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Sunday, January 17, 2016

=Book recently read: The Yage Letters Redux by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg=

Well it sure seemed a long way to go for crushing headaches, vertigo, gut-rending nausea, & psyche-shredding death-anxiety. I can get the same effect sitting at the kitchen table just by talking myself into a panic attack. Which is why I never found any appeal in taking drugs, or for that matter, imbibing alcohol. More than two lite beers and I'm hallucinating my imminent death. It was never a question of morality that kept me drug and disease free—but of cowardice and a hyperactive psychosomatic imagination. Conversely, the chance that Yage would prove to be the holy grail of psychotropic drugs was an opportunity too great to resist & outweighed all the risks involved—incarceration, robbery, jungle diseases, murder—for  a pair of intrepid spiritual explorers like Burroughs and Ginsberg. And surely they were right in one sense: their search for and experience of Yage changed their lives and their writing forever. Still, you have to wonder. Couldn't this pair of would-be literary shamans have used the plentiful supply of drugs closer to home? No…no…in the end no. I maintain it was the "quest" part and not the drug itself that was the most effective active agent in their transformation.

This book is the latest incarnation of the (in)famous letters between Burroughs and Ginsberg chronicling their efforts to track down the shamanic vine. The bulk of the book consists of Burroughs' letters and the best part of them is his trademark deadpan delivery of his itinerary, complete with acerbic commentary on the god-awfulness of the human race in general. He details corruption and deceit of every kind at every level, from local government officials to medicine men, from U.S. business agents in the area to the indigenous (and indigent) boys he pays (as little as possible) for sex and who steal from him mercilessly. He spares us nothing and no one and he doesn't spare himself either, does Uncle Bill, chronicling his own depravities with a commendable, if cheerfully cold-blooded, objectivity that convinces you all over again that he probably wasn't ever really entirely of this world. 

But while the book belongs to Burroughs and his mock-scientific tone,  the most emotionally effecting part of this assemblage of letters, appendices, and notes belongs to Allen Ginsberg—a heartbreaking dark-night-of-the-soul prose poem in which he attempts to come to grips with his mortality and the mortality of everyone he loves. The rest of Ginsberg's input has that trippy 1960s 'angel-headed hipster' flower-power feel to it that just seems a little goofy nowadays. The world took a darker, Burroughsian turn than Ginsberg—and perhaps anyone—foresaw. Uncle Bill was the keener prophet. He saw clearer what was coming up through the windshield—and who was driving.

Here the two men sum up, individually, their conclusions
following their Yage Experiments:

I must give up the attempt to explain, to seek any answer in terms
of cause and effect and prediction, leave behind the entire structure
of pragmatic, result seeking, use seeking, question asking Western
thought. I must change my whole method of conceiving fact.

A Materialistic consciousness is attempting to preserve itself from
Dissolution by restriction & persecution of Experience of the 
Transcendental. One day perhaps the Earth will be dominated by 
the Illusion of Separate consciousness, the Bureaucrats having 
triumphed in seizing control of all roads of communication with
the Divine, & restricting traffic. But Sleep & Death cannot evade
the Great Dream of Being, and the victory of the Bureaucrats of
Illusion is only an Illusion of their separate world of consciousness.

Still the best two pages of the book belong to Burroughs. In 
response to a quavering Ginsberg, who wonders how to handle
the mortal terror of death and dissolution that Yage calls forth,  
Burroughs issues a characteristically disdainful proclamation of 
total revolt for any solutions, to the very idea of a solution…for 
that matter, to the notion that there is a "problem"at all. As always,
for Burroughs, the whole point is to get beyond the limitation
of the "merely human." As always, we are "here to go." Yage 
is another way to achieve escape velocity.

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