The mark inside: More thoughts on William S. Burroughs

February 26, 2011

After the recent post and newspaper column on William Burroughs, I had quite a few people write to me — including a woman who now works for Dillards but at one point was in Burroughs’ employ — about the guy. He’s not nearly obscure as I thought he was, at least not among that small sample of the population likely to reach out to me.

    I realize that I haven’t thought much about Burroughs since he died in 1997. I remember how I found out found out about his death, hrough an e-mail message a friend sent, one that noted it was remarkable Burroughs had made it so long, and that he died in relative comfort, of a heart attack. I wrote about Burroughs then, but there were things I didn’t say in that essay, and so maybe I’m saying them now.

    All of us have discrete plotting points along the arc of our individual intellectual trajectories, moments in which we awakened to fresh delight. What makes art good is its capacity to provide us with new ways of seeing the world, and an alert person can occasionally encounter the spine-snapping shock of enlightenment in the brushwork of Manet or the thunder of Scriabin. Taste is one of the few things that actually does improve with age, but what good is it to be young if we are not also impressionable?

    I was introduced to the work of Burroughs at about the usual age — around 13 — and I devoured it, reading everything that was available and even prevailing upon a bookseller to order more obscure materials. Burroughs was my entree into the Beat Universe. Through him I became acquainted with Lawrence Ferlingetti, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Steve Bukowski, Gary Snyder and a swarm of less-famous word players. I was as familiar with them as I was with the starting lineup of the Cincinnati Reds or the discography of the Rolling Stones, other chief adolescent enthusiasms.

    I used to think that I outgrew Burroughs because I stopped reading his books and paying attention to the odd bits of news about him and his compatriots that filtered through the pages of rock ‘n’ roll magazines.

    These days, I like to think that rather than merely outgrowing Burroughs, I evolved apart from the wonderful terror and bleak filth of his work, and began to regard his work differently. That I consciously decided to distance myself from the legion of black-wearing babes did not diminish what I still perceive as Burroughs’ legitimate, though narrow genius. It just meant that there were other people (and books) whose company I enjoyed more. Burroughs took his place beside Edgar Alan Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald; a graceful generous intelligence to whose work is attached a patina of shame. There is something embarrassing in an adult passion for Burroughs — one might as well confess an admiration for Ayn Rand. So I keep my affection for Burroughs closeted, and smile secretly whenever I observe serious young folk bent over yellowed paperbacks of Naked Lunch.

    Maybe it is a phase we all go through. I think there is rather less to Burroughs than I once thought there was, but there is still enough. His work was brutal and mean but there was sometimes a twinkle in those hard snakey eyes. He wasn’t as good as I thought he was, but he wasn’t as bad either. He was good enough.

   No doubt the director David Cronenberg suffered through his own stage of Beat intoxication. His 1992 film of Naked Lunch is a respectful fugue on Burroughs’ life and art, not an attempt at cinema-izing that most unfilmable of books. It can be forgiven its acolyte’s soul, for it is willing to look at the end of its fork, to confront Burroughs’ signature themes of addiction and control, and to meld them into something beyond an evocation of the master. Perhaps Cronenberg is too assured in his vision to merely parrot Burroughs; at any rate his film cracks through new brush.

    Like the most obnoxious hipster fan, however, Cronenberg assumes a great deal of familiarity with his subject, a tactic likely to put off those with only a nodding acquaintance with the Burroughs canon, and to reward fellow travelers. He borrows liberally from all phases of the writer’s career, extracting a fine, dry and ultimately highly subjective impersonation of Burroughs from Peter Weller (who plays a character called “Bill Lee,” a Burroughs pseudonym).

    Burroughs/Lee, as Cronenberg re-imagines him, is a bundle of disavowed addictions. A writer who cannot write (except when compelled by hallucination), a homosexual drained of desire and fugitive from his feminine nature, a straight junkie and a con artist turned mark.

    Apart from some rather superfluous special effects — a sop to the shopping mall cinemas on which this film had obvious designs — there is little here to criticize. Howard Shore — Saturday Night Live‘s Ur-musical director — updated some Ornette Coleman be-bop into the best jazz score in recent memory. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky gives us beauty and decay, and the performances are uniformly excellent. Even the opening credits, which visually quote Otto Preminger’s 1955 potboiler The Man With the Golden Arm, mesh neatly with the whole.

    Cronenberg did something rare with this movie, and I think I like it better today than I did when I reviewed it. Working with essentially juvenile source material, he made a politically incorrect, funny and brilliant film about the blast of creation and the edgy lies we tell the mark inside.


  • Comment by tmfw — Feb 26,2011 at 10:28 am

    I found Naked Lunch to be pretty much unreadable. But that was 10 years ago or so. Maybe I should take another crack at it.

    Pardon the expression…..

  • Comment by JOKipper — Feb 28,2011 at 12:15 am

    Glad you got around to mentioning the film, as I thought it was odd that it was shorted out of the newspaper column. It’s the only Cronenberg film that I own, which means that it’s the only Cronenberg film that I’ve bothered to watch more than once. I agree with a lot about what you have written concerning the film, although you seem to have a higher regard for it than I do. I consider it an interesting and amusing movie, but not brilliant.

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