‘Demiurgos scowled, and with that Plato awoke.
Or did he?’
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.
Burroughs’ Yage Letters, published initially in 1963 and chronicling his seven-month journey in 1953 searching for an almost mythical hallucinogen in South America generally defies critical analysis (Harris, 2006, par. 11-13). The work is presented as a series of letters that reveal, almost in a pulp-like fashion, Burroughs exotic searches for the yage drug that will offer him ‘the final fix’. There are two aspects of this literary work regarding aesthetic form that should be considered. The first is the presentation of the work, which though incorporating, playing with, and distorting a variety of genres is ultimately held together in epistolary form. Second, we should consider the aim of the work through the William Lee persona. This is the identity that Burroughs presents as the epistolary narrator to the public: the addict looking for the final fix. Indeed, the connections and distortions between Burroughs and Lee aid what Lydenburg considers a general strategy throughout Burroughs’ work that seeks ‘the obliteration of the author’ (Lydenberg, 1987, p. 5). Indeed, the adoption of a persona creates an atmosphere of ambiguity around the narrator and it becomes difficult to identify, or trust our identification of, the real Burroughs.
Critical analysis of the Yage Letters remains largely divided between a group that argues the letters are fabrications and/or distortions and those that would read them as genuine letters. Harris (2003) concludes, however, ‘we are looking less at epistolary fiction and more at yagé letters’ (p. 160). Yet, the epistolary form impacts the reader in some way. What matters most, with regard to the form, is the effect that it produces and how this might relate to opportunities Burroughs chose not to explore. It was undoubtedly within his ability to present his search for yage as a novel, a journal, or autobiographical adventure. Even if the letters are fabrications or were heavily edited, the effect of the epistles, in either case, forces the reader into a subversive position. In most fiction the narrator invites the reader in, one has the sense of observing alongside the narrator. There is an intimacy in which the narrator speaks to the reader, guides them as Virgil and Statius guide Dante through Hell and Purgatory. When one reads letters, on the other hand, the reader becomes a voyeur or a spy, invading the privacy of the correspondents. The reader does not feel, nor are they made to feel invited. The reader is not overtly encouraged to read any more than one might be encouraged to snoop through a diary or someone’s private mail. Nevertheless, there is a certain thrill in this sort of voyeurism, and in this way one is likely to learn something true about the person. Thus rather than consider whether the letters are true letters or false letters, we do better to explore the effects of the epistolary form overall.
The failure to appreciate the choice of epistolary writing and how it impacts the reader is quite likely why Yage Letters is one of Burroughs’ more neglected works. As Harris (2000) argues:
The fact of the novella’s near-total critical neglect testifies to both the indeterminacy of its literary status and to an equally traditional relegation of letter writing to the biographical margins. …it should be that “In Search of Yage” represents a significantly explicit politicization of the letter form (p. 179).
It is Harris’ notion of ‘biographical margins’ that is most intriguing here. With regard to the author, the biographical or autobiographical presentation of material has less interpretive importance: biography offers facts, fiction offers puzzles. However, if we look at the letters not as the original way in which the material was presented, but as a conscious choice for the sake of the reader then this presents a problem of intention and aim on the author’s part. The experience of reading letters offer the reader a private experience. They are sitting in on a conversation, and in the case of the yage letters, this allows for a more private reception of Burroughs’ journey and drug experience, much more so than if the material were presented in a narrative form that engages the reader in a conventional fashion. Ultimately, it may well be the case that the intimacy and confessional nature of Burroughs’ drug experience is a sophisticated game many readers do not know that they are playing. As Wermer-Colan (2010) claims: ‘By figuring his early work as confessional, Burroughs’s extratextual claims interpellate the unsuspecting reader to play the role of the confessor who analyzes the text in order to discover and judge the ‘deviant’ desires of the author’ (p. 494). One might be inclined to agree with the prospect of reading to discover the author, but judging? More likely is the creation of an ambiguity in the reader. After all, it is difficult to judge, and by extension condemn, the actions of one toward whom the reader is sympathetically disposed. But even here we must be cautious. As Geoff Ward notes there are strains of ambiguity and inauthenticity in Burroughs’ confessional postures throughout his work (1993, pp. 339-354). We may find it difficult to understand who we are reacting to, but nevertheless must acknowledge that we are reacting to an addict.
Burroughs is particularly concerned with the problem of freedom. As Hume (1999) claims: ‘Burroughs is particularly offended at interference in how someone chooses to live if those choices do not damage the person who wishes to interfere’ (p. 120). It is the hell of the addict to endure continually receding horizons. This is the state of physical and mental anguish Burroughs, as Willy Lee, expresses in Yage Letters. As he journeys to South America in search of ‘the final fix’, yage (not to mention the people and environs of Latin America) ultimately disappoints. Notably, while Burroughs’ literary success was beginning to look more certain, a notebook from near the end of his yage expedition suggests a pessimistic and unhappy outlook on the future (Harris, 2008, xi). The attraction of yage was both the freedom that might be offered from the repetitive cycle of satisfying the need for drugs, but also in the telepathic control the drug was purported to have, which allowed the freedom to reform another person’s mind. This latter potential use for the drug certainly rings of the cold war environment that Burroughs worked in. So Zieger (2007) comments: ‘Drug autobiographies remind us that United States imperialism was continually imagined, re-imagined, and, indeed, hallucinated and, conversely, that imperialism governed the realms of visionary insight that were conventionally assumed to transcend worldly interests’ (p. 1545). Where we adopt this view, we cannot help but read Burroughs’ desire to control others through yage as the flip-side of his own fear of being controlled, with especial regard to his drug use, that develops in the Cold War era. So Stull (1978) maintains of Burroughs’ moving both to and away as an addict: ‘Any quest for something is also a flight–in varying degrees of urgency–from something. Since Burroughs grasped ‘the junk equation,’ a strong element of persecution and pursuit suffuses his work’ (p. 232). This equation and the persecution that Stull notes are part of a historical context in which the addict was an enemy of the government, but, so the addict knows and the public should know, that this ought not to be the case. What we find in Burroughs’ choice of the epistle form is a way of publicly expressing his addiction in terms of both where and how it leads him for the public to read.
Where Yage Letters have William Lee as a drug user on the remote and exotic margins of the known world, Burroughs’ contemporary Alexander Trocchi offers the journal of Joe Necchi, living on the urban margins as a scow captain in New York. There is a clear emphasis here on being social outsiders within the literary chronicles of drug use among Beat writers. Indeed, Trocchi as Necchi as Cain is the decided outsider and exile, who displeasing God and murdering his brother, was doomed to wander because of ‘arbitrary authority and smug complacence’ (Paton, 2012, p. 215). Trocchi offers a public presentation of his private self through a first person narrative loosely resembling a journal. Trocchi also shares with Burroughs a tendency toward interweaving fiction with non-fiction and reacting to generic conventions (Gardiner, 2006, p. 98). As Trocchi/Necchi writes in a leading quotation roughly half through the book, his wanderings are pointless, ‘There is no story to tell’ (Trocchi, 1963, p. 113).
Trocchi/Necchi’s outsider identity is fractured. Trocchi uses several asides throughout the novel as a way of appearing to communicate with himself. After the opening paragraphs, and a short description of shooting up, Necchi reflects ‘Cain at his orisons, Narcissus at the mirror’ (Trocchi, p. 7). The sense here is that the narrator takes on multiple identities, which potentially stand in for Trocchi, but are, in their ways, futile. Cain gains nothing from prayer; Narcissus, for as much as he enjoys his reflection, gains nothing from his vanity but simply wastes away. As this can lead to a not very dissimilar image of Homer’s Lotus Eaters, it is difficult to avoid reading these fractured narrative identities and their ultimate futility back into Trocchi/Necchi’s drug experience. And given Trocchi’s notorious skills in rhetorical manipulation one should doubt this is accidental.
The experience, both mental and physical, of being a user is something Trocchi takes considerable effort to recreate. In the opening chapter he attempts to describe the mental experience: ‘…the perceiving turns inward, the eyelids droop, the blood is aware of itself…it is that the organism has a sense of being intact and unbrittle and, above all, inviolable. For the attitude born of this sense of inviolability some Americans have used the word ‘cool’. (Trocchi, p. 8). But where the inward experience becomes for the narrator almost difficult to express in language, the physical experience is almost mundane. As one critic of Cain’s Book notes:
I’d as soon read about the symptoms of dyspepsia as about the effects of dope, but at least the whole subject of addiction provides a change from sex. Not much of a change, though; all dope-taking scenes, what with hypodermic syringes, hunting for veins and the like, have a tiresomely medical flavour (Merceir, 1960, p. 450).
This contrast between the deep mental experience and the tedious physical experience allows Trocchi/Necchi’s to express a view of his own drug choices in some ways relaxed, with an almost Zen like acceptance of this facet of his identity. This is particularly striking when read against the opening lines of Ginsberg’s Howl, in which the poet claims: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix’ (Howl, 1-2). Here drug use is palliative for the apocalyptic asylum-like world being described. For Trocchi/Necchi it is simply his way of being.
What might we be able to conclude from the efforts of writers to develop narratives that present the personal experiences publically? Each author attempts to develop their novel in a unique way and though they have some common features one aspect appears to bind the three together: the expression of their private experiences for the public invokes, consciously or unconsciously it is impossible to say, Plato’s allegory of the cave. Given the level of education attained by these writers it would be difficult to believe that they were unfamiliar with such a foundational philosophical piece, so we can safely assume at least a notional acquaintance with the general shape of Platonic thought. Briefly, the allegory of the cave posits a group of men who mistake the shadows cast by a distant fire for reality. One of the men escapes from the cave and is so dazzled by true light that he is nearly blinded. The man returns to explain to his comrades what he has seen, which in essence is the truth, but they dismiss him as insane and they continue to believe that the shadows are what is real. There is a streak of sad heroism and nobility in the man who has seen the light and offers to share his wisdom with others only to be summarily disregarded. And it is difficult not to see the Beat authors under consideration here casting themselves similarly.
One aspect of the literature here is to qualify the use of drugs as a stepping stone to a sight beyond sight, which is essentially an effort to see beyond reality as we conventionally understand it. As Richard Kostelanetz claimed in a critical review of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and its contexts: ‘Like so much else in modern literature, this new writing is largely concerned with special states of consciousness’ and ‘portrays externally induced psychic experience’ (1965, p. 123.) Notably, Burroughs explains his own experience with yage where he writes:
‘This is the most powerful drug I have ever experienced. Yage is not like anything else. It produces the most complete derangement of the senses’, which, as Harris notes, references the poetic ambitions of Arthur Rimbaud who had written ‘The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself’ (1966, p. 306). This derangement of the senses ultimately is to lead one to higher realities, higher truth. Unfortunately, for the writer, this truth requires words, and an expressive vocabulary initially eluded Burroughs. So Harrop suspects the ‘1953 letters are full of the ‘sensing’ that there is something to report, but as the early letters reveal, Burroughs cannot determine exactly what it is’ (2010, p. 53).
Burroughs himself echoes Plato’s fable when he discusses Cain’s Book. As Burroughs writes in the introduction to Trocchi’s Man at Leisure: ‘I remember reading Cain’s Book for the first time: the barge the dropper the heroin you can feel it or see it. He has been there and brought it back’ (2015, p. viii). Thus Burroughs identifies Trocchi as Plato’s hero who sees the truth and brings it back to the cave to inform the public, the hero who is a deliverer of truth. Moreover, the back cover of the Jupiter edition of Cain’s Book hails the novel as ‘the blindingly clear vision of the realities that underlie the upper skin of civilisation, and of the aspiration towards a better, purer way of life’. Nevertheless, the light is often from a continually receding horizon that becomes, as Burroughs notes in Yage Letters Redux, ‘meaningless repetitions’ for the user (p. 29-30). This conflicts with the optimism with which he initially sought yage: ‘Maybe I will find in yage what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yage may be the final fix’ (Junkie, 1953, p. 150). This is the experience reflected in the urban worlds of Cain’s Book also. While the experiences for the public may initially seem unique, they drift to monotony and repetition. Fundamentally, the addict’s subsistence resolves into a form of commodification: ‘The most important thing for an addict is always the next fix, and therefore the money to buy it’ (Booth, 2012, pp. 317-18). Such a life is, as with most matters of subsistence, just another form of work.
If a man cannot speak, he therefore should remain silent. If authors or poets cannot create a medium, a tool for communication, should the intended audience listen? As writers, language was critical to both Burroughs and Trocchi and both authors dwell on it. In particular, both seem concerned with the way in which facts and truth can be expressed in language, and the inadequacy of literacy to express the experiences. To the degree that each appears to suppose that there is a truth beyond language, a knowledge apart from our knowing there is a Platonic idealism in operation. But unlike Plato, or at lest unlike the tragic hero of the cave who explains reality to his community, Burroughs and Trocchi wrestle with a frustration in the acknowledgement that even if this truth could be ascertained, the ability to communicate it would be hindered because of the inherent fallibility of literacy. Both find it difficult to express themselves to themselves, and in Trocchi’s case the drug experience (physical, sensual, and even metaphysical) become a kind of aporia. Language is to some degree, ironically, the impasse of the author’s expression.
Consider Trocchi’s early claims in Cain’s Book. He has just shot up heroin and begins a series of musings on various subjects; most self-absorbed or in some way related to himself. He considers: ‘Can a… ‘datum’ be false? Inadequate? In relation to what? The facts? What facts? Marxian facts? Freudian facts? Mendelian facts? More and more I found it necessary to suspend such facts, to exist simply in abeyance, to give up (if you will) and come naked to apprehension’ (Trocchi, Cain’s Book, p. 5). Then after a paragraph, which strongly means to resemble his mental ‘nod’ on heroin in which his thoughts on facts become suspended, deferred, and Trocchi/Necchi strays into the impressions and his awareness of impressions under drugs he begins the examination again with the conclusion ‘– The facts. Stick to the facts. A fine empirical principle, but below the level of language the facts slide away like a lava’ (Trocchi, p. 5). It is this idea that language is just a patina under which there is nothing but chaos and confusion that appears to result in a kind of resignation, an existential shrug of the shoulders that there is nothing ‘true’ to be ascertained beneath language. Trocchi is quite cynical and resigned on this point. And yet, the mere act of having written Cain’s Book appears to be an act of hope, perhaps not unlike a castaway calling for a ship that is not there.
Contrariwise, Burroughs persists and appears not to have given up completely when he first begins exploring the properties of yage. In Platonic idealism there is a realm beyond the senses, the ideal in which there are no circles but circle-ness, no chairs, but chair-ness. As Derrida identified, in order to make this realm tangible, for it to be experienced (in as much as that experience could be possible) Plato had to disregard (‘dismissed’) the senses (Derrida, 2005, p. 120). For Burroughs, however, the senses, especially those at the most basic and fundamental level, that perceive pleasure and pain, were beyond disregarding in his drug experience. As he writes in Junkie: ‘I experienced the agonizing deprivation of junk sickness, and the pleasure of relief when junk-thirsty cells drank from the needle. Perhaps all pleasure is relief’ (p. 3). While Burroughs’ discomfort may be, for some, unfortunate, he is not willing to suspend knowledge or knowing in the way Trocchi is, but rather he appears not only keen to latch on to the basics of what he can know through his drug experience (i.e. pleasure and pain) but his interest in yage would appear to demonstrate a willingness to find methods of communication that work outside language, mainly in telepathy. As Ennus suspects, his yage experience, particularly his interest in telepathy, express ‘Burroughs’s desire to achieve a primitive, pre-literate state’ (p. 95). It is clear, then, that both authors are concerned with expressing their views and experiences with drugs and revealing the knowledge they acquire from this experience. To this degree, both represent the hero of Plato’s cave allegory. Moreover, both have concerns over the capacity of language to express this knowledge. Nevertheless, Trocchi expresses an acceptance, where as Burroughs more readily desires to pursue the knowledge that he can acquire from his sensations, and we can take his yage experience as a deliberate (albeit failed) effort to find some means to surpass language. As Irwin (2012) as well as others have maintained there is a decisive iconoclasm – an effort to ‘punch a hole in the big lie’ (so Douglas pp. xv–xxix describes it) – that runs throughout Burroughs’ work, but this is not simple rebellion or disdain ‘there is a vehement political critique which extends beyond a mere decadence for the sake of decadence aesthetic’ (Irwin, 2012, pp. 277-8). Further, Irwin claims Burroughs’s ‘return to animistic values, a literary and mystical move which attacks the basis of modernity’ (p. 278). It would be interesting to pursue further where Burroughs’s views on language fell finally in his later life and within this political critique, which was predominately carried out through language and the smuggling of junk knowledge into the public sphere.
essay has explored a comparative analysis of William Burroughs’ Yage Letters and Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book using Plato’s Allegory of
the Cave as a touchstone, or cipher for the goals of these two authors.
Certainly we should hesitate to call either author Platonic or Idealist in a
strictly Platonic sense. Still, in each author their experiences as addicts,
and their desire to express this other world more broadly and public, is
central to their drug experiences and recollects the anonymous hero of Plato’s
allegory of the cave. The sticking point for both authors, however, is language
and its ability to serve the ends of communicating these experiences to the
public. The goals of their methods are contained within the narrative forms
that each adopts. Both Burroughs and Trocchi create works that are intended to
appear, at least on the surface, as private. Trocchi relies on a diary/journal
and while parts seem like general and random musings, as one might enter into a
journal, these are very crafted. The important thing to note is that the choice
of a diary/journal form is going to impact the reader’s relationship with the
narrator. Similarly, Burroughs’s choice of an epistolary form in which to
record his travels and express them to the public, especially where his
thoughts and actions are recorded and in turn revealed through the letters,
have a much more subversive intention. By putting his message into letters, the
reader is invading a conversation, they are eavesdropping. Perhaps this was an
effort to instil in the reader the same sort of embarrassment and paranoia that
Burroughs’s addicts experience? In any case, addiction is not something that
can be wholly confined to either the public or the private, it is part of both
worlds, yet the tension of both a public and private experience and expression
are reflected in the goals of each author, and the literary forms that they
choose to adopt for and adapt to their authorial intentions.
Burroughs, W., Junkie: The Definitive Text, New York, Grove Press, 2012.
________., ‘Introduction’, in A. Trocchi, Man at Leisure, London, Alma Classics, 2015.
Burroughs, W. and Ginsberg, A., The Yage Letters Redux,Penguin, 2012.
Booth, F., Amongst those left: the british experimental novel 1940-1980, Lulu, 2012.
Derrida, J. On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2000.
Douglas, ‘“Punching a Hole in the Big Lie”: The Achievement of William S. Burroughs’, in Word Virus,1998, pp. xv–xxix.
Ennus, A., ‘Burroughs’s Writing Machines’ in Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Glabalization, ed D. Schneiderman and P. Walsh, London, Pluto Press, 2004, pp. 95-116.
Gardiner, M. From Trocchi to Trainspotting – Scottish Critical Theory Since 1960, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
Ginsberg, A. Howl and Other Poems, San Francisco, City Lights, 1956.
Harris, O., ‘Cold War Correspondents: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady, and the Political Economy of Beat Letters’, Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 46, no. 2, 2000, pp. 171-192.
________., William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2006.
________., ‘Not Burroughs’ Final Fix: Materializing the Yage Letters’, Postmodern Culture, vol. 16, no. 2, 2006, par. 11-13. Available online (accessed 10 March 2017).
Harris, O. (ed.) Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2008.
Harrop, J. The Yagé aesthetic of William Burroughs: the publication and development of his work 1953-1965, PhD Thesis, University of London, 2010.
Hume, K., ‘William S. Burroughs’s Phantasmic Geography’, Contemporary Literature, vol. 40, no. 1, 1999, pp. 111-135.
Irwin, J., ‘William Burroughs as Philosopher: From Beat Morality to Third Worldism to Contintental Theory’ in The Philosophy of the Beats, ed. Sharin Elkholy, Louisville, University of Kentucky Press, 2012, pp. 267-278.
Kostelanetz, R., ‘From Nightmare to Serendipity: A Retrospective Look at William Burroughs’, Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 11, no. 3, 1965, pp. 123-130.
Lydenberg, R., Word Cultures : Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs’s Fiction. Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Mercier, V. ‘Sex, Success and Salvation’, The Hudson Review, vol. 13, no. 3, 1960, pp. 449-456.
Paton, ‘Cain’s Book and the Mark of Exile: Alexander Trocchi as Transnational Beat’, in N.
Grace and J. Skerl (eds.), The Transnational Beat Generation, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2012, pp. 201-217.
Rimbaud, A., Complete Works, Selected Letters, trans., intro. and notes Wallace Fowlie, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1966.
Stull, W. ‘The Quest and the Question: Cosmology and Myth in the Work of William S.
Burroughs, 1953-1960’, Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 24, no. 2, 1978, pp. 225-242.
Trocchi, A., Cain’s Book, London, Jupiter Books, 1963.
Ward, G. ‘William Burroughs: A Literary Outlaw?’, The Cambridge Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 4, 1993, pp. 339-354.
Wermer-Colan, A. ‘Implicating the Confessor: The Autobiographical Ploy in William S. Burroughs’s Early Work’, Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 56, no. 4, 2010, pp. 493-529.
Zieger, S. ‘Pioneers of Inner Space: Drug Autobiography and Manifest Destiny’, PMLA, vol. 122, no. 5, 2007, pp. 1531-1547.