A tribute to controversial 'beat' author William S. Burroughs who would have been 100 years old today, February 5, 2014.

A tribute to controversial 'beat' author William S. Burroughs who would have been 100 years old today, February 5, 2014.

This story was published in Huck 22: The Counterculture Issue in September 2010.

What does it take to qualify as an anti-hero? How about blowing out your common-law wife’s brains with a .38 during a drug-fueled re-enactment of William Tell? Or, perhaps renouncing a Harvard education to sell heroin among the lowlifes of Times Square? Or, failing to report to the authorities when you learn that one friend has murdered another? For many folks growing up in suburbia in the mind-deadening 1950s, William S. Burroughs – the man who led this life – was an anti-establishment hero because, as far as he was concerned, there was no establishment.

Though Burroughs became an icon of the Beat Generation – and though he counted Ginsberg and Kerouac among his closest friends – he resisted being associated with the movement. Burroughs was eons into the future. Literature couldn’t catch up with cacophony in music until he gave us his “cut-up” and “fold-in” techniques.

He showed us it was all right to be audacious. When he put that bullet through Joan’s head, Burroughs did a horrible thing; but, as he wrote in the introduction to Queer, it also sparked his literary career: “The death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”

George Laughead recounts that, while visiting Burroughs just months before his death aged eighty-three, he suddenly stood up after drinking and smoking heavily and shouted: “Shoot the bitch and write a book! That’s what I did!”

Controversy and Burroughs knew one another well. Most of the sex in his work is rape and sodomy, and he long had to deal with the obscenity issue after Naked Lunch was published. Art can be beautiful but it can also be brutal and shocking. This, in the final analysis, is perhaps what Burroughs worked for with his experimental writing: to break us out of the Aristotelian logic and past social constructs that evil hides behind. And that’s why he advised us to “leave the old verbal garbage behind: God talk, priest talk, mother talk… [and] learn to exist with no religion, no country, no allies.”

This is not to encourage some writer to commit mayhem in order to be inspired. But, horrible things are part of the human condition, and art can both predict and record that human condition – even if it means the artist becomes an anti-hero.

John Long is the author of Drugs and the ‘Beats’: The Role of Drugs in the Lives and Writings of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg, and the novels in the Johnny trilogy.