Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’

I finished Scientologist!  William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ by David S. Wills a few days ago and, for a book that focuses on something that some may see as detrimental to Burroughs’ reputation or intellectual credibility, I was often impressed by the sensitivity and objectivity that Wills brought to this book while also respecting Burroughs’ ideas.  Even with the best intentions, many writers that comment on the Beats either fail on the first front or the second: that is, they either fail at assessing the meaning of the more controversial experiences they had in common or fail to take the ideas of the writers seriously.  Even the close associates of the three main Beats (Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg) tend to fall into these traps.

As someone who has looked up to Burroughs as a literary and intellectual hero, I had mixed feelings about the news that And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks was going to be released.  Burroughs said it was not ready for publication and may never be, so releasing it after his death struck me as churlish.  When I finally read it, I found it to be an uneven but rewarding read.  The fact that it was edited and prepared for publication by James Grauerholz was also encouraging: Grauerholz had been a close friend and confidant of Burroughs since the late seventies and had made an adoring life’s work of curating and editing his bibliography.  If anyone could be trusted to represent the perspective of at least one of the two writers of Hippos, this guy would probably be it.  Because of my misgivings I had about Hippos, I waited a good couple years.  In fact, I read the Barry Miles’ biography Call Me Burroughs and saw the film Kill Your Darlings before reading the Burroughs/Kerouac novelization of what happened between Lucien Carr and David Kammerer.  So I knew basically what happened.

The afterward by Grauerholz was also a good read for the most part.  If Call Me Burroughs had any mention of the disagreement between Kerouac and Burroughs regarding the merits of the book, I don’t remember it.  Soon, though, Grauerholz latches on to a rhetorical point used by Carr’s defense lawyer: that Carr was defending his honor as a straight man.  Grauerholz seems to think that this defense had some justification in Carr’s real life motives.  Grauerholz says that the murder had to be caused by shame and youthful impulse, full stop.

Hippos says little of Carr’s abuse by Kammerer starting in childhood and presents the scenario as a lover’s quarrel between adults.  So, if one confines themselves to that text alone, it’s conceivable (but not likely or defensible imho) that someone might get that impression.  Holding strictly to the letter of Hippos, though, is dishonest when it comes from someone like Grauerholz, who would be familiar with the events themselves and all relevant documentation.  Since all the involved parties are deceased, we have to conclude that Grauerholz was venturing a personal opinion.  In the closing sentence, Grauerholz says that “Lucien took, or accepted, the life of his mentor and soft touch, his stalker and plaything, his creator and destroyer, David Eames Kammerer.”  Meaning, apparently, that he understands the story of Hippos as a tragic love story and nothing else.

What really gets to me about Grauerholz’ word choice is that it seems to reflect some knowledge of the length and depth of the abuse Carr experienced.  It’s more implied than stated (“creator and destroyer”), but it’s hard to get around just how flagrantly Grauerholz is romanticizing child abuse.  It’s also likely that Grauerholz is either experiencing or anticipating some projection that the more blind, diehard Beat devotees may bring to the party.  To those who have cared enough to read about it, it’s known that Ginsberg justified the death of Joan Vollmer as the product of Vollmer being a strong psychic “sender” and Burroughs a strong “receiver”.  That is, Vollmer wanted to die and telepathically compelled Burroughs to pull the trigger.  Purblind fans are typically hyper-defensive of the people they idolize and, in the case of Burroughs, may arrive prepared to victim-blame.

While some of this confusion and projection was definitely encouraged by Burroughs himself, what with his insistence that he was possessed by a demon known as Bradly Martin, Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin or The Ugly Spirit, there are other situations where it’s echoed by people who should know better.

Then there’s the other common mistake of Beat commentators, which is failing to take their ideas seriously.  One of the most flagrant examples of this I can think of is the graphic novel detailing the lives of the three central Beats (No I don’t remember who it was by or what it was called, and I’m sure if the author could be bothered to notice he wouldn’t mind).  To say nothing of the fact that it fails to take advantage of the abilities of the graphic novel medium and does nothing that couldn’t be done with a short tract, it absolutely refuses to engage with any of Burroughs’ ideas.  Reading that comic will literally not tell you a single detail of his actual work.

Part of this has to do with the fact that most readers are probably heterosexual and even within queer culture the legacy of Burroughs is not easily understood.  Not only was Burroughs queer but, while the word likely did not exist yet, he was probably America’s best and most lucid critic of heteronormativity for the entire time he was alive, along with the other institutional evils he targeted.  I realize that to some this may seem like either an obtuse or trivial thing to praise Burroughs for- which makes sense, seeing as it’s so darn subtle and permeates so much of his writing in such delicate ways as to be hard to notice.

And so much of his work was so far ahead of both the straight and queer cultural curve for so many decades. By the time Burroughs’ celebrity as a writer and anti-establishment icon was cemented in the seventies, gay rights had fallen into the second wave feminist fallacy of equating sameness with straight cis people with progress.  This predictably left trans and gender non-conforming people out in the cold, reviled by gays and lesbians as uncle toms, second wave feminists as misogynists and straight cis people as just icky.  At that point in American history, when conformity to traditionally gendered body and fashion norms was being espoused by many queer activists, criticism of heteronormativity was only just beginning to emerge as a priority for many.

The criticism of heteronormativity in the work of William S. Burroughs bears directly on the fine points explored in Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’.  At the time when Burroughs was a child and coming of age, there was simply no easily accessible way of normalizing any variation in sexual orientation or gender identity.  Burroughs, along with any American queer person, had to go through life being pathologized.

Both Scientologist! and Call Me Burroughs mention that Burroughs did not know how sexual procreation worked until he was in Harvard and both mention that it was a shocking and dismaying discovery for him.  As strange as this sounds, I think it lined up with his lived experience at that point and even has a dark consistency to it.  If you were queer in the early to mid twentieth century, imagine being treated as either ill or evil by both society and academia and then learning that heterosexuality is tied up with procreation.  On a visceral and emotional level, it makes sense that one would feel rejected by both humanity and nature.  Burroughs did not have a productive encounter with psychoanalysis until middle age, which meant by the time a medical provider helped him to accept his sexuality, he had lived with that internalized rejection by humanity and nature for a few decades already.  If one had gone through so much of their life being told that they’re both diseased and unnatural by society and academia, it’s not at all surprising that the scientific mainstream would appear to be hostile and unapproachable.

Since Burroughs’ pre-occupation with pseudo-science and fringe science was a factor in his eventual conversion to Scientology, it makes sense that Wills spends a lot of the book examining it.  Barry Miles did as well in Call Me Burroughs.  But out of everything I’ve read detailing Burroughs’ passion for orgone accumulators, E-meters, telepathy and space travel, I don’t think I ever read anything that mentioned the possibility that mainstream science, during the early and mid twentieth century, had probably galvanized resistance from queer people with their hostility.  If one was queer and as educated and intellectually hungry as Burroughs, the apparent failures of the scientific community would naturally compel you to wonder about variations of science that had been pushed to the margins or even superstition.  While many of the inventions and theories Burroughs latched onto turned out to be pseudo-science, the emotional drive toward pseudo-science makes complete sense given the time and place in which Burroughs lived.

If Burroughs’ homosexuality complicated his feelings toward both physical science and psychology, then the abuse he experienced as a child had to have cast an especially long shadow.  In fact, this experience came up more than once during Burroughs’ auditing sessions with Scientologists.  Evidently, the experience enabled him to open up about it in ways that his psychotherapy had not.

Wills’ exploration of Burroughs’ psychology and his attraction to fringe science sheds some light on common ideas throughout his work that could possibly inform a new reading of it.  I think this is especially relevant concerning the parts of Wills’ book outlining Burroughs’ fascination with the Scientologist concept of the reactive mind.

In Scientology, the reactive mind can be loosely compared to psychoanalytical concepts like the id and the subconscious.  The reactive mind is the layer of the psyche that is the most in touch with the body and the sensory apparatus and as it reacts to stimulation it can easily overwhelm conscious thought.  Not only does the reactive mind exert a powerful hold over the rest of one’s self that can rarely be understood or resisted, it also retains the imprint of any stimulation it ever encountered, exercising the same reaction if anything resembling a past event ever happens.  These imprints of past events are called engrams, according to Scientology.

The reactive mind differs from the subconscious, though, in that Scientologists believe that it’s a foreign entity that has invaded the minds of every living human.  This seamlessly meshed with Burroughs’ prior belief in possession and the demonic as well as the role that possession played in Burroughs’ understanding of his murder of Joan Vollmer.  One could argue that his belief in the spirit called Bradly Martin was a way of exonerating himself of the murder, or one could stick to the letter of Burroughs’ utterances and accept that, whether he was delusional or not, Burroughs had been truthfully reporting what he believed to have happened.  In either case, his belief in possession played a huge role in how he processed the killing of Joan Vollmer.

It’s hard to imagine something more welcome to such a person than the idea that the subconscious and it’s record of traumas is a foreign spiritual invader that can be purged.  In his book, David Wills details both the Scientologist explanation of the reactive mind and the ways in which Burroughs altered the concept according to his own reasoning.  If you’ve read the body of work called the “word hoard”, consisting of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express, you could probably think of a handful of different ways that Burroughs re-invented the reactive mind.  A few of the biggies actually converge on the topic of heteronormativity, these being Johnny Yen and the other half.

When the character Johnny Yen is introduced in The Soft Machine chapter called Case of the Celluloid Kali, he’s presented as a Venusian demon that embodies the gods of all religions and maintains all religion through making men and women both dependent on each other and pitted against each other in a zero-sum game in which someone must always win at the expense of the other.  Orgasm is presented as a natural consequence of the zero-sum tension and proof of its necessity; the “bait” offered to keep everyone invested in the tension.

The Ticket That Exploded contains a similar indictment of heteronormativity.  As Burroughs had made clear in prior works, he believed that men and women were whole in and of themselves and had no need to be “completed” by the other.  Not only are men and women naturally whole, according to Burroughs, but in their wholeness they are so different as to be naturally hostile to each other.  This naturally segues into Burroughs’ lifelong suspicion of women and the association he made in his mind between women and heteronormativity.  When looked at carefully, though, the stated origins of these thoughts lead back to the animosity Burroughs had for the psychological model of human nature that posited heterosexuality as universal and necessary, which naturally leads to models of society in which women and men need each other in order to be “complete”.

Getting back to The Ticket That Exploded, though: that book portrays heterosexuality as something that had been sewed by hostile aliens, rather how Scientologists view the reactive mind.  Put bluntly, this is how it worked in The Ticket That Exploded: two complete beings (the two sexes) are taught that they are incomplete.  Already, they are primed to chase the solution of a non-existent problem.  In the fictional universe of this book, the farce of heteronormative dependence is borne up by the common mythology of the soul and death, which itself echoes some psychoanalytic ideas.

Myth number 1 is that death is necessary: if death is necessary, then the soul, the non-physical state of the self, must also be there for continued existence afterward.  If one is prepared to entertain the idea of the soul because they believe death is unavoidable, then the soul is a category waiting to be filled.  Meanwhile, the malevolent Venusian puppet masters are growing parasites in the minds of everyone on earth.  Burroughs describes this parasite as “the other half” and it’s essentially an energy refinery that turns the human soul into consumable energy for the Venusians.  What the other half actually does should sound very familiar: it rests in your psyche and gathers a sensory record of every viscerally painful or pleasurable event that ever happened to you.  This happens by draining the sensory information of these traumas and ecstasies as soon as they happen, turning into a repository that your personal history is placed into in order to be consumed.  When you die, then, the only remaining part of yourself that your soul can be paired with is the record of things that have already happened.  This is basically a siphon that your soul disappears into in order to be consumed.  As Burroughs put it in the book, “the other half is you next time around”.

The other half naturally fills the function of the Freudian doppelgänger, a non-physical echo of the physical self that was originally meant to save the self from physical death, but later turns out to be mortal threat that depends on the certainty of death.  In Freud’s break down of the uncanny, the doppelgänger is a frightening concept because it needs us to die in order to exist and is perfectly proportioned to fill the void we would leave behind.

Anyway, in the fictional world of Burroughs’ “word hoard”: the two sexes are trapped, by malevolent aliens, in a mortal scramble for a kind of completeness that cannot exist since both sexes are complete to begin with.  The failure of the pursuit of completeness is explained by the inevitability of death and suffering and the expectation that the completeness should be there creates a category that can be filled by the alien puppet-masters.  This expectation of an unobtainable state of being sets the stage for the other half, the accumulation of your past traumas that will envelope your soul and consume it upon death.

This actually ties into a deeper pre-occupation with death and the afterlife that Burroughs kept with him until his very last writings.  Repeatedly, but most notably in The Western Lands and the two books proceeding it, Burroughs claimed that immortality was attainable and the expectation that death should happen was to be avoided at all costs.  For our purposes, though, it’s enough to gather that Burroughs equated death with the annihilation of the self and the institutions that furnished conventional notions of the soul and the afterlife, such as organized religion, were preparing human souls to be exterminated and in general preparing humans to anticipate their own destruction.  A world bound by the threat of a catastrophic and inevitable death, in this mythos, sets the stage for all of the other unsurvivable conditions that humanity is forced to tolerate, such as the unstable zero-sum game between men and women that heteronormativity creates.

Speaking of The Western Lands, the concept of the reactive mind even lasts as long as that book, which Burroughs wrote within a few years of his death.  The Western Lands contains a description of the soul derived from ancient Egyption mythology, as presented by Norman Mailer in the book Ancient Evenings, that is divided into tiers of different feelings and experiences that are struggling to bog down and consume the main self, such as the Ba (sexuality and earthly desire) and the machinations of the Sekem which derives energy from powerful emotional experiences.  There are benign manifestations of the soul, such as the Khu, which can protect your existence at its own expense, and the Ka, a benign doppelgänger whose existence hinges on your own and is the only one to be trusted.  Interestingly, none of the seven different souls are equivalent with your one true “real” self.

David Wills’ main assertion in Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ is that Scientology cast a longer and more fundamental shadow in Burroughs’ thoughts and work than most critics and commentators have allowed, and a reading of the work itself definitely bears that out.  Another fundamental claim Wills makes is that Burroughs’ trauma from childhood abuse also played a part in his tendency to succumb to dominant personalities.  Wills points out the whimsical flexibility that Burroughs applied to the idea of facts, which for him was whatever he subjectively connected with.  His fickleness with his skepticism in his personal life can actually be seen within many of his relationships.  Perhaps describing this as a fickleness of skepticism isn’t as accurate as, say, a willingness to believe certain things that allow him to resist a feeling of helplessness.  This could even be traced back to the childhood sexual abuse he experienced.

A professional nanny, who eventually exposed Burroughs to the man who abused him, was the first one to ever teach Burroughs magical curses.  After Burroughs was victimized, she threated to put a curse on him if he ever told anyone what happened.  It’s hard not to see a link between these events and his lifelong obsession with magic, spirits and the supernatural.  That Burroughs often claimed to magically influence things far removed from himself speaks to feelings of both power and helplessness before the wider world.  His mind turned to curses, more often than not: he was fond of telling a story in which he cursed someone who short-changed him.  After the curse had been cast, this person lost both of his hands in an accident with open gas fumes and fire.  I am not a clinician so I cannot diagnose anyone, much less someone who has been dead for over twenty years, but I think the role of trauma that David Wills explored in his book was apt and has far reaching implications.

My connection with the writing of William S. Burroughs is tied up with both my literary ambitions and my own strained and occasionally torturous experiences with coming to terms with my own queerness.  This book was a welcome opportunity to revisit a writer who occupies a special place in my heart and reflect on his work with the eyes of an older female-identified reader.  Since Burroughs’ thoughts about men and women were often conflated, in his mind, with his animosity toward heteronormative society, these reflections on Burroughs have been particularly eye-opening.  Since Burroughs did not often differentiate between his thoughts about women and his thoughts about heteronormativity, he would occasionally come off as misogynist.  His eagerness to emulate Brion Gysin only exacerbated this.  It was his deep and profound attack on heteronormativity, though, that helped me believe that I am sane even though so many other forces in society insist that I cannot be and to trust myself enough to be own judge of truth and untruth and to discern my own unique path and calling.

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