38. Joseph Conrad – An Outcast of the Islands (1896)

Joseph Conrad was Burroughs’ favourite author. He references him throughout his life in conversation, letters, and quotations within his novels. A whole passage of Naked Lunch is lifted from Under Western Eyes and re-cast with Dr Benway.

In his final years, Burroughs’ bookshelves consisted of nothing but schlocky thrillers, books about UFOs and exorcisms, and the collected works of Joseph Conrad.

He also writes some of his best literary criticism in response to Conrad. An Outcast of the Islands in particular appears both in The Adding Machine and in his Naropa lectures. It’s second only to Lord Jim in the amount of time he dedicates to celebrating and analysing it.

Which is interesting as, compared with Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, Burroughs considered An Outcast of the Islands to be “light reading”, a sort of “boy’s own adventure story”.

In the final chapter of The Adding Machine, we see Aubrey Carsons preparing for blast-off. He’s packed some light reading to keep him entertained in space. Outcast is foremost among these books.

It’s themes, as Burroughs lays out, match up with his own idiosyncratic view of space travel.

Firstly, that human beings, away from Earth, would have to encounter things directly. Almayer is his key example here. Still pinned down by the thrift that drove him to the distant trading post in the first place, Almayer is nevertheless “an advanced master of deep meditation”.

Burroughs cites a passage where Almayer’s deep brooding makes him as still, as ego-less and absolutely focused as a corpse. “Although Almayer hates the river and the jungle they touch him more directly than they touch [the one-eyed tribesman] Babalatchi who is encased in his ritualised perceptions”.

The Malays and Arabs are “stylised recordings”; so says Captain Lingard, according to Burroughs. He knows that they are stuck in their environment. The Westerners, like Earthlings on another planet, find their own “recordings” loosening and detaching; the environment that gave them their culture had been left behind and so new perceptions are possible.

This is where the second part of Burroughs’ theories comes in. Burroughs believed women must be “abolished” if humanity were to evolve to become space creatures. He seems to have picked this up from Brion Gysin, though he often quotes another Conrad book, Victory, when explaining his idea: “women are a perfect curse”.

I’ve yet to read Victory, but An Outcast of the Islands certainly makes a case for the old naval tradition of “no women allowed below decks”.

The action of the novel concerns the titular “outcast” Willems who, by his pride, is tricked into marrying the daughter of his first ship’s Captain. After being humiliated by her, he retreats to Captain Lingard’s distant trading post, run by Almayer. Almayer proceeds to alienate him enough that he finds solace with the natives; specifically, Babalatchi’s daughter Aissa.

When I read the book, I felt only that Willems was somewhat weak and pathetic. A man whose immersion in the male world of braggadocio, trade, and colonial status, left him open to falling foolishly in love… or at least lust. The affair, needless to say, results in his death.

Burroughs, however, is hip to Conrad’s buried mythologies. Babalatchi points out that just as the white man enslaves the Malays with his weaponry, so he is enslaved by his passions. These passions, as Burroughs points out, are encoded in Western mythographies.

Willems never seems to be truly in love. With Aissa, he only suffers and sulks. He is living out his programming. He has “brought with him all the gloomy Nordic myths”: the White Goddess, the Love Death, “the Earth Mother who hangs her naked consort at the Spring Festival”. “He does not know”, Burroughs tells us, “that he is The Goat God who meets Crazy Aissa by the stream”; and it is this unknowing – the unconscious compulsion to act out our culture’s stories, our programming – that drives Willems inevitably on towards his doom.

Almayer, also unconsciously, is sickened by Willems as the Greeks were sickened by Odysseus’ men as they are controlled by Circe. He trains his daughter to cry after Willems: “Pig! Pig! Pig!”

Aissa, he generously admits, has no idea why Willems is acting the way that he acts. She wanted only a strong man to protect her, as is the way of her people. His baffling sulks are a Western sickness.

We might read Burroughs’ anti-women stance along these lines; as a response to Europe’s programming. Perhaps Babalatchi would be capable of space travel alongside women, not having culturally envisioned his own doom in a female form. But Babalatchi, as Burroughs has made clear, has his own intentions. Their lack of sophistication makes him quite transparent.

One can never stay mad at the tricks and lies of natives, Conrad often tells us, because they are practiced with such an obvious lack of finesse that to have not seen through them is more the Westerner’s fault than the natives. They have nothing on the Westerner’s practiced deception.

Space, in Burroughs’ world, is akin to the nineteenth century sea. A sea, Lingard regrets, has already been “tamed” by steam. And yet, the old promise is still there: “there’s only one place for an honest man. The sea, my boy, the sea!”

The sea is a place where men are men, where “money belongs to him who picks it up and is strong enough to keep it,” and where all men agree: “women are bad, aint they!”

Willems, who is far from a sympathetic protagonist, being lazy, crooked, uncaring and racist, is nevertheless suckered in an “used as a tool” by the “miserable savages” that, until meeting Aissa (and arguably even afterwards) he despises.

Conrad’s world is a brutally honest one. One that’s joyless and hopeless, but at least tolerates no romance. There are to be no chivalrous sailors in his books; not after a real life spent at sea.

By giving Aubrey An Outcast of the Islands to read, Burroughs is preparing him for a trip away from the stagnant, grasping domestic myths of Earth. He is reminding him of the doom that awaits travellers who carry their spiritual baggage along with them. As he writes elsewhere: “a man who prays in space has not really been there.”

Space is a direct encounter with total liberation. An opportunity for total deprogramming. Suitably, as the ship lifts off, Aubrey sets down his Conrad and begins a pornographic sci-fi fantasy about “Dart Boys”; wild boys in space.

Arguably, the fact that Burroughs’ imagined liberation always takes the same form – wild boys – suggests something about his own programming… but that’s a matter in need of more thought.