Distant Early Warning

Masterpiece or not, William S. Burroughs' "The Revised Boy Scout Manual": An Electronic Revolution fills a puzzling lacuna in the Beat author's bibliography, writes Scott McLemee.

September 14, 2018
 
 

"A Lost Masterpiece Rediscovered" declares the cover of William S. Burroughs' "The Revised Boy Scout Manual": An Electronic Revolution (Ohio State University Press). Masterpiece or not, the book fills a puzzling lacuna in the Beat author's bibliography.

Written sometime between late 1969 and early 1970 -- a period when the My Lai massacre, the Manson Family and the Weather Underground were all in the news -- the book offers a modest proposal for making the world a better place through a carefully orchestrated campaign of terrorist attacks, combined with subversion of the normal functioning of the mass media. I don't think the Boy Scouts of America are going to like it one little bit.

Since his death in 1997, the Burroughs canon has expanded with the publication of his letters, notebooks and interviews -- as well as a novel he wrote with Jack Kerouac in 1945, between rounds of getting hepped up on goofballs. Burroughs himself preferred that the manuscript remain in a state of benign neglect, as indeed it should have.

I don't think any such negative assessment by the author was at work in the case of the Manual. Part of it appeared in the now-legendary journal RE/Search in the early 1980s, and Burroughs incorporated passages into other books. In addition to his working manuscripts, there are recordings of the author reading the text aloud and making occasional revisions. The editors, Geoffrey D. Smith and John M. Bennett, track every change from version to version in fine detail, so that The Revised Boy Scout Manual comes into the world in as careful an edition as Naked Lunch received only in 2009, on its 50th anniversary.

The book defies ready labeling. It has elements of libertarian manifesto, paramilitary handbook, revenge fantasy and dark satire, and wherever the line between fiction and nonfiction may be, it's never clear for long. All the familiar Burroughsian themes and references are here: Addiction, the pervasive hypocrisy of elites and institutions, the news media as force for social control, language as a virus, and so forth. Does he quote Hassan-i Sabbah, founder of the 11th century mystical-terrorist Order of the Assassins, saying, "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted"? Does he discuss Mayan hieroglyphics? Is there any mention of the field of study known as General Semantics? The answer, in each case, is yes. "Obsession," as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick liked to say, "is the most durable form of intellectual capital."

Burroughs was a practicing Scientologist at the time of The Revised Boy Scout Manual's composition, albeit not for much longer. The scattered references to L. Ron Hubbard are not exactly reverent, though Burroughs recommends the e-meter (a device measuring galvanic skin response) as a tool that countercultural revolutionaries could use to identify and defend themselves from narcs. The goal of his proposed insurgency is defense of My Own Business (MOB):

"The right of every individual to possess his inner space, to do what interests him with people he wants to see … The bad guys are those who can't mind their own business because they have no business of their own to mind any more than a smallpox virus. Their business is degrading, harassing and frightening other people."

MOB was also Burroughs's proposed name for an underground newspaper that seems not to have gotten started. The Manual reads, in parts, like a kind of open letter to the youth culture of the day -- the call for full-frontal combat with The Establishment, the sooner the better. But had the paper or the manifesto, or both, been published at the time, the impact would have been minimal compared to that of his fiction. The MOB outlook is present from his early autobiographical novels Junky and Queer through the mash-up of pulp genres (detective and Western stories, science fiction, porn) in his final series, the Red Night Trilogy.

Burroughs fuses misanthropy and utopianism into something difficult to locate on the ideological continuum. His feeling about the human condition is that we can do better, that we need to find a way to get off this planet before things get any worse -- as they will. In the meantime, his Manual offers the occasional well-turned anti-authoritarian slogan; e.g., "Wipe out the bible belt and you will glimpse the Garden of Eden."

Reading the book almost 50 years after it was drafted, it feels anomalously contemporary at moments. In one case, this is by accident. Burroughs makes a couple of references to MRA, which the editors gloss with an endnote reading as follows:

"[A] conservative men's rights movement, with beginnings in the early 20th century. The initials stand for 'Men's Rights Activism.' At the time WSB was writing, it was largely focused on combating the rise of feminism."

Exemplary of the limits of Google for contextual interpretation, this is confused from a number of directions at once. Avoiding anachronism, it's reasonable to assume that Burroughs has in mind the movement known as Moral Re-Armament. Largely forgotten now -- except for its role in launching Up With People, a fiercely cheerful singing group -- at its peak, MRA conducted an international propaganda campaign for Christian morals and clean living. Burroughs undoubtedly saw it as a prime example of people "who can't mind their own business because they have no business of their own to mind." His reference to attacking "any bastard connected with MRA" suggests as much.

But another passage really scrambles the distinctions among satire, sci-fi and prophecy. Addressing the rebels of 1970, Burroughs advises them to demolish mainstream culture with the available tools:

"For a start, you scramble the news all together and spit it out every which way on ham radio and street recorders. You construct fake news broadcasts on video camera … In fact, you can advertise the fact that you are writing news in advance and trying to make it happen by techniques anybody can use. And that makes you NEWS. And a TV personality, as well, if you play it right."

Did anyone use the expression "fake news" before this? Maybe, but surely without anticipating the world of pervasive, constantly scrambled media that Burroughs seems to take as inevitable. His weird is our normal, which given the rest of the book, is a disturbing thought.

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