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The Reading Life: Interviewing William Burroughs

Allenginsbergwilliamburroug

This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

The latest issue of Sensitive Skin, a magazine "by and for ne'r-do-wells, black sheep, blackguards, scoundrels and wastrels," features a long interview with William S. Burroughs, conducted by his friend and running mate Allen Ginsberg in the early 1990s, when both men had achieved an uneasy status as elder statesmen of the underground.

Burroughs, who died in 1997 at the age of 83, was living at the time in Lawrence, Kan., where he settled in the 1980s; Ginsberg had come to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony to exorcise "the ugly spirit," a possessing force Burroughs felt had influenced, among other tragedies, the accidental shooting death of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951.

According to a note by editor B. Kold, the interview came to him in 1995 by way of Ginsberg himself; it was mislaid when Sensitive Skin went on a long hiatus, and subsequently rediscovered after the magazine was revived in 2010. It is accompanied by a suite of Ruby Ray photographs, originally shot for RE/Search, which ran a special Burroughs issue in 1981.

If all of this sounds like ancient history, that's true in its way, I suppose. But reading the interview, a couple of impressions linger. First is just how prescient both Burroughs and Ginsberg were, talking about politics and advertising as a virus, a decade before viral marketing. Even more, there's Burroughs' diffidence, his taciturnity, even around a lifelong friend. In fact, one of the secret joys of the interview is seeing how it unfolds: Ginsberg asking questions in long paragraphs, which Burroughs often answers in a word or two.

For anyone who ever spoke to Burroughs, this was the challenge. As Charles Platt recalls in Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs: "Burroughs turned out to be almost as difficult to talk to as I feared. He is polite and perfectly willing to tolerate my presence, but many of his remarks are dismissively brief, as if the questions bore him.... Typically, he makes a brief categorical statement, then stops and regards me with his pale eyes as if waiting to see if I really intend to ask any more dumb questions."

That was my experience also, when I visited Burroughs in Lawrence in April 1996.

I flew in from Los Angeles for the weekend, only to find myself in the company of someone who didn't care whether I was there or not. As he had been with Platt, Burroughs was polite, cordial even, with a Midwestern formality and social grace. But although we spent several hours together over the two days I was in Kansas, it would be a stretch to say that we connected, or that I made any particular impression on Burroughs at all.

Partly, I suppose, that's as it should be; the interviewer is, or ought to be, the least important part of any interview. But I was also struck then, and remain so, by the fact that Burroughs had been interviewed so often he must have wondered what else he had to say.

As early as 1968, in a brief foreword to The Job, his book of interviews with French journalist Daniel Odier, he notes that "as Monsieur Odier asked questions I found that I had in many cases already answered these questions in various books, articles and short pieces. So instead of paraphrasing or summarizing I inserted the indicated material." And reading the interview in Sensitive Skin, I can see how internalized, a quarter of a century later, such a process had become.

"Life is a cutup," Burroughs says about halfway through his conversation with Ginsberg, referring to his technique of bisecting pieces of text and reconfiguring them as collages, letting the juxtapositions create a meaning that transcends traditional narrative. "And to pretend that you write or paint in a timeless vacuum is just simply ... not ... true, not in accord with the facts of human perception."

Yes, yes, I found myself thinking, not least because four years later, Burroughs had said virtually the same thing to me. "Life is a goddamn cutup," is how he put it. "Every time you look out the window, or answer the phone, your consciousness is being cut by random factors. Walk down the street -- bam, bam, bam.... And it’s closer to the facts of your own perception, that's the point."

On the one hand, this is what happens when someone gets asked the same questions over and over; he develops a set of responses, a stump speech as it were. With Burroughs, though, there was more at issue, a recognition that language couldn't help but fail us in the end. "Rub out the word," he liked to admonish, or this, from The Job: "You must learn to exist with no religion no country no allies. You must learn to live alone in silence." At the end of his life, he had pretty much given up writing for painting, as if in tacit admission that he had done all he could with words.

It's telling that Burroughs never resolved this conundrum; among his final statements is a journal entry written two days before his death that reads: "Thinking is not enough. There is no final enough of wisdom, experience -- any ... thing."

But equally apropos, I think, is this declaration, written to Ginsberg in the 1950s, as he was beginning to push against the limitations of language: "I am getting so far out, one day I won't come back at all."

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-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Allen Ginsberg with William Burroughs. Credit: Associated Press

 
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