Today marks the 100th birthday of William S. Burroughs — or would have if, as wags today have observed, he hadn’t been cruelly taken from us by drug addiction at the age of 83. Burroughs first barreled into public consciousness with the deadpan Junkie, a noirish 1953 chronicle of life on the needle. That was radical enough for the time, but it was still no preparation for 1959’s Naked Lunch, which combined ritual sex-murder, monstrous disease, alien semen addiction, and gross medical negligence with an anti-narrative comedic style that would have offended the literary establishment if the subject had been the steeplechase. What Naked Lunch and Burroughs’ subsequent work hath wrought includes everything from Johnny Rotten to David Cronenberg to Superjail to Jeff Vandermeer.
I stumbled across Naked Lunch as a teenager through some sort of gross parental negligence, and became instantly and permanently obsessed. In 2000 or 2001, I journeyed deep into the stacks of the University of Texas’ six-story main library and came up holding a VHS copy of “Towers Open Fire,” one of Burroughs’ many multimedia collaborations using variations of Brion Gysin’s dada-inspired cut-up method. As much as Naked Lunch, the tape permanently melted my mind, though it all seems a bit reduced when seen on Youtube.
In the 15 years since I absorbed him as a cult secret, Burroughs’ impacts on the wider culture have been ever more widely celebrated. He is the “Godfather of Punk,” responsible for translating the abject anti-authoritarianism of Jean Genet for a postwar audience. He led me and thousands of others to noise music, to the most abstract uses of language, to the difference between real unapologetic obscenity and the kind of half-cocked titillation that passes for sex in the American media.
As shocking and sensationalistic as he could be, though, his grounding in the literary tradition (and his disdain for parts of it) made him a waypoint back to Joyce and Dostoevsky and Lovecraft and Chaucer, as well as a path forward to hypertext, hip hop, and splatterpunk. His refusal to be straight in any sense of the word, while also refusing to buy in even the slightest degree into the performative gay subculture emerging during his early life, makes him a continuing touchstone for radical queer identity.
Perhaps most amazing of all, Burroughs’ greatest literary work came well after the sensational outburst he’s most remembered for. He truly peaked with the trilogy that closed out his writing career — Cities of the Red Night, The Western Lands, and The Place of Dead Roads, each book taking some aspect of the American mythos and turning easy clichés into joyfully difficult encounters. Whether pirates, Indians, "swishes," aliens, cowboys or Arabs, Burroughs’ greatest love was always for types, broad-stroke caricatures that he would uncannily turn into commentaries on the people telling the stories and the people buying into them.
Burroughs was above all a critic of media form and content, whether exploring the random processes of the cut-up or making his readers squirm with a blackface pantomime that would have been all too familiar from the mainstream media of the time. His most famous declaration was that “Language is a virus,” a sentiment that may not have predicted the digital age, but certainly describes it.
Perhaps not so amazingly, given that his flagship work contains at least a dozen eroticized executions, Burroughs is still not widely taught in American universities, much less high schools. On some level, that’s shameful, since he so uncannily predicted and shaped the world we live in today — without doubt, one where nothing is true, and everything is permitted.
At the same time, that Naked Lunch has held on to at least a bit of outsider status for more than half a century is the greatest testament to Burroughs’ achievement. Is it even possible to imagine, in 2014, something that would so thoroughly challenge, trouble and reveal?
Happy Birthday, Bill. You did good.