WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997
Originally published February 5, 2015.
I discovered William S. Burroughs at one of the two times people tend to discover William S. Burroughs. Generally, if you don’t discover Burroughs in a literature class, you discover him at a time in your life reminiscent of a Burroughs novel. Ask the latter group about their discovery of Burroughs, and it usually reads like a pulp novel. “I was living with a stripper and a pimp in a $300 a month two-bedroom above a bodega known for trafficking Ecstasy. I hadn’t slept in fourteen days when I found a copy of Naked Lunch in an alley…” I was definitely a member of the latter group. Burroughs is historically lumped in with the Beat writers, notably Kerouac and Ginsberg, but that classification is strictly a matter of historical – not literary - convenience. Despite the three being close friends, Burroughs was far from a Beat, stylistically or temperamentally. Whereas the Beat ethos was about experience and openness and acceptance, Burroughs was cynical and misanthropic. His quest for experience was entirely in his own head, and were often nightmarish and paranoid. Where the Beats sought to transcend, Burroughs sought to understand and condemn. If the Beats were the forefathers of the hippies, Burroughs was a forefather of punk. In the 80s, Wax Trax records in Chicago had a Kodak picture of Burroughs standing in a back yard with a broadly-smiling Iggy Pop. That image always seemed more sensible to me than the pictures of Burroughs and Kerouac and Ginsberg on the covers of Beat anthologies.
"I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan's death ... [S]o the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out".
As I’ve grown older, my fondness for William S. Burroughs has evolved. I’m nearing 45. I don’t want to live in a world so hideous I have no choice but to escape. I’ve neared that world; I’ve glimpsed it in moments. Burroughs had the direction and the goal right; we just disagree on the path.
- A 1965 Paris Review article on Burroughs