Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Love? What is it? The most natural painkiller what there is. — William S. Burroughs, July 30, 1997
I find these last written words of William Burroughs particularly painful. It is as if upon looking death in the face Burroughs could only respond with the sentiments of a Hallmark card. I know that this is unfair and even cruel of me and I do not like feeling this way but I do. By many accounts, Burroughs’ later years were ones of great comfort. They were times of peace for a man who searched restlessly and painfully both within himself and around the world for decades.
So why begrudge a man I love and respect this final moment? Maybe it is because I do not truly love Burroughs the man at all. For all my study of Burroughs, I do not and will never know him. There is a saying that one should never meet their heroes. I never met Burroughs personally and when I was at an age when one feels compelled to make pilgrimages and sit at the feet of gurus, I never thought, as many did and acted upon in the 1980s and 90s, of making the trek to Lawrence. What I cherished and yearned to get closer to then and now was the writing of Burroughs. That is one reason I became a Burroughs collector. Shaking hands with Burroughs and looking him in the eye was less desirable than possessing all of his writing. Burroughs’ last lines seem a betrayal and renunciation of all those works I love so dearly.
I am not suggesting that Burroughs was incapable of love. Personally I am conflicted about Burroughs’ ability to express love, particularly in his role as a father, but even at my most cynical I do not consider him reptilian. Neither am I championing Burroughs the misogynist or misanthrope. In The Job, Burroughs states, “I think love is a virus. I think love is a con put down by the female sex. I don’t think that it’s a solution to anything.” By no means would it have been any more satisfying if these had been Burroughs’ last lines on the threshold of death. I prefer neither this cold, distant Burroughs nor the overly sentimental one.
The Burroughs of the initial “trilogy”, Queer, The Yage Letters, and Naked Lunch, was neither cold nor overly sentimental. In an April 22, 1954 letter to Jack Kerouac, Burroughs writes, “You must remonstrate with [Ginsberg]. I didn’t expect him to act like this (not a line in four months), and I didn’t expect I would feel so deeply hurt if he did. That is a rather confused sentence and I think contains some sort of contradiction. What I mean is I did not think I was hooked on him like this. The withdrawal symptoms are worse than the Marker habit. One letter would fix me. So make it your business, if you are a real friend, to see that he writes me a fix. I am incapacitated. Can’t write. Can’t take interest in anything.” Burroughs’ letters of the 1950s are full of such lines. Far from being “the most natural painkiller,” love is the source and cause of pain. As Oliver Harris demonstrates in The Secret of Fascination, such love (for Lewis Marker or Allen Ginsberg) is also the impetus of his writing. But let’s clarify, it is not love attained, but the search for love, love thwarted, and connections missed that drive Burroughs to write.
Burroughs seems incapacitated, but out of such situations of pure desperation come his greatest works. Love and writing are painful, yet their pursuit is Burroughs’ reason for living. On the other hand, love as painkiller is the expression of a man anesthetized and muted, a man already dead being surrounded and celebrated by loved ones. Burroughs’ concept of love and his writing grew sentimental. The Cat Inside and Ruski come to mind. The fierce obsession in Queer becomes a series of love letters to his cats. Burroughs escapes the pain and the ecstasy of human relationships, like the one with Marker, for the comforting, constant, doting love between a man and his pets. Despite Burroughs’ best efforts, the writing in these books is as soft as a feline’s fur and reading it is as soothing as caressing it. Queer and Naked Lunch tore Burroughs up inside during the act of writing, just as Tiger Terry met his fate. Burroughs’ later writing lacks bite and the ability to grab the reader. Burroughs at his best explodes your consciousness, not calms it.
So why do I care if Burroughs redefined love at the end of his life and found a form of “domestic bliss” in Lawrence? Because his later writing betrayed the pursuit of desire or paradise to become a domestic relationship with the Ugly Spirit, a relationship designed to soothe and heal. The act of writing, like love, became a painkiller, a means to forget, to desensitize. The introduction to Queer is just such writing. Burroughs quotes from an abandoned draft, “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 difficult to read, let alone to write about. Every word and gesture sets the teeth on edge.”
Burroughs goes on to state that the pain derives from the death of Joan. He concludes, “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.” As Harris has shown in The Secret of Fascination, Burroughs is obscuring another deeper source of pain — his love for Lewis Marker. To deflect attention from the obsession with Marker, Burroughs places guilt from the shooting of Joan. Here Burroughs writes myth as a means to ease guilt and to escape pain. This is the writing of a man who manufactures memories to order. (Interestingly, Burroughs’ final three major novels, particularly The Western Lands, also explore myth in the face of death — writing as escape from death.) As a result, he betrays his love for Marker and cheapens the death of Joan. This is the danger of love and writing as painkiller.
Again such a view of love betrays the source of Burroughs’ power as a writer. Writing for Burroughs was a “lifelong struggle” not a womb-like existence protected from pain and passion. Burroughs feels “fortunate to escape” his past, a “poisoned river.” This is one reason why Evil River, the long advertised and long awaited memoir of Burroughs, was never truly written. Burroughs would have had to jump into his past and face it directly, not escape from it. It is only through such baptism that great writing is born. Burroughs’ writing is at its finest when it immerses itself in and causes pain, ecstasy, and delirium, not when it acts as an escape leading to numbed contentment. Burroughs’ later writing is a form of Methadone, writing as maintenance program. Great writing is not an escape, but an exploration of, and a facing unto, death. I think of Annie Liebowitz’s haunting photograph of the late Burroughs. Here we see Burroughs not just facing death but becoming the very image of the Angel of Death. One thinks of Johnny Cash singing “Hurt” in order to find a similar expression of pain and passion on the brink. This is the final image of the man who wrote routines to Marker and Ginsberg.
In the Introduction to Queer, Burroughs also writes, “I have constrained myself to escape death.” The above are the words of a writer with nothing to say, a man constraining pain, fear, ecstasy, delirium, obsession, and passion out of his life. The words of a dead man. Burroughs final words on love similarly are an epitaph. Coupled with the lines from Queer they are more than that, they are a suicide note. Burroughs died from complications of a heart attack on August, 2, 1997.
Read further installments in The Visible Man: A Coffee Table Zine of Photographs of William S. Burroughs