THE WHISTLE OF THE KNIFE-SHARPENER BY WILLIAM BURROUGHS Gabriel Blackwell
William S. Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914, heir to the Burroughs adding machine fortune. He lived in Mexico City, Berlin, Paris, London, New York, Tangiers, Lawrence, KS, and St. Louis.
We—who are we? I was born in 1914 to a large fortune; my wife could not have said the same—we were down in Mexico as a result of an untimely conviction in the state of Louisiana. My wife began drinking quite heavily. She had found herself without her beloved Benzedrine inhalers, endowed with excellent parts, a husband, and two young children, and bored, bored. Inclined by nature to industry, she’d put away a quart of tequila a day, just slugging it down; fond of the 'all day,' you know? Never showed the least respect for the wise and the good. Nor, for that matter, any sign of being drunk.
As might have been supposed with such honorable and distinguished company, I had always to carry a gun. I knew something awful was going to happen. Desperadoes under every overhang, and the Doctor waiting.
I have always been able to look upon myself as though another person entirely, one of whom I naturally disapprove. I can picture myself as clearly as though photographed—on my way to get some money, some junk. There I was, impatient of gaiety as a child, tears streaming down my face. I found this picture hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high. You see, I’ve always felt myself to be more than commonly grave, even though controlled by this completely public, malevolent force. A junkie’s skin crawls because it’s trying to shed itself. The Doctor describes it as the concealment of pleasures; the Ugly Spirit; Doctor Benway, the man I was to see upon returning to the city from that ill-fated trip south. The yage cure.
I had just then had a sudden glimpse of the Doctor in a shaded corner of the dusty plaza, the convulsing column of his spine above a trampled peasant child. The child’s guardian, of indeterminate sex and with a face obliterated by disease, looked on. The Doctor did not slow. I stopped there in the shadow, my face just then a kind of coat of arms; a cross-eyed goat and jellied spunk on a field of pock-marks. I was committed, I knew, to a profound duplicity of life. The Ugly Spirit, the irregularities I was guilty of, had taken over, and the high views that I had set before me were lying mangled and sputtering in the chest of the crushed child behind me. I could not stay here.
Why not say it? I was well-armed. The knife I’d bought in Ecuador (the exacting nature of my aspirations—at least, aspirations on the face of them—had led Doctor Benway to order an even deeper trench dug: a quest in search of a brimful of yage, the hallucinogenic compound also known as ayahuasca. Yage, prevalent in the native cultures of South America and those provinces of good and ill which divide,revealed mankind’s dual nature. “The root of religion and the springs of distress are brewed and then imbibed; violent vomiting and diarrhea results, a double-dealer, vivid and intense hallucinations. Both sides dead.” Or so the Doctor said. I was to lay aside restraint. I was to be no more myself. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful and returned empty-handed, except for this knife); the knife, then; my everyday pistol, a .32, which Joan had not been able to get away from me this day; the duffel bag of guns.
A short, faceless man ground his sandal into the flagstone, dismounted from his bike, and choked down his whistle. He was missing three fingers, and had a machete peeking out of his dust-colored trousers, tied tight to his right calf, drawing blood cut off by the cord, some sort of splint. I looked up at the apartment where we were all meeting. One half of the plaza was in darkness, the other uncomfortably bright. Is this what the everyday was? The moral and the intellectual, steadily drawing nearer to the truth? The light hurt my eyes. The sharpener spat and the saliva sizzled, boiling on the pavement, black with some sort of metal ash. The man was half-mineral. I left my knife with him, of course.
I had advanced foolishly in one direction and in one direction only, in order to relieve the depression; I was out of junk. The guns would buy time, if not relief. I had learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man in the snuffling and shit; Panama was no Lexington—everywhere south was dry, not a gram to be found. Others will follow, though; others will spend all they have, hazard desperation. The Doctor is always in.
The members of my perennial war on the intelligence were already there, waiting: Lewis, who had peeled away immediately after we hit town; his friend Healy—it was Healy’s apartment; Eddie Woods, doomed to a dreadful shipwreck, I never knew why he was there; Herrmann, that rascal, his fingers still smelling of my wife; and Doctor Benway, always present. The buyer—Utterson—was not. I started tossing down the drinks. Then I said to Joan: “It’s about time for our William Tell act.” Or did I? Of two natures—if I could be rightly said to be either, it was only because I was radically both—of two minds about this utterance: never said, never said, and: naked, shameful as a first date with a closet queen. If only each, waking and dream, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable. She put a glass on her head. I brought out this piece of .380 junk, not even for sale. It would have brought only disgrace and penitence. The Doctor finally spoke up: “The just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure. The unjust would be delivered, might go his own way separate from his more upright twin.” No one ever seemed to know what he was saying but me. I fired the shot. She slid towards the floor. The glass hadn’t been touched.
The ambulance came. The police came. These incongruous fagots were thus bound together in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins, continuously struggling. Joan to the hospital, the Doctor and I to the jail. I was so far in my reflections when my lawyer walked in. He said, “Don’t say anything, Bill. Had you done the William Tell thing before?” Evidently, word had gotten out. Had I repeated it out loud, this thing I had never said to begin with? Joan, at least, would never tell.
It had seemed to me in my time there that everyone in Mexico had mastered the art of minding his own business. These, then, were not Mexicans. Agents of the police were everywhere in the jailhouse: the syphilitic in the corner, missing half his face, his fleshy vestment considerably loosened and hanging off him like a cloak, drooling a slate poison from the hole where his profile should have been, had his good ear pricked up, even while asleep. Had he been imported from some recently liberated state? One could never tell. The turnkeys were always underfoot, pretending to be cleaning; the place was filthy. Police, on the other hand, were nowhere to be found in daylight hours.
The cell had the special chaos of a dream. Our cellmates changed with the light. At noon, the syphilitic was in the ascendant, but by five, he had shifted into an incredibly short peasant with proportionate limbs, jailed for disorderly conduct and too poor to buy his way out. He stayed always beneath the bottom bunk, in a space scarcely large enough for a dog. This midget was replaced at midnight by a third man, a foreigner in a sinister and gloomy outfit remarkably like the Doctor’s own, whose hands appeared to be twice the size of a normal man’s, though this could not be. Perhaps they were poorly made prosthetics, stuffed gloves, papier mâché, or some unnatural material. The Doctor sat silent and sullen on my bunk. He practiced his prescriptions on a roll of toilet paper; an excruciating experience: it often hid splinters. Occasionally, one could still read the headlines in it. I had to get it away from him.
No inmate knew any other inmate, and when one killed another (which happened often), it was usually his best friend. The Doctor watched me the closest. Anyone who felt like it carried a knife, and I heard of several occasions where drunken cops, shooting blindly into the cells, were themselves killed by keenly-aimed jailhouse daggers. As authority figures, the warders ranked with streetcar conductors. All officials were corrupt.
Somehow the guns made their way into the hands of Utterson, and his money made its way into mine. This was the time of Aléman, when the mordida was king, and a pyramid of bribes reached from the cop on the beat up to the Presidente. I purchased at once, from the most cringing turnkey, a large quantity of a particular substance which I knew, from the Doctor’s endless quoting of the per-capita murder rate, was the last ingredient required. I compounded the elements, watched them boil and smoke together in the basin, and when the ebullition had subsided, with a strong glow of courage, drank off the potion. Yage.
I was known as “El Hombre Invisible,” The Invisible Man. An addict has little regard for his image. Such disintegration of self-image, though, results in an indiscriminate image hunger. I could not see myself, and worried the others over it. There was only the Doctor whose eyes never left me. He whispered, “My discoveries were incomplete: the doom and burden of our life is bound forever on man’s shoulders, and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it but returns upon us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure. Enough, then.” His was the same as the lawyer’s advice, the same as the lower elements in my soul. But I had hesitated long before I put his theory into practice. I knew I risked death. Any drug that so potently controlled and shook the very fortress of identity might, by the least scruple of overdose or at the least inopportunity in the moment of exhibition, utterly blot out that immaterial tabernacle which I looked to it to change. The temptation was so singular and profound that it at last overcame the suggestions of alarm. “Quien sabe William Tell? Savez-vous William Tell?” My auditors were not present.
The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. But I was insulated; these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as out of a great sickness. When the cover is removed, everything spills out that has been held in check. There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, happier in body, subject to the emotional excesses of the child. A current of disordered sensual images ran like a mill-race through my fancy, a solution or dissolution of my bonds. My sex drive returned with full force. It was like sixty wet-dreams at once, an extremely unpleasant sensation, agaçant, as the French say, putting the teeth on edge, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul.
And the body. I found I could walk through skin and quitted my self. In fact, I was suddenly aware I had lost greatly in stature—eye-level to the strange, silent peasant. “Sabe William Tell?” Did silence indicate I spoke to a mirror?
I determined, flush as I was with hope and triumph, to venture as far as the End of the Self: a model for the Place of Dead Roads; a dead, meaningless conglomerate of tin-roofed houses under a continual downpour of rain. A shell was left: I had pulled out of myself, leaving prefabricated bungalows and rusting machinery behind. I stole through the corridors of my cellmates, a stranger in my own house. Their souls were dislodged; I would never know how or whether they had been replaced. Coming to the first light, I chanced a look out from eyes not my own—my first glimpse of the roll, Edward Hyde.
I heard later that the chemical companies decided to simply buy up the formula and extract yage in their American laboratories. The drug was soon synthesized, and is now a standard ingredient in many so-called breakfast cereals. A dangerous concession to the evil side of nature, less developed and less robust than the good it deposed, the country became a poisoned river. A nation of Edward Hydes, smaller and meaner than before, and wilder than could be imagined.
The night was far gone into the morning—the morning, black as it was, was nearly ripe for the conception of the day—the inmates were locked in, the Doctor rid of his unwelcome guest. I had it in my hands. I felt the evil of those words written broadly and plainly on my face, an evil such as might only have come from the late Doctor Benway. I was possessed even of the countenance of the other. An imprint of deformity and decay was laid upon me. And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the darkened reflection of the basin, the contents of which had left him an invalid for the remainder of his short life, it still seemed natural and human. This, too, was myself, livelier, more express and single than the imperfect and divided countenance I had been hitherto accustomed to call mine. I have observed that when I wore the semblance of the Doctor, I was hit by a feeling of universal desolation and loss; I could not look upon myself without visible misgiving of the flesh.
I lingered but a moment at this mirror; I got exactly the same feeling to an almost unbearable degree as I read his manuscript.
The event toward which I had prepared and drank the basin, suffered the pangs of dissolution and came to myself, was the death upon which the Doctor had begun discoursing in the roll, panicked by my sudden transformation. “The wife, by some known hand, the knowledge possession, strangled by this dead hand, waited to slip over this moment like the stranger’s gloves onto my neck.” I was looking for something, the smog of menace and evil that rose from this shit-stained scroll. Had I approached my discovery in a more noble spirit, had I risked the routines which set one’s teeth on edge because of the ugly menace just behind or to one side of them, all must have been otherwise, and from these agonies not death but birth. But I read myself unconscious, on the bunk at the end of this arm, welts appearing around the squeezing hand.
“The drug has no discriminating action; is neither diabolical nor divine. It but shakes the doors of the prison-house of the disposition, and like the Ugly Spirit, the hateful parasitic occupation within runs forth. The virtue slumbers; the evil, kept awake by ambition, is alert and swift to seize the occasion. Not to mention the neck. The movement is thus wholly toward the worse.” And then something in a different hand: “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!” I was screaming into my own ear, tears streaming down my face, pressing my own neck to suffocate.
This incoherency of calligraphy was more than unwelcome. “Raw peeled winds of hate and mischance blew the shot.” The shot! The other inmates howled, up and down the row. “Men have hired bravos to transact their crimes, while their own person and reputation sat under shelter. I was the first that ever did so for his pleasures. I was the first that could thus plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability, and in a moment, like a schoolboy, strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty. Think of it—I did not even exist!” This was in my own hand. A whistle from the street above distracted me from the manuscript. Whatever happened to the knife I never reclaimed? All I had now was the basin and this confession only I could read.
“You deplore the accumulation of cutups. One’s mind can’t cover it that way. You find it often makes going to the trouble quite as much sense as working with the knife. You leave out words and all these pieces of paper, and cut this down the middle here. Couldn’t you obtain the same effect by simply keeping so many chess moves in mind? No. You just couldn’t do it. The mental mechanisms of repression, training the audience to respond, are operating against you.”
The Doctor had disappeared. All that was left was the scroll of hieroglyphics, nearly run down to the last fold. I demanded a phone call. I called my own apartment: the line rang and rang. “Benway! Pick up! What is the end? ‘The shot that killed Joan?’ ‘Ugly Spirit shot Joan to be cause?’ It’s not enough. What is the point?”
Without an answer, I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event was like the trimming of a midnight lamp. Let me but escape, give me but a second or two to mix and swallow the draught that I have always standing ready, and the Doctor and I would pass away like the stain of breath upon a mirror; and there in our stead, a man who could afford to laugh at suspicion. Control. The death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader. The man known as William Burroughs, guilty of murder, would never have been released. Whatever he had done, I had no choice but to write my way out.