William S. Burroughs and the Biosphere, 1974–1997




I DISCOVERED Naked Lunch when I was 14. While babysitting, I excavated a copy hidden behind Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare and read as the kids slept. Such a radical exposé of power. Some years later, the opportunity finally arrived to meet the author:

William S. Burroughs
c/o Grove Press

June 17, 1974
Dear Mr. Burroughs,
Since you are one of the foremost living explorers and scientists of the English language, I write this letter inviting you to New Mexico July 21-28 as a guest speaker of the Institute of Ecotechnics on the subject of lingua-technics, to open a week of study on the subject. This would include a morning jam with the members of the Institute and a lecture on a subject of your choice in the evening in our geodesic dome. The afternoon is open for whatever comes up. If you wish to see anything in the area, we can take you there.

For this, we will pay your round trip transportation, accommodations here at our ranch and a fee. We can afford up to $200; there are about thirty people full time at the Institute and perhaps as many more would attend the event which will not be open to the general public. By the way, we are not connected with any state, church, or foundation money and are strictly independent. 

I wait for your answer,
Ecce homo sapiens sapiens!

Salty Hoffman,
Department of Psychotechnics, Institute of Ecotechnics
Director, Theater of All Possibilities

William Burroughs accepted the invitation to our first Institute of Ecotechnics conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Salty Hoffman, my then-pseudonym). I went to pick him up at the airport, but at first I couldn’t find him among the disembarking passengers. Oh, wait, he must be that Southwest geologist, a bit too-perfectly outfitted for the role. On the drive to the ranch, we stopped and picked up vodka, Coca-Cola, and ice. Then the car had a flat tire, which he changed, much to the subsequent amazement of his buddies. On the walk to his room, he combed the landscape for a stick to use as a dowsing rod and commented that later he wanted to visit the pigs who were squealing in their wallow nearby.

We paused on the stroll. “Mr. Burroughs, what would you like me to call you?” “Please call me William.” “William, I have read your books and I must know: What is your attitude toward women?” Stock still and looking straight into my eyes, he replied, “I killed the only woman I ever loved.” He took a sharp inbreath, then tears began to stream from his eyes. He sobbed as he whispered about Joan Vollmer, his wife he had accidentally shot some 25 years earlier. This was before he had written about the incident, in his introduction to Queer. I held and comforted him. We didn’t return to the subject again — that is, not until 1988, but that is another story. William delivered a brilliant speech the following day, and became an honorary fellow of the Institute and a lifelong friend.

Dr. Hank Truby, Kathelin Gray, Burroughs, and friends. Ecotechnics at Synergia Ranch, 1974. ©Institute of Ecotechnics 1974, 2016

He always asked about the progress of Ecotechnics’s projects, and visited several of them. These have included an oceanographic research ship, a tropical forestry project, a theater and jazz club, a cultural center and art gallery, a Himalayan hotel. The largest in scale and most public of our projects was the Biosphere 2 ecological laboratory in Arizona. In 1990, as the construction of the massive 3.15-acre sealed structure of Biosphere 2 was underway, Burroughs visited.

I think there’s going to be more and more merging of art and science. Scientists are already studying the creative process, and I think the whole line between art and science will break down and that scientists, I hope, will become more creative and writers more scientific. — The Third Mind

He spoke at two Ecotechnics’s conferences. That first 1974 speech, “Language as a Tool of Control,” addressed the Mayan codices as an example of control of the many by the few. Hank Truby, the eminent linguist, also spoke. Truby worked with dolphins, studying interspecies communication, and was also an expert in subvocal speech. Both subjects fascinated Burroughs.

His 1980 speech at Ecotechnics’s Planet Earth conference in Aix-en-Provence, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” concerned the evolution of weaponry. His illustrations were chalk marks on the blackboard, really a series of ever-larger phallic symbols, tracing the history of weaponry from the slingshot and the blow gun, to rifles, to the Atomic Bomb. During this conference, Burroughs announced he had decided on the title of his next book: The Place of Dead Roads, the second in a trilogy, after Cities of the Red Night and before The Western Lands. The bleak conclusion of many speeches on the state of planetary ecology, he said, inspired the title.

Ecotechnics’s Planet Earth conference, 1980. WSB w Dr. Paul Rotmil, Karolinska Institute; Rotmil worked on smallpox eradication. Background is the backdrop of Deconstruction of the Countdown, Theatre of All Possibilities’ play based on the writings of Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Photo courtesy ©Institute of Ecotechnics. 1980, 2016

From “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”:

Say you find an enzyme inhibitor to which 90 percent of Europeans would be vulnerable, which affects only 10 percent of Africans. Since the inhibitor could tell friend from foe, no matter how intermingled, it is the super-selective military weapon. It is what all military thinkers dream of. [Swedish geneticist, Carl] Larson admitted that “more genetic research was needed before ethnic weapons became a practical reality,” but again, this was ten years ago […] evolution is a one-way street. Once you lose your gills you can never get them back.

As Ira Silverberg writes in his introduction to Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader, “even the most hallucinatory inventions of his imagination are grounded in hard, clear, powerfully analytic and authoritative thought.”

Planet Earth Conference, 1980, France. Burroughs top row, second from right. ©Institute of Ecotechnics 1980, 2016

Some media portrayed Biosphere 2 as a prototype refuge anticipating a global apocalypse. At the time, we thought that was a ridiculous accusation, even with the bleak predictions of Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome. Now, 25 years later, none other than Stephen Hawking has given humanity one generation until extinction.

 

A War Universe

Burroughs was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1914, a few months before the start of the War to End all Wars, which only set the stage for many further wars, industrial-scale extinction of legacy knowledge in libraries, architecture, and brains.

War accelerated the development of science and technology. Mysteries of the brain were clarified by studying the effects of gunshot wounds to the head. Code-cracking funded the evolution of computation. Science and technology, in thrall to profiteers, accelerated the War on Nature and led to the zero-sum ecological processes that are upon us.

Also circa 1914, farmers in the Great Plains began to plow up grasslands for large-scale wheat farms. This accelerated after World War I, with government support. Exporting wheat to Europe was seen as a means of warding off the threat of communism. Anchoring prairie grass root structures were shredded, and in dry years disaster ensued. Great droughts began while Burroughs attended high school. Topsoil, soaring from his homeland in the Great Plains, trailed him like a sorcerer’s inky cape as he headed off to Harvard in 1932.

In 1934, wind deposited 12 million pounds of dust in the vicinity of Chicago. Aerosols from the soil of 97 million acres darkened the skies as far away as Washington, DC. Fertility was blown away, along with the hopes and dreams of frontier families.

Burroughs arrived in Vienna in 1936 to study medicine, and occupied a flat not far from Freud’s, but never encountered him. Just before the Anschlüss, Burroughs fled Vienna in 1937 (Freud in 1938), marrying his friend Ilse Klapper and saving her from the Holocaust.

In World War II, far-flung battles trashed sea bottoms with junk from sunken aircraft carriers and bombers. Skeletons littered pristine jungle. Burroughs’s vagrant-junky phase began at the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; his inner struggles mirrored those of the world at large. The War on Nature had begun with the development of agriculture in Sumer, yet in the 20th century, the perversity of the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and two World Wars ramped up quickly and inexorably to the greatest human catastrophe ever devised, the Bomb.

Dr. Robert (“Oppie”) Oppenheimer had selected Burrough’s former camp, the Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys, for Project Y, as the site of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory. The Pajarito Plateau of Los Alamos was the perfect place to build a weapon of mass destruction: its natural wonder stood serene, remote from dense population centers. The School for Boys offered a large complex of buildings, all adjacent to federal land. And, just over an hour south, in the mining town of Madrid, high-grade coal proved ideal to fuel the huge energy requirements of bomb-building.

On that idyllic site, scientists and engineers exercised their genius to build “the gadget,” i.e., Little Boy and Fat Boy. There’s a cosmic joke here. Los Alamos is the site of one of the world’s supervolcanoes. 1.4 million years ago, a super-eruption blasted massive amounts of tuff from its subterranean storage basin, creating the New Mexico Valles Caldera, 13 miles in diameter. Its circular ring fractures create a bull’s-eye pattern that can be seen from the air.

The Atomic Heritage Foundation
New Mexico Valles Caldera

On William’s 1974 trip to the conference in Santa Fe, I had the opportunity to drive him to the site of Los Alamos School for Boys. He wanted to revisit adolescent memories in the landscape of his summers in Northern New Mexico. At camp, he had awakened to his amorous attraction to males and had his first (underage) drink at the bar of Santa Fe’s La Fonda Hotel.

There, he also read the 1926 pseudo-memoir You Can’t Win by Jack Black, his fellow Missourian. The themes of Black’s book found their way into William’s subsequent oeuvre: opium addiction, petty criminality, straight-talking. What occupied his mind during our trip, besides memories of school life, was the Holocaust, the mechanization of war, and, most of all, the Bomb.

This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games. All games are basically hostile. Winners and losers. We see them all around us: the winners and the losers. The losers can oftentimes become winners, and the winners can very easily become losers. — “The War Universe”

The 18th-century Lisbon earthquake and subsequent tsunamis reminded European society that humans are powerless in the face of geogenic catastrophes. That massive seismic shake-up set off an extended philosophical discourse on Leibniz’s views of theodicy and the nature of evil. The 20th century’s World Wars, climaxing with the Bomb, were the first catastrophes created by mankind on the scale of geologic events, occasioning even more desperate and penetrating investigations of human nature.

 

Activism 

Shortly before my first meeting with William, the wife of F. Sherwood Rowland, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, had asked her husband about his day in the lab on the connection between chlorofluorocarbons and ozone depletion. His famous answer could belong to a Burroughs character: “The work is going very well. But it may mean the end of the world.” His research was published in 1974 in Nature.

There are many advantages of contemporary life, but, as William pointed out in his 1980 speech, humans are in thrall to “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” who are having their way with Mother Earth​.

To do his bit to put the brakes on manmade disasters, Burroughs conducted a no-holds-barred deconstruction of received psychologies and power structures. He sought more effective methods to heal human psyches than the medical establishment could offer him personally. His psycho-neurological quest took him through psychoanalysis, apomorphine, yagé, sweat lodges, Scientology, and the works of Wilhelm Reich, Alfred Kinsey, Richard Evans Schultes, Francis Huxley, and Buckminster Fuller.

Burroughs’s novels describe a planet relentlessly under attack by sadomasochists and Imps of the Perverse. His early experience with Freudian analysis convinced him that his psyche contained many characters. Diverging from Freud, he came to believe that each individual is a storehouse of alternate identities, which reside in ever-relocating interstices of attention. The artistic technique of cut-ups, pioneered by Burroughs’s friend Brion Gysin, reveals the demons lurking between the lines, at the ready. The Ecotechnics gang understood this very well indeed. In 1967, John Allen, Marie Harding, and I founded the Theater of All Possibilities, the artistic companion organization to Institute of Ecotechnics, which served as a tool for an experiential understanding of decision-making processes throughout history, a kind of psychological simulation laboratory. Our actors’ work and approach to understanding historical decisions were based on the observation that the unified “I” is a myth. We cultivated different roles to prepare for and execute projects and performances.

When we staged the Burroughs/Gysin-inspired work Deconstruction of the Countdown, the actors acted as shifting TV channels: is it scientist Winkhorst, or Nova Mob body-snatcher, or Hamburger Mary who speaks? Humans are not unities, but psychic clouds, multiplicities.

 

Vegetable Timespace

This is the most powerful drug I have ever experienced. That is, it produces the most complete derangement of the senses […] I have observed in using both yagé and Peyote: a strange, vegetable consciousness, an identification with the plant. In Peyote intoxication everything looks like a Peyote plant. It is easy to understand how the Indians came to believe there is a spirit in these plants. The Yage Letters

Research Vessel Heraclitus, Brazil. Photo by C. A. Inglis©Institute of Ecotechnics 1981, 2016.

Early readings of the 19th-century botanist Richard Spruce inspired Burroughs’s expedition to the Amazon.

Burroughs was thrilled when our ship, Research Vessel Heraclitus, motored 2,000 miles to the Peruvian Amazon in 1981, on Institute of Ecotechnics’s expedition encouraged by his old acquaintance and fellow Harvard alumnus Richard Evans Schultes, founder of the science of ethnobotany.

Another inspiration behind the trip was J. W. Dunne, an important aeronautics engineer, inventor, and philosopher, whose 1927 book An Experiment with Time profoundly influenced not only Burroughs, but also Jorge Luis Borges and J. B. Priestley. Dunne paid particular attention to the correlation between dreams and everyday occurrences. He kept a dream journal, which became a key practice for Burroughs, who shared Dunne’s interests in telepathy and synchronicity.

Edgar Allan Poe suggested a link between space and time in his poetic essay Eureka (1848), which he dedicated to the geographer, explorer, and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who, along with botanist Aimé Jacques Bonpland, were the first Western scientists to investigate the pharmacopoeia of Amazonas. Burroughs belongs squarely in the literary genus of Poe, both equally inspired by Amazonian explorer/scientists.

In Eureka, Poe anticipates later thought on space, time, and gravity, and expresses the foreboding sense that there is an end to the world, that time is actually running out.

Untitled, ca. 1992. Ink and spray paint on file folder, 30 x 48 cm. Courtesy Estate of William S. Burroughs. © Estate of William S. Burroughs

 

Human Spacetime

For years, publishers marketed Burroughs’s novels as science fiction. He was a self-described “cosmonaut of inner space” and an enthusiast for (outer) space travel. Much as the armchair-bound Jules Verne inspired many scientists, explorers, and inventors, Burroughs’s work inspired the Theater of All Possibilities. Burroughs encouraged us to pursue a “mythology for the space age.”

Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole. The Adding Machine 

There are many barriers to human adaptation to space travel, especially long-duration colonies or deep space exploration. Fish couldn’t anticipate the disappearance of gills in the transition to land and humans cannot anticipate what it would require, physiologically, to transition to space. The closest analogy for efficient manned space travel, Burroughs posited, would be the human dream state, or “astral travel.”

Dreaming is a biologic necessity, but Burroughs expands the significance of dreams beyond circadian repose, to the aim and purpose of human individuality and society. A society without a dream is doomed. Australian aboriginals’ ancestral dreamtime is not an abstraction, but a very real parallel reality. Dreams are akin to life-giving subterranean water reservoirs. For Burroughs, dreamtime is a veiled clue to the next step in human evolution. Humans, he deduced, are in a state of neoteny, not fully realized but becoming.

The first step towards Space exploration was to examine the human artifact with biologic alterations in mind that would render our [human artifact] more suitable for Space conditions and Space travel. […] Now we are like water creatures looking up from here at the earth and the air and wondering how we can survive in that alien medium. “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”

In our 1991–’94 ecological systems laboratory experiments in Arizona, Biosphere 2, eight people were sealed in a mini-world. The objective was to study the complex interactions of natural systems on Planet Earth as well as anticipate what would be necessary to maintain long-term regenerative life systems in space. It was a symbiosis of biospherics, technics, and culture.

First crew of Biospherians. 1991. Photo courtesy Institute of Ecotechnics.

William faxed us on September 26, 1991, at the commencement of the first experiment:

TO: John Allen, Kathelin Hoffman Gray
and the intrepid Biospherians of BIOSPHERE II
Oracle, Arizona

I salute the eight brave Biospherians who embark today on this noble experiment. The Closing of Biosphere II is a turning point in human history, and a step in the right direction towards the development of mankind’s potential. The hopes of the Planet go with you into inner space, for the sake of the dream of outer space. And to those who ask you “Quo vadis?,” tell them: “Ad Astra per aspera!”

With all our best wishes always,

William S. Burroughs
James Grauerholz

Burroughs at Biosphere 2, 1990. Photo Jose Ferez Kuri Photo courtesy Kathelin Gray

Biosphere 2 was a bonsai Earth, a world in a bottle. As in other mesocosms, metabolic cycling accelerated. The CO2 cycled 250 to 500 times faster in B2. Water in the B2 ocean and marsh cycled 1,000 times faster than in natural biomes, so results came quicker, cycles became easier to study. This venture into Time was recognized by the Explorers Club, which has issued flags for expeditions that have furthered the cause of exploration and field science since 1918. The Club issued one of its flags for the Biosphere 2 experiment.

The Last Rocket Out, 1992. Paint on paper, 58.4 x 44.5 cm. Courtesy Estate of William S. Burroughs © Estate of William S. Burroughs

 

Mass Extinction

In Burroughs’s novella Ghost of Chance, which was published in 1991, the pirate Captain Mission develops a close relationship with a lemur. Mission’s project is to establish a gay libertarian society in the jungles of Madagascar. This adventure narrative spins out to include drugs, paranoia, origins of disease, and the devastation of the planet.

I like to think that this novella was partly inspired by our Research Vessel Heraclitus, which — circa 1989, at the time Burroughs wrote the book — was docked in Belize, a historic safe haven for pirates. Ecotechnics was studying mangroves and coral reefs, and we were indeed a mindful pirate-style crew. William always asked for updates on our ship’s activities, eager to hear news of our epic voyages.

Research Vessel Heraclitus. Peru. Photo courtesy ©Institute of Ecotechnics 1995, 2016

Burroughs could not bear the idea of pain. He identified with the endangered lemurs of Madagascar.

He often slept with the lemur beside him on his pallet and had named the creature Ghost […] As the light drained into the sponge of night, Mission could see for miles in every direction: the coastal rain forests, the mountains and scrub of the interior, the arid southern regions where the lemurs were frisking in the tall, spiny Didierea cactus. They gambol, leap, and whisk away into the remote Past before the arrival of Man on this island, before the appearance of man on earth, before the beginning of time. — Ghost of Chance

These elegant prosimian creatures live in matriarchal societies. They have large, poignant eyes and stand two-legged, nimbly kangaroo-hopping across the landscape and leaping gracefully from tree to tree, long furry tails held aloft. Some of the 60 species sing ghostly arias reminiscent of whale songs; others exuberantly dance with a fetching two-step.

Neuroscientist Robert Turner, when asked about any conceivable basis for telepathy, responded, “Compassion is greatly understudied.” For Turner, an example of near-telepathic compassion is when we awaken in the middle of the night “knowing” someone has died. Burroughs, a deeply intuitive and compassionate man, was alarmed by the tenuous existence of life on this planet, which was represented by his precious lemurs. Timber barons log the remote forests of Madagascar, homeland to these kind, playful, curious primates.

The Prison Scribe, ca. 1990. Paint and photo collage on cadillac paper. Photo courtesy Estate of William S. Burroughs. ©Estate of William S. Burroughs

In 1989, after decades of interest in lemurs, Burroughs traveled to North Carolina to visit the lemur sanctuary at Duke University Primate Center. For the first time, he was able to observe them close-up. In Ghost of Chance, he included a fundraising appeal for the Duke Center. A much more productive activity than philanthropy is philecology (Biosphere 2’s John Allen coined the word) — the love of ecology rather than of humans — which is intended to stop humanity’s war on life, the mass extinction of species.

 

Magic Is That Which Works 

All of my work is directed against those who are bent, through stupidity or design, on blowing up the planet or making it uninhabitable. […] I’m concerned with the precise manipulation of word and image to create an action, not to go out and buy a Coca-Cola, but to create an alteration in the reader’s consciousness. — Interview with Conrad Knickerbocker, Paris Review, “The Art of Fiction No. 36”

One day in 1994 I knocked on William’s door in Lawrence, Kansas. He swung it open and exclaimed boisterously, “I’m a Healer, I’m a Healer!” After lunch, he predicted — correctly, as it turned out — that my then-boyfriend would be forever free of the cancer that had plagued him. William had consulted his radionics gizmo, which he called the Wishing Machine and used for scrying and for sending healing beams to needy friends and animals. One definition of magic is “that which works.”

Writers live in a magical universe. Burroughs the writer created the universe in which he wished to live. By writing, the writer makes such a universe possible. His passion for ecology and science fueled his interest in language as a control system, in experimental ontology, and in the “magic” of nonlinear/multiple causalities. Using these techniques, he worked to deconstruct the cultural impulses that threaten to unleash anthropogenic ecological catastrophe.

At the core of Burroughs’s work is his belief in the vital magic, exuberance, and resilience of the biosphere.

He delivers a last plea and warning to our species, which is endangered by its own idiotic campaign to destroy its habitat. Burroughs beckons us to dream, to travel in inner and outer space, to embrace the voyage of discovery, to realize what it means to be human.

We’re here to learn, we’re here to go, it’s the same thing. — Private conversation, 1997

¤

A version of this piece will be included in the anthology Cutting Up the Century, forthcoming from Indiana University Press in 2019.
 
¤

Kathelin Gray is a director, producer, curator, and writer. She has co-founded projects which integrate art, ecology, science, and culture.


RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT