William Burroughs (1989 – Part 1)

William S Burroughs – Photograph by Allen Ginsberg © The Estate of Allen Ginsberg

Always a pleasure to feature William Burroughs here on the Ginsberg blog. Today, a reading from July 1989

“Art Now – A Day of Contemporary Art” – “A William S Burroughs reading, compiled from a number of works”  – Burroughs covers topics from miracles and magic to the Titanic, narcotics, the supernatural and hospitals”.

WSB: Yes, Brion (Gysin) always told me that an artist has to go around and flog his paintings like a rug-merchant. He’s got to show up at all of these openings.  [so Burroughs shows up]

“This is from Ghost of (A) Chance, which also concerns Christ and the whole subject of miracles and magic.

Burroughs reads from Ghost of (A) Chance


“The portents and signs that surround his birth have a sort of flashback retroactive tinge. Magi’s came bearing gifts. Did these gifts sustain the family in the ensuing years before Christ found his vocation? What about poor John (Joseph) married to Immaculate Mary? She must have been the worst lay ever to say, “Sorry darling, not tonight, got a sick headache”! – One man’s sure that long-suffering John had to hustle his saw and adages since Christ had not yet learned to make bread breed like rabbits. Difficult to believe that Christ was ever a full-time carpenter. He was arguing with people in the synagogues when he was nine years old. So here is thirty – time for a stint in the desert with Satan. Well, of course, the devil’s bargain is always a fool’s bargain. It takes a modicum of common sense to say, “Piss off, Satan, and don’t take me for dumber than I look, for Christ’s sake!”.

Jesus Tempted In The Wilderness  (“Jésus tenté dans le désert)”- James Tissot (1836-1902) – opaque watercolor on graphite over grey wove paper – 8 7/8″ x 13 5/16″  courtesy, Collection of The Brooklyn Museum

The question arises did Christ actually commit the miracles attributed to him? My guess is that he did certainly perpetrate some of these acts. The Buddhists consider miracles and healing as dubious if not downright reprehensible. I remember Wynn Chamberlain‘s guru (I forgot his name), he said, “If you can, don’t”. The miracle-worker is arbitrarily upsetting the natural order with incalculable long-range consequences and may often be motivated by self-glorification. Granted that Christ did work miracles, what he did was not so remarkable. Any competent magic man can heal sometimes – (“You can’t win ’em all”) – and cast out devils (especially the ones, the devils, he installed in the first place! ) Many practitioners can do weather magic. But Christ established a miracle monopoly, which was codified by the Church over the centuries. Miracles can only be performed by authorized personnel, and subject to meticulous verification. (We can’t let these miracles get out of hand!)

Puts me sort of into a commandment mood. “Thou shalt not be such a shit that you do not know you are one”. Is there anyone in this room who has never said to himself, “My God, I acted like an absolute shit”. If so, let him stand forth so that we can declare him a latter-day saint. Any takers? (Don’t look at me!). I recall an interview with some retarded reporter and he asked me, “Mr Burroughs, is there anything in your life you regret, anything you would do differently if you had to do it over?”
What did you say? No, don’t repeat it. Well, I’m lucky if I get through a day without something I did wrong, something I regret. And here you’re talking about a lifetime! Think of the real mistakes.  “There are mistakes too monstrous for remorse/To tamper or dally with” –
Can anyone place that quotation?  (Allen, you’re disqualified, I told you) – Anyone else?

Edward Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)

Can anyone place it ? – Edward Arlington Robinson – He’s really a neglected poet (and he wrote a whole poem (“Merlin”)  about the Arthur legend). Anyone who never made mistakes like that and paid for this mistakes, I trust him little in the commerce of the soul. No experience. Young thief thinks he’s got a licence to steal. Young lawyer who never botched a case? Young doctor who never killed a patient?

J.Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967)

“Thou shalt not drop an atom bomb or shit one out in the first place”. Yes, I’m talking to you, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (known as “Oppie” to his friends). If you’ve got an atom for friend your only enemy is a dud. When Oppie heard the good news about Hiroshima he said, “Thank God it wasn’t a dud.” –  What God are you thanking for Hiroshima, Oppenheimer? And Harry Truman said, “God has given us the atom bomb and he will show us how to use it” – Oh God!
It has to be remembered that on the occasion of the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico (that translates,roughly, as “fat, so on this fat occasion, Robert Oppenheimer, the founding father, entertained the possibility of a chain reaction that would ignite the atmosphere. “You’re theorizing way over our heads, Oppie” said the General, (well, there were a lot of General’s around),”And speaking for the Pentagon, I don’t like it.” Twenty years later Oppie still believed that nuclear fission would destroy the planet. “We are become death’s shatterer of worlds”, he said. [“Now we have become death, the destroyer of worlds”] He said it on tv and wiped a tear out the corner of his eye with one skinny finger (he was dying of cancer at the time). And various highly-placed officials appeared to say, “It was a very difficult decision…”, (the decision to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima). And I thought, God defend us all from a “difficult decision” in the Pentagon! Nobody does more harm than folks that feel bad about doing it!” So, one goes on signing petitions and supporting nuclear freezes, what else can one do? One sounded a word of warning. 

Brion Gysin had the all-purpose nuclear bedtime story, the all-purpose bedtime story, in fact. Some trillions of years ago, a sloppy dirty Giant flicked grease from his fingers. One of these gobs of grease is our universe on its way to the floor. Splat! “Clean it up,women,” growled the Giant (for he was a male supremacist).

Meanwhile, life, such as it is, goes on. I am frequently asked if I have any words of advice for young and old. Well, I think the most important is this – that good things and bad things come in streaks. So plunge when you’re winning and fold when you’re losing. You got a winning streak, ride it, but don’t ride it too far too fast, or you can hit a losing streak doing ninety miles and hour, and that isn’t good. You never know when your streak ends. If you did it would be too easy.

“Never interfere in a boy and girl fight.” Never. “Beware of whores that say they don’t want money”. The hell they don’t! What they mean is they want more money. Much more money.

“If you are doing business with a religious son-of-a-bitch, get it in writing.” – His word isn’t worth shit (not with the Good Lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal!)
“If, after having been exposed to someone’s presence you feel as if you’ve lost a quart of plasma, avoid that presence. You need it like you need pernicious anemia”. We don’t like to hear the word “vampire” around here, we’re trying to improve our P.R., build up a kindly avuncular benevolent image – “Interdependence” is the key word. “Enlightened interdependence”. Life in all its rich variety. Take a little, leave a little. However, by the inevitable logistics of the vampiric process they always take more than they leave. And why, indeed, should they take any? Sure, a wart is better than a cancer, but who wants either one?
“Avoid Fuck-Ups.” FU’s I call them. You all know the type. Everything they have anything to do with turns into a disaster, no matter how good it may sound. They’re trouble for themselves and everyone connected with them. A FU is bad news and it rubs off.Don’t let it rub off on you.

“Do not proffer sympathy to the mentally ill” – it’s a bottomless pit. Tell them firmly I am not paid to listen to this drivel! You are a terminal FU! And avoid confirmed criminals, they are a special malignant strain of FU. Look what Norman Mailer got himself into by involving himself with that archtypical criminal FU Jack Henry Abbott To quote from his book: “I would sell my soul for freedom but I won’t give an honest days work or behave myself for an instant for that same thing.” – I think Abbott is the F.U-ist of the F.U’s.

Norman Mailer (1923-2007) at a press conference, New York City,1981

Now some specialized advice – If there are any aspiring young thieves in the audience.. “Don’t ever try and hit a Chinaman – He will die before he gives up his money!” I remember a young hoodlum named Eddie who learned the hard way. Eddie and two other bums need some money on a Saturday-night, so they decide to heist this Chinese laundry. Below street-level, One little skinny Chink down there ironing shirts. All they have to do is flash a gun and he will fork over. (Or so they think). Instead, he comes up with a meat cleaver screaming, “Fluck you, fluck you, fluck you…” – and they, wisely, heed the words ofthe Immortal Bard Stay (Stand) not on the order of your going but go at once..”. Out in the street this one kid is laughing about it, “Ah, you can win ’em all”, and imitating the Chinaman, you know,  “Fuck you, fuck you…” – “What are you all looking at me so funny for?” (says the kid). “Man, you’ve got a meat-cleaver stuck in your head!.”  So the kid reaches up and feels the meat-cleaver, and, “Ugh…”, passes out cold. So they steer him to a hospital and pour him through the door.

Now some of you may encounter the Devil’s bargain if you get that far. Any old soul is worth saving at least to a priest. But not every soul is worth buying – so you can take the offer as a complement. Try his money first, you know, all the money there is. So who wants to be the richest guy in some cemetery? So money won’t buy it. Not much left to spend it on, eh gramps? Gettin’ too old to cut the mustard… Well, time hits the hardest blows, especially below the belt. So how’s a young body grab you? Like three-card monte pea-under-the-shell “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t…” Old fool is going to rush out and realize all his wet dreams. Haven’t you forgotten something, gramps? In order to feel something, you have to be there. You have to be eighteen years old. And you aren’t eighteen, you’re seventy-eight. You just simply are not there. Old fool sold his soul for a strap-on. Well, I always try the easy ones first, so how about an honorable bargain? You always wanted to be a doctor, well now here’s your chance. Right back there in medical school. Why, you could become a great healer and benefit humanity, what’s wrong with that? – Just about everything. There are no honorable bargains that involve exchange of quality [sic qualitative]  merchandise, like souls, for quantative merchandise, like time. Yeah, that’s always a bargain for him, the Devil’s bargain. A wise old junk pusher told me years ago, “Watch whose money you pick up” and “Watch who’s time you pick up.”

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the start of the tape and concluding approximately eighteen-and-a-quarter minutes in]

This reading will continue tomorrow

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