23. St-John Perse – Anabasis (1924)
It’s through reading “French books” that the young William Burroughs, outcast at Los Alamos Ranch School, finds himself an identity as an aesthete, if not exactly as a writer himself.
So far we’ve touched on Rimbaud in this blog. I’ve already read Baudelaire and Mallarme pretty thoroughly and I’m currently working my way through Verlaine. St-John Perse, however, was a new name for me.
Burroughs tends to group Perse alongside the nineteenth century French decadents, but he’s far more of a modernist. It’s likely, in fact, that Burroughs read Anabasis first in its 1938 English translation by T.S. Eliot (the same version I’ve read here).
So why does he group them together? Well, perhaps because he’s finding the same pleasure in it. The mystic orient, tyrannous despots, strange intoxications, blood and sex and indifference to life; all of these mark the excesses of decadent poetry and are also in abundance here.
It’s title, which suggests Xenophon’s Greek armies marching through Persia, is more suggestive than descriptive. Instead, the journey through the East here is undertaken by a Godlike eye. We see an empire rising and falling. Wars, exoduses, and strange encounters among the sands.
It’s written in a prose-poem style, perhaps inspired by Rimbaud’s Season in Hell, but here there is no first person narrator; only description, and epic description at that.
We begin in the desert:
“Seers of signs and seeds, and confessors of the western winds, followers of trails and of seasons, breakers of camp in the little dawn wind, seekers of watercourses over the wrinkled rind of the world, O seekers, O finders of reasons to be up and gone.”
From here the impatient horde moves into the promised land and builds their city. All of this is non-specific, and as much as we are left with a flavour of the Orient, Perse only hints at whether these e Egyptians, Hebrews, Arabs, Persians or some other ancient people now forgotten.
“Tomorrow the festivals and tumults, the avenues planted with plodded trees, and the dustmen at dawn bearing away huge pieces of dead palmtrees, fragments of giant wings… Tomorrow the festivals”
Perse knows his way around a suggestive line. Just as you think the poem is reverting to a standard set of epic tropes he throws in unexpected figures – “dustmen at dawn” – and hints of the mystical – “fragments of giant wings”.
Like Shelley before him, with Ozymandias’s foot, Perse clearly knows that a fragment of a thing is far more interesting than the thing itself.
So there is something of a pivot point here. A path for the teenage Burroughs to venture out from the adventure stories of his childhood and into the high modernism that was considered the true literature of this time. Anabasis serves a clear developmental function here. A spur to further reading.
But it’s also got sections more clearly foreshadowing of Burroughs later styles. The tenth section opens with a curiously Burroughsian figure – a behatted man staring out into eternity – before descending into descriptions redolent of his interzone mise en scene:
“Select a wide hat with the brim seduced. The eye withdraws by a century into the provinces of the soul. Through the gate of living chalk we see the things of the plain: living things,
Sacrifice of colts on the tombs of children, purification of widows among the roses and consignments of green birds in the courtyards to do honour to the old men[…]”
Whether Burroughs re-read this book during his Tangiers years I don’t know. It clearly made a big impression on him, enough to last, but I can’t help but suspect it’s only by a close attentiveness to the specifics of Perse’s descriptions that one could really, properly learn from his style.
It’s a style, after all, that feels eternal. Old Testament, Romantic Orientalism, Miltonic; epics of every degree both religious and military. His genius lies in the introduction of new and unsettling imagery in such a way that one barely notices; there is no slip in the register.
The “living chalk” of a gateway could be any Romantic. To “see the things of the plain” sounds like a common undertaking for a Moses or an Elijah. It’s only in Perse where we might view all this from beneath a wide-brimmed hat.
In the final sections, we are hit with a cavalcade of humanity. From sparse pages, touched lightly with strong imagery, as if carved on stone, we are now overwhelmed by writing; the pages filled from corner to corner with description, like Greek script packed tight on papyrus.
“ha! all conditions of men in their ways and manners; eaters of insects, of water fruits; those who bear poultices, those who bear riches; the husbandman, and the young noble horsed; the healer with needles, and the salter; the toll-gatherer, the smith; vendors or sugar, of cinnamon, of white metal drinking cups and of lanthorns; he who fashions a leather tunic, wooden shoes and olive-shaped buttons; he who dresses a field; and the man of no trade: the man with the falcon, the man with the flute, the man with bees; he who has delight in the pitch of his voice, he who makes it his business to contemplate the green stone[…]”
This carries on for a number of pages.
There are two things to note here. The first ties back to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, from translations of which Eliot seems to have borrowed the “he who” invocation (he who does this, he who does that…). Burroughs too borrows this.
The second is more of a stretch but relates to the cut-up works of the 1960s. These too are laid out at imposing walls of text. They are also made up of small fragments of description, highly suggestive but both grammatically and semantically incomplete. There is much in them, in fact, suggestive of these final pages of Anabasis.
Having only the later trilogy (Soft Machine, Ticket that Exploded, Nova Express) to hand, I can see Burroughs tends to use dashes when he’s not using standard punctuation. When I have full access to my library, however, I must return to the early trilogy (Minutes to Go, Exterminator, Battle Instructions) to see what grammar they utilise.
If I don’t find semicolons in there, perhaps it’s time to turn to the archives.
Having found so much of Burroughs’ reading that leads him to his final mystical trilogy, it would be excellent to track down more stylistic inspirations for the cut-ups. Because the cut-ups use other texts, critics have been quick to work out which and then analyse how Burroughs “subverts” them.
To find a stylistic influence on the cut-ups would be a different thing, however. It would be to understand part of the machine, instead of just the material that’s fed through it.
Either way, Anabasis is clearly a crucial reference point for Burroughs both developmentally and for his own epic, orientalist and mystical writing. His own avant garde style owes far more to a couple of passaged from St-John Perse than perhaps the whole oeuvres of his reported favourite writers and colleagues.