Some would argue that Burroughs makes no contribution to our language. However, his relevance over the years has rivaled that of Jack Kerouac, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Samuel Beckett (as far as his prose work is concerned) and Henry Miller, all figures that were seen as pushing the boundaries of what was considered to be acceptable Literature in their day, and does not seem to be fading. (One could also make a strong argument for his superiority to Bukowski, as well, but time will tell. My personal feeling is that he certainly does, as Bukowski only hoped to take up where the 'Sun Also Rises'-era Hemingway left off. Bukowski's concern in Literature is very different from Burroughs, though he garners a good deal of well-earned respect, in his own right.) Also, with Burroughs' terms constantly finding their way into mainstream use ('heavy metal', 'interzone', etc.), it is hard to argue that he has not had much impact on the English language, and pop-culture in general. Therefore, Burroughs deserves the attention that all great writers deserve, which is to say, his work should be constantly reviewed in light of the ever-changing world of Literature.
Part 1: The Life of Riley
Naked Lunch is often the only book cited by writers commenting on William Burroughs' work. There are numerous reasons for this (the difficulty of the language in his later novels, for one), but only some of it has to do with the actual work itself. Naked Lunch, published in 1959, is inevitably tied to his life at the time he wrote the book, while living in Tangiers, but it is not a documentary account. It is a pastiche of events, some that he experienced and some that he only imagined in 'routines,' a style of acting out a story that he developed mostly to amuse himself during his days at Harvard, in the early 1930s. Exaggeration and irony are at the center of this method, which can be seen all the way through Naked Lunch. Unfortunately, the stories and myths surrounding the time of the novel's writing, and what could easily be called an outrageous life, overshadow his body of work, generally at a loss to his novels.
This is disappointing, as his life and Naked Lunch are not as intrinsically connected as many writers would have them be. They are clearly separate entities, as much as a writer and his work can ever be. If anything, Burroughs' education, curiosity and an early voracious appetite for knowledge (later in life he claimed to never read) are the real center of Naked Lunch, while the life he lived only colors the background, making the picture more distinct, and somewhat more sad.
William Burroughs has the same Literary curse as writers like Baudelaire, Rimbaud (two writers to whom he was repeatedly compared), Jean Genet or Hunter S. Thompson: his life and mythos often overshadow the importance of his work. For many, in fact, this is all they know of Burroughs. His work goes unread, but the stories of heroin addiction, shooting his wife, and trips to the Amazonian jungle in search hallucinogens are all the elements of the soap opera anyone needs. This is his true Naked Lunch, for many people. Having not read the novel, it seems that the tales of his tumultuous life are good enough. In my experience, most people assume his life's escapades are also what the book itself is about.
It's hard not to be attracted by the life, though. This mostly due to it being a great story in and of itself. His biography reads like a tragedy, though there have not been any really good biographies of Burroughs written at this point. In this case, the fact is often far stranger than the fiction. His biographies, however, suffer from a star-struck tone, highlighting not the work, but the events. Needless to say, the story of an aristocratic Midwesterner who chooses a life of crime and drugs is both Romantic and silly, in the end. I would not call Burroughs a Romantic, but he definitely started out that way (or, tired to), as his biographies tend to point out.
However, this is not the writer, but the man. Burroughs has both gained and lost due his mythos, attracting fans who are ultimately seeking justification for a particular lifestyle instead of appreciating a remarkable piece of work. Often, those who have read Naked Lunch see it as an answer, an almost Biblical response, to contrary views-points held by the typical American Conservative. If anything, there is always a somewhat Biblical tone beneath the surface of his novels, a notion that something greater than yourself is controlling your life. The only difference in Burroughs' case is that he constantly warns the reader to steer clear of this controlling element. For this reason, it is unlikely that he would prescribe any particular way of living for anyone, though many of his later novels had the image of rallying the troops. Naked Lunch certainly does not. Its purpose is to point out the problems, not solve them.
The book was often hailed as a voice for the Hippy generation (though it was its very antithesis), like Richard Brautigan's less refractory, but still somewhat difficult novels of the late 60s (Trout Fishing in America, In Watermelon Sugar, A Confederate General From Big Sur). This is surly due more to the inevitable connection Burroughs' had to the Beat writers than anything else. Though his place in that school of writing is questionable, it was easier to market him in this way, and as he could use the money it is unlikely that he would have cared about being linked to a group of writers he respected. So, where Brautigan actually was a Hippy, Burroughs was decidedly not.
He was not the ideal writer for the Hippy generation, but he was still strongly identified as someone doing something new in American Literature, pushing boundaries and changing minds; all qualities adored by the youth of the day. In his trademark fedora and gray suit, he was far from the vision of dharmic peace that Ginsberg had become, sitting in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco preaching to the masses while the Grateful Dead played in the background. Nor was he the lumberjack coat-wearing alcoholic Kerouac had become, who died at the height of the Hippy generation in 1969 after his star had begun to rapidly fade, though he might have been the most philosophically prominent driving force behind the ethics of the late 60s. If anything, Burroughs looked like a banker, showing himself to be the most subversive of the group since his personal politics fell far outside the circle of the average suit and tie wearing, responsible contributor to society.
This image of Burroughs alone should hint at the fact that he did not hold with very many of the ideals of the generation that first gave him fame. 'El hombre invisible,' as he was often called, hinted at his desire to almost disappear into the background, the safest place for a junkie to live. His Protestant-derived upbringing (his parents were not religious, but they were 'proper,' in the Midwestern American sense of the word) could not embrace completely the message of Peace and Love that the Hippies espoused. His novels of the late 60s and early 70s, when the Hippie ideal hit its peak and began to decline, are actually quite militant, in contrast to the tenor of the time. But, again, the stark homosexual elements of his work are also there, describing a world very different from the accepted norm, but placing him on the Left, where he felt more comfortable. (This is true for both the Hippies and the average public. He didn't fit into either category very well.)
Often, he is also mistakenly seen as the forefather of the Punk ethos (I'd prefer not to say Movement, as if it were some kind of organized affront on Conservative ethics) that would become popular in the 1970s, though any reasonable person can see that it was only a simple extension of the Hippies. How else can you explain self-righteous idealism and a clearly Romantic view that Art (read: music pared down to its roots) will liberate the soul? That is Punk in all its glory. The loud, message-heavy music, unusual clothing and a general disdain for outsiders was nothing if not the 60s turned on its head, the same idea made modern for the 70s. You could also probably make the case that the British (who really 'invented' punk) were never loopy enough to take the American version of what a Hippy was seriously, so they designed their own more wry, in-your-face version of it a few years later, at a time when the British economy was suffering and people looked outside of traditional ethics to find answers for their poverty (or, perhaps, pride in their poverty, since Punk and money do not suffer each other lightly).
Neither the Hippies nor the Punks could clearly identify with Burroughs, though. At least, not in a practical sense. Logic alone says that Punks and Hippies would not have been all that excited about guns, which Burroughs adored throughout his life. They seemed fine with heroin addiction, but not homosexuality (at least, for the most part; it's only in recent years that what we might call our counter-culture has become accepting of it, at least for the parts of the counter-culture that were not homosexual themselves to begin with).
And, while women were coming into their own in the 60s and 70s, making remarkable social gains in the workplace, politics and art, Burroughs' ardent anti-female stance seemed to be getting stronger and stronger, now that he had to actually deal with female fans that appreciated his work. Though he was becoming a little more conscious of needing to be politically correct in his responses to the constant accusations that he was a misogynist, his later novels are noticeably absent of females. Besides all of that, he had a serious fetish for teenage boys at the time he was writing most of his novels in the 60s and 70s. In later interviews, he even admits to paying young boys of 8 or 9 to perform sexual acts in front of him while he lived in Tangiers in the 50s. Though he is, in essence, a moral writer, he was clearly not an example of accepted morality.
So, why do so many feminists and counter-culture figures, from the time he wrote his books down to our own day, identify with Burroughs? He clearly lived in a world all his own. He had no use for most people, and the only people he really trusted were other gay writers; in other words, people just like him. What is it that has captured the imagination and attention of so many readers since Naked Lunch was published, especially when so little of the attention he received until lately has not been focused on his work, but on his life?
Burroughs's work clearly struck a chord with those generations of readers, despite obvious moral disconnects. I think his appeal has more to do with his refusal to be controlled than personal morality. The overall message of freedom and experimentation is highly attractive. Yet, Burroughs was very conservative and very xenophobic, which creates a complicated dichotomy of Liberal artistic liberation and Midwestern Protestant culture. In many ways, he was almost Libertarian. Certainly, he cared only to make his own rules for living.
It's hard not to think of Hunter S. Thompson and his own jangled version of life when one thinks of Burroughs, though they were two very different writers. His desire to push farther and farther to discover every dark place in the world seems to salve over most of his less social ideals for many readers. I think most readers just look past what they don't like, and point to the things they do. It's also important to remember the value of humor in all of this, as well, because Naked Lunch is a very funny book. Though I will elaborate on this later, it's important to see that many readers (myself included) can look beyond uncomfortable subjects if the writer is making us laugh.
But, there is no denying the less salable parts of his character, when you consider Burroughs. The easiest way to describe him, and the element that gives Naked Lunch its biting satire, is the uneasiness and divided nature of the writer. While he shoots heroin in a filthy room in Tangiers and writes the manuscript that will become Naked Lunch on equally filthy pieces of paper that are randomly spread out across his tiny room, he is both conflicted and guilty about his choice of lifestyle and, at the same time, exalted in what he is doing. Burroughs was very bothered by the lack of a relationship with his son but, ultimately, too selfish to do anything about it. He knew that his lifestyle was not a fit environment to raise a child in, yet he still wanted that relationship in the times when he wasn't addicted to heroin. As well, he felt very guilty his whole life about killing Joan, his wife, in a silly accident and then never serving any time for the murder. Though he rarely talked about it, when he did, it was always with great guilt. Even in his personal diaries, written at the end of his career, months before his death, the subject still comes up. This guilt drove much of the writing process, but did not always translate into biography. Often, his anger, which seems to have been vast, translated itself into almost unrelated satire about the hypocrisy of modern America and the control mechanisms of the society he lived in.
This battle within was what Ginsburg called Burroughs' 'Ugly Spirit.' They even attempted to have it driven out of him by a shaman when they were both very old, in a religious ceremony in the 1990s, by sitting for many hours in a sweat lodge. It seems to have worked, at least in their minds, but had it been driven out earlier in Burroughs' life, one has to wonder if Naked Lunch would even have been written. At the root of the book is a very angry, lonely and torn 'Ugly Spirit' that is both self-destructive and liberating. But, as the text itself often demonstrates, it is mostly confused, like a demon trying to escape but not wanting to at the same time.
[Note: This is the first in a group of short articles that will deal with a number of issues surrounding William Burroughs' career and, specifically, the novel Naked Lunch. I intend to look at the following: his celebrated life overpowering his work, Naked Lunch in particular; the innovative core of Naked Lunch as a document of critical social observation; traditionally un-literary language made Literary (the rhetoric of medicine, drug-use as a scientific experiment, pulp-novels made high-brow art, etc.); and, finally, the use of satire that is crucial to Naked Lunch, and often connected to all of his most unique approaches to language. Obviously, many of these issues will be tied to one another, so there will undoubtedly be some over-lapping.]