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Naked No More

William S. Burroughs A tribute to William S. Burroughs

By Richard von Busack



Imagine the amount of human folly you can witness in 83 years! William S. Burroughs, who died last weekend, was born in 1914, right at the very point where human folly was going to change the landscape of the western world forever.

Historians can look back at the First World War as if it were a rift. There were about 3000 years of human history, there was the Great War, and then there is the modern world in all of its, uh, splendor. As explained in Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, WWI was not only the beginning of the war of attrition, carpet bombing, poison gas and the tank, but also of the form letter, of totalitarianism, of the draft.

The draft caused great sectors of the population to be weighed, measured and analyzed, and this was the point at which The Powers That Be learned that the population concealed quantities of pacifists, junkies and homosexuals. (I'd also refer to the British novelist Pat Barker, who has made the shock of this discovery her particular subject.)

These malcontents could not be allowed to persist in a world at total war. There have been historical times and places during which a man like Burroughs could have been invisible. As a drug addict and homosexual with a modest stipend from his share of a business fortune (the Burroughs adding machine company), Burroughs would have been discreet and unnoticed in Victorian England or 19th-century France. But the world of the Great War, the Second World War and the Cold War needed soldiers. Maybe it was the gaze of "The Eye in the Door," to use Barker's phrase, that led Burroughs into recording his life as a protest against such a world and its needs.

Paranoid Empire

Burroughs claimed to have been so messed up as to not remember the writing of his 1959 masterpiece Naked Lunch. Later, seeking that sort of unconsciousness, he experimented with stream of consciousness and cut up and pasted together narratives--all a sort of word salad, proof of the sad law that easy writing makes hard reading.

But Naked Lunch, the surreal story of Burroughs' bout with heroin addition, is still one of the most important books of this century. Burroughs' gargantuan humor is unpinned to any thought of moral redemption, and the book still makes modern transgressors from Trent Reznor to Jim Goad look like pale whiners.

No one has surpassed the malevolence of Burroughs' portrait of the American Empire in full rampancy: paranoid, bloated, distended with blood, with a literal hard-on for the world. Any writer could easy retire on that achievement, and Burroughs seems to have done just that in his last years, moving to the pretty town of Lawrence, Kan., to raise cats. He'd reappear now and again, for special guest appearance, a fearless old crow croaking out his judgment on the Cold War's successor, the Drug War, as the tool of social control: "Is Control controlled by his need to control?"

Burroughs lived a long life, as a rebuke to health Nazis, and he can be buried with the same epitaph Jonathan Swift has over his tomb: "Ubi saeva indignatio con ulterius lacerare nequit": "Where bitter indignation can no longer tear his heart." Maybe the sad thing is that so few understand what the Naked Lunch says about needles. Even while Burroughs believed that the War on Drugs was an addiction in itself, and while he realized that no government effort was going to keep a junkie from his junk, there still wasn't much of a chance of impressing him with your abcesses. Notice how the same types who like to bitch about how boring the hippies were are now embracing the same habit that helped make them so boring?

From Naked Lunch:

    " 'And what is More UNNECESSARY than junk if You Don't Need It?' Answer: 'Junkies, if you are not ON JUNK.' I tell you boys, I've heard some tired conversation but no other OCCUPATIONAL GROUP can approximate that old thermodynamic junk SLOW-down.

    "Well when that record starts around for the billionth light year and never the tape shall change us non-junkies take drastic action and the men separate out from the Junk boys ...

    "A word to the wise guy."

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