Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"Rub Out the Words," letters from William Burroughs: "This place is sick, sick, sick. And disgusting"

Granta has published a selection of William Burroughs' letters online, presented with commentary by James Grauerholz and from the book edited by Bill Morgan. The Granta excerpts show WSB in contention with his family (to his society-member mother: "A rundown on some of the good burghers of Palm Beach would quite eclipse the Beatniks") and his contemporaries (to Paul Bowles: "Staying in Leary’s house. Enough food to feed a regiment left out to spoil in the huge kitchen by Leary’s over-fed, undisciplined children.")
The letters run from 1959, when Burroughs was living in Paris, to New York in 1974. The Granta excerpts zero in on WSB's kaleidoscope of drug experiences and their various scenes, some with awe, others with a snort of disapproval ("Unused TV sets, cameras, typewriters, toys, books, magazines, furniture, stacked to the ceiling. A nightmare of stupid surfeit. The place is sick sick sick. And disgusting," he complains in 1961 about Leary's house to Bowles in Tangier. "Like a good European, I am stashing away all the $ I can lay hands to with one thought in mind. Walk don't run to the nearest exit.")
Such cantankerous, back-biting behavior became a hallmark of Burroughs' image early on, so much so that in the letters it is difficult to separate the writer from his cranky persona. It was a trick of his craft he was good at, and he seemingly practiced it virtually non-stop until it became his actual voice. Referencing a 1959 article in Life magazine about the Beats to his disapproving mother, his style reaches some kind of rococo,demi-monde apogee of self-promotion: "In order to earn my reputation I may have to start drinking my tea from a skull since this is the only vice remaining to me ... I hope I am not ludicrously miscast as The Wickedest Man Alive, a title vacated by the late Aleister Crowley." ...

Presumably, Burroughs Sr. still sent 45-year-old WSB the $200-a-month allowance to practice his tea-drinking-from-a-skull vices. It was quite a bargain for Bill: the elder Burroughses were taking care of WSB's son Bill, Jr., after their son's 1951 William Tell party trick killed his wife Joan.
Here's an excerpt from the Granta selection. From the post-script it appears he'd patched up relations with his mother Laura and his then-ailing father. The duty of a family visit: "Of course," he writes, "I have to stay clean in Cambridge."
William S. Burroughs [New York]
to Brion Gysin [Paris]

pre-September 28, 1961

General Delivery
Newton, Mass.

Dear Brion:

The scene here is really frantic. Leary has gone berserk. He is giving mushrooms to hat check girls, cab drivers, waiters, in fact anybody who will stand still for it. However Gerald Heard and your correspondent have taken a firm stand. We both refuse to take any more mushrooms under any circumstances. Heard is certainly the most intelligent and well intentioned person connected with this deal. He gave a great talk at the symposium about LSD and paranoid sensations. The last barrier: PANIC! To God Pan. I managed to do all right too, fortified by two joints and the whole symposium came off very well.

Burroughs, 1959

Michael [Portman] wants to come here now and I have written to dissuade him. Let me explain that I really put in a lot of overtime on that boy and thought I had managed to separate him from his deplorable connections. Then something happened and there he was with a cold sore and I lost my patient and my patience as well. I'm not complaining but I have been under considerable pressure trying to sort out and assess hundreds of conflicting reports and demands pleasing no one of course so maybe I goofed. In any case he is now in an impossible condition. Imagine having Eileen Garrett, Mary Cooke, Old Lady Luce in the same room with you. It is absolutely intolerable and I don't propose to tolerate it.
Otherwise the situation here is not too bad. At least I have room to work and there is much to be said for American conveniences. I can get good food out of the ice box and take a bath and wear clean clothes at least. Seems to be plenty of pot around NY and nobody worries about the heat. Its like they all have the fix in. Of course I have to keep clean in Cambridge. Flying back on Sunday. Please write what your plans are. I wish you could arrange to come here. Like I say NY is really a great scene and a goodly crowd is there. And more expected momentarily. Please write.


P.S. Very pleasant visit with the family.
Rub Out The Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974edited by Bill Morgan, published in the U.S. by Ecco Press, and in the UK by Penguin.

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