william Burroughs' raw-boned figure haunted us long before his death. For
nearly half a century, he infected our literature, seeding it
with his obsessions, suspicions and passions. In his brutal honesty, we
began to learn something new about truth and humor and maybe even love.
Of the many authors who have acknowledged his influence, few have been
as unflinching or provocative as J.G. Ballard. From the chromey
auto-eroticism of "Crash" to the surrendered innocence of "Empire of the
Sun," Ballard has refined a style that cuts through the moralism and
sentimentality that blunt so much contemporary writing.
After Burroughs' death, Ballard spoke to us by phone from his home in Shepperton, England.
William Burroughs was someone who was suspicious of language and words, but his whole life was defined by them. Do you see a contradiction here? Perhaps the essential writer's contradiction?
I think Burroughs was very much aware of the way in which language
could be manipulated to mean absolutely the opposite of what it seems to mean. But that's something he shared with George Orwell. He was always trying to go through the screen of language to find some sort of truth that lay on the other side. I think his whole cut-up approach was an attempt to cut through the apparent manifest content of language to what he hoped might be some sort of more truthful world. A world of meaning that lay beyond. In books like "The Ticket that Exploded" and "The Soft Machine," you see this attempt to go through language to something beyond. If there is a paradox, I think it lies somewhere here.
How did you first encounter Burroughs' work?
I think it was in something like 1960. A friend of mine had
come back from Paris where "Naked Lunch" had been published by the Olympia Press, which was a press that specialized in sort of low-grade porn, but also published what were then banned European and American classics. Henry Miller, for example, was first published in the Olympia Press. And Nabokov's "Lolita" was first published by the Olympia Press.
Anyway, it was a rather low time for me. I had just started out as a writer. I hadn't written my first novel. And this was the heyday of the naturalistic novel, dominated by people like C. P. Snow and Anthony Powell and so on, and I felt that maybe the novel had shot its bolt, that it was stagnating right across the board. The bourgeois novels, the so-called "Hampstead novels" seemed to dominate everything.
Then I read this little book with a green cover, and I remember I read about four or five paragraphs and I quite involuntarily leapt from my chair and cheered out loud because I knew a great writer had appeared amidst us. And I, of course, devoured the book and every Burroughs novel. I think there were about three or four then in print from Olympia Press. I knew that this man was the most important writer in the English language to have appeared since the Second World War, and that's an opinion I haven't changed since. It was an encouraging moment. I mean, although my writing has never been along the lines that Burroughs set out, his example was a huge encouragement to me.
I first met him in the early '60s in London. I visited him in his flat in Picadilly Circus. I'm not sure that he got up to a great deal of writing there. He didn't seem that happy.
This was in a street called Duke Street, literally about 100 yards
from Picadilly Circus. And, of course, this was of interest to him because
that's where all the boys used to congregate, in the lavatory of the big Picadilly Circus Underground station. They had completely taken it over. It was quite a shock for a heterosexual like myself to accidentally stray into this lavatory and to find oneself in what seemed to be a kind of oriental male brothel. He obviously found that absolutely fascinating.
I think these big cities aren't all that different, really. Burroughs roamed around the world throughout his youth and middle age without ever really stopping anywhere for very long. I think the closest he probably felt to home was Tangiers. He certainly did his most important writing there. I mean, he wrote "Naked Lunch" there, and I think he found a very sympathetic community of homosexuals and drug users and, of course, an unlimited availability of boys and young men.
This was Interzone [a parallel universe in "Naked Lunch"] of course. Interzone was based on Tangiers, so I think he was happy there. Happier than he seems to have been in New York. Or, for that matter, during his days as a would-be farmer. I think he must be one of the strangest men ever to set out to raise a cash crop. I remember reading his collected letters a few years ago and he's describing how many carrots and lettuce he's planted and you can tell that this isn't going to work out.
When critics look at both your work and Burroughs', they often point to the severity and even a sense of dissociation. Sometimes they even call your works antisocial. Do you see any truth in that?
Severity, yes. Honesty is what I prefer to call it. That has a much
more satisfying ring to it. Burroughs called his greatest novel "Naked Lunch," by which he meant it's what you see on the end of a fork. Telling the truth. It's very difficult to do that in fiction because the whole process of writing fiction is a process of sidestepping the truth. I think he got very close to it, in his way, and I hope I've done the same in mine.
The bourgeois novel is the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It's a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader, and at every point, offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters. This whole notion was advanced by Mary McCarthy and many others years ago, that the main function of the novel was to carry out a kind of moral criticism of life. But the writer has no business making moral judgments or trying to set himself up as a one-man or one-woman magistrate's court. I think it's far better, as Burroughs did and I've tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth. So I don't object to the charge of severity at all.
So you think the writer is more interesting as a reporter than as an artist?
I mean he's reporting not just on the external world, but
on his own interior world because he's telling the truth about himself. It's extremely difficult to do. Most writers flinch at the thought of being completely honest about themselves. So absolute honesty is what marks the true modern.
When the modern movement began, starting perhaps with the paintings of Manet and the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, what distinguished the modern movement was the enormous honesty that writers, painters and playwrights displayed about themselves. The bourgeois novel flinches from such notions. It's difficult to tell the truth about one's own fantasies and obsessions and equally difficult in a different way to reflect honestly on the external world.
And mankind can't bear too much of that sort of honesty. Certainly Burroughs revealed, with absolute honesty, his own obsessions. I mean, teenage boys ejaculating as they die on the scaffold. Pretty grim stuff, you know, socially objectionable, I dare say. But at least he was honest about his own obsessions.
And he made it a little more palatable, and I see this in your own work, by the use of black humor.
Absolutely. I mean he's one of the greatest humorists who
ever lived. His books, particularly "Naked Lunch," are hilarious from the word go. They never let up. "Naked Lunch" was written largely in the form of a long series of letters to Allen Ginsberg, in which Burroughs practiced these routines which were sort of skits or cabaret items in which he introduced characters like Dr. Benway. They were these extraordinary comic routines.
You're both often misunderstood, however. You're both read as darker, more somber writers and not often given the credit for the humor in your work. Is this because of the subject matter?
My humor is rather different. It's much more deadpan. I suppose
there's an element of tease in my writing. I mean, I've never been too keen to show which side of the fence I'm on.
And all the controversy that's grown up over David Cronenberg's film of "Crash" has tended to center on, "Do you or do you not actually believe that people should find car crashes sexually exciting?" People think I'm being evasive sometimes, but it's that ambiguity that's at the heart of everything. I try to maintain a fairly ambiguous pose, while trying to unsettle and provoke the reader to keep the unconscious elements exerting their baleful force. But you're right, I don't think I've been given enough credit for the humor I have.
Both you and Burroughs have been dogged by censors your entire careers. What is it about both of your works that inspires this venom on the part of the censors?
Well, it's such a huge question. In Britain, it relates back to insecurity of a desperate kind. "Crash," the film, is still banned from central London, the West End. Westminster Castle controls, I don't know what the equivalent would be in New York or San Francisco, the central entertainment district where most of the major movie theaters are. This is generally subsumed under the term West End, which also includes, of course, the Houses of Parliament and the main government district in Whitehall. And they banned the film from the West End of London. So it's only being shown in peripheral areas and sometimes in a ludicrous way. There's the council that's directly adjacent to Westminster on the northeast side called Camden, and it passed the film. So there's this very peculiar sensation that there's a sort of invisible frontier much like the one that existed between East and West Berlin. One could cross this set of traffic lights, literally about 30 yards from the Camden theater, and you enter the forbidden zone of Westminster. It was like going through Checkpoint Charlie in the old Berlin.
But it all reflects the same thing. Not unlike the trouble Burroughs had with "Naked Lunch" when it was first banned from publication in the States. Just like Henry Miller's novels, which were banned from publication in America for decades. It's a deep insecurity, a fear that once you allow the populace at large to enter any kind of forbidden rooms, God knows what they may get up to next. So one's got to keep the lids severely jammed on these nefarious books and films. Meanwhile, allowing people to go and see the latest "Die Hard" film, or piece of designer sex and violence from Hollywood. Very, very curious.
Both you and Burroughs write very visual narratives and you've both painted. Do you find a resonance between writing and creating something visual?
Burroughs did take up painting in his later years. I took up
painting in my youth and found I hadn't any talent for it, but I always really regretted that I didn't, because I think I would've been far happier as a painter. I don't think that's true of Burroughs. I think he was a writer from the word go. In conversation he chose his words very, very carefully. He thought quickly, but spoke rather slowly. Obviously words were immensely important to him and the framing of ideas, thoughts, wasn't something to be just done at the drop of a hat.
In a way, he adopted a kind of adversarial relationship with the word, with the printed word, seeing how easily it could be manipulated for sinister reasons. My approach has been quite different. I would love to have been a painter in the tradition of the surrealist painters who I admire so much. Sometimes I think all my writing is really the substitute work of an unfulfilled painter. But, you know, there we are.
Both you and Burroughs studied medicine. This seems to have had a profound effect on the work you both produced.
I studied medicine for a couple of years before giving it up, as a
great number of writers have done, curiously. I think Faulkner even spent a small amount of time as a medical student. But Burroughs was intensely interested in the mechanisms involved in any kind of process. Right across the board. And he was intensely interested in psychology and psychiatry. He was interested in all kinds of obscure things. I remember the very first time I met him, this was the early '60s, his boyfriend had "love" and "hate" tattooed on his knuckles, which was quite startling then.
Once, while the boyfriend carved a roast chicken, Burroughs began to describe the right way to stab a man to death and he was graphically illustrating it with this large carving knife. His head was filled with all sorts of bizarre bits and pieces culled from "Believe It or Not" features and police magazines and all kinds of obscure sources. But he was very interested in scientific or technological underpinnings. I think, in a way, I share that with him. I've always felt that science in general is a way of ordering one's imaginative response to the world.
It's also a separate language, too, isn't it? Books such as "Naked Lunch" and your "Atrocity Exhibition" use scientific language to break down the novel into something that people hadn't seen before.
I think that's true. I've always used a kind of scientific
vocabulary and a scientific approach to show the subject matter in a fresh light. I mean, if you're describing what happens when, say, a car crash occurs and a human body impacts against a steering wheel and then goes through the windscreen, one can describe it in a kind of Mickey Spillane language with powerful adverbs and adjectives. But another approach is to be cool and clinical and describe it in the way that a forensic scientist would describe what happens, or people working, say, at a road research laboratory describing what happens to crash test dummies. Now, you get an unnerving window onto a new kind of reality. I did this a lot in "The Atrocity Exhibition."
The same applies to, say, describing a man and woman making love. Instead of using all the clichés that are marshaled wearily once again in most novels, approach it as if it were some sort of forensic experiment that you were describing. An event that is being watched with the calm eye of the anatomist or the physiologist. It often prompts completely new insights into what has actually happened.
So yes, I've done that and Burroughs did that in a different way. His novels, particularly "Naked Lunch," are full of almost footnote material explaining the exact route to the central nervous system taken by some obscure Amazonian poison on the end of a dart as it pierces its victim. He was very interested in that sort of thing, the exact mechanisms by which consciousness was altered by drugs of various kinds. I think I share that with him too.
If there is one thing that you think we should, as readers, take away from Burroughs' work, what would that one thing be? Or that you would hope we would take away, perhaps?
It's difficult to say, because I think he's a writer of enormous
richness, but he had a kind of paranoid imagination. He saw the world as a dangerous conspiracy by huge media conglomerates, by the great political establishments of the day, by a corrupt medical science which he saw as very much a conspiracy. He saw most of the professions, law in particular but also law enforcement, as all part of a huge conspiracy to keep us under control, to keep us down. And his books are a kind of attempt to blow up this cozy conspiracy, to allow us to see what's on the end of the fork.