- Horror Autotoxicus in the Red Night Trilogy: Ironic Fruits of Burroughs’s Terminal Vision
Survival, that’s the name of the game.Burroughs, Dead City Radio 1
Virus hunters in the jungles of the world could use the instincts of Bill Burroughs, who always seems to be a jump ahead of the game. Soon after Burroughs sent his District Health Officer, Farnsworth, upriver to investigate the outbreak of an epidemic in Cities of the Red Night, a lethal virus actually erupted in the African rain forest along the headwaters of the Ebola river. 2 By the time Burroughs’s final manuscript went to his publisher in 1980, the Ebola virus had devastated entire villages, and the telling symptoms of the viral disease that would become known as AIDS, generally thought to have originated in that same tropical region, were first noticed by a Los Angeles [End Page 135] doctor in his gay male patients. 3 The coincidence is too remarkable, and too painfully ironic, to ignore. It is a testament, perhaps, to the irony often haunting the work of the visionary writer that Burroughs depicts a deadly virus in Cities, and also in the sequels in his Red Night trilogy (The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands), 4 that is comparable to the disease that would soon ravage the world’s homosexual and drug-addicted population. His radar for bodily and planetary catastrophe is uncanny—psychic instincts sharpened, no doubt, by the raw-nerved sensitivity of chronic junk sickness, which keeps the body in a perpetual “condition of emergency.” 5 According to Burroughs’s theory of addiction, this hyperacuity or amplification (to use the terminology of virologists) occurs not only on a sensory level of awareness, but extends to the very cells of the addict’s body, which metastasize into the “junk virus.” 6 The virus mechanism—the sine qua non of the “Burroughs machine”—used to describe the equivalent effects of “terminal addiction”in Naked Lunch and of the planetary invasion of alien “life forms” in the Nova trilogy, acquires the status of an actual flesh-and-blood virus in Cities: “B-23,” legendary superstar of the Red Night system’s collapse. And, frighteningly enough, this fictional predator has found a real-world counterpart in the emergent rainforest viruses plaguing the late twentieth century.
Burroughs’s vision of “terminal” communications in his fiction, which dramatizes not only the lethal effects of viral transmission— [End Page 136] or its equivalent, drugs—but also the virtual parasitism of electronically transmitted information, gives us an exaggerated picture, a caricature really, of the horrors of our so-called postmodern condition. In contemporary cultural theory, we see the postmodern subject frequently cast, in similar terms of extremity, as host or terminal for the toxic effects of a high-tech system in which the “human” is endangered: an end-of-the world scenario aptly summed up in the phrase “crash culture.” 7 For reasons already obvious, perhaps, to readers familiar with Richard Preston’s chilling account of lethal virus in The Hot Zone, I call in his expert testimony to set the stage for this discussion of toxic communications in Burroughs’s Red Night trilogy—what I refer to in my essay as the horror autotoxicus of postmodernity. In effect, I propose a way of reading Burroughs’s radical treatment of toxic or terminal communications that enables us to review the comparable ideas of “postmodern” theory, while drawing attention to the fascinating alternative that his fatal strategy ironically opens up. Jean Baudrillard’s critique of mass media as a source of “virulent contamination” and “obscenity” provides the closest (and the most ironic) theoretical parallel for this analysis. 8 We see, by comparison, that Burroughs offers a view of terminal systems that is paradoxically utopian, giving us a representation of the kind of “virtual” potential for “bodies without organs” that is theorized by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their “tales of becoming.” 9 Burroughs’s alignment with a Deleuze/Guattarian philosophy, as distinct from a Baudrillardian postmodernity, is evident in the virtual dimensions that he [End Page 137] gives to junk and media technology in his earliest fictional experiments...