Western Lands, The. William S. Burroughs (1987)

The Western Lands is the final volume of william s.
burroughs’s cut-up trilogy that also includes cities of tHe red niGHt (1981) and The place of
dead roads
(1984). In his acknowledgments, he
credits Norman Mailer’s
Ancient Evenings (1983)
for “inspiration.” Burroughs must have been excited to discover in Mailer’s book a cosmology
that was so close to his own personal mythology,
for through Mailer’s description of Egyptian myth
and ritual, Burroughs was able to recast his previous work in a new and vital form. There must not
only have been recognition here but also validation, and Burroughs takes some pains to show the
ways in which his own ideas from the past 40 years
of writing find their counterparts in the knowledge
of the ancients.
In Egyptian mythology the Western Lands is
where the soul lives on after death. The old writer
who was introduced at the beginning of the novel
“sets out to write his way out of death”—a strategy that Burroughs adopted quite consciously after
the tragedy of his wife Joan’s death in 1951. In his
research on death, he learns (in Mailer’s
) that the Egyptians believed that there
were seven souls and that each soul is personified.
These personifications, it turns out, closely resemble the sci-fi cosmology that Burroughs had created
on his own. For example, the first soul (Ren) is
very much like Burroughs’s “Director,” the second
soul (Sekem) the Director’s sometimes recalcitrant
“Technician,” and so on. The body corresponds to
Burroughs’s favorite disaster metaphor—the sinking ship—and souls are deserting the ship as they
leave the body. In this they resemble the “Italian
steward who put on women’s clothes and so filched
a seat in a lifeboat” in Burroughs’s various retellings of the sinking of the
Titanic and the Morro
(such as “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”). The
“Venusian invasion” of Burroughs’s mythology is “a
takeover of the souls.” The ultimate killer of souls,
says Burroughs, will be the radiation from atomic
blasts, for souls (following the findings of Wilhelm
Reich) are seen “as electromagnetic.” That is the
real destructive power of the bomb, and it has been
created as a “Soul killer” to keep a glut of souls out
of the Western Lands.
The explanation of the seven souls provides
a map of the book. In the opening storyline, Burroughs searches for an identity for his main character, starting out with Carl Peterson and then
switching to Kim Carsons. The setting is Berlin in
the postwar period, where Kim becomes involved
with an underground group known as Margaras
Unlimited, “a secret service without a country,”
that specializes in disrupting the plans of the victor nations and wealthy ex-Nazis. Their agenda is
space exploration, inner and outer, and “expanding
awareness.” Anything that goes against such development “we will extirpate.” Margaras Unlimited,
then, closely resembles the Articulated of
Cities of
the Read Night
and the Johnson Family of The Place
of Dead Roads.
Burroughs introduces a new character, Joe the
Dead, who, it turns out, was the gunman who shot
Kim Carsons and Mike Chase at the end of
Place of Dead Roads.
Joe is a Technician, the second
soul. He killed Mike Chase and Kim Carsons because both were responsible, directly and indirectly,
for the death of photographer Tom Dark, one of
Joe’s fellow guild members. He personally disliked
Kim because he is an “arty type, no principle” and
also because of Kim’s fascination with “antiquated
weaponry.” Mike Chase was going to be president,
which would have been a disaster. Joe the Dead is
a member of a select group that is known as Natural Outlaws and is dedicated to breaking the laws
of science. Joe specializes in breaking the laws of
evolutionary biology: first, that only closely related
species may produce hybrids and, second, that mutations are irreversible. He is also an eco-warrior
who is fighting the destruction of the rainforest. In
all respects, then, he is an updated, 20th-century
version of Kim and the Johnsons.
Nerferti, an Egyptian scribe, is introduced
as a character who is supposed to bring “drastic
change,” to the world. His writings, however, “are
shot down by enemy critics backed by computerized
thought control.” The world of the book is a magical one, and Neferti practices black magic to kill
Julian Chandler (based on Anatole Broyard, who
The Place of Dead Roads), a book reviewer
for the
New York Times who has “chosen for his
professional rancor the so-called Beat Movement.”
Chandler earns his death by penning a caustic

review of William Hall’s The Place of Dead Roads
(Neferti is apparently Hall). See and Prick, two
goons who work for Big Picture (a plan to evacuate the select few before nova conditions set in),
are also killed by magic. The cause of their death
is traced back to 1959 (the year of
naked luncH’s
publication) and to William Seward Hall, “the
writer, of course.” The antiwriter in the book is Joe
the Dead, who criticizes Kim for “irresponsible faggotry” by his “re-writes of history”—a critique of
the two previous novels that holds up better than
Chandler’s insubstantial charges against Hall. After
killing Kim, Joe goes into deep freeze for 50 years
and wakes up rich from his investments. Joe, the
biological outlaw, now practices magic against the
medical community. He studies Reich’s theories on
cancer and the “retarded medical profession” that
persecutes him. Hall reads the doctor’s books and
sees his “Doctor Benway shine forth as a model of
responsibility and competence by comparison.” Joe
causes medical riots in 1999 by leaking information
on cancer cures that were withheld by the medical
Kim returns to the novel and is “seen” in Mexico. He is apparently not dead. A little green man
(later identified as the Aztec deity Ah Pook) leads
him to a riverbank where they get into canoes. He
will be Kim’s guide in the streets of Centipede City
where Kim is sent by Dimitri, the District Supervisor, on another “impossible” mission—to find out
why the Western Lands were created and why they
had become “bogged down” in mummies. The actual voyage to the Centipede City takes place in
a dream that Kim has of Neferti. Neferti manages
to break the code of the “centipede cult,” and the
“ancient writing” in the Mayan codex “crumbles to
Neferti’s knowledge of these secrets is explained. He is a scribe who fulfills Burroughs’s
dream as a writer—to be able to write directly in images. He is caught in an ongoing war between two
religious factions, one of which worships many gods
in a magical universe, the other of which is forcing
the concept of One God. The One-God Universe
is a “prerecorded universe” of “friction and conflict,
pain, fear, sickness, famine, war, old age and Death.”
The Magical Universe is one of many gods who are
often in conflict, so there is no paradox of an allknowing God “who permits suffering, death.” The
beginning of the pilgrimage to the Western Lands
is a spiritual awakening that results from the knowledge that we live in the dead, soulless universe of
the One God. Neferti steals the Western Land papyrus; comically, our modern knowledge of the
scrolls comes initially from
National Enquirer stories:
“Ancient Egyptian Papyrus Demonstrates That Life
After Death Is Within The Reach of Everyman.”
The pharaohs are uproarious because of the ensuing
“glut” of souls in the Western Lands.
The book takes on the form of a spiritual allegory, a pilgrim’s progress/Canterbury tale on the
road to the afterlife. The Great Awakening provides the blueprint for the dangerous journey—“by
definition the most dangerous road in the world.”
Travelers first are outfitted in Waghdas, the ancient city of knowledge but also a stand-in for
Burroughs’s hometown of St. Louis. The road is
beset by con men of every conceivable stripe and
often wanders off in labyrinthine detours. Neferti is
guided by a beautiful Breather (whose breath can
bring both death and delight) across the Duad—“a
river of excrement, one of the deadliest obstacles
on the road to the Western Lands.” This river represents the fatal dualism of Western thought and
also the duality of the sexes, which prevents entry
into the Western Lands. Neferti tells the young
scribes that he can offer them freedom from “all
this mummy shit.” The error of the pharaohs is
that they based immortality on the physical body
(mummies) and built their heaven on that principle. Nerferti argues that we can create a Western
Land that is made of dreams, just as artists live by
thought and creativity.
Several examples of how Burroughs’s previous work “fits” into the Egyptian scheme are given.
For example, “Margaras,” the name of the underworld organization for which Joe the Dead works,
is the Sanskrit name for “the Hunter, the Investigator, the Skip Tracer”—the latter a character
Naked Lunch and in the cut-ups trilogy of the
1960s. There are also examples of cut-ups taken
from the early 1960s (particularly in
Minutes to Go)
that now make sense 30 years later, thus proving
the prophetic power of the cut-up process. Nepherti continues his journey to the Western Lands
and learns that he must meet with Hassan i Sab
bah, who tells him, “Life is very dangerous and few
survive it. I am but a humble messenger. Ancient
Egypt is the only period in history when the gates
to immortality were open, the Gates of Anubis.
But the gates were occupied and monopolized by
unfortunate elements . . . rather low vampires.”
A chapter on Hassan I Sabbah details the
training of his assassins for space travel. This requires evolution on the part of human beings. Political structures, though, preclude evolution by
the enforcement of a uniform (nonmagical) environment: “The punctuational theory of evolution
is that mutations appear quite quickly when the
equilibrium is punctuated. Fish transferred from
one environment to a totally new and different
context showed a number of biological alterations
in a few generations.” So if we change the environment, says Burroughs, we mutate. To keep humans
from mutating quickly involves the enforcement of
uniformity. But Burroughs comes to a key realization about the character of Hassan i Sabbah as he
has been portrayed not only in this trilogy but in
previous works: He realizes that he has been worshipping Hassan i Sabbah, has “invoked HIS aid,
like some Catholic feeling his Saint medal.” Accordingly, he can now treat HIS just like any other
character or “routine” in his work, and Hassan i
Sabbah becomes for the first time a true “character.” He imagines a scenario where Nepherti and
Hassan i Sabbah make it to the Western Lands
and bring back knowledge that will destroy the
Venusian Controllers. They soon have “everyone
on their ass”—all the governments, churches, and
powers that be. Orthodox religious leaders and
some “reborn son of a bitch” accuse them of using
magic because they recognize their creativity. From
Alamout, HIS’s hideout, he sends assassins (including AJ, from
Naked Lunch) to kill religious leaders.
The Old Man becomes the writer now who realizes
“I am HIS and HIS is me.” Dr. Benway has lunch
with the Old Man and offers him a deal—a great
place to live and potions that will restore his youth.
But the Old Man presumably rejects this Faustian
bargain, for the final chapter of the novel begins,
“What is life when the purpose is gone?”
This book is one of Burroughs’s last, and it has
the feel of a winding down in this last chapter. In
the Land of the Dead, Joe sees Ian Sommerville,
with whom he cannot communicate, and Brion
Gysin is a no-show at dinner. He recounts his days
in Paris, in 1959: “We were getting messages, making contacts. Everything had meaning. . . . It reads
like a sci-fi from here. Not very good sci-fi, but real
enough at the time. There were casualties . . . quite
a number.” He realizes now that all of his paranoid
fantasies about receiving “assignments”—the secret agent stuff that is in many of his novels—was
wrong: “There isn’t any important assignment. It’s
every man for himself.” One scene takes place in
Florida with his mother and his son Billy. He is
getting older but can still say, unlike Prufrock, “At
least I dare to eat a peach.” Joe is now Burroughs
himself, moving about the house making tea. The
old writer feels his inspiration leaving him, like one
soul after another escaping. The book takes on an
air of finality, a last-book feel: “His self is crumbling
away to shreds and tatters, bits of old songs, stray
quotations, fleeting spurts of purpose and direction
sputtering out to nothing and nowhere, like the
body at death deserted by one soul after the other.”
The leaving of the seven souls is now a metaphor
for the disintegrating consciousness of old age:
“The old writer couldn’t write anymore because
he had reached the end of words, the end of what
can be done with words.” The Parade Bar is closed,
he says, referring to his favorite haunt in Tangier in the 1950s. He actually ends the book with
the words, “THE END,” something he has never
done before because his other books were not the
end: There was still more that could be done with
words. Not at the end of this book, though.
Rob Johnson

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