William Burroughs, from Beat to punk


Who is Mr. Cool? Who is the coolest dude of them all?

He dresses like a banker or an undertaker; he has often acted like a devil; and he talks and writes like Jonathan Swift on acid. William S. Burroughs' ability to survive hell and reach the age of 80 is so strange that some people think he has eaten of an obscure South American plant that guarantees immortality. Wearing the "used skin" of an ex-junkie, he sometimes resembles a zombie; but he has done the tango on a video with rock star Laurie Anderson.

Perhaps the most obscenely extreme novelist ever to publish, Mr. Burroughs is also a painter and film-maker and occasionally appears in punkish movies. His ironically lugubrious skeletal frame was paradoxically the liveliest thing in Gus Van Sant's film "Drugstore Cowboy," and his insidiously flat Midwestern drawl has been curiously effective on several records. The oldest member of the Beat generation, he was the mentor of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and now -- somewhat involuntarily -- performs a similar function for many a punk rock group and "cyberpunk" novelist and film-maker.

Now residing a good deal of the time in the quiet town of Lawrence, Kansas -- not far from his birthplace in St. Louis -- Mr. Burroughs lives peacefully among his cats, guns and servant boys. But his celebrity extends to People magazine and assorted gun magazines.

It may even be that Mr. Burroughs is closer to the present Generation X than to the Flower Power generation, although the Beatles put him among their crowd of heroes on the famous cover of the "Sergeant Pepper" album. According to Barry Miles in "William Burroughs, El Hombre Invisible: A Portrait," "Bill was never keen on the love-and-peace side of the sixties, and in an interview with Jeff Shiro said, 'The only way I'd like to see a policeman given a flower is in a flowerpot from a high window.' The punks could relate to that."

For better or for worse, William S. Burroughs has become an antidote to the pseudo-affluence of the Bush/Reagan era, just as he was an antidote to the repressive pseudo-normalcy of the Eisenhower era. What he offers Generation X is the desert-dry humor of total paranoia, perfect in its fantastic extremism.

In "The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-59," edited by Oliver Harris, we get many passages in which Mr. Burroughs blames a vast conspiracy for the difficulty in kicking his drug habit: "Next thing will be armies of telepathy-controlled zombies marching around . . . They aim to incarcerate all undesirables, that is anyone who does not function as an interchangeable part in their anti-human Social Economic set up. Repressive bureaucracy is a vast conspiracy against Life." Yet it is typical that Mr. Burroughs craves the very drug supposedly used by the U.S. Army's marching zombies -- yage, which was his own Holy Grail for many years.

A science fiction mentality, the ability to generate innumerable conspiracy theories, a tireless capacity for omni-sexual fantasy, triumphantly hilarious paranoia and perhaps even misogyny -- these elements have made the elderly William Burroughs more famous and "relevant" than ever before. Barry Miles' "portrait" and Oliver Harris' edition of the early letters have come out at the right time. Barry Miles' critical biography is useful without being profound. On the other hand, the edition of Mr. Burroughs' letters is fascinating, harebrained, beautiful, hideous, profound, funny and scary.

The letters are proof that, whether one likes it or not, William S. Burroughs is a poet and a prophet as well as a criminal. That he is both angel and devil makes him a true citizen of our madly creative century. But "The Letters" are also proof that he is more human than he has admitted, at least in his ability to suffer and commiserate.

True, Mr. Burroughs now believes that our only salvation lies in being rescued from a doomed planet by Whitley Streiber's huge-eyed space aliens. But "The Letters" do not diminish Mr. Burroughs' weirdness -- they must make it clear that weirdness is a thoroughly human trait.

In a way, the main problem with Barry Miles' portrait of Mr. Burroughs is that it tends to diminish the weirdness while not delving very deep into the author's psyche. And the book certainly does not replace Ted Morgan's comprehensive "Literary Outlaw."

Mr. Miles does, of course, give us a run-through of Mr. Burroughs' extraordinary but toxic life and ideas. Grandson of the inventor of the adding machine, Mr. Burroughs inherited and retained a Midwestern macho love of guns and violent individualism. But his outraged disgust with upper-middle-class heterosexual values sent him into exile for several decades -- traveling though South America, North Africa and Europe.

While still in the United States, he absorbed a very American love of scams: economic, literary and scientific. A drug addict and petty thief, he also absorbed a love for Reichian analysis and sexual gimmicks, pseudo-science in general and cheap

detective thrillers. But he also absorbed a love for Shakespeare and language, and sought to instill his beatnik followers with a reverence for a word as well as a belief in conspiracy theories.

He impressed Mr. Ginsberg and Kerouac with the heroic purity of his "savage indignation." He awed them with his refusal to "hide the madness" and with his almost elegant contempt for those who would control others. Mr. Burroughs compulsively indulged in a kind of bloody vaudeville of the imagination which he called "routines." But his endlessly experimental irony and self-irony elevated his gimmicky ideas into art -- though it took a while before he could accept himself as a writer.

Mr. Miles tries to emphasize Mr. Burroughs' progress toward a social conscience as well as prophecies about AIDS, environmental destruction and medical dishonesty to be found in Mr. Burroughs' great novel of 1959, "Naked Lunch." But Mr. Miles is more convincing when he gives us vignettes of Mr. Burroughs' very wary humanity. The William Burroughs of today contends that his cats have taught him compassion: " 'I love my cats,' he croons. 'I love all cats.' "

We discover that the militantly misogynist and homosexual Mr. Burroughs did have a wittily tender connection with his wife, Joan, whom he accidentally shot through the head while imitating William Tell. Mr. Miles quotes Herbert Huncke: "She and Bill had something rare and . . . very fine and beautiful."

With paranoid righteousness, Mr. Burroughs has blamed the killing on his being invaded by the Ugly Spirit of "American acquisitive evil." And Mr. Miles touchingly describes how the Ugly Spirit was recently exorcised by an American Indian shaman. Supposedly, the Ugly Spirit also killed Mr. Burroughs' son by Joan, who pathetically imitated his father in addictions, but not in strength.

Mr. Burroughs himself is more trenchant in his own recent memoir, "The Cat Inside," in which he finally admits that he himself is the Ugly Spirit: "Then the dream in which a child showed me his bleeding finger and I indignantly demanded to know who had done this. The child beckoned me into a dark room and pointed the bleeding finger at me . . ."

This is a far cry from some of the wonderfully horrible material in "The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1956-1959." These letters tell the story of his travels, quests, scams and schemes. They record the eerie longing of a totally lonely heart for Allen Ginsberg, who received most of the letters and without whose aid Mr. Burroughs would have disintegrated both as man and writer. Instead, the letters are the story of a kind of hallucinogenic Huck Finn or Horatio Alger, forming an artistic self out of a life that could be described as either an hilarious mess or an evil chaos.

Acting as the guru of Kerouac and Ginsberg (but much less lovey-dovey), Mr. Burroughs forms himself as he informs them. He triumphs over his madness through madness -- accepting the bitter wildness of his own imagination. The reader feels as well as observes the formation of the journalistic novel "Junky" and the psychedelic novel "Naked Lunch."

Telepathy, addiction and paranoia are both metaphor and reality for Mr. Burroughs. He urges Allen Ginsberg not to divide visionary experience from fact; for Mr. Burroughs, "telepathy and precognition are solid demonstrable facts." Above all, he asks: "Why this care to avoid any experience that goes beyond arbitrary boundaries . . . I am concerned with facts at all levels of experience."

At its worst, this acceptance of "all levels of experience" means that Mr. Burroughs simultaneously combines the judgmental fury a prophet with pagan excess. He would kill all fundamentalists, all effeminate homosexuals, all rationalistic Scandinavians.

Mr. Burroughs' need for love could drive him like a mad Flaubert deep into an impersonal cruelty: ". . . so the knife fighter seeks the inner organs of his opponent . . . that he is attempting to externalize and delineate with his knife." But these letters can be astonishingly kind as well as cruel.

The atomic bomb of the imagination that he exploded makes all things exist, even love, wisdom and decency. The words he wrote to Kerouac are perhaps relevant to the wisdom that Mr. Burroughs seems to have regained at the end of his life: "We must learn by acting, experiencing, and living; that is, above all, by Love and by Suffering."

K? In this passage at least, Mr. Cool can give us some warmth.

(Mr. Margulies is a poet and curator at the Bayly Art Museum of the University of Virginia.)


Title: "The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959"

Editor: Oliver Harris

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 572 pages. $25

N Title: "William Burroughs, El Hombre Invisible: A Portrait"

Author: Barry Miles

Publisher: Hyperion

Length, price: 263 pages, $22.95

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad