The Arrested Evolution of William S. Burroughs | The New Engagement

The Arrested Evolution of William S. Burroughs

By Tom Cardamone

 

I consider that immortality is the only goal worth striving for: immortality in Space. Man is an artifact created for the purpose of Space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole. But man is in a state of arrested evolution.

Time is that which ends, and Man is in Time.

The transition from Time to Space is quite as drastic as the evolutionary transition from water to land . . . Immortality is something you have to work and fight for . . . The Old Man of the Mountain discovered that immortality is possible in Space, and this is the Western Lands of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The Western Lands is a real place. It exists, and we built it, with our hands and our brains. We paid for it, with our blood and our lives. It’s ours, and we’re going to take it. 

~ 1982, Excerpt from Statement on the Final Academy, William S. Burroughs: Invisible Hombre Barry Miles

 

Tallahassee, Florida State University, a pale blue kidney bean-shaped pool of my then-girlfriend’s non-descript apartment complex, 1992. Wallowing in the residue of cheap weed and an ever-handy thermos of watery Jack and Cokes, deathly thin, I was soaking up the sun. She and I had met during a post-undergraduate semester in London, where I’d bought so many books around Charing Cross Road that when I packed them for the trip home, the handle came off the suitcase when I attempted to lift it. Stuffed among my prized Philip K. Dick reprints (most of his work was out-of-print in the states at the time) were pulpy William S. Burroughs paperbacks. I’d scored something from the Nova Trilogy: The Soft MachineThe Ticket That Exploded, or Nova Express. I wish I could recall which ones; they had this psychedelic cover that insinuated paranoia over strawberry fields; I enjoyed the surreal cut-up method of the book, the razor sharpness of certain sentences. Whichever books I read, I didn’t know they were parts of a trilogy, just that the cut-up method worked: it exposed the fallacies of narrative storytelling while serving up a self-aware con game—I felt the author was an admirable hustler entranced by his own version of three-card Monte and I wanted to know more. I was desperate to be a writer but afraid to put anything down on paper. I was okay with stalking the darker figures of literature, however, knowing that the entrances I required were in alleyways or underground. 

Back in Florida, I read Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs poolside beneath the withering sun. The drainage pond over my shoulder was a verdant, polluted shadow patrolled by a lone, minute alligator, a silent sentinel cutting pond scum. Satellites of crushed Budweiser cans bounced in his wake. Across from me an impossibly skinny blonde girl in an American flag bikini would not stop talking to her brunette friend—endless chatter, wiry white arms tossed across their foreheads. I passed them on the way back to the apartment to refill my thermos. “Anyone who has AIDS deserves to die,” the blonde girl spat in my direction. I pretended not to hear this. Inside was air-conditioning and white stucco walls: bong hits, a quick Marlboro Light to heighten the high—I was at the pool again in fifteen minutes with a fresh thermos of whiskey, nonplussed by the poisoned arrow hurled at me just moments ago. I had all the armor I needed: girlfriend, the daily anesthesia of drugs and alcohol, sleeping twelve hours every day, pouring myself into books. If death slipped the occasional Valentine’s Day card under the door, so be it. That was the price to play a heterosexual charade. 

A few years later I moved to New York City, where the lingering psychological accoutrements of the closet are unceremoniously stripped from you right there at La Guardia. When I wasn’t clubbing or delving into the bar scene, I was nosing around libraries and bookstores, devouring gay literature. I was writing and meeting writers and as the years progressed, I noticed that Burroughs was divorced from these conversations. Twenty years on, I can confirm this: having edited two nonfiction books on gay writing, which required research and readings across the queer spectrum and communications written or in-person with a multitude of professional writers and scholars. William S. Burroughs was never once mentioned. A gay writer whose most famous and formerly banned novel, Naked Lunch, has been certified a classic of American literature (and filmed by David Cronenberg), a gay writer whose books are in every Barnes and Nobles in the country, a gay man who’s image is on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a lover and mentor to Allen Ginsberg—he has been sainted by the literary establishment in general but not the gay literati in particular. 

One reason is the “gay canon” itself*, an unofficial collection of books that, while often progressive and transgressive, these books adhere to the more formal structures of the novel and storytelling, falling within the political narratives of coming out or self-discovery. Some books successfully represent the decade in which they were written in a way that allows them to exist under glass, dated but not dated, intricate amphorae depicting discos and cocaine, furtive cruising ‘round the Coliseum at night and the like. By and large, these are often great books that have superseded their sexuality to join the ranks of classic works in general. I’m certainly not declaring that the “gay canon” is restrictive or restrained in general (though I can imagine others more widely read offering additional titles for inclusion, hence the parentheticals) but rather that it is to Burroughs in particular. While he can be considered one of the most political writers of the twentieth century, on par with Orwell, if not a less-than-direct descendent, his politics are not those of our beloved Larry Kramer.  Additionally, homosexuality is rarely the driver of the characters in the books of his that I have read (many of them dripping with menacing homosexuality, some really insane sex, and vibrant gay characters. Plus, lots of sketchy pirate boys on the make.) Full disclosure: I am not a William S. Burroughs disciple. I have enjoyed and pondered what Burroughs has crossed my path over the years: Junky, Queer, two of the cut-up books, The Place of Dead Read trilogy, assorted miscellanea and two biographies; even with my limited knowledge I feel that a question worth asking is worth answering and that a partial answer lies in the previous sentence: the novel Queer, a planned sequel to Junky, was written between 1951 and 1953 but not published until 1985 well after Burroughs was an established literary celebrity. The book is darkly hilarious, irreverent, and singularly bizarre. The main character (a sidewinder version of Burroughs) Lee’s gayness is dealt with in such a disarmingly off-hand manner that the casual reader can be excused for getting carried away with Burroughs’ noirish free styling and not pick-up on how revolutionary this depiction really is. Black humor aside, rare moments of introspection poke through the constant grit and grift of this tight little novel. 

“I had a duty to live and to bear my burden proudly for all to see, to conquer prejudice and ignorance and hate with knowledge and sincerity and love. Whenever you are threatened by a hostile presence, you emit a thick cloud of love like an octopus squirts ink . . .”

This from the fifties. Had it debuted alongside Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948), or James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), with decades to cement itself as a groundbreaking classic rather than a curious relic overshadowed by The Naked Lunch then it’s possible that this essay would have been a moot point. 

Queer, like much of Burroughs’ writing, has dark shifts in narration and while Lee is obsessed with an easily bored heterosexual boy who only occasionally puts out, the latent driver of the plot is the search for Yage, a drug that promotes telepathy. The recreational drug use found in the more daring gay novels of the 80s pale in comparison to Burroughs informative lifelong addiction to heroin (he was on methadone well into his 70s). As a subculture figurehead, he was romanticized by heterosexual rock musicians (in concert Lou Reed used to wrap his microphone cord around his arm and mimic shooting up) and gonzo journalists in the 70s and 80s for his transgressive behavior and writings—anathema to a percentage of the modern gay reader. Broadly speaking, our community’s current relationship with substance use is defined through the shaming lens of addiction. However, in the sixties drug use was often viewed as an opportunity for mind expansion; presently harder drugs are gobbled by gays for heightened, prolonged sex. Before that, we had a collective love affair with cocaine, what is synonymous with the narcissism of the 70s. To be blunt, gays are more interested in the riot of self-expression and the dissolution of past trauma that comes with drug fueled orgies than mediations on time and space, the viral nature of language, and anti-authoritarianism. (And that’s not a criticism, just a note that we can expand our priorities by mixing up our substances of choice). After all, Burroughs was a founding member of the Beats, that loose artistic collective dedicated to raising the consciousness of our species. Gay issues were but a simmering subset of concerns when the burgeoning counter culture was up against the mammoth American war machine and the rigidity of political conservatism. Even then, the Beat’s embrace of eastern mysticism and more personal forms of literary self-expression were merely starting points for Burroughs. He went further and darker into existential territories only ever previously encountered in the prison writings of the Marquis De Sade. Here’s the crux: the nihilism in his work is counter to the constant drum beats of gay life: positivity, perseverance, and consumerism. Really, imagine Burroughs in the back of the convertible with Gilbert Baker, waving to the throngs at that Gay Parade in heaven. It’s just not possible.  

The most likely reason that Burroughs is not habitually referenced as a founder member of modern gay letters is that his gay book has yet to be compiled. Throughout Barry Miles’ 1993 biography William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible: A Portrait, he references that Burroughs felt his work were all one long text. This is confirmed in The Letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945-1959, also published in 1993. His letters, predominately to Ginsberg, are profound and profane, gossipy, bitchy, and a record of events, themes and personas that will inform future books for decades to come. “Maybe the real novel is letters to you.” Excerpts of these letters, Queerin its entirety, parts of his trilogies, who knows what else – there is a masterwork yet to be assembled. I wonder where Barnes and Noble would shelve it? 

Even his heterosexual hagiographers have it wrong. In what I believe was the last original book published in Burroughs’ lifetime, My Education, a collection of dreams with occasional reminisces, he casually confronts his biographer, Ted Morgan, and his biography’s chosen title, Literary Outlaw, head-on. “To be an outlaw you must first have a base in law to reject and get out of. I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant more than a key to a house.” How much of gay literature counteracts repression, serves as a declaration of the right to exist or provides an elegiac record of existence under such repression, where Burroughs exists, thinks, creates fully outside this diametrical opposition? William S. Burroughs was a writer who accidentally killed his wife, spent decades addicted to heroin, was an expatriate’s expatriate, was more involved with Scientology than his acolytes would care to admit, all while generating reams of writing that not only smashed the strictures of fiction but influenced generations of writers. Forget “coming out.” With William S. Burroughs there’s no negotiation, no need for acceptance, for escape, for forgiveness or reconciliation.  He wanted us to advance, wholly, willfully, with immortal intent.  

#

The transition from Time to Space is quite as drastic as the evolutionary transition from water to land. . .”

If William S. Burroughs were writing this then that alligator is still there, a stationary emerald set in a pool of shimmering mercury. A potent Egyptian God. I’m there, too. When the skinny girl wishes me dead, I pull a Lugar from behind the waist band of my red swimsuit and aim it at her head. She screams as I shoot her friend instead. Blood droplets black as old pennies coat the bottom of the pool. 

That’s what writers do. We leave witnesses. 

 

*Example: The 25 Best LGBT Novels of All Time, The Advocate/However The Publishing Triangle List of the 100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels, compiled in the late 1990s, lists Naked Lunch at #52. The judges were Dorothy Allison, David Bergman, Christopher Bram, Michael Bronski, Samuel Delany, Lillian Faderman, Anthony Heilbut, M.E. Kerr, Jenifer Levin, John Loughery, Jaime Manrique, Mariana Romo-Carmona, Sarah Schulman, and Barbara Smith. 

Tom Cardamone is the editor of Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book and is the author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning speculative novella Green Thumb as well as the erotic fantasy The Lurid Sea and other works of fiction, including two short story collections. Additionally, he has edited The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered and The Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! You can read more about him and his writings at www.pumpkinteeth.net.

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