Travelling Light in Poland : 17- 27th October 2013


A fascinating piece of installation art we came across in a corner in Wroclaw. The statuary actually dissolves into the ground and emerges across the street. Arresting. Beautiful.

                    poland2   It took twelve hours to get to Karpacz, three hours by plane to Wroclaw and nine by bus, mainly due to connections not arriving and many waits. I travelled light. One bag, and, despite my loathing of anything to do with Ryanair, the flight was flawless, and we arrived fifteen minutes early. Of course there was one less than minor irritation. Ryanair took ten euros as a penalty charge for two fellow travellers who did not check in. Why? No idea. Me? I travel light – one small bag, books, unsuitable shoes that by now because, of all the hours and hours of trekking and climbing are in shreds, and my notebooks and pens (can’t do without them). Also, I am wearing a borrowed coat because, yes, I lost my coat. Travelling is tiring. Some of the bus stations we stopped in were simply horrible – grim soulless post communist functional affairs devoid of warmth or light with equally grey grim looking people, young and old who didn’t talk to each other and filed silently onto the bus that is when it finally arrived, swinging into the station, mounting the footpath and then hopping back down on the tarmac as the doors swung open. Other stations were brighter and more modern and better organized. Overall the trip was, despite its extraordinary length, pleasant. People sat quietly, talked quietly into mobile phones, and left the transport in a neat orderly fashion. There is an ethos of orderliness, thrift, respect for authority and tradition, an anxiety about the future and search for security, a reluctance to take unnecessary risks, a wearing of sensible shoes and warm jackets, an impetus to settle down and make ends meet. I find Poles in Poland an intelligent, realistic, thoughtful, pessimistic, unhappy, deeply independent, terribly anxious people. Compared to how warm and  friendly and open I find Poles in Ireland, with a few notable exceptions (friends and acquaintances I met and socialized with whom I found utterly delightful), Poles in Poland are unfriendly and hostile, offputtingly depressingly so.  In a restaurant or huge shopping mall in Wroclaw there is a marked tendency to not look one another in the eye, or greet each other, or perhaps one could define the tendency is to walk past each other as if the other person is simply not there. if you buy something, change is not handed to to you directly, rather it is put on a tray between you and the service person, who does not look directly at you. I greeted someone in a lift who smiled at me, and honestly thought I was going to be attacked by her partner. As someone who has gotten into trouble for being somewhat over friendly, seeing this first hand is rather a surreal experience for me. Their anxieties over a great country’s troubled history and the enormous pride in Poland show in their faces and their endless concerns over protecting their futures and their own patch of turf seems a little too paramount and shows up in little ways – for instance television stations advertise more vitamin supplements and various forms of pain killers and drugs that would keep any virus in mortal fear of its existence. I am reminded how the Mayor of Paris told Parisians to be nicer to visitors some years back. Poles should take the lead from Paris’ experience. They too are a great hearted people. I was waiting outside a shop in Karpacz in Poland on the afternoon of Day four, and, as I was getting tired and a bit disoriented (I had a cough and temperature), I didn’t see the long black haired, wide-shouldered short stocky man walk towards me. He bounced off my shoulder and, as he nearly fell, I caught him and gave him a hug and apologised loudly in English for being such a twit. He grinned sheepishly at me, and, as he was rather drunk, began talking to me in polish. I don’t in the least look Polish, and it was pretty clear neither of us came from this country. I shrugged my shoulders and said something akin to ‘non polska’ which only served to widen his sheepish grin. He sat down beside me, and, in broken English told me he came from Peru, that his wife was Polish, that he was too drunk to drive, and that he was going to be in so much trouble when he got home. Then, shaking my hand and hugging me once more, he invited me for a beer sometime and when I said I did not partake of alcohol, he seemed quite disappointed. He wobbled off, and I wondered how someone like that got to live here, deep in southern Poland, high in the forested mountains, in the midst of the Polish National forest, surrounded by tall pointed dwellings with specially fitted snow protectors on the roofs, dwellings with double windows and piles and piles of carefully cut logs outside and inside. Here in winter the snow reaches three metres high and everyone skis and ice skates and toboggans. The area around Karpacz is gorgeous, mesmerizingly so, with vast sweeping silent forests that are hauntingly beautiful, with streams and old bridges and clefts and gulleys and huge knotted roots that reach up and dive down and reach up again and choke the ground so much you fear the roots are coming to get you like something out of Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids – this is  more the stuff of fairy tales than anything one can fix in twenty-first century life.  On day three I went mushroom picking and came home with a basket of weird reddish brown mushroom monstrosities that I was assured were very tasty indeed. They looked beautiful but I had never eaten such things before. So the monster mushrooms were cooked twice, sliced, and cooked with dill and cream – and made an amazingly delicious sauce that kept for days.

zabela Cwiszewska – who dislikes being photographed on forest trails. That’s my big head shadowed in the left foreground.

This place, Karpacz, is about the forest, for the forest surrounds, contains and completes this world. And this is a world older than imagination, and once one hears the forest’s  voice, once one sees the expanse of hills, once one understands the eternal silence of the forests, one knows there is no music like it. Compared to it the sound of the city is a torture and a dissonance that can only be endured for a while and one simply has to get back here or somewhere like it. We travelled up into the mountains, up a trail deep into the forest into the Czech Republic, to stay in a wooden hostel by a lake way above the forest line. poland4

Izabela taking a photograph of Mirela – whom we met by accident and who very kindly directed us to the lodge we stayed in when we got a tad misdirected. The lodge structure is to Mirela’s elbow. Note the lake and the hills in the background. Those sheer structures cause avalanches that killed quite a few people over the years. As a result the trail we took back to Karpacz is closed during winter.

As we travelled all day the trees got smaller and smaller, until all one was left with was a denuded proto artic landscape with ultra bright sun and piles of rocks and gorse like bushes and tiny trees stretching out onto undulating hills with patches of grey and green and a wide expanse of  mountains below with hundreds and hundreds of acres of forests with bald patches where the trees had died or were dying or had been cut away for fuel. In between the forest were houses and Karpacz and roads and places where roads were being built and rebuilt, and of course so many hotels and ski resorts. poland5

High Tundra Trail. Everything in the background is forest below you -as far back as you can see –for miles and miles and…

Before I came here I dug out some books about Poland from Dublin Public Library before departing on my trip, particularly Adam Zamoyski’s ‘Poland – A History’ which is a marvellous read. I am reading about the rather shocking era of the 1790’s where Poland as a national entity doesn’t actually exist, a horrifying experience for such a proud and brilliantly accomplished independent people, a dismembered commonwealth that was not in any way helped by the ruthless Bonaparte, who used the Polish Legions to further his own ends without in any way helping restore the commonwealth. (Those Polish soldiers actually saved his life at one stage.) More bits and pieces of history protrude in the region. I saw a hill with a rather shady looking building that was pointed out to me known as Goering’s Hill – a place completely fenced off and, yes, you guessed it – supposedly a dwelling house for the delightful Nazi himself. Hermann Goering. There is no mention of this place anywhere on the internet, yet there it was. I was left wondering what this strange half hidden building on that forested hill was really used for. Then I went for a meal in large rather conventionally built (so I was told) restaurant filled with animal pelts, a rather disturbing huge stuffed deer in the middle of the room  in the pose of calling out, toboggans carefully placed of maximum visibility, a roaring fire, and great glass jars of preserved fruits and vegetables equally placed for maximum visibility. Very touristy I was told. Its the economy, stupid, I told myself. Karpacz is filled with hotels great and small, some in the process of being rebuilt, and despite this the place is still real enough and inexpensive enough to give you a memorable visit. Yes, I know I am sounding like an advertisement here. I really don’t care. Check it out.

Here is my colleague Des Gunning’s response to the recent Irish Times feature on the Dublin Writers Museum


My colleague Des Gunning just recently wrote this interesting and thought provoking article on the Irish Times Article ( see here ) on the Dublin Writers Museum


I think Rosita Boland‘s feature of the Dublin Writer’s Museum  is something of a missed opportunity.  First off, I see no mention of Robert Nicholson’s role with the James Joyce Institute in Dublin ( part of a global family of such institutions) ; no mention of his role at the Joyce Tower Museum, Sandycove – which seems to have been essentially voluntary in latter years.  The Tower, which was in effect a gift to the city from the architect Michael Scott and the filmmaker, John Huston, incidentally, was the first museum to any Irish writer. A good account of its curatorial philosophy is given by Nicholson in an article for Studies Vol 93/370.

Absent from the Irish Times article is  mention of Nicholson’s role in the creation of the James Joyce Centre in nearby North Great George’s Street ( a project in which I had a hand myself); of his near-definitive walking guide to the Dublin of Ulysses; his co-ordination of the programme of events for Bloomsday in Dublin  – again, over decades and essentially voluntarily, his work on the various international James Joyce symposia that have come to Dublin since 1982, or of the many, many publications, Joycean and otherwise, where his assistance in acknowledged.  Should the city ever get a finer ( and more self-effacing)  ambassador for its literary heritage, it will be a happy day indeed!

Meanwhile, there is, I’m sure a story underneath the interview with Nicholson. While Charles J Haughey may indeed have cut the tape to open the Writers Museum,  it seems to me its existence  has onlie one begetter: Mr Matt McNulty who, as Director General of the Tourist Board, bestrode the tourism apparatus of the state at one time as his contemporary Mr Frank Feeley bestrode the administrative apparatus of the Dublin city. These were men who could conceive and deliver projects.


  The weakness is in the reliance of such ‘doers’ is what happens in the second phase.   How do institutions like Fáilte Ireland cope with trophy assets effectively bequeathed them by departing charismatic ‘all conquering’ CEOs? The Dublin Writers Museum, no matter who opens up on a given day, seems to me to be a prime example of this institutional challenge

Parnell Square, Dublin City’s designated ‘cultural quarter’ boasts a quite a few cultural institutions, the Writer’s Museum,  the more activity-friendly Irish Writers Centre, the magnificent Municipal Gallery; the Garden of Remembrance and the (heavily state subsidised) Gate Theatre. It has some excellent restaurants and decent hotels; the nearby Joyce Centre, International Youth Hostel etc. Many public and publicly-supported bodies are involved, but the area is strangely bereft of the sense of a ‘go-to’ place. Therein lies a institutional challenge for the city and perhaps a story to which the Irish Times might return

© Des Gunning 2014

People often Ask Me if I have any Words Of Advice For Blog Readers, Well here are a Few Simple Admonitions…..William Seward Burroughs (1914 – 1997)

With thanks to Scrawl Magazine, who originally published this piece and posted it here


william burroughs lodon

William Seward Burroughs – actually smiling…

It’s not all in the voice. But one gets inklings when one listens. The cracked sepulchral voice of William Seward Burroughs (1914 – 1997) adds a searing quality to countless recordings of his stories. Nowadays this is the first introduction to his work most get. There are so many of his recordings and collaborations with other artists available, for instance Burroughs’ work with Laurie Anderson, Kurt Cobain and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprasy. His stories lend themselves well to music. More than this, his parchment intonations after a while become integral to the stories he tells, a substratum to routines which are, according to himself, his own surreal savage fictionalised autobiographies.

These bizarre stories are of such strange beings as the Wild Boys – a futuristic guerrilla gang dedicated to fighting armies of repressive police states, Bradley the Buyer – who becomes addicted to the proximity of junk and takes on an ominous grey green colour as his body begins to make its own junk, Inspector Lee of the Nova Police – who combats the Nova Mob who bring vices and diseases from other planets ‘in the same way as early colonisers infected so called primitive peoples’, Doctor Benway – a brutal brainwashing expert who performs surgery in toilets, Spare Ass Annie – who has an auxiliary asshole in the centre of her forehead, and the Displaced Fuzz – a pair of redundant policemen who repossess people’s artificial kidneys. There are many others.

william-burroughs.kurt-cobain.lawrence-ks.jpg (510×518)                                     Kurt Cobain Visiting Burroughs, Kansas 1992

His books have been well characterized as a surreal blend of the Marquis De Sade for sheer descriptive explicitness and Jonathan Swift for their savage satire: Naked Lunch, Junky, Queer, Nova Express, Cities of the Red Night, The Ticket That Exploded, The Soft Machine are brilliant, funny and gut wrenching all at once to read.


Born in 1914 in St Louis, educated in Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico (1929-32) before taking literature in Harvard (graduated 1936). After graduation Burroughs travelled through Europe (1936-38) on a type of directionless lateral drift before returning to the U.S. to take courses in anthropology and Mayan archaeology, worked in his parents gift shop and tried to join the forerunner of the C I A , the O S S in 1940. He was not successful and continued working casually wherever he could. He had begun taking a variety of jobs during and after this time, including private detective, bartender, bug exterminator, journalist, and factory worker. This directionless drifting provided a lot of material for his writing. But Burroughs had no literary intentions back then. He spent nearly a year in Vienna (1942) studying medicine and taking a painful cure for syphilis contracted during his time in Harvard. He returned again to the US and in 1943 he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac through David Kammerer and Lucien Carr, friends from St. Louis. He also met Joan Vollumer as part of this group. He spent six months in the army in 1944 then tried his hand at farming in Texas after he married Joan in 1945, growing tomatoes and marijuana which he sold at a huge loss. By this time he was seriously addicted to drugs. Burroughs drug taking started because “…you become a narcotics addict because you do not have any strong motivations in any other direction…” ( p XVII, Oliver Harris, Introduction to WSB Letters 1945-59).

Strangely though, addiction and writing seemed to go hand in hand. The farm idea collapsed and he moved to Mexico. He began writing drafts of the book Junky in Mexico City in 1949 at the age of 35. It was written in straight narrative under the encouragement of a friend Kells Elvins and his wife Marianne. They were impressed with Burroughs wit and remarkable memory. Despite the fact that he was heavily into junk at the time, Burroughs worked daily and steadily on drafts of the book. But it had no urgency for him back then. Writing became more of an act of personal salvation after the horrific accident on the night of Sept 6th 1951 when he shot his wife Joan during a drinking party. She put a shot glass on her head after Bill said to Joan “its about time for our William Tell act”. Burroughs wrote in the introduction to Queer (1985) that he was faced with the appalling conclusion that he would never have taken to writing seriously if he had not accidentally killed Joan at that drinking party. Burroughs felt at the moment of picking up the gun, the “piece of 380 junk” that he was possessed by the by the “ugly spirit” which is always the worst aspects of everyone’s character, that drove him to pull the trigger on Joan, and that in fact he could readily characterize his entire life as a struggle against the controlling influences of this “ugly spirit”(BBC Arena interview 1997).

Whatever psychological or spiritual interpretations one might place upon this central harrowing total experience of being controlled and possessed, writing became the focus of his life after this as an act of personal liberation. He was released from prison in Mexico City after a long homily from the judge and wandered the South American jungle in search of the drug yage, known for its permanent mind altering qualities, ending up in Tangier in 1954. There he began working on the material that would become Naked Lunch and laterThe Soft Machine and Nova Express. In all of his writing Burroughs is the extreme purveyor of the human condition. Like Francis Bacon paintings, Burroughs works at getting past our personas to the inner person, the nerves and sinews of our being. His works zero in on the agencies of control that proliferate in our time: corrupt politicians, scientists with brutal indifference to the human consequences of their experiments, racist and homophobic law enforcers, drug pushers, sales people, addicts.

His creation of Interzone in Naked Lunch typifies Burroughs own metaphorical vision of modern life as a struggle between the individual addict or control subject lost in the surreal desperate subculture of the junkie or agencies of control in Interzone, which is the junk itself and those who push it on the addicts: the business people who are generally controlled by greed and addiction too. It goes further. Burroughs elaborates on these mechanisms of control by what he calls an ‘algebra of need’. This algebra of need uses the analogy of addiction but goes outside the whole realm of addiction. It states that the more extreme the state of need created in the individual the more absolutely predictable the person’s reaction will be until the reaction acquires a conditioned reflex of near mathematical certainty. One will do anything to satisfy total need. In Naked Lunch (p. 21) Dr. Benway comments how much he deplores brutality. It’s just not efficient

“On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skilfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt. A few rules or rather guiding principles are to be borne in mind. The subject must not realize that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct.”

The maximizing of human abjection and humiliation by the control addicts is the use of ultimate control weapon, the death sentence. Naked Lunch is described by Burroughs a tract against capital punishment, described in the introduction to Naked Lunch as the ‘obscene, barbaric and disgusting anachronism that is’

Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) – more a bio of the author than the book – but still brilliant….

Control becomes easier the more dependent the individual becomes, the more addicted. This is precisely why the central insight of Burroughs own life, namely his chronic addiction to drugs, becomes the catalyst for his fractured visceral style. It caused his paradigm shift away from strictly linear style into routines and cut up methods. The adoption of these styles, dismissed by Beckett as ‘not writing but plumbing’, serves as an action against the control of consciousness by cultural and political programming. “I feel that the principal instrument of monopoly and control that prevents expansion of consciousness is the word lines controlling thought feeling and apparent sensory impressions of the human host” (Interview with G. Corso and A. Ginsberg, 1961, Journal For the Protection of All People).

For Burroughs the only thing a writer can write about is what is before the senses at the moment of writing. In order to be free of what acts as a screen between the thing in itself and the perceiver, assumed verbal forms and concepts must be jettisoned in favour of a new tool to aid the expansion of consciousness. Word forms are part of us, a virus formed in the womb having a mutually beneficial parasitic relationship with their host ‘…in the soft typewriter of the womb you do not realize the word armour you carry…’ (Interview with G. Corso and A. Ginsberg, 1961, Journal For the Protection of All People) Although words are indispensable for living, the build up of preconceived ideas about the world, word forms, and consequent habits of thinking prevents our consciousness from expanding.

Thus the word form must be broken, the schema for culturally and socially inherited understanding of the world must be overturned, and we must be prepared to lose that which we previously understood about ourselves. We must build the soft machine, made from our own humanity and deepening consciousness, to counteract the increasing elimination of emotion and affect in our actions and relations with others in a mechanized age.

The cut up method is one of the stylistic consequences of Burroughs political stance. It is an attempt to break down the word forms to read, as one might say, between the lines or between the words in an attempt to uncover the unsaid or the unspeakable using the current culturally approved pool of meaning. One takes random texts, cuts them up, forming new texts by random piecing, then editing. It is an attempt to break down the word form into its constituents, to see into that which is the subject of his writing, to show that which cannot be said because of the word forms that prevent such utterance. In much of Burroughs work character development, plot, continuity and story development are deliberately not present. Thus any traditional attempt to critique his work on the basis of this absence is somewhat questionable. What could be argued is that Burroughs work is a valuable attempt to break down conventional tried and tested modes of expression, literary or otherwise, by subverting them using his own methods in an attempt to expand our pool of meaning and human self interpretation. But then the difficulty of what criterion one uses to validate this work arises. Like any other body of work it can only be assessed in terms of an inner coherence and consistency, an inherent determination on the part of the artist to express clearly their particular worldview within the artists body of work.

Wicked, irreverent, nihilistic, smart, and hilariously funny, The “Thanksgiving Prayer” typifies Burroughs approach.

Burroughs kinetic style, the orgiastic near celebratory descriptions of unspeakable horror and destruction coupled with biting satire bespeaks a moral and political climate completely unhinged from its ethical moorings – the Orgasm Death Gimmik, The Nova Criminals, the cruel Doctor Benway and so on. This is precisely Burroughs project, his routines, his cutups, his character descriptions, parodies, and critiques all describe worlds in chaos in search of a quick fix at the mercy of inner needs and outer tyrannies, and endlessly hungry for profit.

This anarchic worldview has its own shock value, but it is not simply meant to shock. Burroughs regarded himself as a recording instrument, detailing certain areas of psychic processes using a literary form he developed. Even the name for Burroughs’ book, Naked Lunch, suggested by Kerouac in Tangier, as meant as an image for the frozen moment of absolute awareness of what is at the end of ones fork just before eating it, suggests just this movement of consciousness. The images of Naked Lunch were amassed in random order by Burroughs and typed up by Kerouac with no attempt at editing, eventually finding a publisher with Maurice Girondias at Olympia Press in 1959 after an initial rejection by him a few years before (much to Ginsberg’s fury at the time). The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964) all were written from material emerging from Burroughs time in Tangier and written largely in the cut up style, as discovered by Brion Gysin, a close artist friend in Tangier and introduced Burroughs to the technique. Burroughs, always greatly influenced by the visual arts, adopted it after much work on it himself. He began from then on to use collages, scrapbooks and newspaper cuttings.

His work, particularly those employing a non linear narrative, can be understood in terms of visual art, particularly synthetic cubism. The idea behind the synthetic cubism is to try to show how things are, not how they look like. It is an exercise in penetrating to the noumena of things, not a pictorial representation of phenomena. Different aspects of the object which would not normally be visible from a normal perspective are rendered accessible through a unified composition, so also Burroughs did not use traditional narrative and plot development in the same manner as cubism did not use traditional composition and imitation of nature.

This jettisoning of tradition represented an attempt on both counts to depict a new reality, for Burroughs in literature and for synthetic cubism in painting. Both styles in their own way depict radically fragmented objects and persons in multiple views in furtherance their own particular artistic vision- one in painting, the other in writing. This stylistic choice was a dangerous one for the writer, placing his work in an unknown realm between the rational and the irrational. But this is typical of Burroughs, who sough out such extreme realms as his only abode of self expression. After Nova Express (1964), Burroughs seemed to shift a little towards narrative form, though retaining some of the routines and cut ups that filled previous novels. The Wild Boys(1971) an apocalyptic story set in a divided New York featuring the wild boy gang fighting a fascist authoritarian regime, and Port Of Saints (1973), an attempt to alter the timelines which led to the atom bomb, Cities of the Red Night (1981), three stories comprising boys adventure and science fiction and detective mystery is about a disease that drives its victims into a sexual frenzy before killing them, seemed to intersperse straight narrative and routine with cut up sections in sections, particularly dream or delirium sequences where Burroughs felt it suitable.

In all these books, as in his later works, Burroughs style, though fascinating as is his subject matter, it is the vehicle and only the vehicle by which he seeks to communicate. He cautionary words against trusting too easily in corrupt institutions and leaderships and methodologies of control, in seeking to unmask the human brutality and indifference beneath our veil of civilization, in seeking to expand human consciousness through linguistic experiment, are the point of his writing. Burroughs sought to entertain and to instruct, and however funny and shocking he could be in his work, he was very much the moralist, trying to make us look at the world differently, to outrage us and make us laugh and think and see the world in a new light. Whether he succeeded is a matter of time and ultimately of history.

Gregory Corso: What is Death?

W. S. Burroughs: A gimmik. It’s the time birth death gimmik. Can’t go on much longer, too many people are wising up.


(from an interview with G. Corso and A. Ginsberg, 1961, Journal For the Protection of All People)