American novelist William S. Burroughs ended his first book, originally published as Junky under the pseudonym William Lee, with a brief meditation on yagé. “I read about a drug called yage, used by Indians in the headwaters of the Amazon,” he writes. “I decided to go down to Colombia and score for yage. . . . I am ready to move on south and look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.” The last sentence in the book reads, “Yage may be the final fix.”
In 1953 Burroughs indeed traveled to South America, and, in Bogotá, met a person he calls “Dr. Schindler” – “thin refined face, steel rimmed glasses, tweed coat and dark flannel trousers. Boston and Harvard unmistakably.” This was in fact the famed ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, although Burroughs apparently knew nothing about his work; interestingly, Burroughs and Schultes had been one class apart at Harvard.
|William S. Burroughs|
Burroughs moved on to Colombia and found a brujo in the Putumayo region — the same region whose colonial terror and suffering has been delineated by anthropologist Michael Taussig — who prepared yagé for him, which had little effect. He returned to Bogotá and attached himself – “in a somewhat vague capacity to be sure” – to an expedition set up by Schultes, and, in Macoa, drank “oily and phosphorescent” yagé: “Larval beings passed before my eyes in a blue haze,” he writes of his experience, ” each one giving an obscene, mocking squawk.”
Finally, in Lima, drinking the last of the yagé he had brought back from Pucallpa, he had his epiphany, his final fix. The “routine” in his July 10, 1953, letter to Ginsberg — the yagé “space time travel” trip to Composite City, “where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market” — became the Interzone and The Market sections of his breakthrough novel Naked Lunch, which stands as one of the most powerful pieces of visionary writing in twentieth-century American literature.
In 1960, Alan Ginsberg followed Burroughs’ footsteps to Perú, where he drank yagé in a variety of settings. Novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen arranged for Ginsberg to get a half gallon of ayahuasca for his first session in Lima, which Ginsberg found disappointing. Matthiessen himself, in his fictional account of missionaries in South America, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, devotes an entire chapter to the ayahuasca-induced visions of one of his characters, a part-Cheyenne mercenary.
In the City Market is the Meet Café. Followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, pushers of souped-up harmine, junk reduced to pure habit offering precarious vegetable serenity, liquids to induce Latah, Tithonian longevity serums, black marketeers of World War III, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, bureaucrats of spectral departments, officials of unconstituted police states, … doctors skilled in the treatment of diseases dormant in the black dust of ruined cities, gathering virulence in the white blood of eyeless worms feeling slowly to the surface …
In Pucallpa, the ayahuasca effect was much more powerful. Afterwards, Ginsberg lay in bed all afternoon writing notes for what would become the long poem Magic Psalm. And, at his next ayahuasca session, all hell broke loose — “the strongest and worst I’ve ever had it nearly,” he wrote to Burroughs. And he wrote in his journal, “I was a vomiting snake, that is, I vomited with eyes closed and sensed myself a serpent of Being, or Serpent of Isolation, the Serpent of Allen, covered with Aureole of spikey snakeheads miniatured radiant and many colored around my hands and throat.” And he wrote to Burroughs that he felt “faced by Death . . . the Murder of the Universe – my death to come.” This confrontation with mortality became the basis for two poems, Magic Psalm and The Reply, included in Kaddish, and Other Poems.
Stomach vomiting out the soul-vine, cadaver on
the floor of a bamboo hut, body-meat crawling toward
its fate nightmare rising in my brain.
invade my body with the sex of God, choke up my nostrils with
corruption’s infinite caress,
transfigure me to slimy worms of pure sensate transcendency
I’m still alive.