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William Burroughs: A Sketch
by John C. Kramer, M.D.
Jan-Mar 1981
Journal of Psychoactive Drugs
Citation:  Kramer JC. "William Burroughs: A Sketch." Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Jan-Mar 1981; 13(1): 95-97.
Late in July 1978 I spent an afternoon with William Burroughs at his summer apartment in Boulder, Colorado. We were to talk together and record our discussion on tape. It would be the starting point for a chapter of a book.

The conversations are from the transcript of the tape. They are much abbreviated; phrasing and words have often been changed and are not necessarily in the order they occurred.

The light was too dim when the photo of Bill Burroughs was taken. The shutter speed was slow, probably 1/15 of a second, and the camera moved. The picture is irretrievably blurred. And the negative was stored roiled up. There are fine cracks all over, like in an old oil painting. But it's him. No doubt about it. The look could be called sad or grim. It really looks like Bill Burroughs.

He wouldn't say anything about what he was writing now. Maybe he wasn't writing anything, just taking it easy and didn't want to say so. But maybe he just didn't want to talk about it.

Considering the language in his books you'd never know it when he talked. He was like a near-retirement State Department man I'd once met -- eastern, good school accent, just loud enough to hear and sometimes not. Courtly. Good manners, not in a formal discomfort-making way, but so that you felt you never could do anything wrong.

His place wasn't what I expected. A student apartment. Usual furniture. Areas: kitchen area; eating area; living-room area. No hall to speak of. Two bedrooms and bath. Books and magazines neatly stacked. Boy lives there. Almost certainly plans to be a writer. Cobble Hardy. Good name for a writer.

People entered, talked, left. Bright lady who wondered who I was. Probably partly a collector of famous people. Didn't show disappointment when she found out who I wasn't. Two young sisters knocked. Their mommy wanted her pot back. My breath caught a notch watching what Burroughs was taking from the kitchen. It was a pot. He wished he could have kept it a little longer.

Richard Evans Schultes' name came up. Burroughs said, "Know him well. We took a trip to South America together. He has a definite disagreement with the attempt to eradicate cocaine there. He says that it doesn't hurt them at all. That's what Dick Schultes says. I think it must cut off the circulation in the gums. That's what does it. Teeth fall out. It's a disgusting habit, I think. Just physically. I tried it. All it did is freeze up my mouth. No systemic effect. It seems like a waste of time to me."

"Have you ever shot coke?"

"Good heavens, yes. Lots of it. When I was on junk. With heroin."

"Speedball."

"Yeah. When I take it alone it makes me too nervous."

"What role did junk, opiates, play in your life as a writer?"

"My experience as an addict was very useful to me as writer: the whole syndrome of addiction and withdrawal and the extensions of that and other forms of addiction. It gave me a great deal of material. A writer can profit by something that someone else may not be able to profit from at all. Yet they were very disagreeable experiences. Very boring experiences."

Was that all there was to Burroughs' junkie life -- material for novels? "Okay, it was important in the sense that it provided material. But did it do something to your soul?" The question was real but it couldn't be said with too much intensity. Then it would sound melodramatic.

Burroughs, laughingly, "That's a metaphysical question."

"Of course it is."

"The whole experience of addiction and withdrawal does change people in some ways. Any basic experience is like that, like being in prison for a long time. Nobody who hasn't been there knows what it means. It does make some changes, yes."

Burroughs' first book was Junkie. Later books were surrealist extensions of that realistic biographical novel. Addiction gave him the impetus as well as the material. I didn't follow up on the idea of "impetus." I should have. Instead I told him how I had found something deadly honest in the addicts I had known, at least when you didn't have the power to give or withhold anything from them. Falseness, it seemed to me, had been burned away. Was this what had happened to Burroughs?

He agreed. "Addiction... the mere fact of addiction does put someone in touch with certain fundamentals. It's something you can't deny; it's there and it gives you a sense of reality that maybe you would not have without it. I've always said that maybe if schizophrenics were addicted to opiates it would get them out of their catatonia. You would say, 'well, you won't move -- now there it is, over there, go and get it.' I've never seen an addict schizophrenic when he was on junk. They've got to be in touch with reality. At least enough to get the drugs and administer them."

But whatever else it did for schizophrenia, junk didn't carry them much beyond sanity. "Addicts are," he said with finality, "as boring a bunch of people as I ever encountered. They've got this one track mind."

"Scoring and fixing."

"Drearily."

I recall being told that they sat and stared at T.V. for hours. Burroughs sighed, "That they do. Billie Holiday said that she knew she was cured when she stopped looking at T.V."

Dr. John Yerbury Dent, gone now these several years, was the one that William Burroughs says cured him of his addiction. Did it with apomorphine. Its chemical structure is very much like morphine but different enough that the nauseating effect is emphasized. But it isn't the nauseating effect that does the job, Burroughs says, but that it is a metabolic stabilizer. He doesn't understand why it hasn't been more widely used.

Old Doc Dent was great. Had some marvelous stories. He was strictly for voluntary treatment only. Burroughs liked Dent for this, but it was still the apomorphine and only the apomorphine that did the job for him. Maybe so.

Thunder and a sudden deluge punctuated the Colorado afternoon. Lipton tea, sugar, no milk. Lemon? Sorry, no lemon.

Other junkie writers. Coleridge. De Quincey -- his confessions told the story with precision. I always thought so. Good to hear it from Burroughs -- Bill.

What about psychedelics?

"Well, cannabis is useful. When you're stuck and don't know where you're going you smoke cannabis and then you see four or five ways the narrative can go. No one is going to become a writer from taking any of these drugs but they can get beneficial material from them.

"I don't like any of the stronger psychedelics. I would never take LSD... I hate it."

"You've tried it?" (Obviously.)

"I've tried it. I just hate it. I don't like the feeling.... It makes me nervous. My coordination isn't good and there's a metallic taste in my mouth and there's nothing I like about it. I've taken mescaline, psilocybin. The only one I've been able to use with consistency is cannabis."

"Has anything useful come to you with mescaline or psilocybin?"

"Yes, but mostly of an unpleasant nature. There is one interesting one though, yagé, but I've never been able to get any since I left South America. There's Banisteriopsis in it; that's the main ingredient but not the only one. The medicine men use it to potentiate their powers, to locate lost objects and that kind of thing. But I'm not impressed much by their performance. Everybody has telepathic experiences all the time. These things are not rare. It's just an integral part of life. The faculty is probably increased to some extent by any consciousness expanding drug."

We talked dope talk some more. Opium smoking and opium dreams. Life in Morocco and how it was the old people, not the young ones, who smoked cannabis. And about majoun, marijuana candy. And I told him about khat in Arabia. And he told me about the lies that Anslinger spread. And we told each other about Hasan-i-Sabah and how the haschischins were not driven to murder because they were stoned. And he got back to his apomorphine stories.

And then we talked about writing. Burroughs was turned on to his style through a suggestion of his friend, Brion Gysin, a painter. Gysin had said that writing was 50 years behind painting. What Burroughs decided was to apply the montage method to writing.

"That would be," he said, "actually closer to the facts of perception than would, say, a sequential narrative. For example, you walk down the street. You see it and you put it on canvas. That's what they did first. But that's not how you really see it or remember it. It's more jumbled. There are the street signs and the vendors and the houses and people walking. You don't see them like a photograph. You look at diverse images. Painting it that way is montage. I merely applied it to writing. So there's nothing very new there."

"Do you rearrange with great thought or do you toss it up in the air and however it comes down...?"

"Both. You get a random factor. Your choice comes in what you use."

"If it doesn't sound right you toss it out and try again?"

"Yeah. You see the random factor in life every time you look out the window or walk down the street. Your consciousness is being continually cut by random factors. I try to make this explicit by taking words and cutting them up. That's what happens all the time anyway. That's my theory about art. Art is making you aware of what you know and don't know you know. That is, the actual facts of perception.

"When Cezanne's paintings were first exhibited people didn't realize that this was an apple, that was a pear, seen from a certain angle. They were so upset they actually attacked the canvasses with umbrellas. Now, anybody, any child, would know what it is.

"The same way Joyce made people aware of their own streams of consciousness... on one level, that is. Consciousness is much more complex than that. Now we don't feel that Joyce is at all unintelligible."

"Didn't Joyce spend a hell of a lot of time putting complex phrases together, each with several meanings?"

"No doubt about that. He spent 20 years on Finnegan's Wake. It's very difficult to read."

I raised the question of hearing versus reading. which registered better? Bill said he had given 60 or 70 readings in the past few years and that some things read well and some didn't. Fitzgerald, he thought, was better left on paper.

Enough about writing. Burroughs wanted to talk about endorphins, those natural morphine-like molecules, and about opiates in invertebrates. I would send him what I had, I said.

How about some pictures? Fine. Don't you ever smile, Bill? A grin flashed out, lingered and faded.

Tea time was over. Cocktail time was here. Gin and tonic? Sure.

Another.

And another.

In kitchen tumblers. A couple of ice cubes. No lime.

The pictures came out blurry. (Like a first impression?) There hadn't been enough light and exposure time was slow. But one of them worked out. Blurs, cracks and all, it looked like Bill.

He 's just my Bill

An ordinary guy...

You ain't no ordinary guy, Bill.