Myth

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

William Burroughs in 1960, photograph by Harriet Crowder

An installment in The Visible Man: A Coffee Table Zine of Photographs of William S. Burroughs

Photographs are a key component in the creation of myth. For example, the shots of Burroughs in Paris play on the image of Burroughs as outlaw: a literary experimenter who was mad, bad and dangerous to know. Years ago I wrote about my personal myth of Burroughs: For example. “My Burroughs came in contact with the cut-up through Brion Gysin who discovered the technique while cutting through an article on Burroughs Corporation in Time, while matting paintings in Paris. Burroughs would pursue this enigmatic technique for the rest of his brief literary career.”  

Harriet Crowder captured the essence of my Burroughs in her iconic shots from England in 1960. I am in particular infatuated with the Burroughs who appeared on the cover of the Call Me Burroughs LP as issued by The English Bookshop and later by ESP. This is the epitome of Burroughs in the 1960s; the Burroughs who matters to me, the poet who published in little magazines. This is Burroughs At Large as described in the Morgan bio. The cropping of the photograph on the LP does not do the original photo any favors. Photo manipulation is usually performed to enhance the mythic potential of a photograph. In this case the opposite occurs. The original brilliantly places Burroughs before a black board covered with illegible writing bearing Burroughs’ signature as “B. B.,” which brings to mind the artwork of Cy Twombly or an unknown graffiti artist from the streets of New York City. Likewise my ideal Burroughs wrote unreadable prose poems like the Olympia Press edition of The Soft Machine and cut-up zines like Time, APO-33 and The Dead Star. Cropped or no, the image is iconic and served as the introduction for an entire generation into the mythical world of Burroughs.

William Burroughs in front of the Burroughs Corporation Building in New York City, photograph by Gerard MalangaBy the 1970s, the myth of Burroughs spread like a virus. Gerard Malanga goes meta on Burroughs’s mythic qualities in the rightfully famous pic of Burroughs standing in front of Burroughs Corporation. Kerouac among others perpetuated the cover story that Burroughs was an heir to the Burroughs Corporation fortune. Ultimately that story did not add up, but Malanga captures a truth, which is that Burroughs was a ghost in the corporate machine, especially as the static or noise within the Time-Life image empire. Burroughs in his writing and his persona brings the supposed RealityStudio to a full stop. The photo also suggests Burroughs’ trajectory into the 1980s and 1990s when the image of Burroughs became the logo for outlaw lifestyles and counterculture cool to be manipulated by the likes of Gap and Nike.

That said, Burroughs was not above scripting his own myth. The dark side of this is the Introduction to Queer, which legitimated the idea that the death of Joan led to the birth of Burroughs as a writer. This is black magic; this is PR work that would make Ivy Lee proud. Unfortunately this myth, through the work of David Cronenberg in Naked Lunch and others, has gained wide currency. Strange how the photos of Burroughs and guns proliferated post-1985, post the introduction to Queer. After writing himself a pardon, Burroughs could pursue unchecked his unfortunate infatuation with guns. Again as mentioned all these photos of Burroughs with guns remind us of the photo we will never see: Joan standing with a shot glass on her head. The William Tell Act is the ultimate Burroughs myth. After the Queer Introduction, Burroughs needed a shot of reality. Maybe he should have dug through the archives and revisited the photo of him reading the headlines of a newspaper in Mexico City in the days following the shooting. This image for me captures the moment when Burroughs faces the reality of what he has done. Joan’s death was a fact. It was black and white; not an event to be colored by myth. Is it too much to surmise that Burroughs’ obsession with the cut-up, his project of detourning newspapers and magazines stemmed in part from his experience of reading about the shooting of Joan in a newspaper in 1951?

William Burroughs reading newspaper in Mexican jail after the shooting death of his wife Joan Vollmer

Read further installments in The Visible Man: A Coffee Table Zine of Photographs of William S. Burroughs

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 4 May 2019.

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