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The Beat Writers and the Psychedelic Movement

March 16, 2017 1 comment
Allen-Ginsberg-and-William-S-Burroughs cropped

Allen Ginsberg & William Burroughs in later years.

 

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

Review: Neuro-Apocalypse by Reverend Danny Nemu

December 9, 2016 Leave a comment

neuro-apocalypseThe 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

Psychedelia in the Movies, Part 2 – Reality Sandwich

Psychedelia in the Movies Pt2

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.

The Beat Writers and the Psychedelic Movement

January 11, 2016 4 comments

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.

Burroughs at Breaking Convention

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.

Roger Keen talking at Breaking Convention 2015

Roger Keen talking at Breaking Convention 2015

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.

William Burroughs with Dreamachine

Burroughs and Dreamachine

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!

Dreamachines at Breaking Convention © Luciana Haill

Dreamachines at Breaking Convention © Luciana Haill

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.Out of the Shadows 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.

The Soundless Hum: Psychonautic Underpinnings of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch

October 28, 2014 2 comments
Fragments By Doug Brown

Picture by Doug Brown

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.

The Endless Fascination of William Burroughs

September 29, 2014 1 comment
William Burroughs, adjusting glasses in Tangier (cropped). ©Allen Ginsberg LLC, 2013. Creative Commons.

William Burroughs, adjusting glasses in Tangier (cropped). ©Allen Ginsberg LLC, 2013. Creative Commons.

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.

To Soar Angelic Even Higher – Psypress UK Latest Issue & Crowdfunder

August 28, 2014 4 comments
Psypress collection

The Psypress Collection

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.

psypressuk-14-3

Psypress 2014 Vol. 3

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.

Psypress T-shirt

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.

William Burroughs: Ayahuasca Tourist

September 17, 2013 4 comments

The Yage Letters – original cover

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.

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