William Burroughs was the “enfant terrible” of the Beat culture, but also its most radical intellect and experimental artist.
Burroughs was born in 1914, and came from a well-to-do family in St. Louis, Missouri. In his early school days he showed signs of psychological aberrations as well as striking intellectual ability. While reading English Literature at Harvard and medicine at the University of Vienna in the 1930s (when he also studied medicine for a short period), he explored the criminal and sexual underworlds of those cities. He had at a young age recognised his homosexuality. When he tried to enlist into the army he was declared unfit for service after the military authorities had read his history of mental illness. During the war years he lived in New York, where he consorted with the city’s criminals, prostitutes and drug addicts – a deliberate and ostentatious break with his upbringing in a respectable and puritan Mid-western middle class.
In 1943-44 Burroughs joined the group later known as ”The Beat Generation” – including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke and Lucien Carr – and he soon became their guide to a world far from that of the established bourgeois and academic culture of USA in the 1940s and 50s. By then he was a morphine addict and needed to finance his habit through criminal activities. After the war he moved to Texas, where he was arrested on charges of possession of drugs. Thereupon he moved to Mexico City with his common law wife, Joan Vollmer. There she was killed in a tragic shooting incident, whereupon Burroughs was arrested and charged with murder. He then fled from Mexico and drifted about in South America searching for an alleged wonder drug, yage, before he finally settled in Tangier, Morocco. It was in this period that he started writing, in order to, as he claims, “write [his] way out” of the trauma of Joan Vollmer’s murder. Burroughs’ first two books, Junkie and Queer (1985), are highly autobiographical and essentially conventional in form. It was only in the novel Naked Lunch (1959) that the groundbreaking and experimental author emerged. The book mainly consists of fragmentary sketches (”routines”), descriptions of grotesque drug fantasies seen through the eyes of the addict and minutely depicted.
In 1958 Burroughs moved to Paris where he settled among writers and artists in the so-called ”Beat hotel” in 9, rue Git-le-Coeur in the Latin Quarter. With the British artist Brion Gysin, he carried out experiments with a new ”cut-up” technique, a random montage of words, lines and text that was to create a new language liberated from the ordering and controlling function of normal language. The outcome of this was what was known as the ”Nova Trilogy,” published from 1961-1964 (The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express). On the surface this trilogy can be seen as a science fiction fantasy about an invasion from space by a mafia-like ”Nova Mob,” virus organisms that invaded and assumed control over the consciousness of human beings. Only through a deconstructing”cut-up” of normal language could there be any hope of freedom.
Between 1966 and 1973 Burroughs lived in London, exploring similar themes in ”The Wild Boy Quartet” (The Wild Boys, Port of Saints, Exterminator!, Ah Pook Is Here), which appeared between 1971 and 1979. On his return to the USA he published a number of books, often with good editorial assistance from his secretary James Grauerholz. Among these were Cities of the Red Night (1981), Place of Dead Roads (1983) and The Western Lands (1987), the two latter borrowing aspects of the Western genre, but essentially preoccupied with the theme that runs through all Burroughs’ books, namely freedom and control. Burroughs’ published work includes much of his correspondence (The Yage Letters, The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945 To 1959), essays, short stories, autobiographical material, a film script, interviews, and other prose. This material is all available in the New York Public Library.
Burroughs was the Beat culture’s Faust, experimenting and overreaching. In all his writing he depicts society and the state as totalitarian systems, exercising control through their politicians, bureaucrats, labour unions, social services, law courts, their psychiatric and health services. In his dystopian fantasies these are represented as”virus” or”cancer cells”, invading the social organism and exercising totalitarian power over the innermost grain of consciousness in the individual. The only hope of freedom is to make a deliberate break with established taboos and norms and to dissolve the very structures of language.
Burroughs was, and is, a highly controversial writer, declared a genius and denounced as a nihilistic and destructive anti-humanist. However, there can be no doubt about his status as the most influential writer of the Beat culture and the one closest to post-modernism both in form and content. After a while he became more accepted by the established world of the arts and admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Burroughs died in August 1997, some few months after Allen Ginsberg.