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Posts Tagged ‘William S. Burroughs’

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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02 OCTOBER, 2012

Politically Incorrect Advice to the Young from William S. Burroughs, Remixed

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“Any old soul is worth saving at least to a priest, but not every soul is worth buying.”

It is in the tradition of every culture that its cultural icons would impart words of wisdom on its young. In ours, those have come from celebrated minds like E. O. Wilson’s advice to young scientists, Neil Gaiman’s advice to young artists, Jacqueline Novogratz’s advice to young graduates, and Christopher Hitchens’s advice to young contrarians. Joining them is William S. Burroughs with this deliciously remixed take on his famous, uncensored, and at times questionable advice to the young — which, if anything, underscores the importance of knowing when to and when not to take advice.

People often ask me if I have any words of advice for young people.
Well… here are a few simple admonitions for young and old:

Never interfere in a boy-and-girl fight.

Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. The hell they don’t. What they mean is they want MORE MONEY, much more.

If you’re doing business with a religious son of a bitch, get it in writing. His word isn’t worth shit, not with the good Lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal.
Avoid fuck-ups. You all know the type. Anything they have anything to do with, no matter how good it sounds, turns into a disaster.

Do not offer sympathy to the mentally ill. Tell them firmly, ‘I am not paid to listen to this drivel. You are a terminal fool.’

Now some of you may encounter the devil’s bargain if you get that far. Any old soul is worth saving at least to a priest, but not every soul is worth buying. So you can take the offer as a compliment. They charge the easy ones first, you know, like money, all the money there is. But who wants to be the richest guy in some cemetery? Not much to spend it on, eh, Gramps? Getting too old to cut the mustard. Have you forgotten something, Gramps? In order to feel something, you have to be there. You have to be 18. You’re not 18, you are 78. Old fool sold his soul for a strap-on.

How about an honorable bargain? ‘You always wanted to become a doctor. Now’s your chance. Why, you could have become a great healer and benefit humanity. What’s wrong with that?’ Just about everything. There are no honorable bargains involving exchange of qualitative merchandise like souls. Just quantitative merchandise like time and money. So piss off, Satan, and don’t take me for dumber than I look. As an old junk pusher told me, ‘Watch whose money you pick up.’

Ben Kay; image by Christiaan Tonnis

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