Joan Volmer, Burroughs common law wife. courtesy www.allenginsberg.org.
William Burroughs mother, Laura Hammon Lee. courtesy findagrave.com.
William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs
Editor's Note: The thought to address what has become William S. Burroughs, the mythic entity, occurred after a casual visit to William S. Burroughs Headquarters in Lawrence, Kansas. There I found something of a bunker mentality over the "myth of William Burroughs," The concern being that after a plethora of trespassings on the compound, the keepers of the flame feared that Burroughsmania might rise to the height of of the media dementia that surrounded the now-all-but-forgotten Paris Hilton.
To put everything right, let me shoot you the truth. Actually Joan Vollmer never died. It was she who shot and killed William S Burroughs in a game of William S. Tell, the result being that in a Vedic transmogrification, the body of William S. Burroughs was infused with Joah Vollmer's Bodhisatva nature, which gave Bill the patience to sit at the typewriter for long stretches of time, enabling him to write what he wrote.
Bill Lee, writer of Junky, died, but was revivified. Joan Vollmer, her nature realized, moved on to Nirvana.
By JORI SACKIN
I was sitting at YJ’s Snack Shop reading a Harvard Business School study ominously titled, The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest when Mike Miller (publisher of Art Tattler and Cupcakes in Regalia) suggested that I write an article on William Burroughs. I hadn’t thought about Burroughs since high school, and really didn’t have much interest. I’d idolized him as a teenager, not because of his books (I half read both Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine), but because of the life he led. He shot his wife. He ran away to Africa. He hung out with famous people before they were famous. He was a hustler, did all kinds of drugs, and was a well respected artist. There was this desperate search for freedom, for stripping away social convention and getting to the real essence of life that appealed to me when I was younger, because I wanted that life. I wanted to be exciting, honest, immediate and creative. Now I look at it differently. Now I have a wife who I love, and when I think about Burroughs playing William Tell in Mexico, it doesn’t seem so exciting. When I picture her body lying on the floor, bullet hole in her head, with the half unconscious party people stooping over her, it’s my wife I see, not his. Now that I’ve been face to face with drug fueled self obsessed mania, now that I’ve seen what it’s capable of, I know it’s not freedom that’s found, but prison, real and metaphorical. Rereading the scientific study in my lap, I decided there was no better person to talk about the dark side of creativity then William Burroughs.
“Think outside the box” and “Think different” are two sayings that have embedded themselves in our culture. They both stress the importance of the creative outlook. In this simple formula, creativity is good, conventional behavior is bad. Creativity has such power in our culture that it is sometimes looked at as “the answer” to everything. Having problems getting people to cooperate at the office? Mix it up. Get creative! Creativity is presented as a positive, sunny, community building, emotionally healing force. What has been lost is the darker side of the creative process. The study that I first mentioned takes a look at the connection between creativity and dishonesty. It goes on to show a correlation between a person’s creativity and their willingness to cheat. The explanation is that creative people are better at coming up with creative rationalizations to justify their actions, whereas less creative people are more confined by their conventional thinking.
Burroughs is a clear example of someone who is not confined by anything. “Nothing is true, Everything is permitted,” is the most famous of his quotes. This quote epitomizes two important problems for the creative personality. The first part, “Nothing is true,” shows that creative people can easily rationalize the dissolution of truth. Seeing things from various perspectives leads some to make the conclusion that since truth can be viewed from many angles, no single angle can be the complete truth, therefore, there is no truth. This idea tries to pull the rug out from any belief system or institution that seeks truth or makes claims to it.
The second part, “Everything is permitted,” is what comes after the rejection of truth. If there is no truth, no one can tell you how to behave, because they have no rational base to stand on. Even your own moral conscience should be looked at with scorn. The artificial rules that box you into conventional behavior should be broken. Anything that impedes your personal freedom of creative expression should be destroyed. Why be moral? Moral behavior is a cultural manifestation that reflects the will of your oppressive dictators. Burroughs embraced these ideas not just in his writing, but in his life, and it led to the death of his wife, an alcoholic son (dead by 33) and works of art that seek to re-create his drug fueled self obsessed sexually perverse life in the minds of others. (Note: I use sexual perversion not in any connection with his homosexuality, but in his interest in pre-adolescent boy prostitutes.) While some see Burroughs writings as sardonically reflecting the evils of America, I see Burroughs using America as a way to reflect the beast within (or most likely both). His work is as confined and chained to his ideas of expansive personal freedom as the elite wasp culture was to their social hierarchy, neither side being able to see that their chains were the same.
Of course we do not rate the success of artists entirely by the lives they have led. We rate them by the success of their works, and Burroughs has been incredibly successful. The most often attributed quote is by novelist Norman Mailer, who generously wrote that Burroughs is “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius.” When someone is labeled a genius, they are raised above the everyday, elevated to a level where we somehow allow them more eccentric morally questionable behavior. Artists have taken full advantage of this morally ambiguous “genius” zone. In the quest for the deeper self, the deeper meaning, all shackles must be removed, all clear lines blurred and washed away, including moral lines. Contemporary society doesn’t seem to have a problem with this, as it only values the objects that an artist produces, not the life that is led. We are somehow content, possibly even relishing, the destructive bohemian path of the artist. It is not any clearer than in our cultural fascination with watching young actors, actresses, and musicians destroy themselves in front of us. We wait for their premature death and then hold up the objects that are left behind as the true testament to their creative power. If the objects hold a social resonance then their life was worth it. If they don’t, then it wasn’t.
This path of destruction is typically justified by viewing the artist as explorer. In breaking the social norms artists drift outside the boundaries of society, searching for possible false walls, unnecessary rules that need to be stripped away. They are like Columbus or Magellan searching uncharted territories of the human consciousness, making all sorts of ugly destructive decisions, but in the hope that they make one really important discovery. The idea of artists as these shadowy shamanistic wanders is exactly the image that Burroughs conjures up. The question then becomes, is all this drug fueled self obsessed moral flexibility really about discovery or is it simply a person’s creative rationalization to remove all obstructions to pleasure? It can be both, but I think is most often used for the latter. What needs to be recognized is that, historically many people have gone down this hedonistic path. It is well documented, and we might question how much more artistic exploration needs to be done. What new information are we bringing to light? What more can we learn from relentless social rejection and self gratification? Artists should be careful of this bleeding out of creativity, where the force is not focused with intentional purpose but rather pours and slops itself over the entirety of life, washing away the meaningful constraints as well as the arbitrary ones. As Flaubert eloquently put it “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
The second part to this is that Burroughs recorded this life in words, his work being thinly veiled sci-fi auto-biography. Through those words he recreates the physical experience of the dark drug fueled world in which he lived. When we read this work, we embody it internally. We become the darkness. But what is the purpose of this embodiment? Certainly human depravity should not be ignored, but does it teach us something or is it simply imprinting it on us, spreading itself like a disease? Burroughs thought of ideas like diseases and so I think the metaphor is particularly pertinent. If reading the word “creative” temporarily primes us toward more creative behavior, what do you think happens when we read a story about raping little boys in the jungle? While we should recognize the positives of pulling the curtain back and looking deeper into the ugliness of humanity, we should also realize that in the process, that ugliness is being imprinted upon us, and that, at least for a short while, we become the ugliness.
Burrough’s work is a form of social/self critique thickly coated in a druggie slickness that oozes and squishes its way through the English language. This idea of art as social critique, that it is somehow art’s responsibility to puncture holes in the fabric of society and show the illusion in which we live, uncover the ugliness of culture and expose it to us in the hope that we can then recognize our folly and change our behavior, is a suspect premise. In this view art’s role is to focus on the negative, to encase the horrors of humanity in symbolic language, and then inject it in us, almost like an inoculation. While I think that this can be an effective tool, I believe true social critique is only accomplished by presenting the fullness of life. In this way, we are not solely imprinting the negative in the hopes people will embody it and finally “learn their lesson.” We are imprinting a richer understanding of human consciousness, not so we can learn a lesson, but so we can become it. The flaw in Burroughs work, is that he never sees anything else in society but his own sickness. He never gets beyond the depravity of a life lived solely for the self.
As an artist, I view creativity and art as two driving forces in the continuing expansion of human consciousness, but just because it plays this positive expansive role, does not mean we can ignore the darker side of “thinking outside the box”, especially when that box is a moral framework. It is only in the open discussion of the drawbacks of creativity that we as artists can become more conscious of the problems that a creative life can cause. Social isolation, narcissism, and immoral behavior are three such drawbacks. While our creativity can be used to easily rationalize whatever “the self’ happens to desire, we can equally use our creative powers to come up with ways to confine ourselves in systems that nurture our creativity, that grounds us in a moral framework, that recognizes truth, and believes answers do not lie in an unrestricted self, but in an integrated socially bound humanity.