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.
Chad Weidner’s new book, The Green Ghost, approaches Burroughs from an ecocritical perspective – perhaps the most unexpected outing in the pantheon of Burroughsian criticism. Burroughs’ image may not jive with that of an ecowarrior, and he was certainly no liberal. He is not, for example, as well-known as Gary Snyder or Allen Ginsberg in terms of literary environmentalism or political protest. However, if the broad scope of recent inquiries into his work tells us anything, it’s that the man and his books were profoundly misunderstood, and we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface.
Weidner’s book is audacious, for sure. His thesis is that Burroughs was some sort of ecoradical, whose novels called for environmental conservation, and that this compassion for the natural world stretches throughout his entire body of work. He is placed in the vein of Henry David Thoreau as a man of “direct action,” who, with his guns, supports a sort of green anarchism. Moreover, Weidner aims not just to challenge our views of Burroughs, but to push the limits of ecocriticism.
I propose that the green anarchist leanings of transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau are the crux in establishing the real relevance of the Beat Generation, and more specifically William Burroughs, to ecocriticism… If the connection between the core Beat members and environmentalism is so obvious, then it is indeed astonishing that so little ecocritical research has been carried out on the group up to the present time.
His method is to break Burroughs’ oeuvre into four supposedly distinct periods (though they clearly overlap): an “initial stage” including the publication of Junkie and the writing of Queer; an “experimental and subversive period” stretching from the early fifties to the early seventies; the “cut-up years” from Minutes to Go until The Wild Boys; and a “final phase” which includes many of his shorter, more linear novels. Weidner then chooses works which are representative of each period to study in light of a range of ecocritical perspectives. The works chosen are Naked Lunch, The Yage Letters, Minutes to Go, the Red Night trilogy, The Cat Inside, and Ghost of Chance.
It is interesting that as the book progresses, the Burroughs texts studied progress in terms of obscurity, from the author’s best-known work to the relatively unknown Ghost of Chance. The later works are not only unfamiliar to the casual Burroughs reader, but also generally ignored by even Burroughs scholars. For that reason alone, The Green Ghost is an important addition to Beat Studies. Yet it is also interesting to see how Burroughs’ environmental leanings shifted over the years. Weidner remarks, “In his final works, Burroughs returned to more linear narratives that focus on animals and deep apprehension about ecological destruction.” This is probably unsurprising to most Burroughs enthusiasts, yet evidently even in his early works – including Naked Lunch – there is a concern with issues such as toxicity and contamination.
Burroughs’ novels are so controversial in content that often critics are put off and this causes important themes to go unnoticed. (It is certainly what I found in examining his interest in Scientology, which until 2013 barely merited an acknowledgement by biographers despite dominating the most creative years of his life.) Weidner explores Burroughs’ most famous work, Naked Lunch, and finds, between the orgies, passages like this to examine:
A vast still harbor of iridescent water. Deserted gas well flares on the smoky horizon. Stink of oil and sewage. Sick sharks swim through the black water, belch sulphur from rotting livers, ignore a bloody, broken Icarus.
He points out, quite rightly, that “This easily overlooked passage describes an ecosystem in crisis.” Moving on, he tackles topics like the relationship between humans and animals in works like the wonderful and yet grossly underappreciated The Cat Inside.
Indeed, throughout The Green Ghost, we are shown a side of Burroughs that remained, until now, largely hidden – an awareness of the fragility and interconnectedness of life on planet earth. In his more famous works the concern was shadowed by violence and obscure literary methods, and later it was hidden by the relative obscurity of the texts themselves, such as The Cat Inside and Ghost of Chance. Thankfully, scholars like Weidner are working to shed valuable light on new areas of study in regards even the most well-known Beat writers.
This review originally appeared in Beatdom #17.