William Burroughs: High Priest of Hipsterism

By Ronald Weston

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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 New York Times Book Review, says, "It is a toss-up whether Nova Express is even more boring than Naked Lunch. . . . Bur­roughs' writing fails literally and intellectually." Poet Robert Lowell has said of Naked Lunch, "It's a completely powerful and serious book, as good as anything in prose or poetry written by a 'beat' writer, and one of the most alive books written by any American for years." Critic Alfred Chester says that Burroughs, along with Vladimir Nabokov, is experimenting with form itself, which makes them "the novelists one presently has to reckon with." Norman Pod­horetz, editor of Commentary, a bargain-base­ment imitation of Encounter, deigns to let us know that he does not "admire" Naked Lunch. The English critic Philip Toynbee says that both Naked Lunch and Nova Express are "bor­ing rubbish_ insufficiently redeemed by passages of brilliant invention." Richard Sullivan of Notre Dame University, speaking of Nova Ex­press, has said it is a "poor, bad, destructive, corruptive, idiotic book. Nobody should read it. . . . A sad book, a sorry book, a practically unreadable book for both author and publisher: Nova Express, by William S. Burroughs, who might flunk freshman English either on grounds of punctuation or loose and slow thinking." Critic Richard C. Kostelanetz writes, "Naked Lunch is one of the more truly original and ex­citing pieces of prose to emerge from the fifties." Critic John Wain has said of Naked Lunch, "From the literary point of view, it is the merest trash, not worth a second glance." Poet John Ciardi has said Naked Lunch "is. . . a master­piece of its own genre," and that Burroughs is "a writer of great power and artistic integrity engaged in a profoundly meaningful search for true values."

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 Los Angeles. Here is an extract from the trial record:

 

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!

 

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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 St. Louis. He was the grandson of the inventor of the Bur­roughs adding machine, and his own parents "were comfortable. My father owned and ran I a lumber business." His earliest memories were "colored by a fear of nightmares. I was afraid to be alone, and afraid of the dark, and afraid to go to sleep because of dreams where a supernatural horror seemed always on the point of -taking shape. I was afraid some day the dream would still be there when I woke up. I recall hearing a maid talk about opium and how smok­ing opium brings sweet dreams, and I said: 'I will smoke opium when I grow up.' "

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 Palm Beach, Florida. Relationship excellent."

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 Midwest suburb where all contact with life was shut out." He and his friend found an aban­doned factory, broke all the windows, and stole one chisel. They were caught, and their fathers had to pay for the damages. "After this my friend 'packed me in' because our relationship was en­dangering his standing with the group. I saw there was no compromise possible with the group, the others, and I found myself a 'good deal alone." However, he and the other boy "re­mained friends for 30 years."

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 University of Vienna for a while, kept a pet ferret, and in Greece married a Jewish girl flee­ing from the Nazis and brought her to this coun­try. They were divorced some years ago, but they are still good friends

 

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Back in the States, Burroughs was still alone and he continued to drift. He studied general semantics with Korzybski in Chicago, learned jiu-jitsu, and went back to Harvard to take 2 years of graduate study in anthropology. He also entered psychoanalysis with a hypno-ana­lyst, who found him un-hypnotizable and re­sorted to drug therapy with nitrous oxide. Seven personalities came to light within Burroughs, he says, including a distinguished pro­fessor, a raving maniac who had to be put in chains while the analyst spoke to him, and an elderly Negro. "Analysis," Burroughs wrote later, "removed inhibitions and anxieties so that I could live the way I wanted to live. Much of my progress was accomplished in spite of my 'orien­tation,' as my analyst called it. He finally aban­doned analytic objectivity and put me down as an 'out-and-out con.' I was more pleased with the results than he was." Today, he writes: "I am now extremely doubtful whether any results are obtained by psychoanalysis, which I con­sider a rigidly dogmatic and superstitious system.”

'" 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 U.S. When the Army saw that diag­nosis they discharged me with the notation, 'This man is never to be recalled or reclassified.' "

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 New York City, where he met poet Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs "was my great­est teacher at the time," says Ginsberg. "He put me on to Spengler, Yeats, Rimbaud, Korzybski, Proust, and Celine. Burroughs educated me more than Columbia, really." Poet Alan Ansen met Burroughs through Ginsberg. He called him a "totally autonomous personality," totally self-directed and nonconformist, and added that he looked like a con man down on his luck. "A cracker accent and the use of jive talk fail to conceal an incisive intelligence and a frighten­ing seriousness. . . . How many addicts one knows incapable of more than a sob or a mono­syllable, how many queers who seem to have no place in life except the perfume counter at Woolworth's. . . . To use drugs without losing consciousness or articulateness, to love boys without turning into a mindless drab is a form of hero­ism."

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 New Orleans. Jack Kerouac, who had met him in New York, visited Burroughs and has given a vivid description of the Burroughs household in his novel, On the Road, describing Old Bull Lee (Burroughs) taking his three shots of heroin a day and lecturing interminably about the Mayan codices; Jane Lee "never more than ten feet away from Bull," loving him madly; their child, Ray (actually William Jr.), running around "stark naked in the yard, a little blonde child of the rainbow"; Bull showing off his arse­nal of guns; Jane devouring $100 worth of benzedrine every week; Bull falling asleep with Ray in his lap, "a pretty sight, father and son, a father who would certainly never bore his son when it came to finding things to do and talk about." This idyllic period came to an end when Burroughs was arrested for possession of heroin. He skipped bail, took his family to Mex­ico, and began the exile that was to last 15 years.

 

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In Mexico, Burroughs began his first serious attempt to kick the habit. He tried an' unfortu­nate approach frequently recommended by junkies, the "liquor withdrawal." You stay drunk all through the first 5 days of pain and agony, and for as long as possible afterwards, taking whiskey every time your cells cry out for junk. Charlie Parker, the great jazz musician, went insane trying to kick heroin this way and landed in a state hospital. Burroughs blanked out for several days, came to standing in a bar pointing a gun at a total stranger. He was furiously angry without knowing why and ready to kill the man, but a cop appeared and disarmed him. Then he came down with uremic poisoning (caused by alcoholism) and in agony took some paregoric from a sympathetic junkie. Paregoric is an opiate and contains the same addicting substance as opium, heroin, and morphine. Bur­roughs was hooked again.

. 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 to St. Louis to live with his parents and he himself took off for Tangier, French North Africa, where the price of junk was still low enough to be covered by his $200­a-month trust fund.

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.

 

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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 psychiatrist in New York has been per­suaded by Burroughs to try it on alcoholics and reports good results; the Federal hospital for narcotic addicts at Lexington still remains coldly indifferent.

"Apomorphine," 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 America do not have this method of treatment available.

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 Lexington who had been through 30 to 40 "cures"; Dan Wakefield's The Addict says that many, many more have been through more than 50 "cures" without redemption.

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.

 

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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 University of Chicago, agreed to publish' several episodes from Naked Lunch. Before the magazine went to press, however, university officials, seeing the galleys, reneged. The editors of the Chicago Review thereupon resigned and started a new magazine, Big Table, just to get Burroughs into print. The response was immediate, at least among other writers. Norman Mailer described Burroughs as a "genius" without waiting to see the rest of the book, and others were equally enthusiastic. The Evergreen Review immedi­ately began publishing further excerpts from Burroughs in almost every issue. The Olympia Press, in Paris, which had already rejected Naked Lunch, asked to see the manuscript again, and decided to publish it. Grove Press brought out an American edition shortly there­after. Everything Burroughs has written since then has been published immediately.

William Burroughs, after 15 years abroad – mostly in Tangier, Paris, and London – is now back in New York City, renting a loft on Centre Street. It is an austere, naked-looking room, with a refrigerator in one corner, a few comfortable chairs for guests, no carpet or, drapes, a typewriter, a tape recorder, and shelves full of neatly stacked manuscript pages arranged in some precise but recondite system comprehensible only to Burroughs himself. It is a room for serious work by a serious man. Bur­roughs shows you to a chair with a courtesy that was commonplace when he was young but has now almost vanished. He makes tea for you, following a complicated brewing and steeping system to ensure the perfect flavor. After an hour or so of conversation, he serves two mar­tinis. He answers all questions patiently and politely, in a Harvard voice with just a tinge of the St. Louis of his boyhood still in it. When you ask how he found this place, Burroughs says, grinning, "I was helped by Finkelstein the Loft King" (you can see the capital letters, just the way he would write it in one of his books) "also known as the Artist's Friend. He knows where every empty loft in Manhattan is at any time."

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 Greenwich Village gatherings. Recently he even played a role in a movie, and he has just been offered another role, and this new career may yet win him away from writing altogether. "Acting gives me more of a charge than writing," he told' me. "I'd like to play gangster roles."

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 China before, the ink is dry"). Burroughs believes that his whole 1ife has been an attempt on his part to experience, and to transmit to others, his own "mutation in consciousness."

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."

 

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