Which Is the Fly and Which Is the Human?
(Interview with William Burroughs and David Cronenberg, reprinted from Esquire, February 1992, pp 112-116.)
by Lynn Snowden
Deep in Kansas, darkly dressed, William S. Burroughs, a man who shot his wife in the head and waged war against a lifetime of guilt, who has sucked up every drug imaginable and survived, and who has made a fine career out of depravity, can't on this particular afternoon take another moment of a simple midwestern housefly buzzing around his head. "I can't stand flies," grumbles the seventy-seven-year-old author in that distinctively sepulchral voice, which retains a vestige of his St. Louis roots despite his many years on another planet. The fly swoops down onto Burroughs' plate of cookies. "Terrible," Burroughs exclaims, exasperated, attempting to backhand the fly into oblivion.
"William, that's my pet fly!" cries David Cronenberg, a man who may love insects but not necessarily people, the director who is perhaps best known for turning Jeff Goldblum from scientist into bug in the 1986 remake of The Fly.
"Now, Julius, I told you not to bother people," Cronenberg commands the fly. "Not everyone likes flies."
Not everyone likes giant meat-eating Brazilian aquatic centipedes either, but they're featured prominently in Cronenberg's current film of Burroughs's chilling masterpiece of a novel, Naked Lunch. Now that the movie is in the can and Burroughs is out of the hospital after having undergone triple-bypass heart surgery, Cronenberg has showed up in Lawrence, Kansas, Burroughs's hometown of the last ten years, to pay his respects to the laconic sage. With two examples of evil incarnate wandering around town at the same time, Lawrence suddenly seems like a haven for drug-crazed refugees escaping the Interzone, the fictional horrorscape of Burroughs's Naked Lunch.
In the Interzone, we are told, "nothing is true, and everything is permitted." In Lawrence, however, not nearly so much is permitted, but if everything I've heard about William Burroughs and David Cronenberg is true, then the next couple of days will severely test my capacity for revulsion. Burroughs's books, for example, are phantasmagorias of buggered boys, bloody syringes, talking assholes, and vaginal teeth. The old gun-toting geezer himself has been referred to as "a green-skinned reptilian" by no less an authority on manhood than Robert Bly.
"Well, I don't think you'll find him to be that bad," said Cronenberg, the forty-eight-year-old Canadian director who has known Burroughs for seven years. Of course, this is David Cronenberg talking, the creator of such lyrical films as Scanners (exploding heads), Dead Ringers (gynecological horror), and Videodrome (sadomasochistic public-access TV), who last night giggled while telling me, "I would like it if you could say that I was the embodiment of absolute evil."
But with both Cronenberg and Burroughs in the same town, let alone the same room, and with so many disgusting, revolting visions between them, how's a woman to choose? No, perhaps it is better to simply enumerate their revulsions, because if William Burroughs and David Cronenberg are aghast at something, then the odds are the rest of us will be a little queasy, too.