William S. Burroughs is generally seen as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. He was also a true connoisseur of drugs. He could be considered as one of the great psychonauts were it not for his ambivalent feelings towards psychedelics.
William Seward Burroughs II was born on February 5, 1914, in St. Louis. His family was wealthy as his grandfather, after whom he was named, was the inventor of an adding machine and the founder of the Burroughs company, which would grow to be a force in the computer world. The young Burroughs already had a knack for writing and he seemed on his way towards a normal life when he went to Harvard to study English followed by anthropology. During World War II Burroughs failed to enlist and started to dabble in drugs. At this time he would meet Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. This was the beginning of a friendship that would have massive cultural consequences.
After the war Burroughs, having become a full-time heroin addict and part-time dealer, travelled to different continents. He had met his second wife Joan Vollmer during the war. She was also into drugs but gravitated towards benzedrine (basically a legal amphetamine at the time). They started a tumultuous relationship and even had a son (who would become a writer himself.) The drug lifestyle was catching up with Burroughs who decided to move to Mexico. Heroin had made him disinterested in sex, but without it Burroughs’ latent homosexuality started to become manifest, putting a strain on their relationship. This eventually led to the infamous William Tell incident. One night, when both were drunk, Burroughs pulled out his gun and told his wife it was time for their “William Tell act.” Vollmer then put a glass on her head and although Burroughs was an expert shot he aimed too low and killed her.
With the help of bribery, Burroughs was sentenced after much delay. But he had already returned to the United States. Burroughs later interpreted the murder as a crucial event in his life, arguing he would never have become a writer if it had not taken place. Even so, he had already finished most of the manuscript for the novel Junkie, although he had written it because Ginsberg convinced him to do so. Junk (later Junkie) was published in 1953 under the pseudonym William Lee. Nowadays it is considered a classic of drug literature, a painstakingly realistic look at the life of the heroin addict. At that time addiction was a taboo subject and it was published in a line of cheap paperbacks mainly dealing with detectives and true crime stories. The book would go unnoticed until Burroughs became a famous experimental writer.
Always on the move or on the run Burroughs eventually settled in Tangier. This Moroccan city was perfect for him: men and drugs were always available. Here he started to write a novel under the influence of cannabis (especially the Moroccan confection majoun) and a number of opioids. The result was a hallucinatory text which the visiting Kerouac and Ginsberg helped get into shape. The content and style of what would be named Naked Lunch were so radical that only the Parisian publishing company Olympia Press, specialized in “unpublishable books”, accepted the book. Luckily for Burroughs, the book became a scandal and got banned in the United States because of its obscene language. Eventually, the ban was overturned while Burroughs had become something of a literary star. Naked Lunch and follow-ups like The Ticket That Exploded (1962) and Nova Express (1964) were very popular books in the Sixties counter-culture. Burroughs, already fifty years old and always dressed in a suit, was embraced as a slightly odd spokesman. This status was cemented with his appearance on the legendary cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles.
View on drugs
Burroughs used drugs for the most part of his life although he managed to kick his heroin habit in the early 1970s, eventually relapsing again. At the time of his death, he was on a methadone program. He always remained interested in the varieties of the drug experience and how substances interact with the mind and body. Drugs eventually would form part of a larger control system which fascinated the anti-authoritarian Burroughs to no end. Burroughs was a libertarian with a paranoid view of government that was out to curtail freedoms on different levels. In the early 1950s, his anthropology study in combination with his interest in mind-altering substances led Burroughs on a 7-month expedition to the Amazonian rainforest. He went in search of yagé, which we nowadays know as ayahuasca, mainly because he hoped it would cure him of his addiction. His experiences are described in The Yage Letters which is a compilation of his notebooks and the letters Burroughs sent to his friend Ginsberg. Burroughs was impressed by the power of ayahuasca which he thought to be unlike any other drug. And in typical Burroughs fashion paranoia made an appearance as he was convinced the assistance of the curandero was out to kill him.
Burroughs’ encyclopaedic knowledge was welcomed in the 1960s when therapists, scientists and guru’s tried to find a way of keeping LSD legal. Obviously, authorities tried to associate LSD with addiction. This explains why Burroughs makes a somewhat surprising appearance in the 1964 book LSD The Conscious-Expanding Drug. In the company of famous psychonauts like Timothy Leary, Alan Watts and Humphry Osmond he gives a sober explanation of the difference between narcotics and conscious-expanding substances. Burroughs had a realistic non-romantic view of drugs, he, for instance, liked cannabis for writing and the way it offered multiple views but dismissed the idea of inspiration through drugs.
The influence of Burroughs is almost immeasurable. In a sense, he applied the modernist freedoms of James Joyce with a great sense of humour and a lack of fear when it came to taboo subjects. He also introduced into writing a method that became known as cut-up. The writer would cut his text with scissors and then rearrange the pieces to find new combinations and meanings. Many of his famous books read like avant-gardist science fiction and his influence on writers like J.G. Ballard, William Gibson and Robert Anton Wilson is undeniable. No writer has been as influential on pop culture as Burroughs. Steely Dan named themselves after a dildo in Naked Lunch, David Bowie applied the cut-up method to many of his songs, while Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson and Kurt Cobain all were inspired by his writings. Burroughs would sometimes make an appearance in a video (Ministry’s ‘Just One Fix’) and even collaborated with musicians for the album Dead City Radio (1990) on which texts read in his inimitable voice are accompanied by music from artists like Sonic Youth, Donald Fagen and John Cale. Burroughs made a surprise appearance in the 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy and in 1991 the Canadian horror director David Cronenberg attempted an adaptation of Naked Lunch. A literal film version would have been impossible but Cronenberg cleverly mixed the book with autobiographical material and still managed to make a unique and trippy film.
William Burroughs died on August 2, 1997, from a heart attack, aged 83. He was buried on the family grave plot. Under his name and date of birth and death, it simply says American writer.
- Junkie (1953)
- Naked Lunch (1959)
- The Soft Machine (1961)
- The Ticket That Exploded (1962)
- Nova Express (1964)
- The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971)
- Cities of the Red Night (1981)
- The Place of Dead Roads (1983)
- The Western Lands (1987)
- Interzone (1989)
- My Education: A Book of Dreams (1995)
- The Yage Letters (1963)
- The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs (1969)
- The Electronic Revolution (1971)
- The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (1985)