Introduction from QueerTags: Joan Vollmer, Mexico, Queer, Texts by Burroughs, William Burroughs
William S. Burroughs
When I lived in Mexico City at the end of the 1940s, it was a city of one million people, with clear sparkling air and the sky that special shade of blue that goes so well with circling vultures, blood and sand–the raw menacing pitiless Mexican blue. I liked Mexico City from the first day of my first visit there. In 1949, it was a cheap place to live, with a large foreign colony, fabulous whorehouses and restaurants, cockfights and bullfights, and every conceivable diversion. A single man could live well there for two dollars a day. My New Orleans case for heroin and marijuana possession looked so unpromising that I decided not to show up for the court date, and I rented an apartment in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City.
I knew that under the statute of limitations I could not return to the United States for five years, so I applied for Mexican citizenship and enrolled in some courses in Mayan and Mexican archaeology at Mexico City College. The G.I. Bill paid for my books and tuition, and a seventy-five-dollar-per-month living allowance. I thought I might go into farming, or perhaps open a bar on the American border.
The City appealed to me. The slum areas compared favorably with anything in Asia for sheer filth and poverty. People would shit all over the street, then lie down and sleep in it with the flies crawling in and out of their mouths. Entrepreneurs, not infrequently lepers, built fires on street corners and cooked up hideous, stinking, nameless messes of food, which they dispensed to passersby. Drunks slept right on the sidewalks of the main drag, and no cops bothered them. It seemed to me that everyone in Mexico had mastered the art of minding his own business. If a man wanted to wear a monocle or carry a cane, he did not hesitate to do it, and no one gave him a second glance. Boys and young men walked down the street arm in arm and no one paid them any mind. It wasn’t that people didn’t care what others thought; it simply would not occur to a Mexican to expect criticism from a stranger, nor to criticize the behavior of others.
Mexico was basically an Oriental culture that reflected two thousand years of disease and poverty and degradation and stupidity and slavery and brutality and psychic and physical terrorism. It was sinister and gloomy and chaotic, with the special chaos of a dream. No Mexican really knew any other Mexican, and when a Mexican killed someone (which happened often), it was usually his best friend. Anyone who felt like it carried a gun, and I read of several occasions where drunken cops, shooting at the habitués of a bar, were themselves shot by armed civilians. As authority figures, Mexican cops ranked with streetcar conductors.
All officials were corruptible, income tax was very low, and medical treatment was extremely reasonable, because the doctors advertised and cut their prices. You could get a clap cured for $2.40, or buy the penicillin and shoot it yourself. There were no regulations curtailing self-medication, and needles and syringes could be bought anywhere. This was in the time of Alemá¡n, when the mordida was king, and a pyramid of bribes reached from the cop on the beat up to the Presidente. Mexico City was also the murder capital of the world, with the highest per-capita homicide rate. I remember newspaper stories every day, like these:
A campesino is in from the country, waiting for a bus: linen pants, sandals made from a tire, a wide sombrero, a machete at his belt. Another man is also waiting, dressed in a suit, looking at his wrist watch, muttering angrily. The campesino whips out his machete and cuts the man’s head clean off. He later told police: “He was giving me looks muy feo and finally I could not contain myself.” Obviously the man was annoyed because the bus was late, and was looking down the road for the bus, when the campesino misinterpreted his action, and the next thing a head rolls in the gutter, grimacing horribly and showing gold teeth.
Two campesinos are sitting disconsolate by the roadside. They have no money for breakfast. But look: a boy leading several goats. One campesino picks up a rock and bashes the boy’s brains out. They take the goats to the nearest village and sell them. They are eating breakfast when they are apprehended by the police.
A man lives in a little house. A stranger asks him how to find the road for Ayahuasca. “Ah, this way, señor.” He is leading the man around and around: “The road is right here.” Suddenly he realizes he hasn’t any idea where the road is, and why should he be bothered? So he picks up a rock and kills his tormentor.
Campesinos took their toll with rock and machete. More murderous were the politicians and off-duty cops, each with his .45 automatic. One learned to hit the deck. Here is another actual story: A gun-toting politico hears his girl is cheating, meeting someone in this cocktail lounge. Some American kid just happens in and sits next to her, when the macho bursts in: “¡CHINGOA!” Hauls out his .45 and blasts the kid right off his bar stool. They drag the body outside and down the street a ways. When the cops arrive, the bartender shrugs and mops his bloody bar, and says only: “Malos, esos muchachos!” (“Those bad boys!”)
Every country has its own special Shits, like the Southern law-man counting his Nigger notches, and the sneering Mexican macho is certainly up there when it comes to sheer ugliness. And many of the Mexican middle class are about as awful as any bourgeoisie in the world. I remember that in Mexico the narcotic scripts were bright yellow, like a thousand-dollar bill, or a dishonorable discharge from the Army. One time Old Dave and I tried to fill such a script, which he had obtained quite legitimately from the Mexican government. The first pharmacist we hit jerked back snarling from such a sight: “¡No prestamos servicio a los viciosos!” (“We do not serve dope fiends!”)
From one farmacìa to another we walked, getting sicker with every step: “No, señor. . . .” We must have walked for miles.
“Never been in this neighborhood before.”
“Well, let’s try one more.”
Finally we entered a tiny hole-in-the-wall farmacìa. I pulled out the receta, and a gray-haired lady smiled at me. The pharmacist looked at the script, and said, “Two minutes, señor.”
We sat down to wait. There were geraniums in the window. A small boy brought me a glass of water, and a cat rubbed against my leg. After awhile the pharmacist returned with our morphine.
Outside, the neighborhood now seemed enchanted: Little farmacìas in a market, crates and stalls outside, a pulquerìa on the corner. Kiosks selling fried grasshoppers and peppermint candy black with flies. Boys in from the country in spotless white linen and rope sandals, with faces of burnished copper and fierce innocent black eyes, like exotic animals, of a dazzling sexless beauty. Here is a boy with sharp features and black skin, smelling of vanilla, a gardenia behind his ear. Yes, you found a Johnson, but you waded through Shitville to find him. You always do. Just when you think the earth is exclusively populated by Shits, you meet a Johnson.
One day there was a knock on my door at eight in the morning. I went to the door in my pyjamas, and there was an inspector from Immigration.
“Get your clothes on. You’re under arrest.” It seemed the woman next door had turned in a long report on my drunk and disorderly behavior, and also there was something wrong with my papers and where was the Mexican wife I was supposed to have? The Immigration officers were all set to throw me in jail to await deportation as an undesirable alien. Of course, everything could be straightened out with some money, but my interviewer was the head of the deporting department and he wouldn’t go for peanuts. I finally had to get up off of two hundred dollars. As I walked home from the Immigration Office, I imagined what I might have had to pay if I had really had an investment in Mexico City.
I thought of the constant problems the three American owners of the Ship Ahoy encountered. The cops came in all the time for a mordida, and then came the sanitary inspectors, then more cops trying to get something on the joint so they could take a real bite. They took the waiter downtown and beat the shit out of him. They wanted to know where was Kelly’s body stashed? How many women been raped in the joint? Who brought in the weed? And so on. Kelly was an American hipster who had been shot in the Ship Ahoy six months before, had recovered, and was now in the U.S. Army. No woman was ever raped there, and no one ever smoked weed there. By now I had entirely abandoned my plans to open a bar in Mexico.
An addict has little regard for his image. He wears the dirtiest, shabbiest clothes, and feels no need to call attention to himself. During my period of addiction in Tangiers, I was known as “El Hombre Invisible,” The Invisible Man. This disintegration of self-image often results in an indiscriminate image hunger. Billie Holliday said she knew she was off junk when she stopped watching TV. In my first novel, Junky, the protagonist “Lee” comes across as integrated and self-contained, sure of himself and where he is going. In Queer he is disintegrated, desperately in need of contact, completely unsure of himself and of his purpose.
The difference of course is simple: Lee on junk is covered, protected and also severely limited. Not only does junk short-circuit the sex drive, it also blunts emotional reactions to the vanishing point, depending on the dosage. Looking back over the action of Queer, that hallucinated month of acute withdrawal takes on a hellish glow of menace and evil drifting out of neon-lit cocktail bars, the ugly violence, the .45 always just under the surface. On junk I was insulated, didn’t drink, didn’t go out much, just shot up and waited for the next shot.
When the cover is removed, everything that has been held in check by junk spills out. The withdrawing addict is subject to the emotional excesses of a child or an adolescent, regardless of his actual age. And the sex drive returns in full force. Men of sixty experience wet dreams and spontaneous orgasms (an extremely unpleasant experience, agaçant as the French say, putting the teeth on edge). Unless the reader keeps this in mind, the metamorphosis of Lee’s character will appear as inexplicable or psychotic. Also bear in mind that the withdrawal syndrome is self-limiting, lasting no more than a month. And Lee has a phase of excessive drinking, which exacerbates all the worst and most dangerous aspects of the withdrawal sickness: reckless, unseemly, outrageous, maudlin–in a word, appalling–behavior.
After withdrawal, the organism readjusts and stabilizes at a pre-junk level. In the narrative, this stabilization is finally reached during the South American trip. No junk is available, nor any other drug, after the paregoric of Panama. Lee’s drinking has dwindled to several good stiff ones at sundown. Not so different from the Lee of the later Yage Letters, except for the phantom presence of Allerton.
So I had written Junky, and the motivation for that was comparatively simple: to put down in the most accurate and simple terms my experiences as an addict. I was hoping for publication, money, recognition. Kerouac had published The Town and the City at the time I started writing Junky. I remember writing in a letter to him, when his book was published, that money and fame were now assured. As you can see, I knew nothing about the writing business at the time.
My motivations to write Queer were more complex, and are not clear to me at the present time. Why should I wish to chronicle so carefully these extremely painful and unpleasant and lacerating memories? While it was I who wrote Junky, I feel that I was being written in Queer. I was also taking pains to ensure further writing, so as to set the record straight: writing as inoculation. As soon as something is written, it loses the power of surprise, just as a virus loses its advantage when a weakened virus has created alerted antibodies. So I achieved some immunity from further perilous ventures along these lines by writing my experience down.
At the beginning of the Queer manuscript fragment, having returned from the insulation of junk to the land of the living like a frantic inept Lazarus, Lee seems determined to score, in the sexual sense of the word. There is something curiously systematic and unsexual about his quest for a suitable sex object, crossing one prospect after another off a list which seems compiled with ultimate failure in mind. On some very deep level he does not want to succeed, but will go to any length to avoid the realization that he is not really looking for sex contact.
But Allerton was definitely some sort of contact. And what was the contact that Lee was looking for? Seen from here, a very confused concept that had nothing to do with Allerton as a character. While the addict is indifferent to the impression he creates in others, during withdrawal he may feel the compulsive need for an audience, and this is clearly what Lee seeks in Allerton: an audience, the acknowledgement of his performance, which of course is a mask, to cover a shocking disintegration. So he invents a frantic attention-getting format which he calls the Routine: shocking, funny, riveting. “It is an Ancient Mariner, and he stoppeth one of three. . . .”
The performance takes the form of routines: fantasies about Chess Players, the Texas Oilman, Corn Hole Gus’s Used-Slave Lot. In Queer, Lee addresses these routines to an actual audience. Later, as he develops as a writer, the audience becomes internalized. But the same mechanism that produced A.J. and Doctor Benway, the same creative impulse, is dedicated to Allerton, who is forced into the role of approving Muse, in which he feels understandably uncomfortable.
What Lee is looking for is contact or recognition, like a photon emerging from the haze of insubstantiality to leave an indelible recording in Allerton’s consciousness. Failing to find an adequate observer, he is threatened by painful dispersal, like an unobserved photon. Lee does not know that he is already committed to writing, since this is the only way he has of making an indelible record, whether Allerton is inclined to observe or not. Lee is being inexorably pressed into the world of fiction. He has already made the choice between his life and his work.
The manuscript trails off in Puyo, End of the Road town. . . . The search for Yage has failed. The mysterious Doctor Cotter wants only to be rid of his unwelcome guests. He suspects them to be agents of his treacherous partner Gill, intent on stealing his genius work of isolating curare from the composite arrow poison. I heard later that the chemical companies decided simply to buy up the arrow poison in quantity and extract the curare in their American laboratories. The drug was soon synthesized, and is now a standard substance found in many muscle-relaxing preparations. So it would seem that Cotter really had nothing to lose: his efforts were already superseded.
Dead end. And Puyo can serve as a model for the Place of Dead Roads: a dead, meaningless conglomerate of tin-roofed houses under a continual downpour of rain. Shell has pulled out, leaving prefabricated bungalows and rusting machinery behind. And Lee has reached the end of his line, an end implicit in the beginning. He is left with the impact of unbridgeable distances, the defeat and weariness of a long, painful journey made for nothing, wrong turnings, the track lost, a bus waiting in the rain . . . back to Ambato, Quito, Panama, Mexico City.
When I started to write this companion text to Queer, I was paralyzed with a heavy reluctance, a writer’s block like a straitjacket: “I glance at the manuscript of Queer and feel I simply can’t read it. My past was a poisoned river from which one was fortunate to escape, and by which one feels immediately threatened, years after the events recorded. –Painful to an extent I find it difficult to read, let alone to write about. Every word and gesture sets the teeth on edge.” The reason for this reluctance becomes clearer as I force myself to look: the book is motivated and formed by an event which is never mentioned, in fact is carefully avoided: the accidental shooting death of my wife, Joan, in September 1951.
While I was writing The Place of Dead Roads, I felt in spiritual contact with the late English writer Denton Welch, and modelled the novel’s hero, Kim Carson, directly on him. Whole sections came to me as if dictated, like table-tapping. I have written about the fateful morning of Denton’s accident, which left him an invalid for the remainder of his short life. If he had stayed a little longer here, not so long there, he would have missed his appointment with the female motorist who hit his bicycle from behind for no apparent reason. At one point Denton had stopped to have coffee, and looking at the brass hinges on the café’s window shutters, some of them broken, he was hit by a feeling of universal desolation and loss. So every event of that morning is charged with special significance, as if it were underlined. This portentous second sight permeates Welch’s writing: a scone, a cup of tea, an inkwell purchased for a few shillings, become charged with a special and often sinister significance.
I get exactly the same feeling to an almost unbearable degree as I read the manuscript of Queer.
The event towards which Lee feels himself inexorably driven is the death of his wife by his own hand, the knowledge of possession, a dead hand waiting to slip over his like a glove. So a smog of menace and evil rises from the pages, an evil that Lee, knowing and yet not knowing, tries to escape with frantic flights of fantasy: his routines, which set one’s teeth on edge because of the ugly menace just behind or to one side of them, a presence palpable as a haze.
Brion Gysin said to me in Paris: “For ugly spirit shot Joan because . . .” A bit of mediumistic message that was not completed–or was it? It doesn’t need to be completed, if you read it: “ugly spirit shot Joan to be cause,” that is, to maintain a hateful parasitic occupation. My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanations, with their dogmatic insistence that such manifestations must come from within and never, never, never from without. (As if there were some clear-cut difference between inner and outer.) I mean a definite possessing entity. And indeed, the psychological concept might well have been devised by the possessing entities, since nothing is more dangerous to a possessor than being seen as a separate invading creature by the host it has invaded. And for this reason the possessor shows itself only when absolutely necessary.
In 1939, I became interested in Egyptian hieroglyphics and went out to see someone in the Department of Egyptology at the University of Chicago. And something was screaming in my ear: “YOU DONT BELONG HERE!” Yes, the hieroglyphics provided one key to the mechanism of possession. Like a virus, the possessing entity must find a port of entry.
This occasion was my first clear indication of something in my being that was not me, and not under my control. I remember a dream from this period: I worked as an exterminator in Chicago, in the late 1930s, and lived in a rooming house on the near North Side. In the dream I am floating up near the ceiling with a feeling of utter death and despair, and looking down I see my body walking out the door with deadly purpose.
One wonders if Yage could have saved the day by a blinding revelation. I remember a cut-up I made in Paris years later: “Raw peeled winds of hate and mischance blew the shot.” And for years I thought this referred to blowing a shot of junk, when the junk squirts out the side of the syringe or dropper owing to an obstruction. Brion Gysin pointed out the actual meaning: the shot that killed Joan.
I had bought a Scout knife in Quito. It had a metal handle and a curious tarnished old look, like something from a turn-of-the-century junk shop. I can see it in a tray of old knives and rings, with the silver plate flaking off. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon, a few days after I came back to Mexico City, and I decided to have the knife sharpened. The knife-sharpener had a little whistle and a fixed route, and as I walked down the street towards his cart a feeling of loss and sadness that had weighed on me all day so I could hardly breathe intensified to such an extent that I found tears streaming down my face.
“What on earth is wrong?” I wondered.
This heavy depression and a feeling of doom occurs again and again in the text. Lee usually attributes it to his failures with Allerton: “A heavy drag slowed movement and thought. Lee’s face was rigid, his voice toneless.” Allerton has just refused a dinner invitation and left abruptly: “Lee stared at the table, his thoughts slow, as if he were very cold.” (Reading this I am cold and depressed.)
Here is a precognitive dream from Cotter’s shack in Ecuador: “He was standing in front of the Ship Ahoy. The place looked deserted. He could hear someone crying. He saw his little son, and knelt down and took the child in his arms. The sound of crying came closer, a wave of sadness. … He held little Willy close against his chest. A group of people were standing there in Convict suits. Lee wondered what they were doing there and why he was crying.”
I have constrained myself to remember the day of Joan’s death, the overwhelming feeling of doom and loss . . . walking down the street I suddenly found tears streaming down my face. “What is wrong with me?” The small Scout knife with a metal handle, the plating peeling off, a smell of old coins, the knife-sharpener’s whistle. Whatever happened to this knife I never reclaimed?
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.
I have constrained myself to escape death. Denton Welch is almost my face. Smell of old coins. Whatever happened to this knife called Allerton, back to the appalling Margaras Inc. The realization is basic formulated doing? The day of Joan’s doom and loss. Found tears streaming down from Allerton peeling off the same person as a Western shootist. What are you rewriting? A lifelong preoccupation with Control and Virus. Having gained access the virus uses the host’s energy, blood, flesh and bones to make copies of itself. Model of dogmatic insistence never never from without was screaming in my ear, “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!”
A straitjacket notation carefully paralyzed with heavy reluctance. To escape their prewritten lines years after the events recorded. A writers block avoided Joans death. Denton Welch is Kim Carson’s voice through a cloud underlined broken table tapping.
William S. Burroughs, February 1985