Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reflections on Burroughs

This is essential Burroughs.  He delineates a "shit" from a mere "son of a bitch."

What is it that draws me to the writing of William Burroughs?  After all, there are a good many passages in Naked Lunch that force the color from my face and make me quite uneasy.  As the video clip attests to, that's fairly typical for Burroughs.  So why do I keep coming back for more?  I devoted a bit of mental bandwidth to that question today and came up with a few reasons.

For one thing, his "cut-up" method fascinates me.  While Dadaists first manufactured the method for art, it was Burroughs who brought it to literature.  I don't like linking people to Wikipedia, but there are instances where the site provides a definition for something in a far more concise and accurate way than I could.  So without further ado:
"The cut-up and the closely associated fold-in are the two main techniques:
  • Cut-up is performed by taking a finished and fully linear text and cutting it in pieces with a few or single words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged into a new text.
  • Fold-in is the technique of taking two sheets of linear text (with the same linespacing), folding each sheet in half vertically and combining with the other, then reading across the resulting page."
 I think that all writers do this to one degree or another.  We cut up what we see and consume, then paste together all the tiny shards that shine most for us in our eyes, thereby creating something new out of the old.  We hope.  As Bono says, "Every artist is a cannibal.  Every poet is a thief."  No surprise that Burroughs was an influence on U2 and even made a cameo appearance for their video "Last Night On Earth."  He also was an influence on Bowie and Duran Duran's "Wild Boys" comes from a Burroughs book of the same name.  But I digress...
I plan to study cut-ups more in my academic research.

There is also his mastery of the pure craft of hooking words together.  People raised on a steady diet of TV sitcoms and Hollywood pap no doubt would deride Burroughs' prose as being "plotless" and "nonsensical."  To say that is to miss the point.  Sometimes one needs to simply let art wash over them.  The cadence, the rhythm and flow of his phrases and sentences, it's a poetry all its own.  That a book such as Naked Lunch is not linear is irrelevant to its quality.  Breaking down this pre-requisite frees and emboldens the artist within.

Lastly, I'm sure many would call Burroughs crazy.  But I'm beginning to wonder if he wasn't saner than most of us put together.  The world is a surreal, screwed up place that seldom makes sense.  Those very adjectives would probably be applied to the work of Burroughs by his detractors.  
Yet by writing what he did the way that he did, I wonder if he saw the world clearer than most others, even through his drug-induced haze.   

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  1. Your post on WSB was very insightful. I particularly liked your closing: "...I wonder if he saw the world clearer than most others, even through his drug-induced haze." Burroughs was indeed a visionary, gifted with sight into the future. You don't have to be a morally-commendable individual to be able to do that -- just a rare sort of genius. Sort of like Henry Adams, except with drugs.

  2. Thanks for the comment and the compliment, Barry.
    I agree with you. For one to be dismissive of Burroughs because of his moral/immoral actions is like being dismissive of Kerouac for much the same reasons.


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