26. J.W. Dunne – An Experiment with Time (1927)

Burroughs has some very unusual opinions about time. He believed it to exist in a pre-recorded state, with our experience of it in the present existing only in the same way as sound exists on a tape that’s being played. The whole tape, forward and backward, has already been recorded. We are just playback.

His two-decade-long obsession with cut-ups is essentially an attempt to break out of this predetermined existence. Recording the world – whether through tapes or words – and then cutting up the recordings and reording them gave glimpses, he believed, into alternative “time tracks”, the past and the future.

Writing, as he describes in The Job, is a time machine.

With the centrality of these ideas in mind, and considering the vast amount of critical attention that has been paid to the cut-ups, I am surprised that a more extensive analysis of Dunne’s book has never (from what I’ve read) been undertaken.

J.W. Dunne is the creator of “Serialism”. This is the model of time to which Burroughs subscribes. The connection has been noted many times, but critics then normally go on to point out, for instance, that writers like Vonnegut, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Wells and Nabokov were all inspired by the idea, or that Burroughs’ own view of it is filtered through Scientology.

These are all true. To the Scientology point, we might even add Korzybski, Laing and Reich as contributors to Burroughs’ own Serialist model.

But going back to Dunne and reading his original work, it is clear that the basic model not only for Burroughs’ notions of time, but also for the cut-ups, magical association and other “time travel” techniques, can all be found directly within this book.

The first half is devoted to Dunne’s “discovery” of prescient dreaming. He would dream about a dark horse and three weeks later be chased by one through a field. He dreamt he needed to wind his watch and work to find that it had only just stopped. At one point he predicts a plane crash (something Burroughs goes on to lift for his story “23 Skidoo”).

Dunne’s conclusion is classically pseudoscientific (in the model that most attracted Burroughs), in that he uses the empirical method and sets up experiments, but instead of publishing them to be discussed by peers, he instead constructs his own theory and attributes to it world-changing potential.

In this case, the notion of Serialism. That time is pre-recorded and moves down tracks. Coming out in 1927, he is publishing in the first flourishing of relativity theory and so can get away with a lot of speculation; and he leans on the uncertainty of scientists throughout the book.

That Burroughs took this idea to heart is to be expected. Dunne, after all, suggests that if we were to learn how to use prescient dreams properly we might be able to become immortal. Dunne continues this speculation at book length in The New Immortality (1938).

What I did not expect, is the extent to which Dunne’s terms underwrite all of Burroughs’ cut-up works.

Burroughs talks of “time tracks”. This is attributed to Hubbard, who considers there to be a “deep track” along which the reincarnated Thetan soul moves through lives.

Both, however, no doubt took the idea from Dunne’s description of a “memory train”.

Dunne’s memory train is the subjective “I” that exists in the present. During dreaming (and also hallucinating, daydreaming, loose associating, and under hypnotism) the mind floats can sometimes “recall” images into the “memory train” from further ahead on the track. Remembering the future, essentially.

Burroughs’ cut-up trilogy contains two train-related titles: The Ticket that Exploded and Nova Express. That “Nova” stands for a multidimensional experience of the universe (see the Dion Fortune blog post for more on that), Nova Express can be read as a direct synonym for “memory train”.

Dunne is also responsible for Burroughs and Gysins’ joint statement in The Third Mind that “everything is a cut-up”, because we don’t read in a linear fashion, nor do we only read while we’re reading but also experience everything happening around us too. A similar description occurs in An Experiment With Time in the section “Temporal Endurance and Flow”.

Next to that description is a metaphor, called on to help readers visualise Serialism in practice:

“[We can] symbolise this general conception of Time in several ways; most exhaustively, perhaps, in sheets of piano music. In these, the dimension running up-and-down the page represented Space, and intervals measured that way represented distances along the instrument’s keyboard; while the dimension running across the page from side to side represented the Time length, and intervals measured that way indicated the durations of the notes and of the pauses between them.”

Dunne’s extended metaphor of sheet music is fundamentally the same as Burroughs’ symbolic use of the tape player. Burroughs has improved the metaphor somewhat (or at least made it more rigidly deterministic) by removing the free element involved in a person having to actually play the music. For Burroughs, the music can be played by a machine. No free will necessary.

Ultimately, I would say that these two extended metaphors are, however, essentially the same.

Then, in a section describing numerous “experiments”, Dunne asserts “some limited value” in the old practice of bibliomancy: opening a book at random and reading a randomly selected line from the page. Sometimes, he asserts, one reads a line that prefigures events in the future.

Burroughs recounts dozens upon dozens of these occurrences, and his tendency to cut-up classic works or books he likes is explained in relation to this practice recommended by Dunne.

Finally, there are the existence of transdimensional beings: in this case, a “fourth dimensional” observer that Dunne proposes entirely theoretically. He uses the concept to suggest that if one were a fourth dimensional creature than one could see the memory train tracks stretching from past to future.

For Dunne these creatures don’t exist. They are just another metaphor. For Burroughs, these his demons, Evil Spirits, and the Nova Police. Vonnegut takes the idea even further with his alien Tralfamadorians.

On the final page of the book, Dunne holds the door open for future Serialist research potentially clearing the way for immortality, telepathy and super-human self-consciousness.

The stage here is set for the Korzybski > Laing > Reich > Hubbard > Burroughs evolution of ideas. Each builds on the next, alters their ideas and introduces their own models. Ultimately, however, we must locate the root in Dunne.

Further research might potentially tie these ideas back to theological concepts. Methodist “Christian Perfection” is clearly at work in the Dunne’s promises, and the Calvin is the obvious person to whom predestination might be traced back to. Burroughs’ conflicted relationship with his preacher uncle – called at times a Methodist and at others a Calvinist – can be looked into further here.

The Ishmaeli model of time, described by Andrew Gibson as “intermittency”, might also provide a useful trajectory to follow here; the Old Man of the Mountain having inaugurated a line of imams for his people, each of whom represents a new creation and apocalypse.

The time of the assassins was not so much written on memory trains or time tracks as it was encoded in the essence of the imam’s being, but for Burroughs at his most nihilistic, links could no doubt be found here between Serialism, Hassan I Sabbah, and his motto that “nothing is true and everything is permitted”.

If time is prewritten, as James Hogg showed in Confessions of a Justified Sinner, then one could do anything – any crime, any immorality – as you could neither be blamed for it, nor punished, nor could you ever have done differently.

Plenty to be looked into here anyway. Expect a whole chapter on Burroughs, Dunne and time!