William Seward Burroughs (1914 – 1997)

With thanks to Scrawl Magazine, who originally published this piece.


william burroughs lodon

William Seward Burroughs – actually smiling…

It’s not all in the voice. But one gets inklings when one listens. The cracked sepulchral voice of William Seward Burroughs (1914 – 1997) adds a searing quality to countless recordings of his stories. Nowadays this is the first introduction to his work most get. There are so many of his recordings and collaborations with other artists available, for instance Burroughs’ work with Laurie Anderson, Kurt Cobain and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprasy. His stories lend themselves well to music. More than this, his parchment intonations after a while become integral to the stories he tells, a substratum to routines which are, according to himself, his own surreal savage fictionalized autobiographies.

These bizarre stories are of such strange beings as the Wild Boys – a futuristic guerrilla gang dedicated to fighting armies of repressive police states, Bradley the Buyer – who becomes addicted to the proximity of junk and takes on an ominous grey green colour as his body begins to make its own junk, Inspector Lee of the Nova Police – who combats the Nova Mob who bring vices and diseases from other planets ‘in the same way as early colonizers infected so called primitive peoples’, Doctor Benway – a brutal brainwashing expert who performs surgery in toilets, Spare Ass Annie – who has an auxiliary asshole in the center of her forehead, and the Displaced Fuzz – a pair of redundant policemen who repossess people’s artificial kidneys. There are many others.

william-burroughs.kurt-cobain.lawrence-ks.jpg (510×518)                                     Kurt Cobain Visiting Burroughs, Kansas 1992

His books have been well characterized as a surreal blend of the Marquis De Sade for sheer descriptive explicitness and Jonathan Swift for their savage satire: Naked Lunch, Junky, Queer, Nova Express, Cities of the Red Night, The Ticket That Exploded, The Soft Machine are brilliant, funny and gut wrenching all at once to read.


Born in 1914 in St Louis, educated in Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico (1929-32) before taking literature in Harvard (graduated 1936). After graduation Burroughs travelled through Europe (1936-38) on a type of directionless lateral drift before returning to the U.S. to take courses in anthropology and Mayan archaeology, worked in his parents gift shop and tried to join the forerunner of the C I A , the O S S in 1940. He was not successful and continued working casually wherever he could. He had begun taking a variety of jobs during and after this time, including private detective, bartender, bug exterminator, journalist, and factory worker. This directionless drifting provided a lot of material for his writing. But Burroughs had no literary intentions back then. He spent nearly a year in Vienna (1942) studying medicine and taking a painful cure for syphilis contracted during his time in Harvard. He returned again to the US and in 1943 he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac through David Kammerer and Lucien Carr, friends from St. Louis. He also met Joan Vollumer as part of this group. He spent six months in the army in 1944 then tried his hand at farming in Texas after he married Joan in 1945, growing tomatoes and marijuana which he sold at a huge loss. By this time he was seriously addicted to drugs. Burroughs drug taking started because “…you become a narcotics addict because you do not have any strong motivations in any other direction…” ( p XVII, Oliver Harris, Introduction to WSB Letters 1945-59).

Strangely though, addiction and writing seemed to go hand in hand. The farm idea collapsed and he moved to Mexico. He began writing drafts of the book Junky in Mexico City in 1949 at the age of 35. It was written in straight narrative under the encouragement of a friend Kells Elvins and his wife Marianne. They were impressed with Burroughs wit and remarkable memory. Despite the fact that he was heavily into junk at the time, Burroughs worked daily and steadily on drafts of the book. But it had no urgency for him back then. Writing became more of an act of personal salvation after the horrific accident on the night of Sept 6th 1951 when he shot his wife Joan during a drinking party. She put a shot glass on her head after Bill said to Joan “its about time for our William Tell act”. Burroughs wrote in the introduction to Queer (1985) that he was faced with the appalling conclusion that he would never have taken to writing seriously if he had not accidentally killed Joan at that drinking party. Burroughs felt at the moment of picking up the gun, the “piece of 380 junk” that he was possessed by the by the “ugly spirit” which is always the worst aspects of everyone’s character, that drove him to pull the trigger on Joan, and that in fact he could readily characterize his entire life as a struggle against the controlling influences of this “ugly spirit”(BBC Arena interview 1997).

Whatever psychological or spiritual interpretations one might place upon this central harrowing total experience of being controlled and possessed, writing became the focus of his life after this as an act of personal liberation. He was released from prison in Mexico City after a long homily from the judge and wandered the South American jungle in search of the drug yage, known for its permanent mind altering qualities, ending up in Tangier in 1954. There he began working on the material that would become Naked Lunch and laterThe Soft Machine and Nova Express. In all of his writing Burroughs is the extreme purveyor of the human condition. Like Francis Bacon paintings, Burroughs works at getting past our personas to the inner person, the nerves and sinews of our being. His works zero in on the agencies of control that proliferate in our time: corrupt politicians, scientists with brutal indifference to the human consequences of their experiments, racist and homophobic law enforcers, drug pushers, sales people, addicts.

His creation of Interzone in Naked Lunch typifies Burroughs own metaphorical vision of modern life as a struggle between the individual addict or control subject lost in the surreal desperate subculture of the junkie or agencies of control in Interzone, which is the junk itself and those who push it on the addicts: the business people who are generally controlled by greed and addiction too. It goes further. Burroughs elaborates on these mechanisms of control by what he calls an ‘algebra of need’. This algebra of need uses the analogy of addiction but goes outside the whole realm of addiction. It states that the more extreme the state of need created in the individual the more absolutely predictable the person’s reaction will be until the reaction acquires a conditioned reflex of near mathematical certainty. One will do anything to satisfy total need. In Naked Lunch (p. 21) Dr. Benway comments how much he deplores brutality. It’s just not efficient

“On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skillfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt. A few rules or rather guiding principles are to be borne in mind. The subject must not realize that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct.”

The maximizing of human abjection and humiliation by the control addicts is the use of ultimate control weapon, the death sentence. Naked Lunch is described by Burroughs a tract against capital punishment, described in the introduction to Naked Lunch as the “obscene, barbaric and disgusting anachronism that is”

Control becomes easier the more dependent the individual becomes, the more addicted. This is precisely why the central insight of Burroughs own life, namely his chronic addiction to drugs, becomes the catalyst for his fractured visceral style. It caused his paradigm shift away from strictly linear style into routines and cut up methods. The adoption of these styles, dismissed by Beckett as ‘not writing but plumbing’, serves as an action against the control of consciousness by cultural and political programming. “I feel that the principal instrument of monopoly and control that prevents expansion of consciousness is the word lines controlling thought feeling and apparent sensory impressions of the human host” (Interview with G. Corso and A. Ginsberg, 1961, Journal For the Protection of All People).

For Burroughs the only thing a writer can write about is what is before the senses at the moment of writing. In order to be free of what acts as a screen between the thing in itself and the perceiver, assumed verbal forms and concepts must be jettisoned in favor of a new tool to aid the expansion of consciousness. Word forms are part of us, a virus formed in the womb having a mutually beneficial parasitic relationship with their host ‘…in the soft typewriter of the womb you do not realize the word armor you carry…’ (Interview with G. Corso and A. Ginsberg, 1961, Journal For the Protection of All People) Although words are indispensable for living, the build up of preconceived ideas about the world, word forms, and consequent habits of thinking prevents our consciousness from expanding.

Thus the word form must be broken, the schema for culturally and socially inherited understanding of the world must be overturned, and we must be prepared to lose that which we previously understood about ourselves. We must build the soft machine, made from our own humanity and deepening consciousness, to counteract the increasing elimination of emotion and affect in our actions and relations with others in a mechanized age.

The cut up method is one of the stylistic consequences of Burroughs political stance. It is an attempt to break down the word forms to read, as one might say, between the lines or between the words in an attempt to uncover the unsaid or the unspeakable using the current culturally approved pool of meaning. One takes random texts, cuts them up, forming new texts by random piecing, then editing. It is an attempt to break down the word form into its constituents, to see into that which is the subject of his writing, to show that which cannot be said because of the word forms that prevent such utterance. In much of Burroughs work character development, plot, continuity and story development are deliberately not present. Thus any traditional attempt to critique his work on the basis of this absence is somewhat questionable. What could be argued is that Burroughs work is a valuable attempt to break down conventional tried and tested modes of expression, literary or otherwise, by subverting them using his own methods in an attempt to expand our pool of meaning and human self interpretation. But then the difficulty of what criterion one uses to validate this work arises. Like any other body of work it can only be assessed in terms of an inner coherence and consistency, an inherent determination on the part of the artist to express clearly their particular worldview within the artists body of work.

Wicked, irreverent, nihilistic, smart, and hilariously funny, The “Thanksgiving Prayer” typifies Burroughs approach.

Burroughs kinetic style, the orgiastic near celebratory descriptions of unspeakable horror and destruction coupled with biting satire bespeaks a moral and political climate completely unhinged from its ethical moorings – the Orgasm Death Gimmik, The Nova Criminals, the cruel Doctor Benway and so on. This is precisely Burroughs project, his routines, his cutups, his character descriptions, parodies, and critiques all describe worlds in chaos in search of a quick fix at the mercy of inner needs and outer tyrannies, and endlessly hungry for profit.

This anarchic worldview has its own shock value, but it is not simply meant to shock. Burroughs regarded himself as a recording instrument, detailing certain areas of psychic processes using a literary form he developed. Even the name for Burroughs’ book, Naked Lunch, suggested by Kerouac in Tangier, as meant as an image for the frozen moment of absolute awareness of what is at the end of ones fork just before eating it, suggests just this movement of consciousness. The images of Naked Lunch were amassed in random order by Burroughs and typed up by Kerouac with no attempt at editing, eventually finding a publisher with Maurice Girondias at Olympia Press in 1959 after an initial rejection by him a few years before (much to Ginsberg’s fury at the time). The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964) all were written from material emerging from Burroughs time in Tangier and written largely in the cut up style, as discovered by Brion Gysin, a close artist friend in Tangier and introduced Burroughs to the technique. Burroughs, always greatly influenced by the visual arts, adopted it after much work on it himself. He began from then on to use collages, scrapbooks and newspaper cuttings.

His work, particularly those employing a non linear narrative, can be understood in terms of visual art, particularly synthetic cubism. The idea behind the synthetic cubism is to try to show how things are, not how they look like. It is an exercise in penetrating to the noumena of things, not a pictorial representation of phenomena. Different aspects of the object which would not normally be visible from a normal perspective are rendered accessible through a unified composition, so also Burroughs did not use traditional narrative and plot development in the same manner as cubism did not use traditional composition and imitation of nature.

This jettisoning of tradition represented an attempt on both counts to depict a new reality, for Burroughs in literature and for synthetic cubism in painting. Both styles in their own way depict radically fragmented objects and persons in multiple views in furtherance their own particular artistic vision- one in painting, the other in writing. This stylistic choice was a dangerous one for the writer, placing his work in an unknown realm between the rational and the irrational. But this is typical of Burroughs, who sough out such extreme realms as his only abode of self expression. After Nova Express (1964), Burroughs seemed to shift a little towards narrative form, though retaining some of the routines and cut ups that filled previous novels. The Wild Boys(1971) an apocalyptic story set in a divided New York featuring the wild boy gang fighting a fascist authoritarian regime, and Port Of Saints (1973), an attempt to alter the timelines which led to the atom bomb, Cities of the Red Night (1981), three stories comprising boys adventure and science fiction and detective mystery is about a disease that drives its victims into a sexual frenzy before killing them, seemed to intersperse straight narrative and routine with cut up sections in sections, particularly dream or delirium sequences where Burroughs felt it suitable.

In all these books, as in his later works, Burroughs style, though fascinating as is his subject matter, it is the vehicle and only the vehicle by which he seeks to communicate. He cautionary words against trusting too easily in corrupt institutions and leaderships and methodologies of control, in seeking to unmask the human brutality and indifference beneath our veil of civilization, in seeking to expand human consciousness through linguistic experiment, are the point of his writing. Burroughs sought to entertain and to instruct, and however funny and shocking he could be in his work, he was very much the moralist, trying to make us look at the world differently, to outrage us and make us laugh and think and see the world in a new light. Whether he succeeded is a matter of time and ultimately of history.

Gregory Corso: What is Death?

W. S. Burroughs: A gimmik. It’s the time birth death gimmik. Can’t go on much longer, too many people are wising up.

(from an interview with G. Corso and A. Ginsberg, 1961, Journal For the Protection of All People)

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