Moving on from our time with Allen Ginsberg, and after taking a little break for the fall reading days, our next Beat author for weeks 8 and 9 will be William S. Burroughs, and our primary text, Word Virus: the William S. Burroughs Reader (eds. James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg).
An early mentor to the younger proto-Beats Kerouac, Ginsberg and Lucien Carr — he not only suggested books and authors that were radically different than their readings at Columbia, but also exposed them to the drug and criminal subcultures of New York's seedy underbelly — Burroughs had no real intentions of being a writer, but the his friends' persistent encouragement (Ginsberg's in particular) lead him to give it a try.
Ivy League-educated, and a world traveler by his mid-1920s, Burroughs who always seemed to find himself in trouble with authority, was drawn to philosophical questions of control and spent much of his career exploring that topic, whether through the guise of addiction, criminality, propaganda, media or deviance — all topics he knew well from first-hand experience — and in particular, his accidental shooting, in 1951, of his wife, Joan Vollmer, brought these issues into the forefront, unleashing "the Ugly Spirit" and charging him to use writing as a medium for his explorations. He wed the sharp analytic eye of a historian or anthropologist to a wildly experimental prose style, creating some of the 20th century's most challenging and innovative texts.
You'll notice a distinct difference between relatively-straightforward early prose like Junky and the excerpts from Naked Lunch, Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded and The Soft Machine, as well as the handful of excerpts from Interzone, that you'll be reading this week. All of these texts were drawn from a large manuscript Burroughs produced in the aftermath of Vollmer's accidental death, called "The Word Hoard," or simply "WORD" — a vast series of "routines," (the author's term for the short vignettes that fill his work) which he would constantly revise, deconstruct and remix to produce new works. As a result, you'll likely notice a lot of repetitions and overlaps between the excerpts from Naked Lunch and the Nova Trilogy books, since, after all, they come from the same source.
Burroughs' primary means of reconstructing these texts was the "cut-up method," an experimental cut-and-paste practice devised by the author and Bryon Gysin in the late 1950s, which draws inspiration from, among other things, the Dadaist practice of automatic poetry, as formulated by Tristan Tzara. Here's a brief audio clip of Burroughs describing the origins and methodologies of the cut-up technique. Take a few minutes to listen, and perhaps the work you'll be reading might make more sense:
It's also worth noting that Burroughs' writing is deeply-rooted in postmodern notions of "meta-fiction' — a practice in which form is almost as important as content. Getting a handle on what Burroughs is saying here is one thing to shoot for, but also pay attention to how he's saying it. He's taking chances with his writing, in terms of subject matter, but also in terms of the writing itself.
Those of you who're able to make it out to this week's film screening will get a lot of useful background information on Burroughs and his techniques, and thankfully the reader we'll be using also provides some helpful contextualization. Here's a breakdown of our Burroughs readings:
Tuesday, Oct. 14: Junky and Interzone
- The Name is Burroughs (15)
- Personal Magnetism (23)
- Twilight’s Last Gleamings (24)
- International Zone (121)
- Ginsberg Notes (excerpts) (133)
- from Junky: prologue and selections (47)
- Ann Douglas, "Punching a Hole in the Big Lie: the Achievement of William S. Burroughs" (xv)
Thursday, Oct. 16: Naked Lunch and The Nova Trilogy
- from Naked Lunch (149)
- Dead on Arrival (184)
- Case of the Celluloid Kali (187)
- The Mayan Caper (193)
- See the Action, B.J.? (202)
- Operation Rewrite (208)
- The Invisible Generation (218)
- Last Words (225)
- So Pack Your Ermines (231)
- Shift Coordinate Points (232)
- Pay Color (240)
- Clom Friday (243)
Tuesday, Oct. 21: The Third Mind, Exterminator! and beyond
- Who is the Third That Walks Beside You (256)
- The Exterminator (270)
- The Future of the Novel (272)
- Notes on These Pages (273)
- Exterminator! (383)
- The Discipline of DE (386)
- From Here to Eternity (394)
- Seeing Red (396)
- The "Priest" They Called Him (397)
- from The Cat Inside (selections) (504)
You also might want to check out the cut-up films Burroughs made with Antony Balch and Brion Gysin in the 1960s and 70s ("Towers Open Fire" and "The Cut Ups" are a good place to start).
Unlike Ginsberg, there aren't exact audio tracks to correspond with many of the readings, but I'm listing a few files below to give you a taste of Burroughs' reedy, grim delivery.
- from "Twilight's Last Gleamings" (2:48): MP3
- from Naked Lunch (2:12): MP3
- from Naked Lunch (20:28): MP3
- from Junky (7:29): MP3
And here are some supplemental readings, followed by a few videos.
- The Paris Review: "The Art of Fiction #36: William S. Burroughs"
- Rolling Stone obituary and remembrance of Burroughs
- New York Times obituary
- NPR Feature on Naked Lunch's 50th Anniversary
- Burroughs on the cut-up method
- A cut-up engine, with which you can make your own texts
- Burroughs makes the cover of supermarket tabloid The National Examiner
Much like Ginsberg, Burroughs would have close ties to the world of popular music throughout his career — he coined the term "heavy metal," and bands like Steely Dan, the Soft Machine and DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid all took their names from his writing. In later years, he collaborated with a diverse array of artists, from R.E.M. to Sonic Youth to Nirvana. Here's "The 'Priest' They Called Him," with musical accompaniment from Kurt Cobain:
Burroughs and R.E.M.'s collaborative version of "Star Me Kitten":
And here's a compendium of Burroughs' scenes in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy: