|Burroughs in London. Rub out the Words.|
William S. Burroughs was probably not the best example for moralists to look up to. The old junkie's reputation has however, remained as strong as it ever was. To this day Burroughs is worshiped by many a grown up literate libertine, who probably should know better. Whisper his name and see images of the Hombre de invisible wearing a three-piece suit holding court at the Beat Hotel, talking at length about growing weed in Mexico, the dreaded candiru or planning explorations to lost cities of gold in the Amazon basin. He was the ultimate rich kid gone astray, the spunker of a goodly proportion of his parents heirloom on heroin and Arab boys and cheap Spanish typewriters. The bringer of truth, the dreams he wrote about were in truth apocalyptic nightmares. Hallucinations of shifting the Status Quo that keeps us stuck in the rut of worshiping the very people that are plotting our downfalls. The old doctor diagnosed the condition and attempted to prescribe a remedy. But like many quack American doctors hailing back from the 1920s his remedies did little to cure the cancer.
Burroughs was born of a gypsy mother who was in her son’s admission 'very chummy' with him indeed.
|Early years were a drag.|
She supported a life of freedom for her son, which he exploited in the most peculiar ways until her death, which he sadly never attended. His grandfather was the inventor of the gimmick that made the adding machine function, an oil-filled cylinder that produced accurate results each time the lever was pulled by the few employees that remained after it’s invention. Financially comfortable, Burroughs’s family made sure, as the author writes in his debut Junkie, that he ‘had all the props of the perfect mid-western life.’ The big house, private schooling, tutoring, Harvard university, duck shooting, long expensive trips to Europe where he visited Turkish baths in Rome and studied medicine in Vienna. His parents kept a small gift-store, Cobblestone Gardens at Palm Beach, they paid him a whopping two hundred dollars a month until the author was in his fifties. Nothing was too much for Burroughs. So the question must be asked, why did he shoot up?
|Burroughs's first novel Junkie.|
Despite all these gifts and adventures, Burroughs set out on a path of destruction from an early age. Shooting a friend at a dorm in college, taking an overdose, crashing his father’s car, chopping off a finger to impress a friend in Chicago. These were all acts of abusive art, outrageous behavior that were always settled, quite peacefully, by his father. The question should be asked: was Burroughs an enlightened libertine from a wealthy family or a rich kid allowed to go too far?
His uncle Ivy Lee was a media manipulator, promoting Nazi Germany to the Americans, a stunt that must have helped Burroughs cement his ideology of factism, a political concept dreamed up by Burroughs and sounding not unlike the word fascism. Burroughs worked for a short time as an ad man for a copy- writing company helping him learn how to mould his later media persona as well as teaching him about writing to order, a practice he employed only in his early books and gave up once his fame was established.
|Bill and the Typing Machine.|
Burroughs underwent psychoanalysis his entire life, but he was never able to resolve nor identify a childhood trauma that haunted him until his death. Perhaps his parents knew about this trauma but were reluctant to share it with him, they compensated this indiscretion by supporting his alternative lifestyle all around the world. They supported his will to travel to lessen the chances of this trauma ever surfacing.
Impressed by criminal Jack Black’s autobiography You Can’t Win, Burroughs set out on a life of petty crime, in which he rarely, as the title suggests, won. He mugged drunks in the New York subway, sold black-market firearms, and swiped prescription pads from physician’s offices ( he wrote up his own morphine prescriptions in the pads and got busted for it). He regularly employed the services of prostitutes in South America, Europe and North Africa. And of course, he wrote what his mother Laure Lee called that ‘wretched book’ Naked Lunch. It’s fair to say he disgraced his strait-laced American family to the point that they resolved to avoid local scandal by keeping him a geographical distance away, paying him a monthly allowance to stay out of town.
|My personal favorite: Cities of the Red Night.|
His book Naked Lunch was a scream from the womb-like comfort of a monthly allowance. But it’s such people that have the knowledge of an outsider looking in, that perhaps see the bigger picture. Burroughs always had a support network. In his later years it was his manager that had to take over and manage affairs, lecture tours of the states, new publication deals, advertisements, film cameos, paintings.
Certainly he was, as Jack Kerouac claimed, the most intelligent man in America for a number of years in the fifties and sixties. There’s not much that he didn’t know about and he never gave a bad interview. He was a street smart kid in his forties after years of trying to be one in his early life. You don’t learn street smart in Harvard and Burroughs desperately wanted to be born of a lower class. He moved in and around low-life circles to nourish this interest in degradation, and submitted himself to periods of living in squalor in South America, Tangiers and Paris.
Burroughs often disappointed rather than nurture his fans, mirroring his relationship with his son. Once he had won over a liberal minded audience with Naked Lunch he baffled and perhaps mocked them with a series of conventionally unreadable cut-up books. Perhaps it was because of this abusive relationship with his fans that enabled Burroughs to gain their respect. These were fans that were used to abuse so it made sense to have an abusive figurehead. Perhaps this is also why his fellow Beats adored him? Both Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg had abusive mothers, and Gregory Corso’s childhood was a living nightmare of parental abandonment, a succession of foster parents and institutions. There’s a comfort in horror without reason if that’s all you know.
‘The only living American writer to be possessed by genius,’ is how fellow scribe Norman Mailer saw him, and few can argue the impact that Burroughs has had on modern society. Naked Lunch is undoubtedly a classic in twentieth century literature and Cities of the Red Night a brilliant logical continuation of the authors spiritual odyssey. There are some other gems along the way, Port of Saints, Place of Dead Roads, The Western Lands and Ghost of a Chance are all beautiful works of fiction. If Burroughs was possessed by genius, then it was a quirky flawed genius, but genius all the same. Most critics would be hard pressed to find a more original twentieth century literary figure than William Burroughs. They don’t make them like that anymore and there will never be another like him.
Burroughs’s would have delighted in the fall of Enron, which eloquently illustrated the greed, the final act, in which the empire fell illustriously into the grave state of its terminal demise in the early 2000’s. The Twin Towers, would have perhaps caused a stir for Burroughs had he still been alive, but not have made him lose his head the same way Hunter S. Thompson did. It was too late by the time The Beats predictions were beginning to be realized. By the time their speculations had become a reality at the very place where they once drunk coffee and discussed the oncoming apocalypse, there were only a couple of beat writers still alive to uncover it.
The main draw to Burroughs is his ability to write in a style that simply could not have been written by anyone else. A refreshing antidote in this age of Twilights, Potters and De vinci codes. Burroughs is born from the old school, the images conveyed by the sad still music of humanity more important than the modifier to verb ratio, showing not telling, or any of that nonsense.
|Danger series of photographs.|
Part of Burroughs attraction was his dogged persistence to not conform to the Hollywood style of story-making yet paradoxically he is at his best when he does , for example, in the Clem snide sections of Cities. If he had been broken, rehabilitated and made to conform, Burroughs might well have been the finest genre writer of the twentieth century, rather than the shady beat figure that he is sadly yet fondly remembered as.
Burroughs grows increasingly popular to this day because of his sardonic wit, sound logic, satire and deadpan humor, not because of his fixation with Arab boys and guns. The question is, would a writer in this day and age achieve and enjoy popularity with such a checkered personal history? Do we still rate John Dillinger’s, Ned Kelly’s, Guy Fawkes? Have we cut off our own permissive noses to spike our politically correct faces?
‘I am not an entertainer,’ Burroughs stated at the 1963 Edinburgh literary festival that cemented his fame. Ever the modest gentleman it’s hard to imagine the man dressed in suit and tie the same figure who penned the outrageous routines such as Dr Benway operates and The talking asshole or the guy who shot his wife at a party to impress a boyfriend. This of course is part of his attraction. The voice that inspired and influenced a motley yet literate band of Musicians from Lou Reed to Kurt Cobain. Burroughs is an entertainer and saying that he isn’t is the crux of his entertainment. Like the Musician Luke Haines, Burroughs is what he is because he says he isn’t.
Burroughs played cameos in a number of movies including Father Tom in the excellent Drug Store Cowboy. He gave the punks and later the Grunge kids an excuse to use bad language, take drugs and sleep around. It was like granddaddy telling you it’s okay. The suit and tie image was the perfect juxtaposition, and Burroughs made a good living with college readings across America and Europe. Burroughs telling the outrageous routines was, after a couple of joints, like watching a stand-up comedian perform.
Reading Burroughs’s fiction is the equivalent to watching horror movies or listening to heavy metal, escapism is just a way of justifying the terrible events that have happened or are happening around us. I have yet to meet a Burroughs fan who has had a stable and caring upbringing. I’ve met plenty that think they have, but that is where the Burroughs control machine comes into play: Everything is permitted, Burroughs’s catchphrase borrowed from an Arabic deadly assassin are dangerous words in the hands of an abuser or manipulator, or say, an assassin.
Is the cult-like worship of William Burroughs something we will see repeated in our lifetimes with another media figure? It seems not. Society now is much more aware of morality and Burroughs would perhaps be relegated in mass opinion to a type of Garry Glitter figure, skirmishes with the law in foreign countries, underage prostitutes, drugs. When Burroughs returned to the States in the 1970s it was with open arms that the counter-culture accepted him, when Glitter returns to his native UK it will be to big brother type hate hysteria.
Morality in society moves in cycles. The dark ages became renaissance, Victorian London became the swinging sixties. For better or worse it appears that we are now living in a society intolerant of the sort of misbehaviour that helped build William Burroughs’s immortal image.
For Burroughs fans the icon is cemented in history, and his image will thankfully live for many years to come. For any new and emerging writer hoping to make a literary career out of living dangerously. As Burroughs commented on his feelings before shooting his wife, ‘Watch out, baby.’
Watch out indeed.
The age of literary outlaws is dead.
|In Paris. Beat Hotel Years.|
EDIT 2015: Or is it?