It’s no use trying to cut through the myth of William S. Burroughs to get to the truth of the man himself. The truth of Burroughs is found in the myth: “the idea of Burroughs has its own realities, its own narratives; and . . . the man contains and is contained by their interaction.”
The Burroughs myth, according to Graham Caveney: the popular images and ideas of Burroughs, the picture you have of him as “cult icon”, suit and hat, “junkie” and “gentleman” . . . The Burroughs myth is real, since Burroughs created it, and so it was created by an artist. And an artist’s work, when it is successful, tells us the truth about the artist.
Still, the myth wasn’t just created by Burroughs himself, others had a hand in it too. Burroughs always collaborated: making a novel out of the letters he’d written to Allen Ginsberg, the recipient playing the vital role of a “receiver” without whom Burroughs could never have finalised his ideas; cutting up words from all over – books, magazines, radio, conversations – to make something new out of the already-made work of others.
A vast collaborative work of art itself, the Burroughs myth is something that he had a hand in, but all kinds of things helped to shape it: his appearances in newspapers and magazines, on television and in film, descriptions of him by critics and admirers, musical collaborations and references to his work in music . . . Caveney takes us through some of these, so we get a sense of how the myth was formed.
Burroughs didn’t like to use the word “we”. “Most ‘we’s’ you can count me out of,” he said. He had few friends to collaborate with. So he must collaborate with his enemies, interacting with voices that are hostile to him or that he felt hostile towards: the “War on Drugs” message put out by the government, racism and nationalism and homophobia in the media . . . all this becomes material for him to cut up, fold in, imitate and mutate with satirical routines. Burroughs always took the words of others alien and inimical to him to turn them around and make them into something new. His myth, too, is shaped by his enemies as much as his friends – junky, deviant, outsider, alien . . .
And not all the hostile voices he interacted with came from outside. Burroughs had his own “Ugly Spirit” inside him, which he describes as an evil inner voice and a very real influence:
“When I go into my psyche, at a certain point I meet a very hostile, very strong force. It’s as definite as someone attacking me in a bar. We usually come to a standoff.”
Burroughs was always at war, not only with the world but with his own mind. This is what makes him so hard to imitate. The most interesting point in Caveney’s book for me is towards the end, where he writes that “Burroughs’s impact is to influence a sensibility, rather than to invite any imitation.” Burroughs can open up a way of seeing to his readers, but in a moment it’s gone, to be replaced by something else. Something stays with you that’s Burroughsian, but it’s difficult to pin down. It’s not this or that idea or image, it’s not even his fascinating, drawling voice. It’s something inimitable and elusive.
No doubt Burroughs would have liked to make his message clearer, and pass on his wisdom. He “intended to lay down a blueprint for fiction, a coherent philosophy of composition.” But he was never able to stick to any one rule for long, before that rule itself comes into question or is flatly contradicted. Speaking of philosophy, he reminds me of Wittgenstein or Nietzsche in this respect: his mind moving at such a speed that no single conclusion he draws is ever held onto for long before he’s found the end of it, and moved on. If you try to copy Burroughs you can only capture a thin moment, come out with something flat and one-sided, not living and breathing like Burroughs’s own work:
“The problem faced by aspiring Burroughs copyists is that they are confronted with texts that write against themselves . . . Burroughs defies imitation because he defies himself.”
Perhaps defiance is the essence of Burroughs’s work: if you want to be Burroughsian, then you need to think for yourself, which often means going against Burroughs’s ideas, and even your own. Caveney’s book – illustrated by Simon Jennings – lives up to this: paying tribute to Burroughs without merely parodying him, giving its own perspective on the life and work of Burroughs, and challenging us to think for ourselves what the Burroughs myth means. “Far from being the end of an era, Burroughs has been instrumental in creating the one in which we now live.” We have to decide for ourselves what it means to live in a Burroughsian era.
(I’ve been reading Graham Caveney, The ‘Priest’, They Called Him: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs. It was published in 1997 by Bloomsbury.)