For virtually all of his life, WSB was at odds with the trans-societal forces he eventually labeled Control. (On the Wiki page for WSB it says he was turned down by the OSS, and IIRC that was in Morgan's bio, but I digress already.) I've always found it interesting that Edward Bernays, the nephew of Freud who used Freud's ideas to manipulate the masses in the new "science" of Public Relations, had as an early competitor Ivy Lee, who was WSB's uncle via marriage. Lee was the epitome of Control, and just before he died of a brain tumor at age 57 in 1934, Congress had begun investigating Lee's ties to the Nazis and IG Farben.
In Ezra Pound's Canto 74, he mentions the stark fact that the Allies bombed the hell out of Germany, but somehow they missed the Farben plant.
WSB, the grandson of the founder of the Burroughs adding machine corporation, was sent to the Los Alamos Ranch School, a boarding school and college prep for rich kids that was influenced by the Boy Scout code, around 1930. He hated it. Later the US government bought the school and all the surrounding land, for the secretive Manhattan Project. Gore Vidal had also gone to Los Alamos Ranch, and in his autobiography Palimpsest he compared WSB to Pound (p.228) WSB was influenced by Pound (and Joyce). The NY artist/critic Richard Kostelanetz asserted that Pound's The Cantos was the last great poetry collage, while WSB's Naked Lunch was the last great prose collage. (Kostelanetz: ABC of Contemporary Reading, p.53)
Pound and WSB were very much in love with cats. See these photos of writers and their cats. If you know much about these writers - they were all (perhaps?) "weirder" than the average weird great writer. I wonder if it had anything to do with toxoplasmosis, or tiny organisms that get into the brain, which originate in cats? (They are actually protozoa, these cat-carrying microbes...)
Pound was found "insane" by the US for his very poor use of First Amendment ideas on behalf of Mussolini and "the US Constitution" and other things.
If this had anything to do with explaining the avant aspects of WSB and his art, it seems almost too ironic, as he, under the influence of a course of study with Korzybski, developed the idea that language was a virus that had commandeered humanity's minds; we are language's "host."
[The great Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky on toxoplasmosis. Some of you hardcore Pound and Burroughs exegetes might want to invest 25 minutes of your time to listen to this guy, keeping in mind those writers' love for cats. Has anyone else pointed this out? I wonder if toxo can make someone sort of "half-schizo," where they are really weird, but creative, and not bothered by auditory hallucinations and the complete consort of the full-blown paranoid schizophrenic? Pound went around Rapallo feeding the feral cats despite not having any money; WSB was horrified at the prospect of nuclear annihilation because it would mean his cats would die. If there's something to it, then maybe we can venture that a protozoa has had a huge influence on Literary Modernism. OR: the OG is a cat lover: maybe I'm toxo-infected and what it does is give you grandiose ideas about unforeseen connections?]
This reminds me of an essay called "The Aliens Are Among Us," by Nathan Wolfe, who founded the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative. He's talking about viruses: "Viruses operate along a continuum with their hosts and other organisms they interact with: some harm their hosts, some benefit their hosts, and some - perhaps most - live in relative neutrality with them, neither substantively harming nor benefiting the organisms they must at least temporarily inhabit for their own survival." (p.191 of What's Next: Dispatches From the Future of Science)
The Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris said that Burroughs himself was like a cultural virus: "Burroughs dedicated himself to immortality by becoming what Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene (1976), called a 'meme.' : 'a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation which propagates analogously to the genetic code and the parasitism of viruses, and is more than metaphorically 'alive.' If memes survive by parasitizing human minds, so, reciprocally, can the mind survive parasitic self-replication. The viral programme 'simply says' "Copy me and spread me around." This is Burroughs: 'all poets worthy of the name are mind parasites, and their words ought to get into your head and live there, repeating and repeating and repeating.'" (from Harris's essay, "Can You See A Virus?: The Queer Cold War of William Burroughs")
Speaking of viruses from space, language as virus, cats infecting human brains, and memes: Scientology has been in the news a lot lately. And Burroughs had his fling with it. See here. This is another aspect of WSB that fascinates me.
Still one of the best biographies of WSB is, in my opinion, Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw. Last year Morgan wrote an article about why WSB hated Morgan's book. In Morgan's book he pointed out that, in Naked Lunch WSB seemed to foresee AIDS, liposuction, autoerotic asphyxiation becoming common, the crack epidemic. I'd add that WSB seemed, very early on, around 1961, to suspect the CIA would be behind LSD flooding the streets of Unistat, and they would be doing it in an effort to staunch a youth rebellion.
I think WSB also foretold Kenneth Starr sexual fascism, but maybe that's for another day.
Oh yea: there's a wild little book called The Great Naropa Poetry Wars, by Tom Clark. In it he asserts that the antics of Chogyam Trungpa are like WSB's character "Dr. Benway."
Not long ago I went looking for the origin of a line WSB repeated: "And beside, the wench is dead." It looks like he got it from Christopher Marlowe via TS Eliot. (See Lives of the Poets, Schmidt, p.606)
Robert Anton Wilson: two passages around WSB:
"My friend, novelist William S. Burroughs, liked to say that 'anything which can be accomplished by chemical means can also be accomplished by non-chemical means.' I have personally found this to be true. There is no area of new perception and expanded awareness discoverable by peyote (or LSD or similar drugs) that cannot also be reached by techniques well-known to Oriental yogis and Western occultists. The sensory withdrawal techniques pioneered by Dr. Lilly and the new biofeedback machines also duplicate most of this expanded awareness." -pp.32-33, Sex, Drugs and Magick
From a 1992 interview:
Q: And what are some of your memories of that whole scene at Millbrook at that time?
RAW: Well, I'm sorry to sound like an advocate, but my impression was that Leary was one of the most brilliant people that I've ever met. Very much like my impression when I first met Buckminster Fuller and William Burroughs. The three people who gave me the sensation that I am in the presence of higher intelligence.
Q: And would you elaborate a little bit on why you put William Burroughs in that company? What do you see in Burroughs's writing, or his particular brand of intelligence that put him in that company?
RAW: Well, it's the choice of words. I first read Seventeen Episodes From Naked Lunch in a magazine called Big Table, and I felt no writer since James Joyce was able to put words together so efficiently and effectively to create the exact images and emotional overtones that he wanted. And I began to notice that not only was he a great prose poet, but he had a lot of interesting ideas, too.
Q: Had you also had the familiarity with Alfred Korzybski at that point?
RAW: Yes. That's one thing that Burroughs, Leary, Bucky Fuller and I all have in common - we all have familiarity with Alfred Korzybski and General Semantics.
(-from transcript of radio interview for Off The Beaten Path, see near the end. The person that transcribed the interview was quite unfamiliar with names mentioned, so I corrected the gross misspelling of Korzybski's name in the original.)
- In an effort to induce altered states without using drugs, Burroughs, in collaboration with Brion Gysin (the main brain behind the Thing) and Ian Sommerville, they came up with The Dream Machine, which uses flickering light patterns to interact with the eye/brain rhythms. You sit in front of it with your eyes closed and it does things to your brain. See the 2008 documentary by Nik Sheehan. Anyway, here's a brief:
WSB on art and making people aware of what they didn't know that they knew: