Often there is a startling gap between the art and the artist. William Burroughs wrote some truly grotesque, strange fiction. I hardly know how to characterize his strange and vicious sarcasm. He was famously debauched; a junky; shot his wife in Mexico City, allegedly playing William Tell.
Digression: In law school, we read a case in criminal law of a man who shot his wife. He defended himself by claiming he was shooting beer cans off the TV and his wife came in and she was accidentally shot. By that point in my legal education I remember thinking, Okay, Not what I would would do, but who knows? Our professor snapping us back into reality asked to consider the matter with more sober judgment. As Thomas Brooks would say, You are wise and know how to apply it.
Back to Mr. Burroughs: proposed some very strange ideas:
“Exterminate all rational thought. That is the conclusion I have come to.”
And, “That’s Panama – Nitrous flesh swept out by your voice and end of receiving set – Brain eating birds patrol the low frequency brain waves – Post card waiting forgotten civilians ‘and they are all on jelly fish, Meester.'”
Burroughs was a remarkably strange, deranged man (and in saying so I do not doubt he would wholly concur). His milieu was madness. Now from this position, Burroughs was insightful in a way few could possibly be:
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 stuff in junk.
The face of “evil” is always the face of total need.
On that last quotation, Mr. Burroughs was profoundly Augustinian: evil is a desire for something else, it is always discontentment.
His critique of consumer culture in one novel is so obscene that I cannot repeat it. And yet, the obscenity is like a clarification of the sin of consumerism (we always privilege our own sins and find the sins of others inexplicable; sin is always irrational, and yet not all fish are caught with the same bait. I have caught a marlin while trolling a lure and a catfish with a still bait on the lake floor. All sin is obscene.). Sometimes he was bizarrely hysterical:
A paranoid is someone who knows a little of what’s going on. A psychotic is a guy who’s just found out what’s going on.
Back to Burroughs: This description is from the Paris Review. One would think that such a monster, a murderer, a drug addict, possessed of a bizarre imagination; profane beyond all bounds of civilized society, would be a monster. And thus, to read this description from the Paris Review (if I had literary talent … alas) is both marvelous and comical:
At noon the next day he was ready for the interview. He wore a gray lightweight Brooks Brothers suit with a vest, a blue-striped shirt from Gibraltar cut in the English style, and a deep-blue tie with small white polka dots. His manner was not so much pedagogic as didactic or forensic. He might have been a senior partner in a private bank, charting the course of huge but anonymous fortunes. A friend of the interviewer, spotting Burroughs across the lobby, thought he was a British diplomat. At the age of fifty, he is trim; he performs a complex abdominal exercise daily and walks a good deal. His face carries no excess flesh. His expression is taut, and his features are intense and chiseled. He did not smile during the interview and laughed only once, but he gives the impression of being capable of much dry laughter under other circumstances. His voice is sonorous, its tone reasonable and patient; his accent is mid-Atlantic, the kind of regionless inflection Americans acquire after many years abroad. He speaks elliptically, in short, clear bursts.