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Posts Tagged ‘William S. Burroughs’

12 NOVEMBER, 2014

William S. Burroughs and Tennessee Williams Talk Writing, Drugs, and Death in 1977

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“Deliberate, conscienceless mendacity, the acceptance of falsehood and hypocrisy, is the most dangerous of all sins.”

Tennessee Williams and William S. Burroughs had a great deal in common: Both were born in St. Louis, within three years of each other, but didn’t meet until, in their late forties, they were introduced at a table in the Cafe de Paris in Tangiers; both revolutionized their respective fields of creative endeavor despite years of dismal commercial prospects and what Williams once described “absolutely merciless ridicule”; both were queer men in an era when this meant secrecy and social disgrace; both were tragic testaments to the relationship between creativity and mental illness, confronting lifelong struggles with addiction and other anguishing malfunctions of mental health.

In May of 1977, as his play Vieux Carré was about to open on Broadway, Williams invited Burroughs, who had attended the preview two weeks earlier, to his spacious apartment at the Hotel Elyseé. Both men were in their late sixties. Originally published by The Village Voice and later included in the altogether fantastic volume Conversations with Tennessee Williams (public library), their convulsively candid conversation unfolded over two bottles of wine and sprawled across writing, drugs, and death.

Burroughs: When someone asks me to what extent my work is autobiographical, I say, “Every word is autobiographical, and every word is fiction.” Now what would your answer be to that question?

Williams: My answer is that every word is autobiographical and no word is autobiographical. You can’t do creative work and adhere to facts.

After contemplating the wistfulness of growing old (“That’s the sad thing about growing old, isn’t it — you learn that you are confronted with loneliness,” Williams laments), the paradox of youth (“If there weren’t age, there wouldn’t be any youth, remember,” Burroughs consoles), and the bias of autobiographical memory (“I’m ever satisfied to look back on youth,” Williams professes; “Writers don’t, as a rule,” Burroughs observes), the two veer into a strange and strangely satisfying discussion of drugs. Williams, who brings up the subject, tells Burroughs:

I’ve always wanted to go on opium. I did try it in Bangkok. I was traveling with a professor friend of mine, and he had been in the habit of occasionally dissolving a bit of it — you know, it comes in little long black sticks — dissolving it in the tea, and drinking it. And he was angry at me, or confused mentally, I don’t know which — and so I called him one morning, as he’d gotten me this long black stick of opium, and I said, “Paul, what do I do with it?” And he said, “Just put it in the tea.” So I put the whole stick in the tea. I nearly died of an OD, of course. I was puking green as your jacket, you know? And sicker than 10 dogs all that day. I called in a Siamese doctor. He said, “You should be dead.” I said, “I feel as though if I weren’t walking or stumbling about, I would be.” I’ve always said I wanted to write under the drug, you know, like Cocteau did — all of a sudden, my head seemed like a balloon and it seemed to go right up to the ceiling…

Williams then recounts more of his substance experiments:

I wrote [the film script One Arm] one summer while I was taking Dr. Max Jacobson’s shots. I did some of my best writing while taking those shots. I had incredible vitality under them. And I got way ahead of myself as a writer, you know? And into another dimension. I never enjoyed writing like that.

They proceed to exchange substance preferences:

Williams: You’ve never written on any kind of speed, have you Bill?

Burroughs: Well no, I’m not a speed man at all.

Williams: I’m a downer man.

Burroughs: I don’t like either one very much.

Williams: Speed is wonderful, while I was young enough to take it; but you don’t like either one, now? You don’t need any kind of artificial stimulant?

Burroughs: Ummmm, well, you know … of course, cannabis in any form is —

Williams: Cannabis has the opposite effect on me. But I think Paul finds it very helpful — Paul Bowles. But I have tried it; nothing. Just stonewalled me.

Riffing off an oft-quoted line from one of his stories — “All art is an indiscretion, all life is a scandal.” — Williams steers the conversation, tongue-in-cheek, toward writing:

I hate politesse, don’t you, Bill? I don’t like people who play it too close to the vest — especially when there isn’t too much of it left. I intend to enjoy what little there is. We’re having a very literary discussion, aren’t we? [hearty laugh] I avoid talking about writing.

[…]

There’s something very private about writing, don’t you think? Somehow it’s better, talking about one’s most intimate sexual practices — you know — than talking about writing. And yet it’s what I think we writers, we live for: writing. It’s what we live for, and yet we can’t discuss it with any freedom. It’s very sad…

Williams returns to the subject of drugs, this time with full facetiousness, and shares “a poem about a junky,” written during one of his bouts of severe depression. It was inspired by “the mistress of a famous man,” who left the woman and she died from substance abuse.

I met an apparition, and so did she.
She was as lovely as ever and even more fragile than ever and her eyes
were blind-looking.
I found myself able to think and speak a little.
“What have you been doing lately?”
Indifferently she said: “When you take pills around the clock
what you do is try to get money and pay the drugstore.”

Williams, his mind no doubt on Burroughs’s extensive autobiographical writings about the heroin addiction of his youth, adds:

I think it’s most remarkable that you avoided any commitment to drugs, you know? Except cannabis. And your’e strong enough to control it. I’m strong enough to control anything I take…

To hear such a classic addict’s statement from one of the most brilliant creators of the twentieth century is heartbreaking evidence that there is no outsmarting addiction. By that point, Williams had spent decades spiraling deeper and deeper into the pit of substance abuse.

And yet it is unsurprising that two men of such considerable talent and intelligence wouldn’t be able to discuss drugs as a purely recreational subject outside the bounds of larger considerations of morality. When Burroughs quotes the English occultist, poet, and novelist Aleister Crowley’s line, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” the conversation takes a turn for the philosophical:

Williams: Provided you want to do the right thing, yes.

Burroughs: Ah, but if you really want to do it, then it’s the right thing. That’s the point.

Williams: Isn’t that an amoralist point of view?

Burroughs: Completely … completely.

Williams: I don’t believe you’re an amoralist.

Burroughs: Oh yes.

Williams: You do believe it?

Burroughs: Well, I do what I can…

Williams: I don’t think it’s true.

Twenty years earlier, in another interview included in the volume, Williams had addressed the question of moralism directly:

I have a distinct moralist attitude. I wouldn’t say message. I’m not polemical, but I have a distinct attitude toward good and evil in life and people. I think any of my plays examined closely will indicate what I regard as evil. I think I regard hypocrisy and mendacity as almost the cardinal sins. It seems they are the ones to which I am most hostile. I think that deliberate, conscienceless mendacity, the acceptance of falsehood and hypocrisy, is the most dangerous of all sins.

In this light, the final moments of Williams’s conversation with Burroughs twenty years later reverberate with even more poignancy:

Burroughs: We were both brought up in the Bible belt; but it’s obvious that what you want to do is, of course, eventually what you will do, anyway. Sooner or later.

Williams: I think we all die, sooner or later. I prefer to postpone the event.

Burroughs: Yes, there is that consideration.

Williams: I’m in no hurry. But one doesn’t choose it. I’ve always been terrified of death.

Burroughs: Well… why?

Williams: I’m not sure. I say that, and yet I’m not sure. How about you?

Burroughs: Well, as I say, I don’t know. Someone asked me about death, and I said, “How do you know you’re not dead already?”

Six years later, 71-year-old Williams was found dead in his hotel room, having choked on the bottle cap of his eye drops. The evidence strongly suggests that his lifelong drug and alcohol use had damaged his gag reflex, causing his death. This renders Conversations with Tennessee Williams, in which his creative genius and intellectual integrity blossom with breathtaking beauty, all the more bittersweet — and an immeasurably valuable reminder that life is woven of dualities and contradictions, that “everything exists at once with its opposite,” that the greatest struggle of the human experience is that of reconciling the life-giving parts of us with the deadly ones.

Complement with Williams’s stirring reading of two poems by Hart Crane, Burroughs on creativity, his advice to the young channeled by Patti Smith, and Aldous Huxley on drugs and democracy.

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05 FEBRUARY, 2014

William S. Burroughs on Creativity

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“The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it.”

“What art does … is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t,” cultural critic and Rolling Stone writer Greil Marcus observed in his fantastic 2013 commencement address. But he wasn’t the first to recognize art’s capacity for opening our eyes by blinding us, for expanding our understanding of the world by illuminating our ignorance.

In this short clip from the altogether excellent 1991 documentary Commissioner of Sewers, William S. Burroughs, born 100 years ago today, articulates the same sentiment and adds to history’s greatest definitions of art as he considers the value of creative pioneers, from Galileo to Cézanne to Joyce, in propelling human culture forward:

The word “should” should never arise — there is no such concept as “should” with regard to art. . . .

One very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know and don’t know they know. . . . Once the breakthrough is made, there is a permanent expansion of awareness. But there is always a reaction of rage, of outrage, at the first breakthrough. . . . So the artist, then, expands awareness. And once the breakthrough is made, this becomes part of the general awareness.

(Burroughs wasn’t the first to articulate this notion, either. Forty years earlier, Bertrand Russell famously advised, “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”)

Burroughs revisits the subject of creativity towards the end of his life in Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs (public library) — which also gave us his daily routine and his deep love for his feline companions — in a diary entry from January of 1997:

An artist must be open to the muse. The greater the artist, the more he is open to “cosmic currents.” He has to behave as he does. If he has “the courage to be an artist,” he is committed to behave as the mood possesses him. . . .

The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it.

Pair with Patti Smith’s account of Burroughs’s advice to the young and his cameo in the love letters of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.

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06 MAY, 2013

Cats, Guns, and Books: William S. Burroughs’s Daily Routine

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For breakfast, “a salted soft-boiled egg with toast, or perhaps fresh-squeezed lemonade, and two cups of very sweet tea.”

My fascination with the daily routines of famous writers was recently rekindled by the release of the similarly-minded Daily Rituals, which in turn reminded me of one of the characteristically, charmingly eccentric routine of beloved author and cat-lover William S. Burroughs, found in Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs (public library).

In the introduction to the altogether fantastic volume, writer and editor James Grauerholz, who served as the bibliographer and literary executor of the Burroughs estate, describes the author’s typical day:

On a typical day in the last year of William Burroughs’s life he would awaken in the early morning and take his methadone (he became re-addicted to narcotics in New York in 1980, and was on a maintenance program the rest of his life) and then return to bed. If the day were Thursday, I would arrive at 8:00 A.M. to drive him to his clinic in Kansas City, or — after he had finally earned a biweekly pickup schedule — take him out to breakfast, so that his house could be cleaned. At about 9:30 A.M. on all other mornings William would arise and — in his slippers, pajamas, and dressing gown — make his breakfast, sometimes a salted soft-boiled egg with toast, or perhaps fresh-squeezed lemonade, and two cups of very sweet tea. Feeding his many cats at the beginning of each day took up considerable time, only after which would he shave and dress himself, by about noon.

William might have visitors at midday, or he might make an outing to his friend Fred Aldrich’s farm for some target shooting with other gun enthusiasts. Otherwise, he passed the afternoon looking through his gun magazines or reading an endless stream of books, sometimes works of serious fiction but more often in the category of pulp fiction, with an emphasis on medical thrillers, stories about police and gangsters, and — his favorite — science-fiction scenarios of plague ravaging the world.

[…]

William liked to go outside in the afternoon and walk in his garden, sometimes practicing throwing a knife into a board propped up against the little garage. But in his last year, he could usually be found lying down for an afternoon nap of an hour or two. One or more of his friends would arrive at 5:00 or 6:00 P.M. to join him for cocktails and make dinner. William’s daily cocktails — which had started religiously at 6:00 P.M. when I first met him in 1974 — now commenced at 3:30 sharp. After the first vodka-and-Coke and a few puffs on a joint, he often wrote in his new journal books until he was joined by his dinner companions.

[…]

In this last year William conserved his strength by “making an early evening of it,” sometimes starting to take off his shirt at 8:30 or 9:00 P.M. to signal his guests that they should move their fellowship elsewhere. During the night he was, by his own account, up out of bed many times to urinate or deal with cat exigencies. He often said he was a light sleeper, and until the middle of the night he was, but he usually slept soundly for several hours in the early morning hours, curled up on his side in a fetal position, his hands tucked between his thighs — and his pistol under the covers, not far from his hand, in case of trouble.

William S. Burroughs and his cat Ginger in the backyard of his home in Lawrence, Kansas

Pair Last Words with the daily routines of Joy Williams, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and other literary greats.

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