Bill Burroughs: Nothing is True

bill burro et al fridge magnets

William S. Burroughs was born on this date in 1914. February is, evidently, The Month Dead People Dr. Omed Noticed Were Born Month. Consider this post one in the series. Burroughs has had some influence on me. My favorite book is actually his first, Junkie, a rather straightforward memoir noir. Reading one of his late books, Cities of the Red Night, I felt as if the words on the page were crawling up my arms, creeping into my eyeballs, secreting an evil slick of the pure black meat. That was one book I did not read to the end.

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

Burroughs famously made this much quoted statement (in Naked Lunch?) You can get it on a fridge magnet. As you can see in the image above, we have one. I see this as one half of the following postulate:

When nothing is true, everything is permitted.

When everything is true, nothing is permitted.

What do I mean by this two-bit conundrum? In any belief system, the more tenets that it has that are held without doubt to be true, the less freedom of thought and action the “true believer” has. The first implication here is that doubt is necessary to freedom. Many if not most religions aspire to be completely closed systems of belief, but there is always leakage; most human beings are incapable of the spiritual or intellectual rigor required to be absolutely faithful to their chosen creed, even if they think they are, and they should thank their god, whichever, for it. Those few who are capable of such rigorous fidelity I would classify as mentally ill—Like me, except I don’t believe in belief.

If you have a faith so absolute that it has an answer for every occasion, there are no questions and no decisions to make. A lot of people like having ready-made answers, would just as soon let someone else make the tough decisions and make up their minds for them, so they go along with whatever “floats their boats,” at least until their boat springs a leak. A lot more people like to make up their own minds, or, rather, like to think they are making up their own minds. In reality, they go to the 24 hour Godmarts, the Buddha, Bohdisattva, and Beyond big boxes, the Git’n’Guru convenience stores, or Jesus ‘R’ Us and buy whatever’s on display and on sale. Mix and match. Deep discount retail spirituality, whether brick-and-mortar or online, is their refuge, not the Lord.

Making up your mind is a long term endeavor and is not for weak hearts. This brings us to the other half of the postulate: If nothing is true and everything is permitted, everything is in question and everything has yet been decided. You have complete freedom. It’s not as easy as you would think. I have lived this life. Everyday asking myself questions like: Is life worth living? What meaning does my life have right now at this instant? Shall I walk out the door and leave everyone and everything in my life behind and begin anew? Shall I stay home and finish this poem, this painting, these drawings; or shall I shuffle off to work and keep my job? Shall I speak to people, or resolve never to speak to a human being again?

Once, I sat down in a chair, and sat there for thirteen hours, because I couldn’t think of a reason to get up. I realize that other people have such thoughts. I realize that some of this is linked to my bipolar disorder. But I think and have thought these thoughts many times each day, day after day, for decades.  No matter how many times I have asked myself a particular question, no matter how many times I have faced a decision, even a trivial decision, I have to make it anew each day. I have a bad case of the “Socratics,” you might say. I have developed a rudimentary internal autopilot over the years, but nothing like the cruise control other people seem to have. One thing you can say about living a thoughtless life, there’s a lot less wear and tear on the equipment. But the question is not whether an unexamined life is worth living, but, is an examined life worth living? Today, the answer is yes.

And yes, William S. Burroughs’ greatest influence on yours truly is a quote on a fridge magnet.


Exterminate all sense.

Happy Birthday, dead Bill. By the way, I love Peter Weller as Bill Lee in Cronenberg’s movie version of Naked Lunch:


2 responses to “Bill Burroughs: Nothing is True

  1. BIlly, Billy, we hardly knew ye.

  2. by the by, in re your magnificent chaos drawing of William B. with pistol,
    monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo indeed ? whether intended by
    artist or not. This is so much fun, like taking one’s child to see the fierce and wiley Id in its cage at the Henry Doorley. [ re “exterminate all sense”, It also occurred to me that knowledgeable viewers might conceive that the pistol relates to Burrough’s shooting of his wife in Mexico ? But then, why is
    the pistol pointed safely at the ceiling ? ]

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