27 January, 2011

27 Jan - William Burroughs: A Man Within

LAUNCHPROJECTS - I just returned from the documentary William Burroughs: A Man Within at the Center for Contemporary Arts. Having read and appreciated Burrough's writing, I knew just enough about his life to admire him as both literary and cultural icon. I had no idea that among other things he was the gun-obsessed grandfather of the punk rock movement.

The film includes interviews such notable rebels as John Waters, Laurie Anderson, Peter Weller, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Gus Van Sant, and Sonic Youth (just to name a few) and explores how the Harvard educated heir to the Burroughs’ adding machine estate struggled throughout his life with addiction, companionship, and tragedy. One of the stunning revelations in the film is that in an altered state and quite young Burroughs accidentally shot his wife in the head in Mexico City while demonstrating his "William Tell Act". To add to his wife's death, his son Billy died of acute alcoholism at the age of 33 in an effort to gain the approval and attention of his otherwise occupied father.

Larger than life, Burroughs took every drug available and was addicted to "junk" most of his life. He was also a pioneer of the queer and drug culture in the 1950s and was unquestionably a literary genius. In an article for Drone Magazine, an unattributed writer states that "Burroughs was a man who still continues to defy categorisation, in his work, personal traits, lifestyle and aesthetic. It’s this point that makes him -- to this day -- the most dangerous cultural figure of the last hundred years (if not longer)".

Burroughs once stated “what can seem negative can become valuable for a writer." He found inspiration in that dark side - addiction, death, guns, anarchy. He was the poster boy for the tortured genius and it is no wonder the likes of Kurt Cobian, Frances Bacon, Andy Warhol, and Patty Smith held him so dear. Burroughs also opened the door for experimental writing, homosexuality, and the awareness of drug addiction in the United States. Burroughs changed US laws on censorship with the publication of Naked Lunch and inspired an entirely new genre of musical expression - punk. In all of his danger, edge, and iconoclasm, Burroughs effectively paved the way to a more open cultural space in the politically conservative climate of 1950's America.

"You know, they ask me if I were on a desert island and I knew nobody would ever see what I wrote, would I go on writing. My answer is most emphatically yes. I would go on writing for company. Because I'm creating an imaginary — it's always imaginary — world in which I would like to live." - William Burroughs

Images: William Burroughs with Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol, on the shooting range.

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