In March, 1992, Allen Ginsberg visited his old friend, William S. Burroughs, at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. He recorded ten ninety-minute cassette tapes of conversation for his long-time musical collaborator, Steven Taylor, to transcribe. The purpose was to gather suitable material for a short article. However, a few decades later the tapes surfaced once again and Taylor decided that the result warranted its own book.
Don’t Hide the Madness: William S. Burroughs in Conversation with Allen Ginsberg is the result, and it is a charming, often funny, read. While Ginsberg and Burroughs are famous for their often incendiary literary efforts, this conversation sees them in very different form – as forgetful old men discussing their health problems and sharing old memories. The book is highly intimate in that it is very definitely unstructured, with the conversation going around and around in circles, coming back to the same topics, as they reminisce about the past and discuss books they’ve read and movies they’ve watched.
Burroughs in particular seems very softened, a far cry from his public persona – and indeed, probably his private one – of previous decades. While he still has the occasional obscene tale to tell, and brings up his old favourite topic of viruses, he is more interested in talking about his beloved cats, which often interrupt the conversation. This is the Burroughs readers would know from his later – lesser-known – work, The Cat Inside. He is an old man by now, and it is not hard to tell. He often seems not to hear or follow the conversation, and sometimes just chips in with a “hmm”.
Yet in some ways it is the same old Burroughs, replete with odd theories, wild stories, and guns. Although his passion for firearms remains strong, Burroughs is utterly appalled by the thought of ever shooting an animal: “I like to shoot, but I could never kill an animal… and a deer, good heavens, never.” Perhaps this sounds surprising to those who know Burroughs as the man who shot his wife, Joan Vollmer, dead in Mexico City. They would surely be even less comfortable with another quote from later in the book, when Burroughs tells Ginsberg, with no apparent trace of irony, “I’m very careful with weapons.”
Readers might be even more surprised to see Ginsberg – who calls himself an “old hippie” – join his friend for a spot of shooting. The image of Allen with a weapon seems as outlandish and incongruous as any Burroughsian routine, but perhaps he was hurting from recent movie depictions of him as “a wimp.” In any case, during one long section of the book, Burroughs and Ginsberg fire various guns at homemade targets. Ginsberg turns out to be quite adept at firing a gun, and happily shoots a picture of the Buddha through the heart.
There is a lot of talk of movies, as the interview was intended to tie in with the release of David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch adaptation. Ginsberg has a lot of criticisms about it, but Burroughs seems very happy with how it was done. On the matter of turning a book into a movie, he denies that the two can be compared: “…there’s no point trying to be faithful to the book because film and writing are just two completely different mediums… Any film stands on its own apart from whether it’s based on a novel.” They also discuss the movie Heart Beat, and other possible future adaptations of Beat stories.
In my recent review of a Burroughs book, I observed that he was somewhat prescient – something that has been noted about his works since Naked Lunch. This interview, too, raises subjects that are on our minds today more than ever. One subject that is repeatedly raised (and there is a lot of repetition in this book) is that of the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie. Both writers are disgusted by this, and they discuss why Burroughs was not targeted for his depictions of Islam in Naked Lunch. He concludes that it is because he was never a Muslim. Elsewhere they talk about guns in schools, and Ginsberg repeatedly attempts to bring up the subject of memes, long before they had entered popular consciousness. He also takes a subtle dig at political correctness.
It is funny to hear the two men discuss old stories from Beat history, which are included in dozens of different books. Often Burroughs fails to recall an important event, or they remember things happening differently. This of course is common, and human memories indeed change the more we attempt to recall them. However, it makes one wonder how much of recorded Beat history was true – or rather, how much of it came from Allen Ginsberg’s sometimes fanciful imagination. Or maybe it’s just that, fifty years after the fact, memories fade…
In any case, this is a deeply personal and beautiful book. It seems a tad repetitive in places, and the tapes occasionally cut, leaving gaps in the conversation, but all the little imperfections make it more real, more pleasant. Ginsberg famously edited his interviews and treated them as an art just like his poems, and to read his words unabridged – indeed, as interviewer more than interviewee – is refreshing, and fun.