Obituary: William Burroughs

John Calder
Sunday 03 August 1997 23:02

It may be some time before the literary reputation of William Burroughs finds its proper place in the 20th-century pantheon of creative writers.

As a writer Burroughs was above all an artist endowed with prophetic powers, much influenced by the visual arts, especially through his association with Brion Gysin, a one-time member of the original surrealist group of painters, who died in 1986. From Gysin, Burroughs developed the concept of fold-in and cut-up writing, whereby the random putting-together of lines by the author with lines from selected texts by others and chance newspaper cuttings would bring a totally new text into existence. This would then be consciously edited until the author was satisfied with the result.

Like Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, Burroughs experimented with what chance brought together and genuinely believed that in this way he could make things happen in life through magic. He cited a plane crash that he had exactly described in a text written at the time it happened.

In the late 1940s, Burroughs joined up with the poets who later became known as "Beat" - Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Harold Norse and Neal Cassidy - and they assumed a lifestyle largely based on sex, drugs, alcohol and fast-food, while criticising the American ethic of acquisition and work. During the last two decades Ginsberg has emerged as their major poet and Burroughs the major fiction writer. Burroughs was always more remote and private than the others and only Ginsberg, who helped edit The Naked Lunch (1959), and Gysin, whom Burroughs met much later in Tangier, can be said to have in any way influenced him, but not much in his subject matter, which came largely from the gangster films of his adolescence and other American writers.

As with James Joyce, one of his literary heroes, there is sharp critical division as to Burroughs's merits as a writer, even for the majority of his work which is not experimental in a mechanical sense. Burroughs used the experience of his drug addiction, from which he was cured in 1958 before starting to write, to create a world of his own, the sub-culture of the junkie, which became his metaphor for modern life (though Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict was published under the pseudonym of William Lee in 1953). He saw the modern world as a constant battle between those with a lust to control and exploit and those resisting them, the freedom fighters, depicted by him in various romantic guises, such as the "wild boys" in the book of that title, or fish-boys from another planet, or the young pirates of Cities of the Red Night (1981).

His erotic and obscene material has an obsessive character and has repelled many readers and critics. When Dead Fingers Talk, an amalgam of The Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine (1961) and The Ticket that Exploded (1962), was first published in 1963, it received such a long hostile review in the Times Literary Supplement that a 14-week correspondence followed, with hundreds of letters agreeing or disagreeing with the review. The correspondence ran to four pages in some issues, and was reputed to have significantly increased the circulation.

Burroughs was born in 1914 in St Louis, Missouri, and was educated at Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico before attending Harvard, where he graduated in English Literature in 1936. After some travel, he returned to study psychology and then took a variety of jobs which afforded him material for his future writing. These included stints as a private detective, bartender, exterminator of cockroaches, factory and office worker, advertising copy-writer and newspaper reporter. In 1945 he married a woman who shared his interest in firearms, Joan Vollmer: they would shoot apples off each other's heads, and this resulted in her death in Mexico, where they had moved in 1949. He was released after three days with a homily from the judge.

Already involved in drugs, Burroughs explored the South American jungle for the drug yage, and then in 1954 moved to Tangier in Morocco, where his addiction grew while he lived on remittances sent to him by his family. After four years the money ran out and he faced destitution. He took the next plane to London with the proceeds of his final cheque and put himself into the hands of Dr John Dent, who cured him with the apomorphine treatment. Moving to Paris, he started to write The Naked Lunch, part of which first appeared in the magazine Big Table - started by the editors of the Chicago Review, after the university had closed the magazine in horror at the proposed Burroughs issue. He then offered the manuscript to Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press who published it in 1959.

The Naked Lunch, his masterpiece, was not written in any particular order. Sections were simply picked up from the floor or out of the drawer, put together as they came to hand and published that way. Missing sections ended up in other books. After the mid- Sixties his writings received attention from publishers' editors who applied continuity and discipline to his manuscripts; thereafter his novels read more conventionally and contain fewer shocks and suprises: a little of the brittleness and brilliance disappeared as a result.

In 1962 I organised a Writers Conference for the Edinburgh Festival and invited Burroughs to attend. His exposition of his cut-up method of writing, "letting words go free", was widely reported in the press and his international reputation can be dated from that occasion.

Burroughs moved to London in 1965 and remained there for eight years until VAT became such a nuisance to him that he moved first to New York and, a decade later, to Lawrence, Kansas, not too far from his birthplace, to write in a little frame house and look after a growing family of cats. He would occasionally give lectures and go on reading tours, but he preferred his work to any other activity and his life varied little wherever he lived.

Burroughs was at his best in satire. He understood his characters well and imitated them convincingly when reading in public. His favourite targets were politicians, greedy businessmen, doctors and scientists indifferent to the consequences of their human experiments, nigger-hating white Southerners, super-salesmen, and those involved in the drug trade as pushers, detectives and addicts, as well as Thirties-type gangsters and the stock characters of the old West.

In essence he was an adventure novelist - sometimes appearing to be writing for very young audiences - but his narratives suddenly veer off at a tangent to get inside the private thoughts of a character or investigate a passing fantasy. Several pages later he will return to his main narrative. His use of Swiftian morality, advocating evil in order to attract attention to it, was genuine enough, but not entirely without schadenfreude.

His later novels build on the mythology of the earlier ones, but have a sequential story line. Cities of the Red Night is about a plague in the form of a rash that drives its victims to sexual frenzy before it kills them. It contains some extraordinary bizarre and picaresque episodes in what is basically a detective story with romantic and Boschian scenes. The Place of Dead Roads (1983), which followed it, is, but for the introduction of time travel and other preoccupations, a fairly conventional western novel. The later work does not contain the visceral humour that makes The Naked Lunch so memorable. Burroughs' humour surfaces mainly in his exchanges of dialogue between those planning some new outrage on unsuspecting humanity, or in the heightened caricature-like vignettes where he shows the logical consequences of some modern institutions and practices.

Burroughs' inventiveness was a cross between Swift and Sade: he created people, places and situations that get beneath our conscious critical awareness and work through our gut emotions and nerve endings. Interzone (1989), an imaginary country and one of his greatest creations, has all the worst features of both Communism and Capitalism which are caricatured mercilessly. He reports on the conferences of politicians or scientists in a way that reveals the total corruption and disregard for human values of those attending.

The expressionistic, exaggerated speeches ring only too true: one hears in them the smooth reassurances that the authorities give us today. His blue film sequences and frenetic orgy scenes demonstrate, through the titillation they excite in the reader, the connections between our sexual drive and our cruelty.

If The Naked Lunch is a cautionary tract against capital punishment as the author has often claimed, it is also a book that enables the reader to find in himself characteristics that he might never have suspected he possessed. Homosexuals are not spared either: Burroughs, homosexual himself (and the author of Queer, 1985), could be as wickedly cruel about gays and gay life as about corrupt politicians, mad doctors and trigger- happy sheriffs. It is not surprising that he evokes strong passions and hostility in many quarters.

In all his work there is an element of science fiction and it is science fiction writers that he has perhaps most influenced. Many of his creations are monsters or creatures from another planet, but usually satirise monstrous aspects of humans we recognise. The Ticket that Exploded (1962), his most experimental novel and the one in which he most developed the cut-up, fold-in technique, is also the nearest to pure science fiction.

He was often careless about grammar, syntax and spelling, partly because he followed the vernacular as used by his characters, but his style is nevertheless startingly original and by no means naive. It was content that interested him and once he started to be published by commercial publishers he submitted without objection to commercial editing. It was the act of writing he enjoyed and he took little interest in going over old work.

His European reputation was great, especially in France and Germany. There will always be disagreement over his merits as a writer, but probably not over his importance as a seminal influence with a special and enlightening view of the world. Like Swift, he was a moralist torn between horror and gloat, whose message comes instinctively out of his perception. Burroughs noticed much about life and the human condition that other people do not see.

In his collected essays, The Adding Machine (1985), he expounded his theories on time, chance, magic, human motivation, sexuality and humour, often moving into fictional passages (like long asides in his novels) to illustrate the point. His gift for a telling phrase has left behind an armoury of aphorisms that help to open our eyes to the kind of the world we inhabit, and they will be increasingly quoted. Ultimately he may become one of the few writers of our time who have helped to change the world by changing our perception of it.

John Calder

William Seward Burroughs, writer: born St Louis, Missouri 5 February 1914; marrie, secondly 1945 Joan Vollmer (died 1951; one son deceased); died Lawrence, Kansas 2 August 1997.

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