William Burroughs and the William Tell Legend

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

Last week I had an email conversation with my friend Charles Talkoff about my Burroughs and Heroin piece. As a result of our discussion, he felt compelled to look more deeply into the shooting of Joan Vollmer. Charles posed me a Zen koan of sorts: “After Burroughs shot Joan in the forehead and the apple fell to the ground, what did Burroughs do with the apple? I like to think he ate it.” After reading James Grauerholz’s investigation into the shooting, Charles realized that Burroughs attempted to shoot a whiskey glass, not an apple as in the legend of William Tell.

Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs in La PrensaI was immediately fascinated by this misreading of the event. As far as I know, nobody has taken into consideration the fact that Burroughs and Vollmer had a recurring William Tell act, as suggested by Rob Johnson in his book on Burroughs in Texas. This may have been a real-life routine for them, which eventually had disastrous consequences. What does this routine mean? Does the legend of William Tell tell us anything about the elusive why, the motive, of that fateful night? Why not approach the incident like a Burroughsian routine stage-played as a crime scene and see what results? Burroughs certainly did as his speculative account in the Introduction to Queer (1985) makes clear. Throughout his life, Burroughs played loose with this pivotal event, going so far in his Paris Review interview (1965) as to state that there was no William Tell aspect to the shooting. Why did Burroughs choose to omit this detail? Clearly it was reckless and embarrassing — “insane,” as he called it. But does Burroughs’ selective memory reveal a reluctance to admit a hidden truth?

Maybe there is a smoking gun in the symbolic meaning of the William Tell legend itself. William Tell was a renowned marksman with a crossbow who lived in what is now Switzerland. The people of the area were being pressured by the Austrian empire, which was seeking to extend its power. Hermann Gessler, the Austrian figurehead, erected a pole in the town square and placed his hat on top of it. Gessler ordered all the locals to bow before the hat in an act of submission. Tell walked by the hat and refused to bow. He was quickly arrested and, by way of punishment, sentenced to shoot an apple off his son’s head with an arrow. If he completed the task, Tell would be pardoned. Tell successfully split the apple and won his freedom. Gessler asked Tell why he had a second arrow, and Tell responded that he would have shot Gessler if he had killed his own son. Tell was once again arrested, but he escaped in a storm and later killed Gessler with his crossbow. Tell went on to lead a Swiss rebellion against the Hapsburgs. As years passed, he became a legend.

William S. Burroughs JrWhat might this tale tell us about William Burroughs? On a personal level, I am greatly interested that at the heart of the Tell story is the archteypal relationship of a father and son. Here the father/son bond is tested by an ordeal, and the ordeal ultimately reinforces that bond. With Burroughs it was the opposite: in shooting and killing Joan, Burroughs severed his bond with his son. Billy writes, “Had it been sublime to be born in time, hospital halls unknown, mother soon to be blown from the face of the earth, a bullet hole in her head, father pale, hand shaking as he lit the wad of cotton in the back of a little toy boat in a Mexico City fountain. The boat made crazy circles as the poplar trees trembled, and our separate fates lay sundered, he to opium and fame, bearing guilt and shame. And I, the shattered son of Naked Lunch, to golden beaches and promises of success.” At various times in his life, Billy claimed to be present at the shooting. Grauerholz turned up no evidence to support this belief. A tenuous father-son relationship could never survive this crime although Billy was already doomed by another shooting. His parents’ consumption of drugs — even while Joan was pregnant — may have cursed Billy from birth. It was as though each needle William Burroughs stuck into his fibrous wooden flesh was an act of voodoo on his son, an example and a genetic path to be followed.

What about Julie, the forgotten daughter, who was orphaned by the incident? She is the Philomela of the Beat Generation. As in the Greek myth, Julie witnessed an act of evil and was raped of her childhood. She chose to cut out her tongue, to remain silent about the experience she endured. Refusing to enter into discussion with scholars or interviewers such as Ted Morgan, she remains in self-imposed exile with her story. In the myth, Philomela turned into a nightingale, singing her sad song in the dead of night. Conversely, Billy went cuckoo, driven mad by what he experienced, turning into a stool pigeon eager to sing, to anybody who would listen, about the crimes of his father. Billy was quite vocal and critical of his Beat parents, which included not just Joan and Bill, but also Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Case in point was his exposé of life with father published in the September 1971 issue of Esquire. Yet Billy did not have to say a word in this regard. His failing liver and his numerous scars bore witness to what he had seen and endured.

To a certain extent, Joan was the third who walked beside Bill and Billy, always there yet not often acknowledged directly. In an April 7, 1976 letter to his father, Billy wrote: “I’ve been thinking more and more about our mother. Who was that woman? Do you know? Can you point me in the way of some family research?” Bill did not respond to the question until over a month later. “Mother,” Burroughs wrote, “was an extremely enigmatic character and so was Mote for that matter. They never fitted into the Wasp structure. I think that research into Mother’s ancestors would turn up witches, healers, and dowsers.” I was startled to realize that Burroughs and Billy were talking about Laura Lee Burroughs. Joan was unspeakable, yet in describing Laura and Mote, Burroughs could very well be speaking of himself and Joan.

As Billy approached death, his feelings regarding his mother grew stronger, particularly after his liver transplant. His donor was a woman, and Billy felt intimately in touch with the feminine. Not surprisingly his indictments of his father’s actions grew more numerous and passionate. In an undated letter (possibly a draft never sent), which internally addresses “Ladies + Gentlemen,” as to a jury, Billy writes, “Did you answer a four-year old child whose Mother you had just murdered when he asked, ‘Where are you going?’ And I have news for you, pal, two things, as far as you and I are concerned, you have signed my death warrant. For a well-known ‘perceptive’ man you have got to be the blindest mother going.” Such letters provide a painful footnote to Burroughs’ letters to Ginsberg and Marker from the 1950s. Burroughs becomes the impassive, unresponsive one; his son the one desperate for contact. Even without such accusations, Billy was a weight on the Beat conscience. Once that weight was lifted by Billy’s death, Burroughs was able to write a sort of cover story in the introduction to Queer, positioning the shooting as the birth of a writer rather than the death of a mother and child.

Joan Vollmer Burroughs in New York, 1944, Photograph by Allen GinsbergJoan’s willingness to engage in the William Tell routine might be viewed as a death wish, but it could also be regarded as an act of faith in her husband. Like Tell, Burroughs was an excellent marksman. If certain accounts are to be believed, Joan had played this game before and lived to tell the tale. As in the case of father and son, this game was a test of faith, a vote of confidence, and an act of trust. Is it too much to view Joan and Bill’s William Tell act as a perverse vow in a shotgun wedding? Even for those close to the couple, their relationship was a mystery. Hal Chase described it in terms of “a power struggle” and a “struggle” of “life-and-death.” As my friend Charles pointed out, this struggle and the shooting can be read on a Freudian level too. For example, Burroughs went to get his knives sharpened right before the incident. In addition, Joan was known to challenge Burroughs’ prowess with a pistol and may have done so that night, provoking the William Tell act. Joan’s challenge to Burroughs would have been particularly embarrassing given that Lewis Marker was in the room.

What is clear to me is that Joan’s shooting was the culmination of a struggle between Joan and Bill, man and woman. Burroughs played and replayed the incident in his mind and in his fiction for the rest of his life. I am thinking of the late work, The Black Rider, or Cities of the Red Night, in which Burroughs writes:

Juan has asked me many questions relative to my trade as a gunsmith. Would it be possible to shoot arrows from a gun? I replied that it would and suddenly saw a picture of Indians attacking a settlement with arrows tipped in burning pitch. I cannot recall where I saw this picture before, probably in Boston. As the picture flashed through my mind Juan nodded and smiled and walked away. His twin sister has the manner and directness of a man, with none of the coy enticing ways usually found in her sex. In any case female blandishments would here fall on barren soil. Yet I must confess myself more attracted to her than to any woman I have yet seen.

As this passage suggests, the William Tell incident and his relationship with Joan (was it intellectual, familial, sexual?) clearly confused and fascinated Burroughs. In a letter to Ginsberg on February 7, 1954, Burroughs states his interest early on in writing about the shooting, but he remained reluctant for decades. His relationship with Joan was “more complex, more basic, and more horrible” than many of those interested in Burroughs suspect.

My friend Charles mistakenly believed that Burroughs attempted to shoot an apple off of Joan’s head. He is not the only one. Even those close to the event, such as Allen Ginsberg, initially felt a piece of fruit, most likely an apple, was involved. In his Esquire piece, Billy suggested an apricot, a grape, and even himself. Of course the apple was implied (since in all versions of the legend, it was an apple that Tell shot off his son’s head). What can we make of this? Well, throughout history the apple has symbolized female sexuality and the feminine self. Such symbolism suggests a reading that, in shooting Joan, Burroughs ended an experiment with matrimony, heterosexuality, and domesticity. The shooting allowed Burroughs to pursue other relationships, such as that with Marker, and to roam the globe free of his wife and family. In fact the shooting made such mobility mandatory given that he was in danger of being jailed in Mexico, particularly after his lawyer shot a man in a dispute in the street.

William S. Burroughs after the Shooting of Joan VollmerShould we attempt to view Burroughs’ crime against his old lady as an existential declaration of freedom, his actions when faced with his punishment would reveal his hypocrisy. Soon after the shooting, Burroughs’ family relationships saved him. Bribes financed by the legacy of his name secured Burroughs’ freedom. Far from fleeing into the territories, Burroughs returned to his mother’s bosom (and pocketbook) for protection and solace. He became more dependent on his parents than ever.

This is an interesting reading, but I prefer one that also incorporates the “shot” glass as well as the implied apple. Most famously the apple represents knowledge, often the knowledge of evil or sin. In failing to hit the glass, Burroughs, in fact, took a bite out of the apple. He became intimately involved with evil, sin, and guilt. He was fallen and damned. Burroughs made this association himself, most notably in the introduction to Queer. For example, the Ugly Spirit is not only Control but sin and evil. Yet the Ugly Spirit also suggests the shot glass — “spirit” as alcohol. To put a spin on Charles’ question, what did Burroughs do with the whiskey glass after the shooting? He drank from it. What was in the glass? A bitter liquor derived from the apple: forbidden knowledge, evil, sin. On the one hand, this alcohol intoxicates and inspires hallucinations, a derangement of the senses. On the other hand, it also grants forgetfulness. Alcohol allows one to cope, to sleep.

Writing also has this dual nature. It is a mnemonic device, an act of communication, a form of personal expression. Yet it is also an act of deception, a concealing, and a misunderstanding. Writing is always a mis-reading, mis-translating, mis-remembering of thought and experience. Perhaps the routine functions in the same way that Maurice Blanchot describes the récit in the Ease of Dying: “The récit reveals, but in revealing conceals, a secret, to be more exact, it carries it.” The novel too is a lie, a fiction, even if it contains essential truths. Blanchot:

The novel could thus be said to be the most striking product of bad faith in language, if this succeeds in constituting a world of untruth in which it is so possible to put one’s faith that even its author finds himself reduced to naught by dint of believing in it; and if at the same time it makes of the untruth of this world the element of emptiness in which, finally, there comes into view the meaning of what is most true.

In the introduction to Queer, Burroughs described how the death of Joan was tied to the Ugly Spirit. “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.” Coming from Gysin, a notorious misogynist, it is not surprising that possession by the Ugly Spirit may have been preferable to another “hateful parasitic occupation” that was Burroughs’ marriage and nuclear family life. And yet Burroughs, like Tell, carried a second arrow in his quiver. Unable, despite his guilt, to turn the gun on himself, Burroughs dedicated his writing, particularly in the cut-up period, to authorial suicide and the death of the author.

William S. Burroughs JrBut did Burroughs possess the stomach for even this symbolic sacrifice? Let’s allow Billy the last word. In the same undated letter I quoted earlier, Billy writes, “[G]od – you are blind. Keep pulling words out of hats. It seems that will keep you fed and well known and let it be known that I have borne the suffering for you. When you do pay it won’t be in cash. Third Mind will have words by you, in fact — the wordBaloney all the way. You know it and I know it — don’t worry, I won’t live long enough to expose you as the Coca-Cola machine you write about. But if I do, I will.” Billy refers to the birth of the cut-up by Tristan Tzara in “pulling words out of hats.” In the William Tell legend, the hat is the symbol of authority. Billy exposes the fact that Burroughs’ writing, far from combating authority and control, actually derives from them and is part of the corporate order.

This is particularly true of The Third Mind. That book was originally conceived as an elaborate art book, an archive dedicated to the cut-up technique. But this dream was too expensive to be realized in the late 1960s. In 1978, Burroughs sold out the cut up to corporate publishers by signing a contract with Viking to release a bastardization of the original project. Such a course of action occurred repeatedly in Burroughs’ practice of the technique, for example, in his willingness to pad the Olympia Press Soft Machine‘s Rimbaud-inspired prose-poems with straight narrative and dialogue. Billy reminds us that Burroughs did not hesitate to mortgage the cut-up’s artistic value for a quick buck. For Billy, his father’s life as a writer is based on lies: forgetting Joan’s death and writing for financial gain not to combat Control.

To get indirectly back to Charles’ question, what Burroughs drinks from the “shot” glass is, of course, a shot of vodka and Coca-Cola, Burroughs’ signature cocktail. In taking that shot, Burroughs reveals the signature style of his writing: the nostalgic and the visionary mixed with a splash of commercial experimentalism. Let’s return to Billy’s letter, which is signed “Your cursed from birth offspring.” Billy concludes the body of the letter by writing, “A Long and Interesting Life to You, and You Kan Kount on Joan + I waiting for you when you breathe your last compassionate BREATH!! (fry, fry).” Billy died in 1981 at the age of 33; the same age as Dutch Schultz.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 23 November 2009. Photograph of Joan Vollmer in New York in 1944 by Allen Ginsberg. Photographs of Billy Burroughs from the Burroughs photo collage archive.

14 thoughts on “William Burroughs and the William Tell Legend

  1. An interesting labyrinth of over-lapping ideas, Mr. Birmingham, and a very inspiring method of exploration for all of those.

    I appreciate the depth to which you examine both symbols and semantics in your essay on this difficult, painful and sad topic.

    Also, a very appropriate “23”posting date.

    Very diligent and fine work. Thank you.

  2. Very good, insightful piece that addresses the poignancy, pain and plain pathos of Burroughs’ tragically destroyed family. Very human and moving. Interesting to see Billy talk about exposing his father as the ‘Coca Cola machine you write about,’ clearly bitterly equating his father’s work with that of Laura Lee for Coke in the late 30s/early 40s. This would have stuck in his father’s craw no doubt.

  3. With odd synchronicity last night, a few hours after reading this article, I was flicking through Naked Lunch reading at random, as I like to do. First thing I encountered on P117 of the Restored Text was this para:

    “Switch envelopes in clip clap joint where fraudulent girls put the B on you in favor of the house 666 and there is no health in them clap broads rotten to the apple corer of my unconsummate cock. Who shot Cock Robin?…The sparrow falls to my trustful Webley, and a drop of blood gathers at his beak.”

    After reading this something occurred to me. Cock Robin, the old nursery rhyme, concerns a bird killed by an arrow. The William Tell act concerned using an arrow to shoot an apple from a head. The person here uses a gun in place of an arrow to kill Cock Robin, after a passage of creepy misogyny about how unclean women (admittedly prostitutes in a whorehouse) are. It just occurred to me that it may be another veiled reference in the text to Joan’s death. Just a thought.

  4. Graham,

    Great stuff. check this out

    “House Sparrows have long adapted to human habitations, the records of which are lost in mists of time. They are descendants of Old World Weaver Finches, a family of birds distinguished for their resourceful nest-building ability. House Sparrows are mentioned in Classical Greek mythology where they are associated with Aphrodite. In a famous poem by Catallus, Lesbia’s Sparrow is a symbol of divine and enduring love. Another later story tells of how it was the only bird present throughout the crucifixion of Christ, making it a symbol of fidelity and spiritual connection and echoing its classical Greek association with the beloved. For Christians, the enduring beloved is the saviour, Jesus Christ.”

    Much to mull over here.

  5. The haunted game of skill where the victory can only be decided based on the intention of the archer. The claim of possession by an Ugly Spirit seems to concede the intention, but because it is “possession” it also communicates denial. Denial makes the world go round.

  6. I always thought that William admitted to the dark spirit that gloved his hand that day. I find the idea of denial to be odd. He seemed more to be candid and remorseful, but as one guy in town said to me, he isn’t remorseful enough. I asked, what would be enough. The response was there couldn’t be enough remorse. That William would have to completely change himself and he hadn’t. There was very few people who didn’t have the guts to both have a firm opinion of what and why it happened and to ask or tell him. His life pivoted on that moment. I think he died a bit that day and rose from it. That he found himself without forgiving himself was a remarkable act of living and creation.

  7. Very interesting article. I couldn’t help thinking about Jane Bowles, who ended up conveniently discarded in a sanatarium in Spain while her husband, Paul lived with his boyfriend. Burroughs had great regards for Jane as she reminded him of Joan. (Cronenberg used this observation brilliantly in the film of Naked Lunch). As both Burroughs and Bowles were primarily gay, their ‘beards’ for heterosexual respectibility, ultimately proved a liability and impediment to their homosexual lifestyles once they had left the USA. Does anybody know where Joan Vollmer is buried?

  8. Such an interesting article. After often referring to the incident as an anecdotal tale of stupidity and really bad drinking games, I thought I’d better check the facts..thanks I learnt so much. I’m not convinced writing and families mix that well, and Billy sounds evidence of that. Loved the cock robin reference in a posting, and regarding sparrows they attack their own kind, very nastily. Perhaps that was another echo of the guilt he must have lived with.

  9. There is every reason to suppose the Mexican police–once they
    were aware of Burroughs’ prestigious family background–did a very
    thorough investigation of the incident that included very centrally
    detailed questioning of those in the setting at the time of the shot.
    But where is any basic information from the investigation/s? It is
    highly likely that investigation information was given over to/ requested by?/ American authorities. So, would an FOIA Request adequately formulated and legally pursued, lay hold of any such raw information?

  10. the birthing of trendy modernist misogyny… all cool feminist punks back up this nonsensical validation of woman hatred.

    patti smith is a farce for befriending this fool and his writings.

  11. Billie Holiday once quipped that taking heroin and drinking were nothing more than occupational hazards getting the best of you. I think this incident is something akin to that. People are reading too much into it. Could also be homosexual projection. Getting rid of her to free him up to do his true calling.

  12. I’ve not seen much gunfire but anyone who has would think twice about sending a bullet through a glass in a room with people near enough by to have a sliver slice through their eyes/faces/necks …. That Burroughs did not let the thought of this collateral damage stop him pulling the trigger is puzzling. He must, as must Joan and the others in the room, all have been very very drunk indeed. And if little Billy wasn’t in the room the poor tyke might just as well have been. (Ignoring any stories from years later, if he had been there then the Mexican papers would have added another 24picas to the headline typesizes) ((So how come Ann Charters says he was in her intro to the 2-book edition of Kentucky Ham and Speed? {Overlock 1993} I suppose if she gets the make of gun wrong (she says a Colt 45 but it was a Star 38) then the accuracy of another detail must also be compromised.

  13. Do the rhizome of interpretations was the true killer? A transversal killing of the Third Mind? We should make a cut-up of the article to barely detect the first trace of the assassin truth…just to approach the mystery beyond the Reality Studio of Mind’s Monopoly…

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