William S. Burroughs & Allen Ginsberg
The Yage Letters Redux.
City Lights Books, 180 pages, $13.95
reviewed by Anthony Daniels
It is a sign of the times, I suppose, that Oliver Harris, a professor at a respectable British university, can devote his scholarly endeavor to the study of the life and works of William Burroughs, not as a case history of psychopathology, or as an example of how bad writing can sustain a large reputation among weak-minded intellectuals, but as if his literary output were worthy of serious consideration. A third of this volume is devoted to the professor’s minute and scholarly reconstruction of how The Yage Letters came to be published in its present form (we learn, for example, that one part of it was first published by the no doubt aptly named Fuck You Press), which is as if all the resources of biblical scholarship were utilized to explicate the provenance and deeper meaning of The Wind in the Willows. In an age of academic hyperinflation, there is, it seems, no subject that does not find its scholar.
The book mainly consists of Burroughs’s epistolary reports of his quest for a South American psychedelic substance prepared from the bark of a wild vine, together with a few interjected pieces by Allen Ginsberg which read like an adolescent’s attempt to describe his first experience of the oceanic feeling, to which, because of the egotism natural to youth, he ascribes transcendent significance.
Burroughs and his ilk believed that wisdom and knowledge could result from the process of altering one’s mind with chemicals—a lazy illusion that recurs throughout much of history. In fact, the main effect of the hallucinogenic yage on Burroughs appears to have been transcendently powerful nausea, and if he gained any insight into the nature and purpose of existence thereby, it does not emerge from these pages.
Much of this very short and slight book is taken up with a travelogue which is mildly diverting, though Burroughs’s reaction to the corruption, squalor, and discomfort of tropical Colombia (which, the professor tells us, Burroughs always spelled Columbia, an oversight which in others he might condemn as an example of imperialistic condescension) was in no way different from what might have been expected of a middle-class housewife from the Midwest suddenly transplanted to a frontier town in the Amazonian jungle. Whether a thus transplanted Midwestern housewife would have searched for Indian boys quite as assiduously as Burroughs did is, of course, a matter of conjecture.
For all Burroughs’s putative search after wisdom and knowledge, there is little in the way of self-examination to be found here. When he says of Peru, “This is a nation of kleptomaniacs,” one might have supposed that it was the judgment of a man firmly convinced of the sanctity of private property, rather than that of a habitual thief and sponger. When he says that “In the U.S. you have to be a deviant or exist in dreary boredom,” and that “all intellectuals are deviants in U.S.,” the thought does not occur to him even for an instant that part of the problem might be with him.
A worthy subtitle of this slender book, then, might be “A Moment in the Rise of Mass Egotism.”