The Revised Boy Scout Manual: Burroughs on Fake News and Scientology

Ohio State University Press has recently published a “lost masterpiece” by William S. Burroughs, called “The Revised Boy Scout Manual”: An Electronic Revolution. This book is not exactly a “lost” piece of writing in the truest sense; rather, it has been put together from various sources, many of which actually have been previously available to the public. (Indeed, the process of putting this short book together was complicated enough to necessitate a lengthy explanation as part of the book’s foreword.) The result is an interesting and rather familiar text, valuable to Burroughs scholars and fans, but probably not a “masterpiece” like Burroughs’ novels. What it is is a heavily annotated guide to everything that interested the author in the late sixties and early seventies – Scientology, Mayan codices, cutups, tape recorders, the concept of language as a virus, and much more.

Much of “The Revised Boy Scout Manual” is comprised of commentary by the editors and one V. Vale, whose RE/Search press actually published part of the text in 1982, with Burroughs’ own words only comprising 70 pages in the middle of the book. However, here we find Burroughs in typical form – provocative, obscene, hilarious, and perhaps even prophetic. The book is presented as a set of blueprints for overthrowing governments, but whether Burroughs was serious or not is unclear. Certainly, there is an element of comedy that makes it doubtful that he was sincere in his advice. Yet everything he says is rather familiar to readers of his sixties books and essays, in which he often was serious.

You can read more about Burroughs and Scientology in my own book, available from Amazon and elsewhere.

Burroughs’ distaste for systems of control permeated much of his body of work, and this book functions as a guide to overthrowing such systems. In it, Burroughs gives suggestions for weapons and tactics, some of which are realistic and commonplace (explosives and assassinations), and others more, let’s say, Burroughsian… In the latter category fall the old Burroughs classics like recording audio and playing it back distorted, and using E meters to interrogate CIA operatives before decapitating them and shrinking their heads.

Scientology actually makes its way into the book to a substantial degree, dominating Burroughs’ more eclectic suggestions. He repeatedly references L. Ron Hubbard and recommends the E meter to his readers, even naming the price and where they can be purchased. Much of his ideas are based on Hubbard’s concept of the reactive mind. Burroughs goes into detail on this matter, explaining that illness and viruses could be spread through the use of certain phrases, referring to the “engrams” that Hubbard made the basis of Dianetics and, later, Scientology.

Once he has outlined his preferred weapons and means of tearing down control systems, Burroughs offers some hypothetical situations, detailing for example how to overthrow the monarchy in the UK or the various corrupt governments that make up South America. Here is where Burroughs begins to show is more comedic side – as well as his violent one. People are made to shit themselves, and of course many folks are castrated. Assassinations are carried out arbitrarily and the people conveniently rise up because no one in the police or army is ever targeted. It all seems so easy.

Burroughs wrote this book around 1970 but, like much of his work, it is interesting to read from the perspective of the 21st century. One term that jumps off the page – page 48, to be precise – is “fake news”. If you want to bring about mass panic and throw the world into turmoil, he suggests dissemination of “fake news”. He advocates a process of mixing together footage of riots from one country with events in another to foment hysteria, ultimately bringing about the sort of chaos that the fake news purportedly showed. It makes for uncomfortable reading, given our present predicament.

The result is an interesting and important book that is meticulously footnoted and of great value to Beat scholars. It is, however, somewhat repetitive (repeating itself at points and repeating ideas Burroughs harped on about during the late sixties) and tends to jump about quite a bit.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

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