Yage Letters, The. William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (1963)

This epistolary “novel” provides early examples of
william s. burroughs’s writing that will later
find themselves in
naked luncH, and it is also a
fascinating document about Burroughs’s search for
the ultimate drug and how it inspired
allen ginsberg to follow him on this hallucinogenic journey.
Though not a grand literary achievement,
Yage Letters
nonetheless provide key insights to
Burroughs’s and Ginsberg’s work. Letters from the
book appeared in the periodicals
Big Table, Kulchur,
City Lights Journal,
and Black Mountain Review. The
“routine” “Roosevelt After Inauguration” from
Yage Letters
was first published by LeRoi Jones/amiri
in Floating Bear, which was seized and had
an obscenity case brought against it.
The Yage Letters
were also an inspiration for janine pommy vega’s
yage experience beautifully described in trackinG
The serpent: journeys to four continents.
The Yage Letters
is a key work for establishing the
“pharmo-picaresque” literary genre and for popularizing the drug
yage, which was on the margins of the
ethnobotanical field at a time when such scientific
research was only just emerging.
At the end of his first novel,
junky, Burroughs
using the persona William Lee tells the reader that
he is heading for South America in search of the
“final fix”—a drug called
yage, which supposedly
gives one telepathic powers.
Ayahuasca, also known
yage or Banisteriopsis caapi, is a jungle vine that
is used in a psychoactive potion in South America
that produces intense hallucinatory visions, has
long been central to shamanic traditions throughout the region, and is still used by indigenous peoples as well as in newer vegetal churches and by
Western tourists (such as the musician Sting). In
the follow-up to
Junky, Burroughs’s queer, Lee actually makes this trip in search of yage, along with
his paid companion, Eugene Allerton (based on
Lewis Marker). However, Lee is unsuccessful in locating a supply of
yage. The book ends with Allerton deserting Lee in the jungle and with Lee, after
an unspecified period of time, returning to Mexico
City to find him. This gap in time after Allerton
deserts him and Lee returns to Mexico is filled in
The Yage Letters, which describes Burroughs’s
discovery of a supply of
yage and his subsequent
experiments with the drug under the tutelage of
brujo, or witch doctor. These experiences would
supply Burroughs with some of his most powerful
and original imagery in his books for many years to
Burroughs traveled first to Panama and then
into South America in early 1953. He combined
actual letters with work from notebooks that he
kept of his travels in this work. The epistolary form
of the work was not decided until after he returned
from Latin America. Some of Ginsberg’s letters are
not addressed to Burroughs. The epilogue contains
a Burroughs cut-up text that reworks parts of the
previous text into a collage. This is a hybrid text
with two authors and multiple writing forms that
were written during a 10-year period—composite,
collaborative, and indeterminate.
The Yage Letters
is also generally overlooked by Burroughs scholars.
In the opening scenes in Panama, Burroughs
describes Bill Gains (based on Bill Garver, the
junky and Times Square hustler who taught Burroughs how keep up a habit by stealing overcoats
in New York in the mid-1940s). The Panama scene
of boys swimming in the polluted waters of a bay
that fronted the U.S. Embassy recurs in several of
Burroughs’s novels. As he proceeds to Colombia
and Peru, he picks up other stories and images that
recur in his works: A detail from these letters that
surfaces frequently in his works is the street scene
in Guayaquil, Colombia, where kids sell cigarettes
with the cry of “A ver Luckies,” meaning, “Look
here, Luckies.” Burroughs writes, “Nightmare fear
of stasis. Horror of being finally
stuck in this place.
This fear has followed me all over South America.
A horrible sick feeling of final desolation.” In Putumayo, he hears of a grasshopper with a sting that
induces a sex frenzy, the basis of routines in
and elsewhere. Macoa, the capitol of Putumayo, comes to stand in for all of the “end-of-theroad” towns in Burroughs’s fiction (see, for example,
The place of dead roads). He is accompanied to
Macoa by a Dr. Schindler, identified by Oliver Harris as Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, the “father of
ethnobotany,” a pioneer botanist who conducted
research on peyote at Harvard in the 1930s.
It is outside of Macao that Burroughs locates
a supply of
yage and is introduced to a brujo who
can administer the drug. The effect of the drug
is profound. Burroughs has been told that he will
see a great city, and he does, the “Composite City
where all human potentials are spread out in a
vast silent market.” These descriptions make their
way directly into sections of
Naked Lunch and
other works. His experience of
yage as “space-time
travel” is crucial, for Burroughs’s books become
literary experiments along those lines, constantly
shifting locations and time periods. He would attribute his
yage visions as well to his development
of a means of communicating beyond “words” and
in juxtaposed visions, a hallmark of Burroughs’s
collage-style and cut-up technique of writing.
Ginsberg followed Burroughs on the
trail seven years later. Ginsberg’s experience with
the drug was somewhat different than Burroughs’s.
Ginsberg felt himself facing his own death, and although death would allow him to answer the questions about the universe that obsessed him, he says
that he chose not to know these answers out of
compassion for those whom he would leave behind
(especially his companion Peter Orlovsky). Ginsberg’s experience on the drug has recently been
clinically confirmed. DMT, the active chemical
compound in
yage, has been studied for its ability
to induce a so-called “near-death” experience. The
experience made Ginsberg realize that he did not
have the same nerve as Burroughs.
ayahuasca experience for Ginsberg was important because horrific “trips” taught him that his
attempts to gain a “new vision” was really a death
wish and that the way to understand reality was not
by leaving the body but by more consciously inhabiting it (“incarnate body feeling”). This realization was
reinforced on his Indian trips and culminated in the
poem “The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express,” which
marks the end of his attempts to re-create his 1948
Blake visions. Burroughs, on the other hand, had
already moved beyond the kind of consciousness
that Allen was seeking in 1960. He was deeply into
the cut-up experiments that were inspired by Brion
Gysin. Language, he says, is a virus, and the virus, he
believes, is used by outside controllers to keep human
beings enslaved through ignorance. Stop trying to
see “the Universe,” he tells Ginsberg; we are the
Universe’s “mark,” and “whoever paid off a mark?”
For Burroughs, then, the
ayahuasca visions provide
him with the imagery of space–time travel that is
revealed to those who have “cut-up” the words and
images that were supplied by the controller’s “reality film.” Burroughs’s final entry in the book “I Am
Dying, Meester?” overlaps the second and third revised editions but not the first edition of
The soft
, and it illustrates how Burroughs made fictional use of his South American experiences in the
wildly experimental “Cut-Up Trilogy” of the 1960s.
Burroughs, William S. The Letters of William S. Burroughs,
Edited by Oliver Harris. New York: Viking, 1993.
Burroughs, William S., and Allen Ginsberg.
The Yage Letters Redux. Edited by Oliver Harris. San Francisco:
City Lights, 2006.
Rudgley, Richard.
The Encyclopaedia of Psychoactive Substances. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Rob Johnson and Oliver Harris