by Steven O’Sullivan
It’s like a compass. A compass operates on magnetics. People always seem to be in such a rush to articulate themselves. But maybe we just can’t articulate certain emotions. Maybe there’s just those things we’re inexplicably drawn to. Maybe. A kind of primordial magnet inside us that knows better than we do. Something like love; if love stepped on broken glass and stumbled around a little and had a couple more drinks and… well, I don’t know.
Here we go.
Burroughs. We’ve read his books, we’re well aware of his literary impact (if you don’t, then go home and read Junky immediately and cry yourself to sleep for about a week or so); especially regarding a writer’s right to obscenity. Burroughs’ pioneering success at getting Naked Lunch published in lieu of obscenity charges is right up there alongside Ginsberg and Howl.
That’s all well and good. But. . .
Libertarian triumph is not really what concerns me regarding Burroughs. Visions, rather, pique my interest in him.
In Kerouac’s On the Road we find Burroughs, alias Old Bull Lee, gracefully slumming it in a mansion shack outside of New Orleans with his beloved, pre-William Tell Joan Vollmer. In between front-yard soda can shoot-outs and absolute drug-induced space-outs, he is a man concerned with direction. Visions, Burroughs seems to believe, will guide us thru life. A fleeting, subliminal influence; holding out just long enough to give us a turn. After Jack gets an inexplicable feeling about a horse at the racetrack that ends up winning, Burroughs refuses to dismiss it as coincidence. A brief dissertation on visions follows:
“How do you know your father, who was an old horseplayer, just didn’t momentarily communicate to you that Big Pop was going to win the race? The name brought the feeling up in you. . . Mankind will someday realize that we are actually in contact with the dead. . . if we only exerted enough mental will, we could predict what is going to happen within the next hundred years and be able to take steps to avoid catastrophe.”
Granted, this kind of belief can be construed as perhaps a bit too mystical for truly practical application. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just mystical enough. It doesn’t seem to me that the Beats ever particularly shunned the concepts of mysticism. If anything Ginsberg and Snyder rather embraced them. Burroughs exudes a unique concern for humanity on the whole, unlike many of the Beats who seemed more interested in forming a microcosmic society that adhered to their ideology.
What concerns me is that interest in minutiae. The thought that maybe visions grasp those feelings our tongues can’t seem to articulate.
The weight of the inarticulate can be overwhelming at times. The vicious frustration that seems to shut you off from the world. They’re staring at you, your lips moving, forming shoddy attempts at cohesion. . . yet all that’s coming is drivel. After enough time, your frustrated attempts don’t clear anything up, they just seem to build a wall between you and the rest of the world. But you know that it’s important. Whatever it is, you know that it matters. It’s eating you up inside, keeping you up at night and it just won’t come. But it’s the reason you had that one more drink, it’s the reason you quit that job and up and relocated without so much as a word to those that seemed closest to you. Tearing your roots out thru your head just seemed to make sense, but any time someone demands an explanation you can’t do it justice. You can’t really do anything for that matter except stare at them awkwardly with your mouth open and crooked, your nose just as crooked as your thoughts.
It’s like in Hunter S. Thompson’s Rum Diary when Thompson’s alter ego, Kemp, imagines himself being interviewed and questioned as to why it was that he up and left New York City. Thompson blamed it on the ‘sack’. The inevitable sack that comes down over your head and snuffs out your life right before you.
So what the hell are you going to do about it? I guess we need some kind of a compass to steer us away from that looming goddamn sack.
Maybe it is visions that serve as that compass. Visions so fleeting that you can’t even pinpoint them when they flash across your mind. But at the same time, they’re so vibrant and painful that you’re forced into action. After it passes you can’t determine the why or the how. The push came nonetheless. The push out of the way of the sack. One more step in the right direction. One more intelligently placed bet on the right horse. That’s how it worked for Kerouac at least. That’s what sparked Burroughs’ diatribe on the visions in the first place. Something steering us in the right direction.
I suppose, in a technical sense, you could label Burroughs a writer. Novelist. Whatever. Seems like that’d be kind of missing the reality though. After all, the man didn’t start writing for quite a long time, and even after he started, he was constantly being pushed by others to keep on. In the 50s he had settled in at Tangiers to focus more seriously on his writing, yet it was not until Ginsberg and Kerouac arrived in ’57 and pushed him to utilize the “cut-up” technique, that Naked Lunch became the literary phenomenon that it is known as today.
Despite finishing what many see as his magnum opus, it would be several more years before Naked Lunch was even published. When controversial publisher Maurice Girodias decided to take on Naked Lunch it was not at Burroughs insistence. Rather, Girodias had been following the controversies that had sprung up in resistance to the content of the book. Burroughs was simply along for the ride; completely unconcerned with any kind of literary gain or notoriety. And additionally, the paycheck that would hopefully come. Burroughs was at a tough point in his life financially and any kind of monetary break would be a much-welcomed one. After the sale of the international rights to Naked Lunch, a $3,000 advance went to Burroughs from Grove Press. He immediately used it to purchase drugs.
With this brief history of the creation of Naked Lunch, we see Burroughs writing as a means to ends, not as a focus. Ends of travel, drugs, young boys. . . not press parties, exposure, renown. Searching after visions and inspiration. That innate, primordial compass guiding him bit by bit.
If the act of writing itself was simply an aesthetic devotion. . . it follows that something equally as honest would serve as a catalyst. Joan Vollmer’s accidental death, served from his own hands in a drunken game of William Tell gone tragically wrong, proved to be that catalyst. He is quoted as crediting the incident for pushing his life into a different direction:
“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”
Ugly Spirits are vague and vengeful demons. No choice except to write one’s way out? Out of what? That possessive entrapment that looms constantly over one’s head? And what, exactly, might that be? The sack. A vision. We can see how desperately Vollmer’s death affected him. Not simply affected him, but sparked him. And where did it drive him? To exotic locales, drug-induced run-ins with degenerates. . . it drove him to ends of one kind or another. The best way he could possibly hope to articulate that haunting vision that drove him was to credit it as a vague and vengeful Ugly Spirit that refused to abandon his heels.
Vollmer’s death, manifest in the act of writing, magnetized itself to Burroughs. So he kept moving, kept running; occasionally throwing out slips of paper that attempted to make sense of it all. Of course, he barely had the time to even consider them. He just spat them out and left them behind for others to judge.
Magnetized. Like a compass. Maybe after fourteen hundred words you are able to work it out for someone else. Not for yourself, though.
Maybe that’s the juxtaposition of the two. A compass to show you the way and a vision to get you started. Not that you’ll understand either of them. And maybe you don’t need to. After all, it doesn’t really matter where you find it.
In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…