The “Priest” they called him: Burroughs and Blake

Today is the anniversary of the death of William S. Burroughs II, one of the major writers of the Beat Generation. Burroughs was, of course, famous for his novel, Naked Lunch, written while he was living in Tangier and published in 1959. As Ted Morgan observes in Literary Outlaw, this was the book, along with Ginsberg’s Howl, that ended literary censorship in America. That novel alone was enough to have earned Burroughs notoriety, without the accidental killing of his wife Joan Vollmer in a drunken game of “William Tell” in 1951, his later coming out as a homosexual and his addiction to heroin.

Although his appreciation of Blake was by no means as overt as that of Ginsberg, Burroughs frequently referred to Blake as a precursor of his mythographic and cut up style. As Patti Smith recalled after his death:

William Burroughs and I used to talk about this. Burroughs was fond of Blake, and it was just so simple to him. He said that Blake just saw what others did not – and that it seemed like a good answer. I mean, Blake was so generous with his angels that even we can look at them now. (Cited in Radical Blake, p.136)

Tony Tanner has compared Burroughs’ attempts to create “a mythology appropriate to the new age and environment” to the work of Blake. Of this mythology, Burroughs was to explain:

Heaven and hell exist in my mythology. Hell consists of falling into enemy hands, into the hands of the virus power, and heaven consists of freeing oneself from this power, of achieving inner freedom, freedom from conditioning. I may add that none of the characters in my mythology are free. If they were free they would not still be in the mythological system, that is, in the cycle of conditioning.

The attempt to counter these systems of conditioning were most clearly seen in The Naked Lunch and his works of the 1960s such as The Soft Machine (1961) and Nova Express (1965), but it is in his final trilogy, Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1984) and The Western Lands (1987) that his mythological system can be described as its most Blakean – and which, as a result, are my favourite novels. As Angela Carter remarked of these texts in her collection Expletives Deleted (1993), Burroughs’ “project” was:

to make time stand still for a while, and there are ways in which Burroughs’ work indeed resembles that of another William, the Blake of the self-crafted mythology of the Prophetic Books, although it must be said that Burroughs is much funnier. (Carter 41)

A typical piece of provocation on Carter’s part, who – especially in her later years – tended to read Blake in a more po-faced manner than the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell deserved, nonetheless she hits upon the key connection between Blake and Burroughs, that we must create our own systems or be enslaved by those of others.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Burroughs had supported his addiction by publishing a number of books and essays, as well as developing his own style as a literary performer. By the end of the 1970s, indeed, he had become a significant member of the American avant garde – so much so that in 1984 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and, by the time of his death in 1997, was as much an establishment novelist of the United States as could be hoped on the part of a deliberately queer ex-junkie with a taste in extremist styles.

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