I found this interview of William Burroughs by Eldon Garnet in Impulse, a site well worth spending some time on.
William S. Burroughs: Afterlife
This interview took place in the upscale environment of Burroughs’ suite at the Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto. Burroughs was dapper that day: leaning on his cane; the gravelly voice alive; the hat stylishly angled. He was in Toronto not just for a reading, but for an exhibition of his recent silkscreens at the Cold City Gallery.
William S. Burroughs
How old are you?
Do you think the future you wrote about in your early work has become our present?
What do you mean by the future? It’s obvious to me at the present moment it contains both the past and the future.
Everything is there at any given moment. As Don Juan says, “Your death is always with you.” Your death is always with you at all times and so then your future is with you at all times. See, I don’t believe in cause and effect, I believe in synchronicity. If things happen together it doesn’t mean that they’re causing each other but that one is a result of the other.
Do you consider yourself an elderly person, that age has affected you in any way?
No, I don’t have any feeling about age. The feeling of death is always with me, but I’ve never doubted the possibility of an afterlife.
If you believe there’s an afterlife, wouldn’t it make this life less important?
Not necessarily, it would make it more important, much more important. Because what you do now will determine what form your afterlife will take. What one does right now is the way one does everything. And if you’re not taking, as it were, advantages of educational opportunities here, you’re going to be in a much worse position.
Do you find meaning in this life?
Everything means something. You walk down the street and you see something, that’s because you were there at that particular time and that has a meaning for you. A found meaning. I think anyone who doesn’t believe in ESP just hasn’t opened his eyes. Good god, ‘cause it happens all the time. It’s not an unusual occurrence that happens to a few people, it happens all the time. Anybody good at anything uses it.
But ESP is different than the afterlife, it’s a perception of this life, a hyper-extension of it.
Well, it extends into the afterlife as far as I am concerned, I mean the fact that everything I see has significance for me is an indication to me of a much larger perspective not afforded by this life. I feel that this life is sort of a penal colony, people have goofed, or we wouldn’t be here.
When you were younger you were well known for your wild life. Is this going to make it more difficult in your afterlife?
No, of course no. Experience is very necessary and it was experience that I needed to write and to think.
So there is no real moral attachment to that thought?
No, no, none whatsoever. If I had never been addicted to drugs, I doubt if I would have started to write. If I had inherited a large sum of money, say if the family hadn’t been done out of the Burroughs adding machine stock by the executives, that would have been a terrific misfortune. I’m sure I wouldn’t have written a line.
When people are younger they’re very ambitious, as you become older do you become more sedate?
No I become more ambitious because there isn’t all that much time. More ambitious, it’s more present.
You have developed a particular style as a writer. Do you feel violated when you perceive other writer imitating you?
That’s fine, fine with me. Imitation is supposed to be the highest form of flattery. Imitation, or outright theft. Writers don’t own words, painters don’t own colors. There’s no reason why you can’t, if it’s appropriate, take something form someone’s work or something very similar to it. Someone said Pollok was breaking new ground and that’s the difference between me and Pollok. Well, for god’s sake, there is plenty of ground. Back in the old days when I was painting cows in the grass, lots of cows, lots of grass, there was plenty of room for any number of painters. But now one guy will get one gimmick and that’s his patch upon which he establishes a virtual copyright. I think this is ridiculous.
Does death disturb your sense of mortality?
Of course it disturbs me. Everything makes a hell of a lot of difference, the form of death makes a great deal of difference. Some of them are very unfavourable, as the Buddhists point out. They shouldn’t happen if the man is sufficiently advanced, these unfavourable deaths will not occur.
How would you like to die?
It’s not for me to decide because if I could decide, if you could decide how to die, you wouldn’t die. Death must present the form of surprised recognition, it’s the last thing you expect to see and absolutely the most appropriate thing. It was a psychoanalyst who invented that, that certainly applies to painting too, that’s exactly what I try to do, evoke a surprised recognition.
Wouldn’t that be any art form?
Of course it would. It applies to any art form. That’s what I try to do in painting. Klee said a painter strives to create something that has an existence apart from him and which could endanger him. Now the most clear proof of something being separate is if it can harm you—if course I don’t say that’s the only thing. But I do think all writers, Orwell, certainly many other writers and painters are trying to create something that has an existence apart from themselves. It would literally step out of the picture or the book. So all artists are trying to achieve what some people would say is impossible, that is to create life. Of course, impossible is a meaningless word to me.
Is there any part of your youth that you miss?
On the contrary, I look back on it with horror. Just awful, that’s all. Full of errors, stupidity and falseness. It takes a long time to have any idea of what you’re doing.
Are you sensing that you’re younger than you were then?
Well if you consider that perhaps the future is contained in the present moment, perhaps being really aware of this would make you younger, yes. You’ve read the Don Juan books?
Yes, so you believe in that type of mysticism?
Oh absolutely. I’ve seen things like that.
Are those things seen through drugs, or your own chemistry?
Without drugs. I always pay a lot of attention to my hunches. Of course, scientists and academics live in such cloistered environments that they don’t need hunches, they never endanger themselves. But anybody who doesn’t pay attention to his hunches won’t live long.
Do you think your visual and verbal art has a sense of ESP in it?
Oh god, yes, that what it’s all about. The way that clear representational objects will emerge from what would seem to be a random procedure. I once took a small notebook and put some red gouache on here and on there—it’s an inkblot technique. I looked and there was a perfectly clear red pig, a wild pig, tusks, bristles, and everything. I find that more interesting than Wyeth’s pigs. It came out of nowhere or somewhere, anyway but here it is, a pig.
What are your feelings toward the HIV virus?
Twenty or thirty years ago I read a science fiction book. People were dying of colds and slight infections, at first they thought that these were mutated cold viruses, then they found that the thing that united them all was the breakdown of the immune system. A case of the writer very accurately predicting. Apparently it’s a very simple job of genetic tinkering.
How evil could a government be that would initiate that kind of research?
There’s no limit, there’s absolutely no limit to what the control mentality will do.
Do you feel threatened by this disease?
Not unless it develops an airborne strain.
Is sex no longer a part of your life?
It doesn’t interest me. I think that possibly sex and love, whatever they call it, requires a certain degree of self-deception which people may well outgrow.
Is there a substitute?
Your only substitute is whatever you do, your work.
Your mind is still there, still active.
It serves the body, it does what I need done.
Your shotgun paintings, in a sense, are a reverberation against the notorious action of fatally shooting your wife.
There’s no real connection. Sure, well, it can’t be helped. It doesn’t matter.
Is that one of the moral accountabilities that might determine your next life?
That would be putting it in a very simplistic way. It isn’t a question of morality anyway, it’s a question of where you are now, your synchronicity, and how your actions affect your whole contacts, present, past and future contacts. There’s not morality involved, I’m not following any moral law.
William Burroughs interviewed by Eldon Garnet in Impulse