Way back in 1951, three years before Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception and awareness of the entheogenic properties of psychedelics in the West was almost non-existent, William Burroughs made his first expedition to Panama and Ecuador in search of ‘yage’, as he called it, or ayahuasca, which he knew was used by Indians in shamanic rites and was said to increase telepathic sensitivity. As one of the earliest Western explorers with an experiential rather than an academic motive, he proved himself to be way ahead of his time, prefiguring a widening interest in the substance, which has now gone almost mainstream and blossomed into what we call ‘ayahuasca tourism’.
That first expedition, described in Burroughs’ novel Queer, proved unsuccessful; but Burroughs returned to Panama in 1953 and this time he went on to Bogotá, where he had the good fortune to meet botanist Richard Evans Schultes, a world authority on hallucinogenic plants and a Harvard contemporary of Burroughs. Schultes told Burroughs about the methods of preparing ayahuasca, and also about the Indian mythology surrounding it and its use as a means of communicating with the spirit world. Schultes, who sampled the hallucinogenic specimens he discovered, had tried ayahuasca, but said his own experience was limited to vivid colours and no visions. He pointed Burroughs in the direction of the Putumayo River, where he would find brujos who made the ayahuasca brew.
In Mocoa Burroughs met an old brujo who prepared the black liquid, oily in texture and bitter in taste. Soon afterward ingesting it Burroughs experienced blue flashes and a wave of nausea, and, though he could hardly walk, he staggered out of the brujo’s hut and retched violently. He continued to have intense hallucinations, needing to take barbiturates in order to bring himself down, and he later concluded ayahuasca was the real mind-bending kick he was seeking, though this was clearly an overdose.
Later in the expedition Burroughs made a discovery about the preparation of ayahuasca that proved highly significant; in fact he is apparently the first Westerner to come upon this information – which came as news to even Schultes himself. Burroughs learned from another brujo that in order to release the full hallucinating effects of ayahuasca, another plant – chacruna – needs to be added to the brew. This functions as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, activating the DMT in the ayahuasca and essential for the proper experience. In a letter to Allen Ginsberg in June 1953, Burroughs waxes lyrical about one of his trips in this new mode – a marked contrast to the turmoil of the earlier experience. ‘I experienced first a feeling of serene wisdom so that I was quite content to sit there indefinitely.’
The further fruits of this trip were written up in a fictional letter to Ginsberg in The Yage Letters, which includes contributions from both writers and was eventually published in 1963, when entheogenic interest in psychedelics was well established. This early work depicting ayahuasca tourism went on to inspire Terence and Dennis McKenna in their own journey to the Amazon and led to their book The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching. Burroughs’ ayahuasca visions were also very important in the development of his most famous novel, Naked Lunch, starting him on his unique and audacious path of literary experimentation.
Read my full account of how ayahuasca informed Naked Lunch in the current PsypressUK magazine, which also includes a brief history of psychedelic research from Stanislav Grof, an account of the political difficulties of getting support for psychedelic medicine from Ben Sessa, an informative story about how Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem and turned on publisher Tom Maschler in Wales, plus reflections on Jung and Castaneda and an excellent account of a recent Peruvian ayahuasca experience from Alison Terry. More details here: PsypressUK 2013 Vol.2.
When I had the mushroom-inspired vision of The Cult of the Novel way back in 1979 – written about at the finale of The Mad Artist – I knew that although it was highly organised it was also fanciful and solipsistic and I could only hope that somehow it would filter into the outside world and connect with like-minded individuals. It didn’t much at the time and history was against me, with hippydom and psychedelia on the wane and Thatcherite values about to engulf most everything. Cut to thirty-plus years later and people are talking about a psychedelic renaissance, with the old and new coming together and the golden era of 1960s-’70s psychedelia being re-evaluated.
I’ve often asked myself why it took so long for me to finally formulate and write The Mad Artist, and perhaps it was because I wasn’t ready before or perhaps the world wasn’t ready. When I did publish it in 2010, I looked around for similar contemporary books and couldn’t find any; though Albion Dreaming by Andy Roberts, a history of LSD use in Britain, was on a most similar wavelength. Then shortly afterwards along came Bill Booker, whose Trippers, a personal memoir of LSD and the ’70s scene, is very like The Mad Artist and also had a long gestation period. And then Leaf Fielding leaped into the frame with his To Live Outside the Law, a much more wide-reaching and influential memoir about the same zeitgeist, with the added spice of the inside story of the Operation Julie bust.
The four of us liaised and chatted extensively about our shared literary involvement, and it was Bill’s idea to form the Facebook page The Semi-Secret Fellowship of Freaks, named after the original fellowship in Trippers. We were joined by Rob Dickins, a Freak of a newer generation, not even born in 1979, but very much tuned to the same vibes, as demonstrated by his site PsypressUK and subsequently his recently published novella Erin. The page provided one of several focuses for interaction, discussion and more speculation about this psychedelic renaissance we are undergoing. Something of a ‘novel cult’ was getting together. Read more…
The Substance is a Swiss-made feature-length documentary which gives a general overview of LSD throughout its seventy-year history and serves as a useful primer for the subject of psychedelics. It is structured around extensive interviews with Albert Hofmann, the chemist who first discovered the substance, Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist well known for the practice of psychedelic therapy, and various other luminaries in the field.
Rob Dickins is well known as a guru of psychedelia and an avid participant in the British festival scene and here, in his first novella, he blends the two ingredients in a startlingly original and creative fusion. Erin takes place over the span of the Solpsycle Gathering; a medium-scale festival with a strong New Age ambience. Lije – ‘a schizophrenic…a journalist a druggie’ – and his group of mates move somnambulantly through festy space-time, bearing the chaotic, fractured perceptions of non-stop partying.
Most misery memoirs are first books penned by people who are often not primarily writers, but who simply have extraordinary tales of woe to articulate. It is a very commercially-driven genre, where writing quality is not paramount, sometimes involving ghost writing; and it’s become a bandwagon that the ever expanding ranks of celebrities are wont to climb onto, as their names alone will sell books.
This makes Jeanette Winterson a special case with Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as she’s an established writer of long standing, and way back in her twenties she already addressed her turbulent and troublesome early experiences in her semi-autobiographical first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. So why revisit this territory and de-fictionalise it? Why re-clock the car to zero, so to speak?
It’s partly down to the changed perspective of middle age, where all becomes recast in a historical rather than an immediate context; and not only her own life but also her surroundings – Manchester and Accrington and their industrial heritage. She paints a picture that certainly supports the adage ‘it’s grim up North’, involving austere little houses with outside lavvies and no central heating or fridges or telephones. I am four years older than Jeanette, but as a southerner whose childhood was surrounded by ‘all mod cons’, hers feels like it belongs to an earlier generation.
Similarly she redrafts the almost 19th century figure of her stepmother, whom she refers to as ‘Mrs Winterson’ and who uses the matrix of her religious beliefs as an enabler of her abuse. Jeanette’s childhood involved corporal punishment, dished out by her father on the instructions of the dominant mother, nights spent of the front doorstep having been locked out of the house, and the burning of her hidden and forbidden book collection after it was unfortunately discovered.
Nevertheless Jeanette absorbed enough literature to get to Oxford to study English, become a successful writer and leave all that toxicity behind. But of course it’s never that simple. And so we come to what Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is really all about – the spectre of unfinished business, the part of her story that serves as a corollary to Oranges. Read more…
In this previous memoir, Running for the Hills, Horatio Clare told of his childhood spent on a Welsh hill farm, and Truant – first published in 2008 – continues his life story, moving on through his latter schooldays, university time and peripatetic life thereafter, with alternating periods of employment and bumming around. What marks out Truant for special interest here is that it is styled as a drug memoir, a tale of the Blakeian ‘road to excess’, involving wide-ranging substance abuse and attendant behavioural and mental problems, and ending in the redemptive ‘palace of wisdom’, with Clare having learnt from the errors of such profligacy.
Truant is indeed well written, capturing the mood of grunge-era, live-for-the-moment fecklessness that echoes the romantic, beat and hippy lifestyles. It contains effective thumbnail sketches of the effects of drugs, depression, mania and that uniquely liberated tramp’s eye perspective of the world, when there’s nothing left to lose. As the story progresses, it becomes more an account of Clare’s failure to turn things around as he continues the pattern of linked drug use and getting into trouble, involving brushes with the law and the burning of bridges in jobs and relationships, perpetuating even as he gets older and past the usual window for this kind of ‘truant’ behaviour.
The way the story is presented invites the reader to ‘psychoanalyse’ Clare and decode the nature of his complex problems. Clearly the classic ‘dysfunctional family’ factor plays its part, with Clare’s aberrant behaviour seeming to a degree a rebellion against his father, who left the family and pursued another relationship, and who appears sporadically as a kind of cipher of a father, saying and doing the right things but lacking any real empathy and emotional depth in his relations with his son.
Then there is Clare’s inherent oddity as a character, his seeming compulsion to go against the grain of all that is sanguine and his sometimes crazy high-jinks counterpointed by debilitating lows. Of course these are the symptoms of manic-depression or bipolar disorder, and though Clare has periods of relative normality, either mania or depression crop up periodically to destroy whatever he’s built up in the interim. Read more…