By Peter Schjeldahl from the New Yorker Feb. 3, 2014
“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves.” So starts “Naked Lunch,” the touchstone novel by William S. Burroughs. That hardboiled riff, spoken by a junkie on the run, introduces a mélange of “episodes, misfortunes, and adventures,” which, the author said, have “no real plot, no beginning, no end.” It is worth recalling on the occasion of “Call Me Burroughs” (Twelve), a biography by Barry Miles, an English author of books on popular culture, including several on the Beats. “I can feel the heat” sounded a new, jolting note in American letters, like Allen Ginsberg’s “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” or, for that matter, like T. S. Eliot’s “April is the cruellest month.” (Ginsberg was a close friend; Eliot hailed from Burroughs’s home town of St. Louis and his poetry influenced Burroughs’s style.) In Burroughs’s case, that note was the voice of an outlaw revelling in wickedness. It bragged of occult power: “I can feel,” rather than “I feel.” He always wrote in tones of spooky authority—a comic effect, given that most of his characters are, in addition to being gaudily depraved, more or less conspicuously insane.
“All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger observed in pondering the nature of creative work. Mark Twain put it much less mildly in his lively letter of solidarity to Helen Keller: “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them.” Indeed, there is compelling evidence that we as a culture are allergic to originality
But count on Jack Kerouac to offer a provocative counterpoint in a 1962 essay for Writer’s Digest titled “Are Writers Made or Born?
Kerouac begins with bombast:
Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.
He turns to the word “genius” itself — the history of which has a played a powerful role in shaping creative culture — and examines its meaning:
[Genius] doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive “talent.” It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby-Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare. Nobody but Whitman could have written Leaves of Grass; Whitman was born to write Leaves of Grass and Melville was born to write Moby-Dick.
He was a driven, hell-raising attorney who was involved in high-profile civil rights cases in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early ’70s and inspired the character of Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson’s surreal book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Acosta eventually gave up law and wrote two semiautobiographical books, and then disappeared like a puff of smoke off the coast of Mazatlan, Mexico, in the spring of 1974. But not before leaving an indelible mark on the pages of L.A. political history and Chicano literature.
His disappearance took place three years after the notorious drug-enhanced trip to Las Vegas that is the subject of Thompson’s book and the current Terry Gilliam movie starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro.
But the book completely obscured Acosta’s background and the film only hints at his real story. The legend of Oscar “Zeta” Acosta–a compelling figure in Chicano history–remains in the shadows.