Saturday, September 13, 2008

Homage to Burroughs

It's no secret here that I love William S. Burroughs. One of the reasons is that up till the very end he remained engaged in doing new work, exploring new avenues of thought, trying out things, grappling with basic problems that run through his entire ouvre.
Burroughs was accessible to people in the New York punk scene after he had returned to New York, and not just because he wrote about heroin and was darker and more sarcastic than the rest of the beats. Where was Ginsberg during the punk scene? My guess is that he was concerned with being 'Ginsberg' with a big 'G', pointing back to glories of the fifties and sixties in speeches and performances, content to exist as an icon, something that by definition implies that the work, the real work, has already completed itself and is in the past. Some icons, the up and comers, we have hope for, but for icons who try to embody a whole cultural movement it's not further glories we expect but contact with the previous era. But you can't be 'Ginsberg' with a big 'G' and also be accessible to punk guys on the lower east side. Burroughs was, although an underground celebrity.

Burroughs never really broke in the same way that Ginsberg and, to say the least, Kerouac, did during the '90s glut of rehashed celebrities. He appeared in a Ministry video, made a spoken word album with Kurt Cobain, and appeared in a Nike ad. David Cronenberg made a movie based on his life, but it wasn't a fawning biopic but a film like a Burroughs story, where fantasy and reality blend into each other in grotesque and unexpected ways, leaving more questions than pat answers. This is not really 'breaking' although he was thrust into the spotlight. Then in the summer of '97 he died, after living a long life.

Unbeknownst to many of the new followers, including me, Burroughs had made a serious theoretical turn in the mid '70s that lead to the strategies and ideas present in the 'Cities of the Red Night' trilogy, starting off with 'The Wild Boys' and going from there. Both Naked Lunch and the Nova trilogy of cut up books were in the past. Burroughs had lived in Mexico, London, Spain, Morocco, had had enough scandal to last a lifetime, but wasn't content to rest on his laurels and receive praise without coming up with something more to offer people.

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