This article was adapted from my talk at Breaking Convention 2015, held in London at Greenwich University. It has now been published by the excellent Oak Tree Review, which investigates the many branches of psychedelic culture throughout history, specialising in its manifestations in art and literature.
In their activities and writings in the late 1940s and ’50s the Beat writers – principally Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg – prefigured and influenced the Psychedelic Movement, which came into flowering a generation later. When those epoch-making cultural changes got underway in the ’60s, the Beats were naturally looked upon as mentor figures and elder statesmen, and Timothy Leary, who was of the same age group as them, was happy to recruit and induct them into the cause – through his Harvard program. This produced some unexpected and volatile results – Tim Leary got more than he bargained for – and the end product as regards the three major Beat writers was one spectacular success, one mixed case, and one spectacular failure.
It all started in New York in 1943, within the Columbia university scene where the Beats first hooked up. At the time Jack Kerouac was in his early twenties, and already saw himself as a writer. Bill Burroughs was older, in his late twenties, and was known as a raconteur and intellectual, and became a mentor figure to the group. Allen Ginsberg was the kid, still a teenager, and just enrolled at Columbia. There were other key people in the group, such as Lucien Carr, another student, and everybody became fictionalised in Kerouac’s novels – most notably On the Road.
At around this same time Burroughs first tried morphine and became an addict, so the events of his first novel Junkie run roughly concurrently to On the Road. In both books, which are strongly autobiographical, there are many references to recreational drug use, and they open a marvellous window onto pre-psychedelic bohemian life – exactly the kind of scene which would develop eventually into the hippie scene.
Read more on: The Oak Tree Review
The second volume in the Nemu’s End series finds the self-styled Reverend Danny Nemu looking inwards to explore the personal apocalypse, where the veils of regular cognition are rent asunder and an unbounded world of revelation manifests beyond. He focuses on how the constrictions and convolutions of language work to dilute the divine, drawing its sting and rendering it into the conventions of whatever zeitgeist that currently obtains. This issue is intensified by translation – for example, any number of multiple meanings can arise in the text of the Bible when it is filtered through Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English. Overcoming the tyranny of the Word, be it written, spoken or thought, is what Neuro-Apocalypse is about, and Danny Nemu explores the many avenues through which this may take place.
Drawing on a rich history of personal experience, Danny tells of arguing with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kyoto, of taking his perceptive system ‘off road’ with large doses of speed, and imbibing ayahuasca, firstly in Japan and later in the Brazilian Amazon. From an elevated perspective, he sees the ‘problem’ of language and the pictures it creates, even as he’s using it: ‘The nervous system finds what it expects to find […] We call false interpretations of the visual scene “hallucinations”, even though everything we see is an interpretation. The world perceived is the visual equivalent of a theory as yet unfalsified.’ He says that our cognitive structures are both climbing frames and cages, but their bars can be bent or reconfigured.
When it comes to geniuses such as Newton, Tesla and Wittgenstein, Danny points out that their oddities and obsessive natures contributed in no small part to their intellectual achievements and breakthroughs; and similarly with autism, the difficulty with abstract thinking can be counterbalanced by the savant’s extraordinary powers of memory and recall. Continuing this thread, he notes that some of the symptoms of an epileptic fit resemble those of a religious vision, including terror and elation, premonition and encounters with demonic, angelic or ancestral entities. And the syndrome of ‘hearing voices’ isn’t necessarily all bad, when looked at from beyond the perspectives of western psychiatry. The point here is that there are many ways for the veil to be lifted.
Entering the realm of the role of psychoactive substances in the history of religion, Danny crosses the more familiar ground of Soma and the Eleusinian Mysteries, and then moves onto drugs in the Bible, re-evaluating the propensities of frankincense and myrrh. The former is a tranquilliser, an antidepressant and anxiety-reliever, whilst the latter shares those properties and is also an aphrodisiac. They were used with wine and other ‘head spices’ to create both healing and psychedelic effects, and when looked upon in that light, many passages in the Bible take on multiple new shades of meaning. For example, in the burning bush story, the bush burned with fire but was not consumed, which perhaps is ‘a good metaphor for the colourful geometric patterns that blaze around the objects of one’s attention in psychedelic states.’
As with Newton, Tesla and Wittgenstein, Danny’s new work has an impressive, obsessive monumentalism – the notes alone take up fifty pages. And the Reverend himself comes over as an Old Testament prophet reborn as a psychedelic dub poet or DJ, sampling and splicing the ancient and modern in his own signature style. Blending Bible studies with history, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, pharmacology and anthropology, Neuro-Apocalypse is a heady eclectic reading experience, a synapse-stretching brain workout that puts a new spin on apocalypses within and without. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the cutting edge of psychedelic philosophy.
Buy a copy here: Psychedelic Press Shop
Part 2 of my article Psychedelia in the Movies, originally published in the Psypress UK Journal 2015 Vol IV, has been republished on Reality Sandwich alongside Part 1, including the illustrative video clips. So the the whole story, including text and imagery is now available online!
Once the late ’60s boom in acid culture and acid cinema had dissipated, the psychedelic movie became another component of the fringe and the experimental, something to recur and be revived at intervals, a pattern that continues into the present. As we saw in ‘Part 1’, a principal avenue of this tendency involved name directors, associated with the weird and offbeat, taking on solid psychedelic literary properties – such as Ken Russell, the work of John C. Lily and Altered States; and David Cronenberg, the work of William Burroughs and Naked Lunch. The next big milestone in psychedelic cinema occurred in just the same fashion, with Terry Gilliam, Hunter S. Thompson and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).
With his track record in mind-bending fantasies such as Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985), Terry Gilliam would seem the ideal director to tackle Thompson’s tale of madcap psychedelic debauchery, where the ‘effects’ are already ‘scripted’, rendered in electrifyingly graphic prose. But Gilliam came into the difficult pre-production process late, having to produce a new script in a short time, and the filming itself proved as chaotic as the movie’s contents. The end result achieved a disappointing box office performance and very mixed reviews, with many critics understandably attributing the characters’ qualities of waywardness and incoherence to the movie plot itself.
Whilst falling short of being a totally satisfying adaptation of the book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is nevertheless a very worthy effort in the reification of psychedelic effects and head spaces for the screen. Gilliam wanted the film to feel like a trip from beginning to end, and with cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, he designed a catalogue of techniques to match the qualities of each of the many drugs that are consumed, such as melting colours and flare effects for mescaline, and wide angles and morphing for LSD. Voice-over narration from Johnny Depp’s Raoul Duke provides much-needed structure and grounding, bringing us back to the novel and Thompson’s original vision as a bulwark against drug chaos swamping everything.
Read more on Reality Sandwich.
My Breaking Convention talk from July 2015 is now up on Vimeo.
In their writings and lifestyle experiments, the Beat writers Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg were very much the precursors of the psychedelic movement – in particular with regard to their employment of drugs for recreational and psychonautic purposes. They were pioneering users of ayahuasca, mescaline, psilocybin and LSD; and when Timothy Leary began his Harvard work he naturally tried to induct the three as elder statesmen figures. The results were somewhat volatile and unexpected, with one resounding success, another a mix of good and bad, and another a resounding failure. Nevertheless the Beats remain highly influential figures and today’s psychedelic culture would not be the same without them.
I attended the recent Breaking Convention at Greenwich University and gave a talk entitled ‘Beat Writers and the Psychedelic Movement’, which covered the story of how the major Beat figures – William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy – preempted and were later inducted into 1960s psychedelia by Timothy Leary. It gave me the opportunity to again explore in detail the fascinating facts of Burroughs’ early involvement with ayahuasca – previously covered in William Burroughs: Ayahuasca Tourist and The Soundless Hum – which in the context of the conference and the current huge interest in ayahuasca were most pertinent.
At Breaking Convention there were many talks relating to use of the vine, covering ayahuasca in group therapy, tools for navigating its altered states, the current wave of tourism versus tradition, soma and ayahuasca; and also the related areas of tryptamine plant mythos, the pineal portal, the ontology of entities in the DMT realm and what it’s like to be a machine elf. In fact the whole ayahuasca/DMT/pineal gland nexus is the hottest area in the current psychedelic zeitgeist.
And good old Bill Burroughs was there first – a fact that other speakers and participants picked up on as well as myself. Luke Goaman-Dodson gave an illuminating talk on the parallels between Burroughs and Terence McKenna as ayahuasca psychonauts, comparing McKenna’s thoughts on the syntactical nature of reality with Burroughs’s cut-up technique, an area that touches on both post-structuralism and chaos magic – the notion that the world is made of words and that reality can be manipulated through them. Burroughs developed his cut-up technique into form of magic using recording devices and used it effectively; once he attacked the Moka Bar in Soho, where he’d received rudeness and bad service, and after several sessions the business began to collapse and eventually closed down.
The transgressive nature of Burroughs’ activities – the ‘literary outlaw’, drug addict and gun nut – cropped up in Alan Piper’s excellent presentation on psychedelics as a key tool for alterity in the twentieth century avant garde. Burroughs’ writings in The Yage Letters and Junkie were juxtaposed with some excellent photos of the older writer in a three-piece suit, pistol in hand of course! Alan posed the question of whether psychedelics would lose their transformative powers if they become officially sanctioned, commodified and safely marketed – a route that Burroughs never traveled in his art and life.
And Burroughs’ hand could also be seen in the area of the convention’s installations, in particular with regard to hypnagogic light machines. Burroughs explored flicker-effect altered consciousness with his collaborators Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville, who designed and built a ‘Dreamachine’ – a cardboard cylinder containing slits, with a light bulb inside, rotating on a record deck so that it would flash at the correct rhythm to induce hallucinations.
Dr Dirk Proeckl and Dr Engelbert Winkler discussed their Lucia No.3 Light Machine, a very high tech variant where a pulsing whirring light is aimed at the subject’s face, with closed eyes, to induce psychedelic displays of colours and shapes, out-of-body feelings and deep relaxation. But retailing at £16,000, it resides at the high end of one’s pocket also!
More in keeping with the original concept, digital artist Luciana Haill displayed dreamachines augmented with EEG installation. Subjects sit with closed eyes and monitored brainwaves, listening to sounds on headphones, in order to create an interactive participatory artwork. Luciana is also involved in the academic side of brainwave research; she is a Visiting Research Fellow at Sussex University’s Department of Informatics and has written a paper on ‘Dreamachines and Electroencephalographic Signals in Art’. Mr Burroughs and Mr Gysin would have definitely approved!
Also at Breaking Convention, Muswell Hill Press launched its anthology of the best of PsypressUK writing – Out of the Shadows – covering subjects such as the use of psychedelics in medicine and psychotherapy, archetypal psychology and spiritual awakenings, creative surges in literature, myth and visionary art, and philosophical theory to ayahuasca healing. It features top psychedelic commentators such as Stanislav Grof, Rick Strassman, Ben Sessa, Rob Dickins, Tim Read, Maria Pap, Sam Gandy, Andy Roberts, Dave King, Henrik Dahl, Jack Hunter and David Luke, and an interview with activist Casey William Hardison. It also contains my article ‘Beats on Acid’, which provided the original basis for my Breaking Convention talk.
In the words of Dr David Luke:
Florid as psychosis, poetic as the elements, insightful as meditation and intellectual as the noosphere: PsyPressUK is a ragtaglledy mag loaded with psychedelic word mongery from far-flung medicine bags and the academy’s finest pharmacographers, and this anthology assembles the best of those essays in one book. Not just writing on drugs, but writing about drugs, with the light fully switched on.
Copies are available from the Psypress Shop.
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.