William S. Burroughs Reads His Sarcastic “Thanksgiving Prayer” in a 1988 Film By Gus Van Sant

Hav­ing moved to Korea a cou­ple weeks ago, I won’t have the chance to par­take this year in the beloved insti­tu­tion of Amer­i­can cul­ture known as Thanks­giv­ing. (Korea has its own Thanks­giv­ing, but it hap­pened two months ago.) Maybe you live in the Unit­ed States and thus almost cer­tain­ly have a Thanks­giv­ing din­ner of some kind, big or small, com­ing soon. Or maybe you, like me, live else­where in the world, and thus in a place with­out the same tra­di­tion. Either way, you can sure­ly par­take this Thanks­giv­ing in the beloved insti­tu­tion of Amer­i­can cul­ture known as the work of William S. Bur­roughs.

Here we have a short film of Bur­roughs, best known as the author of a body of con­tro­ver­sial and exper­i­men­tal lit­er­a­ture, includ­ing books like Junky and Naked Lunch, shot by Gus Van Sant, best known as the direc­tor of films like Good Will Hunt­ingMy Own Pri­vate Ida­ho, and Drug­store Cow­boy, the last of which includes a mem­o­rable appear­ance by Bur­roughs him­self.

It cap­tures Bur­roughs read­ing his poem “Thanks­giv­ing Day, Nov. 28, 1986,” also known as his “Thanks­giv­ing Prayer.” Van Sant shot it two Thanks­giv­ings after that one, in 1988, the year before Drug­store Cow­boy (and six years after adapt­ing Bur­rough’s sto­ry “The Dis­ci­pline of D.E.” into an ear­ly short film).

Bur­roughs, a life­long crit­ic of Amer­i­ca, fills his prayer with bit­ter­ly sar­cas­tic “thanks” for things like “a con­ti­nent to despoil and poi­son,” “Indi­ans to pro­vide a mod­icum of chal­lenge and dan­ger,” “the KKK,” and “Pro­hi­bi­tion and the war against drugs” (about which his char­ac­ter in Drug­store Cow­boy had some par­tic­u­lar­ly choice words). He ends by express­ing iron­ic, Great Gats­by-quot­ing grat­i­tude for “the last and great­est betray­al of the last and great­est of human dreams.”

Like him — like most every­body — I have my own, if less deep-seat­ed, frus­tra­tions with our home­land, and per­haps in leav­ing I sub­con­scious­ly emu­lat­ed his stretch­es of expa­tri­atism in Mex­i­co, Eng­land, France, and Moroc­co. But I sin­cere­ly doubt that I’ve had my last Thanks­giv­ing on U.S. soil; for all its fail­ings, Amer­i­ca remains too inter­est­ing to stay away from entire­ly. After all, what oth­er coun­try could pos­si­bly pro­duce a writer, a per­son­al­i­ty, or a crit­ic like William S. Bur­roughs?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Mak­ing of Drug­store Cow­boy, Gus Van Sant’s First Major Film (1989)

William S. Bur­roughs Teach­es a Free Course on Cre­ative Read­ing and Writ­ing (1979)

The Dis­ci­pline of D.E.: Gus Van Sant Adapts a Sto­ry by William S. Bur­roughs

William S. Bur­roughs Reads His First Nov­el, Junky

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (6)
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  • John Howe says:

    I knew Bur­roughs slight­ly. He’s a lit­er­ary hero of mine.

    It’s good to hear the old boy’s voice, but the record­ing has so many (and such long) paus­es that it’s a bit tire­some to lis­ten to.

    One did­n’t have to be queer to have friend­ly rela­tions with old Bill. It might have helped of course, but it was­n’t essen­tial.

    Thanks for the mem­o­ry…

  • John Howe says:

    See above.

  • John Howe says:

    I saw Bur­roughs less after he became acquaint­ed with Ian Som­merville and lived in Cam­bridge for a while. He pro­nounced the name Ian as ‘iron’, with the R sup­pressed as in ‘received Eng­lish’.

    Bur­roughs was a kind­ly man in a way that could sur­prise those who knew only his writ­ings which are grit­ty to say the least.

    He has been described as ‘touched by genius’. Dun­no about that, but he was huge­ly intel­li­gent and learned in a com­plete­ly f***-you sort of way, and a most amus­ing com­pan­ion when in the mood (after a few tokes).

    I tried junk a cou­ple of times and even inject­ed it, but it did­n’t suit me. I’d rather be enhanced than shut down and took care to steer very wide of a habit.

  • Muhammed Hussen says:

    Win win .…..

  • Alejandra Hilario Villalva. says:

    ser par­ticipe de todo conocimien­to de la cin­e­matografía.

  • Hobum Chun says:

    Here is a big fan of Openculture.com liv­ing in S.Korea. I’m glad to learn you’ve moved to Korea. I’d be glad to help you regard­ing some liv­ing tips for liv­ing in S.Korea. My email address is above. Enjoy liv­ing in S.Korea!

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