Cult fiction item #9: “Language is to the brain as the tapeworm is to the intestines”

Cities of the Red Night

Cover art of Cities of the Red Night depicting Brueghels  “The Triumph of Death“.

I read Cities of the Red Night this July while in Spain; I had to let it ferment for a while and unfurl it. it was a profound reading experience; and my first semi-sustained one after my first and only aborted attempt to read Burroughs by way of Naked Lunch.

I have the fondest memories of Burroughs in Drugstore Cowboy, and his Gus Van Sant-directed appearance on MTV with Thanksgiving Prayer[1] (unavailable in Europe).

Cities of the Red Night stated that spontaneous ejaculation is a heroin withdrawal symptom. This caught my attention. Today, I looked it up and it is apparently confirmed by medical literature. The novel is the perfect introduction to Burroughs’s whole language is a virus trope, later adopted by the likes of Laurie Anderson, Steven Shaviro and other postmodernists.

From my wiki:

Cities of the Red Night is a novel by William S. Burroughs. It was the first book in the final trilogy of the beat author, and was first published in 1981. Drugs play a major part in the novel, as do male homosexuality. The plot of this non-linear work revolves around a group of revolutionaries who seek the freedom to live under the articles set out by Captain James Mission. At the same time in near present day, detective Clem Snide is searching for a lost boy, abducted for some sort of sexual ritual. Another subplot weaved in thematically through the narrative is a world plagued by a fictional disease, Virus B-23, that destroys humanity and is sexually transmitted and sexual in nature, causing for example spontaneous orgasms. Addiction to opiates provides some resistance to it. The disease is viral, and, at first, it appears to be an allusion to AIDS, although, it must be remembered that the first case of AIDS was not discovered until after the book was first published.

See also:’the cities of the red night were six in number, alternate history, Dr Benway, Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted

Finally, whence the quote came:

Self-identity is ultimately a symptom of parasitic invasion, the expression within me of forces originating from outside. Language is to the brain as the tapeworm is to the intestines. Even more so: it may just be possible to find a digestive space free from parasitic infection, but we will never find an uncontaminated mental space. Strands of alien DNA unfurl themselves in our brains, just as tapeworms unfurl themselves in our guts. Not just language, but the whole quality of human consciousness, as expressed in male and female is basically a virus mechanism.” —Cities of the Red Night

Triumph of Death (1562) – Pieter Brueghel the Elder

10 thoughts on “Cult fiction item #9: “Language is to the brain as the tapeworm is to the intestines”

  1. John M.

    This is my favorite book by Burroughs and it’s by far his most readable. I also favor the first two books in this cycle, The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands. I’ve read them all a few times now and I get a strong sense that he was trying to share his most important messages, life lessons and insights for those ready to receive. They are a history, a memoir and a blueprint for survival. Everything else is prelude and postscript.

    With Naked Lunch, The Wild Boys series, et al, he was focusing more on form and process. The Cities of the Red Night cycle is a work of epic modern mythology.

  2. nursemyra

    I tried reading a library copy of Naked Lunch once. I struggled to page 30 to find someone had written in pencil “I’m surprised you got this far”

    maybe I should try Cities of the Red Night

  3. jahsonic


    I believe you would like it, the Burroughs universe is opening itself up to me.

    Magick Mike,

    Have you started yet another new project? Congrats.


    Love the analysis:

    With Naked Lunch, The Wild Boys series, et al, he was focusing more on form and process. The Cities of the Red Night cycle is a work of epic modern mythology.

  4. John Coulthart

    This is also my favourite Burroughs novel, in fact I even considered doing an illustrated version some years ago–WSB lacks good illustrators–but have been more concerned trying to produce work of my own since then, none of which has yet seen the light of day. The UK edition was initially set to be published by my colleagues at Savoy Books but they lost that as a result of the collapse of a distribution deal with NEL which bankrupted the company.

    A shame Burroughs dropped the subtitle “A Boys’ Book” but it’s understandable that the publishers would be worried about the wrong impression that would give.

    BTW, Cities is the *first* of the loose trilogy along with Place of Dead Roads and Western Lands. Burroughs read passages from the latter on Material’s excellent Seven Souls album, an all-time favourite of mine.

  5. John Coulthart

    I did a few things playing around with porn photos, mainly Photoshop collaging. One of the things which made going further a waste of time was using copyrighted material which would raise problems even if someone (Creation Books, say) acquired the rights for a reprint. So the answer to the obvious question is, no, I don’t have anything I can show. 🙂

    I should have mentioned before that Malcolm McNeill produced the best illustrated Burroughs with his Ah Pook Is Here:

    Excellent work although his being a straight artist produces a preponderance of naked women which seem out of place in Burroughs’ hyper-masculine mythos. Burroughs approved these pictures apparently but in his earlier novels women are generally regarded as aliens, inimical beings, viruses and so on. Never objects of lust.

  6. Jamie F

    Hi everybody,
    just to let you know Malcolm McNeill has a show of the Ah Puch artwork
    at Salomon Arts Gallery, Tribeca, opening on 14th Nov and running until 14th Dec. Get yourselves down to the opening on the 14th and ask Malcolm all about his adventures with Bill Burroughs and the birth pangs of the graphic novel genre.
    Cheers my dears,
    Jamie F esq.

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