Friday, February 22, 2008

Dr. Benway, I presume...

This week's blog version of The Beat Generation Revisited lecture takes us on a journey into a dark continent of drug abuse, pretty boys who orgasm as their necks snap in the hangman's noose, and marks and narcs melting into one another - in the flesh - turning into ectoplasm. You've guessed it: we are not Stanleys looking for Dr. Livingstone here - rather the topic of inquiry is William Burroughs and his gallery of characters from The Naked Lunch, led by the mad master surgeon, Dr. Benway who's never met an abdomen he didn't want to slice open and eviscerate...

Unlike Kerouac and Ginsberg, Burroughs came from a wealthy background, as his grandfather was the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company and holder of a lucrative patent on such machines. The family was located in St. Louis, and Burroughs was brought up to appreciate a Southern upper class life style (leisured and hedonistic), which - combined with his keen and curious mind and voracious appetite for reading - seems to have left a permanent stamp on Burroughs from his formative years and onward. Another contrast with the other Beats is the lack of a non-default ethnicity in Burroughs - no hyphenation in his Americanness. On a balance, Burroughs was, however, quite ready to leave St. Louis at the earliest opportunity - finding it stuffy and intolerant towards his queer sexual tastes which were manifest from an early age.

Whether or not Burroughs continued to benefit directly from the family fortune after his graduation from Harvard (where he studied English from 1932 to 36) is a matter of some small controversy. Certainly, Kerouac seems to have gotten the impression that Burroughs had a monthly allowance from his family to fall back on when the younger Beats first became acquainted with him in NYC in the mid-1940s. Burroughs has, however, since denied this fact.

What seems indisputable is that Burroughs worked a number of short-term jobs in the late 30s and early 40s, including a stint as an exterminator in Chicago, either to supplement his income or simply to scrape by. Upon coming to New York he seems to have made a deliberate decision to join the criminal world and make a living selling stolen goods - including narcotics, which he soon found himself addicted to. Some of his old acquaintances from St Louis and Chicago had also come to the City (among them Lucien Carr, later to be one of the dedicatees of Ginsberg's "Howl", and a former Boy Scout friend of Burroughs, David Kammerer. In 1944 Carr stabbed the homosexual Kammerer to death, causing a sensational trial where Carr pleaded self-defense and that the act was an 'honour killing'), and new friends such as Herbert Huncke, Bill Gaines and other small-time crooks and junkies were soon added to the circle, which also included Ginsberg and later Kerouac, who were both Columbia boys at the time.

Burroughs' role as a mentor for these wannabe writers is significant. He seems to have been an almost hypnotic figure, holding forth on complex issues in philosophy, history and sociology, which the younger Beats found new and fascinating. Kerouac in particular seems to have fallen for Burroughs' worship of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West - a transhistorical systematization of civilizations following one after the other as seasons follow each other with inexorable logic. An idea from Spengler which appealed to both Kerouac and Burroughs was that the time of the Fellaheen peoples of the earth (Arabian & North African people of the land) might be dawning to replace the decadent West. In general, Burroughs seems to already have shown a predilection for grand systems of thought and for ideas that diminish the role of human agency in favour of fatalism and the crushing power of ideological apparatuses.

To begin with, Burroughs seems, much like Neal Cassady, to have been a talker rather than a writer. It was only after his relocation to Mexico City (after stints in New Orleans and later East Texas where he has a half-successful project as a marijuana-farmer going) that he was persuaded to attempt to write a confessional book about his life as a junkie. The ensuing manuscript was ready in late 1950 but did not appear until 1953 as part of a true crime pulp paperback: Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, pseudonymously ascribed to William Lee. The volume was an "Ace Books Original - Two Books for 35 c.", packaged with a memoir by a former FBI narcotics agent, Maurice Helbrandt! Thus Ace Books covered themselves from potential lawsuits by representing both sides of the crime, as it were... (Copies of this pulp now sell for 1.000$, btw... Currently you can see a copy advertised here with both cover images displayed in all their faded pulp colours.)

In fact Burroughs was inspired by the success of writing his memoirs as a junkie that he followed it up with a sequel focusing on the other illicit part of his life, that as a practising homosexual. This manuscript, titled Queer, turned out to be too explicit even for the pulps and did not find a publisher until many years later when Burroughs' fame as an author was much more established, and more importantly the homophobic climate of the 50s had been replaced by a somewhat greater tolerance for sexual deviance in the US.

Burroughs was, however, getting worn out by a life lived always outside the law. His growing opiate habit was also impeding his creativity and in general his capacity to function intellectually. As detailed both in Junkie and later in Naked Lunch, junk reduces the addict's humanity and drives to a very simple equation: junk rules your every move and motive, as everything and everyone else becomes a simple commodity or pawn that you will not hesitate to use or sell to ensure your next fix. This economy of junk was rapidly enslaving Burroughs who also was weary of the very logistics of relocating, being on the lam from the law, constant bribery of authorities, doctors, cops etc. The 'menagerie' he found himself in (numbering various so-called friends and hangers-on, as well as his wife Joan Vollmer, a Benzedrine addict, and her daughter from a previous marriage plus the Burroughses own son, Bill) was also becoming unmanageable as even in cheaper Mexico City the expenses continued to mount.

Whether what happened next is due to Burroughs, consciously or subconsciously, needing to break away from this situation will remain a matter of speculation. The fact remains that on September 6, 1951 Burroughs shot Joan Vollmer through the temple during a "William Tell act", which involved her placing a glass on her head and Burroughs attempting to hit it with a shot from one of his handguns. Both were apparently extremely drunk at the time, and reports indicate that Joan had been taunting Burroughs all day, daring him to prove what a marksman he was. She died instantly as a result of the head wound. In the aftermath Burroughs was imprisoned, but released on bail a couple of weeks later (bribery and bent lawyers no doubt being involved in this turn of events). He was eventually charged with criminal negligence but decided to skip bail and not appear at the court case - ultimately fleeing Mexico and travelling throughout South America in search of new, exciting telepathic drugs he had heard rumoured to exist down there.

The trauma of the killing of Joan was however a watershed event for Burroughs. The ghost of her and the guilt he continued to feel no doubt coloured his writerly temperament. Burroughs' own evaluation of the import of the events is worth quoting at length:

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle in which I have no choice but to write my way out.

I am quoting this statement by Burroughs from the excellent 'alternative' biography (all pages are on vivid multicolour background, liberally collaged with photographs, drawings, texts etc.) of Burroughs by Graham Caveney, Gentleman Junkie. Along with Ted Morgan's more traditional biography Literary Outlaw, Victor Bockris' With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker, and Barry Miles' El Hombre Invisible, these volumes covers almost all biographical aspects one needs to know about the life and times of William Burroughs.

Add to this the volumes of essays, letters, interviews, journals (most recently Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs, but also including Conversations With William S. Burroughs, ed. by Allen Hibbard; Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs ed. by James Grauerholz; The Letters of William S. Burroughs: Volume I: 1945-1959, ed. by Oliver Harris (vol. 2 is set to appear in 2010); The Adding Machine: Selected Essays (appeared already in '93 before Burroughs' death and therefore edited by himself); Burroughs Live: The Collected Interview of Wiliam S. Burroughs, 1960-1997, ed. by Sylvère Lotringer), not to mention Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader, ed. by Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg, plus the two 'definitive' or 'restored' versions of Junk(y) and Naked Lunch, and one gets the impression of an almost saturated Burroughs market.

Burroughs criticism also continues to blossom, led by Oliver Harris' impressive volume William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination from 2006. (I had the honour to serve on a panel at the British Association of American Studies annual conference with Oliver Harris and Ginsberg-expert, Franca Bellarsi in 2007. Harris presented vividly on Burroughs' Paris years where my idea of seeing Burroughs as a postmodern flaneur found its seed (i.e. I stole it from Oliver), Franca masterfully compared Ginsberg's aesthetics with William Blake, whereas I attempted to trace the influence of the Beats on selected immigrant writers from Eastern Europe who came to the US and melded Beat aesthetics together with their own cultural influences). Burroughs' cultural legacy is particularly strong in sub-cultural and anti-capitalist circles, as I shall return to later in this post.

We now return to our scheduled program of literary history: Post-Mexico City and Yage-quest (documented in The Yage Letters Redux which contains letters exchanged between Ginsberg and Burroughs, again edited by Harris), Burroughs relocated to Tangiers in Morocco - another location which had the distinct advantages of being cheap, having easy access to drugs and a relaxed view of homosexuality. While in Tangiers Burroughs began the therapeutic process of writing almost compulsively about his life and fantasies. In the published version of The Naked Lunch he describes the experience of awakening from his drug addiction and finding these mounds of pages with writing he claims not to remember producing. On a visit to Tangiers by Kerouac and Ginsberg the two younger men were also astonished both at the quantity of writing and the nature of the material. Quickly Kerouac begins typing up some of the handwritten pages and together with Ginsberg an editorial process of sorts begins. Kerouac also dreams up the title of the soon to be born 'novel': The Naked Lunch.

The ordering and mixing of the pages is apparently quite haphazard, and this of course greatly adds to the fragmentary and disjointed nature of the book. It consists of 'routines' - comical narratives (imagine cutting-edge stand-up material) told in a sardonic voice by a lizardy, Burroughs-like narrator, featuring escapes from narcotics agents, the setting-up of 'marks', scoring dope from seedy, undercover characters like Bradley the Buyer, etc., etc. Much of it has to be heard to be understood, and preferably in Burroughs' own drawl. YouTube has a wealth of clips with material, but there is also a complete audio book version read by Burroughs himself. Of the many available clips I particularly enjoy this early TV-appearance by Burroughs, featuring the "Twilight's Last Gleaming"-routine from a later novel Nova Express which illustrates the transgressive nature of the typical 'routine', but also both its humour and social satirical aim:

The Naked Lunch can also be seen as a compendium of parodies of the various pulp genres, such as crime, thriller, sci-fi, porn, and so on. For more hints on possible readings of the novel, see my agenda for analysis at the course website. Burroughs quickly gained notoriety for the manuscript, which had a fairly hard time finding a US publisher - even Olympia Press in Paris which had published Marquis de Sade were hesitant to accept the manuscript, but eventually realizing that controversy and transgression sells, they put out an edition in 1959. In '63 an American Grove Press edition followed. By this time Burroughs had once more relocated - to Paris where his stint at the Beat Hotel produced another chance meeting of great importance for his later prose style, the so-called cut-up technique which painter and collage master Brion Gysin introduced Burroughs to. The video below (pardon the subtitles) explains:

I think there are already traces of cut-ups in The Naked Lunch: certainly it contains pregnant strands of repetitions of phrases with various riffs (minor variations) or fugue-like passages - all features that often are the result of the manual cut-up and post-cut-up palimpsesting done by writing on top of the new sheet on a typewriter, as shown in the clip. Passages in the appended "Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness" from 1960, clearly show cut-up having been applied to it. Nowadays cut-ups are most easily performed with small computer programmes - try this simple on-line cut-up engine...

Other 60s novels by Burroughs, such as The Soft Machine, Nova Express and The Ticket that Exploded continue to evince pulp influences, increasingly so from science fiction and space opera, as Burroughs' ideas of language as a virus from outer space find creative outlets in these experimental books. Work from the 70s and 80s draws on other mythologies, for instance gangsters (The Last Words of Dutch Schultz) and outlaws of the old West (The Place of Dead Roads). Some of Burroughs' last works can perhaps best be categorized as post-colonial in their solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the world and their unwritten histories and myths (Cities of the Red Night; The Western Lands). His last book, My Education: A Book of Dreams, is perhaps the closest we get to an autobiography - but all his books are strongly imbued with elements of life writing, drawing on personal experience.

Burroughs' legacy within alternative culture - globally and in the US is immense. Part of the reason for that is collaborative work with subcultural figures already while Burroughs was still alive. You of the most viewed YouTube clips with Burroughs is his reading to the accompaniment of Kurt Cobain: The Priest They Called Him:

Other tremendously popular stuff is a recording from the late 80s of an alternative Thanksgiving prayer which is the most direct and sharp social critique Burroughs ever produced:

Even his foray into commercial work (for NIKE) is tinged with irony and (not) coincidentally presents some of his ideas on the alienating effects of language itself and of technology:

Another very concrete cultural legacy is in the form of the numerous bands paying homage to Burroughs by taking their names from his books, or characters therein. Some of the best known are prog-rockers Soft Machine; Steely Dan, named after a mean dildo in The Naked Lunch; and Thin White Rope, borrowing a metaphor from Burroughs' description of the ejaculations of the hanged young men in the "Hassan's Rumpus Room"-portion of The Naked Lunch.

Many of you may first have been exposed to Burroughs through the film medium, whether it is via Gus Van Sant's indie film Drugstore Cowboy from 1989 (Van Sant also directed Thanksgiving Prayer), or David Cronenberg's biographically enhanced version of Naked Lunch from 1991, for which I also recommend the excellent companion book Everything is Permitted: The Making of Naked Lunch which contains a wealth of extra material and historical background, as well as an intro by Burroughs himself.

Burroughs died in 1997 of a sudden heart attack, having spent the greater portion of his last years in his compound in Lawrence, Kansas, known affectionately as The Bunker - the facility offered him ample space to pursue his hobbies: target shooting, painting and pet cats...