William Burroughs: High Priest of Hipsterism
By Ronald Weston
return to RAW Fans
Burroughs has been called everything from a genius to a timid Marquis de Sade, but one thing is undisputed: No other writer has led a life that is more fascinating and horrifying
William Burroughs may not be the greatest fountainhead of literary inspiration since James Joyce, as some people think he is. And it is quite possible that he is also not the most outrageously untalented writer since Ayn Rand, as some other people think he is. But there is no doubt about one thing: No other American writer, living or dead, has led a life more fascinating, grotesque, and blackly bitter. No other American writer, for that matter, has been thrown out of the Army after being diagnosed as a paranoid-schizophrenic, has become a drug addict and remained one for 15 years, has shot and killed his wife, and has eventually become one of the leaders of a cult attempting to change the very consciousness of the world.
At 51, Burroughs has written only a few books-a part-factual, part-fictional autobiographical fragment called Junkie, produced under the pen-name of William Lee; novels like The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express, and The Soft Machine; and-the book that made him infamous-the harrowing and horrifying story of life seen through the diseased mind of a drug addict, Naked Lunch. Not since James Joyce's Ulysses, it can safely be said, has any book flabbergasted the critics the way Naked Lunch has.
Mary McCarthy has praised Burroughs' "peculiarly American"
humor, complained that Naked Lunch is sometimes "disgusting,"
"tiresome," and "perplexing," and concluded by referring
to his "remarkable talent." Norman Mailer has said, "Naked
Lunch is a book of beauty, great difficulty, and maniacally exquisite
insight. I think that William Burroughs is the only American novelist living
today who may conceivably be possessed by genius." The New Yorker has
written, "Mr. Burroughs got away with too much. .
. in Naked Lunch. There was bitter satire, apparently grounded in
genuine rage. There were many rough words and many beautifully turned
sentences. And there was no form at all." Time has dubbed
Burroughs' novels "potluck: the cauldron, having flipped its lid, spills
nightmare fantasies, sick jokes, narcotic dreams, and polemics against pushers.
. . ." Richard Kluger, editor of Book Week, has
written: ". . . Burroughs' effects are stunning. He is a writer of rare power. . . his talent is more than notorious. It may well
turn out to be important." Jack Kerouac says, "Burroughs is the
greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift." George P. Elliott, in the
Of all the comments made about Naked Lunch, probably
the most perspicacious came from novelist Herbert Gold: "At its best, this
book, which is not a novel but a booty brought back from a nightmare, takes a
coldly implacable look at the dark side of our nature. . . . William Burroughs
has written the basic work for understanding that desperate symptom which is
the beat style of life." And certainly the silliest literary critique of Naked
Lunch came from Assistant City Attorney Roland Fairfield, who was
prosecuting the book in
Mr. Fairfield: . . . Your Honor, I would just like to point out to the Court that the following words are used in the book a total of 234 times on 235 pages; and I wllI spell them out rather than say them in the court
The Court: Go ahead "and say them. We hear them probably once a week.
Mr. Fairfield: Fuck, shit, ass, cunt, prick, asshole, cock-sucker. Two hundred thirty-four times on 235 pages!
* * *
The critics have had almost as much trouble trying to pigeon-hole Burroughs himself as they have had trying to pigeon-hole his books. He has been called the Martin Luther of Hipsterism, the beatest of the beats, a nihilist, an adolescent Henry Miller, the high priest of the beats, an Action writer, the farthest-out of all far-out writers, and a timid Marquis de Sade. And while this article will not try to determine once and for all Burroughs' worth as a writer, it will try to answer one question: Just who is William S. Burroughs?
Burroughs was born Feb. 4, 1914, in "a solid,
three-story, brick house" in
He continues: "I was subject to hallucinations as a child. Once I woke up in the early morning light and saw little men playing in a block house I had made. I felt no fear, only a feeling of stillness and wonder. Another recurrent hallucination or nightmare concerned 'animals in the wall,' and started with the delirium of a strange, undiagnosed fever that 1 had at the age of four or five."
Burroughs has also written, to Fact, "My
parents were never mentally ill. My father died last year. Mother
still living in
He attended a progressive school, and says, "I was timid with the other children and afraid of physical violence. One aggressive little Lesbian would pull my hair whenever she saw me. I would like to shove her face in right now, but she fell off a horse and broke her neck years ago."
When he was about 7, his parents decided to move' to the suburbs, "to get away from people." Burroughs attended a private high school. "I was not conspicuously good or bad at sports, neither brilliant nor backward at studies. I had a definite blind spot for "anything mechanical. I never liked competitive games and avoided these whenever possible. I became, in fact, a chronic malingerer. I did like fishing, hunting, and hiking." He also read Wilde, Anatole France, Baudelaire, and even Gide - and eventually "I formed a romantic attachment for another boy" and they spent time together bicycling, fishing, and exploring old quarries:
At this time, Burroughs continues, he read the
autobiography of a burglar, called You Can't
Win. The burglar had spent a good part of his life in jail. "It
sounded good to me," says Burroughs, "compared with the dullness of a
Burroughs retreated into reading and into solitary hiking and hunting. "I drifted into solo adventures," he has written. "My criminal acts were gestures, unprofitable and for the most part unpunished. I would break into houses and walk around without taking anything. . . . Sometimes I would drive around in the country with a 22 rifle, shooting chickens. I made the roads unsafe with reckless driving until an accident, from which I emerged miraculously and portentously unscratched, scared me into normal caution."
Burroughs went on to attend Harvard. "I majored in English literature for lack of interest in any other subject. I hated the University and I hated the town it was in. Everything about the place was dead. The University was a fake English setup taken over by the graduates of fake English public schools. I was lonely. I knew no one and strangers were regarded with distaste by the closed corporation of the desirables." He was a mediocre student.
"By accident I met some rich homosexuals, of the international queer set. . . . But these people were jerks for the most part, and, after an initial period of fascination, I cooled off to the setup."
He graduated from Harvard during the Depression, and since
he could not get a job, went abroad for a year or so, living on a $200-a-month
trust fund he had. He studied medicine at the
* * *
Back in the States, Burroughs was still alone and he
continued to drift. He studied general semantics with Korzybski in
'" In 1941 he was drafted into the Army. "I decided I was not going to like the Army and
copped out on my nut-house record-I'd once got on a Van Gogh kick and cut off a
finger joint" to impress a boy he had a crush on. "The nut-house
doctors had never heard of Van Gogh. They put me down for schizophrenia, adding
paranoid type to explain the upsetting fact that I knew where I was and who was
President of the
It is not necessary, perhaps, to comment on Burroughs' defensiveness in this matter.
Once out of the Army, Burroughs worked as a private detective, an exterminator, a bartender, and so on. He had married a second time, and he and his wife, Jane, frequently used marijuana and benzedrine "for kicks." Soon after he began taking heroin, in 1942, he became hopelessly addicted.
One day recently I asked William Burroughs why he had become addicted. "Addiction is a disease of exposure," he replied. "By and large people become addicts who are exposed to it-doctors and nurses, for instance. People I knew at the time were using it. I took a shot, liked it, and eventually became an addict. "
"But weren't you aware of the dangers?" I persisted.
Burroughs thought a moment and replied, "The Federal Narcotics Bureau does a grave disservice by disseminating a lot of misinformation. Most of what they say is such nonsense that I didn't believe them about addiction. I thought I could take it or leave it alone. They give out that marijuana is a harmful and habit-forming drug, and it simply isn't. They claim that you can be addicted with one shot, and that's another myth. . . They overestimate the physical bad effects. I just didn't believe them about anything they said."
Burroughs' first few years of addiction were spent in
Burroughs' dope habit soon reached the point where it cost
more than the $200-per-month he received from his trust fund. Like most
addicts, he began pushing the stuff himself. When it seemed that the law was
beginning to take note of his activities, he skipped out to
* * *
. He tried "liquor withdrawal" a second time a
few months later and shot his wife. Carl Solomon, in his introduction to Junkie,
says Burroughs shot his wife "in a 'William Tell' experiment . . .
demonstrating his marksmanship by attempting, to shoot a champagne glass off
her head and killing her in the process." Burroughs denies this. "I
was just crazy drunk," he says, "and didn't know the gun was
loaded." The death was pronounced accidental. Burroughs sent his son back
Ten times he tried to kick the habit, trying accepted techniques and inventing some of his own. He tried the quick-reduction method, went through unmitigated hell, and relapsed. He tried a slow reduction, and found that it merely spread the pain over 2 months instead of 10 days. He tried using antihistamines during withdrawal, cortisone during withdrawal, Thorazine and resperine during withdrawal: The pain was always hideous, and relapse always followed. Once he tried using marijuana during withdrawal; it was an unspeakable nightmare. Marijuana, like all the consciousness-expanding drugs, magnifies and intensifies every experience. Music is sweeter, sex is tastier, colors are brighter-and pain is more wrenching. The aches, twitches, cramps, chills, fevers, nausea, diarrhea, and hallucinations of opiate withdrawal were all increased a thousand-fold and Burroughs almost died of shock and exhaustion.
Another time he tried the method known as "prolonged sleep," in which the doctor keeps the patient unconscious with barbiturates for the first 5 days (the worst days) of withdrawal. The theory sounds good: You go to sleep and wake up cured. Burroughs woke up in hell-the most painful of all his withdrawals. He is convinced that his acute pain on that occasion was the result of barbiturate withdrawal superimposed on top of opiate withdrawal. (Barbiturate addicts suffer even worse on withdrawal than opiate addicts. Sometimes they die.) Two weeks later he was still too weak to walk. He relapsed almost immediately after release.
* * *
In 1957, after 15 years, Burroughs found himself at the end of the junk line, in a state of terminal addiction. He had one room in the Native Quarter of Tangier. He had not taken a bath in a year, or cleaned or dusted his room,. Garbage was piled to the ceiling; light and water had been turned off for nonpayment. "If a friend came to visit," he wrote later of this period, "– and they rarely did since who or what was left to visit? – I sat there not caring that he had entered my field of vision – a gray screen always blanker and fainter – and not caring when he walked out of it." And yet, somehow, by some miracle of sheer character, William Burroughs got up, got out of that room, flew to London for one last attempt at withdrawal, and freed himself finally of the curse visited upon him 15 years earlier. In 8 years, he has not relapsed.
The miracle was accomplished with the aid of a remarkable
physician, Dr. John Yerbury Dent, and a new compound
called apomorphine. Apomorphine
is made by boiling morphine with hydrochloric acid and it allegedly acts on
the back brain to regulate the metabolism. "I can state definitely,"
Burroughs has written in the British Journal of Addiction, "that I
was never metabolically cured until I took the apomorphine
cure." Over the years before Dr. Dent died, Burroughs sent numerous other
addicts to him, with, reportedly, equally favorable results. But the American
medical profession still maintains an uninterest in
the whole subject. "They are afraid of apomorphine
here," Burroughs says. "It's a semantic hang-up: The association with
morphine scares them." Burroughs is convinced that apomorphine
is the best tool' yet invented to handle all forms of anxiety and addiction,
and is tirelessly propagandizing for further research to be done with it. One
Burroughs says, "restores the natural self-regulation of the organism. It
can be used, and should be used, for all the cases where tranquilizers are now
used. A tranquilizer just hits you on the head and numbs you. Apomorphine undercuts anxiety by restoring the natural
metabolism." He is particularly incensed that the ever-increasing number of opiate addicts in
According to government statistics, 90% of all those ever
treated for opiate addiction in Federal hospitals relapse soon after their
release. Other studies, such as Berger's Dealing with Drug Addiction, argue
that the actual relapse rate is more than 95 % .
Barney Ross, the former boxer, has told of addicts he met at
William Burroughs' escape from this Inferno' would be an epic of human endurance if he merely spent his remaining days sitting on park benches feeding pigeons. Instead, he has gone on to create a literature of cosmic fantasy unique in history. And if his books are full of the horror of being human, he has lived that horror and has the right to record it.
* * *
Getting the first of his books, Naked Lunch, into
print was a saga almost as Herculean as kicking the junk habit. Over 40
publishers refused it because of its breath-taking sexual excesses. Finally, in
1959, the Chicago Review, a literary magazine sponsored by the
William Burroughs, after 15 years abroad – mostly in
Burroughs has just finished writing and helping to direct a movie called Towers Open Fire and is now working on a book, Right Where You Are Sitting Now, combining his own words with news photos, advertisements, comic strips, and other Americana "that seem to go together." He shows you some pages and explains, "That photo there-that's a Vietnamese being beaten up by American soldiers. He wanted them to go home and leave his country alone. I took it out of the issue of Time which had an flttack on my Nova Express in it." Under this photo Burroughs has placed a line from Nova Express: "Now I'll By God show you how ugly the Ugly American can be."
At 51, Burroughs looks, and talks, very much like the Harvard anthropologist he once almost became. Although his books' are written in a style compounded of dozens of special (and vulgar) argots-underworld slang, homosexual slang, hipster slang, addict slang, and medical-school slang, among others-Burroughs in person can talk for 3 hours without ever using colloquialism or obscenity. In his years as a heroin addict he became so thin that the street boys in Tangier where he lived for 12 years called him "BI Hombre Invisible"; today, he is a well-built, robustly healthy man whose glasses and precise speech suggest" that he is a theoretician engaged in some arcane branch of mathematics or mathematical physics. He talks about the exploding star in the Crab Nebula which went nova in A.D. 1069 and was observed by Chinese astronomers; he is very intense and wishes to be sure that you understand the importance of this in the structure of Nova Express.
Nowadays Burroughs is not the lonely person he once was,
having a son who is a folk singer as well as a coterie of admirers who are
always inviting him to speak before
Like Arthur Koestler, Colin Wilson, and the
theologian-scientist 'Teilhard de Chardin,
Burroughs is convinced that only a "mutation in consciousness" can
save Mankind from nuclear destruction (a catastrophe he thinks will occur
"just as soon as the U.S. and Russia sign a mutual nonaggression pact. When you read about that, run for the South Pole. The bombs
will start dropping on
I myself have no doubt that Burroughs through his journeys into and out of the hell of addictive drugs and the "artificial paradise" (as Baudelaire called it) of the hallucinatory drugs – has experienced some sort of expansion of consciousness. After all, he has experimented with not only heroin and marijuana, but with hashish, psylocybin, yage, Pakistan berries, LSD-25, mescaline, and the fantastically potent N-demethyltrytamine – No One goes to Burroughs expecting to find a tormented and warped genius like de Sade; one finds instead a gentle-man in the old meaning of that term, a courteous, scholarly person with the serenity of the Chinese sages of legend. As he himself puts it, "Any drug that increases your awareness increases your insight into other people. I think that what prevents people from seeing other people's minds is that they're so preoccupied with their own minds, with their own petty problems. If you learn to shut your own mind off, you'll get a pretty good idea of what's in other people's minds."
Yet this man whose own life has been permeated by drugs, whose entire philosophy has been inspired by drugs, and whose literary success itself can be tied to his drug-taking, is no emphatic in his rejection of all of them, including the consciousness-expanding drugs. "They do lead to new, nonverbal insights;" he says, "but you very soon reach a point of diminishing returns. And they are dangerous. I have seen people go through anxiety states which could have led to suicide if they had not been restrained."
William Burroughs, always unpredictable, has a new message: "Learn to make it without any chemical corn."
return to RAW Fans