With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker

With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker

by Victor Bockris


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Burroughs, the eccentric, brilliant artist who burned the bridge with logic and wrote the classic Naked Lunch, has a court recorder in Victor Bockris. Bockris has collected into a cogent whole the man's most brilliant moments of conversation, thinking, and interview repartee. This fascinating material, gleaned from the fertile time at Burroughs's New York headquarters, the Bunker (which was located on the Bowery, three blocks from CBGB), encompasses the years 1974 to 1980, and also includes a 1991 Burroughs interview from Interview magazine. The Beats' devotion to subjective experience has left readers with a profound amount of objective material to analyze and debate. Choice public and private utterances, hallucinatory and prescient diatribes such as these, remain rich sources of literary history. As Americans we find the Beats' approach to life romantic, even heroic. Tearing the walls down in the name of freedom and spirituality strikes a particularly pilgrimesque chord. With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker is a fascinating compendium of Burroughs-speak, so complete it can be considered a credo.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312147679
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/15/1996
Edition description: REVISED
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.66(d)

About the Author

Victor Bockris is the author of many critically acclaimed and bestselling books including his seminal Warhol biography and Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie.

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With William Burroughs

A Report from the Bunker

By Victor Bockris


Copyright © 1996 Victor Bockris and William Burroughs
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-5305-4




BOCKRIS: What is writing?

BURROUGHS: I don't think there is any definition. Mektoub: It is written. Someone asked Jean Genet when he started to write, and he answered, "At birth." A writer writes about his whole experience, which starts at birth. The process begins long before the writer puts pencil or typewriter to paper.

SUSAN SONTAG: Do you write every day?

BURROUGHS: I feel terrible if I don't; it's a real agony. I'm addicted to writing. Do you?

SONTAG: Yes. I feel restless if I don't write.

BURROUGHS: The more you write the better you feel, I find.

SONTAG: I've trained myself to be able to produce some writing that I tell myself quite sincerely is never going to be published. Sometimes something comes out of those things.

BURROUGHS: People will get ahold of them unless you destroy them. Papa Hemingway got caught short with a whole trunkload of stuff!

SONTAG: Do you write on the typewriter?

BURROUGHS: Entirely. I can hardly do it with the old hand. I remember that Sinclair Lewis was asked what to do about becoming a writer and he always said, "Learn to type."

STEWART MEYER: I remember waking up at the Bunker and hearing the typewriter going like thunder. James Grauerholz told me every morning Bill just gets up, has coffee and cake, and hits the typewriter ...

BURROUGHS: The world is not my home, you understand. I am primarily concerned with the question of survival — with Nova conspiracies, Nova criminals, and Nova police. A new mythology is possible in the Space Age, where we will again have heroes and villains, as regards intentions towards this planet. I feel that the future of writing is in space, not time —

SONTAG: This book [Cities of the Red Night], which is 720 pages long, did you just write it out? I'm not asking if you revise. Is your method to write it out and then you have a version to revise, or do you write it in pieces?

BURROUGHS: I used a number of methods, and some of them have been disastrously wrong. In this book I tended to go ahead and write a hundred pages of first draft and then I'd get bogged down in revisions. What I do personally is make ten-page hops. I do a version of a chapter, go over it a couple of times, get it approximately the way I want it, and then go on from there, because I find that if I let it pile up I suddenly get a sickening feeling of overwrite. The whole matter of writer's block often comes from overwrite. You see, they've overwritten themselves, whereas they should have stopped, gone back and corrected. No writer who's worth his salt has not experienced the full weight of writer's block.

BOCKRIS: How long did it take you to write your book about cancer?

SONTAG: That was easy and fast. Everything is hard for me, but it was easy. I was inspired. When you're really full of a subject and you're thinking about it all the time, that's when the writing comes, also when you're angry. The best emotions to write out of are anger and fear or dread. If you have emotions like that you just sail.

GERARD MALANGA: I used to think it was love until love took a third place.

SONTAG: Love is the third. The least energizing emotion to write out of is admiration. It is very difficult to write out of because the basic feeling that goes with admiration is a passive contemplative mood. It's a very big emotion, but it doesn't give you much energy. It makes you passive. If you use it for something you want to write, some strange languor creeps over you, which militates against the aggressive energy that you need to write, whereas if you write out of anger, rage, or dread, it goes faster.

BOCKRIS: William, have you ever written anything out of admiration?

BURROUGHS: I don't know what this term means. It does seem to me an anemic emotion.

SONTAG: Bill, suppose you agreed, which maybe you couldn't even conceive of doing, to write about Beckett. Somebody offered you a situation at which you said, yes, I'd like to say what I want to say about Beckett, and my feeling about Beckett is mainly positive. I think that's harder to get down in a way that's satisfactory than when you're attacking something.

BURROUGHS: I don't see what's being said here at all.

SONTAG: Victor asked me how long it took to write the little book about illness. I wrote it in two weeks because I was so angry I was writing out of rage at the incompetence of doctors and the ignorance and mystifications and stupidities that caused people's deaths, and that just pulled me along. Whereas I just finished writing an essay on something I really adore, Syberberg's seven-hour movie about Hitler, and it took months to write.

BURROUGHS: I see what you mean, but it doesn't correspond to my experience.

SONTAG: I think you write more exclusively out of some kind of objection or admonitory impulse.

BURROUGHS: A great deal of my writing which I most identify with is not written out of any sort of objection at all, it's more poetic messages, the still sad music of humanity, my dear, simply poetic statements. If I make a little bit of fun of control with Dr. Schaeffer, the Lobotomy Kid, they say, "This dark pacifist who's paranoid, who's motivated completely by rejection of technology." This is a bunch of crap. I just make a little skit that's all. I am so sick of having this heavy thing laid on me where I just make a little slapstick and someone comes upon me with this "Oh, God, he's rejecting everything!" shit. I always get this negative image from critics, but the essays in Light Reading for Light Years will make me sound like some sort of great nineteenth-century crank who thought that brown sugar was the answer to everything and was practicing something he called brain breathing. You know, he believed in Reich's orgone box. I think the real end of any civilization is when the last eccentric dies. The English eccentric was one of the great fecund figures. They're the lazy men. One man just took to his bed and died from sheer inertia, another would just walk around his estate and he was so lazy that he would have to eat the fruit without plucking it, see, which caused a lot more trouble than if he had actually plucked it. Yes, the English eccentrics were a great breed.

SONTAG: There are southern eccentrics.

BURROUGHS: Oh, by heavens yes, living on their crumbling estates controlled by their slaves ...


BOCKRIS: Why do you feel that writing is still behind painting?

BURROUGHS: There is no invention that has forced writers to move, corresponding to photography, which forced painters to move. A hundred years ago they were painting cows in the grass — representational painting — and it looks just like cows in the grass. Well, a photograph could do it better. Now one invention that would certainly rule out one kind of writing would be a tape recorder that could record subvocal speech, the so-called stream of consciousness. In writing we are always interpreting what people are thinking. It's just a guess on my part, an approximation. Suppose I have a machine whereby I could actually record subvocal speech. If I could record what someone thought, there'd be no necessity for me to interpret.

BOCKRIS: How would this machine work?

BURROUGHS: We know that subvocal speech involves actual movement of the vocal cords, so it's simply a matter of sensitivity. There is a noise connected with subvocal speech, but we can't pick it up. They probably could do it within the range of modern technology, but it hasn't been done yet.

BOCKRIS: People absorb and repeat the words of rock songs, which make them very effective. Do you think the printed word can become a more effective tool for communication than it is? People do not go around reciting passages of books in their heads.

BURROUGHS: Yes, they do.

BOCKRIS: Not a lot of people.

BURROUGHS: A lot of them don't know where what's in their heads came from. A lot of it came from books.

BOCKRIS: However, words accompanied by music tend to have a bigger effect.

BURROUGHS: This fits right into the bicameral brain theory. If you can get right to the nondominant side of the brain, you've got it made. That's where the songs come from that sing themselves in your head, the right side of the brain. Curiously enough, the most interesting thing about Julian Jaynes' book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is all Jaynes' clinical evidence on people who've had various areas destroyed. The nondominant side of the brain can sing, but it can't talk. You can say to it: "Okay, if you can't say it, sing it."

BOCKRIS: When did you first meet Brion Gysin?

BURROUGHS: He'd just come back from the Sahara and I went to see an exhibit of his paintings. I met him then. He was a tremendously powerful personality and I was very much impressed with the paintings. I didn't really get to know him until he came to Paris in 1958. Then I saw his paintings and he was the one who taught me everything I know about painting. He said, "Writing is fifty years behind painting," and started the cut-up method, which is simply applying the montage method of writing which had been used in painting for fifty years. As you see, painters are now getting off the canvas with all these happenings. I suppose that writing will eventually get off the page following painting. What exactly will happen then I don't know. They may start writing things in real life. A crime writer will actually go out and shoot people. There's been a lot of talk about crimes incited by writing, but actually very few authenticated cases of anyone who has committed a crime as a result of reading a work of fiction. Any number of crimes have been committed by people who've read about it in the newspapers. Like the man who killed eight nurses in Chicago and then some kid in Arizona got the idea that this might be a good thing to do and killed five women. So all the censorship arguments should be applied first to the daily press because they're the ones that actually cause people to commit crimes. This man who shot Deutsches [a Communist student leader] in Berlin said he'd gotten the idea from the assassination of King, so the daily press, as far as causing crimes goes, is the real offender, and not the works of fiction. People read a work of fiction and they know it's a work of fiction. They don't necessarily rush out and do these things.

BOCKRIS: What is Gysin's interest in writing?

BURROUGHS: He said, "Well, here's a simple little thing — the cut-ups — painters have been doing it for fifty years, why don't you writers try it?" He wants to bring writing up to where painting is. The montage method is much closer to the facts of actual human perception than representational writing, which corresponds to cows-in-the-grass painting.

BOCKRIS: How do you feel about using the tape recorder at the moment?

BURROUGHS: I did some experiments with tape recorders, but using a tape recorder for composition has never worked for me. In the first place, talking and writing are quite different. So far as writing goes I do need a typewriter. I have to write it down and see it rather than talk it. I know that some writers get their notes together for a chapter, then get it into a tape recorder. They got a secretary who brings that back to them and then they make some corrections.

BOCKRIS: Have you ever taped television?

BURROUGHS: Lots of times. I had tapes of television shows, then I did all these experiments of putting the soundtrack of one television show onto another similar one and people would come in and it would take ten minutes before anyone realized there was anything wrong if the programs were at all similar. Say the soundtrack of one western on another, they work uncannily well. There's a shot just where it should be and so on. Then there'll be a moment and people will say wait a minute there's something wrong there. But it has taken fifteen or twenty minutes before someone has realized this is not the soundtrack that went with that particular program. It's very amusing.


In 1966 I was living at l-3a Mühltalstrasse, Heidelberg, West Germany, in a room about the size of a 3rd-class passenger berth of an Estonian saltpeter freighter on the Riga-Valparaiso run. On June 6, at precisely 8.20 P.M., there was a knock on the door. I opened the door and for a fraction of a second before the hall light went out I caught a glimpse of a tall thin man, about 52 years of age, black suit black tie white shirt w/ black needle stripes black phosphorescent eyes black hat. He looked like Opium Jones.

"Hello," he said in a voice hard and black as smoked metal.

"Hello, Mr. Burroughs," I said. "Come in."

He had come from Paris where he had worked on the soundtrack of Chappaqua, with Conrad Rooks. He took three or four steps and stood by the narrow table in front of the window. He put his hands into his pockets and in one smooth movement brought out two reels of mylar tape and put them on the table.

"Got your tape recorder?" he asked.


"Let's compare tapes."

We played his tapes, then some of mine. Nothing was said. Except at one point he stopped his tape, wound it back for a second or two, and played it again. "You hear that?" he asked. "... 'wiring wiring' ... It's the voice of a friend of mine from the south. Haven't seen him in twenty years. Don't know how his voice got on there."

Then we put a microphone on the table and took turns talking to the tape recorder switching back and forth between tracks at random intervals. We played it all back and sat there listening to our conversation:

"The other veins crawl through mine," he said. Adjusting his throat microphone. Breathing heavily in the warm anaesthetic mist that filled the old Studio.

"Mind you take film. I want to see that. Grammars of distant differential tissue.

"Agony to breathe here.

"Muy alone in such tense and awful silence and por eso have I survived.

"Echoes of sticky basements. From Lyon to Marseilles. Fossil flesh stormed the exits.

"Carl made words in the air without a throat without a tongue. Vestigial penis figures to the sky now isn't that cute?

"Yes that's what makes a real 23 as the focus snaps like this & you are actually there.

"Junkie there at the corner flicking empty condoms H caps KY tubes?

"Now what I was telling you about the Police Parallele. The Manipulator takes pictures for 24 hours. His eyes unbluffed unreadable.

"His face melted under the flickering arc lights. Most distasteful thing I ever stand still for."

At approximately 1.30 A.M. Mr. Burroughs took a cab to the Hotel Kaiserhof. At approximately 1.36 the receptionist handed him the key to his room. It was the key to room 23.


BOCKRIS: When you were writing Naked Lunch you told Jack Kerouac that you were apparently an agent from some other planet who hadn't gotten his messages clearly decoded yet. Has all your work been sent from other places and your job been to decode it?

BURROUGHS: I think this is true with any writer. The best seems to come from somewhere ... perhaps from the nondominant side of the brain. There's a very interesting book I mentioned earlier called The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. His theory is that the first voices were hallucinated voices, that everyone was schizophrenic up till about 800 B.C. The voice of God came from the nondominant side of the brain, and the man who was obeying these voices, to put it in Freudian terms, would have a superego and an id but no ego at all. Therefore no responsibility.

This broke down in a time of great chaos, and then you got the concepts of morality, responsibility, law, and also divination. If you really know what to do, you don't have to ask. Jaynes' idea was that early men knew what to do at all times; they were told, and this was coming from outside, as far as they were concerned. This was not fancy, because they were actually seeing and hearing these gods. So they didn't have anything that we call "I." Your "I" is a completely illusory concept. It has a space in which it exists. They didn't have that space, there wasn't any "I" or anything corresponding to it.

BOCKRIS: Is human nature to blame for ...

BURROUGHS: Human nature is another figment of the imagination.

BOCKRIS: What do I mean when I say human nature?

BURROUGHS: You mean there is some implicit way that people are. I don't think this is true at all. The tremendous range in which people can be conditioned would call in question any such concept.

BOCKRIS: There seems to be an alarmingly large number of meaningless words polluting our language.


Excerpted from With William Burroughs by Victor Bockris. Copyright © 1996 Victor Bockris and William Burroughs. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction to the Revised Edition by Victor Bockris,
A Passport for William Burroughs: Introduction,
On Writing,
On Dreams,
On Women,
On Men,
Burroughs in London,
Burroughs in New York,
On Drugs,
Burroughs in Hollywood,
Burroughs in Colorado,
Burroughs in Italy,
New York City Close-ups,
On Politics,
On Psychic Sex,
On the Interview,
Looking for Ian,
With Beckett in Berlin,
Nothing to Think About: Burroughs and the Rolling Stones,
Over the Hills and Far Away,
The Best Dinner Party I Ever Gave, 1986,
William Burroughs: Cool Cats, Furry Cats, and Aliens, but No Purring, 1991,
Identification Chart,
About the Author,

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