Sunday, February 5, 2017

Birthday: "A paranoid is someone who knows a little of what's going on," William S. Burroughs said, and who could disagree with a junkie who dressed like an undertaker?


William Seward Burroughs II (1914-1997)
Author, artist, character

If you’re going to spend your life being a screwup, choose your parents wisely.

William S. Burroughs did. His father was a successful plate glass dealer with an antique shop on the side; his grandfather- for whom he as named- invented the adding machine that became a household word in the first half of the twentieth century.

Bright, but spindly, Burroughs was packed off to Los Alamos School in New Mexico, where the neurasthenic sons of the wealthy were boarded, taught and fittened up into real American men. It didn’t take with Burroughs, who finished high school in St Louis, then went to Harvard. There he made frequent escapes to New York and its underworld of jazz clubs and steam baths.

Happily, Burroughs’ father was prescient, or lucky. He sold his rights to the adding machine patents, and his Burroughs stock, before the Crash of 1929. When William graduated Harvard, he got a $200 a month allowance that supported him for years (the money supported them all; when Burroughs’ mother died in 1970, only $10,000 was left).

He continued his studies, in medicine, in Vienna, and his interest in other men all over Europe. Being out from under the family was a liberation; they were the sort, he wrote for whom “displays of affection were embarrassing.” Burroughs, in his twenties, had already left “embarrassing” way behind.

He met a Czech Jew, Ilse Klapper, who was teetering on statelessness as the Nazis began displacing people and nations’ independence. He married her to get her out of Europe. In America, they never lived together and soon separated, though they remained friendly for decades.

Burroughs, for his part, bounced from job to job and from failed infatuation to doomed romance; his parents had to intervene after he cut off the last joint of his right little finger to impress a man on whom he had a crush.

World War II came and Burroughs was called up, then discharged after three months. His mother used her influence to get him released on grounds his psychiatric instability should have disqualified him in the first place.

Burroughs moved to New York, took up heroin, and fell in with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.  In 1944, he met a woman called Joan Vollmer, who was separated from her husband and and a Benzedrine addict; Burroughs moved in with her and her child, and for a time they also lived with Kerouac and his first wife. He took to selling drugs in Greenwich Village and was busted for trying to pass a forged prescription in 1944.

Joan got her shrink to sign Burrough’s bail bond, after which he moved to Mexico to lie low and divorce Ilse. Meanwhile, Joan zoned out and had to be hospitalized at Bellevue, forcing Burrough’s return. They left for Mexico again, after a legal scrape that left Burroughs fearing imprisonment at Angola, the Louisiana prison farm. He spent five unhappy years south of the border.

The Mexico stay ended tragically. At a highly drunken party, Burroughs balanced a shot glass on Joan’s head and pulled out a pistol for what he called “our William Tell act.” He shot low and was arrested for manslaughter.

His brother flew in and bribed him out of jail and the country; he was convicted in absentia and given a two-year suspended sentence. With his four-year-old son in tow,  he moved in with Ginsburg, who rejected his advances. He moved to Rome, determined, after Joan’s death, to expiate his sins through writing.

His first two books, Junkie (1953) and Queer (1953, published in 1985), were conventional narratives, at least in form. His interests in Kafka, Conrad, Genet, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler all began percolating into a new, modernist miasma of hallucinatory, paranoid veerings in and out of reality. His years overseas enabled the development of his new style as he lived it.

Rome proved dull but when he moved to Tangiers, Burroughs was in his element. In 1950, Robert Ruark had described the unbridled tenor of the Moroccan city in his syndicated column. Compared to Tangier, Ruark wrote, "Sodom was a church picnic and Gomorrah a convention of Girl Scouts."

He stayed in Morocco four years, writing what would become his best-regarded work, Naked Lunch. It was a cut-and-paste, nonlinear story of sex, drugs and paranoia, and was so perverse even City Lights Publishing- which had gone to the mat for Ginsberg’s “Howl”- and Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press passed on it.

But The Black Mountain Review ran some excerpts. The Chicago Review did as well, but only one of several installments. The editor was fired for publishing that much.

Burroughs, in Paris, was dodging a drug charge out of Tangiers when the American poet and critic John Ciardi managed to get a copy of Naked Lunch and reviewed it with high marks. That prompted Girodias to take another look. Its 1959 publication came just in time to snatch Burroughs from the grasp of the gendarmes: Girodias had pull, and raffish authors were a respected French profession.

Burroughs, in Paris, was living in a boarding house with Gregory Corso, Ginsberg, Kerouac and some of the other beats. He blew his Naked Lunch advance, $25,000 in today’s cash, on drugs, before moving to London to try and kick them with a doctor who specialized in treating rock stars (Keith Richards was a later patient) and the rich and famous.

The cure took for a number of years, as Burroughs traveled between the US and UK for journalism assignments. He covered the 1968 Democratic Convention for Esquire, wrote articles for Playboy, and spent time with his son, whom he escorted to prison after Billy was convicted of prescription fraud. He finally moved to back to America in 1976, taking up a creative writing teaching post Ginsberg got him at City College in New York.

Burroughs lasted a semester, finding the work dull and the students duller. He so disliked teaching that he turned down a $15,000 a semester post at the University of Buffalo, preferring to embark on a multiyear US reading tour, and meeting his costs with small press books and magazine commissions.

In 1981, he bought a house in Lawrence, Kansas, where he lived, alone, and relatively quietly, the rest of his life. He took up painting, and his name commanded very good prices. His work was snapped up by  many of the leading museums and galleries.

Burroughs became a sort of institution, appearing in movies and documentaries, and making pronouncements. Conservatives loathed him: always dressed in dark suits and dark ties, and speaking in a sardonic drawl, he looked like a small town midwestern banker who turned out to have done everything wrong a right-thinking person could- or couldn't- imagine.

His politics was anarcho-libertarian, a sort of mashup of Edward Abbey without the deserts, and Ayn Randian-hate-government-but-cash-in-hypocrisy (in his case, the social program of his choice as the GI Bill). His favorite newspaper columnist was the right-wing raver Westbrook Pegler; Burroughs was also a Scientologist in the 1960s, and an animal rights activist later in life.

''Just because he sleeps with boys, takes drugs and smokes dope doesn't mean that he tolerates or supports the majority of junkies, homosexuals or potheads,'' wrote Barry Miles in his 1993 biography, ''William Burroughs,'' which was subtitled ''El Hombre Invisible'' and published by Hyperion. ''Bill simply doesn't like most people.''

For his part, Burroughs thought himself a straight-up writer who liked drugs. In one interview, he explained,
Critics constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards, yet they themselves seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism. (...) such standards do exist. Matthew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? (...) 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition. I would also apply a fourth criterion (...) Write about what you know. More writers fail because they try to write about things they don't know than for any other reason.

What Burroughs knew was life on the edge of the streets, sex, and drugs. And, as the years went by, what he wrote about them became more and more celebrated as breakthrough postmodernist writing that illuminated modern life well before most.

His 1983 election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters was a source- depending on one’s point of view- of wailing and gnashing of teeth, or glee. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the City Lights publisher, joked that it proved the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s point that capitalism always embraces its outsiders in the end.

Having defied three decades’ worth of failed attempts, Naked Lunch was made into a film by director David Cronenberg in 1991. Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm and Roy Scheider, with music by Howard Shore, it won rather grudging reviews as the sort of movie people would like if they liked that sort of movie.

Cronenberg presented the novel as the writing of the novel, with the poker-faced Weller- then famous from Robocop- as Burroughs and Davis as his doomed common-law wife, with the book unfolding through Burroughs’ interactions with his insect-like, talking typewriter (with all the mucus-y sounds and physical transformations Cronenberg brings to bear in his movies). The typewriter was a nice touch: in 1954, while in London, Burroughs was so hard up for a hit, he sold his typewriter for some heroin and was reduced to writing in longhand for a good long while.


The old man’s influence has carried on after him. J. G. Ballard was a follower, as is William Gibson. Jean Genet and Ken Kesey claimed him. He was a cult figure who had made homosexuality cool and cutting-edge, and his candor about his drug habit won him points for honesty (he relapsed in 1979 and was on methadone until he died; his son was a drinker who survived a liver transplant only to take up drinking again, then stopped his anti-organ rejection drugs and died on a roadside in 1981, at 34).

He had songs and rock bands named for him. In 1989 he wrote an opera, The Black Rider, with music by Tom Waits.

In an episode of The Simpsons, Bart Milhouse and Nelson used Bart’s fake ID to get into what they thought was an adult movie; coming out of the screening of Naked Lunch, Nelson commented, “I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.”

Though he kept up his journals, Burroughs stopped writing for publication in his late seventies, feeling tapped out. For one who abused himself, and so long, the frail-looking author outlived all the Beat Poets, dying of a heart attack at 83. He was buried in the family plot in St Louis, identified on his headstone as “American Writer.”

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #Charlotte #LGBTAuthors #NakedLunch

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