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William Burroughs
Ain't Dead!

i walk past iridescent lakes and orange gas flares, swamps and garbage heaps, alligators crawling around in broken bottles and tin cans, neon arabesques of motels where marooned pimps scream obscenities at passing cars from islands of rubbish. -- Naked Lunch

Once upon a time a certain country became desperately afraid. This country feared not only its enemies, but its own soul. It had created a weapon so terrifying that the horror of it pervaded its own citizenry. Children grew up learning how to take shel ter from imminent holocaust. The media became hysterically xenophobic. Unorthodox intellectuals were destroyed. Conformity was necessary for survival in a terrifying future.

This country might have been America in the 40s and 50s. There was a violent reaction within, and against this stifling atmosphere. A generation of writers labeled themselves "Beat" because they were, in essence, tired out, worn out of everything, beat before they started. Long before, Spengler had called people like them "fellaheens" -- the ones who inhabit and describe the ruins and the decomposing strata of a developed civilization.

The Beats began not as iconoclasts, but as Bartlebies. In Melville's famous story, Bartelby stares on and on, doing nothing but staring because living is intolerable and society is unapproachable. The Beats couldn't take America anymore, and they began to stare at what was going on in their collective psyches. They wore themselves out writing confessions about it. They focused on the reality of a time that was tired past the point of endurance, and they kept on staring at it until everyone around the m could not help but notice the reality imploding on them.

In Beat writing, everything must be described: "The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!" And who did this best? William Burroughs. He gave us the smell and taste of gyzm, of blood draining out of a needle, o f body fluids, of sweaty, fervid sex with alien creatures. William Burroughs' pen was the real Beat junk, according to Allen Ginsberg:

    actual visions & actual prisons. . . .
    A naked lunch is natural to us,
          we eat reality sandwiches.
    But allegories are so much lettuce.
          Don't hide the madness.
And William Burroughs never came close to hiding a shred of madness. After he accidentally killed his young wife, he wrote unceasingly about his self-made hell. His mantra was to describe the world as one vast, gloriously described fuckup. Out of this paranoic hell came the barely-allegorized Mugwumps, centipede black meat and typewriters turning into giant talking anuses. Yet the only way out of his place of sick nightmares was to write himself out. Thus, the typewriters talked, and writing became a n obsession.

Burroughs came to confront what is essential in the act of art -- it used to be called "a harrowing of the soul" -- and make that the art itself. His mania is a formal desperation, a last ditch fugazi before the leap into the void.

In short, Burroughs was a romantic writer, in the same sense that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a romance in its unredeemed yearning for love. Burroughs' romance is a rotting excresence -- full of urban despair, poverty, madness, ho mosexual throbbings, narcotics, the fraternity of thieves and loveless transients. Burroughs was the poete maudit, whose true place was among the wretched, in the underworld of cities, in the places of the dead and dying.

Survival was Burrough's miracle. After injecting all manner of shit into his veins & lungs, including heroin, morphine, the rumored insect repellent, cocaine, and vast quantities of weed, Burroughs mana ged to kick the junk and to begin a demented rein as punk's inspiring god. He survived, becoming a counter-culture icon, and the hip old man of MTV fame.

Part of this fame was due to Naked Lunch's landmark 1962 Supreme Court win, which effectively ended censorship laws in this country. The larger part of Burrough's notoriety was the result of his personality, which remained unshakeabl y "Beat" -- meaning detached, hedonistic, anti-establishment, and determinedly cynical. Most importantly to his younger fans, the only thing he'd ever held onto was his art.

As news of Burrough's demise careens around the Net, the vision of Bill (played by Peter Weller) at the end of Naked Lunch stays with me. Asked to prove he is a writer, Bill trembles as he unholsters a gun and prepares to re-enact the entire horr ific act of shooting his wife. In my mind's eye, as I drift through obituary after obituary, I am seeing Burroughs' tortured soul enact this scene through eternity, proving, again and again, the power of his pen to save him.

Oh, did I say Burroughs is dead? Bullshit. Burroughs ain't dead.
        Don't you believe it, ya fuckin' fellaheen.

--   Ned Hayes

william s. burroughs:
february 5, 1914 - august 2, 1997

More Beat Stuff:
JUNKY William S. Burroughs (Wylie, Aitken & Stone: 1959, 1977)
THE YAGE LETTERS William S. Burroughs & Allen Ginsberg (City Lights Books: 1963, 1975)
NAKED LUNCH William S. Burroughs (Grove Press: 1959, 1990)
THE BEATS: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America, Ed. Ann Charters (Gale Research Co.: 1983) two volume encyclopedia
THE PORTABLE BEAT READER, Ed. Ann Charters (Viking: 1992)


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