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William Burroughs: Preface to The Atrocity Exhibition

Author: • Jul 9th, 2005 •

Category: archival, celebrity culture, psychopathology, sexual politics, speed & violence, suicide, visual art, William Burroughs

by William Burroughs (1970)

The Atrocity Exhibition is a profound and disquieting book. The nonsexual roots of sexuality are explored with a surgeon’s precision. An auto-crash can be more more sexually stimulating than a pornographic picture. (Surveys indicate that wet dreams in many cases have no overt sexual content, whereas dreams with an overt sexual content in many cases do not result in orgasm). The book opens: ‘A disquieting feature of this annual exhibition … was the marked preoccupation of the paintings with the theme of world cataclysm, as if these long-incarcerated patients had sensed some seismic upheaval within the minds of their doctors and nurses’.

The line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down. Earthquakes can result from seismic upheavals within the human mind. The whole random universe of the industrial age is breaking down into cryptic fragments: ‘In a waste lot of wrecked cars he found the burnt body of the white Pontiac, the nasal prepuce of LBJ, crashed helicopters, Eichmann in drag, a dead child …’ The human body becomes landscape: ‘A hundred-foot-long panel that seemed to represent a section of sand dune … looking at it more closely Doctor Nathan realized that it was an immensely magnified portion of the skin over the iliac crest …’ This magnification of image to the point where it becomes unrecognizable is a keynote of The Atrocity Exhibition. This is what Bob Rauschenberg is doing in art — literally blowing up the image. Since people are made of image, this is literally an expensive book. The human image explodes into rocks and stones and trees: ‘The porous rock towers of Tenerife exposed the first spinal landscape … clinker-like rock towers suspended above the silent swamp. In the mirror of this swamp there are no reflections. Time makes no concessions’.

Sexual arousal results from the repetition and impact of image: ‘Each afternoon in the deserted cinema: the latent sexual content of automobile crashes … James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus … Many volunteers became convinced that the fatalities were still living and later used one or the other of the crash victims as a private focus of arousal during intercourse with the domestic partner’.

James Dean kept a hangman’s noose dangling in his living room and put it around his neck to pose for news pictures. A painter named Milton, who painted a sexy picture entitled ‘The Death of James Dean’, subsequently committed suicide. This book stirs sexual depths untouched by the hardest-core illustrated porn. ‘What will follow is the psychopathology of sex relationships so lunar and abstract that people will become mere extensions of the geometries of situations. This will allow the exploration without any trace of guilt of every aspect of sexual psychopathology’.

Immensely magnified portion of James Dean subsequently committed suicide. Conception content relates to sexual depths of the hardest minds. Eichmann in drag in a waste lot of wrecked porous rock.

— William Burroughs, preface to The Atrocity Exhibition, 1970

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2 Responses »

  1. Actually the painter’s name isn’t “Milton”, it’s “Minton”, “John Minton”. I went searching all over the internet and discovered there was no painting about the death of james dean by a milton. Minton. FYI.

  2. well, that’s what burroughs wrote…and unfortunately he’s not around anymore to ask.

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