Review by Marc Olmsted
“There’s something on the E-meter known as the floating needle–when a release point is reached, the needle floats. It is a very relaxed, pleasant, very high feeling, similar to the effect of hallucinogenic drugs. You hold that point, and with practice you can do it at will.” –William S. Burroughs, London 1972
The cover of David S. Wills’ new and thorough account of the Naked Lunch author’s exploration of this “weird cult” features Charles Gatewood’s photo of Burroughs holding this E-meter (a device similar to a lie detector that Scientologists use supposedly to cut through conditioning). The quote comes directly from Gatewood’s Facebook page. Later, Gatewood gave the source, the very recently published William S. Burroughs: Cut (The Future of the Past) by Ian MacFadyen (Axel Heil, ed.). There is a similar, shorter quote in Wills’ text, but Gatewood’s gem is worth stating. It shows exactly what Burroughs found.
What Wills manages to demonstrate in detail is the impact, depth and ambivalence that Burroughs experienced in his exploration of Scientology, which in some ways mirrors the writer’s on-off relationship with opiates while publicly talking of a cure such as apomorphine and “the algebra of need.”
Allen Ginsberg weighs in on Burroughs’ Cut-Up method in this book, and the quote suddenly illuminates precisely the parallel with Scientology:
“In fact, the cut-ups were originally designed to rehearse and repeat his obsession with sexual images over and over again…so that finally the obsessive attachment, compulsion and preoccupation empty out and drain from the image. In other words, rehearsing and repeating it over and over, and looking at it over and over, often enough. Finally, the hypnotic attachment, the image, becomes demystified.”
As Wills points out, this could easily be describing the “auditing” process of Scientology to achieve “Clear,” which Burroughs actually accomplished.
For those unfamiliar with the Cut-Up, an accidental razoring of newsprint in artist Brion Gysin’s 1959 Beat Hotel Paris studio yielded a curious mismatch that made surreal sense to Burroughs, along the lines of his novel title Dead Fingers Talk. Further deliberate experiments began to reveal hidden meanings and prophecies to the two stoned-out friends. At the very least, it rocketed prose into the world of painting, where image and collage no longer followed a linear arrangement. Gysin also interested Burroughs in Scientology.
The underlying thesis Willis presents is an essentially contradictory split in Burroughs’ presented literary persona – El Hombre Invisible of Spockian Logic, the self-named “factualist”, was at the same time the easy mark of a variety of out-there and crackpot cure-alls. The basis for this vulnerability is credited to his undeniably wounded youth of well-documented biography and later grownup broken hearted “old queen” – for instance, weeping in Tangiers, on Jack Kerouac’s shoulder over Allen Ginsberg in Jack’s Desolation Angels.
While Willis never seems wrong in his collection of information, setting out with this thesis as an overview naturally colors his conclusions. For instance, Wilhelm Reich is lumped in with L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. There are parallels to be sure, but just as Wills tells us that Charles Manson and Burroughs were both intrigued with Scientology, Reich’s explorations are not the same as Hubbard’s moneymad organizational schemes. (Ed Sanders had to remove the Scientology connection in his excellent Manson book, The Family, but it has resurfaced with factoids in Jesse Brevin’s Squeaky.)
Reich, probably exclusively due to Burroughs, had an influence on Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as well. Reich was a Freudian protege like Carl Jung. Well known, Jung went to explore the psychic or spiritual realms with a scientific eye grounded in psychoanalysis, Lesser known, Reich’s studies led to his belief in a bio-electric field (orgone) through the body, animated by breath, similar to the notion of chi in Chinese medicine or prana in Hinduism.
Where Reich became a “fucking idiot” as Burroughs is quoted calling him in this book, was his absolute lack of empathy in his critics as having a sensible skepticism – Reich became increasingly strident and condescending as he went further and further with his experiments. Sex entered into the picture almost immediately – a healthy body, “unarmored” by neurosis, discharged and charged fully during orgasm (The Function of the Orgasm) . He claimed that such a healthy orgasm was a preventative of cancer. He built a device that he felt created an increased charge to the body (alternating walls of organic and inorganic material, like wood and steel wool), which he called the Orgone Accumulator. This is what Burroughs built in his Texas backyard and what is immortalized in On the Road. Kerouac also discusses Reichian theory in The Subterraneans. Ginsberg even saw a Reichian therapist for a time. Claims of cancer cure brought the FDA down on Reich, but there is little doubt that his sexual writings helped fan the flames, though Reich was a serial monogamist and frankly uptight (like Freud) about homosexuality. Still, Wills seems to think the FDA’s dismissal of Reich is definitive science, later summing Reich up as “a paranoid kook.”
Reich’s studies did become increasingly science fiction in form, involving flying saucers and weather control. Many of his loyal students drew the line there. Reich died broken and thoroughly mad in prison, imagining the plane passing over his cell was Eisenhower secretly assuring him telepathically that he was correct but his findings where too powerful to unleash on America as yet. Reich’s aggressive confidence and final delusions suggest an untreated and cyclic mania, but I don’t believe they discredit his earlier theories.
But Wills also seems to think Burroughs was gullible in being hell-bent on finding the “telepathy plant” yage’, which is now one of the most intriguing drugs to ethnobotanists, known mostly as ayahausca. My own psychedlic experiments are behind me, but I have been told there’s a very special quality to this drug to gain such attention.
What we see in both cases is that Burroughs was repeatedly on the cutting edge of investigating the interdependence of phenomena, body and mind, and Wills proposes it unseats Burroughs as an actual scientist because he also allowed intuition to be part of his tool kit, or used his brain as an empiric lab.
The summation of Scientology that most of Burroughs’ readers are familiar with is that he found “auditing” of interest, but the organization fascist. (Co-terminously, Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism explores fascism’s sexually blocked underpinnings.) What Wills shows is that Burroughs was a complete convert at various times, and that Burroughs’ involvement went on for nearly a decade. Though I have no interest in investigating Scientology, it appears that Burroughs did find something of worth there, which Wills seems to deride. Burroughs never rose high enough in the ranks (for instance, Operating Thetan) to get the “inside scoop” on L. Ron Hubbard’s pulp sci fi creationist myths that are now outed in comedy sketches and celebrity tabloids – the alien Xenu et al – but he learned of them with the rest of us, and was unimpressed to say the least. Still, one wonders if Burroughs heard some Church whispers, since his own humorous science fiction routines at times echo this ludicrous mythos.
The best critique of Scientology comes in a recorded transcript of Burroughs and Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa at Naropa Institute in 1975 found in its same-year publication Loka 2. Wills, almost laughably, sums up Trungpa as someone “who drank a lot and had a tendency towards violence.” Besides the fact that this same summation could be used to describe a number of long dead historical masters in both Tibetan Buddhism and Zen, it probably originates from a private retreat’s drunken Halloween party in 1975 well-documented in Ed Sanders’ The Party and Bill Morgan’s bio of Ginsberg, I Celebrate Myself. Still, Burroughs was definitely friendly with Trungpa, and like his relationship with a number of Tibetan lamas such as the Dudjom Rinpoche Willis mentions, considered Trungpa to be profoundly psychic.
BURROUGHS: See, you’ve got a series of tape recorders in your brain, and…you can wipe out a recording.
TRUNGPA: I think the problem is that you still have the tape-recorder in your brain.
If I may rephrase, Scientolgy does not cut through the sense of an individual self, the essential problem according to Buddha. From a Buddhist view, that is where Hubbard goes metaphysically fascist – where “super control freak” is pinnacle in the psychic food chain.
However, Burroughs seems to have taken his Cut-Ups further than Hubbard ever went, well before his in-depth Scientology investigations, In a 1961 letter that he wrote to Ginsberg (years before any reliable translation of related Tibetan texts), Burroughs explained his process of detachment from the notion of a self:
I am not talking mystical “greater awareness.” I mean complete alert awareness at all times of what is in front of you. LOOK OUT NOT IN. No talking to SO CALLED SELF. NO ‘INTROSPECTION.’ Eyes off that navel. LOOK OUT TO SPACE. This means kicking ALL HABITS. Word HABIT. SELF HABIT. BODY HABIT. Kicking junk [a] breeze in comparison. Total awareness = Total pain = CUT. (Miles, The Beat Hotel)
Ginsberg later remarked about Burroughs that “. . . he emptied his soul out and entered at last the open blue space of ‘Benevolent indifferent attentiveness’ characteristic of later phases of his art” (Forward, Burroughs, Letters to Allen Ginsberg).
Though his editor and longtime friend James Grauerholz has dismissed Burroughs’ connection to Buddhism, I suggest its pith was not lost on the author – enough to justify Burroughs’ own “homemade Yankee tantra” as Ginsberg called it. Burroughs never called himself Buddhist or embraced its “ism”, but he remained fascinated until the end. Gelek Rinpoche, Ginsberg’s teacher after Trungpa’s death, recalled in a public lecture a phone call from Burroughs asking about the bardo (the gap state after death), and Ginsberg said that “Gelek Rinpoche told me, ‘You people: Burroughs, you, Kerouac will all go the heaven for introducing dharma to this country.'” (Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography, 2nd revised edition) Rinpoches (literally “Precious Ones”) Gelek and Tharchin independently performed after-death rites for Burroughs.
Also mentioned by Wills, Burroughs and Hubbard both shared an interest in Aleister Crowley, the controversial ceremonial magician who holds a place with Burroughs on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers album. Burroughs still quotes Crowley in his 1990 libretto for Tom Waits’ Black Rider: “Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law!” and according to Wills, mentions Crowley as late as 1996. Hubbard, on the other hand, ended his occult connection by swindling famous Crowley student Jack Parsons and stealing his girlfriend before moving on to create Dianetics, later claiming he was a heroic secret agent investigating Crowley’s magical order O.T.O for Naval Intelligence during WWII. Wills calls the Parsons/Hubbard magical operations “black” without qualifying the term. “Black” as in merely sinister to Wills, or actually harmful? My own research suggests the former. Crowley may seem more up Hubbard’s alley with his Nietzschean dictum, but a closer examination will show that Crowley, too, was interested in transcending a self into the kabbalistic Zero, the antithesis of Hubbard’s “enlightenment.” Along the lines of Burroughs’ interest in Reich, one of Crowley’s direct and foremost students, Israel Regardie, actually became a Reichian therapist and wrote on of the best bios of Crowley, Eye in the Triangle, framing his discussion in Reichian theory. Ironically, poet Kenneth Rexroth, operating from rumor alone, felt compelled to condemn Chogyam Trungpa for that same previously mentioned 1975 Halloween party by saying, “One Aleister Crowley was enough for the Twentieth century.” Hubbard, on the other hand, may have more in common with Ginsberg’s remark on what went wrong with Charles Manson: “I think he solidified on the Void.” Both Crowley and Trungpa would likely have agreed that such a conclusion, ego believing itself enlightened, is what’s truly Satanic.
There is little doubt that Scientology has its limits, leading to an endgame of glorified ego. It is in many ways the same endgame that Adolph Hitler misinterpreted in the writings of Frederick Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s own writings suggest a Crowleyan mystical direction – Will as a sort of “crazy wisdom” beyond self (similar to Buckminster Fuller’s book title I Seem to Be a Verb) – a view that likely Hitler, Hubbard and Manson all erroneously believed they had attained.
Burroughs learned what he could from Scientology and moved on. David S. Wills presents a page-turning account of this, an indispensable read for any Burroughs scholar, whether academic or autodidact. Rub out your own hesitation, pick up a copy and edify your mind, my dear.
William S. Burroughs and the “Weird Cult”
by David S. Wills