Burroughs is in Tangiers, I don’t think he’s coming back – It’s sinister…
– A. Ginsberg
Is Burroughs great or overrated?
Sometimes I think of Burroughs as akin to TS Eliot – 2 crotchety, arid,brilliant, mid-western Harvard types. But have come to see Burroughs as more limited. Really was amazed by his Yage Letters, Last Words of Dutch Schultz, Queer and some of the shorter passages from works like Wild Boys. The opening of Naked Lunch, with the junkie jumping the turnstyle at west 4th street and dispersing through the city like some viral agent, is a favorite as well. And Dr Benway coked out of his mind performing an unnecessary appendectomy with a ‘rusty sardine can’ while an ‘espontaneo’ enters the surgical theatre and threatens to take away the patient.. And some of the characters – the Green Nun, Dr Benway, Kiki the house boy, FDR, the Exterminator (“Exterminator, Lady. You need the service?”) are pretty memorable .
And Burroughs has some of the funniest and perverse one-liners:
“In Panama City even the whores are cut with sponge rubber…”
“I’d take my mother’s last paregoric… and her laid up with the piles… Wouldn’t you?”
And when he adopts that ‘anthropologist-gone-native’ perspective he comes up with some great stuff. – The story about the US industrial mogul who goes down to Mexico to try and hire the Mayan corn god to take care of some of his labor problems – is really good. It ends with a memorable line “Stupid, vulgar son-of-a-bitch. Thought he could hire Death as a company cop…”
Seems like he had a few good notions – his idea of a diffuse and narcotic will-to-power that was as powerful and perverse as any opiate. Burroughs had the psyche of a J. Edgar Hoover or a Roy Cohn down pat. All the paranoia, the repression and the irrationality that came from closeted conservatives.
Burroughs’ limitations are there. I don’t think he gets beyond a point. The one event that dominates the writing is the death of his wife. Down in Mexico City, he played ‘William Tell’ with her and shot her in the head. He tries in a number of ways to explain it away – demonic possession, fate, etc… But comes up short. His situation is almost a reverse validation of Catholic penance. That horrible event is one which he can never come to peace with.
Movement and Benzedrine-inspired riffing of Kerouac and Ginsberg are different than Burroughs. Burroughs is in flight- like the Blakean notion of “abstract horror”. At time he has the abitlity of Eliot to combine high and low culture or of Beckett to find genuine humor in horror – but I don’t know that he has contributed more than brilliant fragments.
He’s more American than Ginzy or Keruoac. His grandfather (or some relative) invented the adding machine (which the Burroughs family name is attached to and which became the title of a book of essays by the man) so they were a somewhat prestigious St Louis family. Ginsberg has that immigrant son perspective and Jack was a French Canadian but Burroughs was a Brahmin and a bit older so more set in that post war and early fifties mindset. Which makes his particular kind of revolt a bit different…
And I just can’t stop reading him. Like there is something there, just around a corner...