Gilding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded I do not know whether a man or woman—But who is that on the other side of you?
“Whatever will they think of me,” he said. “I can’t get it out of my mind.”
In his “Notes on The Waste Land,” Eliot wrote that the journey to Emmaus in the Gospel According to Luke serves as a theme in Part V of the poem, which he titled “What the Thunder said”. In Luke 24:15-17 two men on the road to Emmaus encounter a presence and do not recognize it as the risen Christ:7
And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about three score furlongs.
And they talked together of all these things which had happened.
And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them.
But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.
When Jesus blessed and broke bread at dinner, the disciples finally did know him, but Jesus then vanished from their sight. In his “Notes” Eliot. however, added that the passage in question was also stimulated by an account of an Antarctic expedition, “I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton’s.” The poet was impressed by the idea that “the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.” The tone of the account given in Eliot’s poem is notably different, however, from Shackleton’s published reference to a presence “very near to our hearts,” and instead evokes the idea that they were “comrades with Death.” Rather than inspiring a sense of the divine, one critic argued, “the visitation in the poem inspires a feeling of dread.”8
Shackleton confronted the phenomenon at a point of extremity on his geographic journey. The extra man, however, made another appearance in a radically dissimilar context; evidence, perhaps, that exploration is not confined to geographic expeditions—or even the physical world. In common with polar explorers, William S. Burroughs, the American novelist and junky, had a propensity to take incalculable risks. The author of Naked Lunch, a harrowing narrative of addiction, sought out extremity wherever it lay, and placed his literary endeavors explicitly in the context of exploration: “In my writing I am acting as a map maker, an explorer of psychic areas … a cosmonaut of inner space, and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed.”9 It is significant, then, that Burroughs too encountered an unseen companion, and did so at the very point when his experiments with literature and drugs pushed the boundaries of physical and psychological tolerance. Burroughs called the phenomenon the Third Mind.
Burroughs had a long-standing interest in exploration. He had read explorers’ narratives, among them Richard Halliburton’s New Worlds to Conquer. He studied anthropology at Columbia University, Harvard University and at Mexico City College. Burroughs’ own explorations did not cover the polar
regions of the Earth, so much as the tropics of the mind, the source for literary imagination,
Burroughs called the phenomenon the “Third Mind.”
although he did also undertake geographic journeys. Burroughs’ search for the telepathic-hallucinogenic drug yage—used by Amazonian Indians for finding lost souls—produced an epistolary account of his travels. Written to his friend, the poet Allen Ginsberg in 1953, Burroughs’ correspondence was published ten years later as The Yage Letters. The use of epistolary as a device for documenting explorations can be traced as far back as Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, published in 1598. In style and in substance, The Yage Letters is a narrative of discovery. As with traditional exploration narratives, the title implies the goal, that is, the investigation of yage as a tool to reach the unknown. In his early critical examination of Burroughs’s writing, Alan Ansen notes that “the actual discovery of the drug plays a relatively small part in the work; at the center are the anthropologist’s field report and Burroughs’ life in yage.” The goal is merely the tool through which the explorer finds what he is looking for along the
“A Colombian scientist isolated from yage a drug he called telepathine. I know from my own experience telepathy is a fact. I have no interest in proving telepathy or anything to anybody. I do want usable knowledge of telepathy.”
way. In South, Shackleton’s goal was, of necessity, abandoned early on. What mattered was the journey, and ultimately his glimpse of the “naked soul.” Burroughs’ narrative in The Yage Letters adheres to a similar form.
The groundwork for Burroughs’s yage search was laid at the end of Junky, his first novel, published in 1953. In the book, he noted the drug is “supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity. A Colombian scientist isolated from yage a drug he called telepathine. I know from my own experience telepathy is a fact. I have no interest in proving telepathy or anything to anybody. I do want usable knowledge of telepathy.” Burroughs wanted to understand what others were thinking, but he also saw more practical applications for telepathic powers: “thought control. Take anyone apart and rebuild to your taste.” Usually a concoction of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi with secondary plants, yage is used by Amazonian Indians for its “meet your maker” powers, in
order to achieve communion with surroundings, to incite visions of cities and places, and as a way of blurring the boundaries between this world and the next. The Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio was one of the earliest explorers to write about yage, in 1858: “I’ve experienced dizziness, then an aerial journey in which I recall perceiving the most gorgeous views, great cities, lofty towers, beautiful parks and other extremely attractive objects; then I imagine myself to be alone in a forest and assaulted by a number of terrible beings from which I defended myself.”10 Some have also indicated that the often overwhelming purgative side effects are a form of purification. The hallucinations are visual, aural, sensory. These properties, together with the previously claimed telepathic powers, suggested to Burroughs that yage “may be the final fix.”11
In January 1953, while investigating yage at a university in Bogota, Colombia, Burroughs encountered Richard Evans Schultes, a Harvard University anthropologist and authority on hallucinogenic plants. Schultes told Burroughs he had tried yage: “I got colors but no visions.”12 To obtain the drug, Burroughs was advised to go down the Rio Putumayo. He traveled south to Mocoa, where he found a brujo, or medicine man, who prepared a weak yage extraction. Burroughs experienced vivid dreams in color and saw a composite city, part New York, part Mexico City and part Lima. “You are supposed to see a city when you take yage,” he wrote Ginsberg on 28 February. Burroughs next managed to attach himself to a cocoa commission expedition. In the company of the botanists, he made the connection with another brujo, around 70 years of age, with “a sly gentleness about him like an old time junkie.” The brujo incanted “yage mucho da,” or “yage give much” as he prepared the concoction. Burroughs drank about an ounce of the oily and phosphorescent liquid. Within two minutes of ingesting it, a wave of dizziness swept over him and the hut began to spin. There was a strange blue light. Sudden, violent nausea sent him rushing outside, he vomited, and collapsed, arms and legs twitching uncontrollably. He wrote: “Larval beings passed before my eyes in a blue haze, each one giving an obscene, mocking squawk.” He continued to vomit, and it later occurred to Burroughs that yage nausea is motion sickness of transport to the yage state. On 10 July he wrote his final letter from the region to Ginsberg. He described his ultimate yage experience, witnessing migrations, incredible journeys through geographic places, and finally “the Composite City where all human potentials are spread
out in a vast silent market.” From this city expeditions left for unknown places, with unknown purpose. It was, Burroughs wrote, “a place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum.”
Sudden, violent nausea sent him rushing outside, he vomited, and collapsed, arms and legs twitching uncontrollably. He wrote: “Larval beings passed before my eyes in a blue haze, each one giving an obscene, mocking squawk.”
Yage inspired a section of Burroughs’ 1958 novel, Naked Lunch, which also bears many of the hallmarks of an explorer’s account of a journey. As the writer Mary McCarthy noted, Naked Lunch recorded Burroughs’ hallucinations “like a ship’s log.” This is particularly true in the case of his description of the yage state:
“Images fall slow and silent like snow… Serenity… All defenses fall… everything is free to enter or to go out… Fear is simply impossible… A beautiful blue substance flows into me… I see an archaic grinning face like South Pacific mask… The face is blue purple splotched with gold… The room takes on aspect of Near East whorehouse with blue walls and red tasseled lamps… Migrations, incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains (stasis and death in closed mountain valley where plants grow out of genitals, vast crustaceans hatch inside and
break shell of body) …”
Largely compiled while Burroughs was living in a male brothel in Tangier, Naked Lunch additionally moves beyond fiction into the realm of exploration literature by including references to the matriarchies of the Bismarck Archipelago, and the social control system of the Mayan priestly caste—and scholarly notes and citations, including a reference to published accounts of Bang-utot, a sleep-erection related death occurring during a nightmare. It even has an appendix with scientific purpose, which was also published independently in The British Journal of Addiction, describing the effects obtained not only from yage, but other drugs. Such documents of scientific interest, from meteorological reports to anthropological observations, are an obligatory feature of exploration narratives: Shackleton’s South included appendices on meteorology, physics and sea ice nomenclature.
Burroughs’ published journals, essays, interviews, recordings and letters are filled with appearances by Gysin, whose theories, stories, and even biographical details appear irregularly in most of Burroughs’ books after Naked Lunch.
Burroughs’ explorations, which had evolved from his expeditions to the
jungles of South America, to the exotica of Tangier, were finally, in arguably their most extreme manifestation, confined to his lodgings, and those of fellow traveler Brion Gysin, at a flea-bag hotel at 9 rue Git-le-Coeur, Paris. Gysin, an artist and writer raised in Canada, was the second who made for the Third Mind. In what might be termed the final Burroughs expedition, their rooms became a center for nightly gatherings and bizarre occurrences. Their imaginations stoked with hashish, and other drugs including mescaline, Burroughs and Gysin began to experience shared hallucinations. Burroughs wrote Ginsberg to report he had been making “incredible discoveries in the line of psychic exploration…”13 On one occasion Burroughs looked into the mirror and saw himself change into a creature wearing a green uniform, his face “full of black boiling fuzz.” Remarkably, Gysin had also witnessed it “without being briefed or influenced in any way.” They sought a complete derangement of senses. Burroughs informed Ginsberg “I am in a very dangerous place but the point of no return is way back yonder.”14 The journeys inspired visual, aural, and sensory experiments, most notably in the use of cut-ups, an automatic writing technique where texts were sliced up then the words randomly reassembled. Burroughs considered The Waste Land to be the first great cut-up for using “all these bits and pieces of other writers in an associational matrix”15—not least of all Ernest Shackleton. Eric Mottram, in a 1963 critical study, argued “Burroughs admires, and recalls in his novels, T. S. Eliot of The Waste Land: in one sense his own work is a vision of a waste land.” Burroughs paid homage to Eliot by including the poem as raw material in his own cut-ups.
By pushing their experiments to the point of extremity, Burroughs and Gysin achieved a perfect state of what Gysin termed “psychic symbiosis.” Shackleton had remarked upon the sense of his party having drawn “very close” during the crossing of South Georgia. For Burroughs, Gysin had evolved from mere collaborator to a central point of reference in his work. In Last Words, his final journals which were published in 2000, Burroughs wrote “Whose biographer could I be? Only one person. Brion Gysin.” In many respects he was Gysin’s biographer. Burroughs’ published journals, essays, interviews, recordings and letters are filled with appearances by Gysin, whose theories, stones, and even biographical details appear irregularly in most of Burroughs’ books after Naked Lunch. In Burroughs’ book of dreams, My Education, Gysin appears in 22 of them. Evidence of a
symbiant relationship could appear without warning. In a 1976 letter to Gysin, Burroughs wrote: “Did you see the color pictures of Mars and note similarity to your pink picture and read the inexplicable letters B/G that showed up on TV screen?”16 Burroughs owned a canvas by Gysin, painted long before photographs from Mars were transmitted by Saturn 11. The idea that Gysin had some precognition of the Mars photographs intrigued him. But more significant were the letters. Burroughs told the writer Edmund White, “You know they found stones on Mars that had the letters B and G on them?” They might have been Brion Gysin’s initials, but White suspected Burroughs meant something else: “Burroughs and Gysin?”17
They decided to call the published account of their discoveries The Third Mind. In attempting to quantify the experience, Burroughs had discovered an explanation in an unlikely source: the concept of the “Master Mind” set out in Think And Grow Rich, a prototype of the self-help genre by Napoleon Hill. According to Hill, Andrew Carnegie built his fortune in part on the basis of the “Master Mind principle,” the premise being that the human mind is a form of energy, part of which is spiritual in nature. Hill wrote that when two people work in a state of perfect harmony and are set on attainment of a definite purpose, “the spiritual units of energy of each mind form an affinity, which constitutes the ‘psychic’ phase of the Master Mind.” Hill argued that a “friendly alliance of minds” can access “the sum and substance of the intelligence, experience, knowledge, and spiritual forces” of all participants. It is not merely an accumulation based on numbers, however, but a process which is accelerated by the creation of an additional intelligence. Noted Hill: “No two minds ever come together without, thereby, creating a third, invisible, intangible force which may be likened to a third mind.” When recited by Burroughs, however, the reference is expanded to encompass both Hill and Eliot:
“Why am I here? I am here because you are here … and let me quote to you young officers this phrase: ‘No two minds ever come together without, thereby, creating a third, invisible, intangible