W illiam S. Burroughs should have lived five more years, that’s all I’m saying. He should have stuck around to witness the aftermath of the September 11th attack, should have been here to watch Attorney General John Ashcroft walk into the Capitol building, shout “Terrorists! Ooga-booga!” and walk out with a sackful of surrendered civil liberties, again and again. He should have been here to watch the current administration extort nigh-unlimited funding by insisting that we are at war and then assert that the prisoners we take in that war are not, in fact, “prisoners of war.” Blank checks and no balances, just the sort of scenario Burroughs had been trying to warn us about for decades—words as tools of control, the vested interest of the powers-that-be in death and catastrophe, the police state waiting for its cue. The Mugwumps taking over. To hell with Nostradamus—it’s Burroughs, that old patrician junky huckster, Our Man in Interzone, whose prognostications are proving dead-on.
This is not the first time William Burroughs has appeared to be ahead of the curve. He is one of those rare writers who, both in his work and his life, has defied easy categorization and demanded constant reassessment. Though he was a close friend of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and their crowd, he was never a Beat Generation writer. Neither a poet nor a Buddhist, Burroughs was less concerned with achieving inner harmony than with generating chaos, developing his theories of agencies of control and searching for ways to dismantle them. His oft-quoted but widely misunderstood statement, “Language is a virus from outer space,” was a polemic against the pitfalls of representational thinking—for example, that which we call a “table” is only that because we assign the word “table” to it; confusing the word assigned to a thing with the thing itself leaves us open to manipulation (just for fun, apply this concept to the word “democracy” sometime and see what happens).
The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs,
(Semiotext(e), distributed by The MIT Press)
Burroughs’ penchant for shuffling entire sections of his novels around and his use of the celebrated “cut-up” technique invented by his longtime friend, the painter Brion Gysin, allowed him to undock his writing from the linear and introduce a random element to the creative process. This resulted in prose that often borders on the incomprehensible, unless the reader is willing to make the same sort of cognitive leap. Try reading Burroughs’ most famous novel Naked Lunch as a straight narrative and it makes no sense; read it as an endless series of episodes, like Candide, and the whole thing clicks into place, but give yourself a few minutes after reading before trying to operate a motor vehicle.
At the same time that Burroughs worked over his readers’ equilibrium, his subject matter assaulted their comfort zones. His books are rife with misogyny, drug use, gunplay, the blackest of humor, and an intimate twining of sex and violence—the image of hanged men ejaculating as their necks snap occurs frequently—so much so that Kerouac claimed that typing up Burroughs’ manuscripts gave him nightmares. For decades Burroughs remained in that select circle of authors, which includes Henry Miller and Jean Genet, for whom the jury deciding whether they are utter degenerates or thoroughgoing geniuses is still out and most likely never coming back.
The question of where to situate Burroughs, as Beat relic or as rank pornographer, began to resolve itself in the late Seventies, when his anti-authoritarian writings were embraced by the rising wave of rock and punk intelligentsia, and people like David Bowie, Patti Smith, and Richard Hell declared him a major influence. The Eighties and Nineties saw Burroughs’ star rise even further in literary circles as his non-linear approach and lifelong obsession with the confluence of humanity with its technology made him a patron saint (along with SF writer Philip K. Dick) of the Cyberpunk, Post-modernist, and Avant-Pop movements. Burroughs began appearing in films like Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and on records with Laurie Anderson and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. While Kerouac was being taught as a period author and Ginsburg had become largely passe, fiction that Burroughs had penned in the 1950s was suddenly being reassessed as postmillennial holy writ.
While there are several excellent biographies of Burroughs available, the best being Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw, the man himself, like his work, has always proven too mercurial and multifaceted to completely pin down. Thus Burroughs Live, Sylvere Lotringer’s exhaustive collection of interviews with Burroughs over the years, is far and away the best documentary of the author extant, and is indispensible for any student of Burroughs and his work. Lotringer, editor of the post-modernist journal Semiotext(e), has done a phenomenal job of assembling thirty-seven years’ worth of interviews from both major publications and far-flung indie rags in the United States and Europe, and while there are a number of niggling problems here—some of the typographical errors are appalling—they are far outweighed by the completeness of the portrait of Burroughs which emerges.
The interviews cover the usual topics where Burroughs is concerned, such as the origins and uses of the cut-up technique and the ins and outs of the landmark 1963 obscenity trial that allowed Naked Lunch to be published in America, but what is most interesting are the interviews that range beyond Burroughs’ writing life. Lotringer devotes a section to Burroughs’ second career as a painter, which he began after Gysin’s death (he wouldn’t have dreamed of attempting visual art while his friend was still alive), again applying the random factor to the creative process by shotgunning cans of paint onto plywood and then detailing the splatters.
We meet Burroughs the gun aficionado, the sentimental cat fancier, and the reader of trashy popular fiction (Frederick Forsyth and Robin Cook in particular). We get the usually apolitical Burroughs’ views on the Meese pornography commission, the Oliver North hearings, and the War on Drugs. Lotringer includes a lengthy interview she conducted with Burroughs on the nature of terrorism, as well as a piece in which Burroughs interviews Patti Smith about the music business.
It is also fascinating to watch the evolution of Burroughs’ preoccupations over the course of the second half of his lifetime, from his waxing and waning enthusiasm for Scientology and Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Box to his campaign to have the apomorphine cure that ended his heroin addiction approved for use in America.
Especially poignant is the description of Burroughs’ struggle with his most pernicious inner demon, the infamous “William Tell” incident in Mexico City, 1951, in which a drunken Burroughs attempted to shoot a whiskey glass off his wife’s head, missed low, and killed her. Though Burroughs was never tried for the incident—he fled to Tangier and the case was eventually dropped—it continued to haunt him throughout his life, and whenever the subject was broached by one interviewer or another, we clearly see the stages of the inner battle.
Early interviews have Burroughs claiming that the gun went off accidentally, while later he ascribes the incident to an imbalance in the gun, then to alcohol, and finally to an Ugly Spirit within him, a manifestation of the worst elements of his nature. A fascinating dialogue between Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg describes a sweat-lodge ceremony in which a Navajo shaman exorcises the Ugly Spirit with great difficulty.
Lotringer’s collection is aptly titled. Burroughs Live is just that, a full realization through his own words of the author as a person with idiosyncracies, hopes, fears, and an evolving soul. Removed from the easy pigeonholing—junky, homosexual, gun freak, beatnik—to which he has too often been subjected, William Burroughs emerges once again as a writer and a man worthy of reassessment, with ideas that continue to resonate and challenge us, and a presence that is sorely missed. That’s all I’m saying.
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