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Wednesday 10 November 2010

Old Treachery? William S. Burroughs & the Provocation Defence

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 10th November 2009

As New Zealand approaches the final abolition of Section 169 of the Crimes Act ("provocation defence"), disturbing questions arise about the culpability of William S. Burroughs, late gay literary icon, in this context.

William S. Burroughs
In 1944, Burroughs and legendary later Beat poet Jack Kerouac were living in New York. Amongst their entourage of friends was one David Kammerer, in a platonic relationship with his 'lover', mentally ill Lucian Carr. The gist is that Carr seems to have possibly experienced an hallucinatory episode and stabbed Kammerer to death with a pocket knife. Afterward, he dumped Kammerer's body in the Hudson River and asked Burroughs and Kerouac for assistance.

What Burroughs did next will disturb contemporary gay sensibilities. Granted, Stonewall still lay twenty five years in his future, but Burroughs was gay himself. He counselled Carr to plead the 'homosexual panic defence' of 'provocation,' casting David Kammerer as a stereotyped 'predatory older male homosexual' after police discovered the body and Carr was brought to trial.

It "worked." Burroughs and Kerouac received light sentences for their assistance in concealing the crime and Carr only spent three years in a private psychiatric institution before his release, playing later roles in the Beat movement and as a journalist. As if that weren't enough, Burroughs and Kerouac then tried to cash in on the Kammerer homicide through providing pseudonymous disguises for Kammerer (Ramsey Allen) and Carr (Philip Tourian), while otherwise leaving the biographical detail intact. Fortunately, publishers wouldn't touch it and it remained in Burrough's personal effects until posthumous publication last year, as And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (2008).

Burroughs knew what would happen if Carr took his advice and argued the defence of 'provocation' in this context- it would mitigate Kammerer's homicide and perpetrate injustice against his memory. It would also fuel homophobic stereotypes in the corpus of case law related to that defence and contribute to other injustices. Nevertheless, he was directly responsible for his actions, knowing their implications and yet he gave the advice to Carr anyway. Therefore, Kammerer's homicide was treated relatively leniently and Carr escaped the full penalty of his crime. Burroughs lacked any empathy or solidarity with Kammerer as a victim of antigay homicide in this context.

Is it unfair to view past historical figures of merit through the prism of contemporary social movements? In my view, much depends on the variable of historical distance. For example, France's Marcel Jouhandeau was an active anti-Semite immediately before and during the Second World War, so his work rots in well-deserved oblivion now. William Burroughs' transgression is of similar historical vintage, however.

This event occurred more than sixty years ago. I am not denying that Burroughs is an iconic figure in modernist literature, nor that Naked Lunch, Queer, Junkie and Wild Boys are works of literary genius. But can that excuse what he did?

William S. Burroughs actively encouraged the use of the provocation defence to mitigate the consequences of another gay man's murder for his killer. Should we be so quick to claim Burroughs as 'one of us?' Or is it time for critical reassessment of his work?


William S. Burroughs and David Kerouac: And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks: New York: Grove: 2008.

Craig Young - 10th November 2009

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