- The Letters of William Burroughs, 1949-1959 edited by Oliver Harris
Picador, 472 pp, £17.50, August 1993, ISBN 0 330 33074 8
If a certain stoicism was required to get through William Burroughs’s disgusting novel, Naked Lunch, there are fewer problems with his mail. Indeed, the only danger is over-indulgence, for this stuff slides easily off the end of the fork. The letters here were written between 1945 and 1959. They begin with Burroughs at his family home in St Louis, from which he moves smartly through a series of addresses in the US. They continue across four troubled years in Latin America, followed by the celebrated stint in Tangier, which begins in 1954 and ends almost four years later with the manuscript of Naked Lunch in presentable form. The remaining letters are from Paris. Altogether there are more than 180, most of them fascinating. The majority by far are addressed to Allen Ginsberg, who encouraged Burroughs to persist with his writing and brought order to the mass of notes and written ‘routines’ that finished up as Naked Lunch – or The Naked Lunch, as the British edition used to be called.
Many of these routines – experiments with tone, narrative and character – had their origin in the letters. ‘Maybe the real novel is letters to you,’ Burroughs wrote to Ginsberg from Tangier six months after his arrival. Throughout, the letters bear down on ‘Dear Allen’ with touching affection and bludgeoning self-regard. It’s as well, therefore, to read them as a tribute to their recipient, especially since the nature of the collection means that Ginsberg fails, unusually, to get a word in edgeways.
Ginsberg was noisier and altogether more generous than Burroughs. He was a better scholarly bricoleur and indulged a more systematic passion for reading. He attended at length to the careers of other writers besides this troubled figure from a wealthy St Louis family; and like Pound to Eliot, he was at times the better craftsman, though he couldn’t manage Pound’s stentorian vulgarity, even if he sometimes made a stab at it. Nor did his quandaries about masculinity allow much scope for dandyism or machismo: that was left to Burroughs, whose stylish impersonation of an embalmed body brought back to life as an embalmer made him a darling of the refusés (mainly in absentia, his favourite haunt) and, by the Seventies, of orthodox salons too. Everywhere, his appearances had a mannered post-humous quality. In the most sinister photos, he seems to be standing with one foot squarely planted on the neck of posterity.
This camp deadpan, evident despite the bravura of the letters, was not Ginsberg’s style at all. Burroughs’s correspondent would eventually become a generous, open-hearted queen, but, like Whitman, a republican too, which put the crown and most gay livery comfortably out of bounds. Meanwhile, Ginsberg still aspired to heterosexuality and was encouraged to do so by his analyst (or ‘Doc friend’, as Burroughs has it). Burroughs, who was briefly involved with Ginsberg in 1953, saw his friend’s confusion as a narrow consequence of envy. ‘Can you imagine a man in a lifeboat getting envious because somebody somewhere is drinking champagne?’ he asks in a spiky missive from Mexico City, in 1951.
No, because he knows where he is. All envy is based on the proposition, ‘I could be getting that’ ... I am acquainted with the drawbacks of being queer. Better acquainted than you. Like you say, it ‘multiplies problems’. But here is the point. My boy in the lifeboat knows he is not in a good place. But knowing what a bad spot he is in will not get him somewhere else. So the point is not how dissatisfied you are with being queer. The point is do you get everything you want in the way of sex from a woman?
It is clear from this, and many of the other letters, that Burroughs is a man for a point: not just the needle, the male member and the firearm but that brusque assertion of the ‘central issue’ which is common to all chancers, from the software salesman to the politician. Throughout the letters and much of the work, Burroughs is making a point, or scoring one (‘better acquainted than you’), or asking someone else to get to one, or getting off one himself when it doesn’t suit him – whence, eventually, the recourse to ‘cut-up’, a pop-literary transposition of collage, announced to Ginsberg with crankish hush-hush in the last letter of the volume: ‘I have a new method of writing and do not want to publish anything that has not been inspected and processed. I cannot explain this method to you until you have necessary training.’
Yet Burroughs the pseudo-scientist is merely one figure in a repertoire which includes Burroughs the creaking, agonised addict, the gun enthusiast, the conman, wise guy, lecher, poète maudit and even the hectoring parody of the gentleman from Porlock, who shows up on the dot at Ginsberg’s door to interrupt his swooning congress with the East. ‘A man who uses Buddhism or any other instrument to remove love from his being in order to avoid suffering, has committed, in my mind, a sacrilege comparable to castration,’ Burroughs writes from Tangier in 1954. ‘You were given the power to love in order to use it, no matter what pain it may cause you. Buddhism frequently amounts to a form of psychic junk ... I may add that I have seen nothing from those California Vedantists but a lot of horse shit, and I denounce them without cavil, as a pack of pathetic frauds.’ Often, the injunctions to kick this or that habit seem to be an aspect of Burroughs’s own cure.
The letters also supply evidence of the will-power that enabled Burroughs to indulge a drug habit to the very edge and then, when all seemed lost, to clamber back to the land of the living via renunciation or substitution. On cocaine, April 1954: ‘Before you can clean the needle, the pleasure dims.’ On Eukodol, the following month: ‘Yesterday I stole some clothes from other boarder, sneaked out and bought some Eukodol ampules and glutted myself.’ And again, in June: ‘From taking so many shots I have an open sore where I can slide the needle right into a vein. The sore stays open like a red, festering mouth.’ On trying to get off Demerol, just over a year later: ‘I probably would have made it except I came down with an excruciatingly painful neuralgia in the back. I thought I had kidney stones. I never experienced such pain. After that awful cure, it is really heartbreaking to find myself hooked again.’
There is a dreadful glamour about these ordeals and, not surprisingly, his triumph over the most dangerous opiates in 1956 – which he managed with a course at Yerbury Dent’s clinic in London, aided by a loan from his parents – allowed him to speak with a persuasive moral authority in his preface to Naked Lunch. It also gave him a new lease of life (‘since the cure I been sexy as an 18-year-old and healthy as a rat.’). The deathmask, however, remained in place. Over the years its lineaments grew more pronounced and came, as they did so, to represent a commendable stint in the wilderness. For most of the Fifties, Burroughs had been a stylite – his pillar, of course, was the needle.
These years of madness in Tangier, steeped in vices of one kind or another, are diligently rehearsed in the letters. So is the question of money. The St Louis Burroughses acquired their wealth from the famous Burroughs Adding Machine and the family remained prosperous even after mismanaging their stock. Burroughs had a thoroughgoing problem with money. He confronted it head on. Whatever he could beg, borrow or inherit was – until the turning point in 1956 – stuffed straight into his bloodstream with brutal profligacy. There was a ‘point’ to this. Burroughs was killing off the money in his system as fast as the money was killing him. From this business-like incorporation comes the coveted legacy of poverty and squalor from which a reborn Burroughs makes sense of himself as a writer.
To Jack Kerouac from Tangier (February 1955): ‘Last month I ran out of money and was 36 hours without food or junk, and sold my typewriter.’ An earlier letter to Ginsberg says, simply, that the typewriter is out of action. The important thing, perhaps, is that the means of production should be in jeopardy and, with it, the producer:
What a disaster to lose my typewriter, and no possibility of buying one this month. My financial position slides inexorably. I started off this month in debt and in hock until I absolutely couldn’t have promoted another centavo. I am afraid to count – will do that Monday morning, – but I think I have $60 left. That’s $2 per day for this month. Wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t need junk. I spend $2 a day on junk alone.
The same letter contains a brief reminder of the other burden that remained with Burroughs throughout the Tangier period and beyond: the legendary death of his wife, Joan Vollmer, a little more than three years before.
I read interesting case. 1. England. 2. naval Lieutenants. Good friends. Drinking. One hits a shot glass every time at six feet with his pistol. The other picks up a hat and holds it in his hand, and says ‘shoot it.’ The Lieutenant shot a hole in it. Later on the 2nd party puts the hat on his head and says, ‘Now try it.’ Then, at a distance of six feet, the Lt in the first part takes careful aim at the very top of the hat and fires (there were witnesses) hitting his friend in the head.
In September 1951 Burroughs had played much the same game in Mexico, waiting for a prospective buyer for one of his guns. Ginsberg’s ‘Doc friend’ would probably have said that he decided to kill his wife, and that the placing of a glass of water on her head was an incidental detail. Burroughs, however, called it a ‘William Tell act’. It was a clinical success or a ghastly failure, depending on one’s point of view. ‘I am amazed,’ Burroughs announces to Ginsberg, on finishing the story of the two lieutenants, ‘by exact similarities. I am quite a good shot and accustomed to handle guns. I aimed carefully at distance of 6 feet for the very top of the glass.’
Joan Vollmer intrudes wittily on a letter from her husband to Ginsberg five months before her death. In it Burroughs is once again berating Ginsberg for his struggle with homosexuality and, to make the point, draws on his own experience. ‘Do you actually think that laying a woman makes some one heter? I have been laying women for the past 15 years and haven’t heard any complaints from women either.’ Joan adds an asterisk and a rather generous note at the bottom of the letter: ‘Correct!’ Burroughs goes on: ‘Laying one woman or a thousand merely emphasises the fact that a woman is not what I want. Better than nothing, of course, like a tortilla is better than no food. But no matter how many tortillas I eat, I still want a steak.’ Joan appends another footnote: ‘Around the 20th of the month, things get a bit tight and he lives on tortillas.’ She signs off her additions: ‘Joan (In pencil, so the old boy can erase it if he sees fit.)’ Burroughs, of course, contrived to go one better.
Throughout the period in Tangier, the living drift among the dead. We see a fair amount of Paul Bowles ‘that shameless faker’ – a view later revised – and his ‘dungaree-wearing Lizzie wife’, Jane, whose own arrangement was the mirror-image of Burroughs’s with Joan. There is also Auden’s secretary Alan Ansen, who gets no credit here for working on the Naked Lunch manuscript with Ginsberg. Auden himself is briskly invoked (‘Auden say I am a genius too’) and Ambrose Silk from Put Out More Flags steps forward, in the form of Brian Howard, into the glare of the chemist’s counter to buy drugs (‘It was me introduced him to dollies’). Finally there is the mainstay ‘boy’, Kiki (‘My boy just left, and I can now write with the philosophic serenity of an empty scrotum’), later murdered in Madrid by a jealous lover. ‘Seems the frantic old fruit found Kiki with a girl and stabbed him in heart with a kitchen knife.’ That was a few months before Howard did away with himself.
One of the prevailing tones struck in the letters is that of the bad egg, hard-boiled. It is most obvious when Burroughs acts the no-nonsense traveller. On ‘the Arabs’, he excels. The persona here is Tintin in an undertaker’s suit, with Snowy as a low-slung Steely Dan; as usual, the voice – half dog, all master – doesn’t add up:
I go to bed with an Arab in European clothes. Several days later in the rain ... I meet an Arab in native dress, and we repair to a Turkish bath. Now I am almost (but not quite) sure it is the same Arab. In any case I have not seen No 1 again. When I walk down the street, Arabs I never see before greet me in a manner suggesting unspeakable familiarity (in past or future?). I told one of these Arabs, ‘Look, I don’t like you and I don’t know you. Scram.’ He just laughed and said: ‘I see you later, Mister.’ And I did in fact go to bed with him later, or at least I think it was the same one ... I really don’t know for sure. Next time I’ll notch one of his ears.
With Europeans, the bad-mouthing is more in earnest. On an unspecified European snob ‘who says Americans are barbarians’ and with whom Burroughs has some equally unspecified business arrangement: ‘Now he suddenly sees he isn’t going to get any more money, and how that continental charm goes up in smoke.’ In the same letter (Tangier, April 1954, to Kerouac): ‘Believe me, I have learned a lot about the Old World in the last few months and none of it is good ... Why should we stand around in awe of these chiselling bums simply because they are supposed to represent “culture”?’
There can be few Americans, however ‘anti-American’, to whom such (sensible) thoughts have not occurred and this particular routine, which might be called ‘Henry James at the End of the Fork’, leads us in turn to think about Burroughs’s own relationship with America and the success be has made of it. The monstrous and unreadable nature of much of the fiction, the careful management of the revolt and the rationed nightmare of exile have returned him, with profit, to the great plains of American orthodoxy: home at last with honours to a nation of yawning Penelopes. He is nowadays mostly approved of and even the dismissals are a kind of homage. Pottering around his white woodframe house in Kansas and dressing, according to his biographer Barry Miles, from the L.L. Bean catalogue, Burroughs is nowadays a sedate American figure: an oddball reactionary, a gun handler, a bit of an anti-semite, a sentimentalist – he says of his cats that ‘they just opened up a whole area of compassion in me’ – and, crucially, an American male who dispatched the American woman at a stroke.
As far as mind and metabolism go, Burroughs is the party who stuck his head under the wheels of a freight tram or got flushed out of a jumbo jet toilet and lived, in a manner of speaking, to tell the tale. His endurance can be seen as superhuman or animal, but scarcely human. What general object it served, beyond Being Bill Burroughs, is not clear. In the last letter of the volume, making yet another of his points, he seems to hazard a one-line teleology: ‘In this game the point is to lose what you have, and not wind up with someone else’s rusty load of continuity.’ That, like many of the things he says, is good and memorable, yet one remains in doubt whether he ever really understood the purpose of his ghastly stamina – which puts him squarely in the animal camp, if not with the circus act. As for his fellow creatures, they are to be found not in the entomologist’s nightmare, as David Cronenberg would have it, but in the homestead paradigm of the old American TV series. Burroughs belongs, along with Lassie and Champion the Wonder Horse, in a dignified menagerie of beasts who have performed incredible feats with only an inkling of what they were about.
He has something of their loyalty as well. On the whole, he has stood morosely by his own shortcomings, while snapping bravely at the heels of those who deride his books. Rich or not so rich, he has kept a keenly aristocratic distaste for materialism and a contempt for corporate America. His mortuary humour has remained intact. (Paranoia, he said when he was living behind a series of locked doors on the Bowery ten years ago, is ‘having all the facts’.) He has been prepared occasionally, on issues like El Salvador, to speak up for the dispossessed – although what upset him most in the TV news clips was the pitiful state of the FMLN’s small arms.
The rest is largely a case of standing things on their heads. Burroughs has played the shaman to more than one tribe and managed, in the role of healer, to help a few of them on the road to ruin. Most readers of Naked Lunch would probably agree that they got ill while he got better – which is one way to interpret Dr Benway’s magnificent remark in the early part of the novel: ‘Want to cure anybody of anything, find out who doesn’t have it.’ Over the years, Burroughs has also done away with some rather helpful distinctions between craving and satisfaction, boredom and terror, pleasure and aversion. It has always been hard to tell whether he is the survivor standing on his own grave, or the dead man under his shoes. With Naked Lunch reissued in Britain this year[*] and another volume of letters threatened, there is every reason to keep the long spoons polished.
[*] Flamingo Modern Classics, HarperCollins, 201 pp., £5.99, 12 July, 0 586 80560 2.