William S. Burroughs at the Prop Theatre in Chicago, October 1988 (Photo by Richard Alm)
William S. Burroughs, Literary Renegade,
Then and Now
Once a Counterculture Hero, He’d Be a Political Pariah Today. And He Would Rebel
THIRTY YEARS AGO this month, a 74-year-old William S. Burroughs huddled in a raincoat and fedora and smoked a joint with a small knot of fans inside a theater on the North Side of Chicago. He was in town for a couple of reasons: first, to attend a pre-opening-night press performance of a new play based on his book The Last Words of Dutch Schultz at the Prop Theatre, which at the time was located on Clybourn Avenue just south of Fullerton. Perhaps more important for Burroughs, the following night he would attend the opening of an exhibit of his paintings and “shotgun art” at Chicago’s Klein Gallery.
Looking back at those occasions that took place three decades ago in October of 1988, it’s impossible not to notice how drastically the national zeitgeist has changed since then. Burroughs himself provides the perfect compass for this cultural turnaround.
Marginalized by a conservative society in the 1950s, Burroughs, if alive and writing today, would likely be denounced by the political Left, the very people who once supported him and fought for freedom of speech. Where his notorious 1959 novel Naked Lunch offended mainstream sensibilities with its graphic depictions of homosexuality, narcotic use, sexually fetishized hangings, decapitations and nightmarish mayhem (often presented as dark humor), it is now the hipsters, not the squares, who seek to censor speech which fails to conform to their strict—and ever-expanding—moral codes.
Burroughs was the ultimate outsider in his time, someone who other writers, artists and intellectuals—including the novelist Norman Mailer—rushed to defend and promote. Naked Lunch prevailed in a landmark censorship trial that would establish U.S. obscenity standards for decades to come, opening the floodgates for the artistic and cultural freedom that gushed forth in the 1960s and ’70s. When Burroughs moved to New York in the mid-’70s after living in London and Paris for years, artists and rock stars—Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Joe Strummer and Patti Smith, to name a few—vied to be his dinner guests. “You just can’t revere him enough,” Smith said of Burroughs at the time. It is ironic then, that if he were alive and working today, broad segments of American society—from artists and rock stars to politicians and corporate executives—would likely attack and seek to silence Burroughs as a sexist, racist, homophobic, gun-loving conservative. But perhaps such charges reveal more about the people lobbing them than those at whom they’re thrown.
William Burroughs and Greg Beaubien at the opening of Burroughs's art exhibit at the
Klein Gallery in Chicago, Oct. 21, 1988. (Photo by J. Alexander Newberry)
Before committing exclusively to men as sexual companions, Burroughs married a woman and fathered a son. It’s well-known that in 1951 he put a bullet through his wife Joan’s forehead during a drunken William Tell routine in Mexico City, killing her instantly. He would always insist the handgun shooting was an accident.
Afterwards, his son was placed in the care of relatives and Burroughs fled to the International Zone of Tangier, Morocco, to join the city’s post-war expatriate scene. There, he spent his days in a small hotel room, shooting heroin, smoking marijuana and eating the hashish jam majoun, as he wrote the disjointed notes and fragments that would eventually become the book that established his career and reputation, Naked Lunch. In Tangier he also enjoyed having sex with underage Arab boys who were desperate for money and had turned to prostitution.
While it undoubtedly sometimes used shock and hyperbole to grab attention or make points that more subtle arguments might not, his writing still offers evidence of his often-extreme personal views, including the misanthropy that his outsider status seemed to have bred. His vitriol spreading in multiple directions, Burroughs was an unabashed misogynist. In The Adding Machine, a book of essays that he published in 1985, one incendiary entry is called “Women: A Biological Mistake?” He joked about lynchings and made fun of effeminate gay men. In his letters, he once wrote to his friend, the poet Allen Ginsberg, that “all liberals are weaklings.”
Burroughs loved weapons, especially guns. One of the reasons he spent his final years living on a rural property in Lawrence, Kansas, was that he could shoot there. He would dangle cans of spray paint on strings before upright sheets of plywood, blasting through them with a .12-gauge to splatter colors and holes through the wood and thus create his shotgun art.
Brainwashing and control were among his principal preoccupations.
Burroughs, who died in 1997, often wrote about brainwashing and control, subjects that were among his principal preoccupations. If he were alive and working today, it’s a safe bet that he would devote much of his intellect and energy to fighting the forces that have now aligned to control our speech, opinions, senses of humor, beliefs, thoughts and actions.
What Burroughs seemed to understand, as did many of his readers, is that true freedom and artistic expression lie in the ability to say what others are too afraid to utter or too unimaginative to think of in the first place. It doesn’t mean anyone has to agree with those ideas or even take them seriously, only that they’re allowed to exist.
In today’s myopic culture, sanctimonious mobs cannot process subtlety, nuance or irony. Ideas and people are generalized—often on the basis of deliberately misleading photos and captions that metastasize on social media, with no further investigation—and either conform to tribal dogma or are condemned in the most hateful terms possible. But when people are free to think for themselves, they can make up their own minds about what is right and what is wrong. And that may have been Burroughs’s point all along.