William S. Burroughs and the Dead-End Horror of the Centipede God



Wonder what he would think of the human centipede?


Must. Gouge. Out. Mind’s. Eye.

Thanks for this great consideration on how ideas can burrow in our brains.

1 Like

I wonder why he missed the obvious explanation. Burroughs thought centipedes are horrible because they’re horrible. This is no idee fixe, it’s just observation of the natural world. Have you ever seen those things?


Burroughs’s fiction is famously a genre unto itself—a literary mash-up of “routines” modeled on the wisecracking patter of petty criminals; Conradian accounts of colonial depravity; Kafkaesque visions of nightmare bureaucracies; block quotes from scientific literature, such as the lengthy excursus on centipede venom in The Western Lands; and, most obviously, genre gimcracks lifted from boys’ adventure tales and westerns and, above all, the hardboiled detective stories and pulp science fiction of the ‘20s and ‘30s: deadpan voiceovers, corrupt politicians, cops on the take, viruses from outer space, mutants, alien invaders.

You forgot to mention the thick vein of guilt that runs through everything he ever wrote. None of it makes any sense if the death of Joan Vollmer at his hands isn’t taken into account…he never got over it, it informed everything he did, and the memory of it, the senseless why of it, hounded him until his death. I’d even go so far as to say that if William S. Burroughs hadn’t shot his wife in the head, today hardly anyone would know who he was.

Five days before his death, he wrote,

A centipede can be seen as a test upon which Love, like St, Francis used to make, would shatter


Felicity, describing me to someone holding tickets I needed:

‘When you see someone who looks like the saddest man in the world, that’s him.’

How can a man who sees and feels be other than sad.

Everybody remembers the centipedes, the grey junkies, and the ectoplasmic viral freakshow. Hardly anyone remembers the saddest man in the world.


Unfortunately, that theory attracts the many species of qualia that nest in the damp crevices of theory of mind…

1 Like

The passage in question doesn’t address authorial psychology; it’s an on-the-fly analysis of the formal aspects of Burroughs’s fiction–the authorial voice, a synthesis, in Burroughs’s case, of the American vernacular, various American argots, and the narrative conventions and voiceover cliches of some quintessential American genres, with the odd nod to Graham Greene, among other Brits. I will say, though, that I’m not entirely convinced by Burroughs’s Ugly Spirit Theory of Creative Exorcism. It’s a little too self-serving. More to the point, too many of Burroughs’s themes and motifs are political, ideological, social-satirical; it’s hard to hear the echoes of that gunshot in Mexico City, all those years ago, in his Korzybski-ite theories of language, his ravings about Scientology, his fulminations about Control, his mordant takedowns of “Bible” Briggs, FDR’s stacked Supreme Court, Reagan, Southern lynch mobs, bible-banging homophobes, and the like.

1 Like

It probably has something to do with whatever hallucinations he had during withdrawl.

Certainly, if you’re gonna be all formal about it. >_> And there’s a point beyond which authorial psychology is little more than a particularly fuzzy form of hermeneutics (a point I’ve already cheerfully sailed right past). However! My sense - as an addict and occasional wrangler of self-defined “demons” - is that although the whole “I must write my way out!” shtick is just that, the intensity and recurrence of his various lifelong chemical derangements mark them as both wards against personal horror and fuel for the unique expression of his theories, ravings, fulminations and takedowns. The lack of a need for such heavy and continuous warding might well have reduced the availability of the fuel. So it’s not in the themes and motifs themselves that I hear the echoes, it’s in the peculiar fervor of their execution. Which is an admittedly personal interpretation, and perhaps too charitable…sometimes I think he was only a wretchedly depraved upper class narcissist, eternally slumming and on stage, other times, I think he might be all of that and something else. Hence the fascination…


That’s your high quality literary criticism right there, thank you!

Well said.

I completely agree. Of all Burroughs’ obsessions, the William Tell incident can be felt at times as an underlying drive for creation, not explicitly present or necessarily expressed in the final output.
And he was still thinking about it at the end of his life:

“ ‘Shoot the bitch and write a book! That’s what I did,’ William
Burroughs suddenly shouted, standing up fast.” […] This improbable outburst
occurred before astonished visitor George Laughead Jr. in March 1997,
just a few months before Burroughs died. “Did he just say what I think?”
Laughead reports whispering in his account of the meeting. In reply James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ longtime friend and amanuensis, commented: “It’s so out of character.”

Or as he apparently put it in 1981:

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to the realisation of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the ugly spirit, and manoeuvred me into a lifelong struggle in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.

This topic was automatically closed after 5 days. New replies are no longer allowed.