Sunday, 12 April 2009

Writers and Ayahuasca 1: William Burroughs

In the last post I wrote about what might have been the first Ayahuasca documentary of all times. A recently unearthed rarity, narrated by none other than William Burroughs. Searching for more info on the elusive film led me by Google serendipity to Peruvian author Carlos Calderón Fajardo, who wrote a book about Borroughs second visit to Perú in 1993. Burroughs first visit, in 1953, was looking for ayahuasca, and turned into the famous Yaje Letters (newly edited and much expanded here). Burroughs had launched into his search for Yage ("the ultimate fix") after a hasty escape from Mexico where he had been sentenced for the bizarre shooting of his wife.

The Yage Letters is probably the all-time best-known literary account of Ayahuasca. The South America Burroughs describes is a corrupt, violent place, full of poverty and misery, and although all of those things were true (and some are still true to this date) one feels Burroughs' tastes for the seedy underground of drug and juvenile delinquents kept him from ever seeing a broader picture.

Re-reading The Yage Letters I felt as if Burroughs never really met anybody beyond the foreigners (he despised) and his casual sexual encounters with young men (that kept on robbing him) It struck me that he never seemed to experience what is wonderful not just about Yaje, but also about South America.

"When I started looking for Yage I was thinking along the line the medicine men have secrets the whites don´t know about. Most of these secrets turn out to be a con the Brujo puts down on the public so he can preserve a semblance of monopoly and everybody won't start brewing up the same mess in his own pot. Every Indian and most whites in the Amazon region from Colombia to Bolivia and on out to the Atlantic knows the Yage vine. The Brujos say they are the only ones competent to prepare it, two other secret plants must be cooked in the mixture, the Brujo has to croon over it and spit in it and shake a whisk broom over, otherwise the Yage is nowhere. And if a woman catches even a glimpse of these proceedings the Yage curdles on the spot and turns poison[ous]
The fact is Yage is Yage and anyone can prepare it in an hour or he has enough of the Yage vine. [...] The final result is 2 ounces more or less of black oily liquid. That is a dangerously strong dose — half the lethal dose — but it is standard in that area and it would not occur to them to take less or to take amount slowly. Indians are like that. They have a set way of doing things which they consider of its nature immutable."

It doesn´t occur the Burroughs that many people, knowing how to prepare ayahuasca, could choose not to do it by themselves, but do it instead under the care of a professional...

The first time Burroughs drinks he has a horrible time, distressed, he runs out of the maloca to throw up, he refuses the help of the curandero when it´s offered, and instead, he gulps down 5 Nenbutals to come down (these were the famous sleeping pills that Marylin Monroe used to kill herself.) After that Burroughs splits up from Schultes expedition, cooks his own batch of Ayahuasca and continues to drink by himself, as by now he believes that "the most inveterate drunk, liar and loafer of the village is invariably the medicine man"

Re-reading the Yage Letters I was constantly struck by the idea that Burroughs just didn´t get it, didn´t get South America, didn´t get Yage, didn´t get curanderismo. It´s as if he missed an entire set of experiences that will be familiar to most people who have spent some time in the Amazon drinking ayahuasca. I´m talking about simple things, such as experiencing the hospitality of strangers that turn into friends, and spending lazy evenings with them and their families... Nothing fancy or exotic, just basic human relations, which -in my own experience- can be one of the most rewarding things about traveling trough South America.

What Burroughs got out of Yage, many agree, was the basis of the "composite city" and the nightmarish worlds he'd later describe in the Naked Lunch.

Burroughs and Gisnberg

7 years later poet Allen Ginsberg followed Burroughs footsteps in search of Yage. He traveled to Pucallpa, where he describes an experience that seems much more familiar to modern Ayahuasca drinkers. He drinks in group, where -in spite of having a hard time- he feels well taken care of.

"Realization (over again) that the world is so illusory that what can be communicated, said, writ, in terms of human consciousness bears no relation to the Great Being who is complete in Itself and so perfect that no complaint need be made [.....] God cannot favor us over the mosquitoes without murdering & starving mosquitoes - So he lets us fight it out outside himself in chaos of Illusion, always retaining the Final Great Black Hole of Love to which we can return when we have been defeated or become tired of being separate individuals in creations [....]
Had laid out for long time [....] & Ramon had got up & told me to wrap myself in his mantle to protect form mosquitoes. A very kind gesture, I felt he realized I too had climbed up thu the Nose of God into Being the Same as Ramon - that we were all one, and this was a kindly gesture (wrought from afar by god) to protect me in my as yet delicate individuality - Later I went in the house, where they were (4 of them having drunk) sensing a great feeling of communal fraternity & sharing of realization of Infinite Intimacy - one old fellow on a bench, an albañil, moved over & motioned me welcome to to join him next to him to sit down. I saw that in Pucallpa they had their own secret transcendental nosy society, underneath very humane, in huts"

City Lights published The Yage Letters In 1963 (as well as Miserable Miracle, -what a title!- about Heri Michaux Peyote experiences.) That same year (1963) the Merry Pranksters embarked of the famous bus tour. Up to that point the main book about entheogens had been The Doors of Peception by Aldous Huxley about his mescaline experiences.

And whereas Wasson 1957 Life article about magic mushrooms sent seekers by the hundreds to the Oaxaca mountains, and Castaneda's 1972 books sent waves of hippies to the Yaqui and then (disappointed at the lack of entheogens) to the Huicholes. It seems like the number of anglo seekers who decided to search for Yage during the 60's/70's is so small as to be negligible (either that or they left almost no literature). My theory is that Burroughs' less-than-appealing tale overshadowed Ginsberg´s perhaps more "standard" account. Many people in the 60´s had heard of Ayahuasca (or Yage) but thanks to Burroughs they never felt like seeking it out.

And who knows, seeing how things played out in Huatla for María Sabina and her family, maybe it was better that way?

UPDATE:  here is the poem Ayahuasca by Ginsberg (1960) via turfing

by Allen Ginsberg
in my hotel room overlooking Desamparados’ Clanging Clock,
with the french balcony doors closed, and luminescent fixture out
“my room took on a near eastern aspect” that is I was reminded of Burroughs
with heart beating—and the blue wall of Polynesian Whorehouse, and
mirror framed in black as if in Black Bamboo-and wooden slated floor
and I in my bed, waiting, and slowly drifting away
but still thinking in my body till my body turned to passive wood
and my soul rocked back & forth preparing to slide out on eternal journey
backwards from my head in the dark
An hour, realizing the possible change in consciousness
that the Soul is independent of the body and its death
and that the Soul is not Me, it is the wholly other “whisper of consciousness”
from Above, Beyond, Afuera—
till I realize it existed in all its splendor in the Ideal or Imaginary
Toward which the me will travel when the body goes to the sands of Chancay
And at last, lying in bed covered my body with a splendid robe of
indian manycolors wool,
I gazed up at the grey gate of Heaven with a foreign eye
and yelled in my mind “Open up, for I am the Prince of eternity
come back to myself after a long journey in chaos,
open the Door of Heaven, My Soul, for I have come back to claim
my Ancient House
Let the Servants come forth to Welcome me and let Silent Harp make music
and bring my apparel of Rainbow and Star show me my shoes of Light and
my Pants of the Universe
Spread forth my meal of myriad lives, My Soul, and Show up thy
Face of Welcome
For I am the one who has dwelled in the secret Temple before,
and I have been man too long
And now I want to Hear Music of Joy beyond Death,
and now I am be who has waited to Welcome myself back Home
The great stranger is Home in his House of Joy.”
or words or thoughts or sensations & images to that effect.
Thus for an instant the Sensation of this Eternal House passed thru my hair
tho I couldn’t liberate my body from the bed to float away—
tho did glimpse the foot of the thought of the gate of Heaven—
Then opened my eyes and Saw the blast of light of the real universe
when I opened the window and looked at the clock on the R R Station
with its halfnaked man & woman with clubs, creators of time and chaos,
and down on the street where pastry venders sold their poor sugar
symbolic of Eternity, to Passerby-and great fat clanking beast of Trolley
with its dumb animal look and croaking screech on the tracks
Powered by electric life,, turned a corner of the Presidential Palace
where Bolivar 200 years ago in time planted a secret everlasting Fig-tree
and a fog from another life crept thru its own dimension
Past the cornice of the hotel and travelled downward in the street
To seek the river-had a bridge with little humans crossing, faraway
—and up in the hills the silver gleam of sunlight on the horizon thru thick fog
—and the Cerro San Christobal—with a cross atop and Casbah of poor
consciousness ratted on its hip—
and overall the vast blue flash & blast of open space
the Sky of Time, empty as a big blue dream
and as everlasting as the many eyes that lived to see it
Time is the God, is the Face of the God,
As in the monstrous image of the Ramondi Chavin Sculptured Stone Monument
A cat head many eyed sharp toothed god face long as Time,
with different eyes some upside down and 16 sets of faces
all have fangs—the structure of one consciousness
that waits upstairs to Devour man and all his universes
—turn the picture upside down—the top eyes see more than the human bottom rows
Indifferent, dopey, smiling, horrible, with Snakes & fangs—
The huge gentle creature of the Cosmic joke
that takes whatever form it can to Signify that it is the one that has come to its Home
where all are invited to Enter in Secret eternally
After they have been killed by the illusion of Impossible Death.
Lima, Peru
May 1960

UPDATE 2: A great summary of Burroughs in Perú (in Spanish) here

4 coments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent resource, thanks. I was in Iquitos and saw your talk that is posted here. One of the only useful presentation events at the conference (What a strange, strange event). Burroughs was one of the first things I re-read on my return and I totally agree with your conclusions posted, although I am interested in how Ginsberg and he play off each other to the reader. It is as if they represent both poles of the bad thinking I encounter in this territory. B's literary work resonated a LOT more on this pass though - Michael Taussig, whose work you have on the blog margins, mentions Cities of the Red Night a lot when he lectures on Shamanism and Ayahuasca... Anyway, thanks for the resource and the bi-lingual posts! Looking forward to close reading each post.

jeronimo m.m. said...


Thanks for your comments. I looked at your blogs, very nice work! I am very interested on the Michael Taussig lectures on Shamanism & Ayhuasca you mention. Are they available anywhere?

Anonymous said...

You know, there was a lecture at SVA here in NY that they said there would be a sound file of but it still hasn't been posted yet... there's not a lot of stuff online yet either, just a lecture at a Biennale in Sydney... Strange. If I see anything I'll pass it along for sure... He's a really really charismatic speaker and for my perspective is great because he's interested in art as a potential place for constructive change in academia/western thinking...

Anonymous said...

Burroughs _was_ an idiot ... and/but the pot-smoking city-mouse "literati" still swoon over him.