- Ecological Burroughs
Southern Illinois Press
212 Pages; Print, $35.00
Chad Weidner's The Green Ghost: William Burroughs and the Ecological Mind, published in 2016, comes on the crest of an expansion of ecocritical attention to authors, methods, and themes that have been perhaps unduly neglected in ecocriticism, promising a look at an author who, at first glance, does not seem to fit the usual picture of an environmental author. Claiming his "study challenges the American ecocritical tradition of emphasizing nature writing" by examining Burroughs's avant-garde writing in an ecological context, Weidner examines the span of Burroughs's career over seven chapters, starting with Naked Lunch (1959) and ending with Ghost of Chance (1991). Through these chapters, Weidner looks at some of Burroughs's most challenging cut-ups as well as some of his more traditional narratives in his later career, identifying such ecocritical subjects as toxicity, ecopoetics, the (post) pastoral, animality, and apocalyptic eschatology.
Weidner's study is a welcome addition to both Burroughs scholarship and ecocriticism. Frequently referring to the preexisting literature on Burroughs, Weidner ultimately finds it lacking in addressing contemporary issues surrounding environmental devastation and justice. Weidner writes,
Since the 1970s, postmodern studies into Burroughs, the postmodern aspects of his books, his cut-up narrative strategy, and his views of subjectivity and the human body have been exhaustive. In the age of environmental upheaval, though, such views need updating
And through the course of the book, Weidner builds a persuasive case for a "Green Burroughs. or at least a ghostly trace of one, whose obsessions with viral epidemics, extreme human violence, and [End Page 12] the conspiracies and complicities of the various overlords that rule our modern life make him worthy of such study.
The intervention of such an author into the theory and praxis of environmental criticism also deserves attention. If a lot of ecocriticism rests on the premise that language, and by extension literature, cannot ultimately succeed in speaking for or about nature, then Burroughs's anti-representational "guerilla semiotics" potentially offers a different route to approaching ecology. Weidner suggests that "If the reality of ecological crises exceeds the ability to even imagine them, and if existing writing strategies perhaps cannot fully convey the totality of what may still come, perhaps Burroughs's early experimental forms are especially suited to engaging in eschatological discourse." Tracing Burroughs and Brion Gysin's cut-ups to the avant-gardists who preceded them, i.e. Dada, Weidner opens a larger conversation about the possibilities of experimental literature to affect the way readers perceive the world. As Weidner writes, "If cut-ups make people rethink what literature is and does, then they can by extension reconsider unsustainable practices in this world."
One way the cut-ups may do this is by "recruiting the reader into coauthorship" to make sense of them. Yet, the extreme disjunctions in Burroughs's cut-ups sometimes make it difficult to draw any firm ecological conclusions—or what Weidner calls "remnants of environmental meaning." In discussing these works, Weidner does not always offer the most persuasive readings and sometimes seems unconfident of what he will find, acknowledging the cut-ups as only "protoecological." For example, in his analysis of the poem "Formed in the Stance," from Minutes to Go (1960), the following lines are analyzed at length: "The girls eat morning / Dying peoples to a white bone monkey." With no mention of the girls eating morning, Weidner finds "an image of a species in crisis—the logical conclusion of ever-increasing technological dependence and resource depletion" and concludes that "the last generations of humans may resort to a form of monkey shamanism to save themselves from inevitable death." Granting that Weidner is a "coauthor" of this meaning-making, one wonders if another reader, especially one not as ecologically minded, would find these lines fruitful for rethinking their relationship to their environment.
In the latter half of the book, Weidner shifts his attention to the later years of Burroughs's career and thus...