A eulogy by Matthieu
On Saturday, August second, something very insignificant happened. A man died. Normally, this would have been terribly unimportant.
But, as it were, he had done a few small things in his life.
This man was a pioneer of gay literature, so far back in the days that when he had written his first book, aptly titled Queer, he could not get it published. This man broke more taboos than many thought humanly possible, ripping each open with his constant straightforward and flat demeanor. This man influenced people to such a degree that he has had bands (both the musical and gang varieties) named for his books and characters, and inspired people in areas normally totally unaffected by writing.
This man was William S. Burroughs, and now he's dead.
It would be trite to say that he is dead in the physical sense only, that he will live on through his books and influences. We know that already. But Bill carried such an amazing aura of unbelievable experience and wisdom around him that his death is surely a cosmic shock. Acceptance is a part of the grieving process, however, and thus I shall deliver here my eulogy to Burroughs, in a place where I know it will matter much to many people.
William Burroughs has touched me in no small fashion. I first heard of him several years ago when I was doing research into Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and he was briefly mentioned in a column about heroin adjacent to the review I was reading. The passage, I remember, was relating the scene in Junky where Burroughs speaks about being entertained by staring at the end of his shoe for eight hours while on junk. I was intrigued, abandoned my research on Wolfe (it's not a very good book, anyway), and managed to pick up a copy of Naked Lunch at the same library. (At that point, before all Burroughs was rereleased, Junky was nearly impossible to find anywhere.)
Nothing could have prepared me for his sort of writing. I had been a fan of James Joyce for many years, and I saw the stylistic similarities, but the subject matter and ideas imparted were profound. William had seemingly perfected what Joyce had laid the groundwork for: true stream-of-consciousness writing, where the work requires little or no translatory thought and instead is directly comprehended by the reader. This is achieved by writing in the same method that the mind thinks, with short, choppy ideas melded together in a huge, metamorphosing string. Single ideas standing alone spark off seeming non sequiturs, only to have the train of thought wrap around and make the connection pages later. This was brilliant stuff, I thought.
I, of course, was hardly the only one moved by Burroughs' work. Standing as a constant tribute to him are musical groups with their names taken from his books, such as Steely Dan (the name of a dildo in Naked Lunch that was ripped apart by bulls), The Naked Lunch, Soft Machine, and countless others. Bill also commented that he once received a letter from a small locally-oriented band named The William Burroughs Four. He was also recognised by many important musicians who included him in their actual recording work, either writing lyrics, reading a story, or actually playing various instruments. These collaborations produced Tom Waits' The Black Rider, Kurt Cobain's "The Priest," They Called Him, and other smaller productions with bands like REM and Lou Reed. Burroughs was famous across the art field, not only influencing musicians and, of course, other writers, but also artists like Art Spiegelman and Andy Warhol. He also left his mark on other subjects as varied as the interview (Victor Bockris), to the comedic act (Terry Southern), to the stage (Barbra Streisand).
How did he do these things? In his writing, Bill Burroughs wrote of things taboo and unspoken, not settling for merely writing about homosexuality, but also of all thinkable possibilities thereof. That description, though, is not meant to slight the other topics he bared for the prudish, conservative populace of the time, topics like necrophilia, sadism, masochism, pedophilia, all narcotics well-known and obscure, masturbation, dementia, addiction, all religion and lack of same, the underground criminal community, and a host of dozens of other ideas that shocked a nation into rethinking their values.
It was not just his writing, however. Bill's seemingly deadpan attitude and expression gave way to a vibrant and intelligent mind at work when one actually spoke to him. His intellect and outrageousness in person was tastefully but bizarrely offset by his thoroughly conservative dress and manner. Andy Warhol once commented that "Bill's the best-dressed person I know. He always wears a tie." Burroughs' reaction to this revelation was only a genuinely surprised "Really?"
Which ties into what was probably Burroughs' most redeeming quality: His directness and honesty. Many say that he was modest. That, in itself was probably not true, since when he was once asked if he knew how much he had influenced other people, he simply replied, "Yes." But Bill's manner of address was like his writing--honest to the core. Where lesser writers would be happy with sidestepping an entire potentially embarrassing scene, such as sex, and put it in euphemistic terms as "went to bed with" or "made love to," William was too honest to be settled with such wishy-washy terminology. Witness The Soft Machine, where Bill and his boys "cum," "rim," "suck," and Bill has a native boy "put peppers in my ass when he fucks me so it feels like my guts are on fire." Pretense comes crashing down--and no one else but Burroughs could be so wonderfully blunt.
And now he's dead.
And I? I will merely read once more The Wild Party, the book that Bill said made him want to be a writer, and try to forget about the whole incident of death. It will be hard.
But it is, undoubtedly, what he would have wanted.