The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs

From New Dawn 142 (Jan-Feb 2014)

When the American writer William S. Burroughs passed away at the ripe old age of 83 back in August 1997, the media coverage was definitely more in keeping with his status as a counter-cultural icon than it was for his literary fame – or infamy – alone. All the usual well-rehearsed lines were trotted out, about how he was the Harvard-educated product of the WASP elite and scion of the family that founded the Burroughs Corporation, who had turned his back on it all to become a junkie queer, trawling the steaming jungles of South America, sleazy ‘Interzone’ of Tangiers, and shady back-streets of Paris and London for drugs and boys. That somewhere along the line he became an unlikely mentor to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, who had opened the way for the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

William Burroughs had originally exploded onto the literary scene back in 1959 with his breakthrough novel, Naked Lunch, causing hip critics everywhere to claim they had seen the future – even if nobody was really sure that they understood it. With his three-piece suit, glasses, hat and raincoat, Burroughs seemed like the ultimate undercover hipster, and that voice certainly didn’t hurt: pitched somewhere between T.S. Eliot and W.C. Fields, mixing camp twang and knowing drawl with the educated tones of an old-fashioned Southern gentleman. From the moment he received that ultimate 1960s imprimatur of cool, being included by The Beatles on the cover of Sgt. Pepper (he’s in there between Marilyn Monroe and Fred Astaire), William Burroughs was the rock rebel’s choice of Literary Outlaw: from David Bowie and Jimmy Page to Patti Smith and Tom Waits, experimental bands like Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, and Coil, even Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain – generations of alternative rock stars have collaborated and paid homage.

Norman Mailer once famously said that William S. Burroughs was, “The only American novelist living and working today who may conceivably be possessed of genius,” and as often as this was repeated down the years, Burroughs himself was at pains to point out that it was not saying he had genius or was a genius, but that he may at times had been lucky enough to be possessed by genius. When I interviewed him at the October Gallery in London in 1988, he had this to say on the subject:

To me ‘genius’ is the nagual: the uncontrollable – unknown and so unpredictable – spontaneous and alive. You could say the magical.

The fact that his answer uses a term, nagual, derived from the world of the Yaqui Indian sorcerer, as described by Carlos Castaneda in The Teachings of Don Juan and subsequent books, is telling indeed…

There is also another kind of ‘possession’ that was very much a concern for William Burroughs, Man and Writer. From an early age, as much as he felt a definite sense of being ‘Other’ and not really belonging or fitting in anywhere, as much as he knew he was homosexual, he also believed in the idea of the Magical Universe. He was aware that an integral part of that universe was that there were inimical – even hostile – forces that threaten us, that may need to be bargained with and from time-to-time appeased, and that one of the dangers posed is that of possession:

My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanations, with their dogmatic insistence that such manifestations must come from within and never, never, never from without (as if there were some clear-cut difference between inner and outer). I mean a definite possessing entity.

Later, in the foreword for the autobiographical Queer (written in the 1950s but unpublished until 1985), Burroughs talks about the appalling circumstances of the so-called ‘William Tell’ shooting accident that caused the death of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer:

I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.

The simple truth is that William Burroughs had always been a scribbler: in numerous articles and interviews he describes at length his literary efforts from childhood on, and the somewhat precocious sense that the bookish, physically awkward, shy young Billy had of himself as an aspirant writer – an image that was as hopelessly Romantic as it was coloured by a flouting of moral convention:

As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.

The Cut-Up Technique

As well as the monstrous masterpiece that is Naked Lunch, William Burroughs is perhaps also best remembered for championing the experimental technique of the ‘cut-ups’ – what appears to be at first glance the almost ludicrously simple idea of introducing collage techniques into writing. Collage, in all its various forms, may very well be the pre-eminent creative breakthrough of the 20th century: for better or worse, such techniques probably more accurately mirror the way the world is experienced by most people in an increasingly accelerated, fragmentary, and seemingly random datascape. Sampling, montage, collage: these methods really do come closer to representing or expressing what the facts of perception are for most of us in this post-technological, post-modernist, information overload. As William Burroughs put it again and again throughout his career:

As soon as you walk down the street… or look out the window, turn a page, turn on the TV – your awareness is being cut: that sign in the shop window, that car passing by, the sound of the radio… Life IS a cut-up.

Almost from the beginning, there was another aspect to the cut-ups acknowledged just as emphatically: they had the potential to be oracular. To William Burroughs, who would undoubtedly become the greatest champion of the technique, they introduced an element of randomness and also of Time: as he would later put it, whereas the basis of fiction was “once upon a time” – with the cut-ups it was “once in future time.”

Among Burroughs’ earliest cut-ups were phrases that meant nothing at the time, but in hindsight took on an eerie prescience. This was like the seemingly arbitrary content of dreams, which lead Burroughs to speculate:

Perhaps events are pre-written and pre-recorded and when you cut word lines the future leaks out.

In Here to Go: Planet R101, Brion Gysin described how Burroughs would work with the material – and I think his choice of words is instructive:

On the wall hangs a nest of three wire-trays for correspondence which I gave him to sort out his cut-up pages. Later, this proliferated into a maze of filing cases filling a room with manuscripts cross-referenced in a way only Burroughs could work his way through, more by magic dowsing than by any logical system. How could there be any? This was a magic practice he was up to, surprising the very springs of creative imagination at their source.

The cut-ups would get a more public airing when UK publisher John Calder arranged for Burroughs to appear at the Edinburgh Conference in August 1962. After Burroughs stole the show with his presentation of an attempted “new mythology for the Space Age” – and an explanation of the innovative techniques that had made it possible, the cut-ups and their further extension in the newly-developed fold-in – a curious comparison was made by Stephen Spender, who queried the analogy between science and writing:

It sounds to me like a rather medieval form of magic rather than modern science.

It is in fact informative to compare this with a statement Burroughs made himself, in which his comparison of cut-ups with mediumship is explicit:

Cut ups often come through as code messages with special meaning for the cutter. Table tapping? Perhaps.

Experiments in Magic – Subverting Control

It is to be remembered that the atmosphere around Burroughs and Gysin in those early days at the Beat Hotel at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in the Latin Quarter of Paris was steeped in the occult, with daily experiments in mirror-gazing, scrying, trance and telepathy, all fuelled by a variety of mind-altering drugs. It is not surprising to think they may have considered these new developments in such terms.

Burroughs, for all his Harvard education and intellect, also possessed a worldview that was informed – you might even say overshadowed – by a fear and fascination with the supernatural that had been shaped in childhood, and stayed with him ever since. His first biographer, Ted Morgan, states in Literary Outlaw that the single most important thing about Burroughs was his belief in what he referred to as “the Magical Universe.” Gysin himself was naturally inclined to intrigue and mystery, and come back from Morocco full of tales of black magic, curses and possession. Burroughs was an all-too-eager audience for the spellbinding storyteller. He felt his own travels in exotic parts had opened his eyes to a Bigger Picture:

Now anyone who has lived for any time in countries like Morocco where magic is widely practiced has probably seen a curse work. I have.

When Gysin, allegedly in trance, told Burroughs, “The Ugly Spirit shot Joan because…,” he thought he had the answer that no amount of psychoanalysis or self-examination had been able to provide: the unforgiveable slip that caused the death of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, come about because he was literally possessed by an evil spirit. This was indeed a War Universe, and Brion had identified The Enemy. If the Word was indeed the basic mechanism or unit of Control – the ‘virus’ by which Control or the Ugly Spirit exerted its malevolent influence – then surely a real understanding of the Word, what words are and what can be done with them – was essential.

All these explorations and obsessions were not merely diversions, experiments for artistic or literary amusement, or the creation of novelty, but part of a deadly struggle with unseen, invisible – perhaps even evil – psycho-spiritual enemies. The only hope for deprogramming and self-liberation was to subvert the methods of Control and its various agencies, understand the tools used so that they could become weapons to turn back on the Control Machine itself.

Gradually, as the 1960s progressed, it was clear the cut-ups were an idea whose time had come. Helped by Burroughs and Gysin’s gradually emerging status as counter-culture gurus, their ideas and influence began to spread. By the 1970s William Burroughs was the epitome of hip as far as drug savvy musos with literary pretensions were concerned: a coked-out David Bowie explained how he used “the Burroughs cut-up method” in Alan Yentob’s 1974 BBC profile, Cracked Actor, and then demonstrated it (badly). His friend Brian Eno would name a track ‘Dead Finks Don’t Talk’ as a nod to Burroughs’ Dead Fingers Talk, but would also look for ways to introduce chance with his Obliques Strategies, a set of cryptic aphorisms intended to encourage creative solutions by lateral thinking. Jimmy Page would be interviewed by Burroughs for Crawdaddy magazine, and as the clarion call of Punk was heard in New York, Patti Smith was the first to cheer the return of the Beat Godfather to his native land.

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Genesis P-Orridge

Around the same time that Punk was emerging in the UK, another home-grown genre drawing inspiration from Burroughs, Gysin and the cut-ups was the ‘Industrial’ music of Throbbing Gristle (TG) and related bands like Cabaret Voltaire and later, 23 Skidoo. TG prime-mover Genesis P-Orridge had actually met Burroughs while he was living on Duke Street in London in the early 1970s, and he and band-mate Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson were directly inspired by the Outsider stance of the ‘Literary Outlaw’ as much as they were influenced by his theories. Along with Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, P-Orridge and Christopherson would help to invent a new genre of music they dubbed ‘Industrial’ – stripping back music even further than the back-to-basics of Punk to create a kind of Garage musique concrète, in which the processing and manipulation of found sound was a key part of the semi-improvised mayhem that was as often sonic assault as it was about the alchemy of sound.

When P-Orridge first visited Burroughs on Duke Street in 1973, he asked him, “Tell me about magick?” and whether or not he still used cut-ups in writing. Burroughs replied, “No, I don’t really have to anymore, because my brain has been rewired so it does them automatically.” He cracked open a bottle of Jack Daniels, poured them both a stiff drink, then put on the TV to watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E., explaining, “Reality is not really all it’s cracked up to be, you know…” He then began hopping through the channels on the TV with the remote – at the same time mixing in pre-recorded cut-ups from the Sony tape-recorder – until P-Orridge was experiencing a demonstration of cut-ups and playback in real-time – right there where he was sitting:

I was already being taught. What Bill explained to me then was pivotal to the unfolding of my life and art: Everything is recorded. If it is recorded, it can be edited. If it can be edited then the order, sense, meaning and direction are as arbitrary and personal as the agenda and/or person editing. This is magick.

As part of his explanation, Burroughs showed P-Orridge one of his journal scrapbooks in which he had posted two photos: a simple black and white street scene, with the relevant building clearly visible, and then another beneath it from which he had carefully sliced out the ‘target’ with a razor blade, gluing the two halves of the photo back together so as to create an image of the street with the offending institution removed. The same principle could clearly be applied to photos of people that you wanted to ‘excise’ from your life, he said. These principles would have a profound effect on P-Orridge and Christopherson, as well as many of the ‘anti-musicians’ and sound-artists that they would collaborate with or inspire in their turn. It wasn’t just the sonic application of the cut-ups with tape-recorders, but rather the whole approach to challenging conventional wisdom, deprogramming the self from the imposed beliefs and values of mainstream society.

After TG had split, P-Orridge and Christopherson went on to form ‘Psychic Television Limited’ – with its attendant Conceptual Art gag masquerading as fan club pretending to be a cult, ‘Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth’, or TOPY as it was known. For a while there was an inner circle that revolved around a strange hybrid of the ideas of occultists Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare regarding consciousness alteration, dream control, and sex-magic. The life and work of Burroughs and Gysin, with their cut-ups, Dreamachine, playback, and Third Mind equally offered a kind of toolkit for similar ends. It looked like if the Revolution was going to be televised after all, then Psychic TV were going to be first in line to put in their bid for the franchise…

But all too soon cracks began to show, and P-Orridge and Christopherson parted company: Sleazy with partner John Balance to create a whole new world of magick and music as Coil, Genesis to develop PTV increasingly in the direction of Rave music. Each would continue finding ways to apply the cut-up methods of sampling, cut-and-paste and appropriation to the development of new music. TOPY became increasingly an umbrella for New Age Merry Prankster-style utopian tribalism, and Gen’s role as figurehead for these disparate anti-movements, and the cultural memes he was engineering – from cut-ups and sex-magick, to tattooing, piercing, and body modification – inevitably lead to conflict with the authorities, and P-Orridge had to flee England for a life of exile in the United States. Eventually he would come to perhaps the most radical application of his interpretation of the ideas of Burroughs and Gysin of all: Pandrogeny, in which P-Orridge and his spouse Lady Jaye would literally try and cut-up gender.

Engaging the Magical Universe

When I first met William S. Burroughs in London at the time of The Final Academy series of events in 1982, I asked him about magic, and whether he would care to recommend any books on the subject. Without hesitation, he mentioned Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense, even though he qualified it as “a bit old-fashioned.” As he began to talk of black magic and curses in North Africa, travelling with medicine men up the Amazon, and describing his experiments with tape-recordings and playback on the streets of London’s West End and in the midst of the 1968 Chicago Democrat’s Convention and ensuing riots, I realised that for Burroughs this was utterly real. He told me about a dream he had as a young man, working as an exterminator in Chicago: watching from a helpless out-of-body point of view floating above the bed as his body got up and went out with some unknown and sinister purpose that he was powerless to influence… with a shudder, he told me that possession was “still the basic fear.”

Even towards the end of his life, William S. Burroughs’ engagement with the Magical Universe (and struggle against the Ugly Spirit) did not wane. The magical, psychic, spiritual and occult appear in his later fiction like never before, from depictions of astral travel and “sex in the Second State” to descriptions of actual rituals, referencing everything from Crowley and the Golden Dawn to the myths of ancient Egypt and even the Necronomicon… all interwoven with increasingly ‘neo-pagan’ concerns for the environment, the impact on Man and Nature of the Industrial Revolution with its emphasis on ‘quantity, not quality’ and standardisation – as well as perceived turning points in history. His adoption of the ancient Egyptian model of the Seven Souls, continuing development of a very personalised myth of Hasan-i Sabbah and the Assassins of Alamut, made him of increasing interest and relevance to the new occultists who were emerging from successive generations of counter-culture that Burroughs had helped to shape through the example of his Life and Work.

There was also still the loss, the pain, and – perhaps more than ever – the Ugly Spirit. After settling in Lawrence, Kansas – a small university town, far from the distractions and temptation of New York, and very much a reminder of his mid-Western background in St. Louis, Burroughs became friends with William Lyon, a Professor of Anthropology who had been apprenticed to Sioux medicine man Black Elk. A full sweat-lodge purification ceremony was arranged in an attempt to evict the Ugly Spirit, which was described by the shaman as:

A spirit with a white skull face, but no eyes, and sort of… wings.

Burroughs was impressed by the “strength and heart” of the medicine man, and felt that just to clearly identify the enemy in such terms was in itself something of a victory:

If you see it, you gain control of it. It’s just a matter of, well, if you see it outside, it’s no longer inside.

In the early 1990s, the elderly Burroughs was initiated into the Illuminates of Thanateros, the leading Chaos Magic group. Perhaps this was not such a surprising development. Chaos Magic clearly felt a debt to Burroughs and his peers, sharing many of the same concerns as Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth: demystifying magic, yet at the same time distilling the best from Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare, while taking advantage of the latest ideas emerging in computers, maths, physics and psychology.

With the experiments started at the Beat Hotel that he then took out onto the streets of London, Paris and New York, William S. Burroughs was recognised as a pioneer and precursor: and with the later connections established through a younger generation of artist-occultists, the link from ‘cosmonaut of inner space’ to ‘psychonaut’ was assured.

For more information about Matthew Levi Stevens, please see The book-length version of his The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs is available from Mandrake of Oxford. To order go here:

This article was published in New Dawn 142.
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About the Author

MATTHEW LEVI STEVENS is the author of The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs (Mandrake, 2014), A Way With Words (with C. J. Bradbury Robinson, WhollyBooks, 2013) and A Moving Target: Encounters with William Burroughs (Beat Scene Press, 2012.) He has also written on Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Grant, and the Greek Magical Papyri, appearing in the anthologies CUT UP! (Oneiros, 2014), Academy 23 (WhollyBooks, 2012) and Occult Traditions (Numen, 2012), and contributed to a number of online and print periodicals, including Beatdom, The Cauldron, Chaosphere, The Modern Review, New Dawn, Reality Sandwich and Reality Studio. He is currently working on a memoir of his friendship with the members of Coil, against a backdrop of 1980s London Occulture, and with his partner, artist Emma Doeve, an interpretation of Austin Osman Spare. He can be contacted via

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