Davis Schneiderman reviews two works on Burroughs - a writer who is both there and not there, who exemplifies and escapes post-structuralist readings and postmodernist celebrations.
WARNING: William S. Burroughs held action in as high regard as subversion. The following review-essay requires “you” (the protagonist) to enter into the text’s hypertext metaphor, linking Burroughs’ iconic/popular image to the fixed visual image of the artist as “literary outlaw.” The tone will shift with the topic under discussion, and your position, in reference to Burroughs, may shift accordingly.
If William S. Burroughs’ multifarious fascinations could be represented pictographically in a poly-textual, poly-vocal new-media construction, in a way analogous to what his eventual transition from writing into visual art seemed to prophesy - in the way that such works as Ah Pook is Here and Other Texts (1979) or The Western Lands (1987) attempt to cleave the linguistic “is” of identity from the language virus - then the representation might be a website with enough visual hyperlinks to make you simultaneously dizzy and sick.
And if some enterprising young counter-culture collective indeed crafted a Web locus to mirror the spate of recent work by or about Burroughs since the advent of Timothy S. Murphy’s landmark critical work, Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs (1997), followed soon after by the James Grauerholz- and Ira Silverberg- edited Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (1998), the locus would still be adding information about the most recent titles: Naked Lunch: The Restored Text edited by Grauerholz and Barry Miles (March 2003), Oliver Harris’s William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination from Southern Illinois University Press, and the Harris-edited 50th-anniversary edition of Burroughs’ first novel, Junky, from Viking Press (both April 2003) - in order to update the all-important meta-tags covering the familiar, if ethereal, territory of what you already know about Burroughs:
…novelist, essayist, painter, filmmaker, recording artist, mystic, expatriate, psychological patient, Scientologist, Beat progenitor, plagiarist, punk music godfather, anti-censorship activist, queer hero, science-fiction guru, junkie, dealer, media theorist, advertising model, murderer…
And if you have been drawn, at least initially, to any one of these familiar versions of the grand old man of American letters fleshed out on the screen, extrapolated into a cultural image - the ex-officio Commissioner of Sewers plugged into the Scientology E-meter, the expatriate cosmonaut brandishing firearms and sword canes, a gaping heroin wound like an obscene baby mouth festering inside your dog-eared copy of Naked Lunch - then the central image on such a website would no doubt be filtered through the old familiar: Burroughs gazing with that same grey emptiness out into the distance somewhere behind the viewer, impeccably dressed in his three-piece suit, always the gentleman who is both there and not there - much like the Internet - all at the same time.
And even if your taste in Burroughs runs toward the counter-culture cachet of Robocop doing the old William Tell routine on poor old Joan Frost in David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch movie (1991), then no doubt a hyperlinked version of that ancient-face-gone-out pictograph of Burroughs, perhaps with the cold steel pupil boring outward from the flat screen, will carry you forth, if you click directly on the eye, to Jamie Russell’s landmark study:
For Queer Burroughs, Jamie Russell, freelance journalist and lecturer at the University of London has produced the first major investigation of Burroughs’ relation to queer theory. This important scholarly contribution reads as much more than an excursus on the issues of gay identity in the Burroughsian canon, which many critics consider as incidentally endemic to Burroughs’ “graphic” descriptions of gay sex and/or his theories of interplanetary intrigue. Acknowledging the “explosion of postmodern theory” (5) that has produced more recent studies of Burroughs, Russell takes issue with Murphy’s notion that one reason for the occlusion of Burroughs’ texts from queer theory is because Burroughs has always been “out of the closet,” so to speak, and thus, does not offer a “confessional” gay narrative. According to Russell, Murphy argues that Burroughs’ work attacks all “systems of social repression, regardless of issues of sexuality” (6). Yet Queer Burroughs forcefully situates Burroughs’ texts into the matrix of gay criticism in terms of their specific dissonance from the political struggles of the gay rights movement.
Burroughs’ “vision of the masculine is always centered on violence and the exclusion of the feminine” (125) for Russell, and thus, works in opposition to the ever-evolving gay paradigm. During the era of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay movements in the United States (founded in 1948), Burroughs’ work is set against the “normalization” program of the Society’s leadership. Russell argues that Burroughs’ gay subjects in Naked Lunch find themselves controlled and feminized through the clinical apparatuses of the State (epitomized by Dr. Benway), which cause “a schizoid fragmentation of the gay male self in which masculine autonomy is lost” (49). Significantly, the “schizoid” consciousness is offered as the result of succumbing to the effeminate paradigm of the state. The concept of schizoid consciousness opposes much contemporary Burroughs criticism that takes a cue from the French post-structuralists to celebrate the fragmentation of the subject away from the society of control.
Russell’s argument assumes an overtly political manifestation in The Wild Boys era of Burroughs’ work, those mid-period conclaves of aggressive, guerilla warriors. Russell links Burroughs’ fantastic extension of 1960s student revolts in the packs of Wild Boys with the fixed signification and butch muscularity of the flannel-clad, mustached members of the late-1970s and early-1980s gay “clone scene.” In the post-Stonewall climate, Russell argues that Burroughs’ depictions of gay subjectivity must be “properly theorized and policed if it is to produce a new social order” (128) - meaning that, ideally, a firewall exists between the ultimately temporary anarchist politics of the Wild Boys and the never-ending social hedonism of the clones. Russell’s argument follows that Burroughs dramatizes the danger associated with the failure of the Wild Boys (and their ilk in the Red Night trilogy) to adapt to the new conditions engendered by their actions; if they remain caught in a revolutionary, and perhaps, destructive mode, if they allow their activities to embrace the pleasure of jouissance - then the moment for change will be lost forever. The fascist and bestial tendencies of both the Wild Boys (and Wild Fruits of Place of Dead Roads) thus signal Burroughs’ warning against the “effeminate” pleasures of gay subjectivity.
This is the crux of Russell’s argument, that “a queer/gender reading must challenge the extent to which Burroughs can be read as a radical author” (131). In the later era of Burroughs’ texts - in the era of the AIDS pandemic - Russell sees Burroughs’ focus on gay male sex as a means of transcending the body into the afterlife (the author’s obsession throughout the Red Night trilogy). For Russell, Burroughs’ movement from time into space, from the tyranny of the body to the freedom of the spirit, becomes a project to liberate only his queer heroes through the “establishment of one fixed identity, the queer masculine” (180). Burroughs’ ultimate rejection of the physical body is predicated on this monocentric sexual identity that denies the “play and parody” (190) of much contemporary theory (that Russell acknowledges as surprising for a writer who rebels against the One God Universe [OGU]), and for Russell, Burroughs’ project is ultimately a failure so you may as well return to something more hopeful.
And if you have problems finding another hyperlink on the Burroughs pictogram because conceiving of his project(s) in such essentialist terms seems obvious yet foreign to the conception of El Hombre Invisible that stares directly at you, maybe Queer Burroughs almost convinces you that the gun-toting literary outlaw might have been more limited than you once thought.
And even though one of Russell’s final points - that Burroughs’ “paranoid vision of social regulation” (190) led to his figurative isolation from the gay liberation movement in Lawrence, Kansas - appears at odds with the life-affirming portrayal of Burroughs’ final 15 years in the other visual hyperlink you finally settle on, the other eye of the pictogram, Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs: 1960-1997 .
Sylvère Lotringer, editor of the journal Semiotext(e), has complied this exhaustive (if not comprehensive) collection of Burroughs interviews from both mainstream and independent books, journals, and magazines that will shuttle you through endlessly insightful (yet at times repetitive) Burroughsian proclamations that seem much more in keeping with each of those familiar meta-tag manifestations. Burroughs Live is a daunting read; at more than 800 pages it could serve as the Midrash-style commentary section or companion volume to Word Virus; containing 99 interviews divided into seven roughly chronological sections, Lotringer’s massive tome moves entropically toward Burroughs’ final years in Lawrence, when Lotringer tells you that the aged author meditates “on loneliness and mortality, his love for animals and his precarious attempts to escape “all the filth and horror” of human history” (564).
And it is a great distance across the wounded galaxies from the earlier interviews (one of the earliest, from 1963, showcases Burroughs in the voice of Nova criminal Mr. Martin: “There are no friends. There are allies. There are accomplices” ), to the later pieces collected in the sections “Lawrence, Kansas (1982-97),” “Shooting Gallery (1986-1997),” and “Last Words.” These three final divisions of Burroughs Live offer both the author and his interviewers myriad opportunities to consider Burroughs’ five decades of public life as a career. T.X. Erbe, for instance, in a 1984 interview, offers: “There’s a cult of Burroughs. I think it has nothing to do with your work” (598). Regina Weinreich sets him up as a prophet. Asking him if he foresaw AIDS, Burroughs answers, “Well, I should hope so. That’s what writers are supposed to do” (619). Standouts from these sections include a transcript of artist Philip Taafe and Burroughs making art in an old warehouse in Lawrence. The two men become caught up in the process so that their off-the-cuff remarks, such as Burroughs exclaiming of a painting-in-progress “Look down there. Looks like some strange sexual position” (668), are a welcome variant on much of theoretical material that will be familiar to the Burroughs initiate from the earlier years.
This is not to say that the first four sections of Burroughs Live (chronicling Burroughs’ time as an expatriate and his tenure in New York City) are anything but essential, only that like all retrospectives of this kind, the writer who is consumed with his own mortality - his final and most persistent subject - approaches an asymptotic level of prophecy the closer he moves toward the successful painting career of his last years and the oft-quoted “end of words” announced in his final major novel, The Western Lands. Just as his friend, collaborator, and fellow visual artist (“the one who taught [me] more than anyone else” ) Brion Gysin offered a framework for the afterlife in his final novel The Last Museum (1986), Burroughs Live can be read as another version of the Tibetan Bardo Thodol, or Book of the Dead, of which Burroughs was always so fond. Throw open the pages to a random interview, and you’re bound to come across some recipe for de-conditioning, a discussion of Burroughs’ uncle and Rockefeller/Hitler propagandist Ivy Lee, his use of wetbacks as a Southern cotton farmer, the Mayan codices and calendar control, the “feeling” of Jean Genet entering his body in his Kansas bathroom - which all seem to be euphemisms, in some arcane idiom, for a well-kept secret of immortality.
Just as the scattered coordinate points of any Book of the Dead may seem disorienting to the non-initiate, Burroughs Live will no doubt overwhelm those who seek the linear, start-to-finish read that most of Burroughs’ work, by virtue of its aleatory structures, argues against. At the same time, almost any sustained romp through these media selections, the at-times awkward conversations with rockers David Bowie and Patti Smith, the prose piece by Genet biographer Edmund White, the Sunday Times magazine cover story in London, will produce sensations of familiarity that through interview artificiality also construct a mesmerizing ghost-image of Burroughs the commentator and cultural critic, conjured in associations based as much upon content as position relative to the other interviews. Burroughs’ description of the efficiency of Charles De Gaulle’s bodyguards, in conversation with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie, may be similar to his description of the same subject to Vale from San Francisco’s famed RE/Search Publications. Yet, the sum effect of such repetitions across interviews (Lotringer edited out much intra-interview repetition), reveals not only the relative nuance of the proclamation, but also the figure of language that speaks within the vertigo created by such a lengthy collection.
When Burroughs finally offers a description of the merger of language and author in an external vessel (in the spectacular conversation “Invasion” with James Grauerholz and Victor Bockris): “He’s not just wandering around - he was in me. Genet, Genet, Genet. Oh!” (801), you are finally given a key to these narratives, these psychic dramas that, as Lotringer notes, “were never meant to fit together under the same cover” (18). Genet himself tells you in Prisoner of Love that “Revolutionaries are in danger of getting lost in a hall of mirrors” (Genet, Jean. Prisoner of Love. trans. Barbara Bay. Wesleyan UP, 1989, p.259); Burroughs Live reflects so many of Burroughs’ advances and wrong turns back through himself that the primary mirror becomes the mind of the reader - the coordinate point and the canvas - that authorizes the prescience of what Lotringer calls Burroughs’ “sensitive antennae” (19).
Lotringer’s choices read somewhat like Burroughs novels, overflowing from Naked Lunch into the Nova Trilogy into The Wild Boys into the Red Night Trilogy - and you might just begin to think that these interviews read like one long interview or one long hyperlink meta-text connecting everything together into, as Burroughs writes in Queer, “one gweat big blob” (100) of disembodied ideas:
“…get rid of the idea of this bloody Queen. That bitch. Sitting there soaking up the energy of forty-million people” (102). “I felt as if I was on fire. Maybe someone didn’t get all the ergot out of it. But I just don’t want to know about acid” (173). “In the last 20 years we have seen America transformed until it is completely unrecognizable. If Allen (Ginsberg) had gotten up in front of a college audience in the `30s and started talking about how everybody is a little bit homosexual, they would have blown their tops” (313). “The question arises as to who is really coming down on homosexual practices and precisely why. We know that a lot has come from the Christian religion. Not from Christ himself - he was probably a faggot - but from St. Paul…(Gays) should try to get our own state like Israel” (350). “Selling books is my business” (492). “The Americans are the greatest poisoners since the Borgias. In the `50s America sold wheat grain to Iran which was to be used only as seed. But the people were hungry and ate it. More than 10,000 people remain paralysed” (513). “You don’t have to massacre millions or drop nerve gas. But how many people in Saddam’s place would do that and worse if they had the chance?” (799-800)
And so goes the procession of even the most random selections from Burroughs Live. Between the danger of writing “the book which can’t be understood” (494) and writing the book which can only be understood by casting overboard the limits of traditional understanding, Burroughs was always keenly aware of the nature of his business: “Writing is a form of self-reproduction, and in a real sense a writer lives on in his works. Writing is the process of making maps…to give us orientation in space, like maps of space ” (494).
And if you click on this final link and return to the spatial representation of the Burroughsian Web corpus, that tired face once again staring past your rolling flesh, perhaps not unlike the image that thousands maybe millions of other users view on thousands of similar Web pages already out there - and if you enjoy the rollover effects until your hand swells rotten with carpal tunnel syndrome, or until your eyes become glossy, glass-colored, and bulbous from overuse - then perhaps you’ll be ready to re-enter the “real” world that always tries, in such predictable ways, to create images from words. And just before you remove your gaze from the screen, in that last possible second, perhaps you will see a new twinkle on that flat, cold face. Perhaps you will see the ghost of a glimmer in the eyes of a dead man.
Davis Schneiderman co-edits the anthology Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization (Pluto Press, 2004).