This article was originally published in the Psychedelic Press UK print journal 2013 Vol.2 and is now up on the Psypress site.
Mostly everyone has heard of William Burroughs’ drug-inspired masterpiece Naked Lunch, but far fewer have actually read it from cover to cover and fewer still have properly understood what Burroughs is doing in its pages.
Often dismissed as incomprehensible, pornographic and, due to its lack of formal narrative structure, unfilmable, Naked Lunch was nevertheless tackled on celluloid by David Cronenberg in 1991, resulting in a movie that is only minimally representative of the book and tends to deepen its mystery rather than clarify it. Reinventing from scratch and substituting his own authorship, Cronenberg ‘sampled’ Burroughs’ life and work in order to produce a body-horror pastiche that owes as much to the Ted Morgan biography and the novels Exterminator and Junkie as Naked Lunch itself. But for many people that film stands for what Naked Lunch is about.
Another common misconception is that Naked Lunch is about ‘the horrors of addiction,’ a description more suited to Burroughs’ autobiographical first novel Junkie. By the time of Naked Lunch, he’d moved on considerably from depicting anything so mundane or literal as that. What Naked Lunch represents is the fruit of a pharmo-picaresque creative journey that was partly inspired by opiate addiction but that rapidly expanded to encompass the visions of majoun, peyote and most particularly ayahuasca or yagé, whose psychonautic propensity underscores much of the grotesque, lurid phantasmagoria for which the novel is famous… Read more on Psypress UK
My in-depth review of Barry Miles’ biography of William Burroughs is included in the new issue of the Psypress magazine. More information at the Psypress Shop.
Having already penned two articles for the PsypressUK journal involving William Burroughs – ‘The Soundless Hum’ (2013 Vol.2) and ‘Beats On Acid’ (2014 Vol.3) – I now have a third coming out in the next issue, which this time is an in-depth review of Barry Miles’ new biography William S. Burroughs – A Life. And it won’t end there, for I also have another review to write of John Long’s Drugs and the “Beats”. I might even get around to commencing the extended study of his fictional oeuvre that I’ve had in mind for many years.
Ever since I first read and re-read Naked Lunch at around the age of nineteen, I’ve been endlessly fascinated by Burroughs, which is why I keep writing about him – there always seems something additional to say, other facets of the life and work to explore. The new Barry Miles biography has thrown up yet more aspects and weird and amusing anecdotes to complement those existing, so I couldn’t resist putting together yet another Burroughs piece that presents the most prominent and intriguing in the form of a list of ten, some familiar some not so.
Having been involved in spirit possession, exorcism, mirror-gazing and some weird cut-up magic involving cameras and tape recorders, Burroughs was as big on the occult as he was on drugs. And his eclectic taste in drugs took him from the visionary secrets of yagé in South America, to Eukodol in Tangier – in his opinion the best and most habit-forming junk ever. He was, of course, a legendary ‘gun nut’, and despite killing his wife in an insane drunken game of ‘William Tell’, his fetishistic regard for weapons never abated. On a more positive note, he was a friend of Paul McCartney in the 1960s, and his namesake grandfather invented the first adding machine, spawning a billion-dollar empire. What wasn’t William Burroughs into? Answers to that question, when posed on a message board were: ‘women’ and ‘gun safety’. Very true!
Read my piece ‘Ten Amazing Facts About William Burroughs’ on Medium.
This is the first of several pieces I’ve lined up for the Medium site, which will have a wider remit than the film-and-lit focus of this blog, covering issues such as psychology and psychotherapy, self-help and advice, social media and promotion, and whatever else may come to mind.
I got the idea for this piece whilst browsing articles on quantum mechanics and thinking about the paradoxical nature of much in everyday life…
I have a friend whom I shall call Brian who suffers from obsessive-checking syndrome. He will stare at a water tap or an electrical switch for minutes on end and then break away, only to return and repeat the exercise. He will slam his front door and then press it once, twice, three, four times and then break away, only to return and repeat the exercise. He will do circuits of his parked car, pulling on the door handles whilst angling his head to look and make sure the interior lights are off, and then break away… Yeah, yeah, you get the idea.
To someone witnessing this behaviour – and Brian’s neighbours have sometimes wryly commented on the floorshow – it appears ludicrous, comical and potty. Anyone might check something once, twice or even three times just to make sure, but after that it’s axiomatic that the situation is in an okay state. When I watch Brian I have to suppress a chuckle, and I remain perpetually amused and a little awestruck as I shake my head in pity, even though I’ve seen the show hundreds of times before. The trouble is, I suffer from obsessive-checking syndrome myself – though not nearly so badly as Brian. No, no, not as bad as that, no way! And anyhow, it’s different when it’s you doing it.
Why do you keep on checking when you can see, obviously, that the tap or switch is off or the door is locked?
Yes, you know the tap is off. You don’t doubt that the tap is off. What you doubt is that you’ve properly perceived that the tap is off. And in consequence, if there is a possibility that your perception may be faulty, then there is also a possibility that the tap may not be off after all. That is why you constantly check – not to check that the tap is off, but to convince yourself that your senses are working correctly. And as you’re using your senses to monitor your senses, an element of double bind and infinite regression is inevitable. You just have to continue until you can make that leap of faith and be convinced and truncate the checking. Once you do reach that point you know you can remember the fact later for support, if and when doubts start to recur when you’re away from base. For some it’s harder than for others.
Well, if that were possible there wouldn’t be a problem – there wouldn’t be such a thing as OCD and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The same is true for depression – if you could just ‘snap out of it’ or ‘pull yourself together’, every depressive would do that and depression would become a forgotten illness in about two seconds flat. But of course it doesn’t work like that… Read more on Medium
The 2014 Volume 3 issue of the acclaimed Psychedelic Press journal is out now, and it contains my extended article ‘Beats on Acid’, about what happened when the original hipsters encountered the new 1960s era of tripping. Allen Ginsberg took mushrooms, declared himself ‘the Messiah’, and plotted with Timothy Leary to turn on the world. Meanwhile Neal Cassady passed the Acid Test with Ken Kesey and drove the legendary bus ‘Furthur’ off into the sunset and immortality. But for Bill Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, the transition wasn’t that simple…
Interest in and information about ayahuasca has expanded exponentially in recent years, and the Psypress journal is the place to find out the latest. Author and workshop coordinator Ross Heaven asks the question ‘What is Ayahuasca Tourism?’ and whilst painting a very eye-opening picture of the current Amazonian ayahuasca scene, he concludes there is no definitive answer, with perhaps more pluses than minuses to the so-called ‘Western invasion’. Nathan D. Horowitz gets down to business with a florid and lyrical Ecuadorian ayahuasca trip account, which sustains vivid narrative intensity. And on a related note, Andrew R. Gallimore gets inside the DMT-influenced brain and shows how altered neurology engenders a more fluid model of reality.
In the more academic realms, James W. Jesso explores the parallels between Sufism and psilocybin as a spiritual tool, and John Glynn looks at the literature of the chemistry of psychotomimetic drugs, relating it to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and also psychedelic therapy. In other articles, Roger Green gives a detailed analysis of Aldous Huxley’s entheogenically utopian novel Island, and Mike Jay considers the lotos-eaters of myth and antiquity. And finally editor Robert Dickins meditates on the ego and ego-loss in psychedelic experience, touching on Freudian theory and the works of Huxley again, but mainly on Alan Watts and his seminal piece of trip-lit The Joyous Cosmology. To obtain a copy of the journal, click here.
The range, depth and variation of the subjects explored, plus the obvious expertise of the authors makes for a lively and didactic read; and again the journal shows that the hundred-page digest format – a volume to hold in your hands – cannot be beaten in many ways, and ideally compliments the keyboard-and-screen experience of the internet. The journal has been going for two years now, and Rob plans to make it bi-monthly and also obtain new computer equipment, redesign the Psypress website and publish more books to expand the existing collection.
To this end Rob has launched a crowdfunder appeal with the aim of raising £5,250. As I write, £725 or 13% of the target has been reached and I urge you to contribute and spread the word around and get Psypress up to the next level. Rob has worked tirelessly over the past five years to build this portal of psychedelic information, and his achievement to date is most impressive. He says:
The Psychedelic Press aims at two things: 1) To be a public forum for psychedelic and curious culture, and 2) to raise awareness about the therapeutic, medical, and cultural significance of psychoactive plants and chemicals, through the publication of a range of media.
There are various gifts on offer in exchange for donations, such as copies of the journal, subscriptions, copies of Andy Roberts’ excellent book Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain, Psypress T-shirts and original artwork, depending on the level of donation. I have donated and I eagerly await the arrival of my T-shirt! More information here.
So I finally got around to seeing the movie version of Kerouac’s On the Road, not far off two years after its UK release, which, for a writer and film buff who counts the Beat scene as a specialist interest, seems somewhat lackadaisical! I missed it at the cinema and having absorbed the lukewarm reviews and general lack of buzz surrounding the release, I wasn’t in any hurry to catch it on DVD. In a way I was delaying disappointment, putting off a moment of long anticipation that was now almost certainly destined to be anticlimactic. Why would I want to spend two hours witnessing one of the most cherished and influential novels of my life turned into just another average piece of 1940s-’50s period cinema-screen fodder?
Like its companion Great Beat Novel Naked Lunch, On the Road presented challenges to the filmmaker. Its autobiographical narrative is episodic, meandering and strung out, lacking the neatly shaped arc that would authoritively drive a film plot. What holds the book together is, of course, Kerouac’s prose itself, his ‘bop prosody’ with its jazz-like spontaneity, exuberance, fearless rule-breaking experimentation and pure drug-tinged scintillation. Finding a parallel method to inject all that into a film and make it work is no easy task. Go too far from the original – as David Cronenberg did with Naked Lunch – and you end up with something that’s a bit potty; but try to be too faithful and the danger is your product will be flat and lacklustre in its attempts at reverence.
Walter Salles’ On the Road does at times fall into the latter trap. What was cutting edge in ’50s culture and writing – acting crazy whilst mouthing off about poetry and philosophy, doing Benzedrine and weed and swapping sexual partners – now seems tame, dated and so-whatish in many of the film’s scenes. There is no shock value and not much of a curious spin to make us view the action in a special light. Kerouac the writer manifests in the most conventional of ways – in voice-over narration from the actual text, banging the keys of his typewriter with big close ups of the emerging words, and the usual spiel about wanting to capture life’s evanescence. Finally the moment where he writes the first draft of the book itself, on a continuous scroll of paper (obviously not part of the text itself), becomes the apotheosis of the whole process – again hardly a ground-breaking idea.
This device of real-life framing of the fiction, also employed in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch mash-up, seems almost inevitable in dealing with Beat mythology now, as the biographical details of the protagonists and their writings permeate each other totally. And when you have a ‘fiction’ such as On the Road which is already ‘real-life’ – on the IMDB page real and fictional names appear side by side – one might think there is little point in retaining the fictional armature at all; why not make a film about the events ignoring Kerouac’s own perspective and instead try to say something new? Read more…
Memorable drug scenes in films tend to fall into two broad categories: either they successfully mirror the drug’s effect or the behavioural spectacle of its usage. So in the former category there’s the trippy, such as in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where a hapless Johnny Depp on acid watches the carpet pattern swim and the bar clientele transform into giant reptiles; or William Hurt’s mushroom mash-up in Altered States – a fast-cutting fury of pyrotechnic flashes, tribal ghost dancing and eventual ossification. In the latter category there’s the horrors of heroin, such as Ewan McGregor shooting up and overdosing to Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ in Trainspotting, or Frank Sinatra going cold turkey in The Man With the Golden Arm. And somewhere in between there’s the mania of cocaine, such as Al Pacino’s nose-burying excesses in Scarface, or Ray Liotta’s snort of wide-eyed wonder in GoodFellas, followed by that marvellous paranoia-fuelled helicopter chase sequence.
These substances come with natural in-built cinematic potential, and there are scores of similar examples that can be quoted. But how many memorable scenes can you think of that are based around the use of downers? Neither the inner nor the outer experience would seem at first glance to have much to offer the filmmaker, but that assumption has just been proved incorrect. Now on release, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has become a talking point with regard to the various array of amoral excesses it exposes; it will also enter the annals of movie list-making with one of the most splendid drug scenes ever, involving that most unlikely of candidates…Quaaludes.
As a movie, The Wolf of Wall Street does start out very like GoodFellas, so much so that it has the sense of being a souped-up retread. There’s the ‘wise guy’ voice-over with visuals tailored to fit, sometimes fast-cutting, other times freeze-framing; and this time the technique is taken further, with the action compressed or expanded in very deliberate schematic ways, sometimes bordering on the cartoonish – Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) even performs direct pieces to camera on occasion. Then there’s this narrator himself, an evident narcissist who opens a door to let the audience into his secret hermetic world, a forbidden pleasuredome of naughtiness and noir in which he wants you to simultaneously delight and abhor.
GoodFellas can be viewed as a kind of addiction movie, though not about addiction to any one substance or activity but instead to the whole existential package of gangsterism – the power, the glamour, the esteem of belonging to an elite crew, the easy money, the enhanced access to sex and drugs, the reckless abandon and, of course, the routine violence. Jordan Belfort is just like Henry Hill in being perpetually high on such a lifestyle, mainlining more and more of it till he suffers an overdose and the inevitable side effect of having the FBI on his tail. Being a dodgy stock-trading boss, sometimes operating outside the margins of legality, has a great deal in common with being a wise guy and many of the aforementioned boxes are ticked in both movies. Read more…
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.