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Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Thanksgiving Prayer by William Burroughs

William Burroughs gives thanks. Director Gus Van Sant helps out.

For John Dillinger
In hope he is still alive
Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1986

Thanks for the wild turkey and the Passenger Pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts

thanks for a Continent to despoil and poison —

thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger —

thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin, leaving the carcass to rot —

thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes —

thanks for the AMERICAN DREAM to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through —

thanks for the KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen feeling their notches, for decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces —

thanks for "Kill a Queer for Christ" stickers —

thanks for laboratory AIDS —

thanks for Prohibition and the War Against Drugs —

thanks for a country where nobody is allowed to mind his own business —

thanks for a nation of finks — yes, thanks for all the memories... all right, let's see your arms... you always were a headache and you always were a bore —

thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.


yvonne said...

Happy holiday, Dale. Thanks for your blog.

Athena Andreadis said...

I agree with the rest but laboratory AIDS? Not. A pernicious, dangerous myth.

Dale Carrico said...

Yes, of course, I have hesitated many times to quote this wonderful poem because of that single line, my worries about what it means to approve a poem with that line in it -- but to me the important truth he is getting at in the poem isn't located at the level of any of the individual assertions (even the many individual assertions with which I happen to agree that they speak the literal truth), but in the cohort. Taken together with the rest, I hear in the bitter paranoid reference to "laboratory AIDS" a history that contains the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, involuntarily sterilization of Native American and African American women without their knowledge or consent, as well as the deaf, the blind, epileptics, the "retarded," involuntary lobotomies for the suicidal, for "perverts" and "promiscuous" women, smallpox infected blankets distributed among Native Americans, and so on (every single instance among which has its truths and hyperbolies in tow, after all). The power of the poem, and the truth it connects us to, does not derive from our agreement with any of its lines or our disagreement with any of them, finally, but with the way it tells truth against the grain of what passes as truth. If we comfortably agreed with every line and approved the poem as a consequence of that agreement we would be doing a great violence to the actual truth available in it, I think, degrading it into a tedious zealous bumper sticker that costs us nothing to affirm and hence is worth nothing even to those who affirm it since it is threatening to nobody. You know what I mean?

Athena Andreadis said...

Your point about the cohort is well taken.

However, as illustrated by the numerous examples that you list yourself, Burroughs could have scored a far more potent hit if that line said something like "thanks for the involuntary sterilizations and lobotomies performed on those who by not fitting were called unfit". It would have the added virtues of being literal truth and of subsuming the horrors that the medical profession visited on all Others, not just gay men.

Agreeing morally with something does not include not calling it out for inaccuracies that may blunt or weaken its moral force.

Dale Carrico said...

I don't think Burroughs thought the statement was untrue himself, although he was fond of saying provocative things that were so bad they had a certain ring of truth which does express a kind of truth even if the vehicle through which the truth is expressed is strictly speaking untrue -- as I, like you, most certainly and uncontroversially think it is untrue to claim the AIDS pandemic to have originated in a deliberate laboratory conspiracy of some kind. But, again, I do think that neither would Burroughs propose that the potency of the truth telling in the piece derives from the strict accuracy or inaccuracy of any of the statements individually. After all it is the ironical "thanks" that is repeated each line, while the various assertions that follow have very different forms and flavors (it's different to express ironical gratitude to Indians "to provide a modicum of challenge and danger" and ironical gratitude to "Kill a Queer for Christ" stickers, one inhabits these atrocities differently because they are differently embedded in American history). Notice that it is only Van Sant's imagery in the background that alerts us to the fact that it is the relinquishment of a real space program to which Burroughs refers as the "last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams," a theme that recurs in many of his writings. One needs to take up the whole to take in the poisoned apple of Burroughsian knowledge here. I'm not sure why the reference to AIDS would seem to suggest Burroughs is focused on the quandaries of gay men in particular, since elsewhere in the poem he has already demonstrated he is plenty enraged at other violations of human beings (not that I can say I am particularly thrilled with what looks to me like the yuckiest imaginable misogyny in Burroughs's writing, which I can't forgive him for, but neither do I confine my appreciations to those with whom I am in comfortable agreement, else I can't say that I would like much of anything, after all), but also since even by 1986 everybody with a brain knew that AIDS was not a gay man's disease if one assumed a planetary vantage on the pandemic. Of course, every single second we were to spend tit-for-tatting along these lines would draw us moment by moment, line by line, further and further from the actual force and life and substance and provocation and actual truth in it, domesticating it into a vehicle for truths better delineated in public health pamphlets and political speeches, quite the furthest imaginable space from one Burroughs would want to be seen in. I think the chief moral force that one derives from Burroughs is a sharpening of our skepticism toward authorities, a heightened awareness of the value of tolerant relaxation, and -- for those who are willing to pay the price of the ticket -- an invitation to the magical universe in which every association is capable of being woven through our biographical narrative into an altogether different salience than is usual, often in a way that yields unutterable beauties but more often than not just renders one an incomprehensible paranoid bore (Burroughs corpus provides ample occasion to observe both outcomes).