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Tag: William S. Burroughs

Phil Baker on William S. Burroughs

“William S. Burroughs’ life is a gift,” Phil Baker tells me as we sit talking in his red-brick mansion flat in the curtilage of Tate Britain. He also tells me it was a “sad life,” but one full of incident, a treasure trove for any biographer. While Phil makes tea I glance inquisitively around the room that constitutes his office, unwittingly charting his occult and tribal interests, passions and travels. The bookshelves are bowing under the weight of numerous hardbacks. His desk, with myriad apothecary draws at either side, is chaotically lined with scattered papers. The Persian rugs and the red leather sofa upon which I perch are unmistakably time honoured. And there are bibelots and bagatelles to fill a generously sized curiosity shop. It is a very cosy office I conclude when Phil returns with tea and a chocolate cake I brought him. Phil’s biographical study of William S. Burroughs – published by Reaktion Books in their Critical Lives series – chronicles this most controversial and illustrious counterculture figure’s life from his boyhood to his eventual death in Kansas in 1997. It is a fascinating book, but one Baker says was simply waiting to be written. “You can’t really go wrong with Burroughs,” he explains, “because it is such a good life. And the ending is there, it’s natural, it’s ready-made.”

As we settle down to tea and cake, Phil confides: “I don’t eat cake very often, but this is very good.” I query him about his beginnings in teaching, which is something he aspired to do when he started his PhD. He subsequently taught at Oxford and “did quite a stint at Royal Holloway”. More recently, after publishing a couple of books, including a cultural history of absinthe, a book on Samuel Beckett, as well as Dennis Wheatley and Austin Osman Spare’s biographies, he has been granted a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship and has been “helping post graduates with their writing”. While he tells me about teaching, I wonder, whether or not he thinks style can be learned. “I do think style and form can be learned,” he nods, “you can’t teach people to have an opinion but you can teach them the mechanics of how to write. You can teach that it’s about beginnings and endings and that it has to flow.” Phil also works in the literary trade, reviewing books for the likes of Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian. When I ask him about writing books he becomes pensive. “I think it kind of happened by default,” he muses, “when I was young I think I probably imagined I would write novels. I never had an ambition to write poetry, ever. But novels perhaps…and it just never happened. And I don’t think it ever will.” What about reviews, I say. “I sort of do and I don’t enjoy them” Phil wavers, “there’s something very exhilarating about writing, I mean it is quite compulsive…I do find journalism a strain but I think everybody does, so I’m not going to complain. I do, however, think that once you have a beginning and an ending the stuff in the middle writes itself. It’s the same with books – you have to know where it’s going. And you have to have a good start.”

This is one writer’s rule that Phil seems to adhere to when it comes to his own work. In his book on Burroughs, Phil opens with a hook that draws the reader in immediately. Chronicling his subject’s early years, he notes that Burroughs was almost exclusively attracted by the unorthodox and the occult. The foundational point of this allure was an autobiography of a criminal, Jack Black’s You Can’t Win (1925). Speaking of it later, Burroughs remembered being “fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming house, pool parlours, cat houses and opium dens.”  In many ways, Phil explains, it propelled Burroughs’ “journey into deviance, a kind of deliberate journey into deviance,” which saw him enjoy the murkier side of life, drugs in particular. Burroughs’ own varying accounts of drug-taking are often contradictory, but Phil suggest that he really saw them as a means to “psychic exploration,” which led to his “great literary breakthrough” Junky. His interest in drugs and the macabre was on-going throughout his life, often melding fantasy and reality together to the point where it is almost impossible to differentiate between the two. Burroughs’ constant “self-mythologising,” is something Phil has been wary of, especially because a vast majority of his writing is geared towards this particular undertaking.

With regard to the shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer in 1951, in the infamous William Tell act, for example, Burroughs later wrote: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I never should have become a writer but for Joan’s death.” This is in fact not true. “He had this dream of being a writer as a child,” Phil clarifies, “and when he comes to write his own short, and very potted, autobiography ‘The Name is Burroughs’ he says something like ‘as a young boy I wanted to be a writer because writers lounged about in Singapore, wore silk suits, smoked opium and explored jungles with native boys.’’ Burroughs was fascinated by the mystique of writing, but what his craft actually sprung from was mainly his friendships. “All his writing was extremely interpersonal, until much later on when he had become an established writer,” Phil says, “it developed from him trying to impress friends, so he collaborated on his first piece of short fiction [Twilight’s Last Gleamings] with his friend at Harvard Kells Elvins and then the major works really grew out of his letters to [Allen] Ginsberg that eventually turned into Naked Lunch.” Ginsberg and Burroughs’ relationship was a troubled one. Phil suggests that Burroughs never really got over Ginsberg’s rejection, or that famous cruel rebuff about “his ugly old cock,” which wounded Burroughs very deeply. Love is something that always eluded Burroughs. And yet, toward the end of his life he found it in his cats, particularly in Russky. “Burroughs’ cats reminded him of people he had known,” Phil writes in his book “he felt them as autonomous, struggling, mortal beings, and he found again the sense of essential contact that he had always sought in relationships.”

By 1981, having travelled the world and hung out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Joe Strummer and Mick Jagger, Burroughs decided to settled down in Kansas. “He went out there because James Grauerholz [onetime lover, friend and literary executor] had roots there,” Phil tells me.With time, Burroughs became highly valued in his adopted hometown, where he earned himself a name as a lovable “old gink” in the words of Grauerholz. “He was the local star I suppose,” Phil says, “and he gave the place more of an identity. He was very well looked after in the end by a whole crew of people, who took it in turns to cook for him and take care of him. I think I was a little sentimental in the book. If I were to have qualms about it, it would be that maybe I played a little bit for sentimentality with the idea of Burroughs in old age singing Adiós muchachos and thinking about his friends.” I contradict Phil, saying the ending fits wonderfully with Burroughs’ story, which concludes with the most unpopular boy from St Louis realising that the most important thing in life is love. One wonders, however, how Burroughs’ later years of globetrotting and multi-genre experimenting shaped his legacy. “I find the idea of multimedia Burroughs a complete dead end,” Phil says resolutely, “because the only thing that he was really good at was writing.” One cannot help but agree as Burroughs’ painting, filmmaking and other artistic side-lines seem mediocre and half-hearted. Still, Burroughs has momentous significance in terms of the great American literary canon as the last “honourable literary deviant” and “neo-primitive, counter-enlightenment thinker” who rejected mainstream values and culture until the very end. “Burroughs was also the man that kept his tie on through the 60s,” Phil adds, “and I think you have to admire him for that.” 

Publisher: Reaktion Books 
Publication Date: July 2010
Paperback: 192 pages, 30 illustrations
ISBN: 9781861896636


Steve Finbow: Resolutely straight-shooting

Writing in Some Thoughts Concerning Education John Locke observed that the “little or almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have important and lasting consequences”.  This axiom not only defined but also shaped Allen Ginsberg’s life; a life Steve Finbow examines in his astute new biography. “Madness, poetry, politics and a longing for love – important elements of Allan’s childhood,” writes Finbow, “obsessed him throughout his life and became the subject matter of his greatest poems, Howl and Kadish.”  The long line poems “challenging societal status quo” made the poet’s “private world public” which to Ginsberg meant the very pinnacle of creative achievement. But even for someone like him, someone who appeared so saliently a poet, it took several decades to find the courage to unveil his true voice. The biographer, in writing about these formative years, cites a number of Ginsberg’s early works to illustrate his restraint and reticence. Juxtaposed against his later poems they seem disparate, timorous and coy much like Ginsberg himself at the time. Finbow suggests that Ginsberg’s “ sexual passivity and masochism, his guilt about his mother’s lobotomy and his continuing incestuous fantasies and dreams about his father and his brother caused Allen to theorize that his homosexuality was a sign of insanity.” To counteract this anxiety Ginsberg sought therapy, attempted to become heterosexual and tried to abandon his fledgling literary ambitions, but his efforts to conform only made life more difficult.

As any good biographer, Finbow demystifies rather than promulgates romantic notions about his subject. In fact, he is resolutely straight-shooting about Ginsberg’s neuroses, his guilt over his mad mother, his suicidal tendencies, his petty jealousies and sexual perversities, mentions of which perforate the slender volume throughout, individually as well as in conjunction with Ginsberg’s literary contemporaries. Finbow describes the “jazz loving, poetry quoting” Beatniks as an insular clique riddled with professional backbiting, “soap opera” sexual dynamics and incestuous relationships. Albeit many of the Beats were heterosexual, most dabbled in homosexuality which goes some way to explain how Ginsberg frequently found himself in love with straight men. The worst of these disastrous affairs was with Neal Cassidy, a lubricious sadist and a liar who frequently drove Ginsberg to the brink of suicide. Although, Ginsberg’s suicidal tendencies were in full swing long before Cassidy came on the scene. “For Allen,” writes Finbow, “Nietzsche’s maxim ‘The thought of suicide is a powerful comfort,’ held true, and more so that ‘it helps one through many a dreadful night.” It was, in fact, a lifelong coping mechanism which aided Ginsberg thought chronic loneliness, reoccurring breakdowns, numerous bereavements and fruitless quests for love. All of these themes were later celebrated in Ginsberg’s poetry, combining autobiography, fantasy, psychosexuality and imagination – a complete bouleversement of poetic tradition.

Between spells of travelling, unrequited love, a nascent domestic life with Peter Orlovsky and his role as a makeshift agent for Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, Ginsberg hardly found time to write. But he was also short of inspiration, waiting for some divine afflatus, some booming muse, which eventually came in the form of his breakthrough, Howl.  Ginsberg performed it for the first time at the Six Gallery, on 7th October 1955, which “became a defining moment in Beat history” and “changed the public’s idea of poets and poetry, ignited discussion in universities, bars and newspapers”. Soon after, the work was published in Howl and Other Poems, then famously banned and has subsequently generated more analysis, speculation, outrage and conjecture than any other work of the twentieth century. In reaching this status, and the imprimatur of his peers, it partly achieved Ginsberg’s dream of being “known as the most brilliant man in America”. I say partly because despite finally finding his voice Ginsberg was largely unhappy. Finbow suggest that this perpetual darkness which hung over him may have been a result of manic depression. “Could Allen’s restlessness have been a sign of bipolar disorder?” the biographer asks, “the irritability and euphoria, the self-loathing and inflated self-esteem, the suicidal tendencies and the sexual energy all point to a positive diagnosis.” Whatever his condition, it was made worse by Ginsberg’s extensive experimentation with drugs, altered states of consciousness, compulsive travelling and recreant friends.

Finbow draws on secondary sources as well as first-hand knowledge of Ginsberg to evaluate the poet’s place in American letters. The biographer follows Ginsberg from childhood to college, from Mexico and India back to America, where he thrived and flourished as a poet and as an activist. In 1968, Ginsberg’s fame reached its pinnacle, that same year Cassidy died, Kerouac soon followed, marking the end of an era for the Beats. During this particular time Ginsberg embraced Buddhism, hoping to achieve some cosmic equilibrium but with “Cassidy and Kerouac dead, Orlovsky sliding into mania, Allen was alone, only the illusion of his fame for company”.  Ginsberg’s celebrity meant groupies, experience of which, prompted him to write lines such as: “ – met you in the street you carried my package/Put your hands down to my legs/Touch if it’s there, the prick shaft delicate/Hot in your rounded palm, soft thumb on cockhead”. He no longer had to resort to subterfuge or euphemism, boldly speaking his mind in print, galling the thin-skinned establishment he was eventually to woo.  Following in Walt Whitman’s tradition, Ginsberg fashioned himself into to a unique counterculture figure, a poet laureate of the disenfranchised. But this role was ultimately subsumed by the poet’s ego and his desire for fame. “His notoriety as a counterculture icon,” Finbow writes, “meant media exposure and his poetry reached a large audience. The American literary establishment recognised this influence and the mutual absorption began.”

Commenting on this phenomenon another critic, Charles Bronstein, said that Ginsberg’s success depended largely on “the authenticity of his way of life as much as his positions, a mode of authenticity that he takes, above all, from Whitman.” An authenticity that by the 1980s had become somewhat questionable, both in terms of his work and his personal life. After 25 turbulent years together with Orlovsky, writes Finbow, Allen maintained the pretence that they were a couple  in reality the relationship was “fake, poisonous and detrimental to the mental health (and happiness) of both men.” Finbow notes that for all his faults, Ginsberg was aware of his fraud and yet vanity and fame overshadowed this awareness. His poetry deteriorated as his public appearances increased. The last two chapters of the book read like a travel itinerary with Ginsberg darting all over the globe, giving talks and lectures and making television appearances. The biographer candidly but considerately documents how Ginsberg’s popularity and success facilitated his “slow fade into the system,” which was capped with the poet penning a letter to Bill Clinton “informing the president of his terminal cancer and asking for a medal or an award for services to poetry”. A big ask from someone who set out to champion the disenfranchised. Finbow’s uncompromisingly lucid and thoughtful book evinces great insight into this important cultural figure, whose private life still remains more interesting than his work.

Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: August 2012
Paperback: 239 pages, 30 illustrations
ISBN: 978178023017 7

Frederick Turner: Guaranteed to captivate Miller enthusiasts

Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer by Frederick Turner is engaging, erudite, fluent and succinct yet full of novel biographical paraphernalia, which is guaranteed to captivate most Miller enthusiasts. The pulchritudinous little hardback, published by Yale University Press, chronicles how Miller’s first published novel “has risen from smuggled dirty book to American classic”. Turner employs Yankee folklore to explain Miller’s savage abandon and fascination with an anarchically subversive way of life steeped in “murky fringe land between a strict fidelity to the law and actual illegality”. It’s a daring interpretative mode, psychoanalytical speculation always is, but it works. Turner pinpoints certain undeniable similarities between Miller and his folklore primogenitors,  the infamous Mississippi brawlers, gamblers, crooks and filibusterers, who like Miller lived on their wits, shape-shifting, altering occupations, addresses and personae as circumstances dictated. Following in the same line of thought, Turner positions Miller alongside Mark Twain and Walt Whitman –  both once considered on the literary sidelines for their scabrous argots and iconoclast subjects –  to show how Miller inherited a tradition of prose “in the outsized, colourful monologue mode” of the colloquial, and subsequently nurtured it into his very own brand of “rude hieroglyphics”.

Miller had been jawing about becoming a writer long beforeTropic of Cancer, but for all his boorish braggadocio he had perilously little to show for it; or indeed his 30-odd years, except a divorce, a second falling marriage, chronic penury, a handful of literary rejection slips and a profound hatred of America, the unremitting “slaughterhouse” and “monstrous death machine,” as he called it. It is not clear when Miller’s fascination with Europe began, but Turner suggests it may have been inspired by his old school friend Emil Schnellock, with whom Miller corresponded extensively throughout his time in Paris and beyond.  Miller left for the French capital in February 1930, cajoled by his second wife June Mansfield Smith. He shipped out with a borrowed ten dollar note, two valises and a trunk. Turner explains: “In these he had some suits made by his tailor father; the drafts of two failed novels, and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But within him, buried within the accumulated detritus of a random and crudely assembled self-education, Miller was carrying a great deal more than these meagre effects.” Indeed.  He was in fact carrying a myriad of fantasises, which fuelled by his imminent experiences would eventually materialize into a book that now “belongs on a select shelf of works that best tell us who we are, for better or worse”.

While this may only be marginally true for humanity as a whole, it is certainly true for Miller. Tropic of Cancer tells us everything we need to know about its writer, “the gangster author,” who penned a literary deviant, which reads like a variegated autobiography of inescapable Americanism and an aspiration to European sensibility, a libidinous and comical picaresque of a sexual adventurer and a lovable knave, a daring exposition of an ironic moralist, a manual to the lifestyle of the bohemian deadbeat and a triumph of crude and creative splendour. Turner’s sympathetic and skilful evocation of Miller’s time in the US and in Paris,  spent mostly in depravation with a retinue of factotums, the work that followed and how it ought to fit into the American canon offers some interesting insights; but it never unequivocally states the fact that for all his raging and retreating from the establishment Miller actually yearned to be integrated into the high-end literary tradition. For as Turner himself notes, while talking about his subject’s impoverished background, Miller was “cut from different cloth…so Miller the failed Ivy Leaguer, the college dropout… refused to submit to his cultural and personal fate,” by means of a literary self-erudition, a fanatical interest in EVERYTHING (hamburger sandwiches, collar buttons, poodle dogs, slot machines, grey bowlers, typewriter ribbons, oranges sticks, free toilets, sanitary napkins, mint jujubes, billiard balls, chopped onions, crinkled doilies, manholes, chewing gum etc)  and a desperate desire for self-actualisation. In fact, he became a sort of microcosmic noosphere, bursting with ubiquitous knowledge on the page as well as in person.

But neither the writing nor the inspiration came easily, not until Miller met June – at the time the only person who “believed in his star”. Following the chance meeting in the summer of 1923, Miller – then a husband, a father and a man with a responsible job at the Western Union – quit his career, divorced his wife, married June and embarked on a quest to become a writer. With very little success. Turner records Miller’s life with June – the woman who led to his emotional labefaction – with great attention to detail, concluding that “for Miller, June in one way and another inspired his three finest works, the Tropics and Black Spring”. Though often disputed, this is certainly true, for long-after the two separated June remained a permanent fixture throughout Miller’s life, indelibly looming over the man and his work. But there was another force behind Miller’s drive.  Upon his arrival to Pairs, Miller had “apparently lost everything, nationality, job, wife, even his language” thus to stave off loneliness he hit the streets with a notebook and a pen “walking great distances and making notes on virtually anything he happened to see, from the life of the cafes to the carcasses of the newly slaughtered horseS hanging from the market stall hooks”. And  almost everything he did see made it into the book. It is precisely this, his observational deft and pyrotechnical delivery – albeit occasionally blemished by overindulgence in periphrasis and even unabashed flummery -that makes Tropic of Cancer remarkable, brilliant.

Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer is a considered and intriguing book, which aims to show how Miller’s “heroic confrontation” of his own failures eventually made him into a success. Turner treats his subject objectively but with great enthusiasm and at times with much-needed caution, knowing all too well that Miller was prone to casuistry and embellishment. The discerning biographer does well to outline most of Miller’s influences, friendships, struggles and aspirations, the main one of which was to write a  magnum opus for his wife (June), which earned him great admiration among certain circles and a “shadowy reputation as a writer of truly dirty books” among others. Turner remains the voice of reason throughout the narrative, only occasionally showing disdain for Miller’s callousness and dubious morality, when for example Miller refers to his aborted baby as the “seven month toothache” or neglects his duties as a husband and father. On the whole, Turned does well to pieces all the elements together to show how Tropic of Cancer materialised, even if he doesn’t place the book or its legacy into a greater political and socio-economic context. (Some reviewers have griped.)  Still, there is something he says which is on the money, namely that “writing with an increasingly naked candour about his life” Miller was bridging the gap between “autobiography and literature,”  and since many a great writer has followed the path that Miller bravely blazed.

Phil Baker: The skilful biographer

In his eponymous study of William S. Burroughs (published by Reaktion Books in their Critical Lives series) Phil Baker skilfully chronicles this most controversial and illustrious counterculture figure’s life from his boyhood in Show-Me-State St Louis, Missouri; through to his galliard years in Europe; his days as a junky on the streets of New York; his spell in Mexico City; his nomadic roving in Morocco and South America; to his senescence and eventual death in Kansas in 1997. Burroughs died a cult icon, a figure of worldwide acclaim with a status akin to that of a rock star. And almost two decades after his death, he still remains as fascinating as his auctorial prose, which shifted nebulous boundaries between fact and fiction. The fescennine nature of his work, and the attempts to censor it, has also generated considerable interest in the man himself. Chronicling the early years, Baker notes that Burroughs was almost exclusively attracted by the unorthodox and the occult. Excited by the sight of a maid smoking opiates young Burroughs said to himself: “I will smoke opium when I grow up.” True to his word he first tried drugs (chloral hydrate) while still at school. Burroughs didn’t like school, preferring to spend time on Market Street, “the skid row” of his adolescent youth.

Burroughs’ early experience of “tattoo parlours, novelty stores [and] hock shops” came to constitute the ambiance of much of his prose. But his chief impetus to write was actually literature. Baker notes that aged 13 Burroughs “encountered the book that was to have the greatest effect on his writing… the autobiography of a criminal, Jack Black’s 1925 You Can’t Win.” Speaking of it later, Burroughs remembered being “fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming house, pool parlours, cat houses and opium dens.” Due to his idiosyncratic interests, Burroughs came to be viewed as an outsider and this sense of exclusion not only characterised his early life but also followed him when he went to Harvard in 1932 to study English Literature. Despite the odds firmly stacked against him, he received “a good education.” Baker explains: “He attended George Lyman Kittredge’s then famous Shakespeare lectures, learned a great deal of Shakespeare by heart, and took a course on Coleridge’s imagination with John Livingstone Lowes, author of the classis study The Road to Xandau.” He even “saw T.S Eliot give one of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures”. And yet despite complete immersion in academia, Burroughs felt compelled to explore the underground subculture of New York City, Harlem nightclubs and sex. Burroughs was unpopular at Harvard; he kept a ferret in his room and a “gun, against regulations” once narrowly escaping a lethal accident.

After leaving Harvard in 1936, Burroughs travelled to New York where he was introduced to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Joan Vollmer. Burroughs and Vollmer became lovers in 1945 and were soon living together as common-law husband and wife. Joan was later famously a victim of one of Burroughs’ most notorious capers. “I guess it’s about time for out William Tell act,” Burroughs reportedly said to Vollmer after an evening out in Mexico City. “Joan was fairly drunk and she giggled as she balanced a glass on her head,” Baker writes, “Burroughs took aim at the top of the glass and fired, with the shocking sound of the gun indoors. A moment later the glass was one the floor but still unbroken…There was a small blue hole in Joan’s forehead, four or five centremetres to the left of the centre. Joan died on the way to the hospital. Burroughs was detained by the police and later sentenced to two years suspended, minus 13 days. According to Baker “Burroughs never stopped turning the event in his mind. He even thought of trying to write something about it but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was afraid…not so much of finding the ‘unconscious intent’ but something altogether wider.” Burroughs recorded his own feelings in a journal, saying: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I never should have become a writer but for Joan’s death. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control.”  This need was indeed evident both in his life and in his work. During this period Burroughs was travelling a lot, he “was changing. His politics were mellowing; he stopped using the word ‘Liberal’ as a term of abuse…His comic talents were sharpening.” Not only that, Burroughs was also experimenting with yage, a drug that made everything “writhe with a peculiar furtive life.” He later recalled that it was like “space-time travel,” something he had longed for but hadn’t previously found.

In 1953, Burroughs returned to Mexico City but unable to settle went back to St Louis and later to stay with Ginsberg in New York. The two became embroiled in a sexual relationship, which ended abruptly and saw Burroughs leave for Tangiers, a place where “fact merges into dream, and dreams erupt into real world.”  Burroughs was missing Ginsberg and in a letter to Kerouac wrote that “the withdrawal symptoms are worse than the Marker habit. One letter would fix me.” In absence of the epistolary panacea, Burroughs was getting fixed on Eucodol and a young Spaniard, who was to become his lover for the next several years. Quietly dissatisfied with his new life, lonely and sequestered, Burroughs felt old (now in his 40s) and just as alone as he had done in his teenage years. He saw himself move through the world “like a ghost” who would end up as a “crazy old bore somewhere in a bar”.  Burroughs’ addiction to Eucodol was also spiralling out of control. He was injecting every two hours and “could now spend eight hours staring at his shoe, periodically sticking a needle into his grey fibrous flesh.” These details of an addict’s lifestyle later made it into his work, which had come to a halt until he fled to London in 1956 to seek help. Clean, he went back to Tangiers and began writing, fuelled by inspiration that came like a “great black wind through the bones.”

Two years later, Burroughs followed Ginsberg and his new lover Peter Orlovsky to Paris. By February 1958, Burroughs was once again developing a drug habit by way of Codethyline. While in Paris, Ginsberg and Burroughs went on a pilgrimage to meet Louis-Ferdinand Céline and “walked straight into a Celine novel”. It was from him and his “style telegraphique” that the Beats “took their free use of dots” to capture the spoken word effect. Among other notables, Burroughs also met Jaques Stern, “a millionaire, French junky intellectual, crippled by polio” whose prose fragments were later inosculated with Burroughs’ cut-up prose most notably in The Soft Machine. Burroughs also became better acquainted with Brion Gysin, a “regally smooth artist” whom he first met in Tangiers. His interest in the “irrational occult” deepened due to Gysin, who replaced Ginsberg in Burroughs affections, and the new lover fortified for Burroughs the belief in “super-surreal consolidation of reality and dream.” The following year, Burroughs began to experience numinous visions and “paranormal occurrences were coming so thick and fast he could barely get them down on paper.” At one point he reportedly saw “his own hand turn completely inhuman, thick, black-pink, with white tendrils growing out where the fingertips had been.” He also took to crystal ball gazing and saw “flying saucers like flat fish full of black fuzz”. Burroughs was writing Naked Lunch and Ginsberg was trying to get it published, which he did. The work made Burroughs both famous and infamous. He later recalled seeing a review in which “they had a picture of me in a suit, saying ‘He has the appearance of a Protestant minister or a banker, but actually he’s very subversive, dedicated to subverting all decent values.” Oppugning rather than subverting, perhaps, but Burroughs’ prose is so multidimensional, so full of anacolutha and fragmentations that it is often susceptible to misinterpretation. Naked Lunch is hostile and brutish yet it is also a considered and intricate study of the human condition.

Not long after, Gysin came up with the cut up technique which “would dominate Burroughs’ work for the next decade.” By 1960, the cut up method produced two collaborative efforts. One between the key Beats, Minutes to God, and the other between Burroughs and Gysin called The Exterminator. Around this time Burroughs took to travelling again, and while in Paris met Samuel Beckett. Although interested in Burroughs, Beckett was less enthused about the cut-ups, remarking of the method: “That’s not writing, that’s merely plumbing.” He did, however, compliment Naked Lunch, telling Burroughs: “Our despair is total. Total! That’s what I felt in Naked Lunch and why I like it.” Later, Burroughs travelled to London where he became involved in barmecidal spiritualism and new mind-altering-substances, including pilocybin and DMT which resulted in grotesque visions of “green boys with purple fungoid gills” and “white ovens”. Burroughs was well received in Britain but his reputation and the sales of Naked Lunch were going agley in New York. By 1963, the book was deemed obscene by the courts due to too “many baboons” and insurrectionary ideas. It was perhaps Burroughs’ provocative lifestyle as well as prose – the drugs, the ostentatious degradation, contempt for convention and law – that many middle class Americans found an effrontery. As Baker says, Burroughs’ prose landscape was “an unmistakable place, with its penny arcades and vacant lots, China blue skies, 1920s movies, a smell of woodsmoke and piano music down a city street, train whistles, frayed light from a distant star, rose wallpaper and brass bedsteads, ginger haired boys with red gums, deformed fish snapping lazily at jissom on the surface of a black lagoon, and lesbian agents with penises grafted on to their faces, sitting outside a cafe in white trench coats, drinking spinal fluids from alabaster cups.” That was Burroughs and it was decidedly not America.

By 1966, after a stint in New York Burroughs was back in London. He was growing stranger and more paranoid as the decade went on, becoming increasingly superstitious and developing an interest in Scientology, which he later abandoned for politics. By 1968, Burroughs was metamorphosing into “a revolutionary thinker, dreaming up left-field guerrilla tactics for the overthrow of society.” He became more erratic during his public appearances talking about: killer whistles, camel endorphins as painkillers and the abandonment of one’s biological brain. Burroughs’ time in London was rather troubled and “he hated the licensing laws and the British class system.” For him, London was a grey city full of bad service. Depressed and largely alone except for an occasional “dilly boy,” Burroughs was visited by Ginsberg. Dismayed by the state of affairs, Ginsberg arranged a teaching post for him in New York City Collage and Burroughs left London in 1974. He found New York to be “one of the most polite cities” he had ever inhabited. While there, he met a young man called James Grauerholz. The two became lovers, but soon the affair dissipated and Grauerholz took on a role as Burroughs’ manager, using his experience of “organising rock gigs to give Burroughs a financially viable career in live performances.” By now in his 60s Burroughs was “becoming one of the world’s foremost celebrities, lionised by rock stars,” hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Joe Strummer and Mick Jagger. But he was also surrounded by parasites and sycophants, and fed up with the lifestyle decided to move to Kansas in 1981.

With London, New York and Paris behind him Burroughs preoccupied himself with his interest in firearms and spent many an afternoon “blasting away at targets and refreshing himself with vodka and Coke.” His emotional coenaesthesis was finally dispelled by a new found love for animals, cats in particular. “Burroughs’ cats reminded him of people he had known,” writes Baker, “He felt them as autonomous, struggling, mortal beings, and he found again the sense of essential contact that he had always sought in relationships.” He even had a sticker on his front door in case of emergencies, alerting people that there were cats inside that must be saved. This paints a very different picture of “the sheep killing dog” and the “insane German philosopher in exile” that Burroughs was often portrayed as. Most of his later work revolved around his renewed interest in “occult style astral travel” and mystical devices, documented in Bodies of Light, Western Lands and Education: A Book of Dreams. Some thought the old man was going senile, but Baker says “many of Burroughs’ beliefs are easily paraphrased in psychic terms, but this doesn’t explain their cultural significance or why varieties of the same paranoia were central to the work of several American writers in the same era, including Hunter S Thompson, Thomas Pynchon and Philip K Dick.” Perhaps they were all onto something. In the last couple of decades, Burroughs remained en vogue, appearing on television and in film as “filth flder par excellence”. Highly cherished in his adopted home-town as a lovable “old gink” he trudged on into old age, wryly attributing his longevity to “healthy living.” He also said he no longer felt lonely or unloved because he had “his familiars,” his friends and his cats. So in the end the most unpopular boy from St Louis had actually found something he had been looking all his life, the “most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE.”

Peter Weissman: A Stoned Disciple of Weed

William S. Burroughs once said that hallucinogens are “absolutely contraindicated for creative work” and while this may be true, they also make for absolutely great creative anamnesis. I say this having just finished reading Peter Weissman’s memoir, I Think Therefore Who Am I? which documents a year of his life spent as one of many “stoned disciples of weed” in New York city. Weissman’s literary endeavours began that same year, in 1968, with a “yellow writing pad…a pack of cigarettes…and a tin canister” of marijuana, but veered off course with increased use of drugs which propelled his descent into sedition. It took him almost 30 years to capture the hazy zeitgeist of the era on paper but he has done so beautifully and with a quasi-stoned power of description which is vibrant and opaque, acoustic and allusive all at once.

I Think Therefore Who Am I? opens with two young men, Peter and his best friend Mark Greendbaum, shuffling along “gray streets” overflowing with “brick facades and cars lining the curbs, garbage cans and fire escapes” with no particular destination in mind. Their friendship, solidified by years of familiarity and the seeming innocence of the two characters, their mutual shyness and the novelty of big-city life, binds them together in their ideological convictions as well as their shortcomings. Weissman notes: “Mark and I saw ourselves as rebels. We opposed the war and demonstrated against it. We were prepared to convince the draft board we were insane, homosexual, whatever it took, and to go to Canada, if it came to that. We excoriated the government and authority in general. Yet as male adults taken with the notion of women and what it meant to be men, we lacked the rebellious bravado…” This unifying sense of camaraderie quickly bifurcates as Peter becomes swept up in a whirlwind tour shrouded in “blue haze of cigarette smoke… salt-paper and pot”. Weissman, somewhat unwittingly, finds himself “taking epic treks across Manhattan”, toking on numerous joints, taking acid, frequenting iniquitous basement dens and partaking in the sexual politics among the Bohemian utopia of late 60s New York. He chronicles his “drugged memories” and escapades through rooms reminiscent of “crazed bomb shelters,” urban enclaves “throbbed with libidinous energy,” and phantasmagorical scenes of “people tripping out, getting sectioned” with beatnik aplomb and a droll, unassuming manner.

The memoir, therefore, has the enthralling feel of a picaresque and is studded with varied and peculiar  characters, domiciled “like lost souls in Dante” around the hub of activity,  including some of his closest associates of the time such as Arnie Glick whom Weissman remembers as “the sort of guy who’s conversation didn’t require reflection”, Rose the “domestic peasant in the kitchen”,  Don Juan Goldberg “who attempted to live up to his name,”  Richie Klein  a “speed freak among acid heads”, LA Ray with his “glib self confidence” and Emily with Tom who made one feel like “a boy in a grown-up world”. Along with his best friend Mark who always “lived life in his head” and Patrick with his “cleft chin and rugged square face”, this multifarious group would have “smoke[d] or swallow[d] anything to get high.” Weissman has a deft hand in relaying the “life-size diorama” of the swarming and “disreputable characters lounging in doorways and lingering on corners,”  and inducts the reader into the private passel of domestic politics and the counterculture lifestyle underpinned by the belief that nothing really matters except one’s own hedonistic quest for freedom. Often the drug-fuelled gatherings evolve into philosophical contemplations as the interlocutors find themselves “talking politics and bemoaning the world’s condition.” Occasionally the fragmented, time-warped, discussions venture into man’s mortality emphasised by the realisation that “You shop you, you eat, you read, you die”. Weissman unloads his brimming psyche item by item, like any budding writer who had left home to undertake an idyllic, Bohemian quest to pursue a literary adventure. This ethos stands Weissman quite comfortably although in his most familiar environs he remains one of the “neighbourhood idlers who’d been at it too long.”

Reading I Think Therefore Who Am I? made me wish I could dispense with my shoes, weave flowers into my hair, don a paisley print smock and drop acid. But above and beyond the drugs and the New York “jumble of skyscrapers” and the panorama of “an ochre smudge of pollution” and human debris the memoir is much more substantive and reveals a brilliant but achingly self-conscious young man and his compelling urge to discover himself and his place under the sun.  Yet perhaps the two elements are so indivisibly enmeshed that one cannot be read without the other, as Weissman himself notes: “…there were drugs. Always, there were drugs. No history of that time can be understood without them, an influence and obsession.” In fact, it is difficult to imagine this particular memoir without the drugs or their part in its making, for they have shaped both Weissman’s life and prose style into a syntax brimming with vagaries, memories and apprehensions recollected through a markedly subversive tendency of mind made so by the author’s undertakings. I Think Therefore Who Am I? combines polemic, exploit and diablerie making it a unique, intense and candid chef d’oeuvre circumscribing Weissman’s experiences and the epoch of intensely perfervid  political activity and free love. And like all good explorations of the self I Think Therefore Who Am I? doesn’t hold back, diving into the ugly, the awkward, the funny and the heartbreaking head first as we witness Weissman getting repeatedly stoned (and repeatedly robbed), submerging into philosophy and then astrology, feeling increasingly “like cipher”, losing all his earthly possessions, his friends and his virginity, going to Frisco and returning back to New York only to be “humbled by a dog” and humiliated by his girlfriend and her lover. Whatever else the memoir lacks it has life throbbing through it from cover to cover.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates once mumbled and perhaps the old stoic was right. I Think Therefore Who Am I? is a hallucinatory reportage, a sublime recreation of a psychedelic year portrayed with a vivacity which conveys the dizzying myriad twists of the writer’s life as the elusive, surreal images sometimes harden into uncharacteristic philosophical verities and beyond. Weissman’s idealistic notions of the hippy lifestyle and the social ethos of the late 60s are debunked by his own hand through trial and error of the awkward youthful misfit he once was while looking for himself and a place to belong. It makes for an interesting read as he has a great ability to mix raw sentiment in a provocative and utterly candid manner which both ingratiates him with the reader but also makes him, at times, seem somewhat disagreeable. I Think Therefore Who Am I? takes many swerves, abruptly imploring you to skid along through a landscape of sex, drugs and politics, sometimes laughing, other times lachrymose, while Weissman grapples with his own identity and the life ahead of him. Speaking of the year chronicled in his memoir, Peter Weissman described it as a “psychic battering” but also as an experience he’s neither keen to forget nor apologise for, concluding confidently that his life, whatever it was back in those days, was worth examining.

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