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William S. 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.William S Burroughs Botanist

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 Schultes, who is widely considered the father of modern ethnobotany. The two Harvard men could not have been more different. Schultes 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.

 

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This essay was originally published in Beatdom #9