William Burroughs pitched up in London in the 1960s, straight out of Tangiers, and eventually installed himself in a flat in St James, off Piccadilly, right behind the Ritz, an address that would give you no change out of £10 million these days. It was his second stop. His first, from the airport, or so he claimed in one short memoir, was a detox clinic, using apomorphine, which Burroughs claimed could complete the detox in three days, with none of the agony commonly associated with cold turkey.
Writing of that journey, Burroughs remembered it as being occasioned by the receipt of a letter — during a descent into junk so deep, that he no longer had any clear idea who, or what, he was — that contained his last cheque: the last disbursement from the trust fund set up by his parents, which had subsidised three decades of mayhem and productive waste. Somehow, he regrouped and poured himself on that plane. By the time he left London eight years later, he had no need of the trust, having become a literary superstar of the 1960s, the other ’60s, not the flower power one, the proto-punk squalor and junk ’60s. Was it the boredom? The greyness? The British? No, he left, he said, because of the rolling power cuts, which interrupted the watching of television.
That remark was always taken as evidence of Burroughs dry humour — Mr Exterminator, the original junkie, deprived of Are You Being Served?. But, as Barry Miles reveals in this new biography, it was all too true, while the last plane out of Tangier story was a mishmash. Inevitably, that is the way with biographies, especially those of mythologised lives.
Released in the year of Burroughs’s centenary, Call Me Burroughs: A Life has been praised for its tenacity, criticised for its length. Did we really need so much on ole Bill, his endless entanglements with every addictive substance on offer, his every friendship, and more commonly, feud, all his sexual encounters, squalid, tender, often both? The answer of course is not only yes, but yes, and.
Call Me Burroughs is a labour of massive proportions, and an essential contribution, but it is hardly long enough to thoroughly explore the way in which the life entwined with the work — how his transition from Harvard to hard drugs and beyond shaped the transformation of his artistic vision from a realistically described nightworld to an otherworldly nightmare. No one doubts that Burroughs was one bad dude, but he was also by far the most important and influential of the writers that emerged out of the scene that can to be known as the Beats — the only one whose radical artistic and intellectual vision could withstand the latter incorporation of Beat style into the image culture of the ’80s, still less when it was spat out again as the hipsterism of the late 2000s.
While the self-celebration of free spiritedness and autonomy in Kerouac’s novels and Ginsberg’s poetry now sounds like not much more than someone recounting their wild trip — road or acid — Burrough’s work survives because its pessimism and paranoia reads not only like a more accurate record of its time, but of ours as well, the characterless subject that steers its way through his works, anxious beaten-down and scattered by forces beyond his control. Now that practically all the cool jazz of the Beats has faded to muzak — save for On The Road and, if you’re 19 or James Franco, Howl — Burroughs can once again be viewed in isolation.
Though he was intimately bound up with both Kerouac and Ginsberg, giving their work an edge it would otherwise have lacked, and reliant on them to edit and assemble much of his free-form writing, Burroughs had a more critical vision of the world than the Alt-Oklahoma! that the Beats usually lapsed into. Borne of mid-century bohemia, he was the prophet of its exhaustion, its simulation and parody in the total interior of capital we live in today, what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has dubbed the “new crystal palace”.
To say that Burroughs was born to the role is to understate it somewhat. The trust fund that bought a thousand hits derived from the fortune his grandfather had made, inventing the modern adding machine; bought out by IBM, Burroughs’ systems innovation would contribute to the technology that the Nazis relied upon to run the Holocaust.
Burroughs gained his schooling at an elite boarding establishment in New Mexico called Los Alam — yes, that Los Alamos, the students kicked out in World War II so the Manhattan, atomic bomb project could be housed there. Before he had even passed through Harvard to begin a turn in ’30s bohemia, Burroughs was at the centre of the century. In Junky, his spare realist novel detailing his as/descent into heroin addiction in the ’40s, Burroughs portrays himself as consumed with ennui, and superior to the scribbling Greenwich villagers trying to out-Fitzgerald Fitzgerald. Miles sets the record straight: Burroughs was literary, but diffident and blocked, his earlier efforts having been composed with a friend with whom he had fallen in love (?).
By the time the United States entered WWII, and New York became the hyperactive city of transit and desire portrayed in The Naked Lunch, Burroughs had drifted into dope and dead-end jobs — low-rent detective, exterminator — hanging with a crowd of real bohemians, alcoholics and junkies, semi-pro hookers and parasitic men, none of whom disguised their desire with literary pretension. It was here this lifelong homosexual “bottom” and sometime paedophile — teenagers only — met his second wife Joan, a quart-of-vodka-a-day gal by the time she married Bill. He also became involved with the kids who would become the Beats — Ginsberg, Kerouac and their boy prophet Lucian Carr — around whom they circled. When in the late 1940s, Carr murdered a man who had become obsessed with him (Carr got off on an insanity plea, and spent a few years in an asylum), the tight and obsessive group was both shattered and individually liberated. It would not be the first blood sacrifice constitutive of the group’s art.
Burroughs and Joan were by now on the road, but in not in the picaresque Kerouac-Cassady fashion. They formed part of a floating network of crims and junkies, seeking out towns they had not “burned down” — i.e. conned all the doctors out of morphine prescriptions before being tumbled — the pair, now with kids in tow (one of Joan’s, one of theirs together) wound up in Mexico City, where Burroughs tried to kick the junk through booze and a growing obsession with guns, waved around at any excuse, a habit attributed by his friends to his anxiety over the smallness of his penis, much attested to.
The couple were coming apart — Joan drinking at a suicidal rate, Burroughs chasing boys in the gay bars (that he loathed), the kids fed and bathed by casual strangers — when Burroughs committed the central act of his life. At a drunken party, Joan insisted Burroughs shoot a whiskey glass off her head (“I cant watch, I hate the sight of blood,” she giggled as she set it up) and Burroughs complied, missed and hit her above the eyes. No one spoke; everyone simply heard the glass rolling on the floor. She died minutes later. In years to come, Burroughs would be accused of murder, under cover of drunken antics, the disposal of a vexatious woman, after his experiment with heterosexuality had decisively failed.
That he would later become a programmatic misogynist, arguing that women were an alien species, implanted on Earth to draw off male life energy, did not help his cause. Burroughs himself denied it, and appears to have come apart from grief and guilt over the ensuing months and years, propelling him deeper into a heroin addiction that can only be described as devotional. But by now there was important difference.
Heroin was not, Burroughs came to understand, a road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom. It was a control system, the inversion of the advertising and consumerism then flooding the world, that revealed its true nature by reflection. “Junk doesn’t sell the product to the consumer; junk sells the consumer to the product,” as he observed. Heroin was a new way into subjectivity. But it was only at his next destination that Burroughs’s full counter-vision of modernity would take shape.
Tangier, Morocco, when Burroughs arrived in the 50s, was a magnet for Europeans in search of cheap sex with young teenagers, male and female, a pursuit that attracted relatively little moral censure at the time (St George Orwell was a partaker, when he wintered there with his wife Eileen in the ’30s). It was also unique in the world, as an “international zone” city, its position at the heads of the Mediterranean ensuring that no one power would have full control. Spanish, French, American and Arab zones were each separately policed, the respective forces less concerned with what or who you put in your body, than with matters of international security. The place had so many cops that they cancelled each other out, and the situation revealed to Burroughs the nature of policing elsewhere — as a total system of control coming from the outside, to meet internal systems of control, exemplified by heroin, coming from the inside.
The two met within the ego of the modern self, and determined it. These two dimensions of control gave Burroughs’s world view its nightmarish character, one that has proved far more durable than the self-regarding, self-celebration of the Beats. The “cut-up” writing technique he subsequently developed with the post-surrealist painter Brion Gysin was intended as an end-run around embedded control systems, i.e. selfhood. Burroughs claimed that out of complete randomness, cut-ups produced not merely traces of past memory, but also future events. He told an audience at London’s famous “Roundhouse” happening centre that he had created a plane crash by a mere act of thought.
Whether in the more realist works such as Junky, Queer or Interzone, or the surreal volumes that begin with Naked Lunch, Burroughs’s “heroes” are the exact opposite of Dean Moriaty — wormy, pathetic creatures, barely selves at all, deconstructed by junk, or in later volumes, by more fundamental forces. The totalisation of Burroughs’s system occurred in the ’80s trilogy The Red Night, written after he had come to the conclusion that language itself was a control system, a virus, which had colonised the brain and larynx at some point in our evolution. His growing obsession with such notions had its productive moments — such as his use of that most extraordinary of all 20th century books, Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which it is explained that the modern self, with its internal voice, arose from the collapse of the chambered mind of antiquity, in which such voice was taken to be direct speaking by the gods — and its byways, such an obsession with scientology in Burroughs during his London years.
Burroughs saw “self-auditing” by means of the e-meter as a path out of the control systems embedded in selfhood, and the five years during which he pursued getting “clear” saw him alienate many of his friends and leave him isolated and bitter — especially when he came to the conclusion that the whole thing was a fraud.
By that time, he was back in New York City, and his arrival, to his great good luck, coincided with the rise of the punk and new wave movements for whom his works were influential, if not constitutive. From the Velvet Underground to Kathy Acker, Philip Guston to Talking Heads, Burroughs’s vision was ceaselessly productive into the ’80s and ’90s, at a time when the other Beats had become both famous and ossified.
Much of this was due to the energetic marketing by Allen Ginsberg, who was now part of the professorial circuit, packaging the Beat experience not as a dissident vision, but as part of the Americana tradition, from Whitman through Woody Guthrie and Carl Sandburg to the present. By then, Levis were using a famous photo of Kerouac et al in an ad campaign, a moment that was shocking in the ’80s. By the ’90s, it was hard to remember a time when that hadn’t occurred.
The world was settling down to postmodernism, and then post-postmodernism, when the margins of life, the old bohemia, had been drawn so far in, that the centre was everywhere, the edge nowhere.
Yet though his nightmare visions of total control, total saturation had come to pass, it was curious — Burroughs himself never became a gleeful nihilist in the manner of Baudrillard and other renegades of ’68. The ubiquitous three-piece and fedora disguised the fact that Burroughs was the last hippie — someone who was willing to submit to a total belief in anything, from Wilhelm Reich’s orgone energy to engrams to dream-machines, to push to an idea to its very limit and beyond, to reshape reality around it. He ended his days in Lawrence, Kansas — which is like ending up in Devonport, Tasmania — because a coterie of supporters and “ex-lovers” (really, young male, charity fucks) were based there. He lived off lucrative lecture tours, and shotgun art, loading a 12-bore with paint cartridges. He did a Nike ad. He pulled it off.
Burroughs never put a high price on his own achievement — he believed the only two 20th century writers who would survive were Beckett and Jean Genet — and reading back some of the old stuff, one has to concur. A lot of it is pretty ropey and tedious, and what really survives — for this reader at least — is the cooler, more realist stuff, not least because it is a record of an utterly vanished world, a bohemia far from signification, a genuine underworld of people whose unwillingness to conform to the rationed pleasures of modern existence led them to a world of excess, crime, poverty and death, which was not forever on the edge of being culturised and commodified. In Burroughs’ writings the “inter(national) zone” of Tangiers became transferred to the “interzone” of ’40s and ’50s modernist culture — the period after the great works of the lost generation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and before the modernist pop-culture explosion of the 1960s. Beyond that, it was the interzone of shifting powers, and that between human subjectivity, and the “something else” created by the total addiction to a distilled opiate.
So Burroughs is, like the rest of the Beats, marooned within his time, and ideas of liberation that now appear naive and simplistic — but he also busts out of it, because he alone provided a totalising philosophical vision by which we could understand our own vision. That double-character is the key to the survival of his work and life as a compelling vision.
On the one hand, what better exemplifies the “junk” theory of desire than our world of social media — megacorporations whose value is based on the aggregated data that we freely surrender to them, whose appeal is based first on the pleasure of engaging with them, and then the fear of being left out, which then gradually tighten their control on their users? By the time they start buying up robotics companies, who is surprised? And who, reading Burroughs’s imaginarium of the intergalactic Nova Mob, the soft machine, “undifferentiated tissue”, and all the rest does not recognise a fantasy vision of our world, retrojected into the mid-century interzone?
Yet the power of his vision — and his continued fascination for us — comes from the memory of a time, unvarnished by Beat/hipster romanticism, when there was an outside within the world, an interzone of dead towns, backroads, tombcells, forged scrips, and lawless lands. Burroughs’s world, until celebrity closed in, was not mere anarchy, but kaos, a place where moral rules were not so much disregarded as absent. That may be exhilarating, but only because of the malign nature of much of Burroughs’s life — indifference to a man murdered by the Beats’ early boy-God, the killing of a wife, forseen by many, neglect of a son — who died, aged 33, of alcoholism — and the systemic and brutal exploitation of teen prostitutes in Tangiers, which disconcerted even his closest friends.
By the time he retreated to Kansas, Burroughs was genuinely consumed by the guilt and shame of those decades — but only in the way that aged gangsters mellow to avuncular chat-show figures. Auden, Dali, Ginsburg, Kerouac — at some level, all of these were only playing with an outlaw status. Burroughs wasn’t, but the price of that was that the man was genuinely evil. The question is whether it was a necessary one.
But it’s a question that, these days, is moot. Our near inexhaustible nostalgia for the era of the modern has a quality to it greater than the mere reverencing of the past, that is the feature of all cultures. We can’t get enough of the modern, the period strung between the fast clipper ship and the low-cost jet carrier, the daily paper and the last days of Hollywood, containing within it, revolutions and liberations, both within and without. We are borne back there, because we know that we have recently become cut off from it, that something has changed.
That has happened within the last decade or so, from the time when the world wide web put the internet into every hand, and Moore’s law ensured that the technology carrying it leapt ahead in power and reach — and which in turn supercharged the flows of capital, objects and bodies that had come to be known as “globalisation”. The totality and instantaneity of these networks and machines have changed the world as categorically — more so — than did the print revolution. The idea that this has been a quantitative change is a commonplace; that it has been a qualitative change not merely in culture and psychology but in the very nature of being itself has not yet been fully thought through.
Burroughs’ fantasies were a perpetual nightmare vision, about the way in which the world was closing in on him — and a perpetual search for new forms of liberation that might be contained within it.
In the World Interior of Capital is German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s attempt to derive a material philosophy of the contemporary world, and the way in which ideas, old and new, are embedded in things. Just translated, it was first published in 2005, at the height of the US-UK neoconservative triumph. Everything that has happened since then only serves to confirm its sagacity.
The mid-2000s, as one may recall, was a time when there was a flurry of triumphalism around the nature of the West, and its alleged dominance of the world. From the braying call to a new imperialism issued by Niall Ferguson, to the more materialist approach of Jared Diamond, the question as to how a smallish peninsula at one end of Asia came to develop a scientific revolution, supercharge its technology and transform its economy on the road to world dominance became one of vital political interest.
For Sloterdijk, putting the question thus is to get things the wrong way round. Europe did not suddenly project itself into the rest of the world because the sextant, the keel and gunpowder — nothing within those tools, no essence of them, projects them outwards. The example of the Chinese, who developed these and countless other technologies, and did a bit of seafaring themselves, demonstrates this. For Sloterdijk, the projection is prior to the project — the idea of there being an “out there” must have meaning before anyone is likely to do it. The open sea, before it is a portal to meaning, to imperative action, is simply an utter barrier, an alien element, barely recognised as an entity in its own right. The possibility that such a projection could be meaningful is buried in western mathematical philosophy itself, and its centering on the sphere as both expression of ideal form, and as the shape of the world we inhabit.
Discovered in Greek philosophy, such a notion is turned away from after the fall of the Classical world, when Europe — as Christendom — turns to an earth-bound model, ground and sky. As we now know, most people of some learning did not, prior to Columbus, believe the earth to be flat. But its spherical nature was unimportant to the mode of life, bound up in a total world. Hence we call this watery planet (H)earth, and one dimension of our life — of home, settlement, boundedness — survives into the modern. Prior to the disturbance of it, from the 1300s onwards, it was all there was.
What turned us outwards? The primary-school history answer — remember tracing all those voyages of those Portuguese bastards — is profit and empire, but Sloterdijk’s point is that these make no sense, except in terms of a risk-taking, self-expelling spirit that is prior to both. From the time that mathematics and science return to Europe via Islamic translations of classical texts, material and intellectual advances create a situation in which the world can be taken as a picture, a single dimension of its full being that can be projected into. The particulars — Venetian capitalism, Portuguese seafaring, the quest for a westward passage to Asia — all come from that. They, in turn, reorient from earth to water, from the fixity of home, to the movement of a ship, from the wholly known landscape, to the blank space on the map to be filled out.
By the time all this was fully underway, and had produced the features of modernity we recognise — risk as meaning, the entrepreneur as the bringer-into-being, courage as the disinhibition of self — the higher had withdrawn from the material world and back into notions of ideal truths, by way of René Descartes and co. For Sloterdijk, philosophy is like the “daughters of the Mafia” — able to live as it does, only by studious ignorance of the conditions that make it possible. His project is thus in part to go over the specific materiality of the world that brought us to this point, and the manner in which being becomes altered by transformation. In this examination, Columbus’s voyages are less important than that of the Magellan/Elcano expedition’s circumnavigation of the world, completed in 1522 — since it immediately reduced the world to its spherical, delimited nature. Those developments, around that 200-300 year period, established particular ensembles of time, space, subjectivity, notions of adventure and meaning — upon which categorical bases, modern society and politics was built.
Yet at its very height, modernity also produces the image of that which will supersede it, in the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851, in which all the products of the British and other European empires were gathered in the first utterly modern building, a vast glass-and-metal exhibition hall, designed by a gardener and greenhouse builder. From the Crystal Palace sprang three movements that would define globalised modernity: the sacralisation of luxury, laid out in the increasingly elaborate department stores and arcades of the late 19th century (“Le Paradis” as Zola called his fictional rendering of them); the counterculture, after William Morris and friends became so nauseated by the mass-produced rococo gloop on display, that they went off and founded the arts and crafts movement; and what one might call the “nightmare discourse” of modernity, originating from Dosteyevsky’s visit to its successor exhibition in 1862. Bigger, fancier, crystallier, the exhibitions were, for the anti-modern novelist, an attempt to enclose the world in a sort of pre-fabricated boredom, in which all possibilities of historical or transcendent experience are denied by the sheer totalisation of the process.
For Dosto, the exhibition was simply the other side of the glass, to the revolutionists of Russia, and their drift towards nihilism across the same period. Such modernity narrows the scope for a real expression of self to the point where, if you’re going that way, nihilistic egoism is the only course of action open to you — and you end up, as a way of shattering the hothouse, trying to blast a shot glass off your drunk, suicidal wife’s head in a Mexican bar. (It’s worth noting that the Australian philosopher John Carroll explored some of these themes in his 1974 book, with perhaps the best kulturkritique title ever, Breakout From the Crystal Palace.)
High modernity, then, is already on the way to its own completion, its own extinction — and what we think of as its fullest expression, the 19th and 20th centuries, are really an interzone, occurring after most of the period’s dynamic energies have been used up. Having brought itself into being through projection onto a blank sphere, the integration of communications technology and capital so totally embraces it, that it becomes, not a smaller sphere, but a point, with no dimensions. As everything becomes a picture, and every picture taken gets uploaded, as all action becomes data through the colonisation of everyday life by technology, and as the means by which this occurs forms the basis of a multi-trillion dollar economy which then takes over the older economy — Google buys the robot companies, and, if need be, the smelters and rare-earth mines that make such tech possible — the world becomes a place where certain things can no longer happen.
The great and greatly destructive movements of late modernity — racialist imperialism, Bolshevism, fascism/Nazism, Maoism — were final versions of projection, with the added twist of seeking a justification, a universal logic to match the globalised world they reached into. Nothing like them can be imagined again, as evidenced by the limpid and partial nature of their late-stage imitators, neoliberalism and violent Islamism.
We’re far more interested in the ’70s, than the ’70s were in the ’50s, or the ’50s in the ’30s, because the ’70s was still interested in the ’70s, etc, etc. Though the chain of nostalgia was still there, it had not become what it is now, for many, the substantial repository of life. That does not mean that history, or even History, is over, but it does mean that we, in our lifetimes, crossed a line of a sort — like Ferdinand Magellan over the equator — that not every generation crosses. Burroughs’s gang of nihilists flung themselves into such emptiness as remained, put drugs into themselves without knowing what it was doing to them — simply as a result of doing what they wanted to do.
Today, you can still do that, but you have to carve out a pseudo-space of freedom as a conscious act. You can’t get lost simply by taking ship or walking into the desert — you have to throw away your global-roaming smart phone first. You can’t abandon yourself to drugs without unlearning all the shit you know about neurotransmitters, etc. Soon you’ll have to throw away your wrist monitor, your smart contact lenses, etc. That is merely the fate of the current era — we can’t keep calling things “postmodern” — put in its most individual terms. In a wider sense, it applies to cultural meanings, political projects, and the very notion of the social-political itself. The inner-city is gone. The orgone box has been retired to the shed. Junkies are just morons. Even TV is going.
The dreams and phantasms that animated William Burroughs — literally, he thought; he believed he was possessed by the Ugly Spirit — remain entrancing, his vast system of ideas a map of the new world. The trick is how we follow the latter, without getting on the spike, or falling off the edge of the new world.
- Call Me Burroughs: A Life — Barry Miles | Twelve Publishers, $53.95
- In The World Interior of Capital — Peter Sloterdijk | Polity Press, $38.00