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William S. Burroughs Revisited, Mexico City, 2006

Overview of International Burroughs Symposium

By Jorge Cuevas Cid

As announced by RealityStudio, a couple of weeks ago, Mexico City held the first international symposium on the work of William S. Burroughs at UNAM. It was an unprecedented event which I think was timely and desirable for all of Burroughs’ fans; that is, on the one hand there had never been a gathering of international Burroughs scholars before, but on the other hand, due to the increasing production of Burroughs’ critical bibliography it was practically inevitable and even foreseeable that sooner or later a whole week-long conference would be devoted to his work somewhere. So to begin with I would like to thank here all the guests for their support without which the conference wouldn’t have taken place of course; to Dra. Ana Elena González Treviño, head of the Department of English at UNAM for her invaluable backing, and also to RealityStudio for its effective promotion of the event.

Conference AdBurroughs used to say that the purpose of writing is “to make it happen”. A piece of writing would be meaningless as long as it is not realized in our everyday lives. So the question was, “what to do with all the words written about Burroughs by so many different people?” And the answer came, “cut them up and make them happen”. With a couple of exceptions, none of the panellists knew each other apart from through their books and essays on Burroughs, so coming to Mexico literally and magically was like making writing happen; in other words, the conference was the means through which Burroughs’ international scholars and Mexican readers were able to give shape to the mass of ideas we all had about Burroughs and each other and which now have real faces and voices to match.

Because magic and mystery couldn’t be left out in a Burroughs conference, especially if we take into account that it was held in a gloomy and chaotic place like Mexico City, which undoubtedly is still a station of space-time travel. Intersections, synchronicities and surreal visions turned up everywhere the whole week: The Strokes having their after show party in the same hotel where the panellists were lodged; a clerk in a bookshop on Alvaro Obregón who, when asked by British scholar Oliver Harris for a copy of the Spanish version of Naked Lunch, produced it immediately from her handbag like a magician pulling out a rabbit from his hat because, coincidentally, that was the book she was reading at the moment; Mexican hipsters wearing wrestling masks and reading aloud from Anabasis by Saint John Perse on Tacuba street; supporters of Lopez Obrador welcoming Davis Schneiderman to el Templo Mayor in the Zócalo while Jeffrey Miller and Allen Hibbard tried to decipher a Quiché poem; Kath Streip eating Chop Suey on Dolores street (in the same Chinese restaurant frequented by Burroughs); Philip Walsh flying back to Canada the same day that Rob Johnson had planned to take a walk on the wild side of Mexico City to find a bar Kerouac used to visit. . .

But beyond the magical particularities and intersections involved in every guest’s experience of her/his coming to Mexico City, what I would like to share here with you is a very brief summary of the papers prepared by them so you know more about the issues that were discussed at the conference. If you think the summary is not enough, don’t worry; we are planning to publish the papers both in English and Spanish so all of those who are interested in Burroughs criticism may have access to the complete conference.

Image of speakersThe inauguration of the symposium on Monday the 4th was mainly devoted to introducing the guests to Mexican students at UNAM: Allen Hibbard, Davis Schneiderman, Jeffrey Miller, Katharine Streip, Oliver Harris, Philip Walsh and Rob Johnson. We also began with a video and photographic montage about Burroughs that I had put together, and that seemed to go down very well.

We had a rather informal talk that afternoon about Burroughs in the context of American literature. Franklin, Thoreau, Twain, Melville, Eliot, Faulkner and Miller. There are certainly many authors to whom William S. Burroughs can be related, but as it was somehow concluded, Burroughs doesn’t fit at all in any tradition, which surely is one of the distinctive qualities that makes his work unique.

On Tuesday the 5th Philip Walsh talked about a sociological Burroughs. Drawing on Julian Jaynes’ thesis that the human mind was once “bicameral,” Philip posed the question of a fractured or divided self which contemporary societies have unified through consumption (humans as instruments or vessels, in Burroughs’ terminology). He also gave us some interesting comparisons between the figure of the junky as an antiproductivist subject but at the same time as the perfect consumer.

Later on the same evening, Rob talked about the time he spent doing research for his new book The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: The South Texas Beats. Believe it or not, none of Burroughs’ biographers had really explored the period he spent in Pharr, Texas. Rob did it and found some people that he calls the South Texas Beats who knew Kells Elvins and William S. Burroughs as farmers back in the 40s. Rob played a video with an interview with one of the South Texas Beats who was in the apartment where Burroughs shot Joan in Mexico City. According to this man, he and others saw Billy regularly shooting grapefruits from off Joan’s head. This would imply that the now famous William Tell act was not just a spontaneous idea from Burroughs and Joan on the evening of September 6th of 1951 when the accident took place.

On Wednesday the 6th Katharine Streip made her presentation about Burroughs’ cut-up experiments with tape recorders. It was a really helpful paper to understand Burroughs’ radical fragmentation which, like many other avant-garde experiments, is often labelled as “unreadable”. Among other things, she remarked Burroughs awareness that reproduction technologies could make sense of what in a piece of paper was seemingly senseless. She also stressed the function of cut-ups to destabilize identity, as contemporary media have shown us. At the end of her presentation, Katharine played some of Burroughs’ sound experiments and Matmos’ A Rag for William S. Burroughs to illustrate her paper.

Davis Schneiderman inserted Burroughs in a tradition of “extra-illustrators” of books that goes back to nineteenth century America. One of Davis’ remarkable comments was that for Burroughs what we know as infringement of copyright was, as for Shakespeare, an essential part of his writing. Through a close textual analysis, Davis traced back the origin of some of the material used by Burroughs and Brion Gysin for The Third Mind and other cut ups to explain how the method works in terms of creative writing.

The Thursday the 7th session was opened by Allen Hibbard who presented a paper on William S. Burroughs as a literary saboteur. Allen analysed some of Burroughs’ literary strategies employed in his subversive attempt to retake the universe, ranging from cut-ups to the rewriting, recycling and reproduction of characters, texts and images, such as Hassan i Sabbah, newspapers and classic books and pictures from magazines. He emphasized the ambiguity of Burroughs’ “sabotage,” and proposed some of Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s concepts as helpful critical tools to approach Burroughs as a literary saboteur.

Jeffrey Miller, director of Cadmus Editions, gave testimony of what he termed Burroughs’ commitment to freedom of speech and press. He talked about his experience as editor of Early Routines just after he had published Tom Clark’s The Great Naropa Poetry Wars (1980) and other books in which Allen Ginsberg was severely criticized. Being a long time friend of Allen Ginsberg and sometime contributor to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, Burroughs immediately cancelled the publication of Early Routines by Cadmus, for he didn’t want to be disloyally associated with someone who openly attacked Allen Ginsberg. Jeffrey discussed the subsequent dialogue kept between him and Burroughs that would lead to the latter’s consent to have Early Routines published by Cadmus as a proof of his commitment to freedom of speech and press.

Oliver Harris was in charge of closing the symposium with a talk on what he called Burroughs’ Mexican Triptych: Junky, Queer and Yage. Since the publication of Queer in 1985 much has been said as to the role of Mexico in the development of Burroughs’ writing. We all know Burroughs’ claim that it was only after killing his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, that he became a writer. Nevertheless, and as Oliver himself shows in his book William S. Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination, Burroughs’ career as a writer had begun some time before Joan’s death. Drawing on some of the material from the forthcoming book “Everything Lost”: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs, Oliver revealed Burroughs’ plan for a completely different arrangement of his early manuscripts, one far more based around Mexico City. He also revaluated the importance of Mexico for Burroughs. He concluded that Mexico was indeed important for him but not as the country where he found his destiny as an artist but as the place where he could start writing, free of what he called the “American drag”.

Finally, on Friday the 8th we had an epilogue to the conference in a café very close to the place where Burroughs lived in la colonia Roma. Davis Schneiderman read some of his Burroughs inspired work Multifesto: A Henri d’ Mescan Reader and other texts; and we also spent a very good time listening to some Jazz music performed by a couple of Mexican musicians (“The Band With No Name”).

Although I am probably not the right person to judge the achievements of this first international symposium on the work of William S. Burroughs, for I was the organizer and my point of view is obviously limited to my subjectivity, I will dare to say that it was a real success. And I think so not only because we had a great audience throughout the whole of the conference but also and mainly because I can see now that the guests’ enthusiasm for Burroughs is starting to flourish among some of my classmates at UNAM who, let me mention it here, are now seriously considering reading or re-reading Burroughs — which I think is definitely the best reward for the speakers and the best tribute we all can give to William S. Burroughs.

Published September 2006. Congratulations and many thanks to Jorge Cuevas Cid. See also Davis Schniedermann’s overview of the conference, “Mexico City Return.”

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