William S. Burroughs Explains What Artists & Creative Thinkers Do for Humanity: From Galileo to Cézanne and James Joyce

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.”

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

When William S. Bur­roughs Joined Sci­en­tol­ogy (and His 1971 Book Denounc­ing It)

Com­mis­sion­er of Sew­ers: A 1991 Pro­file of Beat Writer William S. Bur­roughs

William S. Bur­roughs on the Art of Cut-up Writ­ing

William S. Bur­roughs’ Short Course on Cre­ative Read­ing

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 Ange­lesA Los Ange­les PrimerFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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