Guns and Neuroses

By Fallowell, Duncan | The Spectator, February 8, 2014 | Go to article overview

Guns and Neuroses


Fallowell, Duncan, The Spectator


William S. Burroughs lived his life in the grand transgressive tradition of Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde and, like all dandies, he had a nose for hedonistic hot spots which he could mythologise along with himself. On the occasion of his centenary, Barry Miles takes us through these gorgeous, macabre scenarios with an attention to detail reminiscent of Dadd or Bosch: the boyhood in suburban St Louis; Harvard and early trips to Europe; the war, Greenwich Village and the Beats; Latin America and exile in 1950s Tangier, Existential Paris, Swinging London; the return to the USA and emergence as a literary celebrity adored by Warhol.

The wheels are oiled with drugs, guns and sex, suicides and murders, comedy, neuroses and madness, intellectual experiment, numerous cranky collaborators and far-out disciples. But the muse touched the mess - and hey presto, a great writer was born.

The history of modernist literature is the history of 'outsiderdom' and Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959) is the last key novel in that particular trajectory. With its montage 'open text' techniques, it is also the herald of post-modernism and of his own future work.

The fact that his drug-addled brain could not by that time produce coherent narrative does not undermine Burroughs's achievement, because the vitality of the oeuvre is inarguable: texts a-swarm with new creatures, images, ideas, bizarre hilarities and prosodic ingenuities. Miles's biography is especially useful in demonstrating how the novels sprang from their author's life.

Much of the story is already familiar because the Beat Movement is a sort of later American equivalent to England's Bloomsbury Group - a social and artistic avant garde celebrated as soap opera in countless films and books, with Burroughs as the Lytton Strachey figure, a presiding authority of outrage and cool. He became in due course the cynosure of every smart-Alec druggie know-all, but Miles manages to get behind this to identify a warmer, more vulnerable man of rich complexity.

Since Burroughs is one of the most important writers of the 20th century, it's worth noting some reservations concerning this latest biography. Miles chooses to open with a long account of the exorcism Burroughs underwent with a Navajo shaman, hoping to rid himself of an 'ugly spirit' he believed had entered and possessed him.

Burroughs's occultism may be an aspect of his poetical mind; but like his other fads it can be fatuous if not kept in perspective, because here was a man variously stoned on opiates, marijuana, alcohol and many other drugs to the end of his days. …

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