William S Burroughs: A life by Barry Miles, book review
Thursday 20 February 2014
‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness’ wrote Allen Ginsberg, one of Burroughs’s most faithful and long-standing champions and collaborators, in the opening words of Howl. The poem was dedicated to Carl Solomon, at the time committed to an asylum; but of the original Beats, William Burroughs followed Rimbaud’s path of ‘the systematic derangement of the senses’ with the most determination.
In the first biography to include the writer’s final years, longstanding friend and Burroughs scholar Barry Miles documents his journey in unflinching detail. Burroughs was born in the crepuscular, heavily polluted city of St Louis, where his grandfather and namesake had invented what was to become the enormously successful Burroughs Adding Machine. Until he was 50, Burroughs received an allowance from his parents, who stood his bail when he was busted, paid his lawyer’s fees and funded endless cycles of rehab and analysis, as well as bringing up the son he abandoned.
Burroughs began as a sensitive child, subject to visions and possibly the victim of abuse at an early age at the hands of his Welsh nurse. Sent to the most expensive school in America and then to Harvard, he was inexorably drawn to an underworld of drugs and queer gangsters, first glimpsed through the pages of crime novels. The book opens with a sweat-lodge ceremony at which a shaman attempts to expel a demon known as ‘The Ugly Spirit’ from the venerated 68 year-old writer. It is this malevolent entity Burroughs blamed for the central event of his life, the shooting dead of his wife Joan Vollmer at a Mexico City party in a drunken re-enactment of the William Tell story, an act for which he felt an unending remorse that left him no choice but to try and ‘write his way out’.
It is perhaps for his recording of the mechanics and physicality of this writing, as well as the creation of Burroughs’s collages, scrapbooks, photographs, sound recordings and paintings, that we can be most grateful to Miles. The cut-up technique, originally discovered by a friend and co-tenant in the Beat Hotel in Paris, Brion Gysin, was recognised by Burroughs immediately as ‘a project for disastrous success’. As he explained, ‘language is part of matter’ to be ‘treated in the same way a collage would be by a painter’.
Through its lasting influence on subsequent literature, pop music, film and contemporary art, this insight could be seen as a more important contribution to the culture than the books themselves. Added to his ability to recognise a good idea and run with it, Burroughs had another talent; that of inspiring extraordinary loyalty in his long-term collaborators.
Fuelled by a varying (meticulously catalogued) cocktail of drugs, booze and boys, Burroughs was known on occasion to type in a frenzy, tossing pages over his shoulder onto the floor. It fell to his friends, lovers and assistants, particularly Allen Ginsberg and James Grauerholz, the latter a major contributor to research for this book, to edit and painstakingly piece together the final manuscripts. Burroughs was convinced his cutting techniques unlocked magical forces; in his view ‘writing is … not an escape from reality but an attempt to change reality’. This he certainly achieved on our behalf, although whether he did so for himself is another question.