Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Brief review of two books about William S Burroughs




Books on WSB are getting better. I've just finished two very good ones. My darling bought me The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs by Matthew Levi Stevens  and I just had to go and get what is more or less its unofficial companion volume, David S Wills's 'Scientologist: William S Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult '.' You know how it is with bibliophilia.

The latter is a superb piece of work. Wills puts together a lot of archive material to shed light on WSB's few years of involvement in the Church of Scientology and the enduring effects on his thinking of some of Hubbard's ideas (such as the idea of engrams) and some of Scientology's practice (auditing and the E-meter). Present day readers may be surprised to learn that a lot of people found the auditing technique helpful, that Scientology was not at the time the laughing stock it is now.

But this book is also valuable in showing us aspects of WSB's life and character that led to his being interested in these techniques. Wills argues that Burroughs was the ideal subject, with his emotional problems and his view of life.

I've read a few biographical accounts of William Burroughs but never have I felt his vulnerability so acutely. Wills writes of a deeply troubled man who sought relief from his emotional pain through psychoanalysis, drugs and various other techniques  and eventually stumbled upon a system that made more sense to him than any other because, for a few years, it really seemed to help him feel better.

However, he was alert to the controlling features of Hubbard's org from early on, though his enthusiastic experiments with the E-meter lie detector continued for many years after he was thrown out of the Church of Scientology for criticizing the organization.

This really is a most intimate portrait of a complex and distressed man, and left me feeling that I know him better through these revelations, couched in Wills's sympathetic though unflinching words, than through any others.

The Magical Universe of William Burroughs cites Wills and the author has obviously had a fruitful correspondence with him. This book tracks down an astonishing amount of evidence for WSB living in a full-blown magical belief system, veering through OOBEs, sex magic, cursing, the development of the cut up as a spell casting technique and of course, Scientology (which nicked its best stuff from Jack Parsons)

It was clear to me from early on that Burroughs not only lived in an essentially magical world, as many artists do, but was actually writing about and doing magic. Back in the day, around 1990, I collaborated with Phil Hine on an article called Operation Overload which was published in Chaos International issue 5, (available here http://www.philhine.org.uk/writings/ess_opov.html) . I think this was pretty much the first exploration of Burroughs's magical world on its own terms. Phil has been very active since then in writing pieces about WSB, and is referenced extensively in this book.

William Burroughs' involvement with the IOT is of course recorded, mentioning Bob and Stephani Williams and Douglas Grant (and I even get a name check).

This is a thorough book, and a very readable portrait of a unique magical mind.

1 comment:

  1. I always look for such blogs as they allow me to make decision on what should I read next so easy. These books look really good and I am definitely going to read them, thank you for sharing it with us