Confessions Of A Redeemed Burroughs Addict
One of the profound ironies regarding William S. Burroughs is his facility of attracting revisionist addicts to perpetuate the Burroughs hagiography, the Burroughs product, and therefore, the Burroughs junk. I consider William Burroughs to be one of the pre-eminent writers of the mid/late twentieth century. But just as a good drinker is one who knows when to stop, so the person I trust in his relation to Burroughs is also one who knows where to cut the word lines, crawl out from beneath that spectral voice grinding and hissing from the PA speakers, to step away from the flickering light and the orgone accumulator. The closer one gets to the narcotic effluvium of Burroughs, the more the critical senses dim and the myths foregather.
In the early minutes of the beautifully produced film by Yony Leyser entitled William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010) Patti Smith –whom I also greatly admire- states: “You see a movie like Blade Runner and then you find the phrase ‘blade runner’ came from him.” Not true. Alan E. Nourse’s The Blade Runner (1975) preceded Burroughs’ Blade Runner (1979) by almost half a decade, and neither have anything to do with the Philip K. Dick book (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) upon which the movie was based. In the Blade Runner movie, both Burroughs and Nourse are credited. Not a difficult thing to know. Victor Bockris, in the same film, asserts: “It is because of Burroughs and Warhol and what followed in their wake that the whole gay liberation movement sprung up.” Really?
Peter Weller, still channeling Burroughs all these years after playing him in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch similarly overstates Burroughs’ importance as a sexual outlaw, with perhaps “only Genet and Pasolini” as antecedents. Not Wilde? Not de Sade, Emma Goldman, Djuna Barnes, Isherwood, or even Burroughs’ fellow Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys alum Gore Vidal whose The City and the Pillar of 1948 was a genuine succès de scandale in a manner in which Burroughs’ Queer (not surfacing until the mid-eighties) never has been? Burroughs addiction encourages this kind of revisionism.
Discussing drug use and addiction in literature, John Waters explains: “No one had written about it, no one had read about it.” Not de Quincy? Not Baudelaire? I have no desire or ability to undermine its lite
rary importance, but Burroughs’ Junkie was published in 1953 at least in part due to the friendship between former psychiatric inmates Allen Ginsberg and Carl Solomon (to whom Ginsberg’s Howl would be dedicated when published in 1956). Carl Solomon was the nephew and employee of A. A. Wyn, owner of Ace Books who first published Junkie in its reversible format with Maurice Helbrant’s Narcotic Agent of 1941; and in the milieu of the pulp paperback, Burroughs was certainly not the progenitor of the dope novel. He might be one of the survivors who achieved mainstream notoriety and literary recognition, but we should be wary of hubristic overstatements of Burroughs’ heroism.
This is the problem with the opiate of the Burroughs legend: like hypnotizing chickens. There’s a fine line between admiration and adumbration. When I got hooked on Burroughs, more than twenty years ago, when I would carry my copy of The Ticket That Exploded around in the pocket of my army surplus parka (and when I was also reading Bockris’ biography of Warhol), I knew that I was dealing with a writer of great consequence to my life as an artist. I flopped down with Mailer and stared at the elegiac science fiction poetics of the cut-up novels and decided that Burroughs was that singular contemporary American writer conceivably possessed by genius. Mailer borrowed a great deal from Burroughs for Why Are We In Vietnam? So did I, for unpublished derivations and plagiarisms.
The cracks began to show relatively early, I suppose. When I read Ted Morgan’s biography Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs in 1992 with Morgan’s confession that several paragraphs of the book were essentially fantasies of identification where Morgan presumes to be psychically fused with, or inside Burroughs’ memories in order to reconstruct his life, I knew that something was wrong. Next, I couldn’t reconcile the idea of Burroughs’ genius with his sometime similarity to L. Ron Hubbard, who I regard as a hack and a huckster. Many of Burroughs’ detractors feel the same way about Burroughs. I was reminded again on viewing A Man Within how deluded, strange and downright stupid Burroughs could be regarding AIDS: “laboratory AIDS” being a disease organism manufactured by the CIA or some other shadowy agency that you contract “when you let your immunity down…and you can get AIDS.”
Finally, consolation: Burroughs addicts, and cured Burroughs addicts like myself (who still regard Burroughs’ written oeuvre as one of the few things worth returning to the sinking Titanic to retrieve) can take some comfort from the fact that Burroughs, for example, did not live to witness 9/11. On previous form, my fear is that he might have been a ‘truther’ and this might have truly wised up some marks (and conversely attracted a few more paranoids to his bunker). But, at least we don’t have to pick the bones out of that.