William S. Burroughs at 100

Tonnis - William S. Burroughs 3

How about an honorable bargain? ‘You always wanted to become a doctor. Now’s your chance. Why, you could have become a great healer and benefit humanity. What’s wrong with that?’ Just about everything. There are no honorable bargains involving exchange of qualitative merchandise like souls. Just quantitative merchandise like time and money. So piss off, Satan, and don’t take me for dumber than I look. As an old junk pusher told me, ‘Watch whose money you pick up.’

William S. Burroughs from “Words of Advice to Young People”

There is a loathsome recent online trend for our favourite dead writers, a great many of whom were complex and difficult characters, to say nothing of their work, to be reduced to glorified self-help therapists (“What Susan Sontag can teach you about your inner child”) or creative writing tutors (“Ten awesome writing tips from the weeping ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald”). Aside from my continued belief that Mephistopheles invented the listicle, the vacuous narcissism, spiritual horseshit and mercantile utilitarianism involved in such half-baked articles are sorry indictments of our times. This has led to reluctance on my part in acknowledging that any writer is or should be useful other than simply being free to write books. Usefulness is a censor’s way of thinking. Yet Burroughs, almost despite himself, is. Most obviously, he led by example in terms of what to do and what not to do. Long before Bowie (who he influenced with his cutup technique and subject matter), Burroughs, in a sense, wrote this life into existence.

From  the wonderful essay “The Third Man: William S. Burroughs at One Hundred” by Darran Anderson, easily one of the best short pieces on the author that I’ve ever read. As the title suggests, this week marks the centenary of the literary experimentalist and Beat Generation provocateur. He was an important early influence on my writing and worldview, as he undoubtedly was and perhaps still is for many other self-proclaimed teenage misanthropes who harbor vague and misguided literary inclinations. A few years back, Publishers Weekly did a survey in which booksellers reported the titles most often stolen from their shops. Predictably enough, Burroughs appeared near the top of the list. At home, there’s a battered copy of Naked Lunch filled with all manner of doodles and laughable marginalia.  I can’t remember whether I acquired it legally or not.

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