The Linguistic Aesthetic of William S. Burroughs II
William S. Burroughs is a writer whose life and work I do not particularly care for. This is what made it all the more enjoyable to critique his work. It is easier to be objective about what one does not like sometimes, because the temptation to ‘defend’ or ‘promote’ them is not there. Burroughs’ “EXTERMINATOR!” came across my desk by accident, and I hope I did justice to it before it left.
One of the outstanding linguistic features of “EXTERMINATOR!” is Burroughs’ attempt to capture the sound, as it were, of language. He attempts to write dialogue the way it is spoken, as opposed to the way it is supposed to be written. There is an ongoing interplay of, as psychologist Lev Vygotsky would have divided it, inner and external speech. It is unknown how aware the author was of Vygotsky, but in many ways “EXTERMINATOR!” is a study in the ideas postulated in his seminal work Thought and Language1.
In Thought and Language, inner speech is the mechanism by which a child mediates and regulates his or her activity. It captures the images an impressions that encounter the mind like a running camera. This “live” thought is unintelligible to anyone except the thinker as it has not been organized into logical sequences or groupings. An action may be followed by an expression which may be followed by a random association, and so on. In this grammar-less monologue, subjects are largely omitted and a word which may take others to explain in outer speech, is left, like an image, as it is in the thinker’s mind. Inner speech is self-talk, not in the sense that one is talking to oneself, but that one is talking within oneself.
Outer speech, in contrast, is socialized speech. It is thought turned into coherent, comprehensible expression through the medium of words. In addition to an at least acceptable level of grammar, it omits the private musings that are either inappropriate or irrelevant.
Burroughs seems all too aware of this Vygotskian dichotomy in “EXTERMINATOR!”. The interplay and merging of inner and external speech is the aesthetic effect of this piece. “EXTERMINATOR!” is divided into the narrator’s inner thoughts, the narrator’s and other characters’ external speech, and the narrator’s external speech with the other characters’ words implied but omitted.
“You make a nice cup of tea Mrs Murphy . . . Sure I’ll be taking care of your roaches . . . Oh don’t be telling me where they are . . . You see I know Mrs Murphy . . . experienced along these lines . . . And I don’t mind telling you Mrs Murphy I like my work and take pride in it.”
“Well the city exterminating people were around and left some white powder draws roaches the way whiskey will draw a priest.”
“Well the city exterminating people are a cheap outfit Mrs Murphy. What they left was fluoride. The roaches build up a tolerance and become addicted. They can be dangerous if the fluoride is suddenly withdrawn . . . Ah just here it is . . .”
I have spotted a brown crack by the kitchen sink put my bellows in and blow a load of the precious yellow powder. As if they had heard the last trumpet the roaches stream out and flop in convulsions on the floor.
This excerpt begins with a conversation between the narrator and “Mrs Murphy”, whose words and responses are present only as implicature. For example, after the first sentence of the first paragraph, we do not ‘hear’ her ask if he will exterminate her roaches, but the question is strongly implied by his “Sure I’ll be taking care of your roaches . . .”. Again, we do not ‘hear’ her attempt to tell him where they are, but his “Oh don’t be telling me where they are . . . You see I know Mrs Murphy . . .” implies such an attempt. The last two phrases in this paragraph are a use of weaker implicature, as we are not sure what “Mrs Murphy” may have said, or if she said anything between pauses in the narrator’s words to her.
The next two paragraphs display a more standard type of dialogue wherein one speaker’s expression is related followed by another’s response. It is as if the narrator’s attention and memory- or attention to his memory- has shifted beyond merely his words to include those of his co-converser. Perhaps, in his flow of thought and recollection, and in contrast with the previous paragraph, his words can not be remembered without her. Her words are not only as easily implied as the previous simple and obvious. Either the narrator, as a thinker and recollector, or Burroughs, as a writer, has taken note of this, and perhaps both, as Burroughs himself once worked as an exterminator.
In the final paragraph of the excerpt, the reader is entirely inside the narrator’s mind. We read what he thinks and sees in the order and manner that he thinks and sees it. It is a “stream-of-consciousness”, often used by spoken word artists including most likely Burroughs himself. The first sentence can be called such only by its use of a period at the end of it. Otherwise it is a stream of events, neither connected by grammatical tense nor separated by punctuation. It is as if, in the immediacy of noticing or describing actions, in this case the narrator’s own, there is neither time nor need for the superfluous conventions, superfluous because they are either implied, like the subject pronoun that should come before “put” or unnecessary for meaning and memory, like the period, comma or preposition that should come after “sink”.
Notably, the entire piece is written in 1st person, so that even when the words of other characters are related, they still only appear as an omitted part of the narrator’s mental activity. In sum, “EXTERMINATOR!” is as much an internal recollection of the narrator, to or within himself, of his stint as an exterminator, as it is the telling of a story to an audience, and perhaps even more so. It is unabashedly personal and subjective- presenting what the writer understood, rather than what all readers can understand- a departure from the objective, “reader-friendly” aesthetic of much literature. Quite simply, Burroughs writes without an awareness of audience, or at least to show how such a lack should appear and feel.
Burroughs employs tense idiosyncratically to capture the capricious connectedness of the flow of thoughts and images. The title itself is an exclamation that abruptly and immediately places the reader on the job with the narrator. The first line of the piece is a continuation seems, in this context, to truly be the second line of the story, a request about the service which has been previously announced. This pair of sentences is repeated two more times, almost identically, in the short story2. After the first pair, i.e. the title and opening line, the narrative immediately plunges into the past tense.
“You need the service?
During the war I worked for A.J. Cohen Extermi- nators ground floor office dead-end street by the river.
(Burroughs 3 [author’s italics])
Then it repeats again, followed again by a plunge back in time to a description of the chemicals he used.
“Exterminator! You need the service?”
A fat smiling Chinese rationed out the pyrethrum powder–it was hard to get during the war–and cau- tioned us to use fluoride whenever possible.
(Burroughs 4 [author’s italics])
Finally, the phrase repeats again, and only then does the story, or process of soliciting customers continue forward.
“Exterminator lady. You need the service?”
“Well come in young man and have a cup of tea. That wind has a bite to it.”
Interestingly, though, while his entire career or stint as an exterminator is presumably over- “During the war I worked as an exterminator (Burroughs 3)- all of his experiences exterminating are told in the present. So he talks about the past with the present, again as a stream of consciousness that is thought out loud rather than ‘translated’ or ‘socialized’ into external speech for the audience.
From beginning to end, Burroughs stylistic mimics, whether intentionally or not, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s in his poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798). The poem does not start with a description of setting or scenery.
It is an ancient Mariner
And he stoppeth one of the three.
Readers only discover the situation that they- and the Mariner- are abruptly thrown into after being thrown in it, just as with “EXTERMINATOR!” when we meet the narrator in the middle of doing his job, and then learn more of its context.
The shift from past to present tense is also present in ‘Mariner’.
He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! Unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hands dropt he.
In this stanza, the Mariner holds the guest’s hand and speaks to him in the present tense. After that, however, he drops his hand in the past tense. Coleridge’s purpose for these idiosyncrasies is unclear. Perhaps it is to arouse the same sense of caprice in the reader that the wedding guests interrupted by the Mariner feel. Burroughs’ similar use of grammatical tenses is applied more methodically, along patterns already mentioned. His effort to present natural, realistic thought and speech encapsulates the Beat Generations obsession with reality. It also comments on the stringent and confined literary norms of the day by showing them to be unnatural and lacking of realism. His use of tense, so subtly and adamantly incorrect, articulates the counter-culture stance Burroughs remains famous for to this day.
Burroughs vocabulary is striking in its inappropriateness. Blatant racism abounds throughout “EXTERMINATOR!”. Jews are the first target. When watching arguments between the Jewish brothers he works for he makes a reference to “my goyish eyes” (Burroughs 3). This is a reference to the Yiddish term goyim, for non-Jew, by which the narrator juxtaposes himself from Jews. Overall, the narrator seems unable to not notice the Jewishness of any person who happens to have it. There is “an old Jew” (Burroughs 3), a “college trained Jew” (Burroughs 6), a “young Jewish matron” (Burroughs 7). “Mrs Murphy” even gets in on the act by blaming “those Jews downstairs (Burroughs 5) for her roaches. The fact that they are always referred to by their ethnicity illustrates the alienation and mild contempt the characters feel for Jewish people.
The Chinese man who rations pyrethrum powder is only referred to as an adjective. He starts off as “a fat smiling Chinese” (Burroughs 4), then he is “the fat Chinese” again twice (Burroughs 5,8). The fact that he is a “Chinese” rather than a ‘Chinese man’, or just a ‘man’ dehumanizes him because of his ethnicity. Slavs, referred to as “hunkys” (Burroughs 5) in reference to their possible Austro-Hungarian roots, don’t fare much better in the narrator’s eyes. This vocabulary expresses American mid-19th century racism, and as such is not as severe as it could be and often was.
Nearly every sentence of “EXTERMINATOR!” is afoul of the rules of grammar. Considering Burroughs’ Ivy League and prep school background, this can only be intentional. The usual syntactical technique is to connect sentences or phrases by deleting the punctuation, subjects, and articles that usually separate them.
An old Jew with cold grey fish eyes and a cigar was the oldest of four brothers Marv was the youngest wore windbreakers had three kids.
This excerpt would be expected to be written as:
An old Jew with cold grey fish eyes and a cigar was the oldest of four brothers. Marv was the youngest. He wore windbreakers and had three kids.
In keeping with the Beat Generation’s obsession with reality, this syntactical tactic lays emphasis on speaking vocabulary, which, as it is spontaneous, misuses words and grammar. By attempting to put speaking vocabulary on paper, Burroughs captures these slight, often unintentional mistakes which are made up for by intonation, facial expression and gesturing in live conversation. The noticeable lack of punctuation points out the fact that when talking or thinking, we don’t pause for effect, breath or least of all grammar where we ‘think’ we will when writing.
This stringing of phrases together without connectors while talking is common amongst across languages and is known by linguists as parataxis3. It is used by Burroughs as a tool to criticize and subvert academia and societal norms. When it is known that he and his Beatniks were obsessed with the “reality” that of underclass life that they felt their privileged backgrounds lacked, it is easy to conclude that Burroughs is attempting to capture, present and enshrine it, just as he did in his own life. In so doing, he comments on class by being a privileged person who unabashedly admires the criminal underclass, praising it as more ‘real’ than the sheltered lifestyle he was raised in. The usual expectation, of course, is that it would be the underclass that admires the privileged. The effect is further accentuated by the narrator’s crude racism and lack of refined speech, referring to a potential customer as “lady” (Burroughs 4) and habitually drinking while on the job. Interestingly, it is this affinity which most likely led the wealth heir Burroughs to take an exterminator position, which in turn fed him the material for this short story4.
In sum, “EXTERMINATOR!” is an attempt by Burroughs to both capture and subvert reality. He flouts its norms to show it as it really appears and sounds to the minds of a thinker. In light of the background of Burroughs’ lifelong project of subverting the moral, political and academic norms of modern American society, it is rich in cynicism and criticism. The brilliance of Burroughs is perhaps that he does so here without direct reference to what he is commenting upon. His writings were often thought obscene, but he rejected that designation on the basis of coming from the very source that he considered invalid, namely mainstream culture. His brave insistence on his project, coupled with a high creative and literary aptitude, ultimately proved that it was literary value, not conformity to norms, which would define literature in the modern age.
1 Vygotsky, Lev. Thought and Language (revised). MIT Press. 1986.
2 This is reminiscent of a feature of the Qur-an, in which the phrase bismillah is the first verse of a chapter, a prelude
to a chapter, or a verse within a chapter. Though Burroughs spent time in Morocco and his Beat Generation was
characterized by spiritual yearnings, it is not known whether he was aware of this feature of the Qur-an.
3 For more on parataxis, see McWhorter, John. “What does Palinspeak mean?”. The New Republic. 6 April 2010.
4 Incidentally, this adoration of the underprivileged life and assumption of it as a truer reality continued through the
decades that following the Beatniks. Most famously, guitarist Eric Clapton is rumored to have purposefully
addicted himself to heroin so he could ‘feel the blues’ and therefore play like the African-American guitarists he