LAST WORDS - THE FINAL JOURNALS OF WILLIAM BURROUGHS
First contact with WSB, 1963: a puzzled English class at my Jesuit grammar school - a young fresh-faced novice teacher reads to us with relish from the Freeland section of Naked Lunch. He emphasizes the Swiftian satire of totalitarian regimes but the text also alludes to vaseline, pen-wipers and sex with men. Under pressure he admits the little green book contains dark mysteries , and with one eye covering the door slips it back under his black cassock.
He left the Society of Jesus two years later, became an advertising executive and was sighted at the 1965 Albert Hall Poetry Reading, listening to a line-up of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and "the taped voice of William S. Burroughs." which echoed unintelligibly around the vast dome.
For Burroughs is elegist of the Dead Roads, scribe of the Western Lands which are bordered by the rivers of death. Here the decaying pleasure gardens close for ever. "Hurry, up, please. it's time..."
Bill's last testament was written against the biologic clock, in the last nine months of his life. James Gruerholz, who assembled the scrawled notebooks (Burroughs no longer had the stamina to type) sets the scene: the little single-storey frame house in the modest Kansas town of Lawrence, Burroughs pampering his cats and relaxing over vodka and Coke with old friends who help out with the chores.
For a minute we almost believe that Agent William Lee, the scourge of Interzone, has mutated into mild old Bungalow Bill, tripping over cat baskets as he gets up to pee in the night. For this is an old man's book - repetitious, crotchety, replaying favourite routines, recycling old black jokes - "wouldn't you? "- and chronicling heart pains, arthritis, stanchions on the bathtub, the evasions of doctors.
This is no ordinary senior citizen. " I am an unabashed cultural icon." He is living out the last of what Genet, his co-reporter on the 1968 Democratic Party Convention Riot, would call "his legend." Ornery Bill rages against drug wars, media panics, psychiatry, the atom bomb. Still a shootist, going out for weekly target practice sessions at a neighbour's farm. Subject continues to manage an addiction routine, with weekly visits to the methadone clinic. He reads pulp novels, with a special interest in stories of plague, epidemic, alien infestation. And he reads and re-reads his dreams.
My Burroughs dream, circa 1980. I am standing in a drab green dining room, grey light, dusty furniture. There is a serving hatch opening on another room, equally dull. Except that through the hatch I can see a long old-fashioned wooden barrow, the kind that London market traders once used, with a single pair of large spoked wheels in the centre.
A young severe-faced woman with straggly blonde hair - not my type- is lying face up on the wagon, which is tilted under her weight. She's tied to it and her brownish dress is dishevelled, unbuttoned. Mr. Burroughs is standing over her, wearing his fedora and a long grey trench-coat. He undoes his coat, loosens his trouser belt and lies down on the wagon. But he lies face-up with his head at the opposite end, as if attempting to balance it like a see-saw. It creaks as Burroughs tries to initiate some kind of intercourse by gripping his knees around her thighs.
"I'm afraid we have a problem here, son," says Burroughs, resigned to the situation. "A little local difficulty. Not for you, though." He reaches across and slams the hatch shut.
Burroughs has finally sloughed off the youthful skins of Kim and Audrey, his heroes in The Place of Dead Roads, and the sharp corporate suits of his Interzone Agents. The liveliest routine here is Burroughs as Good Old Boy - Arch Ellisor from Naked Lunch - a kind of country shit-kicking Hassan i Sabbah. Old Arch acts all humble and dumb when the Feds come round sniffing for dope, but as soon as they're out of sight, he whips out his country fiddle and does a magic song-and-dance routine. The spell stirs up a storm devil which knocks that FBI sedan right off the road, an inexplicable accident... But the dominant persona is "the old writer" of The Western Lands, "so many old inept memories clinging like dust and cat hairs..."
Burroughs ponders the mystery of how the functional beauty of cats co-exists with the meaningless hideousness of his old foe, the centipede. For cats - Ruski, Mutie, Spooner, Calico, Fletch - are William's familiars and comforters. Their grace and freedom from human pretensions are his distraction and salvation. Burroughs had always been uneasy about the romantic concept of love . In a Paris Review interview of 1965 he stated that the closest he came to it in human terms was a "sense of recognition".
However in the final Journals his empathic relationship with the cats becomes total, indeed totemic. " My familiar is the White Cat, formed of searing white moonlight under which all hidden plots, all lies, deceits, are brought to the light of The Hunting Cat... We march under the Banner of the Hunting Cat..."
Yet when William offers a good home to a white cat, Marigay, everything goes ominously wrong, for the animal screams incessantly. "Listening to his cries, I was struck by such a feeling of dread and depression as I have never experienced... Is this simply a foreboding of death? My death?"
Certainly the death of a cat, especially his favourite Fletch, deeply affected him and - according to Grauerholz - hastened his death three weeks later . "Those cries will never be heard again. If one is immortal, imagine the pain of loss again and again as others die..."
The death of Ginsberg haunts him. "At this moment, 5.04 pm, I have an intense vivid feeling of Allen's presence. Outside in the leaves. I see him clear. He is playing on unknown instruments, some sort of cowboy song. 'Are you conscious, Allen?' 'Yes, but barely..." Burroughs is impatient with secular rationalist dismissal of after-life survival but alternative answers to the riddle recede into mirage. "I have tried psychoanalysis, yoga... Scientology, Sweat Lodges... Do you want to know the secret? Hell, no. Just what I need to know, to do what I can do..."
Meanwhile, the days pass compiling quotes from favourite authors (Conrad, Petronius) interspersed with dim jerky flashbacks - knife-throwing at school/ old-timers in drug rehab at Lexington/Tangier street corners - although he still has the energy to rage against the failure of his new $800 Colt Python. But he suffers repeated jabs of spiritual pain, regrets over family and relationships.
The last entry strips everything away. "There is no final enough - of wisdom, experience - any fucking thing. No Holy Grail, No Final Satori, no final solution. Just conflict. Only thing that can resolve conflict is love... What I feel for my cats... Most natural painkiller what there is..."
Naked Lunch is still the prophetic book of post-millennial times. Junk is the global market leader, micro and macro worlds battle over opiates. The Web is a network of rancid ectoplasmic jissom where the citizens shiver in their millions as they merge with all kinds of interesting sex arrangements in full colour, courtesy of the Great Slashtubitch. A vast Moslem muttering rises while the Boards of Planet Earth try to fight the Orgone Pirates, buy out space/time and set the Image Banks for total control. Rhetoricians of the Final Academy will let Burroughs have the last word. His private mythologies became part of our hyper-reality.
© Paul A. Green 08/2000
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