THE JUNKY’S CANON
by John Geiger
National Post, Saturday, March 27, 1999
Holed up in a lavatory that doubles as an operating theatre, the arrogant quack Dr. Benway in William S. Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch pauses mid-procedure to reminisce to the assembled orderlies: "Did I ever tell you about the time I performed an appendectomy with a rusty sardine can? And once I was caught short without instrument one and removed a uterine tumour with my teeth.''
Scholars, biographers, and writers who assembled at New York's New School recently for a symposium on Burroughs dissected the writer's legacy with the same enthusiasm with which Dr. Benway approached his surgery -- crudely but with undeniable efficiency.
The occasion was the publication by Grove Press of Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader -- the junky's greatest hits, an anthology of Burroughs' alternately radical, cranky, savage, and often very funny writing. While representing only about 10% of Burroughs' published works, the lines have not been cut with Saniflush. This is the pure stuff: the cut-up experiments with Brion Gysin, the talking asshole from Naked Lunch, The "Priest'' They Called Him from Exterminator!, the invocation from Cities of the Red Night, The Johnson Family from The Adding Machine. Ira Silverberg, Burroughs' publicist and co-editor of Word Virus, said Burroughs would have been appalled by the event, held on what would have been the writer's 85th birthday had he not succumbed to a heart attack in 1997. "William had absolutely no interest in hearing what people had to say about him,'' Silverberg said.
In Burroughs' absence, however, what is said matters a great deal more. All that remains are the words, and with the help of exacting chapter introductions by co-editor James Grauerholz, Word Virus for once places Burroughs' writing, not his legendary life, at the forefront.
The New York symposium succeeded for the same reason, although the exchange might have gone badly had the assembled brain trust strayed further into what promised to be a wholly unsatisfactory attempt to determine what literary label to apply to Burroughs' oeuvre.
He was described alternately as a “romantic,” a “modernist,” and a “post-modernist.” Ann Douglas, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, abruptly ended the debate, and saved the day, when she declared that Burroughs was sui generis – a species of one.
Victor Bockris, who authored Report from the Bunker about Burroughs' New York years, and more particularly Barry Miles, who was a friend and also a biographer of Burroughs, shared some interesting anecdotes. Curiously, though, it was Douglas, and to a lesser extent critic David Gates -- neither of whom knew Burroughs personally -- who provided the greatest insights.
Douglas characterized Burroughs as the “ultimate spy,” arguing that he used his privileged class, his race, and his gender to spy upon the system that bred him. He was the grandson of the inventor of the Burroughs adding machine, went to private school, graduated from Harvard, and usually had some funds from the family trust at his disposal. It was always clear that he did not belong to the “torturable classes.”
Because of his comfortable upbringing, Burroughs had an inherent understanding of the sinister characters he created: Dr. Benway, Old Man Bickford, the wealthy resource baron he described as ‘one of the poker-playin', whiskey-drinkin' evil old men who run the United States of America''; and Burroughs' alter-ego -- the man he might have become -- William S. Burroughs, crooked sewer commissioner.
In his collection of short writings Roosevelt After Inauguration and Other Atrocities, excerpted in Word Virus, Burroughs asks rhetorically: “When did I stop wanting to be president? At birth certainly and perhaps before.” He had less conspicuous ambitions, among them “to become Commissioner of Sewers for St. Louis County . . . with every possibility of getting one's shitty paws deep into a slush fund.”
As a boy, he imagined himself living off the kickbacks, sitting in the garden of a rambling ranch home, Old Glory floating lazily in the "tainted breeze . . . smoking the sheriff's reefers.'' And in the air, the sweet whiff of coal gas as sewers ruptured for miles.
It was not to be. In Junky, also excerpted in Word Virus, Burroughs writes of his background: "The environment was empty, the antagonist hidden, and I drifted into solo adventures.'' His explorations were invariably concerned with the consumption of, or search for, controlled substances. In her preface to Word Virus,Douglas explained junk "supplied the close-to-the-margin knowledge of emergency his comfortable background had forestalled.'' But even during his years as an expatriate, living in North Africa and Latin America in pursuit of extreme experience, Burroughs remained "imperturbably himself,'' Douglas said. He was a homosexual junky who was often mistaken for a CIA man.
Burroughs never tried to fit in, to emulate native custom, or troubled to learn native tongues. Despite his years at the Beat Hotel in Paris, his French was appalling. Miles remembered him once thundering at a Parisian cabbie: "Ichee [ici], goddamit, ichee.''
Douglas also identified the irony in Burroughs' appeal to youth culture. The Beatles put him on the cover of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Kurt Cobain recorded an album with him, and Patti Smith, U2, and Michael Stipe paid homage to him. But Burroughs defied age and time as much as he defied classification. He was taken up by each consecutive generation, but never belonged to any of them. In fact, Douglas suggested at the New School, "Burroughs was never young -- he was interested in the lessons only experience can bring.''
For anyone who studied Burroughs closely, those lessons were often surprising and occasionally uncomfortable. Burroughs was never a sarong and sandal-clad hippy-dippy, in the fashion of Beat contemporary Allen Ginsberg. He steadfastly clung to three-piece suits and hats. He loved guns, staunchly defended the right to own them, and always slept with a revolver under his pillow. He could not bring himself to understand Canada's restrictive gun laws, howling that registration was the first step to seizure.
Burroughs lamented the erosion of individual liberties and the development of a state in which no one is allowed to mind his own business. He called people who did mind their own business.
"Johnsons,'' and admired the examples he encountered, but judged them a rarity in a world largely populated with people "on their way to the Commissaria to denounce a neighbour.''
Burroughs wrote of the defilement of the United States: Its war on drugs reducing it to "a nation of finks.'' He wrote in Ghost of Chance of "devalued human stock, with less and less wild spark . . . a vast mudslide of soulless sludge.'' It was the central theme of his work: "The sick soul, sick unto death, of the atomic age.'' He saw a world bereft, shattered, invaded, controlled. Burroughs was a war correspondent who witnessed the defeat. But in his trilogy, Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands, Burroughs also fantasized what mighthave been. Said Douglas: He "fantasized the past which produced the present and excavated its aborted alternatives, the last, lost sitesof human possibility.
''Finally, Burroughs imagined what came after. The survivals. The Wild Boys, inoculated against Authority Sickness, armed to the teeth with lasers and deadly orgone radiation, preparing to launch a counteroffensive, latter-day Crusades, to turn out the heretics and to recover their freedom, and sanctity.