Benjamin Eastham

Burroughs’s beat

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William S. Burroughs is, alongside Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the third part of the Beat generation’s holy trinity. Yet while those two were long ago ushered into the canon, Burroughs’ writing has stubbornly resisted a comparable assimilation into the mainstream. A less conventionally romantic figure than the unruly Kerouac or the hippie seer Ginsberg, the gaunt, irredeemably strange Burroughs is perhaps comparatively unappealing to the adolescent male readers who are so notoriously eager to recreate the lives recounted in On The Road and Howl. But a greater impediment to Burroughs’ incorporation into the reading lists of youthful idealists (if there are any left) is the simple fact that he is considerably more difficult to read. While Ginsberg and Kerouac’s ecstatic compositions suggest that the Beat moniker derives from their visionary, beatific souls, Burroughs beats up language to express a downbeat, deadbeat world of paranoia, psychic entanglement and codified conspiracies.

This second volume of selected letters begins in 1959, the year in which Burroughs’ most enduring work, Naked Lunch, was first published in France. By this stage Burroughs had already entered into and left the army, lived and collaborated with Kerouac in New York, fled the US for Mexico to escape trial, accidentally killed his wife in an ill-advised game of William Tell, fled Mexico, entered into a lifelong relationship with heroin and published the seminal Junky. The first letter of this collection is addressed to Allen Ginsberg (“thanks a million for the mescaline”), who would slowly be displaced as Burroughs’ main correspondent by the experimental painter Brion Gysin, a shift that neatly captures Burroughs’ loosening of ties with the Beat movement to pursue his own, more esoteric investigations. By 1966 Burroughs is writing that he has lost interest in the “tea head beatniks” who throng his readings and would rather that his work shapes the mind of a “square ordinary young man”.

Indeed, the reader more closely acquainted with Burroughs’ legend than his work will be somewhat surprised by the almost total absence from these letters of any bacchanalian debauches (a near death experience that opens with Burroughs at dinner face down in his gazpacho is a deadpan aside). He comes across as conscientious and loyal to his friends, and touchingly gentle in his letters to his son, whose genetically predisposed descent into addiction is charted here. These kindnesses cast into harsh relief his ingrained anti-Semitism and sometimes bizarre tirades against women (“the reactive mind is the biologic weapon of female invaders”), but the overall impression is of a sensitive individual armed against the world by the sharpness of his tongue and the heroin addiction that stalks these letters.

We see clearly, too, the seriousness with which Burroughs takes his writing. In 1959 Burroughs explains to his mother that, to advance a writer’s career, it occurs sometimes that “sensational factors must be played up at the expense of fact”. But five years later he’s writing to the Times Literary Supplement to take issue with a review which attacks him for narrating the actions of a drug pusher “without a flicker of disapproval”. Burroughs clearly feels that his own ill repute has prejudiced the piece, and goes on to raise important points that continue to resonate with our understanding of his work. “Precisely how”, he asks, “is a writer expected to ‘flicker’ disapproval? He must announce to the audience whenever a dubious character appears on stage, ‘You understand I don’t approve of this man. Just part of the show you know?’”

It is unfortunate that this book does not reproduce the stylistic experiments Burroughs occasionally conducted in his letters, such as setting the text into newspaper columns. But we do see some employments of the cut-up technique that would define his later period, and it is in these sections that we come to understand Burroughs less as a Beat than a postmodernist, abandoning the linear narrative and straightforward sentence construction in favour of a collage technique that scrambles and distorts, uncovering the hidden meanings that he was convinced lurk beneath the surface of everyday life. His fervent belief in hidden truths is evident here in his love/hate relationship with Scientology, which Burroughs alternately derides as a scam and admires for its recognition of the relationship between the mind and language.

Burroughs’ engagements with the arcane can sometimes seem perverse, and his faith in the ultimate success of his radical experiments deluded (“the repetitive poems could be a jukebox sensation”). But he pioneered new means of expression in this period that resound through contemporary culture. Whether that influence is always conscious, or whether the cantankerous Burroughs would himself have welcomed it, is incidental to the point. His flashing, filmic, jump-and-chop style is exactly that of the internet age, while the work of his fellow Beats is tarnished by quaintness. These letters allow us into the workings of a restless writer who recognised that “a breakthrough that knows exactly what it is breaking through into is not a breakthrough, which is a step in the dark”. 

Rub out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974 (ed. Bill Morgan) is published by Penguin.