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The True Invisible. On William S. Burroughs‘ Life and Work

by Horst Pukallus

During his time in Tanger (Morocco), where he lived from 1954 to 1958 and wrote Naked Lunch, William Seward Burroughs, born in St. Louis in 1914, became known among the locals as „el hombre invisible“, the invisible man, due to his nondescript appearence that allowed him to move unnoticed among the local population. And in a way Burroughs has always remained – despite being surrounded by scandals, despite being lifted into the Olymp of the renowned American Academy and Institute of Art and Letters in 1983 – a hidden source of cultural influences, an outsider in every relevant aspect.

This is all the more amazing as his peculiar and adventurous life story would be well worth a screen adaption. Born into a fairly prosperous family – his grandfather was W.S. Burroughs (1855 – 1898), inventor and producer of a calculating machine that, however, wasn‘t much of a commercial success – he grew up as a sheltered child, attended the boarding school of Los Alamos (later a nuclear research facility of the Manhatten Project) from 1929 to 1932 and studied anthropology and literature at the Harvard University until 1938. During his study days he traveled around Europe and married in Athens in 1937 a German Jewess to keep her from being deported to Germany and allow her to enter the USA. Her name was Ilse Klappner and she became later in New York the secretary of the emigrated playwright Ernst Toller (1893 – 1939). This act of solidarity was motivated by the fact that as a homosexual Burroughs regarded himself as a member of an oppressed minority too, which may – apart from his strict aversion against all kinds of hypocrisy – also explain why he always felt, despite his upbringing and education, repelled by the self-absorbed bigotry of the academic world and the snobbism of the upper class. His first attempts in writing came about at this time. In collaboration with a childhood friend he wrote the surreal satire Twilight‘s Last Gleaming.

While living in New York from 1939 to 1946, Burroughs worked in all kinds of dubious jobs, among others as an advertising copywriter, reporter, private investigator, drug trafficker, pest exterminator and pickpocket. In 1942 he was enlisted as a soldier for a few months and in 1944 he became a drug addict. It was of vital importance for his further development as a writer that he not just met his second wife (Joan B., née Vollmer, who he married in 1947) in New York but also Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and formed with them the core of an anti-formalistic and nonconformist literary Bohemia.

Facing prosecution for the possession of marihuana he absconded to Mexico in 1949 and started in Mexico City in 1950 to write his novel Junkie which was published in 1953 and was the first of his works to depict his experiences as a drug addict. In 1951 he accidently shot his wife Joan during a Wilhelm Tell game and suffered a trauma without which, by his own admission, he probably would not have become a writer. It may well be that no other writer has ever tried so desperately to write himself free from something like he did. The next two years he traveled around South America to investigate the legendary Amerindian intoxicant Yage and corresponded with A. Ginsberg about it (his letters were published ten years later as The Yage Letters).

From 1954 to 1956 he dwelled as an addict in Tanger and wrote the first pieces of text for his book Naked Lunch (1959) which title was proposed by Jack Kerouac and that was to become his breakthrough work. Further travels in 1957/58 led Burroughs to Egypt, Denmark, Sweden and France. From 1959 to 1961 he alternately lived in Paris, London, Marrakech and New York, wrote the books The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), Dead Fingers Talk (1963) and started the novel Nova Express (1964). After a short contact with Timothy Leary (1920-1996), at that time the leading LSD propagandist who was suspected of brainwashing the public on behalf of the FBI, Burroughs distanced himself from the idea of expanding the consciousness by means of psychedelic drugs and its proponents: „Their Garden Of Delights is a terminal sewer (…) Their Immortality Cosmic Consciousness and Love is second-run grade-I shit – Their drugs are poison designed to beam in Orgasm Death and Nova Ovens – Stay out of the Garden Of Delights – It is a man-eating trap that ends in green goo – Throw back their ersatz Immortality – It will fall apart before you can get out of The Big Store – Flush their drug kicks down the drain They are poisoning and monopolizing the hallucinogen drugs – learn to make it without any chemical corn.“ (Nova Express)

Whereas Burroughs always saw himself on the barricades. At the International Writers‘ Conference in Edinburgh in 1962 he declared that his whole literary work is against those who foolishly or deliberately intend to make the planet uninhabitable or blow it up.

Still, Burroughs was often dismissed as someone simply spreading pornography and it didn‘t help much that the renowned postwar writer and journalist Norman Mailer (1923-2007) and his fellow Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) ranked Naked Lunch as one of the most important works of the 20th century. It required two court decisions in Boston and Los Angeles in 1965/66 to finally relieve the book of any accusations of obscenity.

From 1965 to 1967 Burroughs worked in London on The Wild Boys (published in 1971) and joined the German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) – one of the leading theorists of the Extra-Parlimentary Opposition and the New Left of the sixties -, A. Ginsberg, Stokeley Carmichael – a leading Black Power activist – and other political system critics for a symposium on the subject of „the dialectics of liberation“.

It‘s thus no suprise but little known that Burroughs was one of the first critics of the Scientology sect that he exposed as a fascist organization in a series of articles for the Londoner magazine Mayfair in 1968: “Scientology is a model control system, a state in fact with its own courts, police, rewards and penalties.“

After completing The Wild Boys and the screenplay for a never produced gangster movie (The Last Words of Dutch Schulz, 1969), Burroughs wrote in 1973, among others, Ports of Saints and Exterminator.

Though having gained some success by now, Burrough‘s life remained prone to tragedy. His only son, from the marriage with Joan Vollmer, struggled his whole life to become a writer himself and cope with his overpowering father figure. He died of alcoholism in 1981.

The ideas that Burrough seized on in his novel Cities of the Red Night (1980) were already well-known from the 18th and 19th century: founding free cooperatives as an alternative way of social organization – ideas, however, that have regularly failed in reality: „The chance was there. The chance was missed. The principles of the French and American revolutions became windy lies in the mouths of politicians. The liberal revolutions of 1848 created the so-called republics of Central and South America, with a dreary history of dictatorship, oppression, graft, and bureaucracy (…) Your right to live where you want, with companions of your choosing, under laws to which you agree, died in the eighteenth century (…)“ The book refers to this Utopia by fictitiously demonstrating its realization und value – freedom by example – using the example of pirate communes that regarded themselves as freedom fighters, as a „free republic of the oceans“. Cities of the Red Night forms a trilogy with Burrough‘s next two books The Place of Dead Roads (1983) – a science fiction western about an underground of honest vagrants who try to change the world by radically violating all established rules and tabus – and The Western Lands (1987), a pessimist assessment of human civilization that regards humanity as the result of a failed experiment. This trilogy is regarded as the spiritual pinnacle of Burrough‘s life work.

Further publications from Burrough‘s last creative period are Queer (1985), Interzone (1989), a collection of older, partly autobiographical texts, and My Education: A Book of Dreams (1995); apart from that he wrote the text for Robert Wilson‘s and Tom Waits‘ musical The Black Rider, premiered at the Thalia-Theater in Hamburg in 1990.

Burroughs has repeatedly played small roles or had cameo appearances in movies, among others in Conrad Rooks‘ Chappaqua (Silver Lion, Venice 1966), Gus van Sant‘s Drugstore Cowboy, in Decoder (directed by the film maker collective Maeck/Muscher/Schäfer/Trimpop), in Laurie Anderson‘s Home of the Brave (1986) and in U2‘s music video of „Last Night on Earth“ (1997). Klaus Maeck‘s documentary Commissioner of Sewers provided a cinematic portrait of William Burroughs in 1991. And when director David Cronenberg filmed Naked Lunch in 1992, there was finally a congenial, crowning appreciation of Burrough‘s most famous work available on screen. With regard to the film industry, however, Burroughs has always been a distinct cultural critic. He claimed that Hollywood had spoiled the human species completely, that there wasn‘t a human dream that Hollywood hadn‘t screwed up into an atrocious travesty.

Far more comprehensive and far-reaching, however, has been Burrough‘s indirect influence on pop culture, film and literature. His preferred writing techniques, cut-up and fold-in (which means that two vertically torn pages of arbitrary texts are put side by side resp. that a text page is folded in the middle and put on another page and the new text generated this way is edited by means of cuts, conversions, restatements etc., according to the writer‘s intentions), that show a close relation, both formally and stylistically, to writers such as James Joyce (1882-1941) and Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), and his ruthlessly consequent handling of subjects from the transition area of dreams, violence, politics, sexuality, death and especially addiction (not the least addiction to power), that blend reality and inner space, have made him one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Starting in the sixies he also became an originator of cultural ideas. Many of his ideas and subjects have been so thoroughly absorbed by art and culture that their origin is only obvious to those familiar with Burrough‘s work. Topoi inspired by Burrough‘s modes of thinking, perception and expression have entered the attitudes and experiences of wide audiences via the detour of film, video, music and other art forms. He inspired rock groups with names such as The Soft Machine, The Insect Trust, Steely Dan and Throbbing Gristle, rock artists such as Pattie Smith, David Bowie and Frank Zappa, the performance artist Laurie Anderson, the comic artists Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, writers as diverse as Boris Vian (1920-1950), Robert Coover, Ernst Herhaus, David R. Bunch, Michael Moorcock, Barry N. Malzberg, Philip K. Dick, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and J.G. Ballard and quite a number of directors, among them Jean-Luc Godard, John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, Claude Feraldo, Terry Gilliam, Slava Tsukerman, David Lynch and Tim Burton. If there is one person who deserves to be called the grey eminence of 20th century culture, it‘s William Burroughs.

To dismiss him as a „figurehead“ or „stylite“ – as he was called in German review sections after his death – can easily be recognized as a deliberate attempt to understate the paramount importance of his work. Nothing could be farther from the truth than to regard him as a fossil and be it just for his distinct, uncomfortable message, as stated in Western Lands, that proves how up-to-date he still is: “It is inconceivable that Homo sapiens could last another thousand years in present form. People of such great stupidity and such barbarous manners.” It can be excpected that Burroughs will continue to play the role of an annoying, provocative admonisher – even though he died from a heart attack in Lawrence (Kansas), where he spent the last years of his life, in August 1997, at the age of 83 years, just a few months after his old friend Allen Ginsberg.


First published in:
Wolfgang Jeschke (ed.) Das Science Fiction Jahr 1998,
Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, Munich 1997.
Copyright (c) 1997 by Horst Pukallus
Translated by Michael K. Iwoleit