William S. Burroughs was gay. His decision to marry a woman may have been an attempt to cover his homosexuality, deny it, or overcome it. A Man Within, Yony Leyser’s documentary about the writer who influenced both the Beat Generation and the punk movement, gives no clue to Burroughs’ motives, only that a marriage took place and a son resulted from the union. The marriage ended tragically when Burroughs, in imitation of William Tell, tried to shoot a glass off his wife’s head and failed. He shot her, fatally, but never faced criminal charges. Leyser’s film doesn’t explain how he managed that either. Maybe it’s because he was an American in Mexico, or perhaps it had to do with his being heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. Money talks, it’s true, but it also buys silence and inaction.
The tragedy was later cited as Burroughs’ inspiration to become a writer. Trauma and tragedy often light the spark of creativity. When life backs you into a corner, art is a way to fight your way out and exert some sense of control over your environment. Art gives power, or at least the illusion of power, to life’s helpless victims. As both a drug addict and a homosexual whose books include those titled Junky and Queer, Burroughs could qualify as a victim. He wasn’t a mainstream writer, although he was acknowledged by some who were, such as Norman Mailer who called Burroughs “the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Of course, Mailer was a bit of an ass who also praised Jack Henry Abbott, the convict who fatally stabbed a waiter after his release from prison which Mailer helped engineer. Having once stabbed his wife, though not fatally, Mailer was no stranger to sharp utensils himself. The fact that Burroughs and Abbott carried their acts of violence to such an extreme may be what inspired Mailer’s admiration.
Burroughs’ status as a “great writer” owes more to his subject matter than the quality of his prose. Phrases like “Steely Dan,” “Soft Machine,” and “Blade Runner” made their way into popular culture via rock bands and movies, but did Donald Fagen read Burroughs or merely a review of a book in which “Steely Dan” was mentioned? Patti Smith, who appears in the film, may have read Burroughs, but it was the subject matter, its emphasis on the dark side of life that appealed to her. The punk rockers who adopted Burroughs as their spiritual godfather almost certainly didn’t read his books because most can’t read. They are poseurs. Give them a well-written piece of prose by a writer who isn’t decadent and they wouldn’t know what to make of it. Their interest is in the decadence, not the art that it may have inspired. Decadence is also the real subject of A Man Within. Burroughs is simply the filmmaker’s tour guide.
© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks
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