Monday, July 4, 2016

Burroughs, Murder, Grief, and Writing

Allen Ginsberg (left) and William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart celebrating the reissue of Junky, NYC, 1977. Source: Flickr: More Solomon. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
William S Burroughs was the grandson of William Seward Burroughs, who made significant changes to the adding machine, which means that Bill Burroughs had some money. That money came in handy because for much of his life Burroughs indulged in expensive habits and hobbies. He was an avid firearms afficionado. He had, varyingly, a taste for heroin or a full-blown addiction. And he traveled a great deal, sometimes just to stay one foot ahead of the law, and sometimes because he was, despite his vices, also a man of the world who knew other men and women of the world.

He was, along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, one of the principal members of the Beat Generation literary movement—a group that nebulously includes a dozen or two writers, but that centers clearly around Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac. Burroughs's work is considered postmodernist and paranoid fiction, which is a post-dystopian literary genre in which a society is illusory because it is controlled by a powerful force that uses lies to manipulate its people (think of The Matrix, for example).

Burroughs left home at the age of 18 in 1932 to attend Harvard University. In the summers he worked back home for the St Louis Post-Dispatch, though he didn't like the work and refused more than one assignment. Though Burroughs had more than his share of the usual college adventures that beset people on their first flight from the family nest, he graduated in 1936, after which his family decided to give him a monthly allowance of $200, which in those days was a significant amount of money. Burroughs's allowance meant the freedom to live how and where he wanted, and he did not have to work (though he often did). (According to the inflation calculator at the Dollar Times Web site, $200 in 1936 money is worth $3,427.89 in 2016.)

After college he tried studying anthropology at Columbia and medicine in Vienna, but did not stay with them. In Europe he became involved in "Austrian and Hungarian Weimar-era LGBT culture" (Wikipedia). He spent time with young men he met in the steam baths of Vienna, and moved in a circle of exiles, homosexuals, and runaways. Among this motley crowd of misfits he met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman who was fleeing Austria's post-Anschluss Nazi government. Though she and Burroughs were not romantically involved, they married in Croatia so she could get a visa to enter the United States. Though they eventually divorced, they remained friends for many years.

With the outset of the Second World War, Burroughs enlisted but was not accepted in either the Office of Strategic Services (the office that eventually became the CIA) or by the Navy. Burroughs was classified for the infantry and fell into a depression, which his mother recognized and used to get him out of the military. Burroughs first followed a soldier friend to Chicago, where he worked as an exterminator

Then, in New York in 1944, Burroughs shared an apartment with Jack Kerouac, his first wife Edie Parker, and Joan Vollmer Adams and her daughter Julie. During this period Burroughs became addicted to morphine, and he sold heroin in Greewnwich Vilalge to finance his habit. Vollmer also became addicted to morphine, but she preferred benzedrine, which was an over-the-counter amphetamine in those days. Upon returning from the war, Vollmer's soldier husband immediately divorced her because of her drug habit and new social circle. Wikipedia says that with some urging from Ginsberg and Kerouac, Burroughs became intellectually, emotionally, and chemically (via addictions) involved with Joan Vollmer.

To make short a story longer than this morning allows, after legal and mental health problems shook their lives hard—each helping to get the other out of one form of detention or another—they wind up in Mexico City, where Burroughs plans to ride out the statute of limitations on a problem in Louisiana that would have sent him to Angola State Prison. Unfortunately, the couple were unhappy with Mexico and with each other.

One night at a party in an American-owned bar in Mexico City, an intoxicated Burroughs pulled his handgun from his travel bag and announced, "It's time for our William Tell act," though they had never played such a game before. Joan obliged him by balancing her cocktail glass on top of her head. Burroughs aimed, fired, and missed. He hit Vollmer in the head, and she died almost immediately.
Vollmer's daughter, Julie Adams, went to live with her grandmother, and William S. Burroughs, Jr., went to St. Louis to live with his grandparents. Burroughs reported every Monday morning to the jail in Mexico City while his prominent Mexican attorney worked to resolve the case. According to James Grauerholz, two witnesses had agreed to testify that the gun had fired accidentally while he was checking to see if it was loaded, with ballistics experts bribed to support this story. Nevertheless, the trial was continuously delayed and Burroughs began to write what would eventually become the short novel Queer while awaiting his trial. Upon Burroughs's attorney fleeing Mexico in light of his own legal problems involving a car accident and altercation with the son of a government official, Burroughs decided, according to Ted Morgan, to "skip" and return to the United States. He was convicted in absentia of homicide and was given a two-year suspended sentence (Wikipedia).
In his introduction to Queer, Burroughs says he is
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 (Burroughs, Queer, introduction, as quoted in Wikipedia).
After skipping out on Mexico City, Burroughs first wandered around in South America for a while in search of experiences with the hallucinogenic plant yage (pronounced /ˈyäˌZHā,ˈyäˌhā/another term for ayahuasca, about which Amber Lyon's Web site devotes many column inches for the plant's psychological and physical curative powers). He also lived, or at least visited, several parts of the United States, but his legal difficulties kept him out of the places where he would prefer to be. Finally he retreated to Tangier, which, in those post-war years, lay in the International Zone administered by a French, English, and American committee, which is to say it was scarcely administered at all. The resulting anarchy spawned a playground for the rich and well-traveled in which any fantasy could be realized for modest expenses. This reputation for Tangier still exists today.

Although Burroughs indulged in drug fantasies and dallied with young men, most of his energy was spent in writing copiously about that dark and fatal night in Mexico City. He was trying desperately to exorcise the demons of his guilt of Joan Vollmer's death.

Burroughs's toehold in Tangier was the house of Paul Bowles, who informed Burroughs that he was indeed welcome—not in his house, but in the city. He helped Burroughs find a room where he could stay and write. Bowles was originally trained as a composer and was a classmate of Aaron Copland's. He was married to Jane Bowles, a successful playwright, who drew visitors like Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Gore Vidal all the way from New York. Impressed with his wife's literary success, Paul Bowles shifted careers from composing into writing, and his most noteworthy novel is The Sheltering Sky, which Bernardo Bertolucci made into a film with John Malkovitch and Debra Winger.

Well into Burroughs's four-year writing-obsessed tenure in Tangier, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac came to visit. All around Burroughs's room they found piles and piles of papers, and they took these up to the roof to sort through them. Through their editing of Burroughs's writing, the novel Naked Lunch was born. The novel is a fantasaia on the elements of Burroughs's life—the work as an exterminator, and the brown powder, which takes on heroin-like qualities. Most of all the work is haunted by the William Tell act as a motif, and in the fictional representation of Jane Bowles—but as a fantasia—Joan Vollmer continues to live. Death has not erased her but merely transported her to the Interzone. Few literary works have involved such a weighty working out of a man's grief.

* * *

Tomorrow is poetry day for the blog, but I want to continue along this line on Wednesday because watching David Cronenberg's film version of Naked Lunch started me on this line of thinking, and, really, so far, I've only laid down the back story that I need to go where I want to go with this. I want to explore the relationships among film, book, and reality here. But I also notice that, in passing, this background touched upon half a dozen different kinds of marriage, all different, and none of them like the pristine man & woman, Kinder, Küche, Kirche, love & baby carriage model that the control freaks foist upon us. So that's where I'm going next with this. Have a fine day of independence, everyone, no matter how you define it.

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