William S Burroughs – beat writer, junkie, revolutionary, philosopher.

The heading above (almost) tells it all. Some would claim that Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg were the better known of the Beat Writers, but Burroughs was for me a more fascinating person. He outlived both Kerouac – who died young, only 47 years old, in 1969 and Ginsberg who died in April of 1997….Burrows passing on four months later in August of the same year.

Left to right – Hal Chase, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg & Burroughs in New York 1944

He was indeed all the things listed in the heading. A Beat Writer who was hooked on drugs, who had revolutionary ideas but also, as reflected in a number of quotes attributed to him, he was very philosophical in his outlook on life. In addition to all these things, he was also a killer. He shot his wife in 1951 while under the influence of drink and drugs. Someone, either himself or his wife Joan Vollmer (who incidentally was also a writer of the Beat Generation), suggested a game of “William Tell”. You know the story, William Tell shoots an arrow to knock an apple off his sons head? William S Burrows used a gun to shoot an apple off Joans head….but his aim was a little suspect even when sober, and Joan ended up stone cold dead. 

Burroughs loved to shoot guns…despite his experience of accidentally shooting his wife.

He admitted to the crime, received a 2 year suspended sentense for manslaughter and returned to his life as a trend setting writer. He wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. In addition to this, five books have been written from interviews he gave. He also collaborated on recordings made by a number of musicians and performers. Yes he was a Beat Writer, but his work over the years crossed boundaries into many types of popular culture.

Patty Smith and Burroughs.

Singer/musician/poet Patty Smith is attributed to once naming him “Godfather of Punk”. Something Burroughs later denied – saying he had no link to the punk movement at all. But it stuck.

It’s not as though Burroughs was an uneducated, down on his luck junkie. He was a Harvard educated English student, later doing post-grad studies in anthropology and later still attended Med School in Vienna. He came from money….his family were wealthy. He was born with a silverspoon in his mouth….and later a silver spoon in his nose – experimenting with various drugs.

He applied to join the military in 1942, was turned down and this is when he started to experiment with drugs, meeting up with Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1943.

Although he had written a manuscript earlier with Kerouac called “And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks”, his first published novel was “Junkie” in 1953, subtitled “Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict”. Although it was a novel it was also semi autobiographical account of his life as a drug user and a drug dealer. His most famous (or is it infamous?) book however was published in 1959 – “Naked Lunch” was a very controversial book which was subject to a court case as it was claimed to be in violation of the U.S. Sodomy laws.

That was a trade mark of the Beat Writers – they were out to shock the public. (Ginsberg did it with his outragious poem “Howl”, which featured both hetrosexual and homosexual sex – again falling foul of the lawmakers. The court case for this was in 1957).

Burroughs was most famous as a leader of the Beat Writers. He was lauded by many famous people including Norman Mailer who said he was – “the only American Writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius”. Kerouac called him “the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift”. But, he dabbled in many areas of the Arts. He was a writer, film maker, performance artist and a painter/drawer. His drawings and paintings didn’t see the light of day until 1987 and he exhibited them for the next decade.

He was one of the first writers to publish a book of cut-up text. A manuscript would be written as normal and then pages cut in two lengthways. One of the two pieces could be moved up or down a few lines and taped together again creating a whole new manuscript. Other ways of producing cut-up text was to just move certain words or phrases into another part of the manuscript. Sometimes the result was nonsensical, sometimes it was meaningful – either way it was lauded as a breakthrough in writing. I guess it’s a little like the avant-garde art works of the time.

Later in life Burroughs kept cats for companionship and held them in high regard. Some of his quotes reflect this. “My relationship with my cats has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance”.  And “A cat’s rage is beautiful, burning with pure cat flame, all its hair standing up and crackling blue sparks, eyes blazing an sputtering.”

On the system and government control – “Most of the trouble in this world has been caused by folks who can’t mind their own business, because they have no business of their own to mind”. And “How I hate those who are dedicated to producing conformity”. And finally  “Smash the control images. Smash the control machine”. And on gun control “After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military”.

As for his quotes on drugs – he’s quite direct on how he views drugs and users/addicts. “Junk (drugs) is the ideal product….the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy.”  ” An addict never stops growing….stupider”. “I’m getting so Far Out one day I won’t come back at all”.

And a couple of quotes to finish off…..reflects the way that Burroughs and the “beats” lived their lives…..”Nothing is true…..everything is permitted”. “The only possible ethic is to do what one wants to do”.

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