- The Local Rashomon
In 1978, Burroughs was asked to clarify his contention that "all past is fiction." Anticipating theorists such as Hayden White, Burroughs argues that "The past is largely a fabrication by the living. And history is simply a bundle of fabrication": much of the past is not recorded, and records can be fabricated or altered anyway, with the result that "there are no actual facts." He goes on to give an example of a story that was "a regular Rashomon ," but of course the idea is that all stories of the past are regular Rashomons. This is surely part of why Burroughs was able to see "every word" of his work as both autobiographical and fiction.
One particular biographical Rashomon worth revisiting takes as its subjects (and through numerous, competing lenses) two professional generators of ceaseless fabrications in debate about how much value to place in the fabrications of the professional fabrication-generators of their own past. One can already get a sense, in this tangled paragraph, of just how rapidly history gives way to bundles and tangled bundles of fabrications.
The best-known biographies of Samuel Beckett tell nothing of his meetings with William S. Burroughs, but these two brief occurrences are part of common (if not consistent in their views, or, fabrications) lore to Burroughs scholars. As Ted Morgan tells the story, the first meeting between the two authors occurred during a 1959 dinner, when
who should turn up but … Samuel Beckett, who sat across from Burroughs. The two masters of postmodernism sat stolidly facing each other, motionless and silent amid the deafening racket of a bossa nova band….
Finally, Beckett leaned forward and said, "What can you tell me, Mr. Burroughs, about this cut-up method of yours?"
After Burroughs explained the process, the conversation—according to Morgan—took a contentious turn:
Suddenly indignant, Beckett asked, "You're using other writers' words?"
"Words don't have brands on them the way cattle do," Burroughs said. "Ever heard of a word rustler?"
"You can't do that!" Beckett said. "You can't take my writing and mix it up with the newspapers."
"Well, I've done it," Burroughs said.
"That's not writing," Beckett snorted, "it's plumbing."
They continued their discussion, fueled by drink, until they went home. The propriety of using other writers' words in cut-ups was left unresolved.
Despite the narrative style (and tone and apparent omniscience) of this passage, this conversation was not recorded but recalled, then described by Burroughs and others, and then depicted by Morgan.
(And, of course, tape recordings can be fabricated anyway. As Burroughs [maybe!] said in his tape-recorded conversation about past-as-fiction:
This conversation is being recorded. Now suppose ten years from now you tamper with the recordings and change them around, after I was dead. Who could say that wasn't the actual recording? The past is something that can be changed, altered at your discretion.
[Beckett's Krapp might have something to say on this matter, too.]) Morgan, for his part, assures readers that Burroughs had "an unusually retentive memory."
At the time of their second meeting, more than fifteen years later, both Beckett and Burroughs seemed to recall the dinner. According to Burroughs, Beckett "remembered perfectly the occasion" when Burroughs mentioned it. As Morgan describes this second meeting, Burroughs went along with Allen Ginsberg, Susan Sontag, Fred Jordan, and John Calder to Beckett's temporary apartment, where Beckett "received" the group "cordially," but Burroughs "could see that [Beckett] had no genuine interest in any of them. He had decided to make pleasant conversation for twenty minutes and that was it. It was as if they had entered a hiatus of indifference." So uninterested was Beckett, apparently, that "as the afternoon turned into evening and his apartment got dark, he neglected to turn on any lights, and pretty soon everybody left."
Morgan and Burroughs paint a narrative of (or, bundle fabrications of) a Beckett who was essentially trying to will his guests out of the apartment: "Quite a signal, I think," said Burroughs of Beckett's inaction in the dark apartment. But the unusually retentive Burroughs...