The Yage Letters Redux By William Burroughs & Allen Ginsberg

Originally published by City Lights in 1963 ‘The Yage Letters’ has since been republished 3 times. This fourth edition ‘The Yage Letters: Redux’ was published in 2006; it is edited by Oliver Harris who’s also included a thorough introduction of the text’s history. The book is presented as an epistolary of largely letters between William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg; who both chronicle their travels to South America in search of the hallucinogen yagé.

The introduction, written by the editor Oliver Harris, looks in some detail about the events on which the content is based – essentially some Burroughs and Ginsberg biography as background but it adds great insight into the text – and looks at how the events led to the first publication of the book by City Lights. Ginsberg had already persuaded several magazines to publish excerpts of the original document – ‘In Search of Yage’ – previously. Harris also writes in some depth on the editing process over the four editions. The book is a fine example of how multiple-authorship and editorial scholarship give a text its own life.

At the end of ‘Junky’ Burroughs declares his intent to travel to South America to find yagé, a possible miraculous cure for his addiction. ‘In Search of Yage’ makes up the majority of the book and is comprised of ‘letters’ sent from Burroughs , in South America, to poet Allen Ginsberg. Harris quotes Terence McKenna in describing the book as a work of “pharmo-picaresque” by which he means to indicate that there are two trips that are occurring; journeys through physical and mental space. It was a theme that fused beat writing with a still embryonic psychedelic culture and is to be found throughout subsequent texts of the genre; not least by McKenna himself in ‘True Hallucinations’.

The ‘letters’ are replete with the sort of language, Burroughs’ sardonic humour, which conflates the horror that confronts him with the absurd: “On the boat I talked to a man who knows the Ecuador jungle like his own prick. It seems jungle traders periodically raid the Auca (a tribe of hostile Indians. Shell lost about 20 employees to the Auca in two years) and carry off woman they keep penned up for the purposes of sex. Sounds interesting. Maybe I could capture an Auca boy.” A picture is built of a warzone; where the people and resources are ravaged by big business and political turmoil is rife; yet rising up through the social commentary is a botanical, Harvard-educated Burroughs.

On his journey he met the a fellow Harvard-educated man, the famous ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes (named Dr. Schindler in the book.) Schultes had spent a lot of time in South America studying local plant use, even trying yagé back in 1943 and assists Burroughs in his search. Time is taken in the book’s content to put across ingredient  descriptions and names and quantity of mixtures etc.; providing botanical and anthropological undertones. But the life of a Westerner in South America was complex. In Peru for example: “Three times ‘all the foreigners’ were asked to get out of the bus and register with the police: passport number, age, profession. All this pure formality. No trace of suspicion or interrogation. What do they do with these records? Use them for toilet paper I suspect.

The second section – titled ‘Seven Years Later (1960)’ – is comprised of a single letter from Ginsberg, who is now in South America and a reply from Burroughs. Ginsberg’s letter is filled with paranoia; his experiences increasingly haunting; his self increasingly isolated: “I hardly have the nerve to back, afraid of some real madness.” A poem, Aether, by Ginsberg is included at the end of his letter; beautiful phonetics in the language, a sublime rhythm and extremely self-reflective. The poem invokes the sense of spiritual crisis within Ginsberg. It was Burroughs, however, who most profoundly marked subsequent literary accounts of the phenomenological experience of yagé:

“Yage is space time travel. The room seems to shake and vibrate with motion. The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indian – new races as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized passes through your body. Migrations, incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains (stasis and death in closed mountain valleys where plants sprout out of your cock and vast crustaceans hatch inside and break the shell of the body), across the Pacific in an outrigger canoe to Easter Island. The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market.”

The epilogue is dated 1963 and contains a short, and rather warming letter addressed “to whom it may concern” that describes Ginsberg’s state-of-mind three years on. It also contains a short, thought-provoking piece by Burroughs called ‘I am dying, Meester’, which employs his cut-up method: It “grounds Burroughs’ new technique in that yage-inspired montage to reveal significant experimental continuities across decades” according to Harris. In the Redux edition there is also a detailed appendix containing supplementary letters and journal entries.

‘The Yage Letters: Redux’ provides the reader with two fascinating skins from the layers of a text. Firstly, the scholarship to contextualise the book as a product of both history and society; evolving before, during and after its first publication as a complete work. Secondly, the cleanly edited text, which does great credit to the rich content and striking language. The book itself is wonderfully executed and it is a bridge between Beat and psychedelic literature; especially in the timing of its first publication in 1963. Without doubt, a masterpiece.

Via the House

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4 Responses

  1. Great review of a great book

    Yes, Yage Letters does much to fill in the blanks in Burroughs’ creative and psychonautic journey from Junky to The Naked Lunch, via Queer, which contains the account of that first inconclusive yage hunt and stylistically shows Burroughs in transition from the factual reportage of Junky to the freeform phantasmagoria of Naked Lunch. The letter describing Burroughs’ defintive yage trip of July ’53 (from which you quote) marks a hugely important milestone in Burroughs’ development as a writer, and it’s fascinating to see how, virtually unaltered, it became the Meet Café sequence in Naked Lunch.

  2. Marce says:

    Hello! I’m colombian and am really enjoying reading the introduction since it brings so many different fields – history, literature, politics, economy, etc – together. The fact that he met Shultes – I saw an exhibition of his photography in Bogota some years ago – is amazing! The only turn-off for me has been that several names (in spanish) are misspelled. Like, for example, the past president’s name, which Oliver Harris mentions, is “Alvaro Uribe Vélez” and not “Alvaro Vélez Uribe”. It’s so easy to find these names online, so I wonder what justifies these simple mistakes. I hope this is not a reason to doubt all the other fantastic information that Harris offers in his introduction. Other than that, this book has just increased my curiosity about the amazon and the jungle, which I must confess I have never been to :-). Thanks for this review!

  1. January 31, 2012

    […] – following in the footsteps of Burroughs himself who chronicled his own ayahuasca journey in The Yage Letters (1963). Aside from the cultural element of visiting the shamans of Peru, being fleeced for money […]

  2. February 6, 2012

    […] – following in the footsteps of Burroughs himself who chronicled his own ayahuasca journey in The Yage Letters (1963). Aside from the cultural element of visiting the shamans of Peru, being fleeced for money […]

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