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Seminal Semantics Antics

Count Alfred Korzybski, Life Magazine, 1944
Count Alfred Korzybski, Life Magazine, 1944

In 1939, the 25-year-old William Seward Burroughs traveled to Chicago for the first of two important trips that would permanently alter his views on life and literature. The then-wannabe-writer’s initial journey from St. Louis was made in response to having read the epic 1933 tome Science And Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics by Alfred Korzybski. This was a General Semantics (a field invented by Korzybski, and totally different than semantics) book that posited an end to Aristotelian blacknwhite either/or thinking, i.e. if a thing is not one thing it must be another, ignoring possible multiplicities of meaning. This way of thinking, according to Korzybski, dangerously simplified thought and linguistic expression, building structural flaws into word-representation of, well, pretty much everything

Korzybski, a bald dapper multilingual Pole of aristocratic stock from a family who had been mathematicians, scientists and engineers for generations, gave lectures in General Semantics to the public. He started every lecture by pounding on a table and saying “Whatever this is, it is not a table!” This was not a comment on the Ikea-like quality of late-30s mass-produced American furniture compared to sturdy Eastern European-manufactured craftsmanship. Rather, what the aristo cat was trying to get across was that a word is not actually the object it represents, but something quite different: “the map is not the territory,” as he put it in a smart cartographic aphorism. He also said that “you think as much with your big toe as with your brain,” but that doesn’t much help leg amputees.

Eager to be disabused of any outdated notions he had about dining furnishings, Burroughs traveled to Chicago to hear 35 hours of General Semantics seminars, paying $40 (worth around $1300 unskilled wage today, so it was no cheap thing). He stayed in room 371 of the YMCA and was among a class of 38 eager young eggheads who attended the lectures in the autumn of 1939. 

El Hombre Invisible’s application form / passport to exciting unknown word-worlds for the Korzybski event, reproduced here for the first time anywhere, shows that he listed his occupation as “student,” that he became interested in the subject matter through reading Science And Sanity, and that he is “interested in the interrelations of language and cultures.” What it does not show is that Burroughs edited his marital status to “single,” conveniently neglecting to mention his sham marriage-of-Nazi-inconvenience in Athens to the German Jew Ilse Klapper in July 1937, to help her escape extermination and come to America.

A net search of some of the more unusual names of Burroughs’ classmates on the roll-call sheet, again shown here for the first time on the net, throws up some interesting characters:

Ralph Moriarty deBit became a Gnosis teacher, was taught “Ageless Wisdom” and was renamed “Vitvan” (Sanskrit for “one who knows”) to aid him credibility-wise in his guru guise; after all, would you want to be taught the Timeless Secrets of Life by somebody named Ralph?

Samuel I Hayakawa was an English professor and politician elected to the Senate in 1976. There he also founded US English, the political lobbying group who want to make English the US official language. Burroughs would probably have not been particularly appreciative of this sort of attempt at linguistic colonization.

Wendell A Johnson (an ironic use of an iconic Burroughs-used name, for reasons that will become apparent in later years) messed up the lives of 22 orphan children in Iowa in 1939 by conducting the so-called Monster Study. This was an experimental speech pathology program where Johnson and a grad student of his taught the unfortunate children to stutter through negative speech therapy. Guess he hadn’t quite gotten the hang of the “cure not cause” aspect of speech pathology at that point. Or maybe he was trying to keep himself in business.

You get the general idea. Burroughs’ fellow students show a high degree of linguistic ability and intelligence in general; many of them went on to become teachers and politicians and so forth. A great group photograph from the seminar shows the unsmiling Burroughs (front row, second from right) sitting moody and broody in a Tom Wolfe-like white suit.

1939 Class Including William Burroughs at Institute of General Semantics
1939 Class Including William Burroughs at Institute of General Semantics

The Institute for General Semantics opened in Chicago in May 1938 at 1330 E. 56th Street. For three years before that, Korzybski had been giving lectures at colleges round the country. A year after opening, the Institute moved one block west to 1234 E. 56th Street. In a strange deranged controversy described by General Semantics expert Steve Stockdale, a critic of Korzybski claimed that the man was actually a covert numerologist and implied that the Count(er) had had the number of the building changed to get a “magical” 6-consecutive-number address. The magical-thinking Burroughs would surely have appreciated the possibility.

Though the seminar notes indicate that Burroughs was quiet and kept to himself, his attendance at Korzybski’s lectures was perfect. Certainly General Semantics cast a spell over him that would last from 1939 right up until his death nearly (12345) 6 decades later. As Burroughs wrote in an entry in Last Words dated February 1, 1997:

Many come under the primal law of the physical plane: duality. 

White or black. Good or evil.

That is — as Korzybski, founder of General Semantics, pointed out — “either/or thinking.” Instead of “both/and” –

But what exactly was it about General Semantics that appealed to the young Burroughs, invading and taking over his fevered fertile mind? Well, as has long been noted, the man was, in part, out to try and combat the proto-spin-doctor media (inhu)manipulating of his uncle Ivy Lee, the father of the modern public relations campaign and PR man for Hitler in America in the 1930s. With that poison-ivy itch to scratch, the embryonic scribe would be looking for all the ammunition he could find to “sever word-lines” and break down psychological control mechanisms, striking out at his uncle’s media-machine-masturbating machinations. 

William S. Burroughs, 1939 Photo from Application to Institute of General Semantics

Burroughs probably gravitated towards Korzybski as a left-of-field challenging word-rebel, some parts (more specifically the non-Aristotelian meaning-concept) of Science And Sanity reverberating and resonating with nascent thoughts and theories of his own. Also, for someone who was not, umm, entirely rooted in reality, unmooring words from their consensus meanings and scattering their sense to the senseless communication winds would have been a liberating thing. Studying with Korzybski would have given scientific credibility to some of his personal flights of outlandish word-fancy, in both his own eyes and those of his eyebrow-raising confused parents. Also, he probably figured that Harvard had told him how to study words and what they were — now he could un-study them (kicking against the know-nothing know-it-all staid college pricks) and what they supposedly were to raise and open new word-vistas to him. 

Burroughs’ first Windy City trip also brought prescient flashes of another worldview-shaping encounter. As he put it in the February 1985 introduction to Queer:

In 1939, I became interested in Egyptian hieroglyphics and went out to see someone in the Department of Egyptology at the University of Chicago. And something was screaming in my ear: “YOU DONT BELONG HERE!” Yes, the hieroglyphics provided one key to the mechanism of possession. Like a virus, the possessing entity must find a port of entry.

This occasion was my first clear indication of something in my being that was not me, and not under my control.

Putting aside the fact that the voice Burroughs heard might have been a campus security guard warning off a non-student, what the beleaguered man is talking about here is the Ugly Spirit, the evil entity that he believed possessed him and made him kill his wife Joan in Mexico on September 6th, 1951. Forty-six years later he was imposing a retrospective understanding of his feelings on first visiting the University of Chicago, a mere couple of blocks from the Institute of General Semantics, trying to figure out where it all started to go wrong and the life-rot started to set in, thinking that the spirit was pushing him away from some key to exorcising it before he even knew it “existed.”

I wonder if anybody who wants to destroy past methods of art and communication has a vested interest in avoiding thinking about the past, and in believing it can be superseded or even destroyed. But Burroughs was only (sort of) fooling himself, and lying about his pre-ballistics-accident artistic status, because in 1940 he apparently sent a paper he had written to Alfred Korzybski for perusal. This shows he was trying his hand at writing long before any supposed Ugly Spirit “pushed” him to it; indeed, he already had invented his signature character Dr. Benway in the short 1938 collaboration “Twilight’s Last Gleamings” with his friend Kells Elvins. Whatever he sent Korzybski (”Gleamings?”) remains tantalizingly unavailable, but a still-in-existence letter to Korzybski (which I have not been able to see but which resides in files of the Institute for General Semantics) includes a note by the Count calling Burroughs “tragically disturbed” and noting that he recommended the errant pupil attend another seminar. 

Having just had his pre-Chicago worldview decimated by General Semantics, Burroughs traveled back to New York to study anthropology at Columbia University, where he had already taken psychology courses (probably in an attempt to sort out his screwed-up head), the eternal student trying to find his life-niche — or sensibly avoid working for as long as possible. Here he met Jack Anderson, the man who had the dubious honor of inspiring the unstable writer-to-be to cut off the tip of his finger. As noted in Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw, Anderson was uneducated and would sneer “Is that what Count Korzybski says?” when Burroughs would bring up some high-falutin’ intellectual theory that interested or obsessed him.

Special thanks to Steve Stockdale and Bruce Kodish for their sterling research help, and to Dr. Lance Strate, the Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics for generous permission to reproduce the 1939 Korzybski / Burroughs illustrative materials presented here.

Graham Rae will be giving a talk at the Institute for General Semantics’ annual conference titled “General Semantics Meets Experimental Literature: The Lifelong Effect of Alfred Korzybski on William S. Burroughs.” The talk, which draws on his General Semantics article for nakedlunch.org, will take place on 11 September 2009, 9:30 AM, at Leon Lowenstein Hall, 113 West 60th Street in New York. For more details, see the conference schedule.

(Text: Graham Rae)

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Comments Total: 2
Márcio Salerno
Feb 5 2014
9:13 am

Hi, I’m a brazilian journalist, writer and artist, extremely influenced by the literature of Bill Burroughs (his literature, not much else). Indeed, Korzybski’s work had a lot to do with the development of the cut-ups, although it was Brion Gysyn who drew first blood on that one. I’d like to know more about your work and studies on Burroughs, it might turn into a piece I could write for the newspaper I work in. I may not be in America, but both Korzybski and Burroughs are universal minds…

Graham Rae
Feb 5 2014
3:02 pm

Hi there Marcio. If you want you can contact me at: graham_rae@yahoo.com and I would be more than happy to talk to you. Thanks for your comment. Universal minds indeed.

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