A review, with digressions, of Rub Out The Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974
BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE
I went through a heavy William S. Burroughs phase in my twenties, which seems odd to me now. I mean, where was the point of connection? Burroughs—one of the founding members of the “Beat” movement in American literature—was a heroin addict, a gun nut who shot and killed his wife in a bizarre “William Tell” incident, an absent father to the doomed William Jr, and the author of several “nonlinear” novels which are dense, frequently disturbing, and often unintelligible. Even taking into account my own bohemian inclinations, this wasn’t exactly a guy with whom I shared a lot of common ground. What Burroughs did have going for him, though, was an appealing defiance: an explicit opposition to control: that is, government control, societal control, the constricting control that comes from that part of ourselves (“the parasite,” as Burroughs put it) that works against our best interests. Having gulped down Heinlein in my teens, this even-more-radical statement of the anarchist-libertarian philosophy fired my blood. Of course, the fact that Burroughs had failed so spectacularly in his own quest for freedom, having fallen under the lifelong “control” of the most soul-enslaving drug out there, went right over my head.
In time, passions cooled and I began to reassess Mr. Burroughs with a more jaundiced eye. I shifted to the view that his impressive reputation may have rested partly on a case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” starting in 1962 with Norman Mailer’s pronouncement that “Burroughs is the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Mary McCarthy soon followed with praise of her own. A highly publicised obscenity trial sparked by Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch, at which Mailer and Allen Ginsberg testified, further solidified his reputation, and thrust the “renegade author” into that prestigious club of censored geniuses which also includes D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller.
But what of the work itself? Naked Lunch is certainly groundbreaking, taking a shotgun to any notion of conventional narrative. The content, which runs the gamut from drug addiction to sexual transgression, even teetering into pedophilia and child-murder, remains shocking even for today’s audiences. And Burroughs’s sly, detached writing style has literary merit. Taken as a “cry from hell” (as one critic labelled it), or, more accurately, a “dispatch from hell,” the book achieves its intended effect—though those few readers who have actually made it to the end have no doubt discovered that the narrative (such as it is) simply stops. It’s hard to tell if this was an intentional statement on the messiness and non-resolution of real life, of if Burroughs simply ran out of steam.
The three novels that followed: The Soft Machine, Nova Express, and The Ticket That Exploded are, in places, just about unreadable. They seem to have been deliberately engineered to be that way, composed using the “cut-up” method: a technique (literally cutting up linear text and re-arranging the words at random in search of provocative new juxtapositions) “discovered” by artist Brion Gysin and subsequently developed by Burroughs. There is powerful material there, to be sure, but the cut-ups exponentially increase the difficulty in getting to it.
I find it interesting to read the Amazon.com readers’ comments on The Soft Machine. Many of them are along the lines of the following rave from “A Customer”: “The battle is now raging in the language itself. And therefore in our own minds. The sentences with which humanity has manipulated its existence are under siege. Their order is cut up in the hope that through the black holes that are thus struck in them we may reach the silence so we may hear what’s going on.”
On the flip side, “Swingland” from Boone, NC has the courage to admit his befuddlement: “I know he’s a good writer because everyone says he is, but i’m not seeing it. (…) oh well, i guess i’ll die … ignorant … never knowing the greatness of WSB.”
From the mid-Sixties onward an almost hysterical sycophancy began to coalesce around Burroughs, making objective appraisal all the more difficult. Even members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones entered his orbit. This cult of personality metastasized when he moved to New York City in 1974, a relocation that placed him in close proximity to hordes of z-list punks and hipsters who made clowns of themselves climbing over each other to get near the gentleman junkie. Certainly there were individuals of genuine talent, such as Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Terry Southern, and Patti Smith, who congregated around him due to a sincere interest in his work, but they were the exception that proved the rule. Most of the hangers-on were primarily concerned with being in the orbit of Burroughs’ perceived coolness.
In 1981, Burroughs appeared on Saturday Night Live to read a passage from his early piece “Twilight’s Last Gleaming.” Lauren Hutton introduced him as “a man who, in my opinion, is the greatest living American writer.” Just think about that statement for a minute. That would have put him above such contemporaries as Mailer, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, and any number of others who had produced works of significantly greater breadth and depth than anything in Burroughs’s canon.
I know all of this is giving the impression that I’m down on Burroughs. That’s actually not the case. The fact is, the cut-up method works marvelously for songwriters (David Bowie used it throughout the ’70s and I suspect Michael Stipe employed a variation of it while composing his early lyrics) and also poets, but it’s not a very effective way to write novels. I do feel that Burroughs produced brilliant work, just not typically in the areas where everyone was looking. The best analogy I can draw here is to Anais Nin, who spent much of her life toiling over novels which no one reads anymore. It’s her posthumously published, unexpurgated diaries and her erotica (written quickly and anonymously for money back in the 1940s) that have demonstrated lasting value. In Burroughs’s case, it’s his first volume of letters, his nonfiction, and Naked Lunch that, in my opinion, represent his best work. The letters, not the cut-up novels, strike that perfect balance between reality and nightmarish fantasy that Burroughs was shooting for in his fiction. It is in the letters that we see him coming to terms with his homosexuality, struggling with his narcotics addiction, and trying, through his various experiments in writing and art, to keep one step ahead of the “parasite.” Furthermore, the structured format of epistolary writing has the unintended effect of keeping Burroughs’s surrealist meanderings in check. And the other nonfiction work, which includes The Adding Machine (a collection of essays) and my own personal favourite, The Cat Inside, (Burroughs’s meditation on the soul-transforming effects of feline/human companionship), showcases this very original thinker at his most lucid, compelling, and, yes, heartfelt.
That first volume of Burroughs’s letters, edited by Oliver Harris and published in 1993, remains a gold standard. The careful selection and annotation, as well as the strength of the letters themselves, create an absorbing narrative as we watch Burroughs metamorphose over a period of years from an awkward, shiftless, conflicted outcast into the dapper iconoclast we know so well. It’s a wonderful read, and possibly Burroughs’s best work.
The long-awaited, recently published second volume, Rub out the Words, comprising the years 1959 through 1974 and edited this time around by Bill Morgan, does not reach the high bar set by its predecessor. It is perhaps best suited for readers who are already conversant in Burroughs’s body of work, as there are a bewildering number of obscure references and Burroughs-centric colloquialisms that would be completely incomprehensible to a neophyte. Part of the blame can be placed on Burroughs himself, who was deep in his cut-ups during this period of his life, and much also can be attributed to Morgan, who takes a more hands-off approach with regards to framing and clarifying the letters than Harris did. Morgan is the author of the competent but not very compelling The Typewriter is Holy: An Uncensored History of the Beat Generation(2010), and he brings the same workmanlike (though essentially cold) approach to the current project. Granted, Morgan had his work cut out for him in Burroughs. It’s clear from even a cursory reading of The Typewriter is Holy that Burroughs is not Morgan’s favorite of the three founding Beats (the other two being Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac), and stacking them next to each other it’s easy to see why. Kerouac and Ginsberg wrote in soulful, musically inflected prose and poetry, whereas Burroughs’s prose (and persona) could be remote, clinical, and difficult to comprehend. In the years covered in the earlier Harris-edited volume, Burroughs was at least personally and stylistically a bit closer to his Beat brethren than he would become later on, and due to his isolation and obscurity he had fewer correspondents. Consequently the narrative arc of that book is easier to follow. At the outset of this new volume we find Burroughs in 1959 commanding a certain degree of notoriety and fame following the publication of Naked Lunch. He is now a professional writer and conducts himself as such. That means there are quite a few letters to Maurice Girodias (owner/editor of The Olympia Press) demanding an accounting for Naked Lunch‘s vanished royalites, and various business-related inquiries to other publishers, editors, and agents. It’s a bit of a shock to learn that, despite his high profile at the time, Burroughs was just barely scraping by due to his publishers’ mismanagement of his earnings.
The obsession with cut-ups nearly derails the first third of the volume. The majority of the letters in this section are addressed to Gysin, who was not only the creator of the cut-ups but also Burroughs’s best friend. Burroughs became so obsessed with the process that he would actually cut up his friend’s letters, rearrange them, and send them back to him. He would also fold in newspaper text, bits of Shakespeare, and his own writing. In some cases the first half of a letter is linear, and then the second half consists of cut-ups of what went before. This was probably tremendous fun for the participants but is sheer tedium to read now.
However, the reader’s patience with this material is rewarded with two valuable insights: 1) It becomes clear that Burroughs was absolutely sincere about the cut-up technique. He was fully convinced that he was developing a method that would shape the future of art. From our current vantage point, where so much of popular music consists of rearranged samples of other material, and where the “mash-up” is now a hugely popular literary, film, and music genre, it’s not so easy to discredit that prediction. 2) There was a definite method to the madness. As “A Customer” alluded to above, Burroughs believed that by dynamiting the structure of language itself, he could effectively “rub out the words” and reach a state of inner silence—that is, inner peace. In his letters, he explicitly draws the comparison between his own methods and “Eastern techniques,” (i.e. meditation, yoga) and states his belief that the cut-ups (which can also be applied to sound and film) will get a person to the goal of “wordless thought” more quickly and effectively than years of Buddhist or Yogic practice could. He does make an exception in noting that “those young Buddhists” who set themselves on fire (in Vietnam) may have reached the point toward which he is striving.
Thankfully, by the mid Sixties Burroughs had begun a gradual return to more conventional forms of narrative: still employing the cut-ups to generate new ideas, but then taking that cut-up text and massaging it back into something resembling linear narrative.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Burroughs’s shift toward clarity occurred alongside a newly deepened engagement with the world around him. The letters from the early Sixties contain only a few mentions of politics: at one point he urges a friend to vote for Kennedy, and then in a later letter he notes his anger concerning Kennedy’s assassination. But by the late Sixties he is firmly on the side of revolution—though it becomes clear that Burroughs favors a purely anarchist revolution over any kind of traditional leftist uprising. Ever the iconoclast, Burroughs makes some surprising pivots, at one point exhorting an editor of an underground magazine to come out firmly against “dangerous” drugs such as heroin, amphetamines, barbiturates and hallucinogens, since these could easily undermine the movement. Yet he consistently makes a distinction between disapproval and prohibition, stating in multiple letters that drug addiction should be treated as a medical condition rather than a criminal matter.
It’s interesting to note here that while Burroughs himself would continue to struggle with addiction, he felt strongly that the cut-ups, as well as the “dream machine” (a stroboscopic device developed by Brion Gysin and Burroughs’ companion/collaborator Ian Sommerville), could take the place of drugs entirely, inducing altered states with no negative side effects. Once again he felt that he was blasting through a cultural impasse and charting a better way forward for artists and society alike.
In the midst of such lofty aspirations, it’s almost a relief to find that Burroughs was by no means above the level of a good-old fashioned “beef,” and this collection contains several examples of Burroughs training his barbed wit on carefully selected targets. Early on in the book, we see him go after Timothy Leary, criticizing the one-time Harvard professor for extreme sloppiness in his drug research. “Leary has gone berserk,” Burroughs writes to Gysin in 1961. “He is giving mushrooms to hat check girls, cab drivers, waiters, in fact anybody who will stand still for it.”
In a more sinister example of literary “spiritual warfare,” Burroughs sends an anonymous letter to Truman Capote, eviscerating the celebrated author for, in Burroughs’ eyes, exploiting the life stories of two convicted murderers and then letting them die at the hands of the state in order to produce In Cold Blood. Assuming the role of God (or perhaps the devil), Burroughs writes to Capote: “You have betrayed and sold out the talent that was granted you by this department. That talent is now officially withdrawn. Enjoy your dirty money. You will never have anything else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished.”
The hex worked.
Taken as a whole, Rub out the Words is a hugely valuable—albeit uneven—contribution to our understanding of William S. Burroughs and his place in the pantheon of American letters. Reading it certainly increased my appreciation for his professionalism, his carefulness as a writer, and his drive. At the same time, there is a disturbing thread of misogyny running through this volume that I would be remiss in not mentioning. This goes beyond the casual bigotry of “a woman’s place is in the kitchen”: an attitude shared by many of the men (including Ginsberg and Kerouac) of Burroughs’s generation. Burroughs went so far as to attribute all the problems of the world to “the female” and fantasized about a future entirely devoid of women: a future in which men could freely have sex with one another and go about their business unhindered by the pernicious influence of wives and mothers. Under any other circumstances one might dismiss this as eccentric fancy, and it certainly speaks well of his talent that authors such as Joan Didion and Angela Carter have looked past this aspect of his worldview and praised his work anyway; but it must be remembered that this advocate of a womanless world shot his wife square in the forehead. That not-so-insignificant detail lends a certain chill to Burroughs’s provocative and, let’s face it, ugly thoughts on gender.
The circumstances of Joan Burroughs’s death, while not directly addressed in the letters, have a bearing on one of the major “arcs” of the volume: Burroughs’s strained relationship with his son Billy. They therefore deserve some brief elaboration here. One evening, while socializing with some friends in Mexico City in 1951, William suggested to Joan that they perform their “William Tell act.” Joan placed a glass on her head and William fired. His aim proved fatally low. Burroughs was subsequently imprisoned and then released on bail (this release apparently having been secured as the result of older brother Mort Burroughs bribing the proper authorities) and soon afterward fled Mexico altogether.
Needless to say, this senseless tragedy had a seismic impact on the father-son dynamic. Billy, who had been four years old at the time of the killing, was sent to live with his grandparents. As he grew older, he embarked on a concerted effort to out-drink and out-drug his father, eventually dying at age 33 of liver failure. In the letters, we see Burroughs Sr. struggling awkwardly to assume a fatherly role. There is some joy as we witness William’s pride at his son’s literary accomplishments (Burroughs Jr. published two well-received autobiographical novels during his lifetime) but this is tempered by foreknowledge of the tragedy—an emergency liver transplant followed by an even faster downward spiral ending in death—that would begin ramping up not too long after the final letters in this volume.
And so this book, ending with a letter not to Ginsberg or Gysin or a publisher, but to Billy, subtly reminds us that there were two very different William S. Burroughses: the storied literary renegade, so esteemed—rightly or wrongly—by so many, and the actual man: a lifelong drug addict who disappointed his parents, who carelessly caused the death of his wife, and who neglected his son with ultimately fatal consequences. That is a jarring contrast, and one can only imagine what it must have felt like to embody those two personas. Which was more significant to him? Did he view himself day-to-day as Burroughs the worshipped innovator, or Burroughs the terminal fuckup? A possible clue resides in one of his final journal entries, written less than a month before he died:
Mother, Dad, Mort, Bill – I failed them all.
Author’s note: I would like to express my appreciation for the works of Burroughs archivist/executor James Grauerholz and biographer Ted Morgan, from which much of the background information in this piece was derived.