(Photograph by Udo Breger).
William S. Burroughs was a high modernist and a writer of complete trash; the two are by no means mutually exclusive. He was a genius and a bullshit artist. If his books prove anything, it’s that profundity and inanity can skip along merrily arm in arm. Sometimes his work was heavyweight, sometimes dumb. To borrow a Freudian analogy, sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar and sometimes a man who taught his asshole to talk really is just a man who taught his asshole how to talk (what it’s saying and why is a different story). The paradox of the freest writer being a lifelong junky is really no paradox at all. As a user and pedlar, he understood the mechanics of how it all worked and kindly pointed it out to us, even as he was picking our pockets. He was a stiff morose patrician figure in a suit (so much so his friend Herbert Huncke initially took him for an undercover agent) with books and a history full of debauchery and depravity. If there seems a contradiction there, it’s in the eye of the beholder. What makes Burroughs’ work seem prophetic is that he was perceptive enough to see that people don’t change, the secret to all successful prophecies. We’re still continually re-enacting Greek myths on a daily basis and always will. Psychosis may mirror the zeitgeist (whether it’s paranoia of witches, Jews, communists, drug fiends, Islamists or whoever next) but its essential character doesn’t alter. The bugs and the feds are always with us and there’s only so much one man can do, calling door to door with an extermination kit.
1. William Seward Burroughs, born February 5th, 1914, St. Louis, Missouri. Died August 2, 1997, Lawrence, Kansas.
3. William S. Burroughs, a writer no one reads and everyone references.
4. Point three is not fair: I’m sure you, dearest reader, have read Burroughs, continue to read Burroughs, will read Burroughs, etc.
5. But, points three and four, it’s the idea of Burroughs, Burroughs-as-luminary, Burroughs-as-symbol, that our culture persists in keeping.
6. Re: Points three, four, five: Burroughs the poser who posed for so many photographs, who couldn’t say no to a spoken word CD or a collaboration or a fucking Nike ad.
7. And always with the guns.
8. And the knives.
9. And the guns.
10. If you want to know what licenses Picasso to break the human form (and other forms) into cubes and lines and colors and figured abstractions, go gander at Aunt Pepa or First Communion.
11. If you want to know what licenses Duchamp to call a urinal a work of art, go gander at Portrait of the Artist’s Father.
12. If you want to know what licenses Burroughs to call Naked Lunch a novel, go read Junkie or Queer.
13. Junkie, the first Burroughs novel I read, is a high modernist classic.
16. The reader is invited, most cordially, to print this riff and cut it into little bits and rearrange it.
17. The reader is invited, most cordially, to cut and paste this riff into a new digital document and rearrange it.
18. William Burroughs, curator.
19. William Burroughs, collaborator.
William S. Burroughs looking serious, sad lover’s eyes, afternoon light in window (Photo by Ginsberg)
From William S. Burroughs’s 1972 interview with Penthouse magazine.
From Number 5, Vol. 7 of Fuck You, (1964) a mimeograph magazine from editor Ed Sanders. The magazine featured Allen Ginsberg, Tuli Kupferberg, Frank O’Hara and more. There’s a fantastic visual archive of Fuck You at Reality Studio, which is where I got this Burroughs layout.
“Art Makes People Aware of What They Know and Don’t Know That They Know” — William S. Burroughs Talks About Creative Thinking
We published this list last year under the heading “Ten Excellent Dystopian/Post-apocalyptic Novels That Aren’t Brave New World or 1984“, but what with the Rapture going down and all, why not post it again, this time with links to pieces we’ve written on these novels—
2. Camp Concentration, Thomas Disch
3. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
The following selection is from William S. Burroughs’s “Hieroglyphic Silence,” collected in the totally out-of-print volume The Third Mind, a book of cut-ups Burroughs co-authored with Brion Gysin (you can access the book here via extralegal means). From “Hieroglyphic Silence”–
“I am the Egyptian,” he said, looking all flat and silly, and I said: “Really, Bradford, don’t be tiresome.”
All right, let’s put it apple-pie simple with a picture of a wedge of apple pie there, containing fifty-three grams of carbohydrates.(See the L-C diet.)
Well now, if you don’t know the word for apple pie where you happen to be and want it, you can point to it or you can draw it. So, when and why do you need a word for it? When and why do you need to say, I want apple pie, if you just don’t care how fat you get?
You need to say it when it isn’t there to point to and when you don’t have your drawing tools handy\ In short, words become necessary when the object they refer to is not there.
No matter what the spoken language may be, you can read hieroglyphs, a picture of a chair or what have you; makes no difference what you call it, right? You don’t need subvocal speech to register the meaning of hieroglyphs. Learning a hieroglyphic language is excellent practice in the lost art of inner silence. “It would be well, today, if children were taught a good many Chinese ideograms and Egyptian hieroglyphs as a means of enhancing their appreciation of our alphabet.” If you are able to look at what is in front of you in silence, you will be able to write about it from a more perceptive viewpoint.
What keeps you from seeing what is in front of you? Words for what is in front of you, which are not what is there. As Korzybski pointed out: whatever a chair may be, it is not a “chair.” That is,it is not the label “chair.”So, now try this: pick up your Easy Lessons in Egyptian Hieroglyphics, by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, and copy out the following phrases:
p. 104; They fall down upon face their in land their own.
p. 173; Stood the prince alone in the presence of the gods.
p. 181; The lock of hair which was in.
p. 79; the wind
p. 202; Giver of winds is its name.
p. 190; coming forth waiting for thee from of old
p. 200; night that of the destruction of the enemies
p. 208; come thou to us not having thy memories of evil come thou in thy form
p. 103; In the writing of the god himself he writeth for thee the book of breathings with his fingers his own.
p. 195; Shall it be that thou wilt be silent about it.
Now, having memorized the above passage, turn to the hieroglyphs on the following page and read in silence.