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The Yage Letters Redux

William Burroughs’s Junkie came out from Ace Books in 1953. When I later went to publish my first novel, White Light, I sent it to Ace partly because I knew they'd published Burroughs.

Junkie book was bound in a 69-style double edition with a “balancing” book, Narcotic Agent. My book dealer friend Greg Gibson gave me this rare edition a few years back. I actually removed the book from its plastic bag to read Narcotic Agent, told Greg, “It wasn’t all that bad,” and he's like “You touched the book? You took it out of its bag.”

Be that as it may, Junkie has an appendix with a description of various drugs Burroughs had taken at that time, and the prophetic closing sentence is “Yage may be the final fix.”

In 1963, City Lights published The Yage Letters. I first read the book in 1965, when I was a sophomore in college. It struck me then as one of the funniest books I’d ever read — Burroughs’s jaded laconic descriptions of people and scenes are priceless.

Also the book has Allen Ginsberg’s incredibly heavy letter about his yage trip in Peru seven years later, June 10, 1960. For a while he’s filled with this intense fear of death, a sense that he’s dying right now, “…as if in rehearsal of Last Minute Death my head rolling back and forth on the blanket and finally settling in last position of stillness and hopeless resignation to God knows what Fate…”

Some of you will understand that this is in some sense funny. I lifted the vision for a scene where my character Sta Hi Mooney is having an acid trip on the beach in my novel Software and he thinks he’s dying. “A film came to mind, a film of someone dying on a beach. His head rolled slowly to one side. And then he was still. Real death. Slowly to one side. Last motion.

There’s a nice new (fourth) edition of the book called The Yage Letters Redux. I bought it at City Lights last week with Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself behind the counter.

I introduced myself and said I'd been thinking of him on Bixby Bridge coming back from Big Sur last week (after having reread some of Kerouac's Big Sur). Ferlinghetti said he still has his cabin there, was going down for the weekend, and still doesn't have electricity.

I read the new edition of Yage with joy in a couple of days. And today, additional joy, I found that editor Oliver Harris( an American Lit prof at Keele Univesity in England ) has published a fascinating essay that overlaps with his great new introduction. The essay is in a literary magazine called Postmodern Culture; you can find ”Not Burroughs' Final Fix: Materializing The Yage Letters” online. I gather that it won’t be there indefinitely.

The essay includes some interesting images of original appearances of sections of the novel; which Burroughs published in various small magazines. Turns out The Yage Letters, wasn’t really a direct transcription of actual letters; it’s more that Bill combined letters, journal notes, and essay material to create the illusion of an epistolary novel.

This image is present as a link to an image from the essay, where it’s labeled: “Figure 1: Image from Black Mountain Review 7 [1958]. Image used by permission of William S. Burroughs Trust and Estate.”

This particular “July 10, 1953,” yage letter is important in the Burroughs canon; it’s the last of his 1953 “letters” in the later editions The Yage Letters. Actually it didn’t appear in the first edition (1963) of Yage Letters, probably because by then Burroughs had lifted this passage to use as part of Naked Lunch (1959) called “the market.” But, as Bill wrote the letter one morning while coming down off a night of yage it makes sense to have it in theThe Yage Letters.

Two great lines from the July 10, 1953, letter:

“Yage is space time travel.”

“A place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum.”

That second line uses a phrase from his February 28, 1953 yage letter, describing the upper Amazon jungle near Mocoa, Colombia. “The trees are tremendous, some of them 200 feet tall. Walking under these trees I felt a special silence, a vibrating soundless hum.” What a wonderful image for how telepathy might feel.

I’ve always thought of science fiction as an extension of Beat literature.

Speaking of telepathy, Allen’s yage letter of June 10, 1960, talks about “radiotelepathy,” which was a phrase I used in my novel Saucer Wisdom.

One of the nice things in The Yage Letters Redux is that it includes a longer journal note of Allen’s about the same yage trip. Here he writes of beginning “to sense a strange Presence in the hut — or a Being I am blind to habitually — like a science fiction Radiotelepathy Beast from another Universe — but from the series of universes in which I do temporarily exist …”

Allen’s letter and journal note have really wonderful musings upon the psychedelic experience; he has great flashes like, “I was a vomiting snake … the Serpent of Allen, covered with aureole of spiky snakeheads miniatured radiant & many colored around my hands & throat …”

But heavier than the flashes are his repeated expressions of a core mystical revelation: God/the universe/everything/everyone is a One/Many mind accessible to all, and there is nothing arcane or unusual about this fact, it’s staring us in the face all the time, and there’s no secret, nothing to know, this is all there is, divinity is here and now.

“…the realization that we are set there to live and Die, and all man set here together in different bodies in a web of realization of the same fate…”

“… we, here, are it, the great Presence we are the great Presence of the Universe … God himself knows no more than we or I why he was born or where he is going…”

“…this same ancient and familiar mystery Universe…”

“The familiar creepy sexy nosey personal intimate old-known, special re-realization of the Joke sweetness of Illusion fading into the Great Black A**hole of on-Mind one-Love cat-faced snake-faced dog-faced man-faced Mandalic Universal Newspaper Busybody Gossip God. All mine, all everybody’s, all everything’s. And what else could He be but He Himself?”

This is all pure gold in terms of my current work on my novel Postsingular where I’m imagining life in a telepathic parallel world called The Mirrorbrane.

The vibrating soundless hum.

3 Responses to “The Yage Letters Redux

  1. Loki Says:

    …reading the Yage Letters years ago Yage seemed impossibly exotic, a mystical telepathine… perhaps even mythical but now, with all the special brew you’d ever need just a few credit card clicks away on the Web I wonder if things have changed… I mean does Yage lose something in the translation from the jungle to the loft? or does it gain something from making new allies?
    An Idiot’s Guide To Dreaming
    Subject A Obliterates

  2. Efrem Says:

    Hi Dr. Rucker. I just came by to see what’s up. Me? I’m just chillin’.

  3. andrew Says:

    wheres the mirrorbane at?

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