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Matthew Levi Stevens: The Magical Universe of William Burroughs
Published by Mandrake of Oxford 2014

§ Since he wrote his Last Words in July 1997, only to die of a heart attack weeks later, mythologies of William Seward Burroughs have continued to morph and multiply in magazines, documentaries and, increasingly, via critical studies. As long ago as 1971 Eric Mottram’s The Algebra of Need had analysed Burroughs’ discourse of addiction as a metaphor for consumerist society and its media - ‘the black magic of mass communications’.

Now - to name only a few publications - we have academic papers on ‘Burroughs in the Age of Globalisation’, a survey of his literary influences by Michael Stevens in The Road to Interzone, and an ‘authorised biography’ Call Me Burroughs by London counterculture survivor Barry Miles who had access to the archives of WSB’s literary executor James Grauerholz.

Burroughs Magucal Universe

Matthew Levi Stevens, however, has chosen to explore a previously taboo zone of the Burrovian mythos - not Burroughs’ interest in guns, nor the accidental shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer, nor his cameo role in the events surrounding the death of David Kammerer, as dramatised in the recent film Kill Your Darlings. Instead he has created a map of the private Interzone in which so many of Burroughs’ practices and preoccupations overlapped - the Occult.

Stevens is well versed in esoterica, having discovered the writings of Kenneth Grant and Aleister Crowley at an age when most boys would be playing football. He has also read Burroughs’ texts - novels, letters, articles, interviews - in great depth. But what anchors the work and gives it extra weight is a personal connection with his subject. As an intrepid schoolboy reporter he attended the Final Academy, a Burroughs-themed event at the B2 Gallery in London 1982, and asked the author of Naked Lunch what books on magic he could recommend. Burroughs suggested they ‘take the air’. The conversation that ensued as they wandered the streets of Wapping encapsulated many of the topics that Stevens explores in this remarkable book. Burroughs discussed psychic self-defence, African witch doctors, his quest for yage (ayahuasca) among Amazonian medicine men, using print or tape cut-ups as tools of precognition or subversion, astral travel - and his fear of ‘possession’. So Stevens surveys the many occult references in the fiction, like the ritual magic scenes in Cities of the Red Night or The Western Lands but also places Mr. Burroughs’ esoteric interests in the context of his life as a whole.

As a child young Billy was especially prone to nightmares and curious visions - tiny men playing among his toy bricks, ‘animals in the wall’. His mother Laura Lee Burroughs was a remote ethereal figure, interested in spiritualism, while the Irish family cook taught him such quaint folklore as ‘calling the toads’ and ‘the curse of the blinding worm’ In later life he struggled to fully recall a traumatic experience - possibly sexual abuse - that he had been subjected to by ‘Nursie’, his Welsh nanny. Stevens suggests that these episodes fostered a life-long sense of being surrounded or even possessed by hostile external forces epitomised in what he called ‘The Ugly Spirit’. In his teens Billy’s feeling of psychic isolation was reinforced by his emerging sexuality, at the homo-erotic end of the bi-sexual spectrum.

Certainly Burroughs constantly emphasised that his writing was a magical act, a counter-attack against external forces or exorcism of an internalised force. Even the word itself became suspect. The linear sentence as presented ‘at the end of that long newspaper spoon’ was a spell, a spiel of Control, that needed to be cut up and rearranged so that the secrets of the future could leak out and the implicate order - or Chaos - of the universe could be revealed. As he told the aspiring Crowleyite Jimmy Page, ‘There are no accidents in the world of magic…’ Dreams were another source of knowledge, not only supplying characters and sets for his fiction but offering glimpses of precognition.

If Burroughs’ magical universe had a geographical centre it would be the Beat Hotel in Paris where he collaborated with Brion Gysin in experiments with cut-ups, scrying stones and mirror-gazing. Stevens evokes the ambience vividly, describing Gysin ‘sitting cross legged in front of the mirrored armoire in his tiny room…for up to thirty six hours, tears streaming down his face from unblinking eyes, as friends passed him the occasional cigarette, cup of coffee or joint to keep him going…’ while Burroughs, in a similar process, ‘saw my hands completely inhuman, thick pink black fibrous, long white tendrils…And Jerry, who was sitting across the room, said “My God, Bill, what’s wrong with your hands`?”…’ Burroughs insisted that Gysin had shown him the face of Naked Lunch character Fats Terminal in a bead on an Arab necklace, exactly as Burroughs had imagined the ‘translucent foetal monkey’ while typing him into the text.

Stevens emphasises that Burroughs’ attitude to esoteric matters and avatars was eclectic, and sometimes iconoclastic. Although his notion of ‘will as the primary moving force in the universe’ has much in common with Aleister Crowley’s famous definition of Magick as ‘the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will,’ he thought most of Crowley was ‘not readable’ and liked to parody him in a drawling camp falsetto as ‘The Greeeaaat Beeeaaast…’ Indeed, a picture of Burroughs emerges as a hands-on magus with a pragmatic Mid-Western attitude to the esoteric. ‘I just want to know what I have to do’ It’s not surprising he embraced a kind of magical technology, encouraging his lover Ian Somerville, ‘the Subliminal Kid’, to develop the Dream Machine that was intended to induce trance visions through its rotating slits of light. An admirer of William Reich and the concept of orgone energy, he constructed several orgone accumulator boxes and would sit in them for hours , claiming significant enhancements to his sexual and creative energy. Another psychic technology that attracted him for a number of years was Scientology. Bill eagerly grasped the handles of the E-meter , perhaps in a quest to release the engrams of childhood trauma, and was audited up to the level of ‘Clear’, although he eventually wearied of the Church’s unquestioning obedience to the whims of its founder, Ron Hubbard.

But Burroughs’ favoured magical tool, part from the typewriter and razor blade, was probably the audio tape recorder. Over the years these experiments took many forms - creating random cut-ins and overdubs on his Grundig, conducting seances in his New York bunker with a Nagra, or roaming the city with his Carry-Corder cassette machine to deconstruct the reality of passers-by playing back the sound track of their street life. He allegedly used this technique with great effectiveness on the Moka coffee bar in Soho, where the staff had been rude and given him ‘poisonous cheesecake’. After several weeks of psychic bombardment from the pavement outside, the establishment closed.

Indeed, curses and magical battles are a recurrent theme. Brion Gysin abandoned the restaurant he owned in Tangier after finding a fetish object placed by disaffected staff in the chimney. And Burroughs was convinced that Ian Somerville’s death in a car accident was the result of a curse laid on him by a rival who had written a violent and libellous tirade against him in a magazine. He was also certain that his young aristocratic protege, the dissolute Mikey Portman aka ‘The Intolerable Kid’ had been cursed by a ‘junkie doctor’, Lady Pamela Frankau, who interfered with Burroughs’ plan to have him cured of addiction by Dr John Yerbury Dent’s apomorphine treatment, a therapy which apparently helped Burroughs for a while. In later years Portman’s servants could observe the young master half-naked in the drawing-room flagellating himself, crying ‘Victory to Aleister Crowley!’

Stevens has unearthed a wealth of such anecdotes. He has also discovered an unpublished memoir by Cabell McLean, a companion of Burroughs from 1976 to 1982 and collaborator on several books, notably Cities of the Red Night. On their first meeting at Naropa in Colorado, where Burroughs had been invited to teach, McLean had ‘the overwhelming impression of ancient wisdom. I realised that I was seeing the sheer weight of the Ugly Spirit on him. The spirit he had carried for so long, the spirit he had been trying to write his way out of since his wife Joan’s death…’

Burroughs made many attempts to expunge the Ugly Spirit, and towards the end of his life took part in a Sweat Lodge Ceremony in which a Najavo Indian shaman attempted to exorcise the possessing entity. Burroughs identified it as ‘monopolistic acquisitive evil…the Ugly American at his ugly worst,’ while the shaman told him it was ‘ a spirit with a white skull face, no eyes…’ Burroughs claimed that the exhausting ritual was ‘better than any psychoanalysis.’ With that and the companionship of his familiars, his beloved cats, he seems to have achieved a kind of peace in his last years.

William Burroughs LA 85

There’s overwhelming evidence, from the materials that Stevens has gathered and analysed, that exploration of the magical realms was the central focus of William Burroughs’ journey as a writer - which in itself was a quest for some ultimate truth about himself and his place in the universe. Given the lifelong intensity of his preoccupation, it can’t be written off as a posture. Nor can it be simply explained away in psychological terms as a response to a childhood episode. Although Burroughs was sometimes credulous or mistaken ( he seems to have thought The Necronomicon, a seventies hoax grimoire, was authentic) he recognised that phenomena like precognition and telepathy didn’t fit neatly into conventional scientific paradigms, and that there might be zones of consciousness beyond consensus reality, which he explored with reckless abandon, a pirate of the paranormal, like the Illuminates of the Order of Thanateros who initiated him in Chaos Magic in the early nineties . His work is weirdly prophetic. Like some gravel-voiced shaman he channeled the zeitgeist. Texts like Naked Lunch and Nova Express written over fifty years ago seem to resonate with uncanny prescience, offering foreshadowings of our wars with drugs and terror, our industrialised polysexuality, the ravages of our exotic plagues and viruses. Mektoub. ‘It is written…’

Stevens has woven the complex strands of Burroughs’ magical adventure into a highly readable narrative. It’s illustrated with numerous photographs and original art work by Emma Doeve and Billy Chainsaw. Whether you read it as a psychological profile, a striking literary biography or as a Magical Record of a Master, it offers unique insights into Burroughs’ inner space. Or as WSB might have said read it as inner Master Chainsaw illustrated with magical space Record…

© Paul A. Green 2014

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