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BOOK REVIEW: Don’t Hide the Madness – William S. Burroughs in Conversation with Allen Ginsberg edited by Steven Taylor

| 29 June 2020 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Don’t Hide the Madness – William S. Burroughs in Conversation with Allen Ginsberg edited by Steven Taylor

Three Rooms Press
January 2019
Hardcover, $39.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Biographies & True Stories

60% Rocking

Don’t Hide the Madness is a book that seems promising. Two founders of the Beat movement, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs are interviewed, unencumbered by time and topics. Yet the result sees the occasional flashes of wisdom diluted by long-winded bouts of minutiae and topics that are lost on all but the most ardent of readers.

Allen Ginsberg’s visit of March 1992 to the home of William S. Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas came at a crucial time for William. Now in his late seventies, Burroughs had made a career as a writer for four decades since the event that he believed set him on his path as a writer: his fatal shooting of his common-law wife Joan Vollmer Burroughs in Mexico City on September 6, 1951. William came to believe that he was possessed by what his collaborator Brion Gysin called “the Ugly Spirit.”

The interview was set up in 1992 when David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch was about to release in the UK. Ginsberg and Burroughs were lifelong friends. The former was to travel to Kansas to interview the latter for input into a profile piece. They would record some 16 hours of talk. This is transcribed and edited by Steven Taylor, a poet and former employee of Ginsberg’s.

AG: You got any [marijuana] left there?

WSB: Oh yeah, take the rest of it. I’ve got more…there’s plenty more.

AG: What do you mean I don’t smoke? I’m an old hippie [laughs]. I don’t smoke that much though.

WSB: I do. I smoke quite a bit. It gives me a map of time. It helps me in every way. It helps me to see things, you know.

The prospect of such intimate access to these legendary writers is thrilling, if not a tad voyeuristic. Here you are getting views about all sorts of topics in a way that is completely unscripted and off-the-cuff. The pair are very relaxed and conversational. At times the talk is not particularly revelatory, especially the long bursts where Burroughs describes his beloved cats.

WSB: You wonder what sort of feeling, what sort of love is coming from this cat. Look at that, look at the way he loves me….Oh my cat…My Spooner….Oh how I love you love you love you love you. Mm. It’s alright, it’s alright, Spooner, it’s alright, Spooner. He’s a little nervous, he’s a nervous cat.

AG: That’s ‘cause I’m moving around a lot.

WSB: No, the cat has always been a little nervous like that. I don’t know what. He was a full-grown cat when he first came here. Well, not…a year old perhaps. And he’s been here for about two years.

A series of black and white photographs by Ginsberg pepper this primary text. Some of these seem more telling than the actual prose. This is especially true in the case where Burroughs is photographed with his shaman, Melvin Betsellie. The latter visited the house to perform an exorcism for Burroughs because the author believed he was possessed by an ugly spirit. He also believed that this same force helped kick-start his writing career.

AG: I’ve talked my way in and out and around in circles and I know that it isn’t efficacious.

WSB: Father Connor said never let him get you into an argument, never argue, he’ll beat you every time.

AG: Is that the voice of the good man or Satan saying that [laughs]?

WSB: It’s the voice of the exorcist, trying to get the bad spirit Satan out of somebody, that’s all. The voice of the therapist. It certainly is not the voice of Satan, who will argue and argue and argue and argue and argue, round and round and round and round and round in circles. You never get anywhere in so far as moving anything, or changing anything. The point of an argument is to keep something in place. Never to move it or to change it.

There is no doubt that Burroughs and Ginsberg are men of letters. They are clever guys, even if this exchange is quite sprawling and free-flowing. This raw collection of text is missing an index and this would have made things easier for readers to navigate. As it stands, this is structured around chapters based around the eleven cassette tape recordings.

WSB: Yes, but I never would have thought of that. That is, the importance, the symbolic importance of the actual instrument with which you write, the typewriter. Never occurred to me.

AG: Well, it’s already…however it’s an extension of the idea that you had that the writer writes the future or writes reality or writes what is going to happen.

WSB: Yes.

AG: And in that sense, the typewriter ‘tells the future’ so to speak. The typewriter tells… or the imagination tells the writer what to write.

Don’t Hide the Madness offers a few surprises but it is really designed for completest Beat fans or die-hard aficionados. The inclusion of large swathes of unedited text provide a fishing expedition for fans to discover the real buried gems. It is obvious from this text that Burroughs and Ginsberg were firm friends but perhaps this is where the material should have stayed. In short, this detailed volume sometimes misses the beat and originality of its legendary contributors.

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Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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