William S Burroughs and the hallucinogenic vine yagé

LeesAndrew Lees at The Dublin Review of Books:

In 1953, two years after he had shot Joan Vollmer, his common-law wife, in a drunken William Tell routine at the Bounty Bar in Mexico City, William Seward Burroughs embarked on a South American quest in search of yagé, a hallucinogenic vine used by the shamans of the Upper Amazon for healing and divination. In Puerto Limon, under its hallucinogenic influence, he saw neon blue flashes, a diaspora of multi-racial travellers; and he caught his first glimpse of the “Composite City”. In letters written to Allen Ginsberg from Pucallpa on the Ucayali River he reported yagé’s capacity to extend consciousness, induce automatic obedience and alter mindset. He also warned his friend of its propensity to derange the senses and bring about acute states of sensitivity that were beyond description.

I must give up the attempt to explain, to seek any answer in terms of cause and effect and prediction, leave behind the entire structure of pragmatic, result seeking, use seeking, question asking Western thought.

I first heard about yagé as a sixteen-year-old reader of Richard Spruce’s Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and the Andes, compiled between 1849 and 1864 and posthumously published by his friend Alfred Russel Wallace in 1908. It was five years later that I first began reading Burroughs and resolved to become a neurologist. Reading Spruce convinced me that the natural world and its plant kingdom held most of the secrets to understanding and manipulating the chemical systems of the human brain.

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