William S. Burroughs and the Cauldron of Ideas

by Marcus D. Niski

Writer, mystic, sage, scholar, junky and literary outlaw William S. Burroughs was undoubtedly one of the most controversial writers of the twentieth century.

Often dismissed by early literary critics as outlandish and unreadable, a deeper examination of the Burroughs’ cannon reveals a complex many-sided personality whose far-ranging ideas provide many resonances for the twenty-first century and beyond. From the perils of the nuclear age, to the nature of language, agencies of power and control and the ecological future of the planet, William S. Burroughs had many prescient things to say about the future of humanity and nexus between human beings, time and space, power and control.

Yet all too often overlooked are his extraordinary powers of observation as a primary writing tool: a theme that is so impressively developed and re-enforced in many of his lectures and writing workshops. Burroughs proffered that the trade skills of a writer are very much akin to the trade skills of the detective or the spy which accord with his view that one must vigorously apply oneself to the process of observation in honing and developing the craft skills of the writer.

To this end, Burroughs also spoke about a wide range of techniques that can be employed in order to develop and heighten a writer’s powers of observation, mental dexterity, and spontaneity. Burroughs points to the notion that all great writing – and by implication – all great art is about making the reader or the viewer more fully and more reflectively aware of their own circumstances and that of the world around them. Indeed, it was this notion that he further developed in his highly entertaining and engaging lectures and workshops on the art and craft of writing.

In 1982, at Naropa University – founded by legendary Beat writer Alan Ginsberg – William S. Burroughs gave arguably one of his finest lectures on the art and craft of writing in a workshop dedicated to the work of Jack Kerouac. Here he talked admiringly of his friendship with fellow writer Kerouac and explored Kerouac’s art and influence as a writer. Here also, we get a sense of Burroughs’ own unique insights into the craft of writing and a glimpse into some of the important influences that Kerouac had on his own work; as well as the extraordinary impact that the Beat generation have had on the history of twentieth century literature.

In Burroughs’ characteristically quirky yet insightful approach to his subject matter the question of “who is a writer,” what writers are doing in their work – and what it means to be a writer – Burroughs makes some important remarks about Kerouac, both as a person and as a writer, and addresses a number of questions surrounding Kerouac’s life and work. Here, Burroughs also specifically posits the key question surrounding the intent of the writer in his suggestion that:

“What is a writer actually doing?” replying that … “the general proposition that any artist – and I include all creative thinkers – … [is] trying to make the viewer, the reader, the student aware of what he knows and doesn’t know that he knows…”

Accordingly, Burroughs proposes that we seem to know ‘far more than we assume that we know’ yet this knowledge must be ‘unlocked’ by some form of intellectual provocation which stimulates our awareness and in turn leads us to making the necessary connections between the external stimulus and our internal awareness.

At a personal level, having listened extensively to Burroughs’ Naropa workshops – as well as having transcribed some of them – having visited the Butler Library Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York to view some of Burroughs’ notebooks and literary artifacts, as well as having viewed some of his original manuscripts as held at the Berg Collection within The New York Public Library,  I continue to remain captivated by both the depth and breadth of Burroughs’ attempts to move the craft of writing forward though both experimentation, exploration and extraordinary force of will.

Whether it be in his collaborative experimentation with Brion Gysin in developing the cut-up techniques, his continual probing of the magical, psychic and synchronistic relationships between the reader and/or receiver of the written text, or his inquiries into the collaborative process in Burroughs’ notion of  The Third Mind, his contribution to the craft of writing and its potentialities remain an important achievement in terms of the influence he has had on an extraordinarily broad range of creators whether it be writers, artists, musicians or philosophers who seek to continue the quest for the limits of human creativity and the conquest of new grounds of psychic terrain.

Burroughs’ legacy undoubtedly remains firmly grounded in the outpouring of creative energy and accomplishments of those who have followed after him. Having declared that in his view that – “the only goal worth striving for is immortality” – Burroughs’ place in the pantheon of twentieth century writers would seem to be unquestionably assured.

In an age that more than ever requires us to go beyond the superficial, to question the operation of modes of power and control and to forge ahead with seeking out new modes of creativity in the face of seemingly unending banality, Burroughs’ ideas continue challenge us just as much now as they have always done throughout his turbulent yet extraordinarily creative life.

As Peter Schjeldahl wrote in his New Yorker piece on Burroughs entitled The Outlaw: The extraordinary life of William S. Burroughs (2014), Schjeldahl suggests that, “His [Burroughs’] palpable influence on J. G. Ballard, William Gibson, and Kathy Acker is only the most obvious effect of the kind of inspiration that makes a young writer drop a book and grab a pen…”

Thankfully, we can look forward to future generations of writers who continue to take up the cudgels of Burroughs’ continual questioning of the human condition and his quest to move it forward into ever deeper inventiveness in terms of literary creativity.

Perhaps as Schjeldahl notes in the final lines of his analysis in his piece on Burroughs, “When you have read Burroughs, at whatever length suffices for you, one flank of your imagination of human possibility will be covered for good and all”; an injunction that serves to invoke the continuing value of delving into Burroughs’ cannon despite its sometimes difficult, enigmatic and yet eternally rewarding complexity.

Marcus D. Niski © 2015-2021

The Bunker: John Giorno and The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs

by Marcus D. Niski

During one of the most colorful and flamboyant phases of his creative life, William S. Burroughs was closely associated with his New York loft apartment at 222 Bowery both affectionately and aptly known as The Bunker. The scene of many legendary parties and encounters with fellow writers, artists, hangers-on, street urchins, fans and other innumerable dramatis personae, Burroughs somewhat reluctantly at times played the mulit-faceted role of raconteur, showman, marksman, chef, host and resident celebrity that would undoubtedly help to further cement the Literary Outlaw myth so closly associated with his persona.

In this warm and intimate film portrait below of his close relationship with William S. Burroughs, fellow writer and poet John Giorno recounts the heady days of The Bunker and the antics associated with Burroughs’ famous residency. The cast of creative and literary heroes and villains ranged from the Beats Herbert Huncke and Allen Ginsberg, to such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Terry Southern and Victor Bockris [who would assemble various conversational accounts of the goings-on at The Bunker under the title With William S. Burroughs: Reports from The Bunker], as well as various members of the rock and roll fraternity of royals including – Mick Jagger, David Bowie and punk icon Joe Strummer.

The term ‘The Bunker’ itself stems from the fact that the apartment had no windows as well as extremely thick concrete walls which isolated it from all outside noise. Burroughs saw this as the ideal circumstances for his writing – and indeed his marksmanship – and the building served as an extremely attractive location in which to unfold his daily creative and life rituals.

During a trip to New York in 2009-2010, I made a pilgrimage to The Bunker in search of the Burroughs mythos and the surrounding historic district of the Bowery. Indeed, the Bowery itself is known for its own colorful and unsavory history as a prominent site for men’s shelters that housed many of the cities homeless, poor and indigent residents and The Bowery Mission continues to operate until today as it has done since the 1870s just several doors away from The Bunker itself.

Below are some images that I took of the front entrance, the view looking up to The Bunker loft and a street view all taken on a particularity cold winter’s day. Looking closely through the wrought iron gates, it was fascinating to still see the remnants of the YMCA logo adorning the tiled floor just inside the door as the building had served as a working YMCA. Indeed, a fascinating history of the building has also been documented by the New York Times which can be found at the following link: New York Times history of 222 Bowery

Bunker[1] MN

Bunker [3] MN

Stills images copyright Marcus D. Niski 2009-2020

‘The Bunker’ undoubtedly remains an iconic and important architectural and cultural reference point to one of the great periods of New York’s 20th Century literary and cultural history. Given its proximity to CBGBs which played a seminal role in the birth of the American punk rock movement that spawned a whole generation of musicians and artists, it’s hardly surprising that a pilgrimage to The Bunker was also part of the neighborhood lore and ritual for so many of New York’s avant garde and outsider scene.

John Giorno’s (1936 – 2019) fascinating and eclectic life as a poet is also more extensively documented in the first part of the film as found on the Louisiana Channel at the following link entitled: John Giorno Interview: A Visit to the Poet


Literatur & Natur 24. September 2020 — Kunst und Literatur

LITERATUR & NATUR im nationalparkhaus wien lobAU MECHTHILD PODZEIT-LÜTJEN, WOLF RATZ und BEATRICE SIMONSEN vom Literaturkreis Podium lesen Texte von, zu, über Natur. Donnerstag, 24. September 2020, 18.30 Uhr nationalparkhaus wien-lobAU 1220 Wien, Dechantweg 8 Christl Greller (Konzept, Organisation, Moderation) stellt den Literaturkreis Podium und die Künstler vor. Foto © Dirk Simonsen: In die Weite gehen …

Literatur & Natur 24. September 2020 — Kunst und Literatur

Succubations & Incubations Selected Letters of Antonin Artaud (1945-1947)

 

This selection of letters (1945-1947) from Artaud’s consummate work, Suppôts et Suppliciations [Henchmen and Torturings] translated into English for the first time, provides readers with a vivid, uniquely intimate view of Artaud’s final years. They show Artaud at his most exposed, and they are perhaps his most explosive, tragic, sad, even humorous. Each of the correspondents that came into contact with Artaud during this time were in their own way deeply affected since his project was essentially an “attack / on the mind of the public.”

Commenting on and elaborating key themes from his earlier writing, while venturing into new territory, Artaud recounts his torture and violation in asylums, his crucifixion two thousand years ago in Golgotha, his deception by occult initiates and doubles, and his intended journey to Tibet, where, aided by his “daughters of the heart,” he will finally put an end to these “maneuvers of obscene bewitchment.” Artaud also speaks of his plan to create a “body without organs” and extends this idea to the visual arts, where he argues that painting and drawing must wage a ceaseless battle against the limits of representation.

The apocalyptic vision for mankind that led Artaud on a journey, beginning in Mexico in 1936 and ending, tragically, in Ireland in 1937, with a mental breakdown, silence, and long internment in asylums, concluded with the extremely prolific late period from which these letters were drawn. There is an unmistakable unity of vision that permeates the letters: the vision of an unceasing, ubiquitous, and malignant plot “to close the mouth of lucidity” by any means, and which must be resisted at all costs.

 

Translated by Peter Valente & Cole Heinowitz

With an introduction by Jay Murphy

Illustrated by Martin Bladh and Karolina Urbaniak

 

The Greenwich Village vision of artist Alfred Mira — Ephemeral New York

Alfred S. Mira and his realistic, gritty, intimate Greenwich Village street scenes should be better known. [“Seventh Avenue, Greenwich Village”] Born in 1900 in Italy to a carpenter father, he left school and began working for an interior decorator, dreaming of going to art school but without the 50 cents a day it cost to […]

via The Greenwich Village vision of artist Alfred Mira — Ephemeral New York