William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination

William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination

William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination

William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination

Synopsis

William Burroughs is both an object of widespread cultural fascination and one of America's great original writers. The two mysteries that Oliver Harris explores are how Burroughs became that writer and what fascination itself means. His book is both a work of investigative scholarship that draws on rare access to manuscripts to unearth a secret history behind the received story of Burroughs the writer and an enquiry into the experience of being fascinated, its enigmatic psychology and seductive allure. Harris examines the major works Burroughs produced in the 1950s- Junky, Queer, The Yage Letters,andNaked Lunch- analyzing them within their cultural history and in relation to the methods of their writing. Piecing together for the first time an accurate, material record of Burroughs' creative history during his germinal decade as a writer, Harris shows the importance of getting this right. He refutes the "junk paradigm" of addiction and instead reveals how the dark power of Burroughs's fiction, particularly its sexual and political dimensions, was shaped by the creative energy he invested in his letter writing. As Burroughs said to Allen Ginsberg aboutNaked Lunch,"the real novel is letters to you." Examining a history of epistolary practices from Kafka to Kerouac, Harris reveals the unique nature and economy of Burroughs' letters. Readers are thus able to recognize the emergence of Burroughs' true textual politics- not just his writing's analysis of power, but its own relation to it- within his actual writing practices. Finally, it becomes clear that the discovery of such secrets does not demystify Burroughs, since this discovery is one more response to the enduring power of his fascination.

Excerpt

ehind the visible story of William Burroughs' writing, there lies another, secret history, and the aim of this book is to show both the high stakes and the paradoxical difficulties of trying to reveal the truth about his development as a writer. Since the first chapter maps out and models what the rest of the book does, here I just want to acknowledge some of the many things that I don't do. I only deal with Burroughs' writing of the 1950s, the first of four decades. I don't make grand claims for his importance or consider in any detail the great range of his themes or treat Burroughs as a “man of ideas.” I don't make an easy, linear story out of the twisting, difficult material of my subject, and most of all, I don't try to do his humor. Twenty-five years ago, a reviewer of the first major critical study, Eric Mottram's The Algebra of Need, claimed that Burroughs had perfidiously denied his own gifts, which were “comic and exuberant rather than admonitory and bleak.” He concluded: “It may be his just reward, then, to be studied by people who don't find him funny.” I half agree with the first part but would like to put on record that the conclusion is wrong. More than anything, I remember the loud laughter of Mottram, who was the examiner for my doctoral thesis in 1988, and I think we shared the same sense that Burroughs is comic the way that Kafka is, laughing at what is not supposed to be funny, laughing not lightly but in the face of fear and horror. The Burroughs I write about is a serious Burroughs, taken seriously, but if I didn't find him funny as well as frightening, I would never have found him so fascinating.

This book has been a long time in the writing and rewriting. I started my doctorate in 1984 mainly because of the way Peter Conrad, then my most inspirational professor at Oxford, reacted to the idea. In so many words, he told me it was a dead end, Burroughs was not just a waste of my time and a poor career move but bad news. I have a picture of him in the act of crossing himself to make the point, but this is probably apocryphal.

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