William S. Burroughs? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Pronouncements about the dichotomy of life and death are often somber, serious, and banal. However, William S. Burroughs, the postmodernist author of “Naked Lunch” and “Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict”, apparently crafted the following eccentric statement:
No one owns life, but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death.
Is this genuine? You are my last hope for finding a citation.
Quote Investigator: The Summer 1959 issue of the short-lived periodical “Big Table” printed an article titled “Anyone Who Can Pick Up a Frying Pan Owns Death” by Alan Ansen which discussed William S. Burroughs and his writings. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
A tall ectomorph—in Tangier the boys called him El Hombre Invisible—his persona constituted by a magic triad of fedora, glasses and raincoat rather than by a face, his first presence is that of a con man down on his luck. But that impression soon gives way to the feeling that, whatever his luck may be, yours has been very good. A cracker accent and use of jive talk fail to conceal incisive intelligence and a frightening seriousness. “No one owns life,” says Burroughs, “but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death.”
Ansen and Burroughs were friends, and QI believes that Ansen heard the quotation directly from Burroughs.
Burroughs seems to be suggesting that a frying pan may be used as an implement of murder; therefore, the wielder of the pan potentially “owns” death. Alternatively, cooking a dead creature in a frying pan may be considered a way in which one may “own” death.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1987 an article in the journal “Poetics Today” analyzed two novels by Burroughs and included an instance of the saying that employed a different phrasing: 2
Kim Carsons teaches his men to identify with Death (95), a populist god to whom all have ready access. Unlike Life, “Death belongs to anyone who can pick up a frying pan” (Burroughs File 19).
In 2001 the novelist and screenwriter Barry Gifford published a collection of essays titled “Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir”. He included a version of the saying: 3
“Anyone who holds a frying pan owns death,” wrote William Burroughs, a perfect epigram for this one.
In conclusion, William S. Burroughs can be credited with the remark in the 1959 citation.
(Great thanks to Marian T. Wirth whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
Update History: On September 22, 2021 two possible interpretations of the quotation were added.
- 1959 Summer, Big Table, Number 2, “Anyone Who Can Pick Up a Frying Pan Owns Death” by Alan Ansen, Start Page 32, Quote Page 37, Published quarterly by Big Table, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1987, Poetics Today, Volume 8, Number 3/4, Article: The Postmodern Anus: Parody and Utopia in Two Recent Novels by William Burroughs, Author: Wayne Pounds, Start Page 611, Quote Page 625, Published by Duke University Press. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 2001, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir by Barry Gifford (Revised expanded edition), Section: the Big Heat, Start Page 18, Quote Page 19, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Google Books Preview) link ↩