THE BLOG
08/19/2013 05:15 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2013

A Meeting of Cults: William Burroughs and Scientology

At least for a certain set, Scientology is not a scandal, but the gift that keeps giving -- actress Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men and Top of the Lake is only the latest of the religion's defenders from inside Tinseltown. A continued matter of fascination, Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 film The Master put only the barest of fictional veils between Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of a rogue charismatic and the real life idiosyncrasies of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Rumored to be the cause of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' breakup and divorce, Scientology is long used to controversy -- from nearly being banned in Germany to being raided by the FBI in 1977 -- though characterized as "a shell of its former self" by Village Voice editor Tony Ortega in 2011, Scientology has survived all that and more. From the death of Lisa McPherson in 1995 for which the Church was charged with two felony counts, to the lurid psychopathic disclosures of Hubbard's son Ronald DeWolf in Penthouse in 1983 -- it's difficult to judge what has been the most damaging news emerging from the over-60-year-old organization. So, even as a matter of "fringe science," to return to the moment when Hubbard's mind science or psychology of Dianetics™ was seen as of vital cultural import is to truly participate in time-travel.

That we must do so is courtesy of Beat godfather novelist William S. Burroughs, one of the few American writers, Norman Mailer once ascertained, perhaps possessed of genius. The author of the once banned Naked Lunch (1959), followed by a string of experimental 'Cut-up' novels that centered around a "nova conspiracy" inspired in equal parts by science-fiction and all-too-real current events such as the burgeoning police states of escalating drug wars, and a trilogy of works in the wintertime of his life that form a kind of apex of his achievement, even if they are composed of narratives lacking as many of the jarring jump cuts and jagged dizzying shifts of consciousness of the groundbreaking earlier books -- Burroughs cuts a formidable figure today. A 'cult' writer, Burroughs, who died in 1997, like his younger cohort, poet Allen Ginsberg, ferried his hard-won street smarts across the various Beat, hippie, and punk bohemias into a huge looming influence in music, visual arts, and various counter-cultures in their broadest possible senses. A survivor of a long-term heroin habit who inadvertently killed his wife Joan Vollmer while allegedly playing a game of 'William Tell' in Mexico City in 1951, Burroughs into the 1970s was already taking on the persona of the 'Wise Old Man' with his gallows humor imparted in deadpan gravelly Midwestern drawl in public readings around the States while mentoring a new generation of punk rockers in revolt against what Burroughs had described as a universe of 'control.' Burroughs' involvement in Scientology has received only scant mention in the biographies that have appeared about him, so it has been left to David Wills, the publisher of the Beatdom journal and books, to right the record in his Scientologist! Williams S. Burroughs and the Weird Cult (Beatdom, 2013). Wills makes clear how relevant Scientology could be to Burroughs' particular obsessions, problems and fears. Introduced to it by his confidant and mentor, the mercurial Brion Gysin, in 1959, his relation to Scientology was far from a passing fad. Burroughs' relationship with Scientology lasted a full decade, with the author moving from tapping it for ideas about how conditioning and de-conditioning of the human being could work -- accounting for large chunks of his most challenging and provocative novels 1961-64 -- to stalking the organization and taking the arduous tests to join and advance in it, achieving the high ranking of "Clear" in Edinburgh in 1968.

Wills' dry informed 'just the facts, ma'am' style is combined with credulity that Burroughs could be so taken in by a quack science. But Burroughs, like perhaps most other Scientology adepts, was desperately concerned with transformation. Burroughs saw himself as literally fighting off possession by the demonic spirit he sometimes called 'Control' that had caused him to shoot his wife -- he had told friend Gregory Corso immediately afterward that "there are no accidents." To enter into Burroughs' world is to take seriously the occult and the matter of power -- for Burroughs as for very few other modern or postmodern artists the act of writing is that of "making things happen." Scientology's methods were added into Burroughs' toolbox, along with scrying, the flickering hallucination-producing 'Dreammachine,' psychotropic drugs, experiments with tape recorders, Wilhelm Reich's 'orgone box' that collected and concentrated the orgonomic-orgasmic energy of the universe, and more besides. What Wills registers as delusional for Burroughs would be a strictly pragmatic process of trial and error, and for many years Burroughs was very much sold on the virtues, for instance, of Scientology's electropsychometer or e-meter used in its 'auditing' sessions that revealed or tracked states of mind much like a more sophisticated lie detector test. When the respondent was freed of one's trauma or psychic injury the e-meter needle would swing clear and easy. Even after Burroughs was expelled from Scientology in 1969 he continued to espouse the e-meter and much of the Church's philosophy, while increasingly attacking its founder L. Ron Hubbard in his column for Mayfair magazine and in journals of the underground press. In fact, as Wills writes, Scientology had "permanently entered and altered Burroughs' worldview." In the middle of "processing" at Saint Hill the Scientology training center in 1968 Burroughs wrote that Scientology "can show the writer what words are and put him in tactile communication with his medium. Scientology is the first precise science of words and how certain word combinations produce certain effects on the human nervous system." His The Soft Machine (1961) as with the later The Wild Boys (1971), as Wills notes, are books hardly possible without Scientology he draws so heavily from its nomenclature in them. Burroughs largely took from Hubbard the notion of the human body as a recording device and "that language was a tape that was being constantly fed through it by systems of control." What Hubbard termed "exteriorization" fed into Burroughs' lifelong interest in time-travel and 'out of the body' experience -- ideas only further highlighted in Burroughs' last three novels. For a man whose scathing "routines" born of nightmare and trauma needed a "receiver" for eventual assembly into a novelistic montage, clearing what Hubbard called the "reactive mind" of its past collected repressions, the attraction of Scientology indeed seems as Wills writes "inevitable."

It is central to the contribution of Scientologist! that Wills shows how Burroughs' stumbling upon the 'Cut up' method -- when Gysin accidentally sliced through a stack of newspapers with a Stanley knife exposing the witty and wooly juxtaposition of incident - was intimately linked to Burroughs' growing immersion in Scientology thought. Burroughs almost invariably spoke of them together, just as the methods are fused in his books. The 'Cut up' became a first resource for what Burroughs saw as aggressively defusing the manipulation of language the "word virus." This cutting through time via word 'cut ups' had precedents but Burroughs' use of the notion was a seminal injection picked up for usage by David Bowie for lyrics and by Nicolas Roeg for films, and given further credence in widespread cultures of rap, video remix, spoken word, industrial and postindustrial bands. Given the potency of what Burroughs accomplished, Wills with his seeming conventionality tends to protest too much. Burroughs' cut ups, like many contributions that caught afire later in the '60s, were rooted in the experimentation of a far briefer period in the late '50s, early '60s -- an era fellow junkie novelist Alexander Trocchi called an "invisible insurrection of a million minds." As if a drowning man, Burroughs used Scientology as part of the bricolage of his life raft -- it was a period of intense crisis, when any and every artistic form or scientific modality could be challenged or retooled -- could perish or revived as a weapon of choice. In short, a period very much like the present.