It has been said the the late William S. Burroughs exhibited a sort of intelligent paranoia, a deep distrust of anything so firmly rooted as to be useable by forces unknown to control the erstwhile pure and untainted masses.
Asked to opine on theology by the Paris Review in 1965, Burroughs came back with: “God? I wouldn’t say. I think there are innumerable gods. What we on Earth call God is a little tribal god who has made an awful mess. Certainly forces operating through human consciousness control events.”
Burroughs, as his reputation precedes, spent his life avoiding and attempting to unshackle himself and his fellow humans from all these myriad control systems that he found so sinister; he alone, it seemed, wept for humanity, ensnared in some unseen agenda either not of this world, or not of this dimension.
For reasons of sexual predilections, chemical affinities, and various and numerous criminal enterprises, Burroughs found himself suffocated by contemporary U.S. life long before the idea of control systems came to dominate his discourse. Starting in the late 1940s, Burroughs sought an increasingly isolated existence, earning his pariah reputation by floating around the American South before making it south of the border to Mexico — where he shot his wife in the head during a drunken rendition of his William Tell act — and eventually on to the jungles of South America, and his most famous lieu d’exil, Tangiers.
It is in these latter locales, exotic and often hostile, that Burroughs gained his mystique, the literary outlaw who believed in and bore witness to black magic and extraterrestrial puppetry of human beings. Burroughs only felt comfortable as the man without a country, once saying:
“At the present time we all are confined in concentration camps called nations. We are forced to obey laws to which we have not consented, and to pay exorbitant taxes to maintain the prisons in which we are confined. The pretext that there is any measure of consent involved or benefits received is wearing very thin indeed.”
But contra the mystique, it is no secret among Burroughs aficionados that he lived largely off of an allowance from his parents for much of his adult life, including his time abroad, never really gaining financial independence until after he saw some financial success with Naked Lunch and the subsequent Nova trilogy (and even after that, his parents cared for his son, Billy, while Burroughs travelled abroad). This has often been a sticking point for critics, and is a fact frequently swept under the rug by Burroughs purists who idealize their hero’s life in terms of pure counterculture struggle.
“He spoke about shaking off the constraints of bourgeois existence, but had an allowance from his parents until he was 50,” wrote Duncan White in a review of a new Burroughs biography — Call Me Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles — for The Telegraph. “That money subsidised not only his heroin supply but also his use of teenage prostitutes.”
Moral high-ground aside, there’s a bit of projecting going on in most of these critiques. Burroughs makes an easy surrogate for post-grads living on their parents’ dime while exploring really “out there” literary alleys, the ones who rail against the system while never being forced to subsist within or without it. But it’s far more constructive — and accurate, I think — to view Burroughs in the tradition of patroned artists.
Logically, this is admittedly a stretch, as Burroughs’ allowance came regardless of (and certainly not because of) his literary acumen; his parents were undoubtedly hoping larger things than writing loomed for their son after his graduation from Harvard, their monthly $200 intended to help him along until he established himself (little did they know). But in terms of how the allowance played a role in his writing career, I think the angle is an important one.
Burroughs often gets compared to James Joyce, usually for the disjointed nature of their prose, but often citing the revolutionary nature of their respective undertakings. It’s no stretch to say that, as great an impact as Joyce had on the literary world, Burroughs had an equally immense impact on the culture at large by taking the taboos at which Joyce had only slyly hinted and making them regular themes of his work. For both writers, a steady stream of income free of marketplace expectations made their respective endeavors possible, whether or not it is to be considered an undue luxury.
Joyce’s patronage began almost as soon as he was “discovered” by Ezra Pound, with Harriet Shaw setting up a press dedicated to the genius’s work. In his eponymous biography of Joyce, Patrick Parrinder wrote: “As a professional full-time writer blessed with a patron, Joyce was almost uniquely secure from there need to find an audience outside a small coterie of friends and admirers.”
Between his parents’ money and Maurice Girodias, the French publisher who had a penchant for keeping filth under the radar, Burroughs had the same benefit as Joyce of being allowed to create without restriction without fear of poverty as a consequence.
There’s a second aspect to the dismissal of Burroughs as a sort of wayward aristocrat, and that seems to lie in the existential problem of self-exile. Ted Morgan, author of the once-definitive Burroughs biography, is perhaps as responsible as anyone in forming the post hoc view of Old Bull Lee as the exiled genius, even titling his book Literary Outlaw.
Morgan, to be fair, never hid Burroughs reliance on an allowance to finance his adventures abroad, but he did his best to overstate the outlaw aesthetic that he needed to paint his portrait. This often led to juxtapositions like these, located one page apart (though in separate chapters):
“Burroughs and Ansen hit it off so well they decided to travel to Europe together. They weren’t sure where they wanted to go, but decided to start from Rome. ‘I’m going to steep myself in vice,’ Burroughs announced. But he had to steep himself in parental favor first to refurbish the old exchequer, and left for Florida”; and: “He had succeeded in distancing himself from his class and family background…”
One of Morgan’s favorite analogues for Burroughs was Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the true originals of American letters. Emerson, a minister turned philosophical deist, famously preached a sort of intellectual independence. “[Burroughs] had those very Emersonian qualities of self-reliance and a person point of view,” Morgan wrote.
A more apt comparison might have been Emerson’s protege, Henry David Thoreau, far more notorious among young, literate, rebellious types as a practitioner of civil disobedience, and a rebel who took the self-reliant motifs of Emerson and lived them, constructing his cabin in the woods outside of his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts in order to “live deliberately.”
Thoreau, like Burroughs, drew his own share of criticism, not for their ideals, but for their willing foray into exile, a condition that seems repugnant in any condition that is not absolutely necessary by way of force. “The very important difference between the American literary hipster and his foreign models is that the great artist-criminals were true outcasts from society,” wrote essayist and frequent Beat critic Herbert Gold in a 1958 Playboy article, “they did not pick themselves up by the seat of their own pants and toss themselves out. They were driven by class differences and economic pressure.”
What Gold touches on here is the stigma against self-exile, the idea that it is somehow disingenuous to show yourself the door, even when you feel alien within whatever constructs you happen to exist. It is a reaction perhaps rooted earlier in our evolution, when a member of a tribe would never willingly leave its safety. It was the threat of expulsion from our group that formed the backbone of our early moral systems.
In more modern times, we grew to admire the rebel, the anti-hero who survived and even flourished in spite of forcefully foregoing the security of life as part of the in-group. But those who let themselves out, so to speak — and the line between leaving by force and by choice, except in cases of literal exile, is exceedingly blurry — have always garnered a fierce response from a certain breed of critic.
(It’s hard not to think of Chistopher McCandless, the protagonist of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, who took to the road and finally the wilderness in a genuine, if not a little convoluted, attempt to escape the ills of a money-hungry modern society. In his 1994 review ofInto the Wild, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called him “a kook who went into the woods”.)
But perhaps a better, more apt comparison would be the young George Orwell, who imposed his own self-exile in order to write his first book, a first-person look at poverty in Western Europe, Down and Out in Paris and London.
“There is a religious dimension to this, almost—a need to take a kind of vow of poverty, to dismantle his own privilege and luxury, to be other than his social background,” James Wood wrote in The New Yorker.
Orwell’s Down and Out sits in stark contrast to the Moveable Feast-style portrayal of 1920s Paris that we’re often presented with. Far the Midnight in Paris malaise, the first half of Down and Out sees Orwell in a dungeon of sorts, scrubbing dishes in the basement kitchen of a popular Paris hotel. The latter half of the book takes place in England, where Orwell goes a-tramping, falling in with the local destitutes, sleeping in spikes and shelters, and generally scrounging to survive while enduring every manner of insult.
Of course, Orwell always had family to lean on, and could have at any point decided to head home and have a hot meal and a bath. As Orwell biographer Michael Shelden observed, “There is little doubt that he did endure such an experience, but it was by choice, not by necessity.”
While Orwell’s dedication to producing an accurate story through first-person experience is unquestionable — he might be the first real example of “Gonzo” — one could certainly argue that Orwell’s out prevented him from gleaning any sort of “true” experience, and this is a criticism often lobbed in his direction. There is no way to tell the mental depths he reached while being down and out, but knowing he had family to turn to, and a home to return to, skepticism that he never attained the hopeless state of the genuine destitute seems warranted.
Perhaps the artist needs the struggle against alienation, whether by force or by choice, to truly be able to question the static quo in a meaningful way. It’s very possible that a self-imposed exile is what allowed Burroughs to glimpse the machine at the heart of modern society, to identify the control systems at play and proselytize from the fringe on how we might better open our minds and transcend whatever there was there was to transcend. If he seemed like a cynic on the subject of humanity, it was only because — like Vonnegut, another great postwar moralist — he saw the wasted potential.
It was Orwell who said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Given his predilections, Burroughs would have needed no help struggling against the prevailing cultural motifs of his day even without making a foray into being a public intellectual. But like all those who cam before him, where Burroughs found no resistance, he created it.
This piece originally appeared in The Honest Ulsterman.