LOKA William Burroughs Interview part one

William Burroughs, 1975 – Photograph by Peter Hujar © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

This weekend, in anticipation of the William Burroughs Centennial next month, we present (in two parts) this – the 1975 Loka Interview with Rick Fields (with fleeting contributions from Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman). The interview was taped in Boulder, Colorado, at Naropa Institute, on January 1st, 1975. Note Burroughs’ prescient thoughts about world-wide economic collapse, his careful attempts to be presented with accurate, not generalized, questions, his common-sense, practical approach, and much much more.

For the first approximately one minute, with the tape rolling, voices can be heard (including Anne Waldman’s and Loka editor, Rick Fields). The interview is proposed for (it doesn’t appear to have appeared in) Loka’s first issue.

Interviewer: I mean, the question of control.. In your work, like, control, control of others, keeps being like one of the worst enemies… almost like an inter-galactic virus, I mean, like, do you really feel that, in your life, that you reject any government’s existence, legitimate existence?

WSB: Well, that’s much too broad a question.

Interviewer: Are there any government’s existence that you don’t reject?
WSB: Well it depends on what you mean by “a government”.  As soon as you get.. best example, a hunting society, which numbers about thirty, requires no governmental apparatus – the man who’s the best hunter is the one who leads the hunt. As soon as you get agriculture on any sort of a scale like modern crop agriculture, that has always lead to social conditions where some people do work and others enjoy the leisure at their expense. And, of course, you’ve got a very heterogeneous mess like America and Western Europe, or any modern state, and you have got intercourses of all, all degrees, of oppression, and it can be very oppressive to less oppressive, (it) depends..

Interviewer: Do you think it’s possible for there to be such a thing as a just ruler?

WSB: Meaningless question

Interviewer: Meaningless question?

WSB: Yes. What do you mean by “just”?

Interviewer: Somebody that leads without his own personal interest being a paradigm, who is just really willing to be a focus for the group’s needs..   [a phone call distracts the interviewer, there will be several such distractions, minor ones, in the course of the interview ]

Interviewer: It sounds like you’re saying something like…could there be an ego-less kind of leader?

WSB: No, no – Have you read (Alfred) Korzybski?

Interviewer: No.

WSB: You wouldn’t ask those questions if you had.  In the first place, the word “just” has absolutely no meaning. I mean, since it’s a ..It depends on “who is doing what unto whom”. In other words, the judge might think that his sentence is just, (but) the criminal might not think so at all, In other words, they have very different ideas of justice, and there’s no such thing as justice floating in a vacuum. There is no state so homogeneous that you could even speak about common..comon-hood. What is good for one group is not good for another. What is good for one person is not good for another. And, as for the ruler, not taking his own, shall we say, selfish interests into account – those people have always been the most dangerous.

Interviewer: You mean guys like Martin Luther?

WSB: (Girolamo) Savonarola. Frankly, a selfish dictator-ruler, who’s trying to get things for himself is a self-limiting evil, but somebody who has some ideal, there’s no end to the harm they can do

Interviewer: Did you read about the “Spear of Destiny”? [Editorial note – the interviewer is refering to Trevor Ravenscroft’s 1973 book, which claims that Adolf Hitler started World War II in order to capture the spear with which he was obsessed. At the end of the war the spear came into the hands of US General George S Patton. According to legend, losing the spear would result in death, and that was fulfilled when Hitler committed suicide]

little. I haven’t read the book. James (Grauerholz)  was just reading it and I know what the spear supposedly is..   but I don’t know.

Interviewer: Do you think it’s possible to inculcate force in an object?
WSB: Undoubtedly.

Anne Waldman; The Sun disc.  The Inca Sun disc

WSB: Why, yes there are many of these magical potent objects, like (the) Crystal Skull is another.. there are only two of these artifacts in existence

Anne Waldman: What do those do, specifically

WSB; Well, there’s a book written on the Crystal Skull. Apparently, it does all sorts of things. It gives out a particular odour..

Anne Waldman: Wow!

WSB: ..and it affects people, people who are at all up-tight or very much discommoded by the presence of the skull, whereas others find its presence soothing and pleasant – well, that’s just an article I read, I don’t know as to how accurate….
Yeah, I’ve seen the Crystal Skull in.. they’ve got one in the British Museum. Well, it’s a beautiful object but you can’t tell anything because they’ve got it in a glass case. So you can’t even get anywhere very interesting... because the reflections are always the same, that is, it’s there in a glass case, and then there are windows there, and of course nobody’s allowed to move it from its case, or look at it, or examine it, or touch it, put it in a different set.

The British Museum crystal skull

Interviewer: Do you think there’s such a thing as an ego?

WSB: Er.. There must be.  What do you mean by “an ego”?  Draw me a picture of an ego.

Interviewer: I couldn’t do that, but, I mean, everybody seems to fight to destroy it or to protect it.

WSB: Well, your ego. In a very general way, is that part, very small part, of your psyche with which you consciously identify, in opposition or relation to your environment. There probably is an actual location, neural location, for this, this..whatever.
Interviewer: tendency?

WSB: What?

Interviewer: tendency?

WSB: No, it’s not a tendency. It has a neural location, undoubtedly probably in the mid-brain.

Anne Waldman: It doesn’t exist in dreams

WSB: Well, yes,  it might well exist in dreams. Certainly, it exists in dreams It’s the “you”, the “I”, which, of course, is a very narrow area of the whole psyche’s.. some have said. it’s like the tip of the iceberg that appears in the water. Now often, of course, (in most of humanity it is) highly defensive, that is, it is simply a reaction against something, against the environment, or against other people, or against the early conditioning, and so forth and so on. And so, it’s the source of a great deal of suffering, pain, conflict.

Interviewer: Well, is there a way to get out of that suffering or pain or conflict?

WSB: Well, for who?

Interviewer: For you.

WSB: Well, there’s always a way, a way to get out of it, surely, I mean, by, by deconditioning, you can get yourself into a position where your ego is.. expands, or rather, the boundaries are broken down. This depends.. I mean, it’s.. it’s a different problem for everyone. Now, someone who has been brought up, say, in a, say, a slum or ghetto environment, their ego has been really.. as a matter of survival, they’ve had to develop a very assertive ego, which, of course, is very hard to overcome. That environment, I think, is..  Well, it conveys certain advantages and is also very crippling. That is, someone who is brought up in the streets is very good for immediate… able to assert himself immediately, but he’s not able,  generally, to give up assertion when it isn’t necessary, since it has been so necessary for his survival, he is not able to abandon that mechanism when it is not necessary. There’s no general concept of what intelligence means, but, as a matter of survival, it has something to do with adaptability, and someone who is asserting himself when it is not necessary is not adapting himself. So you get.. coming two ways.. many middle-class people who had a very sheltered upbringing are unable to assert themselves, and people who have had a slum upbringing are unable to stop asserting themselves.

Interviewer: This leads me into.. I was thinking about the political result of what I’ll call “the consciousness movement”, (everything from< Scientology to Buddhism). Well, the thing that seems to characterize the (19)70’s, maybe just for middle-class people.. Do you think that has any kind of political result or political meaning?

WSB: Well, of course, any, any sociological movement of importance has..has political significance (like the whole Beatnik movement, which was a sociological movement on an almost unprecedented scale, and was world-wide – and still is world-wide, of course) is going to be reflected in politics.

Interviewer: Is there anything that attracts you to Buddhism?

Tibetan  Kapala

WSB: Oh, nothing particular, It seems sensible enough. Like I say, if they don’t come up with any definite answers after three thousand years, at least what they’re saying is relatively sane and sensible.

Interviewer: Definite answers to what questions?

WSB: Any questions. Any basic questions.

Interviewer: Well, for example? “Where are we?”

WSB: Huh?

Interviewer: Where are we?

WSB: Where are who? what? why?

Anne Waldman: Draw me a picture

WSB: Draw me a picture.

Interviewer: Well, where, I mean, there seems to be a feeling, or a possibility, that we’re trapped in something. Buddhism talks about samsara as kind of..that we’re trapped in, simply, reactions, that we’re trapped in our desires. You talked earlier about suffering and pain and so on, which was one of the definitions of samsara

WSB: Sure.

Interviewer: And the consciousness movement seems to look at that question. Most people who come to it seem to come to it, you know, to begin with, out of a realization that we are suffering, that things are not quite right.

WSB: That’s putting it mildly!

Interviewer: So how did we get in this fix? I mean, and is this a particularly human thing? or is this (only) in our corner of the universe, or..?

WSB: Well, one way, of course, is  through language..  most conflicts are verbal, (inner conflics and outer conflicts as well). A lot of it can be traced to the fact that we use a symbols-system which is not what it refers to (that Korzybski covers very clearly)

Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950)

Interviewer: We are not our labels

WSB: Yes, but, you see, animals don’t have that problem. Naturally, they’re subject to all sorts of suffering, pain, death, disease, and so on, but they don’t know it, they don’t worry about it, because they don’t have a symbol-system in order to do that. Now, you can condition any animal to be as neurotic as a human being – or to be psychotic. But this would not happen without such conditions – that you put your.. well, (Ivan) Pavlov has done this.. – the signals are switched too quick for the nervous system to adjust, and  the result is the animal cowers in the corner in a state of, what we would call, schizophrenia.
And, also, all animals react to non-existent situations in dreams, that is they..they.. cats, who are running from dogs, and so on, in dreams, but they wouldn’t ordinarily do that in the waking state.

Interviewer: Which is what we do.

WSB: Yeah, people are continually incapacitated by reaction to present, to past, and to future dangers, to things that are not there, like the battle-fatigue case who is still reacting to a battle-situation that was ten or twenty years ago.

Interviewer: Well  is it a matter, then, of living completely in the present?

WSB: No, I wasn’t talking about a remedy. I was talking about what actually happens. And the reason that people are reacting to past and future dangers at all times (not all people, but, in varying degrees), is the linguistic system,  the symbol-system, whereby they verbalize, or symbolize, past dangers and future dangers.

Interviewer: Have there been any human beings who have used this symbol-system which didn’t lead them into this mistake?

WSB: Well, I think a pictorial, or character, language seems to lead much less to this mistake, this impass or conflict, than a syllabic language, because it is closer to what it refers to.

Interviewer: You are talking about a heiroglyphic language then?

WSB: Or a character language

Interviewer: Such as Chinese?

WSB: Chinese, yes – which languages often do not contain the “is”of identity or the definite article, all these built-in mistakes that we have in Western languages

Interviewer: But are those languages spoken? Is the spoken language free of that kind of sense?

WSB: If the.. yes.. since it’s transcribed from the character language, it is, apparently. In other words, the reason the Chinese are, by and large, so sensible, and relatively serene, is undoubtedly because of their language..  You will notice that the Chinese preserve their language

Interviewer: Observe their language?

WSB: Preserve their language. You won’t find Chinese anywhere who won’t speak Chinese, whereas second-generation Italians, like Gregory Corso, don’t speak a word of Italian.

Interviewer: That’s right…..  Do you think it would make sense to reform English?  that we should speak Chinese, for example? Is there any hope for the English-speaking people, or the whatever it is, Romance-language-speaking people?

WSB: Korzybski suggested a reform of the English language which seems sort of a patchwork, eliminating the verb “to be” entirely, and the definite article, and the either/or proposition

Interviewer: But in your own writing you haven’t adopted this

WSB: No, it sounds like pidgeon-English. Although, it makes perfect sense, you don’t have to say “I am hearing”, you can say “I hear”, which is usual in a pictoral language (you don’t say “The sun is in the sky”, you say, “The sun in the sky”) but you do have English and it sounds like pidgeon English You can say.. You know what you’re doing, you know what you’re using, the “is” of identity, but just for the sake of being grammatical and readable, you really have to do it.

Interviewer: Is it possible that the use of that “is” reflects a fundamental anxiety about our own existence?

WSB: Oh.. that’s.. I would say that the contrary is true. The anxiety about our own existence results from the “is”. You have to be prepared to prove at all times that you are somebody that you’re not (because you’re not your drivers licence, you’re not your name, you’re not your label, but you have to have a pocketful of documents to establish the fact, to establish something that isn’t true).

Interviewer: Well, if we’re not all those things. Who are we?

WSB: Well, that’s not the point, at all. You see, people don’t exist in a vacuum. The question would be, who would you be, if you, say, had been brought up in a, in an Arab village, where you didn’t have any documents?

Interviewer: Abdul Mohammed.

WSB: Uh?

Interviewer: Abdul Mohammed.

WSB: Well, obviously it would be quite different. But, still, you’re not in a vacuum there, either. You have a whole individuality you composed of your interactions with all the other people around you.

Interviewer: Have you ever tried consciously to change your identity and to shed your given identity?

WSB: Well, good heavens, all the time. That’s what writers do.

Interviewer: But, like, I mean, when you stopped writing. Like, have you been in places where you were not “William Burroughs”?

WSB: Well, of course. That’s what writing is all about is being able to..

Interviewer: How is that?  How is that? Are you talking about while you’re writing a piece of prose that you’ll enter another character, or ..

WSB: Of course. If you don’t, I mean..  If you don’t enter the other character, the reader is not going to. So, all.. any writer has any number of identities.

Interviewer: Any number of ?

WSB: Any number of identities,  as many identities as he is creating and entering into.

Interviewer: Do you recall if there were certain identities in your writing that you had difficulty removing yourself from?

WSB: To some extent, yes. I think any writer has, has, shall we say, his narrator’s identities to some extent. Now that may be, say, Graham Greene‘s bad Catholic – well, that runs right through all of his books. I think it would be very hard for him to completely shed that identity.

Graham Greene (1904-1991)

Interviewer: What would you say is the identity running through yourbooks in terms of the narrative, basic narrative.?

WSB: Well, there’s a certain identity, like the narrator, (William) Lee, that would be one of that.

Interviewer: I’ve been surprised that, you know, being around you a little bit the last few days.. is, that, a certain aspect of your character that always seems emphasized in interviews with you, and is also one of the characteristics people think of you when they think of you as a writer is of a very cynical person, and that the aspect of you as a more.. as a genteel person is not a public aspect really..

WSB: I object to the word “cynical” . I just don’t know what it means. [phone rings, it is James Grauerholz, calling from New York City. Conversation is heard in the background]Do you know what it means?

Interviewer: Yeah, I’m trying to think, like (of)  a person who finds almost all situations..funny.

WSB:  I don’t think you’d find that would be the dictionary definition. I think the dictionary definition of “cynical” is someone who attributes,  shall we say, interested motives, in any situation

Interviewer: You don’t find that?.. you don’t feel that in yourself?, that you see interested motives?

WSB: It depends on the situation. No, it’s every individual case. Naturally, sometimes you’re going to suspect interested motives, and other times, not

Interviewer: You mean there are times when you do not?

WSB: Well, naturally!

Interviewer:  In your books? I mean, I’m trying to think of a character, in your books, any character that, except.. I mean, even the sense of Nova police just doing their job and going, one never quite believes that, at least I never have, that thy would just do their job and go because I’ve never seen a police force where that was the case.

WSB: Well, you’re thinking in terms of police here.

Interviewer: Were there police on other planets, or police in other vectors?

WSB: Well, in the first place, it depends on what you mean by “police”. It is quite possible to conceive of police of a purely restraining instance, only exercised when necessary. And, indeed, of course, there are many situations in parts of the world even today where ..there’s no necessity for police.. police is a purely informal instance exercised by anyone, because there’s no police in the hunting society, there’s no police in little old Indian towns in South American, there’s no necessity for them

Interviewer: There are police in the towns in Mexico that are just in transition, very much so.

WSB: Yep. Of course as soon as they get there, then they will start making themselves necessary. If there isn’t any crime there, there will be very soon after a policeman takes up residence in a town.

Interviewer: The whole world seems to be moving very quickly towards an industrialized situation, and, sometimes when we speak, it seems we have a great longing for a pre-Industrial situation, or at least for a.. pre-Industrial models – post-Industrial – ok – but, certainly, we seem dissatisfied with the fix we’ve gotten into.

WSB: All of which dates.. but I won’t say it all dates, but, most of the problems we have now, of course, date from the Industrial Revolution, it’s all from the Industrial Revolution, and the fact that no control was exercised over the process of Industrialization, so that we now have all these insoluable problems dumped in our laps.
Anything posed as a problem immediately becomes insoluable. As soon as you try to solve it, you get more problems, usually worst things.  Like, okay, you have a problem with alcohol, what did they come out with? Prohibition! – and where did that lead? Same thing, of course, is happening with the drug problem. It happens with any problem.

Interviewer: The problem of the ego?

WSB: Well that’s not, that’s not a social problem. I’m talking about social problems, like crime, unemployment, drugs.. (etcetera)

Interviewer: But don’t those things ultimately trace back to our fear of accepting what is, or trace back to the struggle for survival, or trace back to territoriality or aggressiveness or..

WSB: No, the problems I’m talking about trace back to the Industrial Revolution, to the process whereby making money became the primary object, and, in order to do this, we wanted as many consumers and producers as possible (which, of course, lead to over-population, it lead to exhaustion of resources, and all the..inflation and, eventually, to all the absolutely insoluble problems that we have now).

Interviewer: You say “insoluble”. When you’re faced with an insoluble problem, what is the intelligent thing to do?

WSB: Any problem is insoluble. Once it’s posed as a problem. Once it’s become a problem,  it’s already insoluble. You don’t do anything.

Interviewer: Ok, then we say “There is no problem”. If there’s no problem, how do we live in the midst of a society that’s very problematic?.

WSB: No..no, no, no  What I’m saying is, that, as soon as something becomes a problem, it is, by its nature, then, insoluble, and, actually, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Interviewer: Well, the history of my generation, as far as I can tell, has been, seeing, or feeling, a problem (I mean, the problem of Vietnam, or the problem of the suffering of the world, or however we see it, and, once you do that…  Is there anything..

WSB: The whole problem of biologic…of new discoveries in biology and biochemistry, which will become acute in another twenty or thirty years [Editorial note – this is 1975, so Burroughs is projecting to 2005]  (there is) something that possibly could be done about it now

Interviewer: The Mutation Industry?

WSB: Yeah. The whole matter, the whole matter of the fact that it is going to be possible to manufacture people to order in the future. But our tricky social system simply cannot adapt to that because that is not going to be solved in political terms.

Interviewer: You have some suggestions?

WSB: Well, presumably, the scientists would have to get together and decide… but who is exactly competent to decide?  – that we don’t even have, shall we say, the social mechanisms for dealing with the problem. And if you don’t solve the problem, or avoid the problem, naturally, the problem will solve itself one way or another.

Interviewer: Do you think this is a new human fuck-up, to invent technologies to destroy..that destroy oneself, destroy the society?

WSB: It’s not a new problem at all or a new human fuck-up at all, they simply become more efficient. We’ve had war for a long time. Well, anyone in the war tries to develop more efficient weapons. So long as they.. so long as their weapons had very limited killing power, it wasn’t very, very, much of a problem. But it’s inevitable that, with increased technology, they’re going to develop more and more efficient weapons, until they develop weapons which threaten the whole human species, certainly, it’s just simply an extension of the stone axe

Interviewer: Is there a question of technology then?

WSB:  Yes.

to be continued..

The audio for this interview is available here (via the Internet Archives) and here (via the Naropa Archives), as well as being made available here on this web-site)

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