Athena: I agree with the rest but laboratory AIDS? Not. A pernicious, dangerous myth.
Me: 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: 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.
Me: I don't know that Burroughs thought the statement was untrue himself, although he definitely was fond of saying provocative things that were so bad they had a certain ring of truth whether they were true or not, and that in itself does express a kind of truth poetry is especially good at getting at, even if the vehicle through which the truth is expressed is strictly speaking untrue.
And I, like you, I hope it goes without saying, most certainly and uncontroversially do think it is untrue and deranging to claim as a factual matter that the AIDS pandemic 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 it have very different forms and flavors (it's different to express ironical gratitude to Native Americans for "provid[ing] a modicum of challenge and danger" and ironical gratitude toward "Kill a Queer for Christ" bumper-stickers, one inhabits these atrocities differently because they are differently embedded in American history, the force of the first is far trickier to get a handle on than the second one, the first one goes deeper into the viciousness at the heart of the American story and implicates us all more deeply too, in consequence, while it is a comparatively easy thing to condemn the idiotic bigotry and hypocrisy of the latter, which is not to diminish the damage it has done).
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 (although with many figurative associations that are far from the customary ones).
One needs to take up the whole to take in the poisoned apple of Burroughsian knowledge here.
I'm not sure why a 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 and educations to those with whom I am in comfortable agreement, else I can't say that I would like much or learn from 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 personally think the chief moral force that one derives from Burroughs, if moral force is the word for it, is a sharpening of our skepticism toward all constituted authorities, a heightened awareness of the value of tolerant relaxation and the cruelty and mischief of intolerance and unthinking rule-following, and, greatest of all -- at least for those who are willing to pay the price of the ticket -- an invitation to what he called the magical universe of artists in which every material 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 (and of course Burroughs's corpus provides ample occasion to observe both outcomes).
Do please feel free to add what you will here, any of you.