DESTINATION FURTHER: William Burroughs’ South American adventure

First published in The Independent in May, 2006, in heavily edited (read: ludicrously butchered) form. Happily, it is no longer available online, and this is the full text, published for the first time as this first wordpress post. Burroughs and Ayuhuasca fans, dig in – and check out the link to the 1966 film The Cut Ups.  

Burroughs in the 21st century may only now be approaching his true context. For far from being some Modernist museum piece, much of what he envisioned and posited – from the viral nature of language and control to the implications of the Cut-Up in the media age – is more pertinent than ever in negotiating what he called the “reality studios”. No other writer has reached as deeply into the sources of language and perception


“Yage may be the ultimate fix,” wrote William Burroughs at the end of his first novel, Junky, published in 1952. The man they called ‘el hombre invisible’ is perhaps the greatest in the 20th-century’s gallery of cultural extremists; his novel ‘Naked Lunch’ became the plat du jour of Sixties counter-culture, and his revolutionary Cut-Up technique – on tape and film as well as on the page – presaged the viral, wireless, sampling culture of our own century by decades, and has influenced countless artists, writers and musicians through the decades.

More than half a century after Burroughs first encountered yage, and 150 years after the psychotropic jungle vine was “discovered” by the British explorer Richard Spruce, what is also known as ayahuasca (“the vine of the soul”) retains its status as the most mysterious and powerful of natural hallucinogens, and one that surrenders its secrets with the greatest reluctance. 

Burroughs’ book about his search for the ’ultimate fix’, The Yage Letters,  possesses an equally strange and secret history. Published in 1963 but written a decade earlier, it has long been seen as a fascinating curio in the Burroughs canon, yet a new expanded edition of the book edited by Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris places it much more centrally in the list of key Burroughs texts.

Harris introduces the original edition with an in-depth survey of the book’s fragmented history, and expands the original, 96-page text with extensive appendices of new material, including the long-lost Burroughs’ manuscript typed up from his notebooks upon his return from South America, and unpublished articles he wrote for magazine publication that prove to considerably more revealing about his experience and understanding of Yage than much of what was published in the original book. Rounded off with previously-unpublished excerpts from Allen Ginsberg’s journals from the trip he made in Burroughs’ footsteps in 1960, the new edition Yage Letters is a generous re-casting of a cult stoner classic.

It was a harried and junk-sick Burroughs who left Mexico in early 1953, a little over a year after he had accidentally shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer while attempting a “William Tell” act – firing at a glass she had balanced on her head. An earlier, abortive trip, had been recorded in the novel Queer (which remained unpublished until 1985). Wracked as much by fear and guilt as by junk sickness, and leaving virtually unprepared for what was to come, the author headed south to Colombia and Peru, in search of the ultimate yage fix – and a way out of his addiction.

Yage has been used for thousands of years – a ceremonial cup dating to 500BC is held in a museum in Quito, Ecuador. More recently, yage-based religions, such as the Uniao de Vegetal and Santo Daime churches have battled in court to preserve their right to sacramental yage use, while drug companies such as Pfizer have embarked on legal battles of their own to exploit its active properties.

Its scientific name is bannistera caapi, a fast-growing vine found throughout the Amazon basin, though deforestation has reduced the vine’s natural habitat. It grows to a length of forty feet, and a diameter of six inches. Its cross-section shows a ring of rosettes. Native lore dictates that the vine is ready for use when seven or more “hearts” have developed. 

At the time of Burroughs’ trip, little was known or understood about yage. A few isolated studies, including a Russian expedition, were made in the 1920s, and it was to his good fortune that upon his arrival in the Putumayo region of Colombia in 1953, in search of the right medicine man, he encountered Dr Richard Evans Schultes, the famed ethno-botanist who
would also contribute much to our understanding of the drug. 

Both were Harvard men, and despite Schultes’ evident misgivings at Burroughs’ unorthodoxy (one of Schultes’ party, a botanist named Paul Holliday, describes Burroughs as “a “tall, lank, droopy sort of person
with a pessimistic streak for conjuring up all manner of fearful fevers”) the two embarked on a 1000-mile expedition that led to the author’s first overwhelming contact with yage: he overdosed and went into convulsions. A second, more ecstatic series of encounters, in Pacullpa, Peru, would transform his own writing, and in due course unleash some of the most extreme and overwhelming works of fiction ever published. 

The letters themselves, addressed to Allen Ginsberg, are a restless, driven mixture of anthropology, travelogue, paranoia, poetry, epiphany, cut-ups, satirical junkie cynicism and epistolary novel. “I stopped here to have my piles out” the first letter begins in January 1953, from the aptly-named Hotel Colon in Panama, and much of what follows is much more
about the misadventures of the journey than the destination. 

Until, that is, the letter describing the “composite city” – a vision that is uniquely Burroughsian, and runs through much of his work. “Minarets, palms, mountain, jungle. A sluggish river jumping with vicious fish, vast weed grown parks where boys lie in the grass or play cryptic games…” In the letter’s pin-sharp panoramas lay the seed not only of Naked Lunch but of the cut-up novels that followed. The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express – each of them, arguably, has its roots in the riotous, disorderly effects of the South American vine. 

Oliver Harris, who has also edited the first volume of Burroughs’ letters, agrees: “the quest for yage was one of the key turning points of his life,” he says, and adds that “truth and fiction are a revolving door with Burroughs”, and in The Yage Letters, they are more tightly woven together than anywhere else in his life and work. 

In a detailed introduction, Harris charts the book’s labyrinthine, fragmented history, and reveals how The Yage Letters began not as letters at all but as a long-since lost manuscript typed upon Burroughs’ return to Ginsberg’s apartment in New York in the autumn of 1953. Less than a fifth of the final manuscript came from actual letters. It’s typical of Burroughs that what purports to be a casual and fragmentary travelogue is in fact a much more arranged and reconstituted entity. For Harris, it demonstrates that it was much more than a casual correspondence preserved for posterity. “It’s th developing of his imaginative landscape out of the real one.” 

The book was finally published almost a decade after it was written by Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights, who expanded the text with Ginsberg’s 1960 letters from Peru, where, seven years after Burroughs made his trip, Ginsberg too encountered the awesome spirit of the vine. “I light cigarette, blow a puff of smoke over cup, and drain,” he wrote. “Lay down expecting God knows what other pleasant vision and then I began to get high – and then the whole fucking cosmos broke loose around me, I think about the strongest and the worst I’ve ever had it.”

Not that he hadn’t been warned. “This is the most powerful drug I have ever experienced,” Burroughs writes in the unpublished article he set to Ginsberg in 1956, who weas more or less his unoffical “agent” at the time. “Yage is not like anything else. It produces the most complete derangement of the senses.” These included intense sexual hallucinations, flashes of phylogenetic memory, and full out-of-body experiences. “There is a definite sense of space time travel that seems to shake the room”, he noted, and posited that the extreme nausea that accompanies the visions was a form of “time-space motion sickness”. 

If this makes Yage sound like some kind of botanical Tardis, then how does it work its effects? The active ingredient that produces visions is harmeline, once called telepathine, because of its supposed telepathic properties. Harmela alkaloids are present in the pineal gland, the ‘third eye’ in the forehead, and it seems that out of all the psychotropic drugs, yage reaches deepest into the psyche, which may explain why so many users report near-identical Garden of Eden-like visions, as if there were some direct connection to the collective human image bank. No
wonder people call it “Amazonian TV”. 

The psychoactive ingredient is strongest near the bark of the vine, which is cut into lengths and stripped, pounded and boiled in water with the leaves of a plant called chacuna by the Indians, and which Burroughs was the first to correctly classify as Psychotria viridis. This is essential to achieve the full hallucinogenic effect, for without the DMT in the chacuna leaves, the harmeline alkaloids in the vine remain inactive.

Richard Evans Schultes was one of many baffled experts to have remarked on the extraordinary synergy of the two plants in combination. “How,” he asked, “did these Indians find from the 80,000 species around them these two additives with such extraordinary effects?” Even today, with a rapidly expanding library of psychiatric and scientific case studies, it remains an unsolved enigma.

The Yage Letters, too, is a continuing enigma, for there is still the potential of recovering yet more unpublished material. What with a huge Burroughs archive, encompassing all manner of materials from the Fifties to the early Seventies  – including artwork, recordings, over 3,00 pages of correspondence, and 11,000 pages of manuscript material – recently sold to the New York Public Library, Burroughs in the 21st century may only now be approaching his true context. For far from being some Modernist museum piece, much of what he envisioned and posited – from the viral nature of language and control to the implications of the Cut-Up in the media age – is more pertinent than ever in negotiating what he called the “reality studios”. No other writer has reached as deeply into the sources of language and perception.

The Yage Letters marks the point where Burroughs moved full-time into his own fully-realised universe. As in much of his work, there is no fixed point, no explicit key. The reader as well as writer assumes the controls of the book’s meaning. Like Burroughs in the jungle armed only with his notebooks and medication, it’s up to you to complete the journey.

The Yage Letters Redux is published by City Lights

WIlliam S Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Anthony Balch: The Cut Ups


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