William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)

By Indiana, Gary | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), January 20, 1998 | Go to article overview

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)


Indiana, Gary, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


By the time he wrote Junky in the early 1950s, William S. Burroughs was well past his youth. He had traveled all over the United States, Europe, and South America and had lived the harsh, transient existence of a drug addict for over a decade. He came to literature, in other words, fully formed, with a life's worth of material under his belt. Like Joseph Conrad, whose books he revered, Burroughs started late but had everything he needed.

He was a tireless voyager in inner and outer space. Burroughs detested the limitations of living in a body and probed into anything that promised to shake his mind free from the earth plane -- Scientology, Whitley Streiber's aliens, sweat lodges, and, of course, yage, the "telepathy" drug he searched for in the jungles of Colombia and Peru. The cut-up and fold-in techniques he used to write Nova Express, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded were intended to get beyond the limitations of the mind's repetitive language, to tap into some "third mind" just outside hearing range.

Guilt and regret were the impetus of his art, especially guilt over the accidental killing of his wife in what's usually described as a "drunken William Tell experiment." A later source of grief was the death of his son, Billy, who drank himself to death following a liver transplant.

Burroughs was the first American writer to depict gay sex in a completely explicit way -- and not simply explicitly but as over-the-top, orgiastic entertainment. He conjured a world in which the most common sexual event was anal intercourse, with the ejaculations of hanging victims running a close second. Sex is both a sacramental act and a vampiric one: Often Burroughs's characters discard their bodies during sex and colonize those of their partners. He cooked up utopias in which armies of beautiful youths, fucking one another senseless between battles against Authority, circumvent the normal reproductive process by cloning themselves.

At the same time, sex in Burroughs's universe is one of myriad addictions. …

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