William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

3
Anyone Who Can Pick Up a Frying Pan Owns Death

Alan Ansen

A gatha Christie, somewhere, making fun of the plot of a hypothetical modern play, says that the young hero is actually a sort of saint: he robs, he commits mayhem, he kills, and then finally he performs a miracle. She spoke better than she knew; for in the burgeoning American potlatch of yummy cholesterol, high-priced protein, and the infinitely extensible falsie only some sharp delinquency, whether a private needle or a public bomb, seems capable of reminding us that we live perpetually with heaven and hell.

What William S. Burroughs gives us, in his life and his writings, is the example of a deeply committed personality totally uninterested in culture as information, in a surface of "nice" people, in all those time-wasting activities with which even the most earnest hen-track makers seek to beguile the specter.

Picture a young man brought up in St. Louis descended from the founder of one of America's great industrial enterprises. The depression reduces the family fortune but by no means completely wipes it out. At Harvard during the first New Deal administration he impresses his contemporaries with the force underlying his political intelligence, his serious studies in poetry and ethnology, his experiments with Yogi. A year or so in corrupting Europe and back to Harvard for graduate study in anthropology.

And now the break. An early traumatic experience has resulted in a rough love life and, even more important, in a loss of confidence in his family. Psychoanalysis removes fear but not a sense of isolation. Self-contrived rejection by the Army after the fall of France strengthens that sense. All of us who failed to participate in the war effort owing to one form of unclubbability or another have, I think, felt the

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Alan Ansen, "Anyone Who Can Pick Up a Frying Pan Owns Death," Big Table 2 (Summer 1959): 32-41. Copyright © 1986 by Alan Ansen. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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