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Quotes by William S. Burroughs

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Wikipedia Summary for William S. Burroughs

William Seward Burroughs II (February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997) was an American writer, visual artist, spoken word performer and chaos magician credited as a primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodern author who influenced popular culture and literature. Burroughs wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays, and five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians and made many appearances in films. He was also briefly known by the pen name William Lee. Burroughs created and exhibited thousands of paintings and other visual artworks, including his celebrated 'Shotgun Art'.

Burroughs was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri. He was a grandson of inventor William Seward Burroughs I, who founded the Burroughs Corporation, and a nephew of public relations manager Ivy Lee. Burroughs attended Harvard University, studied English, studied anthropology as a postgraduate, and attended medical school in Vienna. In 1942, Burroughs enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve during World War II. After being turned down by the Office of Strategic Services and the Navy, he picked up the drug addiction that affected him for the rest of his life. In 1943, while living in New York City, he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Their mutual influence became the foundation of the Beat Generation, which was later a defining influence on the 1960s counterculture.

Burroughs killed his second wife, Joan Vollmer, in 1951 in Mexico City. Burroughs initially claimed that he shot Vollmer while drunkenly attempting a "William Tell" stunt. He later told investigators that he had been showing his pistol to friends when it fell and hit the table, firing the bullet that killed Vollmer. After Burroughs returned to the United States, he was convicted of manslaughter in absentia and received a two-year suspended sentence.

Much of Burroughs' work is semiautobiographical, and is primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict. He lived in Mexico City, London, Paris and the Tangier International Zone near Morocco, and also traveled in the South American Amazon rainforest. His work features frequent mystical, occult, or otherwise magical themes – a constant preoccupation for Burroughs, both in fiction and in real life. Burroughs found success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), but is perhaps best known for his third novel, Naked Lunch (1959). Naked Lunch became the subject of one of the last major literary censorship cases in the United States after its US publisher, Grove Press, was sued for violating a Massachusetts obscenity statute. With Brion Gysin, Burroughs also popularized the literary cut-up technique in works such as The Nova Trilogy (1961–1964).

In 1983, Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1984, he was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France. Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the "greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift"; he owed this reputation to his "lifelong subversion" of the moral, political, and economic systems of modern American society, articulated in often darkly humorous sardonicism. J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be "the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War", while Norman Mailer declared him "the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius".




The most deadly picture is a picture of nothing at all. The colors are there, but there is no image, nothing.



Communication must become total and conscious before we can stop it.



The Planet drifts to random insect doom.



How long does it take man to realize that he cannot want what he wants? You have to live in hell to see heaven.





I think there are innumerable gods. What we on earth call God is a little tribal God who has made an awful mess. Certainly forces operating through human consciousness control events.



People in bars are always claiming to be boxers, hoping thereby to ward off attack, like a black snake will vibrate its tail in leaves and try to impersonate a rattlesnake.



Forward steps are made by giving up old armor because words are built into you -- in the soft typewriter of the womb you do not realize the word-armor you carry; for example, when you read this page your eyes move irresistibly from left to right following the words that you have been accustomed to.



Once the law starts asking questions, there's no stopping them.



(1) Never give anything away for nothing.
(2) Never give more than you have to give (always catch the buyer hungry and always make him wait.)
(3) Always take everything back if you possibly can.



Humility is indeed beatness, a compulsory virtue that no one exhibits unless he has to.



Danger is a biologic necessity, like dreams. if you face death, for that time, for the period of direct confrontation, you are immortal.



America is not so much a nightmare as a non-dream. The American non-dream is precisely a move to wipe the dream out of existence. The dream is a spontaneous happening and therefore dangerous to a control system set up by the non-dreamers.



Now all politicians assume a necessity of control, the more efficient the control the better.



The boy looks into Mugwump eyes blank as obsidian mirrors, pools of black blood, glory holes in a toilet wall closing on the Last Erection.



England is like some stricken beast too stupid to know it is dead. Ingloriously foundering in its own waste products, the backlash and bad karma of empire.





How far would people get in physics if discovery was described as disgusting -- Your formula is disgusting and filthy? Not very far.



As one judge said to another judge: be just. And if you can't be just, be arbitrary.



Is Control controlled by its need to control? Answer: yes.



The idea that addiction is somehow a psychological illness is, I think, totally ridiculous. It's as psychological as malaria. It's a matter of exposure. People, generally speaking, will take any intoxicant or any drug that gives them a pleasant effect if it is available to them.



We have a great elaborate machine which I feel has to be completely dismantled -- in order to do that we need people who understand how the machine works -- the mass media -- unparalleled opportunity.



I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves.



Paranoia is just having the right information.



Shooting is my principal pastime.



Most people don't see what's going on around them. That's my principal message to writers: 'For God's sake, keep your eyes open. Notice what's going on around you.'



The more absolute the need, the more predictable the behavior becomes until it is mathematically certain.



A consumer society is about simplfying and degrading the consumer as well as the product.



I began to get a feeling ... of being the only sane man in a nut house. It doesn't make you feel superior but depressed and scared, because there is nobody you can contact.





I bear my burden proudly for all to see, to conquer prejudice and ignorance and hate with knowledge and sincerity and love. Whenever you are threatened by a hostile presence, you emit a thick cloud of love like an octopus squirts out ink.



Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don't make compromises, don't worry about making a bunch of money or being successful -- be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.



Faced by the actual practice of freedom, the French and American revolutions would be forced to stand by their words.



The idea that anyone can use drugs and escape a horrible fate is anathema to these idiots. I predict in the near future right-wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus.



I don't have any politics. I feel that as soon as politics arises, things are already in a hopeless state of deterioration.





Most all methods of capitol punishment are designed to inflict the maximum of humiliation -- not attempts to prevent suicide.



Criminal law is one of the few professions where the client buys someone else's luck. The luck of most people is strictly non-transferrable. But a good criminal lawyer can sell all his luck to a client, and the more luck he sells the more he has to sell.





Dennis Cooper, God help him, is a born writer.



The best way to keep something bad from happening is to see it ahead of time... and you can't see it if you refuse to face the possibility.



I wouldn't be in your position -- old saw. If there is any political move that I would advocate it would be an alliance between America and Red China, if they'd have us.



When you get to be my age there are more and more people you have known that you miss. Brion Gysin, Antony Balch, Ian Summerville are ones I think of right away I was quite close to.



Sexual arousal results from the repetition and impact of image.



It is to be remembered that the origin of all the arts-music, painting and writing-is magical and evocative; and that magic is always used to obtain some definite result.

Longer Version:

It is to be remembered that all art is magical in origin - music, sculpture, writing, painting - and by magical I mean intended to produce very definite results. Paintings were originally formulae to make what is painted happen. Art is not an end in itself, any more than Einstein's matter-into-energy formulae is an end in itself. Like all formulae, art was originally FUNCTIONAL, intended to make things happen, the way an atom bomb happens from Einstein's formulae.



O death where is thy sting? The man is never on time.



Always remember, there's no point trying to be faithful to the book because film and writing are just two completely different things. Any film stands on its own, apart from whether it's based on a novel.



Revolution in America begins in books and music, then waits for political operatives to 'implement changes after the fact.'



There are no innocent bystanders.

Longer Version:

There are no innocent bystanders. What were they doing there in the first place?



There's a boy across the river with an ass like a peach; alas I was no swimmer and lost my Clementine.



In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen.

Longer Version:

In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen. The dogma of science is that the will cannot possibly affect external forces, and I think that’s just ridiculous. It’s as bad as the church. My viewpoint is the exact contrary of the scientific viewpoint. I believe that if you run into somebody in the street it’s for a reason.



All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard. What else?



The photo collage is a way to travel that must be used with skill and precision if we are to arrive... The collage as a flexible hieroglyph language of juxtaposition: A collage makes a statement.



Poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, insanity, all symptoms of The Human Virus.



The American uppermiddle-class citizen is a composite of negatives. He is largely delineated by what he is not.



The simplest questions are the most difficult.



Addiction is a disease of exposure. Doctors and nurses, for instance, have a high addiction rate.





Do not proffer sympathy to the mentally ill; it is a bottomless pit. Tell them firmly, I am not paid to listen to this drivel -- you are a terminal fool! Otherwise, they make you as crazy as they are.



There isn't a feeling you can get on drugs that you can't get without drugs.



A John is different from a sucker. When you're with a sucker you're on alert all the time. You give him nothing. A sucker is just to be taken but a John is different. You give him what he pays for. When you're with him you enjoy yourself and you want him to enjoy himself too.



You do an awful lot of bad writing in order to do any good writing. Incredibly bad. I think it would be very interesting to make a collection of some of the worst writing by good writers.



The Orgasmic Death Gimmick is rather complicated. It could be called the whole birth-death cycle of action, persuading people that birth and death are realities.



Death is a gimmick. It's the time-birth-death gimmick. Can't go on much longer, too many people are wising up.



I've listened to and know Allen Ginsberg music and met him a couple of times, but I don't have any strong statements to make.



Death was in every sell of his body. He gave off a faint, greenish steam of decay. Lee imagined he would glow in the dark.



The country with a low birth rate and low death rate will be hardest hit -- and so the poor may indeed inherit the earth, because they're healthier.



I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of heroin addiction. I did absolutely nothing.





I awoke from The Sickness at the age of forty-five, calm and sane, and in reasonably good health except for a weakened liver and the look of borrowed flesh common to all who survive The Sickness.

Longer Version:

I awoke from The Sickness at the age of forty-five, calm and sane, and in reasonably good health except for a weakened liver and the look of borrowed flesh common to all who survive The Sickness... When I speak of drug addiction I do not refer to keif, marijuana or any preparation of hashish, mescaline, Banisteriopsis caapi, LSD6, Sacred Mushrooms or any other drugs of the hallucinogen group... There is no evidence that the use of any hallucinogen results in physical dependence.



The program of the ruling elite in Orwell's 1984 was: A foot stamping on a human face forever! This is naive and optimistic. No species could survive for even a generation under such program. This is not a program of eternal, or even long-range dominance. It is clearly an extermination program.



I'm an old-fashioned person, and I don't like informers.



The world network of junkies, tuned on a cord of rancid jissom, tying up in furnished rooms, shivering in the junk-sick morning.



I have learned the junk equation. Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means of increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.



Hip -- Someone who knows the score. Someone who understands jive talk. Someone who is with it. The expression is not subject to definition because, if you don't dig what it means, no one can ever tell you.



If all pleasure is relief from tension, junk affords relief from the whole life process, in disconnecting the hypothalamus, which is the center of psychic energy and libido.



Victimless crimes are the lifeline of the RIGHT virus. And there is a growing recognition, even in official quarters, that victimless crimes should be removed from the books or subject to minimal penalties.





I like the idea of generalizing the narcotic thing by making it black meat addiction.



The purpose of my writing is to expose and arrest Nova Criminals.



The Nova Mob doesn't have motives, as we understand motives. Sex is profoundly distasteful to a being of my mineral origin, as a leader of the Nova Mob, Mr. Bradley-Mr. Martin, said on one occasion.



Mr. Bradley-Mr. Martin is two people because it is a statement of the impasse of dualistic universe which he has created, they have created. I think that any dualistic universe ends in Nova. Mr. Bradley-Mr. Martin is a kind of God. A God of stupidity, cowardice, ugliness.



That old feeling is still in my leaking heart.



It is more profitable to give wages than to receive them.



A junky runs on junk time. When the junk is cut off, the clock runs down and stops. All he can do is hang on and wait for non-junky time to start. A sick junky has no escape from external time, no place to go. He can only wait.



If, after spending time with a person, you feel as though you've lost a quart of plasma, avoid that person in the future.



If you are asking me what the individual can do right now, in a political sense, I'd have to say he can't do all that much. Speaking for myself, I am more concerned with the transformation of the individual, which to me is much more important than the so-called political revolution.



Many of my characters first came through to me as voices. That's why I use a tape recorder.







He is a boy sleeping against the mosque wall, ejaculates wet dreaming into a thousand cunts pink and smooth as sea shells.



Exorcism is a subject that interests me, and books on shamanism, I've read through.



Fear of death is form of stasis horrors. The dead weight of time.



Panic is the sudden realization that everything around you is alive.



For years I wondered why dreams are so often dull when related, and this morning I find the answer, which is very simple -- like most answers, you have always known it: No context ... like a stuffed animal set on the floor of a bank.



Tangier is one of the few places left in the world where, so long as you don't proceed to robbery, violence, or some form of crude, antisocial behavior, you can do exactly what you want.



In this world, of Flash and Filigree nothing is true, and censure or outrage is simply irrelevant.



Naked Lunch was from about a thousand pages of material. A lot of it overflowed, then, into the cut-up trilogy including Nova Express.



Death needs time for what it kills to grow in.



All abilities are paid for with disabilities. perfect health may entail the heavy toll of bovine stupidity. insight into one area involves blind spots in another.



Life is a cutup. And to pretend that you write or paint in a timeless vacuum is just simply ... not ... true, not in accord with the facts of human perception.



Well, disgusting doesn't refer to the books but to the subjective reaction of the person making the complaint. I don't think that anything is disgusting per se. These words disgusting and filthy, etc., have prevented us from undertaking any scientific experimentation in sexual matters.



Tell Allen I plead guilty to vampirism and other crimes against life. But I love him and nothing else cancels love.



They tend to be suspicious, bristly, paranoid-type people with huge egos they push around like some elephantiasis victim with his distended testicles in a wheelbarrow terrified no doubt that some skulking ingrate of a clone student will sneak into his very brain and steal his genius work.



Thinking is not enough. Nothing is. There is no final enough of wisdom, experience -- any f...ing thing.

Longer Version:

Thinking is not enough. Nothing is. There is no final enough of wisdom, experience--any fucking thing. No Holy Grail, No Final Satori, no final solution. Just conflict.



I think all writers write for an audience. There is no such thing as writing for yourself.



Cheat your landlord if you can -- and must -- but do not try to shortchange the Muse.



I miss you so much your absence causes me, at times, accute pain. I don't mean sexually. I mean in connection with my writing.



I do spend a great deal of time alone. I'm not very gregarious. I don't like parties and miscellaneous gatherings with no particular purpose. I think parties are largely a mistake. The bigger they are the more mistaken they are.



Artists to my mind are the real architects of change.

Longer Version:

Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.





I'm creating an imaginary -- it's always imaginary -- world in which I would like to live.



I think Judge Learned Hand was a cultured, intelligent man.





I feel that opiates -- I include opium and all its derivatives, such as morphine, heroin, pantopon, etc. -- are quite useless for any sort of creative work, useful though they may be for routine work. Much of the hard physical work in the Far East is done by opium addicts.



Scientology is a model control system, a state in fact with its own courts, police, rewards and penalties.





Biologically speaking the Afro-Asiatic block is in the ascendancy -- always remember that both Negro and White are minority groups -- the largest race is the Mongoloid group.



If after having been exposed to someone's presence you feel as if you've lost a quart of plasma, avoid that presence. You need it like you need pernicious anemia.


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