The Philosophy of William S. Burroughs

Artwork by Christiaan Tonnis

For over two weeks I’ve been doing my best to sit down and read any book at my disposal during the night. The exercise extends for hours, and it has produced many follow-up writing sessions, forming a perfect one-two combo.

The book I am currently reading is The Adding Machine by William Seward Burroughs. It is a collection of essays that spans for about 240 pages of very insightful observations on books, films, artists, the author’s own works, philosophy, etc. It is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in knowing more about the enigma that was its author.

Most of the essays in the book consist of discussions of his own literary style and critique. In many ways it serves as a tool for understanding his fiction. If you are familiar with his work, you will be quick to agree on the premise that Burroughs was a very experimental writer. It is not easy to see his work in a normal convention. There are too many ins and outs and passages with pure symbolic significance. The grotesque and amoral nature of many of his prominent characters adds more wood to an already powerful fire.

Burroughs dedicates a large portion of the book attempting to outline his philosophical thoughts on many subjects such as telepathy and politics. One of the inquiries that caught my particular attention was in concern to the art of writing. There were many essays on the discussion, but there was one that stood out like a bleeding elephant in the Savannah. The essay was titled “A Review of the Reviewers”, and was intended as a response to his critics and detractors. It contained one of the most resounding advice I’ve read in years:

“Write about what you know. More writers fail because they try to write about things they don’t know than for any other one reason. I do not know whether you have ever seen a mirage. I feel reasonably certain that you have never seen a man die from seeing one.” (Adding Machine, pg. 228)

The advice entails that a writer is guided by the natural compositions of his surroundings. It also gives us a clue into the reason of why many writers fail to develop. It is typical of an aspiring writer to create a universe roaming beyond his experiences. The message is an invocation to the termination of these desires, and a call to a more pragmatic approach.

A struggling writer may ask himself ‘What is it that I do know?” as a means to further sink in a pit of self-doubt, but a quick moment to relax and interpret the meaning behind the phrase can lead him to conclude that he indeed knows much about a lot of things. He knows what it’s like to be sick. He knows the depth of pain and heartbreak. He knows the world is a place he inhabits. And he knows how to make good use of the stories the world tells him if only he learns where to look.

With this book as a guide to many of his works of fiction one is left with much-needed clarity. However, it does very little to hinder the mystique surrounding his persona. He remains an enigmatic figure with a very twisted sense of reality. This is where much of his compelling nature lies. He strikes me as a man who knew too much. The more I read about him and his work, the closer I am to confirming this.