Long before Freud, dreams occupied a uniquely problematic position in literature. They have traditionally been seen as embodying the raw unmediated material of literary creation, the pure clay of inspiration before words – too base or too sophisticated – mould the affective charge out of it. Dreams recounted in writing demonstrate the irreducible opposition between subjective experience and the objectifying effect of style. Unless a writer’s style packages it as literature, the dream can mean nothing to a reader; yet to make it signify is often, for the writer, to rob it of that personal reality which made it interesting – or, in the fullest sense, moving – in the first place.
If a dream retold is true to the experience, it will almost certainly make a boring read. William Burroughs admits this from the outset: he asks why dreams are so often dull when related, and answers, ‘No context … like a stuffed animal set on the floor of a bank.’ That context is the dreamer’s waking life, and fortunately Burroughs’s life is well enough documented to make his dreams more readable than they might otherwise be. This is, more than most, a dream book à clef If you know the life, then My Education provides not so much a revelation as a sometime prurient thrill of recognition. Burroughs encounters a gruesomely deformed rich boy covered in black fuzz and with a penis ‘like old rotten wood or porous stone’ – ‘His name, it seems, is Allen.’ Ginsberg presumably, if we hadn’t already guessed it from the fuzz.
Burroughs seems to suggest, however, that his dreams are more packed with emotive charge than the common run. Two dreams offered at the beginning – ‘quite as real as waking life’ – turn out to be the usual banal mix of flying and strange encounters. Most of Burroughs’s visions, related in an almost unbroken, monotonous chain, are undistinguished examples of the genre. The only interesting thread is the recurrence – as you’d expect from such a peripatetic subject as Burroughs – of impersonal spaces of transit, such as stations and hotels, and the tendency to rationalise it all by locating many dreams in his own mythical Land of the Dead.
The title shouldn’t mislead you into thinking this is in any way a conventional autobiography. Rather, it is more marginalia to the body of Burroughs’s work, and that could be said for just about any book of his. It seems to have been assembled in a manner tortuous even by his standards, with four people acknowledged as having edited, transcribed or otherwise encouraged what must have been an unusually diffuse selection of material. What becomes clear in the fragmentary result is that a Burroughs dream book is at once redundant and contradictory: redundant because all his books read like assemblages of dreams; and contradictory because to reduce his luridly austere tableaux by labelling them flatly as dreams distorts Burroughs’s very peculiarity as a writer. The power of his work lies in the way that it allows no clear demarcation between veiled autobiography, dream and the material act of writing; we are rarely sure which of these zones we are in, and when we are sure, we never know how long we will be allowed to stay in it. My Education only rarely allows us such indeterminacy.
A central strategy of avant-garde writing has been to terrorise the reader by spiking literature with sudden bursts of dream; the most startling thing in My Education, as in much of Burroughs’s work, is when literature erupts into dream – when we suddenly stumble on a reference to something as reassuringly stodgy as Lord Jim or Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington. Burroughs has so convincingly masqueraded as a fully fledged Martian that it comes as a shock to realise he is not only a writer but a reader too. Indeed, the book’s best passages are the ones where Burrough is not recording but adopting different, writerly voices – slipping into his famously scabrous black comedy routines, or unexpectedly heartfelt-seeming meditations on incapacity, death and the writer’s junk-like dependence on dreams. These passages are far more powerful than the litany of encounters with cats, lizards and metamorphosing centipedes, although, it must be said, a bleakly lyrical description of a lake of piss ranks with Burroughs’s best.
I think it is in The Western Lands that Burroughs refers to an Amazonian tribe who recount their dreams in order to forget them. Here, too, Burroughs mentions a theory of dreams as ‘neural house-cleaning’, and it inevitably seems that this book – which will quite probably be Burroughs’s last – is just such a clearing-out of loose impedimenta, a mental bonfire. My Education is an attic’s worth of dusty, often dreary clutter, but if you’re prepared to sift, there are some extraordinary alien wonders in it. The last words are: ‘Can I get it all straight?’ It is heartening that Burroughs ends with a question mark that keeps the future open, and really rather heartening too that he doesn’t get it straight at all.