William S. Burroughs: 20th Century Gnostic Visionary
By ROBERT GUFFEY
In 1984, in Boulder, Colorado, an interviewer asked William S. Burroughs (1914-1997), “What religious persuasion would you consider yourself?” Without hesitating, Burroughs replied, “Gnostic, or a Manichean.”1Upon reading those words, suddenly everything made sense.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the above conversation occurred in 1984. In many ways, Burroughs was a far more lucid and accurate analyst of twentieth century politics than even George Orwell, whose speculative concept of “newspeak” in his 1948 novel 1984 was quickly overshadowed by the real-world machinations of post-WWII Madison Avenue advertising techniques and Washington D.C. public relations firms.
Superior to Aldous Huxley’s brilliant 1958 collection of essays, Brave New World Revisited, Burroughs’s 1974 book The Job is a must-not-live-without essential guide to charting the opaque labyrinth of obfuscation and lies regularly constructed by the Reality Studio to protect itself from the light of scrutiny. Unlike his more naïve contemporaries among the Beat literary movement, Burroughs never took his eye off the twitchy sharpshooter in the corner, the wild card in the deck known as Control.
With the analytical eye of a surgeon (Burroughs studied medicine at Harvard, specialised knowledge that would eventually serve him well in his novels), Burroughs performed an autopsy on the body politic in a multitude of bleak and humorous novels, foremost among them Junky (1953), Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961), Nova Express (1964), and The Place of Dead Roads (1983).
But Burroughs never limited his vision to merely charting out the intricate connections that make up the system of control. Like Huxley before him, who eventually followed his dystopian novel Brave New World with a Utopian counterpoint titled The Island, Burroughs himself attempted to construct his own vision of a Utopia in such novels as The Wild Boys (1971) and Cities of the Red Night (1981).
In both cases, Burroughs seemed to suggest that a Utopia was not possible except within an isolated oasis, what Hakim Bey would call “a temporary autonomous zone.”2 In the first case, the autonomous zone takes the form of an all-male enclave in the jungles of North Africa; these commandos, trained in combat for defensive purposes, can reproduce without the aid of women and travel through the trees on prehensile hemorrhoids. In Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs’s Utopia is based on historical fact and manifests as an island settlement established by Captain Mission, an actual pirate who lived in the eighteenth century.Mission explored the Madagascar coast and found a bay ten leagues north of Diego-Suarez. It was resolved to establish here the shore quarters of the Republic – erect a town, build docks, and have a place they might call their own. The colony was called Libertatia and was placed under Articles drawn up by Captain Mission. The Articles state, among other things: all decisions with regard to the colony to be submitted to vote by the colonists; the abolition of slavery for any reason including debt; the abolition of the death penalty; and freedom to follow any religious beliefs or practices without sanction or molestation.3
In both Wild Boys and Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs celebrates the notion of an autonomous zone kept separate from the madding hordes through potentially violent defensive measures, where a human being is allowed to pursue life free from the constant surveillance of overly authoritarian social structures. In Burroughs’s hands, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies would no doubt have a very different outcome.
Burroughs’s libertarian brand of morality was based on Jack Black’s notions of the “Johnson family” as chronicled in Black’s 1926 autobiography You Can’t Win. The impact this book had on Burroughs when he was still a young man can’t be overestimated. In Burroughs’s own words, the Johnson creed can be described as follows:
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