[This essay is the preface of Penguin's 2002 edition of William Burroughs' Junky].
I have it on the desk beside me as I write – the first edition of ‘Junky’ by William S. Burroughs. The world has changed a great deal in the fifty-odd years since it was originally published, and some of those changes are evident in the differences between the first edition of this memorable work and the one you are currently holding in your hands.
Entitled ‘Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict’ and authored pseudonymously by ‘William Lee’ (Burroughs’s mother’s maiden name – he didn’t look too far for a nom de plume), the Ace Original retailed for 35 cents, and as a ‘Double Book’ was bound back-to-back with ‘Narcotic Agent’ by Maurice Helbrant. The two-books-in-one format was not uncommon in 1950s America, but besides the obvious similarity in subject matter, A.A. Wyn, Burroughs’s publisher, felt that he had to balance such an unapologetic account of drug addiction with an abridgement of these memoirs of a Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ agent, which originally appeared in 1941.
Since, in the hysterical, anti-drug culture of post-war America, potential censure could easily induce self-censorship, it’s remarkable that ‘Junky’ found a publisher at all. Despite its subhead, Wyn did think the book had a redemptive capability, as the protagonist made efforts to free himself of his addiction, but he also insisted that Burroughs preface the work with an autobiographical sketch that would explain to the reader how it was that someone such as himself – a Harvard graduate from a Social Register family – came to be a drug addict. The same cautious instinct led Wyn to interpolate bracketed disclaimers after most of Burroughs’s (often factually correct but radically unorthodox, and sometimes outright wacky) statements about the nature of intoxication and chemical dependency. Thus, when Burroughs stated: ‘Perhaps if a junkie could keep himself in a constant state of kicking, he would live to a phenomenal age.’ The bracket reads ‘(Ed. Note: This is contradicted by recognized medical authority.)’
Burroughs’s preface (now restyled as a ‘prologue’) still stands first in the current edition, but relegated to the rear of the text is the glossary of junk lingo and jive talk with which he sought to initiate his square readership to the hip world. And for Burroughs the term ‘hip’ referred resolutely to the heroin subculture. The bracketed editorial notes have been excised.
Both ‘Junkie’ and ‘Narcotic Agent’ have covers of beautiful garishness, featuring 1950s damsels in distress. The blonde lovely on the cover of Helbrant’s book is being handcuffed (presumably by the eponymous ‘Agent’, although his face and figure is hidden in the shadows), while clad only in her slip. The presence of ashtray, hypodermic and spoon on the table in front of her goes a long way to explain her expression of serene indifference. However, on the cover of ‘Junkie’ we are given a more actively dramatic portrayal: a craggy-browed man is grabbing a blonde lovely from behind, one of his arms is around her neck, while the other grasps her hand, within which is a paper package. The table beside them has been knocked in the fray, propelling a spoon, a hypodermic, and even a gas ring, into inner space.
This cover illustration is, in fact, just that: an illustration of a scene described by Burroughs in the book. ‘When my wife saw I was getting the habit again, she did something she had never done before. I was cooking up a shot two days after I’d connected with Old Ike. My wife grabbed the spoon and threw the junk on the floor. I slapped her twice across the face and she threw herself on the bed, sobbing…’. That this uncredited – and now forgotten – hack artist should have chosen one of the small handful of episodes featuring the protagonist’s wife to use for the cover illustration, represents one of those nastily serendipitous ironies that Burroughs himself almost always chose to view as evidence of the magical universe.
From double book to stand alone; from Ace Original to Penguin Modern Classic; from unredeemed confession to cult novel; from a cheap shocker to a refined taste – the history of this text in a strange way acts as an allegory of the way the heroin subculture Burroughs depicted has mutated, spread, and engrafted itself with the corpus of the wider society, in the process irretrievably altering that upon which it parasitises. Just as – if you turn to his glossary – you will see how many arcane drug terms have metastasised into the vigorous language.
Burroughs observed a discrete – if international – urban phenomenon, confined to the physical as well as the psychic margins of society: ‘Junk is often found adjacent to ambiguous or transitional districts: East Fourteenth near Third in New York; Poydras and St.Charles in New Orleans; San Juan Létran in Mexico City. Stores selling artificial limbs, wig-makers, dental mechanics, loft manufacturers of perfumes, pomades, novelties, essential oils. A point where dubious business enterprise touches Skid Row.’
Today junk is everywhere, on housing estates and in penthouses; sniffed, smoked and shot up by models and model makers alike. Heroin chic has been and gone as a stylistic affectation – and will doubtless return again. Countless books and films have been predicated on the use and abuse of the drug. The heroin addict has become a stock figure in soap operas. Conservative estimates of the numbers of heroin addicts in Britain indicate a thousandfold increase in the past half century.
Burroughs wrote ‘Junky’ on the very cusp of a transformation in Western culture. His junkies were creatures of the Depression, many of whose addiction predated even the Harrison Act of 1922, which outlawed the legal sale of heroin and cocaine in the USA. In ‘Junky’ the protagonist speaks scathingly of the new generation: ‘The young hipsters seem lacking in energy and spontaneous enjoyment of life. The mention of pot or junk will galvanize them like a shot of coke. They jump around and say, “Too much! Man, let’s pick up! Let’s get loaded.” But after a shot, they slump into a chair like a resigned baby waiting for life to bring the bottle again.’
Is it too much to hypothesise that as it was to the demimonde, so has it been for the wider world? That as addicts have increased in number and become more tightly integrated into society, so has the addictive character of the collective consciousness become more horribly evident. The mass obsessions with polymorphous sexuality, and the awesome death of affect implied by the worship of celebrity; are matched by a compulsive consumerism, characterised by the built in obsolescence not only of products, but also the ‘lifestyles’ and the ‘mind sets’ within which they are placed. And, of course, there is the ‘War on Drugs’ itself, which has lopped off arm after arm after arm, only for six more, then twelve more, then thirty-six more to grow from their stumps, all of them being shot up into.
Certainly, Burroughs himself viewed the postwar era as a Gotterdammerung and a convulsive reevaluation of all values. With his anomic inclinations and his Mandarin intellect, Burroughs was in a paradoxical position vis a vis the coming cultural revolution of the 1960s. An open homosexual and a drug addict, his quintessentially Midwestern libertarianism led him to eschew any command economy of ethics, while his personal inclinations meant he had to travel with distastefully socialist and liberal fellows. For Burroughs, the reevaluation was both discount and markup, and perhaps it was this that made him such a great avatar of the emergent counterculture.
Janus-faced, and like some terminally cadaverous butler, Burroughs ushers in the new society of kicks for insight as well as kick’s sake. In the final paragraph of ‘Junky’ he writes: ‘Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the ageing, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh.’ He might have added that kicking is what you do to God’s ribs once he’s down on the ground and begging for mercy.
By all of which you can take it as stated that in a very important sense I view Burroughs’s ‘Junky’ not to be a book about heroin addiction at all, anymore that I perceive Camus’s ‘The Fall’ (1956) to be about the legal profession, or Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ (1938) to be concerned with the problems of historical research. All three are works in which an alienated protagonist grapples with a world perceived as irretrievably external and irredeemably meaningless. All three are trajected at the reader in the form of insistent monologues. As Burroughs writes of the hoodlum ‘Jack’ in ‘Junky’: ‘He had a knack of throwing his voice directly into your consciousness. No external noise drowned him out.’ The same could be said of ‘William Lee’ himself, or Clemance or Roquentin.
But before grappling with the existential lode of ‘Junky’, let’s return to that cover illustration with its portrayal of ‘William Lee’ as Rock Hudson and his common law wife, Joan Vollmer, as Kim Novak. When I say Burroughs himself must have regarded the illustration – if he thought of it at all – as evidence of the magical universe he conceived of as underpinning and interpenetrating our own, it is because the first draft of the book was completed in the months immediately preceding his killing of Vollmer on September 6th 1951 in Mexico City. Burroughs himself wrote in his 1985 foreword to ‘Queer’ (which was completed in the year after Vollmer’s death, but remained unpublished until thirty-four years later), ‘I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing.
Much has been written and even more conjectured about the killing. Burroughs himself described it as ‘the accidental shooting death’; and although he jumped bail, he was only convicted – in absentia by the Mexican court – of homicide. However, to my mind this rings false with the way he characterised his life – and his writing – thereafter: ‘I live with the constant threat of possession and the constant need to escape from possession, from Control.’ Burroughs saw the agent of possession implicated in the killing as external to himself, ‘a definite entity’. He went further, hypothesising that such an entity might devise the modern, psychological conception of possession as a function of the subject’s own psyche: ‘since nothing is more dangerous to a possessor than being seen as a separate invading creature by the host it has invaded.
Personally, I think Burroughs’s definition of ‘possession’ was tantamount to an admission of intent. Certainly, the hypothesis of murderous impulsiveness squares better with the impromptu ‘William Tell act’ (whereby he called upon Vollmer to place a glass upon her head which he would then shoot off), than his own bewilderment in the face of an act of such cruel stupidity and fatal rashness. (He knew the gun to shoot low, and what would’ve happened to the glass shards even if he had succeeded? There were others in the room.)
I belabour these events for two reasons. First, because I think an understanding of the milieu within which Burroughs and Vollmer operated, and the nature of their life together is essential in disentangling the post hoc mythologising of the writer and his life, from the very grim reality of active drug addiction that constitutes the action of ‘Junky’. When Burroughs was off heroin at all he was a bad, blackout drunk (for evidence of this you need look no further than his own confirmation in ‘Junky’). However much he cared for Vollmer, their life together was clearly at an impasse (their sexuality was incompatible – she was even beginning to object to his drug use); and what could be more natural – if only momentarily – than to conceive of ridding himself of an obvious blockage?
Second, although the bulk of ‘Junky’ was in place before the killing, Burroughs continued to revise the text at least as late as July 1952, including current events such as the arrival from New York of his old heroin dealing partner Bill Garver (whose name is changed to ‘Bill Gains’ in the text). Indeed, such is the contemporary character of what Burroughs was writing about, that at one point in the book (and this remains uncorrected in the present edition), he actually lapses into the present tense: ‘Our Lady of Chalma seems to be the patron saint of junkies and cheap thieves because all Lupita’s customers make the pilgrimage once a year. The Black Bastard rents a cubicle in the church and pushes papers of junk outrageously cut with milk sugar.’
The meat of the text of ‘Junky’ is as close as Burroughs could get to a factual account of his own experience of heroin. In a letter to Allen Ginsberg (who had worried that the book constituted a justification of Burroughs’s addiction), he inveighed: ‘As a matter of fact the book is the only accurate account I ever read of the real horror of junk. But I don’t mean it as justification or deterrent or anything but an accurate account of what I experienced while I was on the junk. You might say it was a travel book more than anything else. It starts where I first make contact with junk, and it ends where no more contact is possible.’ To analyse the exactness of the correspondence between the text of ‘Junky’ and what is known of the author’s life between 1944 and 1952 (the time span of the book), one has only to read through his collected letters for this period ['The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945-1959' ed. Oliver Harris] , or Ted Morgan’s excellent biography ['Literary Outlaw'].
All of which is by way of saying: ‘Junky’ is not a novel at all, it is a memoir; ‘William Lee’ and William Burroughs are one and the same person. I realise that in the light of what I’ve said above – positioning ‘Junky’ as an existentialist text on a par with the work of Sartre and Camus – this must seem bizarre, but I think it’s simply another aspect of the author’s own Janus face makes fact serve for fiction. Burroughs’s own conception of himself was essentially fictional, and it’s not superfluous to observe that before he began to write with any fixity he had already become a character in other writer’s works, most notably Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’. He also signed his letters to Ginsberg, Kerouac et al. with his nom de plume, as well as using his correspondence as a form of work in progress, peppering his Epistles to the Beats with his trademark riffs and routines. By the time Burroughs was living in Tangier in the late 1950s, his sense of being little more than a cipher, or a fictional construct, had become so plangent that he practised the art of insubstantiality with true zeal, revelling in the moniker ‘El Hombre Invisible’.
For Burroughs, with his increasingly fluid view of reality, the confabulation of fact and fiction was inevitable, the separation of life and work impossible. Doubtless, he himself would seek to underpin – if not justify – this with an appeal to metaphysics, but from the vantage of a half century later, with Burroughs dead, and the counter-culture he helped spawn reduced to little more than attitudinising, tee shirt slogans and global chains of coffee shops, it seems about time to accept that his drug addiction was psychologically anterior to all of this, rather than some optional add-on. It’s time to take Burroughs at his most truthful and gimlet-eyed, when he writes in ‘Junky’; ‘Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.’ Burroughs was the perfect incarnation of late twentieth century Western angst precisely because he was an addict. Self-deluding, vain, narcissistic, self-obsessed, and yet curiously perceptive about the sickness of the world if not his own malaise, Burroughs both offered up (and was compelled to provide) his psyche as a form of petri dish, within which were cultured the obsessive and compulsive viruses of modernity.
Burroughs never managed to recover from his addiction at all, and died in 1997 physically dependent on the synthetic opiate methadone. I find this a delicious irony: the great hero of freedom from social restrain, himself in bondage to a drug originally synthesised by Nazi chemists, and dubbed ‘Dolophine’ in honour of the Fuhrer; the fearless libertarian expiring in the arms of an ersatz Morpheus, actively promoted by the Federal Government as a ‘cure’ for heroin addiction. In the prologue to ‘Junky’ and the introduction to ‘The Naked Lunch’, Burroughs writes of his own addiction as if it were a thing of the past, but this was never the case. In a thin-as-a-rake’s progress that saw him move from America to Mexico, to Morocco, to France, to Britain, back to New York, and eventually to small town Kansas, Burroughs was in flight either from the consequences of his chemical dependency, or seeking to avoid the drugs he craved.
But really the die was cast long before, in the dingy apartments of wartime New York, and the ramshackle habitations of his exile, where Burroughs saw ‘life measured out in eyedroppers of morphine solution’. By the time he and Vollmer were ensconced in Mexico City, the pronounced deterioration of their long term addictions (hers to amphetamine), had already taken its heavy toll. Contemporary accounts describe the once pretty Vollmer as ‘a large, shapeless woman, with a doughy face and the kind of eyes that used to be placed in antique dolls, made of blue glass and quite vacant…’ while Burroughs was ‘cadaverous-looking – thin lips, bad teeth, yellow fingers and eyes like death.’ Burroughs was incapable of confronting the real physical degradation implied by their folie a deux, and, as with Vollmer herself, the text of ‘Junky’ avoids the subject altogether, or glosses it – as above – with flat untruths and slurred shibboleths about heroin’s life preserving properties. The writer’s wife isn’t mentioned at all until page 61, and then only in the context of an aside when ‘William Lee’ is being inducted into the Federal Hospital at Lexington for a ‘cure’: “Patient seems secure and states his reason for seeking cure is necessity of providing for his family.” Thereafter, she is allocated a walk on part when ‘Lee’ is busted in New Orleans, before evaporating once more, until, in Mexico City ‘she did something she had never done before…’. In a postscript to a letter to Allen Ginsberg (who was acting Burroughs’s literary agent) written seven months after Vollmer’s death, Burroughs said ‘About death of Joan. I do not see how this could be worked in. I wish you would talk them out of that idea. I will take care of her disappearance. I did not go into my domestic life in Junk because it was, in the words of Sam Johnson, “Nothing to the purpose.”‘ In the text Lee and his wife are said to be ‘separated’, but while being perhaps a little de trop ‘(taking) care of her disappearance’ was more to the purpose.
As for the text itself, it reads today as fresh and unvarnished as it ever has. Burroughs’s deadpan reportage owes as much to the hard boiled style of the detective thriller writer Dashiell Hammett, as it does to his more elevated philosophical inclinations. At the time of writing Burroughs was still much in thrall to the proto-Wittgensteinian ideas of Count Korzybski, whose lecture series he had attended at the University of Chicago in 1939. Korzybski propounded a theory of ‘General Semantics’, which held that it is the gulf between language and reality which fosters so many philosophical conundrums of the either/or form. In eschewing rhetorical flourish or adjectival excess, Burroughs sought to remain silent about what could not be said, just like the drug subculture he was so enchanted by: ‘She shoved the package of weed at me. “Take this and get out,” she said. “You’re both mother fuckers.” She was half asleep. He voice was matter-of-fact as if referring to actual incest.’
But while Burroughs aims at a plain speaking style, he cannot avoid his propensity for the mot juste, anymore than he can escape his destiny as a natural raconteur. His later, more free-form works – such as ‘The Naked Lunch’ – were often worked up out of his own conversational routines, and so it is that ‘Junky’ maintains its high level of entertainment by juxtaposing acute descriptions with acutely remembered conversations. Only Burroughs could characterise the movement of a posse of young thugs as being ‘as stylized as a ballet’; describe a lie as ‘worn smooth’ by repetition; or write of an addict’s aggression thus: ‘Waves of hostility and suspicion flowed out from his large brown eyes like some sort of television broadcast. The effect was almost like a physical impact.’ Burroughs’s humour is as dry as a tinder, so that while he refuses his authorial persona the comfortable clothing of a physical description, we are nonetheless given a frighteningly clear picture of who he is in every snide put-down – ‘Affability, however, did not come natural to him.’ – and snappy one liner; ‘… a terrific bore once he has spotted you as a “a man of intelligence.”‘ And his apothegms are apt, if revolting, as if La Rochefoucauld were an arrested adolescent: ‘When people start talking about their bowel movements they are as inexorable as the processes of which they speak.’
Burroughs also employs his own special version of the pathetic fallacy – for him everyone has the face he deserves: ‘He had the embalmed look of all bondsmen, as though paraffin had been injected under the skin.’ Moreover, the capacity of someone’s face to imprint itself upon the observer is a function of their status in reality; ‘If you walked fast down a crowded street, and passed Dupré, his face would be forced on your memory – like in the card trick where the operator fans the cards rapidly, saying, “Take a card, any card,” as he forces a certain card into your hand.’ And again: ‘Some people you can spot as far as you can see; others you can’t be sure of until you are close enough to touch them. Junkies are mostly in sharp focus.’ Except – please note – when they are withdrawing from the drug: ‘His face was blurred, unrecognizable, at the same time shrunken and tumescent.’
These parings of description are sufficient to give the lie entirely to the idea that there is any profound break between the apparent ‘objectivity’ of ‘Junky’ and the stylistic excesses of ‘The Naked Lunch’. All of Burroughs’s dystopian world picture is here, in this text, in embryo. The milieu of heroin addiction, as described by Burroughs, is one fraught with magical thinking. And indeed, this does correspond to the mentality of most addicts, who, because of their psychological and physical dependence on a commodity viewed by the rest of society as an unmitigated evil, find themselves habitual participants in a form of black mass.
Burroughs’s preoccupation with the viral quality of addiction, as if it is an external organism transmitted from heroin user to heroin user, is concomitant with his sublimation of its very real character as an aspect of the individual psychopathology. But he widens the ambit of this metaphor, to include a portrayal of a dystopian community in the section of ‘Junky’ dealing with the Rio Grande Valley, where he and Kells Elvins (‘Evans’ in the text), unsuccessfully farmed citrus fruit in 1946. ‘Death hangs over the Valley like an invisible smog. The place exerts a curious magnetism on the moribund. The dying cell gravitates to the Valley…’. Burroughs’s coinage of ‘the cellular equation of junk’, with all that it implies, is his synecdoche for all of the ills of the post-atomic age, and it will reappear in this guise throughout many of his later works.
Present too in ‘Junky’ is the unsettling notion of quasi-human organisms, that both prefigure and mutate from humanity itself. Burroughs’s ‘mugwump’ makes its appearance: ‘He has a large straight nose. His lips are thin and purple-blue like the lips of a penis. The skin is tight and smooth over his face. He is basically obscene beyond any possible vile act or practice… Perhaps he stores something in his body – a substance to prolong life – of which he is periodically milked by his masters. He is as specialized as an insect, for the performance of some inconceivably vile function.’ Burroughs and Elvins travelled to Mexico in 1946 to take the Bogomoletz serum, an alleged anti-ageing agent, and together with this, there are veiled references in ‘Junky’ to Wilhelm Reich’s theory of the ‘cancer biopathy’; the idea that cancer – and by extension social ills as well – is a function of sexual repression.
Burroughs’s raptor propensity for looting the wilder cliff top eyries of intellectual speculation and mixing their eggs with his own embryonic ideas, is what makes ‘Junky’ such a nourishing omelette. When Burroughs says of a stool pigeon (or informer): ‘You could see him bustling into Black and Tan headquarters during the Irish Trouble, in a dirty gray toga turning in Christians, giving information to the Gestapo, the GPU, sitting in a café talking to a narcotics agent. Always the same thin, ratty face, shabby out-of-date clothes, whiny, penetrating voice.’ He is with this single image evoking the circular historians Spengler and Vico, quite as much as he is describing a real individual. Just as when he writes – of a homosexual – ‘I could see him moving in the light of campfires, the ambiguous gestures fading out into the dark. Sodomy is as old as the human species.’ Burroughs prefigures his later experiments that ‘cut up’ and ‘fold in’ texts, in an effort to annihilate all dualisms and abolish the linear time of conventional narrative.
And in the drunken phantasmagoria that follow his cessation of heroin in Mexico City, Burroughs scrys out the place of dead roads, where all his fictional vehicles will terminate decades hence. ‘A series of faces, hieroglyphs, distorted and leading to the final place where the human road ends, where the human form can no longer contain the crustacean horror that has grown inside it.’
These signposts to future fictional topographies may be what makes ‘Junky’ such an key text for the committed Burroughsian, but what will impress the first time reader is the author’s take on the nature of intoxication itself. From Burroughs’s first description of a shot of morphine as: ‘a spreading wave of relaxation slackening the muscles away from the bones so that you seem to float without outlines, like lying in warm salt water.’ To his neat encapsulations of using cocaine, cocaine, marijuana and even peyote, he remains simultaneously deep and sharp about the realities of drug experience. In this vital respect ‘Junky’ is the ‘true account’ of which he speaks. From the vantage point of my own – not inconsiderable – experience of intoxication, I can say that ‘Junky’ is unrivalled as a book about taking drugs.
What it isn’t, for the reasons outlined above, is any kind of true analysis of the nature addiction itself. Burroughs own view: ‘You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction. Junk wins by default.’ Is a deceptively thin, Pandora’s portfolio of an idea; that entirely begs the question: for what kind of person could drug addiction represent a ‘strong motivation’? Surely only one for whom alienation, and a lack of either moral or spiritual direction, was inbuilt.
Indeed, this is the great sadness of ‘Junky’ (and Burroughs himself) as I conceive it. You can reread this entire text, assuming the hypothesis of addiction as a latent pathology, present in the individual prior to his having any direct experience of chemical dependency, and everything that Burroughs says about habitual heroin use begins to make perfect sense. But taking him at his own, self-justifying estimation (predicated on a renunciation of drugs that never, ever came), Burroughs’s ‘Junky’ becomes the very archetype of the romanticisation of excess that has so typified our era: ‘I loosened the tie, and the dropper emptied into my vein. Coke hit my head, a pleasant dizziness and tension, while the morphine spread through my body in relaxing waves. “Was that alright?” asked Ike, smiling. “If God made anything better, he kept it for himself,” I said.’
In conclusion, to return to ‘Junky’ as a key existentialist text. It is Burroughs’s own denial of the nature of his addiction that makes this book capable of being read as a fiendish parable of modern alienation. For, in describing addiction as ‘a way of life’, Burroughs makes of the hypodermic a microscope, through which he can examine the soul of man under late twentieth century capitalism. His descriptions of the ‘junk territories’ his alter-ego inhabits are, in fact, depictions of urban alienation itself. And just as in these areas junk is ‘a ghost in daylight on a crowded street’, so his junkie characters – who are invariably described as ‘invisible’, ‘dematerialized’ and ‘boneless’ – are, like the pseudonymous ‘William Lee’ himself, the sentient residue left behind when the soul has been cooked up and injected into space.
Saint Germain, Paris, September 6th 2001