Interview with William S. Burroughs

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(Originally appeared in Journal For the Protection of All Beings, 1961)

By Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg

Gregory Corso: What is your department?

William Burroughs: Kunst und Wissenschaft.

Gregory Corso: What say you about political conflicts?

William Burroughs: Political conflicts are merely surface manifestations. If conflicts arise you may be sure that certain powers intend to keep this conflict under operation since they hope to profit from the situation. To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth. That is what politics is for, to teach you the cloth. Just as the bullfighter teaches the bull, teaches him to follow, obey the cloth.

Gregory Corso: Who manipulates the cloth?

William Burroughs: Death

Allen Ginsberg: What is death?

William Burroughs: A gimmick. It’s the time-birth-death gimmick. Can’t go on much longer, too many people are wising up.

Gregory Corso: Do you feel there has been a definite change in man’s makeup? A new consciousness?

William Burroughs: Yes, I can give you a precise answer to that. I feel that the change, the mutation in consciousness, will occur spontaneously once certain pressures now in operation are removed. I feel that the principal instrument of monopoly and control that prevents expansion of consciousness is the word lines controlling thought, feeling and apparent sensory impressions of the human host.

Allen Ginsberg: And if they are removed, what step?

William Burroughs: The forward step must be made in silence. We detach ourselves from word forms — this can be accomplished by substituting for words, letters, concepts, verbal concepts, other modes of expressions: for example, color. We can translate word and letter into color — Rimbaud stated that in his color vowels, words quote “words” can be read in silent color. In other words, man must get away from verbal forms to attain the consciousness, that which is there to be perceived at hand.

Gregory Corso: How does one take that “forward step,” can you say?

William Burroughs: Well, this is my subject and is what I am concerned with. Forward steps are made by giving up old armor because words are built into you — in the soft typewriter of the womb you do not realize the word-armor you carry; for example, when you read this page your eyes move irresistibly from left to right following the words that you have been accustomed to. Now try breaking up part of the page like this:

  Are there      or just we can translate many solutions       for example color word color in the soft typewriter                               into political conflicts             to attain consciousness monopoly and control

Gregory Corso: Reading that it seems you end up where you began, with politics and it’s nomenclature: conflict, attain, solution, monopoly, control — so what kind of help is that?

William Burroughs: Precisely what I was saying — if you talk you always end up with politics, it gets nowhere. I mean man it’s strictly from the soft typewriter.

Gregory Corso: What kind of advice you got for politicians?

William Burroughs: Tell the truth once and for all and shut up forever.

Gregory Corso: What if people don’t want to change, don’t want no new consciousness?

William Burroughs: For any species to change, if they are unable and are unwilling to do so — I might, for example, have suggested to the dinosaurs that heavy armor and great size was a sinking ship, and that they do well to convert to mammal facilities — it would not lie in my power or desire to reconvert a reluctant dinosaur. I can make my feeling very clear, Gregory, I feel like I’m on a sinking ship and I want off.

Gregory Corso: Do you think Hemingway got off?

William Burroughs: Probably not.

(Next day)

Allen Ginsberg: What about control?

William Burroughs: Now all politicians assume a necessity of control, the more efficient the control the better. All political organizations tend to function like a machine, to eliminate the unpredictable factor of affect — emotion. Any machine tends to absorb, eliminate, Affect. Yet the only person who can make a machine move is someone who has a motive, who has Affect. If all individuals were conditioned to machine efficiency in the performance of their duties there would have to be at least one person outside the machine to give the necessary orders; if the machine absorbed or eliminated all those outside the machine, the machine will slow down and stop forever. Any unchecked impulse does, within the human body and psyche, lead to the destruction of the organism.

Allen Ginsberg: What kind of organization could technological society have without control?

William Burroughs: The whole point is, I feel the machine should be eliminated. Now that it has served its purpose of alerting us to the dangers of machine control. Elimination of all natural sciences — If anybody ought to go to the extermination chambers, definitely scientists. Yes, I’m definitely antiscientist because I feel that science represents a conspiracy to impose as the real and only universe, the universe of scientists themselves — they’re reality-addicts, they’ve got to have things so real so they can get their hands on it. We have a great elaborate machine which I feel has to be completely dismantled — in order to do that we need people who understand how the machine works — the mass media — unparalleled opportunity.

Allen Ginsberg: Who do you think is responsible for the dope situation in America?

William Burroughs: Old Army game, “I act under orders.” As Captain Ahab said, “You are not other men but my arms and legs –” Mr. Anslinger has a lot of arms and legs, or whoever is controlling him. Same thing as the Eichman case: he’s the front man who has got to take the rap. Poor bastard, I got sympathy for him.

Gregory Corso: Could you or do you think it wise to say who it will be or just what force it will be that will destroy the world?

William Burroughs: You want to create a panic? That’s top secret — want to swamp the lifeboats?

Gregory Corso: O.K. How did them there lifeboats get there in the first place?

William Burroughs: Take for instance some Indians in South America I’ve seen. There comes along this sloppy cop with his shirt buttons all in the wrong hole. Well then, Parkinson’s law goes into operation — there’s need not for one cop but seven or eight, need for sanitation inspectors, rent collectors, etc.; so after a period of years problems arise, crime, dope taking and traffic, juvenile delinquency. So the question is asked, “What should we do about these problems?” The answer as Gertrude Stein on her deathbed said, comes before the question — in short before the bastards got there in the first place! That’s all —

Allen Ginsberg: What do you think Cuba and the FLN think about poets? And what do you think their marijuana policy is?

William Burroughs: All political movements are basically anti-creative — since a political movement is a form of war. “There’s no place for impractical dreamers around here,” that’s what they always say. “Your writing activities will be directed, kindly stop horsing around.” “As for the smoking of marijuana, it is the exploitation for the workers.” Both favor alcohol and are against pot.

Gregory Corso: I feel capitol punishment is dooming U.S.A.

William Burroughs: I’m against Capitol Punishment in all forms, and I have written many pamphlets on this subject in the manner of Swift’s Modest Proposal pamphlet incorporated into Naked Lunch; these pamphlets have marked Naked Lunch as an obscene book. Most all methods of capitol punishment are designed to inflict the maximum of humiliation — not attempts to prevent suicide.

Allen Ginsberg: What advice do you have for American youth who are drawn to political action out of sympathy for the American revolution?

William Burroughs: “I wouldn’t be in your position” — old saw. If there is any political move that I would advocate it would be an alliance between America and Red China, if they’d have us.

Gregory Corso: What about the Arab peoples — how are they faring?

William Burroughs: They’re stuck back thousands of years and they think they’re going to get out with a TV set.

Gregory Corso: What about the Negros, will they make it — not only the ones in the South, but everywhere?

William Burroughs: Biologically speaking the Afro-Asiatic block is in the ascendancy — always remember that both Negro and White are minority groups — the largest race is the Mongoloid group. In the event of atomic war there is a tremendous biological advantage in the so-called undeveloped areas that have a high birth rate and high death rate because, man, they can plow under those mutations. The country with a low birth rate and low death rate will be hardest hit — and so the poor may indeed inherit the earth, because they’re healthier.

Allen Ginsberg: What do you think of White Supremacy?

William Burroughs: The essence of White Supremacy is this: they are people who want to keep things as they are. That their children’s children’s children might be a different color is something very alarming to them — in short they are committed to the maintenance of the static image. The attempt to maintain a static image, even if it’s a good image, just won’t work.

Gregory Corso: Do you think Americans want and could fight the next war with the same fire and fervency as they did in World War II?

William Burroughs: Undoubtedly, yes — because they remember what a soft time they had in the last one — they sat on their ass.

According to Maynard & Miles, this is the first published interview with William Burroughs. It appeared in the 1961 issue of Journal for the Protection of All Beings, a periodical edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and published by City Lights Books in San Francisco. (Maynard & Miles E1)

This electronic edition is a mirror of a text that used to be available at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Transcribed by Flesh in 1992. Proofread and corrected to match the text in Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs.

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Comments Total: 1
Robert V. Burke
Feb 27 2009
1:28 pm

First off: one typo in last paragraph of first day: fell s/b feel

Would be interesting to get Ferlinghetti response to Burroughs assertions vis a vis the ‘realities’ of today.

In a similar vein of Anslinger’s aphorisms – “You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother” – Burroughs too uses vague illogic i.e. “Tell the truth once and for all and shut up forever” my, my such impertinent impatience…

The irony is not missed, the sarcastic irony of let them eat succulent infants, the Matrixian rage agains the machine, forever our angst, and the attempt at oraclian wisdom is faulty too…after all the Arabs watched the collapse of the Twin Towers on their TV sets…

Still, the point is not missed one iota. The enslavement of man’s consciousness by corporate greed, this insidious obiquitous virus!

But let us be clear on terms to set the meaning of words behind the words – after all that is the color he was shooting for!

From Nisargadatta Maharaj in “I Am That”

Questioner: As I can make out, you give distinct meanings to the words ‘mind’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘awareness’.

Maharaj: Look at it this way. The mind produces thoughts ceaselessly, even when you do not look at them. When you know what is going on in your mind, you call it consciousness. This is your waking state—your consciousness shifts from sensation to sensation, from perception to perception, from idea to idea, in endless succession. Then comes awareness, the direct insight into the whole of consciousness, the totality of the mind. The mind is like a river, flowing ceaselessly in the bed of the body; you identify yourself for a moment with some particular ripple and call it: ‘my thought’. All you are conscious of is your mind; awareness is the cognizance of consciousness as a whole.

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