Yage Letters, The


Yage Letters, The
by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg
(1963)
   This epistolary “novel” provides early examples of William S. Burroughs’s writing that will later find themselves in naked luncH, and it is also a fascinating document about Burroughs’s search for the ultimate drug and how it inspired allen ginsberg to follow him on this hallucinogenic journey. Though not a grand literary achievement, The Yage Letters nonetheless provide key insights to Burroughs’s and Ginsberg’s work. Letters from the book appeared in the periodicals Big Table, Kulchur, City Lights Journal, and Black Mountain Review. The “routine” “Roosevelt After Inauguration” from The Yage Letters was first published by LeRoi Jones/amiri baraka in Floating Bear, which was seized and had an obscenity case brought against it. The Yage Letters were also an inspiration for janine pommy vega’s yage experience beautifully described in trackinG The serpent: journeys to four continents. The Yage Letters is a key work for establishing the “pharmo-picaresque” literary genre and for popularizing the drug yage, which was on the margins of the ethnobotanical field at a time when such scientific research was only just emerging.
   At the end of his first novel, junky, Burroughs using the persona William Lee tells the reader that he is heading for South America in search of the “final fix”—a drug called yage, which supposedly gives one telepathic powers. Ayahuasca, also known as yage or Banisteriopsis caapi, is a jungle vine that is used in a psychoactive potion in South America that produces intense hallucinatory visions, has long been central to shamanic traditions throughout the region, and is still used by indigenous peoples as well as in newer vegetal churches and by Western tourists (such as the musician Sting). In the follow-up to Junky, Burroughs’s queer, Lee actually makes this trip in search of yage, along with his paid companion, Eugene Allerton (based on Lewis Marker). However, Lee is unsuccessful in locating a supply of yage. The book ends with Allerton deserting Lee in the jungle and with Lee, after an unspecified period of time, returning to Mexico City to find him. This gap in time after Allerton deserts him and Lee returns to Mexico is filled in by The Yage Letters, which describes Burroughs’s discovery of a supply of yage and his subsequent experiments with the drug under the tutelage of a brujo, or witch doctor. These experiences would supply Burroughs with some of his most powerful and original imagery in his books for many years to come.
   Burroughs traveled first to Panama and then into South America in early 1953. He combined actual letters with work from notebooks that he kept of his travels in this work. The epistolary form of the work was not decided until after he returned from Latin America. Some of Ginsberg’s letters are not addressed to Burroughs. The epilogue contains a Burroughs cut-up text that reworks parts of the previous text into a collage. This is a hybrid text with two authors and multiple writing forms that were written during a 10-year period—composite, collaborative, and indeterminate. The Yage Letters is also generally overlooked by Burroughs scholars. In the opening scenes in Panama, Burroughs describes Bill Gains (based on Bill Garver, the junky and Times Square hustler who taught Burroughs how keep up a habit by stealing overcoats in New York in the mid-1940s). The Panama scene of boys swimming in the polluted waters of a bay that fronted the U.S. Embassy recurs in several of Burroughs’s novels. As he proceeds to Colombia and Peru, he picks up other stories and images that recur in his works: A detail from these letters that surfaces frequently in his works is the street scene in Guayaquil, Colombia, where kids sell cigarettes with the cry of “A ver Luckies,” meaning, “Look here, Luckies.” Burroughs writes, “Nightmare fear of stasis. Horror of being finally stuck in this place. This fear has followed me all over South America. A horrible sick feeling of final desolation.” In Putumayo, he hears of a grasshopper with a sting that induces a sex frenzy, the basis of routines in Naked Lunch and elsewhere. Macoa, the capitol of Putumayo, comes to stand in for all of the “end-of-theroad” towns in Burroughs’s fiction (see, for example, The place of dead roads). He is accompanied to Macoa by a Dr. Schindler, identified by Oliver Harris as Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, the “father of ethnobotany,” a pioneer botanist who conducted research on peyote at Harvard in the 1930s. It is outside of Macao that Burroughs locates a supply of yage and is introduced to a brujo who can administer the drug. The effect of the drug is profound. Burroughs has been told that he will see a great city, and he does, the “Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market.” These descriptions make their way directly into sections of Naked Lunch and other works. His experience of yage as “space-time travel” is crucial, for Burroughs’s books become literary experiments along those lines, constantly shifting locations and time periods. He would attribute his yage visions as well to his development of a means of communicating beyond “words” and in juxtaposed visions, a hallmark of Burroughs’s collage-style and cut-up technique of writing. Ginsberg followed Burroughs on the ayahuasca trail seven years later. Ginsberg’s experience with the drug was somewhat different than Burroughs’s. Ginsberg felt himself facing his own death, and although death would allow him to answer the questions about the universe that obsessed him, he says that he chose not to know these answers out of compassion for those whom he would leave behind (especially his companion Peter Orlovsky). Ginsberg’s experience on the drug has recently been clinically confirmed. DMT, the active chemical compound in yage, has been studied for its ability to induce a so-called “near-death” experience. The experience made Ginsberg realize that he did not have the same nerve as Burroughs.
   The ayahuasca experience for Ginsberg was important because horrific “trips” taught him that his attempts to gain a “new vision” was really a death wish and that the way to understand reality was not by leaving the body but by more consciously inhabiting it (“incarnate body feeling”). This realization was reinforced on his Indian trips and culminated in the poem “The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express,” which marks the end of his attempts to re-create his 1948 Blake visions. Burroughs, on the other hand, had already moved beyond the kind of consciousness that Allen was seeking in 1960. He was deeply into the cut-up experiments that were inspired by Brion Gysin. Language, he says, is a virus, and the virus, he believes, is used by outside controllers to keep human beings enslaved through ignorance. Stop trying to see “the Universe,” he tells Ginsberg; we are the Universe’s “mark,” and “whoever paid off a mark?” For Burroughs, then, the ayahuasca visions provide him with the imagery of space–time travel that is revealed to those who have “cut-up” the words and images that were supplied by the controller’s “reality film.” Burroughs’s final entry in the book “I Am Dying, Meester?” overlaps the second and third revised editions but not the first edition of The soft macHine, and it illustrates how Burroughs made fictional use of his South American experiences in the wildly experimental “Cut-Up Trilogy” of the 1960s.
 Bibliography
■ Burroughs, William S. The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959. Edited by Oliver Harris. New York: Viking, 1993.
■ Burroughs, William S., and Allen Ginsberg. The Yage Letters Redux. Edited by Oliver Harris. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006.
■ Rudgley, Richard. The Encyclopaedia of Psychoactive Substances. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
   Rob Johnson and Oliver Harris

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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