William S Burroughs
Ghost of Chance is a short fictional work that surveys many of the ideas that Beat writer William S Burroughs was working with through the 1980s (and also through much of his career). The core idea of Burroughs work from this era was to bring figures from outlaw history into his literary concerns of drugs, disease, language and authority. Ghost of Chance returns to Burroughs exploration of the terrain of pirate utopias (c.f. Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes by Peter Lamborn Wilson) the he first traversed in his 1981 novel Cities of the Red Night, with legendary Captain Mission returning as a primarily character in this novella.
The only textual account of Captain Mission is from A General History of the Pyrates, a 1724 book by Daniel DeFoe that essentially serves as a reference guide to the golden age of pirates. According to DeFoe, via Burroughs’ afterword, Mission was one of the first pirates to establish a short-lived libertarian community. In Ghost of Chance, Mission appears as a leader of his community, and as a man who communes with the indigenous population (and their customs) and with the animal population as well. He cares greatly for the lemurs of Madagascar (where his community had settled) and keeps one that he called Ghost as a pet.
The Captain Mission narrative eventually dissolves into Burroughs ruminations on Christ and a surrealist vision of bizarre disease (referred to as ‘the hairs’ in the text, a disease where hair-like organisms consume a host-body and spread to other hosts by contact), as well as devastation and incompetent authority in the contemporary period. In some ways this book is a short glimpse into the things that concerned Burroughs around the time of writing, including a turn towards a fondness for animals that continued until the author’s death, and an interest in the environment. The Captain Mission character is a central site for the interrelated spheres of Western anarchism, indigenous life, and the natural environment. Mission is an embodiment of some of Murray Bookchin’s ideas of social ecology, and members of his community are expected to show respect to plant and animal life as they show respect to their fellow pirates. The pirate captain represents the opposite of the European colonists who overrun and destroy Madagascar and its natural environment, which sets a pattern of force meeting counter-force that carries through the short book.
This book may also be a tribute to Burroughs close friend, Bryon Gysin, who died in 1986, a few years before this volume’s publication. Burroughs and Gysin developed a number of ideas together (the cut-up, the dreammachine) that were intended to break down our perceptions of reality and by extension its apparatus of control. Captain Mission was an experimenter of breaking down control systems via new forms of political and social organization. Gysin, in collaboration with Burroughs, was an experimenter of breaking down control systems via new forms of language and sensory perception. Burroughs makes a number of references to insights Gysin had through his text. Furthermore the book is rife with black-and-white representations of uncredited abstract paintings of the kind Gysin (a painter who was, at one time, a member of the Surrealists) produced.
|abstract calligraphic work by Bryon Gysin|