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.
It’s always heartening to discover another writer who, perhaps by taking a very different path, has nonetheless arrived at a very similar creative place to oneself. This happened when I saw David Shields being interviewed on a BBC arts programme about his book Reality Hunger and the broader implications of the concept. He talked about the impoverishment of traditional fictional techniques and how today’s writers are incorporating more and more ‘reality’—that is, what really happened as opposed to what they made up—into their work. There is, he reckoned, a larger ‘reality hunger’ out there, manifesting in other media, such as reality television and the less adorned, more immediate communication afforded by the internet. Listening to Shields, I thought: that could be me talking, and I was amused by the discussion session following the film insert, where several panel members disagreed with him.
So I approached the book Reality Hunger with considerable excitement, while at the same time anticipating some mild disappointment due to my high expectations. But I wasn’t at all disappointed: the book proved to be everything I had hoped it would. It’s subtitled ‘a manifesto’, and it takes the form of numbered sections of varying lengths, which each have an aphoristic or epigrammatic quality. Many of the shorter ones are actual quotes from a wide range of writers and other artists, which Shields, acting like a DJ or MC, ‘samples’ and incorporates into the overall ‘mashup’. It is very effective and underscores the book’s textual points in a textural way, much like a plastic work of art. And as for the accusation of plagiarism, he answers that in the form of a quote from Picasso: art is theft. Who can argue?
As a drug memoirist, I had a special interest because I knew from the interview that this is an area Shields touches upon, and to my mind drug writing is an important component in the spectrum of this push toward ‘reality’. Indeed he mentions the Vedas—citing them as the earliest examples of written storytelling—and also De Quincey, Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson before getting stuck into James Frey and his infamous tome A Million Little Pieces. Here is one of the finest examples of an ideological clash between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ in a contemporary book. Telling the story of a hopeless, burnt-out, twenty-three-year-old drug addict, who mends himself in a rehab centre, Frey firstly wrote the book as a novel, and when he had no success at marketing it, he rebranded it as memoir, after which it was outstandingly successful, selling in the millions.
Around three years after its first publication, details emerged of falsifications within the book, primarily that Frey had greatly exaggerated his criminal past, creating jail time that didn’t actually exist. This put his publisher in an embarrassing position, regarding the definition of ‘non-fiction’ and opened up a debate on the latitude of factual reportage within memoirs. It reached a climax when Frey and his publisher appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and the result was a public crucifixion for the heresy of daring to place lies into a so-called work of fact. Afterwards Frey was dropped by his agent, and his publishers made him insert an apology into future editions. Past readers were even offered a refund, such was the furore the incident created.
As reported in Reality Hunger: ‘Oprah has created around herself a “cult of confession” that offers only one prix-fixe menu to those who enter her world. First the teasing crudités of the situation, sin or sorrow hinted at. The entrée is the deep confession or revelation. Next, a palate-cleaning sorbet of regret and repentance, the delicious forgiveness served by Oprah herself on behalf of all humanity… I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be.’
Oh, that rings so many bells. Having written about my twenty- to twenty-four-year-old self in The Mad Artist, I discovered that however much you try to stick to the truth or the facts, you cannot help but turn yourself and others into ‘characters’, and characters start to assume a destiny of their own on the page. For me the writing of a ‘novelistic memoir’ was both an act of serving up reality and one of full literary performance at the same time. Read more…
What better place for a discussion on the rarefied subject of magic mushrooms than the hippy-oriented Sunrise Festival in Somerset, England, just down the road from Stonehenge? On a hot Saturday afternoon in early June 2010, a group of us gathered in the Ancient Futures yurt to hear Andy Letcher’s talk on ‘Reading the Codex: Making Sense of Magic Mushrooms’.
Andy Letcher, a holder of two doctorates—the first ecology related, the second concerning Bardic performance in contemporary Paganism—is the author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, a comprehensive and informative overview of mushroom culture and its position in the larger psychedelic pantheon. Published in 2006, the book was generally well received and critically acclaimed, but due to its revisionist stance on many of the cherished theories concerning psychedelic use throughout history, it has also excited much controversy and opposition. On some internet message boards this has escalated to open hostility and outright abuse, and, perhaps worse still, the accusation that Andy has never even taken mushrooms.
In a nutshell, Shroom argues that hard evidence for much of the received wisdom concerning past psychedelic use—with a particular focus on mushrooms—simply isn’t there, and it is largely a wish-fulfilment back projection on the part of the modern psychedelic movement. So, how come such an issue has got many people’s back up? Perhaps it’s the sureness of Andy’s academic position: I must be right because the evidence (or lack of it) speaks for itself. Perhaps it’s because he takes material that is understood by many to serve as myth or half-truth rather than solid fact, and by insisting on holding it up to factual scrutiny rather tramples it into the ground. Or perhaps it’s because his literal evidence-based approach to the subject cuts right against the grain of the enchanted, mythopoeic, supra-rational radiance of mushroom gnosis itself.
As he began his lecture, no doubt aware of this undercurrent of feeling, Andy laid his cards on the table. He described himself as a ‘hippy’, an insider, who, though he’s an academic is still very much ‘one of us’. Indeed he does take mushrooms, though he prefers lower doses, and he has experienced that all-important gnosis first hand. With long flowing centrally parted hair, earrings and a neat distinguished-looking King Charles I-style moustache and goatee, he certainly looks the part of a hippy; and as the talk progressed, he used demotic, non-academic language, such as ‘tripping their tits off’ and liberal lashings of swear words. Read more…