Archives For travel

Allen Ginsberg in Asia

Asia had long been a source of inspiration and fascination for Allen Ginsberg by the time he finally set foot on the continent. As a precocious child, he had been curious about the great ancient kingdoms of India and China, and equally delighted in reading about the contemporary political climate of the region as he moved into his teenage years. Walt Whitman, one of his major literary inspirations, had impressed him deeply with a poem called “Passage to India.” His friendship with William S. Burroughs, begun at Columbia in 1944, pushed him to believe in Oswald Spengler’s theory of western decline, with Asia rising in the east to supplant the falling empires of the west, and later Jack Kerouac introduced Allen to Buddhism, which friends like Gary Snyder and Phillip Whalen subsequently nurtured t as it grew in the late fifties. In 1953, he developed an obsession with Asian art that grew into a belief that the ancient East possessed an unrivalled sophistication. Continue Reading…

Allen Ginsberg and the FBI (and Secret Service)

In 1965 Allen Ginsberg flew to Cuba as part of a major poetry event hosted by the Casa de las Americas. He was famously booted out of the country after offending his hosts. In fact, it was never entirely clear why Ginsberg was deported. He liked to say it was for protesting the illegal detention of homosexuals, but it’s more likely that it was a political move by the government to harm the image of Casa de las Americas. In any case, Allen’s outspoken nature meant he was unlikely to get along well under a totalitarian regime like Castro’s.  Continue Reading…

The Beats in Greece

As the birthplace of Western democracy, literature, and philosophy, it is hardly surprising that Greece was of such interest to the Beats. Nearly three thousand years after Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, Ancient Greek civilization provided an irresistible allure for some of the poets and writers of the Beat Generation. Continue Reading…

Allegories from the Cave: Burroughs and Trocchi – a Platonic Love

‘Demiurgos scowled, and with that Plato awoke.

Or did he?’

Voltaire

The drug experience has often been perceived as a public and social issue. Yet, drug use and experience are unquestionably a matter of personal choice, as indeed are the consequences. Nevertheless, there is a persistent tension between the public and the private surrounding drug use. The criminalisation and condemnation of drug use in the mid-twentieth century developed entirely within the public sphere. The drug user essentially had no voice and their dependence subjected them to a criminality and demonization. Indeed, the reality of drug use was, and remains, often distorted and misrepresented to the public by politicians and policy makers. A particular case in point being the wide-spread, and persistent view that one drug, like marijuana, if it does not in itself destroy the user’s life, will eventually lead to harder drugs like heroin addiction and criminal activity. But while the public had its spokespersons and rhetoric, like Henry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, to denounce them, drug users and addicts were subjected to an imbalanced power dynamic with no one to speak for them. What we find in The Yage Letters of William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book are efforts to publicly privatise the drug experience. Or to put the matter another way: these works attempt to make the public aware of the user’s private experience. The aesthetic form of these books reflects the public performance of private life. Moreover, what these authors accomplish has unique parallels with Plato’s allegory of the cave in which an anonymous hero reveals ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ to his community. Continue Reading…

Allen Ginsberg’s First Trip to Africa

On 12th September, 1947, Allen Ginsberg shipped out as a utility man on a collier, the S.S. John Blair, for the Ponchelet Marine Corporation. He departed from Freeport, seventy-five miles south of Houston, going through Galveston, passing near Cuba and Haiti, whose mountains Allen watched pass by, and headed for Dakar, capital of the federation of French West Africa, in what is now known as Senegal. Dakar, on the western coast of Africa, had a long colonial history, although like most European colonial possessions, in 1947 this one was nearing the end of its subjugation. Once a major trading port for African slaves, Dakar had a strategic location that ensured its privileged position within the French Empire. The French West African territories were placed under the control of a single governor, who was located in Dakar, and so it had become a seat of power in the region. Indeed, by the early twentieth century, it had become a major city in the empire. As rights were slowly and inconsistently handed out to “French subjects” – ie the Africans whose homelands had been annexed by the French – the people born in Dakar were first to be given the right to vote, and it was from here that the first ever black African elected to the French government was born, Blaise Diagne. A year before Allen’s visit, the French Empire had rebranded itself the French Union to give the appearance of equality, and more limited rights were being rolled out; however, more substantial change was in the horizon, with independence just over a decade away. Continue Reading…

Early Praise for Beat Transnationalism

Next month, Beatdom Books will release John Tytell’s collection of essays and letters, Beat Transnationalism. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle title, or directly from us via the button at the bottom of this link. Here are what some leading Beat scholars have had to say after reading it:  Continue Reading…

A List of Countries Visited by Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was a true citizen of the world, at home wherever he travelled. Although he never actually left the United States – barely travelling more than a hundred miles from his place of birth – during his youth, in his early twenties he quickly learned the skills necessary to travel for long periods of time. He could be a typical tourist with guidebook in hand, buying souvenirs and clicking away with his camera, but he was also capable of journeying for years at a time, sleeping in fields, making friends with people from impossibly different backgrounds. He could communicate with people regardless of language and survive on little to no money. Everywhere he went, he brought his ideas to share, but also learned from all the people he met. Continue Reading…

World Citizen: How Politics Shaped the Travels of Allen Ginsberg, and How Travel Shaped his Politics

This essay first appeared in Beatdom #17, which you can find on Amazon.

As a child, Allen Ginsberg didn’t get to travel much; however, that wasn’t particularly unusual. Although the motorcar was becoming popular with the middle classes around the time he was born, and would boom in popularity during his childhood, most travel was still conducted within a relatively short distance of the family home. Route 66 was established five months after Ginsberg’s birth, connecting Chicago with California, and making it possible for Americans to drive across the continent, but due to the Great Depression and World War II, intercity car travel actually decreased between 1930 and 1944. Great leaps in transportation were making the world a smaller place, but young Allen only travelled as far as Belmar Beach, in New Jersey during his childhood. His father, Louis, didn’t travel abroad until 1967 – 19 years after his son’s first steps on foreign soil.

How, then, did he end up becoming such a renowned traveler, visiting almost 60 countries and visiting every continent except Antarctica?[1] Continue Reading…

One Man Practicing Kindness Alone in the Wilderness

An interview with Bevin Richardson about his alternative The Dharma Bums book made from a seven 1.5 meter scroll painted in wine. Continue Reading…

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.

 

*

This essay was originally published in Beatdom #9