William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
Growing up, I latched on to the writers of the Beat Generation for dear life. I loved them all, from the poets and women writers who lived in their shadows, to the heavy hitters like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and of course, William S. Burroughs. Truth be told, Burroughs was always the least accessible to me growing up. Whereas I identified with Ginsberg’s spirituality and Kerouac’s bruised sensitivity, Burroughs just seemed downright bizarre. From his three piece suits and demented banker looks to the nightmarish scenes that played out in his novels, I’ve always struggled to identify where he fit in with the Beats. That’s just the thing, though; Burroughs didn’t fit in, and in Yony Leyser’s directorial debut, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, we learn that he was just as alien to himself as he was to society.
Anyone at all interested in Burroughs’ story will find Leyser’s film intriguing and for those unfamiliar, it will certainly provide an excellent overview of one of the most important writers to come out of the movement. As someone in the film says, Burroughs was probably profoundly mentally unstable, but for many disaffected youth, this will only make him seem more interesting.
As a feminist, I make myself uncomfortable with my profound love for writers like William S. Burroughs. Yes, he was subversive and groundbreaking, openly queer at a time when no one even discussed homosexuality, but he also shot his wife in the head, had a penchant for sex with young boys, and really, really loved blowing shit up with guns. As Leyser perfectly illustrates, Burroughs was unclassifiable; he fit into no mold, no box. He was a walking, talking contradiction.
Burroughs was older than Ginsberg and Kerouac, but they managed to get their most groundbreaking works published first. Despite their head start, Burroughs would prove to be the most enduring figure, becoming a counterculture icon during his later years. He was, after all, the Pope of Dope, a title bestowed upon him after decades of heroin abuse. That said, Burroughs may have been one of the most productive, functioning addicts of all time. As we learn in A Man Within, Burroughs was also considered the Godfather of Punk because of his close proximity to New York’s iconic rock club CBGB’s, his Crawdaddy! magazine column, and the way young musicians flocked to him. Towards the end of his life it wasn’t unusual for bands like Sonic Youth to make the trek to his Lawrence, Kansas home for a visit. Even at the age of seventy-eight, Burroughs was punk as fuck, collaborating with equally troubled soul Kurt Cobain on “The Priest They Called Him.”
All of his life, William S. Burroughs was an outcast, even in the burgeoning literary scene he helped create. Leyser’s documentary suggests that there was a lot bubbling under the surface of Burroughs’ stiff façade. He was a man capable of intense, perverse love, which he illustrated in a number of interesting ways, such as severing the last joint off his left pinky finger as a way of impressing a man he felt deeply for.
This was Burroughs, supremely self-contained and wholly unstable; a scheming, thieving addict and a functioning member of society; a respected writer and a lover of young, male hustlers, many of whom were not quite adults. Burroughs was the type of man you either accepted or were told to fuck off. I have to admit, I really admire him for that, and like all bad influences, you can decide whether or not you let them into your life. After all of these years, I’m still quite under the influence of William S. Burroughs, and I’d even say that Leyser’s documentary only intensified my urges.