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Scandal, Subversion, and Sensitivity: W.S. Burroughs
February 3, 2014 7:26 PM   Subscribe

Barry Miles' biography of William S. Burroughs -- Call Me Burroughs: A Life -- has just been published.

Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker art critic, reviews it in the February 03 issue of the magazine and further discusses the man's distinctive work on the Out Loud podcast.
posted by mr. digits (26 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
A world where William S. Burroughs lives on in subversion under the surface I can live in. The minute people are co-opting his legacy with plushie dolls like they have Lovecraft's legacy, please just hand me the bug powder dust and drown me in mugwump jism.
posted by Catblack at 7:30 PM on February 3 [7 favorites]


William S. Burroughs lives on a world where minute people are co-opting mugwump jism in his legacy. I, bug powder dust, live in the can. Please just hand me the subversion under the surface and drown me with plushie dolls like they have in Lovecraft's legacy.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:48 PM on February 3 [29 favorites]


I read Literary Outlaw some years ago, and found it fascinating, though it seems Burroughs himself felt otherwise.
posted by philip-random at 7:58 PM on February 3


Reality Studio is a pretty great site for Burroughs-iana
posted by juv3nal at 8:01 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


It's really interesting to me how Burroughs, of the big three Beats, has far and away been shown to be the most relevant and prophetic. I would almost venture to say that Kerouac and Ginsberg are really minor curiosities compared to Burroughs.

I bought this bio the day it was released; going to start it soon. (I have to get through my James Patterson Maximum Ride novel for the Mefi marginalia thing first.)
posted by jayder at 8:42 PM on February 3 [4 favorites]


A lot was made of the Burroughs' collaboration with Kurt Cobain (The Priest, They Called Him), but the album he released with Michael Franti (Spareass Annie and Other Tales) is definitely worth checking out. It's essentially Burroughs reading some of his stories with an instrumental backing by Franti, and it's just kind of perfect.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:44 PM on February 3 [3 favorites]


See also: Material
posted by Sys Rq at 8:49 PM on February 3


I would almost venture to say that Kerouac and Ginsberg are really minor curiosities compared to Burroughs.

nah, all three were essential to their moment, and I suspect we wouldn't be discussing Mr. Burroughs right now were it not for Kerouac and Ginsberg as the world first heard of him mainly through their enthusiastic support. Though I would probably bow to the argument that, speaking of their moments, Burroughs' seems to be still happening, so deep was he digging.
posted by philip-random at 8:53 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


Well that's an auto-buy.
posted by Artw at 8:57 PM on February 3


nah, all three were essential to their moment, and I suspect we wouldn't be discussing Mr. Burroughs right now were it not for Kerouac and Ginsberg as the world first heard of him mainly through their enthusiastic support.

Oh, I agree with this. What strikes me about Burroughs is how clearly he saw the rise of surveillance, the police state, media, contemporary sexuality, etc.
posted by jayder at 9:02 PM on February 3 [3 favorites]


I'm curious what others thought of the Schjeldahl piece in the New Yorker, as I generally find him to be a clear and useful art critic, but in this case it was hard to understand where he places Burroughs in the firmament. I didn't read it as an overly charitable reaction to Burroughs' overall importance or impact as an artist, but on the other hand there were moments where he does seem to praise his contributions.
posted by cell divide at 9:06 PM on February 3


It seems to be all in the last two paragraphs ...

The drugs help account for the hollowness of his voices, which jabber, joke, and rant like ghosts in a cave. He had no voice of his own, but a fantastic ear and verbal recall. His prose is a palimpsest of echoes, ranging from Eliot’s “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” (lines like “Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium” are Burroughsian before the fact) to Raymond Chandler’s marmoreal wisecracks and Herbert Huncke’s jive. I suspect that few readers have made it all the way through the cut-up novels, but anyone dipping into them may come away humming phrases. His palpable influence on J. G. Ballard, William Gibson, and Kathy Acker is only the most obvious effect of the kind of inspiration that makes a young writer drop a book and grab a pen, wishing to emulate so sensational a sound. It’s a cold thrill. While always comic, Burroughs is rarely funny, unless you’re as tickled as he was by such recurrent delights as boys in orgasm as they are executed by hanging.

Some critics, including Miles, have tried to gussy up Burroughs’s antinomian morality as Swiftian satire. Burroughs, however, wages literary war not on perceptible real-world targets but against suggestions that anyone is responsible for anything. Though never cruel in his personal conduct, he was, in principle, exasperated with values of constraint. A little of “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” goes a long way for many readers, including me. But there’s no gainsaying a splendor as berserk as that of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. When you have read Burroughs, at whatever length suffices for you, one flank of your imagination of human possibility will be covered for good and all. ♦


... but yeah, you're right, it's hardly a grounded argument for significance. Maybe because we still don't really know with Burroughs. The various viruses he unleashed are still running their course. If his work were a painting, I'd say we're maybe standing too close -- we don't even know where the frame is.
posted by philip-random at 9:26 PM on February 3 [2 favorites]


William Burroughs’ exhibition at Photographers’ Gallery, London
posted by homunculus at 9:29 PM on February 3 [2 favorites]


If you like Spareass Annie, you'll love Dead City Radio.

And definitely yes to Material.

Burroughs was so forward-thinking, so prescient, in terms of the way he saw technology affecting society, the way he constructed art, and how he described systems of control.

I always thought grouping him with the Beats was a miscategorization. While he was certainly friends with Ginsberg and Kerouac (and appears in their works), and Naked Lunch never would've been written without Ginsberg's intervention, he was older, and stylistically very different. Thomas Pynchon and Samuel Delany seem much closer to me.
posted by chbrooks at 9:42 PM on February 3 [2 favorites]


To me, Burroughs is an interesting product of his own failures. In fact, his brilliance and prescience may owe entirely to his willingness to explore and use his failures, and his exposure to the highest and lowest in culture, in the service of art. Think about how he was a product of aristocracy, and had a mandarin education, but seemed so unsuited to adult responsibilities that he drifted through life working in really gritty jobs such as exterminator and private detective. At the time he became acquainted with Kerouac and Burroughs he was older and out of school and somewhat aimless, acquainted with a crowd of pretty strange people (David Kammerer, Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke).

It seems that Kerouac and Ginsberg played a big role in motivating Burroughs to write. In a volume of Burroughs' letters that was published in the nineties he announced to one of them, almost as if they were mentors, upon the publication of Junky, that he was "now a man of letters," long after Kerouac and Burroughs had made their debuts.

Burroughs' work seemed to have developed the way it did because he had such a uniquely broad view of the social spectrum and human experience. He was lucky enough to become acquainted with hard-working, supportive, brilliant young writers. He had the temperament of a flaneur and layabout, but had experienced the kind of hard-boiled, everyday life of the average Joe in his various odd jobs. He had as much taste for trashy detective fiction as for literature. Add to that stuff his experience of drug addiction, marginalized status as a gay man, his sexual tourism in third-world countries, and his relative freedom from financial constraints ... and he had a really unique exprience. He was interested in anthropology, psychology, and the social sciences in general, and was capable of viewing society through those lenses. And his elite education gave him a certain intellectual detachment and made him aware of the avant-garde artistic potential of his materials.

I see his work as a patchwork of all these influences. But so many of the things that made him the writer he is, were really the product of his drifting through life and failing to ever get his footing in the conventional world.
posted by jayder at 9:49 PM on February 3 [4 favorites]


I always thought grouping him with the Beats was a miscategorization. While he was certainly friends with Ginsberg and Kerouac (and appears in their works),

or the culture has done a piss poor job of grasping what the Beats were really all about. Which is to say, not beret wearing, hip-talking hep-cats ... but serious outlaws of a sort who were determined to undermine the air-conditioned nightmare that America had become via three main literary assaults: Kerouac's "typing", Ginsberg's free and wild verse, and Burrough's deeply subversive and strange investigative reporting.

I personally have no problem seeing all three very much alive in what Bob Dylan was up to around the time he went electric.
posted by philip-random at 10:35 PM on February 3 [3 favorites]


http://www.avclub.com/review/new-william-s-burroughs-bio-gets-lost-in-minutiae-200938
Figuring out just what to include (and what to leave out) may be the most challenging aspect of crafting a biography. In Call Me Burroughs, Barry Miles, a longtime friend of William S. Burroughs, opts to keep everything, creating an overstuffed book that chooses minutiae over insight...Miles clearly has more information than he knows what to do with, and, perhaps out of loyalty to Burroughs, doesn’t omit anything. But neither does he draw any larger conclusions about Burroughs’ motivations or obsessions...Perhaps Miles is simply too close to his subject...Miles’ fondness for Burroughs is clear from his tone and his sometimes non-critical depiction of Burroughs’ rampant drug use and misogyny. That lack of critical detachment is unfortunate, since it precludes Miles from taking a wider view of a man he knew relatively intimately.
posted by anazgnos at 10:46 PM on February 3


the William S. Burroughs exhibition in Lawrence, KS has a haunting installation of a porcelain mannequin dressed in his clothing, his face projected on the head via digital projector, reading his works.

I don't think people will flock here for it, but if you happen to be in the Kansas City area and dig Burroughs, it's worth checking out
posted by maus at 12:40 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


or the culture has done a piss poor job of grasping what the Beats were really all about. Which is to say, not beret wearing, hip-talking hep-cats ... but serious outlaws of a sort who were determined to undermine the air-conditioned nightmare that America had become via three main literary assaults: Kerouac's "typing", Ginsberg's free and wild verse, and Burrough's deeply subversive and strange investigative reporting.

This. The Beats so thoroughly took on and wiped out the times that birthed them that it's tough to remember what they were up against...the US of the fifties was like something out of a bad novel, and they not only lived in that world and were constantly under assault by it, but they fought back and won, bending it to their own will.

It's also important to remember what came after. Bob Dylan wanted to follow in the footsteps of the Beats. The Beatles came to worship the Beats, and the Grateful Dead built directly on their foundation as well as travelled with probably the main inspiration, Neal Cassady, for years. The "beatnik" (a word the Beats all despised and was considered pejorative at the time) stereotype you see now bears no relation to the actual people themselves, yet somehow that has come to be the image most people have today.
posted by nevercalm at 9:29 AM on February 4 [5 favorites]


The Adding Machine is one of my favorite collection of essays. My only hesitation in reading this is that it might change my perception of Burroughs from his own mouth. That and the massive pile of books I already have waiting to be read.
posted by lownote at 9:38 AM on February 4


When I came home from college after reading Nova Express and told my mother about this great new author I discovered, she said, "Oh, that horrible man!"

Turns out that her parents were friends of William Burroughs' parents. I grew up in the same wealthy St. Louis suburb as did Burroughs, and sometimes, in his novels, I see names of the streets of my neighborhood (Ladue).

Lots of good links in this post, by the way. Thanks.
posted by kozad at 10:31 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]


I haven't watched it yet, but here's a Barry Miles-John Tytell discussion of Burroughs through Strand.
posted by mr. digits at 6:42 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


William S. Burroughs - Born 100 Years Ago Today
posted by homunculus at 3:48 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Burroughs the Movie is really good. I hope it gets released more widely. The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg is also really great.

This is one of my favorite Burroughs "routines" - Ah Pook is here

I have a lot of cognitive dissonance with these guys. I really like some of their work and personality (especially Burroughs' satire), but there are aspects that are pretty reprehensible - misogyny, glorification of perpetual adolescence even at the cost of gross negligence and irresponsibility, etc.

I just came across this weird, ridiculous academic post-something article on Burroughs, Death Is God and William Burroughs Is His Prophet:
The virus provides a fundamental symbolic code in Burroughs' work, for it is the prototypical parasite, and his house of fiction rests on a tripartite structure of parasitism. Parasitism divides first into a controlling elite of parasites and a controlled mass of hosts. The two compose a comprehensive symbiosis, but a third group stands outside it: the boys camps, or Wild Boys, whose members know the facts of the parasitical symbiosis and withdraw from the game of control. Expressed in this way, the three groups are distinguished by their relation to knowledge. The parasitical elite know, and they exploit their knowledge in networks of power that produce control. The mass of hosts simply do not know and are helpless. The Wild Boys and their counterparts in later novels know, but they do not exploit. Their knowledge frees them, and in the full consciousness of their freedom they choose perpetual war against the parasitical system of control which would enmesh them as well as the faceless billions of the hosts.
posted by Golden Eternity at 1:31 PM on February 8


Here’s a William S. Burroughs audio documentary featuring Iggy Pop, John Waters and more
posted by homunculus at 7:45 PM on February 20


Take a creative writing course with William Burroughs
posted by homunculus at 11:41 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


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