Notes on William Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg May 5th, 1951

In a letter to Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs seems to be saying that he’s incapable of envy. Envy arises from a particular kind of ignorance, of which Burroughs has cured himself:

Envy and resentment is only possible when you can not see your own space-time location. Most of the people in America do not know where they really are so they envy someone else’s deal. But this envy is not a universal law …”

Burroughs knows where he is, and to know where you are is to know you can’t be anywhere else in that moment. Envy makes as little sense as wishing you were a different person. Even if you can, over time, change things about yourself, you can’t change who you are, nor where you are now.

“To illustrate my statement which is a law I never saw an exception to: Can you imagine a man in a lifeboat getting envious because somebody somewhere is drinking champagne? No, because he knows where he is. All envy is based on the proposition ‘I could be getting that.’”

The man in the lifeboat knows that now is not the time and place for champagne. He knows he couldn’t get champagne now if he tried. Perhaps he dreams of drinking champagne when he gets to shore. But for now he feels lucky to be alive.

All this seems to rest on Burroughs’s very simple notion of what it means to be yourself, to be “I.” The “I” is defined by its space-time location and that is all. I cannot be anywhere else, nor can I be anyone else. My position in space and time means I have this body in this moment, these possessions, this mind …

But rather than make a philosophical judgement of Burroughs’s stance – based on an evaluation of a metaphysics he may or may not adhere to – I prefer to take it as a description of how Burroughs feels when he is centred and free from envy. He says: if you know your space-time location, then you cannot feel envy. Reverse this and say: when you’re not feeling envy, you’re aware of your space-time location. Burroughs believes he can see the world more sharply and clearly when his vision is not clouded by negative feelings of envy.

Probably Burroughs felt envy and resentment from time to time, same as the rest of us. And isn’t it right sometimes to wish for something other than the status quo? But in his letter, Burroughs is reminding his friend that the starting point for any change is always the here and now, the “I” and its own unique potentials and limitations.

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