30 October 2015


Matthew Levi Stevens The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs. Mandrake, Oxford. 2015.

My first encounter with the written works of William S. Burroughs occurred in that wonderful heady 'Summer of Love' in 1967, when a school friend of mine, who might have been perceived as a 'bad influence', lent me a copy of the notorious novel Naked Lunch.
The book was at the time extremely controversial for both its content and use of obscene language. As an impressionable 15 year-old, at that time of new ideas and free thinking, I was curious to know what the fuss was all about.

And fuss there was, because my mother found the book in my bedroom and was appalled to think that her son was interested in such filth. She showed such concern for me that I was persuaded to return the book promptly to my friend, but not before I had found and read the more shocking passages and felt that curious mixture of excitement and guilt so common to teenage boys.

Naked Lunch is commonly considered to be Burroughs' seminal work and was certainly a landmark publication in the history of American literature. It was one of the more recent publications to have been involved in an obscenity trial. Having been banned in Boston in 1962, the book was the subject of an appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1966 which resulted in the ban being lifted. It was declared not to have violated obscenity statutes and that it had some social value, after the Court had heard testimony from Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and others in favour of the work. The American writer Terry Southern, who had met Burroughs in the literary community of Paris in the late 1950s, famously called Naked Lunch "an absolutely devastating ridicule of all that is false, primitive and vicious in current American life".

Without doubt it was a breakthrough piece of literature dealing with a variety of themes such as drug taking and addiction to heroin, sexual obsession and degradation, graphic descriptions of lustful homosexual acts, bizarre political plots, violence, cruelty, paranoia and medical experiments, all written in a non-linear style in which the action leapfrogs between the USA, Mexico, and Tangier. Burroughs himself said that the chapters could be read in any order, and there was indeed a randomness to how they were arranged. Although there is little in the way of plot, Burroughs' alter-ego, the criminal junkie William Lee and a motley crew of protagonists seek ever more extreme experiences, which reflect Burroughs' own youthful adventures and travels. Addiction itself, or the "algebra of need" as he called it, may be the underlying theme that runs through the novel, as it did through the whole of Burroughs' life until his death at the improbably advanced age of 83 in August 1997.

Ever since that teenage foray into the dark recesses of Burroughs' psyche I had tended to think of him as a sensationalist author rather than an intelligent one. It never occurred to me that he might have had a highly developed inner life nor that he had a keen interest in the occult mysteries and magic. Reading The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs has therefore been a revelation to me as well as a source of much useful and interesting material.

But was he, as alleged by many, 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'? At least in one notorious case, he was. This was the tragic but reckless incident when he killed his common-law wife Joan Vollmer, and the effects of this event haunted him for the rest of his life. In many ways it drove him to become the writer whose reputation and legacy now provide such rich material for scholarly interpretation and appreciation.

The incident happened in September 1951 in Mexico City, when he was 37 and Joan was 28. They were both members of the Beat Generation writers' circle, and had started living together in 1946 in an apartment that they shared in New York with Jack Kerouac and his wife Edie Parker. The apartment was by then already a gathering place for the Beats in the 1940s where Vollmer was often at the centre of impassioned all-night discussions between the writers, and assorted visitors. A son, who was given the same name as his father, was born to them in 1947. William Jr. became a writer, but being the son of a heroin addict and a mother addicted to amphetamines had a very troubled life and died of liver failure in 1981. He wrote about his recollection of the incident in which his mother died. It was a drunken game of "William Tell" in which Joan balanced a water tumbler on her head and dared William Sr. to shoot it with a handgun, but he missed and hit Joan in the head. She died later that day.

Later on, in the foreword for the autobiographical Queer (written in the 1950s but unpublished until 1985) Burroughs talks about the appalling circumstances of the shooting incident: "I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out."

Brion Gysin, who was Burroughs' greatest collaborator and friend (although never a lover) apparently in trance told Burroughs that the Ugly Spirit had killed Joan. He thought he finally had the answer that no psychoanalysis or self-examination could provide. As Stevens adds, "This was indeed a War Universe, as the Indian mystic Sri Aurobindo had said. The price of existence was eternal conflict, apparently".

Gysin was also the source of one of Burroughs' favourite techniques of divination and inspiration, the cut-up. It started with Gysin's use of a thick layer of newspaper pages as a mat while he cut papers with a razor blade. He noticed that the layers and sections of text , when randomly re-arranged, provided meaningful and coherent prose. What makes this discovery of particular cultural interest is that this occurred in the 'Beat Hotel'. This hotel, in the Latin Quarter of Paris, was a run-down cheap hotel where writers and artists stayed through the late 50s and early 60s. Burroughs in particular saw the significance of this discovery, saying: "When you cut into the present, the future leaks out". He later applied the technique to audio-recordings, hypothesising that it was a way to divine the true meaning of anything. One rationale for this is that if everything is recorded, it can also be edited.

In the Chapter entitled 'Interlude: William S. Burroughs, Scientologist' Stevens quotes these words from Burroughs' 1995 publication My Education: A Book of Dreams: "L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, says that the secret of life has at last been discovered - by him. The secret of life is to survive . . . To survive what, exactly? Enemy attack, what else?" 

 The idea here is that Scientology, when Burroughs immersed himself in its processes from the late 50s, and on-and-off through the 60s, was considered to be a "potential breakthrough into a kind of self-empowering, liberating, accelerated analysis." It was not then perceived, as it is now after countless tabloid sensationalist articles about troubled Hollywood adherents, as a "mind-control cult". Stevens perceptively hits the nail on the head with regard to Burroughs' motivations and needs: "...most importantly of all, his continuing hunger to ease the pain of the psychic trauma and wounds that he carried with him over his drug addiction, failed relationships, homosexuality (over which his feelings remained conflicted and unresolved well into middle age), possible child abuse, and shooting of Joan Vollmer." In other words, Burroughs was an ideal candidate for what Hubbard's 'modern science of mental health' initially claimed to offer.

Having gained what benefits he could achieve through the entire process, Burroughs eventually denounced the movement as a crypto-fascist mind-controlling cult, but still spoke in favour of some of their techniques such as Auditing and the use of the E-meter. It amused me that Burroughs was accused by the established Scientologists as 'squirrelling', in the sense that he took away the fruits of their techniques for his own use. Well, why not? Is that not what any seeker of Truth and his or her own completion would do?

Until this point you may well think that Burroughs was a mystic or occultist for purely therapeutic reasons. But ultimately, as the following quotation shows, it was actually his entire Weltanschauung or view of the Universe as a whole:

"Since the word 'magic' tends to cause confused thinking, I would like to say exactly what I mean by 'magic' and the magical interpretation of so-called reality. The underlying assumption of magic is the assertion of 'will' as the primary moving force of this universe - the deep conviction that nothing happens unless somebody or some being wills it to happen. To me this has always seemed self-evident. A chair does not move unless someone moves it. Neither does your physical body, which is composed of much the same materials, move unless you will it to move. Walking across the room is a magical operation. From the viewpoint of magic, no death, no illness, no misfortune, accident, war or riot is accidental. There are no accidents in the world of magic. And will is another word for animate energy."

In his final years, Burroughs was drawn to Chaos Magic, and its practitioners to him, as if he were its natural High Priest. Given that he achieved the ultimate 60s imprimatur of having his image included onto the cover of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, along with Aleister Crowley, and surviving until even the modern-era month in which Princess Diana died, August 1997, he certainly has achieved his own brand of immortality. -- Kevin Murphy.

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