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William Burroughs


By Paul A. Attanasio

WILLIAM BURROUGHS came to Harvard in 1931 accompanied by a host of ancestral ghosts that included the inventor of the adding machine and General Robert E. Lee. "I hated the University and I hated the town it was in," he would later write. "Everything about the place was dead. The University was a fake English set-up taken over by the graduates of fake English public schools." After graduating in 1936 without honors, Burroughs bummed around the world, funded by a family trust. He applied to the OSS (Officer's Strategic Services) but was rejected because he had deliberately cut off a piece of his finger ("I'd once got on a Van Gogh kick"); the Army declared him a paranoid schizophrenic and thus 4-F. By 1944, with nothing else to do, Burroughs became a junkie. It was not recorded in the Alumni Monthly.

He ended up in Tangiers, searching for veins, staring at his foot, not changing his clothes or taking a bath for an entire year. In 1952, Burroughs completed Junky, a clinically realistic portrait of his addiction. Allen Ginsberg, who had met Burroughs while an undergraduate at Columbia, peddled Junky all over New York and finally found a publisher in Carl Solomon, whom he had met in a looney bin. The acceptance of Junky by Ace Books encouraged Burroughs to continue writing.

Naked Lunch exploded like a lanced boil on the American literary scene in 1959. The novel, a farrago of discontinuous fragments, takes the reader on a graphic tour of the hellish interstices of a junkie's mind, the fantasies of castration and necrophilia and technology gone amok. The updated Gothicism, hip drugginess and black humor of Naked Lunch established Burroughs' audience, composed mostly of young people. Norman Mailer compared reading Burroughs to "being in a room where three radios, two television sets, stereo hi-fi, a pornographic movie, and two automatic dishwashers are working at once." John Clellon Holmes called Burroughs' work "1984 written by W.C. Fields."

The more recent books, The Wild Boys and Exterminator!, brought Burroughs closer to the literary mainstream--one might say of Exterminator!, as Burroughs said of In Cold Blood, that it could have been written by any staff writer on The New Yorker. The technique of "cut-up"-- Burroughs' application of the montage concept in painting to writing--seems to be used more as an inspirational device before writing than as a writing technique. And his latest book, due for publication late this year, brings Burroughs even closer to conventionality, at least as close as a writer who killed his wife in a game of William Tell and suffered hallucinations at the age of four will ever get. Burroughs recently talked about the novel, Cities of the Red Night, in his sparely furnished apartment on New York's Bowery.

"It's certainly the longest and most ambitious novel I've attempted. It'll be at least 500 pages, which is about double the length of books that I've written prior to that...Stylistically it is, I would say, much more conventional than what I've done heretofore. It involves time travel, it involves pirates who invent the cartridge gun in the early 18th century and with this invention take over the whole of South America."

BURROUGHS, like most writers who came up in the 50s, reacts to the grey-flannel uniformity and dehumanizing technology of the era, as personified in Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch. But he is no Miniver Cheevy. "In many ways of course everyone knows that life was more pleasant a hundred years ago. On the other hand, of course, most of us would be dead," he said in his WASP/aristocrat groan. "I sometimes take a census of the number of my friends who would be dead if they had lived a hundred years ago and it's almost a hundred per cent."

Asked whether art has a moral purpose, Burroughs shifted uneasily in his orange leatherette chair. "I don't know what you mean by that...Art is certainly concerned with the creation of values. I mean if it doesn't affect people, it hasn't accomplished anything. Naturally you're trying to produce an effect on the reader."

"I would say generally the aim of art--that is, painting, writing, and, in fact, all creative thought--is to make people aware of what they know and don't know that they know." Asked if he still subscribed to his artistic manifesto in Naked Lunch ("I am not an entertainer"), Burroughs demurred. "I wouldn't agree with that," he said. "Not anymore."

Burroughs disassociates himself from the Beat movement, and writers like Kerouac. "I don't think I have very much in common with the other Beat writers from a literary point of view. You couldn't find two writers more different in their approach and style than myself and Kerouac." He rejected the term modernist as "meaningless," and claimed to be part of the picaresque tradition, "very definitely." He cited Conrad, Graham Greene, Kafka, Rimbaud and T.S. Eliot among his influences. Of course, he belongs among them, no mere cult figure but an important American writer in whatever tradition you care to pigeonhole him in, a denizen of the darkness who lived what Eliot only suspected, who saw life measured out, not by coffee spoons, but "in eyedroppers of morphine solution."

And then William Seward Burroughs, writer, gun enthusiast and wearer of polyester blazers, remarkably well-preserved for his 67 often dissipated years, got up and walked past his writer's desk and two Ouija boards, through the furniture store over which he lives, past the Salvation Army mission, to have dinner with Andy Warhol.

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