William S. Burroughs at 100: Exploding Five Major Myths

This year will give us the Burroughs we envision -- and yet the danger is that the diversity and impact of Burroughs' writing, visual art, audio works, and film experiments will be lost in the endless refraction of the mythologizing mirror.
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William S. Burroughs, literary scourge of the banal and the boring, best known as the author of the still outrageous Naked Lunch (1959), would have turned 100 on February 5.

Whether as novelist, essayist, painter, filmmaker, recording artist, mystic, expatriate, psychological patient, Scientologist, Beat progenitor, plagiarist, punk music godfather, anti-censorship activist, queer hero, science-fiction guru, junkie, media theorist, advertising model -- or accidental murderer -- the figure of Burroughs (1914-1997) casts as many shadows as the limits of each of these labels.

Those who remember the man Jack Kerouac billed as "Old Bull Lee" in On the Road (1957) as a heroin-shooting, wife-killing outlaw might imagine a birthday party for Burroughs as a Scientology auditing session where roller-skating boys with brightly colored codpieces pass across the cracked parking lots of a dead future.

And those marking the Burroughs century will have a thousand different version of Burroughs to choose from, and the celebrations will commemorate and mythologize, perhaps in equal parts. Burroughs' myth -- writ large -- remains a powerful mirror for everyone from ex-Hippies to ad executives to cut-and-paste culture content creators (count me in the latter group).

If we get the government we deserve, this year will give us the Burroughs we envision -- and yet the danger is that the diversity and impact of Burroughs' writing, visual art, audio works, and film experiments will be lost in the endless refraction of the mythologizing mirror.

Even so, I'll be on board as well, celebrating and performing at The Burroughs Century conference; marking the 10 year anniversary of my co-edited collection Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization in its digital reprint at the premiere Burroughs website, RealityStudio.org; and soon after bringing my own perhaps "Burroughsian" performances to Denmark, at Forfatterskolen/The Danish Academy of Creative Writing, Aalborg University, and the American Studies Center Aarhus (ASCA) at Aarhus University.

In each case, I'll remember what I've found most sustaining in Burroughs over the years -- the work itself -- and so let me take this opportunity to blow up five myths about William S. Burroughs.

Myth #1: Burroughs is a Beat writer. If Burroughs is a Beat, then Paul McCartney should be best remembered as the founder of Wings.

Indeed, Burroughs was certainly a presence in the circle of young writers who would later become the Beat Generation, and his friendships with Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg (especially) were real and generative. Yet where Ginsberg's "Howl" (1956) expresses its cynical dissatisfaction through a type of ecstatic anti-poetry inspiring generations of disaffected college students, and Kerouac's On the Road sold a Romantic version of slacker transgression/transcendence, both looked for the "truth" underneath the lies of Eisenhower's bomb-shelter America. Beat works believe that there is meaning -- transcendental meaning -- hiding from view, and these writers seek to access that meaning through drugs, sex, jazz (and let's not forget the appropriation of black culture).

Naked Lunch, on the other hand, contains plenty of drugs and sex, and yet its principle strategy is not in locating the truth, but in the shoots of disembodied cutting.

Naked Lunch's "mosaic method" or pairing satirical routines with aleatory images (a precursor to later "cut-ups") lets Burroughs pit the language of literary transcendence against itself. In Ginsberg, it's the William Blake-like search for the "real."

In Burroughs, art is an endless series of cuts.

Myth #2: Burroughs is the godfather of punk. If Burroughs is the godfather of punk, then 5th US President James Monroe is the godfather of the Tea Party.

"Godfather" is a handy appellation that explains the many affinities among Burroughs works, his libertarian (and in some cases retrograde) politics, and the motivating spirit of punk/alt rockers such as Sonic Youth or Patti Smith. Punk music looked directly -- and rightly -- toward Burroughs' eviscerations of conventional wisdom, but it hardly had a monopoly on that line.

If Patti Smith and Thurston Moore saw in Burroughs a "like mind," so did everyone from Ministry to Kurt Cobain to U2 to Steely Dan to David Bowie to Negativland to Michael Franti to Bill Laswell to DJ Spooky, ad infinitum. Burroughs' purported "punkness," a label he rejected, is better described as a mere general stance in partial sync with a broadly defined counterculture. And when that counterculture becomes commercial -- think U2 in the Zoo TV era -- we need to pull back: Just because a work of art uses cut-ups does not mean it automatically shares the critical vector of Burroughs practice.

There is plenty of sampling, cutting, and jump edits in soda commercials and Hollywood blockbusters. Burroughs' work points often toward the Ugly Spirit of American propaganda and mercenary capitalism, and just because Paris Hilton styles herself a DJ doesn't mean her "work" (can we call it that?) does anything interesting at all...

Myth #3: Burroughs invented cut-ups. If Burroughs invented cut-ups, then Columbus discovered America.

More precisely, Burroughs became the most-well-known practitioner of a "discovery" attributed by everyone, including Burroughs, to his most-important long-term collaborator, visual artist, restaurateur, raconteur, and failed entrepreneur Brion Gysin.

Cut-ups refer to the juxtaposition of text fragments against other text fragments, performed for Burroughs by the physical cutting of paper, yet possible today, of course, by digital means. Cut-ups have also come to refer to a much broader set of text experiments practiced by Burroughs and Gysin, including fold-ins, grid arrangements, etc. (These are detailed in their excellent 1978 manifesto The Third Mind, and I am engaged in a long-term reconsideration of material emerging from their long collaboration.)

While Peter Schjeldahl couldn't be more wrong on this in his recent Burroughs essay in The New Yorker: "...Brion Gysin (is) a mediocre artist of calligraphic abstractions," his essay fails to place the cut-ups in context. 50 years before the 1959 "discovery" by Gysin in the Beat Hotel in Paris saw similar collage experiments from high modernists such as T.S. Eliot ("The Waste Land") and John Dos Passos (USA trilogy) to avant-garde provocateur's pulling newspaper lines out of a hat at the Cabaret Voltaire nightclub in Zurich.

Even that's not the beginning. At a fundamental level, the cut-ups -- user interventions in pre-written texts -- are as old as textually itself.

In Chicago, idiosyncratic Newbery Library benefactor John Mansir Wing spent the turn of the 20th century extra-illustrating -- interleaving books with portraits from other books -- and rebinding hundreds of texts toward absurd bloatification that can match Burroughs' vitriol page for page. He wasn't alone. A guerrilla army of anonymous extra-illustrators on both sides of the Atlantic had been at it since at least the late 1700s (not to mention the parallel bibliophilic obsession of scrapbooking) with the same wild abandon that characterizes Holmes-Watson romance fan fiction on the Internet.

These centuries-old traditions, of which Burroughs was an important empirical researcher, are as much responsible for your kids making trailers on iMovie, music samples in the worst '90s Puff Daddy tracks, and the collage cover of Sergeant Pepper's, as Burroughs could ever be (despite his being on the Pepper cover.)

Kathy Acker goes so far as to say in 1990 that "we are living in the world of Burroughs's novels," but this is hyperbole.

We've always lived in this world. Burroughs' works simply provide an exploded frame.

Myth # 4: Naked Lunch is Burroughs' best (or most-"obscene") book. Naked Lunch is to Burroughs is what Lolita is to Nabokov. Naked Lunch is to Burroughs is what "Stairway to Heaven" is to Led Zeppelin.

Naked Lunch is a text that anyone interested is 20th-century literature should read, but it won't provide a broad sense of Burroughs' work anymore than listening to Stairway will teach you about the exploitative blues lifts of Led Zeppelin I or the synth-pop misdirection of In Through the Out Door.

Naked Lunch is Burroughs' best-known and most infamous work, in large part due to its sensational censorship trial. And it certainly stands on its own without that cultural baggage, despite our tendency to conflate controversy with literary value. Yet the famous inscrutability that is the text's best feature proves that what makes Naked Lunch so effective is that it's not a novel at all (as premiere Burroughs critic Oliver Harris has proven here and elsewere), but a collection of routines and juxtapositions calculated to turn the modern novel into an exploded diagram.

It's a fragmented work for a fragmented post-War universe, and if you want to figure it out, if you want to overlay story, plot, and symbol atop Hassan's Rumpus Room until the gates of the sky open up in a chorus of epiphanic trumpets, then I have some Catcher in the Rye for you.

Myth #5: Burroughs isn't for me. Believe me, there's something here for you, oh educated reader raised in a mass mediaverse of crushing commercialism, literary forgettable-ness, and social-media excess.

Burroughs produced an astounding range of novels, word experiments, essays, films, and sounds recordings... and even just keeping to the major novels there is enough variation to please everyone. So start anywhere you like, whether with the first novel Junky (1953) -- the hard-boiled, first person escapades of Burroughs' stand-in William Lee, master addict of dangerous drugs, scouring the hovels of underworld America -- or the last major novel The Western Lands (1987), the capper to the Red Night trilogy where the superimposition of alternative histories into the "One God" universe sees its main character, William Seward Hall (another Burroughs stand in), accumulate a "disgust for words accumulated until it choked him, and he could no longer bear to look at his words on a piece of paper."

Now that you know the myths, you are free to discover not the "real" Burroughs, but the Burroughs whose work speaks at you--free to look on paper, in film, and around the best parts of the cut-culture zeitgeist. That's no typo: you are free to let Burroughs' works speak at you.

"You can find out more about someone by talking than by listening," writes Burroughs in Naked Lunch.

Now it's time to listen, and it will still be so...long after the 2014 candles are snuffed.

Davis Schneiderman is a Burroughs scholar and writer, and the author most recently of the appropriation novel [SIC].

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