Archives For Beatdom #9

William S. Burroughs: Botanist

Burroughs Botanist

In 1953, William S. Burroughs published his first novel, Junkie, which ended with the ominous line, “Yage may be the final fix.”

Burroughs had written the novel during his travels in 1950-52, when he was living in Mexico, as well as visiting Panama, Peru, Columbia and Ecuador. The line was meant to anticipate Junkie’s sequel, Queer, about his travels in South America, although the book wasn’t released released until 1985. Burroughs had been sending chapters from Junkie to Allen Ginsberg, who managed to have the “unpublishable” novel published by Ace Books, under the pseudonym ‘William Lee’ in 1952.

Also in 1952, he sent Ginsberg Queer, and in 1953 he sent In Search of Yage; when they lived together in New York later that year, they worked on editing In Search of Yage, which, when combined with some of their correspondence from the period, was published as The Yage Letters by City Lights in 1963.
Interestingly, when Burroughs wrote, “Yage may be the final fix,” and then, when he referenced it in correspondence in 1952, (a year after returning to Mexico from the Amazon) he had still failed in his search. “Did not score for Yage, Bannisteria caapi, Telepathine, Ayahuasca – all names for the same drug,” he wrote Ginsberg. Nonetheless, his curiosity grew thanks to his reading on the subject, and the great sense of mystery surrounding a drug of which Western science knew remarkably little.
It wasn’t until 1953 that he succeeded in finding the drug. The Yage Letters primarily concerns Burroughs trip to the Amazon in that year and Ginsberg’s own experiences Seven Years Later (the title of his story). The second line of In Search Of Yage, “Wouldn’t do to go back among the Indians with piles…”, references his unsuccessful earlier explorations and harkens back to the final line of Junkie.

Yet, back among the Indians he did go, and despite his lack of qualifications (Burroughs was educated to some degree in anthropology, archaeology and ethnology, but not in botany; he also never been on a field trip) he succeeded in tracking down the drug. It is important to note the timing in his expedition. In correspondence from the period, Burroughs seems obsessed with finding yage. He was fascinated with it for its qualities – namely its supposed ability to bestow upon the user the gift of telepathy, and its internal healing qualities, which Burroughs believed “could change fact.” Burroughs was interested in the drug as a possible cure for opiate addiction, but he also recovering from the accidental shooting of his wife, Joan. His life was a complete mess and a drug that could “change fact” was welcome.

How Burroughs came to be so obsessed with yage is a mystery. Ginsberg speculated that Burroughs had heard about yage “in some crime magazine or National Geographic or New York Enquirer or some goofy tabloid newspaper,” but at the time there was very little information about the drug anywhere. Western science knew little about it, and it’s unlikely that National Geographic or any other publication would’ve been aware of its existence. Oliver Harris, in his introduction to The Yage Letters Redux, speculates that Burroughs may have read Richard Spruce’s Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes (1908) and Louis Lewin’s Phantasica (1924), both of which mention yage.
Yage is now quite well known, but back in 1951 it had only been known to the West for one hundred years, and not much progress had been made in understanding it for thirty years prior to Burroughs’ journey. Of course, it is significant to note that, although the West was thoroughly ignorant about yage, it had been used by natives of South America for thousands of years prior to Western discovery. Although Burroughs and Ginsberg both referred to it mostly commonly as ‘yage’, it is also known as ayahuasca, cipo, caapi, hoasca, santo daime, natem, shori, and telepathine across the continent.
Perhaps yage went so long without being understood because it is not a simple, naturally- occurring chemical from any one plant, like psilocybin or mescaline. Although ‘yage’ is often the name given to the plant Banisteriopsis Caapi, it is the drink made when extracts from Banisteriopsis Caapi are mixed with shrubs from the Psychotria genus – something both Burroughs and Ginsberg discovered before Western science
These days, yage tourism is common in South America. The drink has spread across the world, and anyone with access to the internet can easily study the plant, the drink and the History of Yage. However, when Burroughs first set out on his 1951 expedition, little was known. It was during his 1953 trip that Burroughs met Richard Evans Shultes, who is widely considered the father of modern ethnobotany. The two Harvard men could not have been more different. Shultes was on a serious twelve-year trip and, although he respected Burroughs’ courage in trying yage, did not take him seriously. Indeed, In Search of Yage is a chronicle of Burroughs’ misadventures, rather than a serious botanical study.
Shultes was present when Burroughs first tried yage near Mocoa, and Paul Holliday (a member of the group with whom Burroughs and Shultes were temporarily travelling) described the experience: “The old Ingana Indian gave him a wineglass full of the stuff… and within 15 min. it sent him almost completely off his rocker: violent vomiting every few minutes, feet almost numb & hands almost useless, unable to walk straight, liable to do anything one would not dream of doing in a normal state.” Although Shultes’ and Holliday’s statements suggest they thought Burroughs was more ballsy than informed, and although Shultes is considered the real expert on yage, it seems that Burroughs is due more credit than he was ever given for his expedition. At the time, yage was thought to be a plant that was made into a brew, and that the components of the hallucinogenic aspect came entirely from the one plant. Burroughs, however, deduced that it was only when two plants were mixed together (as detailed above, from much later research) that yage gained its unique and legendary qualities. It turned out that Burroughs was not quite the foolish, lost drug addict that he appeared…He had made the first major achievement in understanding yage since its ‘discovery’, over one hundred years earlier.



This essay was originally published in Beatdom #9

At the Holiday Inn

Words by Michael Hendrick; Illustration by Waylon Bacon

When considering the implications of the affects of drug use on the writing process, it is important to bear in mind that both William S. Burroughs and Timothy Leary opined that there is no affect achieved by the use of drugs which cannot also be altered without the use of drugs, by the mind itself.

When considering the affect on the artistic and creative processes, we should examine the process without or before the introduction of mind-altering substances.  The intent is not to be tricky or clever, rather to evoke specific feelings.  Words describing color, texture, scent, mood and motion pinpoint emotional ‘cues’ in the reader.  Linguistic genomes, these cues exist in a code which is ingrained onto vocabulary by history of usage.  A writer reads this genome in much the same way a chemist looks at the Periodic Table.

Here we touch on the philosophy of Alchemy.  The medieval belief and meaning of the word had to do with the transformation of base metals into gold. Carl Jung took this as a simile referring to human psychology and the transformation of self into a being of awareness, the transmogrified persona being the gold in the equation.  The Philosopher’s Stone became the symbol for this power to transform.  It is a Holy Grail of sorts.  (Bob Dylan took on the role of Alchemist in the unreleased 1978 film Renaldo and Clara.  The inherent alchemy in the music of Dylan led to a number of generational changes, some obviously, others with much more subtlety.)  To possess the Philosopher’s Stone is to possess the power of Art and a portal into the Universal Mind.  This is where the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, as achived by Rimbaud and his ‘rational disordering of the senses’ through intoxicants.

If you buy the concept of writer/artist as alchemist, you can see that, in some cases, transferring emotions through images from one brain to another is the stuff of Art.  It is also the manipulation of the hypothalamus, the brain center through which words create an altered state, a personal and shared dimension.

This type of work divines the writer from the Poet, the scribbler from the Artist.  Some writers produce reams of words without a hint of emotional evocation.  Recounting events is an important function but is not a job which aims to touch the spirit.  They convey images but attempt no emotional connection.  There is always a place for good non-fiction.

With the organic capacity to create an altered state in place, the introduction of drugs to the process could be boon or bane depending on the drug.  Lenny Bruce famously shunned marijuana but used amphetamines extensively.  “The reason I don’t smoke pot is because it facilitates ideas and heightens sensations and I got enough shit flying through my head without smoking pot,” he once said.

We find it interesting to note that Ayn Rand shared Bruce’s proclivity for Dexedrine, which obviously helped her pump out such doorstopper-sized volumes as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. As diverse as they were, the ideas and feeling of both Bruce and Rand still serve as touchstones in today’s world of politics and entertainment media.

Often, scribbled hallucinatory revelations turn out to be more hallucination than revelation and cryptic notes found the day after become nothing more than humorous puzzles for the writer to try to unscramble.  There is no doubt that different drugs achieve various results on creative output.  Then there is the distinction between work which results as a byproduct of a euphoric experience and the way it is interpreted by one who is not familiar with altered states.  If the result of the creative work cannot be appreciated to the same extent by all savvy readers, it is useless puffery.

From personal experience, we relate the following and leave any judgement of merit with the reader…

In the Winter of 1980-81, a particular variation of LSD, called Vitamin Ohm, made the rounds in the Northeast United States.  It was potent and cheap.  At the time, I found myself employed by Holiday Inn.  It doesn’t matter where the hotel existed, since they are all generic – or were at the time.  As groundskeeper, my job only became busy after storms so I often helped the ‘convention set up crew’ move tables and chairs around in meeting rooms.  The knowledge required for the task was simple.

There were three types of tables; the round tables came in one size, the long tables were either six or eight feet in length.  We would receive a plan showing how many of each size table was needed, how many folding chairs went to each table and how they should be placed.  The plans were given to us by a short, balding Italian man, obviously of retirement age, named ‘Ned’.  Ned had a quirk.  He started all conversations the same way.        “Hey,” he would say, unerringly, “How you doing? I want to tell you something. Now listen to me…”  This preface was never skipped.

Fetching tables and chairs, a mindless task, allowed a lot of space for the mind to roam.  Most frequently the mind roamed to how much longer until it was until I could go home.  The work was easy but the days were long.  Nobody ever asked me any questions or gave me orders, except old Ned.  Long before the Holiday Inn, the benefits of using LSD to make workdays pass more quickly were not unknown to me.  Small doses, not enough to cause hilarity or deep intoxication, could make a day fly by.  It usually only took a quarter of a dose to make this happen.

One late morning in January, facing an extra-long day, I took a bit more than my usual workaday dosage.  About 45 minutes after ingestion, the acid hit my stomach, sending me to the men’s room to evacuate my bowels.  Forcing out a stool while peaking on a hallucinogen is one of the purest ways to know the quality of a substance.  Staring at the closed door of the toilet, little specks of color burst like a carnival of flashbulbs while the dead sound of the tiled walls led to the awareness that my breathing became the only noise heard…until the distinct sound of the door opening forced me to attention.

From the toilet, the stall door still did it’s rainbow tricks.  Sitting with a wad of tissue in my hand, the solitude of my humming brain suddenly was encroached upon by the appearance of a bald, head with grey hair and male pattern baldness as it oddly poked through the eighteen-inch space between the privy floor and the door to my stall.

“Hey! How you doing? I want to tell you something. Now listen to me,” he said.  This had never occurred in my life before.  No person had ever visited me while on the public toilet, although a few perverts had tried in other public pissoirs.  “I want you to go to Room 205 and help Larry set up. Stay with him today. Do you hear me?”  How could I ignore him? Of course I heard him.  It was just another of his rhetorical questions. “Sure, Ned,” I managed, “You bet!”

And like that he was gone to the sound of the door opening and closing. ‘Christ,” I said to myself, “was that a trip in itself or what?”

Larry, a meth-head who worked there for a long time before I did, also liked Vitamin Ohm and we would often trade meth for acid.  He watched my back and, as the new guy, I appreciated it.

Finding him chatting up a waitress near the kitchen entrance, I told him Ned had sent me.  “Okay,” Larry told me, “We have an easy day.  Take a break and wait for me in 306. I’ll be there in a while.”  The good thing about hotel jobs is that there are always some empty rooms to hide in and you are given a pass key to all rooms, as an employee.  We could disappear for hours and not even go anywhere, so I went to 306, which was a small room, used only for meetings of twenty people or less.  It was empty, with the exception of a long leather sofa, a round table and two chairs.  On the table were some complimentary pens and sheets of Holiday Inn stationary.

Glad to have a break, I sat on the sofa while the walls undulated around me.

Suddenly words started forcing themselves into my head.  They were coming from within…a poem!  Looking around,  the paper and pens presented themselves on the table so, taking a folding chair,  I grabbed a pen and wrote this, in its entirety:

What is true as a razor?

Taut as a wire?

What born in the embers, endures in the fire?

What is painful as lightning?

Or the thunder that drums?

What is soft as a lullabye, barely hummed?

What beating, what driving, what pounding, what pushing?

What sleeping, what dying, what whispering, purring?

What trembles with fissures and threatens to quake?

What slips with the fog on the cool of the lake?

What is it the baby finds in its lungs?

What leaps in the heart of a deer as it runs?

What do I crave in the red of the night?

What burst from within at the moment I write?

Somewhat astounded that the words on the hotel letterhead were there, I reread them and smiled.  Larry knocked twice (our signal) and opened the door.  “I’ll be back down in a few minutes, just take a longer break, “he said.  That was fine with me.  Once he left, though, the feeling of the LSD still coursed through me, making my fingers tremble.  My body felt strange.  I could feel my pores. Most of all, I felt the drug in my stomach.  A cigarette smoker at the time, I coughed to clear some phlegm from my throat.  It was not a healthy feeling.  It felt like there was a lunger, or a tumor on my lung.  It gave me the creeps.  Along with the creeps, more words came to me. I grabbed another piece of paper and sat down at the table and the words spilled out again, just like before, with no thought involved. I  wrote…

It’s a very subtle sickness

That comes tugging at my sleeve.

It’s a whistle and a dry cough

In the wind.

It’s a cold chill with a twictch

It’s a gnawing from within.

It’s an echo in the evening

Which resounds from under eaves.

It’s a cool and frosty taste,

A lifetime born to waste.

It’s a nervous kind of feeling

And a sinking sort of grief.

It’s a red dog on my heels.

That’s exactly how it feels.

It’s a ghostly cloud of quiet and it offers me no peace.

This had never happened to me…not like this.  I had written poems and songs that came to me all in one shot, the songs with melody intact, as I rode the bus or did some other activity which left my mind open to outside images.  I had no explanation for it but this was the first time it had resulted in two distinctly different poems.  One next to the other on the top of the table, I stared at them and wondered if they were any good or not.

Again, the door opened – this time without a knock.  It took me by surprise but it was only Kenny, one of the Holiday Inn maintenance crew.  “Hey, Larry said to tell you to wait here. He is on the way,” he said.  Kenny was alright but he was a loser.  He was saddled with a bunch of kids and a half-toothless wife but he still managed to have an attitude which annoyed me.  He always wore clothes which carried the Harley Davidson emblem, even though he did not own a motorcycle.  He had a wallet which attached to a chain that hung from his belt, like real bikers wore.  I knew real bikers and they didn’t even wear as much Harley gear as Kenny did.

“Okay, Kenny,” I offered as he was pulling the door closed, “Thanks.”

Then, it rushed over me again.  The motorcycle gear had sort of pissed me off.

Another sheet of paper, and the Muse slapped me again…

I wish I could say something

For your leather jacket clique

For the vomit in your greasy hair

And dangling chains that ‘clink’.

For the precious blood you love to see and your children born to hate

For the ignorance you brandish and your lusts which cannot wait.

If individuality

Were yours upon a pole,

You’d pluck it down and smash it in

Your sweating, grinning hole!

This made me laugh.  Just the last lines about ‘individuality’ made me laugh out loud.  Good or bad, that line had to be a good one…or was it?  Personally, I still kind of like it, upon last reading it.  Larry appeared at the door and looked sheepish.  I think he was fooling around with a waitress in a vacant room.  It was time to set up the conference room, he told me.

I took my three sheets of stationary, put them one on top of the other, folded them and stuck them in the buttoned pocket of my brown Dickeys uniform shirt.  Larry watched me but did not ask about the papers.  He could tell my condition by the size of my pupils and had seen the writing on the three sheets.  I had the impression he was surprised that I was able to spell my own name with such wide pupils.  We stepped into the hallway and the door to Room 306 closed behind us.  The next thing I remember was hearing, ‘Hey! Larry! How you doing? Come here. I want to tell you something. Now listen to me.”

Death Within a Chrysalis

by Nick Meador

At the turn of the 1960s, Jack Kerouac found himself in a profound state of limbo, the climax of an existential crisis that predated his life as a published author. He had been looking for an “answer” to his problems since his early twenties,[1] yet for a variety of reasons his dilemma remained unresolved. Then a 35-year-old Jack became famous in an instant when On the Road was published in the fall of 1957, and this led to the total disruption of his already chaotic life. Normally the restless man would alternate between living at his mother’s East Coast home (which at the time was either in Orlando, Florida, or Northport, Long Island, New York) and a few faraway destinations, most often Mexico City or the San Francisco Bay Area. But suddenly his world became very claustrophobic, as he was pushed into the role of a counter-culture celebrity despite the fact that very few were giving him credit as a legitimate author of American literature.

In his 1962 novel Big Sur, Kerouac reflects on the period: “…I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers…”[2] Kerouac wrote that book in October 1961 by fictionalizing events that had happened mainly in the summer of 1960—a trip from New York to California, visiting San Francisco, Big Sur, and San Jose. It was his first lengthy trip in three years, and Big Sur was the first book he completed since writing The Dharma Bums in November 1957. Kerouac’s plan was to pass the summer in solitude so that he could recover his mental balance while checking the publisher galleys for his Book of Dreams.[3] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose budding City Lights imprint would be publishing the dream book that year, told Kerouac to stay at his cabin in Bixby Canyon, on the Pacific Coast south of Monterrey (technically just north of Big Sur).

On the surface, Big Sur is a record of Kerouac’s battle with “delirium tremens,” the term Jack and the Beats used to describe the peculiar kind of madness that results from severe and prolonged alcohol abuse. Kerouac had long dealt with a drinking problem, and even by age 26 it occurred to him that he should cut back. On March 22, 1948, he wrote in his journal, “I started drinking at eighteen but that’s after eight years of occasional boozing, I can’t physically take it any more, nor mentally. It was at the age of eighteen, too, when melancholy and indecision first came over me—there’s a fair connection there.”[4] Yet his alcoholism reached new extremes after the publication of On the Road. In addition to losing his treasured privacy, Jack was also shocked by Neal Cassady’s arrest for possession of marijuana in 1958, for which Neal served two years in a California prison.[5] After this, despite the fact that Kerouac had purchased their house with royalty money from On the Road, Jack’s mother Gabrielle (also known as “mémêre,” Québécois for “grandma”[6]) banished from their home both Allen Ginsberg (because of his Judaism, homosexuality, and radical poetry) and the drugs Jack commonly used like Benzedrine and marijuana.

But Kerouac didn’t refrain from drug use altogether. In the period surrounding both the events depicted in Big Sur and the writing and editing of the book, Jack actively experimented with certain psychedelic substances that hadn’t yet made a large impression on the American culture: mescaline, ayahuasca, and psilocybin mushrooms. At the start of Big Sur, he mentions some of these substances in a slightly negative manner, as if to suggest that they had worsened his overall mental condition: “. . . ‘One fast move or I’m gone,’ I realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a physical and spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you cant learn in school no matter how many books on existentialism or pessimism you read, or how many jugs of vision-producing Ayahuasca you drink, or Mescaline take, or Peyote goop up with–––That feeling when you wake up with the delirium tremens with the fear of eerie death dripping from your ears…”[7]

However, this can’t be the whole story, since Kerouac’s letters offer an entirely different view on his psychonautic exploration during this time. Jack first tried mescaline—the psychoactive compound also found naturally in the peyote cactus—in October 1959,[8] and he was apparently most open about it with Ginsberg, to whom he wrote the following on June 20, 1960: “When on mescaline [last fall] I was so bloody high I saw that all our ideas about a ‘beatific’ new gang of worldpeople, and about instantaneous truth being the last truth. etc. etc. I saw them as all perfectly correct and prophesied, as never on drinking or sober I saw it—Like an Angel looking back on life sees that every moment fell right into place and each had flowery meaning…”[9] This kind of clarity must have been cherished by a guy who saw his life as a long chain of rambling misadventures. Kerouac was even moved to create a 5,000-word “Mescaline Report” in order to document his hallucinations and revelations. He said he intended to take mescaline monthly, and he couldn’t wait to test out LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). In the same letter Kerouac mentioned his intention to flee New York, shortly before Ferlinghetti suggested that Jack use his cabin as an escape. The actual trip did last about two months, from mid-July to mid-September 1960.

After returning from California, Kerouac had the opportunity to try ayahuasca on October 7, 1960.[10] Ginsberg had just visited South America and brought back some of the liquid preparation, also known as “yagé” (pronounced “yah-hey,” but they usually misspelled it as “yage”). William S. Burroughs had done the same in the early 1950s, as documented in his fictionalized letters titled “In Search of Yage” (written in ’53 but not published until ’63). Those are presented along with correspondence and journals by Burroughs and Ginsberg in the 2006 book The Yage Letters Redux, originally published in slimmer form as The Yage Letters in 1963. While it wasn’t published in Burroughs’ work, he actually identified the genus of ayahuasca’s key ingredients in June 1953, before anyone from Western civilization had done so publicly.[11]

Kerouac seems to have tasted the real thing, since, according to Ginsberg (writing during the event), Jack remarked, “This is one of the most sublime or tender or lovely moments of all our lives together . . .”[12] That’s not to say the experience was only positive. In June 1963 Jack reflected to Allen that, when he would wander into Manhattan for drinking binges, “I come back [to Long Island] with visions of horror as bad as Ayahuasca vision on the neanderthal million years in caves, the gruesomeness of life!”[13]

In January 1961, a few months after Kerouac’s ayahuasca trip, he ingested capsules containing the extract of what he called “Sacred Mushrooms,”[14] a nickname for psilocybin.[15] Ginsberg had recently visited Timothy Leary at Harvard to participate in Leary’s soon-to-be-controversial psychedelic studies. According to Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain’s book Acid Dreams, when Ginsberg called Kerouac during his psilocybin trial to announce that he was God and demand that Jack come try the mushrooms immediately, Jack replied, “I can’t leave my mother.”[16] Ginsberg brought the capsules back to New York to distribute to various people, and Kerouac went to Allen’s Manhattan apartment to try them for himself.

Kerouac’s reaction to this experience is recorded in a letter he sent to Timothy Leary later that month (which, for unknown reasons, was omitted from Kerouac’s Selected Letters, 1957-1969, the second volume of correspondence edited by Ann Charters). Jack wrote, “Mainly I felt like a floating [Genghis] Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls [sic] in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque[17] floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice.”[18]

Kerouac’s final experiment of this period came in December 1961 (as least, according to the published literature). It’s fairly evident that on this occasion Kerouac ingested actual dried psilocybin mushrooms instead of capsules. He wrote to Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s lover) that he had just finished transferring the Big Sur manuscript from the teletype roll to standard pages, “all done in ecstasy, in fact (with bennies [Benzedrine])—Also ate 12 SMushrooms in one afternoon and wanted to send telegram to Winston Churchill something about an old Baron crying for his hounds in his ‘weird weild weir,’ thinking, on psilocybin, one baron to another he’d understand—”[19]

During the writing of Big Sur, some of these psychedelic experiences crept into the book despite Kerouac’s initial statement about “metaphysical hopelessness.” Upon awaking from a bizarre dream sequence, “Jack Duluoz” (Kerouac’s fictional projection of himself) reflects on the “millionpieced mental explosions that I remember I thought were so wonderful when I’d first seen them on Peotl and Mescaline…broken in pieces some of them big orchestral and then rainbow explosions of sound and sight mixed.”[20] The “peotl” (or “peyotl,” the indigenous spellings of “peyote”) cactus has long been consumed by tribes in northern Mexico and the American southwest for the mescaline it contains.[21] Kerouac first encountered peyote eight years before his trip to Bixby Canyon, while living with Burroughs in Mexico City in 1952. The two embarked on a fruitful series of peyote trials that Kerouac described in his letters to friends back in the United States.

On March 12 of that year, Jack wrote to John Clellon Holmes about what was possibly his first full-on psychedelic experience, conveying “the wild visions of musical pure truth I got on peotl (talk about your Technicolor visions!)…”[22] Shortly thereafter, on June 5, Kerouac wrote again to Holmes, telling of the time when a few “young American hipsters” gave him and Burroughs some peyote, after which the duo walked around Mexico City at night. In a park Jack found himself “wanting to sit in the grass and stay near the ground all night by moonlight, with the lights of the show and the houses all flashing, flashing in my eyeballs…”[23]

This letter is important for another reason; in it Jack explains the thrill of writing with his new “sketching” style, an early conception of what he would later call “spontaneous prose.” Late in October 1951, Kerouac’s friend Ed White had suggested that Jack try to write as though he was painting a scene.[24] Kerouac told Holmes he was “beginning to discover…something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story . . . into the realms of revealed Picture . . . revealed whatever . . . revealed prose . . . wild form, man, wild form. Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say—my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory in—I have now an irrational lust to set down everything I know—in narrowing circles…”[25]

The strong parallel between the “rainbow explosions” Kerouac saw on mescaline and peyote, and the feeling that he was “exploding” to describe his thoughts about reality, suggests that Jack’s psychedelic exploration in 1952 had a decisive influence on what would become his trademark prose style.

Kerouac’s first efforts to develop his sketching method resulted in Visions of Cody, written in 1951 and ’52. He further honed the style with Doctor Sax and, in early ‘53, Maggie Cassidy. But in the fall of ‘53, Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans, which was the closest to a prequel of Big Sur that Jack composed during this period when he “discovered” spontaneous prose. It was not only a stylistic precedent, but also a thematic one—specifically the themes of self-sabotaged relationships, nervous breakdowns, and creeping insanity. In both novels Kerouac focuses largely on his own life and “internal monologue” instead of employing a “hero” like Cassady (called “Dean Moriarty” or “Cody Pomeray” in Kerouac’s novels) or Gary Snyder (“Japhy Ryder” of The Dharma Bums) to carry the story. As Kerouac writes halfway through Big Sur, “I’m beginning to go seriously crazy, just like Subterranean Irene went crazy…”[26] This is actually a cryptic clue in which he’s evoking “Mardou Fox” of Subterraneans, the love interest of protagonist “Leo Percepied” (another name for “Jack Duluoz”). “Mardou’s” real name was Alene Lee, but Jack referred to her as “Irene May” in Book of Dreams.

Once again, Big Sur generally depicts Kerouac’s brush with “insanity” as stemming from his alcoholism. There’s hardly a time in the book when “Duluoz” is not holding a bottle of whiskey or wine. But as the story progresses, some of the descriptions seem to fall way outside the scope of what alcohol can do to a person’s mind and one’s perception of reality. For instance, when Jack’s friends try to get him to eat some food, he can’t take more than a bite. He’s too paranoid that they’re trying to poison him, and he’s too distracted by his mental aberrations. “Masks explode before my eyes when I close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands and feet they creep–––Everything is moving, the porch is moving like ooze and mud, the chair trembles under me.”[27] Notice again the mention of “explosions.” Or examine the aforementioned dream sequence, in which Jack sees numerous “Vulture People” copulating in a trash dump. “Their faces are leprous thick with soft yeast but painted with makeup…yellow pizza puke faces, disgusting us…we’ll be taken to the Underground Slimes to walk neck deep in steaming mucks pulling huge groaning wheels (among small forked snakes) so the devil with the long ears can mine his Purple Magenta Square Stone that is the secret of all this Kingdom–––“[28]

Even a glance at Book of Dreams makes it obvious that Kerouac frequently had extraordinary night-visions. But such passages really bring to mind a few specific things: the psychedelic experience, existentialist literature, and the rare cases in which the two are combined. Though Kerouac more often talked of his fondness for Dostoevsky than for later existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea (not published in English until 1949[29]) is an indubitable precursor to Big Sur. Nausea contains a first-person journal-style account by a French man named Roquentin, who unexpectedly becomes overtaken by mortal horror and bodily uneasiness. As Roquentin says early in the novel, “Then the Nausea seized me, I dropped to a seat, I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colours spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit. And since that time, the Nausea has not left me, it holds me.”[30]

There’s a deeper connection between the two novels as well. In his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck reports that Sartre tried mescaline in 1935 as a research subject in Paris. Pinchbeck writes that “long after the physical effect of the drug had worn off, Sartre found himself plunged into a lingering nightmare of psychotic dread and paranoia; shoes threatened to turn into insects, stone walls seethed with monsters.”[31] Pinchbeck infers that this influenced the writing of Nausea—but he thought Sartre’s affliction lasted about a week. Actually Sartre experienced hallucinations of shellfish (usually lobsters, but he also called them crabs) for years, according to a 2009 book of conversations between Jean-Paul and John Gerassi, whose parents were close friends with Sartre. Gerassi quotes Sartre saying, “Yeah, after I took mescaline I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class… I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?’” [32]

In 1954, thanks to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the Western world became much more aware of the potential promise of mescaline as a visionary aid. But interspersed with descriptions of his wondrous hallucinations, Huxley cautioned not to place too much expectation on mescaline for spiritual enlightenment.[33] Still, the book was extremely influential in the literary world, and it paved the way for the psychedelic uprising that Leary and others would lead in the 1960s.

So it’s a bit surprising that someone in Kerouac’s position, writing a book like Big Sur in 1961, wouldn’t emphasize psychedelics more or even try to work them into the plot, if only through a flashback or some similar device. Not only did he largely leave them out of the book, but he even downplayed the way they had guided his own “mysticism”—something that, in retrospect, is clearly evident in books like On the Road (published in 1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Visions of Gerard (1963). Kerouac even amended the line about “the mad ones” early in Road that would become his most famous quote, and—perhaps not unexpectedly—the final wording seems influenced by his 1952 peyote experiments. In the 1951 “scroll” version (not published until 2007) it read “burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”[34] But in the 1957 version, the line went “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop…”[35]

It all seems even more suspicious after learning that mescaline actually renewed Jack’s faith in his unique prose style in 1959, just as peyote seems to have inspired the style initially in 1952. Soon after taking mescaline, Kerouac told Ginsberg that during the trip he’d had “the sensational revelation that I’ve been on the right track with spontaneous never-touch-up poetry of immediate report…”[36] Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” held that writing should be “confessional,” “always honest,” and—the part most tied up with myths about Kerouac—have “no revisions.”[37] We’ve already seen one case where Kerouac revised a work that he claimed to be an entirely spontaneous composition. So one can’t help but wonder—was Kerouac being as honest as he claimed in his prose theory? To begin to understand that, we must descend into Jack’s past.

In the spring of 1943, Kerouac enlisted in the Navy with the intention of serving the U.S. as a pilot in the growing European conflict. However, he failed the pilot exam and ended up in boot camp in Rhode Island.[38] When he refused to participate in the drills one day, he was taken to the Navy’s psychiatric hospital for observation and was soon diagnosed with “dementia praecox,”[39] which today would be called “schizophrenia.”[40] But Jack’s symptoms are more important than the term applied to them, and in his letters to friends he didn’t seem too worried about what he called the “irregularity” of his mind. Writing to childhood friend G.J. Apostolos, Kerouac explained that he had a “normal” side (embodied in G.J.) that loved sports, drinking, and sex—and a “schizoid” side (embodied in another Lowell friend, Sebastian Sampas) marked by introversion, alienation, and eccentricity. But there are hints that this “schizoid” side was actually closer to the core of Jack’s true self, whereas the “normal” side may have been a show he put on to survive with schoolmates, family, and society. “It is the price I pay for having a malleable personality,” Jack wrote from the Navy hospital. “It assumes the necessary shape when in contact with any other personality.”[41]

Had Jack grown up in the second half of the 20th century, he probably would have been diagnosed with “schizoid personality disorder” or “schizotypal personality disorder”—which are both considered “schizophrenia spectrum” conditions. The “schizoid” label corresponds to a preference for solitude, a lack of close relationships outside one’s immediate family, and an inability to express emotions.[42] “Schizotypal” refers to these characteristics, but the person must also exhibit delusions, peculiar beliefs and superstitions, paranoia, and other similar traits.[43]

This was a different time, and Kerouac’s condition was never fully understood by the people in his life. Yet if we’re going to comprehend what happened to him, we have to keep in mind that he undoubtedly fit the “schizotypal” diagnostic criteria. A series of letters that Kerouac wrote to Cassady around New Year’s 1951 help explain why.

When Kerouac was only four years old, a tragedy occurred that would affect him for the rest of his life. His older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever in 1926 at the age of nine,[44] and throughout life Jack harbored two “peculiar beliefs” that stemmed from Gerard’s passing. One was that he believed his brother Gerard was a saint, an angel, and even Jesus; the other was that he felt responsible—and, therefore, guilty—for Gerard’s death.[45] In the letters, Kerouac claims to remember the events of 1926, despite his young age at the time. Not only that, but he says he remembers his own birth in March 1922. But Kerouac also seems conflicted. He admits to Cassady that some of his “memories” are based on family pictures, and says that he “wouldn’t be able to tell you this now, if everyone [in my family] hadn’t told me a thousand times, and each time I don’t believe it, because I don’t remember a thing…”[46]

More importantly, Kerouac says that he considered dreams and memories to be equivalent. He thought a person’s dreams came “from that part of his brain which has stored up a subconscious vision of an actual experience.”[47] This is basically a Freudian theory of dream analysis, which holds that the elements of conscious experience are repressed into the subconscious mind and then become dream content, sometimes expressing hidden (unconscious) wishes or desires. So when Jack had a dream of himself as a one-year-old baby, he regarded it as a playback of his own memory—though he had no conscious recollection of that time apart from the dream.

In addition to equating dream and memory, Kerouac also believed that “dream and vision are intertwinable with reality and prophecy.”[48] In other words, when the young Jack became aware of Gerard’s inevitable death, that in his mind (even his adult mind) seemed to have been a prophecy of Gerard’s death—which implied that young Jack had actually caused Gerard’s death. It wasn’t just Jack’s awareness of Gerard’s condition that created the guilt, but actually an incident that happened shortly before Gerard passed. Kerouac thought he remembered carelessly knocking down Gerard’s erector set, which inspired Gerard to slap his face and yell harsh words. Burroughs helped Kerouac sort out these memories in 1945, figuring, as Kerouac put it in the letter to Cassady, “that I resented the slap in the face and wished Gerard would die, and he died a few days later.”[49]

But Kerouac still seems confused, because a part of him remembered not really understanding what it meant when he found out Gerard was dead. He says he never cried, probably because he thought (in accordance with Catholic doctrine) that Gerard was at peace in Heaven. As Kerouac put it in 1951, “I knew, as I have never known since, that death does no harm…”[50] One paradox inherent in Catholicism is that the Church instills adherents with a severe horror of death, while simultaneously asking them to believe in a Biblical afterlife. Jack apparently felt fearless again after trying mescaline, which is a common reaction to the psychedelic experience. As he wrote to Ginsberg in October 1959, “I now no longer sad about sadness of birth-and-death scene because all that I had divined about the truth…was SEEN not just divined or known—”[51]

There’s a reason for Kerouac’s confusion: it seems that most of his “memories” from before the age of six are based on stories told to him by his parents, largely his mother.[52] In the letters, Kerouac carefully points out which details are from his own vague memory (e.g., not knowing why his family cried about Gerard), and which are details that his mother vehemently defended as true despite Jack’s inability to remember them. In 1945 Kerouac even told his sister that, in his words, “…I feel as though I don’t have a mind or will of my own.”[53] Therefore, Burroughs was helping Jack decipher mostly Gabrielle’s memories—memories that Jack assumed to be true because, according to his worldview, memories were equivalent to reality. Actually memory is very fallible, partly because every individual perceives the world in a slightly different manner.

Gabrielle’s version of reality was that Gerard had always acted kind and saintly toward Jack—but Jack became jealous of all the attention given to the sickly Gerard, and resented Gerard’s vengeful slap. But Kerouac notes that his mother suffered a “nervous breakdown” when Gerard died, during which all her teeth fell out.[54] He writes to Cassady, “The sight of this holy child slowly dying might have affected her mind at the time, and her stories about him may today be exaggerated…”[55] Yet he considered similar stories from his father and other relatives to be “verification” of Gabrielle’s version. Kerouac was even informed that a priest, neighbors, and business associates “spoke in the same way about Gerard: to the effect that he was the strangest, most angelic gentle child they had ever known.” But Pauline Coffey, a former neighbor of the Kerouac family, had a different impression of Gerard: “There was nothing exceptional about him. He was like any other kid—it was the mother—if you’ve ever lost a child, you would understand.”[56]

When Kerouac reflected on these memories five years after his “confession” to Cassady, while writing Visions of Gerard in January 1956, he omitted all his own personal doubts and stuck to his family’s Myth of Gerard. Charters’ biography offers a perceptive analysis of that novel: “Mémêre’s stories about Gerard were the framework for Jack’s narrative… The world of his experience and the world of his imagination came together in Visions of Gerard as in no other book in the Duluoz Legend.”[57] One of Gabrielle’s stories was key in establishing Gerard as a “saint.” As Kerouac tells it in the novel, Gerard fell asleep in class at their Catholic school and dreamt that the Virgin Mary took him away to Heaven in a “snow-white cart drawn by two lambs, and as he sits in it two white pigeons settle on each of his shoulders…”[58] When Gerard’s teacher woke him, he announced that he had seen the Virgin, and “we’re all in Heaven–––but we dont know it!” Since this was in December 1925, about seven months before Gerard died, it’s implied that the dream was premonition of Gerard’s imminent passing, as well as his Heavenly designation as a saint.

Kerouac didn’t doubt that such a thing happened, which in his mind would have meant that Gerard literally met the Virgin Mary. That’s partly because Kerouac himself remembers experiencing holy visions as a child. He tells Cassady that his life “is filled with superstitions,” and in the Catholic Church “much mysticism is sown broadspread from its ritual mysteries…”[59] Jack then tells of “the statue of St. Therese, whose head is often seen turning by madtranced watchers; whose head I myself saw turning, head-of-stone.” But biographer Paul Maher Jr. explains that Catholic school classes of that time viewed a motion picture in which the statue’s head was made to turn with trick photography.[60] Whether or not the kids were told that it was an illusion, the point—just as with other religious indoctrination—was to convince them that it was actually possible. In that sort of fundamentalist Catholic environment—made even more severe by the delusions of his grieving and mentally unstable mother, who built up the Myth of Gerard to keep Jack in a state of constant inferiority­ and thereby manipulate him like a marionette—it appears that Kerouac felt extreme pressure to have mystical beliefs, superstitions, visions, and fears.

All of this must be taken into account when reading Big Sur, especially the segment towards the end when “Jack Duluoz” experiences visions of a cross. Kerouac writes, “For a moment I see blue Heaven and the Virgin’s white veil…by God I am being taken away my body starts dying and swooning out to the Cross standing in a luminous area of the darkness…”[61] Of course, this is reported during the peak of Jack’s nervous breakdown, when he also allegedly hears voices speaking an indistinguishable language in his ear, senses a flying saucer searching for him in the trees, and mistakes a sleeping young boy for an evil warlock.

Just before then Jack had become increasingly disoriented, repeatedly saying or thinking, “I can’t understand what’s going on–––“[62] He says he wishes that Cassady were around to explain everything in a way that made sense. Actually this is the role that Gabrielle played in Jack’s life more often than anyone else. Just as Jack trusted mémêre’s version of the past, he also trusted her to interpret current events. And during Jack’s three-year imprisonment with his mother from late 1957 to early 1960, their “reality” consisted largely of fear over a supposedly imminent “Communist” uprising—a fear fueled by government officials and compliant mass media during the height of the Cold War. When “Duluoz’s” friends try to feed him in Big Sur, he thinks, “…this secret poisoning society, I know, it’s because I’m a Catholic, it’s a big anti-Catholic scheme, it’s Communists destroying everybody…in the morning you no longer have the same mind–––the drug is invented by Airapatianz, it’s the brainwash drug…”[63]

In reality Kerouac was recalling his experience with Leary’s psilocybin mushroom capsules, which he describes—along with a reference to the “Dear Coach” letter—in his 12/28/1961 missive to Ginsberg: “I incidentally wrote Timothy Leary…that I think this is the Siberian sacred mushroom used by Brainwash-inventor Airapantianz to empty American soldier prisoners in Korean brainwash program—Because if you become so emptied you don’t even care if you’re Kerouac or Ginsberg or Orlovsky, and what that meant to you before, then you’re ready to become anything at all, for any reason, even perhaps an assasin [sic]?”[64]

Unfortunately Kerouac projected any suspicion and anger he felt towards his mother onto other people, whether it was his late brother Gerard or father Leo, living individuals like Ginsberg or Kerouac’s first two wives (Edie Parker and Joan Haverty), or more hypothetical groups (in Kerouac’s immediate experience, that is) like “the Communists.” After mentioning the apparent brainwash potential in the letter to Leary after his January 1961 psilocybin trial, Kerouac wrote that he spent “3 days and 3 nights” talking with his mother while, it seemed to him, the mushrooms were still affecting his mind. The result, in his words: “I learned I loved her more than I thought.”[65] Somehow Kerouac didn’t connect his concerns about brainwash potential with the effect that Mémêre was having on him. One can find examples of these mental slips involving his mother scattered throughout the “Duluoz Legend.”

Later in the letter, Jack included a statement that helps to answer the question of why he would downplay psychedelics in his fiction and public statements. As he told Leary, “It was a definite Satori. Full of psychic clairvoyance (but you must remember that this is not half as good as the peaceful ecstacy [sic] of simple Samadhi trance as I described that in Dharma Bums).” Kerouac intended for The Dharma Bums to be read as a resolution to the existential conflict so visible in earlier books like On the Road and The Subterraneans. He also hoped for it to be a life manual for anyone in a similar situation, because in the mid- to late-1950s he viewed Buddhism as “the answer.” In other words, Kerouac perceived the potential rise of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s as a threat to the usefulness of his own body of work. In turn, his disparagement of psychedelics—and his silence (outside of private letters) about their potential advantages—was propaganda for the Duluoz Legend.

In fact, Kerouac found little use for Buddhism in his personal life by the start of the Big Sur period. His devout Catholic family had been fighting him about it for years. And as he told Carolyn Cassady after writing Big Sur—specifically referring to the end of the book, which describes his mental breakdown—“I realized all my Buddhism had been words—comforting words, indeed—“[66] Despite that, he still made Desolation Angels a sort of sequel to Dharma Bums a few years later, keeping much of the Buddhist terminology in place.

But there was a more personal element to Jack’s spurning of psychedelics. As his own descriptions of chemical experiments attest, psychedelic substances can provide the very sort of “visions” (i.e., hallucinations) that were so cherished in the fundamentalist Catholic worldview. According to the “mysticism” that Jack knew as a child, visionary ability was even a primary criterion for becoming a “saint” (like Kerouac’s beloved St. Therese) or an “angel.” Therefore, if it became public knowledge—or if his mother found out—that his visions didn’t always happen spontaneously, then it would harm his attempts to live up to the Myth of Gerard, the larger-than-life standards that Jack’s mother had held for him since before he could remember. This is likely the reason why, after giving Ginsberg his “Mescaline Report” in early 1960, Jack wrote to Allen from Chicago (en route to San Francisco and Bixby Canyon), “Hold the Mescaline Notes till I get back in Fall—Don’t give em to my mother.”[67] It’s probably also the reason why that “Mescaline Report” has apparently vanished from existence (though it might be in his archives in Lowell, MA, or at the Berg Collection in the New York City Public Library).

This differs substantially from the idea espoused by many of Kerouac’s biographers, who took a line of recorded conversation in the “Dear Coach” letter (“walking on water wasn’t built in a day”) as a sign that Jack saw very limited value in psychedelics. As it turns out, Kerouac’s literary treatment of psychedelics is one of many routes to a rude awakening about the Duluoz Legend, showing that it’s far less “objectively” true than commonly thought. In Big Sur, Kerouac wanted the cause of his mental breakdown to be alcoholism fueled by fame and “mortal existence,” not a spiritual awakening (or re-awakening) inspired by psychedelics, and definitely not his “tyrannical…mother’s sway over me” (as he referred to it once in The Subterraneans [68]). Furthermore, he wanted the cure to be “Christ,” “God,” the “Cross,” and his mother. As Kerouac writes on the last page, “My mother’ll be waiting for me glad–––“[69]

We can deduce all of this by looking at Kerouac’s October 1961 letter to Ferlinghetti, whom Jack actually visited again in San Francisco before returning to the East Coast in September 1960. As Kerouac writes, “…I was going to have lots more at the ‘end’ when I come to your house 706 but suddenly saw the novel should end at the cabin…”[70] So Big Sur ends the way it does because of a literary decision that Kerouac made, not necessarily because it depicts the way the events “objectively” happened.

Kerouac wasn’t only deceiving his readership; he was deceiving himself. His unwillingness—or, since it’s time we start taking his “dementia praecox” diagnosis more seriously, his inability to revise his view of reality and existence according to his own subjective life experience led to his early death in 1969. Just as a butterfly transforms from a caterpillar, he could have emerged from his chrysalis a twice-born being. The story behind Big Sur shows that Kerouac had the opportunity to progress through his existential crisis and live an entirely new life of liberation and prosperity. But his loss need not be our own.

[1] Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. pp. 61-66.

[2] Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. 1962. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. p. 4.

[3] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1999. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. pp. 296-297.

[4] Kerouac, J. Windblown World. p. 62.

[5] Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. 1973. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. pp. 303-304.

[6] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. From footnote #1 by Ann Charters. p. 164.

[7] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 7-8. Long ellipsis was in original; short ellipsis is mine.

[8] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 252-253.

[9] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 292.

[10] Maher Jr., Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work. 2004. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007. p. 414.

[11] Burroughs, William S. and Allen Ginsberg. The Yage Letters Redux. 1963. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006. From the introduction by Oliver Harris. pp. xx-xxii.

[12] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. p. 415. Ellipsis was in original.

[13] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 419.

[14] In both the second volume of Selected Letters and Kerouac: A Biography, Charters writes erroneously that Kerouac took LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in January 1961. In the biography she also mistakenly states that Kerouac went to Cambridge, Mass., to see Leary.

[15] “Psilocybin Mushrooms.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/4/2011.

[16] Lee, Martin A. and Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond. 1985. New York: Grove Press, 1992. pp. 78-82. Note: they mistook Northport as being in Massachusetts, instead of Long Island, New York.

[17] An alcoholic Mexican drink made of fermented agave. See: “The Spirits of Maguey” by Fire Erowid. Erowid. Nov 2004. Accessed on 6/14/2011.

[18] Kerouac, Jack. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.” Acid Dreams Document Gallery. Website for the book Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Ellipses were in original. Accessed on 3/3/2011.

[19] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. I added “Benzedrine” in brackets.

[20] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 211.

[21] “Peyote.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/6/2011.

[22] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1995. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 336.

[23] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 368-369.

[24] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 139-140.

[25] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 371. Long ellipses were in book; short ellipsis is mine.

[26] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 156.

[27] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 200.

[28] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 208-210.

[29] “Nausea.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6/6/2011.

[30] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1964. p. 18-19.

[31] Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. p. 122.

[32] Allen-Mills, Tony. “Mescaline left Jean-Paul Sartre in the grip of lobster madness.” The Sunday Times of London. 11/22/2009. Ellipsis was in original. Accessed on 10/31/2010.

[33] Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Perennial, 2004. p. 41.

[34] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007. p. 113.

[35] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 5-6.

[36] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. pp. 252-253.

[37] Kerouac, Jack. Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1992. pp. 57-59. Italics were in original.

[38] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. From editor’s note by Charters. p. 49.

[39] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 56. This citation also goes with “irregularity” quote below.

[40] Korn, Martin L. “Historical Roots of Schizophrenia.” Medscape. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[41] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 61-63.

[42] “Schizoid personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[43] “Schizotypal personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[44] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 18-20.

[45] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 246-263, 282.

[46] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 261.

[47] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 267-268.

[48] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 269.

[49] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 259. Also, p. 87.

[50] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 272.

[51] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 252.

[52] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 249. He writes, “Six years later…I looked about for the first time and realized I was in a world and not just myself.”

[53] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 88.

[54] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 258.

[55] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 253.

[56] Motier, Donald. Gerard: The Influence of Jack Kerouac’s Brother on His Life and Writing. Harrisburg, PA: Beaulieu Street Press, 1991. pp. 4-5. Quoted from Kerouac: His Life and Work by Paul Maher, Jr. p. 19.

[57] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 254-255.

[58] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. 1963. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 51-55.

[59] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 270

[60] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 22-24.

[61] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 204-206.

[62] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 155-159.

[63] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 203.

[64] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363.

[65] Kerouac, J. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.”

[66] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 353.

[67] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 299.

[68] Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. 1958. New York: Grove Press, 1994. p. 47.

[69] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 216.

[70] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 358.

From Ganja to God

by Geetanjali Joshi Mishra
Beatdom Issue 10

They are unmistakable: roughly kept beards, unmanageable, unruly and unkempt hair, chillums dangling from the oral cavity, drinking ‘bhang’ and smoking marijuana; add mysticism, reverence and fear and you will have before you the nativity of the Holy Men of India, the ‘Sadhus’.
A Sadhu is a mystic, an ascetic, the one who knows all and is liberated from the materialistic world of humans. He is a wandering monk whose singular goal in life is to achieve ‘moksha’, and he gets it through tough penance and uncommon lifestyle. India has been a country of much interest to the world and the Orient has forever lured the West. It is a country where the solitary aim of life is ‘liberation’ or ‘Moksha’, also called ‘nirvana’. It is the highest form of ‘Purushartra’; the choice to do good things in life, among ‘Dharma’ (duty), ‘Artha’ (meaning), ‘Kama’ (sex) and ‘Moksha’ (salvation). Hinduism has been forever guided and inspired by its spiritual leaders, mainly ascetics or Sadhus. Baldeo Upadhyay observes that “the Indian culture is based upon the three T’s – Tyag (renunciation), Tapasya (penance) and Tapovan (hermitage)”.This clearly means that, in order to achieve truth or the highest form of knowledge, an individual must observe unremitting penance and detachment from worldly vows.
Broadly speaking there are two main divisions, or sects, of Sadhus: ‘Shaiva’ Sadhus who revere Lord Shiva, the God of Destruction and ‘Vaishnavas’ who are ascetic followers of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver of the Universe. Apart from these two chief categories, there are some ‘Shakta’ Sadhus as well, who are the disciples of goddess ‘Shakti’, the supreme goddess of strength and power. Then, there are the ‘Naga’ Sadhus, (a sub category of ‘Shaiva’) who remain unclothed and wander naked openly in the streets, commanding respect and awe. Nudity in their case is not considered obscene but is seen as the highest form of penance. Along with the ‘Naga’ Sadhus are the ‘Aghories’, or the warrior Sadhus, who not only in some cases remain naked but also smear their bodies with human ash (acquired from cremation grounds, a place of worship and meditation). They are often seen with a human skull, which is used as a begging bowl.
The most remarkable facet of the Sadhu community is their sometimes excessive and non-restrained use of drugs like ‘charas’ (cannabis). The Naga Sadhus, and aghoris in particular, devour these drugs since they consider them as a fundamental aspect of their religious ceremonies and practices. Sadhus claim that use of hallucinatory drugs brings them closer to God, and thus closer to salvation. The use of the hemp plant in the religious rituals of the worship of Lord Shiva is noteworthy. It is said that cannabis is one of the favourite plants of the deity and is thus respected and held reverently by his followers. Drinking of ‘bhang’ (a drink made out of cannabis) is considered highly auspicious by these Sadhus as it is said to unite the disciple with the deity and open a way to achieve salvation and get rid of the miseries of life and death. According to religious beliefs it is said that bhang is capable of cleansing one’s soul of all forms of sin. The religious significance of cannabis and hallucinatory drugs is so obviously felt that it is validated by the fact that in most of the states in India weed is legal and sold openly in the market.
It is this openness in religion and this freedom in choice that inspired some of the Beat writers to extensively travel to India and experience a life without inhibitions and restraints. Initially, the West’s interest in the East was determined by negative impulses, the desire to study the Eastern religions was driven by the fanatical craving to convert the Easterners into Christianity. The West saw the East as ‘heathen’ and took the responsibility of educating the East and showing them the way of Christ. Whatever knowledge an average American possessed about the Eastern religions was due to missionary accounts. It was only in the twentieth century that the East could have been said to have any serious and scholarly influence over the American mind. The Beats may be considered the vanguard in a significant shift in post-World War II American religious consciousness, marked by rejection of institutional religion, a questioning of Christian values, and an affirmation of the possibility of new religious meanings to be found through mystical experience, hallucinogenic drugs and Asian religions.
First emerging in the nineteenth century, American interest in the Asian religions has grown spectacularly since World War II and today effects the lives of large numbers of Americans. Some have dismissed the phenomenon as a fad, while others hail (or denounce) the growth of interest in Eastern spirituality as the beginningstages of a shift in religious consciousness that will profoundly alter the religious view of future Americans.
The one outstanding resemblance between the Beats and the Sadhus is that both of them are away from the humdrum world of the square society; they are both in search of reality and internal peace. The one question that both Sadhus and Beatniks ask is the relevance of life, its meaning and its end. Post Second World War, the Beatniks seemed to have lost faith in Christianity and were looking for answers towards Eastern religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. When the strict righteousness of Christianity couldn’t satisfy their enthusiastic spiritual cravings they begged answers from Buddhism. “I don’t know about that, but I get my religion from Buddhism and the Oriental religions. Buddha was one of the original hippies – he was a beggar who rejected the ‘straight’ world. I think incense and charms help turn a person on. The teaching of Nirvana seems to be the essence of truth. The Oriental religions have more to offer than Christianity” said one of the hippies in an interview in 1967.
On one level, the Beat writers may be seen as early leaders in the war era who turned to the East, whose attitudes and use of Asian religious thought provide important insight into the impact of the East on modern American religious beliefs. In the post-World War II period, Beat writers did more than any other literary group to shift America’s cultural focus toward the East. The ways in which the Beats utilized and distorted Asian conceptions reveal both the rewards and dangers of turning to non-European sources. Thus, the Beats can be seen as the precursors to ‘Indian God Men’ who later allured the West into the romance of India and its spiritual offerings.
Marijuana has long been used as a spiritual tool and mood enhancer, and it is also said that a person taking marijuana has a heightened emotional experience. The Sadhu’s intake of ‘ganja’ or ‘charas’ brings them into a state where they feel one with God. The spiritual impact of psychedelic drugs depends entirely upon the person using them, it depends on his/her mental state and his/her intentions in using it. While Sadhus on one hand use drugs to experience the divine presence of God around them, on the other the Beats used them to run away from society into the world of ecstasy and bliss. Sadhus who embrace marijuana as a sacrament find it spiritually beneficial, as they feel that the intake of the drug purifies their soul; marijuana helps them focusing their attention inward, toward the realm of spirit and towards God. Allen Ginsberg in ‘The Great Marijuana Hoax’ talks about his experiences with ‘ganja’ during his stay in India:

In sound good health I smoked legal ganja (as marijuana is termed in India, where it is traditionally used in preference to alcohol), bought from government tax shops in Calcutta, in a circle of devotees, yogis, and hymn-singing pious Shaivite worshipers in the burning ground at Nimtallah Ghat in Calcutta, where it was the custom of these respected gentlemen to meet on Tuesday and Saturday nights, smoke before an improvised altar of blossoms, sacramental milk-candy and perhaps a fire taken from the burning wooden bed on which lay a newly dead body, of some friend perhaps, likely a stranger if a corpse is a stranger, pass out the candy as God’s gift to friend and stranger, and sing holy songs all night, with great strength and emotion, addressed to different images of the Divine Spirit. Ganja was there considered a beginning of sadhana (Yogic path or discipline) by some…

The question that one may ask is that why men like the Beats and the Sadhus have the desire to escape from reality, and in doing so make use of hallucinatory drugs. Aldous Huxley seemed to have an answer. He said:

Most men and women lead lives, at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and always has been one of the principal appetites of the soul.

The Beat writers made use of drugs in order to expand their range of experience beyond boundaries, just as the Sadhu who went into a state of trance after taking in drugs. The Beats also consumed drugs in order to go into the state of trance where they could create poetry which they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. The Beats were troubled souls. They were constantly at war with the world they were living in. In order to achieve peace and nirvana, they made use of drugs to escape into a world of trance, where everything was blissful and serene. Drugs such as marijuana helped them escape into a different world where they felt close to God, close to reality and above all they had a sense of unification with God.
The use of drugs by poets and artists is a known fact. For decades writers have made use of hallucinatory drugs to enhance their artistic ability. Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac were scandalously known for their drug usage. All the three writers wrote while high on drugs and ended up creating the masterpieces of their lives. Kerouac’s On the Road is a detailed saga of drug use, most of the characters in the novel are seen consuming drugs, especially marijuana, while Burrough’s Junky and Naked Lunch narrates his early years of drug addiction. Burroughs kept on experimenting with several drugs as he claimed that he was ‘bored’ of life. Drugs provided him novelty, while Kerouac continued the use of marijuana and later replaced it with alcohol to get rid of the painful experiences of life.
However, it was Ginsberg who came closest to the aesthetic lifestyle of a Sadhu. He was, in a way, a wandering nomad in search of truth who came to India in search of a guru, someone whom he could revere and also make love to. Ginsberg adorned the looks of a Sadhu too: his unshaved beard and dishevelled hair could pass him easily for a Sadhu. His spiritual cravings led him to haunt the most daunting places on Earth – which included cremation grounds and habitats of aghoris and yogis. Ginsberg was very interested in the concept of ‘nirvana’ and thus he was always occupied with the notions of death and rebirth. Like an aghori he would meditate over cremation grounds late at nights with few of his fellow Indian poet friends. Cremation grounds became a meeting hub of radical poets, Sadhus and an eager Ginsberg who met many aesthetics in the hour of darkness. He questioned the holy men about the meaning of life and death. Ginsberg’s spiritual cravings led him to the pious ghats of Nimtala in Calcutta and Manikarnika ghat in Benaras where he accompanied Sadhus and smoked chillum in their company.
Steve Silberman in his essay ‘The Birth of the Sixties: When the Beats Became Hippies’ talks about Ginsberg’s experiences of the pious ‘ghats’ in Benares and Calcutta:

One of the experiences that made the deepest impression on Ginsberg was spending hours at the burning ghats in Varanasi, smoking ganja with sadhus and mindfully observing the corpses as they turned to ash on the pyres that smoldered all night. Deciding that ‘the present is sufficient subject’, he revitalized his writing by turning his attention away from his cosmic obsessions and toward the humanity around him in the swarming streets of Kolkata and Varanasi. Precisely observed journal entries such as ‘Describe: The Rain on Dasaswamedh Ghat’ became the model for Ginsberg’s later work, which replaced the earlier overheated philosophizing with cinematic rendering of a suffering world.


India taught Ginsberg the devout character of compassion, he realised that the world, which is full of immense suffering and pain, could become bearable only with the help of compassion. Regarding Ginsberg’s spiritual gain, Baker writes:

What held Allen Ginsberg and would hold him for the rest of his life was the sweetness and sympathy he found in the company of India’s Sadhus, charlatans, poets, and saints. They sang to him, and they held his hand. They reached out to his lover, and touched his feet; they sucked their teeth in sympathy when Ginsberg confessed his fears of demons, childlessness, old age, abandonment, and death.

Ginsberg found refuge in the spiritual and populated cities of Calcutta and Varanasi, these were the places that made him realize his own self, felt loved and cherished. While on his stay in India, Ginsberg also heavily experimented with drugs. He used marijuana in order to experience God and spirituality. He wanted to discover his own self, to know things more deeply just as a Sadhu would do. Ginsberg travelled extensively and propagated the use of marijuana in different countries, more of a Sadhu in search of the divine presence of God achievable only in a high state. Of all the poets who travelled to East, Ginsberg was the one who was transformed by the journey. It was through his prolonged stay in India and his experiences of staying with Sadhus, yogis and aghories that Ginsberg himself became a ‘guru’ for the young and rebellious youth of the 60’s in the US.
The memory of India lingered with Ginsberg all through his life. A few days before his death in 1997, Ginsberg wrote in his journal for the last time, his final poem, ‘Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias)’. Therein, he recalled some of the happiest moments of his life, which also included his trysts with India. He recalled his bathing at the banks of the holy Ganges, sitting beside Orlovsky at the Manikarnika ghat, and relishing ‘Chai with older Sunil & the young coffeehouse poets’.
Ginsberg’s main aim in travelling to India was to seek some spiritual answers that the West could not give. He felt that Hinduism could answer all his questions. He believed that ‘ganja’ could help him in his spiritual quest and just as a Sadhu feels unified with God after smoking weed so could he liberate himself and experience a trance-state in which he could be one with God. Ginsberg never did enjoy drugs so much in life as he did in India. There he could use it freely without inhibitions and without having any guilty feelings about it.
Ganja served him as a medium of communication with the Almighty. Ginsberg came to India with an open heart; later he mused on all that India had to offer him – from ‘Ganja’ to God.

Sympathy for the Devil? Reconsidering the Legend of Raoul Duke on the 40th Anniversary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

woodcutting by lisa brawn

by Rory Feehan

“He who makes a beast of

himself gets rid of the pain of

being a man”

– Dr. Johnson (epigraph to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

Early spring 1971 and the first rays of the rising sun creep into a room at the Ramada Inn just outside Pasadena California, where one Hunter S. Thompson is holed up, crouched over his IBM Selectric, hands flashing back and forth over the keys, as though directing a kind of demented orchestra. The words flow faster and faster, a chaotic hell broth of paranoia and insanity that would culminate in one of the most original, hilarious and celebrated statements on the sixties drug culture – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson’s dissection of the dark side of the American Dream would catapult him to rock star status overnight and confirm his status as the infant terrible of the literary world. Through the pages of Rolling Stone he unleashed upon an unsuspecting American public what is undoubtedly his greatest artistic creation, not Gonzo Journalism as many would have you believe, but rather his compelling and brilliantly subversive literary persona – the Hunterfigure – as best exemplified through the guise of Raoul Duke.

What followed for Thompson was an almost Jekyll and Hyde relationship with his literary alter ego, a continuous symbiotic state of co-existence with the monstrous and unruly Duke, for good or ill. Such was the enduring power of the character, heightened by Ralph Steadman’s darkly captivating illustrations, that the public perception of Thompson became truly distorted, unable to distinguish between the serious author and the myth of the drug crazed Gonzo Journalist. Of course, Thompson deliberately contributed to this confusion, blurring the boundary between author and character to such an extent that the ensuing confusion was inevitable. Such was his method actor-like approach to the persona, spanning almost his entire literary oeuvre, that one can be forgiven for being unable to identify the thin line of differentiation between his public image and private self.

In many ways it is this aspect of the Raoul Duke phenomena that has come to define Thompson’s career – with a distinct marker separating the period prior to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, from that which subsequently followed, wherein the myth superseded the man. Of course Thompson was acutely aware of the dilemma that the Duke persona presented for him following the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and its immediate follow-up, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. As his output as a writer slowed, his critics accused him of becoming enslaved by the Duke persona, not to mention being creatively burnt out. Thompson himself broached the issue in the author’s note of The Great Shark Hunt, in which he confessed that the anthology marked a milestone in his career:

I feel like I might as well be sitting here carving the words to my own tombstone…and when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into the fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out in the air and across Fifth Avenue. Nobody could follow that act. Not even me…H.S.T. #1, R.I.P. 12/23/77

Thompson’s frustration as a writer was also evident during this same period in the hour long BBC documentary Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision, as part of which he returned to Las Vegas, accompanied by Ralph Steadman. Though Thompson wilfully participated in the film, he was not entirely comfortable with the idea, aware that there was an underlying presumption that he was somehow going to deliver a sequel to the events described in his classic work, once more running amok in a drug-crazed frenzy on the Las Vegas strip, only this time in front of a film crew. Yet again the misconception surrounding his literary persona had come to dominate proceedings, an issue that Thompson attempted to clarify somewhat when asked as to whether there was any pressure on him to live up to the image he had created:

Well there certainly has, I mean you have been putting it on me all week…I’m not sure at all what you think you are shooting…I have no idea whether you think you are making a film about Duke or Thompson. That’s a serious point, I’m never sure which one people expect me to be and very often they conflict, most often as a matter of fact  with people I don’t know, I’m expected to be Duke more than Thompson…I’ve been using Duke for 10 years, maybe more, I began to use him originally as a vehicle for quotations that nobody else would say, that was me really talking, those were my quotes…I’m really in the way as a person, the myth has taken over…I’m no longer necessary, I’m in the way. It would be much better if I die. Then people could take the myth and make films.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and yet the discourse surrounding Thompson’s seminal work has changed little – largely still centred upon Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s astronomical drug consumption and withered analysis of the American Dream. Duke, of course, looms larger than ever, aided in no small part by the tour de force that is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the character in Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation, which in itself has attracted a sizeable cult of worship. Just as in Thompson’s own lifetime, the drug crazed Raoul Duke persona overshadows the brilliance behind its very creation. In retrospect, Thompson’s remarks to the BBC now appear to be particularly salient.

That Thompson is still largely misunderstood as a writer is unsurprising though, as there is a long standing pattern of ignoring the thought process behind his greatest work. More often than not, the trajectory of critical analysis has focused on the cult of personality surrounding Thompson and that of his legendary drug consumption, coupled with the subsequent effect of these influences on his writing. Rarely does it pause to reflect on just how and why Thompson came to that point in the first place. There is a wealth of material that pinpoints The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved as marking the birth of Gonzo Journalism, but there is a dearth of analysis on the seeds that were planted along the way. The same goes for Duke, with little discussion of the various incarnations of the Hunterfigure prior to his most infamous outing in the pages of Rolling Stone. Yet it is an essential task and one that does not lead to an undermining of Thompson’s as a writer. In particular by investigating the narrative genealogy of the Hunterfigure we can discover new layers of meaning to every facet of his writing and thus extend the discourse far beyond the current narrow parameters.

Ironically it is the very topic that has overshadowed the genius in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that offers the first clue as to why Thompson felt compelled to create the Hunterfigure and make him a paragon of gross excess. The infamous epigraph at the start of this article returns us to familiar territory – that of the role of drugs in the Gonzo narrative. The quote from Dr. Johnson has now become synonymous with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the rampant consumption of drugs by Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo as they travel across the desert to the very bowels of Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. To date, the significance of the quote has largely been confined to the relationship with the central thematic message of the story. However its deeper meaning in relation to Thompson’s life and work has been all but ignored, which is surprising given that the sentiment behind it, particularly in relation to the latter half of the quote, is tied so closely to understanding his need to create a fictive persona. In order to illustrate this, it is necessary to first take a step backwards and examine Thompson’s early life in Louisville, Kentucky, before subsequently discussing key aspects in the evolution of the Hunterfigure.

The Dark and Bloody Ground

For any discussion that involves deciphering the walking contradiction that was Hunter S. Thompson there is really only one place where you can begin and that is his birthplace of Louisville, Kentucky. Renowned for its bourbon whiskey and horse racing, the Bluegrass State is commonly referred by the natives as the “dark and bloody ground” in reference to the tumultuous and violent history of the region, from its use as a hunting ground by the Cherokee and Shawnee tribes to later bearing witness to the Battle of Blue Licks, one of the final clashes in the War of Independence.  Kentucky was also home to some of the earliest devotees of the American Dream, being the first area west of the Appalachians to be settled by frontiersmen. The opportunity to start a new life free from the constraints of the law governed east coast proved irresistible, with many of this motley crew harbouring a memory filled with contempt for the society they had left behind, where more often than not they had been treated as social pariahs. In many ways the spirit carried by these people became the spirit of the land itself – fiercely independent with a healthy appetite for rebellion and it was this same spirit that flowed in the blood of Hunter Stockton Thompson when he entered the world on July 18th 1937, the eldest son of Virginia Ray and Jack Robert Thompson. He was later described as having – “shot out of the womb angry”.

Thompson enjoyed a somewhat idyllic life growing up in the peaceful middle-class neighbourhood of Cherokee Triangle, a suburb of Louisville. Jack Thompson, an insurance agent who had previously been married, was forty-two when Hunter was born and his relationship with his son was always somewhat distant, perhaps due to Jack’s strict disciplinary role in Hunter’s life. He had a much closer bond with his mother Virginia, who introduced him to tales such as Jack London’s White Fang and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was also particularly fond of reading about heroes and outlaws of the Wild West, an early influence that was hugely significant according to historian Douglas Brinkley:

when he was growing up in Kentucky, he was obsessed with tall tales. He would read about Mike Fink and Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket, Jesse James, Annie Oakley, Billy the Kid. He didn’t care whether these stories were true or not – those personas became larger than life. (Stop Smiling Magazine Issue 22)

Indeed, in both his neighbourhood and in school, the young Thompson seemed to be hell-bent on creating his own unique brand of infamy, with his pranks and mischief resulting in a visit to his home by the FBI when he was just nine years old. Accused of having orchestrated the tipping of a Federal Mailbox into the path of a bus, leading to a collision that caused considerable damage, the Agents tried to pressure Hunter into a confession by informing him that they had witnesses. Unconvinced by their story, Hunter called their bluff and enquired as to the identity of these witnesses – the ensuing awkward silence signalled that the game was up. Pressed further by Jack Thompson and having no evidence to substantiate their claim, they swiftly made an exit and were never seen again.

Of course, Thompson was the ringleader of the entire incident and his reasons for doing so reveal an important side to his character. In his opinion, the bus driver needed to be taught a lesson, having become known for pulling away just as the schoolchildren arrived at the bus stop on their way to school. It was a somewhat cruel abuse of the little power he held and it was not going to be tolerated by Hunter and his gang – the Hawks A.C. – with the same spirit of lashing out at those who used their power for nefarious reasons later becoming a cornerstone of Gonzo Journalism. Hunter learned a powerful lesson from the experience and that was to never blindly trust anyone who represented the system, no matter what badge of office they held.

There are two major incidents that occurred in Louisville however, that altered the course of Thompson’s life forever. The first of these was the death of Jack Thompson. His passing had a profound affect on Hunter, coming shortly before his fifteenth birthday. Jack had always maintained a strict guiding influence in Hunter’s life, encouraging his interest in sports and ensuring that he didn’t get too out of hand. After his death, Thompson’s behaviour went unchecked and he quickly spiralled out of control. Virginia Thompson went to work at the Louisville Free Public Library in order to provide for her family, leaving Hunter with plenty of free time to indulge his newfound passion – alcohol. Despite Thompson’s reputation over the years as a notorious chemical abuser, it was a legal drug that first made him a slave to dependency, perhaps more so than any other substance, with the possible exception of cocaine.

In Louisville, it was Thompson’s thirst for alcohol that fuelled his descent into juvenile delinquency. Despite being underage it was never too difficult to gain access to alcohol – after all it was very much part of the social fabric and when the use of fake IDs failed to work for Hunter and his friends, there was always the option of raiding the household liquor cabinet. What followed was usually a bout of running amok and sometimes mindless vandalism, which inevitably brought Thompson into conflict with the law, leading to a stint at the Louisville Children’s Centre. In his inimitable memoir, Kingdom of Fear, Thompson acknowledged his tearaway behaviour as a teenager, likening his antics to that of his childhood hero:

I was a juvenile delinquent. I was Billy the Kid of Louisville. I was a “criminal”: I stole things, destroyed things, drank. That’s all you have to do if you’re a criminal.

Coupled with this reckless behaviour there was also something of a distinct split in Thompson’s identity during this period. At school, despite frequently skipping class to nurse a hangover, he displayed such a talent for writing that his English teacher Harold Teague recommended him to the exclusive Louisville Literary Athenaeum, where he won awards for his satirical essays. Yet the conflicting forces in Thompson’s psyche were never far from the surface, dragging him in opposing directions to such an extent that he was equally comfortable discussing the parable of Plato’s cave, as he was standing in front of judge following his latest bout of drunken revelry. Thompson was adept at compartmentalising different aspects of his life and this extended to his friends, of whom the social range stretched from the underclass to the very top of Louisville’s elite. While Hunter was comfortable moving in both worlds, the more he became exposed to the wealth of a certain circle of friends, the more painfully aware he became of his own social standing. Though Virginia Thompson did her best to raise three sons, it was not easy on her salary as a librarian. While Hunter’s friends talked of going to Ivy League Universities following their high school graduation, he knew this was not a financially viable option. While this situation created a certain resentment for Thompson, it paled into insignificance next to the rage that boiled over within him following an event that marked the end of his youth in Louisville.

Given his love affair with alcohol, it was only a matter of time before Thompson ended up in serious trouble. Yet for once, he was entirely innocent. His only crime was that of being in the company of a friend who had robbed a young couple in the park. Thompson was not even aware of what had actually happened, having been seated in a car during the incident, until he was charged by the police. Nevertheless it was Thompson who bore the brunt of the law, with the sitting judge being more than aware of his previous history as a young offender. This time he was determined that Thompson would not escape unpunished, handing down a six week prison sentence, forcing Hunter to miss two of the most important milestones in any teenager’s life – his eighteenth birthday and graduation from high school. The real injustice of the affair, however, was that the actual perpetrator walked free, courtesy of his influential family connections, leaving Thompson to sit in his cell cursing the injustice of the system and vowing to never again become ensnared in its net.

The social stigma attached to his incarceration was humiliating for Thompson and this was further compounded by his expulsion from the Louisville Literary Athenaeum, whose members had convened a special meeting to decide his status as a member of the association. The entire incident represented an overwhelming rejection by his hometown, but rather than try to atone for his past indiscretions and repair his standing in the community, Thompson instead vowed revenge upon the Louisville establishment. He viewed his treatment as a conspiracy by the authorities and the privileged elite, who had abused their power in order to make an example of him, the easy target with no father to fight his corner.

The fallout from this incident was so emotionally damaging for Thompson that it cannot be underestimated in relation to his direction as a writer. The pain of this incident was a constant driving force that was never far from the surface, strengthening his identification with “outsider” figures and heightening his visceral distrust of authority in all of its representations. Ironically it is also inherently linked to the creation of Gonzo Journalism through The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. In the lead up to his hometown return it was obvious that the opportunity for revenge was on his mind. To Warren Hinckle, editor of Scanlan’s Monthly, he confessed – ‘And that’s it for now, I have to get some sleep before rushing off to confront my festered childhood. God’s mercy on us all.’ In a letter to Pat Oliphant, the first illustrator to be approached for the article, he wrote – ‘Ok for now. I have to get upstairs and call Hinckle. And get my plane ticket – and call my poor mother to warn her that I’m coming back, once again, to whip the shit out of everything I was raised and brought up to hold dear. Selah.’ When Oliphant was unable to accompany Thompson to the Derby, Scanlan’s Monthly made an inspired decision to send Ralph Steadman in his place. What followed was a pure exercise in avenger’s rhetoric by Thompson, with the mint julep-soaked prose eviscerating the Louisville elite in spectacular fashion, particularly when it came to his description of the ‘special kind of face’ that he wanted Ralph Steadman’s illustrations to capture:

It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry – a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture.

Of course the journey for Thompson as a writer was a long and convoluted one between his exile from Louisville as a youth and his triumphant return at the Kentucky Derby. The intervening period not only covers the birth of Hunter S. Thompson as a writer but also that of The Hunterfigure – and it is this construct that in many ways proved to be the single most important factor for Thompson in his determination to succeed as a writer, as it afforded him the irresistible opportunity to create a fictionalised portrait of his own life, a second opportunity where the cards of fate were not stacked against him as they had been in Louisville.

A Monster Reincarnation of Horatio Alger

The Hunterfigure was first mentioned by Thompson in correspondence whilst living in upstate New York in 1959. Having fled to New York in search of work as a journalist following his honourable discharge from the military, he struggled to make any discernable impact in the profession, habitually managing to get fired for insubordination or destroying office vending machines. Relying on friends and family to stave off hunger and the ever present threat of eviction, he increasingly began to question the merit of pursuing journalism as a career, particularly in light of his obvious disdain for the hierarchical structure of the typical newsroom, coupled with what he perceived as the shocking ignorance by an assortment of editors to his obvious talent. Thoroughly disillusioned with this state of affairs, Thompson composed a lengthy letter to a former girlfriend in which he revealed the predicament of the “Hunterfigure”:

I’m convinced, of course, that to play a role or adjust to fraud is wrong, and I damn well intend to keep right on living the way I think I should…I know I’m right, but I sometimes wonder how important it is to be right – instead of comfortable…The Hunterfigure has come to another fork in the road and the question once again is “where do we go from here?

What appears to be an otherwise innocuous statement in fact is a highly literary persona that would eventually be fully realised through the filter of Gonzo Journalism. Unsurprisingly, it also signals his move towards finding solace through fiction, with his first novel, Prince Jellyfish, once again illustrating the distinct sides to his psyche and the desire to make sense of this internal conflict through the cathartic power of writing:

It will be the story of Hunter and Hunter, the way he went and the way he could have gone. And, incidentally, why. I’m using the narrator-participant technique – a la Gatsby – and shooting for a short (300 pages or so) account of three people living a year in New York City that will decide the courses of their lives.

Drawing upon a multitude of experiences between his life in Louisville and his attempt to forge a new beginning in New York, Thompson inserts autobiographical details into a fictional framework to present the story of Welburn Kemp, the first thinly disguised Hunterfigure, who manages to succeed where Thompson himself had failed. Though Kemp experiences the same difficulty in finding work in New York, as a college graduate he is more confident in his dealings with editors, walking out of an interview upon discovering that he is expected to start out as a copyboy. In reality, Thompson could ill-afford to do likewise, accepting the same position with Time magazine, despite considering it as being beneath his talent. Through Kemp, Thompson attempts to exorcise many of his personal demons, creating an idealised world where the rules favour the underdog. The novel also displays the contradictory dichotomy between Thompson’s desire to be accepted by society and that of his embracing of the outsider mantle.

Another important aspect in relation to Kemp is that of the literary blueprint from which he is derived. According to William McKeen, Thompson turned to one of his heroes for inspiration:

The strongest literary influence was J.P. Donleavy’s Ginger Man. Like that novel’s Sebastian Dangerfield, Kemp is selfish and arrogant and yet too charming to be firmly repellent.

Donleavy’s protagonist is also the forefather of Thompson’s Raoul Duke and significantly shares not just the same attitude, but also a similar dispensation for substance abuse. Sebastian Dangerfield drunkenly rampages through the streets of Dublin, clashing with the authorities along the way and leaving a trail of chaos and destruction in his wake. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson amplifies this behaviour in Raoul Duke tenfold, upping the ante to such an extent as to make his drug use redundant. Of course, Duke is far more than a mere exaggeration of Sebastian Dangerfield and while he shares the same literary DNA with Welburn Kemp, there is equally a gulf of difference between Thompson’s respective charges. What ultimately separates the pair is Thompson’s incorporation of Duke into a larger narrative, that upon which America itself stands – the American Dream. Yet this aspect in the evolution of the Hunterfigure did not occur overnight, it was a long process, of which a crucial element is often overlooked – that of Thompson’s time in Big Sur and the influence of Henry Miller.

Thompson had long been an admirer of Miller’s writing and the prospect of living in the vicinity of one his literary heroes proved irresistible when he settled there in 1961. Unbeknownst to Thompson, Miller had earlier departed Big Sur for Europe and as a result their paths never crossed. It is Miller though who, in a way, was responsible for Thompson’s first big break as a writer, inspiring him to write an article, entitled “Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller”, which subsequently appeared in Rogue magazine, marking his first national publication. The heart of the article consisted of a detailed analysis of the dichotomy between Miller’s public persona and his private self, a facet of his life in Big Sur that more than piqued Thompson’s interest:

Miller did his best to stem the tide, but it was no use. As his fame spread, his volume of visitors mounted steadily. Many of them had not even read his books. They weren’t interested in literature, they wanted orgies. And they were shocked to find him a quiet, fastidious and very moral man – instead of the raving sexual beast they’d heard stories about.

The observations made here by Thompson clearly illustrate the understanding that he had of the mechanics involved in the cult of celebrity that had enveloped Miller. He identifies the public appetite for controversy and scandal, the potential manner through which literature can create a persona in the public sphere and the ease at which this persona can develop beyond the boundaries of the written word. It was not lost on Thompson that Miller, who had written prolifically of the serenity of life in Big Sur, struggled to cope with the burden of fame that had besieged his once idyllic existence, despite his best efforts to discourage the flood of pilgrims that were now destroying that which he so valued.

He posted a large, insulting sign at the head of his driveway, cultivating a rude manner to make visitors ill at ease, and devised elaborate schemes to keep them from discovering where he lived. But nothing worked. They finally overwhelmed him, and in the process they put Big Sur squarely on the map of national curiosities.

In detailing the rise of Miller’s profile and the subsequent siege of visitors to pay homage to their literary idol, Thompson creates a portrait that is astonishingly prophetic of his own eventual profile. The essential difference however, which was already clearly evident in Big Sur, is that unlike Miller, Thompson not only enjoyed the glare of publicity, but actively craved it.

In Big Sur, Thompson began to realise the power of self-mythologizing as a gateway towards a higher goal. Through Henry Miller he witnessed the manner in which an author’s persona could becoming synonymous with nonconformist revolt in the public lexicon, which in turn fuelled the propagation of a discourse that elevated him to a status of near mythic proportions. In this sense, Thompson’s experience in Big Sur proved to be a watershed moment, for it marks the turning point in his development of the Hunterfigure – from being that of a basic autobiographical tool to that of a mythmaking persona.

That this would appeal to Thompson is unsurprising in light of his early childhood fascination with myths and legends. It is this same larger than life trait that Thompson invoked in his later portrayal of sports stars and politicians as the modern day heroes and villains within the new pantheon of American mythology. The common denominator here is the enduring power associated with these figures, the special quality that burns into the collective consciousness of man and survives there for generations.

Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that they tyranny of “the rat race” is not yet final.

It is his creation of the Raoul Duke persona that is Thompson’s ultimate attempt to fashion a figure, a myth, that connects with a whole new generation in America – a generation that he believed witnessed the death of the American Dream through the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson even goes so far as to describe Duke as being ‘a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger’ to illustrate his sentiment towards this development, with Horatio Alger having represented the traditional rags to riches story of the American Dream, that with hard work and virtuous living any man could reach the top in life. For Thompson this was a con and in Las Vegas he had found the ultimate proof, a city built on corruption and sleaze that hawked the American Dream to gullible fools who parted with their money in the hope of hitting the big one and striking it rich. Of course, the house always wins, and it is this same false promise that Thompson associates with the blind optimism of the sixties, which was ultimately crushed by the cold hard reality of life under Richard Nixon’s reign.

In this sense, Thompson’s choice of epigraph – ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man’ – can now be considered in a new light. For Thompson the beast is of course Raoul Duke and the pain of being a man harkens back to Thompson’s youth in Louisville where he was ostracised as a “criminal”. Duke is his ultimate revenge on the establishment, his outlaw hero who embraces his status on the edge of society and uses his position to lambaste and ridicule the establishment and their hypocrisy. In a broader context he speaks to the pain of an entire section of American society, from those who are criminalised by the War on Drugs to the many who bought into the sixties dream and were burned in the process.

In closing, I leave you with one final piece of wisdom from Raoul Duke – ‘Learn to enjoy losing.’

Meat from Craigslist

Words by Velourdebeast; illustrations by Waylon Bacon

A bowl of oatmeal slithered through Sarah’s guts, slippery like a water weenie, as she cleared out her bookshelves. Her stomach grumbled as she threw On the Road into a big brown box. Most of the books she was giving away she had loved as a teenager and they were books Sarah’s parents had loved in their youth. When she was sixteen, Sarah’s dad gave her The Dharma Bums and she cut classes to go to the library and read it. She cut class once to go the park, sit under a tree, drink hard cider she’d made in her closet and read Richard Brautigan’s The Pill vs. the Springhill Mine Disaster. The cider was very hard and she passed out in the shade, awakened by a cop who was worried she had died.

None of Sarah’s friends were as passionate and interesting as the Beats. Sarah often imagined modeling her life after the guys in their stories. She gave drunken rants. She wanted to imitate Jack Kerouac and hitchhike across the country or climb mountains and live life with the purity and purpose she felt while reading Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island. She tried to be as dreamy and sweet as the hero of Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar when he said:

‘I know a river that is half-an-inch wide. I know because I measured it and sat beside it for a whole day. It started raining in the middle of the afternoon. We call everything a river here. We’re that kind of people.’

But these books often made Sarah feel defensive. When she reached her late teens she realized that she was annoyed with the way these authors wrote about women, she stopped making excuses for them. She was tired of the beautiful ladies Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder stuck in between their pages like baseball cards in the spokes of a bike. She thought Richard Brautigan wrote about women like a cat would write about a toy mouse.

When she graduated from high school, Sarah moved out of her mom’s house to live in a university town seven miles away. It was her first semester at college.  She was nineteen. She lived in a house with three other college students but she had her own room which she arranged and rearranged constantly. She loved getting rid of old things. She wedged The Pill vs. the Springhill Mine Disaster into the big box destined for a thrift store and she looked over at her bookshelves, which now held field guides and science and math textbooks. With her stomach growling like a hot refrigerator, Sarah turned on her computer and went to Craigslist for some comfort.

Sarah got money for school from the government. It was more than enough to live on when augmented with some part-time work and thrift. Sarah loved being thrifty, and she frequented the free section of Craigslist. That Saturday night, Northern California’s rural Humboldt County had an excess of the usual things – baby clothes, exercise equipment, pianos, and male animals: mostly ducks, roosters, goats, and rabbits.  Their owners were giving them up because they were loud, aggressive, or just plain useless. Some of the postings specified that the animals not be eaten but many encouraged slaughter. One author said she didn’t care what happened to their aggressive horny rabbit as long as it was no longer around to hump her ten-year-old daughter’s arm every time she reached into his cage to feed him. According to the advertisement the bunny was probably tough but he’d taste good in a stew. The thought of rabbit stew made Sarah’s mouth release a pulse of saliva. She loved eating meat but the free range organic meat she liked was expensive. She realized that Craigslist could provide her with an abundant source of food from local, free range animals that were raised without growth hormones and antibiotics. She looked through her cookbooks until she decided which kind of meat she wanted, then called a soft-voiced woman who wanted to rid herself of a drake.

The next morning, Sarah rested her hand on the chilly steering wheel of her station wagon and drove east towards the hills, turning her back to the Pacific Ocean. She passed a marshy field full of cow pies, egrets, thistles and little brown birds, who called out as they flung themselves from brown branch to brown stalk. Growing along the side of the road were willows with soft grey catkins and long tassels of yellow pollen on their branches. Coltsfoot was just starting to open up; it looked like flowering vanilla ice cream cones a foot in diameter and smelled like buckwheat pancakes with honey. The sun was still very low during the day. For the past week a sheet of grey clouds had covered the sky, pouring rain steadily and patiently. Rain washed oil drippings and trash from roads and neighborhoods and into muddy streams that slipped off to die in the greatest ocean in the world.

Sarah drove through a neighborhood of single family homes built in one big spurt after the redwood trees were cleared in the late 1950s. College students and hippie families were tearing up driveways to make room for vegetable gardens and letting their lawns grow wild. As she headed further toward the hills the streets were no longer on a grid but followed the deep valley folds. It was a clear day but the hills blocked the sun. Second or third growth redwood trees grew close to the houses, brushing roofs with their boughs like tall humans reaching down to pet little dogs.

The address Sarah was looking for was near the end of the cul-de-sac and just past the road unmarked footpaths began and quickly disappeared in the dense redwood forest beyond. She parked her station wagon in front of a big, blue house, next to which was another lot full of long grass, an apple orchard, a brown pond and a duck coop. There was a solarium on the sunniest side of the house and, inside, it was paneled with wood and full of easels, books, yarn, tapestries and house plants. Sarah thought it would be nice to sit in the warm solarium and listen to the raindrops splat on the glass. The house was tidy except for a pane of glass on the solarium that was cracked and traced with duct tape. There was a fence around the yard and outside the fence a mosaic was being built on the pavement.

One of the panels of the mosaic showed two hands opening a curtain to reveal a flaming heart, while another was made from broken white porcelain bowls with tiny blue flowers painted on them. The mailbox was also covered in a mosaic and Sarah imagined that with time the people who lived there would decorate everything that didn’t move, encrusting objects with pretty glass in the same way that moss or mushrooms covers fallen debris in the forest. Blue and purple flowers grew in between red bricks in the front yard and a camellia dropped big, pink cake-frosting flowers on the other plants in the flowerbed. A hen-and-chicks succulent climbed like a scaly lizard out of an oversized teacup. Herbs grew from an old toilet.

Sarah walked up three low broad brick stairs and knocked on a blue door. A thirteen-year-old girl opened the door, introduced herself as “Violet” and told Sarah to wait while she found her mom. Violet was very articulate and Sarah assumed she must read a lot. She wore makeup, a tie, and a blue shirt with tight blue jeans. She disappeared up the stairs and reappeared with her mom, Victoria, who also wore blue. Victoria’s eyes were watery, and her voice sounded weak, as though she was talking for the first time after a long bout of crying but Sarah soon realized that this was a result of gentleness – not weakness or sadness. Victoria invited her into the house and Sarah was glad to step inside. The house was clean but not fastidious, full but not cluttered. She knew without asking that no men lived in the house.

In the backyard was a duck coop painted blue and shingled like the house, with glass-paned windows and a peaked roof. There with a high fence around it and on either side of the fence were mallard ducks. “We keep the drakes inside the coop,” Victoria said.  The ducks inside the fence paced, looking out through the chicken wire, while the ones on the outside seemed more relaxed. Some of them lay down with their beaks tucked under their feathers, while others shuffled through grass and leaf litter, their bodies gyrating like clay on a potter’s wheel as they walked.

Violet leaned against her mother and Victoria casually put her arms around her.  “We bought the chicks from a feed store and we were promised that they were all hens but it turned out that four were drakes,” Victoria said. “After that we started ordering from a farm in Idaho because they guaranteed hens.”

“You can tell the sex by holding the egg up to a candle and looking through,” Violet said. Then, all of a sudden, she seemed skeptical. “At least, that’s what they said, but I don’t know how that would work. Before they were sent, we got a message saying that we’d have to wait a week later, because our order hadn’t hatched,” she said, laughing.

Sarah remembered being shy and awkward when she was Violet’s age and she envied Violet, who seemed completely comfortable with herself.

“So, we got all these drakes by accident,” Victoria said. “We wanted to keep them, because we raised them from chicks, but they’re harassing all the other ducks. Especially Strider, the one we’re giving to you.” Victoria said the drakes were separated because they relentlessly chased the hens around the yard, trying to mount them. One day Strider startled a hen into flight and she collided with the glass solarium and broke her neck. Violet saw it happen, as well as the drake trying to copulate with her dead body. Violet chased Strider away and called her mom at her work at the County Social Services. “I came home from work and we buried her,” she gestured towards a little mound with some lettuce planted on it.

“We planted lettuce because that was her favorite,” Violet said, still leaning against her mom.

Sarah followed them to the coop.  It was fragrant with fresh hay. The drakes didn’t try to get away from them. “They trust us because we fed them all by hand when they were chicks,” Victoria reminded Sarah. Victoria easily grabbed one of the ducks, pinning his wings against his sides and holding him tightly. He moved his head back and forth, tilting it to look at all three of them. He pointed his bill forward.  His long neck curved into an “S” and settled down into his shoulders.

“So now you know why we want to give him away. Do you have any ducks?” Victoria asked Sarah.

“No. I think I’m going to eat him.”

Victoria glanced at Violet, who frowned and looked down at her feet. “Okay, we’d hoped to find someone who didn’t want him for meat, but then again I’d hate to let him loose on someone else’s hens and have the same thing happen. He’s too aggressive. And he’d be too lonely by himself – he lives to mate with those hens. Best to just put him out of his misery.”

Sarah never held a bird before. He flapped wildly when Victoria handed him to her. She held him at arm’s length until Victoria showed her how to trap his wings against his sides and hold him close and he quieted down again. His feathers engulfed Sarah’s fingers. It was cold outside and her fingers were half numb but the warmth from the drake’s belly revived them. She could feel her pulse returning to her fingertips, splashing in her hands like a wake from a boat breaking against the shore. He turned his head and looked at her with brown, oval eyes – first one, then the other. He had tiny eyelashes and his beak curled up into a very slight smile. The feathers on his head looked like green satin… material from a prom dress. He started murmuring as if he was trying to talk a baby into falling asleep. He pushed his head underneath her sleeve and nibbled at her wrist.

“He won’t hurt you. That bill is pretty useless for biting,” Violet said. They walked with Sarah and the duck out to her car and helped her put him in a box, solemnly closing the flaps over his head. Sarah wanted to ask if she could come over and hang out again but, instead, she thanked them too many times and drove off.  She was embarrassed about her car, which had coffee stains on the seats and Styrofoam cups and candy wrappers forming a deep litter underneath. She looked out her rearview window, sad that they had already turned around, that they didn’t watch her leave.

Sarah drove back out of the hills, down the gentle slope to the bottoms where she lived, in a little, curlicue cul-de-sac of 1960s suburbia surrounded by cow pastures. She made a pen for the drake out of spare chicken wire and put it under some apple trees in her backyard. Apple blossoms fluttered down as she lifted him out of the box. Some of the pink petals landed on his head. She gave him water, lettuce and slugs.  He jumped into the water bowl and squatted to get his belly wet and soon knocked most of the water out. Sarah filled up a big clear tub and he floated and dunked joyfully in it, flapping his wings when he surfaced, bobbing on the little waves he created. Sarah watched his feet paddle through the clear plastic. She saw him dive and open up his wings under water, flinging water over his back as he surfaced, then, nibbling at his feathers, straightening them in spastic bouts of preening.

Sarah had no idea how to slaughter a duck so she searched the internet, looking for the most humane way she could find. She decided that she would try to bleed the duck while hanging him upside down, restraining him in a modified traffic cone. Her knives were dull, so she went to the store to buy a whetstone. While she was out she stole a traffic cone from a construction site. When she got back home, she cut off the tip of the traffic cone so that it was the right size for the duck’s body, then sharpened a knife for the first time in her life. She held up the cone by fastening it to an apple tree with some wire, so the cone’s tip was level with her chest and she could use both hands to cut the drake’s neck.

Sarah lifted the duck out of the pen and held him against her belly. He nibbled on her arm, pulling softly at little hairs. His touch made her mind hum the same way it did when her boyfriend played with her hair. He cocked his head and looked at her with one oval eye. She tucked him under her arm and he felt warm against her side.  She worried about how empty the moments after his death would feel. They both looked ahead as she walked towards the tree with the cone. It was foggy. The fog made the world seem small and immediate, as though choices made now were different from choices that had ever been made before. “Sorry, hun, but you did this to yourself,” she spoke softly to him.

She tied his legs together with a shoelace and stuck him in the cone so that he dangled head down from the apple tree. He relaxed. She picked up her sharp knife and doubted herself. She wondered what would happen if she wounded him but was too weak to end his suffering. She felt alone, knowing that none of her friends would want to help.

Sarah put her hand on his bill, and then she sliced into the neck just under his jaw, successfully missing the windpipe. Blood ran out slowly but he didn’t seem bothered by the cut. Sarah watched for minutes as his heart slowly pumped blood out of his body and onto the grass and apple blossoms below. She was worried that it wasn’t working, so she opened up the cut and the blood flowed a little more quickly. He squirmed slightly, as if he was waiting in line or wearing tight pants. Several more minutes passed. He pooped. His muscles clenched. A few seconds later he went limp. Sarah jiggled his body and his head swung back and forth freely. She was disgusted with herself for a moment but the feeling passed and she realized she had done well.

She heated up some water on her stove and dunked the carcass in it several times, making the feathers easier to pull out. She plucked the body, saving the down. She took the carcass outside again and upended a round log. She put on some latex gloves and set the plucked body on the log, cutting a slit just below the breast bone. It unnerved her to reach inside the body cavity because she didn’t know what it would feel like inside. She pulled out the guts, after first breaking a taut spider web of tendons.

She cut carefully around the duck’s cloaca so that she could get rid of any feces that remained. She wondered what would happen if she did this wrong and poop squirted out. If it got on the meat, would she have to get rid of it or could she just wash it off? What if she didn’t butcher in the right sequence? She cut the oil glands from the tail, again worrying that they would explode in her hands and send mysterious foul juice over the carcass. She pulled out the heart and lungs, saving the liver in a little plastic bag. She twisted off the neck.

Sarah’s roommate Amy ambled out the back door with a beer in her hand, shivering in a dress she had bought in LA. “What the fuck are you doing? It looks like hell out here,” Amy said, repulsed by the bucketful of guts, the bloody knife and feathers rolling across the yard like tumbleweeds.

“I’m going to cook this duck tonight. You should invite some people over,” Sarah said.

“I don’t think I can eat that. I’m thinking about being a vegetarian and Jim and Todd and me are leaving for Jessa’s party soon anyway,” Amy wrapped her arm around her belly and went back inside.

Sarah chopped up the drake and simmered him in a spicy curry sauce. She was very hungry and tired. The meat seemed completely different to Sarah than any meat she had eaten before; it was dangerous and potent. She didn’t like eating by herself. Part of her was afraid to eat the meat. What if it had been contaminated somehow, what if the duck had eaten something it shouldn’t have?

The simmering fowl steamed up the windows. Sarah poured herself a glass of wine, which made her cheeks turn red. She sat alone at her kitchen table. She dished herself up some chapathis, rice, curried vegetables and the breast of the duck. She took a bite and imagined the muscle clenching in her mouth. She peeled thin strings of tender meat back with her canines, then she held them in between her molars and bit down a little, letting the juices from the meat mix with saliva so the taste would reach every bud. When she was done, Sarah called a number she found on Craigslist.

The next day she came home with a cock.

Kerouac’s Bad Trip

by David S. Wills

In January, 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as President of the United States of America, whilst the much maligned “King of the Beats”, Jack Kerouac, was trying magic mushrooms for the first time, at 170 East Second Street in the East Village.[1]

It was Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary who were responsible. By this stage Jack Kerouac was soured on the Beats and the following countercultural movements, and had nothing but disdain for the hippies. Leary had turned Ginsberg onto psilocybin the previous year, and now the Harvard professor was recording its influence on creativity, and the pair of them had naturally come to Kerouac to record what influence the drug had upon his spontaneous prose.

The meeting, however, did not go well, and is known mostly for being Leary’s first “bad trip” and another example of Kerouac’s increasing distance from contemporary counterculture.

The scene perhaps wasn’t set for the best of trips. Kerouac was, as usual, drunk when Leary arrived at Ginsberg’s apartment. He had been drinking with Lucian Carr at a different address in the city, and turned up already drunk. According to Ginsberg, he mocked the pair of them by asking, “What are you up to Dr Leary, running around with this faggot communist Ginsberg and your bag of pills? Can your drugs absolve the mortal and venial sins, which our beloved savior Jesus Christ, the only son of God, came down and sacrificed his life upon the cross to wash away?”

Ginsberg replied simply: “Why don’t we find out?”

Kerouac continued to act like a drunken fool, screaming at Leary, “I’m king of the beatniks! I’m Francois Villon, vagabond poet-rogue of the open highway. Listen while I play you spiral hot-lick improvisations from my tenor typewriter.”

After taking the psilocybin pills, Kerouac mellowed and he and Leary began to get along better. After realizing that there was snow on the ground, they went outside to play football in the street with an oval-shaped loaf of rye bread.

Dan Wakefield was another witness of Kerouac’s psilocybin trip. He visited Ginsberg to interview him about marijuana (of which Ginsberg was a known public advocate) and found Leary and Kerouac present. Leary informed Wakefield that he was conducting a “scientific experiment” and requested the journalist stay and witness history in the making. Leary seemed to genuinely believe that literary history was being made… that Kerouac’s “bop prosody” would mix with the hallucinogen and result in a true epic poem of some kind, in spite of Kerouac’s obvious drunkenness.

Leary told Wakefield to talk to Kerouac, who was normally hostile to outsiders, because the drug was sure to make him “mellow”. However, Kerouac recalled Wakefield as the author of a mocking article about one of Kerouac’s drunken poetry readings, and “threatened to throw [him] out the window.”

Wakefield wished to leave after the threat, but Leary convinced him to stay. Kerouac was given a pencil and told to write. Everyone watched in anticipation of some new literary triumph, but Kerouac turned away and refused. In the end, he was bribed to produce something with the threat of being deprived of more drugs. The result was dozens of lines drawn haphazardly across the page. Not a word was written, but Leary laughed it off and claimed the creativity would come later.

At some point during the trip, after Ginsberg and Leary again attempted to explain the significance of mushrooms upon the mind, Kerouac looked out the window and famously said, “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” Leary later explained:

Throughout the night Kerouac remained unmovably the Catholic carouser, an old-style bohemian without a hippie bone in his body. Jack Kerouac opened the neural doors to the future, looked ahead, and didn’t see his place in it. Not for him the utopian pluralist optimism of the sixties.

Kerouac continued to smoke and drink, shouting so rudely that it caused Leary to suffer his own bad trip – a first for the pioneer of hallucinogens. In fact, he later claimed that the experience caused him to think intensely about being abandoned by his father as a child. According to Ginsberg, Leary curled up in a fetal position in a dark room, while the poet talked him through the experience.

Kerouac’s bad trip did not end there. After taking the mushrooms, Kerouac at least responded to Leary enough to write him a poem postcard and a “stupid drunken letter”, detailing the experience he’d more or less refused to share at the time.

The letter is a little more of what Leary had wanted. It details the mental and physical impact of the drug on Kerouac:

Mainly I felt like a floating Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice. But that is the element of hallucination in this acid called mushrooms (Amanita?) The bad physical side-effects involved (for me) stiffening of elbow and knee joints, a swelling of the eyelid, shortness of breath or rather anxiety about breathing itself. No heart palpitations like in mescaline, however… Yet there were no evil side effects.

In the letter, Kerouac also claims to have talked to his mother for three days, realizing he loved her more than he thought. He also claims to have awoken one morning convinced that the neighbours thought him “Master of Trust in Heaven.” The world, he felt, was trustful and everyone around him was innocent.

He continued,

In sum, also, there is temporary addiction but no withdrawl symptoms whatever. The faculty of remembering names and what one has learned, is heightened so fantastically that we could develop the greatest scholars and scientists in the world with this stuff… There’s no harm in Sacred Mushrooms if taken in moderation as a rule and much good will come of it.

This letter, however, was not shared as Leary wished. When Leary requested that it be published as evidence of the trip, Kerouac refused. In his journey he wrote negatively of the experience: “The psychic clairvoyance lasted till early this morning – I’ve been sleeping it off (too much to live with, in fact too much for Samahdi peace).” Not long after that, he began comparing the hallucinogenic experience to communist brainwashing. Moreover, Kerouac later made the claim that psilocybin had caused irreparable damage to his mind. “I haven’t been right since,” he dubiously claimed.

[1] Sources are conflicted on the exact date: Maher claims it was January 12th, while Kerouac states in his letter to Leary that it was Friday the 13th and others claim it was the 20th. From Kerouac’s letter: “The mushroom high carried on for exactly till wednesday Jan. 18th (and remember I first chewed the first pills Friday night the 13th). I kept it alive by drinking Christian Brothers port on the rocks. Suddenly on Friday the 20th (day of Inauguration) it started all up again, on port, but very mushroomy, and that was a swinging day, yakking in bars, bookstores, homes around northport (which I never do).”