Exposing Obscenity: The William S. Burroughs Century

2014 marks the William S. Burroughs centennial, and with it, a cascade of celebrations both large and modest will attempt to commemorate, celebrate, and come to terms with a writer whose vast body of work remains dwarfed by a personal mythology so outsized that it all but obscures his output.

Burroughs may be best remembered for 1959's The Naked Lunch,, tagged as salacious for its supposed depictions of heroin addiction and obscenity. The book was composed in the years Burroughs spent as a fugitive of sorts from the accidental killing in 1951 of his wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City, during a drunken game of "William Tell."

Readers in 2014 will be treated to Burroughs-the-myth, courtesy of Barry Miles' authorized and massive new biography, Call Me Burroughs (Hachette/Twelve), and Burroughs-the-mystifying, through lead scholar Oliver Harris' new editions (Grove) of the Cut-Up/Nova trilogy, The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964). Together, these projects suggest a reconsideration of Burroughs' legacy unmatched in recent history.

For those who do not know Burroughs, or those who know him only from Junky or from Naked Lunch, 2014 is the year to get caught up.

The first major event in the U.S. to commemorate Burroughs is the Burroughs Century, happening Feb 5-9, in an unlikely place, Bloomington, Indiana. The conference -- where I'll be performing too -- will draw together significant voices in Burroughs scholarship and post-Beat performance culture.

To pin down the mysteries of the man, the myth, and the conference in the middle of midwestern flatness, I asked organizer Charles Cannon, Bloomington resident and science-fiction writer, about his Burroughs Century.

Davis: How did the idea for this conference come together?

Charles: The seed for the festival began back in March as an idea for a Burroughs film series at the Indiana University cinema.... Jon Vickers (of IC cinema came on board) and his support gave us momentum and confidence. The IU Cinema will host 8 programs of Burroughs films, including the Midwest premiere of Burroughs: The Movie and the Burroughs/Anthony Balch (cut-up) films.

Davis: This is more than film, though, yes?

Charles: The plan began to grow in a number of unexpected ways. John Bennett, curator of avant-garde writing in the Special Collections of The Ohio State University Library in Columbus....(told us) that the Burroughs archive, originally kept by Burroughs executor James Grauerholz in Lawrence, Kansas, is now housed in Columbus. John brought Geoff Harris, head of special collections, into the conversation, and we began to discuss their involvement in the festival. The Lilly Library agreed to host an exhibit of Burroughs papers, some from the Lilly's own collections and some from OSU-Columbus.

Davis: And the conference has both popular and academic components--which speaks to Burroughs' dual legacy?

Charles: Local musician Michael Anderson was also one of the first to join, followed by James Paasche, a doctoral candidate in Communications and Culture at IU.
Contact with the Burroughs estate resulted in our arranging for an exhibit of some of Burroughs' paintings, to be overseen by Yuri Zupancic, the estate's curator. Joan Hawkins, an associate professor in the Department of Communications and Culture, joined our steering committee and facilitated a meeting with Betsy Stirratt, director of the Grunwald Gallery at the School of Fine Arts, and we made an agreement for the Grunwald to host the Burroughs art show.

Davis: That's quite a lineup.

Charles: After these three anchors were established, we branched out, adding a three-day Burroughs symposium, with keynote speaker Oliver Harris, and other Burroughs scholars, including Jack Sargeant, Jorge Garcia-Robles, and Tim Murphy. We also added off-campus activities, including a performance The HOLOGRAPHIC Ensemble of James Ilgenfritz's avant-garde opera based on Burroughs' novel The Ticket That Exploded, and performances by Lydia Lunch and (Negativland's) Mark Hosler.

Davis: What do you hope the conference will accomplish?

Charles: To bring more attention to Burroughs writings, films, art, and his numerous other media projects. And, especially, to make clear his continuing relevance. I do not believe his work has aged. In this time of the "War on Terror," of "enhanced interrogation techniques," of NSA spying, the continuing moral and legal abyss of the War on Drugs, who can now read Naked Lunch and find it dated? Naked Lunch could be set at Guantanamo, Dr. Benway could have been employed there.

Davis: Agreed. Yet would Burroughs want us to celebrate him?

Charles: In a word, no.

Davis: I've focused on Burroughs as a writer rather than as a public figure, particularly in my co-edited 2004 book Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization. Do you think there too much emphasis on the myth of Burroughs over the work?

Charles: Oh, certainly yes. And one sees the same myths, opinions-masquerading-as-facts, and downright falsifications being repeated ad nauseum. It is easier to talk about the myth than the work. This is, itself, part of the process of creating and deflating celebrities that Burroughs discusses in his work. He understood the machinery that lies behind that process, as well as the mass psychology of celebrity worship and hatred that is endemic in this country. It's another kind of addiction.

Davis: How did you discover Burroughs?

Charles: The Summer of 1993, I was at Dreamtime Village in West Lima, Wisconsin. I was in the library, which was in a backroom in the old Post Office, reading, if I remember correctly, an old issue of City Lights Review, wherein was printed "Nuts to Plutonium!," attributed to Allen Ginsberg and Col. Sutton Smith, whom the editors identified as possibly being William S. Burroughs. Intrigued, I found (Burroughs' late novels) The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands in the public library when I returned to Indiana, and have been hooked ever since.

Davis: What's you favorite Burroughs text?

Charles: Cities of the Red Night. I've read it at least a dozen times.

Davis: Burroughs warns us repeatedly a vast control conspiracy intrinsic to modern media. Was he right?

Charles: Yes. Guy Debord called it "the spectacle," but I believe he and Burroughs were describing the same phenomena, but in different language.

Davis: Will people read Burroughs 100 years from now?

Charles: Angela Carter said that, if people are still reading 100 years from now, they will be reading Burroughs.

Davis: Well, we will see if people still read. If so, would the attraction be that because Burroughs is obscene, as was the original charge against Naked Lunch?

Charles: Yes, and intentionally so. But, his obscenity is never an end in itself, which is why his work is not pornographic. His work is always intended to expose the true obscenity of the men of "the all-powerful boards and syndicates of the earth". As he said in (his posthumously published journal) Last Words: "And you powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours. To sell the ground from unborn feet forever." [H]is exposure of obscenity is itself condemned as obscene.