One of my favourite pieces by Burroughs is the short Ah Pook discussion of time, death, control and the ‘ugly american’. I showed it to my Introduction to Philosophy class this week, at the start of the lecture, then came across it again on Muli Koppell’s blog ‘Methods and Black Squares‘ blog. The brief film animation that is famously associated with this Burroughs piece is below, though it misses out (at least in this version) Bryon Gysin’s all purpose nuclear bedtime story from the end, which I’ve previously heard attached to Ah Pook as a kind of coda.
Koppel talks about two times, a kind of linear time and a ‘monadic’ time of moments which contain all time, called Time Capsules. His musings begin from this famous line within Burroughs piece about death needing time for what it kills to grow in (for Ah Pook’s sweet sake) and the implication that death is intimately within time, within life, that follows. He ‘remixes’ some Deleuzian comments on Leibniz’s monads to come up with this interesting set of ‘protocols’:
To be born is to start dying.
To live is to be dying.
To die is to complete living.
And so to die is to complete to be dying.
Birth=to start dying;
Life=to be dying;
Death=to finish being dying.
Our mission here, in this Space, is to die.
What’s interesting here is this word, ‘mission’. There’s a sense – and this may of course be my own reading of the protocols – that somehow life is paradoxical because it’s mission is its opposite, death. ‘To die’ and ‘To live’, these cannot be the same – and if they are, then this somehow drops life into death, makes it absurd, obviates its power. A similiar aspect of the ‘life-death paradox’ can sometimes be found in discussion of Heideggers’ famous account of Dasein as most authentically itself as a ‘being towards death’. This is all tinged with the black cashmere wearing existentialist of the Left Bank 1950’s jazz club variety as a conceptual figure in the background, a figure which we dismiss as slightly naive, a bit over-serious and pretentious.
The curiosity, of course, is this underlying atmosphere of death as a negative. This permeates the west, perhaps even other cultures, and yet is brazenly not apparent in all human life. It results from that peculiar Christian ‘sacrificial’ attitude which fails to find joy in a scene such as Christs’ death but permeates it with sorrow, torment and anguish. The Christian sense of death as an eschatological moment of necessity is that which conceives death as a destruction, if not for those within the church then definitely for those without it.
I don’t think we need to find only two versions of time. The third, the cyclical – or , rather, revolutionary – is a far more interesting version. This is not, of course, a simple circle of repetition and static return. It is found, for example, in the pagan ‘wheel of the year’ concept, in which Samhain (Sows In or Halloween) constitutes the new year, not some arbitrary moment in the calendar, since at Samhain the dark shifts to dominance over the light. Enacted in various mythological stories, at least in Britain, such as the handover of the flame from the Oak King to the Holly King and always, at least to me, fundamentally feminine in nature (Persephones’ return to the underworld and the prominence of Hekate), this time of year, as summer and autumn give way to winter and then spring, constitutes a time of freshness. Death is a cleansing necessity, it is a precondition of life, not its aberrant limit.
These attitudes, of course, are intensely personal, constituted in part through an inevitable process of co-constitution of meanings and values and mythologies. These attitudes also distinguish death quite firmly from killing, even though it often appears as though death was merely the product of an a-subjective killing machine. In Burroughs piece, Ah Pook, there’s a relation between death, time and ‘control’ and the figure at the centre of it is the Hiroshima bomb. ‘I am become death’. It’s posed viciously and negatively by Burroughs – ‘the ugly american death sucker’ – and his attitude to control was to inform Deleuze’s take on ‘control societies’ as the most contemporary characterization of our current social situation. I undoubtedly sympathise with this negative sense of the ugly american, but not because they somehow ‘control me’ or want to but because they are caught within a cycle of control, death and time that they are no longer aware of. They’ve created, through the rampant rise of capitalism and its incessant dynamic of commodity production, a society of waste. We are little more than food that grows to feed the belly of the death machine. It’s not ‘death’ however that is central to this, it’s control.
“Who really gave that order? Answer – control, the ugly american, the instrument of control. Question – if controls control is absolute why does control need to control? Answer – control needs time.”
Death as the horror of time, it’s eschatological debauchment – its tortuous imposition, relies upon this acceptance of control, the control of time. Control needs time. It needs time. It cannot control time. It tries, that it does indeed, it tries to control time through the sense of an end of time (eschatology), an end point (knowledge, product, finished, thing, static, being, fixed and finished) but time goes on, on and on, throughout time rips apart death, rips apart life, rips apart sense, self, sentience and seniscence. It is time that we need to find entry into if we are to resist control, time that we need to embrace, but not just any time. It’s the fight against Chronos, the fight for Aion, to resist the end, clock, tick, linearity of timelines or even temporal capsules enclosed and communicating through closed windows. It’s Aion, the pure eruption of temporality, the pure time not of the moment but of the time that forms time, that we need to embrace and there’s no surer way of finding Aion then in the figure of death. Death is inside Life because Time animates through the volcanic splinter of temporality, in which a past, a future and a present arise from nowhere to become what is now and here. It is in our encounter with death that we find the greatest lessons for this eruption of a now and here that is always with us and yet almost always just in front, just ahead, just out of reach. In death we become time.