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

Paul Auster’s New York

New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no mater how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhood and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him to a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within… Motion was of the essence, the act of putting one foot in front of the other and allowing himself to follow the drift of his own body. By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal, and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks, he was able to feel that he was nowhere. And this, finally, was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere. New York was the nowhere he had built around himself, and he realized that he had no intention of ever leaving it again.

Paul Auster in City of Glass as quoted in Paul Auster’s New York, Henry Hold and Company, New York)

Paul Auster’s New York

The feeling that emerges from these glimpses of city life is roughly equivalent to what one feels when looking at a photograph. Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” is perhaps the crucial idea to remember in this context. The important thing is readiness:  you cannot walk out into the street with the expectation of writing a poem or taking a picture, and yet you must be prepared to do so whenever the opportunity presents itself. Because the “work” can come into being only when it has been given to you by the world, you must be constantly looking at the world.

From: The Art of Hunger, as quoted in Paul Auster’s New York, Henry Hold and Company, New York)

Finding the Structure of the World

… I’m thinking structures. I’ve always taken it for granted that in literary writing content and form are intertwined, one. Now I’m examining my belief. Iain says that the writer is a person who finds, rather than makes, structures. “I began to see the pattern of the living city in myth,” he tells me. “If you look, you can see the structures that lie underneath.”

“Is this how we write? By seeing? By finding?” “I think so.”

“Then, to write an epic is to see the structure of one’s city or of one’s life as epic?” …


Extracted from: Ian Sinclair an Interview with Kathy Acker in – ‘Writing as Magic in London in Its Summer: Iain Sinclair and the Crafting of Place.’

Read the full interview at: https://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/vertigo_magazine/volume-4-issue-3-summer-2009/writing-as-magic-in-london-in-its-summer/

Lime Tea and a Heineken with Uncle Ho: Some Reflections from my Notebooks *

By Marcus D. Niski

A South East Asian city …

Bui Vien Street, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Morning: 7.30 AM: I arise, groggy having slept off-and-on in the humid atmosphere of my narrow-walled room. Wiping my face with a moist towel, I turn on the TV for my morning dose of satellite news. Deutsche Welle news flashes on as Gerhard Schroeder visits Kenya promising assuredly there will be more German aid money for Kenya.

Out on the street the throng of motorcycles, taxis, cyclos and pedestrians begins to intensify as a new day of toil begins.

Making my way down the Minihotel’s three flights of narrow stairs, I pour myself onto the street still in a fog of disorientation as I make first contact with the street and the shape of the outside world.

Backpackers queue to catch their morning buses, tourists leisurely eat along the sidewalks cafes, cyclo drivers mill about casting a wary eye for a first passenger, shopkeepers tidy their wares in preparation for the days’ trading, and old men play cards squatting in shopfront doorways.

Later, uptown, I meet my driver the gentle Mr Tay who will skilfully guide me through the miasma of city streets, all the while instructing me as to the secret history lying beneath each and every cultural treasure. The Revolutionary Museum and so-called War Remnants Museum are the first two important destinations to trawl before the day becomes unbearably hot.

The traffic – that ever present thick automotive syrup – wends its way through narrow passes and out into the city’s wide boulevards as we speed towards the sights.

Two sweaty hours on the job and its time for a break and cool bottled water. I head for the street corner stall across the road hoping to avoid a dozen of so more offers to take ‘motobike’ downtown at good price. Drawing breath, I succumb and haggle for a decent deal. Later I’ll be back to soak up the atmosphere and make a plan to catch the sights I’ve missed.

Uptown …

Afternoon 4.30 pm: a city of contrasts is suddenly still. High above, a bright red ball sun glows through the thick haze of smog and clouds. There’s a hush as the city breathes in and prepares for night.

Dogs piss, old men hawk and spit, women lay sprawled out on their shop-floors and foreigners amble along the narrow streets. I make my way uptown for a lime tea and a Heineken with Uncle Ho.

My favourite outdoor café lies but stones throw from the bronze statue of Uncle Ho – Bach Ho – that sits in a small park across the way from the famous Hotel De Ville along the wide and impressive Le Loi Boulevard.

At the café, situated in an immaculate square garden manicured within an inch of its life, I can sit, relax, drink lime tea and soak up the atmosphere of the city. The waiters mill around joking, kidding and play tag with each other like a bunch of bored schoolchildren.

High above where the city skyline hovers over the gardens, starlings swirl in the late afternoon sky, while around the edges of the square traffic squirms and swarms as the hours draw nearer to the celebration of Tet night.

Afternoon is a time for reflection, gathering ones thoughts and making sense of the day. Afternoon seems easy where morning was hard, a time of day where one may feel in synch with the city rather than moving against it.

Night …

Night: I take a motorcycle taxi to the outdoor restaurants at the Ben Thanh Market. Seas of hungry faces devour rich offerings. The night air is warm and pleasant. Behind me the market is a thronging hive of activity. Police and government officials control the thoroughfare along where the main eating area is situated so as to block rogue motorcycles from passing through and causing chaos. The food is fresh, cheap and exquisitely tasty.

Still, I feel like the solo foreigner, the only western face in the crowd of locals all gazing inquisitively, politely, inquiring, quizzical, and yet not intrusive.

Night… weaves its magical air through the city as the noise of a hundred thousand motorcycles waiting at the one tiny red light howl as that light changes to green. On the street a throng of local traders ply their wares, stallholders accost potential customers and weary beggars thrust their conical hats.

Night is where this city lives, commits its sins and rises to its famous reputation. Night is where colour and movement are most intense and the people are at their most gregarious.

Tet is but a day away now and the air of expectancy continues to build. A carnival atmosphere surrounds the city and its uptown boulevards. Fairy lights don the tree-lined streets along part of Dong Khoi and thoroughfares are blocked with potted flowers where pedestrians may roam free from the fear of hindrance by mad motorcyclists. Shops buzz with activity as the tourists clamour. Couples saunter and make their way back to their hotels edging their way through the crowds of locals gathered to jostle and talk.

Later, Minihotel Downtown, Bui Vien: One AM and I’m having trouble sleeping. Overwhelmed, my room fan struggles to puff out its meagre stream of air. The temperature moves towards an ever more unbearable state. Outside a sudden shattering of glass a motorcycle rider loses his load and a couple of dozen 7 Up bottles hit the pavement. A momentary hive of activity and chaos erupts as the locals discuss the scene before resuming their chit-chat and housekeeping duties. From high above on the third floor I am able to leap up to my window and gaze down to observe the action.

Startled at first by the harsh sounds of shattering glass, I am relieved to see that no real harm has come to the rider, although the crates of lemonade bottles lie in a sadly irretrievable state.

Uptown, in the small hours of the morning, street urchins wander, cyclo drivers gain their fitful rest and bars pump until a new day dawns.

Tonight will be Tet night when the city explodes in a shower of flamboyance amongst the fireworks and hoopla that the New Year celebration promises to bring.

Meanwhile, I manage to catch some sleep amidst this anticipation and the noises that invariably invade the thin walls of my room

Life along Bui Vien swirls amongst an endless stream of comings and goings, a sea of human transactions in the ordered chaos that is Vietnam.

Written in my notebooks, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), January 2004.

© Marcus D. Niski 2004-2017

* Postscript: 

My original ambition for this piece of writing was to embark upon a form of structured  observational exercise [à la Georges Perec] whereby I would go to a fixed location at each point of the day – morning, noon, and night – and make my observations as the principal departure point for the piece.

My impressions were immediate: I was completely captivated by the challenge of attempting to reconstruct street scenes in a narrative way that would accurately reflect the street life taking place all around me – while at the same time trying to avoid any aspect of confabulation as to what would become the ‘storyline’  (or linear narrative) that would hold the piece together. Indeed, this attempt at using some of the key techniques of Creative Non Fiction was a most satisfying and rewarding exercise and one that all writers can learn a lot from in terms of improving their powers of observation, understanding the mechanics of storyline and ‘times shifts’, as well as learning to carefully ‘tune in’ to the environment that they are writing about. All writing is a learning process and I really learnt a great deal from attempting this piece.

Originally written in 2004, I later returned to Ho Chi Minh City in 2015 to find a dramatically changed place: one far less welcoming, far more aggressive, and frankly, very disappointing in that its charm and character seemed sadly degenerated in the wake of rapid gentrification, urban population pressure, and rampantly exploitative traders and restaurateurs. What came out of this was an interesting and salutatory lesson about place: it reinforced the fact that we can never assume that our memories of a place will be validated in the same way once we return to it – they may be reinforced, be elevated by positive new change, or destroyed by new impressions in the face of change that we find unacceptable in our subjective view of the world. At times, we all have a romantic or naive expectation that a place will remain relatively unchanged over time – but that assumption is a dangerously ill-conceived in a world that is changing so rapidly and major cities are facing ever greater destructive incursions into the fabric of their built environment and history.

[MN] Salzburg, Austria, October 2017

PPS:  If any readers are interested, I would be happy to put together a reading guide to some excellent Creative Non Fiction writing resources on style, technique and related issues. [MN]

Paris Peasant – Louis Aragon

“Louis Aragon guides us through the Passage de L’Opéra, imaginatively exploring the allure of various establishments found in the covered arcades, including seedy lodging houses, cafés, hairdressing salons, public baths, theatres, washrooms and quaint specialist shops selling such items as handkerchiefs, walking sticks, and exotic stamps. He evokes the ambiguity of these places, their pleasures and secrets: ‘the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions’. Aragon playfully opens up the arcades as diverse laboratories of sensations against what he sees as respectable, inoffensive bourgeoisie sensibilities. The passageway becomes a ‘method’ for loosening inhibitions, revealing both the shadowy and bright secrets that can be found behind its doors. In his stroll through Passage de L’Opéra the public baths and brothel are described in terms of ‘other places’, different worlds  secreted in the heart of Paris, and when he moves out to the district of Butts-Chaumont, Aragon’s description and celebration of gardens and parks likewise become zones of mystery and enchantment. Gardens become places of, and for, dreams and mad invention. Parks, particularly at night, become places of sensual delight and lurking danger.”

Review of Peter Aragon’s Paris Peasant by Peter Johnson  (12 February 2014) via http://www.heterotopiastudies.com/paris-peasant-aragon/


Page Images from A Rare Hardcover Edition of Paris Peasant. Photography by Marcus D. Niski © 2004-2017


Smiling At Strangers — mokita dreams

This fabulous spontaneous street photography piece – Smiling At Strangers – was put together by Ieva Kambarovaite and posted on her blog at mokitadreams.com

“Sat in a coffee shop, watching the world and taking pictures of strangers. Who knew? They smiled. Big and genuine smiles. Brits are not so miserable after all (got to work on my sarcasm). I hope you have a great day and I hope you smile at strangers. Surprise Harmony…”

via Smiling At Strangers — mokita dreams