Reading Queer by William S. Burroughs, I’m struck not just by the sharp clear quality of the prose, but also by the insights themselves, the things Burroughs can see and points out to us. If he had been a worse writer he’d maybe have been a philosopher of the popular variety, and people would have gladly waded through pages of pseudo-academic clumsy prose to get to the insights he offers. As Burroughs himself waded through Alfred Korzybski. As it happens, Burroughs was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and he was able to deliver his insights effortlessly, instantaneously.
He has an intuition for things, he can get to the essence of the matter in front of him, and brings this essence to life in his rapid prose. Like describing Winston Moor, smiling at the waiter:
“Moor smiled into an inner mirror, a smile without a trace of warmth, but it was not a cold smile: it was the meaningless smile of senile decay, the smile that goes with false teeth, the smile of a man grown old and stir-simple in the solitary confinement of exclusive self-love.”
Moor is senile even in his youth, a mind old beyond the years of his body. And when he smiles at another human being he does so “into a mirror”, not truly seeing the other person. Burroughs is showing us what self-love can do to a person, how it can dehumanise by killing the human need for human contact.
Unlike Moor, Burroughs can see: Lee – the main character in the novel, based on Burroughs – takes Morton in in an instant, and Burroughs delivers his verdict in his instantaneous prose. Burroughs/Lee has intuition, an ability to see things immediately as they are. But did he always have this skill, or is this something he had to develop?
Burroughs sometimes seems to believe he had something of this skill from a very young age, the ability to see people for what they are. False people would become unnerved in his presence, as the young Burroughs watched them with his penetrating stare. Ivy Lee – “Poison Ivy” – father of modern PR and an uncle of Burroughs, was one of those truly evil people negated by the young Burroughs’s gaze. “Ivy Lee hated me on sight.”
But even if this was some innate magic that Burroughs possessed, it would take him time to master it. He sought out theories: of language, metaphysics, psychoanalysis . . . I’ve already mentioned Korzybski – also there was Oswald Spengler’s theory of Western culture, Wilhelm Reich’s theory of character, and L Ron Hubbard’s new system of “Dianetics”.
Burroughs’s often strange ideas about language, mind, and the world shaped the way he wrote, so that the style he chose he chose deliberately, because it was the only one to suit his purposes. In the last year of his life, Burroughs wrote:
“An artist must be open to the muse. The greater the artist, the more he is open to ‘cosmic currents.’ He has to behave as he does.”
Burroughs listened to the world, saw how it was, and came to write in a “telegraphic” style (a term used to describe the writing of Céline, whom Burroughs admired). He did this because it was the only way to show the world as it is. The human world for Burroughs is a world compromised by language. Human beings use language to hide who they truly are, like Moor hiding behind his smile. The only way Burroughs could punch through this false world was by “cutting the word lines,” keeping things simple, sparing the words to cut through to the truth . . .
(I’ve been reading Queer and Last Words by William S. Burroughs, and Barry Miles’s William S. Burroughs: A Life.)