William Burroughs speaks for his centenary
February 26, 2014 | 10:35 am
Events and commemorations are swarming like flies – or mugwumps – in the centennial month of William Seward Burroughs, born on February 5th, 1914. An official Burroughs 100 website has been launched “for announcement of all projects, publications, conferences, art exhibitions, films, events and happenings,” and tributes and commemorations have come in their hundreds, some welcome – some less so.
One of the most interesting, and useful, has got to be the invitation to “Take a creative writing course with William Burroughs,” courtesy of Dangerous Minds. Given that Burroughs himself attributed his own achievement as a writer to the (semi-) accidental shooting of his second wife, Joan Vollmer, in a bizarre game of William Tell, you might want to think twice about that. But should you decide to take the plunge, Dangerous Minds has unearthed a series of creative writing classes given at Naropa University in 1979 and recorded on YouTube, with a total running time of over four hours. With linkthrough to further explication on Burroughs’ cutup technique, this has to be one of the centenary’s star offerings for would-be Interzoneauts out there.
Less appealing is UK writer Will Self’s take on Burroughs in the BBC’s own radio program on the centenary. “He’s an unpleasant slug crawling across the lawn of literature; one I like to pour salt on,” says Self. “I find the whole Burroughs myth pretty repulsive actually … You could be lying in some pestilential, piss-soaked squat in the bowels of the city listening to some moron totalled on drugs, drooling on, and talking about Burroughs. Because Burroughs was their Leon Trotsky, their Archbishop of Canterbury, their pope.”
And yes, the Burroughs myth can be a tad overpowering, even nauseating. But it’s significant what Self, a heroine addict him…self for many years, picks up on and chooses to ignore. In the radio program and his own recent review of Junky, he focuses on Burroughs the addict. “Burroughs was in flight either from the consequences of his chemical dependency, or seeking to avoid the drugs he craved.” There’s nothing about Burroughs the science fiction writer. There’s precious little about Burroughs the homosexual and sadistic obsessive. There’s nothing about Burroughs the linguistic philosopher, as in the fascinating Language Virus. Burroughs was an immensely fertile and diverse writer, and anything but the romaticizing spokesperson for the drug culture that Self caricatures him as. But there’s enough of him to find your own image in from all kinds of angles. He’s been around for a century, and is liable to stay around for a lot longer.