1994-04-18: William Burroughs

William Burroughs

El Hombre Invisible

A Portrait (1993)

by Barry Miles (1943-)

This is a sympathetic biography of Burroughs, one of the central Beats, and influential on the Beat generation and the Hippies, and hence on everything since. Burroughs seems to have been ill-suited for interaction with the ‘mainstream’ American society. From an early age he was fascinated and preoccupied with the narrower society of the underworld, gangsters, addicts, strugglers against (parasites on) the larger society. This struggle has been taken by others not so deeply involved as representative of the struggle of individuals against power-wielding institutions. This view helped to spread Burroughs’s reputation, and his reputation helped to spread his views of drugs as liberating of one’s consciousness.

A quotation of Burroughs from 1979 is provided, that would make a fit topic for critical discussion:

I didn’t have any experience with opiates until I was thirty years old … What interested me was what interests anyone who takes drugs – altered consciousness. Altered consciousness, of course, is a writer’s stock in trade. If my consciousness was just completely conventional, no one would be interested enough to read it, right? So there’s that aspect. Now you may not be doing that for literary purposes at all. You may just be doing it because you want to. But of course, altering the consciousness need not be drug related either. We alter our consciousness all the time, from minute to minute. Altered consciousness is a basic fact of life.

My quarrel with this statement begins with the second sentence. He attributes his motives to “anyone who takes drugs”. Additionally, he seems to make a claim about his own motives at the age of thirty in a statement made at the age of about sixty; an unreliable process. He makes claims about “altered consciousness” that are meaningless in the absence of an understanding of what consciousness (of any variety) is, and I strongly doubt that he has a clear notion of what he means by the term, let alone what any of his readers would mean by their interpretation of the term. He makes a claim that “altered” consciousness (letting “consciousness” itself pass for a moment) is a writer’s “stock in trade”, as if writing about ordinary consciousness is not worthwhile. He claims that he believes that if his consciosness were “just completely conventional” (again begging the question), “no one would be interested enough to read it”. I believe that the most interesting writing, to the vast majority of humans, is the writing that sheds light on how a “completely conventional consciousness” gets by in a world full of just such things. He goes on to say that some might take drugs “because you want to”. Yet “because you want to” is the reason anyone does anything, and provides no clue as to why anyone would “want to” take part in such behavior that can disrupt one’s ability to function in a world of “completely conventional consciousnesses”. He then goes on to assert that “altered consciousness” is actually ordinary, making his earlier statement about a a presumed state induced by taking drugs irrelevant. Indeed all of these statements appear to me to be a self-serving facade, a way of justifying to one or more of his readers a kind of behavior of which he is ashamed.

My view of consciousness is no better formed than Burroughs’s view of 1979, but at least I know it. On the other hand, my view of the way humans are designed to interact socially, and the social structures their interaction creates is much more realistic than his. Humans are certainly insensitive, intolerant and selfish. They construct institutions that serve their greed, as well as their need for security, and these institutions can often (perhaps usually) be characterized as evil. Certainly the institutions Burroughs experienced as a child were evil: intolerant of his homosexuality; thriving on brutality to Blacks and other outcasts/castes; obsessed with controlling individuals. Certainly most people acquiesce to such institutions, rather than risk their lives or consciousness. Of those who don’t acquiesce, most seek escape, either by physical flight or in states of “altered consciousness”.

Yet a very few elect to resist. In their resistance they apply pressure at weak points in the social apparatus, or at strong points. If they choose unwisely, they may be crushed. If they act wisely, they may succeed in deflecting the course of the behemoth, slightly or hugely. In my view, it is dead wrong to praise those who have the talent to apply pressure, but choose to escape. It is even worse to praise those who advise others to seek escape. In my view Burroughs is dead wrong, though many have chosen to interpret him in such a way as to see pressure in place of escape; perhaps the later Burroughs actually came to believe this interpretation, and acted on it. Miles is also dead wrong to hold Burroughs up as praiseworthy for his acts of escape.


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