Feb 25, 2011

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

Out of all the Beat Generation writers, William S. Burroughs is the only one that has left a serious lasting impression on me. W.S. Burroughs, being Harvard-educated and a little older than his fellow writers, also acted as the unofficial teacher of the Beats. Heavily inspired by the pessimistic historical theories of German philosopher Oswald Spengler, Burroughs saw Western civilization as being in the final cycle of its existence. In Spengler's essays Pessimism?, the warrior philosopher displayed annoyance in the fact that people would use his apocalyptic philosophies as an excuse to accept cultural defeat and inaction. The Beat Generation writers (especially Burroughs and Jack Kerouac) saw Spengler's prophecy as an opportunity to find unique contemporary minds that expressed the end-cycle feeling of Western Civilization. For a man that saw dying in battle during war as the height of nobility, Spengler would have undoubtedly been disgusted with the active hedonism and nihilism that the Beats fully advocated and shamelessly practiced. I do not think it is even the slightest stretch when I say that the Beats created a virtual religion that reflected the complete and utter degeneration of the Occidental world. In the 2010 documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, novice director Yony Leyser rapturously documented the unquestionable influence junky High Priest W.S. Burroughs has had on the Western world for over half a century. I see it as no big surprise that while Oswald Spengler has been virtually forgotten in the intellectual world; William S. Burroughs has become almost a household name. 

Not only is William S. Burroughs' extensive writing career a perfect example of cultural decay in the Occident; his destructive personal life as a rootless wanderer certainly is as well. Burroughs was from a somewhat wealthy background, due to his great Grandfather William Seward Burroughs I inventing the adding machine and founding the Burroughs corporation. Despite being born with "a silver spoon in his mouth," Burroughs took an entirely different route than what was expected of someone from his background. Showing a relentless disdain for bourgeois mores and "proper" conventions, W.S. Burroughs became a full-fledging libertine during his early adulthood, fully embracing homosexuality and a lifelong heroin addiction. Revolutionary psychoanalyst C.G. Jung once theorized that the growth of homosexuality in the modern Western world was nature's way of weeding out those genetic lines that were no longer fit to reproduce healthy stock. As discussed in William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, Burroughs was most likely molested in his childhood by the boyfriend of a maid that worked for his family. Regardless of the true driving force behind Burroughs' sexual vice; the Beat writer certainly embodied a lifestyle and literary career that even Oswald Spengler would have not foreseen as becoming culturally popularized in the future. In the documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, various important modern day artists speak very respectively of Burroughs; giving him credit where credit is due, as being the man that opened Pandora's box and unleashing a word virus that will never be "cured." 

Despite his commitment to male buggery, William S. Burroughs was married (as a common law wife) to fellow drug addict Joan Vollmer. Burroughs displayed his occasional interest in the meat curtain by having a child, William S. Burroughs Jr., with the wife that mostly disinterested him. Reading Oswald Spengler's theories must have put a curse on W.S. Burroughs, as his own family disintegrated before his very eyes. Whilst living in exile (to escape detention from a Louisiana state prison) in Mexico city, William S. Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife during a drunken game of "William Tell." In William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, this tragic yet senseless tale is hilariously commented on by the Baltimorean "Pope of Trash" John Waters. Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, who is also featured in the documentary, would portray this accidental act of wife killing in his adaptation of Burroughs' Naked Lunch, a film that combines biographical details from the writer's life as well excerpts from the book. It is also made patent in William S. Burroughs: A Man Within that Burroughs' writing career is basically the artistic result of killing his wife. William S. Burroughs would later comment on the event that sparked his writing career, "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out."

William S. Burroughs' drug of choice may have been shooting heroin, but his son enjoyed the comfort of alcoholic beverages. Also establishing himself as a writer, Bill Jr. spent most of his life in a drunken state, prolonging his alcohol-fueled virtual suicide. After all, who could blame the poor lad, being the son of a junky homosexual that killed the Mother he never knew. The short life of William S. Burroughs Jr. is briefly talked about in William S. Burroughs: A Man Within. Despite having a liver transplant (one of the first ever performed), Billy Boy soon died in a drunken stupor. Before his death, Billy Jr. wrote an article in Esquire magazine condemning his Father for ruining his life and setting him up for failure. Despite his dysfunctional family/friends dying throughout his life, as well as never abstaining from his sexual/drug vices, William S. Burroughs managed to die an elderly, albeit lonely, man. As discussed by Burroughs' friends and former lovers in William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, the writer was especially careful when it came to his own life. Despite killing his wife with one, Burroughs held a lifelong obsession with guns and shooting, always carry a piece, whether it be in bed or whilst picking up a much cherished prescription at a local pharmacy. Burroughs' "shotgun art" is also discussed in the documentary, an abstract "art" that Burroughs has no pretensions about, admitting that creative process merely involves shooting spray paint cans. Despite his unconventional love for tract-lines and assholes, Burrough's also never managed to contract AIDS. During William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, friends of the junky admit that he also made sure to take the first shot of heroin. In the documentary, various friends also admit that Burroughs, like Andy Warhol, had very keen survival skills due to being a open homosexual; during a period when such things world unheard of, let alone "cool," like they are today. 

After watching William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, it will be apparent to the viewer that W.S. Burroughs was a true artist and visionary. Yet, to call Burroughs merely an artist would be a disrespectful understatement. As recognized in the documentary by Burroughs' comrades; the man was a religious figure that, for better or worse, completely reinvented Western culture and morality. In fact, Burroughs was a major influence on the occult "organization" Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY) and their bible unholy THEE PSYCHICK BIBLE. Aesthetic terrorist Genesis Breyer P-orridge, the warped tranny behind TOPY, gives the most intimate commentary regarding the personal life William S. Burroughs in the documentary. Proving that "her" sex change is complete, P-orridge speaks of Burroughs like a kind Grandmother. P-orridge mentions that right before Burroughs died, he wrote that the only important thing in this world is love. Of course, William S. Burroughs influenced countless artistic movements, not just wack-job trannys. After all, if William S. Burroughs had not existed, David Cronenberg would have never made films with monstrous body crevices resembling assholes and vaginas. William S. Burroughs: A Man Within also goes into depth about how Burroughs was the perfect antidote for hippies and political correctness, proving that you do not have to be a leftist to be a libertine. Burroughs' influence on punk rock has also never waned, beginning with proto-punks like Iggy Pop and still influencing various anti-social musicians today. Quite fittingly, the score featured in the documentary was created by members of Sonic Youth, real-life friends of Burroughs.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is a commendable tribute to the personal and creative life of William S. Burroughs. For a more detailed portrait of Burroughs' life, I recommend the fairly objective biography Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs by Ted Morgan. For what it is, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is as great as retrospective documentaries get, full of credible artists that were friends of the writer as well as those people closest to him. Burroughs was certainly a "man within," a very distinct and introverted fellow who most likely did not even completely understand himself. After reading most of his novels and essays, it is apparent to me that only a truly original and uncompromising individual could have written such works. As recognized in William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, to truly enjoy Burrough's work, one must have a distinct sense of humor. I like to think Burroughs had a decadent "Faustian" wit, the kind that is able to laugh knowing that Armageddon is around the corner and a worldwide civil war is imminent. Novels like William S. Burroughs are quite inspiring in these uncertain times.

-Ty E


James O'Meara said...

Interesting post, I've quoted some of it with a bit of commentary over at my blog.


Soiled Sinema said...

Thanks! -Ty E

Anonymous said...

Excellent write up, I'll check this out.

I've read "Naked Lunch" or at least most of it. The story contains him being a junky homo and going from city to city. Eh.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Of the last 4 films that you`ve reveiwed 2 of them have blatantly revolved around pansy queer filth, i think its time for another reveiw of a well known cult horror film with a proper budget, dont you ?, (although of course pansy queer bastards are horrifying enough obviously).