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William Burroughs in fedora hat smoking marijuana in Chicago Oct 20 1988 - photo by Richard Alm

Ever the rebel, writer William Burroughs smokes marijuana at the Prop Theatre in Chicago, October 1988. (Photo: Richard Alm)

William Burroughs, Literary Renegade, Then and Now

Once a counterculture hero, the author of Naked Lunch would be a political pariah today. And he would rebel

By Greg Beaubien

By GREG BEAUBIEN      Oct. 12, 2018  


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. 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 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 1959 novel Naked Lunch offended then-mainstream sensibilities with its graphic depictions of homosexuality, narcotic use, sexually fetishized hangings, decapitations and nightmarish mayhem (often presented as dark humor), today it is the hipsters, not the squares, who seek to censor speech which fails to conform to their strict—and ever-expanding—moral codes.

Today, Burroughs would be denounced by the same people who once supported him and fought for freedom of speech.

As a gay man, heroin addict and expatriate, Burroughs was an outsider in his time, but other writers, artists and intellectuals—including the novelist Norman Mailer—defended and promoted him. 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.

After living in London and Paris for years, Burroughs moved to New York in the mid-1970s. Artists and rock stars—including Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Joe Strummer and Patti Smith—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, corporate executives and the news media—would likely attack and seek to silence Burroughs as a sexist, racist, homophobic, gun-loving conservative. But such charges might reveal more about the people lobbing them than those at whom they’re thrown.

Writers William S Burroughs and Gregory W Beaubien at Klein Gallery in Chicago October 21 1988

William Burroughs and Greg Beaubien at the Klein Gallery in Chicago, Oct. 21, 1988. (Photo: 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 that 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 literary career and reputation, Naked Lunch. In Tangier he also had sex with underage Arab boys who were desperate for money and had turned to prostitution.

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While it undoubtedly sometimes used shock and hyperbole to grab attention or make points that more subtle arguments might not have, his writing still provides 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 that he spent his final years living on a rural property in Lawrence, Kansas, was that he could shoot there. In his backyard, he would dangle cans of spray paint on strings before upright sheets of plywood, and then blast through the cans with a 12-gauge. On the wood, the holes and splattered colors that appeared were his “shotgun art.”

The evils of brainwashing and control were among his principal preoccupations.

Burroughs, who died in 1997 at age 83, often wrote about the evils of 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 aligned to control our speech, opinions, senses of humor, beliefs, thoughts and behavior.

What Burroughs seemed to understand, as did many of his readers, is that freedom—artistic and otherwise—means being able to express what we perceive in the world, including ideas that others are too afraid to utter or too unimaginative to think of in the first place. But today, increasingly, views either conform to tribal dogma or are shouted down and censored.

In a scenario that might have been devised by the Soviet or Chinese communist parties—or by the Naked Lunch character Dr. Benway—Americans are now forbidden to say things that are obviously true, and instead have to pretend to believe things that they know are not true, and to do so publicly. 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.


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