William S. Burroughs – 1914-1997 – Brief Article

Gary Indiana

By the time he wrote Junky in the early 1950s, William S. Burroughs was well past his youth. He had traveled all over the United States, Europe, and South America and had lived the harsh, transient existence of a drug addict for over a decade. He came to literature, in other words, fully formed, with a life’s worth of material under his belt. Like Joseph Conrad, whose books he revered, Burroughs started late but had everything he needed.

He was a tireless voyager in inner and outer space. Burroughs detested the limitations of living in a body and probed into anything that promised to shake his mind free from the earth plane — Scientology, Whitley Streiber’s aliens, sweat lodges, and, of course, yage, the “telepathy” drug he searched for in the jungles of Colombia and Peru. The cut-up and fold-in techniques he used to write Nova Express, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded were intended to get beyond the limitations of the mind’s repetitive language, to tap into some “third mind” just outside hearing range.

Guilt and regret were the impetus of his art, especially guilt over the accidental killing of his wife in what’s usually described as a “drunken William Tell experiment.” A later source of grief was the death of his son, Billy, who drank himself to death following a liver transplant.

Burroughs was the first American writer to depict gay sex in a completely explicit way — and not simply explicitly but as over-the-top, orgiastic entertainment. He conjured a world in which the most common sexual event was anal intercourse, with the ejaculations of hanging victims running a close second. Sex is both a sacramental act and a vampiric one: Often Burroughs’s characters discard their bodies during sex and colonize those of their partners. He cooked up utopias in which armies of beautiful youths, fucking one another senseless between battles against Authority, circumvent the normal reproductive process by cloning themselves.

At the same time, sex in Burroughs’s universe is one of myriad addictions. Burroughs wanted to free people from the slavery of addiction, whether to heroin or money or sex. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” was his shorthand for the diseased saturnalia of American affluence. From his earliest writings Burroughs foresaw a time when human beings, drenched in orgasmic “freedom,” would be reduced to their bodies, their minds completely manipulated by advertising and mass media. As intoxicated consumers people would become blind to their own exploitation. Burroughs lived long enough to see his worst nightmares about corporate capitalism become everyday reality.

There are moments of immense tenderness in Burroughs’s novels. These usually harken back to the blow jobs and buggery of his St. Louis adolescence. Drenched in the sadness of time lost, such passages evoke the fragility of all pleasure and happiness. Like Warhol, Burroughs knew that sex is just the memory of sex. All of his writing is shaded with the certainty of death and the hope of immortality — this is true even of the wonderful little book he wrote about Its pets, The Cat Inside. Burroughs was half nihilist, whose faint belief in salvation was that if it exists, it must be hidden somewhere truly unlikely and weird.

I knew William Burroughs personally only in the last seven years of his life. He had the courtly manners of an old-fashioned gentleman and the quietly fierce aura of someone who had, without question, been through everything. Living in Lawrence, Kan., with his many cats, his goldfish in the backyard rock pool, and his prodigious collection of sword canes and firearms, Burroughs had come to terms with his demons, though they continued to haunt the dreams he painted on canvas and recorded in one of his last books, My Education. He was the spirit of rebellion in the casual wardrobe of a retired banker. He was the most important American writer of the last 50 years — easily. He liked a vodka and Coke around 5 in the afternoon.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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