By Maude Delice.
Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. I call it creative observation. Creative viewing. – William S. Burroughs.
James Grauerholz, personal secretary and longtime companion of William, details his discovery of the author and his novel “Naked Lunch,”: “I couldn’t put it down. As soon as I read it, I went back to page one and read it again,” he says. “It was easy for me to read and enjoy because of two things: I identified with the sexuality. And I had a dark, corrosive sense of humor. I sometimes tell people, ‘You didn’t understand it because you didn’t realize it’s funny.’”
Naked Lunch was not only originally published in Paris in 1959, but, in a perfect turn of events, William Burroughs is himself “a compulsive anti-authoritarian who came crashing out of the suburban stagnation of the ’50s, cutting up poetry, shooting guns and heroin, refusing to conform and influencing an entire movement.”
Naked Lunch, a non-linear narrative that follows protagonist, and William’s alter-ego, William Lee – a heroine junkie who travels the U.S., and a few made-up locations (perhaps hallucinations from his high) in search of his next fix.
William S. Burroughs. (Pencil drawings by Adam Rogers.)
It took three years before an American edition of Naked Lunch would be published. And the response was terrible. As is the case with most great artists William was way ahead of the curve and his forward-thinking novel would soon be accepted as a seminal work, and one of the landmark publications in the history of American literature. But until then, he faced censorship in two states and a Supreme Court obscenity trial. When the editor Paul Carroll published the first issue of BIG TABLE Magazine alongside former Chicago Review editor Irving Rosenthal, he was found guilty of sending obscene material through the U.S. mail for including “Ten Episodes from Naked Lunch”.
“‘Disgusting,’ they said … ‘Pornographic’ … ‘Un-American trash’ … ‘Unpublishable’ … Well, it came out in 1959, and it found an audience … Town meetings … Book burnings … And an inquiry by the State Supreme Court … That book made quite a little impression.” —William S. Burroughs on his novel “Naked Lunch”
In 1951, Burroughs shoots and kills his second wife, and mother to his son, Joan Vollmer in a drunken game of “William Tell.” Burroughs misses the target and his wife dies the same day of a skull wound at the age of 28.
“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death … [S]o the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out”. (Queer, 1985, p.xxii)
Burroughs believed the human organism was an ill-designed artifact that needed rewiring, a relaunch of the species. People are said to have consulted him because, having apparently outlived himself, he offered a preview of what the next phase of psychological and physical evolution might bring. First the brain, which was tediously set up to rationalize, would have to be unkinked.
His philosophy was crucial for the development of many twentieth century subcultures including Beats, Hippies, and Punks.
Central elements of “Beat” culture included experimenting with drugs, alternative forms of sexuality, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism, and the idealizing of exuberant, unexpurgated means of expression and being.
Lucien Carr (middle) William Bourroughs (left) and Allen Ginsberg 1953.
William Burroughs was himself a “junkie” and started using heroine in 1944. Although he experimented with other forms of narcotics, street drugs were not his cup of tea. Ideally, Burroughs would score pharmaceutical grade drugs such as Dilaudid. This is closely related to Burroughs education; more than a junkie; he was a “Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs.” He attended Harvard and medical school in Vienna in the 1930s and was ultimately very knowledgeable about medicine and psychology and the drugs that were prescribed.
Beat Generation developed a reputation as the new bohemian hedonists, rampid non-conformists and spontaneous creativity – Burroughs cut and paste style was definitely a testament to this.
The “Punk” Title.
“I am not punk and don’t know why anyone would consider me the godfather of punk,” William S. Burroughs said. And yet artists like Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Jello Biafara, and Thurston Moore associate the writer with the genre. He has been cited as an inspiration by many more rock musicians, where both the influential London band The Soft Machine and the American 70′s jazz-rock band Steely Dan, took their names from Burroughs’ writings – Steely Dan is the name of a dildo featured Naked Lunch. Other examples include Thin White Rope (how Burroughs describes semen in the novel), The Mugwumps, Nova Express, and The Insect Trust.
In 1992 Kurt Cobain released an album with Burroughs, ‘The Priest They Called Him‘ where Cobain plays electric guitar over Burrough’s spoken word. Meeting William was a really big deal for Kurt, and collaborating with him was part of his list of great accomplishments alongside the birth of his child.
“Never fight fear head-on. That rot about pulling yourself together, and the harder you pull the worse it gets. Let it in and look at it. What shape is it? What color? Let it wash through you. Move back and hang on. Pretend it isn’t there. Get trivial. And what will they serve at this faculty party? Some lethal acidic punch no doubt, just the thing to bring on my hiatus hernia. A dreary parade of faculty parties and office parties to remind you that acute fear and boredom are incompatible.
There are many ways to distance yourself from fear. Keep silence and let fear talk. You will see it by what it does. Death doesn’t like to be seen that close. Death must always elicit surprised recognition: “You!”
The last person you expected to see, and at the same time, who else?
When De Gaulle, after an unsuccessful machine-gun attack on his car, brushed splintered glass off his shoulder and said, “Encore!,” Death couldn’t touch him. You don’t say, “Oh, You again!” to Death. Death can’t take that.”
William Burroughs, The Western Lands, p. 246
William S. Burroughs.
Maude Delice is a contributing writer for by such and such.
Heading Picture by Annie Leibovitz .