William S. Burroughs: 20th Century Gnostic Visionary

burroughs2By ROBERT GUFFEY

In 1984, in Boulder, Colorado, an interviewer asked William S. Burroughs (1914-1997), “What religious persuasion would you consider yourself?” Without hesitating, Burroughs replied, “Gnostic, or a Manichean.”1Upon reading those words, suddenly everything made sense.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the above conversation occurred in 1984. In many ways, Burroughs was a far more lucid and accurate analyst of twentieth century politics than even George Orwell, whose speculative concept of “newspeak” in his 1948 novel 1984 was quickly overshadowed by the real-world machinations of post-WWII Madison Avenue advertising techniques and Washington D.C. public relations firms.

Superior to Aldous Huxley’s brilliant 1958 collection of essays, Brave New World Revisited, Burroughs’s 1974 book The Job is a must-not-live-without essential guide to charting the opaque labyrinth of obfuscation and lies regularly constructed by the Reality Studio to protect itself from the light of scrutiny. Unlike his more naïve contemporaries among the Beat literary movement, Burroughs never took his eye off the twitchy sharpshooter in the corner, the wild card in the deck known as Control.

With the analytical eye of a surgeon (Burroughs studied medicine at Harvard, specialised knowledge that would eventually serve him well in his novels), Burroughs performed an autopsy on the body politic in a multitude of bleak and humorous novels, foremost among them Junky (1953), Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961), Nova Express (1964), and The Place of Dead Roads (1983).

But Burroughs never limited his vision to merely charting out the intricate connections that make up the system of control. Like Huxley before him, who eventually followed his dystopian novel Brave New World with a Utopian counterpoint titled The Island, Burroughs himself attempted to construct his own vision of a Utopia in such novels as The Wild Boys (1971) and Cities of the Red Night (1981).

In both cases, Burroughs seemed to suggest that a Utopia was not possible except within an isolated oasis, what Hakim Bey would call “a temporary autonomous zone.”2 In the first case, the autonomous zone takes the form of an all-male enclave in the jungles of North Africa; these commandos, trained in combat for defensive purposes, can reproduce without the aid of women and travel through the trees on prehensile hemorrhoids. In Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs’s Utopia is based on historical fact and manifests as an island settlement established by Captain Mission, an actual pirate who lived in the eighteenth century.Mission explored the Madagascar coast and found a bay ten leagues north of Diego-Suarez. It was resolved to establish here the shore quarters of the Republic – erect a town, build docks, and have a place they might call their own. The colony was called Libertatia and was placed under Articles drawn up by Captain Mission. The Articles state, among other things: all decisions with regard to the colony to be submitted to vote by the colonists; the abolition of slavery for any reason including debt; the abolition of the death penalty; and freedom to follow any religious beliefs or practices without sanction or molestation.3

In both Wild Boys and Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs celebrates the notion of an autonomous zone kept separate from the madding hordes through potentially violent defensive measures, where a human being is allowed to pursue life free from the constant surveillance of overly authoritarian social structures. In Burroughs’s hands, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies would no doubt have a very different outcome.

Burroughs’s libertarian brand of morality was based on Jack Black’s notions of the “Johnson family” as chronicled in Black’s 1926 autobiography You Can’t Win. The impact this book had on Burroughs when he was still a young man can’t be overestimated. In Burroughs’s own words, the Johnson creed can be described as follows:

“The Johnson family” was a turn-of-the-century expression to designate good bums and thieves. It was elaborated into a code of conduct. A Johnson honours his obligations. His word is good and he is a good man to do business with. A Johnson minds his own business. He is not a snoopy, self-righteous, troublemaking person. A Johnson will give help when help is needed. He will not stand by while someone is drowning or trapped under a burning car.4

Surely in Burroughs’s world this would be the only mandatory social stricture established for his personal temporary autonomous zone.

Burroughs’s vision of a Utopian autonomous zone could be seen as a metaphor for the Gnostic concept of “the pneuma,” an infinitesimally small fragment of the divine that exists in all human beings.

Gnosticism, an early form of Christianity, flourished in the Middle East until approximately the second century CE when the movement was violently suppressed by Roman Catholic authorities. Dr. Stephan Hoeller, the current bishop of the Gnostic Church in Los Angeles, distinguishes Gnosticism from traditional forms of Christianity in this way:

[Gnosticism is] much more orientated toward the personal, spiritual advancement and transformation of the individual, regarding figures such as Jesus as being helpers rather than sacrificial saviours. It is a form of religion that has […] a much more ecumenical and universal scope in terms of its relationship to spiritual, religious traditions other than the Christian.5

According to literary scholar Gregory Stephenson:

…the attitude that characterises all the Gnostic systems is that the world, the body, and matter are unreal and evil. They are illusions that are the products of malevolent powers called Archons, chief among whom is Sammael (the god of the blind or the blind god), also called Ialdabaoth or the Demiurge. These creator-gods are not the Deity of the Supreme Being, though they make claim to being so. The Deity is completely transcendent – absolutely distinct, apart, and remote from the created universe. However, a portion of the divine substance, called the pneuma, is enclosed in the human body – within the human passions and the human appetites […]. The aim of Gnosticism is to liberate the pneuma from its material, delusional prison and to reunite it with the Deity. The Archons seek to obstruct this liberation and to maintain their dominion.6

This basic theological structure applies to almost all of Burroughs’s work. Burroughs’s strong sense of morality, of the distinct difference between right and wrong, is often lost in the lurid morass of details concerning his personal life. His heroin addiction, his homosexuality, his arrest in Mexico for the accidental death of his wife, his early experimentation with yage in South America and his later fascination with Wilhelm Reich’s unorthodox theories regarding orgone energy – all of these unusual aspects of his life, though admittedly intriguing, are often reduced to gossipy anecdotes that threaten to diminish the importance of the work itself.

Burroughs was never the star of his own novels, not even in his highly autobiographical debut, Junky. The central figure in all his novels is war – a continuous war between Freedom and Control, what Burroughs himself might very well refer to as “good and evil.”

The conflict between good and evil is considered to be a hollow theme by most literary scholars. After all, is this not the purview of Tolkienesque sword and sorcery epics and four-colour superhero comics? Surely no major literary figure of the twentieth century ever bothered to waste his time on such silliness.

But that’s not quite true. In the work of no other American writer do we find this theme explored in as complex and harrowing a manner as in the novels and essays of William Burroughs. At the beginning of this essay Burroughs described himself as a “Manichean.” Burroughs defined this term as follows:

The Manichean believe in an actual struggle between good and evil, which is not an eternal struggle since one of them will win in this particular area, sooner or later. Of course, with the Christians there was this tremendous inversion of values where the most awful people are thrown up as this paragon of virtue for everyone to emulate…7

The Manichean sect of Gnosticism spread across three continents over the course of eleven hundred years beginning, approximately, in CE 240. It was founded by the Persian prophet Mani, who was eventually imprisoned at the age of 61, tortured for 26 days, and assassinated. According to Dr. Hoeller, Mani is among “two of the great luminaries of the Gnostic tradition.”8

Dr. Hoeller sums up Mani’s basic doctrine as follows:

In the beginning, said Mani, the kingdoms of Light and Darkness coexisted in uneasy peace. While Light had no quarrel with the existence of Darkness and would have remained content existing side-by-side with it, Darkness would have it otherwise. Darkness was in a state of agitation and wrath and decided to attack and invade the realm of light.

As the legions of Darkness approached the realm of Light, the primal light needed to defend itself. It called upon the Mother of Life to bring forth the Primal Man (a cosmic figure, not related to Adam or other human beings except in an indirect way). The Primal Man in turn had five sons, and together the six expelled the Dark forces from the kingdom of Light and pursued them onto the battlefield of the lower aeons. Unfortunately, on the battlefield the chief demons of Darkness overpowered the Primal Man and his five sons and devoured them, incorporating their luminous essence into their dark forms. This is how the first terrible intermingling of Light and Darkness occurred […].

In the course of the rescue efforts the Primal Man is freed, and he gloriously ascends to the Godhead. The souls of the human beings, however, have been left behind, along with Light particles that derive from the captivity of the Primal Man and of his sons. It is only at this point that the material world as we know it comes into being. The Earth is created as an alchemical vessel of purification and transformation where the Light can be extracted from dark matter. The Sun and the Moon are both vessels of Light that serve as vehicles to transport Light upwards out of earthly darkness.9

In Burroughs’s world, evil disguises itself as good and good disguises itself as evil. The Archons are Christians and politicians and “jus’ good folk.” The Gnostics are roving bands of criminals and thieves known only to themselves as “the Johnsons.” The visionaries, the ones who have attained genuine gnosis (i.e., “knowledge”) can see through the illusions forged by control, identify the face of the enemy, and from that point begin the quest for true freedom.

These visionaries regularly employ unorthodox and seemingly “insane” methods to overthrow the hypnotic bonds of control: opiates, orgone energy, tape recorders that are used to cut up, analyse, and reconfigure the endless barrage of shallow mass media used to keep the masses docile, astral travel through time and space, hermetic magic, telepathy, etc. These are the tools of the twentieth century Gnostic in Burroughs’s revitalised Libertatia.

The goal of these latter day Gnostics is to establish an autonomous zone, a physical approximation of the pneuma, while having as much fun as possible trying to “wise up the marks,” a paraphrase of a key sentence in the third chapter of his 1964 novel Nova Express: “And you can see the marks are wising up, standing around in sullen groups and that mutter gets louder and louder.”10

The Archons are represented on Earth by parasite-infected control-freaks Burroughs aptly calls “the shits”: “…my contention is that evil is quite literally a virus parasite occupying a certain brain area which we may term the RIGHT centre. The mark of a basic shit is that he has to be right.11 The shits will use all the power they have on this planet in order to prevent the Johnsons from waking up the marks.

This conflict between good and evil is played out in Burroughs’s fiction over and over again, perhaps most prominently in Nova Express. In this novel the Johnsons are called “The Nova Police” and the shits are called “The Nova Mob,” or simply “The Board”: “All right you board bastards, we’ll by God show you ‘Operation Total Exposure.’ For all to see. In Times Square. In Piccadilly.”12 Operation Total Exposure represents an attempt by the Nova Police to pull back the illusory curtain that protects the parasite-infected Reality Studio from being seen in its true form, to induce gnosis in the madding hordes, to transform the “marks” into “Johnsons.”

In chapter one of Nova Express, Inspector J. Lee of the Nova Police addresses the human race:

What scared you all into time? Into body? Into shit? I will tell you: ‘the word.’ Alien Word ‘the.’ ‘The’ word of Alien Enemy imprisons ‘thee’ in Time. In Body. In Shit. Prisoner, come out. The great skies are open.13

Chapter two, titled “Prisoners, Come Out,” is an open letter addressed to the “peoples of the earth” and is signed by Inspector Lee. In this letter the Inspector explains that the purpose of his novels are

…to expose and arrest Nova Criminals. In Naked Lunch, Soft Machine and Nova Express I show who they are and what they are doing and what they will do if they are not arrested. Minutes to go. Souls rotten from their orgasm drugs, flesh shuddering from their nova ovens, prisoners of the earth to come out. With your help we can occupy The Reality Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly.14

In his 1978 collaboration with Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, Burroughs wrote in reference to Nova Express:

A new mythology is possible in the space age where we will again have heroes and villains with respect to intentions toward this planet.15

The central villain of Inspector Lee and his Nova Police is a Demiurge-like figure named Mr. Bradly-Mr. Martin who leads the extraterrestrial Nova Mob, and through this Mob he has kept the Earth enslaved for thousands of years. In The Third Mind, Burroughs describes Mr. Bradly-Mr. Martin in terms that are overtly Gnostic:

Mr Bradly-Mr Martin, in my mythology, is a God that failed, a God of Conflict in two parts so created to keep a tired old show on the road, The God of Arbitrary Power and Restraint, Of Prison and Pressure, who needs subordinates, who needs what he calls “his human dogs” while treating them with the contempt a con man feels for his victims – But remember the con man needs the Mark – The Mark does not need the con man – Mr Bradly-Mr Martin needs his “dogs” his “errand boys” his “human animals” – He needs them because he is literally blind. They do not need him. In my mythological system he is overthrown in a revolution of his “dogs.”16

Throughout the novel, Inspector Lee explicitly warns the people of Earth about some of the most insidious tools the Mob is using against them:

Their drugs are poison designed to beam in Orgasm Death and Nova Ovens – Stay out of the Garden of Delights – It is a man-eating trap that ends in green goo – Throw back their ersatz Immortality – It will fall apart before you can get out of The Big Store – Flush their drug kicks down the drain – They are poisoning and monopolising the hallucinogen drugslearn to make it without any chemical corn – All that they offer is a screen to cover retreat from the colony they have so disgracefully mismanaged. To cover travel arrangements so they will never have to pay the constituents they have betrayed and sold out. Once these arrangements are complete they will blow the place up behind them.17

The succeeding chapters introduce us to members of Mr. Bradly-Mr. Martin’s Archon-like Nova Mob:

‘Sammy the Butcher,’ ‘Green Tony,’ ‘Iron Claws,’ ‘The Brown Artist,’ ‘Jacky Blue Note,’ ‘Limestone John,’ ‘Izzy the Push,’ ‘Hamburger Mary,’ ‘Paddy the Sting,’ ‘The Subliminal Kid,’ ‘The Blue Dinosaur’.18

In a section eerily redolent of current events, a chapter titled “Coordinate Points,” the Inspector does us the favour of outlining the Mob’s plan to bring about global destruction:

The basic nova mechanism is very simple: Always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts – This is done by dumping life forms with incompatible conditions of existence on the same planet – There is of course nothing “wrong” about any given life form since “wrong” only has reference to conflicts with other life forms – The point is these forms should not be on the same planet – Their conditions of life are basically incompatible in present time form and it is precisely the work of the Nova Mob to see that they remain in present time form, to create and aggravate the conflicts that lead to the explosion of a planet that is to nova – At any given time recording devices fix the nature of absolute need and dictate the use of total weapons – Like this: Take two opposed pressure groups – Record the most violent and threatening statements of group one with regard to group two and play back to group two – Record the answer and take it back to group one – Back and forth between opposed pressure groups – This process is known as “feed back” – You can see it operating in any bar room quarrel – In any quarrel for that matter – Manipulated on a global scale feeds back nuclear war and nova – These conflicts are deliberately created and aggravated by nova criminals – […] In all my experience as a police officer I have never seen such total fear and degradation on any planet – We intend to arrest these criminals and turn them over to the Biological Department for the indicated alterations.19

Jack Kerouac once wrote, “Burroughs is the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift,” but the truth is that Burroughs never wrote a word of satire in his life. He was writing about life as he saw it, exactly as he experienced it. The Nova Mob and the virus parasites from outer space were not metaphors for him. They were real.

Burroughs, perhaps more so than F. Scott Fitzgerald or even Ernest Hemingway, was the prime mimetic writer of the twentieth century. He never wrote anything other than realistic novels. Marshall McLuhan, author of Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy, might have been the first to catch onto this subtle but significant point when he wrote in 1964,

It is amusing to read reviews of Burroughs that try to classify his books as nonbooks or as failed science fiction. It is a little like trying to criticise the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home.20

Indeed, Burroughs wasn’t trying to satirise modern culture, nor was he trying to create a hypothetical, science fictional representation of it. He was simply explaining his society within the only context that seemed appropriate to him, and that context was undoubtedly a Gnostic one.

Even the so-called science fictional elements of his books were not intended as satire or metaphor. Burroughs could very well have been introduced to the Nova Express model of invading extraterrestrials (and/or intrusions from alternate dimensions) at a very young age. In various interviews, for example, Burroughs has recounted one of his earliest childhood memories.

When he was four, he woke up early in the morning and saw little gray men playing in a block house he had made. “I felt no fear,” he said, “only stillness and wonder.”21 When asked about this incident in 1987, interviewer Larry McCaffery offhandedly referred to such experiences as “hallucinatory.” Burroughs replied, “I wouldn’t call them hallucinatory at all. If you see something, it’s a shift of vision, not a hallucination. You shift your vision. What you see is there, but you have to be in a certain place to see it.”22

This image of “little gray men” evokes more recent, popular conceptions of extraterrestrials as seen on the mass market covers of any number of books by Whitley Strieber, the author of Communion (1987), Transformation (1988) and several others in which his ostensible contacts with alien beings are delineated. Burroughs was so convinced of the reality of invading extraterrestrials that in 1989 he wrote a letter to Strieber asking to visit him and his family in their cabin in upstate New York. The 1996 revised edition of Victor Bockris’s With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker contains an in-depth interview about this meeting:

I was very interested in his first books and I was convinced that he was authentic. I felt he was not a fraud or fake […]. I wrote a letter to Whitley Strieber saying that I would love to contact these visitors […]. His wife, Anne Strieber, wrote back saying, “We, after talking it over, would be glad to invite you to come up to the cabin.” So we spent the weekend there. I had a number of talks with Strieber about his experiences, and I was quite convinced that he was telling the truth […].

Burroughs follows this comment by exploring the idea of “invasion” on all levels. He genuinely believed the human race was, and is, being infected by hostile intelligences on a regular basis:

When I go into my psyche, at a certain point I meet a very hostile, very strong force. It’s as definite as somebody attacking me in a bar. We usually come to a standoff, but I don’t think that I’m necessarily winning or losing […]. Listen, baby, I’ve been coping with this for so many years. I know this invasion gets in. As soon as you get close to something important, that’s when you feel this invasion, and that’s the way you know there’s something there. I’ve felt myself just marched up like a puppy to go and do something that would get me insulted or humiliated. I was not in control […]. There are all degrees of possession. It happens all the time. What you have to do is confront the possession. You can do that only when you’ve wiped out the words. You don’t argue […]. You have to let it wash through. This is difficult, difficult; but I’ll tell you one thing: You detach yourself and allow this to wash through, to go through instead of trying to oppose, which you can’t do […]. The more you pull yourself together the further apart you get. You have to learn to let the thing pass through. I am a man of the world; I understand these things. They happen to all of us. All you have to do is understand them or see them for what they are, that’s all.23

John Lash, co-founder of Metahistory.org, a website that concerns itself with Gnosticism and related topics, has many Burroughs-like perceptions regarding the Gnostic model of spiritual “intrusion.” Lash states:

It might be said that Gnostics believed that only by confronting what is insane and inhumane in ourselves, can we truly define what is human. In essence, to define humanity is to defend it against distortion. Gnostics asserted that the capacity for distortion of humanitas, or dehumanisation, is inherent in our minds, but this capacity alone is not potentially deviant. Since we are endowed with nous, a dose of divine intelligence, we are able to detect and correct distorted thinking […]. In a practical sense, Gnostic teachers in the Mystery Schools instructed the neophytes in how to face the Archons both as alien intruders, comparable to the Greys and Reptilians of contemporary lore, and as tendencies in their minds. The detection of […] intrusion in both these modes of experience seems to be unique to the finely nuanced noetic science of the [Gnostic] Mysteries.24

And it is this “finely nuanced science” that Burroughs attempted to keep alive in the form of fiction. Burroughs’s many readers were all potential recruits, “marks” who had “wised up” just enough to see a hint of light behind the illusion. His sincerest hope was that at least some of them were paying attention, would pick up the tools he left behind within his books, and use them to storm through the mass of Nova Mobsters whose unenviable job is to surround and protect the ramparts of the fragile Reality Studio until its dying day.

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Footnotes:

1. Gregory Corso Interview, “Attack Anything Moving.” Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs 1960-1997, Ed. Sylvere Lotringer, New York: Semiotext(e), 2000.

2. Bey, Hakim, T.A.Z., Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1991, p. 99.

3. Burroughs, William S., Cities of the Red Night, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981, p. xii.

4. Burroughs, William S., The Place of Dead Roads, New York: Henry Holt, 1983, p. ix.

5. Robert Guffey Interview, “The Suppressed Teachings of Gnosticism.” Paranoia Magazine, www.paranoiamagazine.com/hoeller.html.

6. Stephenson, Gregory, The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation, Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 1990, p. 60.

7. Gregory Corso Interview.

8. Hoeller, Stephan A, Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing, Wheaton: Quest, 2002, p. 135.

9. Ibid, pp. 140-41.

10. Burroughs, William S., Three Novels: The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Wild Boys, New York: Grove P, 1988, p. 196.

11. Burroughs, William S., The Adding Machine, New York: Seaver, 1986, p. 16.

12. Three Novels, p. 197.

13. Three Novels, p. 186.

14. Three Novels, p. 189.

15. Burroughs, William S. and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, New York: Viking, 1978, p. 97.

16. Ibid.

17. Three Novels, p. 188.

18. Three Novels, p. 236.

19. Three Novels, pp. 235-36.

20. Murphy, Timothy S, Wising Up the Marks: The Modern William Burroughs, Los Angeles: U of California P, 1997, p. 145.

21. Bockris, Victor, With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996, p. xx.

22. Hibbard, Allen, Conversations with William S. Burroughs, Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1999, p. 182.

23. With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker, pp. 242-46.

24. Lash, John, “A Gnostic Catechism: Encounters with Aliens in a Mystery School Text.” www.metahistory.org/GnosticCatechism.php.

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Robert Guffey is a graduate of the Master of Fine Arts Program at California State University at Long Beach, USA. He is also a graduate of the Clarion writer’s workshop in Seattle, WA. His first published short story “The Infant Kiss” received an Honorable Mention in the 2001 edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror (Vol. #14). His short stories, articles and interviews have appeared in such magazines and anthologies as After Shocks, The Chiron Review, Like Water Burning, Mysteries, New Dawn, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Paranoia, The Pedestal, Riprap, Steamshovel Press, and The Third Alternative. He is currently teaching English at CSU Long Beach. He can be contacted at rguffey@hotmail.com.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 99 (Nov-Dec 2006).

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