William Burroughs – (Commissioner of Sewers)

Burroughs Centennial celebration continues. Here is Klaus Maeck‘s 1991 documentary – William S Burroughs – Commissioner of Sewers, featuring, in a suitably cut-up form, Jurgen Ploog‘s interview with Burroughs, and footage from a 1986 Burroughs reading (recorded in Berlin, Germany, in May of 1986). We’ve featured a snippet of this before (on Burroughs’ birthday) but here is the whole thing.

JP: I want to ask you William, what made you become a writer? I’m referring  to your remark, in the preface to Queer, where you said that your wife, your wife Joan’s death had played an important part in your decision to say “I have to go into writing now? What..”

WSB:  What.. yes..but, excuse me, it’s never.. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision at all, until you really committed yourself. Someone once asked (Jean) Genet when he started to write and he said at birth. Now that doesn’t mean there’s something particular in the chromosomes of a writer, but it does mean that all his experience is focused in that direction long before he puts pen to paper or sits down at a typewriter. You’ll remember something that happened years ago and that will fit right in to what I’m writing now. So my past experience becomes meaningful in terms of material for writing in the future, but I was comparatively late, you see, I wrote Junky at the age of thirty-five, and it was published in..1963 (publication is, I think, very important for a writer. If I hadn’t suceeded in publishing Junky, I might just have given up writing.

JP: What do you think the fact, or the state, of death represents? Is it just an end of something, or is it a transition, or..?.. like, like when we mentioned books like The Tibetan Book of the Dead  and all that, do they indicate that there is more than we normally realize?

WSB: “We”? –  please, don’t do the “we”  – it depends,  there are all kinds, there are all kinds,  of attitudes..

JP: No, I mean in our culture..

WSB: …towards death..  Well, as I said, “Kim had never doubted the existence of God, so the possibility of an after-life”, and Kim is my alter-ego and spokesman (like Larry Speakes is the White House spokesman). Well, now… however, the Egyptian.. and the Tibetan, Book of the Dead are quite different, because the Tibetan Book.. was based on the premise(s) of re-incarnation, whereas the Egyptians had no concept of reincarnation.

JP: But they believed in death after..  or.. resurrection, because they kept their mummies.

WSB: Ah yes, but only those people who had mummies could resurrect themselves.

JP: They needed a body.

WSB: They neeeded a body. That’s why the Egyptians took to Christianity like a vulture takes to carrion. It’s the resurrection of the body – this whole mummy concept..which I find..well..very..very unsatisfactory, to put it mildly.

JP: Well, and your personal feeling about that. Do you believe in reincarnation?

WSB:  Oh yes, I more or less take that for granted, the possibility of reincarnation, and of course I agree with the Buddhist system, that it is something to be avoided if possible, it’s the worst thing that can happen. It may  –  “el delito mayor/Del hombre es haber nacido” (Pedro Calderon de la Barca)

JP: What’s that in English?

WSB: That  means the first, delito, mistake, you can say, is to have been born in the first place…

The Western Lands, by William S. Burroughs

“The Western Lands” – William S Burroughs (1987)

JP: Lets get back to the subject of the writer. What is the original field of the writer? what mechanisms should he consider, work on..?

WSB: The word “should” should never arise. There is no such concept as “should” with regard to art or anything, unless you specify. In other words, if you’re trying to build a bridge, then you can say we should do this and we should do that, with respect to getting the bridge built, but it doesn’t float in a vaccuum, My feeling about art is that, one very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know and don’t know that they know. Now this applies not only to.. to all creative thinking, For example, people on the sea-coast, in the Middle Ages, they knew the earth was round, they believed the earth was flat because the church said so. Galileo says.. tells them the earth is round, and nearly was burned at the stake for saying so. (Paul) Cezanne shows people what objects look at, seen from a certain angle, in a certain light. and literally, people just thought he’d thrown paint on canvas, and they attacked his..his canvases with umbrellas when they were first exhibited. Well now, no child would have any difficulty in seeing a Cezanne, There’s.. Once the breakthrough is made, there is a permanent expansion of awareness, but there’s always reaction of rage, of outrage, at the first breakthrough, and, for example (James) Joyce then made people aware of their..their stream-of-consciousness, at least on one level, on a verbal level, and he was, at first, accused of being unintelligible. I don’t think many people now would have any difficulty with Ulysses.

JP: No

WSB: So, the artist, then, expands awareness, and once the..once the breakthrough is made this becomes part of the general awareness.

JP: So it’s a matter of seeing things in a new way, differently

WSB: Well, yes, but seeing things that are there

JP: And well.. of seeing.. I’m interested in.. That takes me to the subject of (the) picture. Like, we have an alphabetic writing, like the..  but the Chinese, for example, they have an ideogramic way of writing, and they..some people say they have a different way of thinking because of that. Does the…the visual aspect, is that important? Does it come…

WSB: Oh, well I think it’s quite important to have so-called pictorial writing like Egyptian hieroglyphs. (Well, it is not as completely pictorial as people might think – the grammar is extremely complicated and you must have a number of concepts, that are arbitrary – so the word for “dawn” will be the word for “sun”, but there are also what is known as determinatives..

JP: Yes

WSB: …that must accompany that).  So, there are many arbitrary factors in any pictorial system.

JP: A set of  symbols that could be arranged in different ways?

WSB: Yes, but, for example, how do you say your propositions in pictures? The answer is you don’t, you have pictures that represent them, but they’re arbitrary.
JP; Maybe you could say, we could say that “should” could not be expressed in pictures.
WSB: I don’t think it could. Sometimes I will ask someone, you know –  they’re asking me something, I’ll say, “well, draw me a picture of it” (and) if they can’t do that, I say, “Well then, Where is it? What does it mean?”
JP: I think that’s an important…
WSB: Very, very, yes
JP: Of visualizing things
WSB: Particularly for a writer and artist.
JP: Well that takes us right into the subject of language, the way it is used in our culture and Western alphabetical culture, and techniques that are..that have been found, like cut-ups, to counter the effect of a language becoming more and more abstract and meaningless.

WSB: Well, yes, you see the.. I’d.. I’d spoken about the artist being the people making people aware of what they know and don’t know that they know. That is, the cut-up is really  much closer to the actual facts of perception. As soon as you look out the window, look around the room, walk down the street, your consciousness is being cut by random factors – life is a cut-up – so the cut-ups are actually closer to the  perceptions, human perception than straight narrative, straight linear narrative.
See, the cut-ups was not my idea, it was Brion Gysin‘s idea, it’s essentially a painter’s idea of applying the techniques of painting to writing. This was the montage technique, which was pretty old hat, actually, in painting.

JP:  Well, there’s a theory of saying that all things are happening at the same time, and only because we live in a certain way of time, of looking at time that we feel that it’s all lined up in one line, going from one line, coming from one point and going to another point…

WSB: Well, yes, but this is..

JP: Chronological

WSB: Yes but this is just part of the.. I mean, it’s integral in the.. part of the word medium. We know things are happening simultaneously, but there’s just no way of doing that on a page. You can’t do it. If you tried, it just wouldn’t work. You could say, “here is one column” (and) this is going on at the same time, that is going on, and that is going on, and that is going on”. But it’s just not going to, it’s not going to work. You can do it much better, of course, in painting, you can do it, come closer, in cinema

JP: Film?

WSB: In the film, yes. (a page a printed page)

“Tornado Dead 223” – William S Burroughs & Brion Gysin collage (c.1965)

JP: Do you have any advice for young writers?

WSB: Well, no, because advice that may be quite valid for one writer may be quite useless to another. Well, you’ve got to see it. If you can’t see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, your reader isn’t going to be able to see it. And, well, as Sinclair Lewis says, learn to type (and he also said something which I have found to be very true. He says if you’ve just written something that you think is great, you just can’t wait to show it to somebody or publish it, he said “throw it away, it’s terrible!”, and this is… I’ve found to be true, quite true. I’ll write something that I think is great and I’ll look at it a couple of days later and I say, “tear it into very small pieces and put it into someone else’s ashcan, it’s terrible. I guess I’ve destroyed I don’t know how many thousands of pages of writing. So ..and then something that I wrote that didn’t seem anything special at the time, I’d almost..  I think some things..sometimes I’m looking through a notebook, I  have forgotten that I wrote them, and I say “oh, well, this is, this is something really something good here”. Writers are very poor judges of their own work, I find.

JP: So keep a notebook is one thing, What about dreams?

WSB: Oh well, I always write my dreams down and I get a great deal of material from dreams.

JP: So they are a source of material?

WSB: Oh, good heavens, yes. Well, for me, at least, Now some people they don’t remember their dreams at all. I’ve talked to people who say they do not remember ever..they don’t remember a single dream

JP: Why’s that?

WSB: Well, I always ask if they’re heavy sleepers and they usually are. They forget their dreans in the time it takes them to wake up. We know that everybody dreams and we know that dreams (this is a very important discovery) that dreams are as necessary as sleep itself. Deprived of dream-sleep someone would die, in about a month or two, just as they would die from lack of sleep, no matter how much dreamless sleep they get. They’ve experimented with people and they’ve experimented with animals. They can tell by the REM (the rapid eye movements) when people or animals are dreaming, and this, apparently, is.. serves some very essential biological function. It’s a biologic necessity. Dreaming is a biologic necessity

JP: Yes, they say even animals dream

WSB: Oh, certainly they dream. All warm-blooded creatures dream. Presumably cold-blooded creatures, cold-blooded creatures like snakes and fish do not dream.

JP: So maybe they have a different mind?

WSB: Well, obviously, they have a completely different consciousness, almost inconceivable to us. Have you noticed that we can identify very well with animals, particularly with predatory animals. It’s much harder to empathize what a deer feels than to empathize what a cat feels, much harder. I mean the idea of something that eats grass is extremely alien, I think, and I find it very difficult to identify with birds.


“My Education – A Book of Dreams” – William S Burroughs (1995)

JP: One German writer Gottfried Benn, he phrased a saying that – “the word, is the prick of the mind” – that’s how he put it. I’d like to get into the..  what is the nature of word. Have you.. You once talked about a field theory of word. What were your findings there.

WSB: I really didn’t come to any valid conclusions at all, except thatthe word seems to be an organism, and also my guess that the written word came before the spoken word

JP: Is it a dangerous organism, or just an organism?

WSB:  Well, it depends. It can become dangerous. It acts like a virus, that is, in that it replicates itself. Of course.. you would.. a virus would not be recognized as a virus, can only be recognized as a virus by its symptoms, and a virus that produces no, what shall we say, psychopathological symptoms would not be recognized as a virus.

JP: The symptoms of the virus, where could you detect them in words or language?

WSB: Well, one thing that you can detect them in is that it is compulsive and involuntary, It’s very difficult for anyone to stop their flow of words. Most people don’t try but if you try you find that it’s extremely difficult. So here’s something that’s happening against your will actually.

JP: Yes, that’s something that indicates an influence from the outside. What about the language of the mass-media or the political language, the demagogic language, is that influenced by it too, or is it just a by-product?

WSB: Well, of course the political language is always concerned with generalities. They don’t want to be precise. It’s deliberately being used to confuse rather than elucidate. The difference between a… a writer is trying to evoke clear images through language, rather an awkward instrument, but a politician is trying to do just the opposite, he’s trying to cloud issues rather than clear them.

JP: The writers are mainly concerned with.. working with the word but we have a multi-media effect right now going on, I mean, we (I keep saying “we”!)  you can notice it everywhere, like music is very important, pictures are very important.

WSB: Oh yes, yes, certainly, you have the film medium in which you have words and music and images, oh certainly

JP: Could it be helpful for a writer to go out into other medias, like film, like you have been on records (with Laurie Anderson) and you have been in films. Is that a..?

WSB: Well, since you go into films, you’re in another medium and you do what you can. You do well, or you don’t do well. Simply, it’s a different… different medium.
The lines between disciplines are breaking down. Everywhere the lines between music and word, between painting and words, and so on, photography. There’s a general tendency for the media, the disciplines, to be breaking down, the lines are breaking down.


“The Black Rider” -William S Burroughs, Tom Waits and Robert Wilson (Canadian tour program) (1998)

JP: William, you did a lot of travelling, You lived in Mexico City, South America, Tangier, or London, for a long time. Do you think travellng is important for a writer, that it adds to his perspective?

WSB: Well, generally speaking, yes, but there are writers who don’t seem to have any neceessity to travel at all. Emily Dickinson. (Samuel) Beckett you don’t feel has any need to travel, it’s all taking place inside, but, certainly as a general proposition, yes, it gives you new perspectives, new material and so forth.

JP: And it also brings you in contact with other cultures.

WSB: Precisely. Precisely, yes. all the people that have had a completely different conditioning

JP: Can you travel in space..I mean, can you travel in time?

WSB: Well, we do travel in time, of course, all the time, we move back and forth in time. I have found that..there was a man named (J.W.) Dunne and he wrote a book called Experiment in Time (Editorial note -An Experiment With Time) and found that his dreams consisted not only of the past but the future events as well. And I have found this to be true, since I write my dreams down and very often I will dream something that then later happens. So, in that sense, yeah, I think that it is more.. it would be easier to travel into the future, in a real sense, than into the past.There is a law of evolution that any change in an organism that involves biologic mutation is irreversible.. that is, once a creature gives up his gills and gets air-breathing lungs, they’ll never get their gills back, that evolution, in that sense, is a one-way street.

JP: And that effects.. that has something to do with time?

WSB: Well yes

JP: Meaning you can’t go back

WSB: You can’t go back.

JP: You can only go forward?

WSB: Well, it means that you can’t go back beyond any change that involves a biologic mutation.

JP: I think many of your writings are good teachings in how to survive under hostile situations, whatever they may be. Does that have anytingto do with your appeal for weapons?

WSB: Why yes, weapons are certainly one way of surviving in a chaotic situation, generally speaking, of course, the whole matter of flexibility, being able to change and alter your thinking to accomodate an unfamiliar new situation, so that I would say, at the present time, when we have an escalating rate of change, that flexibility is very necessary for survival. And therefore the old dogmatic ways of thinking are counter.. counter-productive for our survival. If you can’t change when the circumstances change, then where are you?

JP: Right. You end up being extinct

WSB: Yeah, you’re at a terrible disadvantage.

JP: Of course, there is a concept..saying.. which is very popular at the moment, that. .when there are no weapons, then you have peace, automatically, so to speak, but I think that threatens your ability to survive.

WSB: Oh, I think so too. What do they mean, when there are no..  I mean, there are always weapons.

JP: Right. Even your body, your fists are weapons.

WSB; Yes. Anything you can pick up, a glass, or a chair, or any bottle.

William S Burroughs wields a sword

JP: Bill, I’d like to take a look at the future, if there is any at all, well, there is always some. Do you see mankind moving into space?

WSB: Well, it’s the only way he.. the only possible solution. I don’t say that they will, but it’s the only place for them to go. There’s no place to go except up and out.

JP: To move into space, is there any mutation necessary for man, or do you think we’re equipped to go

WSB: I don’t think we’re equipped at all. That’s the point. It would require a biologic mutation quite as drastic as was involved in the shift from water to land, but the possibility, the air-breathing potential, must be there before the transition can be made, otherwise it’s simply suicidal.

JP: And psychologically?

WSB: Well, any.. any physiological mutation is…

JP: …psychological..

WSB: …going to involve profound  psychological changes, necessarily

JP: Do you see that taking place here already? – or is it very far away?

WSB:  Well no, I don’t think it’s very far away at all. We know that people..if the astronauts should stay in space, say, for five years they’d lose almost all their bone. If you don’t use it, you lose it. And skeletal structure has no use in a weightless environment, so the end-result would be something like a jelly-fish.

An edited and longer version of this interview is included in Burroughs Live – The Collected Interviews of William S Burroughs as “Writing in the Future” (the interview was conducted in Berlin, May 9 1986) 

and a bonus – Maeck talks about his film-work and his first encounter with Burroughs (he made a brief cameo in Maeck’s 1984 movie, Decoder).  In Megan Legault’s film, Encoding /Decoding, he recalls the circumstances of the filming (the Burroughs recollections starting approximately nine minutes in).  The film itself, in its entirety, may be viewed here 

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