Mediamatic Magazine vol. 8#2/3 Paul Groot 1 Jan 1995

From Home to Home: the Escape Route

Come with me, take me home!
I have no home. Fix your typewriter.
If you fix your typewriter you'll have your home.


From Home to Home: the Escape Route - published in Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#2/3 (1995)

David cronenberg (Naked Lunch)

Analog hallucinations and digital faking, from a logged-out Burroughs to a plugged-in Nooteboom, from Interzone to Interzone.

When did the keyboard actually become an integral part of the computer? Is the combination as natural as it seems? In any case, the computer proves itself as a laptop to be a very handy typewriter that, besides being a daily source of pleasure, is also a source of intellectual and artistic enrichment.

David Cronenberg's stylistic, self-assured film version of William Burroughs' chaotic-looking novel Naked Lunch is the ultimate illustration of the personification of the typewriter: nightmares from the analog era, in which not even white-out holders can provide salvation with corrections and the fears of writer's block are projected into the mechanism of the machine. With neither the tricks of ASCIIs, ANSIs and UniCodes that provide the word processor with at least temporary escape routes, nor any of the simpler applications, the mass of keys, letters and other refined mechanisms that make up the weirdness of the typewriter, become the weapons of strange hallucinations. Typewriters have become blood-chilling, queerly shaped beetles, surrealistically charmed vehicles, iron junk closets, analog hardware suffering from mysterious metamorphoses. A writer no longer frees himself from his obsessions and inhibitions through the text. Nor does he look above and beyond the machine; he sees his fears come alive in typewriters.


The lack of a clear homosexuality tabu in the fictional city of Interzone (a city reminiscent of Tangiers) in the late forties and early fifties brings together a group of American writers, all of whom have come to assuage their emotional pain. Paul Bowles hides behind dandyish design, Alan Ginsburg rummages around, Jack Kerouac thinks there's something here for him to find, as does Burroughs, who complains that the juices in his glands began boiling over when he realized that the word homosexuality might have something to do with him. None of them has an escape route for their fear. They speak only in veiled terms. The truth of their damned lives only comes to light when they work at their (received-as-a-gift or simply stolen) typewriters. Their strained minds have projected all of their frustrations onto the typewriters, objects that they trade continually among themselves like Moroccan catamites and with which they continually probe the forbidden zones of the human body. Cronenberg venomously portrays these writers' well-thumbed desires. The shame devouring Burroughs and the others is visible in the masquerades of the typewriters surrounding them. His own machine is most at home as a speaking anus, but when Burroughs makes love with Jane, Paul Bowles' wife, his turns into a love machine. His fear of female sexuality turns it into a bloody instrument.

These typewriters are the over-obvious symbols of the objects of a forbidden sexuality. Kiki, one of the boy-objects of their desire, offers himself to Burroughs like an unexpected angel after a round of vulgar gluttony, whispering in his ear: Come with me, take me home! When Burroughs turns away (I have no home), Kiki tries to change his mind with a well-aimed plea: Fix your typewriter, if you fix the typewriter, you have your home. A night of sensual abandon follows, followed in its turn by a day filled with shame that can only be stifled by the sacrificial death of the boy. Burroughs turns Kiki over to a despised admirer, upon which a brutal sex act follows, a repulsive horror figuration in a sadistic sex machine.

This, then, is the way one films a period from the history of mechanical word processing that is gone forever. Writers are tortured by their typewriters and not they, but their machines need a fix. But in this shabby world of Burroughs and the other American Poets where Kafka of the overheated imagination has taken over, all that remains is dreary repair work. No more development is possible here between love and sex, mechanics and processing, tourism and travel, between all those juxtapositions that the old esthetics dealt in. Even the echo of the incredibly seductive voice of Kiki, seeming to represent real love, is followed by sinister vibrations: the fix needed by the typewriter will not be able to protect Burroughs' fixations from wear and tear, in the long run.

Interzone as the Americanized free trade zone that has especially been immortalized in novels by the sole old-fashioned writer of the group, Paul Bowles. Here, Burroughs and Bowles, Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsburg, all advocates of heavy drug usage for artistic ends of their own, attempt to entrust their fears and hallucinations to paper and to tame and pacify the typewriters. In vain: there is not even the hint of liberation in Interzone. These conservative (in spite of appearances to the opposite) writers are searching for artistic liberation in the wrong place. They are pre-occupied by their frustrations and keep the door well shut. That is true of Bowles, of Ginsburg and Burroughs; they have never wanted or been able to adapt their metaphors. Without their tormenting bonds, they would lose their artistic-psychological motivation. In Blam!, one of the most remarkable HyperCard CD-ROMs from 1993, Burroughs appears as a speaking anus - a role that his beetle typewriter likes greatly to play - still as the leading metaphor of a digital artistic program!


Thus, the liberation of the keyboard came from another source. It was Pound, Joyce and Borges, representatives of the European avant-garde, who liberated literature from the galling bonds of the typewriter. Long before the electronic keyboard had become reality, they were working on their extremely suitable, artistic avant-garde project. Without taking the least notice of possible mechanical limitations, they began to speak the language of the Gesammtkunstwerk. In the shadow of old Hollywood, of the narrative art of Dickens, of the cabalistic alchemy of rabbi Loew, of the poetry of Mallarmé (Un coup des dés), of the acrobatic figure of Baron van Munchhausen who continually succeeds in pulling himself out of the bog by his own hair, the old alchemical dream took form.

They understood better than the inhabitants of Interzone: for liberation, which first must necessarily mean liberation from the keyboard, you don't need theunheimlichkeitof a Heidegger. More useful is a simple application of the ANSI code. Not theoretical or literary-philosophical considerations, but simple technical solutions free the keyboard. Separated from the analog world and from that terrible compulsive neurosis of Interzone, the keyboard can obtain a natural foundation of sound hitherto unheard of. It can now join with any grammar at all. While the inhabitants of Interzone are scared to death of a keyboard on which the galling qwerty arrangement can be changed arbitrarily to any other configuration, a new keyboard is being prepared. Additions like the Escape and Home key are necessary to unleash the artistic algorithms and the secret language of Bruno and Borges; a Home key that can be re-programmed to become an escape key, if necessary. The paradoxes and contradictions of the modernistic, analog world have been relieved from their post by a post-modern digital esthetics and liberated by a simple ANSI-encoding. From Interzone to InterZone.


Message "Press Esc-X to escape Home"
Sleep 100


Setkey -83 Play "Home" ;esc
Setkey -32 Play "Homedel" ;esc-x


on keyCodeFilter
if the key = HOME then
don't PassEvent
end if

end keyCodeFilter

The Interzone is the area where Herman Mussert, the narrator of Cees Nooteboom's The next story, falls asleep only to awaken (literally) in a hotel room in Lisbon. While he is certain that he went to bed yesterday in his own home in Amsterdam, he has already passed death on the way to a new existence. A hallucination of a feverish mind or an empty memory that is playing tricks on him? An extreme form of dementia or a profoundly conscious experience? Whatever the case, it's a text on its deathbed, like the narrator himself. This is a body that embodies an artistic and a genuine bodily death at once. An I-figure that is more than only a split personality, who literally consists of as many forms as there are sentences in this novella. But this 'I' is not simple to pin down, it changes and exchanges its form, is not easy to know (according to the first critic that waved the novella away with a bored yawn) refrains from committing itself (for those who see it as a contemporary document worthy of a Nobel prize). And for good measure: he has already had done with the fear of beetles. He sees a documentary about a sexton beetle, a beetle with the colors of a salamander (...) I saw a noble animal, ebony and copper. It looked like it had blazons on its shields. He sees no typewriters-gone-wild, but simply a science fiction beetle's head, magnified a hundred times (...) vomiting green stomach bile over a round pellet of bait that still looked like a dead rat an hour ago.

The 'I' form feels a little awkward here. A bundle of collected, ever-changing circumstances and functions that we say 'I' to. 'I' as a sort of appeal of the body. While it still has something in common with the conventional considerations, Mussert's 'I' has begun a nomadic voyage as an unconscious identity, not present in the reality of the story but in the reality of the text itself. Other than the third person, according to Roland Barthes the sign of a comprehensible agreement between society and author - the absence of which signifies a purposeful destruction of the novel - 'I' is the sign of a personal artistic practice, of a secret code between author and reader. Suddenly, under the apparent surface of Musserts thought, we see a process of multi-tasking, an 'algebraic state of behavior', which is not only an expression of the tragedy of human affairs. The seemingly dead novel has reappeared in a new state in this short work by Nooteboom.

Indeed, Nooteboom is concealing something incredibly heinous under his cloak. Former classical language teacher Mussert was gradually drawn into the travel guide business and now produces his books as though on order under the pseudonym Dr. Strabo. He is vegetating, flourishing on the last remains of a culture that once was experienced as literature and is now retrieved as a travel journal. This 'I', from the traveller in ancient texts to the tourist in little places, moves through the text in the most unexpected and furtive manner. In a seemingly clumsy, but actually lightning fast, metamorphic way, he explores everything surrounding him. Like an inversion of Musil's Man Without Qualities which creates an image of a 'human character' as a 'text' mainly through depth and expanse, Nooteboom has dressed up a 'text' as a 'human being'. This novella is a text that persuades the reader of the downfall of the cultural elite in the form of the simple story of an individual, rendered visible in the devolution of the realm of ancient classical literature into post-modern travelogue culture. The story of a disillusionment, in which the suggestion of a real experience of classical protagonists and heroes has turned into a repetitive summarizing and name-dropping. His interaction with it is no more personal than his interaction with the contents of his travel guides. The names and forms of the heroes are not lived out, are nothing other than the icons and heroes of a chance summer mode. Horatio looks like Super Mario, Ovid like Aladdin, like a shadow of something that must once have had meaning and now roams his brain like a distant acoustic reverberation.


He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them - the ship; and so is their country - the sea. JOSEPH CONRAD, Heart of Darkness Psychology will doubtless have an answer to the question: upon how many metaphorical levels can our thought be active simultaneously? How many seemingly mutually exclusive images can be processed by our mind without it crashing? But Wittgenstein's reading of the duck's head that becomes a rabbit, Escher's graphic transformation of fish into birds and the contours of Picasso's faces - in which the profile of a face becomes a 'head-on' portrait - suggest that it is only with great difficulty that human beings can distort the image of reality into a higher power. Apparently, there are strict limitations to our esthetic and psychological intelligence.

At first glance, Mussert would seem to have lost his grip on his surroundings. But in the self-regulating individual messages, a sort of 'telescript' messages that provide themselves automatically with an idiosyncratic, rhetorical cryptography, he does succeed in creating a coherent image of himself. However much he may lose and multiply himself in multiple 'I', 'you' and 'he'-s, the underlying metaphors reveal a recognizable coherence. He has the feel of the word processor in his fingers, as it were. He is a post-modern human being that manifests himself as a text and seems to be completely unaware of the limitations of the keyboard. Anachronistic, analog, on a simple typewriter. The hero of the modern times, as penetrating as Camus' stranger, the embodiment of the fifties. Both are archetypal images of a period of time: the stranger who wants to forget the misery of the world and allows himself to be blinded by the sun and the writer of travel guides who derives his personality from the changing standard settings of the keyboard. A worn shade of a past time, he also incorporates a shadow of the future. Every meaningful interpretation of his life can be rendered obsolete by a keyboard setting.

Mussert is already plugged-in, but can't deal with it because he still cannot get an overview of all the possibilities this encompasses. The transition from an analog and literary to a digital physicality contains a clear problem: his own death. Mussert possesses neither a reparable, classical, robotic physicality, nor an organism that expresses itself in physical meta-language. His body suffers from amnesia, from loss of concentration, and thus disintegrates into countless bodies. Digitalization as a simple case of analog disintegration.

The fate of Mussert, nicknamed Socrates in school, is also the fate of a disintegrating European culture: an ex-alumnus would read Herman Mussert's obituary and say, 'hey, Socrates is dead (...) my body would begin an endless nomadic journey (...) and take part in the most fantastic metamorphoses(...).''' On his final living journey, a boat trip up the Amazon, he leaves the boat and the sobbing of its diesel motor and enters the jungle, ultimately to meet his death. The deep, growling call of toads and giant frogs sounded from the banks. I don't know how long I stood there; one final time, the jungle glowed terribly in the Eastern sun; one final time, the flash of a day hastened across the river and blackness once again enfolded everything, birds and trees, concealing and covering everything.''

This is Conrad's Heart of Darkness revisited in a flight beyond one's own culture, the echo of Marlow's boat trip in search of Kurtz, a company agent who has retreated into the jungle. As a literary text, it has always been admired, as a screenplay, it lay on the shelf for a hundred years - perhaps appearing as a faint shade of itself in John Huston's African Queen - until it was finally filmed by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now.

Ford Coppola went about his work very carefully and used the
metaphor that the writer had applied as a literary style device. Conrad excels in the establishment of scenes by means of gleaming, sparkling things, things that appear and are illuminated briefly as they flash past. A very literal kind of literary fireworks. Ford Coppola has taken this stylistic device even more literally and has Kurtz (Brando) appear not merely as the balding, raving figure that he ultimately turns out to be. The disturbing figure of Kurtz, that monstre sacré overshadowing the entire text, is brought to life on film in a mysterious way. When Marlow (Martin Sheen) finally sees him at the end of his quest, he is not a human being, but mainly a rising constellation in total darkness. His skull: one tiny place on his skull is illuminated. Other tiny points of light follow, slowly. This is not a view of a living human being, it is a view of an area of space; here, we see constellations begin to glow. Brando's head is something divine, that slowly takes on human characteristics, to the extent that the raving Brando-as-Kurtz is still able. Where Kurtz incorporates a 'back to nature' idea, Mussert's 'I' is a vision of the future. But they are both philosophical bodies and it is precisely in their downfall that they reveal the essence of European culture. The romantic body that has fought its way into the jungle and allows itself to be incorporated into the organism of nature's natural state is related to the bourgeois body that, as it undergoes metamorphoses, manages to cloth itself in the armaments of digital culture. Kurtz is also the shadow falling over the next story, he is the 'true other' and the Other in me, continually torn between 'I' and another identity. In Africa, on the banks of the Congo, where Kurtz resides in the jungle and in the mouth of the Amazon Mussert is steaming into. Both gazing at the starry night sky, sharing the moments of ecstasy.


The monstrous typewriters of Burroughs' nightmares are like illustrations of the hallucinations that precede the digital Big Bang. The heavily yoked keyboard becomes organic, but cannot endure the confrontation with a new culture that has long since been staged without its knowledge. Mussert is a novel hero that seems to possess the outward appearance of the classic 'I' from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but has actually already disintegrated into hundreds of fragments under the surface of that apparent form and surrendered to the electronic keyboard. His hour of death is his hour of awakening, not only the cliché of a life flashing before one's eyes at one's last breath, but in a genuine digital incarnation. The end of a life consisting of 'old-fashioned' stories, turns out to have been adapted to new relations. His protective magic charms do not refer to the solid, concrete 'I' of flesh and blood in Heart of Darkness. Mussert constructs an 'I' that goes beyond the deconstruction being prepared in order to be read metaphorically-allegorically in HyperText and CyberSpace. Burroughs' stories about an 'I' that delivers itself up to the hallucinating experiences of a keyboard are grotesque. But the story of Mussert, whose sentences seem to have been typed on an old-fashioned keyboard, intuitively recognizing the new electronic syntax and keyboard grammar of the new world, is no less so. This is a story that observes the keys as a metafile and registers their mysterious movements as though invisibly present. These movements and claims form the key to what is narrated. The secret of it is the driving force of both the language events and the contentual events, on the routes between home and home, by way of the escape key.

'The next story', an image of a reading culture that has outlived itself and is falling apart, seems hardly 'contemporary', but the undocumented resources of this novella seem couched in HyperText. A ruinous image that simultaneously opens the door onto 'something' else. A downfall and simultaneously a re-arrangement. Nooteboom - or is it only the reader - shoves the 'I''s nose into its old, rhetorical values, recognizable now only as flat shadows of worn-out phenomena, retrieved one final time, one after another, as empty signs, empty names.

A culture of literacy on the threshold of a hyperculture in which an analog system is being replaced at its post by a digital one. Interzone becomes InterZone. Nooteboom's secret code is written in Z++. This is the instrument for a language with which the invisible becomes audible and the incomprehensible recognizable and the everyday magical. Z++ is the artistic sibling of C++ because it is the language in which Zorro makes himself understood, in which Zeno's paradox is expressed, to which Barthes' Degree Zero is related and for which Borges' Zohar functions as an artistic algorithm. In a constantly expanding and contracting, shifting perspective, Z++ demonstrates how all possible worlds ultimately can be reduced to one, single letter on the keyboard. All of the countless shelves of the labyrinthian library are combined in that one, single key in order to subsequently expand anew, through Piranesque effects and baroque convolutions. Like a long-since-realized, impossible figure so longed-for by mathematicians. This is no uncontrollable 'randomization', no necessary by-product of a process of compression; it is a reduction of patterns and structures of all possible files and worlds to that single key that in its turn refers to that single byte containing all of creation.

translation Jim Boekbinder