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The Weird Cult: How Scientology Shaped the Writing of William S. Burroughs

“Scientology was useful to me until it became a religion, and I have no use for religion. It’s just another one of those control-addict trips and we can all do without those.”

 

This essay would be a lot easier to write without using the word “Scientology”. The Church of Scientology has given itself such a bad name over recent decades that it has become almost a swearword, or perhaps the name of a cheesy soap opera. You can’t take it seriously, it seems, unless you have something terribly wrong in your head.

It’s hard for us today to separate the Church of Scientology from some of its ideas, or to look back and view it as it could have been viewed in the fifties and sixties, separated from lawsuits, spaceships and ‘Celebrity Centers’.

Yet once upon a time it didn’t look quite so crazy. Before it became such a joke, Scientology must have appealed to many free spirits in the Beat and Hippie realm. Some of the ideas posited by the movement’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, really didn’t seem so ludicrous then. Jim Morrison, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, and Tennessee Williams are all alleged to have dabbled in Scientology back in its early days.

It is unclear where and when exactly William S. Burroughs first came upon Scientology. Some sources claim that it happened in Tangier, at the 1001 Nights Restaurant, owned by Brion Gysin. The story goes that John and Mary Cooke – two oddly dressed, proto-hippy mystics who later came to be the main financial backers of the restaurant, and who were important figures in the founding of the Church of Scientology – came to snare Gysin for the fledgling religion, which Cooke reportedly described as “a billion buck scam”. They may have come on the advice on a Ouija board, or this may be mere conjecture. Gysin is said to have been skeptical of the movement from the get-go, but Burroughs – always infatuated by the weird and wonderful – dove head-first in. He supposedly described this meeting as “portentous”. He said the Cookes were “like holograms”.

William S. Burroughs at Saint HillHowever, although this story appears to be pretty widely accepted, it doesn’t seem to sit very well with other accounts. For one thing, Burroughs was living in Paris during most of 1959, at the Beat Hotel. For another, Gysin’s restaurant was shut down by the Cooke’s a year or more before, and Gysin was also living at the Beat Hotel during much of 1959. This would suggest that Gysin and Burroughs had met the Cookes much earlier – perhaps in 1956 or 1957 – however, in his October 1959 letters to Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs is excited about Scientology, suggesting that it was a relatively recent discovery.

One may well hypothesize that Burroughs learned about Scientology from Gysin, who learned about it from the Cookes (as the relationship between Gysin and the Cookes seems fairly well documented), and that Burroughs had seen or met them himself much earlier, thus explaining the “portentous holograms” quote.

Indeed, in the introduction to The Letters of William S. Burroughs Vol 1: 1945-1959, Oliver Harris states, “Burroughs’ letters show that Gysin was responsible not only for the aesthetic means of his new method [the cut-up technique] but also for its therapeutic ends. At its inceptions, the cut-up principle was directly related to L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘science of natural health’ known as Scientology.” So it seems that Harris also believed Burroughs had been introduced to Scientology by Gysin, who, on October 1st, 1959, told Burroughs about his first foray into cut-ups, which he had discovered by accidently slicing up sheets of newspaper.

It may seem odd to suggest that Scientology played a big role in the development of the cut-up technique, but the evidence certainly seems to point that way. For Burroughs, the cut-up technique and Scientology were not so far removed from one another. The Church’s teachings, he believed, could help him to resist social control through the removal of ‘engrams’ – negative feelings stored in the ‘reactive mind’. Burroughs was concerned about the use of language, and in particular the idea of words as a form of virus. In Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader, he explains, “The word itself may be a virus that has achieved a permanent status within the host,” after detailing various forms of viruses. He then moves quickly into an explanation of how this relates to Scientology.

 

Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, says that certain words and word combinations can produce serious illnesses and mental disturbances… Mr. Hubbard bases the power he attributes to words on his theory of engrams. An engram is defined as a word, sound, image recorded by the subject in a period of pain and unconsciousness… Any part of this recording played back to the subject later will reactivate operation pain, or he may actually develop a headache and feel depressed, anxious, or tense.

 

Burroughs believed that it was possible for people to manipulate the reactive mind by placing words and images in popular media that would deliberately trigger engrams. He called these “commands” and said that they were often found in advertisements. This form of mind control, he said, aimed to stifle “positive action.”

It’s hardly surprising that Burroughs would be so drawn to the notion of engrams. After all, he had previously been fascinated by the idea of psychotherapy, and a number of other philosophies (including Korzybski’s General Semantics, which informed his preoccupation with the power of words), drugs and theories that aimed to eliminate suffering. Scientology differs from psychoanalysis in that it doesn’t interpret or evaluate, it only acknowledges, and Burroughs found this greatly appealing: “Scientology can do more in ten hours than psychoanalysis can do in ten years.” Burroughs was troubled by at least two major traumatic incidents in his past: something unnamed that happened as a child, which he speculated may have been sexual abuse, and, of course, the death of Joan Vollmer. Of Scientology he once claimed, “It feels marvelous! Things you’ve had all your life, things you think nothing can be done about – suddenly they’re not there anymore.”

Further evidence of the relationship between Scientology and the cut-ups comes in a pair of letters he wrote to Allen Ginsberg in October, 1959. These letters show Burroughs’ excitement at these wild new ideas, their impact upon his life and work, and also lend credence to the theory that Burroughs learned about Scientology when living in Paris, at the Beat Hotel.

 

October 27th

The method of directed recall is the method of Scientology. You will recall I wrote urging you to join your local chapter and find an auditor. They do the job without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth until the trauma is wiped off. It works. I have turned the method, partially responsible for recent change in assignment, and policy…As for my visions, we don’t talk about that. They go into the work. General advise on visions: “Cool it or use it.”

 

October 29th

I have a new method of writing and do not want to publish anything that has not been inspected and processed. I cannot explain this method to you until you have necessary training. So once again and most urgently (believe me there is not much time) – tell you: “Find a Scientology Auditor and have yourself run.”

 

The second letter, in particular, shows that Burroughs viewed Scientology as essential to Ginsberg’s understanding of this “new method of writing”. Whilst at the Beat Hotel, Burroughs collaborated with Gysin and Gregory Corso on a cut-up project that became Minutes to Go, published in 1960. In this pamphlet, Burroughs made an odd plea to his readers: “Do it yourself.” Clearly, he viewed the cut-up technique not just as some oddball literary device to amuse and inform his readers, but something to spread throughout humanity to defeat the “word virus” of which he was so afraid.

In 1961, Burroughs and Gysin collaborated with Anthony Balch on the short film, Towers Open Fire. This weird movie aimed to highlight the process of control systems decaying the human mind, and bizarrely featured lines taken from an old Scientology pamphlet. That same year Burroughs wrote The Soft Machine, the primary theme of which was that the human body (a soft machine) is fed by tapes controlled by some kind of authority. The only way to regain control is to battle the machine by cutting up reality. In the Appendix, Burroughs listed Scientology among the arsenal of weapons necessary to resist the controlling machines.

The following year, Burroughs wrote about Scientology in his novel, The Ticket That Exploded, calling the group, ‘The Logos’. Burroughs makes no real effort to alter the realty of the group, and explains one key process, that for Burroughs was Hubbard’s great contribution to mankind:

 

[They have] a system of therapy they call ‘clearing’. You ‘run’ traumatic material which they call ‘engrams’ until it loses emotional connotation through repetitions and is then refilled as neutral memory’. When all the ‘engrams’ have been run and deactivated the subject becomes a ‘clear.’

 

This process of becoming ‘Clear’ was important to Burroughs, who eventually became Scientology’s Clear No. 1163. Even in his later years, as a harsh critic of the movement, Burroughs maintained that the process of ‘clearing’ was a tremendous invention that Hubbard had given to mankind. It involved the use of something called ‘the E-Meter.’ Burroughs called it “a sort of sloppy form of electrical brain stimulation… a lie-detector and a mind-reading machine… Not the content, only the reactions.” He believed that it could help evade control systems (such as the mind control he associated with Mayan calendars), and as a “device for deconditioning.” Later, in his review of Robert Kaufman’s expose, Inside Scientology, Burroughs wrote, “The E-meter is, among other things, a reliable lie detector in expert hands. The CIA also uses lie detectors… With this simple device any organization can become a God from whom no thought or action can be hidden.”

In 1964, Burroughs wrote Nova Express, which dealt with Scientology without bothering to change names. It also continued to spread his message of the value of ‘clearing’ the importance of recognizing and dealing with ‘engrams’.

 

The Scientologists believe sir that words recorded during a period of unconsciousness… store pain and that this pain store can be lugged in with key words represented as an alternate mathematical formulae indicating number of exposures to the key words and reaction index… they call these words recorded during unconsciousness engrams sir… The pain that overwhelms that person is basic basic sir and when basic basic is wiped off the tape… then that person becomes what they call clear sir.

 

In 1968, Burroughs took his interest in Scientology even further and enrolled in a ‘clearing’ course at Saint Hill Manor in the UK, lasting from January to April. It was during this course that Burroughs was declared a ‘clear’, although he later admitted to repressing negative feelings towards L. Ron Hubbard’s “big fat face”. One account states that when the E-Meter picked up on his nerves, he said, he resented Hubbard’s “perfection”. Here, Burroughs was audited and took part in auditing others, something he claimed was very therapeutic. He obsessively made notes about the process, and even used these notes in his personal cut-up projects. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection at the New York Public Library has many of Burroughs’ notes and notebooks from this period.Ali's Smile - William S. Burroughs

Burroughs lived and worked in London for around six years, from the late sixties until the early seventies, during a difficult time in his life. Many of his friends died during this period, and Burroughs’ mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly. According to Barry Miles, who owned a bookshop that Burroughs often visited, Burroughs was “very much with Scientology” and claimed that his strong beliefs “cut him off from a lot of people.” Evidently, Burroughs would post notes around the bookshop, telling people that he would gladly audit them, even leaving his phone number. During this period, Burroughs was living with Ian Sommerville, who detested his lover’s “Operating Thetan glare”. (Operating Thetan, in Scientology terminology, is a step above Clear.)

By 1970, Burroughs was no longer affiliated with Scientology. He had always had his disagreements (in particular with L. Ron Hubbard and the Church’s “fascist” control policies) but things became ugly when he was declared to be in a “Condition of Treason” by the Church. The exact circumstances surrounding his departure and listing as an enemy of the religion are unclear, although it was likely related to his open disdain for the controversial “Sec Checks” that the Church performed to maintain security.

One of Burroughs’ long-held beliefs was that magic and curses held real power, and that he could use them to improve his life and smite his enemies. Indeed, in Paris he once cursed an old woman who ended up in hospital shortly after. He believed that recording images and sounds was a means to destroying that which was recorded, and so he launched an attack on the Scientology Centre at 37 Fitzroy Street by taking photos and tape recordings. Indeed, the centre closed shortly after, but only so that they could move to a better location that Burroughs unable to “destroy”.

Burroughs published a series of angry letters in Mayfair magazine, culminating in the wonderfully titled, ‘I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L. Ron Hubbard’. This article was reprinted in the Los Angeles Free Press on March 6th, 1970, and is currently available online. It begins by briefly mentioning his respect for the E-Meter and Scientology’s “precise and efficient” therapy methods, but quickly descends into an attack on the “weird cult” and its refusal to share information, as well as “Mr. Hubbard’s overtly fascist utterances.”

 

Some of the techniques are highly valuable and warrant further study and experimentation. The E Meter is a useful device … (many variations of this instrument are possible). On the other hand I am in flat disagreement with the organizational policy. No body of knowledge needs an organizational policy.

 

The following year, Burroughs wrote the short story, ‘Ali’s Smile’, which was published by Unicorn Press as a limited edition of 99 copies. It begins with the protagonist, Clinch Smith, being described by a Scientologist friend as a “suppressive person”. Clinch then goes on an odd and violent killing spree, murdering some members of the religion. The story was reprinted in his collection of short stories, Exterminator!, in 1973. In 1985 it was released as Ali’s Smile: Naked Scientology, along with a number of essays, articles and letters on the subject of Scientology. Included were:

 

  • ‘Burroughs on Scientology’ (the disappointingly retitled version of ‘I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L. Ron Hubbard’) which had appeared in Mayfair and the LA Free Press.
  • ‘Open Letter to Mr. Garden Mustain’ – Originally published in the East Village Other on July 7th, 1970, this is a reply to a letter in the LA Free Press. Burroughs asks what Scientologists think regarding marijuana and the Vietnam War.
  • ‘Review of Inside Scientology’ – As detailed below, Burroughs reviews the popular book for Rolling Stone magazine.
  • ‘Letter to Rolling Stone’ – This letter was written by R. Sorrell on behalf of the Church of Scientology, and said that “Mr. Burroughs may be a writer but cannot always be trusted to be an accurate one.”
  • ‘Answer to R. Sorrell’s Letter’ – On December 5th, 1972, Burroughs replied to R. Sorrell with attacks on various points, including Security Checks and financial misdeeds.

 

Burroughs’ war against Scientology continued on the pages of Rolling Stone magazine on October 27th, 1972, when he reviewed Robert Kaufman’s expose, Inside Scientology. His language is particularly brutal:

 

Scientology is model control system, a state in fact with its own courts, police, rewards and penalties. It is based on a tight in-group like the CIA… Inside are the Rights with the Truth. Outside are the Commies… the Suppressives.

 

Oddly enough, that same year Burroughs and Anthony Balch collaborated once again on a film, Bill and Tony. In the movie, Burroughs’ disembodied head floats around, describing the process of a Scientology auditing session.

Even in his final days, Burroughs dreamed about Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard. In his Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs, he talks of dreams where Hubbard appears to him, and refers to Scientology as – if nothing else – a part of his education; something not to be forgotten. Clearly he learned a lot and valued certain lessons. Perhaps Scientology did truly help him, as it seems to have given him peace and to have acted – at least temporarily – as a coping mechanism in dealing with traumas from his past. Brion Gysin once quipped that Burroughs was probably the only man to ever make more money from Scientology than it made from him. Indeed, as this essay has demonstrated, his experiences with the “weird cult” have made their way into numerous essays, articles, journals, letters, short stories, novels and even his forays into film. Scientology was integral to the development of his most important literary method – the cut-up, and helped him to keep his name in the spotlight long after becoming famous as a “Beatnik”.

 

Bibliography

 

Baker, Phil, William S. Burroughs: Critical Lives

Bockris, Victor, With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker

Burroughs, William S., Ali’s Smile: Naked Scientology

Burroughs, William S. The Adding Machine: Selected Essays

Grauerholz, James (ed.), Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs

Grauerholz, James (ed.), Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader

Harris, Oliver (ed.), The Letters of William S. Burroughs Vol. 1 (1945-1959)

Hibbard, Allen (ed.), Conversations with William S. Burroughs

Lardas, John, The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs

Miles, Barry, William Burroughs: el hombre invisible

Urban, Hugh B., The Church of Scientology A History of a New Religion

 

 

***

From Beatdom #10.

In Tangier

by Steven O’Sullivan

“A true document of human desperation.”

-Playwright Tennessee Williams on Mohamed Choukri’s autobiographical novel about life in Tangier, 1973.

The release of Choukri’s For Bread Alone came in the midst of Tangier’s development as a hideout for expatriate writers and artists. American writer Paul Bowles was one of the pioneering residents of Tangier and responsible for the English translation and release of For Bread Alone, a novel that would stand for years as a controversial testament to the darker realities of Tangier. These harsh realities coupled with the glistening promise of creation drew in expatriates seeking new approaches to life for many, many years.

Bowles had worked predominantly as a composer in New York, but when Doubleday approached him with a contract for a novel he felt it was time to make a change into full-time writing. Bowles noted, “I came here because I wanted to write a novel. I was sick of writing music for other people.” He had visited Tangier intermittently for 16 years prior and he moved there permanently in 1947. His wife, Jane, followed a year later. They would remain in Tangier together until his death in 1999.

Upon Bowles’ initial arrival, the city seemed detached from the rest of the world; isolated by endless sand dunes from the south and the waters of the Mediterranean at the north. Bowles felt a mythical, enchanting quality vibrating thru the city. From Bowles’ accounts the city feels similar to Henry Miller’s Paris of the 20s. Dirty bars, broken streets, and prostitutes in everyone’s bedroom were hallmarks of the dark side of Tangier. Despite the upscale, colonial European neighborhoods, violence stood strong in the shadows of the forgotten slums.

However, Bowles moved south into the sahara to write much of his novel. He shacked up in the decrepit desert hotels and wrote like a madman. These times are vividly reminiscent of Antonioni’s landmark film The Passenger. One can easily imagine Bowles as Jack Nicholson’s desperate journalist losing his mind in the midst of alcoholism and the stark white walls of the hotel. Regardless Bowles did manage to accomplish his goal. The novel was written.

Doubleday rejected the completed manuscript, much to their later regret. Within months, thru an independent publisher, The Sheltering Sky had gone thru three printings and sat at the top of the New York Times book list.

With the success of The Sheltering Sky, Bowles established himself as a serious writer. And throughout the 50s and 60s countless others would be driven to Tangier seeking that same maddening inspiration that had grabbed Bowles with such a vengeance.

French thief-turned-writer Jean Genet as well renowned playwright Tennessee Williams would both settle in Tangier, turning out many promising works.

Bowles’ fiction also inspired Beat madman William S. Burroughs to take up residence in the city in 1953. Burroughs’ infamous lifestyle and actions had led to an outlaw status in his favorite cities, thus he needed a new refuge in which to create. One Burroughs biography states that he rented a room above a homosexual brothel. In addition to this, drugs flowed easily and cheaply in the streets of Tangier. These surroundings left Burroughs quite at ease and he began the initial work on what would eventually become his magnum opus, Naked Lunch.

Burroughs’ first stay in Tangier was brief as he attempted a return to America after only a few months. However, his standing in the eyes of friends, family, and publishers remained tarnished. Even Allen Ginsberg, once his closest friend, refused him on all accounts. At this time Kerouac was neck deep in a Buddhist devotion, working on a biography of Siddhartha Gautama.

So, back to Tangiers it was.

Despite a modest allowance from his parents back home, royalties from Junkie were still not coming thru, so he began turning out travel articles on Tangiers to supplement his income.

With the comfort of a cornucopia of exotic drugs (not readily available back in the States) and sexual counterparts, Burroughs dug in deep and worked tirelessly on the Naked Lunch manuscript.

For the following four years Burroughs remained in Tangier continuing to write until his departure for Paris in the fall of ’59. And in the meantime his inspirations grew.

Eventually, his reputation at home began to heal, and his friends sought him out. Kerouac and Ginsberg arrived in Tangier in 1957. Up to that point, Burroughs was the only one with any kind of global travelogue and perhaps his confidants were looking to catch up with him and experience firsthand some of the visions that Burroughs had caught wind of and sent home in letters and stories. Additionally, they were able to offer a guiding editorial approach in refining the wild-eyed manuscript which at the time was merely a scattered stream-of-conscious narrative running amok in Burroughs’ mind.

One must remember that Burroughs’ first two publications, Junkie and Queer, while controversial in content were conventional in terms of style. Sure they were graphic tales of drug-induced homosexual depravity, but they were written with a literary suit and tie in hand. Naked Lunch was his first attempt at a non-linear narrative and such a radical approach to writing was certainly going to take some trial and error shots at refining. Just as Kerouac and Ginsberg had found their own unique voices with On the Road and Howl respectively, Burroughs was about to come into his own.

The style Burroughs developed at this time, and later at the Beat Hotel in Paris, can be seen as a natural evolution resulting from an adaptation to his surroundings. Just as George Orwell did with Down and Out in Paris and London, Burroughs took in the desperation of his circumstances, financial strain and social disdain, and fueled a machine with them. A machine powerful enough to turn out a work that would radically redefine literary concepts across the globe. This style would become his weapon, and with everyone subsequent work following Naked Lunch he would wield that weapon with a devastating efficiency.

One can imagine Kerouac and Corso dashing from one bodega to the next, desperately eluding dawn. Drink, drink, drink it down, down, down… chasing blindly after women, men, cats, dogs, and mice… thoroughbred Americans ravaging Tangierian nighttime with shouts and screams, kicking the air, and pumping fists at darkness… then, finally, facing the inevitable sun-up of the shattered glass of last night’s Grecian vase… stumbling back to the brothel and Burroughs delivering a scolding at arrival… having been up all night typing away at the masterpiece fueled by a Eukodol kick (crazy German-made opioid).

Of course, true to his restless nature, Burroughs left Tangier with Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1959 and the trio met up with Gregory Corso, and later Peter Orlovsky, taking up residence at the Beat Hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

Yet Bowles, the grandfather of Tangier madness, remained. Who knows if Burroughs and Bowles ever even crossed paths. Regardless, Bowles’ influence on Burroughs is indisputable. Hell, beyond mere literary influence, Bowles inadvertently led Burroughs to Tangier in the first place which in hand provided the backdrop and experience that pushed Burroughs into new territories as an artist.

And that’s where we’re going to leave Burroughs. On his way to Paris. Since this is a travel issue, I want to focus on one man and the mythology he created at one destination. So we return to Bowles.

When Bowles initially arrived in Tangier he regarded it as an attractively unassuming city. Yet no more than ten years later in 1958 Bowles had witnessed a complete transformation. No more was the peaceful white city Matisse had taken inspiration from the in the early 1900s. The city had experienced a deranged westernization. The traditional cloaked garb of the Moslems had been replaced with jeans and t-shirts. Yet this change Bowles witnessed was not, in his eyes, for the worse, “The foreigner who lives here on a long-term basis will still find most of the elements that endeared the place to him in the old days.”

The above quote came from a travel article on Tangier Bowles penned in 1958. A bit later on in the article Bowles gives an account of the prevailing cultural mash-up found in Tangier. His words are devastating:

You will run into a Polish refugee who arrived ten years ago without a penny… and today runs a prosperous delicatessen and liquor store; an American construction worker who came to Morocco to help build the United States air bases, and has since become a freelance journalist; a Moslem who spent years in a Spanish jail for voicing his opinion on Generalissimo Franco, and now is a clerk in the municipal administration offices; an English masseuse who was passing thru Tangier twenty years ago on a holiday trip and somehow has never left; a Belgian architect who also runs the principal bookshop; a Swiss businessman who likes the climate and has started a restaurant and bar for his own amusement; an Indian prince who does accounting for an American firm; the Portuguese seamstress who makes your shirts. . .”

It is this diversity that gives Tangier its beauty and appeal. It’s as if time slows down in the secluded city and each resident finds an expression and appreciation for life they’d not yet possessed or had perhaps lost along the way. Maybe it comes in quietly from the coast with the tides or maybe it blows in stiffly with the winds from the southern desert.

Of course, even in Bowles’ time the bastardization of Tangier had begun. The city was beginning to modernize with the destruction of the classic and old to be replaced with brand-new European eyesores. Yet Bowles maintained that even in lieu of such drastic changes that Tangier never lost its aesthetic appeal.

To hear Bowles tell it there was a deep, dark charm to the city in the years prior to his writing the article. In the 40s and early 50s (around Burroughs’ time of arrival), the Zopo Chico served as the hotspot of most social life. The Zopo Chico was essentially the town square, housing many of its nightclubs and sidewalk cafes. Bowles recalls a time when the cafes were open all night and all day and he would go in at 5 a.m. to watch the nightclub cats stumble dutifully home with the night’s luster still in their eyes.

Thru Bowles’ eyes the beauty and charm of Tangier would be forever preserved by its topography. The buildings and the streets might change, but there was nothing anyone could do to change the rolling hills surrounding the city, the high plain on which it stands, or the mountains off in the distance that frame the whole picture. Bowles brilliantly noted that the beauty of the sky and landscape could never be destroyed in that,

“You don’t look at the city, you look out of it.”

Keep it burning.