Thursday, April 24, 2014

William Burrough's Work by Barry Miles

That summer (1983) at Naropa, Bill was asked by Allen Ginsberg to provide a reading list for his students. He listed more than one hundred books plus “the complete works” of Kafka. Genet, and Fitzgerald. He handed the pages to Allen. Allen was outraged and stamped his feet, accusing Burroughs of simply listing everything he had on his bookshelf.

“What’s this?” he demanded, pointing to Intern by Doctor X.

“That, Allen, is a doctor book. I assure you it’s a very good one.” Bill spoke quietly, as if talking to a recalcitrant student.

“But they can’t read all these,” fumed Allen.

“They are the books I like,” said Bill, pursing his lips.

“Where’s Kerouac?” demanded Allen. William did not reply, just placed his fingers together and pursed his lips some more, biding his time. Allen knew better than to argue and the list was duly photocopied and distributed for Bill’s class.

Burroughs had never thought much of Kerouac’s actual writing, and had always been irritated by Kerouac’s various portrayal’s of him as well as the way that he was lumped together with him by the critics, Allen Ginsberg included, who often assumed that Kerouac was an influence on his work. “I said that he had an influence in encouraging me to write, not an influence on what I wrote . […] So far as our style of work and content, we couldn’t be more opposite. He always said that the first draft was the best. I said, ‘Well, that may work for you, Jack, but it doesn’t work for me.’ I’m used to writing and rewriting things at least three times. It’s just a completely different way of working.”

Burroughs also depended upon his friends  to assist when it came time for the final draft. James Grauerholz worked long and hard to knock the manuscript of Cities of the Red Night into shape. Allen Ginsberg played an important role in shaping both Junky and Queer, and worked on the early drafts of The Naked Lunch. The Naked Lunch itself was typed and shaped largely by Brion Gysin and Sinclair Beiles while Bill stuck photos of the Peruvian jungle on the wall and shot at them with his air gun. The Soft Machine was assembled and edited entirely by Ginsberg and Gysin while Burroughs was in Tangier, and Ian Sommerville had a lot to do with both The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express. This is how Burroughs always worked.  All Burrough’s major books are fugitive. No fixed text seems possible, each version points up different aspects of Burrough’s vision, and ultimately they have to be seen as one giant multivolume book including all the different versions.

Years of research and work on Cities of the Red Night gave Burroughs six hundred pages of material to use as a starter for The Place of Dead Roads. In April 1984 he told the East Village Eye that the new book was well under way. “The overflow from Dead Roads was about 7-800 pages. I always had material to draw on for the next one. So in a sense the next one is well under way by the time I finish the one I am doing. […] I never know what’s going to happen. I don’t plan the novel out. I don’t even have any idea how this novel I’m writing is going to end or where it’s going from where it is now, or how much of that material will be useable.”

In the last years of his life Burroughs began painting. He had no formal art training, but felt that maybe that was a good thing given his way of approaching art. “There might be something on my mind, I try to just let my hand do it, to see with my hand. And then look at it, see what has happened. I may see quite clearly in there something that I’ve seen recently in a magazine or a newspaper, whatever, emerging. I can’t consciously draw anything. I can’t draw a recognizable chair – it looks like a four-year-old’s.” The initial “killing of the canvas,” making random marks to overcome the tyranny of the white rectangle, provided the subject matter; in among the whorls of paint, a subject emerged. “I don’t know what I’m painting until I see it. In fact I’ve done a lot with my eyes closed. The point was to get started.

It was the ‘surprised recognition” that Burroughs was after. “It applies to any art form. That’s what I try to do in painting. Klee said a painter strives to create something that has an existence apart from him and which could endanger him. Now the most clear proof of something being separate is if it can harm you. […] I do think all writers, many other writers and painters are trying to create something that has an existence apart from themselves. It would literally step out of the picture or the book. So all artists are trying to achieve what some people would say is impossible, that is to create life. Of course, impossible is a meaningless word to me.”

This fits in with Burrough’s cut-in theory: the recognition of connections between phrases suggested by a random process; with his occult experiments with crystal balls; with the random cut-ins on his tape experiments; and with the emerging images from random visual events. “That’s what it’s all about. The way that clear representational objects will emerge from what would seem to be a random procedure.”

In many ways Burrough’s art was a self-exploratory process. According to Allen Ginsberg, Burrough’s use of sex, for example, was to explore his own sexual position, “rehearsing it over and over again, to sort of take it outside himself, exteriorize it on the page and repeat it over and over again in a mechanical way in different forms until his obsessive neurotic images lose their magnetic, hypnotic attraction or their conditioned attraction and become common-place.”  This is somewhat similar  to  and helps explain Burroughs long-time attraction to Scientology which he explained has a system of therapy called ‘clearing’ in which you ‘run’ traumatic material which they call ‘engrams’ until it loses its emotional connotation through repetitions and is then refilled with neutral memory.”

The role of drugs in Burrough’s life and art cannot be overemphasized. From the mid-forties, when his nostalgie de la boue led him to the criminal circles where he became addicted to morphine, he was involved in the drug subculture. Though not always addicted, he was rarely sober from then on: all his books were written on marijuana, which he used through-out his lifetime, and/or opiates. Despite his frequent claims to the contrary, much of of the original material in The Naked Lunch was written while he was heavily addicted to Eukodol, a form of morphine, and everything written after his return to the United States in 1974 was written on opiates; he switched to the methadone program for the last seventeen years of his life. He also drank a good deal, sometimes lapsing into alcoholism. Drugs were an enormously important part of his life: they were an all-consuming interest and also the subject of most of his writing. He was ambivalent about them, on and off, for and against, for much of his life, but in old age he felt that becoming a junkie was the best thing he ever did, because without it he would not have written The Naked Lunch or encountered the demimonde of underground characters that populate his work.

Burroughs did not live a happy life; he was plagued by loneliness and lack of love, racked with guilt, not just over the death of his wife, but for his neglect of friends and family. But to those in Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent the last years of his life, he was an inspirational presence. He had a lot of advice for young men. He wasn’t a softy but he was really warm and likable. He had an endearing manner and retained his mental agility to the end.

1 comment:

  1. Call Me Burroughs, A Life by Barry Miles, 12, Boston 2013