Interviews with Oliver Harris and S.T. Joshi
Related to "The Case for 'Dangerous' Literature", full transcripts of written interviews with leading authorities on William Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft.
In the article "The Case for 'Dangerous' Literature" I drew from two interviews. Here are those interviews.
1. Oliver Harris
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Professor Oliver Harris (American Literature Studies, Keele University) is the world’s leading William Burroughs scholar and editor of many volumes of his work.
AA: In the current cultural-political climate, why is it important to publish BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS?
OH: BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS consists of material that Burroughs wrote in the very early 1960s that was mostly suppressed, or at the very least held back from publication at the time because it was too controversial. Anyone familiar with Burroughs will realise that this must be really saying something… However, I felt it was not a time for caution or compromise, but for pushing the envelope in precisely those ways that make Burroughs so challenging and so relevant. This isn’t just Burroughs at his most radical and polemical, but also Burroughs at his most equivocal, most self-contradictory, and this is what makes his work so timely, although its reception may depend on the cultural context. Let me explain.
Here in the UK, BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS appeared in print just a couple of weeks before, in September, the Department for Education issued guidance forbidding the teaching of anti-Capitalist material in schools (The Guardian, 27 September) and the Home Secretary proposed classifying Extinction Rebellion as not a movement aiming to save the planet but an “organised crime” gang (The Guardian, 6 September). In BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS Burroughs spells out for the first time and with a blast of icy clarity who the real “Nova criminals” are—naming names, from the fossil fuel barons of his day (Rockefeller and Getty), to the bankers (the Rothschilds) and media magnates (Henry Luce, owner of Time, Life, and Fortune). They’re the mob who are running our planet like an alien colony, working it to the point of extinction.
What they say about science fiction film—that in a generation it comes to look like cinéma vérité—has come horribly true, like Burroughs’ fantasy of these mobsters escaping into outer space from the planet they’re wrecking, which sounds like what Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are up to. As I point out in the book’s introduction, Burroughs demands an end to “business as usual” because it’s an extermination programme, and so by some sixty years he anticipates word for word the charge made recently by Greta Thunberg that “Today’s business as usual is turning into a crime against humanity.” It’s not just the blunt message, however; we need the disturbing ferocity of Burroughs as never before, to fight fire with fire.
All that said, Burroughs’ political position, Burroughs’ unique style and form and indeed method of writing—especially the famous “cut-up” techniques he launched sixty years ago and which also feature in BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS—are not reducible to good, humanitarian liberal values. His satire is profoundly unstable, self-consuming, all-consuming, and the upshot is a chilling uncertainty about where he stands and how we’re meant to react. This isn’t the playful open-ended ambiguity of postmodernism (a term that never fit Burroughs) and if you push the envelope far enough, as he does in demolishing the false fronts of our so-called real world—a world where capitalism is reality; there’s literally nothing else—you end up babbling conspiracy theories and railing against “fake news” along with Donald Trump. Trump is indeed a fully Burroughsian figure, which is why there are people on the Alt. Right who actually think Burroughs is one of them, rather than understanding that his diagnosis of the human condition is so dark that the cure may be as terrible and terrifying as the disease which they embody.
AA: How much of Burroughs’s misogyny and anti-Semitism was genuine and how much put on to provoke?
OH: I’m much more comfortable playing the ball rather than the man, but we have to start by saying nobody should be shocked that Burroughs was a misogynistic anti-Semite. There was a lot of it about, as there still is, and back in the 1960s it could go almost unchecked. Not quite, as the failure to publish BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS proves. When I edited together the manuscripts I’d found in the archives, I knew it would cause offence but chose to include his most virulent material, to leave none of it out. Unlike Burroughs’ racial material—which is clearly satirical and often very funny—the misogynistic and anti-Semitic content is so ugly it doesn’t sound like parody or a performance.
My sense of it is that Burroughs was fascinated by his darkest sides—drawn to them as well as disgusted and appalled by what was deep inside him. So there’s courage and integrity in facing his monstrous hatreds, and I agree with Eric Mottram, one of his very earliest critics, that “his map of his location in history includes himself”; Burroughs offers no false objectivity and no alibis.
But there was, as you’re implying, also a strategic value to Burroughs’ dark sides. It’s speculative, but I reckon he was at this point inspired by Ezra Pound—some of whose most anti-Semitic material from the Cantos found their way, in cryptic form, into BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS—because he absolutely did want to provoke, in the tradition of Dada and Surrealism, to get attention and rock the bourgeois boat. He may well also have been attracted by Pound’s conspiracy theories about Jews and the banking system (which is one reason why there’s long been anti-Semitism on the far left as well as far right). Burroughs backed off quickly and never cited Pound as an influence (unlike TS Eliot: anti-Semitic but less infamously so). However, Burroughs’ commitment to cut-up methods as radical tools, as techniques to weaponize language for emergency conditions, inevitably led him towards content that was similarly extreme, testing limits, going beyond the pale. His work leaves us uncomfortable not because we don’t know where he stands, therefore, but because we’re left unsure we know where we stand, and that forces us to think and rethink.
AA: Do you see a danger of us entering an era when difficult literature such as Burroughs’s is censored or suppressed?
OH: To an extent we’re already there, although the deeply challenging uncertainty of meaning and ambiguity of affect in Burroughs’ work might mean he escapes censorship. I’m reminded of the amusing discovery I made recently when working on a new edition of Dead Fingers Talk, another 1960s cut-up text, which was cleared of obscenity in New Zealand because no further restrictions were deemed necessary for a book whose style was so “impenetrable” that the censors believed only “the most resolute reader” could read it anyway. Burroughs’ “difficult” content is protected by “difficult” form and by the classification “literature.” It’s a different problem when the “difficulty” isn’t formal or literary, so the battle is over who gets to draw the lines, who gets to decide what is or isn’t “literature,” and which matters more, the intentions of the writer or the responses of the reader.
We certainly need challenging writers like Burroughs who make us aware of our own historical and personal complicity because they don’t conceal their own, and that’s one of the most salutary and remarkable features of BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS: before naming names and damning his enemies, Burroughs always includes his own family names (on one side, Burroughs computers, on the other, “Poison” Ivy Lee, the founder of modern PR who had served Rockefeller and Hitler), his own toxic inheritance, the DNA inside against which he battled all his life.
AA: Thank you for speaking to me.
S.T.Joshi is an independent American scholar who is the world’s leading authority on H.P. Lovecraft, of whom he has written a biography and numerous books, as well as having edited and annotated Lovecraft’s published work.
AA: Can you explain why you think HPL was so hostile towards foreigners and Jews? Is it related to fear of immigration and the changing demographics of the USA?
STJ: Lovecraft’s objection to most “foreigners” or non-Anglo-Saxons (in the United States) was overwhelmingly cultural. He believed that immigrants were significantly altering the social and cultural environment of the nation—as, indeed, they were. Between the years 1890 and 1920, about 15 million immigrants entered the US—at a time when the entire US population was only about 100 million. Sometimes it appears that Lovecraft uses immigrants as a kind of shorthand (or scapegoat) for broader social changes that were occurring in his time—specifically, rampant industrialization and mechanization, which was uprooting everyone from the “old ways” and rendering the US unrecognizable to one who had such a yearning for those old ways. Let us recall, however, that Lovecraft was not at all unusual in his views on this subject. The immigration restriction bills of 1917, 1921, and 1924 were passed by overwhelming majorities in Congress—and that last and most restrictive law was not overturned until 1965. And his remarks on the cultural impoverishment that the “machine culture” was inflicting upon society remain cogent and relevant both as an analysis of his own time and as a rebuke to our own era of smartphones and internet addiction.
AA: Considering HPL’s anti-Semitism, can you explain his marriage to Sonia Haft Greene, a Jew?
STJ: Lovecraft welcomed Sonia (and also his friend, the poet Samuel Loveman) because in his belief she had largely shed her specifically Jewish culture and become what Nietzsche called a “good European” (as Lovecraft himself believed he was). Lest we think that this view is unreasonable or even offensive, it should be emphasized that it was widely held at this time—and for decades thereafter. When my own family came to the US from India in 1963, we were expected to renounce much of our Indian heritage and become “American”—and we did. Many countries today still expect immigrants to do the same.
AA: Do you think that marriage moderated HPL’s views on women and Jews or did it confirm some of his reservations?
STJ: Lovecraft’s marriage was unfortunate in many ways—chiefly because it uprooted him from his cherished birthplace, Providence, R.I., and brought him to New York, where he was acutely miserable (for many reasons apart from the “foreigners” he brushed shoulders with every day). There is clear evidence that his prejudice spiked at this time—and it is entirely understandable that it did. It is no accident that he left the city after two years and returned to Providence, leaving Sonia largely to shift for herself. It is only then, once he had re-established a comforting and stable environment, that he could look upon the question of race more objectively.
AA: Is it true that HPL moderated his views on race in his last years? Can you discern an evolution in his views?
STJ: The evidence does not establish that Lovecraft truly moderated his views toward the end of his life; but I think it is safe to say that he seemed less concerned about the issue as he aged. By 1930 he had evolved from extreme political conservatism to moderate socialism, as he saw the devastation caused by the Great Depression. It is true that he displayed some conflicted approval of Hitler when Hitler first came to power in 1933, but he says little about Hitler in later years. And a friend of Lovecraft’s, Harry Brobst, reports that a neighbor had gone to Germany and come back with horrific tales of how Jews and others were treated, and Lovecraft was appalled by these accounts. Also, Lovecraft’s conversion to socialism entailed his belief that such extremist groups as the KKK were of a piece with the fat-cat capitalists he had come to despise, because both groups were standing in the way of the reforms that Franklin D. Roosevelt was attempting to enact; so it would be absurd to call Lovecraft a supporter of white supremacy at this time.
AA: Can you explain why we need to continue to publish and read HPL’s literature that include disagreeable racial opinions?
STJ: We should also note that Lovecraft’s views are not at all monolithic, whether we are talking about his early life or his later life. As early as 1915, he expressed support for a Jewish state in Palestine. Even during his horrible years in New York, he found much to admire in the Orthodox Jews in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, who were clinging tenaciously to their cultural heritage in the midst of an alien society. He expressed the same admiration for the French-Canadians in Quebec. (This stance is not a contradiction to the point I made above, because these groups were not immigrants but native-born.) He wanted all cultures to preserve their heritage, not just his own.
Why should we continue to read Poe, who was an ardent supporter of slavery? Why should we continue to read T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who were anti-Semites (Pound was so virulently anti-Semitic that he was locked up in a lunatic asylum during World War II). Why read Jack London, who was anti-Asian? Why read Roald Dahl, who was both racist and anti-Semitic? Why read George Orwell, who was a homophobe? I trust it is becoming obvious that this line of thinking is preposterous. In spite of the careless remarks of many commentators, no convincing case has been made that Lovecraft’s fiction is very much tainted by racism. I can identify exactly five stories (out of the 60 that he wrote) that are based on racist presuppositions. (I trust we can disregard passing comments on this subject, since we can find such things in all manner of other writers. Raymond Chandler’s crime stories are peppered with references to “little Japs” and African Americans who look like gorillas, but no one accuses him of systematic racism.)
The great majority of Lovecraft’s comments on race are restricted to private correspondence which he never expected to be published. And even there it occupies a minuscule place: out of the 4.5 million words of Lovecraft’s surviving correspondence, I’d be surprised if race is discussed in more than 5 percent—or even as much as 2 percent—of that total. Lovecraft had many, many other interests and concerns, and it is criminally reductive to believe that race loomed particularly large among them.
I would find it a welcome relief if people started talking about something other than the one subject of Lovecraft and race. There is so much more to Lovecraft than that. What about the effect of his wide-ranging travels on his work? What about the central place he occupies in the history of weird fiction, as one who rejected the 19th-century ghost story tradition and effected a dynamic union between weird fiction and science fiction? What about his astute comments on American the social, political, economic, and cultural situation in his time? What about his shrewd analyses of the mainstream writers of his day (Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, etc. etc.?). I could go on and on. Lovecraft’s life, work, and thought is enormously rich and variegated, and it is a ludicrous caricature to think of him only as a racist who wrote about Cthulhu.
We read Lovecraft because he speaks with unparalleled intensity and plangency about the dismal state of all humanity (not any specific race) as we realize our fragility and insignificance within the vast gulfs of space and time. This message now resonates even more vividly to our generation than to past ages, and it is why Lovecraft continues to secure an ever-growing worldwide audience.
AA: Would you describe HPL as misogynist or just “woman averse”?
STJ: I would say neither. Lovecraft was, apparently, not particularly comfortable around women on a face-to-face basis, but he had any number of cordial relationships with women as correspondents (Zealia Bishop, Hazel Heald, C. L. Moore, Helen Sully, etc.). It is a grotesque slander to deem Lovecraft a misogynist; no evidence can be adduced in support of this claim. My belief is that Lovecraft was asexual—an attitude far more common in his time than in ours, given that for the past several decades our society has become hypersexualized to a degree that would be astonishing (and deplorable) to previous generations. The fact that Lovecraft doesn’t have very many women characters in his fiction is also not nearly as unusual in his day as it may seem in ours; many other writers (Herman Melville, Jack London, Joseph Conard, Arthur Conan Doyle, etc. etc.) share this trait.
AA: Thank you for speaking to me.
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Interesting responses. I myself have no idea what racism is. Or white supremacy. In my experience, white people are the least "racist" or "sexist" people on the planet. I understand what people like to think of as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., but, to me, it really means "anti-white male" or "anti-Christian." I get the feeling Harris and Joshi are very cleverly exploiting this tendency by certain whites to bash the "bad" whites, and the horror of being made an outcast. It's almost like a religious war, except rather than fighting for souls we are now concerned with creating Diversitopia, a kind of heaven on earth.
There were earlier manifestations of this phenomena with, among others, the Brethren of the Free Spirit during the later medieval period. The Beghards were "prophetae" who became god-like and used "unbelievably subtle words" to sway the people towards an impersonal One. Beguines were middle class women who financially supported these prophetae. Many were burnt as heretics. They were part of a larger, general dissatisfaction with various inequalities and were desirous for a kind of garden of earthly delights.