The interview clip above, from the 1991 documentary Commissioner of Sewers, puts a two-part question to Naked Lunch author, “cut-up writing” master, and counterculture eminence William S. Burroughs: “What is the original feel of the writer? What mechanisms should he consider, work on?” That may sound like a slightly odd line of inquiry — the interviewer, bear in mind, doesn’t speak English natively — but Burroughs responds with an important point, clearly made. “The word should should never arise,” he first insists, though perhaps self-contradictorily. “There is no such concept as should in regard to art — or anything — unless you specify. If you’re trying to build a bridge, then you can say we should do this and we should do that, with respect to getting a bridge built, but it doesn’t float in a vacuum.” All well and good for engineering. But what can art do, if not build a bridge?
“One very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know and what they don’t know that they know,” Burroughs says. “This applies to all creative thinking. For example, people on the sea coast in the middle ages knew the Earth was round. They believed the Earth was flat because the church said so. Galileo tells them the Earth was round, and nearly was burned at the stake for saying so.” Burroughs summons as examples Cézanne, whose studies of what “objects look like seen from a certain angle and in a certain light” at first made viewers think “he’d thrown paint on canvas,” and Joyce, who “made people aware of their stream of consciousness, at least on a verbal level,” but “was first accused of being unintelligible.” Yet Burroughs found he lived in a world where, this art already having expanded humanity’s consciousness, “no child would have any difficulty in seeing a Cézanne” and few “would have any difficulty with Ulysses. The artist, then, expands awareness. Once the breakthrough is made, this becomes part of the general awareness.” Such insight makes Burroughs, as one Youtube commenter puts it, “so down-to-earth that he’s far-out.”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.