Interview with Professor Oliver Harris

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Burroughs Scholar Speaks of Past and Forthcoming Publications

Aside from James Grauerholz, executor of the Burroughs Estate, Oliver Harris may well be the most eminent living scholar of William Burroughs and his works. Senior Lecturer in the Department of American Studies at Keele University in England, Harris first made himself known to admirers of Burroughs as the editor of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959. Research on this tome helped to inspire his important critical book William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination, which emphasizes and delineates the role that letter-writing played in the development of Burroughs’ classic works of the 1950s. More recently, Professor Harris edited Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk” 50th Anniversary Edition.

Having recently finished reading William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination, was anxious to confirm some rumors that Professor Harris is preparing two new volumes: a definitive version of The Yage Letters, to be published next year by City Lights, and a hitherto unpublished work called The Peru Notebook of William Burroughs, which will be released next year by Ohio State University Press. In addition, was curious about the author himself — was fascinated with the scholar fascinated with Burroughs. After all, a man who dedicates his career (if not his life!) to Burroughs is a caricature of every admirer of the author. To be a scholar is to take fandom to the nth power, and in that sense Professor Harris represents the “literary junky” that any fan might become.

Consequently, contacted Professor Harris with some questions about his work on Burroughs. He graciously agreed to consider them, and here is what he had to say.

Oliver Harris:

I’m working on two related Burroughs projects at the moment. The first is a new edition of The Yage Letters for City Lights, which is modeled more or less on my fiftieth-anniversary edition of Junky, which came out in 2003. I’ve done similar archival research, starting with locating all the available original manuscripts, from collections at Columbia, Stanford, Berkeley, Ohio, Kansas, Indiana, etc. From these, I’m producing a new edition free of what textual editors call “manifest errors” (and there are a lot of them), plus documenting all the significant changes that have been made over the years (the book has gone through three editions). Then, since I want to alter the familiar text as little as possible, I’m mainly putting alternative or unused manuscript material into a series of appendixes, together with some really interesting related stuff by both Burroughs and Ginsberg that’s never been published before. Finally, for the Introduction I’ve researched the story of what Burroughs in 1953, and Ginsberg in 1960, did in South America, and the story of how the book actually came to be put together and published by City Lights (it has a long, interesting, and surprisingly complex, tricky, history).

I really enjoy this work, especially the variety of tasks it involves — one day, I’m gathering ethnobotanical information about yage or researching the politics of Ecuador in the 1950s, the next day I’m staring at illegible marks on a manuscript through a microscope — but I’m always aware of the enormous difference between criticism and editing. Of course, there’s still pressure when you write criticism — because I wrote about a million words, it took me ten years to finish off my book The Secret of Fascination — but taking responsibility for making a new edition of a Burroughs book, one that is meant to last for years and be read by thousands of people, well, that’s a different kettle of fish. I remember when I started editing the The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959, thinking what an extraordinary privilege it was, but I realised very quickly that it’s also ridiculously stressful. I agonised over every detail for the new Junky, wondering if I was doing the right thing, knowing quite often there was no clear-cut “right thing.” The only consolation was knowing that I was putting in a lot more effort and expertise than anybody else had before (that’s one thing I’ve learnt, by doing editing work — the brute, at times brutal, contingency of Burroughs’ publications). Anyway, the manuscript for the new Yage Letters has to be finished by the end of May, and City Lights plan to bring it out at the end of the year.

As for the other project, the so-called “Peru Notebook,” this is a manuscript that Ohio bought from Sothebys in 1999 and I’ve been involved with the experts there — Geoff Smith and John Bennett — in transcribing it, which is extraordinarily difficult (in places, the words turn into glyphs and swirls). I don’t use a microscope with an electron filter, but I do have to magnify and play around with the scanned images of the text to decipher it, often letter by letter. Actually, that gag — about the microscope — is germane, because this notebook contains the first draft of the material that ended up as the Epilogue to Queer, you know, the wonderful, sinister, Skip Tracer routine.

Basically, the notebook covers the period when Burroughs was on the way out of Peru in mid-July 1953 — immediately after the experiences described in The Yage Letters — and runs up until his final days in Mexico City, before he returned to the US and met up again with Ginsberg in New York (where they worked together on Yage). There are rough drafts of material that overlaps Yage, material taken from letters, material that, as I said before, overlaps the ending added onto Queer. Much of it is also very personal. I don’t want to sound overly mysterious, but you’ll have to wait until it’s published to find out more about what’s in it. And the publication planned by Ohio State for 2006 should be magnificent — with full-page reproduction of the manuscript in high-resolution facsimile, alongside clear text, and with detailed notes and (if I ever find time to do it) an introduction.

You asked about the Letters volume 2. This is, I suppose, the major disappointment in my Burroughs career (and doesn’t that phrase sound peculiar?). I did sign up with Penguin for a volume to cover the sixties and seventies, but it had to be shelved because — and here I have to be careful to avoid litigation — because a certain party wouldn’t co-operate. It’s on hold indefinitely, which is a real loss because this volume would be entirely different to the first. You’ll know from my critical work that I regard Burroughs’ letter-writing in the 1950s as absolutely central to what he was doing, the secret key to all sorts of things. But everything changed at the end of the decade. On the one hand, his letter-writing stopped being important to his creativity. On the other hand, post-Naked Lunch, Burroughs was now in contact with a whole range of writers and artists and people — no longer just Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac — so that this volume would reveal him as part of a huge cultural field. So you can see the importance of this volume for how Burroughs is understood. Well, as the man himself would have said, a ver (we’ll see)…

Speaking of which, you ask about the fascination of Burroughs — or rather about my fascination with him. Is anyone interested in that? I mean, if you’re reading this, you’re not interested in Oliver Harris, you’re interested in William Burroughs, right? Of course, it’s not really like that because, to start with, there is no “Burroughs.” Although I like to think of myself as doing rigorously material, historical work, in fact, my version of Burroughs is unique to me, as yours is to you. I remember the day he died I did this very strange three-way interview for Australian radio, with Vale [V. Vale of Re/Search — ed.] on the other end from California. Although I knew Vale was essentially interested in Burroughs as a man of ideas, it was still very weird to have this conversation where he ignored absolutely everything I said. I don’t think he was being rude or anything, it was more like he simply couldn’t hear me, couldn’t recognise the Burroughs I was talking about. Anyway, my point is that, although we might identify ourselves as “fellow-Burroughsians,” in fact Burroughs invites many different constructions, or projections, and, to some degree at least, we discover or invent the Burroughs that’s right for us. This then prompts two questions. Firstly, what is it about Burroughs that makes him an object of fascination? And secondly, what do we learn via Burroughs — or rather, via our fascination with Burroughs — about ourselves?

Now, from any objective point of view, I must be under the spell of fascination: I’ve read, studied, and written about Burroughs for over twenty years. I have his pictures on my wall, his books on my shelves, thousands of photocopied manuscript pages of his work in a filing cabinet, and a box of holy Burroughsian relics in my desk-drawer (his letters to me, snapshots of us together, etc.). I know that my style of writing, talking, even thinking, has been influenced — infected? — by his words. And of course, I still find his writing both very, very funny and profoundly disturbing. But actually I don’t think of myself as being fascinated by Burroughs. Rather, it’s as if I’ve become fascinated by fascination itself, by the compulsion to pursue an impossible object of desire (a non-existent yet essential entity to which Jacques Lacan gave the name the objet petit a). From this point of view, fascination is a structural relation, and the “special” object is not special at all, because it could be replaced by another (the same, of course, goes for “love”). The fact that I haven’t replaced Burroughs with, say, Jane Austen, is basically a matter of inertia: especially as an academic, it pays to keep on doing more of what you’ve already done. And what goes professionally goes personally, too — if I wrapped my Burroughs stuff in sheets of lead and sank it to the bottom of the sea, I’d lose the basis to my relation with all sorts of wonderful people, including my closest friend. So, no, I’m not fascinated by Burroughs, just “interested.” Why, I can kick that habit any time I want…

Published January 2005. Many thanks to Oliver Harris.

One thought on “Interview with Professor Oliver Harris

  1. hehe, yup, we’re all hooked and we know it…. :)

    splendid interview, with a true gent and scholar. His work on ‘Letters’ raised my appreciation of Bill and his work by a huge degree. Anything he has to say on Bill, i want to read it.

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