The quest of W S Burroughs

Photographers' Gallery, London
Photographers’ Gallery, London

In keeping with the flow of William Burroughs I have been in recently, I went to an exhibit of his photography here in London. A couple of things struck me in looking at the various photographs he took from the 1950’s to 70’s. One was the search for a new perception. The other was the completely accidental, and ultimately fruitless, nature of that search.

Burroughs’ photos were an extension of his writing in that he was looking to escape Control, entering into a new space and time. As he noted in the 1963  essay ‘The Photo Collage’, on display in the exhibit:

A Soviet scientist has said: “We will travel not only i[n] space in time as well.” — Perhaps, but certainly not with the baggage that most of us carry– body baggage — word baggage– memory baggage.

There were moments when he seemed to escape and touch something else- a different kind of energetic relationship. His Moka Bar photos, chronicling an audio visual campaign against a London coffee house that he felt were discourteous and served ‘poisonous cheesecake’, were a possible example of what he called ‘magick’, or the ability to sense and use the subtle energies that influence us constantly without our being aware of them.

In the end; however, he could not escape the baggage. His ‘Return to St. Louis’ photos showed that memory and the past continued to hold him. For all his guides and fellow travellers, he never found someone who could show him the path out, or maybe he did and did not recognise them. Despite all his searching and experimentation, he ends up not able to reach the Western Lands.

The old writer couldn’t write anymore because had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words. And then?…

In Tangier the Parade Bar is closed. Shadows are falling on the Mountain.

“Hurry up, please. It’s time.” [Burroughs, The Western Lands]

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