William S. Burroughs and Tennessee Williams Talk Writing, Drugs, and Death in 1977
By Maria Popova
Tennessee Williams and William S. Burroughs had a great deal in common: Born within three years of each other, both grew up primarily in St. Louis, but didn’t meet until, in their late forties, they were introduced at a table in the Cafe de Paris in Tangiers; both revolutionized their respective fields of creative endeavor despite years of dismal commercial prospects and what Williams once described as “absolutely merciless ridicule”; both were queer men in an era when this meant secrecy and social disgrace; both were tragic testaments to the relationship between creativity and mental illness, confronting lifelong struggles with addiction and other anguishing malfunctions of mental health.
In May of 1977, as his play Vieux Carré was about to open on Broadway, Williams invited Burroughs, who had attended the preview two weeks earlier, to his spacious apartment at the Hotel Elyseé. Both men were in their late sixties. Originally published by The Village Voice and later included in the altogether fantastic volume Conversations with Tennessee Williams (public library), their convulsively candid conversation unfolded over two bottles of wine and sprawled across writing, drugs, and death.
Burroughs: When someone asks me to what extent my work is autobiographical, I say, “Every word is autobiographical, and every word is fiction.” Now what would your answer be to that question?
Williams: My answer is that every word is autobiographical and no word is autobiographical. You can’t do creative work and adhere to facts.
After contemplating the wistfulness of growing old (“That’s the sad thing about growing old, isn’t it — you learn that you are confronted with loneliness,” Williams laments), the paradox of youth (“If there weren’t age, there wouldn’t be any youth, remember,” Burroughs consoles), and the bias of autobiographical memory (“I’m ever satisfied to look back on youth,” Williams professes; “Writers don’t, as a rule,” Burroughs observes), the two veer into a strange and strangely satisfying discussion of drugs. Williams, who brings up the subject, tells Burroughs:
I’ve always wanted to go on opium. I did try it in Bangkok. I was traveling with a professor friend of mine, and he had been in the habit of occasionally dissolving a bit of it — you know, it comes in little long black sticks — dissolving it in the tea, and drinking it. And he was angry at me, or confused mentally, I don’t know which — and so I called him one morning, as he’d gotten me this long black stick of opium, and I said, “Paul, what do I do with it?” And he said, “Just put it in the tea.” So I put the whole stick in the tea. I nearly died of an OD, of course. I was puking green as your jacket, you know? And sicker than 10 dogs all that day. I called in a Siamese doctor. He said, “You should be dead.” I said, “I feel as though if I weren’t walking or stumbling about, I would be.” I’ve always said I wanted to write under the drug, you know, like Cocteau did — all of a sudden, my head seemed like a balloon and it seemed to go right up to the ceiling…
Williams then recounts more of his substance experiments:
I wrote [the film script One Arm] one summer while I was taking Dr. Max Jacobson’s shots. I did some of my best writing while taking those shots. I had incredible vitality under them. And I got way ahead of myself as a writer, you know? And into another dimension. I never enjoyed writing like that.
They proceed to exchange substance preferences:
Williams: You’ve never written on any kind of speed, have you Bill?
Burroughs: Well no, I’m not a speed man at all.
Williams: I’m a downer man.
Burroughs: I don’t like either one very much.
Williams: Speed is wonderful, while I was young enough to take it; but you don’t like either one, now? You don’t need any kind of artificial stimulant?
Burroughs: Ummmm, well, you know … of course, cannabis in any form is —
Williams: Cannabis has the opposite effect on me. But I think Paul finds it very helpful — Paul Bowles. But I have tried it; nothing. Just stonewalled me.
Riffing off an oft-quoted line from one of his stories — “All art is an indiscretion, all life is a scandal.” — Williams steers the conversation, tongue-in-cheek, toward writing:
I hate politesse, don’t you, Bill? I don’t like people who play it too close to the vest — especially when there isn’t too much of it left. I intend to enjoy what little there is. We’re having a very literary discussion, aren’t we? [hearty laugh] I avoid talking about writing.
There’s something very private about writing, don’t you think? Somehow it’s better, talking about one’s most intimate sexual practices — you know — than talking about writing. And yet it’s what I think we writers, we live for: writing. It’s what we live for, and yet we can’t discuss it with any freedom. It’s very sad…
Williams returns to the subject of drugs, this time with full facetiousness, and shares “a poem about a junky,” written during one of his bouts of severe depression. It was inspired by “the mistress of a famous man,” who left the woman and she died from substance abuse.
I met an apparition, and so did she.
She was as lovely as ever and even more fragile than ever and her eyes
I found myself able to think and speak a little.
“What have you been doing lately?”
Indifferently she said: “When you take pills around the clock
what you do is try to get money and pay the drugstore.”
Williams, his mind no doubt on Burroughs’s extensive autobiographical writings about the heroin addiction of his youth, adds:
I think it’s most remarkable that you avoided any commitment to drugs, you know? Except cannabis. And your’e strong enough to control it. I’m strong enough to control anything I take…
To hear such a classic addict’s statement from one of the most brilliant creators of the twentieth century is heartbreaking evidence that there is no outsmarting addiction. By that point, Williams had spent decades spiraling deeper and deeper into the pit of substance abuse.
And yet it is unsurprising that two men of such considerable talent and intelligence wouldn’t be able to discuss drugs as a purely recreational subject outside the bounds of larger considerations of morality. When Burroughs quotes the English occultist, poet, and novelist Aleister Crowley’s line, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” the conversation takes a turn for the philosophical:
Williams: Provided you want to do the right thing, yes.
Burroughs: Ah, but if you really want to do it, then it’s the right thing. That’s the point.
Williams: Isn’t that an amoralist point of view?
Burroughs: Completely … completely.
Williams: I don’t believe you’re an amoralist.
Burroughs: Oh yes.
Williams: You do believe it?
Burroughs: Well, I do what I can…
Williams: I don’t think it’s true.
Twenty years earlier, in another interview included in the volume, Williams had addressed the question of moralism directly:
I have a distinct moralist attitude. I wouldn’t say message. I’m not polemical, but I have a distinct attitude toward good and evil in life and people. I think any of my plays examined closely will indicate what I regard as evil. I think I regard hypocrisy and mendacity as almost the cardinal sins. It seems they are the ones to which I am most hostile. I think that deliberate, conscienceless mendacity, the acceptance of falsehood and hypocrisy, is the most dangerous of all sins.
In this light, the final moments of Williams’s conversation with Burroughs twenty years later reverberate with even more poignancy:
Burroughs: We were both brought up in the Bible belt; but it’s obvious that what you want to do is, of course, eventually what you will do, anyway. Sooner or later.
Williams: I think we all die, sooner or later. I prefer to postpone the event.
Burroughs: Yes, there is that consideration.
Williams: I’m in no hurry. But one doesn’t choose it. I’ve always been terrified of death.
Burroughs: Well… why?
Williams: I’m not sure. I say that, and yet I’m not sure. How about you?
Burroughs: Well, as I say, I don’t know. Someone asked me about death, and I said, “How do you know you’re not dead already?”
Six years later, 71-year-old Williams was found dead in his hotel room, having choked on the bottle cap of his eye drops. The evidence strongly suggests that his lifelong drug and alcohol use had damaged his gag reflex, causing his death. This renders Conversations with Tennessee Williams, in which his creative genius and intellectual integrity blossom with breathtaking beauty, all the more bittersweet — and an immeasurably valuable reminder that life is woven of dualities and contradictions, that “everything exists at once with its opposite,” that the greatest struggle of the human experience is that of reconciling the life-giving parts of us with the deadly ones.
Published November 12, 2014