(Interview with William Burroughs and David Cronenberg, reprinted from Esquire, February 1992, pp 112-116.)
by Lynn Snowden
Deep in Kansas, darkly dressed, William S. Burroughs, a man who shot his wife in the head and waged war against a lifetime of guilt, who has sucked up every drug imaginable and survived, and who has made a fine career out of depravity, can’t on this particular afternoon take another moment of a simple midwestern housefly buzzing around his head. “I can’t stand flies,” grumbles the seventy-seven-year-old author in that distinctively sepulchral voice, which retains a vestige of his St. Louis roots despite his many years on another planet. The fly swoops down onto Burroughs’s plate of cookies. “Terrible,” Burroughs exclaims, exasperated, attempting to backhand the fly into oblivion.
“William, that’s my pet fly!” cries David Cronenberg, a man who may love insects but not necessarily people, the director who is perhaps best known for turning Jeff Goldblum from scientist into bug in the 1986 remake of The Fly.
“Now, Julius, I told you not to bother people,” Cronenberg commands the fly. “Not everyone likes flies.”
Not everyone likes giant meat-eating Brazilian aquatic centipedes either, but they’re featured prominently in Cronenberg’s current film of Burroughs’s chilling masterpiece of a novel, Naked Lunch. Now that the movie is in the can and Burroughs is out of the hospital after having undergone triple-bypass heart surgery, Cronenberg has showed up in Lawrence, Kansas, Burroughs’s hometown of the last ten years, to pay his respects to the laconic sage. With two examples of evil incarnate wandering around town at the same time, Lawrence suddenly seems like a haven for drug-crazed refugees escaping the Interzone, the fictional horrorscape of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.
In the Interzone, we are told, “nothing is true, and everything is permitted.” In Lawrence, however, not nearly so much is permitted, but if everything I’ve heard about William Burroughs and David Cronenberg is true, then the next couple of days will severely test my capacity for revulsion. Burroughs’s books, for example, are phantasmagorias of buggered boys, bloody syringes, talking assholes, and vaginal teeth. The old gun-toting geezer himself has been referred to as “a green-skinned reptilian” by no less an authority on manhood than Robert Bly.
“Well, I don’t think you’ll find him to be that bad,” said Cronenberg, the forty-eight-year-old Canadian director who has known Burroughs for seven years. Of course, this is David Cronenberg talking, the creator of such lyrical films as Scanners (exploding heads), Dead Ringers (gynecological horror), and Videodrome (sadomasochistic public-access TV), who last night giggled while telling me, “I would like it if you could say that I was the embodiment of absolute evil.”
But with both Cronenberg and Burroughs in the same town, let alone the same room, and with so many disgusting, revolting visions between them, how’s a woman to choose? No, perhaps it is better to simply enumerate their revulsions, because if William Burroughs and David Cronenberg are aghast at something, then the odds are the rest of us will be a little queasy, too.
Revulsion No. 1: Shooting Joan
In 1951 Burroughs was living in Mexico City with his wife, Joan, and young son, Billy Jr., after a heroin and marijuana possession charge against him back in the States had been dropped. One September afternoon, Burroughs and his wife dropped by to see an acquaintance and a few other friends who had gathered to enjoy some drinks. Burroughs was packing a Star .380 automatic. At one point in the festivities, he said to his wife, who was sitting in a chair across the room, “I guess it’s about time for our William Tell act.” They’d never performed a William Tell act in their lives, but Joan, who was drinking heavily and undergoing withdrawal from a heavy amphetamine habit, and who had lived with Burroughs for five years, was game. She placed a highball glass on top of her head. Burroughs, known to be a good shot, was sitting about six feet away. His explanation for missing was not that his aim was off, but that this gun shot low. The bullet struck Joan in the head. She died almost immediately.
The judge in Mexico believed the shooting to be accidental, as the other people present in the room asserted that this was the case. And so after paying a lawyer $2,000 and serving thirteen days in jail, Burroughs was allowed to post $2,312 and was freed.
Eight years later, Burroughs’s first novel, Naked Lunch, was published. One of the last books in America to be the cause of an obscenity trial, it is a biting, hallucinatory work that Norman Mailer described as having been composed by a genius. But Burroughs might never have written a word of it had he not shot his wife in the head. “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death,” Burroughs has said, “and to the 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.”
This is exactly what the film Naked Lunch is about. It’s not so much a re-creation of the book itself, but a story of how William Lee, played by Peter Weller, came to kill his wife (Judy Davis) and write a novel called Naked Lunch. “It’s Joan’s death,” explains Cronenberg, “that first drives him to create his own environment, his own Interzone. And that keeps driving him. So in a sense, that death is occurring over and over again.” We both look at Burroughs, relaxing in his modest Kansas house, years away from the charged tropical dream of Mexico City. Although the home seems at first glance fit for a preacher, a quick look around reveals a human skull sitting stolidly in a bookcase and a drawing hanging on the wall of Burroughs throwing a knife. Burroughs considers Cronenberg’s theory. How many times has he gone over this same, excruciating terrain? He says only, “That seems quite valid.”
“What caliber of gun was it exactly?” I find myself asking. An abrupt transition, maybe even horrifying, but it’s practically a relief to bring up the grotesque particulars, and indeed, with these two such a query actually seems to lighten the mood.
“A three eighty,” Burroughs shouts out, speaking of the actual event. At the same time, Cronenberg blurts out “a thirty-two!” referring to the movie. It’s a confusion of real life and fiction, not unlike the film itself.
Revulsion No. 2: Cobras, Puffers, and Blue-Spotted Octopuses
Burroughs leads the way into his backyard, using his cane to rustle weeds, flip over likely rocks or boards while I stand poised to grab whatever might slither out. Earlier he’d displayed the cane as proudly as a schoolboy at show-and-tell. Inside it is hidden a sword. “I just had it sharpened,” he said. “Feel that edge!” He reinserted the blade into the cane. “Don’t want it to come apart in the supermarket,” he said.
Now he is stirring at something in the grass with the cane. I ask him what we are likely to turn up.
“Garter snakes,” he says.
At one point in the snake hunt, Cronenberg sees some sort of insect hovering over nearby tall grasses and cups his hands to try and gently catch it. Burroughs waves it away with his cane.
“William, are you interested in insects?” says Cronenberg, mostly for my benefit, a question that causes Burroughs to regard the two of us warily. “Not entirely,” he finally says. After a few minutes of completely addled discussion, Burroughs exclaims, “Oh, insects! I thought you said ‘incest.'”
“The most awful creature to me is the centipede,” he says. A number of them crawl slimily through the movie version of Naked Lunch. “I don’t go into hysterics or anything, but I look around for something to smash it with. I used to live out in the country when I first moved here, and there were a lot of centipedes in the house, and I set out to kill them all. A program of genocide. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, and I’d know there’s a centipede in this room. And there always was. And I couldn’t go to sleep until I killed it.” Although he never hunts mammals and is even somewhat of an animal activist, Burroughs is quite an expert on killing bugs, having once held a job as an exterminator.
“William’s use of insects as metaphors is generally negative,” Cronenberg points out. “When he says someone has insect eyes or an insect voice, it’s not a compliment. Now, in my movie, you can tell I’m a little more well-disposed toward insects, because the typewriters, which are insects, are almost like cats, really. They came about because when I write at night with the light on, insects come and land on the page.” This is clearly a fond memory. “They’re relating to you somehow. People are obsessed in a public way with life on other planets,” he says, a subtle reference to Burroughs, who is so interested in the idea of alien visitation that he has struck up a friendship with Communion author Whitley Strieber. “I’m saying that right here on earth we have the most alien life-forms we’ll find anywhere, and most of them are insects! How they survive and what their life cycles are like is incredible.”
Burroughs is unmoved by this aria for bugs. “Your insect typewriters are kind of fun,” he concedes. But touching bugs in general is not his thing at all. “I hate the touch of spiders,” Burroughs says. “A biology teacher at school had a tarantula, and I couldn’t touch the thing, even though tarantula bites are not dangerous. The most deadly spider is the funnel web spider of Australia.” This leads to the two trying to one-up each other on ghoulish facts of nature.
“There’s a spider in Virginia called a brown recluse,” says Cronenberg. “And when you’re bitten, the tissue just starts to deteriorate and spread. It’s very dangerous.”
“Brown recluse!” says Burroughs as we continue our stroll through the yard. “There are cases of people who have these huge lesions down to the bone. I’d much rather be bitten by a black widow. They make you desperately sick, but at least it’s not deadly for a healthy adult.” As long as we’re on the subject, I ask them to choose the best method of death in the animal kingdom.
“Well, you’d want it to be quick,” says Cronenberg, “and as painless as possible. So, what, a Gaboon viper?”
“I wouldn’t choose a viper at all. Any of the vipers are apt to be painful, they have both hemo- and neurotoxins. Cobras have neurotoxins.” Burroughs indicates that this is preferable. Cronenberg shakes his head.
“Cobras are not very good at getting it into your bloodstream,” he says. “They don’t have injector fangs.” His hand mimics a snake repeatedly biting his other arm. “They actually chew, and dribble it into the cut.”
“They have plenty to dribble, believe me,” says Burroughs. At this point, I’ve stopped looking for snakes. “With the blue-spotted octopus, people are usually unconscious.”
“That sounds good,” says Cronenberg, beaming.
“It’s a tiny little thing only about that big. No one’s ever survived it. DOA in one hour. Puffer fish have the same venom, and it’s also used to make zombies. The flesh of a puffer fish is supposed to be an aphrodisiac and a gourmet sensation, but one tiny part of the liver, one milligram… There are several accidents a year.”
“Well, that’s the obvious choice then,” says Cronenberg. “Strangely enough, we have puffer fish in our movie. Hanging there in one shot.”
As long as we have death by nature settled, I ask them by which weapon they would choose to die. “I don’t think about dying by a weapon,” Burroughs says as we walk back to the house. “I think about killing someone else with a weapon!”
“I guess that’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist,” says Cronenberg with a giggle.
Revulsion No. 3: Sucking on Mugwumps
The film that would showcase addicts hooked on insecticide, lizardlike aliens known as mugwumps who suckle humans on mugwump jism, and Roy Scheider, had its genesis when the director and the writer met in 1984 at Burroughs’s seventieth birthday party in New York City. Cronenberg visited Burroughs a few times in Kansas, discussing how to approach their project. “I wanted William’s blessing, because basically, there was nothing he could do for me, I had to do it myself” Cronenberg finally wrote the script in 1989. “I sent it [to Burroughs] to see what his reaction would be. He hated it and threatened to sue.” Burroughs smiles indulgently. He actually liked the script, but a Japanese backer pulled out after reading a translation of the screenplay. “It could have been something as simple as talking assholes,” says Cronenberg with a shrug.
For years there have been other attempts to get Burroughs’s books, including the notorious Junky, to the screen. Among the people rumored to star in earlier incarnations of Naked Lunch were Mick Jagger, Dennis Hopper (who also wanted to direct), Jack Nicholson, and David Bowie. Chuck “The Gong Show” Barris wanted to produce; Terry Southern was supposed to write the screenplay. While these projects fell through, Naked Lunch had nevertheless penetrated the public consciousness in one way or another long before now.
“One of the problems I had when I said, ‘Okay, how am I going to do this movie,'” says Cronenberg, “was that a lot of the book, and Burroughs’s writing in general, has been absorbed into the culture.”
Indeed, he has revealed that when he wrote his first commercial horror film, They Came from Within, his favorite book was Naked Lunch.
Originally released in 1975 in Canada as Shivers, the film concerns a venereal parasite that infests an apartment complex, causing some rather grisly deaths. Burroughs has lately been credited for graphically predicting in Naked Lunch what is now known as AIDS, when he wrote of a venereal disease that would originate in Africa and afflict homosexuals. “Males,” he wrote, “who resign themselves up for passive intercourse to infected partners like weak and soon-to-be purple-assed baboons, may also nourish a little stranger.” Cronenberg in his own right earned the title of “King of Venereal Horror.”
“It’s a limited kingdom,” Cronenberg says with a proud smile, “but it’s mine. One of the reasons Burroughs excited me when I read him was that I recognized my own imagery in his work,” he says. “It sounds only defensive to say, ‘I was already thinking of a virus when I read that!’ But there is a recognition factor. That’s why I think you start to feel like you’re vibrating in harmony with someone else. It’s the recognition, not that they introduced you to something that was completely unthought of by you.
“Here’s my conceit,” says Cronenberg. “Burroughs and I have been fused in the same telepod together,” he says, referring to The Fly, where Jeff Goldblum and a housefly are fused at the molecular genetic level. “And what you’ve got now is the Brundlething, which is my and his version of Naked Lunch. It’s a fusion of the two of us, and it really is something that neither one of us would have done alone. Now I don’t know which of us is the fly and which is human.”
Revulsion No. 4: Jerry Lewis
There’s not much in this world left to horrify William Burroughs, but being told at the same meal that he, Cronenberg, and Jerry Lewis have each been elected members of the French order of Arts and Letter is nearly enough to send him on another heroin jag. “We need to vote him out, then!” shouts Burroughs.
“Yeah, we can all get together and expel him from the order,” says Cronenberg, “because everyone always says, ‘Yeah, but so is Jerry Lewis.’ It’s an embarrassment to the order. And what about this: Jerry Lewis’s movies are dubbed in France, and no one ever heard his real voice. When the guy who always dubbed his movies died, the next three movies of Jerry Lewis bombed in France because it was the wrong voice! So it isn’t even the real voice they’re responding to!” They both shake their heads.
“And,” Burroughs adds disdainfully, “they loooove Damon Runyon over there. Now, good God!”
Revulsion No. 5: Yage Till You Puke
It’s been half a day and no one has taken a hit of anything stronger than the vodka and Coke Burroughs is nursing. These days, at seventy-seven and post-triple bypass, Burroughs is taking a break from the opiates. The conversation, however, is free to range where Burroughs no longer does. It takes a brave man to try and trade drug stories toe-to-toe with William Burroughs, and Cronenberg makes only a perfunctory attempt. “I tried opium once, in Turkey, and there I felt like I had a hideous flu, you know? It was like I was sick.”
“You probably were! It can be very nauseating. You had just taken more than you could assimilate.”
“I did take LSD once,” Cronenberg responds. “It was a great trip. It was a very revealing experience to me, because I had intuited that what we consider to be reality, is just a construct of our senses. It shows you, in no uncertain terms, that there are any number of realities that you could live, and you could change them and control them. It’s very real, the effects it left.”
Burroughs nods patronizingly, although he was more of an opiate man. “Yes. I’ve taken LSD, psilocybin, mescaline. My experiences with yage were” — he thinks of the South American medicine-man drug mixture that caused him to puke violently, suffer seizures, and almost die — “mixed, but on the whole, good.”
Talk then shifts to over-the-counter drugs one could abuse, which included the availability of codeine in Canada, opium cold-and-flu tablets in France, and “in England,” says Burroughs, “they used to sell Dr. Brown’s Chlorodine. It was morphine, opium, and chloroform. I used to boil out the chloroform.”
“I was chloroformed once,” says Cronenberg, “as a kid, when they took out my tonsils. I still remember what happened when they put this mask over my face. I saw rockets shooting. Streamers of flame, rockets…. I can still see it. And that sickly smell.” He makes a face. After discussing insects, gunshot wounds, and snake bites all day, we’re finally onto something that can gross out Cronenberg.
“I hate general anesthesia,” says Burroughs. “Scares the hell out me. I had to have it when they did the bypass, but I knew where I was. I knew I was in the hospital having an operation, and there was this gas coming into my face like a gray fog. When I cracked my hip, they put a pin in with a local. A spinal. Of course, it ran out and I started screaming.”
“I was in a motorcycle accident where I separated my shoulder,” says Cronenberg. “They took me into the operating room and gave me a shot of Demerol.”
“Demerol,” says Burroughs, brightening a bit. “Did it help?”
“I loved it. It was wonderful.”
“It helps. I had a shot of morphine up here somewhere,” he says, pointing to the top of his shoulder near his neck, “from my bypass operation. She said, ‘This is morphine.’ And I said, ‘Fine!’ ” Burroughs drags out the word in a sigh of bliss. He closes his eyes in an expression of rapt anticipation. “Shoot it in, my dear, shoot it in.” I ask Burroughs if the doctors and nurses at the hospital knew who he was. “Certainly,” he drawls. “The doctor wrote on my chart ‘Give Mr. Burroughs as much morphine as he wants.’ ”
Revulsion No. 6: Possession by Demons
There’s no question that in one way or another both men are absolutely possessed, but only one of them believes in evil as an actual presence, in fact, in demons themselves. “I would have to say yes, evil exists, definitely,” says Burroughs. “I’m very interested in the whole matter of possession and exorcism.” He’s said in the past that he felt that the dark presence that possessed him on the day he shot his wife has never left him. “I asked myself,” he goes on, “why do these demons have such necessity to possess, and why are they so reluctant to leave? The answer is, that’s the only way they can get out of hell — it’s sort of like junk. They possess somebody and they want to hang onto it because that’s their ticket out of hell.”
“Do you believe in a literal hell” asks Cronenberg somewhat incredulously. He is, as he puts it, “not just an atheist, but a total nonbeliever.”
“Certainly,” says Burroughs, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. As to the existence of a literal heaven, Burroughs says “Heaven is the absence of hell.” Earlier in the day he had remarked that pleasure was the absence of pain and that pleasure in morphine lies in the absence of the pain of withdrawal.
Revulsion No. 7: The Horror of Female Genitalia
Mary McCarthy once wrote a review comparing Burroughs to Jonathan Swift because of, among other things, their shared “horror of female genitalia.” It was a phrase that naturally came to mind as I watched some of Cronenberg’s films. “I’m interested in the aesthetics of revulsion,” Cronenberg explains. “I’m showing not only female genitalia but the equivalence of male genitalia also, insects and diseases, gooey icky stuff, and I’m saying — or as I had Elliot Mantle [in Dead Ringers] say — We are so unintegrated, we have not yet developed an aesthetic for the insides of our bodies. It’s my attempt to say, What is ugly and what is repulsive?”
Burroughs is looking tired this evening. In this, his era of clean-living, it’s his habit to turn in early. He sees Cronenberg and me out and as we drive back to Cronenberg’s hotel, we see Burroughs, frail and courtly, waving from the front porch. In his suite, Cronenberg continues his defense. “I find the whole idea of revulsion quite strange, actually,” he says. “I could easily imagine a human species where revulsion was not a response to anything. It’s a specifically human thing. Does your dog have that response?” he asks.
And in which scene, Cronenberg wants to know, does he actually show a horror of female genitalia? I point to Videodrome when James Woods looks on in fear as he grows an enormous vaginalike slit in his abdomen. “He seems to like it!” Cronenberg laughs. “It’s almost like he’s proud of it and happy to have it!” Yeah, and then he loses a gun in it? Isn’t that highly symbolic of a well-known male fear? “Well, I’ve known some women who thought they lost their Tampax and were just as freaked out as anybody else.”
He tells a story from the making of Videodrome, when Woods is forced to spend days with rubber appliances glued to his chest to attain the previously mentioned orifice. “And he turns to Debbie Harry and says, ‘When I first got on this picture, I was an actor. Now I feel like I’m just the bearer of the slit.’ And she said, ‘Now you know what it feels like.’ So I’m forcing him to be the bearer of the slit! Reality is what he perceives it to be.”
Cronenberg is becoming increasingly unnerved by the topic. His rebuttals grow more animated. His chief concern is that his art might be seen to reflect his life. “If you buy into an autobiographical thing between the filmmaker and a character that he portrays, you then make it impossible for an artist to create characters that are literally not him,” pleads Cronenberg. “Martin Scorsese was terrified to meet me! He expected to meet a guy who was like Renfield from Dracula, a drooling maniac.” Scorsese, he points out, would be dismayed if anyone thought he was Travis Bickle. “I found it hard to believe that the guy who made Taxi Driver would be afraid to meet me. And that someone in the business himself could still fall prey to the same things that I’m ranting and raving about right now.
“What can I say! It’s not true that I have a fear of female genitalia! But how can I prove it without getting into very personal stuff? What level are we talking about, I mean… in the dark, with women…” He’s referring now not to his movies, it seems, but to himself. Here Cronenberg adopts the skeptical tone of a documentary film voice-over. “Does Cronenberg have this horror of female genitalia or doesn’t he?”
If my take on Cronenberg’s films is accurate, perhaps we’ve arrived at the last outrage: female genitalia. Oh, the horror!
But narrowing this particular revulsion to include only women may be too limiting. Given the progression of revulsions we’ve discussed, I realize that there’s something worse, something in Burroughs’s estimation that is even more horrible, the final atrocity: humanity. Just a few hours before, Cronenberg, trying to prompt Burroughs for my benefit, had said, “I once asked William about women. He said something that is in the script, about how it’s conceivable that men and women are different species, and they have different wills and purposes on earth. I think it’s a very interesting proposition.”
Burroughs sat silently on the couch as his theories were recounted, then nervously cleared his throat. “Valerie Solanis” — the woman who shot Andy Warhol — “in her manifesto, gets around to the position that females are almost as bad as males. And that’s much closer to my position, where it’s all a bad idea. Male and female. You know, let’s just call the whole thing off.” I looked at Cronenberg, whose intrigued expression seemed to indicate that he suspected Burroughs might be onto something.
And perhaps, in some perverse, exhilarating way, he may well be. It’s a character-building march, that icy trek from misogyny to misanthropy. After all, there’s something a little too parochial, too narrow-minded, about hating only one gender. How much better, really, to be disgusted by us all!
This electronic edition is a mirror of the text that used to be available at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and S Press Media. O.C.R. by Dr. Rat, I.C.R. Laboratories Inc. 1992. Proofread and corrected.