On Friday [April 3, 1998] the United Nations Human Rights Commission released a report which concludes that the United States applies the death penalty unfairly. Therefore the commission has called for a moratorium on further executions. Quoting from the Washington Post (April 4, 1998), “Specifically, the report says that some U.S. states carry out executions in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner that does not spare juveniles, the retarded or the mentally ill. It adds that these practices violate obligations imposed on the United States by various international agreements and says the federal government should halt all executions while it brings the states into compliance with international standards and law.” It is always interesting to see our world with eyes not our own.
WIlliam Burroughs first published The Naked Lunch (as it was then titled) in Paris in 1959. The laws of our country prohibited its publication here at that time. In 1962, when the first American edition was brought out by Grove Press, it was charged in Boston with obscenity. But the federal court subsequently ruled against the contention, on the grounds that the book possessed “redeeming social value,” a landmark decision for readers and writers alike. Burroughs had defended his work by saying that much which was thought obscene was, in fact, “a tract against Capital Punishment in the manner of Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal. These sections [which were singled out by the indictment, he wrote] are intended to reveal capital punishment as the obscene, barbaric, and disgusting anachronism that it is.”
My tribute to him this evening is, therefore, a mark of deep respect for that determination, that clarity, the unassuming and resourceful genius which kept him so engaged and so productive all the years of his writing life. Clearly he was not persuaded by fame. Those who had occasion to visit him in later years found an almost Spartan simplicity, often a single iron frame cot, a small bedside table, another for meals and entertaining, reading materials particular to his work, and a few chairs. It was hardly an ostentatious setting.
One had the sense that he worked particularly, but that he was not a Puritan in that exercise. Possibilities fascinated him, methods, systems, a various means of reading the world apart from those habitual, a specific way to break open the limited givens of a comfortable “literature” and all that was dependent upon its status quo. Again, as he wrote with reference to Naked Lunch, Burroughs wanted his readers to experience that “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of the fork.” Then he thought it might be possible for all to recognize what he felt was the elemental human addiction to the imperious order of “subject-verb-object,” to the domination of image, sex, power, language, and government.
Small wonder that the young were drawn to him, and that he became an icon for their own disaffection. He was old, he was hip, and he was a survivor. He’d been through it, as one says, whatever it was. He’d come out the other side. He was not confused by the new technologies, not intimidated by tape recorders or computers, saw no virtue in staying in old-fashioned or doggedly behind the times. Nor did he rush to catch up, as surely some of his peers did, to try to be at the cutting edge, the avant-garde of some shifting cultural stratum. Rather he was always as he always was, William Burroughs, Bill—reflective, restless, self-objectifying with a vengeance, curiously tender, a loyal friend, a brilliantly exceptional mind. In some ways he was very familiar, the bright, disaffected kid of a middle-class family who goes to good schools, then finds himself without location, no person, no sexual admission, no effective use. It seems the insistent story of the artist, whom the society would think unacknowledged, were he or she not first of all vigorously rejected.
But all that’s over now—and was always, as Bill might say, quoting the other one, “too starved an argument for my sword…” He had the absolute gift of writing in a way that seemed altogether simple, clear, familiar—fact of those charming routines he was always such a master of. His company is Beckett’s, Celine’s, Conrad’s, Rimbaud’s—and all the myriad professionals who wrote the stories of our lives as the trash and gimmickry and fantasized wonders we each hoped finally they might be. He was for real. He took care to keep it that way.