In William Burroughs settled in Tangiers, finding a sanctuary of sorts in its shadowy streets, blind alleys, and lowlife decadence. It was this city that served as a catalyst for Burroughs as a writer, the backdrop for one of the most radical transformations of style in literary history. Burroughs's life during this period is limned in a startling collection of short stories, autobiographical sketches, letters, and diary entries, all of which showcase his trademark mordant humor, while delineating the addictions to drugs and sex that are the central metaphors of his work. But it is the extraordinary "WORD," a long, sexually wild and deliberately offensive tirade, that blends confession, routine, and fantasy and marks the true turning point of Burroughs as a writer-the breakthrough of his own characteristic voice that will find its full realization in Naked Lunch.
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Gilt and red plush. Rococo bar backed by pink shell. The air is cloyed with a sweet evil substance like decayed honey. A Near East Mugwump sit naked on a bar stool covered in pink silk. He licks warm honey from a crystal goblet with a long black tongue.
His genitals are perfectly formed — circumcised cock, black shiny pubic hairs. His lips are thin and purple-blue like the lips of a penis, his eyes blank with insect calm.
William S. Burroughs, born years ago today, may well be the Velvet Underground of American literature. A writer of vivid, hallucinatory prose works swimming with drug use, queer sex, and sci-fi viscera, Burroughs has always been an author whose name is dropped more often than his books are picked up. Writers stamped with his influence include J. Burroughs collaborated with the painter Brion Gysin in Paris and London in the s and s, and in the s embarked on his own painting career the sneers of the art establishment deterred his painting roughly as much as the sneers of the literary establishment had deterred his writing; like the innumerable cultural icons devoted to his work, Burroughs was not the type to be impressed by the fussy incomprehension of the New Yorker set.
His writing is a regular touchstone for the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, especially in his collaborations with Felix Guattari. Almost as remarkable as his literary influence is his lasting impact on popular and experimental music.
Steely Dan are named after a remarkable dildo from Yokohama that features in one of the most explicit sections of Naked Lunch. The Soft Machine was a Burroughs novel before it was a British band. In the range of his influence no less than in the idiosyncratic uniqueness of his creative production, Burroughs stands less with the Beats or the postmodernists than with the restless, endless production of Andy Warhol.
In Burroughs as in Warhol, a distance in time allows us to see the relentless exploratory drift between modes and media as a prototype for contemporary creativity, the artist not as auteur but as signature, as a distinctive style that is its own substance, gaining coherence not in the unity of its form but in the consistency of its attitude.
Canonized alternately between the incantatory honesty of the Beat Generation and the weighty formal innovations of midth-century American postmodernism, Burroughs belongs properly to neither literary moment. Neither association does justice to the formal distinctiveness of his oevure. Burroughs is, rather, an untimely prophet of cultural production as we have come to know it: constant, but inconsistent; intimate but de-personalized; sprawling across media and emerging clearly from a single distinct person without any commitment to the inherent integrity of an authentic personality.
How do you define punk? Burroughs stands apart from the world, not because he is above it, but because he is Over It.
Burroughs was resolutely Not Impressed. It emerges directly from his irreducibly distinct vision of the world. Born in St. Louis in , Burroughs was the grandson and namesake of William S. His genteel Southern upbringing was evident to the end of his life, in a refined politeness that leavened even his most profane observations no less than in a persistent love of firearms.
But by the time he left New York he had acquired his addiction to opiates, which would trail him the rest of his life and take such a central place in his writing. His first published work was the semi-autobiographical Junkie , written under the pseudonym William Lee and published as a two-book pulp in ; he followed it with a manuscript called Queer that remained unpublished until These two early texts established the graphic frankness about drug use and homosexuality for which Burroughs would quickly become notorious.
His books were assembled more than they were composed. Out of the Word Hoard, Allen Ginsberg constructed the non-linear prose machine that would be published as Naked Lunch. In present form does not hold together as a novel for the simple reason that it is not a novel. It is a number of connected — by theme — but separate short pieces. The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth, in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement.
This book spill off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and street noises, farts and riot yipes and slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos and screams plain pathic […] Now I, William Seward, will unlock my word horde. The publication of Naked Lunch , and the attempts to censor it, first brought Burroughs national attention. The complete novel was first published in Paris by the Olympia Press, in , but it was the American publication by Grove Press in that led to a second, more significant wave of attention.
What gives this vision a machine-gun-edged clarity is an utter lack of sentimentality […] it is the sort of humor which flourishes in prisons, in the Army, among junkies, race tracks and pool halls, a graffiti of cool, even livid wit, based on bodily functions and the frailties of the body, the slights, humiliations and tortures a body can undergo. It is a wild and deadly humor, as even and implacable as a sales tax […] Bitter as alkali, it pickles every serious subject in the caustic of the harshest experience; what is left untouched is as dry and silver as a bone.
His authorial voice emerges astoundingly complete in Naked Lunch , as do the central concerns that would dominate his work until his death. In an enthusiastic review in , E. The paragraphs have a staccato rhythm that piles on clause after clause with relentless insistence, at once taut with energy and droningly detached:.
Followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, pushers of souped-up Hermaline, junk reduced to pure habit offering precarious vegetable serenity, liquids to induce Latah, Tithonian longevity serums, black marketers of World War III, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit.
Its closest reference point is Raymond Chandler, if Philip Marlowe were hired to investigate a cartel of protoplasmic, shapeshifting facists and was diverted by the orgiastic ministrations of perpetually ejaculating boys. Everything is draped in thick folds of drugs and sex.
Heroin, cocaine, LSD, yage, mescaline — everything swims in a disjointed narcotic plasma. This fervently graphic obscenity, the obsessive reiteration of the same gristly themes, has been the source of much criticism. But the brilliance of this symbolic universe is precisely its endlessly permutating polyvalence. Repetition is not an accident here; recombination, not originality, is the motor of change. How many different chemicals can be synthesized, how many different orifices penetrated, many different bodies and materials combined in an endlessly proliferating Rube-Goldberg machine of techno-bio-matter?
How many coffees in an hour? The Man is never on time. This is no accident. Either you want his ideas in your stream of consciousness, or you unfollow and hide his observations from your newsfeed.
In the experimental novels of his second phase, Burroughs strains not only against the integrity of the novelistic form but against the very coherence of words, against the enforced linearity not just of plot but of meaning itself.
His theories of language and communication were developed in a series of interviews and non-fiction works from the same period, most strikingly in a long essay titled The Electronic Revolution Though much more directly stated and intuitive, these theories are astoundingly similar to those being developed at the same time by the poststructuralist strand of French philosophy.
Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker. Living down the street from CBGBs, Burroughs is bemused to discover that he has become the hero of a new cultural movement.
In , the counter-cultural canonization was set in high gear by the Nova Convention, a multi-day celebration of Burroughs in various parts of New York City. Towards the end of his time in New York, and with extensive help from his friend and editor James Grauerholz, Burroughs finally completed a text he had begun years earlier in London, which became Cities of the Red Night. In William Burroughs relocated one last time, from New York to Lawrence, Kansas, where he would spend his remaining years.
With the move to Kansas began the final phase of his life, a less tumultuous period during which Burroughs embarked on a new career as a painter. His indie cred continued to grow even as critical attention to his work faltered with the decline of literary postmodernism.
These later texts are only marginally more linear or plot-driven than the cut-ups of the Nova Trilogy; it would be hard to call them a return to convention.
But something has shifted, nonetheless. The words are less weaponized. Language reclaims its communicating function; the omnipresent urge to escape is joined by a more subtle one — to express.
What makes Burroughs final novels different from his earlier works is the surprising and surprisingly powerful appearance of a previously unknown elegiac mode, still wry and perhaps no less cynical, but for the first time inclined to come to terms with the fragile, transient nature of the human experience rather than to mock and dismiss it.
Several times the guide lost his way, and we had to retrace our steps. The fragmentary characters of Naked Lunch yearn to be free; the itinerant assemblages that populate the later novels yearn to make sense of their attempts at freedom. The Western Lands , a profoundly beautiful meditation on immortality and death, begins and ends with a solitary old writer.
The raw material of the final novels is the past. Naked Lunch is populated by hallucinations, the Nova Trilogy by anxieties; the final novels are populated by ghosts. Just conflict. The techniques he embraced and promoted — non-linearity, machine composition, fragmentary production, creative recycling — have become not only accepted but standardized, themselves folded into the ugly, looping bray he warned against.
What remains is a literary legend: a dry, sardonic grin and the Word Hoard in its infinite variations. Listening to the Novel: The Soundtrack of Postmodernism. The Uses and Abuses of Illusion. By Michael Saler.
By Michael Kammen. By Ian Scheffler. Counter-Culture Colophon. Do Black Lives Matter to Westworld? By Francisco McCurry. By Sara Black McCulloch. By Colin Marshall. Burroughs' Centennial. Close this module. Your email johnsmith example.
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Journal of Transnational American Studies
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Reading this collection of Burroughs' unpublished work from to , "you are present at the beginning" of his career, as his editor gushes. When finished, though, you're much less certain you wanted to be there, for these fugitive pieces of mostly questionable merit will interest only dedicated Burroughs fans. Except for an amateurish story co-written in college "Twilight's Last Gleamings" , the writings collected here fall between Burroughs' first novel, Junky—a straightforward account of life as a drug addict—and Naked Lunch, the wild anti-novel that eventually brought him fame. Anyone who's read Ted Morgan's recent, adulatory biography Literary Outlaw, p. Henry twist. Other stories concern the decadent life Burroughs was to discover in Tangier; the endless drugs and willing young boys of "Lee and the Boys"; and the pathetic old queens and nasty whores of "In the Cafe Central.