William Burroughs and the Dreamscapes of the Dalai Lama
By Des Barry.
Wrought iron railings ring the gallery of the Redmond Barry reading room in the State Library of Victoria and far below the green glass lights of the study carrels illuminate the pretty faces of the students cramming for exams while I sit up here above the vast space and wrestle with Time, my breathing troubled by dust mites that escape, invisible, from the 1927 Black edition of J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time; and I struggle with a dream, the memory of dream, where William S. Burroughs, and a Time Bandit dwarf dressed in a dark jumpsuit and wraparound shades, tried to assassinate the Dalai Lama, a dream that terrified me when I had it, and still terrifies me now, thirty-three years later, though Burroughs and the dwarf have long since passed on.
The dark satires of William S. Burroughs deal, above all, with overcoming the limits of ordinary consciousness through word-as-virus, drugs, magic, sex, telepathy, writing, and, of course, dream. Back in 1962, Burroughs was famously praised by Norman Mailer as ‘The only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.’ Neither Mailer nor Burroughs is alive today. If Burroughs were alive, he would be a centenarian. He was born on February 5th, 1914. His writing intersected with my life in 1970, when I was sixteen: Naked Lunch was like a depth charge in the mind-stream.
No matter how Burroughs’ views might have transformed or evolved over his eighty-three years of life, his genius always included singular approaches to time, space and consciousness. He thought of his work as a practical exploration of dream travel, telepathy, and psychic possession; and post mortem experiences as recounted in the Books of the Dead of Mayans, Egyptians and Tibetans. Burroughs went where many other writers would be horrified to venture. These explorations in his writing were not just ironic satires of the human condition, but a speculative search for new forms of consciousness.
In The Place of Dead Roads (1984), Burroughs has this to say about his protagonist, Kim:
Kim knew he was in a state of Arrested Evolution: A.E. Kim knows that the first step towards space exploration is to examine the human artifact with biologic alterations in mind that will render our H.A. [Human Artifact] more suitable for space conditions and space travel… We are like water creatures looking up at the land and air and wondering how we can survive in that alien medium. The water we live in is Time. That alien medium we glimpse beyond time is Space. And that is where we are going. Kim reads all the science fiction he can find, and he is stunned to discover in all these writings the underlying assumption that there will be no basic changes involved in space travel.
Burroughs’ writing is not without a large dose of dark irony:
Kim has never doubted the possibility of an afterlife or the existence of gods. In fact, he intends to become a god, to shoot his way to immortality, to invent his way, to write his way.
But there is little doubt that Burroughs was serious about consciousness post mortem. In the foreword to the 1979 Calder edition of Ah Pook is Here, he writes:
The Mayan Codices are undoubtedly books of the dead; that is to say directions for time travel. If you see reincarnation as a fact then the question arises: how does one orient oneself with regard to future lives? Consider death as a dangerous journey in which all past mistakes will count against you. If you are not orientating yourself on sound factual data, you will not arrive at your destination, or in some cases you may arrive in fragments. What basic principles can be set forth? Perhaps the most important is relaxed alertness, and this is the point of the martial arts, and other systems of spiritual training – to inculcate a psychic and physical stance of alert passivity and focused attention. Suspicion, fear, self-assertion, rigid preconceptions of right and wrong, shrinking and flinching from what may seem monstrous in human terms – such attitudes of mind and body are disastrous. See yourself as the pilot of an elaborate spacecraft in unfamiliar territory. If you freeze, tense up, refuse to look at what is in front of you, you will crack up the ship. On the other hand, credulity and uncritical receptivity are almost as dangerous.
Apart from his extensive drug use, Burroughs investigated the nature and alteration of consciousness across a grand spectrum of systems – Aleister Crowley’s Magick, L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, Chogyam Trungpa’s Tibetan Buddhism – but he never became a devotee of any of them. While received wisdom would have it that, once inside the organization, Scientology is impossible to escape, Burroughs, it appears, was actually thrown out. Ever the independent investigator, Burroughs wrote an article for the Los Angeles Free Press in 1970 entitled ‘On Scientology.’ It opens like this:
In view of the fact that my articles and statements on Scientology may have influenced young people to associate themselves with the so-called Church of Scientology, I feel an obligation to make my present views on the subject quite clear.
Some of the techniques are highly valuable and warrant further study and experimentation. The E-meter is a useful device… (many variations of this device are possible). On the other hand, I am in flat disagreement with the organizational policy… Scientologists are not prepared to accept intelligent and sometimes critical evaluation. They demand unquestioning acceptance…
Burroughs reached the level in Scientology known as Operating Thetan, a spiritual state clear to some degree of emotional conditioning. He was, however, excluded from the organization, not for any rejection of the Science Fiction cosmology – indeed he was quite capable of creating his own Science Fiction cosmology in his Nova trilogy – but for wanting to make public Scientology’s techniques for clearing the residual effects of emotional trauma.
The Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff held that a significant shock is necessary to wake up human consciousness that usually wallows in a state that is dormant, or asleep. Burroughs sought out those shocks. And in his writing sought to dish them out. At the age of sixteen, Naked Lunch was the first of many Burroughs-induced shocks that I suffered. These shocks were to recur – albeit in different forms as shocks must – at different times in my life, as each of Burroughs’ books appeared in print, or as Burroughs-simulacra appeared in my dreams, and not always in the most pleasant of ways.
Summer, 1970, the sun slants through the front window of a house on what is to become one of the most notorious of British housing estates. This wallpapered room is immaculately clean. Against the far wall are a stereogram and a pile of LPs. A friend’s older brother, by the name of Jeff Thomas – long body, curly ginger hair, freckled skin – picks up a book, chooses a page. He pushes the book at me.
White cover, a smoky grey head with red eyes, letters that read The Naked Lunch. The Corgi paperback (with its extra ‘The’ in front of Naked Lunch) is open to a section three quarters of the way through: Johnny, Mark and Mary. A blue movie scene. The literary equivalent of a shot in the arm that lights up my brain with horror and desire and death and lust.
This routine of explicit sex between two boys and a girl, the homosexuality – the word ‘gay’ hasn’t been invented yet where I live – the drugs, the low-life lack of any kind of limitation, to me who grew up a strict Catholic, reveals The Naked Lunch as Hell and abomination, pure and simple: two-way whorehouse mirrors…. You ever see a hot shot hit, kid? … Man, it was tasty… Johnny, Mark and Mary. Johnny, Mark and Mary. Johnny, Mark and Mary. A blue movie conjured out of words: Mary riding Johnny as he hangs from a gibbet, lunching on the fallen corpse; lesbian strap-on sex with Steely Dan III from Yokohama. I journeyed through those infernal literary visions, hooked on the darkness, disease, un-ease, and the Mugwump cities, a landscape of abominations. Burroughs embraced abominations.
Reading these scenes excavated disturbing memories that I had kept hidden from everyone – friends, parents, teachers – since the age of seven. Back then, I was always playing pretend games: cowboys and Indians; British and Japs; the Three Musketeers; Fu Manchu. So, when a girl-playmate’s older brother asked me if I wanted to learn what boys do with girls when they’re grown-up, I said, ‘Yes! Great!’ And he took me inside his house. He showed me how to dance to rock and roll. He showed me how to smooch. He showed me how to kiss.
‘Come up to my bedroom,’ the boy said. ‘I’ll show you some pictures of naked girls.’
The middle and back part of the upstairs of the house had been separated into two rooms by wooden panels, so that he had the middle room and his little sister the back room. Pictures of naked women that he’d cut out of Parade, a British soft porn magazine, were pinned to the wooden walls. I was surprised that his parents allowed him to have them on the wall. My parents would have killed me if I even looked at the magazine. I thought his parents let him do this because they were Protestants.
In this boy’s bed, I enjoyed the sensations: the wetness of a tongue, the body scents, the pleasure in my groin. I was too young to realize that, for the older boy, this was a lot more than play. Or practice.
I fictionalized what happened with the boy, and how I got out of that situation, in a novel called A Bloody Good Friday, which was published by Jonathan Cape in 2002. It’s a short section of the book but these events had some major repercussions in my life… sometimes even today, in dreams, in nightmares.
Did reading Naked Lunch at the age of sixteen infect me with some kind of abominable virus? I’m convinced that I’m heterosexual, so why am I drawn to these stories of usually – or unusually – homosexual or extraterrestrial-sexual couplings that populate the pages of every Burroughs fiction I feel compelled to read.
In his essay ‘Ten Years and a Billion Dollars,’ from the 1985 Arcade book The Adding Machine, Burroughs wrote:
My general theory since 1971 has been that the Word is literally a virus, and that it has not been recognized as such because it has achieved a state of relatively stable symbiosis with its human host… the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself.
After that literary blue movie afternoon, I had to get my own copy of The Naked Lunch. Then, on a remainder rack in Woolworths on my hometown High Street, I found a copy of Dead Fingers Talk. Why among the new routines were there some that I’d already read in The Naked Lunch? No matter. Read on. It took a while to discover that Burroughs regularly recycled his written material as he developed his cut-up techniques. Enough has been written elsewhere about Brion Gysin and the origin of the cut-up and cut-in methods of writing, so I won’t go into the methods in any detail here. Those techniques are clearly laid out in Burroughs and Gysin’s collaboration The Third Mind. But Burroughs never tired of talking about them in interviews or writing about them in his essays.
Three years after reading Naked Lunch, I sat on a lumpy, scarred armchair in the long living room of a student house in Wanstead. I spent a lot of time there because the people who lived there had become a kind of surrogate family to me. In the lounge of the house, there were two other armchairs and a blue sofa bed that folded out so that four people could sit or lie on it and listen to music. It was here that I read The Wild Boys:
The wild boys make little pouches from human testicles in which they carry their hashish and Khat…
The boys spread out on rugs and lit hash pipes. The warriors were stripped by their attendants, massaged and rubbed with musk. The setting sun bathed their lean bodies in a red glow as the boys gave way to an orgy of lust.
What was missing in my life, I thought, was the orgy of lust. I was fascinated by The Wild Boy stories of anarchic dopers but… strange – and not so strange… even though my student friends and I would become wiser, or perhaps just less prejudiced in the future, at this hazy time in our lives, just like everyone else we knew, we professed a suspicion of gays. For me that homophobia originated in 1961 in that wood-paneled room adorned with pin-ups of naked women. In my teens, at school, I joined in the banter among my friends when we made jokes about queers and homos. I wondered whether what happened to me at the age of seven made me queer, too.
Without really being aware of it at the time, at the age of sixteen, William Burroughs with The Naked Lunch, and then at college with The Wild Boys, gave me some kind of secret acceptance of myself. I found a bizarre refuge in these imaginary worlds in which I didn’t run the risk of being a pariah among my friends for what had happened to me. I wanted to be a Wild Boy but I wanted to be a hetero Wild Boy. It got even more complicated when David Bowie and Lou Reed made queer chic.
I finally lost my virginity to a woman a few years older than me who I met in the college bar. She invited me to dinner and I burned the roof of my mouth with her scalding stuffed peppers; and then we had somewhat fraught sex, both full of desire, both a little disappointed by the feeling that neither of us really liked the other very much. The earth didn’t move. Anxiety and false bravado, but at least I’d got that first-time sex over with. In the morning, I declined her offer to have a shower and I never saw her again. I can’t even remember her name. It might have been Sue. I think it was Sue. She probably can’t remember mine. I’d probably prefer that.
Despite being the Wild Boys’ drug of choice, Burroughs was less enthused about hashish than opiates. But he was enamored of Hassan i Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountain, whose assassins – the hashishin – set out from the mountain fastnesses of Alamout to kill Hassan’s enemies. The story originates in The Travels of Marco Polo. Such was Burroughs’ promotion of the story that it was included in Donald Cammel’s script for the film Performance. The rock star, Turner, played by Mick Jagger, recites the story of how the Old Man’s fortress was an earthly paradise, and his adepts were plied with hashish and all sensual delights before being sent off on an assassination mission. If they were successful and returned to Alamout, they were once again in an earthly paradise, whereas if they were killed in the service of the Old Man, they were promised a greeting in a heavenly Paradise.
When Hassan-i-Sabbah appears in the harsher, less romantic prose of the first pages of Nova Express, he is the hero of consciousness beyond the limitations of the human body:
What scared you into time? Into body? Into shit? I will tell you: “the word.” Alien word “the.” “The” word of Alien Enemy imprisons “thee” in Time. In Body. In Shit. Prisoner come out. The great skies are open. I Hassan i Sabbah rub out the word forever.
There’s a tremendous tension in the Nova trilogy. It’s often hard to work out whether Inspector J. Lee of the Nova Police wants to end addiction or give in to it. Perhaps there are parallels in Burroughs’ attraction to morphine that gets him off, and apomorphine that gets him off morphine. He wants to be Hassan-i-Sabbah, and he wants to destroy his Garden of Delights. That addictive tension existed throughout Burroughs’ life right until his bodily end in Lawrence, Kansas.
I found that The Nova trilogy of The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, and Nova Express didn’t make for easy reading, but I had to go on. This 1960s trilogy is heavily reliant on the cut-up method, although much of Burroughs’ writing whether fiction or nonfiction uses the cut-up method to varying degrees. It is through ‘rubbing out the words’ that ‘control’ can be undermined. The Nova trilogy is a fight with control: the control of addiction, the control by the ‘enemy’ – that could be the state, or some science fiction entity embodied in an Alien Insect Conspiracy with invisible agents who have possessed host bodies on Earth. It’s not always so terribly clear who is in control and who is being controlled.
Since the time of his wife Joan Vollmer’s death in 1951 – when, in Mexico City, Burroughs shot her in the forehead in a William Tell reenactment that went horribly wrong – Burroughs was convinced he was in a struggle with a psychic entity he called the Ugly Spirit: a struggle against possession and control. The Ugly Spirit was a psychic entity that provoked him into abominations. I often wondered whether Burroughs’ subsequent rejection of women that lasted for decades, and his obsession with guns, was some kind of psychological compensation for dealing with the guilt of his wife’s death. Is this why he identified with Hassan-i-Sabbah so strongly – identified with him and rejected him at the same time?
Burroughs and Brion Gysin employed Hassan-i-Sabbah, the hashishin/assassins, and Alamout as a kind of movable Orientalist myth. When Gysin ventured into prose writing with The Process, he transposed the legend from the Persia of the Marco Polo version to Morocco.
(Hamid) went on: “I’ll get them to cut you a green passport of keef to see you through everything. I’ll see that you’ll get the best of the crop from Ketama and I’ll bring it down from the mountain myself with the blessings of Hassan-i-Sabbah, the father of grass. On your way, you’re bound to run into some other Assassins.”
“But Hamid,” I laughed. “I am not an Assassin at all!”
“We are Assassins, all of us,” he gravely replied.
This Orientalism found its broader cultural expression in the sixties and seventies on the hippy trail to Morocco, Afghanistan, Swat, India and Nepal. Allen Ginsberg got as far as India and a connection with Tibetan Buddhism. Burroughs got as far as Morocco. I made my own journey to India and Nepal in 1981 to see what it was like to practice meditation in the places where the practice originated.
At that time, the drug experiments of luminaries like Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ken Kesey, and the journeys to the east, resulted in innumerable spiritual systems being imported into Europe and the United States where centres of Sufism, Hinduism, and Buddhism sprang up in cities and the countryside. There was a renaissance of interest in the occult and Aleister Crowley. When in London, Burroughs tried magical methods to obstruct the Scientologists who had declared him a Suppressive Person.
Growing up in the sixties and seventies, it was difficult not to be influenced by that consciousness-expanding culture. Burroughs certainly was influenced by it, though by then he was in his late fifties/early sixties. He brought these occult explorations of consciousness into the Red Night trilogy, Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands. The Western Lands in particular is an exploration – even a deconstruction – of the seven souls said to travel the Egyptian version of the Land of the Dead.
All forms of orientalism rely on a cultural naivety, which can have some advantages as well as its limitations. Naivety can permit openness to other cultures even while unaware of a culturally imperialist projection. Certainly there was ignorance of the darker side of cultural complexities. It’s not hard in these troubled times to identify a parallel between Hassan-i-Sabbah and Osama bin Laden. This excerpt from The Western Lands has a prescient quality:
…So the training at Alamout was directed toward putting the student in contact with his death. Once contact has been made, the physical assassination is a foregone conclusion. His assassins did not even try to escape, though capture meant torture. By the act of assassination they had transcended the body and physical death. The operative has killed his death.
To modern political operatives, this is romantic hogwash. You gonna throw away an agent you spent years training? Yes, because he was trained for one target, for one kill. The modern operative, then, is doing something very different from the messengers of HIS. Modern agents are protecting and expanding political aggregates. HIS was training individuals for space conditions, for existence without the physical body. This is the logical evolutionary step. The physical body is not designed for space conditions in present form. Too heavy, since it is encumbered with a skeleton to maintain upright position in a gravity field.
Burroughs was ever of an anti-authoritarian bent, and as regards the Old Man of the Mountain, Burroughs imagined his assassins only disposed of tyrants. No doubt, Osama bin Laden would have argued the same goal for his assassins. What would Burroughs have thought of Osama bin Laden, had he lived to see the fall of the Twin Towers? Would he have recognized the parallels? It’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have. But if the Hassan-i-Sabbah of Burroughs’ imagination had nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden, neither is it likely that Burroughs’ Old Man of the Mountain had anything to do with the Hassan-i-Sabbah described by Marco Polo. This again is from The Western Lands:
For the last forty years of his life, HIS (Hassan-i-Sabbah) occupied the mountain fortress of Alamout in what is now northern Iran. From Alamout the Old Man dispatched his assassins when he decided they were ready and their missions necessary… What little historical data survives tends to be misleading, such as the notorious account given by Marco Polo of a heaven of houris promised to the martyr, where he would be wafted when his work was done. There were no women in Alamout.
Barry Miles in his biography entitled William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible traces the changes of Burroughs’ attitudes to women from outright misogyny in the early sixties to an acceptance of feminism that sought to free women from their traditional roles that Burroughs so despised. Miles writes that Burroughs ‘began to befriend some of the more independent women who entered into his circle. In the 70s he was happy to spend time with Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Kathy Acker, Debbie Harry and some others.’ This was a welcome change from 1961, where Burroughs – in another quote from the Miles book – ‘suspected (women) of being agents (from another galaxy) and Burroughs thought that maybe you had to exterminate all the women, or get rid of them one way or another. Evolve some sort of male that could give birth by parthenogenesis.’
After reading so many Burroughs’ novels where women are rare and never shown in a positive light – although neither are the men as Burroughs was wont to point out – I experienced a small glimmer of heterosexual relief in Cities of the Red Night, when Burroughs allowed some of his male and female characters at least token coition in the city of Port Roger, which lives under pirate articles. From the ‘Mother is the Best Bet’ chapter:
“Breeding is encouraged…is in fact a duty. I hope not too unpleasant. We expect that some of you will raise families. We need families to operate as intelligence agents in areas controlled by the enemy… And now there are some uh young ladies who have been waiting to meet you…”
The copulations which follow are hardly joyous: performances reenact the Jajouka Pan rites with a rape of the goddess Aïsha; the rape of a Valkyrie; a homosexual appearance of the spirit of Hassan-i-Sabbah; and a variation on the blue movie scene from Naked Lunch with Half-Hanged Kate and Half-Hanged Kelley. Noah – a Burroughs-like surrogate narrator – plays a Corn God to avoid heterosexual coupling. After the procreative orgy:
The girls will proceed to the remote island communes to await delivery. They will all receive a handsome dowry should they wish to marry and the children will be trained from childhood in the use of weapons and fitted to take their part in the task of liberation.
The chapter finishes with ‘Pages from the diary of Hirondelle de Mer,’ perhaps Burroughs’ first and maybe only feminist narrator, who complains of the pirate women’s lot:
I am a sorceress and a warrior. I do not relish being treated as a breeding animal. Would this occur to Skipper Nordenholz? No force, he says, has been applied – but I am forced by my circumstances, cast up here without a peso, and by my Indian blood which compels me to side with all the enemies of Spain. The child will be brought up as a sorcerer or sorceress… This is a sorcerers’ revolution. I must play my part as a sorceress.
Cities of the Red Night provided an altogether different kind of shock for me from Naked Lunch, and that shock was presaged by an equally disturbing dream. Throughout the seventies, as part of my own exploration of consciousness, I had been using the technique of trying to find my hands in my dreams that is recommended in Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. By finding the hands, it is possible to become aware of dreaming and so take control of the dream. Control or not, the effort produces some very vivid dreams.
Burroughs had a profound respect for Castaneda’s sorcerer, Don Juan. In ‘The Retreat Diaries’ section of the collection of writings published in 1984 by City Lights called The Burroughs File, Burroughs gives a very passable and simple explanation of Don Juan’s system based on Castaneda’s Tales of Power:
The aim of this training is to produce the impeccable warrior… He neither seeks nor admits a master… The tonal is the sum of any individual’s perception and knowledge, everything he can talk about and explain including his own physical being… The nagual is everything outside the tonal: the inexplicable, the unpredictable, the unknown… The teacher and the benefactor show the student how to reach the unknown, but they cannot predict what will happen when he does reach the nagual… The tonal tends to shut out and deny the nagual which takes over completely in the moment of death. If we see the nagual as the unknown, the unpredictable and unexplainable, the role of the artist is to make contact with the nagual and bring a part of it back into the tonal in paint or words, sculpture, film or music. The nagual is also the area of the so-called psychic phenomena, which the Buddhists consider as distractions from the way of enlightenment. Buddhism and the teachings of Don Juan are simply not directed toward the same goals. Don Juan does not offer any final solution or enlightenment. Neither does the artist. (pp.190-191)
(Allen Ginsberg – ever protective of Buddhist credentials in the face of Burroughs’ criticism – inserted a footnote at the end of the piece: ‘Outside the wheel of conditional karmic existence’ would be the Buddhist equivalent of ‘unpredictable, open-ended.’ p208).
William Burroughs appeared in a dream that I had early in 1980 not long after I had been introduced to Tibetan Buddhism – Easter 1979 – not the Chogyam Trungpa group to which Allen Ginsberg belonged, and to which Ginsberg had tried to introduce Burroughs – but another group taught by Tibetan lama based in the West. The dream itself was shock enough, but it contained an element of spooky prescience that came to fruition a year later. This is the dream:
Burroughs is crossing a lamp-lit parking lot of an auditorium where the Dalai Lama is about to give a public talk. Burroughs is accompanied by a dwarf who wears a black jumpsuit and wraparound shades – one of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Burroughs has the collar of his raincoat turned up toward a narrow-brimmed fedora. The pale surface of his raincoat writhes with the silhouettes of souls he has absorbed, the cloth like the skin of the dark necromancer, Septegundus, from the tales of Brak the Barbarian by John Jakes, a book that I read in 1973:
But what turned Brak’s body into a lumpy mass of terror was Septegundus’ very flesh. It was alive. It crawled. The skin was etched on every inch of its surface with human figures. Tiny, naked human figures, hundreds of them, intertwined and slowly writhing in postures of eternal torment. The figures were somehow prisoned within the thin layers of flesh and were crawling slowly there, crawling, moving, in a never ending pattern variation of bodies, arms, legs, torsos.
Burroughs, in the dream, holds a long-barreled, custom-made assassin’s pistol down by his side. I am nothing but a point of consciousness, aware, in that horrific moment, that Burroughs plans on assassinating the Dalai Lama. I am now embodied and in the auditorium’s security office watching the Burroughs and the dwarf on a CCTV monitor. I run to warn the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards that Burroughs and the dwarf are about to enter the building for their assassination attempt. The Dalai Lama is already on the stage, a huge crowd seated before him. His long frame in maroon robes leans over the lectern. From each side of the stage a bodyguard strides toward him. Burroughs and the dwarf step into the centre aisle between the seats in the auditorium. Burroughs raises his pistol. He fires at the very moment when one of the bodyguards steps in front of the Dalai Lama and takes a bullet in the shoulder for him. Now a whole group of bodyguards encircles the Dalai Lama.
The audience is shocked into immobility. Burroughs and the dwarf stride back up the aisle toward the rear exit that leads out into the parking lot.
Just before he leaves the auditorium, Burroughs calls out, ‘I’ll be back!’
The dream left me profoundly disturbed. I was appalled that a writer who was such a big influence on me could have tried in this dream to carry out the assassination of a man who was, to me, the embodiment of human kindness and compassion. To kill a teacher in Tibetan Buddhism is beyond unconscionable, and here was I dreaming an assassination attempt on the ultimate Tibetan teacher. I have no doubt now that this dream was illustrating a Dionysian/Apollonian psychological tension of Nietzschean proportions in my make-up. At the time I was simply horrified.
A year after that dream, in 1981, Cities of the Red Night was published. I bought it right away. I was reading it in my flat on Crouch Hill in London. On the cover is a scene from Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death. While the book could be seen as prescient of the AIDS epidemic to come, I was shaken by the discovery that in the Tamaghis Revisited chapter Burroughs has his character Audrey buy a copy of Brak the Barbarian (p234) and when Audrey has one of his dreams about one of the cities (p276), Burroughs cuts in a section from the John Jakes book. The coincidence left me very paranoid. Why did Burroughs cut in a section of John Jakes’ Brak the Barbarian? How was it possible that I dreamt Burroughs with a coat that’s like the human skin of the sorcerer Septegundus from Brak the Barbarian a year before Cities of the Red Night appears in print? What, in my mind, put the two books together long before I read the Burroughs novel? How was the connection made?
I thought: ‘What kind of psychic connection do I have with Burroughs?’
I thought: ‘Did my dream predict that Burroughs was going to try to assassinate the Dalai Lama?
I thought: ‘If I get to meet William Burroughs will these psychic connections that bind us provoke him – or his Ugly Spirit – into a desire to harm the Dalai Lama?’
I was as much a product of sixties’ and seventies’ thinking as was William Burroughs and all my consciousness expanding contemporaries. Magical thinking? Yes. But I knew how much Burroughs loved guns, perhaps a love increasingly fuelled by a displaced sense of guilt for the shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer, guilt which had resulted in Burroughs’ own sense of paranoia. Perhaps that paranoia was augmented by the urban crime of seventies and eighties New York, particularly present around his old living quarters, the Bunker, at 222 Bowery on the Lower East Side. I knew how Burroughs was fascinated by Hassan-i-Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountain, and his society of assassins, the hashishin. I knew all about his Ugly Spirit and had a real fear of encountering it – the Ugly Spirit – if it hung around Burroughs so much.
At the time, putting all those elements together, I thought that maybe it would be better never to meet Burroughs in the flesh for fear of setting off a terrible psychic chain of inauspicious circumstances. A meeting with Burroughs would have been easy to arrange in the early 1990s when I became friends with Jacqueline Gens, who for many years was Allen Ginsberg’s secretary. I had been in the Bunker – Burroughs’ old home – more than once, after Burroughs had left for Kansas, when John Giorno had opened it up for a number of teachings by Tibetan lamas. But still I was a victim of that uncanny unease.
Crazy as I see it now – and with a great deal of regret that I didn’t get to meet a writer who has had such an influence on my life and on my writing – that unease is not far off how Burroughs himself might have thought, whether you glean his ideas about dream, possession, and telepathy from his fiction or from his essays.
‘The Retreat Diaries’ was written while Burroughs was in isolation for two weeks at the urging of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In that work, Burroughs, definitely not a Buddhist, outlines a method of dream travel thus:
Now to contact Campbell Dalglish by the method outlined in Monroe’s Journeys Out of the Body. His instructions are to visit the place not a person. That is, you concentrate on where the person is. Now Campbell lives in a house outside Conifer, Colorado and he works in Denver. So in the dream I am on Wyoming Street and I find I am in the wrong house, since my home is on Denver Street… Point is, this out-of-body visiting is not a sequential matter. There is no time outside the body, or rather, past, present and future merge. So don’t expect a simple one-to-one visit; it doesn’t always work that way.
What kind of visit had I had in that dream in 1980? Had Burroughs inadvertently visited me to presage a possible future? In ‘The Technology of Writing’ in The Adding Machine, Burroughs writes of J.W. Dunne:
Dreams are a fertile source of material for writing. Years ago I read a book by John Dunne called An Experiment with Time (1924). Dunne was an English physicist, and he observed that his dreams referred not only to past but also to future events. However the future material, since it often seems trivial and irrelevant will not be remembered unless it is written down, and I have done this for about forty years. I began writing dreams down long before I started to write… and at least forty percent of my material derives from dreams.
Which is what brought me to the State Library of Victoria. I wanted to read Dunne’s book. The library holds the 1924 edition in its collection.
Consciousness, Dunne postulates in An Experiment with Time, is a continuum that can access future experience through the state of dream. His experiments concerned recognizing very mundane images of future events evidenced by the meticulous recording of dreams. The mundane nature of many experiences of recorded-dream futures, he says, proves that the phenomenon is not some extraordinary occult perception for which only an elite few have clairvoyant capacity, but is observable by any ordinary human being who is willing to record daily events and dreams, in order to recognize when dream has drawn on future experience. Dream, he says, draws on imagery from the past and the future in equal measure, so that, when we experience an event that we have already dreamt, it is not that we have predicted the future, but that we recognize an image from the future which dream consciousness has drawn upon. Consciousness therefore, he claims, is not limited to a ‘present moment’ but extends through time.
Among the most vivid examples he gives (pages 25-26) is that of his stay at a hotel in Aachensee, in Austria, in 1904. Dunne dreamed of a horse in a field, from which he was separated, by a high fence. The horse had gone mad and it escaped and chased Dunne down a narrow path until he escaped up some wooden steps. The next day, Dunne and his brother were fishing in a river near the hotel, when the scenario recurred with some changes in detail.
The horse was there, behaving just as it had done in the dream. The wooden steps at the end of the pathway were there… The beast had, inexplicably, just as in the dream, got out… it was thundering down the path towards the wooden steps. It swerved past these and plunged into the river, coming straight towards us.
Dunne states that these types of dreams are ‘ordinary, appropriate, expectable dreams; but they were occurring on the wrong nights… there was nothing unusual in any of these dreams as dreams. They were merely displaced in time.’ (Dunne’s italics)
I feared that my dream of Burroughs and the Time Bandit was a dream ‘displaced in time.’ Yes, it was paranoid. But it’s too late now to do anything about visiting Burroughs. Burroughs has gone.
After all this delving into Burroughs and his writing, and its effect on me for forty years or more, early in 2013, I took a flight from Melbourne to London, and the train to Cardiff. On that first night in Wales, jet-lagged and delirious, I had a very vivid dream. Most of the elements of the Dalai Lama dream of 1980 recurred but in a transformed way. This is how I wrote it down in my dream diary:
Burroughs and the Time Bandit are back after thirty-three years. They’re attacking a closed-up building whose occupants are trying to keep them out. They are on some kind of benevolent mission. Burroughs has a boom box and the dwarf a weird gun that doesn’t fire bullets but somehow rearranges energy to knock people out. It looks like a big plastic water rifle. Burroughs is dressed in the same style as in the dream I had thirty-three years ago but now it has no silhouettes of souls writhing over it. Burroughs puts the boom box down next to the door. The dwarf climbs up onto the boom box. He fixes a purple plastic funnel to the door and somehow rearranges the molecules of the door’s surface so that a hole opens up in it. Behind the door is an armed guard. The dwarf places the muzzle of his rifle to the hole and he pulls the trigger. He wiggles the barrel around at all angles so that the guard is stunned. He can now work on opening the door and getting inside.
At this point I woke up.
I was pleased to have experienced Burroughs and the Time Bandit again and this time they were operating without violence. They were trying to open up a closed off part of my psyche, easing open the fortress that I had built against them. The images of the Dalai Lama dream that I had had in 1980 had transformed from malevolence to benevolence, as if my own immersion in Burroughs’s writing has been a constant revisiting of fantasies, obsessions and unpleasant emotions until, drained of their power, they had a lot less control over my life. The Job is never done of course.
Burroughs never shied away from darkness but his mission was always to free consciousness from its own limitations. A lot of people were hurt in his trajectory but it would be sanctimonious to judge a man’s life without knowing all the facts – without knowing the man. Burroughs was a fierce enemy of sanctimoniousness. He was a complex man who made appalling mistakes in his life. And then, like Becket, he went on: and produced a vast oeuvre of fiction, essays and recorded readings. He must have carried a heavy enormous burden for the loss of his wife. While I was in the throes of paranoia in 1981 about dream coincidences, Burroughs lost his son, Billy Junior, who died of cirrhosis of the liver at age thirty-three. Neither Billy Junior’s life nor that of his father William Burroughs Senior was without tragedy.
I only know William Burroughs through his writing that he used as a means to explore and go beyond the limits of consciousness. Burroughs once called the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi an “explorer of psychic areas, a cosmonaut of inner space,” a description apt for Burroughs himself. The immortality that Burroughs sought was not some metaphor for the endurance of art – though he has that kind of immortality, too. And he has it through a major influence on writers as diverse as J.G. Ballard, Ben Marcus, David Shields and Roberto Bolaño. For Burroughs immortality meant a literal journey beyond the limitations of bodily-conditioned consciousness. Just like Kim, from The Place of Dead Roads, Burroughs intended ‘to become a god, to shoot his way to immortality, to invent his way, to write his way.’ Did he succeed? According to the writings of William S. Burroughs, and his psychic explorations and experiments, at some point, it should be possible to find out.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Des Barry has published three novels with Jonathan Cape: The Chivalry of Crime, A Bloody Good Friday and Cressida’s Bed. His PhD thesis called The Escape of the Imaginary Author is about David Enrique Spellman and the multi-platform novel Far South. His shorter prose has been published in The New Yorker, Granta and in anthologies including Sea Stories and London Noir. His first novel, The Chivalry of Crime, won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. He tweets from @farsouthproject.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 5th, 2014.