Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
As Alfred Hitchcock has demonstrated, you never know who you might meet on a train, or what will result from the encounter. While reading the scroll version of On the Road on my morning commute, I struck up a conversation with Charles Talkoff. He was not planning a murder, but he hoped to lop the heads off a few giants of contemporary literature. You see, Charles is enrolled in the writer’s program at Johns Hopkins. Unlike many students in these cookie cutter factories, Charles is an experimental writer working with jazz as a foundation for his novel. In fact, the structure of his work in progress with its loosely linked episodes has similarities with Naked Lunch.
As a means to pass our commute, we have engaged in a far-ranging conversation that, not surprisingly given how we met, frequently centers on the Beats. Our conversations parallel the opening to Naked Lunch with me wondering if Charles is putting a con on me as I go to work in my Brooks Brothers suit. A train has proven to be something of an inspiration for the Beats and their literary children. One of the most pivotal moments in Allen Ginsberg’s life occurred on a train ride in Japan that he recounted in the poem, “The Change.” Ted Berrigan wrote a long poem entitled “Train Ride” on a trip from New York to Providence. Neal Cassady worked on the railroads throughout his relationship with Carolyn Cassady. Kerouac flirted with working there as a brakeman but could never stick it out. Nevertheless the railroad held quite an attraction for him. He championed the hobo lifestyle and rode a few trains himself. The short work “October in Railroad Earth” is one of Kerouac’s finest pieces of spontaneous prose.
The act of riding a train has proven an inspiration for Charles and me as well. Charles has some remarkable ideas on topics that are Burroughsian, like language as a virus, the Yage experience and man’s development of cities. They have the feel of the Burroughs presented in The Job or the Penthouse interviews as opposed to the Burroughs of the Paris Review. The forum might be the best place for these discussions, but in an effort to keep ourselves entertained on our commute, Charles and I have recreated these conversations into a more structured interview with links to his webpage that has excerpts from his ongoing projects. Feel free to print this material out and read them on your morning or evening commute.
Interview with Charles Talkoff
Let’s kick this off with considering one of Burroughs’ most famous statements: Language is a virus. You have an interesting take on the origin of language, the I, and human consciousness.
Burroughs’s statement is fascinating because it’s so provocative and enigmatic. Really the provocation rests in part in its being enigmatic. In his book, The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes suggests that the great leap, the moment of individuation that has seemingly propelled humanity into its present state of self-awareness (the emergence of the “I”) was the result of the development of the corpus callosum — the mass that connects the two cerebral hemispheres. Prior to this, says Jaynes, when one half of the brain “thought,” the other perceived it as an external voice of command and authority — the voice of god and thus, god’s “disappearance” from the later stages of the Old Testament correspond tangentially to the evolutionary leap forward in which god is brought within the conjoined hemispheres and becomes “I” (at least in what we call Western thought).
Burroughs suggested that a virus caused a mutation of this type and speculated that it came from outer space. People immediately begin thinking of aliens, but a meteorite is more likely. What do you think of the possibility of a virus in a meteorite as the catalyst for human consciousness?
Not out of the question. Richard Feynman, a great physicist, said the universe was stranger than we can imagine, so again, Burroughs could have been right. It is possible that language is a virus in the sense that what hit the planet was a meteorite with a germ on it. Recently — a few years ago — there was a lot of buzz regarding a piece of rock from Mars with what appeared to be a germ on it; all very x-files and sci-fi of course but hardly far-fetched. There is no reason to say that Burroughs’ idea is wrong, a priori; however I have a hunch it was more organic. At one point, Jaynes discusses the advent of language some time immediately after or close upon the end of the last ice age. In passing, he mentions a particular quality of this phase — the halocentric thermal maximum — the point at which the earth’s orbit brought it again closer to the sun causing the ice to begin to melt. In this period, which occurred over several centuries, Jaynes mentions that it must have rained for something like three centuries and that it was after this that speech appears and humans begin to record themselves as being recorded self-reflexively through the agency of words that are themselves mirrors of words reflecting the human minds reflecting in and upon its own existence.
Within this though there is another issue that has received less attention than it might deserve. It is well documented and there is a vast corpus concerning the emergence at this time — circa 9000 – 13,000 BC — of totemic figures depicting female forms holding shafts of wheat and barley and this is added to the growing archeological record that has revealed ossified remains of wheat and barley and other bread-stuff that were gathered and consumed.
Reading Jaynes I thought about this and the following occurred to me: After three hundred years of rain barley was bountiful and highly susceptible to ergot.
Ergot is what Albert Hoffman was studying when he developed LSD. It is a natural psychedelic.
Right. Hoffman accidentally dropped a bit of the synthetic ergot, i.e. LSD, on his skin and started tripping. During the halocentric thermal maximum, the barley became thick with ergot to the point of being a platform for a supra-form of the toxin, and that when consumed, attached itself to the new host; the human brain and there, what became Broca’s and Wernickes’ area, ergot became a mutation upon the DNA of the human form and created the illusion of “I” and came to be passed on both through the consumption of barley and through reproduction and as a result, the adaptation of speech and consciousness is an evolutionary mistake — not the great leap forward, but, at best a giant step to one side, and at worst, a leap backwards; an evolutionary maladaptation leading inexorably to extinction.
Burroughs was particularly interested in cults of initiation as evidenced by the discussion on the RealityStudio forum. Ergot ties in with cults as well.
The history of barley infected with ergot and its ritualistic use is fascinating. There was, for example, a cult in ancient Rome dedicated to Apollo, in his Dionysian manifestation, that was based on deliberately allowing barley to become infected with ergot, which was then used in sacred rituals giving initiates visions. The split between the Dionysian and Apollonian almost certainly has its origin in an organic fact: the split in the brain; Jaynes was close and Burroughs and so many others but I think we can go further. One of the most intriguing aspects of this long narrative is the story of Beowulf. Beowulf might mean “barley wolf” which opens a door to an extraordinary interpretation of the story — which is, I suspect, that under the heading of “history is written by the winners,” the Northern European tribes defeated the tribes of the British islands and wrote the text that we now have or perhaps there was a war between different cults and the story reflects that and the location of the war is not essential to understanding the stories significance; it’s helpful but not crucial. The traditional exegesis is that the story is a proto-Christian narrative but while there is almost certainly a Christian element to the narrative, I would suggest that the Northern Tribes with their Odin-nailed-to-the-tree, proto-Christian tropes, were really trying to eradicate a pagan cult based on hallucinogenic visions derived from ingesting ergot-laced barley.
Over several decades bodies have been pulled from bogs across Europe and often residue of barley is found in the stomach of these bogmen. It has been suggested that these men were thrown into the bog in the course of a ritual sacrifice.
As part of that there may very well have been the ingesting of an ergot-laced plant or drink thought to be divine or sacred. Beowulf destroys the “beast” of the fen; Grendel of the swamp and as a proto-Christian sacrifice he dies in the process of setting people free. The Norse system with Odin at its center takes a very different approach to knowledge — Odin has lost one eye because he exchanged it for wisdom. He is nailed to the tree of life and suffers for his people. It is all very Fisher Kingesque and a version of the story we are more familiar with in which Christ is nailed to the cross. There is in this a war of suppression; the elimination of mind-altering substances (though we must not make the mistake of saying that the non-drug-induced aesthetic was false as it arrived at the same result but through a far more masochistic road of flagellation and denial of the flesh, no doubt in direct response to the externalized ecstasy of the ergot cult) and this is I suspect for several interconnected reasons: for example the connection between the drugs and ritual sex — control of the body, male and female, is a major driving economic and psychological and political force in history. The association between paganism and sexual energy as a method of communing with the divine is hardly a new topic and the millennia-old war, the Kulturkampf and blitzkrieg launched against it has been well documented.
We can place Burroughs and the Beats at one end of this tradition; that is, they are part of a neopagan liberation movement based on a reaction against the industrial-Christian aesthetic. Kerouac is interesting in this regard as he embodies the war in his own life; a troubled catholic moving between reactionary Catholicism and Buddhism.
It is also beginning to fade for various reasons. Christianity is withering in Europe — in the US it’s hard to tell but as a political force it may be spent.
Michel Foucault’s pioneering work on the historiography of how we discuss what we call insanity speaks to this issue. Foucault tells us that ancient Greece, and by extension the pagan world as a whole, had no conception of “insanity” as we conceive of it. The counterargument is really too simple in that one — usually someone on the political right — says, “oh dear, moral relativism and what about” — insert lunatic of your choice — but it’s easy enough to refute: if the premise is that excess violence is by definition a form of insanity then we are instantly on the slippery slope to authoritarian thinking as after all, we could label Kissinger or Cheney insane. We are then setting up a circular firing squad because really it’s just a question of who runs the courts and not an objective criteria. Another fascinating aspect is the way in which early Christian thinking has been suppressed. Saint Augustine says in the City of God: concern yourself not with whether your actions are good or evil for both are of the mind of god. This embracing duality caused too much angst and would have allowed a far more open City on the Hill than people wanted — or than some people wanted.
Mass ergot poisoning of the type you describe is definitely possible and has historical precedent in the modern era. Huxley wrote about such an outbreak in The Devils of Loudoun. You know of others?
There has been some speculation that there may have been an ergot epidemic just prior to the French Revolutions of 1789. When people ask what caused the Revolution it’s really a narrow formulation as there were a series of overlapping and interconnected issues. When we say barley and ergot we are also really discussing poverty, food, commerce and class issues and technology. How people eat and what they eat, how the food is cultivated and consumed; these are layered issues. But yes, ergot poisoning may have been a factor in the events of 1789.
As you know having read The Yage Letters, Burroughs was a pioneer in the area of natural psychedelics. Yage literally blows Burroughs’ mind as well as Ginsberg’s. They repeatedly talk about possession and consciousness in the yage experience. Prolonged derangement of the senses by ergot could create a mutation rather than a temporary change. How does the yage experience fit in with your ergot story? Of course, the weather would also have an effect on all plant life as well, like vines and mushrooms.
The yage letters are fascinating for many reasons. Assuming I’m not completely off-base then yes, prolonged ingestion of a powerful drug like ergot could lead to a mutation which might explain Grendel — there may be a profound memory lurking at the point of origin for Grendel — perhaps “Grendel” is a representation of a mutated person or just a metaphoric representation of a person who has ingested too much ergot or yage.
The experiences that Burroughs and Ginsberg describe are fascinating in many different ways. Burroughs of course is all pose — hardboiled, cynical, and cynical about his own pose as hardboiled and cynical. In a sense he is Nabokovian which is ironic because on the surface you couldn’t find two artists more seemingly dissimilar. Yet both are concerned with the liquid nature of reality and the shifting dimensions of what we call personality or personae.
Ginsberg and Burroughs were both describing the experience of how they felt their personalities — what Ginsberg in the letters calls ego — were all poses and as a result they were using the yage drug to break down the imposed ideas of order that were surging from the American Empire in their era; ideas about sexual identity, commercial identity, the nation-state as a persona. Freedom is a liquid state where one exists harmoniously with and in the perpetual now — Nude Descending a Staircase — versus a linear and rigid structure. In Burroughs we have someone who is subverting every aspect of personae — he is playing the part of a colonizing tourist, a sex tourist, an explorer and reporter, a mystic because he was so at war with imposed ideas of structure. The cut-ups, I suspect, spoke to his belief in the idea that order was a fiction which in many respects it is; it’s a question always of where we subjectively chose to draw a border and say on one side of the line is x and on the other is y — what is an object and what is the experience of that object. This is one of the things that can be pulled from the Yage Letters — this question of how to be free of imposed ideas of order and structure yet live in this world.
This dilemma is acute in Ginsberg’s letters where he is torn by the possibility of attaining dissolution of his ego and yet saddened by the prospect of his father and partner Orlovsky living without him and how they would be with the news of his death. This is the age-old dilemma — the monk in a cave and the swami under a tree and the poet and so on, this mysterious duality between a sense of connection and singularity. Whitman says, what I assume you shall assume as well for every atom belonging to me belongs as well to you — okay, thanks Uncle Walter, but the assuming leap can be terrifying. Ginsberg was more in the world than Burroughs and so more terrified, and that comes across in his letters. Burroughs is seemingly unconcerned with what people think of him. He has far more of Rimbaud in his pose than Ginsberg. This is hardly surprising as Ginsberg of course interacted with the establishment more than Burroughs — Ginsberg never killed anyone so far as we know.
Like you, Burroughs saw the development of language as a mistake and a dangerous one at that. This is an age-old belief, back to the Tower of Babel, maybe further. You have an interesting take on the real meaning of the Babel myth that deals more with architecture than with the multiplicity of languages betraying the singularity of God’s Word.
The narrative imposed as meaning upon the narrative called The Tower of Babel has come to be about the emergence of multiple and often mutually exclusive languages. This is a diversionary narrative obscuring the deeper, older, and more centrally important meaning.
A king orders the creation of a great tower from which he will shoot an arrow into heaven and draw forth god. As a punishment for this god imposes multiple languages upon humanity sowing confusion where there had, seemingly, been order.
What has been lost over the millennia is the focus upon the cause of the punishment, and in its place has grown up the exegesis that wrestles with with the emergence of language. In other words, the story of the tower is rendered as a tale quaintly depicting a primitive attempt to explain why people from different places use different words.
But the central crime depicted is the attempt to summon god, and one should ask why that would be of such importance that someone would write a story about it?
What we know, or what we believe to be close to a fact, is that early societies built shelters in which to store the food they collected and from which they drew what they called spirit, which gave them voices which they believed were gods speaking to and through them.
Since the experience of ergot-laced food was exceptional, and became ritualistic, everything associated with the food became ritualistic and magical and totemic and the collecting of the food and the storage of the food and where the food was stored all became sacred. And powerful.
The more people there were, the more they needed food; the more food they consumed, the more they needed to store; the more food to be stored, the greater the need for a larger place to store the food. So a building became a temple and the people who lived there became shamans or priests. In some cases there were warrior-priests who were physically stronger than everyone else — they had more food and more women and more children and thus still more food and they became kings.
The successful kings produced cults that venerated the kings who made the cults. To further this veneration they attacked their neighbors, stole their women, ate their food, and ordered people to build bigger temples dedicated to themselves.
It used to be that existence was more precarious for more people with less separation between poverty and any kind of relative safety. More people wandered about in harsh climates exposed to the elements. Their inability to understand their experience of things created a profound belief in the autonomous agency of the gods; that is, gods came and went on their own and decided when and where to appear and speak to people. With the advent of temples and the rituals associated with their maintenance a great schism developed and humanity split into two warring camps.
On the one hand there were tribes who lived in increasingly large and complex temple-based cities in which an increasingly rigid, formulaic and ritualistic life developed and in which a powerful hierarchy grew and prospered with a warrior-king-priest at the apex about whom a liturgy was developed in which his divine birth and life were depicted and meshed with the observed patterns of the movement of planets and stars and seasons and sometimes his name was Gilgamesh and other times it was Ulysses or Jason, etc, and so on and he was both god and mortal and both received word from god or the gods and acted as gods press agent on earth and also was somewhere in-between as he was often victimized by the divine despite having many superior qualities and enjoying the best food and the greatest number of beautiful women. To support this figure and his system there grew up a court of priests and astrologers and guards and elaborate rituals culminating in the creation of vast temple-cities in which the entire structure of the temple-city was based on the life and progression towards divine death for the divine-human king, and thus we have pyramids and ziggurats which were complex machines for the purpose of speaking with god.
I like the idea that ergot plays a role in the development of the city and in essence modern civilization. Interestingly, Burroughs had a dream of a Composite City as a result of his yage experience. In addition in Naked Lunch, the city of Interzone is as much a city state of mind as an actual place. Coleridge dreamed Kubla Khan. There is a definite link between cities and the drug experience. Any thoughts on drug and community formation?
Burroughs, as many great artists are, was ahead of his time. The Los Angeles of Blade Runner and the ersatz amalgam of cities in Las Vegas stems from a communal imagination; a landscape that is recognizable because it has its origin to a certain extent in a communal dream. The Babel myth is powerful in this regard. I suppose if I were a Jungian I’d say it’s part of a collective unconscious. Not an uninteresting idea.
So the Babel myth is more about the creation of cities than language?
I would think it’s about both. Those who objected to the creation of these “complex machines” for speaking with God wrote a narrative which has been forgotten and calcified and placed in a box called mythology while the competing narrative which is essentially a reactionary anti-technology manifesto has been enshrined, celebrated and beatified while being placed in a chalice labeled religion.
This narrative is called the Old Testament or The Koran (and has many other names as well) and the central message of it is that of a people devoted to an antithetical pose against everything associated with the emergence of technology, thus, Jerusalem is a harlot and the city is always falling into or causing evil, and that results in god’s wrath and everyone except the faithful dies.
It is a predictable trope. Cities are bad and people in cities are bad and the people who wrote these stories hated cities. Why?
God appears to Moses as a burning bush and a voice in a whirlwind. He has neither shape nor a particular name exactly. It’s all rather vague on purpose. Moses pitches an enormous fit against Pharaoh who is employing the Jews as Hebrew vaqueros to pick the cotton, so to speak, and build his newest temple-complex. Post Auschwitz, post Martin Luther King, the story of the Exodus has been cast as a story of liberation and against slavery. But these things are always more complicated.
What the Jews were really revolting against was not slavery per se but the imposition of the city-based religious order versus their anti-city religious order in which god could be experienced but remained unknown and unknowable (I am what I am, etc) and the Pharaoh system in which god could be known but only experienced through the participatory rituals in which Pharaoh was god-head; divine and semi-mortal and god or his representatives could be herded into a system in which they made regular appearances. God was suddenly in the city and there were some people who thought that was a bad idea and they revolted and wrote a story that supported their version of events.
Their version culminated in a metaphoric capturing of the city when they declare that heaven is really a great big beautiful version of Jerusalem with clean streets and no leprous beggars, sort of like Salt Lake City or Zurich, except cleaner and more observant. Since they had failed to eradicate the cities and the nature-based pagan religious shrines could not keep up with the accelerating demographic explosion they stole the city and said: look, join our cult, give up all this temple-based crap in which the gods are rendered in a physically knowable / recognizable form, and after you die, you’ll still get to live in a city, but it will be really, really clean.
After all, what is it exactly that Moses has against the golden calf? What exactly would cause someone to write a story in which idols are bad? What’s wrong with depicting god?
Well, the answer is that if you depict god it means you know god and can recognize him and he’s not everything, he’s a cow, or a horse or a woman, or even a man or a snake. Then you will probably worship the idol and place the idol in a building and if you do that then you’ll start keeping regular worship hours and then, worst of all, you’ll decide you can speak with god when you want and not when god wants and that’s just wrong and if you insist then we’ll write a story in which god gives Moses the power to launch a weapons of mass destruction attack and all the firstborn children will die.
So, Moses wanders in the desert for a ritualistic and purifying forty years to get the sin of city-life out of the collective system and all the divine child prophet leading the people and then sacrificial death tropes are enacted (Moses comes down river a child of the reeds, grows up a prince like Buddha, revolts, flees, receives divine paternal guidance and then dies after delivering his flock to the promised land, roll credits.)
What I like about this version of the Babel myth is that is links up with some of the most pressing questions and crises in the current world order.
Right. Al Qaeda represents the age-old hatred of the city as decadent. So, we can look back at the story of Babel and ask, who would write such a story? People who believed that idol worship was a crime, so they split into two camps themselves and interestingly enough one of the tribes vanished… and one became pirates and sacked the nearest city and took it over and then the whole story started all over again with David and Saul and all the crazy bad stuff that happens when you become soft and decadent and have 900 concubines. Then prophets start showing up and curse you and curse the effect of city-living and in the meantime, one of the tribes has vanished. Where did they go?
Right. The lost tribe continued to wander and some of the members became itinerant haberdashers moving along the increasingly large information superhighways stretching from North Africa to Java with outposts of progress in Kabul and the Gulf and they carried with them a firm belief in the sanctity of god’s paradoxical nature, present in all things yet absent always. They did not believe that paltry, inferior man could summon god, know god, or say what god looked like because god was in all things.
And so Prometheus is assaulted by the gods for stealing fire, knowledge, and the story rewinds, recalibrates and the man today who assails the kingdom is 10,000 years old.