The yagé aesthetic of William Burroughs: the publication and development of his work 1953-1965
My concern in this thesis is to show that a reconstruction of the publishing history of the work of William Burroughs offers a new, critical perspective on his experiments with psychoactive substances and their connection to his developing practice. I begin with an exploration of the publication of The Yage Letters (1963) and Naked Lunch (1959), and reveal how the complexities of their publishing histories shaped their critical reception. I examine the legal defence of Naked Lunch as it developed from the Big Table Post Office hearing through to the 1965 Boston trial and demonstrate the degree to which censorship came to define the published text. The legal defence of Naked Lunch, as it was incorporated into the Grove publication, emphasised the issue of opiate addiction. The way in which Burroughs’ 1953 letters to Allen Ginsberg were reworked as The Yage Letters did much to conceal the significance of yagé for Burroughs’ later work. Together, these publishing histories have obscured the relationship between his use of psychoactive substances and his evolving aesthetic. At the same time many of Burroughs’ most experimental - and important - works appeared only in small, ephemeral magazines. His adoption of avant-garde strategies such as collaboration and collage and his dedication to multimedia experimentation with the non-chemical alteration of consciousness made conventional book publication problematic or unsuitable. These experiments in aesthetic production, I argue, are central to our understanding of Burroughs. His main published writings must be re-evaluated as one element in this collage of multimedia activities. 4 I argue that Burroughs’ experiences with yagé, mescaline and dimethyltryptamine exerted an influence on his shift to experimentalism in the early 1960s, which sought to replicate the experience of these altered states of consciousness. That this is so is evident from a study of two collections of correspondence - Burroughs’ letters to Ginsberg held at Columbia University Library and his letters to Brion Gysin in the William S. Burroughs Papers held at the New York Public Library. My reading of these letters forms an important component of my argument, working to reveal what the conventional ‘published’ Burroughs serves to conceal.
- Theses