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The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs

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I was a 14 year old schoolboy, and already a huge fan of William S. Burroughs, when I first made contact with Industrial Music pioneers Throbbing Gristle.  A year-or-so later I wanted to write something about them for a fanzine that I had put together with a loose collective of friends.  We were very much inspired by the DIY ethos of Punk, which as the end of the 70s ran into the 80s would fuel a veritable tsunami of underground ‘zines, and an attendant cassette-culture that saw ideas & images, sounds & words being exchanged around the world in a decentralized ‘movement’ that was like nothing so much as the internet – just before the computers. Throbbing Gristle were at the heart of this, of course, with their “Information War” attitude – which was in itself inspired by their readings of William S. Burroughs & Brion Gysin, as were their tape-recorder experiments.

No sooner had I met them than TG split, and one half became ‘Psychic Television Limited’, with its attendant Conceptual Art gag masquerading as Fan-Club pretending to be a Cult, ‘Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth’ (sic), and for a while I was part of an inner circle that revolved around a strange hybrid of the ideas of Occultists Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare as regards consciousness alteration, dream control, & “sex-magic” [TOPY running curiously parallel – and at times feeding into – the then-emerging Chaos Magic(k) scene in much the same way as Industrial had Punk], and equally the life & work of Burroughs & Gysin, with their Cut-Ups, Dreamachine, Playback, and Third Mind offering a kind of toolkit for similar ends. It looked like if the Revolution was going to be televised after all, then Psychic TV would be first in line to put in their bid for the franchise…

September, 1982, and William S. Burroughs is in town for The Final Academy. Psychic TV are prime movers, and thanks to Genesis P-Orridge I have a ringside seat. Everybody wants to get their books signed, or have their photo taken with “Uncle Bill” as he is affectionately known. I choose to do neither, deliberately. As well as the PTV connection, I am in touch with J. G. Ballard, Eric Mottram, Jeff Nuttall, and know Bill’s old pal Alex Trocchi; I am also a skinny, pale, intense, bookish young boy of nearly 16. I’m sure none of any of these details hurt. Eventually I am in just the right place at just the right time…

When I get a chance to speak to William in person, I ask him about Magic – very much a preoccupation of the scene at that time – and whether he would care to recommend any books on the subject? Without hesitation he mentions Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense, even though he qualifies it as “a bit old-fashioned.” Then, without prompting on my part, he begins to talk of Black Magic and Curses in Morocco, travelling with Medicine Men up the Amazon, and Astral Projection and Dream Control. I realise that for Burroughs all this is UTTERLY REAL, the “Magical Universe” in fact. He tells me about a dream he had as a young man, working as an exterminator in Chicago: of watching from a helpless Out-of-Body point of view, floating above the bed, as his body got up and went out with some unknown and sinister purpose that he was powerless to influence. With a shudder, he tells me that possession is “still the basic fear.”

He asks if I would like to “get some air” and we take a walk round the block. To break the ice, I talk about books: he is delighted to discover that I have read his beloved Denton Welch, also J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment With Time. I have found them in my old school library, and know both have been a tremendous influence on him in different ways. Aware of his interest I also mention that I have just read Colin Wilson’s The Quest For Wilhelm Reich, published the year before. He likes Wilson, he says, jokes that “the Colonel” with his cottage in Wales in Wilson’s Return of the Lloigor and his own Colonel Sutton-Smith from The Discipline of DE are one and the same.  On something of a roll, I mention Real Magic by Isaac Bonewits, and he acknowledges that it has “some good information” – but is much more enthusiastic about Magic: An Occult Primer by David Conway.

He talks about different kinds of perception, and I hear for the first time his famous remark that the purpose of all Art & Writing is “to make people aware of what they know but don’t know that they know.” He describes the ‘Walk Exercise’, in which you try to see everybody on the street before they see you – “I was taught this by an old Mafia don in Chicagosharpens your ‘Survival IQ’…  It pays to keep your eyes and ears open” – as well as an on-the-spot illustration of the theory of Cut-Ups as Consciousness Expansion:

As soon as you walk down the street like this – or look out the window, turn a page, turn on the TV – your awareness is being Cut: the sign in that shop window, that car passing by, the sound of the radio… Life IS a Cut-Up…

I ask him about Cut-Ups with tape-recorders, a hot topic at The Final Academy. Telling me about his experiments with ‘Playback’ (where recordings are made, cut-up, then played back on location, often accompanied by the taking of photos) he actually describes it to me with a chuckle as “Sorcery!

The Cut-Ups, Do Easy, Flicker, Playback: all of these are tools for deprogramming and self-liberation. And magic? “It’s ALL magic…”

This is not perhaps as surprising as it might first seem when you take into consideration a number of statements made in Ted Morgan’s excellent biography of Burroughs, Literary Outlaw:

As the single most important thing about Graham Greene was his viewpoint as a lapsed Catholic, the single most important thing about Burroughs was his belief in the magical universe. The same impulse that lead him to put out curses was, as he saw it, the source of his writing…’

To Burroughs behind everyday reality there was the reality of the spirit world, of psychic visitations, of curses, of possession and phantom beings…’

This of course leads neatly in to the theme of my ongoing research, of which this article is a kind of bulletin: The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs.

In talking about The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs I am really thinking of two things:

Firstly, and probably most obvious, is the material that appears in the output of Burroughs the Writer that can be seen as describing or referring to some magical, mystical or occult idea – Invocations of Elder Gods of Abominations, descriptions of Sex-Magick rituals, references to amulets, charms, ghosts, omens and spells – all the thematic set-dressing that we all know and love, from Hammer Horror Movies to Weird Tales, from H. P. Lovecraft to Dennis Wheatley and The X-Files

Secondly, and perhaps less obvious, there is the personal interest and involvement of Burroughs the Man with belief systems and practices that come from those strange ‘Other’ territories that lay outside the bounds of either conventional mainstream religion or scientific materialism – and in this I would include his explorations of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, Konstanin Raudive’s Electronic Voice Phenomena, Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Accumulator, and various other areas that can perhaps be considered ‘Fringe Science'(perhaps even ‘pseudoscience’), as well as ‘Contested Knowledge’ of a more Traditional kind: partaking of the Vine-of-the-Soul with Amazonian shamans, attending the Rites of Pan in the Rif Mountains outside Morocco, participating in a Sweat-Lodge with Native American Indian medicine men – and as we have seen, latterly an engagement with that most Post-Modern of Occultisms, Chaos Magic.

In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen. The dogma of science is that the will cannot possibly affect external forces, and I think that’s just ridiculous. It’s as bad as the church. My viewpoint is the exact contrary of the scientific viewpoint. I believe that if you run into somebody in the street it’s for a reason. Among primitive people they say that if someone was bitten by a snake he was murdered. I believe that.”

Norman Mailer once famously said that William S. Burroughs was “The only American novelist living and working today who may conceivably be possessed of genius” and as often as this was repeated down the years Burroughs himself was at pains to point out that it was not saying that he HAD genius or WAS a genius, but that he may at times have been lucky enough to be possessed BY genius.  When I interviewed him at The October Gallery in London in 1988 he had this to say on the subject:

To me ‘genius’ is the nagual: the uncontrollable – unknown and so unpredictable – spontaneous and alive. You could say the magical.”

The fact that his answer uses a term “nagual” derived from the world of the Yaqui Indian sorcerer, as described by Carlos Castaneda in The Teachings of Don Juan and subsequent books, is telling indeed…

…But there is also another kind of “possession” that was very much a concern for William Burroughs, Man & Writer. From an early age, as much as he felt a definite sense of being ‘Other’ and not really belonging or fitting in anywhere, and as much as he accepted the idea of the ‘Magical Universe’ described above, he was aware that an integral part of that Universe was that there were inimical – even hostile – forces that threaten us, that may need to be bargained with and from time-to-time appeased, and that one of the dangers posed is that of possession:

My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanations, with their dogmatic insistence that such manifestations must come from within and never, never, never from without (As if there were some clear-cut difference between inner and outer.) I mean a definite possessing entity.”

Later, in the Foreword for Queer (written in the 1950s but unpublished until 1985), Burroughs talks about the appalling circumstances of the so-called “William Tell” shooting accident (“just an unforgiveable piece of total… drunken… insanity“) that caused the death of his wife Joan Vollmer:

I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”

In 1991, Victor Bockris (author of With William Burroughs: A Report from The Bunker) visited his old friend at home in Lawrence, Kansas, to talk with him for Interview magazine. During a discussion about author Whitley Strieber’s alleged ‘Alien Contact’ experiences (and how Burroughs was finding the nineties “a very un-funny… very grim decade“), at one point Bockris is very upset about a “sense of being invaded” and the reply shows that for William S. Burroughs the old concerns had NOT gone away:

“…You are no more invaded than the rest of us. When I go into my psyche, at a certain point I meet a very hostile, very strong force. It’s as definite as somebody attacking me in a bar… What you have to do is confront the possession. You can do that only when you’ve wiped out the words.”

Earlier last year, Rub Out The Words: The Collected Letters of William S Burroughs 1959-1974 was published, and I was able to review it for Beatdom. Just as I was sending off mine, another appeared in The Independent newspaper here in the U.K., in which the journalist Tim Cumming described the creative collaboration of Burroughs & Gysin in these terms:

The two worked at the centre of a web of occult and artistic actions – painting, scrying, mediumship, telepathy, and the Cut-Up’s operations of chance…”  

It was a good review, for the main part in sympathy with my own appraisal, and perhaps the first time this particular emphasis had been made in a mainstream publication.

The letters in the collection are a window on that charged time, where Burroughs was beginning to experiment at The Beat Hotel in Paris: first with primary companion & collaborator (but never lover) Brion Gysin, who actually introduced him to Cut-Ups – then expanding their ‘Third Mind’ to include the young mathematician Ian Sommerville (who would help create the first prototype Dreamachine, as well as help with the tape-recorder experiments), film-maker Anthony Balch, and the even younger Michael Portman. Allen Ginsberg, perhaps somewhat resentful of being  displaced in his old friend-and-lover’s affections, later described him as “18 yr. old spoiled brat English Lord who looks like a pale-faced Rimbaud“; biographer Ted Morgan would describe Portman thus: “with the pouty lips and mischievous eyes of the Caravaggio Bacchus, the kind of face in which youthful self-indulgence is already tinged with decay.” If Ian Sommerville was the Third Mind’s ‘Technical Sergeant’ then ‘Mikey’ was its Medium: prone to trance states and highly suggestible, in 1961 he assisted Burroughs & Gysin as they attempted to raise the spirits of the Abramelin Working in an hotel in Marrakesh. He later developed a fanatical Crowley fixation, and when I became friends with Brion’s companion & collaborator Terry Wilson in 1980s London, he told me that when he visited Portman for the last time, he was scourging himself with a studded leather belt crying out “Victory to Aleister Crowley!” while his decorators looked the other way…

Years later in hotel rooms in London, and again in Brion’s tiny Rue de St Martin apartment in Paris, a similar role would be fulfilled by new ‘seekers’ such as Udo Breger, and in particular the aforementioned Terry Wilson: he would become (in Brion’s words) “an Apprentice to an Apprentice” and enable Gysin to distil his final and perhaps most enduring statement, Here To Go: Planet R-101 – a guidebook to ‘The Other Method’, as it is said magic is described in Morocco. It sits alongside The Job by Burroughs and their joint venture The Third Mind as veritable manuals of psychic exploration and resistance.

William S. Burroughs engaged with a number of methods & systems down the years: in the early 1950s travelling in South America he took Yagé, a brew made by Medicine Men from the ‘Vine-of-the-Soul’ (now better known as Ayahuasca), that was said to induce telepathy and put you in touch with the Ancestors – at one time travelling with Richard Evans Schultes (the ‘father of modern ethnobotany’, and fellow Harvard man). In Gysin’s 1001 Nights restaurant in Tangier he would meet “the first rich hippies” John & Mary Cooke, who were key early supporters of L. Ron Hubbard. After hearing more about them and their methods from Gysin at The Beat Hotel in Paris, there was an intensive period with Scientology: first in London and then at Saint Hill, East Grinstead (which was the ‘World HQ’ for a while in the 1960s, before ‘Ron’ took to the High Seas). Burroughs was on board long enough to be declared ‘Clear’ before falling foul of the Church’s ‘party line’ and deciding that Scientology was “a wrong number“; but even in the late 1980s he still spoke emphatically of the efficacy of some of their techniques, the uses of Auditing and the E-Meter, while deploring what he saw as the crypto-fascist, religious aspects of the cult (His friend, the Scottish Beat and fellow addict-writer Alex Trocchi was probably only half-teasing when he later told me “Bill was only interested in Scientology because he thought it would give him power over people.”) He also dipped into Erhard Seminars Training, and the Silva Mind-Control Method, and was enthusiastic about research into Parapsychology and Sensory Deprivation. For a while in the 60s in London he took a course called ‘Mind Dimensions’ that promised deep relaxation in a waking state, and attended workshops given by the psychic healer, retired army officer Major Bruce MacManaway: the group of about 20 would use trance and visualisations of a pillar of light – Burroughs felt that the Major had definite ability, though, and after asking for help with a bout of sciatica compared the laying-on-of-hands to the tingling he had experienced in Reich’s Orgone Accumulator. Later, back in America, at the urging of his friend Allen Ginsberg he would go on one of the Retreats of Tibetan guru Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, but The Retreat Diaries which record the experience show his ultimate divergence from Buddhism:

Telepathy, journeys out of the body – these manifestations, according to Trungpa, are mere distractions… [they] are all means to an end for the novelist. I even got copy out of scientology… Any writer who does not consider his writing the most important thing he does, who does not consider writing his only salvation, I ‘ ‘I trust him little in the commerce of the soul’.”

William S. Burroughs could be remarkably consistent over time – in his articles & interviews, during his time teaching at Naropa, and in person – as to the books he recommended, both those of a literary or poetic merit (such as his beloved Rimbaud or St. John Perse, or the prose of Jane Bowles or Denton Welch), as well as the more ‘esoteric’ [in respect of which I will append a short ‘Uncle Bill’s Recommended Reading’ list at the end of this article.] He has also spoken of the importance of Dreams and the influence of psychic factors in his work, for instance:

When I was writing The Place of Dead Roads, I felt in spiritual contact with the late English writer Denton Welch… whole sections came to me as if dictated, like table-tapping.”

Even towards the end of his life, William S. Burroughs’ engagement with The Magical Universe (and struggle against The Ugly Spirit) did not wane. The magical, psychic, spiritual and occult appear in his later fiction like never before, from depictions of astral travel and “sex in the Second State” to descriptions of actual rituals, referencing everything from Crowley & The Golden Dawn to the Myths of Ancient Egypt and even the Necronomicon… all interwoven with increasingly ‘neo-pagan’ concerns for the Environment, the impact on Man & Nature of the Industrial Revolution with its emphasis on ‘quantity, not quality’ and standardisation – as well as perceived turning points in History. His adoption of the Ancient Egyptian model of Seven Souls, continuing development of a very personalised myth of Hassan-i Sabb?h and the Assassins of Alamut, and resistance to Christianity (“the worst disaster that ever occurred on a disaster-prone planet… virulent spiritual poison…”) made him of increasing interest and relevance to the new occultists who were emerging from successive generations of counter-culture that Burroughs had helped to shape through the example of his Life & Work.

But there was also still the loss, the pain, and – perhaps more than ever? – The Ugly Spirit. During the writing of With William Burroughs, Victor Bockris relates how Burroughs would attend a séance to try and make contact with the spirit of Ian Sommerville, as well as another lost amigo. Through the auspices of John Giorno, he would have an audience with His Holiness the Dudjom Rinpoche, who specialized in “locating people who have died and informing the interested party as to their well-being.”

After settling in Lawrence, Kansas – a small University town, far from the distractions & temptation of New York, and very much a reminder of his Mid-Western background in St. Louis, Burroughs became friends with William Lyon, a Professor of Anthropology who had been apprenticed to Sioux Medicine Man Black Elk. A full sweat-lodge purification ceremony was arranged in an attempt to evict ‘The Ugly Spirit’, which was described by the shaman Melvin Betsellie as:
a spirit with a white skull face, but no eyes, and sort of . . . wings

Burroughs was impressed by the “strength and heart” of the medicine man, and felt that just to clearly identify the ‘enemy’ in such terms was in itself something of a victory:

If you see it, you gain control of it. It’s just a matter of, well, if you see it outside, it’s no longer inside.”

Five years later in 1997, the 83-year-old Burroughs was initiated into an American Chapter of the leading Chaos Magic group, the Illuminates Of Thanateros – and lest the reader mistakenly assume that this was some sort of honorary degree conferred by a group of admirers, I quote from Doug Grant, who first bonded with Burroughs over a shared interest in Hassan-i Sabb?h, and was Chapter-Head for the IOT in the United States at the time that Burroughs was initiated as ‘Frater Dahlfar.23′:

William did not receive an honorary degree, he was put through an evening of ritual that included a Retro Spell Casting Rite, an Invocation of Chaos, and a Santeria Rite, as well as the Neophyte Ritual inducting William into the IOT as a full member…
Though it is not included in the list of items buried with William, James Grauerholz assured me [he] was buried with his IOT Initiate ring.

Perhaps this was not such a surprising development. Chaos Magic clearly felt a debt to Burroughs and his peers, and as I have already remarked, the parallel development of Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth shared many of the same concerns: demystifying magic yet at the same time distilling the best from Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare, while taking advantage of the latest ideas emerging in computers, maths, physics & psychology. With the experiments started at The Beat Hotel with his artist/computer-programmer/film-maker/mathematician/poet friends that he then took out onto the streets of London, Paris, & New York, William S. Burroughs was recognised as a definite pioneer and precursor: and with the later connections established through a younger generation of artist-occultists, the link from ‘cosmonaut of inner space’ to ‘psychonaut’ was assured.

Although there is a vast wealth of material pertaining to The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs that I could heartily recommend for further reading, I have decided to try and keep things a little streamlined: the first list is a collection of key works by or about Burroughs, Gysin, and their collaborators that can be considered as my selection of essential texts, the second is a list of specific titles that William S. Burroughs himself recommended or referenced throughout his Life & Work.

Throughout 2013 I will be working on expanding this essay into a full-length book, which I hope to have completed in time for the 100th anniversary of William’s birth next February. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you are interested, feel you have something to contribute, or wish to be informed of progress. All feedback is welcome. Thank You.

Matthew Levi Stevens is a writer & researcher. Please see


Here To Go: Planet R-101 – Brion Gysin Interviewed by Terry Wilson
The Job: Topical Writings and Interviews – William S. Burroughs with Daniel Odier
Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs – Ted Morgan
Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin – John Geiger
A Report From The Bunker: With William Burroughs – Victor Bockris
Rub Out The Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974 – Ed. Bill Morgan
The Third Mind – William S Burroughs & Brion Gysin
Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the “Weird Cult” – David S. Wills

Uncle Bill’s Recommended Reading:

Breakthrough – Konstantin Raudive
Journeys Out of the Body – Robert A Monroe
Magic: An Occult Primer – David Conway
Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain – Sheila Ostrander & Lynn Schroeder
Psychic Self-Defense – Dion Fortune
Real Magic – Isaac Bonewits
The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge – Carlos Castaneda


Image by Abode of Chaos, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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