Scientology in the Novels of William S. BurroughsTags: Scientology, William Burroughs
by David S. Wills
In Ted Morgan’s biography, Literary Outlaw, he says that in 1968, Scientology was a “new obsession” for William S. Burroughs, and Barry Miles’ El Hombre Invisible claims that Burroughs’ interest came about in 1967 — the year Miles mistakenly has Burroughs studying at Scientology’s sprawling training center, Saint Hill. James Grauerholz, in his editorial comments throughout Word Virus, also understates the importance of Scientology in Burroughs’ work and life, saying that he “became interested” only after writing an essay for Mayfair in 1967, and there is no mention of it in A Man Within or Commissioner of Sewers, the two documentaries about his life.
The evidence is there, in the two volumes of his collected letters, in small press publications from the sixties, and in his archives. But little commentary exists that doesn’t just focus on the fallout, citing the material published in Ali’s Smile / Naked Scientology.
To find out about Burroughs’ early interest in Scientology, one has to go online — where the most popular essay on the subject has him learn about it in Tangier in 1959, at Brion Gysin’s 1001 Nights restaurant, from John and Mary Cooke. In fact, the restaurant had closed down two years earlier, and Burroughs never spoke to the Cookes until after he dropped out of Scientology, almost a decade later.
No one denies that Burroughs was at one time a student of Scientology. However, its importance is certainly downplayed in commentary about his life. The concession is given that he studied for a few months at Saint Hill before becoming a heroic crusader against the cult. No one seems willing to admit that an intelligent man was suckered in by the cult, and that it came to shape his life and work, influencing some of the 20th century’s most important literature.
For Burroughs, Scientology was no brief interest. It had been an obsession for eight years prior to his enrollment at Saint Hill, and even after he turned his back on the organization, its technologies and principals remained important to him. They came to shape his worldview, and as such the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard are scattered throughout his work.
Burroughs first picked up Scientology from Brion Gysin (and possibly Jacques Stern) in Paris in late 1959. Over the coming years he was audited, read Scientology literature extensively, and wrote about the religion. Scientology became an obsession on a par with his advocacy of apomorphine. In essays published in small magazines, as well as in letters to friends, unpublished until Rub Out the Words in 2012, Burroughs not only advocated its methods but tied them to other interests — tape recorders, the cut-up method, Count Alfred Korzybski, Wilhelm Reich. It became central to his developing theories on the word virus and featured heavily in three of his most famous novels — The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express. These were written, of course, well before Burroughs enrolled at Saint Hill, and are testament to the unwillingness of scholars to acknowledge that a bizarre and popular cult could be important in the life of a literary master.
But important it was. Although these books — known collectively as the Nova Trilogy — were written partially in the mid-fifties, as part of the burst of “automatic writing” that resulted in Naked Lunch, there is much new material and a totally new approach to collecting it. The books are often labeled “difficult,” or even “unreadable,” but to Burroughs they made sense, and when you study his interests, you can begin to pick apart these works and see exactly what he was getting at.
After finishing the Nova Trilogy, Burroughs enrolled at Saint Hill and spent the first half of 1968 studying Scientology. He obtained the rank of clear, a huge landmark in the life of any Scientologist. The Scientology magazines paraded this early celebrity member, claiming that he would soon be declared operating thetan — a step up from clear.
However, Burroughs dropped out, becoming what they call a “squirrel” — a person who uses the methods of Scientology outside the official Church of Scientology. He was declared in a Condition of Treason in January 1969. Although he soon went to war with the Church, its ideas remained important to him. He wrote essays about it and referenced it explicitly and implicitly throughout his whole life. His correspondence and journals are full of Scientology. He brings up Hubbard in lectures from the seventies and eighties, and even in the nineties, right up until his death. Although he spoke disparagingly of Hubbard and the Church’s “fascist” organizational policies, it helped shape his ideas in later life. His theories on time travel, for one example, were inseparable from the method of exteriorization that he learned at Saint Hill.
But it is in his novels that we find the most cryptic clues to his infatuation. What follows is far from an exhaustive guide to Scientology references in the Nova trilogy and beyond, but rather a brief look at the most interesting references in his most popular novels, which have largely been overlooked until now.
The Soft Machine
It is The Soft Machine that is most likely to be acknowledged as a work in which Burroughs made reference to Scientology, if only because it was listed in his Appendix as a weapon with which one could fight the system and storm the reality studio. However, this Appendix was only added in later versions, and in 1961, when the book was originally published, there was no explicit mention of the cult. Not even once does he use the words “Scientology” or “Hubbard.”
Yet a closer reading reveals the extent to which Scientology permeates the book. At its core, The Soft Machine is utterly inspired by Scientology. Hubbard’s view of the reactive mind was appealing to Burroughs, who liked the idea of the human memory base as something that could be, in essence, wiped clean. His interpretation of Hubbard’s theory was that the human body was one big recording device (literally, a soft machine) and that language was a tape that was being constantly fed through it by systems of control, imprinted with data that would elicit certain responses. The reactive mind, which Hubbard said (in a hand-me-down from Burroughs’ other favorite, Korzybski) “thinks only in identities,” reacting predictably to these stimuli, and thus humans are utterly at the mercy of the controllers.
Scientology is linked to another of Burroughs’ obsessions, the Mayans, which appear throughout his novels. In Burroughs’ opinion, which contradicted the prevailing views of experts of his time, the Mayan civilization was a place of violence, with a tiny percentage of the population under the absolute control of a handful of priests. In his opinion, these priests had mastered the art of manipulating the reactive mind. These men used mind control by way of a calendar that would dictate how and what people felt:
I have explained that the Mayan control system depends on the calendar and the codices which contain symbols representing all states of thought and feeling possible to human animals living under such limited circumstances — These are the instruments with which they rotate and control units of thought — I found out also that the priests themselves do not understand exactly how the system works and that I undoubtedly knew more about it than they did as a result of my intensive training and studies — The technicians who had devised the control system had died out and the present line of priests were in the position of some one who knows what buttons to push in order to set a machine in motion, but would have no idea how to fix that machine if it broke down, or to construct another if the machine were destroyed — If I could gain access to the codices and mix the sound and image track the priests would go on pressing the old buttons with unexpected results.
In a chapter called “The Mayan Caper,” Mayan priests play the role of the guardians of the control machine (in this case, the Mayan calendar), and Burroughs uses the cut-up method to destroy it. He photographs their books and records the sounds of agricultural operations, mixing it all strategically to cause their downfall. “Inexorably as the machine had controlled thought feeling and sensory impressions of the workers, the machine now gave the order to dismantle itself and kill the priests… You see the priests were nothing but word and image, an old film rolling on and on with dead actors.” This all takes off from the notion of the reactive mind and human actions as utterly predictable, based upon the right set of stimuli. His war on the Mayan priests is used to counteract the system in the same sort of battle waged by L. Ron Hubbard — to break up the input of negative data that ultimately conditions humans to commit destructive acts, thereby becoming free.
The Ticket That Exploded
Around Christmas of 1962, The Ticket That Exploded was published by Olympia Press. Again, the book was comprised of material from Burroughs’ word hoard, mixed with newer writing. It built upon the ideas set forth in The Soft Machine, namely in exploring the use of language as a virus. There are references to all of Burroughs’ interests and obsessions at the time: Hassan ibn Sabbah, apomorphine, Reich and orgones, Korzybski, Brion Gysin, tape recorders, nuclear weapons, the Mayans, and the importance of developing non-written, sub-vocal communication. When he later revised the book, Burroughs updated information about the technology and included details about using cameras to create visual cut-ups, which he claimed in his letters were a personal addition to the auditing process.
The book references Scientology without subtlety. Burroughs calls the group “the Logos,” (a reference to logocentrism, where “logos” is the ideal representation of an idea or an object in language) but then gives the game away by describing them in terms that leaves no doubt over who he really meant:
They have a system of therapy they call “clearing.” You “run” traumatic material which they call “engrams” until it loses emotional connotation through repetitions and is then refilled as neutral memory. When all the ‘engrams’ have been run and deactivated the subject becomes a “clear.”
The fact that Burroughs repeats this one idea from Scientology highlights the fact that it was his primary interest. He is being pretty clear in his opinion that Scientology auditing can be a huge benefit for humanity, however, he cautions that such a powerful tool in the fight against control can in turn become a method of control. He suggests that someone may become clear by “unloading their ‘engram’ tapes on somebody else” and hints that he distrusts the “front men and women” for holding too much power.
There are also far less obvious references in the text. Burroughs uses the phrase “present time,” as recommended by Hubbard, something he used in his letters for years after parting with the Church. He talks about “havingness” (a common Scientology term), thinking in identities (Hubbard via Korzybski), language as a negative stimulus upon the human mind, the importance of silence, and the sole purpose of humanity as survival. All of these come from Dianetics, which Burroughs read in 1959.
It may seem odd for a writer, but silence greatly appealed to Burroughs. In The Ticket That Exploded he suggests it as a weapon:
Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk.
This “resisting organism” is the Dianetic demon, explained by Hubbard in Dianetics as a problem in the wiring between the reactive and analytic mind. It’s not a serious problem, and Hubbard speculates that all aberrees have this “demon circuit” within them, causing them to hear words that that are normally transferred from the memory banks to the conscious part of the brain silently. Naturally, a clear does not suffer from demons. This concept gave hope to Burroughs, who believed himself possessed by an “Ugly Spirit.”
However, Burroughs retained a little skepticism regarding the importance of silence. He was keen to destroy the demon inside him, and to protect himself from its pernicious influence, but it was also the voices in his head that gave him material as a writer. In Naked Lunch, which he recorded from voices in his head, he wrote about the “cured writer” who is no longer able to write. Burroughs was formerly interested in Buddhism, which also stressed the value of sub-vocal speech, but worried about the results of removing inner voices with meditation, later writing.
1964 saw the publication of the final installment of Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy, Nova Express, the book he considered to be the clearest statement of his opinions and goals. Certainly his assault on language is more overt. The book can been seen in some ways as closer to a conventional narrative, with definite good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys are space invaders whose weapon of choice is mind control. This is achieved, of course, by manipulating and taking control of language. Nova Express is at the same time a manifesto as much as a novel. One can consider it a sort of refresher course on the lessons given in The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. Burroughs is explicit in his messages and the book turns into lectures at points, with his narrator, William Lee, saying things like, “The purpose of my writing is to expose and arrest Nova Criminals…” and offering defenses for his (Burroughs’) other novels.
Nova Express is littered with references to the obsessions that dominated the author’s life, and which he views as weapons in the war against these alien invaders. There is Reich and his orgone theory (“Martin is stealing your orgones. — You going to stand still for this shit?”), Dr. Dent’s apomorphine treatment (“You can cut the enemy off your line by the judicious use of apomorphine and silence — Use the sanity drug apomorphine.”), Hassan ibn Sabbah (“‘Nothing Is True — Everything Is Permitted’ — Last Words Hassan I Sabbah“), Jack Black (“And you can see the marks are wising up, standing around in sullen groups and that mutter gets louder and louder.”), Mayans and Aztecs (“you will regret calling in the Mayan Aztec Gods with your synthetic mushrooms.”), Brion Gysin (“Preliminary reports indicate that certain painting — like Brion Gysin’s — when projected on a subject produced some of the effects observed in orgone accumulators -“), flicker (“goofed on ether and mixed in flicker helmets”), and the atom bomb (“Mobilized reasons to love Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”).
Of course, there are numerous references to Scientology, to which Burroughs applies both real names and also the name “Logos,” which he had used in The Ticket That Exploded:
Scientology means the study of “humanity’s condition” — Wise radio doctor — Logos Officers in his portable — The Effects Boy’s “scientology release” is locks over the Chinese — Told me to sit by Hubbard guide — “What are you going to do?” — That person going to get out of “havingness?”
A little later, a more intelligible conversation takes place, with a Nova Police cadet explaining the concept of Scientology, which is “part of our Basic Scientology Police Course”:
The Scientologists believe sir that words recorded during a period of unconsciousness… store pain and that this pain store can be lugged in with key words represented as an alternate mathematical formulae indicating number of exposures to the key words and reaction index… they call these words recorded during unconsciousness engrams sir… If I may say so sir the childhood amnesia for trauma is of special interest sir… The child forgets sir but since the controllers have the engram tapes sir any childhood trauma can be plugged in at any time… The pain that overwhelms that person is basic basic sir and when basic basic is wiped off the tape… then that person becomes what they call clear sir.
Both of the above quotes come from the same chapter in the novel, “Simple as a Hiccup,” which contains numerous references to Scientology. Burroughs cut his own writing with text from other sources, and so it is possible that he cut some Scientology literature into this part of the novel. He certainly practiced cut-ups with Scientology material in the early sixties. Certain words and phrases in densely cut-up passages suggest that he might have: “stimuli,” “pain bank,” “Present Time,” “beingness,” “process,” “barriers,” “purposes,” “pre-clear,” “no effect,” “cycle of action,” “identities,” “real is real,” “reality need,” etc. Of particular interest is the reference in the middle of the second quote to childhood traumas and their ability to crop up again in later life and cause pain. Burroughs also describes, with the aid of a Dr. Benway-style hospital routine, how even under anesthesia a person can remember absolutely everything around him — a point of which Hubbard was certain. The message is clear — if Scientology can erase these foul scars from the mind, it is an invaluable tool.
Although the chapter is seemingly unintelligible, Scientology is presented as a “simple” solution to the pain and suffering the world wrought by the forces of control. Horrendous images of medical procedures are presented, but always there is the possibility of erasing the tapes and going back to a place where these memories don’t exist. In fact, this view permeates the whole of the book — nostalgia for something that never existed. Burroughs harkens back to a sort of Eden that existed before the atom bomb, and in this particular chapter that Eden is equated with a clear mind — that is to say, one free from engrams. Thus Scientology is the best weapon against the Nova Mob, and a method of travelling back to a more pleasant place in time.
The Wild Boys
In 1969 Burroughs wrote seven short pieces that were sent out to various publications, all under the heading “Abstract.” These abstracts share similar styles and also closely resemble parts of The Wild Boys, which is hardly unusual as Burroughs frequently used submissions to small publications as practice for writing his books. They are often visual pieces, laid out like film scripts, highlighting Burroughs’ interest in film at the time, and also feature cut-ups. Sometimes they are narrative, sometimes purely instructional, and sometimes both mixed together. We commonly see a juxtaposition of images, positive and negative, in a reference to Hubbard. The first two abstracts were published by Lip, and the first focused on the Scientology auditing procedure. It presents and then runs negative images like engrams in a demonstration of how these can be robbed of their damaging power, resulting in a state of pure happiness. Near the beginning, in a line of questions and answers presented as in processing, there is a discussion of the nature of the reactive mind. Burroughs ties it to Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Mayans, and states that it is 12,000 years old. “What is the origin of the Reactive Mind?” he asked. “Abstract.” The second abstract does not directly refer to Hubbard or Scientology, but employs the same tactic of presenting negative images for the purpose of running them. These two pieces were printed in the same issue of Lip, in fall 1969. Another of these abstracts was published in Klacto/23, and gave instructions for controlling people via “waking suggestion” — apparently a technique developed by Dr. Dent, who invented the apomorphine cure, although it sounds more like something Burroughs picked up during his time at Saint Hill. Burroughs explains the technique in greater detail in another abstract, published in Fruit Cup, where he brings in the use of tape recorders.
By August, Burroughs had more or less finished The Wild Boys, although it wasn’t published until 1971. It was a move away from the manic cut-ups of the early sixties, with Burroughs later saying, “there was too much rather undifferentiated cut-up material [in the Nova Trilogy], which I eliminated in The Wild Boys.” Instead, the novel shows Burroughs’ interest in film through its oddly styled narrative, and his political leanings in the plot. The “Penny Arcade Peep Show” sections, which came from the above mentioned abstracts, are the most obvious examples, with repetition of numbers and opposing ideas. Burroughs explained that this framework came from “clearing course material,” with the reader in the position of preclear. Throughout the book Burroughs attempts to create mental pictures with his words, rather than to denote meaning, and the use of cut aways and other film-inspired tricks are helpful. Later he would explain that his incorporation of film techniques in his writing was due to Scientology auditing:
…film glimpses will occur in auditing. I don’t say you are remembering another life but you are remembering something. A writer always gets his pound of flesh and a number of scenes later used in The Wild Boys were remembered on the E-meter.
Cities of the Red Night
After a difficult few years without much writing, Burroughs finished work on Cities of the Red Night, the first in a trilogy of surprisingly comprehensible novels. Published in 1981, Cities features a relatively straightforward (by Burroughs’ standard, at least) plot, and whilst it is far-reaching in terms of space and time, it is fairly easy to read, unlike his earlier work. The novel took him nearly seven years to write, because of a number of problems in his life, and partly because he was hit by a nasty bout of writer’s block, and unable to produce much of anything for a whole year. In the end, James Grauerholz was saddled with the task of editing the book “into present time,” which involved extensive changes.
The book is comprised of the three styles of writing that most appealed to Burroughs throughout his life — boy’s adventure stories, detective fiction, and sci-fi. There are references to Reich and Castañeda, to Egyptian, Mayan, and Aztec hieroglyphics, and several to Hassan ibn Sabbah and the number 23. Most notably there is Virus B-23, “the virus of biological mutation… this agent occasioned biologic alterations in those affected — fatal in many cases, permanent and hereditary in the survivors, who became carriers of the strain.” This is a reference to the “aberrations” described by Hubbard in Dianetics — in other words, the engrams that predispose humans to a great many flaws and issues to which clears are immune. In Burroughs’ version, the aberrations cause sexual frenzies and death. There are a few subtle jokes that acknowledge Burroughs’ inspiration for Virus B-23. Burroughs’ version of the virus has it turning Europeans from black to white (Burroughs suspected Hubbard of racism, due to his use of “wog”), he makes a quip that the virus “might quiet the uh silent majority” (a nod to the idea that silence would prevent new engrams from being created), and jokes that the virus might possibly be dealt with in “past time” (for Scientology processing to work, a preclear must be in present time).
There is also mention of Academy 23, which was one of the names Burroughs proposed for the training schools that he considered opening. In Cities, Academy 23 is where one of the Chinese characters, Yen Lee, was trained:
“Unlike his counterparts in western countries, he had been carefully selected for a high level of intuitive adjustment, and trained accordingly to imagine and explore seemingly fantastic potentials in any situation, while at the same time giving equal consideration to prosaic and practical aspects. He had developed an attitude at once probing and impersonal, remote and alert. He did not know when the training had begun, since in Academy 23 it was carried out in a context of reality.”
While Burroughs’ ideas for an academy included Scientology, what he is describing here appears to actually be Scientology. Lee sounds like a trained auditor, particularly with the description, “probing and impersonal, remote and alert.”
The Place of Dead Roads
Another of Burroughs’ preoccupations during this period, and something which becames a central theme of The Place of Dead Roads, was time travel. “Time travel is something all of us do,” he said. “You just have to think about what you were doing an hour ago and you’re there.” What Burroughs is describing is Hubbard’s notion of recall. Hubbard said
A person can ‘send’ a portion of his mind to a past period on either a mental or combined mental and physical basis and can re-experience incidents which have taken place in his past in the same fashion and with the same sensations as before.
This was time travel in Burroughs’ mind, and that’s what he meant in the book’s title — “dead roads” are people and places from your past that you can revisit.
“Remember a red brick house on Jane Street? Your breath quickens as you mount the worn, red-carpeted stairs… The road to 4 Calle Larachi, Tangier, or 24 Arrundle Terrace in London. So many dead roads you will never use again…”
Burroughs maintained that space travel was also possible. To escape the confines of this planet, “planet Earth, place of dead roads, dead purposes,” one needed more than NASA was attempting. Burroughs explained in interviews and lectures in the early eighties his notion of space travel. Sending men into space in capsules that cost millions of dollars was, to Burroughs, absurd. He knew better. Scientology taught the techniques of exteriorization. A man’s thetan could travel between planets, so why even bother with the body? It was just another dead road.
Burroughs’s alter ego, Kim, thinks about space travel as his “only purpose,” and a means of escape. He considers the necessities for leaving this planet — namely a change in biological form in order to adapt to the environment of space. And what is the environment of space? “SILENCE.” Humans need to evolve in order to deal with silence. It was from Scientology that Burroughs took the idea that silence is important, a method of avoiding triggering an engram.
Harkening back to The Soft Machine, Burroughs introduces the idea of “prerecordings” that control our actions. “The only thing prerecorded in a prerecorded universe is the prerecordings themselves: the film. The unforgivable sin is to tamper with the prerecordings.” Of course, this plays off the notion of a reactive mind and engrams which can be triggered by predetermined stimuli.
Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ will be released in January 2013, not long after the Mayans predicted the world would end. If you’re still around, you should be able to purchase a copy wherever good books are sold.