Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Two Burroughs

Early and Late

I've just finished reading a couple of books by and about William S. Burroughs, the so-called "beat generation" writer. I say so-called because although Burroughs was a friend to such beat luminaries as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, he didn't actually write very much like them. While the works of the other beat writers were a mostly positive celebration of life, Burroughs writing was almost the complete reverse, focusing heavily on accounts of the dark side of existence.

That's a side of life he knew rather well, thanks to a lifelong on and off relationship with powerful narcotics such as heroin and morphine. Indeed his first book Junky published in 1953 is an autobiographical account of his own existence in the heroin underworld of New York City.

The version of Junky which I read is the 50th anniversary edition which is the most complete version ever printed. The original manuscript was heavily censored by Burroughs' publisher, not only to remove some of the more lurid aspects of drug addiction but also to disguise something considered even more scandalous - the author's homosexuality. By 1950's standards Junky in its original form was considered just too blunt and honest. Absurdly, the book was promoted commercially as a cautionary tale, meant to scare readers away from experimenting with drugs.

The irony of Junky is that to anyone who has any experience in the drug scene it is so obviously and subversively anything but an anti-drug novel. Indeed it openly attacks some of the most common myths about drug use, insisting for example that there is no connection between marijuana use and heroin, at a time when the common assumption was that smoking pot would eventually lead to shooting junk. Burroughs also dismisses common assumptions about the drug trade such as that drug pushers want to hook young people; arguing that no dealer likes to have kids for customers because they have no steady supply of money and usually squeal under pressure from the cops.

It is the cold-eyed realism that Burroughs brings to his subject that is the real value of Junky. In fact Burroughs personally considers his addiction experiences more educational than traumatic:

I have learned a great deal from using junk: I have seen life measured out in eyedroppers of morphine solution. I experienced the agonizing deprivation of junk sickness, and the pleasure and relief when junk-thirsty cells drank from the needle. Perhaps all pleasure is relief. I have learned the cellular stoicism that junk teaches the user. I have seen a cell full of sick junkies silent and immobile in separate misery. They knew the pointlessness of complaining or moving. They knew that basically no one can help anyone else. There is no key, no secret someone else has that he can give you. I have learned the junk equation. Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.

Incredibly, in Burrough's case it was a way of life that eventually led to him becoming an international celebrity. By the 1980's Burroughs had established himself in a windowless New York City apartment he called "The Bunker." Despite being located in the slummy Bowery part of town, a steady stream of celebrities made the pilgrimage to Burrough's sunless apartment to pay homage to the great literati. This period of his life is the topic of the other book about Burrough's I read recently With Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker by Victor Bockris.

It is not an altogether flattering portrayal. Burroughs by this time shows clear signs of drug burnout, claiming with a straight face that he has powers of telepathy and that women are invaders from outerspace. His celebrity filled parties featured heavy drinking and drug use, including by Burroughs himself, who was at the time approaching seventy years old. Whatever else he was, Burroughs was a medical miracle who somehow managed to live to the great age of 83 despite a lifestyle that would have put most people in their graves decades earlier.

Yet despite his period as a major pop celebrity, the literary reputation of Burroughs is fading with the passage of time. Only Junky was a book with a somewhat normal narrative and plot, while his other experimental novels, originally praised for their novelty, are today mostly dismissed as unreadable. His most famous book, Naked Lunch is considered important more for the role it played in breaking down obscenity laws than for anything particularly artistic in the book itself.

But if nothing else, Burroughs will always be considered to have led one of the more interesting literary lives, and ultimately he is likely to be remembered best for the way he lived, rather than for anything he wrote.

Wouldn't ya Know?

The long anticipated nudes of Sarah Palin's grandaughter's father Levi Johnston have been released, but it turns out you have to pay to see them!

How much? $19.95 for a month's online subscription. Although Levi is definitely hot, I'm not curious enough to pay.

Sad News

I'm sorry to hear of the death of Nancy Hoar, for whom I was once a teacher's assistant at Western New England College in Springfield. Co-teaching a course in communications with Nancy was the only time I've taught at the college level. She was a remarkably smart and hardworking person with a wry sense of humor. The time we worked together seems like a lifetime ago (it was 1990) but I will never forget her as one of my best academic friends.

Assorted Shots

Greg Stone paintings over the piano at Sam's in downtown Northampton.

Some would be happy to have any job.

Damn it's been cold lately! Ice everywhere.

This fancy gate leads to my neighbor's backyard.

An old bureau left on a treebelt in Amherst is festooned with the remnants of old Charlie's Angels bubble gum stickers.

Guess the kid who stuck those stickers grew up and moved away.

A Springfield sunrise by M.T. Alamed.

"There's a dragon with matches that's loose on the town...."


Mark T. Alamed said...

Glad you liked the photo, Tom! I'm not sure if anyone else saw the sunrise over Springfield on December 23, the Wednesday before Christmas, but it was like nothing I've seen before. The way the sun was hitting the clouds caused a golden tower of light to stretch from the earth high into the sky narrow and defined. It was amazing.

Tom said...

Our Valley thanks you for taking the time to photograph it.

Anonymous said...

5-8-77: after which, walking out not into morning dew, but a Mother's Day snowstorm

Alice said...

That's too bad about Nancy Hoar. You guys taught a good communications class and she was obviously very fond of you.

Larry Lewis said...

I followed the link to Nancy Hoar's obit and was very moved by her obvious spirit. Her passing is truly a loss. I have no connection and didn't know her, but I now wish that I had. Thanks, Tom, for mentioning her.

S.P. Sullivan said...

I've never read much of Burroughs, but I'm an amateur Kerouac scholar and so have read a bunch about him by proxy.

I always wonder how much he got away with because of his family's wealth; he was an heir of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company.

His character in "On The Road," Old Bull Lee, lives off a pension, if I recall correctly, though I read somewhere that Burroughs called that a fiction.

He also accidentally killed one of his wives in a game of 'William Tell' and got away with it.

What a crazy dude.

Tom said...

Keroac was the only one of the beats that I consider to have been a first rate writer, although beats like Burroughs and Ginsberg were interesting personalities, to say the least.

humming in the night skull said...

Ha , you're right on about Burroughs. I love him and all, but biographies of his life are much more interesting than much of his writing. He was in so many crazy scenes. Would have been a great guy to know.