Sunday, March 1, 2009

William Burroughs and Korzybski

The eclectic mix of students likely to attend an Institute of General Semantics seminar given by Alfred Korzybski might include artists, businessmen, college professors, college students, engineers, doctors, housewives, lawyers, psychiatrists, salesmen, scientists, secretaries, writers, and an occasional mystic. In that regard, the 1939 August Intensive—which ran from August 25 to September 2 (the personal interviews continued until September 6)—had a typical group. However, a number of notable participants also made it one of the more remarkable groups in the history of Korzybski’s Institute seminars. (Not that the 'notable' participants necessarily seemed 'notable' at the time.)

One of these was twenty-five year old William Seward Burroughs II from Clayton, Missouri, grandson to the inventor of the Burroughs Adding Machine, who labeled himself as a “student” on his seminar registration form. One of the future creators of what became known as the Beat movement of mid-Twentieth Century American literature, he had graduated from Harvard in 1936 with an English degree. Since then he had studied anthropology and hoboed around America and Europe. He had already read Science and Sanity and noted on his registration form that he was interested in the “interrelations of language and cultures.” While in Chicago, he stayed at the Y.M.C.A. He had perfect attendance at the thirty-five hour seminar. I have not found any correspondence between the two men but Korzybski and his work undoubtedly had a significant impact on Burroughs. Many years later in 1974 at an interview he said that at the seminar he “…was very impressed by what [Korzybski] had to say. I still am. I think that everyone, everyone, particularly all students should read Korzybski. [It would] save them an awful lot of time.” (1)

For more information on William Burroughs, you might want to check out which some Burroughs fans have put together as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of his most well-known novel.

(1) William Burroughs. Press Conference at Berkeley Museum of Art, November 12, 1974. Internet Archive audio.


Ben said...

Cool connection! I may have heard about Burroughs connection to general semantics but did not know this much!

Boris Iko said...

Please see: Die nackte Theorie. Burroughs and Korzybski, PDF in German. Ther ist more than an relationship!!!