49. John Yerbury Dent – Reactions of the Human Machine (1936)

This book came to me directly from the author’s grandson, Warwick Sweeney, who is an excellent author in his own right. The pertinence of Dent’s work to my current project was brought home by Sweeney’s book Hardy Tree, which uses fiction to flesh out the many ways in which Dent and his ideas impacted Burroughs, and the crucial role Dent played in saving Burroughs’ life.

Reader of Burroughs will no doubt be familiar with his evangelism for “the apomorphine cure”. This was the cure practiced by Dent (subsequently ignored, despite great success) and which Burroughs took, bringing to an end a near-terminal addiction period and inaugurating the writing of Naked Lunch.

New connections introduced to me by Sweeney’s study of Dent’s work include the reference to Dent’s The Human Machine in the title of Burroughs’ The Soft Machine, the idea of a language as environment, in an evolutionary sense, that Burroughs took from Dent long before McLuhan made his extended studies of it, and the introduction to Burroughs of a psychological view of the world that Dent would call “mechnicism” and would now be called “radical behaviourism”.

It’s in the last of these that, for me, the most important and enduring impacts of Dent’s influence are felt on Burroughs’ writings.

Prior to taking the apomorphine cure, Burroughs fell in and out of love with Freud, then with Reich (who remains an influence, but only “as a scientist” not as a psychoanalyst), and, in between these, with hypnotherapy. (Dent, notably, is a practitioner of hypnotherapy at the time of writing Reactions, although he appears to drop this later on).

After Dent, Burroughs’ psychological reading/exploration takes a notable turn for the mechanistic/biologistic. He cites B.F. Skinner and Loeb, recommends Delgado’s Physical Control of the Mind, uses the behaviourist methods of Herbert Brean to quit smoking and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich as a manual for increasing his productivity.

His paranoid belief in a system of thought control via word-images, eventually flowering into great literature after ten years of cut-ups, is foreshadowed by Dent’s many references here to:

“the impact of words upon us; today much more is read and much more is heard that even before, but our defences against hurtful suggestions have not kept pace with the rapid growth of this new environment.”

“Ninety percent of our responses are responses to words,” he writes later in the book.

Dent recalls a prankster who kept yelling “present arms!” to soldier on parade, who at first presented arms then, after two more false presentations, proceeded to the ignore their actual sergeant major when he gave the order to present.

All this needs is Burroughs to add the tape recorder element and we have the sonic warfare methodology that he proposes in The Revised Boy Scouts Manual and The Electronic Revolution, and also that he practiced in real life.

In a very powerful early section when Dent gives a potted history of living creatures (the better to explain the impact of conditioning on biological structures) there is introduced a definition of life as “objectively” consisting of “reaction of protoplasm to its environment”. Later sections expand this theory of the protoplasm.

Dent’s protoplasmic theory is, I believe, a key to understanding Burroughs jump from Reichian to Scientologist. The bit of Reich that Burroughs hoped to save – the “scientist” (although there was nothing truly scientific about Reich’s later work) – was obsessed with T-cells and orgone. Dianetics defines engrams as early (sometimes pre-birth) traumas that condition the human organism and so need to be removed in a behaviouralists manner (“running” them).

The missing link here (and also between the manifold “auras” and “colour fields” that connect Burroughs work to theological and spiritualist thought) is the idea of protoplasm. A pre-biological syrup that exists in all life – in human’s in the form of the nervous system – and upon which conditioning acts.

From this perspective, a typically Burroughsian loose association of ideas, his militant embrace of Scientology is a sort of recurrence of his apomorphine cure. It’s perhaps due to this internal logic, a clear conceptual progression from one idea to another, that kept Burroughs infatuated for so long by the cult.

Notably, we also find in Dent passing references to radiation as a means of creating positive mutations. He even suggests that the testicles potentially descended from the body so as to gather more X-rays from the sun and accelerate our mutation as a species.

Burroughs’ belief that rapid mutation would allow us to evolve in preparation for space travel seems to have many origin points, but its implication here in Dent further consolidates Dent’s key role as an inspiration point.

We can also find in Dent’s book a condemnation of the Church as using hypnotic suggestion to control its worshippers (priests intentionally giving boring lectures so to lull the congregation into a state of semi-consciousness). It’s tempting to think of Burroughs’ theories about Mayan priests using their calendar for mind control, although these have their origins in earlier years.

This is one of the recurring considerations that I’ve had while reading Dent’s book. It overlaps with Burroughs’ own ideas in surprising ways. Dent is an intuitive thinker and his book is highly digressive (he references Sterne twice, suggesting the digressions are intentional). He nevertheless remains a scientist, and so even his strangest sounding theories are based on the empirical analyses that were available to him at the time.

Burroughs has no such qualms about empiricism. He moves quite fluidly between scientific, pseudoscientific, and pure crank writers, taking what he likes from each of them. We might then assume that, in encountering Dent’s work, Burroughs was both attracted by what he already recognised in it as his own ideas calling out to him and influenced by it to take his own ideas in new directions.

I am convinced that, with a little judicious editing, a collection of Dent’s Selected Works would open up a range of new vistas for researches studying both Burroughs and the wider networks of which he was a part. The hard science is dated now, but many of the concepts remain fresh and intriguing.

I’m also convinced that I now need to track down more of Dent’s work – particularly Anxiety and its Treatment – in order to get a clearer sense of the doctor’s own development.

On a poetic level, I feel like Dent is the thinker who opens the final door for Burroughs that lets him see the world in that typically Burroughsian fashion. He is not, after all, a metaphysical writer. He is not like Ginsberg or Kerouac or the others. He is explicitly concerned with the Word, with language, with characters and concepts as physical entities with direct impacts upon living human processes.

To make the critical shift from his earlier, sub-Kerouac blend of underworld characters and crank philosophy to his later work that is as important for what it implies about language as for what it actually says, requires this essential shift in his thinking from one of Freudian/mystical “forces” to a hard, biologically-grounded materialism.

Ironically, his theology can only work after it has been categorised as a word-construction. The notion that there might be transcendent Blakean worlds residing beyond language is entirely incompatible with Burroughs’ mature theory, for which the point is to evolve and mutate language as a critical part of the evolutionary mutation of humanity. There is no escape from Control.

Dent is the pivot around which Burroughs moves.