William S. Burroughs: A Man Within: DVD

Sep 23, 2011

It seems outlandish, but for all I know, frail Old Bill Burroughs—choking on cat hair while his soft neurological machinery began to sputter and fade out like a dim jerky star—could’ve transformed into a Republican somewhere there in his twilight years in Lawrence, Kansas. It can happen, seemingly, to the best of us, when a brain gets old and dried up and ossified and begins to jump at the sight of its own shadow. And, after all, in Burroughs’s case, there were scraps of what might be construed as damning evidence: the ever increasing, Charlton Heston-like fondness for firearms and that inexplicable tennis shoe TV commercial appearance, apparently done for “the money.”

Such a transformation certainly seems inconceivable; how could this eldritch being possibly fit into one of our more narrowly circumscribed political tribes when he didn’t even seem to be at home on this planet? But anything’s possible and it can happen to any of us, as I recently found out.

Much to my horror, it was recently revealed to me, in lurid and ghastly detail, that an old high school friend of mine is now a proud, card-carrying Republican. Not only is he a Republican, but he shamelessly admits strong Tea Party tendencies and told me with utter earnestness that he regularly listens to Rush Limbaugh and that Glenn Beck is a “hero” of his. Basically, my old friend—a guy who, long ago, had read and seemed to understand the non-Aristotelian logic of William Burroughs—was breaking the news to me that he has Stage 4 Republicanism.

It seems kind of embarrassing, but maybe this really does need to be spelled out: Clowns like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are not to be taken seriously. They are cartoon characters. And maybe it’s time that their Dullard Pulpits should be accompanied with a sort of Surgeon General’s Warning: “This is not to be taken seriously. It is entertainment. The real world is not this black and white. Enjoy in moderation.”

Most people, by now, have figured out that pro wrestling is over-the-top play acting, so how come so many people still haven’t figured out that chest-thumping, right-wing bloviation like Beck/Limbaugh/O’Reilly is the same thing in political garb? Obviously, a lot of people want to live in a black and white world where the demarcations between good guys and bad guys are clearly seen, unassailable and imagined to be woven into the fabric of reality by Jehovah himself.

Certain people just seem to need the psychological security that comes from having the wooly strands of life straightened, flattened, and brought under control and made uniform. This is what Dr. Furnt Eggblaff called the “philosophical comb.” Just as people use a comb to control their hair and bring the “strays” back to the herd, certain individuals use the “comb” of their mind in an attempt to tidy up reality and put everything in its proper place. One of the unfortunate and comical outcomes of such a doomed attempt to iron out the kinks of reality is the philosophical comb-over—the attempt to manipulate reality in such a way that it’s possible to pretend that its “undesirable” aspects aren’t really there. But the bald facts are that reality, on the phenomenal level, is breathtakingly pluralistic and, if we are to believe the Huayan master Fa-tsang, no one so-called “particular” of that pluralism is any more valid or essential than any other. So, in other words, the “embarrassing” patch of bald skin is really just as “important” or “sacred” as the wisps of hair attempting to cover its “shame.”

Philosophical comb-overs are very popular with politically-minded people in general, but they seem to be most popular—in fact, they are basically the official dress code of the more constipated wings of the Republican party. Look at Ronald Reagan, for example. It’s no wonder he is still to this day so beloved by the Republicans; his hair was positively ironed to his square-ish head. Never was a hair ever out of place.

I think it’s safe to say that one of William Burroughs’s main objectives was to snap off as many teeth of the philosophical comb as he could. And if this wasn’t made perfectly clear in his early works of fiction like Nova Express, then he made it absolutely clear in his book The Job, where, taking his cue from Alfred Korzybski, he pinpointed his main targets: Aristotle’s Law of Identity (or the “Is of Identity” in Burroughs’s words), the definite article “The,” and all systems of Either/Or logic. All of which, by the way, are the unbending teeth on the philosophical comb proudly used by Ayn Rand to keep her famously dogmatic coif in place.

Being the street-savvy stick insect that he was, Burroughs took his Southern Praying Mantis skills and systematically dismantled the Blob-like monster that had grown out of the Aristotelian-Newtonian-Euclidean-Cartesian-Calvinistic cow pie that had parked itself on top of the occidental mindset of the past two hundred or so years. And in the process he became one of the most influential writers in the English language since James Joyce and a cultural phenomenon onto himself. To this day, the wide extent of Burroughs’s varied influence is staggering and it reaches far beyond literature and philosophy to the seedier outposts of queer culture, punk rock, and the occult—specifically chaos magick.

Not only did Burroughs write what many people believe to be the first postmodern novel—Naked Lunch—but he garnered praise from fellow writers like Norman Mailer, J.G. Ballard, Charles Bukowski, and Anthony Burgess, and won the admiration of philosophers as varied as Robert Anton Wilson, Michel Foucault, and Susan Sontag. And along the way, his name got added, along with the likes of Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison, and even Arthur Rimbaud, to a list of those who could conceivably be deemed the “Godfather of Punk.” This, despite Burroughs’s own claim that, “I am not punk and don’t know why anyone would consider me the Godfather of Punk.”

But a statement like that was in perfect keeping with his discomfort level with being a part of any movement, and therefore, any mob mentality. Though he is considered something of a pioneer and enigmatic icon in queer culture, he never considered himself part of the “gay movement.” Likewise, Burroughs always insisted—to the point of getting testy about it—that, though Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al, were close friends, he was never a member of the Beat Generation. Hunched and stick insect thin with a grey imperturbability not unlike 1920s child eater Albert Fish, Burroughs always seemed most comfortable as a loner out on the fringes, exerting influence on various movements, but always standing decidedly outside of them, watching with his aloof alien calm and plotting his next attempt to storm the reality studio.

A Man Within—which derives its title from Burroughs’s cat book A Cat Within—examines the writer’s multifaceted influence on the various postmodern subcultures, but seems to focus most of its attention on his sway within the gay and punk communities. The latter part of the film hones in on Burroughs’s excursion from writing into the world of “painting,” which is interesting because of his long-time endorsement of painter Brion Gysin’s proclamation that “writing is fifty years behind painting,” and the fact that the insect man did most of his “painting” with a shotgun.

As for the punk angle, Burroughs’s punk cred is vetted by the presence of many punk and proto-punk luminaries, including long-time Burroughs’s pal/groupie Patty Smith, Iggy Pop, and Sonic Youth. Somewhat to my surprise, Jello Biafra shows up in the film and reveals several interesting nuggets, including the fact that he uses the Burroughs/Gysin cut-up method in his lyric writing and that Negative Trend/Flipper frontman Will Shatter also dabbled with cut-up techniques.

With a person of such startlingly original vision as William Burroughs and with his far-reaching analysis of the powers of control, the “algebra of need,” and the pestiferousness of the “word virus,” it would be nearly impossible to give even-handed attention to all the multiple areas of thought that he and his work have influenced. To come even close to doing so would require a film at least twice as long as A Man Within. Nevertheless, I would’ve liked to have seen, for example, some discussion of his involvement with and influence upon the chaos magick people, who flowered forth in the late ‘70s with groups like the Illuminates of Thanateros and who apparently took inspiration and ideas from Burroughs. It would’ve been interesting to have seen interview bits with Phil Hine, the famous chaos magician and author of Condensed Chaos, a magical grimoire for which Burroughs himself provided a glowing blurb. The areas of Burroughsian thought that Hines could’ve cast light on would’ve added another deeper level to A Man Within.

And it’s ultimately that “deeper” intellectual level that is largely missing in this film. Judging by documentaries about other notable thinkers—like Derrida and Zizek!—it seems to be a common path taken by filmmakers to try to dig past the ideas and uncover the personality behind it all.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose, since the title here pretty much spells it out: the focus of this film seems to be to make visible the man some call “El Hombre Invisible.” And on that level I would say it mostly succeeds. With something of a surprise ending involving a revelation about Burroughs’s last journal entry, you come to see that underneath the clammy lizard alien exterior, was a human being—an extraordinarily unique, awkward, brilliant, and inscrutable human being. Turns out Old Bill Burroughs had a heart after all. Who would’ve guessed? (oscilloscope.com)