Tag Archives: William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs – On Coincidence

El Hombre Invisible

William Burroughs, “On Coincidence”:

Certain pragmatic observations are useful for travellers in the magical universe. One law, or rather expectation, is that lightning usually strikes more than once in the same place.

Here’s a big fire in a Kentucky night club, over a hundred dead. Heroic busboy announced the fire and calmed the guests, or the casualties would have been higher. Look through newspaper morgues. Yes, there was a fire in that location before, in another night club. No injuries. And here is a night spot on the border between France and Switzerland. Pop group called ‘De Sturm’ playing. Two hundred dead in fire. There was a fire there before. Several injured. One incident tends to produce similar incidents. Incident may relate to a place, a set of circumstances, or a person.

You can observe this mechanism operating in your own experience. If you start the day by missing a train, this could be a day of missed trains and missed appointments. You need not just say ‘Mektoub, it is written.’ The first incident is a warning. Beware of similar incidents. Tighten your schedule. Synchronize your watch. And consider the symbolic meaning of missing train. Watch particularly for what might be a lost opportunity.

Suppose you encounter a rude clerk, waiter, bartender elevator man. Shuffle through the morgue of your memory. It’s all there. Why he’s a dead ringer for a rude clerk in Tangier London, Hong Kong. Even used the same words. You asked for an item and he said…

‘I never heard of it.’

Life is a KillerStop. Look. Listen. What were you thinking just before this affront was offered you? What keyed the previous incident in? Empty your mind. Let your legs guide you. You may remember a disinclination to go into that shop in the first place. Stop. Change. Start. You will notice that pleasant encounters with nice friendly helpful people also come in series. And the only valid law of gambling is that winning and losing come in streaks. Plunge when you are winning and stop when you are losing.

‘To him that hath shall be given. From him that hath not shall be taken even that which he has.’

Any system in gambling or in life that entails doubling up when you lose is the worst possible system.
Writers operate in the magical universe and you will find the magical law that like attracts like often provides a key note. The sinister clown in Death in Venice. The stories of John Cheever abound in such warnings of misfortune and death ignored by his compulsively extroverted and spiritually underprivileged Wasps.

I gave my writing students various exercises designed to show how one incident produces a similar incident or encounter. You can call this process synchronicity and you can observe it in action.

Take a walk around the block. Come back and write down precisely what happened with particular attention to what you were thinking when you noticed a street sign, a passing car or stranger or whatever caught your attention. You will observe that what you were thinking just before you saw the sign relates to the sign. The sign may even complete a sentence in your mind. You are getting messages. Everything is talking to you. You start seeing the same person over and over. Are you being followed? At this point some students become paranoid. I tell them that of course they are getting messages. Your surroundings are your surroundings. They relate to you.

If you can cool it and achieve a detached viewpoint you will see that in many cases incidents are neither good nor bad nor especially portentous, occupying a neutral area. Here I am, up at 72 and Broadway, way out of my neighborhood up there for a doctor appointment. I pass a Deli and decide to go in and get a few items. No stores near where I was then living on Franklin Street below Canal. I notice a young man in the store. Later he is sitting opposite me in the subway going downtown. I see then that we are in the same incident band and I know he will get off at Franklin Street. No he wasn’t following me. No tail would be that clumsy. We were both out of our neighborhood, both thought of the same thing at the same time … Better pick up some … and we intersected …

There are many variations of the walk exercise all designed to show the student how incidents are created and how he himself can create incidents.

Icon & Image – Charles Gatewood’s Photographic Techniques for Myth-Making

“William Burroughs, Paris, 1959. Burroughs is wearing what he called his “Rothschild suit”. One of a number of images taken of Burroughs by Brion Gysin in the streets of Paris. Gysin told writer Terry Wilson that the series was an ironic magical operation intended to procure Burroughs’ entry into the French Academy. ”

– from Naked Lunch at 50 – text by Oliver Harris 

To create an icon you need an image. To create an effective image you need a really good photographer.

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Handler’s Tail

“There is something about Chicago that paralyzes the spirit under a dead weight of formalism dictated by hoodlums…everywhere the smell of atrophied gangsters, the dead weight of those dear dead days hanging in the air like rancid ectoplasm…You suffocate in the immediate past, still palpable, still palpable, quivering like an earthbound ghost…Here the dream is suffocating, more real than the real, the past actually, incredibly, invading the present. It’s almost like you could reach out and have your youth over again, so solid, nostalgia taking solid form and face…But the fraud is immediately apparent. And the horror, the fear of stasis and decay closes round your heart.”

– from Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs

There’s a certain feeling in the Midwest that’s not readily captured by images of Detroit or Chicago.  If our major cities were the mark of Midwest culture the Manhattan Project would never have gotten off the ground. Despite the international mystique of the University of Chicago, it was in the prairies West of the city that Argonne and Fermi Lab were built. In that open air and golden landscape the seeds of the 21st century were sown by metallurgists and physicists working on a project that changed everything about the way we look at life and death, international relations and the power of applied science.

A park near where I live sits on an abandoned missle silo that used to protect Argonne and Fermi during the Cold War, but most folks around here just go their to play baseball. It’s called Nike Park, first in honor the missiles once housed there, and second after the Greek goddess of victory.

The Congregationalist Church down the street from me was one of the first churches built in the area in 1833.  In 1955 Rev. Eugene Kreves broke with the church and founded the first Unitarian Universalist congregation in DuPage County.  The current church congregation still remembers the “heretic pastor” and blames him for bring the Devil to Dupage. When the church steeple was destroyed by lightening awhile back they saw it as a continuation of a curse on the building.

Drive a half hour out and you end up in corn fields, but that only gives you the perspective to see industrial factories on the horizon. About an hour south of here you hit “Armory Road” where a giant gas refinery sits all flashing lights and grey smoke. Lew Welch summed up the feeling in his Chicago Poem:

“I lived here nearly 5 years before I could
meet the middle western day with anything approaching
Dignity. It’s a place that lets you
understand why the Bible is the way it is:
Proud people cannot live here.

The land’s too flat. Ugly, sullent and big it
pounds men down past humbleness. They
Stoop at 35 possibly crining from the heavy and
terrible sky. In country like this there
Can be no God but Jahweh.”

I live in the suburbs, heading into the city by train it looks as though Chicago sits at ground zero of it’s own sociological atomic bomb.  Everything surrounding the city is dead and crumbling, a rotting infrastructure that no one cares to rebuild.  Head away from the city and you’re met with the plastic facade of suburban development, go out farther and you hit small semi-rural towns were the memories of farmers hold fast in the midst of economic collapse.

At night the metallic howl of the freight trains cuts through the constant hum of highways and the electric hiss of high tension wires. I think of  missile silos, government laboratories, lightening struck churches and factories squatting fat on once fertile farmland. I get together with friends, we pick up instruments as folks have always done, and tell our tale in the minor key:

“This Summoner bore to him a stiff burden …
A voice he had as small as hath a goat.
No beard had he, nor never should have;
A smooth it was as it were late shave.
I trowe he were a gelding or a mare.”

Josh Stockinger (HorseThief) – Bass, Electric Mandolin, Drums, Guitar
David Metcalfe – Guitar, Keyboards, Thermin

Aural Architecture – Building a Temple in Sound: The Swans | Thee Majesty & the Concert Ritual

“Fairly often while I was talking quietly with the Shaikh, the name ‘Allah’ had come to us from some remote corner of the zawiyah, uttered on one long drawn out, vibrant note…It was like a cry of despair, a distraught supplication, and it came from some solitary cell-bound disciple, bent on meditation. The cry was usually repeated several times, and then all was silence once more.

…Later when I asked the Shaikh what was the meaning of the cry which we had just heard, he answered:

‘It is a disciple asking God to help him in his meditation.’

‘May I ask what is the purpose of his meditation?’

‘To achieve self-realization in God.’

‘Do all the disciples succeed in doing this?’

‘No, it is seldom that anyone does. It is only possible for a very few.’

‘Then what happens to those who do not? Are they not desperate?’

‘No: they always rise high enough to have at least inward Peace.’

– from Shaikh Ahmad Al-Alawi: A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century,, His Spiritual Heritage and Legacy,  by Martin Lings

Something more raw and real

Contemporary concerts are all too often facile exercises in dead culture; no alchemy, no vision, just genre and acquiescence to the limited expectations of the crowd. It’s rare and valuable when you encounter an artist able to invoke a more powerful experience, something raw and real, bordering on ritual or the screams for self-realization that Lings encountered in his experiences with Sufi sects.

On March 4th, 2010 Genesis P-Orridge brought Thee Majesty to support the first Chicago showing of the William S. Burroughs documentary A Man Within at St. Paul’s Community Center. In a moldering Catholic church  converted to an arts venue, a motley assortment gathered to witness Thee Majesty pour vitriol on the idea of blind acquiescence to ideology or organization.

A culture of individuals

I was surprised at how disparate the folks were in the audience. A guy dressed in a well tailored suit sits next to a man, apparently well into his 60’s, with a long, stringy white beard and a loose, rough cut, red tunic. This was a community of individuals, bound by active acceptance of each other and not a passive belief in unity.

“I have lied to you…” Genesis howls over the discordant drone of Bryin Dall’s guitar and the percussion. The sounds were acrid, melting away blind belief and calling for gnosis. To participate in this ritual was not to loose ones’ self in a hazy notion of the All, it was participation as a self-realized unit of the whole. An existential moment of responsibility that tore down the illusion of cohesion in order to place the individual into an unblinded view of their place.

Further on one discovers through the immersive atmosphere of pandrogyny, alchemical marriage and surgical remembering that Genesis evokes, individuality itself becomes a subtle lie to be shed as well. The concert becomes an exploration of the phenomenal mixing of parts expressed in other traditions through shamanic dismemberment, Chod practice, the Great Work of alchemical adepts and the amorphous therianthropic forms of the witches sabbat.


This experience was repeated when Michael Gira resurrected the Swans at the Double Door on October 5th. Gira in a conservative haircut, collared shirt, tore apart the distinctions between raw sound and lush harmonies. Theatrics stripped away, here was the music itself, naked and real.

They were not there to support the expectations of the audience. Our place was as guests, we were invited to accompany him into a temple built of sound, where we could experience what he wryly referred to as his “poor man’s religion.”

An end to academic rituals

The audience had assembled for a concert in the classic sense. They were expecting what the academics think of as a ritual, with the expected cultural narrative and social interaction accompanied by some fitting genre music. Cat calls from the back demanded that the audience “Fucking dance! This is a Swans concert…” despite the fact that for 30 years of performing Gira has consistently mentioned that he hates the brute  and group oriented elements of musical culture.

Gira is an advocate for the individual, with no interest in rituals like moshing that support group think. A Swans’ concert is not the place for the cheap parlour tricks of a Human Resource department, the street equivalent of trust exercises. When Gira is your host he is there to, in a very personal way, tear you open to reality.

Laying the foundation

The concert begins with the long, droning squeal of a distorted guitar. The tension builds, at first the audience stands in expectation, as time passes it becomes obvious that this sound is not an introductory element and will play for longer than most songs, the audience becomes nervous. People start to yell and cheer, needing some kind of release. They are not tantrics, the power of withholding doesn’t linger long in their mind.

Then the percussion begins, Thor Harris playing what sounds like rhythmic church bells over the continuing drone. All of this the audience interprets as showmanship, they’re missing the very simple fact that these sonic elements are serving to sever them from their daily routine, wiping their mind clean for what’s ahead. The ground is being laid for an architecture of sound in which the elemental drama will play out.

The architect

Gira’s focus, calm and fierce at the same time, Harris and Phil Puelo with alternate looks of agony and release as they hammer an impossible rhythmn. The entire band goaded on by Gira, whipped with looks and pulled forward by his own movement into the sound. If the audience was able they were welcome to come with. Even those left outside the inner chamber of the sound by their own expectations were throttled into submission.

William S. Burroughs compared Led Zeppelin to the Master Musicians of JouJouka, but they were still mired in mid 20th century Western culture. What Gira was able to summon had the immediacy of the Morrocan musicians, sound and vision cultivated from the ruins of Western culture. A ritual fit for the time, the music carrying fragments of traditional narratives torn into an elemental experience of life in the 21st century.

Genesis P-Orridge and Michael Gira are both able to capture the true ritual elements of the concert experience. Untied to tradition, religious, musical or cultural, they pull out the most effective pieces from the cultural drift and create temples of sound, opening up the reality of our times.

(Illustration: Untitled, David B. Metcalfe)

Reveiling the Tradition

What’s it take to get people motivated for change? William S. Burroughs once mentioned that he was working on creating a mythology for the space-age.  His works were allegorical tales to help guide intreprid travellers into the new age of inner & outer space.

So what about today? Who will be the tale bearers for our struggle to maintain a viable ecology, sustainable social structures and more intelligent and ethical business models? Burroughs and his visions of Nova are wonderful for tearing down old infrastructures, but a time comes when we’ve got to start building again.

Now is a time to rediscover what we’ve left behind, to reintroduce ourselves to the truths that remain unchanging and to drop the pretense of innovation and realize the words of the Kohelet:

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

– Ecclesiastes 1:9

“If you don’t have the Master’s presence within,
You will not attain acceptance in God’s court,
Useless is all prayer, futile is all chanting.
You can fast, you can pray the whole night through,
To supplement your daily prayer;
You can also perform numerous acts of charity;
But if your heart is not purified, You will not feel God’s presence within.
If you have not died before your death,
chanting in group prayers will avail you nothing.”

Kalam Hazrat Sultan Bahu


Television Cut-Ups by Zac Odinn

We’re constantly assaulted by information. Folks like Tristan Tzara, Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, and other creatives, have worked with cut-ups as a way to break into the patterns of information that emerge when the conscious sequence of data is distorted.

The poet Zac Odinn has taken this approach with auditory information, creating texts from overheard phrases and words. Realize that this process is not some trick of technique, but a method of exploration that allows you to discover hidden currents within the stream of info-noise that surrounds us.

The Television Cut-Ups:

1. This program is called ‘Look at Me’

2. Save Big

3. Instructions

4. The Industry Doesn’t Want People to Know About Their Techniques