdown of morality and the fact that, “the first thing you know, whites and blacks will be coupling together! “- and Jordan says :”We are all white here” – Well, you can really say that again! they sure were! – They both realize the dream, their actual dream, briefly (I think,presumably Gatsby has it off with Daisy on piles of expensive shirts), and of course Jim’s Patusan..

Now we’ll stop, briefly, for some discussion, and I’d like to read briefly a few passages from, illustrative passages, from these books..

[ Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately nineteen-and-three-quarter minutes in and continuing till approximately forty-one minutes in]

to be continued


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