William S. Burroughs

June 2, 2006

William S Burroughs.jpg

American novelist, essayist, social critic, spoken word performer
Associated with the Beat generation and authors Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg
Most of his work is semi-autobiographical, using the pseudonym William Lee
Saw all his individual writings as one single work
Homosexual, addicted to substances in his earlier life
The accidental murder of his wife largely influenced his writing

“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never 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 invador, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”

Junky (1953)

Burroughs’ first published novel
Seminal text on the lifestyle of heroin addicts
Began writing largely at the request of Allen Ginsberg
Distant, dry, laconic tone balanced by honesty of the story
At times, Burroughs examines drug use in a scientific manner (he studied anthropology at Harvard University) but never objectively


“Actually my earliest memories are colored by a fear of nightmares.  I was afraid to be alone, and afraid of the dark, and afraid to go to sleep because of dreams where a supernatural horror seemed always on the point of taking shape.  i was afraid some day the dream would still be there when I woke up.  I recall hearing a maid talk about opium and how smoking opium brings sweet dreams, and I said: ‘I will smoke opium when I grow up.'”

“When you stop growing you start dying.  An addict never stops growing.  Most users periodically kick the habit, which involves shrinking of the organism and replacement of the unk-dependent cells.  A user is in continual state of shrinking and growing in his daily cycle of shot-need for shot completed.”

“I have learned a great deal from using junk: I have seen life measured out in eyedroppers of morphine solution.”

“Of course, I really don’t like men at all sexually.  What I really dig is chicks.  I get a kick out of taking a proud chick and breaking her spirit, making her see she is just an animal.  A chick is never as beautiful after she’s been broken.”

“But a complext pattern of tensions, like the electrical mazes devised by psychologists to unhinge the nervous systems of white rats and ginea pigs, keeps the unhappy pleasure-seekers in a condition of unconsummated alertness.”

“I don’t spot junk neighborhoods by the way they look, but by the feel, somewhat the same process by which a dowser locates hidden water.”

“A room full of fags gives me the horrors.  They jerk around like puppets on invisible strings, galvanized into hideous activity that is the negation of everything living and spontaneous.  The live human being has moved out of these bodies long ago.  But something moved in when the original tenant moved out.  Fags are ventriloquists’ dummies who have moved in and taken over the ventriloquist.  The dummy sits in a queer bar nursing his beer, and uncontrollably yapping out of a rigid doll face.”

“A junkie runs on junk time.  When his junk is cut off, the clock runs down and stops.  All he can do is hang on and wait for nonjunk time to start.  A sick junkie has no escape from external time, no place to go.  He can only wait.”

“People vary in the way junk sickness affects them.  Some suffer mostly from vomiting and diarrhea.  The asthmatic type, with narrow and deep chest, is liable to violent fits of sneezing, watering at eyes and breathing.  In my case, the worst thing is lowering of blood pressure with consequent loss of body liquid, and extreme weakness, as in shock.  It is a feeling as if the life energy has been shut off so that all the cells in the body are suffocating.  As I lay there on the bench, I felt like I was subsiding into a pile of bones.”

“If junk were gone from the earth, there might still be junkies standing around in junk neighborhoods feeling the lack, vague and persistent, a pale ghost of junk sickness.”

“There was something archaic in the stylized movements, a depraved animal grace at once beautiful and repulsive.”

“In Mexico your wishes have a dream power.”

“When you look back over a year on the junk, it seems like no time at all.  Only the periods when you were sick stand out.”

“Junk takes everything and gives nothing but insurance against junk sickness.  Every now and then I took a good look at the deal I was giving myself and decided to take the cure.  When you’re getting plenty of junk, kicking looks easy.”

“But when it came to the process of quitting, I did not have the drive.  It gave me a terrible feeling of helplessness to watch myself break every schedule I set up as though I did not have control over my actions.”

“I had been off junk two months.  When you quit junk, everything seems flat, but you remember the shot schedule, the static horror of junk, your life draining into your arm three times a day.  Every time exactly that much less.”

“…I got a picture of the situation in the U.S.  A state of complete chaos where you never know who is who or where you stand.”

“When you give up junk, you give up a way of life.  I have seen junkies kick and hit the lush and wind up dead in a few years.  Suicide is frequent among ex-junkies.  Why does a junkie quit junk of his own will?  You never know the answer to that question.  No conscious tabulation of the disadvantages and horrors of junk gives you the emotional drive to kick. “

“Kick is seeing things froma  special angle.  Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the aging, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh.”

Queer (Written-1951 / Published- 1985)

Sequel to Junky, but written in the third person
Lee is very self-conscious, insecure, and driven to pursue ‘Allerton’ a young man he invests heavy emotion in, without much hope of reciprocity
Confessional, less plot driven


“Mexico was basically an Oriental culture that reflected two thousand years of disease and poverty and degradation and stupidity and slavery and brutality and psychic and physical terrorism.  It was sinister and gloomy and chaotic, with the special chaos of a dream.”

“And addict has little regard for his image.  he wears the dirtiest, shabbiest clothes, and feels no need to call attention to himself.  During my period of addiction in Tangiers, I was known as ‘El Hombre Invisible,’ The Invisible Man.  This disintegration of self-image often results in an indiscriminate image hunger.  Billie Holliday said she knew she was off junk when she stopped watching TV.”

“I have constrained myself to escape death… What are you rewriting?  A lifelong preoccupation with Control and Virus.  having gained access the virus uses the host’s energy, blood, flesh and bones to make copies of itself.  Model of dogmatic insistence never never from without was screaming in my ear, ‘YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!'”

“The rudeness of many Americans depressed him, a rudeness based on a solid ignorance of the whole concept of manners, and on the proposition that for social purposes, all people are more or less equal and interchangeable.”

“Lee stood looking after him, then walked over into the park and sat down on a concrete bench that was molded to resemble wood.  blue flowers froma  blossoming tree had fallen on the bench and on the walk in front of it.  lee sat there watching the flowers move along the path in a warm spring wind.  The sky was clouding up for an afternoon shower.  Lee felt lonely and defeated.  ‘I’ll have to look for someone else,’ he thought.  he covered his face with his hands.  He was very tired.”

“Lee tried to achieve a greeting at once friendly and casual, designed to show interest without pushing their short acquaintance.  The result was ghastly.  As Lee stood aside to bow in his dignified oldworld greeting, there emerged instead a leer of naked lust, wrenched in the pain and hate of his deprived body and, in simultaneous double exposure, a sweet child’s smile of liking and trust, shockingly out of time and out of place, mutilated and hopeless.”

“Lee did not enjoy frustration.  The limitations of his desires were like the bars of a cage, like a chain and collar, something he had learned as an animal learns, through days and years of experiencing the snub of the chain, the unyielding bars.  He had never resigned himself, and his eyes looked out through the invisible bars, watchful, alert, waiting for the keeper to forget the door, for the frayed collar, the loosened bar… suffering without despair and without consent.”

“Allerton disliked commitments, and had never been in love or had a close friend.  he was now forced to ask himself: ‘What does he want from me?'”

“A curse.  Been in our family for generations.  The Lees have always been perverts.  I shall never forget the unspeakable horror that froze the lymph in my glands- the lymph glands that is, of course- when the baneful word searched my reeling brain: I was a homosexual.  I thought of the painted, simpering female impersonators I had seen in a Baltimore night club.  Could it be possible that i was one of those subhuman things?… It was a wise old queen- Bobo, we called her- who taught me that I had a duty to live and to bear my burden proudly for all to see, to conquer prejudice and ignorance and hate with knowledge and sincerity and love.  Whenever you are threatened by a hostile presence, you emit a thinck cloud of love like an octopus squirts out ink…”

“‘No one is ever really alone.  You are part of everything alive.’  The difficulty is to convice someone else he is really part of you, so what the hell?  Us parts ought to work together.”

“Even the fish were invested with an air of ineffectual alarm.  The effect was disquieting, as though these androgynous beings were frightened by something behind or to one side of the customers, who were made uneasy by this inferred presence.”

“Scenes from the chaotic, drunken moth passed before his eyes… The faces blended together in a ngihtmare, speaking to him in strange moaning idiot voices that he could not understand at first, and finally could not hear.”

“‘…And when twilight falls on the beautiful old colonial city of Quito and those cool breezes steal down from the Andes, walk out in the fresh of the evening and look over the beautiful senoritas who seat themselves, in colorful native costume, along the wall of the sixteenth-century church that overlooks the main square….’ They fired the guy wrote that.  There are limits, even in a travel folder….”

“‘Think of it: thought control.  Take anyone apart and rebuild to your taste.  Antying about somebody bugs you, you say, ‘Yage! I want that routine took clear out of his mind.’ I could think of a few changes I might make in you, doll.’  He looked at Allerton and licked his lips. ‘You’d be so much nicer after a few alterations…'”

“The city, like all Ecuador, produced a curiously baffling impression.  Lee felt there was something going on here, some undercurrent of life that was hidden from him.”

“What happens when there is no limit?  What is the fate of The Land Where Anything Goes?  Men changing into huge centipedes…centipedes besieging the houses… a man tied to a couch and a centipede ten feet long rearing up over him.  Is this literal?  Did some hideous metamorphosis occur?  What is the meaning of the centipede symbol?”

“He could feel himself in the body of the boy.  Fragmentary memories… the smell of cocoa beans drying in the sun, bamboo tenements, the warm dirty river, the swamps and rubbish heaps on the outskirts of the town.”

“He felt a killing hate for the stupid, ordinary, disapproving people who kept him from doing what he wanted to do.  ‘Someday I am going to have things just like I want,’ he said to himself.  ‘And if any moralizing son of a bitch gives me any static, they will fish him out of the river.'”

“Allerton seemed insubstantial as a phantom; Lee could almost see through him, to the empty phantom bus outside.”

“Many so-called primitives are afraid of cameras.  There is in fact something obscene and sinister about photography, a desire to imprison, to incorporate, a sexual intesity of pursuit.  I walked on and shot some boys-young, alive, unconscious- playing baseball.  they never glanced in my direction.”

Naked Lunch (1959)

Third novel writted by Burroughs, second published
Extremely controversial, banned in many regions of the US, put on trial for obscenity
Draws upon Burroughs’ experiences in America, Mexico, Tangier, and South America
Unmasks mechanisms and processes of control 


“Junk is the ideal product… the ultimate merchandise.  No sales talk necessary.  The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy…. The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product.  He does not improve and simplify his merchandise.  He degrades and simplifies the client.  He pays his staff in junk.”

“If civilized countries want to return to Druid Hanging Rites in the Sacred Grove or to drink bloodwith the Aztecs and feed their Gods with blood of human sacrifice, let them see what they actually eat and drink.  Let them see what is on the end of that long newspaper spoon.”

“A functioning police state needs no police.”

“Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk?  His wholeabdomen would move up and down you dig farting out the words.  It was unlike anything I ever heard… Then it developed sort of teeth-like little raspy incurving hooks and started eating.  He thought this was cute at first and built an act around it, but the asshole would eat its way through his pants and start talking on the street, shouting out it wanted equal rights.  It would get drunk, too, and when crying jags nobody loved it and it wanted to be kissed same as any other mouth.  Finally it talked all the time day and night, you could hear him for blocks screaming at it to shut up, and beating it with his fist, and sticking candles up it, but nothing did any good and the asshole said to him: ‘It’s you who will shut up in the end.  Not me.  Because we don’t need you around here any more.  I can talk and eat and shit.'”

“The end result of complete cellular representation is cancer.  Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer.  A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotic Bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised.  Bureaus cannot live without a host, being true parasitic organisms.  (A cooperative on the other hand can live without the state.  That is the road to follow.  The building up of independent units to meet needs of the people who participate in the functioning of the unit.  A bureau operates on opposite principle of inventing needs to justify its existence.)  Bureaucracy is wrong as a cancer, a turning away from the human evolutionary direction of infinite potentials and differation and independent spontaneous action, to the complete parasitism of a virus. (It is thought that the virus is a degeneration from a more complex life form.  It may at one time have been capable of independent life.  Now it has fallen to the borderline between living and dead matter.  It can exhibit living qualities only in a host, by using the life of another- the renunciation of life itself, a falling towards inorganic, inflexible machine, towards dead matter.)  Bureaus die when the structure of the state collapses.  They are as helpless and unfit for independent existences as a displaced tapeworm, or a virus that has killed the host.”

“….You see control can never be means to any practical end…. It can never be a means to anything but more control…. Like junk…”

“(All viruses are deteriorated cells leading a parasitic existence…. They have specific affinity for the Mother Cell; thus deteriorated liver cells seek the home place of hepatitis, etc.  So every species has a Master Virus: Deteriorated Image of that species.)  The broken image of Man moves in minute by minute and cell by cell…. Poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, insanity, all symptoms of The Human Virus.  The Human Virus can now be isolated and treated.”

“Funny, I thought, here I sit with perhaps one chance in a hundred to live out the next 24 hours- I had made up my mind not to surrender and spend the next three or four months in death’s waiting room.  And here I was worryng about a junk score.  But I only had about five shots left, and without junk I would be immobilized…”

“I sat back letting my mind work without pushing it.  Push your mind too hard, and it will fuck up like an overloaded switch-board, or turn on you with sabotage…. And I had no margin for error.  Americans have a special horror of giving up control, of letting things happen in their own way without interference.  They would like to jump down into their stomachs and digest the food and shovel the shit out.”

“There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing… I am a recording instrument…. I do not presume to impose “story” “plot” “continuity.”.. Insofar as I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I may have limited function…. I am not an entertainer….”

“The Liberal Press and The Press Not So Liberal and The Press Reactionary Scream approval: ‘Above all the myth of other-level experience must be eradicated….’ And speak darkly of certain harsh realities… cows with the aftosa… prophylaxis…. Power groups of the world frantically cut lines of connection…. The Planet drifts to random insect doom…. Thermodynamics has won at a crawl…. Orgone balked at the post…. Christ bled…. Time ran out….”


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