I read about a drug called yagé [ayahuasca] used by Indians in the headwaters of the Amazon. Yagé is supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity. A Colombian scientist isolated from yagé a drug he called telepathine. . . . I decided to go down to Colombia and score for yagé. . . . I am ready to move on south and look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk. – William Burroughs, 1953

The American author and artist William Burroughs lived a fascinating life as a key figure of the Beat Generation and postmodern writing. An opiate addict who had tried every drug under the sun, Burroughs went on a quest in the 1950s for the brew ayahuasca. “Yagé may be the final fix,” reads the last line in his first novel Junkie. The allure of the purported telepathic properties of yagé was central to a modern-day Grail story starring a source of fascination for which there was very little reliable information in the early 1950s. “Grail” is most fitting given that chalice-like vessels and magic cauldrons have been thought to bestow unusual powers upon adventurers since at least the Celts, and as drinking vessels would become somewhat iconic of the then highly mysterious ayahuasca.
drinking ayahuasca
Cup of Ayahuasca

But while ayahuasca tourism has become a popular industry in the Amazon, with prospective drinkers today finding a wealth of information at their fingertips, sixty years ago there was a scarcity of information beyond specialized collections like that housed in the Botanical Museum at Harvard University. While British explorer and botanist Richard Spruce had observed and experienced the use of yagé among Tukano Indians in the upper Rio Negro of the Brazilian Amazon in 1851—exactly one hundred years before Burroughs first traveled in the region—until the 1960s, little was known about the psychopharmacology of this “magic” brew, the mysterious practice of which had been diffused throughout the Amazon with scattered observations dating back to the sixteenth century. William Burroughs may have gained awareness of yagé as an anthropology student—he flirted with the subject at Harvard and Columbia in the late 1930s, and then at Mexico City College in 1956—but in the “Yagé Article” he was concocting for a popular audience throughout the early 1950s, he led with the perception that he’d first learned about it waiting for a train at Grand Central Station. “I bought one of those he-man True magazines, and read an article about a lurid narcotic known as yagé, or ayahuasca used by Indians of the Amazon.”

Burroughs had an expressed passion for telepathy, foresight and clairvoyance, the ESP phenomenon.

A dense ecology of motives appeared to be pulling Burroughs toward yagé. While his “Yagé Article” was never published, an early manuscript offers two interwoven interests driving the search—drugs and the paranormal—the combination of which revealed an extraordinary skill-set, for which there were surely few, if any, rivals. The document reads like an application for a position for which there could be no competitors. “I have a special interest in narcotics,” he explained.

I have taken Peyote with Indians in Mexico, I have smoked hashish in Morocco, used cocaine, opiates, barbiturates, benzedrine, and known the horrors of drug psychosis from an overdose of hyocine. I have the subjective cellular knowledge of drugs that would enable me to compare, evaluate and classify a narcotic that I had not already experienced.

This résumé, as incomplete as it was, and laying out a brazen willingness to trek the pharmanautical frontier, is complemented with an expressed passion for “telepathy, foresight and clairvoyance, the ESP phenomenon.” These pursuits form a uniquely potent combination. If his article had seen print, it would have surely made Aldous Huxley’s mescaline-inspired intervention in The Doors of Perception appear comparatively mundane. Permutations of this manuscript promised an exotic-occult adventure, mixing dry quirkiness with ethnological detail, as readers were to be exposed to yagé, or nateema, as used among “the Jivaro head hunters of Peru and Ecuador.”

Interest in the ethnology of yagé soon found its way into a letter published in the British Journal of Addiction: “Among the Jivaro young men take Yagé to contact the spirits of their ancestors and get a briefing for their future life. It is used during initiations to anaesthetize the initiates for painful ordeals. All Medicine Men use it in their practice to foretell the future, locate lost or stolen objects, name the perpetrator of a crime, to diagnose and treat illness.”

lewis marker william burroughs
Lewis Marker & William Burroughs in Mexico

Anesthetizing, divinizing, crime solving, communing with the dead, yagé was the ultimate addition to any sorcerer’s kit, an all-purpose key all the more intriguing given the next act in the Burroughsian drama. As is well known, William Burroughs shot and killed his wife Joan Vollmer supposedly during a drunken game of William Tell at a party above a bar in Mexico City on September 6, 1951. “I live with the constant threat,” he later reflected, “of “possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” Burroughs was on the yagé trail before he shot Joan, but this notorious incident was integral to an obsession mobilizing efforts to “write his way out” by way of the Amazon and the secret it harbored.

An early search (over July–August 1951) for yagé with Adelbert Lewis Marker (the inspiration for Queer’s Allerton) came to a dead end near Puyo, Equador. But in January 1953, still obsessed with yagé, and following the death of Joan, William Burroughs, at thirty-nine, embarked on a seven-month quest through Panama, Colombia, and Peru to find “the secret.” The journey was partly documented in epistolatory narrative ten years later in The Yagé Letters. I first read The Yagé Letters in March 2008. It was the 1975 edition of the book, with no contextual introduction, nor appendices, just a perplexing series of “letters” between Burroughs and Ginsberg exchanged as Burroughs searched for yagé in 1953, and Ginsberg followed suit seven years later. While this extraordinary little book began with Burroughs writing to Ginsberg from the Hotel Colón on January 15 (“Dear Allen, I stopped off here to have my piles out”), it ended back in Panama with the epilogue “Am I Dying, Meester?,” a flickering collage of memories sampled from earlier letters.

The Yage Letters
The Yage Letters chronicles William Burroughs’s famous correspondence with Allen Ginsberg

While this text may be noted more for the letters that were unpublished, The Yagé Letters, in any case, documents key junctures on the path to Burroughs’s Grail. Traveling to the Instituto de Ciencias Naturales in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, he found ethnobotanist and fellow Harvard man Richard Evans Schultes. Bearing “a thin refined face, steel rimmed glasses, tweed coat and dark flannel trousers,” Schultes was named “Dr. Schindler” in the book. While apparently never having himself experienced a full-blown ayahuascan event, Schultes had, by then, taken yagé on various occasions, and was also familiar with psychoactive snuff deriving from the bark of species of the Virola genus—in preparations that were common among tribes of the northwest Amazonias. On Schultes’s advice, Burroughs traveled to the Putumayo region. Following a series of misadventures in which he was jailed, was robbed, and contracted malaria, he returned to Bogotá, where in early March he blagged his way onto an expedition to Puerto Leguizamo from which he netted some 20 pounds of the ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis caapi.

William Burroughs Ayahuasca Vine
William Burroughs with ayahuasca vine in Colombia, 1953
Ayahuasca Vine
Ayahuasca Vine – Photo: Ben De Loenen

As described in letters to Ginsberg, he located a brujo to prepare the yagé. However, Burroughs was impatient, distrustful, and paranoid. On his first exposure, he grew nauseated and powerless, convinced that the “witch doctor” and his assistant were conspiring to murder him—a crime he averted by knocking back barbiturate. In his letter to Ginsberg on April 12, he conveyed the “sheer horror” of the experience. As he reported, “I was completely delirious for four hours and vomiting at 10 minute intervals. As to telepathy I don’t know. All I received were waves of nausea.”

Psychedelic Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg – By Fabrizio Cassetta

Reading this story, I gained the impression that, for Burroughs, yagé was mostly ineffectual, his expectations unmet. This set a contrast to Ginsberg, who, reporting his yagé experience to Burroughs from the region seven years later, depicted merger with “the Great Being” and his realization of the illusion of separate consciousness. That the Amazon was a failed mission for Burroughs has been a view popular among commentators who, like John Lardas in The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, remark on Burroughs’s “disappointing experience with the yagé elixir, “or who have found in the text a confirmation that “hallucinogens”—whether yagé, DMT, mescaline, or psilocybin—were not his poison.

Burroughs did have a breakthrough with yagé. And it was an experience that, in the wake of earlier attempts, caught him by surprise.

But these views are inaccurate since Burroughs did have a breakthrough with yagé. And it was an experience that, in the wake of earlier attempts, caught him by surprise. Soon after drinking yagé with a brujo at Pucallpa, Peru, he wrote Ginsberg on June 18, 1953 (an account that did not appear in The Yagé Letters): “What followed was indescribable. It was like possession by a blue spirit. . . . Blue purple. And definitely South Pacific, like Easter Island or Maori designs, a blue substance throughout my body, and an archaic grinning face.” He was compelled to describe this encounter with the primitive smiley face, confirming (on July 8) that he had taken “the most powerful drug I have ever experienced.” Alluding to Rimbaud, he experienced “the most complete derangement of the senses. You see everything from a special hallucinated viewpoint.” “If I was a painter I could paint it.” In the same correspondence, he expressed a conviction that “Yagé is it,” and there was no comparison. “It is like nothing else. This is not the chemical lift of C, the sexless, horrible sane stasis of junk, the vegetable nightmare of peyote, or the humorous silliness of weed. This is insane overwhelming rape of the senses.” The initial reactions were revelatory, even game changing. “Yagé is the final kick and you are not the same after you have taken it. I mean literally.” Despite the absence of these direct sentiments, The Yagé Letters nevertheless illustrate the impact of yagé on William Burroughs’s style—that he was indeed “not the same.”

Yagé 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.
Pablo Amaringo
Lancha Fantasma – By Pablo Amaringo

As this text held flashbacks of memories and motifs from previous letters, it demonstrated the effect on Burroughs’s writing of the “space time travel” induced by yagé, anticipating his assault on “the Word.” Here, Oliver Harris noted in his introduction to the Yagé Letters: Redux, we find perhaps the earliest example of Burroughsian “travel writing,” in which the technique is designed to replicate the experience of traveling outside of familiar temporality and cartography, a technique that would grow more advanced by the time he composed the book’s epilogue, an illustration of the “cut-up” method deployed by the turn of the 1960s. As Richard Doyle confirms in Darwin’s Pharmacy, “as the cadences and gaps between segments of coherence engage the reader with their rhythm,” as they do in “Am I Dying, Meester?,” they “transmit something of the paratactic ‘travel’ sometimes induced by the drinking of yagé.” By the turn of the 1960s, no longer was Burroughs concerned with describing the effects of yagé (and, implicitly, DMT), but with simulating its effects in his art. And by the time The Yagé Letters was published, Burroughs’s art was no longer strictly found in the format of the novel, or even in the written word, but in a profusion of multimedia happenings and cut-up techniques.

While impossible to measure accurately, or completely isolate from other influences, William Burroughs’s entire collage of multimedia activities has been shown to demonstrate what has been called his “yagé aesthetic.” Since “cut-up” techniques inspired by collaborations with Dreamachine inventor Brion Gysin are an art form that could induce altered states of consciousness in the participating audience much like those of yagé/DMT, they are a “perfect vehicle,” argues Joanna Harrop in a doctoral thesisThe Yagé Aesthetic of William Burroughs: The Publication and Development of His Work 1953–1965, “to develop an aesthetic of space-time travel.” A technique that you could “try,” not unlike a drug, art was not so much representation as what happens to you. By the late 1950s, Burroughs had abandoned the yagé project, just as he had replaced chemical-derived alterations of consciousness with forensic textual juxtapositions, audio-video tape editing, photomontage, and collaborative endeavors. While we might question the effectiveness of such drugless strategies vis-à-vis the appropriate use of ayahuasca/DMT, enabling users to break from the straitjacket of language, and exposing the conditioning power of cultural media through their détournement, these methods pervade popular cultural criticism.

Chacruna leaf
Psychotria viridis leaf

In Naked Lunch, in which the nauseating mosaic of The Interzone is informed by the author’s experiences with yagé as much as if not more than opiates, Burroughs writes on the prevailing assumption that harmala alkaloids were the psychoactive agents in yagé. And yet, in his formative experience with ayahuasca, as reported to Ginsberg on June 18, 1953, William  Burroughs had been exposed to a “secret” known to few Westerners: that shamans mix the vine with boiled leaves from an additional botanical source. “Hold the press,” he’d written. “Everything I wrote about Yagé subject to revision in the light of subsequent experience. It is not like weed, nor anything else I have ever experienced. I am now prepared to believe the Brujos do have secrets and that Yagé alone is quite different from the Yagé prepared with the leaves and the plants the Brujos add to it.” In the manuscript of his “Yagé Article,” Burroughs had referred to these leaves as “essential for the full hallucinating effect” of yagé, identifying the plant (with the help of an unidentified Peruvian botanist) as Palicourea sp. Rubiaceae. With this unpublished discovery, states Harris, William Burroughs was the first to identify the genus of the plant now known as Psychotria viridis, which is called “chacruna” in the Quechua languages and is a chief source of DMT used in ayahuasca in South and Central America.While Burroughs had dried specimens of the admixture plant identified, this discovery was curiously unacknowledged by Schultes. But with this fix on what is among the most synergistic wonders of ethnobotany, connoted in Naked Lunch as “souped-up Harmine,” William Burroughs went on to infuse his life and artistic output with a resonant mystery, cutting-up source materials, mixing media, decocting language, extracting new thought forms, and trying them. Referring to Burroughs’s photomontages, psychologist Timothy Leary had the measure of this process: “cut up pictures. Boil out the essence of the pictures. And then shoot it.”

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This article was excerpted from the book Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT By Graham St. John.

Painting of Williams Burroughs in Header Image is by Richard Day.

Graham St. John, PhD
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