WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS REASSESSED

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–at least on a conscious
level of understanding. 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 publicized obscenity trial centering around 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 included 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 labeled it), or, more
accurately, a “dispatch from hell,” the book works–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 is 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. Certainly
one’s preference for one writer over another is largely subjective, but I find
it hard to believe that the deeply misogynistic, often-impenetrable Burroughs
was the go-to read for Hutton, one of the first supermodels. More likely the
introduction was scripted by Saturday Night Live music director (and
Burroughs enthusiast) Hal Willner. 

 

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 1930s) 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
favorite: 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 royalties, 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. (On a personal note, I believe use of the cut-ups in this manner
obliterates writer’s block). 

 

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, such as 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 William 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.”

 

This letter is all the more eerie due to the fact that 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 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; for 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 adds 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–and 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 life) but this is tempered with 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 author Ted Morgan, from which much of the biographical
information in this piece was derived.

 

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