Friday, October 26, 2012

Language is a Virus from Outer Space: William S. Burroughs and Pontypool


I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but I love William S. Burroughs (1914-1997).  I think he is without a doubt the greatest American writer of the post-war period, maybe even of the twentieth century (which perhaps indicates that I don’t have a terribly high opinion of a lot of American writers, but that’s neither here nor there.)  For those not in the know, Burroughs became a heroin addict, shot his wife, moved to Tangier in Morocco and there wrote Naked Lunch and after that he wrote a bunch of other delightful books, but the books that concern us here are the so-called “Cut-up trilogy.” You see, Burroughs was convinced that—and I’m quoting him verbatim here—“language is a virus from outer space.” Language alienates us from reality.  We are trapped in language.  It is impossible to express things outside the confines of language (Wittgenstein had already reached this conclusion, but he left out the outer space component).  Furthermore, language insists upon itself.  As he says at some point in The Ticket that Exploded. “Try halting your subvocal speech.” And you, my reader, try it.  Try sitting there and enjoying a minute of silence in your own head. 

Eh? How’d it go?

It was Burroughs' contention that language was a virus of a type not yet isolated by science.  He asserted that the language virus had lain dormant in man for millennia before something flipped the switch and this dormant, benign viral infection suddenly became hostile and inflicted language on us (his solution was to “cut up” and randomly rearrange language so as to rob it of its ability to dictate meanings to us).
The name's Burroughs.
Now, as a Burroughs fan, you can imagine my delight to find this same notion of “language as virus” front and center in Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s 2009 horror film, Pontypool.  Now, I don’t want to go into too much detail here, because the plotting of this movie is delightful and the explication of its central premise brilliant and very Burroughsian.  The premise is this: A pissed off radio host—Grant Mazzy, played with relish by Stephen McHattie—whose career has entered a downward trajectory is working a new-ish job at a small-scale radio station in the Ontario town of Pontypool.  He has with him a producer and technical assistant and the three of them are isolated together in this radio station.  A blizzard rages outside.  Virtually the entire film takes place within the radio station.  (This could easily be a stage play.)

Well, wouldn’t you know it, but something of a zombie apocalypse breaks out in the small town of Pontypool.  The townsfolk are infected with a strange “virus” that turns them psychotic and violent and causes them to babble and repeat whatever spoken language they come into contact with (this tendency to imitate is reminiscent of the Malaysian “culturally-specific syndrome” known as latah, in which a person struck with terror begins to mindlessly imitate someone else’s movements; it was a concept in which William S. Burroughs was deeply interested).  They also, being zombies, have a hankering for human flesh.  And I’ll leave it at that, in terms of my plot synopsis, but suffice it to say that the narrative plays out expertly and that the linguistic implications of the film will delight Burroughsians and non-Burroughsians alike (most people, I suspect, are non-Burroughsians).

I also noticed an interesting parallel between the role of language in this film and its role in Scientology.  In Pontypool, it is posited that specific words have been contaminated and are the carriers of the language virus.  A similar concept obtains in Scientology, in which certain words in a person’s history (and this history spans many incarnations) have come to carry with them traumatic associations.  These words are called “engrams,” and one of the purposes of what the Scientologists call “processing” is to identify these words and then repeat them until they become drained of all meaning, not unlike the concept of “exposure and response suppression” that plays such a large role in cognitive behavioral therapy.

And as for the merit of Pontypool, don’t just take my word for it.  A movie with the tagline, “Shut up or die,” pretty much markets itself.

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