Magazine article Reason

The Sultan of Sewers: William Burroughs' Anti-Authoritarian Vision

Magazine article Reason

The Sultan of Sewers: William Burroughs' Anti-Authoritarian Vision

Article excerpt

Call Me Burroughs: A Life, by Barry Miles, Twelve, 718 pages, $32

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In July of 1957, an unknown writer named William Burroughs visited a friend in Copenhagen. After three weeks in the area, including a brief excursion to Sweden, he wrote to the poet Allen Ginsberg that "Scandinavia exceeds my most ghastly imaginations." In Naked Lunch, the novel Burroughs was writing at the time, Scandinavia became a model for a place called Freeland. "Freeland was a welfare state," the book explained. "If a citizen wanted anything from a load of bone meal to a sexual partner some department was ready to offer effective aid. The threat implicit in this enveloping benevolence stifled the concept of rebellion."

After Naked Lunch was published in 1959, Burroughs graduated from unknown writer to literary celebrity. Today he is widely regarded, along with Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, as one of the three towering figures of the Beat movement. He was one of the most prominent figures in the emergence of the postwar counterculture, and his influence stretches well beyond the Beats to the bohemias of the '60s, the '70s, and beyond. In 2014, a century after his birth in St. Louis, his work remains a touchstone for alienated cynics of all kinds.

But Burroughs' worldview was miles from the peace-and-love socialism that our cultural cliches tell us to expect from a hippie hero. In 1949, according Barry Miles' new biography Call Me Burroughs, he complained to Kerouac that "we are bogged down in this octopus of bureaucratic socialism." When he was a landlord in New Orleans he sent Ginsberg a rant against rent control, and when he found himself owning a farm in Texas he gave Ginsberg an earful about the evils of the minimum wage. Eventually he departed for Mexico, and there he wrote to Ginsberg again. "I am not able to share your enthusiasm for the deplorable conditions which obtain in the U.S. at this time," he told his leftist friend. "I think the U.S. is heading in the direction of a Socialistic police state similar to England, and not too different from Russia.... At least Mexico is no obscenity 'Welfare' State, and the more I see of this country the better I like it. It is really possible to relax here where nobody tries to mind your business for you." He added that Westbrook Pegler, a hard-right pundit who would soon be a vocal defender of Sen. Joe McCarthy, was "the only columnist, in my opinion, who possesses a grain of integrity."

Two decades later, covering the Democratic Party's bloody 1968 con vention for Esquire, Burroughs manifested a more left-wing aura. A day after his arrival he donned a McCarthy button--the antiwar insurgent candidate Eugene McCarthy, that is, not Pegler's pal Joe. When cops started assaulting protesters outside the convention hall, Burroughs immediately aligned himself with the radicals in the streets, declaring in a public statement that the "police acted in the manner of their species" and asking, "Is there not a municipal ordinance that vicious dogs be muzzled and controlled?" He then helped lead an illegal march that ran straight into a contingent of cops and National Guardsmen.

In doing this, he was not merely supporting the protesters' civil liberties. He was aligning himself with one side of what he saw as a grand conflict. "This is a revolution," he wrote in a 1970 article for the East Village Other, "and the middle will get the squeeze until there are no neutrals there." Still later in his life, he would identify "American capitalism" as his foe, specifying: "the American Tycoon...William Randolph Hearst, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, that whole stratum of American acquisitive evil. Monopolistic, acquisitive evil."

So had the aging artist shifted from the far right to the far left? Not exactly. Burroughs' hostility to the police was a constant throughout his career. In that same letter to Ginsberg that praised Mexico for not being a welfare state, he added this nugget: "Here a cop is on the level of a street-car conductor. …

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