Beat heroes share their wisdom
‘Don’t Hide the Madness: William S. Burroughs in Conversation with Allen Ginsberg.\
Edited by Steven Taylor
Three Rooms Press, 341pp, $39.99 (HB)
by ROSS FITZGERALD
I met Allen Ginsberg in the early 1960s in the Indian holy city of Benares (now Varanasi). In the late 1970s I arranged for William S. Burroughs to teach creative writing at Griffith University in Brisbane, where I was based.
This idea lasted until a humourless bureaucrat freaked out after reading one of Burroughs’s books — probably ‘Naked Lunch’ or ‘Junk’ — and cancelled the invitation.
So we will never know how Burroughs would have been received in Queensland during the authoritarian, anti-intellectual regime of Johannes Bjelke-Petersen.
‘Don’t Hide the Madness’, edited by Steven Taylor, comprises a three-day conversation between two icons of the beat movement, recorded in March 1992. Most of this intriguing material has not previously been published.
In this brilliantly evocative book, these radical, innovative American writers discuss their seminal literary influences, interspersed with their intimate personal, sexual, psychiatric and spiritual histories. The free-flowing 18 hours of conversation coincided with what Taylor describes as “the shamanic exorcism of the demon Burroughs believed had caused him to fatally shoot his common law wife, Joan Vollmer Burroughs, in 1951’’.
This was the event Burroughs believed had for years driven his work as a writer. The exorcist who removed his “Ugly Spirit” was a Navajo shaman, Melvin Betsellie. Ginsberg’s account of the ceremony, in which he participated, is an illuminating feature of this book.
As Taylor points out, a peculiar kind of extended family has built itself around these hugely experimental writers, whose literary careers lasted for five decades. In the spirit of depicting the written and spoken word as a virus or contagion, in relation to the collected work of Ginsberg and Burroughs we are, as Taylor teasingly puts it, “all in the same pool”.
As well as mere readers and listeners, including those like myself who could perform Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ without missing a line, this involved, and still involves, a long list of “elders, peers, partners, apprentices, proteges, companions, secretaries, agents, scholars, collaborators and publishers”.
As such, the intimate conversations and revelations of these once controversial literary and artistic giants, transcribed so effectively by Taylor, mean this book is of considerable interest to a wide range of specialist and general readers.
Unsurprisingly, both Burroughs and Ginsberg are hugely admiring of the life and work of William Blake. They are also unstinting in their praise of ‘Journey to the End of the Night’ by controversial French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine.
A number of fine black-and-white photographs, taken by Ginsberg, illustrate ‘Don’t Hide the Madness’. Interspersed throughout the book, these photos usefully illustrate Burroughs’s daily activities, including him carefully examining weapons at a gun shop in Kansas.
A highlight is a photo of Burroughs intently observing himself in front of a full-length mirror, taken by Ginsberg on July 19, 1992. It is reproduced so that both writers appear in the same striking image.
This dual portrait was taken less than five years before Ginsberg died of liver cancer, aged 70, on April 5, 1997, in New York City. A few months later, the chain-smoking Burroughs died of a heart attack on August 2, 1997, aged 83, in Lawrence, Kansas.
Perhaps the most poignant portrait is a photo taken in Kansas. In it, the two old writers sit together at the end of an unmade single bed, holding Burroughs’s much-adored cat Ruski, who features prominently in this book. As Burroughs is recorded as saying to his shaman: “I hope you will bless him cause he’s the special cat … a mutual friend. I like animals more than people. Very … ” Then his voice trails off.
This book is a fascinating record of artistic and creative activity. As Bill Morgan, author of a recent literary history of the beats, ‘The Best Minds of My Generation’, aptly puts it, ‘Don’t Hide the Madness’ is “just like pulling up your chair and eavesdropping on genius at work”.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 40 books.
The Weekend Australian, April 6-7, 2019, Books, p 22.