Burroughs and Ginsberg Q & A Berlin 1976 – 1

Continuing with our William Burroughs celebration. Here’s another gem from the Stanford archive – Allen and William in discourse and intelligent discussion with a group of young journalists in Berlin, in the mid ‘Seventies  Allen takes up the slack when William seems reluctant to answer. Much of the discussion centers around the unreliability of language. The tape begins in media res

Student:  …words  …what kind of images do you have when someone says “Beat Generation”?  Could you describe it, in some manner?

WSB: Now this is very difficult because I’ve often had to discuss this with Allen who has I think a much clearer concept of the Beat Generation than I. Remember that I was not in America during the ’50s and ’60s when the Beat Generation was formulated. So.. Allen, let me call upon you…

AG:  He has been said to be “the father of the Beat Generation” so he’s not the Beat Generation, he’s only the father. The Beat Generation is something else (other) than him…

Student: Okay but..

WSB:  That is indeed very well said.

AG:  …so he has nothing to do with it !

Student: Well that is the first part of my question. Especially when you read the criticism here in Germany, they’re all saying that William Burroughs was the forerunner of the Beat Generation. What would you say then is the contribution that you gave to Allen Ginsberg and to Jack Kerouac, whatever.  Can you perhaps describe that?

WSB: Well no, I think it would be up to Mr. Ginsberg to describe what my contribution  was right?  yes?

Student: Okay fine.

AG: Probably a sense of scepticism to  authority of the government and formulation of law as as seen by the middle-class, and a formulation of notions of good and bad as seen by everyday middle class morality in the competitive, unaesthetic and somewhat impractical mechanical society, (a) sense of skepticism about the basic values that we were brought up with in school, in the everyday school, and (what) we were exposed to in the newspapers, and a positive idea of value to be derived from examining our own common-sense, our own experience, and maybe some reference to other cultures, some anthropological background, sophistication, and some practical scientific approach. In other words, basically, common-sense Yankee style, common-sense reasonable attitude (as in English, there’s a phrase “I’m from Missouri”, meaning you have to show me very clearly with practical..practical proof rather than take things from stereotype hand-me-down conception). That make sense?

WSB: Yes. I would.. I may add that the values, you see, the values of competitive middle-class Protestant society were not questioned then to the extent that they are.. they are so much brought in question now that many of these, this scepticism is now a commonplace, but it wasn’t, say, in the 1940s (and earlier, of course).

Student: What was it then that kind of pushed you into this attitude that you had to express this kind of protest or explore this kind of..  to explore this.. to explore the kind of conservativism or commerciality of American society?

AG: No, no. I think you.. I think it was not expressed (as) protest at all then, it was more an examination of basic common-sense, and a scepticism about the obvious false ideas of middle-class commercial thoughts. In other words, it wasn’t a protest, it was simply..,

WSB: Yes, to put it this way, yes that..In the Middle Ages, everyone living on the sea coast knew that the world was round because they’d seen the ships coming in. They believed the earth was flat. All I did perhaps was point to the ship, the tip of the mast on the horizon, and say it isn’t flat. In other words, it’s observation not protest.

Student: Well, if..  I’Il come back to my other question..

AG: Another, another very basic, another very basic conception, say, is that words are not the things they represent – or the basic semantic understanding, that most arguments are arguments about words rather than about any substantial matter. And so not to get involved in arguments which are caused by a misunderstanding of a different person’s use of the word

WSB: ..right,exactly.

AG: Like what is “good” and what is “bad”? – that these are tautological arguments. Specifically, I remember, with a young friend, I had an argument about what is art..

WSB:  What is art! ?

AG:  Yeah…and the question was, if art was solipsistic was it art? or did it require an audience?  and we posed the question by..  if someone carved a walking stick and put it on the moon and nobody saw it would it be art?  So we took this question to Bill and he said it’s the most ridiculous question I ever heard!  It depends how you define the word ”art”

WSB: Well, of course.

AG If you want to define the word “art” as something that’s beautiful on the moon, that’s art, then. If you don’t want to define it, then it’s not art. But you can’t argue about how you want to define the word. It’s only a three-letter word.

WSB: Is this a “bed” or a “sofa”?

AG: Yes.  So you get into a big war about whether this is a “bed” or a “sofa”. So most problems are, in this way, just language problems.

Student: Yeah but the research, but.. when your research about language, led you to..a final question that language all had to be abolished?

WSB: Well what do you mean “had to be abolished”? That to me would not be a meaningful proposition.

Student: Yeah, I’m talking about your concept of silence, you know

AG:Rub Out The Word” would be the concept.

WSB: I think that it’s.. It probably is a very inaccurate, and possibly ultimately untenable, form of communication, but I don’t see any moral obligation to abolish it.

Student: No but then the question then would be in how far “abolish” would be represented in the language or in the word itself.

WSB: Well words are simply representatives of..  presumably of something. When  they don’t represent anything, then they’re just there, they’re useless. That is.. you can call that a “table” or a “desk”, it doesn’t make any difference when you call it “X”.   The way you start talking about something where you have no referrent.  – “Communism”  Fascism”  “Capitalism” “Materialism” – Generally speaking, you’re talking about nothing.  In other words, you have as many definitions of these words as you have people that use them. So they can argue all day and it’s wasting time.

Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs – still from the film, Burroughs: The Movie (1983) by Howard Brookner

Student: Yeah, another question there on… You show in many books the power that is expressed through words, how people are being ruled through words, whether it’s the Mayan codes or it’s TimeLife. So, words are very powerful, one isn’t quite free to choose what they mean, that they mean this or that, but what’s behind it?

WSB: What do you mean “what’s behind it”? The use of words as simply signals to elicit certain emotions in people is not necessarily a very powerful instrument (proved in Nazi Germany and Communism, etc) – That is, a deliberate..deliberately unprecise use of words.

Student:  Maybe one reason for the spreading interest in your work here (Berlin) might be that words are becoming powerful instruments in Germany at this time [1975]. Like, fighting over meanings of words, like,  if you call a killing by a policeman “murder”, then you are being tried for it (like the publisherin Berlin was tried for it)  So words are lines on which power struggles are being fought. I think people…

WSB:  Well actually that’s the myth, the misuse of wordsprecisely what I was saying that you have a word like “materialism”, or “communism”, or whether you call something “murder”, or “killing”, in just, here, self-defence, or what-not..  These are.. should we say.. the imprecise use of words (which most governments of course do quite deliberately). It is possible to run a country without police but it is not possible to rule a country (that is, to maintain inequalities), without words. Words used as deception. See, you can run a country without police, you can’t run it without bullshit (to put it simply).

AG: And then there is the basic mis-understanding. Most people think that consciousness consists in language only, words, that consciousness and language are identical, and that  there really is no civilized consciousness, no culture, except in words and that unless you can put a word on an object or a behavior it doesn’t exist or it doesn’t come into the arena of public concern, whereas I think that Bill might say, or I certainly would say, and many other people would say, that most of our consciousness, actually, is without words and that the amount of reality, so to speak, that we contain or we deal with that is non-verbal, is, perhaps.. is of course much greater than the reality that can be codified into words, and also that any codification into words is a very crude abstraction from reality. But there is a tendency, probably most among German and French intellectuals, to think that all of reality is identical with language, and that if you find a philosophical formulation or a verbal system that, somehow, you have controlled reality. And this is untrue.  Was that clear?

Student:  Yes.. and would you say it might be a middle-class thing to…

AG: No.  I think that it’s a by-product of the invention of the printing press, and as (Marshall) McLuhan pointed out, the over-exercise of language till language assumes a dis..  (a written language, particularly) assumes a disproportionate share, or ratio, of waking consciousness. And so Bill is concerned, as many others are concerned in art, with exercises to remove the unconscious addiction to language as the only reference point of reality. Does that make sense?

Student: Yes

AG:..here. So that would cover the political.

transcript continues tomorrow

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