Archives For William S. Burroughs

Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson: From Loathing and Fear to Fear and Loathing

What do Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson have in common? Both were great writers, of course. Both had a fondness for hallucinogens and wrote important books about mind-bending drugs. Both were astute social commentators. However, beyond that there’s not a great deal to link these men, who were very different characters.

But here’s an odd connection between them: Continue Reading…

Allegories from the Cave: Burroughs and Trocchi – a Platonic Love

‘Demiurgos scowled, and with that Plato awoke.

Or did he?’

Voltaire

The drug experience has often been perceived as a public and social issue. Yet, drug use and experience are unquestionably a matter of personal choice, as indeed are the consequences. Nevertheless, there is a persistent tension between the public and the private surrounding drug use. The criminalisation and condemnation of drug use in the mid-twentieth century developed entirely within the public sphere. The drug user essentially had no voice and their dependence subjected them to a criminality and demonization. Indeed, the reality of drug use was, and remains, often distorted and misrepresented to the public by politicians and policy makers. A particular case in point being the wide-spread, and persistent view that one drug, like marijuana, if it does not in itself destroy the user’s life, will eventually lead to harder drugs like heroin addiction and criminal activity. But while the public had its spokespersons and rhetoric, like Henry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, to denounce them, drug users and addicts were subjected to an imbalanced power dynamic with no one to speak for them. What we find in The Yage Letters of William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book are efforts to publicly privatise the drug experience. Or to put the matter another way: these works attempt to make the public aware of the user’s private experience. The aesthetic form of these books reflects the public performance of private life. Moreover, what these authors accomplish has unique parallels with Plato’s allegory of the cave in which an anonymous hero reveals ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ to his community. Continue Reading…

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:

Continue Reading…