Archives For William S. Burroughs

I’m Watching You Watching Me: The Inversion of the Gaze in Ginsberg’s Photographs

“You never look at me from the place from which I see you.”

– Jacques Lacan

Introduction: The Photographs, The Beats, The Gaze

If we conceive of the photograph as something to be gazed at, what are the affects, then, if the gaze is inverted, and turned back onto its viewer? What happens when the viewer becomes the viewed? To explore these questions, I will analyze a series of five photographs that Allen Ginsberg took while travelling through Tangiers, Morocco, in 1961, from the University of Toronto archives. The photographs were donated by the Larry and Cookie Rossy Family Foundation of Montreal in January, 2014 and together compile the world’s largest collection of Ginsberg’s photographs, numbering 7,686. They are housed within the archives of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and the Art Centre. A selection of these images have been made publically accessible online through flickr and the Art Centre Online, and from which I am working from. Continue Reading…

When was ‘Beat’ First Written?

On this blog, we’ve previously discussed the surprisingly difficult question of what the Beat Generation was, and later, what the difference is between Beats and Beatniks. Yet actually pinning down the meaning of the word “Beat,” an adjective used by the likes Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs in the forties and fifties, is not so difficult. Its etymology is well-documented – although, as with so much Beat lore, there are numerous errors in popular sources. It originated in “hepcat” speak, most likely passed from the underground world to the Columbia world through Herbert Huncke. Continue Reading…

Review: The Best Minds of My Generation

There are so many books about the Beat Generation that focus on the writers’ roles as rebels and “literary outlaws,” who break with convention and reject all the old ways. They are portrayed as angry young men and outsiders in life and literature. This view is not entirely incorrect, but in The Best Minds of My Generation, a collection of Allen Ginsberg lectures edited into a coherent book form by Bill Morgan, we are presented with a very different view of the Beats. Continue Reading…

Prophecy in Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch is the book that catapulted William S. Burroughs from a minor author and figure of interest in the wake of beatnik hysteria into a notorious and, eventually, respected postmodernist writer. His book shocked the literary world and continues to do so, despite having more or less become canon. It has had an immense impact upon literature, art, and music in the West, and famously won a court case to signal a shift away from repressive censorship in American law. It is also known, however, for its eerily accurate prophesies. Continue Reading…

Review: The Green Ghost

In recent years, William S. Burroughs’ work and life has been examined from various vantage points. In my own 2013 book, I explored his relationship with the Church of Scientology and pored over his work for references to the religion. That same year, Jorge Garcia-Robles looked at Burroughs’ time in Mexico. In 2014, Matthew Levi Stevens looked at Burroughs in terms of magic and the occult, while a plethora of work appeared across the spectrum in celebration of the author’s hundredth birthday. One even focused on his work as a photographer. Then 2015 saw the release of Barry Miles’ superlative biography, which surpassed any of the earlier efforts, including Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw. Continue Reading…

The Politics of the Wild Boys

In anticipation of Beatdom #17 – the POLITICS issue – we’re releasing this one-off free PDF download of The Politics of the Wild Boys, in which David Depestel explores the complex politics in some of William S. Burroughs’ best books. Continue Reading…

The Complicated Politics of the Beat Triumvirate

There is much about the Beat Generation that is shrouded in confusion. Oftentimes it stems from wishful thinking on the part of Beat scholars and readers, and sometimes it emerges from the haze between the myths the Beats themselves created and their own reality. Partly, though, the confusion arises from the simple fact that the politics of the three best-known Beat Generation authors was in fact rather complicated, and no amount of simplification can detract from that fact. Allen Ginsberg was the face of the left for much of the late twentieth century, but was he was also critical of much of the left. Jack Kerouac was the hero of the left in the sixties, yet his personal politics then veered hard right. And William S. Burroughs… Well, his ideas concerning politics involve space travel, engrams, and word viruses. Continue Reading…

Here To Go & Back Again: The Lives & Arts of Brion Gysin

If Brion Gysin had not existed, it probably would have been necessary to invent him, as the saying goes. Pre-eminent multimedia psychedelic shaman of the latter-half of the Twentieth Century, Gysin was something of a jack-of-all-trades: Artist, Calligrapher, Entrepreneur, Kinetic Sculptor, Novelist, Performance Artist, Photographer, Poet, Raconteur, Restaurateur, and Traveller in This-and-Other Worlds. Brion did it All. And even a brief list of the names he crossed paths with sounds like a veritable Who’s Who: Laurie Anderson, Francis Bacon, David Bowie, Paul Bowles, Ira Cohen, Ornette Coleman, Max Ernst, Marianne Faithfull, Leonor Fini, Jean Genet, Keith Haring, Billie Holliday, Brian Jones, Timothy Leary, Iggy Pop, Genesis P-Orridge, Patti Smith, Gore Vidal – and, of course, his long-term friend and collaborator, William Burroughs – are among the friends, fellow-travellers and sometimes collaborators that have spoken of their admiration for the Man and his Work. As his biographer, John Geiger, wrote:

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Review: The Ugly Spirit, by Steven La Vey

Steven La Vey’s The Ugly Spirit begins with a quote from William S. Burroughs, who also coined the term that give the book its title, “the ugly spirit”: Continue Reading…

East Coast Beats vs. West Coast Beats

The Beats as we know them are a New York City phenomena and walk hand in hand with Abstract Expressionism as one of the great defining moments of art in the second half of the 20th century. Just like Jackson Pollock and William DeKooning were all about reinterpreting what painting meant, so the Beats were trying to redefine linguistics in a way that made poetry and prose contemporary, or at least brought it up to date from the days of the Lost Generation, who expatriated to Paris after World War I.  The Beats were the fallout of the existential crisis brought on by the nuclear bomb, and a seminal Beat poem by Gregory Corso called “Bomb” appeared on the page in the form of a mushroom cloud. The Beats were interested in writing from their wits and believed the concept of “first thought was the best thought,” even though they may not have lived by this credo it was a defining trait of their aesthetic stance. It was similar to an Abstract Expressionist looking for a perfect stroke on the canvas that somehow said everything about an internally troubled excited knowable state, even if he/she worked on the painting for weeks, months, or years. The goal of both movements, along with Be-Bop, was to express a moment of feeling without being restricted in time, even if this took years of practice. It might seem a quaint idea from a 2015 perspective but art was very tied to rules when the Beats wrote to the rhythm of their breath, or to the sounds of Charlie Parker’s alto sax, and it was a revolutionary act that scared a lot of critics and aesthetes into thinking the Beats were turning back the clock on poetry and were like modern day Neanderthals rather than the greatest minds of their generation. Yet that’s an image they would’ve been proud of in their inner circle, just like the Abstract Expressionists wanted to get back to primal thinking. The Beats were audacious but demanded to be taken seriously, which is probably why they earned the moniker of angry young men.

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